Framing What I Think a Christian Theologian’s Life is Characterized By

Being a Christian theologian is a consequence of being an active participant in the triune life of God in Jesus Christ. In this post I want to explicate, by way of reflecting on the fly, what I think being a Christian theologian entails.

Frame One. At a very basic level I think every Christian is a theologian. In other words, when a person professes Christ as their Lord, they are saying that they are in a committed relationship with the God of the cosmos; and that by definition of commitment, they are going to live in a mode of life that is fulsome with a doxological (worshipful) orientation as that is driven by a growing knowledge in the grace of God in Christ. In this sense, de jure, every Christian is a theologian.

Frame Two. Given the aforementioned, a Christian, or a theologian, will be a person who lives in this doxological frame by obedience to the Father, by the Holy Spirit; just as we see Jesus doing, over and again. I think this aspect of being a theologian is often lost on the Christian. We often think of obedience to God as some sort of legalistic bondage that the Son has come to set us free from. But if in fact the works and persons of God are indivisible in both their processions and missions, then it follows, as the Christian finds their life in that life in Christ, that a life of obedience, or submission to the Father’s will, will indeed characterize the Christian’s life.

So, we now have implicated frame two by frame one, and vice versa. In other words, while the theologian’s life is oriented by worship and a growing in the grace and knowledge of God in Christ, therein; this will be characterized by a life of constant obedience and repentance as we seek to be transformed from glory to glory by the Spirit who is the LORD. As I alluded to previously, the way these things are patterned are from the life of the Father and the Son in eternal bliss and plenitude by the Holy Spirit. It is as the inner-life of God is made extra for us in Christ that God’s grace is actualized in such a way that creatures are allowed to enter the inner life in and through union with Christ (unio cum Christo), and in and from this ground in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, the Christian, in participatio Christi (participation with Christ) advances in a ‘stratified knowledge of God’[1], as God’s anterior life becomes interior to ours by the Grace of the living Christ. As the Christian comes into this evangelical reality, they now have bases to think God from the center of God in Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 1.18); this is what in the tradition is identified as an exitus/reditus (extraficiation and return — God comes out to us in Christ, and returns us to God in the resurrected and ascended Christ). Here we come into beatific vision by faith as we have access to contemplate in the Holy of Holies and inner sanctum of what it means to have life in the mysterium trinitatis and the mysterium tremendum; what it means to be confronted with the God who just is, first for Himself in the perichoresis of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and then for us out of (extra) this life as He chose to be with us and not God without us in and through the mediatorial humanity of the Son, who is the Christ.

These represent some lineaments of what it means to be a Christian theologian, from my perspective. It is an activity that is grounded in the triune life, and then lived out in worshipful exaltation of the living God as we move and breathe in and from the obedience of the Son’s active and passive obedience for us; as He gives both of these for us in the Incarnation&Atonement. We recognize all of this as a life of Love; a life that has eternally known itself in Self-givenness One for the Other as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the shape that the obedient life has; as a life of eternal love between the Father and the Son bidden and begotten by the Holy Spirit. And it is this life that the Christian lives in and from on a daily and moment by moment basis. This is where knowledge of God is advanced; as the praxis is a piece with the doxa, and both actualized and realized for us in the resurrection power of the Son of God in Christ. Thus, being a Christian theologian has a concrete and staurological (cross) shaped character to it, such that the Christian theologian is actively living out the Great Commission making disciples of the nations, baptizing them in the singular Name of the multiplied persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; who is the One God (de Deo Uno). The Christian theologian therefore is an actor in the drama of God as God is the author and finisher of our lives in Christ; viz. the Christian theologian lives out the good activities of God as those were primarily and poetically worked out for us in the life of Christ. The Christian theologian knows God as they live in this commission of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ; a commission that encompasses the far reaches of the cosmos, first starting in Jerusalem.

Again, these are just some lineaments and off the top bases I think ought to characterize what the Christian theologian’s life might entail; and from whence that entailment gains energy and breath.


[1] See Thomas F. Torrance.

Framing What I Think a Christian Theologian’s Life is Characterized By

Responding to Jedidiah Paschall’s Case for a Reformed Universalism: With Particular Clarification on Barth’s and Torrance’s Logic as ‘Erroneous’

Jedidiah Paschall, a friend of the blog, has written a post offering an introduction to an ostensible Reformed Christian Universalism over at Aidan’s blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy. In Jed’s post he offers some critique of both Barth and TF Torrance; it is really an old or overly-rehearsed critique of Barth and Torrance’s theo-logic, but clearly one that still has purchase for folks like Jed and others. Roger Olson, in critique of our Evangelical Calvinism (insofar as that is contingent on Barth’s and Torrance’s categories) has made the same critique; as has Kevin Vanhoozer (even here at the blog), and Robert Letham et al. What I mostly want to respond to is the assertion, by Jed, that Torrance’s logic, when it comes to universalism, is ‘erroneous.’ It really isn’t: that’s what this post will, once again, seek to re-clarify (since I will be reposting a lengthy treatment that responds to this, by appealing to a treatment by George Hunsinger). If Barth’s (and by implication, Torrance’s) broader theological commitments are not appreciated, then folks like Paschall et al. will concluded that they operate with an erroneous logic. But this is petitio principii, since the premise is that if Barth and Torrance don’t operate with the same sort of prolegomenal method and attending theo-logic (situated in a prior metaphysical construal), that by virtue of this, Barth and Torrance’s theo-logic just is erroneous. But this is to think in a circle, and not carefully attend to Barth’s and Torrance’s own approaches, respectively.

Here is some of Jed’s critique:

In the related matter of atonement, which Reformed theolo­gians have classically considered limited in scope, Torrance demands that the atonement, which is grounded in an Athanasian understanding of the incarnation, is unlimited:

We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity – that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact – nothing can undo it.

This makes it all the more curious why Torrance, in general agreement with Barth, forgoes logical consistency to both his doctrines of atonement and incarnation when a mere page later he denies universal salvation with equal vehemence:

Objectively, then, we must think of atonement as [a] sufficient and efficacious reality for every human being – it is such sufficient and efficacious reality that it is the rock of offense, the rock of judgement upon which the sinner who refuses the divine love shatters himself or herself and is damned eternally.

It is not entirely clear why Torrance takes with one hand what he gives with another. The whole question of efficacy, as he has already established, is bound up in God’s work in the Incarnate Christ. Efficacy is cannot reasonably called universal if it is not universally accomplished and applied. It would be odd for Torrance to appeal to an Arminian understanding of free will at this point. Torrance’s erroneous logic can easily be cleared up by eliminating this non sequitur and to simply acknowledge that the atoning work of Christ will be universally effective for all in eventual and ultimate reconciliation.[1]

As I noted, the following will be a lengthy treatment offered by George Hunsinger. The treatment directly responds to the charges of Barth’s incoherence (and by implication, Torrance’s). In the original posting of this treatment, I was responding to something Robert Letham had written; something that directly dovetails with Jed’s claim. Here it is:

Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance are both, and often accused of being incoherent in their material theological positions and conclusions. Robert Letham most recently has made this charge against Thomas Torrance in particular (and it might as well have been against Karl Barth as well). Letham writes against Torrance:

It is simply incoherent for Torrance to say what he says about the definitive justification and reconciliation for all people and yet to deny universal salvation. Moreover, if it is possible for people to reject Christ and what he has done, it cannot be definitive and effective for them and cannot have been complete in Christ’s person. It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by the assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis.[2]

