Presenting a Genuinely and Radically Word-Based Christian Theology Contra Theologies of Speculation and Negation

Most of what dominates conservative evangelical Reformed theology these days is rooted in the speculative tradition, or what, more medievally is known as the via negativa (‘negative way’). Katherine Sonderegger, as a contemporary thinker, typifies it this way. Here she writes:

Note what I said here! Our reading of the priestly-prophetic visio Dei is not principally Trinitarian in character. We are not hearing and seeking out in this witness of ancient Israel a sign and foretaste of Triune Persons. It is not the Father, say, that we see breaking through the cloud and smoke to descend upon Moses and upon the people Israel. Nor do we look for an intimation of the Son in these royal Appearances in the temple. We do not bring forward first and principally the Holy Spirit as personal disclosure in Dame Wisdom or in the maternal brooding over the dark sea at creation’s dawn. The forward press of so much modern theology—the drive to subsume the doctrine of God within the Trinity and the Triune Persons—does not, I believe, properly attest the Unicity of the God of Israel. The Deity and Nature of God is personal: the One God is a Person; we can dare to put it this way. Monotheism is no shame word! At once God is Nature and Person, and the witness of ancient Israel to its Lord is to an Object inalienably Subject, a Subject lowered and handed over to be Object. This oscillation in Israel’s and therefore our religious life before God—now our experience of the I AM—is the gracious condescension of the Lord God to usward, for these are not two, not distinct or segmented, but One, One Mystery, One God.[1]

There is an ancient pedigree to this approach, one laid down by none other than Peter Lombard in the structuring of his Sentences; we might even call this the salvation-history approach. But inherent to this, as illustrated by Sonderegger, is a need to decentralize the threeness of God over-against the oneness; just because this is the ‘order’ we ostensibly receive in the linear unfolding of the Old Testament disclosure. So, in this sense, in the tradition Sonderegger forays forth for us, we could say she is following the contours of Scripture; but we could also say that she is doing so in an abstract way. Her approach can be characterized as ‘abstract’ at the point that she does not principially ground her ‘Word-based’ theologizing in the Christian understanding of the Logos of God. Contrariwise, what we see the New Testament authors doing, the Gospel of John comes quickly to mind, is a retroactive or recapitulatory reading of the Old Testament wherein the Word of God, who is the Christ, seemingly breaks in and all over the Old Testament and sees Christ as the revelation of God all along. In other words, in light of Christ, we come to recognize, by the Spirit, that the Old Testament was a witness to Jesus the Messiah all along. If this is the case, the so called ‘unicity’ of God is never an abstract oneness, but one that is inextricably understood in the multiplicity of the Triune Life of God as revealed in the Son, who is Jesus Christ.

In contrast to Sonderegger, and the tradition she typifies—which is often considered The Tradition of the Church when it comes to theological endeavor in the Western iteration—I want to suggest that we follow the New Testament authors, and understand that our theological entrée must be grounded in the Word of God alone. What I want to introduce us to is not without controversy though. But, I think we can constructively appropriate ways of thinking from contexts that might not end up correlating with the way we end up recasting them vis-à-vis their original context. Here, Eberhard Jüngel, through the telling of David Congdon, helps typify the sort of Word-based theology I think is more principially grounded in the concrete reality of God for us in Christ. Read with me for a moment, and then we will attempt to provide the constructive appropriation I am referring to. Congdon writes:

Jüngel begins by summarizing the way Bultmann differentiates the object of theology from the fides qua creditur of liberal theology, the fides quae creditur of Protestant orthodoxy, and the unknowable God of mysticism. Each of these approaches in theology either loses the divine object of theology altogether or speaks of God in abstraction from God’s “saving deed” (Heilstat) in Christ. If it is not to be mere speculation, theology can be the science of God only as the science of God’s word, the kerygma, the fides quae creditur. But the kerygma is the concrete event in which God’s saving action takes place: it is the eschatological word of God’s justifying judgment in Christ. One can only speak about this event by participating in it and existing as the object of this divine judgment. That is why “theology is the science of God, in that it is the science of faith, and vice versa.” Or as Luther famously put it in his Large Catechism, “these two things belong together, faith and God.” Theology, according to Bultmann, is a particular understanding of God that arises from the event of faith in the word of God. It is a task “enjoined to faith from faith and for faith,” and thus it does not derive from any general account of science or any human capacity for revelation. The encounter with Christ in the kerygma is the sole basis for theological speech and must occur ever anew. According to Jüngel, “the kerygma that faith accepts thus elicits along with faith a cognition [Erkennen], which is a knowledge [Wissen] that is never separable from the event of the kerygma and from the event of faith, but remains related to the Lord who encounters us in the kerygma.” Put more succinctly: “the truth of faith is the event of truth.”[2]

Sounds “existentialist,” right? The emphasis is indeed on encounter, but not an encounter generated by the “I” instead one that comes from the “Thou,” from God in Christ. Some might be concerned that Bultmann’s breath is too close to this to be of value for the conservative evangelical theology. But we can avoid going all the way with Bultmann, and instead critically appropriate the good in the bad.[3] And what we are really being presented with, through Congdon, is Jüngel’s Word-based basis for doing theology that is shaped by the concrete kataphatic reality of God in Christ.

