The Evangelical Calvinist

"The world was made so that Christ might be born."-David Fergusson

Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

Rachael Denhollander and Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross

Like many of you, most likely, I watched Rachael Denhollander’s powerful testimony and statement made at Larry Nassar’s sentencing for his molestation of not only her but of more than a hundred other USA Gymnasts; he was the team doctor. Denhollander, I’ve since found out, is now a lawyer, and I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that she was largely motivated to become a lawyer to pursue Nassar through legal means (I’m sure there is more to her choice to become a lawyer than that). Be that as it may, Nassar was sentenced to over a hundred years for his molestation of countless young female gymnasts under his care for years and years; but he did not leave the courtroom without hearing from many of his victims, and not without hearing most eloquently and forcefully from Rachael Denhollander herself (she was the first one, as I understand it, to break her silence about Nassar and bring charges against him).

Someone else shared a link to this story on Facebook, and here is what I shared there:

It sounds like she has been reading Luther. I watched the video of this earlier (TGC shared it). It is powerful; her words are cutting and right; and she deploys Law/Gospel in a way that I think would make Luther, if not the Apostle Paul proud. Beyond that, it is sobering to hear the power of God—the Gospel—proclaimed in such a context as this.

If you listen, or read her statement you might see why I was left with this impression. Here is the full transcript of the pertinent part of her statement to Dr. Larry Nassar:

You have become a man ruled by selfish and perverted desires, a man defined by his daily choices repeatedly to feed that selfishness and perversion. You chose to pursue your wickedness no matter what it cost others and the opposite of what you have done is for me to choose to love sacrificially, no matter what it costs me.

In our early hearings. you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.

If the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.

The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well.

Throughout this process, I have clung to a quote by C.S. Lewis, where he says:

My argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how did I get this idea of just, unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he first has some idea of straight. What was I comparing the universe to when I called it unjust?

Larry, I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else’s perception, and this means I can speak the truth about my abuse without minimization or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is. And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good.

When a person can harm another human being, especially a child, without true guilt, they have lost the ability to truly love. Larry, you have shut yourself off from every truly beautiful and good thing in this world that could have and should have brought you joy and fulfillment, and I pity you for it. You could have had everything you pretended to be. Every woman who stood up here truly loved you as an innocent child, real genuine love for you, and it did not satisfy.

I have experienced the soul satisfying joy of a marriage built on sacrificial love and safety and tenderness and care. I have experienced true intimacy in its deepest joys, and it is beautiful and sacred and glorious. And that is a joy you have cut yourself off from ever experiencing, and I pity you for it.

I have been there for young gymnasts and helped them transform from awkward little girls to graceful, beautiful, confident athletes and taken joy in their success because I wanted what was best for them. And this is a joy you have cut yourself off from forever because your desire to help was nothing more than a facade for your desire to harm.

I have lived the deep satisfaction of wrapping my small children up in my arms and making them feel safe and secure because I was safe, and this is a rich joy beyond what I can express, and you have cut yourself off from it, because you were not safe. And I pity you for that.

In losing the ability to call evil what it is without mitigation, without minimization, you have lost the ability to define and enjoy love and goodness. You have fashioned for yourself a prison that is far, far worse than any I could ever put you in, and I pity you for that.[1]

The reason her statement brought Martin Luther’s Law/Gospel and theology of cross thinking to mind, primarily, is because I just finished reading Mark Mattes’s really good book on Luther’s theology of beauty: Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty. Let me share an excerpt, and section that I think is pertinent and corollary with the sentiment that Denhollander expressed in her statement to Nassar. Mattes writes this of Luther’s theology:

Already in Luther’s early theology of humility we see the beginnings of what would be his unique approach to theology: God must kill us as sinners before he makes us alive as new creatures, ones with clean hearts. God forensically regards those who are nothing on the basis of their own merit as the raw material of his new creation. Luther’s whole approach in the theology of humility is one increasingly governed by a forensic approach to the human relationship with God. That is, what counts in the human relationship with God is how God evaluates us. As we admit our nothingness, so are we embraced by God. Through his study of specific mystics, such as Johannes Tauler (ca. 1300–1361), Luther claimed that the core Christian identity before God—as all human identity—is one that is wholly passive. New creations are active with respect to their fellow creatures, their neighbors, by serving others in their need, but before God they know that they are entirely receivers. Hence, the humility of the earliest phase of Luther’s theological career is transformed over time into a theology of the cross, Through various “trials and sufferings” and the accusing voice of the law, God is crucifying the old Adam or Eve so that humans lose confidence in the old being’s claims for its own self-deification and ability to control life. As a result, sinners put their trust in God’s goodness—and beauty—granted in Jesus Christ. But such beauty is hidden. It is grasped by the eyes of faith alone. Smug sinners appear to their own thinking as beautiful but in fact coram deo are ugly. Accused by God’s law, repentant Christians know their complete dependence on Christ, who before the world had “no form or comeliness” (Isa. 53:2 KJV) but who grants them the beauty of his righteousness. Such beauty is trust in God’s word, which as law reduces sinners to their nothingness and as gospel allows them to claim Christ’s righteousness of their own. Thus, rid of self-justifying egocentrism as definitive of the core of their being, they live extrinsically, outside themselves, first in Christ in whom their confidence is centered, but also in their neighbor in whose service they now become “Christs.”[2]

All of the themes we see in Luther’s theology we see Rachael Denhollander hit upon and emphasize in her statement to Nassar. Her statement bore witness to a power not her own, but one that is contingent upon the power of Godself; the power of the Gospel. We see her statement emphasizing the work of the Law, but then the Gospel; we see goodness and beauty hit upon in Rachael’s statement in contrast to the ugliness that the Law reveals. Her statement was powerful because it did not mitigate the reality of what happened, it did not wash away what Nassar did (indeed it magnified it), but it became powerful the moment repentance and the Gospel were elevated as “greater thans” than the evil Larry Nassar perpetrated upon these innocent young girls. The Gospel ultimately brings life, not death; but it doesn’t pretend like death and its ugliness is not a reality, nor present. The Gospel magnifies the ugliness of sin and death by providing light and exposure that the darkness of sin and death cannot finally overcome. This is what Denhollander’s statement eloquently underscored and communicated; it communicated the power of God, the Gospel; and it allowed Rachael to become a “Christ” to Nassar and the watching world.

[1]Source. [emboldening mine]

[2] Mark C. Mattes, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017), 85-6.


Written by Bobby Grow

January 24, 2018 at 9:37 pm

A Corollary Between Aryan Nazism and Planned Parenthood’s Abortionism: The Sanctity of Human Life as a Canon of Allegiances

I am reading Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology Volume 2 (I just recently finished his Volume 1), and in his chapter on the imago Dei. In passing, almost, as he is writing on nihilism’s impact on the way human beings view other human beings he references Germany’s National Socialism and its endeavor to cleanse the human gene pool of peoples it determined were sub-human, relative to the Aryan race; it is here he also mentions America’s Planned Parenthood and how it was just as much a part of the research project of eugenics that the Nazi solution was. Jenson writes:

Germany’s National Socialist thought it scientifically established that the Jewish strain degraded the European genetic pool. Setting out to cull their human herd of these threats to its genetic future was only what any responsible farmer would do on such information. They were, indeed, quite explicit in describing the human gene pool as a herd to be genetically improved; moreover, the holocaust of Jews was organized on the basis of an antecedently established program of positive and negative  eugenics that in its negative mode had been directed against defectives of indubitably Aryan ethnicity. We should remember also that the sort of science that obtained these results was also practiced in England, Scandinavia, Italy, and the United States, resulting, for example, in the American Planned Parenthood organization and in Scandinavian state-mandated eugenic sterilization programs.[1]

It is easy to sanitize, for example, American identity through her psyche of exceptionalism; but we play the fool if we do so. American complicity in the evils of the world is well established and pervasive; the example of her reliance upon eugenics given expression in the practices of Planned Parenthood is indicting.

My intention is not to bash America, but instead to draw attention to the fact that as Christians our primary allegiance is to our Lord Jesus Christ and our mode, consequently, is as the agents of his Kingdom. If we tie our identity too closely to our nationality as Americans we, just like the German Christians, will conflate the Gospel with moral proclivities that have more to do with hell than heaven. I think there is hope to be had, at least in and among many younger evangelicals that any type of overt nationalism, for the Christian, can only result in idolatry which further results in untold evils.