What seriously bothers me about such claims is that people like Robert Letham, Roger Olson (who thinks us Evangelical Calvinists are incoherent for the same kinds of reasons), et al. totally fail to appreciate and take Barth and Torrance on their stated terms. It is not as if Barth or Torrance have not provided extended treatments of their terms and prolegomena and approach to things, theological; they have! And so for the rest of this post (and it will turn out to be a long post because of this, but I want to have this available online for whenever I hear that Barth and Torrance are incoherent) I will be quoting George Hunsinger at length on Karl Barth; and Hunsinger will be explaining why Barth (and think Torrance as well, for his own related reasons) is not in fact incoherent while those who are making the claim of incoherence in fact are the ones who are incoherent relative to the particular categories of Scripture and God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ. So here we go:

Testing for Incoherence Within the Framework of the Chalcedonian Pattern

The coherentist mode of testing, as it emerged in the survey of rationalism, also plays a decisive role in Barth’s justification of his position on double agency. Directly and indirectly, therefore, it serves to justify his reliance on the conceptions of miracle and mystery in that position. On the exegetical or hermeneutical premise that the terms of the Chalcedonian pattern are rooted in the biblical testimony regarding how divine and human agency are related, the mode of doctrinal testing proceeds as follows. The Chalcedonian pattern is used to specify counterpositions that would be doctrinally incoherent (and also incoherent with scripture). “Without separation or division” means that no independent human autonomy can be posited in relation to God. “Without confusion or change” means that not divine determinism or monism can be posited in relation to humanity. Finally, “complete in deity and complete in humanity” means that no symmetrical relationship can be posited between divine and human actions (or better, none that is not asymmetrical). It also means that the two cannot be posited as ultimately identical. Taken together, these considerations mean that, if the foregoing conditions are to be met, no nonmiraculous and nonmysterious conception is possible. The charge of incoherence (as previously defined) thereby reveals itself to be abstract, in the sense that it does not adequately take all the necessary factors into account. It does not work inductively from the subject matter (as attested by scripture)–as the motif of particularism would prescribe. Instead, it starts from general considerations such as formal logic and applies them to certain isolated aspects of the more “concrete” position. At the same time, the charge may well have implicated itself, wittingly or unwittingly, in one of the rejected couterpositions.

Without Separation or Division: Against Independent Human Autonomy

No independent human autonomy, Barth argues, may be posited in relation to God. The idea of an independent human autonomy posits the kind of illicit “determinism” that Barth finds to be characteristic of Pelagian and semi-Pelagian positions counter to his own. The actuality of human autonomy or freedom or self-determination (and so on) is, it is important to see, not in question. What is in question is the condition for the possibility of human autonomy, freedom, and self-determination. The Pelagian position finds this condition to be entirely inherent in human nature as created by divine grace, whereas the semi-Pelagian position finds it to be only partially inherent in human nature. The Pelagian sees no need, whereas the semi-Pelagian sees some need, for the special operation of divine grace, if the human creature is to act freely in fellowship with God (I/1, 199-200; II/1, 562-63). Neither position survives Barth’s coherentist form of testing, for neither is seen to do justice either to the radicality of sin or to the finitude of the creature. The same basic inadequacy can be restated with reference to other doctrinal beliefs, and these are actually thought to be the more fundamental. Christologically, the counterpositions fail to do justice to the cross of Christ (as it discloses the radicality of sin) and to the necessity of the mediation of Christ (as it overcomes not only sin, but the finitude of the creature, by exalting the creature to eternal life). Theologically, moreover, the counterpositions fail to do justice to the divine righteousness (as it discloses the radicality of sin) and to the divine majesty (as it discloses the essence of creaturely finitude).

In discussing the question of double agency, it is most often the radicality of sin and the majesty of God to which coherentist appeal adverts (although the other beliefs do not cease to be presupposed, of course, and are sometimes invoked). The radicality of sin, as already documented on more than one occasion, is regarded as meaning that we have “completely lost the capacity for God” (I/1, 238). The majesty of God, on the other hand, is characteristically conceived in terms of the “conditioned” and the “unconditioned.” “The creature which conditions God is no longer God’s creature, and the God who is conditioned by the creature is no longer God” (II/1, 580). Or again: “Grace would not be grace if it were not free, but were conditioned by a reciprocal achievement on the part of the one to whom it is addressed” (I/1, 45). Or again: “Grace cannot be called forth or constrained by any claim or merit, by any existing or future condition, on the part of the creature…. Both in its being and in its operation its necessity is in itself” (II/2, 19). That God’s grace is absolutely free in relation to the creature, ant that the creature can in no way condition God, is as axiomatic in Barth’s theology as he believes it to be axiomatic in scripture. Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism both fail, because they posit a creature who by nature conditions God, and a God who by nature can be and is conditioned by the creature. What is worse, these counterpositions do so even in the face of the radicality of sin. They are therefore judged to be incoherent from the standpoint of doctrinal testing. “What takes place in the covenant of grace takes place wholly for the human creature. A creatura mediatrix gratiarum or even corredemptrix is a self-contradiction” (I/1, 45).

Barth’s position over against these counterpositions may be briefly restated. The actuality of human freedom is affirmed (and by no means denied). But the condition for its possibility in relation to God is found not at all in human nature itself, but entirely in divine grace. In the event of human fellowship autonomy is not at all independent. It is entirely subsequent to and dependent on grace. The missing capacity for freedom in fellowship with God is given and received as a gift–“not as a supernatural quality, but as a capacity which is actual only as it is used, which is not in any sense magical, but absolutely free and natural in its exercise” (III/1, 128). In and through him it is called by grace “out of nothingness into being, out of death into life.” The event of grace on which the capacity for freedom completely depends is thereby a miracle and a mystery. But in and with this complete dependence, it is “real in the way in which creation generally can be in its relationship to the Creator.” Human freedom in all its reality is “encompassed,” “established,” “delimited,” and “determined” by divine grace (II/1, 128). The “mystery of human autonomy” is clearly not “an autonomous mystery” (II/2, 194). It is rather included within “the one divine mystery.” It is, that is to say, included within “the mystery of grace,” within “the mystery of God’s triumphant affirmation and love.” Only in this sense (but certainly in this sense) is it included within “the mystery of God’s omnipotence.” The reality of human freedom takes place, therefore, not as “the second point in an ellipse” (the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian counterpositions), but as “the circumference around one central point of which it is the repetition and confirmation” (II/2, 194). Divine grace and human freedom stand, in other words, in a conceptually asymmetrical relationship rather than in one of conceptual interdependence.

The features of this argument may also be stated in terms of the various motifs. The reality of fellowship is in question by way of the problem of double agency (personalism). The mode of testing for incoherence takes place in terms of the remaining web of doctrinal beliefs (rationalism). The bestowal, by grace, of freedom for fellowship with God is described as a miraculous event (actualism). This event also takes place in such a way that divine omnipotence and human freedom coexist in mutual love and freedom as the mystery of God with humanity and of humanity with God (particularism). Furthermore, the miracle and the mystery of the event are said to be dependent upon and mediated through the saving person and work of Jesus Christ (objectivism). The counterpositions (Pelgianism and semi-Pelagianism) are shown to be incoherent at essential points with the presupposed web of doctrinal beliefs (especially “the radicality of sin” and “the majesty of God”), whereas the position in question is shown in fact to be coherent with it in the mode of miracle and mystery (rationalism, actualism, particularism). Since the web of presupposed beliefs is taken to be in accord with scripture, it follows (granted the assumption) that the challenged position is also in accord with scripture, and that the proposed counterpositions are not (although this could and would need to be argued also on independent exegetical grounds) (realism). Thus all six motifs are in force in one way or another in the mode of testing for the possible coherence or incoherence of the challenged belief.[3]

I submit that after carefully considering these various theological motifs that fund Barth’s and Torrance’s theologies, respectively, that Jed Paschall’s claim about Torrance’s theo-logic being erroneous fall by the way. I realize Jed wants to appropriate the universalist theo-logic present in both Barth and Torrance, while at the same time distancing himself from what he thinks represents faulty logic in their ultimate rejection of an absolute Christian universalism (the position Jed wants to argue for as a Reformed Christian). But, again, in light of Hunsinger’s treatment, and simply reading both Barth and Torrance carefully, one will not arrive at the conclusion that they operate with an erroneous logic; particularly when that comes to the issue of Christian universalism as a theological conclusion.