Maybe you also noticed as you read Congdon’s development, the priority that is given to God confronting us, and giving us capacity that we did not have prior to the justification and reconcilation He brings for us in Christ. This, in itself levels a resounding no to the sort of theological method that Sonderegger, and her tradition, gives us. It says no to the inherent analogy of being and natural theology that allows the theologian to speculate about God in the first place; even if that speculation is said to be driven by the salvation-history unfolded in the Old Testament disclosure. For a genuinely Word-based theology there is no space for speculation about who God is, or what God is just because God’s revelation for us is given without remainder in Christ; and our knowledge of God in this frame is fully contingent upon this ‘without-remainder’ givenness for us in the face of God in Christ.

To summarize: Sonderegger, and the tradition she typifies, is committed to a speculative mode for doing theology; a mode that presupposes upon an inherent capacity within the human agent to discern or discover God simply by reflecting on the ‘nature’ of things as they are disclosed in the fabric of the created order. It is this mode of theologizing that necessarily starts with an emphasis on the oneness or monadic quiddity or whatness of God precisely because it starts by speculating about the singular power that might have been able to ‘cause’ what the thinker is discovering via the negative of the negating process they are enthralled by. Contrariwise, the Word-based tradition that Jüngel can help us understand is one that is based necessarily upon the premise that ‘reconciliation is revelation.’ What comes with this axiom is the notion that human agents have no capacity in themselves to discover God no matter how hard they try. In this Word-based approach, the theologian is fully dependent upon God encountering them, rather than vice-versa. Herein, in the encounter, the theologian becomes capacious to know God, but only as God is made known to them, without remainder, in the face of Christ.

I commend the Word-based approach to you; even if we might have to do some constructive work in order to keep it genuinely in line with orthodox premises. The fear of existential theology is unfounded just as it is possible to critically appropriate themes from existentialism, as it developed in the modern period and retext them under the pressures presented by the encounter of God Hisself. The fear of existential theology is unfounded just as the object of our theology is in fact also the Subject of theology; in other words, just as theology is grounded in the personal and Triune givenness of God for us in the person of the Son, Jesus Christ. This, I contend, is the better way forward for doing a genuinely Christian and evangelical theology. A theology that elides speculation about God from our own resources, and instead trusts the God revealed to have the capacity to explain Himself to us as both One and Three, Three in One in the tremendous mystery of the God who is for us, with us, and not against us.


[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), Loc. 6577, 6584 Kindle.

[2] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 472-73.

[3] The bad being Bultmann’s understanding of the bodily resurrection of Christ and its untetheredness from historical concrete reality. We can follow Barth’s understanding of resurrection while at the same time appropriating some of Jüngel’s Bultmannian-like approach to grounding theological approach in the concrete reality of the Word of God in Christ. Here is Barth’s understanding of resurrection, just for point of reference:

The Easter story is not for nothing the story whose most illuminating moment according to the account of Mark’s Gospel consists in the inconceivable fact of an empty sepulcher, a fact which (in producing atrembling and astonishment) lays hold of the three woman disciples and reduces them to complete silence for they told no one of it, for they were afraid (Mk. 16.8). Everything else related by this story can be heard and believed in the very literalness in which it stands, but can really only be believed, because it drops out of all categories and so out of all conceivability. It cannot be sufficiently observed that in the most artless possible way all the New Testament Easter narratives fail to supply the very thing most eagerly expected in the interests of clearness, namely an account of the resurrection itself. CD I/2 §14, 115


The Analogy of Advent Rather Than The Analogy of Being: The “Christ-Myth” Demythologized

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[1]

The above quote from Robert Dale Dawson captures a significant point in regard to the apocalyptic-dialectical nature of Barth’s theory of history-revelation; particularly this clause: “This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.” It fits well with Eberhard Jüngel’s ‘demythologizing’ project—if we want to call it that—vis-à-vis Rudolf Bultmann’s understanding of ‘myth’ and ‘demyth.’

As David Congdon develops Bultmann’s understanding of myth and demythologizing what comes to the fore, particularly as he places Jüngel into conversation with Bultmann, is how ‘myth’ coalesces with what Dawson describes, with reference to Barth’s doctrine of resurrection, as ‘the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.’ Often when we hear “myth” we think in terms of its profane or pagan etiology (or lexical origination, colloquially understood); when we hear myth we hear fairytale. But this is precisely not what Bultmann, Jüngel, or Barth understand as the entailment of myth (Barth’s language is actually saga instead of myth; roughly as corollary with Bultmann’s myth). In order to explicate this further I am going to quote Congdon (again, don’t tell him) as he develops Jüngel’s own understanding of mythos as this relates to knowledge of God. Congdon writes at length:

According to Jüngel, faith as the knowledge of God is concerned with a person’s existential relocation (i.e., knower located with the known) and not with the world’s theoretical explanation (i.e., known located with the knower). The knowledge of God is not a worldview but rather and existential event, as the dialectical revolution in theology discovered anew. Demythologizing is necessary in order to prevent theology from losing sight of its proper task as the articulation of this existential relation to God. In this way it furthers the project of dialectical theology. Demythologizing continually unsettles and reorients theology, and in so doing preserves the practical truth of the Christ-myth. Commenting on Luther’s axiom that “our theology is certain because it places us outside ourselves [ponit nos extra nos],” Jüngel presents the summation of his theological argument for the necessity of demythologizing:

