Evangelical Calvinism

The Patristic Calvinists versus the Medieval Calvinists: Engaging with Athanasius’s Theology of Theosis in Conversation with Barth’s and Torrance’s Themes

I write about the same themes over and over again; someone even griped about that about me on FaceBook (I don’t think he thought I could see his gripe). But there’s a reason; I’ve been taken aback by the theology I have been confronted with in the writings of Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Augustine, et al. I’ve been surprised by the depth and richness available in the history of ecclesial ideas; surprised in the sense that what so often is presented to evangelicals at the popular and mainstream levels barely scratches the surfaces. I’ve been surprised by finding out that the Christian theological world is not comprised of nor defined by the usual binaries (i.e. Calvinism versus Arminianism etc.) that are so often presented to the evangelical Christian world in North America and the West as if these are the absolute parameters wherein Christians can think and still be considered orthodox. So yes, I do write a lot about the same themes because I don’t think the themes I write about have been emphasized enough; at least not for the evangelicals.

With the above noted, this post will be in reference to Athanasius’s theology of deification or theosis; a doctrine us Evangelical Calvinists are very interested in and informed by. I am just finishing up Thomas Weinandy’s fine work on Athanasius’s theology, and so we will hear from his treatment of Athanasius’s theology in regard to this particular locus. What is striking about Weinandy’s account here is, if you didn’t know he was describing Athanasius’s theology you would think he was referring to either Barth or Torrance’s understanding of election and salvation in general. So when Torrance says he’s not a Barthian, but instead an Athanasian, when you read the following from Weinandy you might understand why. It’s not that Torrance was not a joyful student of Barth, it’s just that Torrance understood that much of what he found in Barth was first presented by Athanasius. Here is how Weinandy details Athanasius’ understanding of deification (at some considerable length):

Thus, the Son became man precisely that humankind might be ‘perfected in him and restored, as it was made at the beginning – with yet greater grace. For, on rising from the dead we shall no longer fear death, but in Christ shall reign forever in the heavens.’ As Jesus took on incorruptibility in his resurrection, so ‘it is clear that the resurrection of all of us will take place; and since his body remained without corruption, there can be no doubt regarding our incorruption’.

Athanasius equally understands Jesus’ resurrection, again following Philippians, as his perfecting ‘exaltation’. The Son is exalted not as God, ‘but the exaltation is of the manhood’, for he humbled himself in assuming humankind’s humanity even unto death on the cross. The Son’s humanity was raised up and exalted because it was not external to him, but his own. For Athanasius, the exaltation of the Son’s humanity was none other than that it was fully deified and so made perfect. Moreover, since all Christians die in him, so now the share in his exaltation. ‘He himself should be exalted, for he is the highest, but that he may become righteousness for us, and we may be exalted in him.’ As the second Adam then, the exalted and so deified incarnate Son becomes the paradigm in whom all human beings can come to share in his perfected risen humanity. Where the ‘first man’ brought death to humankind’s humanity, the Son ‘quickened it with the blood of his own body’.

In a similar fashion, Athanasius perceives that, in being exalted and so perfectly hallowed, the incarnate Son becomes ‘Lord’, ‘in order to hallow all by the Spirit’. In being made fully holy in the Spirit, Athanasius argues that we can rightly be called ‘gods’, not in the sense that we are equal to the Son by nature, but because we have become beneficiaries of his grace. Human beings are, therefore, ‘sons and gods’ because they ‘were adopted and deified through the Word’. Since the Son is himself God who became man, humankind can be deified by being united to his glorious humanity, ‘for because of our relationship to his body, we too have become God’s temple, and in consequence are made God’s sons’.

For Athanasius, the perfecting and so hallowing of Jesus through his glorious exaltation as a risen man is summed up in his notion of deification. Moreover, as Jesus is deified so those who are united to him are perfected and so hallowed by being united to him and so deified as well. Deification is not then the changing of our human nature into something other than it is, that is, into another kind of being. Rather, deification for Athanasius is the making of humankind into what it was meant to be from the very beginning, that is, the perfect image of the Word who is the perfect image of the Father. Moreover, this deification is only effected by being taken into the very divine life of the Trinity. Thus, as the Son is the Son of the Father because he is begotten of the Father and so is ontologically one with the Father, so Christians imitate this divine oneness by being taken up into it. Commenting on Jesus’ prayer, that Christians would be one with him as he is with the Father (see Jn. 17:21), Athanasius perceives that it is through being united to Jesus’ ‘body’ that we become one body with him and so are united to the Father himself. This ‘uniting’ is the work of the Holy Spirit. ‘The Son is in the Father, as his proper Word and Radiance; but we, apart from the Spirit, are strange and distant from God, yet by the participation of the Spirit we are knit into the Godhead.’ Thus the goal of creation is now achieved, that is, human beings have communion with the Father through his eternal Word.

For since the Word is in the Father, and the Spirit is given from the Word, he wills that we should receive the Spirit, that when we receive it, thus having the Spirit of the Word which is in the Father, we too may be found, on account of the Spirit, to become one in the Word, and through him in the Father. [Contra Arianos, 3.25]

Divinization then, for Athanasius, is the sharing fully in the life of the Trinity and it is this sharing in the divine life that thoroughly transforms the believer into the adopted likeness of the Son.[1]  

If you have read here regularly for any amount of time the themes of deification/theosis note in Athanasius’ theology will be or should be recognizable to you. As we have looked into the idea of Jesus being the image of God, and humanity being first created and recreated in the resurrection as the images of the image in Christ, again, what we just covered should be familiar to you. Or maybe as we think back to Barth’s or Torrance’s understanding of election, Athanasius’s theology, as told by Weinandy, should be familiar to you.

What this reinforces for me, other than that rich theological material that we can find in Athanasius’s thought, is that Evangelical Calvinism represents a distinct mode of Reformed theology. Surely it is not foreign to the aims nor many of the trajectories set forth in the Protestant Reformation (particularly as we think about Calvin, Luther, Knox and some other magisterial reformers, and some Scottish ones), indeed, what Evangelical Calvinism is seeking to do is to operate in the ‘spirit’ of Calvinist/Reformed theology by working in a type of ad fontes (back to the sources) mood. What this means though, is that just like the original Protestant Reformers, ensconced in their own time and circumstance, we will be looking back through the centuries from a modern, even postmodern vista. With that noted, I think Evangelical Calvinism in many ways could be said to be a Patristic Calvinism, as far as the Athanasian and Irenean type of categories we want to use; whereas classical Calvinists, I would like to suggest should probably be called Medieval Calvinists, given their proclivity to appeal to Aristotelian theories of causation and metaphysics. In this sense Evangelical Calvinists are more prone to thinking of salvation in terms of ontology and personalist Trinitarian understandings in regard to a God-world relation; whereas classical Calvinists are more prone to thinking in terms of declarational/forensic and decretral categories in a God-world relation.