[1] Jedidiah Paschall, Source.

[2] Robert Letham, The Triune God, Incarnation, and Definite Atonement in edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 454. When Letham writes of Torrance: ‘…It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by the assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis….’ What he is referring to is this in Torrance’s writings:

The rationalism of both universalism and limited atonement. Here we see that man’s proud reason insists in pushing through its own partial insight into the death of the cross to its logical conclusion, and so the great mystery of the atonement is subjected to the rationalism of human thought. That is just as true of the universalist as it is of those who hold limited atonement for in both cases they have not yet bowed their reason before the cross of Christ. (Atonement, 187-88)

And this:

 (i) Christ’s death for all is an inescapable reality. We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity — that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact — nothing can undo it. That means that God has taken the great positive decision for man, the decision of love translated into fact. But because the work and the person of Christ are one, that finished work is identical with the self-giving of God to all humanity which he extends to everyone in the living Christ. God does not withhold himself from any one, but he gives himself to all whether they will or not — even if they will not have him, he gives himself to them, for he has once and for all given himself, and therefore the giving of himself in the cross when opposed by the will of man inevitably opposes that will of man and is its judgement. As we saw, it is the positive will of God in loving humanity that becomes humanity’s judgement when they refuse it. (Thomas F. Torrance,Atonement, 188-89)

What Letham, as others, fails to appreciate is the very point that Hunsinger (above and below) highlights about Barth’s approach; primarily having to do with the ‘radicality of sin’, and thinking from the grammar and mystery of the Incarnationitself. Torrance, as Letham asserts, is not merely making an ‘assertion,’ but in fact has his assertion squarely grounded within Christian, historical, and constructive theological proposals that are both robust and cogent within a coherent framework of thought. Hunsinger, I believe, defeats Letham’s (and other’s) charge of incoherence against Torrance, and by relation Karl Barth; and for the very reasons that Hunsinger registers in his clarification and defense of Karl Barth. The irony is that Barth and Torrance, if understood through classical patterns of Christian theological engagement are seen to be the coherent ones while those who are critiquing them are the ones who end up being incoherent by engaging abstract patterns of thought that are foreign to the mysterious Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It is not that mystery is being appealed to in abstraction by either Barth or Torrance, instead the parameters of thought for both of them is chastened and cordoned off by the mystery of God en sarkos (‘in the flesh’); and any Christian intelligibility must be thought from within this center, and not a center of our own active intellectual making.

[3] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 195-98 nook version. 

Responding to Jedidiah Paschall’s Case for a Reformed Universalism: With Particular Clarification on Barth’s and Torrance’s Logic as ‘Erroneous’

The Sheep Know the Shepherd’s Voice, In Contrast to the Non-voice of the No-God in Scholasticisms: Thinking on Assurance of Salvation Again

Let us consider assurance of salvation, once again. As many of you know I have elaborated on this theme further in our last EC book, but I wanted to continue thinking further on it here. This will be brief, and we will use a quote I have used more than once from Barth in critique of Calvin’s ability to offer a real doctrine of assurance of salvation. But we will not be focusing on Barth and Calvin, per
se, we will only use the quote as a jumping off point for another point I want to make on the same theme. Here is that quote:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[1]

The aspect of this quote I do want to appropriate is the emphasis on the Word of God, on Jesus Christ. The thought that seemingly and randomly occurred to me this evening was how the ‘hidden God’ functions as a contributory to doubt of one’s personal salvation. In other words, if God is a brute Creator God who relates to the world via decretum absolutum, through decrees that keep God untouched and unmoved by His creation, then it becomes psychologically plausible that a person could live an entire life in doubt that they genuinely are participants in eternal salvation. If God’s salvation remains hidden back up in a decree, then what correlation is there between God’s voice and knowledge of God and thus self? In other words, the Bible says (cf. Jn 10) that the sheep know their Shepherd’s (Jesus’s) voice; which presumably means that the Christian is in a dialogical/con-versational relationship with their Lord. If this is so, the decretal God is, at best, a total misunderstanding of who the God of biblical reality is.

This is the thought that hit me: Pro me, God is not an impersonal and objective/capricious being I have no access to. NEIN! Pro me, God is a personal God I have an intimate relationship with bonded in the sweetness of love bounded by the Holy Spirit, who has placed me into union with God in and through the grace of Christ’s vicarious humanity. In other words, I actually KNOW God. I know His character, and hear His still small voice in the inner recesses of my heart. I know that I am my beloveds and He is mine! This knowledge quenches any concept of a hidden God; like the sort of hidden God who stands behind an absolute decree to choose some and reject others. For the Christian, God is not an unknowable quantity; we know Him, because He first has known us in the Son made flesh.

But the point I want to get across in this post, most fervently, is that I actually KNOW my Lord; I actually KNOW His voice, and He speaks to me. If there is a theology that mitigates this most biblical reality, then it is no theology at all; instead it is a philosophy going under the name of theology—no matter its historical lineage.

[1] Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.

The Sheep Know the Shepherd’s Voice, In Contrast to the Non-voice of the No-God in Scholasticisms: Thinking on Assurance of Salvation Again

A Response to Peter Leithart and Steve Duby: ‘In Defense [or Critique] of Christian Philosophy’

God and philosophy, and age old discussion; i.e. ‘what hath Jerusalem to do with Athens?’ I want to broach this topic in this post, and with particular reference to an exchange that has taken place between Peter Leithart and Steve Duby; in regard to Leithart’s interaction with Steve’s book Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account. I will not recount everything they have written, but let me attempt to summarize.

Leithart offers, as I recall, eight critiques of Duby’s thinking on the relationship between God and philosophy; or the wisdom of attempting to speak God from philosophical categories rather than ‘biblical’ ones. Here is a helpful nutshell of Leithart’s larger critique[s]: “3) Philosophy bewitches by her rhetoric. She makes us think that speaking in her dialect is more precise or profound than speaking in the poetic dialect of Scripture. I contend, on the contrary, that the Scriptural talk of God is the most precise and adequate language we can have. It’s God’s own talk about Himself.”[1] And Duby’s basic response to this is as follows (also part of his larger rejoinder), at length:

Accordingly, Leithart’s third statement takes us to the heart of the problem with his post: when a theologian tries to claim the high ground by asserting that he or she is simply drawing from Scripture while his or her opponents are indulging in “philosophy,” the theologian is either being naïve or deceptive. Neither Leithart nor anyone else is simply repeating verbatim statements from Scripture. Leithart, along with everyone else, has to engage and draw upon knowledge developed by the use of the natural (and God-given) intellect. When someone is bent on trying to claim the aforementioned high ground, they are misleading their readers. Until someone like Leithart concedes that he is making use of extrabiblical knowledge to articulate his theological position, little can be gained from engaging in a debate about the doctrine of God and other particular topics. The first challenge is to dispel the naivete and establish some initial common ground.[2]


