George Hunsinger

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.

“Seek your own welfare above all else”: How evangelicalism Has Largely Become a Faith for Utilitarians and Relativists

Utilitarianism and pragmatism have so saturated the mind of the North American evangelical church (and probably other churches in the West) that it has become difficult for the thinking Christian to navigate their way through these choppy waters. There is a kind of pervasive relativism afoot in the lives of so many good intending evangelical Christians, that they don’t even realize they’ve been taken in by it; because, indeed, it’s pervasive.

Maybe you’ve experienced this, and the impact of this in your own Christian experience; I definitely have, and in very real and concrete ways. For example, just the fact that I think deeply and reflectively about my Christian walk, just because I believe that there is an objective value to knowing God in and from whom he is and revealed himself to be in Jesus Christ; often this is met with disdain. The disdain comes precisely from this adoption of the utilitarian and pragmatic psyche that has so infected the evangelical mind. If it does not become immediately apparent to such said psyche how and why dwelling on God in deep ways is pertinent to the utilitarian way, it will immediately seek to attack and finally reject such ways for knowing God. In other words, and maybe you’re sensing what I’m getting at, there is an anti-intellectualism, or anti-anything that appears to smack of anything that might challenge the “utilitarian’s” perceived way of living life in “real” ways; you know, like in ways where they feel comfortable, unchallenged, and can worship a God who makes them feel good, giving them experiences that only they can really understand. If such mindsets, if such people encounter other people, people who are committed to a way wherein the better way, for them, is to live an examined life before God, one that reposes in a love-duty like approach to knowing God, in and from the subject of God’s life in Christ, these latter people are actually ridiculed by the more dominant way of the utilitarian Christians.

Have I spoken abstractly enough for yet? The reason this might sound so abstract is because it is inherent to the culture in which many of us live. So, at least for me, it becomes difficult to try and articulate a way out of this quagmire; but I would go so far to say that most of us have an intuitive sense of what I’m getting at—even if that is only understood in gist. In order to help us negotiate our way through this in even more critical ways, let’s appeal to George Hunsinger (and this will once again be an extensive quote). We start reading with Hunsinger just as he has described the nonutilitarian way for living life before God in Christ; here he develops what the utilitarian and more dominant way, I would contend, for the evangelical psyche entails. He writes:

This nonutilitarian (i.e. biblical) version of Christianity stands in sharp contrast to the prevailing mores of our culture. As Robert Bellah and his coworkers have pointed out in Habits of the Heart, their fascinating study of the contemporary American middle class, utilitarian modes of thought run rampant. Although in respectable ethical theory utilitarianism is associated with a quest for the common good, in popular American consciousness the notion of the common good, if our researchers are to be believed, has all but disappeared. What one finds instead is a utilitarianism of private interest. White middle-class Americans describe their ethical and religious choices as depending on little more than a shifting set of personal wants and inner impulses. “Seek your own welfare above all else” has become the maxim of the day. Whether one’s welfare is defined in terms of wealth, status, and power or in terms of inner psychic satisfactions, either way one’s choices are grounded in virtually nothing more than a sense of the solitary, autonomous self.

Bellah circles around this problem again and again. For many, he writes with dismay, “there is simply no objectifiable criterion for choosing one value or course of action over another. One’s own idiosyncratic preferences are their own justification, because they define the true self.” Reliance on mere preference to define the self is something Bellah regards as symptomatic of the therapeutic style which has pervaded the values of our culture. At the center of the therapeutic style is “the autonomous individual, presumed to be able to choose the role he will play and the commitments he will make, not on the basis of higher truths, but according to the criterion of life-effectiveness as the individual judges it.” The ordering of all other goals to the goal of self-fulfillment, as determined by need and preference, is the hallmark of the therapeutic style.

What troubles Bellah is the stunning loss of any other criterion, any  higher truth, for moral judgment. “The right act,” he comments, “is simply the one that yields the agent the most exciting challenge or the most good feeling. . . . In the absence of any objectifiable criteria of right and wrong, good and evil, the self and its feelings become our only moral guide. The ethic of arbitrary self-interest, in other words, which so many of our contemporaries have espoused as their own, is largely sponsored by a pervasive sense of relativism—a sense that no values are ever more than arbitrary preferences grounded in the autonomous self. Bellah connects the seepage of relativism into our culture with a massive flight from communally transmitted authority and tradition as the vehicles of objectifiable moral criteria. The ethic of arbitrary self-interest and its connection with our surrender to relativism are nicely captured by a line which sums up the distress of Bellah’s book: “Utility replaces duty,” he writes, “self-expression unseats authority.”