Those who in faith know the mystery of Jesus Christ, who are thus placed outside themselves, find their existential place “in Christ” (2 Cor 5:17). This mythical power to localize the knower anew is the truth of myth preserved in Christianity. But this is precisely what is obscured by the “theoretical” act of knowledge that takes place concurrently in myth, which localizes the known—the God who comes to the world—in the context of the reality of the knower and consequently in the context of his or her world, thus making God a worldly object. . . . Christian theology therefore requires demythologizing. It is necessary in order to expose the eminently “practical” truth of the christological myth: the truth of the divine word that interrupts human beings and calls them outside themselves. . . . Demythologizing therefore serves the truth of myth by destroying the “theoretical” world-explanation of myth in order to expose the “practical” power of mythical words to move our existence and in doing so to impart a new approach to human being-in-the-world.

Demythologizing is nothing less than the necessary entailment of faith in Jesus Christ. The knowledge of Christ in faith not only relocates the believer existentially but also precludes from the start any attempt by the believer to give theoretical certainty to her knowledge. Faith that conforms to the truth of the Christ-myth is, to use Jüngel’s earlier expression, an adaequatio totus homo ad rem—a correspondence of the whole person to the thing. But since the res, the object of faith, is Christ himself, the Lord of all creation, the person who corresponds to this object experiences a fundamental displacement from herself. The “certainty of faith” (Glaubensgewissheit), precisely because it is grounded in the “certainty of God” (Entsicherung) of oneself.” We only participate in the practical truth of the christological myth by being placed extra nos. The stabilization of this myth in the form of a theoretical explanation involves remaining in se, and thus is impossible on the grounds of the Christ-myth itself. This is another way of saying that the myth of Jesus Christ demands the ongoing task of demythologizing.

The Christ-myth radically differentiates itself from every other myth. Because the kerygmatic Christ-myth involves a strict differentiation between creator and creature—between grace and sin, gospel and law—that defies every attempt to systematize it and thus secure one’s place within it, the practical truth it communicates is one that cannot coexist with an abstract theoretical truth or worldview. In this way the Christ-myth fulfills the genuine purpose of myth, which “expresses the insight that human beings cannot secure themselves through . . . reason.” Religious myth in the general sense described and denounced within scientific myth-criticism do not have their basis in this creator-creature differentiation. They lend themselves, therefore, to what Calvin calls the “perpetual factory of idols” that characterizes human nature—what we might call the “perpetual factory of worldviews.” Practical truth takes the form of theoretical truth in the case of myth-in-general, whereas the practical truth of Christ is one that perpetually demythologizes theory. Myth-in-general grants existential relocation by providing epistemological certainty (in the form of Welterklärung or Weltanschauung); the Christ-myth provides epistemological certainty only by granting existential relocation (in the form of faith). The myth of Christ overcomes the subject-object divide not through an explanation of the object but through the justification of the sinful subject. Christian faith is essentially a demythologizing faith or it is not faith in Jesus Christ.[2]

On pace with this, the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) engaged in a type of ‘demythologizing’ project. Without the illumination, and more, in the case of the Apostles, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the evangelists and the rest of the illuminated masses (particularly the five hundred witnesses alongside the Apostles cf. I Cor. 15), would have simply remained at the level of ‘myth’ when it came to the Christ. Even though they had personal experience with Jesus, the Disciples, without “demythologizing” the events of the “Christ-myth” would have simply remained at the level of subjects looking at an object who had no incisive or theological meaning, no gospel (kerygmatic) significance for their lives. This is what the Synoptics and the Gospel of John are engaging in; giving theological significance to the “mythological” events of Christ’s life (events that appear, on the face, to simply have horizontal significance alone). Does this make sense?

The reason I started this all off with the Dawson quote, with particular focus on his language of “the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God” is because I wanted to foreground this discussion with a category that would allow us to appreciate what is meant by “demythologizing” when it comes to Bultmann’s and Jüngel’s projects, respectively. In other words, as is present in Barth, the reality of the Christ-event is a sui generis non-analogous event that has broken into history and set the limits of real reality by his seemingly and merely historical existence. That’s what Bultmann’s ‘Christ-myth’ is intended to signify (as I understand it); that if left to itself, Jesus Christ appears as just another human who comes to signify a personage of theoretical and religious importance within a worldview system that is pinned up by the manufacturing of various proofs and legendary tales. But what encounter with the Christ does in the lives with eyes to see and ears to hear is immediately invoke a process of ‘demythologization’, or the eruption of recognition that this man [of Nazareth] is actually someone greater than mere myth; instead he is the God-man who has broken the surly bonds of this creation and set it anew. It is as the disciple of Christ comes into this realization that they are decentered and recentered only as they find their human being in the new creation of God in Christ. Here, knowledge of God is ‘secured,’ but only in the faith of Christ and not in any theoretical basis constructed by an abstract humanity come to God on its terms.

