The Dispensational Hermeneutic, An Enlightenment Invention: Ryrie, Berkouwer, and Webster in Relief

Thomas Reid
Thomas Reid

There is no doubt a retreat, or migration as it were, of evangelicals has taken place from engaging with doctrine, but insofar as doctrine is still present for many evangelicals of a certain era anyway, what informs them most, at least hermeneutically is the hermeneutic known as Dispensationalism. It was this hermeneutic that I was groomed in myself, not only as a kid, but in and through Bible College and Seminary (of the Progressive sort).

Dispensationalism, without getting into all of the nitty gritty, is a hermeneutic that prides itself on using the ‘literal’ way of reading Scripture in a ‘consistent’ form as they claim; it is a hermeneutic that maintains a distinction between Israel and the Church (in its classic and revised forms); and it is a hermeneutic that simply seeks to read its understanding straight off the pages of Scripture in the most straightforward ways possible (again ‘literally’ with appeal to Scottish Common Sense Realism[1]). One of its most ardent proponents says it like this:

Literal hermeneutics. Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation. This means interpretation that gives to every word the same meaning it would have in normal usage, whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking. It is sometimes called the principle of grammatical-historical interpretation since the meaning of each word is determined by grammatical and historical considerations. The principle might also be called normal interpretation since the literal meaning of words is the normal approach to their understanding in all languages. It might also be designated plain interpretation so that no one receives the mistaken notion that the literal principle rules out figures of speech….[2]

The Dispensationalist’s hermeneutic springs then from a philosophy of language that holds to the idea that language corresponds to real and perceptible things in reality, and as such, based upon this assumption attempts to, in a slavish way (to this principled understanding of language and reality) reads Holy Scripture in such a way that comports with language’s and history’s most basic and simple and normal component parts (i.e. as it can be reconstructed through critical and rationalist means).

It is no surprise that Dispensationalism developed when it did, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when what it meant to do Biblical Studies and exegesis of Scripture was to engage Scripture through developmental/evolutionary criterion for reconstructing Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) history (the periods that Biblical Scripture developed within), and using various other literary criteria for determining Scripture’s origination and the cultural-societal-rhetorical contexts that gave it rise. In other words Dispensationalism developed in a context wherein things are only true insofar as they comport with the canons of observable and empirical protocol. G.C. Berkouwer describes this development this way:

We now confront the noteworthy fact that, during the rise of historical criticism, concentrated attention to the text of Scripture was considered vital and necessary. Criticism protested against every form of Scripture exposition which went to work with a priori and external standards. It wanted to proceed from Scripture as it actually existed; it sought to understand Scripture in the way in which it came to us in order thus to honor the “interprets itself.” This is what it claimed in its historical exposition of Scripture: something supposedly free of all the a prioris of dogmatic systems or ecclesiastical symbolic. In that way justice could be done to Scripture itself.[3]

Maybe you noticed something in the Berkouwer quote, he is implicitly noting something that happened in the 18th century—again remembering that this is the context which the Dispensationalist hermeneutic developed within and from—there was a split (as a result of Enlightenment rationalism among other forces) between doing confessional/churchy biblical interpretation/study from the kind of biblical interpretation/study that came to dominate what it meant to do ‘critical’ biblical study. This split was given formalization in the mid-1700s first by publications from Anton Friedrich Büsching and then most notably by G. Ebling; Gerhard Hasel summarizes it this way:

Under the partial impetus of Pietism and with a strong dose of rationalism Anton Friedrich Büsching’s publications (1756-58) reveal for the first time that “Biblical theology” becomes the rival of dogmatics. Protestant dogmatics, also called “scholastic theology,” is criticized for its empty speculations and lifeless theories. G. Ebeling has aptly summarized that “from being merely a subsidiary discipline of dogmatics ‘biblical theology’ now became a rival of the prevailing dogmatics.”[4]

Dispensationalism developed within the new ‘critical’ approach to doing biblical studies, although it was attempting to still honor its pious commitment to Scripture as Holy and God’s. But it did so under the ‘Modern’ constraints provided for by Enlightenment rationalism; its philosophy of language (i.e. the literalism we have already broached), grounded in Scottish Common Sense Realism, was very so much so moving and breathing in and from a non-confessional, non-dogmatic mode of doing biblical study. Hasel once again describes the ethos which the Dispensational hermeneutic developed within:

In the age of Enlightenment (Aufklärung) a totally new approach for the study of the Bible was developed under several influences. First and foremost was rationalism’s reaction against any form of supernaturalism. Human reason was set up as the final criterion and chief source of knowledge, which meant that the authority of the Bible as the infallible record of divine revelation was rejected. The second major contribution of the period of the Enlightenment was the development of a new hermeneutic, the historical-critical method which holds sway to the present day in liberalism [dispensationalism] and beyond. Third, there is the application of radical literary criticism to the Bible …. Finally, rationalism by its very nature was led to abandon the orthodox view of the inspiration of the Bible so that ultimately the Bible became simply one of the ancient documents, to be studied as any other ancient document.[5]