It is clear that almost all evangelical Christians find abortion repulsive, as they should! But my concern is that the same evangelicals haven’t thought systematically enough in regard to how the principle that fosters their hatred for abortion—i.e. the sanctity of human life—is not far reaching enough; that evangelicals fail to see how something like the military industrial complex, and its deployment, can and has fostered the same types of violations against humanity as abortion has. What Jenson notes about America’s engagement with eugenic thought ought to serve as a cautionary tale to Americans in general and Christians in particular. The thing is, I don’t think we have extricated ourselves as much as we would like to think from the evils that we think we have; idolatry has this type of blinding effect.

[1] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2: The Works of God (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 57.

*Image Credit: Mario Mariani

Written by Bobby Grow

November 21, 2017 at 8:44 pm

Posted in Ethics, Robert Jenson

Chalcedonian Logic and the Diminished Christology of The Nashville Statement

When we separate the work of Jesus Christ from his person, or vice versa we will necessarily end up with not only a deflated expression of the Gospel, but also attendant with that, a weakened sense of ethics and holiness. It is the Chalcedonian logic to keep these two realities inseparably related—the person and work of Jesus Christ—while not failing to continually recognize that there is a distinction between the human and divine natures in the singular person of Jesus Christ. I just conflated two different things, but they too are related; I conflated a discussion about the two-natures/one person reality that Chalcedon sought to provide orthodox grammar for, with the idea that we should never separate the person and work and the work and person of Jesus Christ one from the other. The reason the conflation is present, I think, is by design. It’s the realization by the early church Fathers that any statement about God become man was one with deeply grounded soteriological impact. George Hunsinger, as he develops the Chalcedon logic, interacting with a pithy and elegant statement by George Herbert notes this:

“In Christ two natures met to be thy cure.” When George Herbert wrote these words, he captured the essence of Chalcedonian Christology, with all its strange complexity and simplicity, in a single elegant line. It is sometimes overlooked that the interest behind Chalcedonian Christology has always been largely soteriological. Herbert’s line, however, makes the point very well. It is the saving work of Christ—to be thy cure—which serves as the guiding intention behind the Chalcedonian definition of Christ’s person, just as the definition of his person (following Herbert) — in Christ two natures met — serves as the crucial premise of Christ’s saving work. Change the definition of Christ’s person — make him less than fully God and fully human at the same time — and the saving cure Christ offers changes drastically as well. In other words, just as it makes no sense to have a high view of Christ’s person without an equally high view of his work, so a high view of Christ’s work — in particular, his saving death — cannot be sustained without a suitably high view of his person. The work presupposes the person just as the person conditions the work.[1]

Hunsinger in a following footnote comments further on the relationship between the person and work of Christ, and how, if diminished in any way, one from the other or vice versa, that diminishes one side of the equation or the other. Here, in particular, Hunsinger is offering elaboration in the last sentence we just read from him above:

This latter sentence, by the way, states a basic rule of all Christology, although as applied here it sheds light on a particular type, namely, the Chalcedonian. In any Christology, at least when internally coherent (which cannot always be presupposed), the person (p) and the work (w) of Christ mutually imply each other: if w, then p; and if p, then w. Insofar as modern Christology has typically abandoned a high view of Christ’s person, it has also abandoned the correspondingly high conception of Christ’s saving work that Chalcedonian Christology is meant to sustain. Only a high Christology can state without equivocation, for example, that Jesus Christ is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). If Christ’s saving work consists in no more than his functioning as a spiritual teacher, a moral example, a symbol of religious experience, or even a unique bearer and transmitter of the Holy Spirit, a high or Chalcedonian view of Christ’s person is logically unnecessary. As modernist Christologies typically evidence (though not always forthrightly), such a saving figure need only be “fully human” without also being “fully God.”[2]


This discussion can be taken in a variety of ways, but I want to take it towards ethics; I actually prefer a discussion on holiness, but ethics is a related loci (at least for the Christian). I simply want to state that: insofar as Christians talk about what it means to be holy before God, and more generally how that works out in a theory of ethics, that this should never be done in abstraction from the person of Jesus Christ. I think this is a symptom of a faulty theological endeavor; i.e. to somehow think the church  could ever talk about holiness without in the same breath tying that concretely into Christology. Without the person of Jesus Christ there is no work of salvation, and without the work of salvation there is no way for Christians to participate in and from the holiness of God; and without that participation there is no way to develop a Christian ethic.

I am really trying to get past the Nashville Statement, but I think this is another reason I really really dislike it so much. It actually reflects a way of thinking that thinks about things in abstraction from Jesus Christ. Thomas Torrance would say that this is because of what he calls the ‘Latin Heresy,’ or a dualistic way of conceiving of God’s person and work in Jesus Christ. I see a lack of the Chalcedonian pattern and logic funding evangelical statements like the Nashville Statement, and maybe this all flows from my years and years long critique of evangelical and classical Reformed theology in general; indeed, I’m sure it does flow from this.

To attempt to speak about being holy before God is not possible without first speaking about the person and work of God in Jesus Christ. The picture is too flat, and Christologically speaking, too adoptionistic when Christians attempt to make statements about being holy (no matter what that entails: i.e. human sexuality, race issues, age issues, socio-economic issues etc.). If we sever, even in our speech, the work of Christ from the person of Christ, on the Chalcedonian logic we inevitably diminish the person of Christ. It’s interesting that many of those, or at least some of the more prominent signers of the Nashville Statement endorse the heretical view of the eternal functional subordination (EFS) of the Son to the Father. I wonder if there is a tacit relationship between that, and the diminished Christology we see functioning in statements like the one from Nashville?

I clearly have more work to do in regard to tying many of the loose ends I’m leaving us with together, but such is a blog post. I am seriously going to make this the last post I write on the Nashville Statement.


[1] George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 131.

[2] Ibid., 131-2 n.2.

*I stole the picture of the Chinese Jesus from Paul Metzger’s usage of it in his post.

Written by Bobby Grow

September 2, 2017 at 6:31 pm

What Kind of Church Culture Can Produce a Declaration like the Nashville Statement? Bearing Witness to Ourselves Rather than to Jesus Christ

I have had a chance, as the day unfolded, to reflect further on the so called Nashville Statement; the statement that a hundred and fifty evangelical signatories signed their names to. It seems to be their attempt to draw a line in the sand in regard to what they see as a pressing problem for the church, and in particular, their evangelical church. The problem for them, of course, is the progression and in-roads of the LGBTQ, homosexual gay agenda, as they see it transforming not only the body politic of culture in general, but its pressing into the church itself.

But I have a problem with it. For me, the problem has more to do with these leaders’s conception of how the church ought to operate in regard to its witness to the Gospel in relation to the world at large. As I see it, they are presuming upon an us versus them dynamic that the Gospel itself does not presume; instead, the Gospel is an equalizing reality. The Gospel as the Word of God in Jesus Christ stands as judge not just over those guys and gals out there, but as judge of the church itself; as Peter notes: “17 For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”[1] In other words, the Nashville Statement places itself in the place of God’s Word, as if its signatories are the judges; it actually and ironically displaces the Word of God with its own word over against others. If these signatories were to listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his admonition to the American churches, as he saw it back in the 30s, they may well not have penned such a statement. Bonhoeffer wrote:

American theology and the American church as a whole have never been able to understand the meaning of “criticism” by the Word of God and all that signifies. Right to the last they do not understand that God’s “criticism” touches every religion, the Christianity of the churches and the sanctification of Christians, and that God has founded his church beyond religion and beyond ethics. A symptom of this is the general adherence to natural theology. . . . But because of this, the person and work of Jesus Christ, must for theology, sink into the background and in the long run remain misunderstood, because it is not recognized as the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness.[2]

Do you see what Bonhoeffer is getting at, particularly when he references ‘natural theology?’ It is when churches displace her reality, founded in Jesus Christ alone, with a perception of herself as possessor of God’s absolute Word, and not just as possessor, but as dispenser, that she has presumed too much. She begins to elevate herself beyond the culture of which she is ensconced, and presumes that she has divined things, and thus has become able to pronounce things in absolute and damning ways, that in reality belongs to the Lord of the church alone; the living Word of God. Bonhoeffer’s point, is that when the church sees herself as coextensive with the Word of God itself, in an absolute way, that she actually loses her voice to bear witness to the living Word of God who not only stands in judgment of his church, but of the world at large.

