First Listen Before We Speak: The Role of Tradition in the Evangelical Churches

A rather troubling issue for the Protestant can be the relation between tradition and scripture. So many Christians believe that tradition is just something that Roman Catholics have, and that us Protestant Evangelical Reformed types simply have the Bible; and thus us Protestant types have a hard time making a critical distinction between our personal interpretations of the text of scripture, and scripture itself. We should just admit that we have interpretive tradition operative in our lives as much as Roman Catholics do; we just don’t have an ecclesiological construct that imbues our interpretive traditions with the kind of magesterial and principled force that Roman Catholics do—but we might even function like we have this too (i.e. when we elevate our particular denomination’s interpretive tradition to a magesterial and binding level). Karl Barth would be one of the first theologians in line to tell all of us that we, as Protestant Christians, have interpretive tradition shaping the way we interpret and approach the scriptures. Robert McAfee Brown has written a whole chapter on Karl Barth and Tradition; he concludes his chapter thusly:

In the difficult area of the relationship of Scripture and tradition, Barth has broken some fresh ground upon which new approaches can be constructed. He delivers us from what can be a very perverse notion of sola Scriptura that would assert that we go to the Bible and to the Bible alone, as though in the process we could really bypass tradition. He delivers us from a kind of biblicism that is content to rest simply with a parroting of the vindication, “the Bible says …, the Bible says….” He confronts us with the necessity of taking tradition with utmost seriousness, and seeing it as a resource for the articulation of our own faith, so long as we keep it under Scripture and not alongside Scripture. He builds fences against the kind of subjectivism that is the morass of Protestant individualism, by pointing out that just as the church must first listen before it speaks, so must we first listen before we speak, and that when we do speak we many not jauntily set up our own private insights as though they had some kind of definitive worth simply because they are our insights. And he provides the supreme criterion by which all else, whether Scripture, tradition, church fathers, private insight, church structure, or whatever, must be judged — namely the criterion of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Whatever the witnesses to the Lordship of Jesus Christ we must retain. Whatever jeopardizes the Lordship of Jesus Christ we must discard. That the issue between what to retain and what to discard is momentous, constitutes both the glory and the risk of being a Christian. [Robert McAffee Brown, Chapter 1: Scripture and Tradition in the Theology of Karl Barth, edited by George Hunsinger, Thy Word is Truth: Barth on Scripture, 18-9.]

This reality could be distressing for some of us; it could challenge us to think that we don’t come to scripture naked, but that we come to it garbed in whatever swaddling clothes our spiritual mothers and fathers have clothed us with. As we come to scripture, as Brown points out in regard to Barth’s approach, we need to do so with the question: “Does what I believe scripture to be communicating coalesce with the fact that Jesus is Lord?” What does “Jesus is Lord” mean? For Barth I would suggest that it meant that God in Jesus Christ is the free and self determining God who elected in Christ (by electing our humanity for himself) to not be God without us; but to be God for us and with us (Imannuel). If you have an interpretation of scripture that challenges or negates this fact of who God is in Christ; then this should signal to you (and me) that we have a wrong understanding of scripture.

An example of having a wrong interpretation of scripture — in light of the above criterion that Jesus is Lord — could be to test and see whether what you think scripture is communicating about God in Christ makes God contingent upon creation. In other words, might you (might I) be interpreting scripture in a way that sets up creation prior to covenant; prior to God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ? So that we domesticate God in a way that makes him a predicate of our philosophical assumptions about how we think God should be or act; or do we so emphasize an personal experience of God that we forget that he is still sovereign Lord and God, that he isn’t just some sort of emotional experience we associate with him as him, once or twice a week (or more)?

But that Sounds like Arminianism; that Sounds Like Universalism: Barth’s Relational-Universalism Funded by His Actualism

George Hunsinger offers six helpful motifs in order to grasp the way that Karl Barth maneuvers in his theological developments. One of those, and significantly, is Barth’s so-called actualism. In this post we will see what that entails for Barth, according to Hunsinger; and then see an example of that from Barth, in his Church Dogmatics, as that pertains to human agency in salvation vis-à-vis a doctrine of Christ conditioned election. In other words, the question of “freewill” in salvation will be viewed from the vantage point of Barth’s unique framing of these things through his particular deployment of an actualistic understanding of being in becoming in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

Hunsinger writes the following in regard to Barth’s actualism:

“Actualism” is the motif which governs Barth’s complex conception of being and time. Being is always an event and often an act (always an act whenever an agent capable of decision is concerned). The relationship between divine being and human being is one of the most vexed topics in Barth interpretation, and one on which the essay at hand hopes to shed some light. For now let it simply be said, however cryptically, that the possibility for the human creature to act faithfully in relation to the divine creator is thought to rest entirely in the divine act, and therefore continually befalls the human creature as a miracle to be sought ever anew.1

Fittingly the aforementioned broaches both the divine and human sides of the soteriological complex. That is, humanity’s relationship to God, in a God-world / Creator-creature combine, is given its full measure by way of up-pointing the fact that without the Creator unilaterally becoming what humanity was always already intended to be vis-à-vis God, that the possibility for humanity to elevate to such altitudes would always remain the great impossibility. Thus, God’s intervention, His invasion into our lives, His disruption into the fallen, His irruption of our self-possessed selves is required; typically, when God does something so sui generis, so apocalyptic, so unexpected and against the grain of natural observation, we come to call this: miracle! As such, Barth’s actualism entails the idea that God has already decisively acted for us, by becoming us, that the impossible possibility might become possible, and actual, in His humanity for us. This is the unilateral nature of Barth’s motif of actualism as that pervades his total theological project.

In my current reading of the CD I came across a clear example of how Barth’s actualism informs his understanding of human agency in salvation. This evinces a clairvoyant picture of how an actualized humanity, in Christ’s humanity, funds the way that Barth thinks about the possibility for humans simpliciter to say Yes (or No) to what is in fact the reality of humanity before God. That is, humanity is determined by the humanity of God in Jesus Christ. Here Barth writes about people who hear the Word of God proclaimed to them, about them, as that it shaped by the measure of what humanity actually is. The question is whether or not individual people will submit to their new humanity in Christ, or for some inscrutable reason (for such is the love of the darkness) continue to reject the Yes of God for them in Jesus Christ. So Barth,

The promise says to those who hear or read it; Thou mayest not hear or read at this point something said about another. Thou art not in the audience, but in the centre of the stage. This is meant for thee. Thou art “this” individual. Thou art isolated from God, and therefore a godless man. Thou art threatened. And yet thou standest indeed under a wholly new determination. It was for thee that Jesus Christ Himself bore the divine rejection in its real and terrible consequences. Thou art the one who has been spared from enduring it. And it is for thee that Jesus Christ is the elect man of God and arrayed in the divine glory. Eternal life and fellowship with God await thee. Jesus Christ died and rose for thee. It is thou art elect with Him and through Him. And now that all this has been said to thee, it is the event of what thou for thy part shalt say and do (or not say, and not do) which decides whether the ancient curse will again be laid on thee with what is said, or the eternal blessing will come on thee in utter newness. In and with that which thou dost now say or do (or not say and not do), thou must and shalt give answer to that which has been said to thee, and either way (persisting in thy ungodliness or turning thy back upon it, for thy salvation or thy destruction) confirm its truth.2

Some might say this sounds like Arminianism redivivus. But this would miss the reality of Barth’s functional actualism. What Barth is saying is that salvation has been exhaustively realized without remainder in Jesus Christ. As such, salvation isn’t something waiting for your approval or mine, it isn’t something with potency waiting to be actualized. For Barth, salvation has already been fully actualized in God’s Yes for humanity in Jesus Christ’s Yes and election to become human for us. Some will say this sounds like universalism. It is, but because of God’s freedom, it isn’t a fatalistic universalism; instead, it is a universalism that is circumscribed by the life of God in Christ, which necessarily entails that what He does has universal consequences. But this is different than a deterministic or decretal universalism in the sense that by way of ‘actualism’ the question under consideration isn’t an abstract humanity, but one that has always already been in relation to its Father, the Creator. So, it is a relational-universalism conditioned by the Son’s primal and cosmic relationship to the Father by the Spirit. In this sense, the logic of Barth’s actualism as applied to salvation is universalistic. In the sense that the Son-Father/ -by Holy Spirit relationship is all that there actually is. Grasp this, and you’re on your way. Pax Vobiscum 

 

1 George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 16-18.

2 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §35 The Doctrine of God: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 111. 