It might appear that what was just described sounds nothing like who the practitioners of the dispensational hermeneutic are (i.e. evangelical Bible loving Christians). That would be correct, but the point is to note that dispensational hermeneutes don’t ever really abandon the Enlightenment principles nor the split from confessional hermeneutics that the Enlightenment produced between the disciplines. Instead dispensationalism attempts to work with and from the material and rationalist principles provided by the Enlightenment;  primarily meaning that the Dispensational hermeneutic hopes to be able to go immediately to the text of Scripture, through its grammatical and historical analysis under the supposition that biblical language simply functions like any other literary language does under its plain and normal meanings without any pretext or reliance upon its (potential) theological significance. Instead its theological significance can only be arrived at after abstracting that out from the plain meaning of the words of Scripture.


John Webster summarizes what happened during this period of development this way (and what he describes applies to the development of the Dispensational hermeneutic as well):

To simplify matters rather drastically: a dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible has been a progressive concentration on what Spinoza called interpretation of Scripture ex ipsius historia, out of its own history. Precisely when this progression begins to gather pace, and what its antecedents may be, are matters of rather wide dispute. What is clear, at least in outline, is that commanding authority gradually came to be accorded to the view that the natural properties of the biblical text and of the skills of interpreters are elements in an immanent economy of communication. The biblical text is a set of human signs borne along on, and in turn shaping, social religious and literary processes; the enumeration of its natural properties comes increasingly to be not only a necessary but a sufficient description of the Bible and its reception. This definition of the text in terms of its (natural) history goes along with suspension of or disavowal of the finality both of the Bible and of the reader in loving apprehension of God, and of the Bible’s ministerial function as divine envoy to creatures in need of saving instruction.[6]

Whenever you hear someone say they just interpret Scripture ‘literally’ dig deeper to see if what they mean is ‘literalistically’ under the constraints of what we described provided for by the Enlightenment.

To be clear, following the Enlightenment does not, of course, nor necessarily terminate in the Dispensational hermeneutic, in fact a case can be made that what the Enlightenment did to biblical studies, in some ways provided for some fruitful trajectory as well (insofar as it highlights the fact that the Bible and its phenomenon cannot be reduced to historist or naturalist premises themselves); but we will have to pursue that line later. Suffice it to say, Dispensationalism is not the pure way to Scripture that its adherents want us to think that it is. It does not spring from Christian confessional premises, and in fact ignores the fact that indeed Scripture study and exegesis is actually a theological endeavor at its heart. The only way to get a plain meaning of Scripture is to read it through the lens of God’s life revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ.

[1] See Thomas Reid, “If there are certain principles, as I think there are, which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them — these are what we call the principles of common sense; and what is manifestly contrary to them, is what we call absurd.” The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid (2004), 85.

[2] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism. Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 80.

[3] G.C. Berkouwer, Studies In Dogmatics: Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 130.

[4] Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues In The Current Debate. Revised and Expanded Third Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1989), 19.

[5] Ibid., 18-19 [Brackets mine].

[6] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason(London/New York: T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 6.


The Fundamentalists, Holy Scripture and Apologetics: A Critique and Description from G.C. Berkouwer

Someone who would be considered a conservative thinking Dutch Reformed theologian from the actual Netherlands, G.C. Berkouwer, has some interesting things to say about Christian Fundamentlists and the way that they have engaged, or disengaged with a proper doctrine of Scripture. Because I think this needs to be heard I will quote GCB at length, and then offer my own reflection upon what he has written afterword. Here is Berkouwer at some length:

Upon closer scrutiny … fundamentalism proves to be far from a simple phenomenon. The use of the word “fundamentalistism” becomes unclear if it is intended to indicate the necessary preservation of the foundation that results, according to Scripture, in a blessing (I Cor. 3:10-12; Mt. 7:24ff). Such a use of the term implies that fundamentalism is no more than an echo berkouwerof the biblical testimony that speaks of the foundation that is laid (I Cor. 3:11), of the value of an anchor of the soul that is sure and steadfast (Heb. 6:19; II Pet. 1:10-21), and that speaks of faith as a substance which also expresses an inviolable certainty (Heb. 11:1 – “the assurance of things hoped for”). This foundation as such, therefore, cannot explain the nature of fundamentalism. To be sure, many expressions from the fundamentalist camp frequently give the impression that the acceptance of a fundamental truth and a certainty that cannot be subjectified are at stake, especially when its members gladly accept the name “fundamentalist” to set them apart from those who have fallen victim to the influence of subjectivism. This, however, terminates the discussion at the point where it actually should begin. Especially concerning the doctrine of Holy Scripture, the fundamentalists’ call to a simple and childlike acceptance of Scripture – no matter how seriously they mean this – is not unique to them, because in this respect they are not any different from many others who are equally convinced that God’s Word is a lamp to our feet and a light upon our path. The issue is undoubtedly far more complicated, as is already evident from the many analyses of this phenomenon.