We have covered a lot; we have looked at Athanasius’s theology of deification, and then used that as an occasion to draw further points of departure between Evangelical Calvinists and so called classical Calvinists. Hopefully you can see that; and hopefully you have benefited from the sharing of Weinandy’ treatment of Athanasius’s theology as I have.

[1] Thomas G. Weindandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 98-100.

Assurance of Salvation in Christ

My personal chapter for our newly released (May, 2017) Evangelical Calvinism book, volume 2, is entitled: “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith”: Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the “Faith of Christ”. In it I offer a constructive critique of Calvin’s doctrine of election/reprobation and what that does to his understanding of assurance of salvation. We are generally and favorably disposed to Calvin’s idea that assurance of salvation is of the essence of faith, but I personally believe Calvin’s particular theological framework, when it comes to his double predestination and other issues, does not really support his belief about assurance. So I sought to not only constructively critique him, but also to correct him through Barth’s and Torrance’s categories with reference to this particular locus. At the end of the chapter I offered four summarizing and concluding points in regard to what we have seen in Calvin’s understanding—i.e. what he offered that was highly positive towards assurance of salvation—but then also how Barth and Torrance come along and help Calvin along theologically. The following are two of the four summarizing points that I offered in that concluding section:

3 As we moved from Calvin to Barth and Torrance what we have are the theological resources required for a robust doctrine of assurance. With Barth and Torrance we certainly have Calvin’s emphases on union with Christ and grace, as Christ is understood as the objective (and subjective) ground of salvation. But moving beyond this we have Calvin’s weaknesses corrected when it comes to a doctrine of election. Because Barth and Torrance see Jesus as both elect and reprobate simultaneously in his vicarious humanity for all of humanity, there is absolutely no space for anxiety in the life of the seeker of assurance. Since, for Barth and Torrance, there is no such thing as “temporary faith,” since faith, from their perspective, is the “faith of Christ” (pistis Christou) for all of humanity, there is no room for the elect to attempt to prove that they have a genuine saving faith, since the only saving faith is Christ’s “for us and our salvation.” Further, since there is no hidden or secret decree where the reprobate can be relegated, since God’s choice is on full display in Jesus Christ— with “no decree behind the back of Jesus”—the seeker of assurance does not have to wonder whether or not God is for them or not; the fact and act of the incarnation itself already says explicitly that God is for the elect and not against them.

4 If there is no such thing as elect and reprobate individuals, if God in Christ gave his life for all of humanity in his own elect humanity, if there is no such thing as temporary faith, if Christ’s faith for us is representative of the only type of saving faith there is; then Christ is all consuming, as such he is God’s assurance of salvation for all of humanity. The moment someone starts to wonder if they are elect, properly understood, the only place that person can look is to Jesus. There is no abstract concept of salvation; Jesus Christ is salvation, and assurance of salvation and any lingering questions associated with that have no space other than to look at Jesus. The moment someone gets caught up in anxious thoughts and behavior associated with assurance, is the moment that person has ceased thinking about salvation in, by, and for Christ. Anxiety about salvation, about whether or not I am elect only comes from a faulty doctrine of election which, as we have seen, is in reality the result of a faulty Christology. We only have salvation with God in Christ because of what Jesus Christ did for us by the grace of God; as such our only hope is to be in union with Christ, and participate in what Calvin called the “double grace” of God’s life for us. It is this reality that quenches any fears about whether or not I am genuinely elect; because it places the total burden of that question on what God has done for us, including having faith for us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.[1]

The primary correction comes from Karl Barth’s reformulation of election/reprobation as he orders that around and from Christ in a genuinely principled way. Indeed, as I argue in my chapter, it is at this pivotal point where Calvin loses the ability to actually offer the type of assurance of salvation that he had hoped for within his own frame of thought and theological-biblical exegesis.

The only way, as I have argued, that someone can genuinely say that ‘assurance of salvation is of the essence of saving faith’ is if it is grounded in Christ all the way down. If we don’t have a doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ at the center of our theological thinking, then we, like Calvin, will stumble when it comes to this issue (among other issues). If Christ is not genuinely the key, in an absolute kind of way, we will be forced to look elsewhere when attempting to construct our theologies and soteriologies; we will be forced to look, potentially anyway, to speculative philosophical approaches, and theories of causation and metaphysics (like Aristotelianism) that will do damage to a faithful Bible reading; and will do damage to people’s spirituality (that is if the theology itself is internalized).

I wouldn’t want you to think that I have totally relegated Calvin’s theology to the garbage heap; God forbid it! Indeed, I offer much praise of Calvin’s offering even in the midst of my critical engagement with him. He has a rich union with Christ theology, along with his double grace theology; both of which are significantly grounded in a thoroughgoing Christocentrism that you will be hard pressed to find among any of Calvin’s contemporaries.

 

[1] Bobby Grow, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith”: Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the “Faith of Christ,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2017), 53-4.

I am an Athanasian: How the Homoousion Saved Christianity by Inimically Implicating the Reality of Salvation

Thomas Torrance is known for his deployment of the homoousion, the grammar developed primarily at the Council of Nicaea in 325ad. It is the attempt to articulate how it is that Jesus, the eternal Logos, and Son of God is eternally consubstantial and of the same ‘substance’ or better ‘being’ (ousia) with the Father [and the Holy Spirit]. It is this idea that Athanasius, particularly after the Council of Nicaea went on to develop and argue for in his engagement with Arius et al. This serves as a key piece for all orthodox Christians because it helps us double down on what is revealed in Jesus Christ about himself as the Savior of the world, and how that is, as he is eternally Son of the Father. This doctrine is significant because it identifies the Trinitarian structure of the Gospel, and demonstrates how it is that the Son must be God, not just man (i.e. against Ebionite Christology and any other adoptionistic thinking), if in fact he would actually have the capacity to ‘save’, to redeem, to reconcile humanity unto God. This doctrine also is significant because it goes both ways, it not only positively notes the Son’s eternal relation to the Father as his one and only begot, but it also does double duty by pressing home the fact that he, the Son, is also fully consubstantial with human being; i.e. that he is fully human. Here the ‘bridge’ is realized between God and humanity, as the Son assumes flesh for himself, and in so doing becomes the Mediator between God and man (cf. I Tim. 2:5-6). It is in this reality, the homoousial reality that the gap between God and humanity, because of not only our finitude, but also our falleness is remedied; and we are brought from our lowly fractured state and elevated to God’s kind of life, not by nature, but by the grace of God who is Jesus Christ. It is because of the homoousial reality that we, as the Petrine theology asserts, are brought into the divine nature as participants through the grace of God’s life in Jesus Christ for us and with us. And it is because of the homoousial reality that any type of dualism between God and humanity is mitigated and brought into unity of both being (ontology) and thought (epistemology) as Jesus mediates God’s life to us, and our lives to God’s triune life in and through his life with the Father by the Holy Spirit. Because of all of this, and more, Thomas Torrance writes this about the importance of the homoousion:

As the epitomised expression of this truth, the homoousion is the ontological and epistemological linchpin of Christian theology. It gives expression to the truth with which everything hangs together, and without which everything ultimately falls apart. The decisive point for Christian theology, and not least for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, lies here, where we move from one level to another: from the basic evangelical and doxological level to the theological level, and from that level to the high theological level of the ontological relations in God. In that movement a radical shift in the basic fabric of theological thought takes place along with a reconstruction in the foundations of our prior knowledge. This is evident not least in the fact that in formulating the homoousion of Christ in connection with both his creative and redemptive activity, Nicene theology laid the axe to the epistemological dualism latent in Greek philosophy and religion that threatened the very heart of the Gospel; and as such it gave powerful expression to the indissoluble connection in Act and Being between the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity, between οἰκονομία and θεολογία, which secured the Church in its belief that in the Lord Jesus Christ and his Gospel they had to do directly with the ultimate Presence and downright Reality of God himself. Jesus Christ does for us and to us, and what the Holy Spirit does in us, is what God himself does for us, to us and in us.[1]

As Torrance highlights when we see the Father we see the Son; i.e. the ontological inner life of God (in se) is really made known in the economic outer life of God (ad extra). If it wasn’t, as Athanasius would argue, we are of ‘all men most to be pitied;’ because if true God of true God did not come for us then we would be doomed and left to ourselves in our sins. The gap between the Creator, who has always already been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the creation (humanity) was so great that if God did not stoop down to us in the grace of his life in Christ we would forever be in our sins and creation itself would be lost. This is what Arius’s theology entails; i.e. since his view of the eternal Son [Jesus] is that he is generate, meaning a creature; if this was so all that humanity would be left with in this scheme, soteriologically, is a salvation that remains contingent upon us to ‘work out our salvation’ in such a way that we might find merit before God. Jesus becomes an instrument or exemplar in the Arian way of Christology and soteriology, such that there is no bridge, no Divine mediation between God and humanity; there is no union of God and humanity and humanity and God in Arian theology. Athanasius would go on and show how the homoousion undercuts this faulty way of Arian thinking both theologically and biblically. Thomas Weinandy explicates how this worked out, in Athanasius’s theology, and how the homoousion functioned as key for providing an orthodox understanding of salvation (Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2007), 63-4.):

As Weinandy has demonstrated without the homoousion, in Athanasian and orthodox theology, Christianity may have failed. We might still be in our sins. We must believe the Dominical teaching here when Jesus proclaimed that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Gospel reality (cf. Mt. 18); we must acknowledge God’s providential care in providing people like Athanasius for his church in seminal and early ways. Without such guidance we could only imagine where the church might be today.

Thomas Torrance understands all of this, and this is why he has made the homoousion  key to the whole of his theological program. As he once said of himself: “I’m an Athanasian, if anything” (my paraphrase).

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 95.

Athanasius’s Salvation as Logos Grounded Christ Conditioned Image of the Image Theology

I have written on this Athanasian Christological and soteriological theme previously, but I thought it would be good to reiterate it; particularly as I am continuing to read through Thomas Weinandy’s book Athanasius: A Theological Introduction. What I am referring to is the idea that the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ is the Pauline imago Dei as referenced in Colossians 1.15; and what happens in the Incarnation, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is that humanity, through the vicarious humanity of Christ, is recreated in and through the archetypal and resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ. In other words, we are recreated in the image of God, who is Christ, which would mean we are now images of the image. As Weinandy explicates (and Athanasius makes clear himself in his book Incarnation), Athanasius sees a direct soteriological linkage between this “re-imaging” of humanity in Christ’s; i.e. that without God entering into humanity, in Christ, humanity would have dissolved into nothingness and the subhumanity into which we were plunged in the ‘Fall.’ So it would take nothing less than the incorruptible God to become corruptible human, and recreate what it means for humans to be created in the image of God, as we are resurrected and recreated in the vicarious humanity of Christ; Christ being the original image of God by nature, and now we, by the faith of Christ inspired by the Holy Spirit, participate in and from his image (as ‘images of the image’) as partakers and participants in the divine nature. Here is how Weinandy masterfully develops this (Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2007), 34-6):

The profundity of this cannot be overstated. While there still remains room for some further development, in regard to Athanasius’s own development, what he does offer, as presented by Weinandy, is Christologically rich and soteriologically satisfying; at least it is to me.

I think what we can also see at work in Athanasius is the Irenean (i.e. Irenaeus) conception of recapitulation; except with Athanasius what we get is a more dogmatically (rather than narratively) construed picture of what the Incarnation implies about Jesus Christ and salvation; understanding that Athanasius’ context was even more directly in combat with some particularly pointed theological and Arian attacks that Irenaeus wasn’t pressed up against in the same way (although he had his own issues with the Gnostics et al.). Nevertheless, what Athanasius offers has some profound implications towards thinking about the role of a doctrine of creation (protology) and a doctrine of recreation (eschatology), and how both of those mutually implicate one another as they find their connective tissue and reality dead center in the person of Jesus Christ.

What we have in Athanasius is, in my view, as principially Christ centered as what we find in the theologies of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, respectively. It makes sense that Thomas Torrance when asked if he would identify as Barthian, would say that, no, he is an Athanasian, if anything. But I think in some important ways we can see Athanasius informing Barth’s theology just as directly as it does Torrance’s; and I think this is rather profound. It explains how and why the Reformed theology of Barth and Torrance (and us Evangelical Calvinists working after Barth and Torrance and Calvin) is so distinctive and in a different key than what we find in what I call classical Calvinism which is much more and almost exclusively Augustinian—and not just pure Augustinian, but mediated through a Thomist frame.