P.S. I was unable to work the language of ‘analogy of advent’ into this post; but conceptually it is present. We will have to overtly deal with that as Congdon details that in Jüngel’s theology at a later date.

Addendum: Because of some push back from someone I know on FB, and through blogging over the years let me say the following for other’s benefit: I am not becoming Bultmannian. The content of this post moves liberally and freely back and forth between Bultmann, Barth, and Jüngel; without making important points of distinction. I remain committed, at most, to what Hunsinger calls the “textual” Barth, which means I am committed to a pretty traditional mode of theological reflection and consideration. What is in this post represents something very bloggy. My contact was concerned that I was seemingly moving into a Bultmann and Congdon direction. No, I’m not. If I had the space and time and energy I could draw out what I am doing. But this post before this addendum was already 1500 words; which is long for blog reader’s attention spans. It is hard to broach topics like this in the space I have to work with, and make important and clean distinctions along the way. The reason I felt motivated to post this one was because there are, what I think amount to equivocal soundings in Bultmann’s trajectory that correlate with Barth’s analogy of faith approach. But the reality is that Barth grounds the relationship between God and humanity in a heightened emphasis upon the antecedent reality of God which is not reducible to the sort of soteriological-dialectical approach that Bultmann and Congdon are proponents of. In other words, Bultmann and Congdon ultimately reduce God to an extra-mental reality between the knower and God, such that God’s reality is purely reduced to encounter or experience that people have when they are faced with the “kerygmatic” reality of the Christ. And when I say “extra-mental” what that really means is that the Christ event is not contingent upon his objective and concrete penetration into the world in the incarnation, but instead his reality becomes contingent upon existential encounter in the knower. In this sense the Christ could become evaporated to idea, even if Bultmann et al say otherwise. I do recognize this as a serious problem, and it does lead to other deleterious conclusions such as denying the bodily resurrection of Christ (so we have people referring to the “Easter-Faith-Christ” etc.), and denying any notion of the after-life in the eschaton/heaven (as David Congdon does). So my post was intended to help me process this through (you know “write to learn”), but I can see how it makes it seem as if I’ve softened up to a Bultmannian trajectory; that couldn’t be further from the truth. Just to be clear.

Here is something I wrote very recently that attempts to make clear what I ultimately think about David Congdon’s move to a Bultmann mode of theological reflection. Just to reiterate. I haven’t changed on this.


[1] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

[2] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 455-58.

Against Infant Baptism, Me and Uncle Barth: W. Travis McMaken on Eberhard Jüngel’s Explication of Barth and Baptism

Travis McMaken (Travis)[1] has recently (2013) had his PhD dissertation published in Fortress Press’ Emerging Scholars series. His published work is titled: The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism After Karl Barth. I just picked it up and started reading it and I am glad that I did; it is an excellent introduction (and thick development) to not just Barth’s signofgospeltheology of Baptism, but to baptism’s theological development through the Christian ages. As I just worked my way through the first chapter I came across many gems and insights, but since this is a blog I will have to limit myself to one; one that resonates most deeply with me, you see, I am a Credobaptist after all, like Barth.

For me, in the first chapter the insight that resonates most with my sensibilities in this area of consideration is the brief coverage that McMaken gave to Eberhard Jüngel’s engagement and clarification of Barth’s theology of baptism. Jüngel’s point impacts me the most because it, in a simple and straightforward way makes clear the way that Barth tied his understanding of credobaptism into and from his doctrine of election. As McMaken highlights, for Eberhard this served as the locus classicus for understanding and approaching Barth’s theology of baptism vis-à-vis his doctrine of election. In a word, the reason for this (for its centrality i.e. ‘election’ for Barth) is: response.

Travis McMaken on Eberhard Jüngel on Karl Barth

(At length)

Eberhard Jüngel provides a unique contribution to the reception of Barth’s doctrine of baptism. This contribution consists in pointing to the fundamental importance of Barth’s doctrine of election in Church Dogmatics II/2 for his doctrine of baptism. Precisely their inattention to this point constitutes the weakness of the reception Barth’s doctrine of baptism receives from the previously discussed authors, especially among those who are otherwise sympathetic to Barth’s theology. Of those theologians discussed above, only Roman Catholic Aldo Moda notes that the impulses that control Barth’s late doctrine of baptism can be traced back to his doctrine of election, and he has been informed by Jüngel’s work. Furthermore, attention to the implications of Barth’s doctrine of election for his doctrine of baptism aligns with the most recent work on the development of Barth’s theology. For instance, Bruce McCormack has argued that Barth’s doctrine of election in CD II/2 represented a new stage in the clarity and self-consistency of Barth’s christological theology. While the discontinuity of what follows this decisive part-volume with that which came before can sometimes be overstated, it is nonetheless true that Barth’s doctrine of election towers over the Church Dogmatics as a whole.

jungelJüngel estimates that people will not likely penetrate to this realization. Rather than recognize the integral relation between Barth’s doctrine of baptism and his theology as a whole, readers fixate on the practical fruit of that doctrine. They then reject these practical consequences while failing to engage with the dogmatic premises that lie in the background.