Similarly, John Webster, as he comments on Barth’s critique of the liberal church in Germany is somewhat and ironically parallel with Bonhoeffer’s critique of the American church as he saw it. Here Webster, in line with Bonhoeffer points out how, in the thought of Barth, morality and ethics become too much aligned with the ‘moral and absolute self’ such that the Word of God loses its place for the Christian, and at the same time becomes coterminous with the Christian’s perception of the world at large and her pronouncements toward the world. Webster writes:

A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates. [3]

The Nashville Statement exudes this sense “of [the] absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness.” The Word of God has now been conflated with the Nashville Statement, as if a hundred and fifty signatories, backing fourteen theses on homosexuality are what God himself believes about the state of affairs in regard not just to homosexuality but other moral proclivities.

What concerns me most is the culture, in the evangelical church, that fosters the idea that such statements are healthy and good. In what way do such statements bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; to the living Word of God? It ends up reducing the church to an organization of people who appear to be oriented around a cluster of ethical principles and mores instead of an organic reality who finds her sustenance in and from Christ. Whether or not homosexuality is contrariwise to the ethics of the Kingdom[4], the church herself should be more concerned with her own blights and inadequacies. The church should evidence humility before God wherein she is constantly crying out to him for his mercy and grace, such that this posture, before the world, bears witness to the reality of God in Christ. The church should avoid placing herself in positions where she appears to believe that she has become the absolute mouthpiece for God, in regard to perceived moral inequities, and instead submit to the personal reality of God herself. It is this repentant posture before God and the world wherein the power of God will be most on display. It is up to God in Christ to bring transformation into the lives of people; he alone justifies and sanctifies, the church does not!

Who do we think we are? Jesus is LORD, not the church!


[1] I Peter 4.17, NIV.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Protestantism without Reformation,” in No Rusty Swords, ed. Edwin H. Robertson (London: Fontana Library, 1970), 88-113 cited by George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 71-2.

[3] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 35-6.

[4] Which personally I believe it is.

*Artwork of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Mark Summers.

“Seek your own welfare above all else”: How evangelicalism Has Largely Become a Faith for Utilitarians and Relativists

Utilitarianism and pragmatism have so saturated the mind of the North American evangelical church (and probably other churches in the West) that it has become difficult for the thinking Christian to navigate their way through these choppy waters. There is a kind of pervasive relativism afoot in the lives of so many good intending evangelical Christians, that they don’t even realize they’ve been taken in by it; because, indeed, it’s pervasive.

Maybe you’ve experienced this, and the impact of this in your own Christian experience; I definitely have, and in very real and concrete ways. For example, just the fact that I think deeply and reflectively about my Christian walk, just because I believe that there is an objective value to knowing God in and from whom he is and revealed himself to be in Jesus Christ; often this is met with disdain. The disdain comes precisely from this adoption of the utilitarian and pragmatic psyche that has so infected the evangelical mind. If it does not become immediately apparent to such said psyche how and why dwelling on God in deep ways is pertinent to the utilitarian way, it will immediately seek to attack and finally reject such ways for knowing God. In other words, and maybe you’re sensing what I’m getting at, there is an anti-intellectualism, or anti-anything that appears to smack of anything that might challenge the “utilitarian’s” perceived way of living life in “real” ways; you know, like in ways where they feel comfortable, unchallenged, and can worship a God who makes them feel good, giving them experiences that only they can really understand. If such mindsets, if such people encounter other people, people who are committed to a way wherein the better way, for them, is to live an examined life before God, one that reposes in a love-duty like approach to knowing God, in and from the subject of God’s life in Christ, these latter people are actually ridiculed by the more dominant way of the utilitarian Christians.

Have I spoken abstractly enough for yet? The reason this might sound so abstract is because it is inherent to the culture in which many of us live. So, at least for me, it becomes difficult to try and articulate a way out of this quagmire; but I would go so far to say that most of us have an intuitive sense of what I’m getting at—even if that is only understood in gist. In order to help us negotiate our way through this in even more critical ways, let’s appeal to George Hunsinger (and this will once again be an extensive quote). We start reading with Hunsinger just as he has described the nonutilitarian way for living life before God in Christ; here he develops what the utilitarian and more dominant way, I would contend, for the evangelical psyche entails. He writes:

This nonutilitarian (i.e. biblical) version of Christianity stands in sharp contrast to the prevailing mores of our culture. As Robert Bellah and his coworkers have pointed out in Habits of the Heart, their fascinating study of the contemporary American middle class, utilitarian modes of thought run rampant. Although in respectable ethical theory utilitarianism is associated with a quest for the common good, in popular American consciousness the notion of the common good, if our researchers are to be believed, has all but disappeared. What one finds instead is a utilitarianism of private interest. White middle-class Americans describe their ethical and religious choices as depending on little more than a shifting set of personal wants and inner impulses. “Seek your own welfare above all else” has become the maxim of the day. Whether one’s welfare is defined in terms of wealth, status, and power or in terms of inner psychic satisfactions, either way one’s choices are grounded in virtually nothing more than a sense of the solitary, autonomous self.

Bellah circles around this problem again and again. For many, he writes with dismay, “there is simply no objectifiable criterion for choosing one value or course of action over another. One’s own idiosyncratic preferences are their own justification, because they define the true self.” Reliance on mere preference to define the self is something Bellah regards as symptomatic of the therapeutic style which has pervaded the values of our culture. At the center of the therapeutic style is “the autonomous individual, presumed to be able to choose the role he will play and the commitments he will make, not on the basis of higher truths, but according to the criterion of life-effectiveness as the individual judges it.” The ordering of all other goals to the goal of self-fulfillment, as determined by need and preference, is the hallmark of the therapeutic style.

What troubles Bellah is the stunning loss of any other criterion, any  higher truth, for moral judgment. “The right act,” he comments, “is simply the one that yields the agent the most exciting challenge or the most good feeling. . . . In the absence of any objectifiable criteria of right and wrong, good and evil, the self and its feelings become our only moral guide. The ethic of arbitrary self-interest, in other words, which so many of our contemporaries have espoused as their own, is largely sponsored by a pervasive sense of relativism—a sense that no values are ever more than arbitrary preferences grounded in the autonomous self. Bellah connects the seepage of relativism into our culture with a massive flight from communally transmitted authority and tradition as the vehicles of objectifiable moral criteria. The ethic of arbitrary self-interest and its connection with our surrender to relativism are nicely captured by a line which sums up the distress of Bellah’s book: “Utility replaces duty,” he writes, “self-expression unseats authority.”

The moral crisis Bellah describes has a religious and theological counterpart. At both popular and sophisticated levels of discourse, Christianity is widely regarded as instrumental to the attainment of various benefits or satisfactions. Biblical truth is sought not as an intrinsic good in itself, but as a pragmatic device for fulfilling wishes and desires shaped independently of faith. And utilitarian Christianity, in turn, is sponsored openly or secretly by an unhappy surrender to relativism—that is, by such an extreme departure from Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, that we regard him as an object not of obedience, love, and awe, but of our control and manipulation. . . .[1]

In my experience what Hunsinger, through appeal to Bellah, describes couldn’t hit the nail more squarely on the head. Indeed, in many ways these last many years of my life, coram Deo, has been an attempt to extricate myself from the utilitarian psyche. What I have found is that in this process many friends are lost, but many more are also gained. It is risky, in a utilitarian sub-culture, to attempt to go another way; to go the way of the cross. But the risk is worth it. Yes, we might be pegged as arrogant academic pin-heads who think they are better than others; but of course this, in principle, just is not the case. As growing and maturing Christians I think part of our job, for the broader body of Christ, is to bear witness, to our brothers and sisters that God is God and we are not. This means repenting of our utilitarian and/or self-centered ways, taking up our crosses daily, and following Jesus Christ.


[1] George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 97-8.