 

St. Athanasius and Thomas Torrance in Collusion on the Assumption of the Fallen Human Nature in Christ

As an evangelical in Bible College and Seminary (I still consider myself, broadly construed, an ‘evangelical’) I held to the impeccability view of Christ’s humanity. In other words, I believed that not only could Christ not sin*, but that the body he assumed in the man, Jesus of Nazareth, was likewise uniquely fitted for him such that he did not enter into the fallen human nature that the rest of humanity is born into in their mother’s womb. But then later, after Seminary (I graduated in 2003), as so many of you know by now, I came across the writings of Thomas Torrance; Torrance, as many of you also know holds to the Athanasian idea that Christ, in the incarnation, assumed a fallen human nature, just like the rest of humanity’s. Along with Nazianzen and Athanasius et al. Torrance maintained that unless Christ fully entered into our real and fallen human nature that real redemption, all the way down, could not take place. Torrance would be concerned, also, that if Christ didn’t enter the fallen human nature, in the assumptio carnis, that all we would be left with would be with something like an instrumentalist conception of the atonement. I.e. We would be left with a forensic understanding of salvation, necessarily so, since the death of Christ wouldn’t penetrate deep enough into the fabric (ontologically) of human nature to recreate it, but instead he would only be the ‘organ’ of God’s salvation to ‘pay the penalty’ of humanity’s sin (in particular the elect’s); a truly juridical and external type of venture.

Here is what Torrance has written in his New College lecture notes:

Now when we listen to the witness of holy scripture here we know we are faced with something we can never fully understand, but it is something that we must seek to understand as far as we can. One thing should be abundantly clear, that if Jesus Christ did not assume our fallen flesh, our fallen humanity, then our fallen humanity is untouched by his work — for ‘the unassumed is the unredeemed’, as Gregory Nazianzen put it. Patristic theology, especially as we see it expounded in the great Athanasius, makes a great deal of the fact that he who knew no sin became sin for us, exchanging his riches for our poverty, his perfection for our imperfection, his incorruption for our corruption, his eternal life for our mortality. Thus Christ took from Mary a corruptible and mortal body in order that he might take our sin, judge and condemn it in the flesh, and so assume our human nature as we have it in the fallen world that he might heal, sanctify and redeem it. In that teaching the Greek fathers were closely following the New Testament. If the Word of God did not really come into our fallen existence, if the Son of God did not actually come where we are, and join himself to us and range himself with us where we are in sin and under judgement, how could it be said that Christ really took our place, took our cause upon himself in order to redeem us?[1]

And here is what theologian Thomas Weinandy has to say about Athanasius’ view on the same loci (Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2007), 33-4):

It is easy to see the connection between the incarnation and salvation, in ontological terms, when we consider it from both Athanasius’ and Torrance’s theo-logic. It happens to be a theo-logic I affirm these days. Indeed, there are many objectors to this (Kevin Chiarot being the foremost) thinking; but it would be wrong-headed to think that there is not some seminal footing for this view from none other than the champion himself of Nicene Christology and Trinitarian theology, the theologian contra mundum, Athanasius.

It should also be kept in mind that this is precisely the point at which departure happens between Evangelical Calvinists and Classical Calvinists. Classical Calvinists frame their understanding of salvation, primarily, within forensic/juridical lenses; this flows well and even from their understanding of the Covenant of Works combined with the God of absolutum decretum (the God who relates to creation through absolute decrees), and a doctrine of unconditional election. Evangelical Calvinists follow Athanasius, Torrance, et al. in adopting this more ontological understanding of salvation wherein the primacy of Christ as the imago Dei is elevated to the point wherein salvation is understood as the realm where humanity is taken up in the assumption of God’s humanity in Christ, and we are recreated in Christ’s resurrected vicarious humanity for us (Romans 6–8); we are taken from living in subhumanity and corruptibility and brought to participate in and from the incorruptibility of God’s life in Christ, the life that is indestructible (Hebrews 6–7). We still see the forensic in the atonement, but we emphasize, with Barth, the idea that God in his election to be for us in Christ becomes the judged Judge in our stead and reconciles and elevates humanity to be partakers of the divine nature (by the grace of his life) in and through the recreated humanity of Jesus Christ who is our mediator.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation (DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 62.

*To be clear, I along with Athanasius and TF Torrance do not believe that Christ ever sinned, but immediately sanctified his humanity, by the power of the Holy Spirit, remaining the spotless Lamb of God who has taken away the sins of the world. Such a sacrifice was required in order for actual salvation to inhere; which is of course why it took God in flesh, the double homoousion of the Son as God, and the Son as human in the singular person of Jesus Christ to accomplish such an impossible possibility.

Myk Habets and the Evangelical Calvinists Against Apophatic Theology: How Cataphatic Theology and the Theology of the Cross are the Better Way

There seems to be a revival of apophatic theology taking place in our moment; I’m thinking of someone like Katherine Sonderegger and her newish Systematic Theology: Volume One. This trend seems prevalent, even as a mood, among others (because this is a blog post I’m not going to get into proving this further at this point). In contrast, we as Evangelical Calvinists are committed to the via positiva (‘positive way’), or cataphatic theology; thinking that is contingent, relative to its knowledge of God, upon God’s Self-revelation and explication in the eternal Logos made flesh, Jesus Christ. This commitment is based upon at least two realities: 1) that the noetic effects of the fall have so affected our constitution as human beings that any knowledge of God we might innately have is so polluted as to be useless and idolatry producing (so in other words there’s an epistemological and ontological issue); 2) more positively, we believe that the Incarnation and Accommodation of God in Christ therein implies that God himself understands that our need is such that without his stooping down to us in the grace of his life in Christ, without his Self-revelation, the gap between a genuine knowledge and him and us is unattainable.