 

 

Reading the Bible Through the ‘Chalcedonian Pattern’ is the Only Genuinely Christian Way

Orthodox (little ‘o’) Christians of all ages have affirmed the Chalcedonian grammar about the two-natures/singular person Christology. The Chalcedonian council was a council convened in 451 AD in order to mitigate a variety of heretical christologies that had been plaguing the patrological church.[1] Ever since, the grammar produced has been the standard, the regula (rule) by which all other christological efforts are measured. The grammar has become so pervasive, that at least among the orthodox, all Christians operate with even a tacit understanding of it (although recent polls suggest that more than 30% of so-called evangelical Christians do not affirm the deity of Christ; which is why I keep qualifying with ‘orthodox’). As any good theology does, Chalcedon, and in this case, in a catholic way, offers a theological grammar that finds its correspondence in conceptions presupposed in the inner-logic of Holy Scripture. With this noted, here is the Creed of Chalcedon:

We, then, following the holy fathers, all with one consent teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; coessential with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the mother of God, according to the manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one person and one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the creed of the holy fathers has handed down to us.[2]

The point of rehearsing these things is to get us somewhere else, in a related way. I contend that since all orthodox Christians, in every place, operate with these conciliar categories—two natures/singular person—with reference to Jesus Christ, that it is this fortification, these grammatical loci, that fundamentally give hermeneutical shape to the way that even the most low-church evangelicals think Christ. As a subsequent implication then, this tacit Chalcedonian grammar, is, or should be the explicit way Christians interpret all of Scripture (both Old and New Testaments). More crudely put: since the conciliar Christ is fundamental to how orthodox Christians think Christ, and if Scripture is, at a first-order level, intensively and principially in reference to Christ, if Scripture is the sign (signum) to its greater and ontological reality (res), Jesus Christ, then all Christian exegesis of Holy Scripture will be and must be regulated by this sort of catholic (universal) Christological standard. That is to say, if Christians are going to think who Christ is through the Chalcedonian grammar, in an essential, but proximate way (vis-à-vis eschatological reality), eo ipso they will interpret Scripture through this rule insofar that Scripture refers to Jesus and the triune God as its inherent and life-breathing reality.

With the aforementioned noted, we now turn to Karl Barth; and in particular, with noted attention to an interpretive mechanism George Hunsinger has identified as a helpful key in regard to understanding the way Barth (and after Barth exegetes and theologians) constructively applied the Chalcedonian grammar, as a pattern towards his exegesis of Scripture whilst paying close attention to Scripture’s inner-theologic (which is what theological exegetes do). In the following Hunsinger describes the way this pattern looks when applied to various theological loci, as those are identified in the under-bubbling of Holy Scripture’s witness:

The coherentist mode of testing, as it emerged in the survey of rationalism, also plays a decisive role in Barth’s justification of his position on double agency. Directly and indirectly, therefore, it serves to justify his reliance on the conceptions of miracle and mystery in that position. On the exegetical or hermeneutical premise that the terms of the Chalcedonian pattern are rooted in the biblical testimony regarding how divine and human agency are related, the mode of doctrinal testing proceeds as follows. The Chalcedonian pattern is used to specify counterpositions that would be doctrinally incoherent (and also incoherent with scripture). “Without separation or division” means that no independent human autonomy can be posited in relation to God. “Without confusion or change” means that not divine determinism or monism can be posited in relation to humanity. Finally, “complete in deity and complete in humanity” means that no symmetrical relationship can be posited between divine and human actions (or better, none that is not asymmetrical). It also means that the two cannot be posited as ultimately identical. Taken together, these considerations mean that, if the foregoing conditions are to be met, no nonmiraculous and nonmysterious conception is possible. The charge of incoherence (as previously defined) thereby reveals itself to be abstract, in the sense that it does not adequately take all the necessary factors into account. It does not work inductively from the subject matter (as attested by scripture)–as the motif of particularism would prescribe. Instead, it starts from general considerations such as formal logic and applies them to certain isolated aspects of the more “concrete” position. At the same time, the charge may well have implicated itself, wittingly or unwittingly, in one of the rejected couterpositions.[3]

We see, in Hunsinger’s description, the way Barth used the revealedness of the miracle of God become human in Jesus Christ as the standard by which Christian exegetes ought to approach the many paradoxes that emerge from a world that is shaped, and given purpose (telos) by the reality of its confrontation by God in Christ. In other words, if what Chalcedon has attempted to describe (albeit through a series of ‘without’ negations) about the mysterium incarnatio (mystery of the incarnation), is indeed of an otherworldly origin, then the Christian engagement with Scripture, and all of reality, will take its hermeneutical cue and shape from this miracle; viz. it will not allow thisworldly conceptions of God, and thus Jesus Christ as the Theanthropos (Godman), to be determinative: 1) of how they think of a God-world relation, and 2) (as a subsequent) towards the way they interpret Scripture—insofar that Jesus Christ is Scripture’s centraldogma.

The point of highlighting the so-called Chalcedonian pattern is to note, at a first-order level, the way that orthodox Christians consciously or sub-consciously (as the case may be) approach their thinking of who Jesus Christ is. And then, at a second-order level, as that is determinative for the way Christians think Jesus, particularly as that finds concrete reference within the evangelical character of the triune life, of whom he is integral, and insofar that Jesus Christ is indeed the warp and woof of Holy Scripture, it is this miracle that ought to regulate, in a categorical way, the mode by which Christians interpret the Bible. Insofar that this Chalcedonian pattern is diminished, either through lack of intentional education, or merely by lack of education, per se, the Christian’s interpretation of Holy Scripture will be lacking; if not totally deleterious to the Christian’s soul and Kingdomed way of life.

A secondary point: many evangelical Christians operate with a sort of “cancel-culture” when it comes to church history and the history of interpretation. They often suffer from the myopia and fall-out that turn-to-the-subject modernity has projected into the soul of postmodern humanity. As such, they will, again, tacitly affirm, if they are ever confronted with it, that they believe Jesus is both fully God and fully human (so Chalcedon). But they won’t intentionally or self-consciously apply the emergent pattern this should evince for them, in regard to the regulative role that the miracle of the incarnation ought to play for them in their interpretation of Holy Writ. So, because they are willfully (and thus woefully) ignorant of the history of interpretation; because they are often intentionally devoid of the spirit of Church History (and her ideas); they will simply interpret Scripture from their own rationalizing about things, rather than from the miracle of the incarnation (particularly as that is given intelligible grammar by the Chalcedonian creed and its constructive engagement).