However, philosophy is fundamentally a knowledge or study of things discoverable by natural reason without necessarily being informed by supernatural revelation. It is a setting forth of things typically known implicitly by ordinary human beings (like the difference between an efficient cause and a final cause or the law of non-contradiction). What contemporary Christian theology needs, I would suggest, is a renewal of the traditional Protestant commitment to Scripture as the cognitive principle of theology and to reason or philosophy as a subordinate instrument for expounding what Scripture teaches.[3]

Now, you’re going to have to go and read exactly what Leithart actually wrote (in full) in response to his reading of Duby’s book. As you read Duby’s rejoinder, in full, as I have, he sort of misrepresents what Leithart actually is saying; albeit, the quote I shared from Leithart leaves him open for this sort of misreading. I don’t think, as I read Leithart, that he is actually taking the naïve route, or the sort of fundamentalist nuda scriptura that Duby attributes to him. It seems to me that Leithart is merely pushing back on the idea that biblical language itself isn’t sufficient to explicate and communicate who God is. What I see Leithart, potentially doing, is overreacting to the tradition that Duby represents; i.e. the Thomist/Aristotelian tradition that shapes much of the tradition being retrieved in the 16th and 17th century theological developments found in what has come to be called Post Reformed Orthodoxy. In this sense, Leithart’s critique is not far removed, not at all!, from my sustained critiques of the same tradition.

Further, I am not fully persuaded that Duby has read Leithart all that accurately; and as such, if this is the case, it makes Duby’s rejoinder almost unnecessary (at least in the form it was given). I don’t actually think Leithart is either naïve or attempting to intentionally mislead his readers (as Duby suggestively claims) when he commends people to use the ‘poetic’ language of the Bible rather than the metaphysical language of the philosophers, in order to speak God. I don’t actually think Leithart repudiates the catholic faith represented in the ecumenical councils such as we find in Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon. If anything, what I see Leithart doing is attempting to push church people back to the Bible, but not in a Socinian attempt to undercut the basic theo-logic given grammar by the ecumenical councils; but instead, to redress that grammar with the biblical language and emphases us Protestants are so presumably accustomed to (sola scriptura).

So that is my précis on the exchange, as it stands now, between Leithart and Duby. But what do I think about God and Philosophy? This will represent a summary perspective, and will further engage with Duby’s rejoinder to Leithart.

Let me respond to this part of Duby’s response to Leithart; this large quote from Duby will have to serve, for our purposes, as the sort of distillation of his broader pushback to Leithart, and his larger push back at anyone who challenges an overly analytic or Thomist frame for doing Christian theology. And this is what always piques my interest; i.e. the discussion revolving around how the Christian ought to think and speak God. This quote from Duby gives his general belief about what he thinks represents the best ‘philosophy’ for articulating God, and it does so as he is engaging with some material points about the Arisotelian/Thomist categories of substance/accidents vis-à-vis God and his explication—we will not get into the nitty gritty of those details, but instead focus on the general point about the relationship of God and Philosophy, and what ‘philosophy[s]’ are best suited for the Christian’s explication of God for the church in the 21st century. Duby writes:

However, the fact that the use of the metaphysical language is not absolutely necessary does not mean that the metaphysical resources in question are detached from reality. It does not mean that what they offer us is just a set of coherent rules for saying things – rules that we might either take or leave. On the contrary, the classical metaphysical tradition developed by Christian thinkers like John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas or the early Reformed theologians and philosophers involves a knowledge of how things are. Indeed, it is fundamentally an exposition of things human beings know to be true prior to engaging in any formal academic work. For example, things do have natures by virtue of which they are similar to other things. There really are substances in which accidents inhere. It is true that a whole is greater than any of its individual parts. The ad hoc nature of the decision to incorporate Aristotelian philosophical resources concerns the fact that explicit use of these concepts is not absolutely necessary for articulating doctrine. It does not concern the truthfulness or explanatory fecundity of the basic natural insights into the created order that are unpacked in the Aristotelian tradition. The notion that a whole is greater than its parts, for example, is true and is implicit in a statement like the one found in Colossians 2:9. As we seek ways to express what God is like according to scriptural teaching, we should look to this philosophical tradition, not Kant or Hegel, because it sheds light on reality. Of course, we will have to clarify how certain things that are true in the case of creatures are not true in God’s case, but that is precisely one of the ways in which someone like Aquinas puts this tradition to good use in saying, for example, that God’s attributes are not accidents but really are just God himself.[4]

As a prius, Duby is committed to the idea that there just is a natural or profane knowledge of how things are vis-à-vis the creation and the Creator, as such he premises from there that this natural knowledge (metaphysically) just is the way we have for rationally (not rationalistically) thinking God. This is what we see him getting at with his appeal to the Aristotelian tradition; the intellectual tradition Duby believes is the best suited for the Christian reality and theological ambition. This becomes his basic or major premise in response to Leithart, and any like detractors.

In further interaction with Steve (on FaceBook), he informed me that his response has nothing to do with whether or not Thomism etc. is the best frame for doing theology, but instead, according to him, his response simply has to do with the idea that we all operate with extrabiblical language and conceptual apparatus when it comes to working out the inner-logic of Scripture. Yet, as I read Duby’s rejoinder, particularly what I just shared from him, this doesn’t really seem to be the case; and it never really does seem to be. When folks like Duby (who by the way, I actually like and appreciate) make the sorts of arguments they do about God and Philosophy, and when they think the Tradition of the church, they have a certain strand of that tradition in mind; again, in Steve’s case it is the Thomist/Aristotelian strand. But at the end of the day I am unaware of an ecumenical church council that has asserted that the Tradition just is what we see climaxing in Thomas (other than say the Catholic Church). I think this is an important piece, and it is one that I would suggest that Leithart himself is pushing; that is, that the tradition itself is very expansive, made up of both East and West, and in-between. In the expanse of the tradition, even in the post reformed orthodox aspect, Thomas and Aristotle are not the crème de la crème that they are for many, like Duby, who are attempting to retrieve the catholic tradition for the evangelical churches. Again, I recognize that Duby is attempting to do more than one thing in his response to Leithart; i.e. 1) To simply argue that all responsible theologians use extrabiblical language and conceptual apparatus to speak and think God for the church, but 2) to also argue that Thomas, and the Aristotelian/analytic frame represents the most responsible way for explicating a Protestant and biblically theological orthodoxy. And I think that these two, rather than being exclusive for Duby, are in fact mutually conditioning, in regard to what he thinks the tradition at its best looks like.


I have already gone too long. I will have to make this at least a two part posting. In closing let me assert that: I don’t disagree with Duby, in toto; but of course I do disagree with him when he claims that only the Aristotelian tradition represents the best (and presumably orthodox) way for doing Christian theology. Along with Barth et al. I maintain that the Evangel does indeed contain its own emphases and categories that come not from an abstract human form of reasoning (which is Duby’s major premise about how we get to extrabiblical language and metaphysics), but instead from the Gospel reality itself Revealed in Jesus Christ. This is where I depart with Duby et al., I reject the idea that the analytical frame (the frame Duby is committed to) is the best suited for providing the Christian with a theological methodology and biblical hermeneutic in that process. Instead, as an Evangelical Calvinist, along with Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, I am committed to what Barth (in his Göttingen Dogmatics) calls ‘dialectical’ theology, and what Torrance calls dialogical theology. The ground for this approach to theology is in Reconciliation as God’s Revelation, as such it necessarily repudiates any notion that we can do theology from a natural ‘sight’, as Duby’s theological methodology premises, and instead requires that we theologize from ‘the faith of Christ,’ as that is mediated to us by His vicarious humanity and the new creation that He is for us in the Resurrection. It is in this frame that ‘extrabiblical’ language can properly be reified under the pressures provided by Godself, and the center we have to think Him from in His triune life for us in Jesus Christ. This is the fault-line in Duby’s thinking, I contend. And I think, in Leithart’s own way, it is this that he is calling out.