Ahlström described fundamentalism as “a fervent but poorly informed protest movement against extreme and militant liberalism.” Stonehouse mentions that fundamentalism evidences a lack of sound biblical knowledge and historical perspective and has “certain emphases and peculiarities” that make it impossible to identify it with orthodoxy. This and similar criticism is by no means intended to deny the good intentions of fundamentalism: no good cause is served by making it the butt of “professional gossip.” It would be incorrect to ignore its legitimate “wholeness of dedication” in the discussion. The person who concurs in the lamentation of Psalm 11:3 (“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”) cannot avoid trying to analyze fundamentalism’s apologetics, especially its view of Holy Scripture and its authority.

I believe I am judging no one unfairly when I say that fundamentalism, in its eagerness to maintain Holy Scripture’s divinity, does not fully realize the significance of Holy Scripture as a prophetic-apostolic, and consequently human, testimony. It is true that fundamentalists do not deny the human element in Scripture, but they allow their apologetics to be determined by the fear that emphasis on the human witness may threaten and overshadow Scripture’s divinity. From an historical and psychological point of view, this reactionary position is quite understandable in the light of much “humanizing” of Holy Scripture that has taken place. Yet that does not prevent other, more serious, problems from presenting themselves; for it is God’s way with and in Scripture that is at stake. Fundamentalism has hardly come to grips with the problem of whether attention for the human character of Holy Scripture might be of great importance for its correct understanding. Fundamentalists often give the impression that the point at issue is the acceptance or rejection of the vox Dei, of Scripture’s infallibility. They suggest, that, in spite of many divergences within fundamentalist circles in understanding Scripture, an a priori acceptance of Scripture’s infallibility precludes all dangers. Thus, they manifest great tolerance for all who maintain the fundamentalist view of Holy Scripture. They tend to relativize concrete obedience in understanding Scripture. The result is that their apologetic, which is meant to safeguard Scripture’s divine aspect, threatens in many respects to block the road to a correct understanding of Scripture, which is normative, by ignoring and neglecting its human aspect.[1]

This is an interesting critique and description of what Fundamentalism is and does. It is interesting to me, in particular, because many of the people who I know (in theological circles) would place someone like Berkouwer in the ‘fundamentalist’ camp simply because he is rather traditional and affirming of classical (i.e. pre-critical and confessional) understanding of Holy Scripture. But as is obvious, GCB has something more particular and geographic in mind, his focus of course is the North American Fundamentalist who came to the fore at the end of the 19th and early part of the 20th century[s].

What I wonder is if North American evangelicals have actually escaped this critique or if they only continue to reinforce it with doctrines like biblical inerrancy? I think Berkouwer would believe that evangelicals are only a new iteration of this old style Fundamentalism that he is describing from his vantage point. I wonder if neo-Evangelicals like Kevin Vanhoozer and his style and articulation of biblical inerrancy escapes Berkouwer’s critique or only enlivens it, but maybe in more sophisticated ways than originally conceived of by its original architects (in re. to biblical inerrancy)?

Another thing of note is how Fundamentalists build their whole edifice of Christianity upon rationalist arguments against their ‘Liberal’ counterparts. What Berkouwer rightly notices is that this type of reactionary movement and ‘intellectualist’ response (by the Fundamentalists) ends up doing exactly the opposite of what the Fundamentalists are hoping for; i.e. that is to ardently affirm the veracity and reliability and authority of Holy Scripture. What GCB implicitly is suggesting is that Fundamentalists argue with such vigor for Scripture’s inerrancy that that in and of itself becomes an end in itself with its own idiosyncratic hermeneutic in tow.

Personally I find Berkouwer’s analysis to be very accurate. I grew up in Fundamentalist Christianity in North America (as have so many others). This all rings so true to me, and unfortunately it continues to ring true for too many Christians out there. People are getting ripped off from the riches and heritage bequeathed to us by Christ as He has provided for that through the centuries of His church. Evangelicals who imbibe Fundamentalism (positively, or like the so called Progressive Christians, negatively) are malnourished, and as a result for all of their Bible knowledge and “sword drilling” they are ultimately missing the depth dimension of Holy Scripture in its realistic fullness, the reality: Jesus Christ.

[1] G.C. Berkouwer, Studies In Dogmatics: Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 21-3.