The fall-out is that many (most) modern evangelicals, particularly in North America, and the West in general, will piously affirm Jesus as the Godman, and yet proceed ignorantly blissfully as if this affirmation does not have the sort of pressure and force it ought to have on everything else following. In other words, they will and do read Scripture as if it is solely about them, and the Jesus they have constructed from their own desires and projections therefrom, instead of reading it, as the Chalcedonian pattern requires; as if Scripture is about how God freely chose to become human in Christ for them, for the world. In short: evangelical Christians, because the Chalcedonian pattern is not the pattern of their thinking as Christians, live in a world of dissonance and self-manufacture, rather than the miraculous world given shape by the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Evangelical Christians of this order, as such, live in a rationalist, positivist, individualistic, empiricist world that is not given shape by the faith of Christ (pistis Christou); but instead it is given shape by the limit of their own short and self-sighted vision—albeit, all in the name of Jesus Christ.[4]

An Addendum: Click Here

 

[1] See the following description provided by Protestant Reformed Churches in America, “The Creed of Chalcedon, A.D. 451, is not mentioned by name in any of our three forms of unity, but the doctrine set forth in it is clearly embodied in Article 19 of our Confession of Faith. It constitutes an important part of our ecumenical heritage. The Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon settled the controversies concerning the person and natures of our Lord Jesus Christ and established confessionally the truths of the unity of the divine person and the union and distinction of the divine and human natures of Christ. It condemned especially the error of Nestorianism, which denied the unity of the divine person in Christ; the error of Apollinarianism, which denied the completeness of Christ’s human nature; and the error known as Eutychianism, which denied the duality and distinction of the divine and human natures of our Lord Jesus Christ. What was confessionally established at Chalcedon concerning the person and natures of Christ has continued to be the confession of the church catholic ever since that time.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology(New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 195-6 nook version. 

[4] I have hit on many themes in this post. It is not as coherent as I’d like, but it represents a first draft of a possible essay on such things.

An Evangelical Calvinist Concept of Grace: The Kind of Grace that Resists Thinking in Terms of Resistible and Irresistible Grace

Podcast that works through this same material.

I was in a theological discussion last night with someone on Facebook. He pressed me, as an Evangelical Calvinist, on whether or not we affirm the idea of ‘resistible grace’; i.e. the idea that the would-be Christian has the capacity to resist God’s offer of gracious salvation. This conception of grace, to think it in terms of being able to be resisted, comes from a metaphysic that Evangelical Calvinists eschew. Further, to think in these terms, in the history of ideas, is to think in the terms set by the classically Reformed understanding of ‘irresistible grace’ (the “I” in the TULIP). Irresistible grace, so called because of the acronym, represents a concept of grace that is grounded in the substance metaphysical (and its logico-causal necessitarian) framework that sees grace as a created quality given to the elect so they might respond affirmatively (and, subsequently, persevere) to the offer of salvation. Richard Muller writes the following:

gratia: grace; in Greek, χάρις;  the gracious or benevolent disposition of God toward sinful mankind and, therefore, the divine operation by which the sinful heart and mind are regenerated and the continuing divine power or operation that cleanses, strengthens, and sanctifies the regenerate. The Protestant scholastics distinguish five actus gratiae,or actualizations of grace. (1) Gratia praeveniens, or prevenient grace, is the grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon sinners in and through the Word; it must precede repentance. (2) Gratia praeparens is the preparing grace, according to which the Spirit instills in the repentant sinner a full knowledge of his inability and also his desire to accept the promises of the gospel. This is the stage of the life of the sinners that can be termed the praeparatio ad conversionem (q.v.) and that the Lutheran orthodox characterize as a time of terrores conscientiae (q.v.). Both this preparation for conversion and the terrors of conscience draw directly upon the second use of the law, the usus paedagogicus (see usus legis). (3) Gratia operans, or operating grace, is the effective grace of conversion, according to which the Spirit regenerates the will, illuminates the mind, and imparts faith. Operating grace is, therefore, the grace of justification insofar as it creates in man the means, or medium, faith, through which we are justified by grace…. (4) Gratia cooperans, or cooperating grace, is the continuing grace of the Spirit, also termed gratia inhabitans, indwelling grace, which cooperates with and reinforces the regenerate will and intellect in sanctification. Gratia cooperans is the ground of all works and, insofar as it is a new capacity in the believer for the good, it can be called the habitus gratiae, or disposition of grace. Finally, some of the scholastics make a distinction betweengratia cooperans and (5) gratia conservans, or conserving, preserving grace, according to which the Spirit enables the believer to persevere in faith. This latter distinction arises most probably out of the distinction between sanctificatio (q.v.) and perseverantia (q.v.) in the scholastic ordo salutis (q.v.), or order of salvation.[1]

I have emboldened the aspect, from Muller, that serves instructive for our purposes. If the theologian moves too quickly they might not pay close enough attention to what Muller is implying; it might seem that Muller is saying that the scholastics Reformed maintained that gratia operans is in reference to the Holy Spirit, and His regenerative work, personally. But that isn’t what the scholastics Reformed, or Muller following, maintain. As Muller notes, this sort of grace ‘creates in man the means,’ this is the key to understanding what actually is being said. You notice how this conception of grace is abstract from the personal agency of the Holy Spirit, it is someTHING that is infused or instilled into the accidents of elect humanity ‘through which’ they ‘are justified by “grace.’” Grace in this framework is a potency yet to be actualized in the life of the elect; and they will actualize it because they are indeed, the elect—and God has decreed that the potency given to them in this ‘created grace’ will be actualized; just as sure as God is sovereign God who decrees (decretum absolutum).

If, for the classically Reformed, grace is a created thing abstract from God, even as it is provided for by God, it’s conceivable that as a potency, it could be ‘resisted.’ This isn’t conceivable in the scholastic’s Reformed ordo salutis, but all it takes is for someone to come along, like Jacobus Arminius, to think this concept of grace from another ‘order of salvation.’ Without getting into all of that, and without attempting to develop the anatomy of saving grace in Arminius’ theology, the point being made, is that if grace is a created quality, abstract from the personal agency and life of God in the Holy Spirit, a quality that has potency waiting actualization by the elect (whether that’s Arminian or Calvinist understanding), that it has the potential to be resisted.[2] But this is a dilemma, or represents a material universe, that Evangelical Calvinists avoid.

The Evangelical Calvinist Alternative

It is no secret that my personal style of Evangelical Calvinism is informed largely by Barthian and Torrancean themes. As such the alternative I seek to offer to the aforementioned scholastic understanding of grace (as a potency that is either irresistible or resistible, depending on the broader theological tradition it is deployed within) will find its principal parts from the thinking of both Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. And because of space restraints (e.g. since this is just a blog post), I will offer two full quotes, one from Barth, one from Torrance, and then simply reflect on how this shapes an alternative understanding of Divine Grace relative to the ‘created’ type we have just sketched.

Evangelical Calvinists, such as myself, think of God’s Grace, as just that: a personal reality grounded in God’s free choice (election) to be God for us, in us, and with us in Jesus Christ. If this is the case, then to think in terms of the possibility of grace being ‘resisted’ or ‘irresisted’ no longer has the gravitas it does in the scholastic conception we have visited. If God in Christ has always already elected to not be God without us before the foundation of the world, this implies that the foundation of the world is funded by God’s Grace ‘all the way down.’ When God made this choice to be for us (pro nobis), this implies that the inner reality of the created order, is God’s covenanted life of “for-usness.” Once this choice was temporally actualized in the incarnation (as given proleptic prefiguration in God’s tabernacling with Israel), what was once antecedently in God’s being, became actualized in the execution of God’s economy for the world in Christ. In other words, once God became human in Christ (Deus incarnatus), this actualization of God for us in His assumed humanity, cannot be thought of in terms of something that is resistible or irresistible; grace in this frame can only be thought of in terms of concrete actualization. George Hunsinger writes the following with reference to Barth’s concept of actualism, and how that functions for his theological program:

“Actualism” is the motif which governs Barth’s complex conception of being and time. Being is always an event and often an act (always an act whenever an agent capable of decision is concerned). The relationship between divine being and human being is one of the most vexed topics in Barth interpretation, and one on which the essay at hand hopes to shed some light. For now let it simply be said, however cryptically, that the possibility for the human creature to act faithfully in relation to the divine creator is thought to rest entirely in the divine act, and therefore continually befalls the human creature as a miracle to be sought ever anew.[3]

This helps explicate and move things forward. For Barth, according to Hunsinger, in his actualised frame, Grace would be a reality that simply has come to be as a result of God’s choice to be for the world. Thus, it is not something that can be possessed or grasped as a potency built into the accidents of the creature; instead, it is always already a happening that has been realized for us, because of God’s free choice to be with us. Therefore, grace is God’s person for us; He possesses us, we do not possess Him through this grace. It is a reality that encounters us afresh and anew by the miraculous in-breaking of the Holy Spirit’s work, as that is first actualized in the resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ, and then brought to us as the same miracle by which the human agent will say yes in correspondence to God’s Yes and Amen for us in Jesus Christ. But this simply is how it is; this is the state of the new creation; it is a state of ever refreshing Grace that funds the re-created order as that has been accomplished in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Humanity in this frame, salvation in this frame, is an actualized reality that comes to be, and has come to be, in the archetypal humanity of Jesus Christ. It is not possible to resist or irresist this grace, since it isn’t something we can operate or cooperate with, as if a commodity given to us to handle. No, we have been handled, as it were, by its actualized and concrete reality in Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be human now in God’s Kingdom; to be human is to experience God’s new creation in Christ; as such, this becomes salvation for all those in participation with Christ by the Holy Spirit.