In our newly released book (May 2017), Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion, Myk Habets, in one of his personal chapters wrote a chapter entitled: Crossing the Epistemological Impasse Thinking out of a Center in God and Not out of a Center in Ourselves. In this chapter Myk develops a Torrancean epistemology that is grounded in the objective life of God in Jesus Christ for us. His development is rich, and places all of the weight of epistemology vis-à-vis knowledge of God where it should be: on and in and from Christ. In the conclusion to his chapter, based on the catatphatic epistemology he just developed, he contrasts that with apophatic theology (via negativa) in this way (at length):

CONCLUSION

The epistemological stance developed in this essay has an obvious implication for Christian dogmatics, namely, that constructive theology is possible due to the work of the Word and Spirit. As a final note, this essay makes the claim that dogmatics is a cataphatic enterprise, and not, contra the current trend in some theological circles, an apophatic one. At the very least it is what A. N. Williams once described as “lukewarm apophaticism” which is nothing more than a qualification of cataphaticism.42

In light of 1 Cor 2:4, we do not rely on “natural reason” or “human logic,” which is fallen and in need of redemption. Rather, this human inadequacy forces us to rely on what has been given by the Spirit.43 It is the Spirit alone who grants us union and communion with God such that we can participate in the divine life and know the mind of Christ as we think out of a center in God and not in ourselves, something unattainable by human discourse or intellect alone.44

There is no denying that God is above and beyond human reason; Rom 11:33, to name but one text, is clear here. But to argue for a robust apophaticism is to deny either the ability or the intention of God to communicate with his creatures. Knowledge of God is basic to the Christian

life, and such knowledge comes via God’s self-revelation, most fully through the Word written; and never without the Spirit. Williams offers sage advice when she asserts that “Scripture thus declares our epistemological predicament, not so as to discourage us in our journey towards knowledge and love of God, but so as to spare us futile forms of striving, and the God whom Scripture proclaims to be unknowable is the very same who grants us enlightenment, notably through the sacred page.”45 “Come Holy Spirit, renew the whole creation.”[1]

I remember the first time I ever was confronted with this disjunction, between doing theology apophatically versus cataphatically, it was in seminary; it was tied into Martin Luther’s theologia crucis or theology of the cross, and it intrigued me supremely.[2] Luther’s theology of the cross fits into the cataphatic mood of theology that us Evangelical Calvinists are interested in. Fitting, particularly in light of what Myk has developed and argued (in his whole chapter); it is fitting because Martin’s theology starts with God’s Self-revelation right in the very climax of what needed to take place in order for humanity to have a genuine knowledge of God; i.e. naked human reason needed to be put to death, which is what was accomplished at the cross of Christ, and in the light of that reality, a kind of theological double entendre and dialectic, wherein not only was revelation happening, but the reconciliation between God and humanity, in order for the cross-work to be really appreciated as revelation took place at once in Christ. As Barth and Torrance assert (and argue): revelation is reconciliation; it is this that cataphatic theology orbits around and from—it’s a cruciform, staurological way of theology wherein out of the death of death, in Christ, comes the light and life of revelation. In other words, in keeping with Myk’s argument, apophatic theology, the idea that humans can conceive of God through discursive reasoning and speculation, doesn’t get off the ground because, as we believe, genuine Christian theology can only start from the ground up a posteriori (versus a priori) in the concrete reality of the dusty humanity of God in Jesus Christ wherein God is humbled and humanity is exalted at once in the singular and particular person, the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ.

In other words, as Torrance notes of Barth’s theology, all theological and biblical thought is circumscribed and sublimated by Christ alone (solo Christo); there is no free reign for thinking God but from the field of God’s life in Christ for us. Note Torrance on Barth at this juncture, and with this we end:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[3]

[1] Myk Habets, “Crossing the Epistemological Impasse Thinking out of a Center in God and Not out of a Center in Ourselves,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2017), 27-8.

[2] To be clear I am constructively building upon Myk’s insights; he doesn’t bring Luther’s theology of the cross into the mix in his chapter, but I think it fits.

[3] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

 

How Erasmus’ Mood Impacts the Development and Posture of an Evangelical Calvinist

When I first came across the reality of late medieval scholasticism at work in the Roman Catholic Church, and then later in the Post Reformed orthodox period of the Protestant Reformation, it brought a lot together for me. As a method the scholastic approach was a dialectic, one that went like this: 1) thesis, 2) anti-thesis, 3) synthesis, 4) synthesis becomes the new thesis, 5) so on and so forth. It’s easy to see how an approach like this over a period of centuries could remove the exegete and theologian further and further away from the realities disclosed afresh and anew in Holy Scripture. It was this commentary-building tradition, which had become normative for the medieval church, which someone like Martin Luther protested against. It was the movement known as Christian Humanism that kicked against such an approach, and instead trumpted a call of ad fontes (‘back to the sources’).

Lorenzo Valla was one of the forerunners of Christian Humanism and helped to foster the culture which would finally allow for the Protestant Reformation; a culture wherein folks, like Luther and Erasmus, were encouraged to read the Bible and the Church Fathers for themselves; in the original languages to boot. I want to highlight the contribution that Erasmus made to all of this in this post. It is this type of mood that turned me to someone like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and allowed me to see how the Reformation actually turned into a type of magesterium in itself, regulated by its own commentary tradition which the Westminster Confession of Faith illustrates.

Erika Rummel writes this of Erasmus’s approach, and his posture against scholastic theology:

Erasmus strongly objected to scholastic theology with its emphasis on dialectical reasoning. In his eyes, a purely academic theology was useless for providing guidance to Christians in their daily life. Rhetoric, by contrast, fulfilled that mediating function which allowed God’s injuctions to take root in the human heart. The Word of God was inherently rhetorical in the sense that it had persuasive and redemptive power; theologia rhetorica, unlike scholastic theology, pointed the way to the Word and aroused ‘a new zeal for the true religion of the gospel’. This message remains constant in Erasmus’ writings. It informs the Paraclesis (‘Invitation’), first published with his New Testament edition in 1516, and constitutes the dominant theme in his last original work, a manual of preaching entitled Ecclesiastes (‘The preacher’). In the Paraclesis Erasmus devoutly wished for an eloquence that would not only beguile the reader but enter his heart and transform his very soul. In the Ecclesiastes Erasmus outlines the task of the preacher in similar terms. He must be persuasive so that the congregation can hear in his sermons the voice of God. Again he uses the images of rapture and transformation to indicate the power of the theologia rhetorica. The practical moral impact of the preacher and the theologian – that is, of sermon and exegesis – is of utmost importance to Erasmus. The parallels between the prolegomena to the New Testament and his manual of preaching show that in his opinion the task of the preacher and that of the exegete converged. It was therefore appropriate to focus attention on language and on the rhetorical power of scripture. Because the Word of God has the power to transform, Erasmus wanted the laity directly exposed to the text: ‘Let the farmer sing a passage from the Bible at the plough, the weaver hum a passage to the movement of his shuttle, the traveler lighten the weariness of his journey with biblical stories!’[1]

There is some irony here. If you speak to a classically Calvinist person today they will claim to be part of the ad fontes tradition; and, indeed, in the beginning Reformed theology was motivated by that tradition (catch the irony of how tradition is inescapable). But over time, and particularly as it once again became ensconced within a Ramist/Agricolan locus methodology, the scholastic dialectic was once again imbibed and a whole new magisterium was created. Today we can witness, when speaking to a classically Calvinist person, the role that the three forms of unity might have (i.e. Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, Canons of Dordt), or more significantly the Westminster Standards. It really isn’t possible, even though they affirm that all else is subordinate to Scripture, for them to come to Scripture in an ‘back to the sources’ type of way since they see their standards as regulative and the most faithful interpretations of the text.