There is a way to redress/reify the “philosophical,” but I contend that that can only happen through an analogy of faith and relation with God in Christ, such that a ‘natural reasoning’ process does not become the basis for our theology; which is Duby’s premise. I ultimately believe that this is Leithart’s push-back to Duby. I think Leithart is challenging Duby’s idea about ‘our capacity’ to think God based on a metaphysic that is formed otherwise from God’s Self-Revelation. I might differ from Leithart in regard to his theory of revelation, but in principle I think we have convergence (but who am I?).

There may or may not be a part two to this post. I already have a million part twos that I’ve written over the years. Pax Christi


[1]Peter Leithart,  Source.

[2]Steve Duby, Source

[3]Ibid. The emboldened part from Steve is the common refrain of those who are committed (as Duby is) to a medievally and post reformed orthodoxy mode of theologizing.


A Response to Peter Leithart and Steve Duby: ‘In Defense [or Critique] of Christian Philosophy’

Evangelical Calvinism’s Christmas Doctrine of Pre-Destination and Election

In my Bible reading tonight (by the way, I am almost done with my 39th read through of Holy Writ), as I was reading through I Peter, I once again came across the following passage:

“He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.” I Peter 1:20

This is a sort of sine qua non for an Evangelical Calvinist conception of election. The focus for us is grounded from the homoousion, the idea that God became human in the singular person of Jesus Christ; viz. that He became human pro nobis (for us). Along with TF Torrance, Karl Barth, Pierre Maury et al. we see election focused on the vicarious humanity of Christ; a humanity that God the Son, with God the Father, by the Holy Spirit, elected for Himself so that as Irenaeus says ‘we might become what He is’ (by grace, not nature). As the Apostle Peter writes, this ‘election’ or pre-destination was something that was focused on the Son prior to the creation of the world (so a supralapsarianism), rather than (contra ‘classical’ understandings of double predestination) focusing on individual humans who are thought of in abstraction from the humanity of Christ’s.

But the point I want to mostly focus on is that for Evangelical Calvinists election has to do with God’s inner-life, in pre-temporal reality, as a life that chooses to not be God without us, but with us. So, election in this frame, when referring to pre-destination has to do with God’s life in Christ for us, rather than God’s choice of individual people inhabiting the earth; inhabiting in such a way that they can be thought of apart from Christ’s humanity when it comes to the very ground or esse of election. Election for the Evangelical Calvinist, thusly, has to do with God’s pre-temporal choice, and then its historical (via historia) actualization in the Incarnation—so a Christmas conception of predestination and election. Thomas Torrance captures all of this in the following way:

Eternal election becomes temporal event confronting people in Jesus

Once again, we cannot now pursue this further into the doctrine of the church, which is the doctrine of the corporate election moving into history as the body of Christ. But at this point we must look back again at the incarnate life of Jesus Christ in light of the threefold mysterion, prosthesis and koinonia. The eternal prothesis of God has become incarnate in Jesus Christ, has become history. In Jesus Christ, the prothesis became encounter, became decision in the living temporal relations with which we men and women have to do in our interactions with one another. Election is the person of Christ, true God and true man in one person, the union of the Father and the Son in eternal love incarnated in our flesh, and bodied forth among sinners. And so men and women in history, in their temporal actions and relations, in the midst of their temporal choices and decisions, are confronted by the Word made flesh, with the eternal decision of God’s eternal love. In Jesus Christ, therefore, eternal election has become temporal event.

Election is thus not some static act in a still point of eternity. Election is eternal pre-destination, moving out of its eternal prius into time as living act that from moment to moment confronts people in Jesus Christ. This is living act that cannot be abstracted from the person of Christ. On the contrary, here the person and act of Jesus Christ are one. Election is Christ the beloved son of the Father, and the act of election in him is once and for all, a perfectum praesens, an eternal decision that is ever present. God’s eternal decision does not halt or come to rest at any particular point or result, but is dynamic, and ever takes the field in its identity with the living person of Christ. As such election is contemporary with us, acting upon us and acting upon us through our reactions in the personal relations of men and women which it invades and which it sets into crisis. It does that by facing them with the ultimate decision which God has already taken in his love on our behalf and now sets forth in Jesus Christ, but it confronts us with that ultimate decision in such a way that we are summoned in decision before it. What do you think of Christ? Who do people say that I, the Son of Man, am? Who do you say that I am? That is precisely what we see taking place in the whole ministry of Jesus as he penetrated into people’s lives by his compassion, and revelation, and confronted them as the truth in the form of personal being, as election in the form of personal being.

That is the dimension of depth in which we are to see everything that Jesus did and said and was during the three years of his ministry as he pressed toward the cross, and the cross itself we see supremely in its setting in that context of the divine mysterion, prothesis, and koinonia.[1]


You aren’t going to find a more organic or ‘natural’ way of understanding election and predestination than what we are offering in Evangelical Calvinism vis-à-vis our teachers and interlocutors. As you read the New Testament, in particular, you will see this sort of theme emerging over and over again; i.e. the idea that we ‘live through Christ’ (see I Jn), or we have life through union with Christ (see the Apostle Paul’s ‘in Christ’ motif scattered throughout his oeuvre). We can amplify the various examples of this sort of ‘textual’ (versus metaphysical) understanding of election, grounded a posteriori in Christ’s vicarious humanity as it is, as we continue to engage with Holy Scripture in a maximal way. I commend this way of theology and life to you.  


[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 179-80.

Evangelical Calvinism’s Christmas Doctrine of Pre-Destination and Election

Karl Barth is a Better Resource for Evangelicals Than Protestant Orthodoxy: Some Personal Miscellanies

I wanted to write a post on Karl Barth, off the top; which I like to do every now and then. Karl Barth for the evangelical has been a balm; at least for this evangelical. Some say that Barth, at least socio-politically, is more radical and progressive than many of us evangelicals; and this may well be so in some pointed ways (but not in general ways, I’d gather). But of course, that wasn’t the first hook for me when it came to Barth, the first hanger for me was and continues to be theological. It is here where I would argue, at great length!, that Barth’s theology is fitted to the evangelical impulse much better than what is being currently excavated by evangelicals today. I grew up in the Free church Baptistic (Baptist even) tradition, and in this tradition, we had certain contours of thought funding our conception of God and all things corollary. Primary of which can be captured in the children’s Sunday School song (which Barth famously responded with at a heady theological conference): Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. All the hallmark touchstones present in the Protestant Reformation are represented in that little song; i.e. the Bible, Jesus pro me, and God’s love (which implies a Trinitarian frame). Also present in the tenor of that song is the warm-hearted piety which funds much of the 20th century North American evangelicalism I was birthed into and formed by early on. Barth’s theology encapsulates and develops these sorts of themes in deep and theologically rich ways. These are some reasons why I was attracted to Barth’s theology, and why I would argue his theology is better suited for evangelicals than is the 16th and 17th century school theology of Protestant orthodoxy. It isn’t that the Protestant orthodox theology isn’t inextricably informative to Barth’s own theology, it actually is! It is just that Barth, in my view, does a better job of retrieving this theology, in constructive mode, in such a way that coalesces with the evangelical mood (that I’m aware of), than does the sort of repristination of that that is happening in the work of folks like Mike Allen, Scott Swain, Richard Muller et al.

