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.


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.

“Disbelief in God’s love is the root of all evil”: Engaging With Luther’s Theology of Desire, Doctrine of Sin, and Freewill

Sin, desire, and freewill; each of these can be trigger words that often lead to intense theological debate among various parties. In this post I want to address these loci from a particular angle; the angle will have to do with salvation and theological anthropology in particular. When I was in seminary my mentor/professor, Ron Frost, introduced me to his work on what he calls Affective Theology; I’ve written of it, more than once here at the blog, and years ago wrote a very introductory post detailing what it entails in its entailments. I want to redress this ‘theology’ again, not only referring to Frost, but some insights that I’ve picked up from Paul Hinlicky and his work with Luther, Melanchthon, Leibniz, and Barth’s theology; and how his work dovetails nicely with Frost’s work in the area of Affective Theology.

In brief Frost’s Affective Theology is largely a theological anthropological endeavor that, of course, as with all theological projects, reaches back into a doctrine of God. In the main Frost’s thesis, as he focuses most pointedly on Puritan, Richard Sibbes, is to argue, from within a tripartite faculty psychology (per theological-anthropological concerns), that unlike the Thomist Intellectualist tradition, the most basic and defining component of what makes someone human is not their intellect/rationales (which is the major Western Tradition following Thomas Aquinas et al.), but instead it is their ‘affections’ or more biblically attuned, the ‘heart.’ Frost argues that this anthropology can be identified all the way back to Augustine, and then into Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventura, Gerson, Von Staupitz, Luther, Calvin, Sibbes, Cotton et al. Here is some of Frost’s work that should help the reader get a better feel for what his thesis was about. Here you see him comparing and contrasting Richard Sibbes and William Perkins; the latter representative of the more dominant Western tradition—the tradition being uncritically retrieved today by young (and many older forebears) evangelical Reformed theologians.

Some final observations may be made about the positive and privative views of sin. The two approaches differ fundamentally on the reason for sin; while man is identified as responsible for sin in both views, he tends to be portrayed more as a pliable innocent overcome by the serpent’s deceit in the privative model. It is Adam presented as inadequate, not because he was unable to fulfill the law, but, because, in his mutability as a creature, he was vulnerable to moral change. This the serpent exploited while God was willfully away. In scholastic terms, the formal cause of sin was twofold, given the double causality associated with God’s sovereignty. God, as the primary agent for all things, determined the outcome by his withdrawal. In this he was arbitrary but just. The second agent, Adam, failed to apply the grace he had available and thus was culpable for his own fall, albeit as something of a victim. In both considerations the issue of grace is pivotal in its absence. For the privative model, as seen in both Thomistic and Reformed theology, this leads to a greater emphasis on the acquisition and application of grace in hypostatized or commodity-like terms, and a tendency toward Aristotelian moralism — the establishing of one’s righteousness through righteous actions based on grace. To the degree that grace becomes an impersonal quality, the greater the impression one has that something worthy of appreciation, if not merit, is being accomplished.

The doctrine of positive sin, on the other hand, rejects any tendency to see man as a victim; Adam is always the culprit in that he willfully replaced the Creator with the creature as the object of absolute devotion. It also recognizes human mutability as a fact which allows the fall, but rejects it as a meaningful explanation. The fall, in positive sin, remains an impenetrable mystery; Adam is not portrayed as deceived and God is not portrayed as withholding grace. In the positive model sin is always a competition: Adam seeks to usurp God’s role while God confounds Adam’s autonomy.

Thus, the most important difference between the two models is found in the way God is portrayed. In the privative view, as Aquinas and Perkins have it, he remains a supplier of grace — withholding what is needed for salvation except to the elect. He even remains parsimonious to the elect but, as their efforts prevail, is increasingly generous. In the positive view, on the other hand, he is an enemy until conversion which comes by the Spirit’s direct intervention. He invites the elect to see God as he really is: righteous, strong, and loving. Conversion, in fact, is a litmus for the two views: the privative model generally adopts a catechetical process which culminates in an affirmation of faith. The positive model, while recognizing that the Spirit uses prevenient stirrings, expects a more distinct Paul-light conversion which displays the moment in which selfish autonomy melts before God’s self disclosure. For the one, nature remains very much in view; for the other, God, once unveiled by grace, dominates the scene.

The importance of the affections for Sibbes and the nomists differed in profound ways. For Sibbes the affections were both the avenue by which sin entered the world and the avenue by which God, through the Spirit, restores the fallen soul. Slavery of the will was seen to be an enslavement by one’s own desires, something broken only by transforming vision of God as more desirable than anything human autonomy offers. Perkins and the nomists, on the other hand, saw the affections as a subordinate element of the will; they also provided a suitable theology for the prominent will by adopting the Thomist privation-enablement model of sin and grace.

Perkins and the nomists thus established human responsibility as the center-theme of salvation; the moral law became the locus of the soul in the process of sanctification. The belief that the covenant of grace is essentially a legal contract shaped all spirituality into a restorative stance: life is seen as an effort to regain and sustain Adam’s original obedience through the Spirit-enabled will. This generated a Christology which emphasized the juridical work of Christ to the point that, for pastoral ministry, the purpose of restored communion was easily reduced into the preaching of moralist endeavor.