For his part, Jüngel means to make those dogmatic premises explicit. He does so with reference to the ethical context of Barth’s doctrine of baptism CD IV/4. Jüngel notes that the vital thing for Barth is the baptizand’s responsiveness, which implies responsibility. This has direct ties to Barth’s doctrine of election in CD II/2. There Barth establishes Jesus Christ as not only the electing God but also the elected human being. This means that “God in His free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself” (CD II/2, 94; KD II/2, 101). Such a twofold determination provides the context for the responsiveness that Barth is after in his doctrine of baptism. God has determined to be God in relationship with humanity, and that humanity will exist in relationship with God. Humans live up to their election by being responsive to, and responsible before, God. For Barth, Christian baptism is a decisive moment in this responsive relationship. As far as Jüngel is concerned, all of this protects one of Barth’s most vital insights, namely, that God is God and humanity is humanity; “Just as God proves that he is himself through acts of divine being, so humans should prove to be human through acts of human being.” Baptism is a definitive instance of an act that proves one as a human being in responsible relationship with God.

Thus Jüngel advances his claim: “The doctrine of baptism is … not an appendix to the Church Dogmatics, but rather … a test-case.” Consequently, anyone who “wants infant baptism should not seek nourishment for the pulpit from Barth’s doctrine of election…. It is one or the other—one must decide for oneself.”

Both those who argue that Barth’s doctrine of baptism can be met by resources to traditional Reformed arguments and those who would revise his doctrine of baptism from within—and especially those who offhandedly claim this as a possibility—stand under Jüngel’s judgment.[2]

Don’t all roads always lead us back to Barth’s doctrine of election? Indeed! I am a big fan of Barth for so many reasons; his theology of baptism is just one more of those. I am a Baptist thinker, when it comes down to it (at least in a relative sense). I am a big advocate for a response based understanding of salvation, and Barth’s doctrine of election as related to baptism helps to illustrate how a robust theology of response ought to look in my view.

I commend this to you for your consideration! And thank you Travis for your work on all of this!

[1] Travis has been a friend of the blog, and of mine now since probably in and around 2006 or 2007 (since the time before he ever even had an MDiv let alone a PhD).

[2] W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism After Karl Barth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 82 Scribd version.

We Need More Christian Dogmatics and Less Apologetics

I am just rereading John Webster’s chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology on ‘Theologies of Retrieval’. As he begins his essay he sketches how theologian Eberhard Jüngel engages this mode of theological endeavor in his book God As the Mystery of the World. In his sketching, Webster highlights Jüngel’s primary thesis overriding his book, and that is […] “The book is best read as a set of analytical soundings in the modern history of the relation between theology and philosophy, seeking to show how the rise of atheistic philosophy is parasitic upon decay in Christian thought about God….” (Webster, p. 586) This is a very intriguing point, and one that Christian Fundamentalism, which has now come of age in American Evangelicalism would do well to take heed to. I say this because in many quarters of Evangelicalism—and I say in the quarters that make up the academic side of Evangelicalism, mostly found in seminaries, and then parachurch ministries—there is still to be found the ‘fighting Fundy’ spirit. That is, Evangelicals are consumed with matching wits with their atheist and “Liberal” counterparts by engaging the atheist (or whomever) on their own terms; nary realizing that maybe the terms set by the atheist panoply might be a result of Christians (Evangelicals or otherwise) not taking care of proper business in their own house. Namely, that Christians, in their abandonment of the doing of actual Christian Dogmatics (Theology) have in this vacuum created space for antagonists to the Christian faith to bottom feed off of the waste produced or not-produced by Christian thought today. Webster writes further of Jüngel’s thesis:


[W]hat is most noteworthy in Jüngel’s diagnosis is its focus on the mismatch between the authentic content of Christian faith and the conceptual version of itself by which it sought to retain its authority in the face of modern critiques. ‘Atheism’ is as much a child of theology’s theistic self-alienation as of philosophical unbelief. Jüngel’s presentation of this authentic content is undoubtedly dogmatically compressed, appealing to only a narrow selection of doctrinal material; and his historical narrative can lack complexity and nuance. The book’s appeal is, indeed, as much kerygmatic as historical. What gives strength to his account is his insistence that the crisis of Christian thought and speech about God ‘is to be worked through in terms of the particular character, the proprium of the Christian faith’ (Jüngel 1983:229). What is required is not a more effective apologetic strategy but a better dogmatics. [emboldening mine] [John Webster, The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, Chapter 32 Theologies of Retrieval, 587.]

Maybe if Christians, and Evangelicals in particular, got back to engaging with actual positively shaped Christian Dogmatics (instead of following the ‘negative way’), and abandoned the current trend of continuing to engage with a god largely shaped by classical theism (still!); then maybe atheists and the rest of the unbelieving crowd would lose the traction they currently have in the culture today. It is much easier for an atheist to argue with a conception of god that is humanistically constructed based on philosophical reflection and abstraction of the universe versus dealing with a God, who by definition, is shaped by His own internal Self-presentation and revelation through Jesus Christ. If ‘apologists’ were to become theologians, instead of philosophers, atheism might fade away; and if not fade away, it would at least have to reconsider how to assail the conception of the Christian God who resists philosophical manipulation, and instead contradicts it (by the wisdom of the cross!). We need more Christian Dogmaticians, and less Christian philosophers of religion.