Before this digresses into a polemical post, let me turn back to the positives of Barth’s theology, that have captured and captivated me for many years now. The primary hook for me—which I’ve mentioned before—is Barth’s reformulation of election/predestination. His, of course, is a Christ concentrated reification of double predestination wherein the eternal Logos, God’s Son, is not only the electing God, but the elected human for us. As such He assumes our humanity for Himself, and gives us His elect humanity which is realized in the resurrection and the ‘wonderful exchange’ (mirifica commutatio) II Cor. 8.9. There is more to unpacking Barth’s reformulation, but in a nutshell, this brought me into the influence of his theology. I could never accept the ‘classical’ idea of double predestination and election/reprobation therein; you know, the idea that God arbitrarily chooses particular individuals for eternal bliss, and the others (the majority of the world) he either passively or actively damns to an eternal hell (over their heads, without them even knowing any of this has happened before it’s too late). What allows Barth’s reformulation to work is that he eschews the Aristotelian metaphysics that funds the Protestant orthodox conception of double predestination, and the theory of causation therein, and opts for what came to be called ‘dialectical theology.’

Dialectical theology, or what can also be termed dialogical theology, is also another hook for me, when it comes to Barth’s theology. This mode of thinking moves beyond the typical boundaries set by analytical strictures, and allows the Christian thinker to think anew from the ‘rationality’ set down by the Gospel reality itself. This reality isn’t one that is ‘naturally’ discoverable in a pure nature, but instead it is sui generis, it is a ratio or logic that is recognized by faith; it is a ratio that comes with the Grace of the Gospel, as such it is relationally (analogia relationis) and thus dialogically oriented. Its orientation, in other words, is one that is grounded in God’s free choice to be for us and with and not against us in Jesus Christ. This sort of theology, grounded in the non-analogous reality of the Incarnation, necessarily is one that is driven by the event and ongoing encounter of this event of God’s life for us in the face of the risen Christ. In other words, it is a theology shaped by an I/Thou relationship; first and foremost, grounded in the eternal bond and singular person of Jesus Christ and the fellowship He has always already shared with the Father by the Holy Spirit. The character of this sort of theology, because of its relational nature, seeks to think its thoughts and articulate its words only after attentively listening to God speak; and only after the disciple has spoken to this God (in other words, it is a theology based in prayerful posture and life).

Another reason Barth’s theology is so significant to me is because of its Apocalyptical shape. In other words, Barth’s theology is grounded in the concept of God’s invading grace in Christ. As such, there is nothing stable in ‘this world,’ or ‘this creation,’ except for the fact that God’s Grace becomes present, afresh and anew in the encounter we (as Christians) have with Him in the parousia of Jesus Christ; something that for the intentioned Christian happens on a moment by moment and daily basis. Some might protest that this makes Barth’s theology a purely existentialist theology, but this would miss the definitive role that the doctrine of election plays in Barth’s theology; it would also misunderstand just how radical Barth’s overture was against the genuinely existentialist theology of his own day (and what he indeed was reacting against). Barth grounds His theology in the objective reality of who God is, as such, it is a theology from above, but one that is experienced from below as that comes to us in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is this coming that grounds the new-creation through which the Christian can think God in the world; and at the same time recognize the fact that God is antecedent and thus distinct from the world He has come to reconcile unto Himself (thus honoring the Creator/creature distinction). But it is this sort of ‘apocalyptic’ in-breaking that shaped Barth’s theology; one that grounds theological reflection in the eschatos of God’s life in Christ, and keeps the disciple vulnerable to God’s voice and wit rather than their own.

These are some of the reasons Barth’s theology has been and remains attractive to me. This was all off the top and very quick; too quick. But these represent some of my unpolished thoughts, and thus impulses that subconsciously drive me on a daily basis as a Christian. In other words, I have so internalized much of this thinking that it plays itself out in my daily Christianity. In other words, I have tacit thoughts floating around in my head and heart that have taken shape over years of reflection that help fund my Christian life and well-being. And at one time these thoughts were only tacit impulses, indeed; it wasn’t until I ran into Barth that these impulses were given words and a grammar to think from in more intentional and articulate ways. Solo Christo

Karl Barth is a Better Resource for Evangelicals Than Protestant Orthodoxy: Some Personal Miscellanies

Jesus, God’s Saint for Us: Thinking Dialogical Theology from Canlis’s Calvin and His Doctrine of Creation and Communion

Still rereading Julie Canlis’s magisterial work Calvin’s Ladder. I wanted to share her introduction to her second chapter, which is entitled Creation: The Ground and Grammar of Ascent. Here she is going to develop Calvin’s doctrine of creation and communion, and the way that implicates a doctrine of ascent or koinonia and/or fellowship with God. I’ll share the quote, and then comment a bit further on the other side.

Because ascent has been misconstrued over the years — indeed, the metaphor has been used to devalue and escape creation for centuries — it is essential to begin with Calvin’s doctrine of creation. We begin with concept of the world as a place of communion, the “trysting place” between God and humanity. Creation is revealed to be a space overflowing with the fatherhood of God, the mediation of Christ, and the tending of the Spirit. It is only when this is established that a correct understanding of Christ’s ascent, our incorporation into him, and ascent in the Eucharist can be grasped properly.

Creation, as the sphere of koinōnia, is the ground and grammar of an ascent that is not away from materiality but a deepened experience of communion within it. This issues forth in a concept of creation that is anything but static and impersonal. Instead, Calvin’s theological vision is a dynamic interplay of God, creation, and humanity, where the creation-call on humanity and the delight and communication of God hold center stage. From the proleptic thrust of Calvin’s doctrine of creation, to his projective concept of the imago as “toward” (ad), to Adam’s dynamic koinōnia existence and then the forceful inversion of sin and the metaphor of falling (the Fall), Calvin is anything but amorphous. Communion is the groundwork of creation, the purpose of anthropology, and the telos toward which all creation strains.[1]

When Canlis concludes ‘Communion is the groundwork of creation, the purpose of anthropology, and the telos toward which all creation strains’ it becomes clear why she fits so well with us Evangelical Calvinists. As I’ve noted previously, dialogical theology, or what Barth terms dialectical theology (in his Göttingen Dogmatics), is a sort of touchstone for Evangelical Calvinism’s theological method (prolegomenon). While it seems to be a pre-dogmatic locus, in fact the method itself is given as the material gift of salvation in the concrete reality of Jesus Christ. It is here, and constantly consistently here where God has spoken (Deus dixit), and continues to speak; as such, this is where Evangelical Calvinists intentionally sit still and attempt to listen before we speak.

Of interest, also, is the idea that Canlis draws from Calvin’s theology; viz. the idea that ascent comes to have an aethereal reality and instead a palpable/material reality in the descent and ascent of the incarnated and ascended Christ. This is important in moving beyond an untethered metaphysics that attempts to discursively think God from effects to cause. Instead, as with Canlis’s Calvin, so for us Evangelical Calvinists, we necessarily affirm the goodness of recreation in Jesus Christ; as such our prayers and dialogues with the living God in the risen Christ do not flutter to the heavens on the wings of wistful butterflies, but instead in and through the flesh and blood and risen body of Jesus Christ. It is through the broken body of the lively Christ wherein the veil has been torn, and we come to have eyes to see and ears to hear the Shepherd’s voice. Dialogical theology is one bounded in koinonia, in the communion of the saints grounded in the Saint of God for us who is Jesus Christ. Here we hear God speak. This is the basis of any sound theology; one that listens through the new ears given for us in the recreated ears of Jesus Christ. As God has spoken and speaks in the humanity of Christ we hear God.