Against this view, Sibbes, in line with Augustine, emphasized the place of Christ as much more than the source of justification, but primarily as one to be loved. The promise of the indwelling Spirit, whose ministry in Christ’s life is now allocated to the Christian, gives promise of a greater hope than the nomists offered: full and eternal intimacy of the Godhead through a true, although mystical, union with Christ. The feet of the soul are the affections and the affections are meant for communion with God.[1]

Hopefully you can get a better grasp on what Frost’s theory on Affective Theology entails. I think he identifies a pivotal reality that is lost, in serious ways, when it comes to the Reformed theology being retrieved today. Frost’s is actually a retrieval of a genuinely formed Reformational (versus post-Reformational) theology, one that hearkens from Luther himself; one that has been lost to the Christian Aristotelian tradition that Richard Muller et al. is wont to emphasize as THE dye that ostensibly serves pervasive in the whole of Reformed theology in thematic ways. What Frost demonstrates is that this ‘affective theology’ was as pervasive in and among the development of post-reformation theology as was the Christian Aristotelian form that people focus on today.

Okay, Hinlicky, someone who works even more so as a constructive theologian (versus Frost who is more of a historical theologian) whose period is from the modern angle, interestingly (to me), identifies these same themes in Luther’s et al. theology as Frost gleaned from Puritan theology; the point of convergence for both of them is indeed, Martin Luther and Augustine. Hinlicky brings the discussion that I want to have, on the role of desires, loves, sin, and freewill into relief as he writes (at serious length):

What Augustine and his tradition chiefly deny, however, is that any conceivable creature, pre- or postlapsarian, has freedom of desire. This is the “popular” sense of human free-will (which Luther identified and rejected as presuming “a power of freely turning in any direction, yielding to none and subject to none”). Creaturely desire instead spontaneously and as such involuntarily seeks the good and averts from evil. Desire that sought its evil would be pathological. The creature cannot help but seek its good and assent to it, or conversely, avert from its evil. The creature is motivated by its loves. It is analytic to the creaturely state that, as Aristotle famously declared at the outset of the Nichomachean Ethics, all by nature seek the good. Being creatures, they do not, as Martin Luther put it commenting on the first article of the creed, have life in themselves such that they can ever be free from desire: “Thus we learn from this article that none of us has life — or anything else that has been mentioned or could be mentioned — from ourselves, nor can we by ourselves preserve any of them, however small and unimportant.” As long as they live, in order to live, creatures must desire what appears good to them and avert the evil; the will spontaneously desires its perceived good. If it did not, it would be sick to death. The will is bound to desire and is bound to desire. This is what is in mind, then, when this tradition speaks of the bound or enslaved will, voluntas, not arbitrium (though Luther muddles the two terms). As Jan Lindhardt has shown: “St Augustine (d. 431) determined in extension of the Platonic tradition, that a man was identical with his love. He defined love itself as concupiscentia (desire).” This yielded a view of “man more as a unity than as a creature subdivided into various departments. . . . It was not the distinction between body/soul/reason, which occupied his attention, but the direction adopted by the soul or will, or drive,” and this “was interpreted during the Renaissance as representing a completely different view of man,” “not conceived of as an active subject, but as a receptive object” taking on the form of what is loved. Luther agreed with this understanding of Augustine’s anthropology, that “a man is his love.” This is the basis for his eccentric anthropology. Any will other than God’s is a will bound to desire the good that appears to it from without; this desire becomes one’s own will (not another’s) by virtue of free choices from among the available goods that one actually, historically, biographically pursues, since a human being is free to act, or to critically refrain from action, in the face of such choices. In just this way she forms the story of her life, as patient of her own passions and agent of her own actions.[2]

To make what Hinlicky just wrote crescendo he writes further:

In running roughshod over the important differentiation between freedom of choice and freedom of desire, Luther wanted to indicate how making choices contrary to God’s will in disobedience reflects the deeper fault of a root usurpation of God’s place as Creator. The root of all evil choices is disbelief in God’s love, seeking instead by one’s own choices and actions creatively to bestow value on something by one’s own sovereign good-pleasure. Human works are never what they appear to be on the surface; they are always acts of faith or disbelief. Choices are never merely temporal decisions, but decide whether or not in faith to rest in God’s good pleasure that bestows value on oneself, precisely as patient of one’s own sufferings, maker of one’s own choices, and agent of one’s own actions. Disbelief in God’s love is the root of all evil. Thus the ontologically impossible possibility of human freedom of desire, that desire sovereignly creates the object of its desire by the triumphant assertion of its will. This usurpation no theology that upholds the ontological difference between Creator and creature can admit. Even as arrogant pride presumes this freedom, there comes a Day of the Lord to topple it from its throne. One can want to be Hitler or Stalin, one can really make this choice, one can provisionally and disastrously for self, for others, and for the cosmos act on it. But finally one cannot succeed in it. “God’s purpose in this [causing failure of the human choice to be one’s own god] is that the heavenly City, during its exile on earth, by contrasting itself with the vessels of wrath, should learn not to expect too much from the freedom of the power of choice, but should trust in the ‘hope to call upon the name of the Lord God.’” We may recall here as well Barth’s well-intended but problematic teaching that a real alternative between God and the abyss of nihilism is ontologically impossible. Unlike Barth, however, for Luther or Augustine the nihilism of human superbia is impossible because hell puts the end to evil that will not otherwise die. The wrath of the God of love forces away from His company the usurper who wants to be God and not let God be God. That finally (not until then! Rev. 20:10) is how the real evil in the world is refuted. Actual evil is the presumption of divine “power of freely turning in any direction, yielding to none and subject to none,” that is met and matched, fire met by fire, not by persuasion but with force. If there are possibilities of mercy beyond this ultimate threat, they cannot in any event be conceived apart from it, only somehow through it and beyond it. In the interim, for Augustine, the relation of human freedom to divine sovereignty is not symmetrical: “when the will turns from the good and does evil, it does so by the freedom of its own choice [i.e., a logical alternative is available], but when it turns from evil and does good, it does so only with the help of God.”[3]