For the Evangelical Calvinist, then, the idea of resisting or not being able to resist, is a non-starter. There is no space for such potencies in God’s Kingdom in Christ. But what about people who say no to God’s offer of salvation? That remains a problem for the inscrutable nature of sin to explain. And as Barth rightly notes, in his elaborate reformulation of election; sin is das nichtige (‘nothingness’), a reality outside of the realm encompassed by God’s life of Grace to be for us, for the world. I will come back later, and develop this further in another blog post. I have run out of energy. Let me leave us with a long quote from TFT. This passage should help elucidate further what I have been driving at:

To sum up: Grace in the New Testament is the basic and the most characteristic element of the Christian Gospel. It is the breaking into the world of the ineffable love of God in a deed of absolutely decisive significance which cuts across the whole of human life and sets it on a new basis. That is actualized in the person of Jesus Christ, with which grace is inseparably associated, and supremely exhibited on the Cross by which the believer is once and for all put in the right with God. This intervention of God in the world and its sin, out of sheer love, and His personal presence to men through Jesus Christ are held together in the one thought of grace. As such grace is the all-comprehensive and constant presupposition of faith, which, while giving rise to an intensely personal life in the Spirit, necessarily assumes a charismatic and eschatological character. Under the gracious impingement of Christ through the Spirit there is a glad spontaneity about the New Testament believer. He is not really concerned to ask questions about ethical practice. He acts before questions can be asked. He is caught up in the overwhelming love of Christ, and is concerned only about doing His will. There is no anxious concern about the past. It is Christ that died! There is no anxious striving toward an ideal. It is Christ that rose again! In Him all the Christian’s hopes are centred. His life is hid with Christ in God. In Him a new order of things has come into being, by which the old is set aside. Everything therefore is seen in Christ, in the light of the end, toward which the whole creation groaneth and travaileth waiting for redemption. The great act of salvation has already taken place in Christ, and has become an eternal indicative. The other side of faith is grace, the immediate act of God in Christ, and because He is the persistent Subject of all Christian life and thought, faith stands  necessarily on the threshold of the new world, with the intense consciousness of the advent of Christ. The charismatic and the eschatological aspects of faith are really one. In Christ the Eternal God has entered into this present evil world which shall in due course pass away before the full unveiling of the glory of God. That is the reason for the double consciousness of faith in the New Testament. By the Cross the believer has been put in the right with God once for all—Christ is his righteousness. He is already in Christ what he will be—to that no striving will add one iota. But faith is conscious of the essential imminence of that day, because of the intense nearness of Christ, when it shall know even as it is known, when it shall be what it already is. And so what fills the forward view is not some ideal yet to be attained, but the Christian’s position already attained in Christ and about to be revealed. The pressure of this imminence may be so great upon the mind as to turn the thin veil of sense and time into apocalyptic imagery behind which faith sees the consummation of all things. Throughout all this the predominating thought is grace, the presence of the amazing love of God in Christ, which has unaccountably overtaken the believer and set him in a completely new world which is also the eternal Kingdom of God.[4]

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastics Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 129-30. [emboldening mine]

[2] All that is required is that this concept of grace be removed from its decretal framework as referred to in the ordo salutis of classical Calvinist soteriology, place it in a framework where human agency is independent from God’s decree, and this sort of grace can be resisted salvifically.

[3] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology(New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 16-18.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, 34-5.

God’s being-in-election: How Divine Freedom Keeps Barth’s God From Modally Collapsing

Does Barth’s conception of God fall prey to what theologians (and philosophers) call modal collapse, as some claim? Bruce McCormack, of Princeton Theological Seminary, in his contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, entitled Grace and being: the role of God’s gracious election in Karl Barth’s theological ontology, he opened up a reading of Barth that people like George Hunsinger and Paul Molnar claim produces a modal collapse in God’s being. In other words, crudely, McCormack’s reading of Barth ostensibly makes God’s choice to be for us in Christ (election) contingent upon the pro nobis (for us); the contention is that for God to be God, in the way Hunsinger et al critique McCormack, is that God has chosen to not be God without the resurrected humanity that obtains as the result of the Son’s election to be human. Molnar claims (and argues) that McCormack’s understanding of Barth makes Barth’s God a God who no longer can distinguish between His inner-processions (immanent), and His outer-missions (economy); thus, for Molnar, McCormack’s (and Ben Myer’s following BLM) constructive reading of Barth ends up giving us a God who does indeed modally collapse (i.e. a God who necessarily makes His being contingent upon and predicated by the creation).

But I’m not necessarily persuaded that McCormack’s Barth must fall into a modal collapse. I realize that Hunsinger and Molnar will both be aware of the passage I am going to share from Barth directly (at the very least, they’ve read it). But as I read the following, it is something like this that McCormack could appeal to, and He does in His own way. It is the way Barth himself, as Hunsinger might call it, the ‘textual Barth,’ who explains how God’s election to be human in the Son could be so intrinsic to God’s being as God, and yet not become captive to the charge of ‘modal collapse.’ Here is the man, Barth:

Our emphasis in defining the concept must not in any circumstances fall upon this negative aspect. To be sure, this negative side is extremely significant not only for God’s relation to the world, but also for His being in itself. We cannot possibly grasp and expound the idea of divine creation and providence, nor even the ideas of divine omnipotence, omnipresence and eternity, without constantly referring to this negative aspect of His freedom. But we shall be able to do so properly only when we do so against the background of our realisation that God’s freedom constitutes the essential positive quality, not only of His action towards what is outside of Himself, but also of His own inner being. The biblical witness to God sees His transcendence of all that is distinct from Himself, not only in the distinction as such, which is supremely and decisively characterised as His freedom from all conditioning by that which is distinct from Himself, but furthermore and supremely in the fact that without sacrificing His distinction and freedom, but in the exercise of them, He enters into and faithfully maintains communion with this reality other than Himself in His activity as Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer. According to the biblical testimony, God has the prerogative to be free without being limited by His freedom from external conditioning, free also with regard to His freedom, free not to surrender Himself to it, but to use it to give Himself to this communion and to practise this faithfulness in it, in this way being really free, free in Himself. God must not only be unconditioned but, in the absoluteness in which He sets up this fellowship, He can and will also be conditioned. He who can and does do this is the God of Holy Scripture, the triune God known to us in His revelation. This ability, proved and manifested to us in His action, constitutes His freedom.[1]

It is the emboldened part that is most pertinent to our discussion on modal collapse. We see how Barth, even before he comes to his reformulation of election in CD II/2, has already developed a doctrine of divine freedom (and aseity, which is a related category, of which I have a dope quote from Barth on just a few pages later from the above; we will visit that in another post) which can allow for Barth’s God to be so with us, and yet remain distinct from us as the a se and triune God who He is in His inner life.