Written by Bobby Grow

August 28, 2017 at 1:12 am

What Hath Immanuel Kant’s and Richard Spencer’s Theory of Whiteness Have to do One with the Other?: A Modern Development of Whiteness

In the Bible genealogies are important. In the very beginning, in the book of Genesis we are given an Adamic genealogy, through which the nations of the world are generated; the most important of which being the line that the Messiah would ultimately come through. As we continue reading Scripture we have further genealogical lineage provided; and it only gets that more particular as it focuses on the line of David. Indeed, in my Bible reading I just read through I Chronicles 1–16; whenever I get to this section in my “read thrus” I kind of shrink back, genealogies aren’t the most exciting things to read. Nevertheless, genealogies have their place, and it is an important place; yet in the Bible genealogies are less about establishing racial connections (as implicit as those are), and more about pointing to the reality, and at that point in salvation-history, of Jesus Christ; the son of David.

I open this way, and say all this to segue into a discussion on race. The recent events in Charlottesville, Virgina are motivating me to delve deeper into this, once again. As such I am continuing to read J. Kameron Carter’s illuminating work: Race: A Theological Account. In his book, Carter engages with various thinkers in his development of a theology of race; one of those thinkers, and right at the beginning of his book (chptr. 2), is the famed Königsberg philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant offers a kind of genealogical taxonomy for what it means to be racial (or not) in the modern development of intellectual history. What we will do for the remainder of this post is read along with Carter (at some length) as he develops the intellectual rationales and seminal touchstones for later developments of “whiteness” and racism as that would progress (or digress, as it were) in Western Europe, and finally into North America. We will see, through Carter’s treatment, how the “seedlings” for racism and “whiteness” were all resident, at an intellectual level, within Kant’s own “racist” type of thinking. It is at this point that we might want to say: that whiteness truly is a ‘modern’ concept, and we will see that illustrated as we take a look at Kant’s thought on the matter—thinking of Kant as one of the founding fathers of modernity. Here is Carter (in extenso):

Kant’s 1770 explanation of the coherence of freedom and law is as follows: “The causes lying in the nature of an organic body (plant or animal) that account for specific development are called seeds …, [which] equip … [the organism] through hidden inner measures for all possible future circumstances.” So equipped, the species can maintain itself; despite whatever condition in which it finds itself, the species can flourish. Kant then ties these claims about “seeds” and “natural predispositions” back to the language of race:

Such migration and transplantation may even lead us to believe that new species of animals and plants have arisen, but these apparent new species are really nothing other than deviations and races of the same genus [Abartungen und Rassen von derselben Gattung] whose seeds and natural predispositions have only occasionally developed in different ways in the long course of time.

Now while it is true that the link Kant makes here between deviations and races on the one hand and seeds on the other occurs within the context of examples about animals and plants, it yet has to be recognized that he is setting up an explanation for how this business about seeds and natural predispositions can clarify the question of human racial diversity. But situating the Rassenfrage in the biological sciences, Kant naturalizes the very notion of race—“race has always been with us”—thus granting scientific legitimacy to the category of race.

But just before applying this basic framework to the situation of the human species and to the question of racial diversity, Kant brings in a notion that will occupy him, in many respects, to the end of his career. This is the notion of teleology, though the term itself is not explicitly invoked in “of the Different Human Races.” The notion of a teleological orientation of the species is the touchstone of Kant’s account of the implantation of natural predispositions or seeds within a given species or genus that makes possible the emergence of “deviations and races … in the long course of time.” It is clear to him at least than neither chance nor the mechanistic laws of causality can explain why a species diversifies itself or “occasionally [develops]” in this way and not that, in one way and not another. The inadequacy of mechanism to explain the phenomenon of racial diversification within a species becomes clearer, particularly when (to revert to his own specific examples) the original external stimulus for the development of an additional layer of feathers, say, or a thicker hull around a species of wheat or grain are no longer present, yet these “racial” traits are nevertheless passed on to the subsequent generations within the species. How is this possible? Kant resolves the conundrum of the reproduction of traits even when the external stimulus for its original appearance is gone by saying that the reproductive transmission of these traits points to inner “purposive causes,” a purposiveness that lies within the species itself, and is not attributable merely to external factors. It is this inner purposiveness linked as it is to “seeds” that allows the species to develop in a way “appropriate to the circumstances,” to new and changing circumstances, and that makes those changes fixed and permanent. Kant’s use, then, of examples from the animal kingdom and plant life are illustrations meant to establish a claim to the fixity or permanence of race.

With this organicist framework established, Kant is now prepared to read the situation of the human species in light of it and thus bring the weight of this framework to bear on the question of human racial difference. The human species has been outfitted with “numerous seeds and natural predispositions,” he says, some of which “[have] developed and others held back” so that “we might [be] fitted to [any] particular place in the world.” Thus, it is for the species’ need to occupy the entire globe and be able to survive anywhere on the planet that “solicitous nature” has equipped the species with the seeds of its flourishing. Under the right regional conditions, the various seeds would germinate to yield various races. Kant homes in on air quality and sunlight as the two most important external factors that can stimulate “the generative power” to activate certain seeds to affect the process of raciation. After a considerable period of time, certain seeds “become deeply rooted and [stifle] the other seeds.” The result is that a race emerges. Given the deep rootedness of certain seeds and the stifling of others in the formation of a given race, once a race actually forms, that race will “[resist] further transformation, because the character of the race has become predominate in the reproductive powers.” Hence, Kant says (choosing his words carefully), the external factors of air quality and sunlight “could be responsible for establishing race.”

It is important that Kant only claims that climate and sunlight could be responsible for raciation. For Kant, the climate is a mediate cause, but the immediate cause of raciation lies elsewhere. As Mark Larrimore has put it in his fine analysis of Kant’s theory of race and understanding of the races, for Kant “every race was already prefigured in potentia in the first human beings,” who are “the lineal root genus” of the species. In 1786, Kant published an essay that makes explicit the claim that Adam and Eve of the Genesis stories of creation are this lineal root genus, those in whom every race was figured in potential. What must be attended to is Kant’s understanding of this lineal root genus, in whom the four natural races were in potentia prefigured, as the actual or the immediate agent or cause of raciation. This stem genus is “the original human form” that has given rise to the other races.

Since, however, “we cannot hope to find anywhere in the world an unchanged example of the original human form,” the stem genus, what kinds of judgments then can be made about this now-lost prototype who is “the immediate cause of the origin of [the] different races”? The 1775 version of the race essay, which was the advertisement for a summer course at the University of Königsberg, offers the following answer,

If we ask with which of the present races [Rassen] the first human stock [Menschenstamm] might well have had the greatest similarity [die meiste Ähnlichkeit], we will presumably—although without any prejudice because of the presumptuously greater perfection of its color when compared with that of the others [emphasis added]—pronounce favor on whites. For human beings, whose offspring should be acclimated in all climatic zones, would be most adept for this if they were originally fitted for the temperate climate, because this climate lies within the middle of the most extreme boundaries of the conditions within which human beings should be advised to live. And this is also the region where we—from the most ancient time to the present—find the races of whites [die Rasse der Weißen].

Science can gain knowledge of the prototype only by reading back from its closest present-day approximation, the present-day inhabitants of the most climatically moderate zone of the globe. These people will most resemble the prototype. They will exhibit the least deviation from the original stem genus. This is because they have maintained a global position closest, as the preceding quotation indicates, to “the middle of the most extreme boundaries of the conditions within which human beings should be advised to live.”

By the time of the 1777 essay (“Of the Different Human Races”), Kant is explicit about the global position that lay in media res: it is the zone “between the 31st and 52nd degrees latitude in the old world (which also seems to deserve the name old world because of the peoples that inhabit it). The greatest riches of the earth’s creation are found in this region and this is also where human beings must diverge least from their original form.” Indeed, already in the 1775 course announcement, Kant’s claim is that the inhabitants of this region have a “greater perfection of skin color,” and this is precisely why they us the most about the original stem genus. Which race group occupies this geographical position? According to the course announcement of 1775, it is “the races of whites [die Rasse der Weißen].”