There is too much to attempt to address, but let me try and emphasize the themes we started out with. We see in Hinlicky’s treatment the same sorts of themes present in Frost’s analyses of different figures. But as I highlighted earlier the common thread between Frost and Hinlicky is to focus on Luther and Augustine. What I am hoping you, the reader, are picking up is how profound the affections/desires are and were for Luther[an] theology, and how that theme never went away; even if it unfortunately became overshadowed by much of the Aristotelian formed post-reformation theology that developed latterly.

Something else I hope the reader is picking up, without me attempting to draw all the pieces together (between Frost’s and Hinlicky’s analyses) is how the way we view humanity flows from the way we view God. If God is Triune love, a God’s who being is defined by his intra-relation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, if that reality defines our “metaphysics,” if that reality is allowed to evangelize our metaphysics, then the way we develop anthropology, and our doctrines of sin/evil, so on and so forth will be radically re-oriented by this understanding of God. We see this re-orientation in what Frost and Hinlicky are offering us as they engage with Augustine, Luther, and the tradition itself. It is an emphasis that many today would make us think is fringe or non-existent; or that it reflects a revisionist understanding of the history of ecclesial ideas that isn’t totally accurate. To the contrary! There are threads in the tradition that fit much better with the idea that what stands at the center of who humans are has to do with God’s love,[4] and the human love attenuated by that love, rather than seeing people defined by their intellect; the latter coming from an understanding that sees God as the Big Brain in the sky, the Brain that relates through decrees rather than filial love by the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ.

There is more to say, more technical things to get into and unpack. But let’s what I’ve offered from Frost and Hinlicky suffice for now, and maybe we can attempt to distill these things further, and more technically at a later date. We never really did get too far into the issues broached in regard to freewill etc. But hopefully, at the very least, from the long quotes, you can see how we might develop these themes vis-à-vis the greater frame provided for by a theology of desire/love.

P.S. This new theme I just plugged in doesn’t seem to overtly provide a way for commenting (if you want to). If you’d like to comment on this post then simply click on the title of the post, and it will open up the combox for you to write a comment[s].


[1] Ron Frost, Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology, [unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, 1996 University of London Kings College], 94-96. Frost’s work has since been published as, Richard Sibbes God’s Spreading Goodness.

[2] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 151-52.

[3] Ibid., 153-54.

[4] Which is what we are also identifying with Evangelical Calvinism, with a particular focus on Thomas F. Torrance’s theology.

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.

God’s Triune Life as Grace: In Contrast to Latin Theologies of the Catholic and Protestant Varieties

Where was I? Oh yeah, about a third of the way through my friend Geordie Ziegler’s book Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F. Torrance. I’ve had Geordie’s book for probably a couple of years now, and I’m supposed to write a review for it. Well I’m continuing on, and the review is forthcoming. I’ve already done a few posts engaging with Geordie’s book, and this will be another one. I will just say that Geordie has done a wonderful job in exposing what comprises TFT’s theology; particularly as Geordie’s thesis focuses on the Trinitarian nature of Torrance’s prolegomena, and the way that grace is embodied and acted out in the very Triune relations.

In this post I am going to offer a long quote from Geordie where he is discussing how Torrance refers to grace in homoousial terms. This might seem striking to the uninitiated, but Torrance offers a personalist understanding of orthodox Reformed theology—in contrast to the school theology of late mediaevalism and post Reformed orthodoxy that he is reifying in Christ concentrated mode—as such TFT does not think of grace in the scholastic frame as created grace. We won’t venture further into the details of so called ‘created grace’ (which we find in Thomas Aquinas, and carried over in some of the post Reformed orthodox), but it is contrary to this, and from a more ‘Eastern’ approach that Torrance develops his understanding of grace in a personalist Triune frame. As you read Ziegler’s development remember this prior context.

Here is Ziegler at length (I don’t like to offer quotes without length, have you noticed?):

First, in asserting the homoousion of Grace, Torrance is highlighting and clarifying two key aspects of Grace: (1) Grace is intensely personal and implacably objective. In an unpublished response to his critics, Torrance explains the movement of his thought in more detail:

What [the Reformers] did, then, was to apply the homoousion also to the acts of God, to revelation and grace, and to insist that what we have in the Word is God speaking personally, and what we have in grace is not something detachable from God, some sort of created grace or Arian entity, but very God of very God. They emphasized that the Word of God is God speaking Himself to us, that the Grace of God is total, God giving Himself unreservedly to us. This created in the most intense way personal relationships on the one hand—destroying the impersonalism and the objectivism of mediaeval theology—and yet emphasized the implacable objectivity of God on the other hand, for it is the sheer majesty of His Being, His ultimate Self-giving that we encounter in His Word and Grace.