We see, in the above passage from Barth, also his various motifs of actualism and objectivism. It is important to bear in mind that Barth’s theology attempts to only think from God’s Self revelation in Christ; in case you didn’t known that already. As such, Barth is going to refer to ‘biblical testimony’ and the ‘acts’ of God quite frequently in the way he theologizes. He will not refer to philosophical apparatus in order to develop something like his doctrine of divine freedom or aseity, even if the philosophical tradition has a parallel grammar in these instances.

In conclusion, for the moment, I think McCormack actually does have a way out, in regard to the way that he thinks God’s being in the theology of Karl Barth. I don’t think even McCormack’s Barth must fall prey to the critique of modal collapse, precisely because of the material Barth himself supplies in the above quote. It is actually hard to see, as we read such conceptual matter from Barth, how people would conclude that McCormack’s Barth, of necessity, must militate against Barth the man. What should stand out most, in this regard, is that McCormack is right to emphasize divine freedom as the basis through which he can read Barth’s doctrine of God through a heavy lens of God’s being-in-election.

Next time we will visit a passage from Barth that is related to this one, as I mentioned. It is a magnificent passage where Barth describes God’s aseity; it is the sort of passage that reminds me why I like doing theology; a passage that makes me want to get lost in the inner life of God, and worship all the days of my weary life.

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 §28 The Doctrine of God: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 47 [emphasis mine].

My Actualist Theological Method: Reflecting with Congdon and Bultmann on Demythologizing Essentialism

God’s being is in becoming. Two of the six motifs that George Hunsinger identifies as the shapers of Barth’s theology are helpful to review in light of the axiom I just noted about God’s being. Hunsinger writes:

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

“Particularism” is a motif which designates both a noetic procedure and an ontic state of affairs. The noetic procedure is the rule that say, “Let every concept used in dogmatic theology be defined on the basis of a particular event called Jesus Christ.” No generalities derived from elsewhere are to applied without further ado to this particular. Instead one must so proceed from this particular event that all general conceptions are carefully and critically redefined on its basis before being used in theology. The reason for this procedure is found in the accompanying state of affairs. This particular event requires special conceptualization, precisely because it is regarded as unique in kind.[1]

I wanted to share this, sort of as a ground clearing exercise prior to jumping into the rest of the post. Both actualism and particularism, as they are understood in Barth’s theology, will be important to bear in mind as we get further into this post. For the rest of the post we will be considering David Congdon’s treatment of Rudolf Bultmann’s understanding of mythology, and how he ‘demythologizes’ that through appropriating the sorts of motifs that shape Barth’s theology. He sees, according to Congdon, God’s revelation strictly as event that obtains in the concrete of historical actualization. This view undercuts the essentialist theological ontology that funds what we call classical theism or substance metaphysics; i.e. the traditional view that much of Western theology operates from. So, this places me in a place that is largely contra the classical theists of today; albeit, I think this approach helps explicate some iterations of the classical theism, or what some of the classical theistic theologians wanted to say but couldn’t because of the limitations of their own conditioned time and space (i.e. when it comes to the ideational material they had available to them at the time). With this said, let me share from Congdon’s analysis of Bultmann’s understanding of revelation as event as that is actualized in historical occurrence without remainder vis-à-vis God.

It is this insight above all to which Bultmann appeals in the conclusion to his programmatic essay on demythologizing. The problem with mythology in every age is that it dissolves the paradox and defuses the scandal by narrating the divine in a supernatural, rather than historical manner:

For the salvation-occurrence [Heilsgeschehen] about which we talk is not some miraculous, supernatural occurrence but rather a historical occurrence in space and time. And by presenting it as such, stripping away the mythological garments, we have intended to follow the intention of the New Testament itself and to do full justice to the paradox of its proclamation—the paradox, namely, that God’s eschatological emissary is a concrete historical person, that God’s eschatological act takes place in a human destiny, that it is an occurrence, therefore, that cannot be proved [ausweisen] to be eschatological in any worldly way. It is the paradox formulated in the words “he emptied himself” (Phil 2:7), or “he who was rich became poor” (2 Cor 8:9), or “God sent  his son in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3), or “he was manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim 3:16), or, finally and classically, “the word became flesh” (John 1:14).

The paradox precludes proof, according to Bultmann. It is precisely the “nonprovability” (Nichtausweisharkeit) of the “eschatological phenomena” that “secures Christian proclamation against the charge that it is mythology,” for, unlike myth, “the transcendence [Jenseitigkeit] of God is not made immanent [Diesseits]” in the event of divine revelation. The ability to prove (ausweisen) the eschatological requires having direct access to it, which is what mythology seeks to provide. Mythology grounds revelation in the Revealer’s “essential nature [Wesensart],” that is to say, in “the permanent consubtantiality [Wesensgleichheit, lit. ‘identity of essence’] of the messenger with God.” It is this permanent metaphysical access that the Johannine witness denies in the way that it “historicizes” (vergeschichtlicht) God’s activity in the Revealer. Christian faith in the word-made-flesh is faith in an event that does not permit such access, its salvific significance requires, instead, a constant vigilance against the temptation to stabilize and secure the Christ-event in a readily accessible form. The Revealer therefore calls each person into question and places every theological statement in a position of crisis. The word of revelation coincides with the existential unsettling of the one who hears the word. The truth of God’s self-revelation is thus a truth that works upon the hearer: it demands, negatively, a posture of self-criticism regarding the temptation to speak theoretically about God, but this critique contains the positive and practical demand to live an obedient life of love—a point highlighted especially in the Johannine epistles (cf. 1 John 4:7-8). According to this account of revelation, the hermeneutical problem, which concerns the relation between the event of revelation and the hearer of revelation, is internally necessary to the becoming-flesh of the divine word.[2]

The concern for some is that the ‘event’ itself is collapsed into the ‘hearer,’ thus giving the human agent the capacity to determine just who and what God actually is. But this, as I understand Bultmann, is precisely what he is countering. In other words, he retains the ‘orthodox’ Creator/creature distinction, but at the same time, and dialectically does not allow the ontological reality to be thought apart from the epistemological as those become a piece in the self-revelation of God given in the hypostatic union of Creator/creature in Jesus Christ.

What is attractive to me about all of this is the non-speculative emphasis present in Bultmann’s (and Barth’s) approach to theology proper. The speculative mind is put to death in the concrete heart of God as that is given flesh and blood in the humanity of Jesus Christ. I recognize the dangers some see in this, particularly as the focus becomes potentially overly existential. But for me, this danger is worth it. Speculative theology, as that is practiced in various forms of classical theism, is not commensurate with the narrative of Scripture itself; indeed, it is not commensurate with God’s self-revelation in Christ which is anything but speculative. And of issue, and this is what it right at the center of the impasse between something like Barth/Bultmann’s approach and classical theism’s, is what Congdon notes in regard to Bultmann’s theology: the hermeneutical question.

Given the state of humanity’s heart, what capacity does humanity have in itself to ever know God? And in what sense can even a redeemed humanity come to the conclusion that they have been placed into a stable situation that they can now manage between God and themselves? This is the mythology that Bultmann seeks to demythologize (even if he overdoes it in certain ways), and it is the essentialism that Barth’s actualism is intent on undercutting. If God’s self-revelation is an event, meaning a reality that keeps constantly giving Hisself over and over again, then in what sense can we, elect humanity in Christ, ever conclude that a stable bond of nature has now obtained such that we are in a position to speculate about the grandeur of the Holy God? This is what I constructively take from Bultmann’s programmatic move to destabilize what classical theism has asserted is the stable reality from their own powers of wit and speculation.

 

[1] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 16-18.

[2] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 488-90.