Ephesians 1.4, Election, Assurance and Moving Beyond Identity with Karl Barth

I want to keep pressing this idea on the importance of election. Beyond drawing bright lines between various tribes of interpretation I want to emphasize the import of this doctrine materially, and the impact it has upon our perception of God and us. I think too often what gets youngbarthlost in a discussion like this is, indeed, the actual constructive theological consideration we purportedly are endeavoring to engage with. In other words, I am afraid that we get too interested in trying to self-promote our own theological identities to the point that we get lost in that fog and fail to recognize the significant material (and formal) theological distinctions on offer; and thus we fail then to capitalize on the value that the array of theological loci have towards cultivating disciples of Christ in our local church bodies (I digress!).

So the following will be a quote from G.C. Berkouwer (again!), and his read of Barth’s understanding of election and its impact on a doctrine of assurance of salvation. [Berkouwer does not agree with Barth, ultimately, but he does offer a pretty good description of Barth’s approach, and what Barth was attempting to squelch in regard to self-focus and anxiety relative to discerning one’s salvation] Berkouwer will offer a little historical detail, and then jump right into Barth’s view and how it relates to his interpretation of Ephesians 1:4.

καθὼς ἐξελέξατο ἡμᾶς ἐν αὐτῷ πρὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου, εἶναι ἡμᾶς ἁγίους καὶ ἀμώμους κατενώπιον αὐτοῦ ἐν ἀγάπῃ,

just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. Ephesians 1.4

What, then, is the deepest reason for the difference between Calvin and Barth? [on election] Our earlier analysis will already have suggested the answer to this question. According to Barth, the Lutheran and the Reformed doctrines of election have weakened the connection between Christ and election. In that doctrine Christ is seen only as the executor of election, not as its foundation. Therefore there is a vacuum behind election which the pastoral office is not able to fill.

In a certain sense, the debate centers around the exegesis of Eph. 1:4. Barth judges that there can be certainty only when this verse is understood to meant that Christ is not only the executor but also the foundation of election, because the decision of election is taken in Him and thereby all men have been elected in Him. Only then is certainty possible, only then can there be a knowing unmarred by threat. In the revelation of Christ the fact of the election of all men has been revealed. This universal election stands revealed as God’s decisive election. All uncertainty is removed by this universally decisive act of God. That which Barth sees as a “blind spot,” a sinister “vacuum,” in the traditional view, he fills with this decisive act of God which forms the content of the kerugma. In this manner Barth thinks to correct the Reformation doctrine of election on the score of the certainty of salvation and thus do full justice to Eph. 1:4.

This certainty can now point to its foundation: Christ as the rejected and elected One. The kerugma has this unassailable decisiveness as its concrete content, and as God’s definite decision precedes all human decisions. It does not assume the human decision, but in faithfulness it triumphs over that decision which is a rebellion against grace. In this way Christ is not merely the mirror of election, He is the manifestation of our election in Him.[1]

Berkouwer follows what I just quoted from him (in his book) with fear that Barth’s program necessarily leads to universalism; even though he recognizes that Barth didn’t think so (and rejected universalism).

Beyond that, what do you think worry about hooking into one particular theological tradition over another will do in the way that we receive Barth on his ostensible reformulation of the trad conception of election? I think if we move beyond trying to locate ourselves theologically and simply look at Barth’s critique and reformulation of the trad conception of election that it becomes pretty clear that he at the very least is onto something!

We need to be able to look at Christ as not only the exemplum (exemplar) of humanity, but to use Calvin’s language as the very ‘mirror of our election’ without remainder, without partiality. If there is a 1% chance that Jesus may have not elected to die for you personally, then when extrapolated, that 1% can become an infinite gap between the possibility of you and God being truly reconciled; and 1% is just too much to bear. Jesus didn’t become 99% human for us (pro nobis), he became 100% human for us, and that before the foundation of the world (Deus incarnandus ‘the God to be incarnate’). The force of this fact is much more than a declarative one, it is ontic reality; viz. the eternal Logos, the eternal Son has elected to be the very ground of our humanity as he is the very icon or image of God (cf. Col. 1.15) in whose image we not only have been created but recreated (resurrected), in his vicarious humanity.


How do I tie this somewhat fragmented post up? Let’s just say this: It is all about Jesus!



[1] G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph Of Grace In The Theology Of Karl Barth: An Introduction And Critical Appraisal (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 286-87.

Barth on the Demons: A Critical Appraisal and Demuring

One area that I think I disagree with Karl Barth on is his “demonology.” I have been reading G.C. Berkouwer’s book The Triumph Of Grace In The Theology Of Karl Barth: An Introduction And barthCritical Appraisal. In it Berkouwer, more broadly, engages with Barth’s doctrine of creation, redemption, sin etc. Within his discussion of Barth’s understanding of creation and evil (chaos), Berkouwer launches into a critique of Barth’s conception of demons as a symptom of Barth’s understanding of evil as chaos (something that has ‘non-being’ and is simply a negation of the good that God has created). Berkouwer underscores the fact, that as a result, for Barth, demons are not creatures, or creations of God; instead, according to Berkouwer, for Barth demons (the Devil etc.) simply inhabit a realm of non-creaturely-being that has no real place within the reality of God’s redemption/creation; the fall-out of this is that demons (and thus the Devil) are not really given ‘personal’ status within Barth’s conception of things. Berkouwer writes (at length):