For Torrance, Grace is the personal self−giving of the Triune God through Christ and the Spirit, by which creatures are given to share in the Father−Son relation. Grace is not a nebulous divine ‘good will,’ but has real content: “for what God communicates to us in his grace is none other than himself. The Gift and the Giver are one.” The application of the homoousion to Grace is to recognize Grace as “the one indivisible self-giving of God in Christ.” Grace is not therefore something abstract, an impersonal force, or a generalized divine favor; nor is it a generic term for the gratuitous character of all God’s gifts. Grace is irreducibly personal; in fact, Grace has a name. Torrance writes,

Grace is not something that can be detached from God and made to inhere in creaturely being as ‘created grace’; nor is it something that can be proliferated in many forms; nor is it something that we can have more or less of, as if grace could be construed in quantitive terms. This is the Reformation doctrine of tota gratia. Grace is whole and indivisible because it is identical with the personal self−giving of God to us in his Son. It is identical with Jesus Christ. Thus it would be just as wrong to speak of many graces as many Christs, or of sacramental grace as of a sacramental Christ, or of created grace as of a created Christ.

While Grace is not to be generalized, it cannot be delegated to just one member of the Trinity’s activity either, for that would reduce it to a purely economic and instrumental function. Thus as we have observed and argued throughout Torrance roots Grace in “the living relations of the Persons of the Holy Trinity”; which in freedom and love issue forth through the missions as a movement from the Father, through the Son in the Spirit, and which return in the Spirit through the Son to the Father. Thus,

Between its going forth from God and its coming out upon the creature grace at no point ceases to be what it is within the Trinity, in order to become what it was not, some impersonal entity or causality. Grace can never be regarded in an instrumental sense, for from beginning to end in grace God is immediately present and active as living Agent.

Torrance will not abide any break between the being of God and his activity, for that would involve the trading of impersonal instrumentalities for real relations of communion.

Practically speaking, the recognition that Grace is irreducibly personal and objective and raises strong objections to the “impersonal determinism” of some Protestant doctrines of election. By construing the operation of Grace according to some notion of causality, “the sui generis movement of grace” is converted into “causal terms,” which “can then appear to be only quite arbitrary.” Equally problematic in Torrance’s estimation is the Augustinian notion of irresistible Grace. He suggests that the doctrine deleteriously introduced an internal connection between Grace and cause, which made way for the more general view of Grace “as a divine mode of causation at work in the universe.” Torrance argues that at least partially the development of the notion of irresistible Grace is an anthropomorphic projection of pragmatism upon the Divine: God uses Grace to administrate his salvific agenda for humankind and in that way God’s use of Grace mirrors human means of Grace.[1]

For an elaboration on the discussion orbiting around grace as created, uncreated, and the like refer to my friend and fellow blogger, Fr Aidan Kimel’s post which engages with how grace has functioned for the big three traditions in Christendom: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. As you read Kimel’s post what you’ll recognize, after reading what I just shared from Geordie, is that Torrance’s approach clearly is in-formed by the Eastern trad (if we want to speak cleanly like that). But Torrance’s theology and logic of grace, as Ziegler develops it (and Geordie follows TFT to a T), even counters some of the things that Aidan shares in his post with reference to Augustine (as we see particularly in the last paragraph of the Ziegler quote).

What I want to press is really one thing: As Evangelical Calvinists we are less concerned with where the conceptual matter comes from—in regard to the various trads of the church—and more concerned with the fiduciary nature of the theological material and development itself. As such, when we think of God’s Triune life as a movement of dynamic grace, as he moves in and among Godself, and from there moves out for us, we think this is the right way to think precisely because it coheres and inheres so well with the reality of the Evangel itself. In other words, the God we encounter in Christ, as Athanasius is so prone to emphasize, is a God who is unity of being, which antecedes his will be done; the God we meet mediated through the God-man, Jesus Christ, is always and eternally already the Son of the Father. We don’t meet God as the Creator, first; not as Christians. We come to call God, LORD!, by the Spirit. It is in this onto-relation, as the reality of God’s inner-life, that the sheep come to know their God’s voice. It is in the dynamic of being-in-relation; the subject-in-being relationship (Torrance’s ‘onto-relation’) that has always already been the eternal reality of the Father-Son-Holy Spirit, and then this shared reality in his movement outward (humanward) towards us that we might move towards him in the Godward movement of his life for us in Christ.

You won’t find these emphases and foci in classical Reformed theology, of the Latin sort, precisely because of the type of voluntarist, on the one hand, and Thomist commitments, on the other hand that help fund the way they think of a God-world relation and what that does to concepts like grace in soteriological frame. This assertion will have to suffice for now, but you can peruse my various blog posts or two edited books for further development and substantiation of this thesis. What I do want to leave with is that Evangelical Calvinism works from the sort of conceptual matter that we see Geordie developing in his work on Torrance’s theology of grace.


[1] Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 132-34. I copy and pasted Ziegler’s quote from a PDF copy I have, as such his emphases and italicizes were negated in that process.