A Sketch of Thomas Aquinas’s and Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Creation, Salvation, and Human Freedom: How They Contrast and Its Impact on Just About Everything

I think something that is not talked about much, in regard to Barth’s theology, is how counter it is to mediaeval conceptions of salvation and grace relative to a grace/nature binary. In other words in the major strand of Western conception of salvation/grace we get
something as definitive as Thomas Aquinas’s axiom: ‘nature is perfected by grace.’ So we have this kind of symmetry between the two with a telos (or linear purposiveness) tied into nature by God’s grace coming along, as it were, and completing or bringing nature to where it inherently has been designed to be. In this scheme we have what some have called a ‘pure nature’ (naturum purum); what is implicit in this scheme is that at the fall nature only sublimated into a sub situation relative to its inherent trajectory before God—in other words, nature did not fully self-destruct into demise and utter death through and through; a spark of its inherent determinancy remained hither. It simply needed help-along by way of God adding to it his created grace wherein nature, and the stewards of said nature, human beings, could habituate in this added grace in their lives thus bringing nature to where it had always intended to be at an inherent level (as originally designed by God).

But for Barth this is not how nature/creation is conceived of to begin with. There is no nature/grace symmetry; for Barth it is ‘grace all the way down’ (to use a Torrancism). In other words, the condition for creation itself is grounded in God’s first Word of grace realized in his elected life in Christ to be for us and with us. Grace is the precondition of creation for Barth such that nature has no inherent determinancy or ‘purity’ in itself. We might note something like this, from Barth, as a counter to the Aquinisian axiom we shared above: ‘creation is the external basis of the covenant’ and ‘covenant is the internal basis of creation.’ What this gets at in our discussion is how for Barth, contra Aquinas&co., creation/nature itself is inherently tied into God’s gracious choice to be for us in Christ; Aquinas’s view has nature tied to grace in a kind of complementing sense whereas Barth sees creation/nature as always already a reality that is thoroughly suffused and conditioned by and from God’s life through and through.

I bring all of this up to lead us to a quote from George Hunsinger on Barth’s theology in regard to salvation, human cooperation in that salvation (and not), and human agency/freedom. Maybe you will see how my rough sketches on Aquinas juxtaposed with Barth fits into what Hunsinger is getting at in regard to how distinct Barth is from the trad on this most crucial point. At length, Hunsinger writes this per Barth:

Human Cooperation Does Not Effect Salvation

Barth does not deny that human freedom “cooperates” with divine grace. He denies that this cooperation in any way effects salvation. Although grace makes human freedom possible as a mode of acting (modus agendi), that freedom is always a gift. It is always imparted to faith in the mode of receiving salvation (modus recipiendi), partaking of it (modus participandi), and bearing witness to it (modus testificandi), never in the mode of effecting it (modus efficiendi). As imparted by the Spirit’s miraculous operation, human freedom is always the consequence of salvation, never its cause, and therefore in its correspondence to grace always eucharistic (modus gratandi et laudandi). These distinctions apply both objectively and subjectively, that is, not only to salvation as it has taken place extra nos, but also as it occurs in nobis. Since to be a sinner means to be incapacitated, grace means capacitating the incapacitated despite their incapacitation. Sinners capacitated by grace remain helpless in themselves. Grace does not perfect and exceed human nature in its sorry plight so much as it contradicts and overrules it.

What happens is this: in nobis, in our heart, in the very center of our existence, a contradiction is lodged against our unfaithfulness. It is a contradiction that we cannot dodge, but have to validate. In confronting it we cannot cling to our unfaithfulness, for through it our unfaithfulness is not only forbidden but canceled and rendered impossible. Because Jesus Christ intervenes pro nobis and thus in nobis, unfaithfulness to God has been rendered basically an impossible possibility. It is a possibility disallowed and thus no longer to be realized . . . , one we recognize as eliminated and taken away by the omnipotent contradiction God lodges within us. [Karl Barth, “Extra Nos-Pro Nobis-In Nobis,” Thomist 50 (1986): 497-511, on p. 510.]

In this miraculous and mysterious way, by grace alone — that is, through a continual contradiction of nature by grace resulting in a provisional “conjunction of opposites” (coniunctio oppositorum) — the blind see, the lame walk, and the dead are raised to life (cf. Matt. 11:4).[1]

Do you see the type of discontinuity and asymmetry that is present in Barth’s understanding of a doctrine of creation/nature, and how that implicates the way Barth conceives of what happens in the salvific reality? In the Thomist account grace attends to nature in such a way that nature is prolongated to new heights, but heights pregnant within nature itself. In the Barthian account creation had no such inherence, nature was always already extrinsically conditioned by and for God’s life of grace in Christ. For Barth nature does not simply subsist as inchoate reality waiting to be completed in accord with its own independent ends (i.e. already built-in through secondary causation etc), but instead it has always had this type of apocalyptic eschatological hue to it such that the first creation while anticipative of things to come, heightened and intensified by the fall of Adam and Eve (and thus humanity), was conditioned to be contradicted and recreated in accord with its gracious and given purpose determined by an immediate corollary between its given reality and the reality given to it, always and already, in God’s choice to be for us. In other  words, in the Barthian account, to state it brusquely: creation is and always has been a predicate of God’s gracious and Triune life (insofar as he chose this to be the case). Contrariwise, in the Thomist account we could say that: grace is understood as a predicate of nature insofar as grace is seen as a supplement to expand nature to new heights; that nature came to be, as it were, fitted for grace and grace for nature. In the Barthian account nature has always been inclusiastically situated in and from God’s life of grace both protologically and eschatologically. If this is so, the Barthian account, we can see how Barth could and would draw such a brightly colored line between his own understanding of the nature of salvation versus something like we find in the Thomas Aquinas frame. For Barth first creation and second creation were always and only conditioned by God’s primal choice to be the Yes of creation from the beginning and end in Christ.

Let me close with a quote that I’ve shared before in regard to Barth’s understanding of history relative to resurrection and what that implies relative to all the realities we have just been sketching through:

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[2]

What is key in this quote is the emphasis placed on the ‘primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.’ Creation/nature for Barth is not a linear thing, it is apocalyptic; as such it is always open, contingent upon God’s own freedom, to be re-ordered and recreated in such a way that it corresponds to who he has chosen to be in Christ for us. In other words, nature for Barth, in an order of consideration does not precede God, and thus determine how it ought to be completed by God’s grace; no, for Barth, God’s choice has always been the Predicator of the predicated and Christ conditioned reality that we identify as ‘nature.’ Human freedom in salvation, in this Barthian scheme, then, can only be construed by thinking it from the conditions of this type of Christic reality in regard to creation; i.e. through its suffuse predication by what it means to be ‘free’ before God as participants in that life, and in that type of freedom, the freedom that the Son has shared with the Father by the Holy Spirit in the Ultimacy and Intimacy of their Divine life. In Barth’s scheme we shouldn’t think of nature being conflated with some sort of created grace from God, by which the elect might cooperate with God in attaining the perfection for which their created natures have always been regnant; nein, we ought to understand that God’s grace is personal and oriented always already encountering us over again afresh and anew in the face of Jesus Christ. We live from the freedom of God’s life in Christ, and this is what it means to be human; to live from the resurrected and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. Nature isn’t being perfected by grace in this scheme, it instead is realizing what it has always already meant to be creatures created in the image of the image of God (who is Christ cf. Col. 1.15).

I left many threads, once again, dangling. But hopefully you’re at least getting a sense a feeling of where things are going here at The Evangelical Calvinist. And maybe you will better understand why I am so resistant to classical theologies, Protestant and Roman Catholic, that work from the Thomist (neo or not) categories of ‘nature perfected by grace’.

[1] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 165-66.