Self-actualization, The Christianized Acceptance and Renaming of Sin: Calling the Crooked Straight

Can Sin be defined, theologically, as Self-actualization? If so, and I think so, then, no doubt much of our Western culture (and Eastern for that matter), and in particular, much of American (and Western) Christian ministry platforms are building their houses on sandy-land. Here is an example of what Self-actualization might mean for today’s winner and upwardly mobile movers:

Seeks to be a ‘way shower‘, cannot settle for mediocrity, always strives to reach greater plateaus, is self contemplative, and seeks to know even the mind’s shadows, doesn’t readily surrender to fear, sees the means as the important conquest, not the end. For the self-actualized there is no end, just a constant movement to expand and become and express more of Oneself! [Taken from The Center for Self Actualization, Inc.]

Or maybe, more famously Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of Self-actualization might be more explicit and apropos:

Surely there is some truth, some pragmatic utilitarian reality to Maslow’s hierarchy, at least on a purely horizontal plane. But that is the point, right? We don’t live ‘purely’ on a horizontal plane, our  horizontal plane has vertical elevation and purpose that provides its ultimate shape and what it means to finally be ‘actualized’; if, that is, we are even willing to continue to use the language of actulization as a viable anthropological category for supplying us with what it means to be a human, and a successful one at that!

Maybe to get more to the point, and bring this closer to the American Evangelical home and ministry (because I know in the past and present this book is appealed to by leaders in Evangelicalism); what about that infamous book written by a Mormon The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People? Here are the Seven Habits:

Independence or Self-Mastery

The First Three Habits surround moving from dependence to independence (i.e., self-mastery):

  • Habit 1: Be Proactive

Take initiative in life by realizing that your decisions (and how they align with life’s principles) are the primary determining factor for effectiveness in your life. Take responsibility for your choices and the consequences that follow.

  • Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

Self-discover and clarify your deeply important character values and life goals. Envision the ideal characteristics for each of your various roles and relationships in life. Create a mission statement.

  • Habit 3: Put First Things First

Prioritize, plan, and execute your week’s tasks based on importance rather than urgency. Evaluate whether your efforts exemplify your desired character values, propel you toward goals, and enrich the roles and relationships that were elaborated in Habit 2.


The next three have to do with Interdependence (i.e., working with others):

  • Habit 4: Think Win-Win

Genuinely strive for mutually beneficial solutions or agreements in your relationships. Value and respect people by understanding a “win” for all is ultimately a better long-term resolution than if only one person in the situation had gotten his way.

  • Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

Use empathic listening to be genuinely influenced by a person, which compels them to reciprocate the listening and take an open mind to being influenced by you. This creates an atmosphere of caring, and positive problem solving.

  • Habit 6: Synergize

Combine the strengths of people through positive teamwork, so as to achieve goals no one person could have done alone.

Self Renewal

The Last habit relates to self-rejuvenation:

  • Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

Balance and renew your resources, energy, and health to create a sustainable, long-term, effective lifestyle. It primarily emphasizes exercise for physical renewal, prayer (meditation, yoga, etc.) and good reading for mental renewal. It also mentions service to society for spiritual renewal.

Philosophically (and thus theologically through a Thomist synthesis, which I will need to discuss at a later date) all of this talk about self-actualization can be traced back to that Greek great, Aristotle. His notion of habitus, or habituating in certain kinds of behavior in order to shape an interior person that might be considered virtuous, successful, moral, or even upwardly mobile could be blamed for our culture that believes that Self-actualization is the only way to live an existentially fulfilling life. Maybe this mode of Self-actualization could be reduced and summed up to that all to familiar axiom of ‘fake-it-till-you-make-it’. So the focus is on the outside/in; it is on outward appearance, and it is this which counts as being a successful and effective person in our actualized age.

But what if all of this, this ‘Self-actualization’ is really just what the Bible calls ‘Sin’? John Webster reports how another theologian of import, Eberhard Jüngel believes that this rather modern (with pre-modern and classical rootage) turn towards the Self-actualized self is really and simply just sin. Here is what Webster writes of Jüngel; and within Webster’s commentary, he provides a quote from Jüngel:

Jüngel thinks of modern society as haunted, both theoretically and practically, by the image of the human person as achiever, by the axiom: ‘[W]ithout increased performance, no increase in the quality of life.’ His theological judgement on the image is that it reinforces that human compulsion to act (Zwang zur Tat) which is the essence of the disorder of human life. ‘Sin’is, simply put, the hopeless drive to self-realization: ‘amongst the worst human failures is the desire to realize oneself alone through one’s good acts, through one’s righteous action — whether it be only legalistic or even moral. The category of self-realization, which today is used in such an unreservedly positive sense, is more accurately to thought of as the quintessence of sin, according to the biblical understanding of the matter.’ The attempt at self-realization is condemned to failure precisely because humanity is essentially relational, …. Thus, in a passage typical of many others, Jüngel writes:

[W]hat Holy Scripture calls sin is … the drive to have one’s own right prevail at the expense of others and in this way to be the one nearest to oneself. We have set out and understanding of righteousness as the ordering of richness of relations between those existing with one another in such a way that justice is done to all those included without their needing to seize if for themselves. Sinners, however, are characterized by a belief that they must and can seize their own right. Those who try to seize their own right take away the right of others. And precisely in this way they break out of the well-ordered richness of relations in which they have been included by God. Sin is the Godless drive away from the diverse relations of created life protected by God, and into relationlessness. [John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology, 188.]