This is what evangelical Calvinism, of the sort I endorse, repudiates, and instead follows the lead and sense of someone like Erasmus. Clearly, we, as evangelical Calvinists don’t come to the same conclusions, theologically, as Erasmus on many things—in fact we probably agree much more with our classically Reformed brethren on many things, at least at an inchoate level—but we do follow his approach when it comes to bucking scholastic theology and always already moving back to the sources (i.e. Holy Scripture as the normative attestation to its reality in Jesus Christ).

Evangelical Calvinists are committed to a dialogical theology, an approach that works immediately after the fact that God has spoken (Deus dixit) in Christ as His most faithful and authoritative self-explication. We believe, like Erasmus, in pointing to an immediate encounter with the lively reality of the text of Holy Scripture as that breaks off in Christ who mediates us by grace through his vicarious humanity into the inner sanctum of the Triune life. We believe that Revelation, and Scripture as a subset of revelation, is an event; it isn’t something that we can control, or layer through tradition-making, but instead it is God in Christ confronting us afresh and anew moment by moment speaking His Lordly and Sovereign self to us as He draws us deeper and deeper into the realization of all that He is and all that we have because of who He is for us and with us.

Solo Christo; Sola Scriptura; Soli Deo Gloria

 

[1] Erika Rummel, The theology of Erasmus in David Bagchi and David C. Steinmetz eds., The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 33-4.

The Relationship Between Philosophy and Christian Theology: A Theology of the Word

What is it that I have against Philosophy; I mean what did it ever do to me? Nothing really. Except when it is used in place of or even as Christian Theology, proper, it’s at that point that it starts to intrude into my life, and more importantly the church’s life in such a way that I believe the Gospel and theology done from and through the Gospel gets distorted. I know many think this is naïve, but it’s all a matter of method; that is, how ought a genuinely Christian theology be done, and where from? One of the primary principles of the Protestant Reformation is that Scripture, the Word is where all theology for the church of Jesus Christ ought to be done from; I couldn’t agree more. But what that meant, as far as explicating the inner-logic of Scripture (so theology), was based too much in Aristotelian metaphysics, to the point that that type of (substance) metaphysic distorted the intention of Reformed theologian’s task. Yes, the intention was always good, but the tools available to the Protestant Reformed, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, were not, I contend, compatible with the Gospel; in other words, the metaphysic was not amenable to being evangelized by the Gospel.

Philosophy is good at observing things empirically and horizontally, from the human condition, and attempting to abstract “metaphysical” reality from that vantage point; but Christian theology, a genuine approach, doesn’t start there. Christian theology starts from above and only works a posteriori (or from ‘what’s in front of us’) as Deus absconditus (the hidden God) becomes Deus revelatus (the revealed God) in Jesus Christ. In other words, Christian theology is distinct from Philosophy (of Religion), as such the “metaphysic” appealed to for the Christian theologian must be determined by the Logos (Word) o f God. God is his own metaphysic; indeed God is meta-metaphysical. In other words, if the human agent in general wants to have access to this ‘hidden God’ then they must come through the veil of his flesh in Christ. Yes, this might sound foolish or weak, but it is the way of the Christian theologian.

This all does beg the question: Is there a metaphysic for the Christian theologian then? One of my theologian friends (in person) asked me this, in the context of my affection for Barth. I suppose the closest we could get to that, in my view, is Barth’s type of actualism[1]; i.e. being in becoming. It is this kind of “metaphysic” that I see as much more corollary with the reality of Gospel; it gets away from the ‘Pure Being’ static type of conception of God that Aristotle and other philosophers provide for, and of which classical theism and Post Reformed orthodoxy have drunk from so freely. In light of this I thought it would be apropos to hear from Barth himself on how he sees the relationship between Philosophy and genuine Christian Theology which is radically Logocentric and/or Word based. Barth writes:

Theology’s essential hypothesis, or axiom, is revelation, which is God’s own act done in His Word and through His Spirit. How shall this axiom be exhibited or determined? It cannot be done directly, but indirectly. Not positively by negatively. Not by setting it a bound among other sciences. Theology would be falsified or misinterpreted, betrayed or given up, if it sought to make its fundamental assumption or axiom a direct and tangible exhibit. Theology would have ceased to be theology, if it sought to, or could, justify itself. It has always been forsaken by its guardian angels above, every time it has sought to take this way.

For example, is there anything more hopeless than the attempt that has been made in the last two hundred years with ever-increasing enthusiasm to create a systematic link-up, or synthesis, or even a discriminate relationship, between the realms of theology and philosophy? Has there been one reputable philosopher who has paid the least attention to the work which the theologians have attempted in this direction? Has it not become apparent that the anxiety and uncertainty with which we pursued this course only reminded us that we can pursue this course only with an uneasy conscience? Theology can become noticed by philosophy only after that moment when it no longer seeks to be interesting. Its relation to philosophy can become positive and fruitful only after it resolutely refuses to be itself a philosophy and refuses to demonstrate and base its existence upon a principle with, or alongside of, philosophy.[2]

Clearly, from this quote we can see the period that Barth has in his sights in particular; i.e. his ‘modern’ antecedents (e.g. Hermann, Schleiermacher, Kant, Hegel, et al.). And I would be remiss if I didn’t note how appreciative Barth actually was of many of the themes provided for by the Post Reformed orthodox, or we might call them the scholasticism reformed theologians. Nevertheless, what’s at stake here is a critique of how philosophy is ‘synthesized’ and appropriated by Christian theologians.