But in the short interim between the 1775 course advertisement and its modification into the 1777 essay, Kant modulated his language in an important way. It is not “die Rasse der Weißen” that occupy the geographical zone of climatic and therefore racial balance. Rather, “we … find [there],” Kant simply says, “white, indeed, brunette inhabitants [weiße, doch brunette Einwohner]. We want, therefore, to assume that this form [Gestalt] is that of the lineal root genus [Stammgattung].” What is important for my argument is that the specific term “race” (Rasse), which Kant consistently applied to the Negroes, Huns, and Hindustanis to explain their origins, has for whites now dropped out. It is not “the races of whites” that occupy this region; they now are only white, brunette inhabitants. Kant completes his argument by suggesting the following scheme of the races in relationship to the lineal root genus:


White of brownish color

First race: Noble blond (northern Europe)

from humid cold

Second race: Copper red (America)

from dry cold

Third race: Black (Senegambia)

from humid heat

Fourth race: Olive-yellow (Asian-Indians)

from dry heat

In contrast to his lengthy account of the origins of Negroes, Huns, and Hindustanis in which he is clear that they are races, Kant refers to whites with terms ranging from Gestalt (form) to Abartung (deviation) to Schlag (kind). As he sees it, whites are a group apart. They are a “race” that is not quite a race, the race that transcends race precisely because of its “developmental progress” (Fortgang) toward perfection. That Kant’s chart refers to the “noble blond” of northern Europe as the first race (Erste Rasse) must not confuse this basic point, for we have already seen that, properly speaking, this group is really an Abartung from the stem genus (Stammgattung). At best they are a special kind of “race.” And even this stem genus of white brunettes, which itself is not a race, is properly speaking only the remnant, we might say, of the stem genus. They are a remnant moving toward raciation, progressing toward becoming a race.

Thus, whiteness is both “now and not yet.” It is a present reality, and yet it is also still moving toward and awaiting its perfection. The teleological end, which is the consummation of all things within the economic, political, and aesthetic—in short, within the structural—reality called “whiteness,” is on the one hand made present and available now in white people and in white “culture.” And on the other hand, it is through these white people and culture that the full reality of whiteness will globally expand to “eschatologically” encompass all things and so bring the world to perfection. As I show below, Christianity as rational religion and Christ as the “personified idea of the good principle” are the guarantee that whiteness, understood not merely and banally as pigment but as a structural-aesthetic order and as a sociopolitical arrangement, can and will be instantiated in the people who continue Christ’s work, the work of Western civilization. Rendering race invisible in all of this, Kant calls this not the work of whiteness but the task of the species as such.[1]

Carter offers more on Kant, but I think (I hope after transcribing all of that!) that I’ve captured the gist of what he’s after in his development of Kant’s theory of race.

Essentially, as we have just seen, Kant works from a kind of linear evolutionary progressivism of what it means to be a human being. He attempts to tie his taxonomy into the prevailing “science” of his day, and so appeals to a kind of evolutionary chain; working from plants to animals to people. And by using the “natural order” as an analogy for how to classify people groups he abstracts the metaphor of ‘seed’ language, and as Carter details, uses that as the symbol by which he begins to talk about distinctions relative to people groups based upon teleology, geographic location, so on and so forth. Finally, as we can see, at least in Carter’s treatment of Kant, what it means to be white turns out to be based upon the determinacy of the teleology or trajectory of nature itself; allowing the ‘purposiveness’ of the seed in this people group to lead them to a physical location on earth (i.e. northern Europe) wherein they can flourish and carry forward the best expression of what it means to be ‘human.’ As Carter, notes: to be human then, is really to be White, at least in Kant’s world. To be White, for Kant, transcends racial classification, and sets Whites up as the standard for what humanity should be; every other class of people that is not White, for Kant, is sub-human, and thus are not as valuable, or not valuable at all relative to what it actually means to be human.


What we have seen in Charlottesville, Virgina, promoted by people like Altright founder, Richard Spencer et al., is really just an embracing and continuation of Kant’s vision of the world. Spencer is actually an “intellectual,” and has been trained in intellectual history; I would not be surprised if he hasn’t come across the type of “idealism” we find in Kant’s theory of race. When you listen to Spencer’s speeches (which I have), and interviews with him, his vision corresponds almost one-for-one with Kant’s. Spencer, also is no dummy, and so he operates in very pragmatic ways. He might not want to dress like a neo-Nazi, or wear a white hood, but he shares the same end goal as them. He appears to be willing to align his movement with the more “street-soldier” mind set of the neo-Nazis and KKK; and even if they are not as “intellectually-sophisticated” as Kant or Spencer their ability to align with each other simply shows how ass backward the whole thing is. It illustrates that intellectual coherence can be as sinister and downright evil as the unbridled and overt hatred and thuggery we see on display among neo-Nazis and the KKK.

In the end, Kant’s vision of Whiteness, I would suggest, has been taken to heart by the social engineers of the modern and industrialized world. His vision, as described by Carter, of seeking to transform economics, politics, and culture at large with the idea of the primacy of Whiteness has largely been concretized in the global world over. I think Kant would be happy to see where the world is at, and where Whiteness stands now in our globalized economy and culture. At the end of the day what Kant never realized, apparently, was just how demonic his ideas on this front actually were, and are, as they are given expression in real life outside the city walls of Königsberg.

[1] J Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), loc 1983, 1991, 1999, 2007, 2015, 2024, 2033, 2041, 2048, 2057, 2068, 2077 kindle.

Written by Bobby Grow

August 16, 2017 at 11:43 pm

The Protestant Reformation as ‘Counterhistory’ and Analog for Witness Bearing Towards a Kingdom Made Up of All Races

I have really been struck by what has happened in Charlottesville, Virginia; as I am a sure most of us have been. I personally grew up in an environment where I was typically the minority, or a minority among the minorities who were the majority in my context. For my formative years I grew up in [North] Long Beach, CA which borders Compton, CA; my dad pastored a Baptist church there. As a result of this context, and my love for playing basketball, I spent hours and hours at the park playing street ball; it was at the park where I was almost always the only whiteboy present (indeed that’s what I was called: whiteboy). So at this impressionable age (my high school years and early twenties) this was my reality; I was confronted with race issues in a firsthand kind of way. We lived through the LA riots, and the tensions preceding and following that. I say all this to simply note that I have experience with race issues, albeit “on the street.”

Because of the Charlottesville debacle I have been prompted to once again pick up J. Kameron Carter’s book: Race: A Theological Account. I started it years ago, and just have never finished it; well I plan on finishing it now. As I am getting into it, just towards the end of the first chapter Carter is laying the ground work for the rest of what he accomplishes in this work of his. Part of his development involves detailing Foucault’s analysis on race, power, and human sexuality. Interestingly, as he is doing this he speaks about how Foucault talks about history and counterhistory, and how these two loci are used to identify the masters or the ‘sovereign’ in the narrative of history versus the oppressed or ‘ruled’ class of people. For our purposes, and fitting with the theme of my blog, as a blog that engages with Reformed theology in particular, I found it interesting how Carter develops Foucault’s vision of the Protestant Reformation as counterhistory, and as a movement that was operating in the spirit of modernity, as it protested against the ‘sovereign’ or Roman Catholic church. Here is how Carter treats Foucault here:

One discovers that the story being told in the lectures about the confrontation of counterhistory and history is actually another way of genealogically peering behind the Protestant Reformation and the principle of revolution it inaugurates so as a to view the Reformation not simply as a discrete historical event but, instead, as a religious disposition, a mythical posture, or (as he says in the essay “What Is Enlightenment?”) an “attitude,” the “attitude of modernity [itself] … [in its struggle] with attitudes of ‘countermodernity.’” It is important to observe that for Foucault, the Protestant Reformation, both as historical event and as exemplifying the principle of modernity, operates in this schema according to the analytic of the war of races in its resistance to “the power of kings and the despotism of the church [read: Roman Catholic Church].” The Reformation, in short, displays the attitude of modernity; the attitude of dandysme, of experimentation for the sake of self-realization and artistic self-elaboration; and lastly of “heroic,” rather than merely tragic, existence on the boundary of death so as to finally plunge the stake into the heart of sovereignty.[1]

So obviously since we are working with Foucault, through, Carter, we are getting a sociological account of what the Protestant Reformation was in the slide of history (and ‘counterhistory’). Nevertheless, I find the perspective interesting indeed. I have read other treatments that see the seedlings for modernity in the spirit of the Protestant Reformation, but this is a pretty explicit account of that; and it is something that I think has teeth to it. Of course the only thing I would want to qualify is the Foucauldian idea of ‘self-realization,’ instead, more theologically, I think the Protestant Reformation was more about a Christ-realization, and a return to him as the immediate sovereign over his church rather than the church as the sovereign.