[2] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

My Status with Barth and A Ramble On Distinguishing Covenant Theology From Evangelical Calvinism: Theocentrism V Christocentrism

My Status With Karl Barth

In some ways I’m still in crisis mode in regard to Barth, personally. I don’t want this whole post to be about this, but I wanted to start off with a word as I continue to think about how it might still be possible for me to be Barthian. The reality is this: in the main I find a large percentage of what Barth teaches to be some of the most compelling teaching in regard to theological method (formal) and theological content (material) that I have ever been confronted with; this is not going away for me. I know for some this isn’t the struggle it is for me, but for me it is a struggle—we’ve already treaded these waters. I have come to the conclusion that I will have to accept the notion that Who Barth bears witness to is bigger than Barth himself, and bigger than any unconfessed immorality he lived within throughout his life-time with Charlotte von Kirschbaum. I remain deeply troubled by the whole ordeal, and so I experience some sort of dissonance as I engage with Barth’s theology; but like I said, I believe that despite Barth God was able to use Barth to point people beyond Barth and to the living Word of God, Jesus Christ and the Triune God. With this caveat in place let’s move on to the rest of this post.

A Ramble On Distinguishing Covenant Theology From Evangelical Calvinism: Theocentrism V Christocentrism

I am continuing to read Michael Allen’s newly released book Sanctification—I won’t be sharing any quotes from it here—and in it he is arguing, really, for the value of federal or covenantal theology as the best hermeneutic for engaging scripture. Further, he is seeking, in mood, to offer a recovery operation wherein he resources the categories offered by luminaries such as Thomas Aquinas, Post Reformed orthodox thinkers, John Owen, et al in order to furnish the 21st century evangelical and neo-reformed landscape with touchstone fixtures by which the Protestant church might better know Jesus through. The reason I bring this up here is because part of what is being retrieved is something that evangelical calvinists are seeking to ameliorate through recovering a different hermeneutic; a hermeneutic that thinks personalistically about how the church engages with God, as if in ongoing dialogue with him. Not through the metaphysics and geometry that funds what Allen is seeking to recover, but instead through understanding that our relation to God is immediately grounded in God’s choice to encounter us in an ongoing basis through the miracle of the Christ-event; the event of the ensarkos, the enfleshment of God in Christ, the assumption of humanity by God for us. And in this event, in the coming of God for us in Christ, the conditions for that coming created by the Holy Spirit, created in the hovering over the waters, over the womb of Mary, becomes the condition by which we come to know God; in and through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, the glory of God in the proposon of the Christ. In other words, what, in accord with folks like Barth, T Torrance, et al evangelical calvinists are interested in developing and pointing people to is that our relationship to God is based upon an ongoing non-analogous miracle. The miracle’s context is given performative reality by the Holy Spirit’s action of uniting the eternal Logos with the humanity of the Son (an/enhypostatic) in the singular person (singular personalis) of Jesus Christ. In further words, what the Holy Spirit accomplishes for the Son in the miracle of the Incarnation is what is accomplished from that first miracle of Incarnation in the lives of humanity simpliciter. What I’m referring to—admittedly I’m not being as forthright as I ought to be—has to do with what traditionally is called the ordo salutis (order of salvation). The entailments of the ordo, doctrinally, are bound up, traditionally, in the theology that someone like Allen is seeking to recover. Grace is typically understood as a created quality, or an abstract quantity that is attached, cumbersomely to the work of the Holy Spirit, by which the elect individual is not only regenerated but enabled by to cooperate with God through fulfilling their covenanted role in the salvific process. In other words, the only thing in this kind of ordo way of understanding salvation that serves as the framework for understanding it in a “personal” way between God and man is the introduction of the covenantal or “contractual” arrangement God has set up between himself and elect humanity in order to bring about salvation (and fulfill the Abrahamic covenant) for the nations. The mechanisms, within this covenantal scheme, that give it energy is not the mystical and personal relationship that coinheres between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; instead, it is a set of Aristotelian properties, quantities, and qualities synthesized with soteriological categories that covenant theology must appeal to in order to offer their theory of salvation.

Contrariwise, evangelical calvinists, at least this one, as noted earlier, seek to understand salvation directly from Jesus Christ; directly from the unio mystica of God’s Triune life in eternal relation. We understand that because we are up against an Ultimate, up against the ineffable God, that we are fully dependent upon what this God reveals about himself; and this implicates everything. This is why miracle is such an important loci for an evangelical calvinist; we are thinking salvation from Christology; we are thinking salvation from what T Torrance calls a novum, the novum of God’s life in Christ. Yes, there are many implications about reality that are given explication and elucidation from there; but in such a way that things remain untidy, and less coherent (by the standards of philosophical endeavor) than the human mind would like. There remains an element of trust, and vulnerability in how the evangelical calvinist theologian thinks salvation. This bothers people. It makes them think that we are engaging in sleight of hand, and magic thinking; but what is really going on is that we are allowing the rationality of our thought to be conditioned by the determination of the givenness of God’s life in Christ; we are allowing the categories and emphases we think through to come to us through God’s Self-exegesis in Christ (Jn 1.18). This doesn’t mean we don’t have to still interpret, but we are attempting to bear up under the pressure of the Revelation itself; we are attempting to allow that Revelation of God to dictate the terms of our interpretive process; allowing God to interpret us, by the Holy Spirit in the archetypical humanity of Christ, prior to us interpreting him; and living in the spiral of this dialogical relationship.

What this gives us, in part (because there are other parts to all of this), is an understanding of salvation that is at odds with the classical covenantal theology that Allen is recovering; it places us at loggerheads with the substance metaphysics that covenant theology appeals to in regard to developing the guts or mechanics of the various working parts of their federal schema. We end up with an emphasis, relative to salvation, that focuses on the agential and personal reality of the Holy Spirit working us into union with the miracle he accomplished, first, in the hypostatic unioning of the eternal Logos with humanity in the womb of Mary. George Hunsinger brings this into clarity as he details how miracle works in the soteriology of Karl Barth:

The work of the Holy Spirit, as Barth saw it, is miraculous in operation. Within the trinitarian and christocentric framework of his theology, this theme elaborates his point that the Spirit’s work is never “anthropological in ground.” The Holy Spirit is seen as the sole effective agent (solus actor efficiens) by which communion with God is made humanly possible. In their fallen condition (status corruptionis) human beings cannot recover a vital connection with God. Their minds are darkened, their wills enslaved, and the desires of their hearts are debased. Through the proclamation of the gospel, however, the impossible is made possible, but only in the form of an ongoing miracle. This miracle is the operation of the Holy Spirit, not only to initiate conversion (operatio initialis), but also to continue it throughout the believer’s life (operatio perpetua). The only condition (necessary and sufficient) for new life in communion with God is the Spirit’s miraculous operation in the human heart (operatio mirabilis). Faith in Christ, hope for the world, and consequent works of love have no other basis in nobis than this unceasing miracle of grace. Faith, hope, and love, in other words, do not depend on regenerated capacities, infused virtues, acquired habits, or strengthened dispositions in the soul. Those who are awakened to lifelong conversion by the Spirit never cease to be sinners in themselves. Yet despite their continuing sinfulness, the miracle of grace never ceases in their hearts.[1]

Do you see what I emboldened in the Hunsinger quote? This is what I’ve been referring to previously; these are the categories that Allen’s theology, in particular, and covenant theology, in general, operate with. They come, as I noted, from an Aristotelian complex of ideas integrated into the medieval church and taken over by Post Reformed orthodox theology; the theology that produced federal or covenant theology. You can see the distinction, I was noting previously, in the Hunsinger quote; the distinction between the impersonal and kind of abstract potentially theocentric theology offered by Allen&co. versus the christocentric concrete theology offered by evangelical calvinists following Barth, Torrance, et al.

Conclusion

The differences here are basic and fundamental. They have their sources not only in and from Barth, but evangelical calvinists appeal to the patristic theology of Irenaeus, Athanasius, and to later Orthodox theologians like Maximus the Confessor. The ontology of salvation for the evangelical calvinist is grounded in seeing the Trinity as determinative for the bases of what salvation entails and what may be said of it. The ground of salvation for the evangelical calvinist is personal, it is Jesus Christ as the mediator between God and humanity in his humanity; a humanity created by the Holy Spirit. We aren’t going to appeal to qualities, the habitus, or created grace when we refer to salvation; we will refer to Jesus Christ and the emphases that come with his coming for us.