If what Webster writes, and Jüngel thinks, is correct, and I think it is, then the trajectory of American culture in general, and insofar as Evangelical’s have imbibed this trajectory, in particular, is, again, on the sandy land of man’s own making—thus Sin!

As admirable as Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits might appear, even though he finally gets to others; he only first starts with the self. Even as apparently true as Maslow’s hierarchy of Self-actulization might appear it runs directly contrary to the ethic and direction that Christ’s kingdom does; remember this dominical teaching?:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?[g] 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. ~Matthew 6:25-33

So Self-realization really equals Self-justification, or usurping godness for oneself. Doesn’t this remind you of this:

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” ~Genesis 3:4-5

The Christian view of justification, salvation, is that salvation is primarily and antecedently inacted by God in Christ. Salvation for the Christian isn’t a se, or internal to the person, a possession innate to the person, simply waiting to be activated through habituating in certain kinds of behavior and activating activity; Nein! Salvation for the Christian is extra nos, or outside of us; it is an alien righteousness, as Luther might quip. It is a life that is received, passively; a life that is only ‘given’ activity through the life of God. So the conclusion then is that we ought to ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto us’.

If you want to be successful in the pyramid of God in Christ’s kingdom, then understand that his kingdom inverts the pyramid of this world. If the American Evangelical church wants to be successful, then take up your cross and follow Jesus; be willing to lose your soul that you might find it in Christ.

Historical-Critical Exegesis as “Christian Exegesis” according to Barth according to Jüngel

I know some of you have had issues with the idea and possibility that it is possible to do theology, or even desirable, apart from appealing to nature and what has been called the analogia entis (or “the analogy of being”/natural theology).  Karl Barth challenged this by offering what he called the analogia fidei, or ‘analogy of faith’ (playing off of Martin Luther’s coining of this language which he was contrasting with the patristic regula fidei); by this, Barth meant that we must start our theologizing in the ‘event’ of his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. In this way, then, God’s Self-revelation is not illustrated by so called proximate things that we can find in nature; instead, nature itself serves as the created theater wherein God comes to nature and uses its resources (thus giving it its telos) as the mode through which he speaks Himself to us in Christ. Eberhard Jüngel, one of Barth’s best German students and interpreters helps to clarify this in his book God’s Being Is in Becoming. What I just said is only introductory to what I really want to get to, and that is how this applies to hermeneutics. I will let Jüngel take over from here (and then I’ll close with a comment or two). He is speaking from the context I just provided above, and he is noting how this effects the way that Barth engaged in the hermeneutical process; in a way that “[I]nterpretation means saying the same thing in other words. Illustration means saying the same thing in other words” [Jüngel citing Barth, p. 25]. Here is what Eberhard has to say further:

Here the hermeneutical interest of theology and its use of the historico-critical method meet. In that it investigates the language (of the text) as language (and not as revelation), the historical-critical method seeks to acquaint itself with revelation in the language of the text. The historical-critical method thus orients itself (exclusively) to the captures which revelation made when it came to speech. The hermeneutical task of theology consists in bringing revelation to speech as revelation in carrying out the historical-critical method. Hermeneutics is interested in the capturing of language by revelation, as it can be perceived in the captures (texts). Hermeneutics seeks to preserve revelation as revelation and language as language in such a way at the very place where revelation takes place, where God comes to speech. Hermeneutics is interested in the texts as the captures of revelation which has come to speech, since it is interested in the reiteration of the event of the capture of language which occurs when revelation takes place. Thus the hermeneutical task of theology is the most consistent essence of the historical-critical method in theology. . . . [Eberhard Jüngel, God’s Being Is in Becoming, 25-6 fn. 42]

Kabeesh! So in other words, biblical interpretation, for Barth (according to Jüngel) involves simply re-stating what has already been stated (and is being stated) in the ‘event’ of God’s Self-revelation comandeering human language (nature) and giving it its purpose in signifying the reality that God has given it in his Self-revelation mediated through the words of Scripture; its purpose (creaturely media) is not to signify itself (or somehow serve to illustrate who God is apart from God’s Self-revelation in Christ through this media), but its purpose becomes specified as God in Christ meets us through this media. So “nature” and human words maintain their integrity, but we come to find out that their integrity comes from its inner-basis as a servant (or theater) of God’s own good purpose for His creation.

The important thing to grasp, I think, is that WE don’t say who God is; instead God says who HE is in Christ. And thus, we need to recognize this, and then speak theologically as He has spoken to us by Scripture in Christ. This ends in a “Christian exegetical” approach, and it deters us from the typical mode of hitorical-critical exegesis that seeks to somehow picture God through words that are un-grounded in their proper reality in Christ.