But I think this kind of, if you will, apocalyptic turn to the subject of Christ and its throwing off of an artificial superstructure of authority over the masses is the very kind of “counterhistory” that the church offers over against the polis (‘city of man’) that is ensconced within the darkness of its own heart. Try as society may they have no real “counterhistory,” they might find resonance with the spirit, say of the Protestant Reformation, on a purely sociological understanding, but without the vertical inbreaking power of the resurrection operative in such movements (against racism, among other systemic evils) all we’ll end up with is a kind of dualistic symmetrical Manichean type of struggle we see currently taking place between Altright and Antifa; violence against violence (which is simply an extension and logical conclusion to the ideals driving both sides).

Christians are the only ones who can genuinely offer a counterhistory to the history of man apart from Christ. We can offer them a new history by bearing witness to the inbreaking and coming Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is this history that the world has always been ‘purposed’ for in the election of God in Christ; in God’s choice to freely be for us and with us. As I have in my sidebar from David Fergusson “the world was made so that Christ might be born,” as such if there is a counterhistory to be realized it is the one that reverses and recreates, in the resurrection of God in Christ, the violent bloody world we see all around us and in us. The only reality that can and will bring concrete change is the power of God that breaks into the hearts of men and women boys and girls and replaces their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh that pump in and from the living heart of God in Christ with his shed blood; the ‘life is in the blood.’ This might sound like a platitude, but it isn’t, it’s the truth, but I’m afraid it’s a truth that has unfortunately become a platitude indeed for many in the evangelical church (and other churches) in North America.

If we are to bear witness to the power of God, in concrete ways, genuine Christianity will stand in solidarity with the oppressed among us. We will walk as if the Kingdom of God in Christ has come; the Kingdom made up of every tribe, tongue, and nation where all are one in Christ; where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female. Let God be true and every man a liar. Come quickly Jesus.

[1] J Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), loc 1729 kindle.

Written by Bobby Grow

August 14, 2017 at 2:00 am

An Occasional Christian Reflection on the Systemic Plague of Racism

I want to say more on racism, and I will; I think the Virginia uprisings serve as an appropriate prompt to offer reflection, from a Christian theological perspective on the evil that has come to be known as racism. I lieu of a more developed reflection on this topic I thought I would simply share something I just wrote (on Facebook) in response to a good friend of mine regarding the ills of racism. You might be able to infer some of my friend’s points about how he views racism, and how he thinks we ought to approach it, by the way I respond. Here’s what I wrote:

I think “racism,” is actually a systemic issue so deep rooted in our identities as sinners that it has become normal for people. The Gospel says no to such “normalcy,” and says no and contradicts the principalities and powers that would have us remain complacent or defeatist about such things. So I actually think that racism is just as much a part of us as sinners as is sexual perversion (which the Bible calls us on over and over), as is classism, as is nationalism, as is elitism, as is so on and so forth. So we are in a battle, not just in our own homes, but in the world in general; the battle we are engaged in is cosmic in its proportions such that we walk by the Spirit making no provision for the “flesh” to fulfill its lusts (which would include “racism”).

In re to this issue: I actually think the White supremacy we see on display in Virginia is like the proverbial tip of the ice-berg, and that such attitudes are much more resident in all of us than we would like to admit. So I see this as an occasion, what’s going on in Virginia, to take a look once again, at how we might have allowed certain attitudes or perceptions to creep into our lives unawares. I mean that’s how sin works, it has a “creeping” function, it’s subtle, and before we know it we have outlooks and attitudes that are actually pitting us against the power of God, the Gospel, rather than bearing witness to it against the principalities and powers in this world system (that concept comes straight from Scripture i.e. “world system”).

Beyond that, the point of the resurrection of Jesus Christ shows that there is a continuity and/or correspondence between this world and the new world (Rev 21–22) to come; insofar as there is a correspondence between Jesus’s pre-resurrected body and his resurrected body as an analogy (and there is). So to think about things from that vantage point means that we don’t think about this world going to “hell in a hand basket,” but that we see a continuity between now and the not yet; and we allow the “not yet” of the Kingdom of God in Christ to form our “ethics” and perceptions now. So we walk by faith, not by sight. But we don’t give into the defeated idea that there will never be a country or time where there will not be hatred or racism; the Gospel says exactly the opposite—indeed that’s our hope. It’s not an abstract or “Platonic” hope; heaven is not a place removed from this world, but in fact heaven came to earth in Jesus Christ, and He’s coming again.

I agree we need to live our lives, impact those around us, raise our children right, do unto others, etc, but none of that is done in a vacuum; none of that is done, in the Kingdom, from an individualistic or purely utilitarian/pragmatic perspective. We live as principled creatures, creatures that live and participate in and from the principled and holy life of God in Jesus Christ. So we live our lives, but we live them realizing that they are not our own; realizing that we’ve been bought with a price, and as such we stand in the way of the evils in this world—whether that be in our homes, or globally. We pray. When we pray with our families, with those around us, we have reach into the system of this world that indeed has a “global” impact, one that will implicate not just those “out there,” but those closest to us in Jerusalem, then out to Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth. The Gospel is not just particular in focus, but it is universal and cosmic; we live from that. We live from a value center, so to speak, that is expansive and that has reach down to the bone and marrow of each and every person on this earth.

Written by Bobby Grow

August 13, 2017 at 1:39 am

Posted in Ethics

Trying to Understand evangelical Moral Reasoning and Trump: What Role Does Theological Anthropology Play?

This whole Donald Trump immigration policy thing has me reeling; particularly because of how I have seen many (not all!) my evangelical brothers and sisters responding affirmatively to it (or cautiously optimistic in some cases). This only adds to my disillusionment with evangelicalism as of late, at least its adameveoriginalsinNorth American instantiation within which I have been ensconced my whole life. I am trying to figure out how evangelicals, who ostensibly love Jesus, can look at what Trump is doing in this regard and cheer him on; particularly when what he is doing is at diabolical odds with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My conclusion thus far is that well meaning Christians have become co-opted by the culture wars, a nationalist bent, and a desire to once again be the moral majority.

Theologian, John Webster, helps us get at what is going on in the type of Christian psyche we see on display in many North American evangelicals in our current political atmosphere; he does this as he explicates Karl Barth’s own analysis of the Christians inhabiting Nazi Germany as they ended up colluding with Hitler in very naïve ways.[1] Webster writes this of Barth’s analysis:

A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.[2]

As if often the case, as Webster underscores through engagement with Barth, what this boils down to is an anthropological question. You might have noticed how ‘liberal Protestantism’ is in the cross hairs of Barth, but when it comes to anthropological considerations, North American evangelicalism, ironically, mimics ‘liberal Protestantism’ in some surprising ways[3]. What I want to key in on is what Webster concludes with in his last clause about the certainty that people operate with when it comes to morality, and what is Gospel faithful thinking; this: “…This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.”[4] I would submit that evangelicals supporting Trump (even if cautiously) have placed too much confidence in themselves, and their ability to objectively discern what is ethically expedient and right relative to their place in the world.

Fergus Kerr, like Webster, also offers some valuable insight on Barth’s critique of humanity’s propensity, even ‘Christian’ humanity, to have too much certainty relative to their own machinations in regard to engaging with reality.[5] Here Kerr describes Barth’s critique of Rene Descartes’ methodological skepticism in his quest to find rational certainty about God, and all subsequent reality; what we end up with in Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (‘I think therefore I am’). As you read this, as with Webster’s analysis of Barth, you will note how theological anthropology is at play in a central way. Kerr writes:

Karl Barth, as one would expect, has provided the most substantial modern critique of theological anthropology. But he had already come to grips in an interesting way with the Cartesian picture of the self.

There are two points to note. First, according to Barth, the Cartesian proof of the existence of God spirals back into the Cartesian metaphysics of the self:

This idea of divinity as innate in man. Man can produce it at will from the treasury or deficiency of his mind. It is made up of a series of pre-eminent attributes which are relatively and primarily attributes of the human mind, and in which the latter sees its own characteristics – temporality, finitude, limited knowledge and ability and creative power – transcended in the absolute, contemplating itself in the mirror of its possible infinitude, and yet remaining all the time within itself even though allowing its prospect of itself to be infinitely expanded by this speculative extension and deepening. By transcending myself, I never come upon an absolute being confronting and transcendent to me, but only again and again upon my own being. And by proving the existence of a being whom I have conjured up only by means of my own self-transcendence, I shall again and again succeed only in proving my own existence. (CD III/2, 46)

… In the Cartesian proof of God’s existence, it is a certain conception of the human being’s capacity for self-transcendence that Barth finds endlessly reflected.