My Unfinished Evangelical Calvinist Confession of Faith, 2010

Evangelical Calvinist Confession of Faith, 2010

[an unfinished confession I once started]

§ God

We hold God to be one and three and three in one, so that His oneness shapes His threeness and His threeness shapes His oneness. This means that God’s life is a plenitude of superabundant love which has always already been the consummate and eternal reality of His life. It is within this dynamic, wherein the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, and the Father and Son love in the communion of the Holy Spirit wherein He freely chose to create a mirror of Himself in His image who might further reflect His love for the other; and in so doing created a community of creatures who find their greatest delight and purpose by loving Him — through Him — and by loving their neighbors.

§ Incarnation

We confess that the second person of the Trinity, the eternal logos — the Son —has eternally been for the other, consonant with this His person(hypostasis) within the Trinitarian life has been proleptically towardIncarnation (yet we also confess that the Incarnation, like Creation, is a novum, or something ‘new’ for God — which is based upon and out of ‘who’ He is without proximation). This presupposes that without sin, without the ‘Fall’, His life has been oriented toward elevating His creation to its consummate and eschatological purpose; which is to participate in the union and knowledge of the Father by the Holy Spirit that He has mutually shared with the Father and Holy Spirit from super-time (or eternity). So we believe that the Incarnation was always the intended event for which the Son has been graciously purposed in His intratrinitarian relation; thus the Incarnation was a truly free and sovereign act decided by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit which is the antecedent to what we see ‘revealed’ in the economy of God’s life in salvation history in Israel and Christ’s life. We believe that the economic revelation of this eternal reality implies — given such realities as the homoousion, hypostatic union — that all of humanity is carnally united to Christ per His ‘supreme’ (“firstborn”) position over all of creation and that some will experience the full implications of the Incarnation which is to participate in the ‘spiritual union’ that the Son vicariously provides for humanity in and through Himself by the Holy Spirit reconciled to the Father in His life.

§ Creation of Man

We believe that man was originally created in the imago dei (Image of God), which is to say that given the eschatological shape of God’s life in Christ by the Holy Spirit; we believe that man was proleptically created in the imago Christi (Image of Christ) who in fact has always already been the icon or image of God. Man was created for the purpose of spreading God’s goodness and glory by koinonial love with and through God, and thus by communanly loving his neighbor.

§ The ‘Fall’

Unfortunately man ‘fell’ into sin by believing the ‘word’ of the serpent, instead of believing the Word of God. This act separated man from God’s life and introduced an soloptic autonomy into man’s state, so that what once was an unbroken disposition of receiving life from God as ‘gift’ and love, an outward and upward position of doxology; has now become an inward curvature of self-love (concupiscence) wherein man’s life is shaped by holding onto what he perceives to be his — ‘his life as god’ — and for which he will make the ultimate sacrifice which is to give himself as a ransom for himself in order to maintain his position as god — he can do no other, for this is what he is by sinful nature.

§ Election and Reprobation

We believe in a Christ conditioned supralapsarianism. Which is to say that we believe that Christ is the electing God and the elected human who freely elected our humanity (reprobate state) for Himself (our poverty), and His election as the Son (by adoption) for us. We do not believe that this election is constitutive of His life, but instead that it reflects the eternal shape of God’s superabundant life of love in action. So God’s being shapes His action, and His action shapes His being; so that what we see in the economy of election in Christ is what has always already been the reality of God’s life. We believe that the Holy Spirit brings the ‘elect’ into consummate or full election which is to participate in Christ’s life as the elected of the Father. We do not pretend to explain why the reprobate reject the life and gift of Christ which they have been carnally united to; only that this rejection of life in Christ now serves as the ground for their judgment.

§ At-onement

§ Christ’s Death, Burial, and Resurrection

§ The Ascension

§ Faith and Good Works

. . .

Christian Theology Grounded in Faith Rather than Worldview or Apologetics

Worldviews are important to understand, to a point. But when worldview is confused with Christian faith and theology problems of idolatrous heights begin to develop; at least according to Rudolf Bultmann. I want to share further, by referencing David Congdon’s work, on how Bultmann not only distinguished between faith and worldview, but also between talk of God versus talk about God; and how these distinctions implicate the theological enterprise for the Christian. I will follow with my own perspective on these things.

The differentiation of faith from a Weltanschauung [worldview] is stated clearly in a set of guiding principles or headnotes (Leitsätze) written in 1925 in connection with the Düsseldorf lecture. . . . The Leitsätze on faith state:

1) Faith is not a worldview [Weltanschauung], in which the concept of God serves as a principle for the explanation of the world [Welterklärung], and in which the meaning of human existence develops from a general understanding of the world [Weltverständnis]. On the contrary, faith is the posture of the human being placed before God; its content is therefore primarily a proposition regarding the existence of the human being.

2) Faith is not a general trust in God, but rather it is strictly related to the revelation of God in God’s word, and its content is the forgiveness of sins.

3) Faith is not a mystical relation of the soul to God, but rather the posture of the human being who sees him– or herself placed before the claim of God in the concrete situation of the here and now.