Or you could just read your Bible 😉 .

§2. Letters To My Friend: Just Say No To Five Point Calvinism, A Trinitarian Way To Think Hermeneutically

This is the second of my posts to my friend in response to an email he sent me, and the exegetical questions he is facing in regards to the Calvinist concept of Limited Atonement. You can read my introductory post here. I am going to change my approach to answering the question from my friend, and actually jump into prolegomena issues; and highlight how an exegete’s theological methodology, a priori, will impact and shape his/her exegetical decisions and conclusions. In that vein, I am going to talk about why it is so important, if we are going to do Christian exegesis, to start with the Christian God’s own specification; which is triune. In my recent reading (of just a few minutes ago), I just came across some helpful words from Eberhard Jüngel, as he interprets the way that Karl Barth approached this very issue. That is, how does God as triune impinge upon how we think from him; both, then, theologically (in its truest sense), and exegetically. I just want to lay this out a bit in order to clear ground for later, when I actually try to answer my friend’s questions in specifics, in regards to the passages of Scripture that he has provided in support of a classic Calvinist understanding of a Limited Atonement. Here is what Jüngel has to say about Barth and the significance of God as triune should have on theological and exegetical work:

[B]ecause revelation concerns the being of God, since it is God who reveals himself there, the doctrine of the Trinity is ‘a constituent part, the decisive part, of the doctrine of God’. This part is decisive because the doctrine of the Trinity makes a fundamental distinction between ‘the Christian doctrine of God as Christian’ and ‘the Christian concept of revelation as Christian, in contrast to all other possible doctrines of God or concepts of revelation’. Because for Barth the ‘problem of the doctrine of the Trinity’ necessarily arises from our encounter with the Bible, then we ask after the being of God with ‘the question put to the Bible about revelation’, the solution of this problem is also decisive for the Christian concept of revelation and thereby for the understanding of the being of God. Hence Barth places the doctrine of the Trinity at the beginning of his Dogmatics in order that ‘its content be decisive and controlling for the whole of dogmatics’.

This location, which lets the doctrine of the Trinity stand at the entrance of the Church Dogmatics as a whole, is a hermeneutical decision of the greatest relevance. This is already seen formally in the fact that the doctrine of the Trinity is to be found in the prolegomena, that is, at exactly the place where the treatment of hermeneutical problems is expected. For Barth also hermeneutical problems are — despite other misleading statements — in no way merely more or less unpleasant preliminary questions. It is more that Barth’s insight that, without ‘anticipating material dogmas’, neither a doctrine of Scripture nor, even less, a doctrine of the Word of God can be formulated, may provide evidence that, at the point where he decides hermeneutically about the path of the Dogmatics (both formally and materially), he sees himself compelled to decide about the hermeneutic by which he is deciding. The placing of the doctrine of the Trinity at the beginning of the Church Dogmatics is therefore a hermeneutical decision of the greatest relevance because, on the one hand, the whole Church Dogmatics finds its hermeneutical foundation here, and, on the other hand, with this decision hermeneutics itself finds its own starting-point. . . . [Eberhard Jüngel, God’s Being Is in Becoming, trans. by John Webster, 16-17]

It is this principle that becomes hermeneutically important. That is, if we are going to follow God, and his lead into the ‘Far Country’ (as Jüngel says), we must start with his lead! If his chosen lead is his self-Revelation, his so called ‘self-interpreting-Word’ (cf. Jn. 1.18); then as Christians we need to honor that in our theological method, and hermeneutical prowess. Meaning, as Jüngel says above, that, in principle (de jure) Jesus as the Son of the Father in communion by the Spirit, needs to shape the questions that serve to explicate what he wants to reveal about himself. So in a sense, everything I am trying to say is: that we need to jump back quite a bit and consider our hermeneutical moorings (theologically), before we dive head first into passages of Scripture which ‘seem’ to correlate with particular ‘theological’ assessments that purport to come from the ‘Text’ itself.

So then, these are the questions we are faced with:

  1. What does the ‘Text’ of Scripture presuppose, theologically?
  2. Does the Arminian and Calvinist (classic) grammar present the only viable theological paradigm through which to interpret Scripture?
  3. Is the TULIP theology itself actually Christian Theology? Does it take shape by following God’s lead, or does it follow another leader (like ‘nature’)?
  4. Doesn’t it seem that Theological concerns precede and impinge upon hermeneutical concerns, so that what hermeneutics purport to explain actually correspond back to and signify its inner-theological ground?
  5. Should we follow a more ‘Theological Exegetical’ approach or a Literal, Grammatical, Historical approach to biblical interpretation?

There are definitely more questions to be broached, but I wanted to stop with 5 😉 . I don’t really plan on developing or answering all of the above questions in detail, but at least I intend to broach them at some level. How we understand Divine speech, acts, and works will directly shape our hermeneutical approach, and exegetical conclusions. And so, this is why I think it is important to move forward in this way. I am sure I have only really created more questions than answers. Isn’t that the joy of knowing God; isn’t this the source of worship and thus the form of Theology!