The moral crisis Bellah describes has a religious and theological counterpart. At both popular and sophisticated levels of discourse, Christianity is widely regarded as instrumental to the attainment of various benefits or satisfactions. Biblical truth is sought not as an intrinsic good in itself, but as a pragmatic device for fulfilling wishes and desires shaped independently of faith. And utilitarian Christianity, in turn, is sponsored openly or secretly by an unhappy surrender to relativism—that is, by such an extreme departure from Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, that we regard him as an object not of obedience, love, and awe, but of our control and manipulation. . . .[1]

In my experience what Hunsinger, through appeal to Bellah, describes couldn’t hit the nail more squarely on the head. Indeed, in many ways these last many years of my life, coram Deo, has been an attempt to extricate myself from the utilitarian psyche. What I have found is that in this process many friends are lost, but many more are also gained. It is risky, in a utilitarian sub-culture, to attempt to go another way; to go the way of the cross. But the risk is worth it. Yes, we might be pegged as arrogant academic pin-heads who think they are better than others; but of course this, in principle, just is not the case. As growing and maturing Christians I think part of our job, for the broader body of Christ, is to bear witness, to our brothers and sisters that God is God and we are not. This means repenting of our utilitarian and/or self-centered ways, taking up our crosses daily, and following Jesus Christ.


[1] George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 97-8.

Bonhoeffer on God’s Word, and “Protestantism without Reformation”: A Point of Unseemly Convergence Between evangelicals and mainliners

I just recently purchased George Hunsinger’s book, a book I’d read before (via library copy), Disruptive Grace: Studies in the theology of Karl Barth. In his chapter on the Barmen declaration he gets into some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings; in particular he engages with six theses Bonhoeffer offered on observations he made about Christianity in America and its lack of ‘Reformation’ and/or Confessional thinking—i.e. his essay: Protestantism without Reformation. In this post we will engage with Bonhoeffer’s sixth thesis as Hunsinger quotes it directly from Dietrich.

Before we get directly into the quote I wanted to preface things this way: I have grown up my whole life in the North American evangelical church. My background is Conservative Baptist (my dad being a retired CBA pastor and church planter), and then later (out of high school) I got into the Calvary Chapel movement (Costa Mesa, CA) for awhile. All of this to note that my upbringing was pretty normal evangelical fare, and attendant to that, what Bonhoeffer observed as an “outsider,” is more than spot on, more than fitting in regard to my own experience growing up in this American religion and tradition. Because of my exposure to Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and in reality, the broader and catholic tradition of the church, my eyes have been “opened,” so to speak to the realities that Bonhoeffer so presciently noticed upon his visits and stays in the United States.

With my own background noted, let’s hear directly from Bonhoeffer, and then I will offer some further reflections. Bonhoeffer writes:

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.[1]

To be clear, Bonhoeffer’s reference was made in regard, not to Fundamentalist Christianity (which he thought of as an idiosyncratic aberration), but to what we might consider mainline Christianity of the sort we might find in the Niebuhr brothers and/or at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Nevertheless, insofar as Fundamentalist Christianity imbibes the same ‘spirit’ of this type of American religion, which I think it does in many ways, then his critique and observation equally applies across the board.

When Bonhoeffer refers to ‘natural theology’ we might think of any theological paradigm that lends credence to theological thinking that is overly concerned with the “self;” so any type of Christianity that is given to overly pietistic sensibilities, or theologies that rely on analogizing God’s being with human being (i.e. analogia entis); or more to the point (of Bonhoeffer’s observations): any type of theology that is funded by ‘turn to the subject’ thinking that we might most typically associate with Schleiermacher and “Liberal theology.”

I think Bonhoeffer’s critique is even more fitting than it was when he made these observations in the early 20th century. Indeed, we have grown up, as it were, as mainliners and evangelicals in such a way that the seeds that he was critiquing, back then, have had the chance to blossom and go to seed to the ruin of so many Christians across the board. We say we adhere to the Word of God, but I would contend that we have, instead, captured God’s Word in such a way that it reflects the projections of our own wants and desires; whether that be to maintain our cultural warrior identities, political identities, stations in society, or what have you. The Word of God, in all of its disruptive reality in Jesus Christ, has really lost its ability to contradict us, and put us in our place coram Deo (before God).