These three theses summarize Butlmann’s opposition to the confusion of faith and metaphysics—whether a metaphysics of the object or fides quae (indicated especially by the three Welt– concepts) or a metaphysics of the subject or fides qua (mysticism). Either mode of Christian self-understanding leads to an objectification of God, that is to say, the exchange of God’s reality for a general God-concept. The active God confronts us in God’s word, and this word is a particular concrete occurrence within history that proclaims the justification of the sinner. For this reason the relation between God and the human person cannot be understood in general terms; it cannot become the basis for an explanation or understanding of the world as a whole. The event of revelation thus does not permit the erection of any Weltanschauung.[1]

This is a direct challenge to the traditional approach to Christian theology through the centuries. It gets more intense in that direction as Congdon writes further:

The task of theology is to free our thinking and speaking of God from every entanglement in a Weltanschauung and so to free ourselves “to be addressed by the grace that encounters me in the word of Jesus Christ.” Toward that end Bultmann marshals yet a third contrast corresponding to the previous ones between ontic and the ontological, the fides quae and the fides qua. He does so in the March 1925 lecture that differentiates between Weltbild and Weltanschauung, and this time it is a contrast between a speaking of God (Reden von Gott) and a speaking about God (Reden über Gott). The opening paragraph of the essay differentiates between these two modes of God-talk in a way that programmatically sets forth the task of a theology that truly acknowledges its proper theme (the ontic) and object (the fides quae):

If one understands speaking “of God” to mean speaking “about God,” then such speaking has absolutely no meaning, for in the moment it occurs it has lost its object [Gegenstand], God. Wherever the idea of “God” is thought of it implies that God is the almighty, i.e., the reality determining all things. But this idea is not at all thought of when I speak about God, i.e., when I consider God to be an object [Objekt] of thought, over which I can orient myself if I take a standpoint where I can be neutral regarding the question of God and make considerations about God’s reality and essence that I can reject or, if they are reasonable, accept. Those who are convinced by reasons to believe the reality of God can be certain that they have not grasped the reality of God; and those who think they can give evidence about God’s reality with proofs of God are arguing over a phantom. For every “speaking about” presupposes a standpoint outside of what is being spoken about. But there can be no standpoint outside of God, and therefore it is not possible to speak of God in general statements, in universal truths that are true apart from a relation to the concrete existential situation of the speaker.

The distinction articulated here is between a God-talk that truly speaks of its object and a God-talk that loses its object. The former engages in meaningful God-talk because it speaks of a fides quae that only gives itself in and through the fides qua, and thus cannot be spoken of from a position external to faith. The latter engages in meaningless God-talk, because it attempts to speak about a “God” that is available as a given entity about which we can make general statements that have universal validity. Such statements form a Weltanschauung. And since to attempt “a neutrality with respect to God” is “to flee from before God,” the erection of a Weltanschauung through Reden über Gott is not merely meaningless and erroneous but is in fact sin.[2]

This challenges much; particularly traditional classical theology. Where I stand: personally I am not too far removed (if at all!) from what David is describing in regard to Bultmann’s “existentially” styled theology. But I am not naïve to the radical reality full commitment to Bultmann’s project might require. It might require that we look at all of classical theology and count it as meaningless; particularly the style of theology done after Thomas Aquinas and his Prima pars in his Summa Theologica. I think it is possible to constructively conclude that the way someone like Aquinas, Maximus the Confessor, Augustine, Athanasius et al spoke “about” God was more in line with speaking “of” God. In other words, I think much of classical theology (especially as we think about premodern) is in fact couched in doxological and dialogical exchange between the believer and God. It is just that the means they had to do that then, categorically, sounded more like speaking about God than might have been healthy; and the means they had to speak of God did in fact come from an orientation wherein God is spoken about more than of. So this requires the theologian, if they think Bultmann has a point, to engage with the classical theologians with constructive care.

One of the theses Myk and I offered in our first Evangelical Calvinism book noted that we are dialogical/dialectical theologians. I think the way Congdon writes on Bultmann, particularly with reference to worldview and speech about versus of God fits well with the mode we are going for in Evangelical Calvinism. The interesting thing for me is the way Congdon himself has developed. As I am reading his big book on Bultmann what we find in Bultmann is actually more orthodox (and historical in that sense) than the way Congdon himself has gone. I am afraid people will look at Congdon’s positions, and equate those absolutely with Bultmann’s. As I am reading Congdon’s treatment of Bultmann what I am finding is an orthodox theological approach, albeit one that is couched in an existential frame.


[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 393-94.

[2] Ibid., 394-95.

Thinking Salvation from the Primacy of Christ’s Humanity and TheAnthropology Rather than From Other Anthropotheological Avenues

The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ is of the highest import for us Evangelical Calvinists. We see, following Torrance and Barth, this doctrine providing a foundational reality for thinking about theological ontology, epistemology, soteriology, ecclesiology etc. This focus reorientates the way we think about salvation in the sense that we start from the premise that salvation must start with a doctrine of God and ‘work its way down from there’ (think of incarnation). As we think this alongside Barth what stands out is an emphasis on God’s humanity; that is, an emphasis on the idea that without God freely choosing to not be God without us that there would be no gracious basis or space wherein salvation could obtain. We think this approach avoids the problematic that often attends the Augustinian emphasis of salvation as that is thought from below; as illustrated by Augustine’s doctrine of predestination (i.e. that God chooses particular individual humans to be saved in contrast to the Barth understanding wherein salvation is first grounded in the union of God and humanity in the hypostatic union realized in the person of Jesus Christ; thus all humanity is represented in the salvation event just as the humanity Christ assumes before the foundation of the world is a catholic humanity of the sort that all of humanity came to be in the first Adam in the original creation).