Secondly, and even more instructively, Barth finds it necessary to attack the Cartesian emphasis on the thinking self when he discusses the right use of imagination in learning from Scripture. The biblical account of the creation is a saga that has a great deal to teach us:

We must dismiss and resist to the very last any idea of the inferiority or untrustworthiness or even worthlessness of a ‘non-historical’ depiction and narration of history. This is in fact only a ridiculous and middle-class habit of the modern Western mind which is supremely phantastic in its chronic lack of imaginative phantasy, and hopes to rid itself of its complexes through suppression. (CD III/1, 81)

As the original practitioner of ‘narrative theology’, Barth denounces the rationalist epistemological bias that has affected so much biblical exegesis since the Enlightenment:

But the human possibility of knowing is not exhausted by the ability to perceive and comprehend. Imagination, too, belongs no less legitimately in its way to the human possibility of knowing. A man without imagination is more of an invalid than one who lacks a leg. (CD III/1, 91)

Theologians are thus well aware of the difficulties that the modern philosophy of the self has created. My suspicion, however, is that version of the mental ego of Cartesianism are ensconced in a great deal of Christian thinking, and that many theologians regard this as inevitable and even desirable. The appeal of some theological writing also seems inexplicable unless it touches crypto-Cartesian assumptions which many readers share.[6]

Remember what I am trying to do in this post; I am attempting to understand how it is that my evangelical brothers and sisters can affirm, even tacitly, Donald Trump’s morality, with particular focus, in this instance on his recent policy move in regard to immigration. So you might be asking by now: what in the world do these insights from Webster and Kerr on Barth’s theology have to do with that?

My Contention

I see American evangelicals, in general, living unexamined intellectual and moral lives. As such I believe they have inherited, from the history of ideas, a kind of Kantian moral imperative shrouded by a Cartesian certainty about who they are and what they know, morally. When Kerr quotes Barth and Barth’s critique of Christians who end up creating God in their own image by way of speculation and projection, and the loss of real ‘transcendence’ and ‘outside of us’ (ecstatic) grounding that this entails, I think this helps explain, at a moral level, how it is that Trump can be affirmed by evangelicals. The center of morality in this schema becomes the all determining self, guised as it were in a sense of false-transcendence that looks all too much like a RealPolitik, and nothing like the morality engendered by what is given by the real deal transcendence revealed in the Gospel of God’s triune life in Jesus Christ. Political pragmatism and the absolute self go hand in hand in this schema, all the while framed ostensibly by a notion of the divine and sense of other. Unfortunately, if Barth is right, what these Christians are actually engaging in is idolatry. They have conflated their conception of God, and the values he gives us in Christ, with what they perceive as morally expedient embedded within a “conservative” framework of right and wrong which is determined to be by the ‘absolute self.’ In other words, evangelicals, in the main, at least the ones supporting Trump (at various levels), have been appealing to a conception of God, and the values engendered by who He is, that in the end is really just a projection of the self and not One who is encountered in the face of Jesus Christ.

When Kerr moves to Barth’s thinking on imagination and biblical narrative theology, he is attempting to highlight how Christians, of all people, ought to move away from rationalist certitude, generated from the absolute self, and instead submit to the God encountered in the pages of Holy Scripture. We will have to say more about this aspect later. But it is pertinent to how evangelicals approach Scripture through their ‘lack’ of an ontology of Scripture vis-à-vis God’s taxis.


My conclusion, at this point, in regard to answering my question about evangelicals and Trump, is that evangelicals, in the main, have uncritically conflated their perception of God, which is based on projection, resulting in skewed moral reasoning. If evangelicalism, in the main, is funded by an anthropology that is circular, one that starts with their mind and ends with their mind, then the mind of Christ has no space to contradict how they think about all things real. This helps explain, for me, how well intentioned evangelical Christians in North America can support someone like Donald Trump in the main, and now in particular, and at the forefront currently, his denigration of human life (immigrants) simply based upon personal fears and expediency that is determined to be expedient by a moral self that is only accountable to an absolute self. As far as I am concerned what we are witnessing, because of this kind of idolatry, is anti-Christ, of the sort that we have unfortunately witnessed over and again through the annuls of history. May Christians repent of this kind of idolatry and genuinely allow the mind of Christ to contradict their minds to the point that repentance is realized and genuine Christian witness and prophetic positioning can once again be the reality for the church of Jesus Christ. Isn’t that our role; to point the world to Christ?


[1] To be clear I am not intimating that there is a one-to-one correspondence between WW2 Nazi Germany, and the conditions inherent in 21st century North America, and evangelicalism. What is similar, I would contend, is the innate ‘human’ desire to feel a sense of security and control, and its propensity to do that by looking to human governmental structure and policies in order to bring that about; this propensity implicates both so called “conservatives” and “liberals” alike.

[2] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought (UK: T&T Clark, 1998), 35-6.

[3] An assertion that will have to be established later.

[4] Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology, 36.

[5] Ironically, as I write this I am listening to Depeche Mode’s song, World In My Eyes.

[6] Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein (London: SPCK, 1997), 9-10.

Written by Bobby Grow

January 29, 2017 at 8:11 pm

Messianic War Against this World System: Gaining Perspective on the Presidential Election 2016 from the Book of Revelation

If you’re an American, and unless you live in a corner, something that cannot escape you at the moment is the intensity of the presidential election (as I write this only two days away). Like many of you, I have been involved in various discussions and debates about who the best candidate is or isn’t; my conclusion is that there is no better candidate (between Trump or Clinton). They are both going to promote policies and aims that are anti-thetical to the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, and as such it is impossible for me to vote for either one of them (from an ethical perspective as trumphillarya Christian). The reality is, is that they both have more in common than not. They both promote a horizontal vision of society and the world, whether that be an absolute form of nationalism (Trump), or an absolute form of anglo-globalism (Clinton). They both endorse policies that involve racism— whether that be informed by an inward obsession with Americana, and certain conceptions of what it means to be an American (Trump); or whether that be informed by supporting the House of Saud, radical Muslims in Syria, and elite globalists (Clinton). They both, like Israel, as the prophet Isaiah noted about Israel, have a covenant with death (Is. 29); Clinton, in this regard, more so than Trump, in some ways. They both are continuing the vision of ancient Babylon which is one of empire, and self-promotion (whether that be focused on the homeland [Trump], or globally [Clinton]).

What this presidential race has illustrated to me is how corrupt human government and politics are. It has concretely shown me that this world has been placed under a curse which it longs to be relieved of by the revealing of the sons of God (Rom. 8). Both Trump’s and Clinton’s visions of reality are purely informed by horizontal paradigms of thought, and have appeal only to the base impulses of natural humanity wherein the individual and its self-preservation is elevated to god-like status. But the good news is that there is hope; hope to come, and hope in-breaking currently.

Richard Bauckham, in his little book, The Theology of the Book of Revelation provides prescient insight into the emphases and themes of that often misunderstood book. As he works through the theology of the book of Revelation what he unveils is a vision and hope for the world that is other-worldly, while being radically this worldly. He masterfully shows how the book of Revelation is a book precisely for moments like we are currently experiencing here in the States as we, as Christians, are attempting to maintain perspective relative to the “choices” we have in front of us for our leadership.

In the following Bauckham works through three themes that he sees at play in the book of Revelation; it will be the first theme that we will highlight in this post. This theme gives me much perspective as the reality of how messy of a thing humanward politics actually are in this present evil age. The victory has already been won by Jesus Christ; the victory over evil, horizontal conceptions of human government, and how that gets expressed in the world. As we will see, Bauckham underscores how the theme of messianic war in the book of Revelation functions, or should, as a place of hope and perspective for the Christian attempting to navigate through this evil age. What is presumed, of course, is that as Christians we do indeed live in a violent world, under the control of violent governments who we ought to take a militant posture towards. Note I said ‘militant,’ not violent. The only violence that has any purchase in the Kingdom of the Lamb of God is the violence the Lion of the Tribe of Judah already endured for the world at his cross. It is this reality wherein we as Christians, according to the Revelator, can take a militant stand against this world system. We stand in the power of God, which is the power of the Gospel (Rom. 1:16), and this is the victory we have to proclaim to the world. It is a prophetic word that God’s judgment has already come, and been realized for us in Jesus Christ on the cross; that the heart of human self-destruction and violence has been crushed with Jesus as he put it to death with him (Rom. 8:3) at the cross. And that there is good news of final victory, wherein the final enemy, death, will finally be put under Jesus’s feet as he comes again in his second advent (I Cor. 15). By proclaiming and living out this reality we participate in the victory of the Messiah by capturing the hearts of men and women, boys and girls, of every race, tongue, and nation inhabiting this world. We also bear witness to the fact that indeed a violent, but final end is coming, the final realization of the death of death (cf. John Owen), when the Lamb of God comes with the sword of his mouth (Rev. 19) finally crushing the kingdoms of this world (Dan. 2) by the Stone of his Kingdom; which is the Kingdom of kingdoms. It is this posture and place that we as Christians, according to the book of Revelation, have in this current world system. It is one of fighting, and the church militant; and our weapons of warfare are not fleshly but spiritual (II Cor. 10) through both word and deed, by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all who will.