When we consider these data, we cannot but ask whether Barth is justified in giving only a “brief look” at the demons in his work on Providence. Undoubtedly he is right when he says that it is possible to have too much respect for this “disorderly business.” The manner in which we give this “brief look,” however, must be determined by Scripture. Of course we cannot believe in the devil and in the demons in the same way in which we believe in God. Indeed, we can only say that in that sense radical unbelief is the only proper response. This says nothing, however, about the amount of attention that we must give to them. It is possible to pray “Deliver us from evil” without having an independent interest in the demons. It is not possible to think rightly about Satan other than in relation to God’s revelation. When we take seriously what the Bible has to say about the demons, we may come to the conclusion that Barth’s “brief, sharp look” in the last fifteen pages of his doctrine of election is symptomatic of the kind of thinking which we met in his conception of the ontological impossibility of sin. The demonic element becomes vague in its “apparent” reality and in its “being emptied” as chaos. The demons, we discovered in our analysis, have not been created. They exist “only because God, in saying Yes to Himself and to the creature, also necessarily expresses a No.” They have been vanquished by the positive Yes of God in His eternal election and in the reconciliation which has historically been achieved by Christ. The sharp issue which Barth took with the bad dream of dogmatics (that the demons are fallen angels) robs the revelation about the demons of its concrete character. Biblical demonology is only the “negative reflex of biblical Christology and Soteriology,” for this “kingdom” is the impotent kingdom, the vanquished kingdom, the kingdom of chaos.

Here Barth’s “demonology” touches upon his doctrine of creation. The demons stand outside of creation. They are not creatures. The words of II Peter and Jude are ignored, although they plainly speak of angels that sinned and that did not keep their own position but left their proper dwelling. John 8:44, however, receives full attention, where we read that the devil was a murderer from the beginning, who speaks “according to his nature,” who is a liar and is the father of lies and has nothing to do with the truth.[1]

This, for me, is an example of how “Dogmatizing” can run too far afoul of the Scriptural witness. That said, Barth’s emphasis can still be a healthy one in this regard; while Scripture, as far as I can tell speaks of demons and Satan as personal agents of evil and negation, we should not absolutize their existence relative to God (as Berkouwer agrees with as well). Nevertheless they have real personal extension, according to Scripture, into the created order and participate in that according to the taxis or order that God had originally created. But of course their place works within the redemptive and providential planning of God, and not afoul of that. They are agents who have been made ‘public spectacle of through the cross of Christ’, and in that reality God ‘uses’ them to accomplish his purposes.

But Barth’s development, as Berkouwer reports upon it, ultimately seems problematic to me, again, because he depersonalizes what Scripture clearly indicates as indeed a personal reality (i.e. demons). I am simply noting that I disagree with Barth on this count, even if it somewhat “dis-coherentizes” his broader program in regard to election, a doctrine of creation/redemption, etc. I think it is possible to still drink deeply from a Barthian fountain without always affirming everything Barth.

An Excursus on Evil

I think this excursus dovetails with what we were just engaging with, if not directly, indirectly as such.

I am afraid the above discussion of demons, Satan, etc. might run a bit academic (and academic reflection has its place!). But the above discussion has real life implications. We are enveloped and surrounded by a world that the Bible calls an ‘evil age’ or the ‘kingdom of darkness’ governed by the ‘Prince of the power of the air.’ We experience the fall-out of this in our lives in very personal and real, and often seductive and deceptive ways. Our relationships among family, friends, and strangers are fractured by the penetration of evil into the very fabric of our lives most particularly, and more broadly woven into the very tapestry of societies at large. We experience this brokenness, against the backdrop of evil disposition, in our personal lives as we sin daily; we experience this societally as we simply live in the world as sinful (yet “saved”) persons.

This seems hopeless, kind’ve. But, and this is where Barth runs strong, Christ is the real reality of creation. We have been redeemed from this evil generation and chaos that surrounds us even from the moment of our mother’s womb. So we get to live from the inner ground of creation’s reality, which is resurrection power in Christ’s indestructible life, and participate in a power that is as strong as the bond between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So we have hope, and ultimately this is Barth’s point (even if I demur from his idea of what demons are). Creation has always really been intended for Christ, and Christ has always by his own free determination as electing God and elected man been for us. So we have hope!

[1] G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph Of Grace In The Theology Of Karl Barth: An Introduction And Critical Appraisal (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 239-40.