Hopefully in my rambling you have come to see, once again, how us evangelical calvinists are different than what you typically will find in what people say counts as “Reformed theology.”

 

[1] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 162. [emphasis mine]

The Atonement of God in Christ: Covenant Theology, Penal Substitution, Ontology Atonement, Brian Zahnd, and Life Everlasting

Here at The Evangelical Calvinist we like to emphasize God’s grace, ‘all the way down’ as it were. We see this a necessary course correction given the imbalance that has been present, in particular,  in the Western enclave of the church;  since at least the mediaeval period, and working its way through Reformation and Post Reformation Western Europe and finally to the shores of the Americas (North to be specific). I am sure, intelligent reader that you are, you know what I’m referring to; i.e. the impact, on the Protestant side (which is simply my focus here, we could also bring up the Roman Catholic roots of the Protestant past and present), that Post Reformed orthodox theology has had upon the development of what counts today as conservative evangelical theology (think, as a type The Gospel Coalition and the theology it distills for evangelical churches and pastors throughout the United States and beyond). We necessarily have been bequeathed a ‘legal’ faith which flows organically from the Covenant or Federal theology developed by the scholastics reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries. In other words, because of the ‘Covenantal’ framework defined by its two primary covenants, the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, Covenant theology starts its way into a God/world, God/humanity discussion from a soteriological perspective that is grounded in a relationship that is contingent upon a ‘mercantile’ or contractual understanding. And so what gets emphasized in this theology is a God who relates in a kind of “bilateral” way wherein he makes a pact (‘pactum’) with the elect where they will ostensibly live up to their end of God’s bargain by actuating the effectual faith they have been given, by God, in order to stay in good stead with God; a God who has made sure that all the ‘legal requirements’ of the broken covenant of works have been met by his sending of the Son, in Christ, fulfilling the righteous requirements of the covenant of works (i.e. the ‘law’), and thus instigating or establishing God’s covenant of grace. What happens here though is not an abandonment of a legal strain in God’s relationship between himself and humanity instead there is a reinforcement of that type of relationship; albeit it is now contingent upon Christ’s active obedience for the elect rather than on human beings without that type of grace. We could say more, but hopefully the gist has been felt.

Laudably people like Brian Zahnd have been trying to come up against this type of ‘legally strained’ theology in an attempt to emphasize God’s grace and compassion apart from the forensics of it all. Unfortunately, as is often typical when we react, some things get lost in translation. In Zahnd et al. we almost end up with a type of antinomianism wherein the ‘legal’ aspects of Scripture’s teaching (now in contrast to the Covenantal framework) are completely vanquished from the picture; I don’t think this ought to be so. That said, we want to emphasize that God is gracious, and that his relationship to humanity is based upon His creative and first Word of grace; since this is what he has revealed to be the case in his Self exegesis in Jesus Christ. Karl Barth, of all people (can you believe it?!), offers an alternative and more balanced account (juxtaposed with Zahnd’s) when it comes to thinking about God’s relationship to humanity; when it comes to thinking about how God can still be thought of as someone who still has wrath and anger towards sin; and how that gets fleshed out in a radically Christ concentrated atonement theology. George Hunsinger helps us think about this in Barth’s theology, and he alerts us, along the way, to Barth’s own words on this:

2 The saving significance of Christ’s death cannot be adequately understood, Barth proposes, if legal or juridical considerations are allowed to take precedence over those that are more merciful or compassionate. Although God’s grace never occurs without judgment, nor God’s judgment without grace, in Jesus Christ it is always God’s grace, Barth believes, that is decisive. Therefore, although the traditional themes of punishment and penalty are not eliminated from Barth’s discourse about Christ’s death, they are displaced from being central or predominant.

The decisive thing is not that he has suffered what we ought to have suffered so that we do not have to suffer it, the destruction to which we have fallen victim by our guilt, and therefore the punishment which we deserve. This is true, of course. But it is true only as it derives from the decisive thing that in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ it has come to pass that in his own person he has made an end of us sinners and therefore of sin itself by going to death as the one who took our place as sinners. In his person he has delivered up us sinners and sin itself to destruction. (IV/1, p. 253)

The uncompromising judgment of God is seen in the suffering love of the cross. Because this judgment is uncompromising, the sinner is delivered up to the death and destruction which sin inevitably deserves. Yet because this judgment is carried out in the person of Jesus Christ, very God and very man, it is borne only to be removed and borne away. “In the deliverance of sinful man and sin itself to destruction, which he accomplished when he suffered our punishment, he has on the other side blocked the source of our destruction” (IV/1, p. 254). By taking our place as sinners before God, “he has seen to it that we do not have to suffer what we ought to suffer; he has removed the accusation and condemnation and perdition which had passed upon us; he has canceled their relevance to us; he has saved us from destruction and rescued us from eternal death” (IV/1, p. 254). The cross reveals an abyss of sin allowed up by the suffering of divine love.[1]

There’s something rather profound about this; we can still speak of God’s unrelenting judgment, it’s just that it is redirected in such a way that the focus comes to be on his desire to actually save us from our own self-destruction by giving us his own Self-vitality and eternal life in and through his Self-offering in Christ. The frame is one of eternal life and death; it is no longer about God meeting some sort of Self-imposed legal conditions so that he can have a relationship with his creatures.

I find this to be a much more winsome way, much more biblically and Christ-centered way to think about a God-world relation versus the one offered by Covenant theology and its covenantal schema of works/grace. In Barth’s alternative what’s at stake is not Penal Substitutionary atonement, but instead what Torrance calls an ‘ontological theory of the atonement.’ That is, the idea that reconciliation with God, i.e. salvation, is about pressing deep into the inner reaches of humanity’s real problem in relation to God; its problem with sin, and how that has plunged humanity into sub-humanity and living in a life of non-life and das Nichtige ‘nothingness.’ We see here in Barth, as we do so often with Thomas Torrance, the influence of St. Athanasius, and even an ‘Eastern’ understanding of what salvation entails in its most Christological senses.

God is still all about judging sin; he’s still wrathful and angry about sin; he still is all about righting the wrongs, and making the crooked straight; it’s just that, contra what I would contend is an artificial way to think about the Bible and God’s relation to the world in the Federal schema, the real issue is highlighted. The real problem with humanity’s plight is elevated to the level it should be at when we think about God and salvation; viz. what it means to be human before God. All of that is dealt with by Jesus, according to Barth [and Torrance] when God freely elects to become human in Christ for us, for the world.

I realize that those who are committed to Federal or classic Covenantal theology won’t have their minds changed by this; although they should. But I hope that for those of you with an open mind that this makes sense; that what God in Christ did, and is doing is not framed by a type of legalism (as it is in Federal theology – just go read some books on its history and development), but instead is framed by God’s gracious gift of eternal life for the world in himself, in Jesus Christ. And that because of this, because of who he is in this way for us, he graciously steps into our situation, and as the Judge becomes the judged. Has he met some  sort of ad hoc legal conditions in this process; is that what he was ultimately about in reconciling the world to himself? Nein. Instead, he ‘elevated’ or exalted us to his position, by the grace of his life in the vicarious humanity of Christ, and recreated anew humanity in Jesus Christ. This is what salvation, and atonement was about; and it is out of this new eschatos humanity, Christ’s, where we participate daily in the triune life of God. This is the great salvation Paul tells Titus to be looking for; it is the one that was won in the incarnation and atonement of God in Christ.

 

[1] George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 142-43.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1] I Peter 4.17, NIV.

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

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

[4] Which personally I believe it is.

*Artwork of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Mark Summers.