To help us appreciate what I am referring to let me refer to David Congdon (I’m reading his big book on Bultmann off and on) as he details how the humanity of Christ functions in the theology of Barth. We pick up with Congdon as he is comparing and contrasting Barth’s Christology with Bultmann’s; we won’t concern ourselves with the comparison so much, and instead focus on the good description that Congdon provides for us in regard to Barth’s understanding on the primacy of the humanity of Jesus Christ.

While we have isolated those aspects of Barth’s later work that highlight the conflict between him and Bultmann, we should not fail to note that, seen from another perspective, the theology in the fourth volume of Kirchliche Dogmatik draws nearer to Bultmann. This is because, compared to the period of dogmatic dissonance (1929–1939), the mature Barth unites deity and humanity in a way that permits, even requires, him to make the question of anthropology and human existence internal to the nature of theology, hence the humanity of God. The fruit of this is seen most clearly in KD 4.3, especially §71, where Barth develops his account of human vocation as something that “concerns us personally and affects us ‘existentially.’” But the human existentiality included within the divine existentiality is of a very particular sort, namely, it is the existence of the human Jesus (primary humanity) in distinction from all other human beings (secondary humanity). Beginning with his lecture on “Evangelische Theologiae im 19. Jahrhundert” on January 8, 1957, Barth defines his position as “theanthropology,” which he would later set over against what he calls “anthropotheology,” a term that replaces “natural theology” as the umbrella category for all the various theologies—from Schleiermacher to Bultmann, from pietism to mysticism, from the analogia entis to existentialism—that, in his judgment, talk about God by first talking about the creature. Theanthropology lets the particular humanity of Christ define what counts as genuinely human, whereas anthropotheology concerns itself with human presuppositions and conditions apart from and anterior to the Christ-event.[1]

There are a variety of loci and implications to what Congdon is developing here, but what I want to highlight is the aspect that has to do with the primary humanity of Jesus Christ and Barth’s Theanthropology.

For Evangelical Calvinists the doctrine of the primacy of Jesus Christ reigns supreme. We believe that all of creation is oriented to and from the reality of God’s choice to pre-temporally be for us in his choice to not be God without us in the incarnation. As such we see the teleology of creation (or its purpose) ultimately grounded in the joy that the Father has in his Son in the bond and fellowship of love they share one with the other, one in the other by the Holy Spirit (that is pretty trad right there). Following along with the Apostle Paul’s creational themes in Romans 8 (as he riffs on Genesis) and Colossians 1, there is a primacy to humanity vis-à-vis creation in general just as humanity is grounded in the reality of God’s life ‘to be human’ in the Son. That is the stewardship human beings have been given ‘over’ creation is only a mirroring and actualization of God’s reign over all of creation as that is realized in the effulgence of the Son’s eternal relation of the Father to the Son. In other words, creation’s inner-reality is grounded in God’s choice to be for the creation in the Son; as such creation’s orientation has always already been a teleology that has order and intelligibility insofar as that reality is realized in its magnification of the Son of God; insofar as the crowning reality of the creation has always already been grounded in the Kingly humanity of the Son; a humanity that is the point of creation to begin with—that God might share his Fatherly love, that he has always shared with the Son, by creating a world wherein counter-parts, individuated human creatures could participate by grace in the divine nature, and en-joy the fellowship and beauty that the Son and the Father by the Holy Spirit have always and eternally shared one with and in the other as the One True and Living Almighty God.

Along with Barth we want to see a Dogmatic primacy to the humanity of Christ; we want to see his humanity as archetypal of what it ultimately and redemptively means to be humanity as new creatures. We don’t want to attempt to grasp the humanity of God from our humanity as if our humanity comes prior to or in simultaneous relation with the humanity of God. No, we want to recognize that if there is going to be a meaningful and genuinely Christ-ian understanding of what it means to be a human we will not see that from our experiences as humans, but realize that, both protologically and eschatologically in and from the humanity that God has decided on as the norm of what it means for humans to be in relation with himself. We will think of humanity as if it is grounded in the eikon of God, in the imago Dei who is Jesus Christ (cf. Col. 1.15), and we will understand our humanity as it is recreated in the imago Christi as we then serve as images of the image of God in this world and bear witness to all of creation what its purpose is before God.

As we closed off with Congdon we see him referring to Barth’s reference of anthropotheology as a reference to all modes of theological reasoning that start with an anterior humanity that is thought of in abstraction from God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ (from a prior ‘above’); in abstraction from what it means to be human from a God-given orientation. We could add into the list that Barth thinks this label umbrellas, Augustinianism, at least in regard to Augustine’s doctrine of predestination and its from below soteriological orientation. It is an interesting mix to include someone like Schleiermacher and Augustine when thinking a doctrine of salvation, but probably not too far off (indeed Schleiermacher himself is quite Augustinian in certain important ways).


[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 212-13.