Beginning With Ourselves: Against Natural Theology

What is “natural theology,” and why should we reject it? At a very fundamental level natural theology holds that it is possible for thomasaquinashumans to ‘know’ God at some level by reasoning from God’s works (effects) in creation back to him (the Creator) through a chain of inter-locked being (albeit an asymmetrical relationship from finite to infinite as ultimate). Thomas Aquinas is one of the best known advocates of natural theology and for a subset of that known as the analogia entis (‘analogy of being’ which I just described). Here is an example of Thomas’ thinking when he applies it to a discussion he is starting in his Summa Theologica on Divine Simplicity:

When we know that something exists, it still remains to inquire into the manner of existence, in order to know what it is. But we cannot inquire into the manner in which God exists. We can inquire only into the manner in which he does not exist, since we cannot know of God what he is, but only what he is not. We must therefore consider how God does not exist, how we know him, and how we name him. The manner in which God does not exist can be shown by excluding what is incompatible with God, such composition, movement, and the like….[1]

In medieval theology the method Aquinas is using is known as the via negativa (‘the negative way’ which is a process of thought, in this case about God, via negation. So, for example: we are finite, therefore God is infinite; we are creative, therefore God is Creator, etc.). It presumes upon the Aristotelian idea that God is the Unmoved Mover, and that everything else subsequently (in creation) that moves has its movement given to it by God in this kind of unbroken chain of what Thomas F. Torrance calls logico-causal necessitarianism. If this is so, according to the thought of Thomas (Aquinas), it follows logically then that we can reason about God from our own being and circumstance in relation to his as the Ultimate pure being; and that this capacity remains latent and stable within creation/nature itself (apart from Grace).

Karl Barth demurs stringently from this proposal. He calls this kind of thinking, in the strongest of ways, heretical and even goes so far as calling it anti-Christ, and a primary reason for not being part of the Roman Catholic Church; note:

I regard the analogia entis as an invention of the antichrist, and I consider that because of it one cannot become a Roman Catholic. In saying this, I wish also to say that any other grounds which one may think to have for not becoming a Roman Catholic are, in my opinion, inadequate and are not to be taken seriously.[2]

His reasoning for such a strong stance is this [according to his Dutch commentator, G.C. Berkouwer] (and this is what I want to emphasize in this post):

By means of a criticism of natural theology in which the principle of the analogia entis dominates, Barth thought to be able to point out clearly the error which threatens here. The issue that he posits here is the fundamental question about the receptiveness or non-receptiveness of man to God’s revelation. According to natural theology, man has within himself, specifically in his reason, the possibility of understanding God’s revelation, namely the revelation of God in created reality. Because there is an analogy between God’s being and man’s being, man can by way of conclusion come to a true knowledge of God. Even though this natural knowledge of reason is not adequate, it is, for all that, true knowledge. On basis of an objective state of affairs, man can, quite apart from grace, achieve knowledge of God.

Against this conception Barth protests. He posits with the greatest emphasis that we can achieve knowledge of God only through “a reaching out, which has taken place and takes place from the side of God.” According to Barth, there is no possibility of the knowability of God or of the knowledge of God apart from this “reaching out.” There is no analogy on basis of which, beginning with ourselves, we can come to a knowledge of God’s being.

Not only do we not know God as Reconciler, as Lord and Savior, but we do not know Him either as Creator. There is no “pre-understanding” (on the basis of an analogy of being) in which room is later given to God’s grace. In no single respect can we speak of “a prior knowledge about creation which we have of ourselves.” It is only God’s grace and mercy that make it possible for us to know God also as Creator….[3]

The basic point of concern is, as Barth conceives of it, that given our situation in a Fallen world where we aren’t even able to seek after God (Rom. 3), we, for all intents and purposes live in a closed system; i.e. we cannot get out of ourselves by ourselves. And so if this is the case, we will never be able to adequately or accurately conceive of a God this way other than conceiving of one who is categorically a projection of ourselves (so the ‘god of the philosophers’).

So What?

The practical import of this seems pretty clear. If we are going to genuinely have a real knowledge of God we cannot do anything but rely on God’s Self-revelation alone; not as an aide to what we’ve already conceived of God prior to his revelation, not as a completion of it (so Thomas’ axiom of ‘grace perfecting nature’), but as a disruptive reality of grace that so breaks in upon us that it reorientates us, reconciles, and in the process provides true revelation of God Immanuel for us in Christ.




[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, Q.3, Art.1

[2] Karl Barth, KD I/1, p. vii in G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.M.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 180.

[3] G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.M.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 183-84.