If we are going to do a genuine Christian theology, the Christian theologian, I believe, will avail themselves of the best grammar available to them. In other words, they won’t, at a formal level, commit themselves to a period of theologizing as if that period is inherently sacrosanct and limit themselves to the theological grammar of that period. Instead they will be driven more by the expectations of the Gospel itself, as if the Gospel is lively and is anew and afresh today; we might call this the ‘Gospel for Today’ approach. The theologian will resource whatever they can with the goal of allowing the Gospel itself to determine its own categories and emphases; and if the theologian comes across “metaphysics” that comport with the reality that God is indeed lively and dynamic in his inner-being as revealed in Christ, then the theologian will adjust themselves accordingly. In my view, what’s more important is that the categories of the Gospel itself be determinative of what is orthodox versus what is heterodox; I think if we follow this then we won’t be afraid of some of the important gains that modern theology has afforded the church of Jesus Christ.

On a material point: Something that Barth&co. did was identify the import that a theology of the Word has for the Protestant theologian, but then he/they developed that further. He (Barth) saw Christ as the ‘Word’ that ‘God has spoken’ (Deus dixit) for the world; for the church. As such this changes the manner and indeed the way “metaphysics” are commingled with the Gospel itself. In other words, things change when the Word with whom we have to do is the second person of the Triune Godhead (Monarxia). The theologian recognizes that God in Christ is alive, and ever present; the theologian while bounded by the text of Scripture, realizing that as being within the ‘Domain of the Word,’ recognizes that He is Risen! as such the theologian continues to engage theologically as if we can actually grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. The theologian starts with the Word, and sees the living Word as determinative of who God is and how we ought to engage with Scripture itself. But the point is, is that the Word is genuinely alive; as such the theologian should want to seek out a way to articulate that for the church in such a way that comports with the lively reality of God’s inner life. The theologian should move away from theologies that have attempted to synthesize God with a philosophy that sees God as ‘Pure Being’ and all the attendant baggage associated with that.

[1] See this definition of actualism in Barth’s theology:

“Actualism” is the motif which governs Barth’s complex conception of being and time. Being is always an event and often an act (always an act whenever an agent capable of decision is concerned). The relationship between divine being and human being is one of the most vexed topics in Barth interpretation, and one on which the essay at hand hopes to shed some light. For now let it simply be said, however cryptically, that the possibility for the human creature to act faithfully in relation to the divine creator is thought to rest entirely in the divine act, and therefore continually befalls the human creature as a miracle to be sought ever anew. (Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth, 16.) Also see this post

[2] Karl Barth, God In Action (Manhasset, NY: Round Table Press, 1963), 41-2.

Gannon Murphy On: To truly know God is to love him. Religion and Piety As a Frame for Knowing God

By now you know that our second Evangelical Calvinism book was just released, the full title being: Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion. But as you also know Myk and I had a volume 1 Evangelical Calvinism book published under the title: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (which this subtitle is also attached to our second volume as well). This post will be referencing one of the chapters found in EC1; a chapter written by Gannon Murphy on knowledge of God in John Calvin’s thought.

What I want to focus on, in regard to Gannon’s chapter is his brief but profound development of how the Latin terms religio and pietas function in Calvin’s theological offering when it comes to knowledge of God. As Murphy points out Calvin’s conception of knowledge of God was never a disembodied one; in fact it was more existential. It was never really a philosophical or abstract engagement with some sort of abstract brute conception of a substance that we could correlate through abstract reasoning to the God disclosed in Holy Scripture and Jesus Christ. No, as Murphy argues, for Calvin, knowledge of God was something more akin to knowledge in God; more particularly in Christ. Gannon up-points how the concepts of religio and pietas functioned in this type of dialogical/existential mode for the Christian knower coram Deo (‘before God’). Gannon writes (at length):

Religio and Pietas

The very beginning of the Institutes commences in a statement concerning that which constitutes true wisdom, to wit, that wisdom “consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Some theologians have argued that this first statement is actually the entire point of the Institutes, a contestable, but not entirely meritless, claim.

It is perhaps customary in our technological age to think of knowledge as a purely apprehensive or propositional enterprise—we have knowledge of this object, or that thing, or such-and-such a set of data. The key to preserving Calvin’s doctrine of knowledge (cognitione), however, is to see it as something much fuller and more “holistic.” In sum, to truly know God is to love him. Theological knowledge is not merely propositional in nature or a matter of mere intellectual assent (assensus). Rather, it must also be experiential, stemming from love that also manifests itself in adoration, trust, fear, and obedience to God. Edward Dowey, for example, refers to Calvin’s concept of knowledge, as “existential knowledge.” The idea of coming to God merely in mind is an utterly foreign concept throughout the Calvinian corpus. Further, Calvin (like Luther) alludes to the nonsensical nature of conceiving of God as a mere object of knowledge.

Calvin uses the terms religio and pietas which, unfortunately, do not translate well into our English words, religion and piety, both of which tend to connote merely a system of ecclesiology or perfunctory, external religious observance. Both words in the Latin, however, denote something much deeper. Re-ligio derives from re, “again” and ligere, “to literally means “careful,” the opposite of negligens. Religio, then, means something more along the lines of “careful attention to” and to be “rebound.” Pietas, while often suggesting merely “dutifulness,” is better understood as “dutiful kindness,” stemming from the Latin root pius (literally, “kind”). Thus, pietas is friendly obedience toward the things of God. It is the perfect opposite of animosity toward godly things—to find oneself welcoming of, and delighting in, his or her Creator.

Calvin, characteristically never wanting to be misunderstood but always desiring clarity for his readers, defines religio as, “confidence in God coupled with serious fear—fear, which both includes in it willing reverence, and brings along with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed by the law.” On the other hand, pietas is “that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires.” Expounded here is something rather far removed from trajectories that find natural theology as their starting point—the idea of an irrefragable knowledge of God garnered apart from reverence and revelation, that is, a special and specific Word from God. Rather, Calvin speaks of the first step of pietas being, “to acknowledge that God is a Father, to defend, govern, and cherish us, until he brings us to the eternal inheritance of his kingdom.”