Here is what Bauckham has to say:

The first is the theme of the messianic war. This takes up the Jewish hope for a Messiah who is to be a descendant of David, anointed by God as king and military leader of his people. He is to fight a war against the Gentile oppressors, liberating Israel and establishing the rule of God, which is also the rule of God’s Messiah and God’s people Israel, over the nations of the world. Essential to this notion, it should be noted, is that the Messiah does not wage war alone: he leads the army of Israel against the enemies of Israel. Many Old Testament prophecies were commonly interpreted by first-century Jews as referring to this expected Messiah of David. The identification of Jesus with the Davidic Messiah was, of course, very common in early Christianity. It is very important in Revelation, partly because for John, as a Jewish Christian prophet, it is one of the ways in which he can gather up the hopes of the Old Testament prophetic tradition into his own eschatological vision centred on Jesus. But it is important also because it portrays a figure who is to establish God’s kingdom on earth by defeating the pagan powers who contest God’s rule. As we shall see, John carefully reinterprets the tradition. His Messiah Jesus does not win his victory by military conquest, and those who share his victory and his rule are not national Israel, but the international people of God. But still it is a victory over evil, won not only in the spiritual but also in the political sphere against worldly powers in order to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Insofar as the hope for the Davidic Messiah was for such a victory of God over evil Revelation portrays Christ’s work in continuity with that traditional Jewish hope.

The prominence of Davidic messianism in Revelation can be gauged from the fact that, as well as the two self-declarations by Christ that we have already considered (1: 17– 18; 22: 13), there is a third: ‘I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star’ (22: 16). The first of these two titles comes from Isaiah 11: 10 (‘ the root of Jesse’) and is used of the Davidic Messiah (‘descendant’ interprets the meaning of ‘root’, rightly giving it the same sense as the ‘branch’ or ‘shoot’ of Isa. 11: 1, which was more commonly used as a messianic designation). The second title refers to the star of Numbers 24: 17, which (in the context of 24: 17– 19) was commonly understood to be a symbol of the Messiah of David who would conquer the enemies of Israel. ‘The root of David’ is found also in Revelation 5: 1, alongside another title evoking the image of the royal Messiah who will defeat the nations by military violence: ‘the Lion of Judah’ (cf. Gen. 49: 9; 4 Ezra 12: 31– 2). Further allusions to the Messiah of Isaiah 11, a favourite passage for Davidic messianism, are the sword that comes from Christ’s mouth (1: 16; 2: 12, 16; 19: 21) with which he strikes down the nations (19: 15; cf. Isa. 11: 4; 49: 2) and the statement that he judges with righteousness (19: 11; cf. Isa. 11: 4).

One of John’s key Old Testament texts, allusions to which run throughout Revelation, is Psalm 2, which depicts ‘the nations’ and ‘the kings of the earth’ conspiring to rebel against ‘the LORD and his Messiah’ (verses 1– 2). The Messiah is God’s Son (verse 7), whom he sets as king on mount Zion (verse 6), there to resist and overcome the rebellious nations. God promises to give this royal Messiah the nations for his inheritance (verse 8) and that he will violently subdue them with a rod of iron (verse 9). Allusions to this account of the Messiah’s victory over the nations are found in Revelation 2: 18, 26– 8; 11: 15, 18; 12: 5, 10; 14: 1; 16: 14, 16; 19: 15. To what is explicit in the psalm it is notable that John adds the Messiah’s army (with him on Mount Zion in 14: 1) who will share his victory (2: 26– 7). Probably also from the psalm is John’s use of the phrase ‘the kings of the earth’ as his standard term for the political powers opposed to God which Christ will subdue (1: 5; 6: 15; 17: 2, 18; 18: 3, 9; 19: 19; 21: 24; cf. 16: 14).

Also derived from this militant messianism is Revelation’s key concept of conquering. It is applied both to the Messiah himself (3: 21; 5: 5; 17: 14) and to his people, who share his victory (2: 7, 11, 17, 28; 3: 5, 12, 21; 12: 11; 15: 2; 21: 7). Once again we note the importance in Revelation of the Messiah’s army. That the image of conquering is a militaristic one should be unmistakable, although interpreters of Revelation do not always do justice to this. It is closely connected with language of battle (11: 7; 12: 7– 8, 17; 13: 7; 16: 14; 17: 14; 19: 11, 19) and it is notable that not only do Christ’s followers defeat the beast (15: 2), but also the beast defeats them (11: 7; 13: 7), so that this is evidently a war in which Christ’s enemies have their victories, though the final victory is his. We should note also that the language of conquering is used of all the three stages of Christ’s work: he conquered in his death and resurrection (3: 21; 5: 5), his followers conquer in the time before the end (12: 11; 15: 2), and he will conquer at the parousia (17: 14). Thus it is clear that the image of the messianic war describes the whole process of the establishment of God’s kingdom as Revelation depicts it. Revelation’s use of this image incorporates the fundamental shift of temporal perspective from Jewish to Jewish Christian eschatology. The messianic war is not purely future. The decisive victory has in fact already been won by Christ. His followers are called to continue the battle in the present. The final victory still lies in the future.[1]


In light of the perversion and corruption attendant to this presidential election, I hope this perspective, indeed, provides perspective. I see too many Christians settling, or even compromising for what they shouldn’t be compromising for; for the kingdom of man rather than the kingdom of Christ. The reality is, as the book of Revelation makes very clear, is that being human means being political; the issue is where we are going to get our politics from. Are we going to get them from the horizontal, or instead are we going to get them from the vertical? It is clear that the politics of heaven intersect with the politics of this fallen earth, just as God’s person in Christ intersects with our humanity in his assumption of ours. As such it is important, I would contend, for us to remember that we are at war; not with people, per se, but with the principalities and powers which inform the politics of man. We need to bear this in mind as we, as Christians, attempt to negotiate our ways through the muck of this world system. We need to keep in mind that earthly policy-makers all work from a vision of the world, at this point, that is informed by impulses that are indeed anti-thetical to the aims of the Kingdom of God. Thus it behooves us, as soldiers in Christ, to take a stand, and engage this political system with the weapons of our warfare which is to proclaim the Gospel of peace and hope for all who will hear.

It is always tempting to begin to conflate the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of man, we see Israel engaging in this type of syncretizing activity over and again with the nations that surrounded them. But again, as the book of Revelation makes clear, we are part of another nation, a heavenly Zion (Heb. 12), which thinks from heaven rather than earth; it thinks from other-worldly and even foolish norms relative to the policies and “ethics” of this world system (I Cor. 1). Let’s remember that we are ambassadors for Christ (II Cor. 5; Eph. 6), and that our primary job as Christians is to bear witness prophetically that Jesus is King, that he has won the victory through his shed blood (I Cor. 6:18,19; Acts 20:28). Let’s not compromise the integrity of our positions as ambassadors for Christ by fighting for a kingdom, this world system, that has already been put to death by the cross of Jesus Christ. Let’s remind this world system that there is real power and real hope available in and from the One who was dead, but now lives (Rev. 1). Let’s remind our politicians that God wants us to choose life, not death (Ez. 32). As far as I can tell, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have chosen Life, instead they have both chosen death; as such their political policies and practices will only portend that. Policies that Christians, as part of God’s Kingdom, ought to be at war with, not in bed with.

[1] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation  (Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition), 68-70.


Written by Bobby Grow

November 7, 2016 at 12:38 am