I Don’t Believe in the Power[s] of God

What is it that has always turned me off about classical post-Reformed orthodoxy (and many other Westernly derived orthodoxies as well)? It has less, really, to do with labels (like jesusalmightyCalvinism, Arminianism, Roman Catholicism, etc.) than it does with the material theological implications present within such systems of thought (derivative as that might be in many cases) about God. If you have spent any time at all studying historical theology you will have run across the impact that Nominalism has had upon the framing of the way we think about God. I described this in a 2013 article I wrote for Christianity Today:

But if God is transcendent—if his ways are unknowably above our own—how can we know him? Within the Christian tradition, several voices have spoken to this dilemma. A medieval Roman Catholic theologian, William of Ockham (1285–1349), is known for positing a “dualism” in God. By this, he meant that there are two ways to think of God and his presence among us. Ockham argued that God behaves one way in his “transcendent” life and another way in his “immanent” life (his activity in human history, primarily through the Incarnation). If God seems remote and secretive, that’s because he can act differently “way above yonder” than how he acts in revealing himself in Christ.[1]

What I was referring to with Ockham in this article, more technically, is the medieval metaphysic and conception of God that referred to God’s act (being) in two ways: 1) de potentia Absoluta and de potentia  Ordinata; God’s absolute power (how he is in himself in eternity), and God’s Ordained power (or will) (how he is in himself revealed in the contingencies of time and salvation history). Ockham wrote of it this way:

Sometimes we mean by God’s power those things which he does according to laws he himself has ordained and instituted. These things he is said to do by ordained power [de potentia  ordinata]. But sometimes God’s power is taken to mean his ability to do anything that does  not involve a contradiction, regardless of whether or not he has ordained that he would do it. For God can do many things that he does not choose to do…. These things he is said to be able to do by his absolute power [de potentia absoluta].[2]

Here is what I wrote, in that same Christianity Today article, relative to what this kind of ‘dualist’ Ockham inspired approach to God can do to us:

The problem with Ockham’s perspective is that it severs God’s transcendent life from his immanent life. As a result, Jesus Christ might not seem like the same God who has always lived in eternity. Dualistic thinking dissolves any necessary relation between the “veiled” God and the “unveiled” God in Christ. This introduces an element of anxiety for those who seek to know God: If God’s revelation in Christ does not truly represent God’s eternal nature, then sending Christ could have been an arbitrary gesture. God might well have reached out to humanity in a very different manner—or not reached out to humanity at all. And at any point in the future, he might act in an infinite number of unpredictable ways. If God’s activity in revealed time doesn’t reflect his eternal nature, we cannot be sure of Jesus’ words to doubting Thomas: “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7).[3]

And so Barth.

This whole discussion on Nominalism should help to explain my ‘turn’ to Barth and After Barth theology (like through Thomas Torrance, John Webster, et. al.). It isn’t really all that concerned with whether this set of theologians or that set of theologians operated in one period of church history or another; I really could care less about that (I operate under the premise that God’s relationship to his church is unremitting, and that he continues to break into his church as the Great Teacher that he is, in Christ, and uses the intellectual furniture of each period and age to lead the church closer to the knowledge of the One Faith [Eph. 4] once for all delivered to the Saints [Jude 1]). I happen to believe that Barth & co. have engaged with the Tradition to the point they had received it in that has been very fruitful and helpful for the catholic church of Jesus Christ. Particularly when it comes to this issue (and many other subsequent and important ones): a Doctrine of God.

One of Karl Barth’s early commentators, a Dutch theologian from the Free University of Amsterdam, G.C. Berkouwer really gets at this point in a very cogent way in regard to Barth’s theology and reframing of the ‘potentia’ theology that so much of Western thinking about God (I would declare) suffers under.

We must note, in the first place, that Barth no longer leaves room for a God-concept whereby it is impossible to conceive of humiliation and self-abnegation on the part of God. Such ideas are not applicable to a God who is “infinite potentiality.” Every conception of humiliation and self-surrender is excluded by such a power, for it would contradict the very idea of the majesty of God.

It is precisely for this reason that every view of God which has been constructed on basis [sic] of natural theology, and therefore outside of Jesus Christ, had to lead and has, in fact, constantly led, to a misunderstanding of Scripture. It was not possible to achieve a right understanding of the being and the reality of God because the thinking of natural theology could not free itself from the schematism of what it already knew about God. The one thing needful here is a radical evolution in theological thinking! We must permit ourselves to be corrected and submit to being instructed anew.

We can come to know God only when we cease assuming that we know beforehand that, with respect to God, this or that cannot be, is not possible for Him, because it is not to be squared with His infinite potentiality.

When we see God only in Jesus Christ, we come to walk in a new path and wholly new perspectives for the doctrine of reconciliation appear. Then it becomes “possible” to see the “God Himself” in the reconciling work of God in Christ. It no longer belongs to the impossibilities of thought to see “God Himself” in Christ in the most ultimate humiliation, powerlessness and self-surrender which can – of course! – not be predicated of a God of infinite potentiality. Those who think that a self-humiliation on the part of God is unthinkable and impossible meet the protest of Barth that their exclusion of this possibility flows forth from erroneous presuppositions about God. In and through Christ we must learn who God is and what the really-divine is and can do. In Him we see that God’s revelation is precisely not concerned about an abstract omnipotence, a potentia absoluta, which infinitely transcends (as the esse absolutum) any and all humiliation and self-abnegation. It is God’s reconciling activity which teaches us who the true God, revealed in reconciliation, really is. Not the self-willed logic of natural theology but Jesus Christ alone must determine our thinking about God. In Him we are able to discern the true features of this God and discover that He does not terrify us by His distant and infinite majesty and pure absoluteness, but that He is near to us in the “powerlessness” of humiliation and cross.[4]