That true knowledge of God cannot be torn asunder from pietas and religio means, then, that overly-philosophical speculation about the essence or substance of God is necessarily ruled out. Calvin derides such pursuits as “Epicurean,” as “frigid speculations,” and admonishes us rather to seek out “what things are agreeable to his nature.”[1]

Personally this resonates with me deeply; which is why Murphy’s chapter is so apropos in a book with the title Evangelical Calvinism. It is this embodied way of knowing God, by loving God that represents the proper kind of ‘pure religion’ and piety that Jesus himself claims sums up all of the Law and Prophets:

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”[2]

What this Calvinian mode towards knowledge of God kicks against, ironically, is any approach that would attempt to know God through discursive reasoning, or philosophical abstraction. What Calvin’s approach admonishes us to is to approach God through God in Christ en concreto (specific); through the realization that genuine knowledge of God is never an abstract academic endeavor, it always entails the particular and scandalous approach to God that only comes through the Lamb slain before the foundations of the world. In other words, genuine religion and piety,  relative to the Christian, involves a committed and lively relationship with God; but one that is not initiated by humans in abstraction, instead one that is unilaterally provided for by the initiation and election of God in Christ. Some might consider this relational way for conceiving of knowledge of God as foolish and weak; but so goes the way of the Gospel.

What this all avoids is presenting a knowledge of God that is rooted, again, in philosophical speculation and even what counts today, most, as what it means to do good Christian evangelical theology. What we want to avoid, which Dag Hammarskjöld so eloquently describes is a presentation of a knowledge of the faith that in the end is perceptibly empty by the discerning and reflective human Christian or even non-Christian would-be knower. Note Hammarskjöld: “‘How many have been driven into outer darkness by empty talk about faith as something to be rationally comprehended, something “true”’.[3] If we follow Calvin’s lead, according to Gannon, we won’t be ‘driven into outer darkness’ when coming to know God in Christ; instead because of union and participation in and from life in Christ we will be “irresistibly” drawn deeper and deeper into the winsome and ineffable inner life of God, in Christ, wherein an effervescent and luminous knowledge of God’s life, by experience (properly understood), will be ever increasing and ever inviting.

Leaving on a Personal Note

I honestly do not think this is the approach people in the 21st century evangelical church, particularly in North America and the West, are being provided with. Instead, contra Calvin, what folks are being fed is a pablum of religio and pietas that come in that name only. In other words, people are being encouraged, if they want to press deep into God, to engage with God from a philosophical and ‘natural’ approach to him. What makes this hard for folks to discern is that so much of what they are being fed has been conflated and couched in a Christian (i.e. Reformed) heritage that has this type of heart-warmed-over affectionate “piety” associated with it; but when that person digs deeper into the intellectual framework that is funding this “piety” what in fact they will find is a highly philosophical apparatus for knowing God that has more to do with the classical Philosophers of ancient Greece than it does with God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

It seriously agitates me that this is what counts as engaging with God for the evangelical Christian today. I blame institutions such as The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, and other associations of evangelicals for much of this; i.e. at least as this is making its way into the broader community of evangelical Christians in North America. We need to return to the sources, ad fontes, truly; but may that be understood to be genuinely rooted in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ alone. May that be understood to be grounded in an actual framework that genuinely is relational and personal, and works from the “foundation” that the Triune God is indeed ‘the ground and grammar’ of all things; particularly and mostly of knowledge of Godself.

[1] Gannon Murphy, Pietas, Religio, and the God Who Is, in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2012), 159-60.

[2] NASB.

[3] See Jason Goroncy’s post, On Empty Talk About Faith, accessed 05-16-2017.

Language About God’s Life: How Language Ought to Be Transformed By God’s Self-Revelation in Theological Discourse

As Trinitarians Christians often, and rightly, refer to the inner reality of God’s singular life as his ousia or ‘being.’ The fear might be that Christians might be imposing Hellenistic (i.e. classical Greek philosophical) categories onto God thus morphing him into an tertium quid, or even worse something completely alien to who he actually is. This is the critique I often bring against classical Calvinists in their deployment of Aristotle to articulate their Pure Being theology relative to the Christian God;[1] I don’t think they are successful in allowing the Revelation to determine the language’s shape; I think they carry over too much of the Aristotelian philosophical implications in their endeavor to give grammar to articulating God for human understanding. As such, I think they eschew everything else downstream; i.e. whether that be in the area of doctrine of creation, theory of revelation, theory of history, doctrine of Scripture, soteriology, so on and so forth.

Us Evangelical Calvinists, like classical Calvinists (and other iterations of classical theists), also use the Hellenic language of ‘being’ and ‘persons’ (hypostases), among other expressions. But unlike—and here I’ll just keep picking on the classical Calvinists—the classical Calvinists, or as Richard Muller calls it, the “Christian Aristotelians,”[2] we follow Athanasius’s style and mode in regard to allowing the antecedent and ontological reality of God’s life to give shape and reify the Hellenic language of ‘being’ and ‘persons’; our intention is to allow God’s Self-revelation to retext the Hellenic language in such a way that the language’s meaning itself becomes brand new (recreated even) because of the new context it finds itself in (since context determines meaning anyway). Thomas Torrance explains how this worked out in the Athansian mode:

Athanasius much preferred to use verbs rather than nouns when speaking of God as the mighty living and acting God, for abstract terms or substantives seemed to him (as indeed to the biblical writers) to be inappropriate in speaking about the dynamic Nature of God, or in expressing who God is who makes himself known to us in his mighty acts of deliverance and salvation. For Athanasius, here as elsewhere, the precise meaning of theological terms is to be found in their actual use under the transforming impact of divine revelation. This is how he believed that the words ousia and hypostasis were used at the Council of Nicaea, not in the abstract Greek sense but in a concrete personal sense governed by God’s self-revelation in the incarnation. He preferred a functional and flexible use of language in which the meaning of words varied in accordance with the nature of the realities intended and with the general scope of thought or discourse at the time. Hence he retained the freedom to vary the sense of the words he used in different contexts, and declined to be committed to a fixed formalisation of any specific theological term for all context which might have violated his semantic principle that terms are not prior to realities but realities come first and terms second. This intention is nowhere more evident than in his cautious and differential use of human terms to speak of the Being of God or the Subsistence of Persons in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.[3]

Us Evangelical Calvinists go with TF Torrance and Athanasius; particularly when it comes to the idea that the reality precedes and thus should be allowed to control the terminology in its context and sense.

If you ever wonder how Evangelical Calvinists can use the language of ‘being’ and ‘persons’ and not fall prey to the same temptations as the Christian Aristotelians, refer to this post.

One more important point in closing: If we get our doctrine of God wrong (which includes very much so how we employ theological language), then everything else following will be eschewed. This is why Evangelical Calvinists place such emphasis on our Trinitarian Doctrine of God as the ground and grammar of everything.

[1] See this post.

[2] See Richard Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Three (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 45, 62, 107, 121, 132, 140, 150, 367, 545, 553.

[3] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 117-18.