Personal Jesus Theology: A Small Primer on the History and Development of Reformed Theology

You may grow tired, you might be wearied by my constant references to the history of Calvinism and the Reformed tradition, but check the name of my blog. I don’t do this gratuitously though, it comes from a heart that recognizes the need for people to be informed; and in many cases liberated from a received personal history that has them living in a world where they feel there are only binaries to inhabit and thus no space to grow. I am referring to, at least in the conservative evangelical Christian world, the binaries of Calvinism and Arminianism. What, at the very least I hope to do is alert people to the reality that even in the history and development of Reformed theology itself it was not a monolith; there were thinkers who were considered the orthodox who were not close to what we consider to be orthodox Calvinism or Reformed theology today (at least by way of emphasis). In an effort to continue to provide exposure in these directions let me once again, and quickly, refer to Janice Knight’s work on the history and development of English and American Puritanism. Here she is referring to Richard Sibbes as a touchstone thinker who represented a movement of Reformed theologians who challenged what we know as orthodox Reformed theology today; at least as that is given expression in federal or covenant theology.

When the Cambridge Brethren preached the covenant, they described an unconditional promise: the personal Christ, not the covenant bond, secured spiritual adoption. Reversing the emphasis of the Intellectual Fathers, Sibbes and his disciples invented a language stressing divine activity and human passivity in the work of salvation. Consistently, they favored metaphors of God as effulgent, a fountain of goodness overflowing, or an abundant river of graces pouring forth. The Brethren carefully qualified legalist language that might restrict the freeness of this exuberant flow.[1]

When Knight refers to the ‘Intellectual Fathers’ she is referring to William Perkins (as the figurehead of the movement), and those following his lead and style of federal theology. It is his style that has become synonymous with what people think of when they think of Reformed theology (proper) today. You see the way Knight construes the way Sibbesians reversed the emphasis of a contractual God to a personal Jesus. This fits well with Evangelical Calvinism; it fits well with Barth’s and Torrance’s theological emphases; and so Evangelical Calvinists have antecedent impulses within the theology of Sibbes and the Sibbesians. Some today want to simply gloss Sibbes and Perkins together, as if the distinction Knight is making is artificial; but just read Sibbes, read Perkins, and see if it is so artificial.

[1] Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994), 109.

Using Apocalyptic Theology to ‘Re-fund’ the Doctrine of Total Depravity with the Hope of ‘De-funding’ the Pelagian-Impulse in the Christian Church

I don’t have any quotes from someone else in this post; I simply wanted to state something very briefly. Many of my posts are in critique of what I have called classical Calvinism, which is a designation I use to classify the dominant form (in its reception) of ‘Reformed theology’ or Calvinism in its common expressions in the 21st century west (whether that be an elaborate form of federal theology, or a reduced form of five-pointism). That notwithstanding, Evangelical Calvinism, as myself and Myk Habets articulate it (and in this post I am really just speaking for myself) have a strong doctrine of total depravity. That is, we believe that at a moral/spiritual level, theological-anthropologically, there is nothing in humanity but a homo incurvatus in se (human incurved upon themselves); a very Augustinian concept, or more pointedly, I’d argue, Pauline. It is at this point that Evangelical Calvinists can lock-arms with their classical Calvinist cousins; yet, I’d argue, that in many cases this is only in principle (de jure). The intention of articulating a doctrine of total depravity is to take away any sort of Pelagian notion that within humanity there is a neutral spot, a point of contact that remains lively between God and humanity; a point of contact that is not contingent upon God’s choice to be for humanity, but instead upon humanity’s choice to be or not to be for God. We see this principle, the ‘Pelagian-principle’ rearing its head over and over again through the history of interpretation in the church. Whether that be in Pelagius himself, John Cassian following, the Roman Catholic church with its teaching on created and cooperative grace, certain iterations of Reformed federal theology that have a doctrine of preparationism (quid pro quo contractual conception of salvation), or what have you. I contend that this impulse, this Pelagianizing impulse remains a pernicious devil that wants to remain present at all costs; and as such through many forms of sophistication and subtleties we do indeed see it remaining, even in various iterations (significant ones) of so called Christian theology.

As a proponent of what has come to be called ‘Apocalyptic theology’ I think that theology, which I take ultimately to be heavenly and Pauline, has the realistic resources to counter this Pelagian-impulse; in the sense that apocalyptic theology takes seriously the radicality required in order to deal with the human-inspired desire to continuously inject itself into the realm that alone belongs to God. Apocalyptic theology ultimately recognizes that creation is in such a dire place of irreconciliation with God that its only hope is if God breaks into his creation in Jesus Christ, puts it to death, resurrects and recreates such that creation itself only has hope if it lives from this new creation whose name is Jesus Christ. Apocalyptic theology sees nothing of value left in the old creation (in the sense of a moral component left in humanity before God), and by consequent, Pelagianism, and all its Genesis 3.15ish iterations go the way of the ‘stony ground.’ Humanity, soteriologically, only has hope as it lives from the reality of the new creation, from the new humanity in Jesus Christ; the humanity whose reality is only realized by the person of the eternal Logos, the Son of God, who we now know as Jesus Christ (an/enhypostasis).

We need to constantly repent and live from Christ. Total depravity recognizes the dangers of presuming a place in humanity that has spark for God apart from God’s intervention in Christ. Sometimes people who are proponents of total depravity in word, in deed end up undercutting the intention of total depravity by offering theological models and constructs that end up re-inserting the very premises that total depravity was intended to guard against (think of ‘created grace’ for example).