There is a move among younger ‘conservative’ theologians (and I am still very conservative myself!) to simply imbibe and privilege one period (pre-Modern or pre-Critical) theology over others (in particular Modern); but I think we need to get beyond that artificial divide (not uncritically so). Personally, what drives me is not being able to align with this or that theologian from Patristic, Medieval, Scholastic, pre-Modern/Critical, or Modern periods of thought; what drives me is to want to truly and genuinely know God. I think that if this is what drives us we will not get so caught up or concerned with whether or not we are Barthians, Torrancians, Thomists, Calvinists, Arminians, Orthodox etc., instead we will be evangelically driven and be willing to place the actual theological concerns and ideas beyond the ‘political’ back-biting tribal divisions that in the end have the potential to shut down our engagement with all of the teachers that the body of Christ (catholic) has to offer.

I am not interested, even as I have engaged with him, to follow the kind of ‘powerful’ God that Ockham gives us. I am not interested in the mode of simply and sentimentally ascribing to a certain theological tradition because it seems safe and secure, and purportedly represents sound orthodox traditional theology. I am more interested in truly coming to know God, and I have come to the conclusion that the best way to do that (in conversation will all periods of Christian thought,  constructively so) is to allow Jesus to regulate and condition all knowledge of God (Jn. 1.18).

[1] Bobby Grow, God Behind the Veil: His Ways are Hidden from Ordinary Eyes, but not the Eyes of Faith, Christianity Today (April 1, 2013) .

[2] William of Ockham, Quodlibeta V1, q. 1 cited by Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550. An Intellectual History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), 38.

[3] Christianity Today.

[4] G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 125-26.

Creation is For Jesus Christ

This is as clear as it gets in describing how I approach a doctrine of creation; of course, it comes as a description of Karl Barth’s own creatiounderstanding of creation within God’s economy of things. In case you weren’t aware Dutch Reformed theologian G.C. Berkouwer wrote a summary and critique (book length) of Barth’s theology, years ago, before Barth’s Church Dogmatics had been translated into English. I take this description of Barth’s doctrine of creation from Berkouwer’s description.

When Barth speaks of creation he does not have in mind an act of God which can in and by itself be a subject of theological reflection. The reason for this is that in his view creation is indissolubly related to the covenant of grace in Jesus Christ. It is not possible to speak of a natural theology with an independent cosmological interest in “God as Creator.” The witness of the Scriptures is differently oriented. It does not witness to an abstract highest being as prima causa of all things, but it witnesses to the Lord of history, the God of Israel. In the history of creation we are concerned with the history of salvation. It is not possible to say anything that is meaningful about creation outside of Jesus Christ. Only in Him can we understand creation. And when Barth says “only in Him” he does not mean the creation of all things through the second Person of the trinity, but through Jesus of Nazareth. In creation we are exclusively concerned with the relationship of creation to Jesus Christ. By Him and with a view to Him and to His grace the world was created so that it is never possible to regard or understand creation “as such.” The biblical message concerning creation does not present us with cosmological or ontological truths of which everyone who is not wholly blind can take note (through the  natural light of reason), but it witnesses to an act of God’s grace. It is not possible first to come to a knowledge of creation in itself, and then advance to a knowledge of redemption in Christ. Creation can be seen only in Jesus Christ and in connection with the incarnation of the Word.

Creation, it is true, is the external ground of the covenant but, conversely, the covenant between creation and covenant, between creation and Jesus of Nazareth, draws attention. In order to understand Barth properly here, it must be remembered that he is not concerned simply about a noetic problem (namely that knowledge of creation is possible only in terms of the revelation in Christ), but also about an ontic problem which touches the whole being of creation. This world has been created “through the child that was born at Bethlehem, through the man who died on the cross at Golgotha and rose again the third day. He is the creating Word through which all things became. From Him creation derives its meaning.”

Barth has called this conception “a remarkable turn-about in the whole of our thinking.” But such thinking is necessary. It alone can prevent us from abstracting creation from the gracious and reconciling work of God and from seeing the history of creation as a “pre-history” which has meaning in itself. When creation is seen as meaningful in itself it is forgotten that God’s action in creation is related to Jesus of Nazareth. All that happens in creation happens in Jesus Christ “who is the primordial image, the model or system, underlying and giving direction to all things.”[1]

I affirm all of the above. Maybe this helps clarify further why I am so averse to working from a natural theology approach, as so much of “classical” theology does.

[1] G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph Of Grace In The Theology Of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 54-5.