[1] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension(Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), Loc. 582, 586, 591.

Jesus, God’s Saint for Us: Thinking Dialogical Theology from Canlis’s Calvin and His Doctrine of Creation and Communion

The Calvinian Turn to Jesus Christ Versus the Catholic Turn to the Vicar: A Rationale for the Evangelical Calvinist Via

John Calvin provided for a Protestantly Reformed turn towards a genuinely Christocentric theology of the Word, that prior (except in lineaments found in some Patristics and then in Martin Luther) was hard to find; particularly in the mediaeval context within which Calvin found himself, even if that was of the late variety. In the modern period when we read someone like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and then compare that with a reading of John Calvin, what stands out is the way that Barth/Torrance followed Calvin’s ‘turn,’ but only in even more radical or theo-logically conclusive ways. This is something I don’t think current Protestants who are attempting to retrieve the ‘classical’ past appreciate very much; viz. this turn that Calvin helped initiate (along with Luther), a radical turn to a genuine theology of the Word in Jesus Christ—a turn to a christocentric approach to theological endeavor versus the theocentric that reigned supreme in the Tridentine.

Julie Canlis—as we once again refer to her magisterial work, Calvin’s Ladder—helps us appreciate this Calvinian turn as she contrasts that with the Aquinasian approach (you’ll see her reference the structure of Thomas’s Summa Theologiae and how that materially illustrates her point). She writes:

A comparison of Aquinas and Calvin reveals that, while Calvin picks up on this scholastic scheme, he also fundamentally alters it. Pushing beyond Wyatt’s insight, we discover that it no longer is the story of humanity’s ascent to God by grace (Aquinas), or of the soul’s ascent (Augustine), but of Christ’s ascent. Calvin refuses to tack Christ as a tertia pars onto the Plotinian circle of creation’s procession from and return to God. Instead, Christ breaks open the circle and grafts it onto himself. For Calvin, the figure of Christ has shattered any scheme that begins with creation and allows creation to be considered apart from Christ, through whom it was made and to whom it is directed. In subtly shifting Aquinas’s exitus- reditus scheme from anthropology to Christ, Calvin challenges Aquinas’s attempt at theocentrism as not going far enough. It is not Christ who fits into the procrustean bed of anthropology but we who are fitted to Christ and his ascent. In him and by his Spirit, we ascend to the Father.[1]

She is certainly right to recognize that Calvin operated in the milieu of his own period; how could he not? But, as Canlis also helps us see, Calvin was a constructive and ingenious Christian thinker propelled by his newfound Protest-ant faith; a faith given direction and shape by a principled commitment to the Word rather than to the Church as his ultimate authority. Within this complex Calvin was ingressed into a new world that had the imaginary to think the church from Christ rather than Christ from the church; as such, he was able to make the turn that others prior couldn’t.

I would suggest that Barth and Torrance picked up on this turn in Calvin, and as I noted previously, radicalized it further; to its rightful conclusion even. Both Barth and Torrance, and us Evangelical Calvinists, are genuinely Calvinian in the sense that we operate not just in the spirit, but the letter of Calvin’s turn to Jesus Christ as the centraldogma of all that is viable in theological endeavor. I think our counterparts in other tributaries of the Reformed faith, in their zeal to recover the ‘catholic faith’ have unfortunately overlooked the sort of Christ conditioned notion of God that Calvin (and Luther) did not. As Evangelical Calvinists we attempt to move and breath in this Christ concentrated spirit, with the result that all our theologizing is principially and intensively Christ pressured. We think this is the right trajectory to be on since Jesus himself seemed to take this approach when engaging with Holy Scripture (cf. Jn 5.39; etc.).

[1] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension(Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), Loc. 493, 498.

The Calvinian Turn to Jesus Christ Versus the Catholic Turn to the Vicar: A Rationale for the Evangelical Calvinist Via

Communio Sanctorum: Confronting Radical Analytical Theology with Radical Participationist-Dialogical Theology

I have been around theologians, theologians I would call analytical theologians who have questioned the merits of basing theological projects on and in dialogue with dead (or even living) theologians from the past. In other words, the concern these analytics seemingly have is that we end up relying too heavily upon the idiosyncrasy of this or that theologian’s turn, and thus lose the rigor of independent and critical thought. The supposition is that the analytic theologian has access to a body of ideational tools that allows a valence of objectivity unencumbered by the individual thought processes of others. In other words, these sorts of theologians seem to think philosophy has its own ontological force such that it can (and ought to) supply the theologian with the sorts of tools that would allow them to arrive at theological conclusions based upon ‘ideas’ themselves; as if ideas have some sort of ‘cut-off’ value to them that allows them to have reality apart from their location in the hearts and minds of embodied human agents. In other words, when I hear these types of theologians make these statements (about building on the ideas of other theologians from the past) it makes me think that they think that they have a super-powered ability to access the ‘pure-world’ of ideas (eternal forms) unencumbered by the messiness of what happens to ideas when we see those in the dynamic of the relationality inherent to what it means to be creaturely in relation to other creatures. When I hear these types of theologians think out-loud like this it makes me think they would make their father, Plato, very proud. Ironically, what I am describing is simply the best of what the modern turn to the subject offers up; i.e. the idea that individual (monadic) subjects have the capaciousness to objectively opine about meta-realities without being in dialogue with the grammars and ideational superstructures that others have developed in the history of theological ideas.

Maybe if you’re into analytical theology you’re not recognizing what I’m describing; you’re not picking up what I’m laying down. But I have been around certain philosophers of religion, who count themselves as theologians, who have pressed what I have described above to a T. In other words this is not something I have fabricated whole cloth. But this is exactly what I as an Evangelical Calvinist am opposed to; along with the great Tradition of the church. Christian theology, at its best, has always recognized that God has seen fit to supply his Church with teachers; in sundry times and places. Herein we have had one long Pentecostal dialogue taking place within the strictures of the Church, such that a body of ortho-dox teaching has been produced. It is within these confines, recognizing their eschatological (thus ectypal) nature, that further and faithful dialogue can transpire towards a ‘growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.’ This is why Evangelical Calvinists, along with Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth, are so adamant about ‘dialogical theology.’ We insist that the ground of the theological endeavor, or Church Dogmatics, takes place as we, the Church, are in constant dialogue (prayerful) with the living God in the risen Christ. Theology in this mode is first reliant upon the Christian’s fellowship and participation with Jesus Christ (participatio Christi); and then in this koinonial (fellowshipping) bond, as the Church, we have the capacity to grow in our knowledge of God as we fellowship one with another as we are graciously grounded in the center of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. Evangelical Calvinists believe that the communio sanctorum (communion of the saints), as that is understood from our groundedness together in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ (where we are all seated in the heavenlies with him), is the location that proper theological developments find their greatest and most fiduciary (relative to the Evangel) gravitas. In order to press this point home, let me close with a nice development of this theme offered by Julie Canlis (who by the way is a contributor to our first EC book). Here Canlis is referring to her own work with Irenaeus and Calvin vis-à-vis their respective doctrines of participation.

I will conclude my “backward” look by bringing both theologians forward into the contemporary realm, looking at the implications of their doctrine of participation for the present day. . . . What makes a comparison of Calvin and this Gallic predecessor so interesting for today is the way in which they used participation to fight opposite battles. In Calvin’s time, the transcendence of God was threatened by the humanist exaltation of humanity. Irenaeus’s situation could not have been more contrary, with the Gnostics compromising the goodness of humanity and creation through twisted beliefs about divine transcendence. Yet both answered their opponents with a startling vision of human participation in Christ, all the while building these anthropologies from opposite ends of the spectrum. My intent is that Irenaeus’s vision would draw attention to the originality and continuity of Calvin’s own concept of participation, while also providing gentle correctives as needed.

It should be quite clear that I am neither attempting to repristinate a specific era of the past nor am I constructing a pedigree of Calvin’s supposed sources. For although Irenaeus is Calvin’s seventh most frequently cited church father, Calvin was primarily “reacting to the uses that Irenaeus was put to by his adversaries.” Rather, I am attempting to do theology on the model of the sanctorum communio — the belief that we are neither isolated Christians nor objective scientists but rather within a church and stream of tradition. Barth says,

The Church does not stand in a vacuum. Beginning from the beginning, however necessary, cannot be a matter of beginning off one’s own bat. We have to remember the communion of saints, bearing and being borne by each other, asking and being asked, having to take mutual responsibility for and among the sinners gathered tougher in Christ.

To be only a spectator of those who entered into this task of theology is to violate the nature of what they have undertaken, for theology is by nature personal — marked by the one who first reveals himself to us. Or to put it bluntly, there is a difference between Calvin as subject matter and Calvin’s subject matter. To give Calvin a voice is to respect not only the particularity of his time (and the particularity of revelation) with rigorous historical research, it is also to value the themes that he shares with us. It is to refuse, with Philip Butin, the false alternatives of either “confessional” or “historical” theology and engage both Calvin and Irenaeus as dialogue partners for a deepened understanding of participation. As Holmes quips, “The doctors are not dead and gone, but living and active.” If there is an attempt to “use” Calvin for this vital issue in contemporary theology, then so be it. I believe he just might have something to say.[1]

As Canlis details her own rational for her methodology what emerges is the importance that dialogical theology has in the theological process. What we see is how participation, itself a theological locus, serves as the basis for thinking with our brothers and sisters in the theological endeavor. The analytical theologian often falls prey to thinking about the way thinkers of the past thought (as a descriptive exercise); the analytical theologian often believes he or she has elevated to a point of intellectual development wherein, they believe, the critical task of being a theologian is to offer ‘original’ thought that out-paces what happened in the past (so there is a sort of chronological snobbery attending this as well). But the dialogical theologian, in contrast, recognizes the basis for theological talk; it is only after God has spoken, and only after he continues to speak that the theologian can indeed do theology. It is only after the would-be theologian is confronted with and contradicted by the voice of the living God, within a relational nexus of filial communion, wherein genuine theology obtains.

None of what I am pressing negates the importance of thinking critically and even ‘modally analytically,’ but what I am attempting to reinforce is the idea that the ground of theological practice must always already be founded upon and in the giver of life itself. And if the giver of life itself is the Triune God—who is necessarily relational and personal—then the character and method of theology, following, will first and foremost have a dialogical/participationist rather than an analytical frame (especially of the radical sort I have been using as my example in this post).



[1] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), Loc. 273, 278, 283, 288 kindle.

Communio Sanctorum: Confronting Radical Analytical Theology with Radical Participationist-Dialogical Theology

Election Was Barth’s Hook: Contra the Five Point Calvinists and the Absolutum Decretum

What initially attracted me to Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance? It really was a matter of theological utility, and need. I lived in a nut, and I needed it cracked; they cracked it for me with integrity and theological acumen. That was the hook for me. What am I referring to; what’s the nut? Election/Reprobation/Predestination. Some people simply want to ignore these words, and the concepts they symbolize, because they would claim they aren’t biblical words (but neither is the Trinity). So for those of us who don’t want to live with our heads in the theological sands we feel compelled to deal with the material language like election represent. For me, growing up as an evangelical, a Conservative Baptist to boot, my inculcation in this area was to live in a mode that some call: Calmanian. You see what’s being done there? The smooshing together of the words Calvinist and Arminian; this was the smooshy world I lived in all the way through seminary. I freely chose to reject the idea that God in Christ only died for a limited elect group of people (the “U” in the TULIP: ‘Unconditional Election’ and the “L” ‘Limited Atonement’); indeed, I have always found that idea reprehensible and at severe odds with who I’ve always understood God to be as Triune love. I could never stomach the idea, and still can’t, that God only ultimately loves certain people that He chooses to love based on an ad hoc choice that He makes for reasons known only to Him. I find this reprehensible because I don’t find it cohering with who God has revealed Himself to be in Jesus Christ; never have!

Barth, and Torrance following, offered a way out for me; but not in the negative way that might sound. In other words, what I found in them, with there intensive concentration on Jesus Christ, was a way to think about election-reprobation in and from what Hunsinger calls the ‘Chalcedonian Pattern’ (in reference to Barth’s theology). In the spirit of Athanasius, Barth and Torrance, both take the categories of election-reprobation and ground them principally in Jesus Christ; they see Him as both the electing God, and the elected human. In His free choice to be elected human, by virtue of His electing work, he assumes the reprobate status of what it means to be human (post-lapse). When we think about election-reprobation alongside Barth-Torrance we start thinking in terms of what has been called the mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’), or in the more Pauline terms of ‘by His poverty we’ve been made rich’ (cf. II Cor. 8.9). So the focus for Barth and Torrance is on a concrete humanity versus the abstract and individualistic conception of humanity we find in the so called absolutum decretum funding five point soteriology. In other words, for Barth and Torrance, Jesus is archetypal humanity, the ‘firstborn from the dead’ (cf. Col. 1.15-18), the ‘new creation’ (cf. II Cor. 5.17); by virtue of this status it is not possible to connive any other ontology or concept of humanity except by thinking that through the resurrected/recreated humanity of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, this isn’t just in Barth-Torrance, Calvin’s union with Christ (unio cum Christo) and double grace (duplex gratia) concepts are inchoate seeds that finally led to what Barth ultimately developed (see Pierre Maury’s influence on Barth’s aha moment in regard to his reformulation of election — Maury can be seen as a stepping stone between Calvin and Barth).

Some people are troubled by this schema for election-reprobation because of the theory of causation and the metaphysics they have imbibed (that produced the absolutum decretum), but that’s their problem. If people want to conflate a foreign ideological framework with kerygmatic reality, and then petitio principii (circular) argue that anyone who disagrees with them is disagreeing with the Gospel and its implications has deeper problems they ought to attend to; like an inability to critically engage with their own theological methodology. In other words, the Calvinist is very concerned, with reference to Barth’s reformulation, with how someone will finally come to the point that they need Jesus; i.e. given their totally depraved state. Given their options, in the metaphysics they live in, all they have available to them is a world that either emphasizes God’s choice, or the human choice. But that’s not the only alternative (in regard to thinking about causality); and Torrance’s work with Einstein’s theory of relativity and Maxwell’s field theory, helps to illustrate, by engagement with what Torrance calls ‘social-coefficients’ (what Barth might call ‘secular parables’ and some Patristics might call Logoi) how things are more dynamic in the warp and woof of the fabric of contingent/created reality vis-à-vis God.

Let me leave us with a good quote from Barth:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[1]

I develop all of this further in my personal chapter for our last Evangelical Calvinism book; which you can read via google books here.

I don’t know if you hang around in Calvinist circles (like I do!), but it’s interesting, they hardly ever talk about this doctrine. There is good reason why! Roger Olson, the evangelical Arminian, often refers to the Calvinist God as a monster, precisely because of their doctrine of election-reprobation. But Olson, ironically, works in and from the same theological material, and the same basic metaphysic that the Calvinists do; he doesn’t offer a viable alternative.

[1] Karl Barth, CD II/2, 111.

Election Was Barth’s Hook: Contra the Five Point Calvinists and the Absolutum Decretum