Indeed, we are all culturally located and conditioned; but that doesn’t mean God’s Word isn’t powerful enough to break in on “our cultures” and disorient them to the point that his heavenly Kingdom has the capacity to restructure things from his vantage point. I don’t believe as evangelical and mainline churches that we have really given God’s Word the place it should have in the body lives of our churches. And it never will have its rightful place if we don’t repent and cry out in mercy to him; if we don’t realize how dialogical the whole Christian relationship to God in Jesus Christ is.

[1] 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.

If God’s Grace in Christ is not Disruptive and Disorenting it Just is not God’s Grace

Often, in the West, particularly because of Thomas Aquinas’s lasting influence, mediated as it is through the structures of Post Reformed orthodoxy, making its way into evangelical theologies, we think of God’s grace as a quality or thing that comes alongside of ‘nature’ and perfects it; as if nature, after the Fall, was simply plunged into a deficiency only needing to be restored or healed to
where it once was. But this is not the biblical concept of grace. The biblical concept of grace is captured much better in the construal we see in Karl Barth’s theology. The biblical concept of grace is ‘disruptive;’ it recreates rather than restores; it is discontinuous from the old to the new in such a way that one might think of it as an apocalyptic reality. George Hunsinger wonderfully and succinctly describes it this way as he works his way into a treatment of a doctrine of grace in the theology of Karl Barth. He writes:

Grace that is not disruptive is not grace — a point that Flannery O’Connor well grasped alongside Karl Barth, strictly speaking, does not mean continuity but radical discontinuity, not reform but revolution, not violence but non-violence, not the perfecting of virtues but the forgiveness of sins, not improvement but resurrection from the dead. It means repentance, judgment, and death as the portal to life. It means negation and the negation of the negation. The grace of God really comes to lost sinners, but in coming it disrupts them to the core. It slays to make alive and sets the captive free. Grace may of course work silently and secretly like a germinating seed as well as like a bolt from the blue. It is always wholly as incalculable as it is reliable, unmerited, and full of blessing. Yet it is necessarily as unsettling as it is comforting. It does not finally teach of its own sufficiency without appointing a thorn in the flesh. Grace is disruptive because God does not compromise with sin, nor ignore it, nor call it good. On the contrary, God removes it by submitting to the cross to show that love is stronger than death. Those whom God loves may be drawn to God through their suffering and be privileged to share in his sufferings in the world, because grace in its radical disruption surpasses all that we imagine or think.[1]

I am not really sure most Christians think of grace in such radical ways. And if people think of it in technical or “academic” ways it is usually as I suggested in the preface of this post. But what Hunsinger describes, in my reading of Scripture, and then thinking through the inner-logic that supplies Scripture with its theo-logic as it terminates in its reality, Jesus Christ, is one of the best accounts and succinct descriptions of God’s grace in Christ I have probably ever encountered.

If we can’t get a hold of the radical nature of what God’s grace in Christ entails then I fear that we will never really or fully live into the Christian life that we have in God in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. Grace is just as much a foreign reality to this world system, just as disruptive, as is the Incarnation of God in Christ is in itself. There are no analogies available for it in the world; how could there be? It so disrupts and re-pivots the axis of the created order that it’s nothing short of recreation in the resurrection of God in the humanity of Christ.

We Christians are considered fools not because we are idiosyncratic social weirdoes, although some of us may be; we are considered fools because we bear witness to a reality that is not of this world, and yet has broken into the inner structure of this world in such a way that indeed it is this world’s actual reality. But this sounds like rubbish to a world who still tries to live from the rot of their own self-possessed (or so they think) lives.

The Grace and Peace of Christ be with you.

[1] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 16-7.

Another Response to Kevin Vanhoozer: Reformed Theology, the Genus — Evangelical Calvinism and Classical Calvinism, the Species

This is a second installment to a post where I offered some more response to Kevin Vanhoozer in regard to his chapter length critique of evangelical Calvinism—you can (and should) read that post here. Graciously, Vanhoozer responded to my post in the comments section of that post (you can of course read those there). In one of his comments he succinctly summarizes his ongoing and lingering question (and problem) with evangelical Calvinism and our approach to salvation issues. Professor Vanhoozer commented:

I suppose my lingering question is this: if the Incarnation means that  all humans are elect (because the Son assumes/elects human nature), and if the atoning work of Christ benefits all human twotonecalvinbeings, and if Jesus’ vicarious humanity includes his faith on my behalf, then it would seem that his saving work is sufficient for all.

The usual response at this point is that I am imposing a Western logico-causal framework onto the discussion, whereas I’m only trying to think clearly!

This type of lingering question is not actually unique to Vanhoozer, it has been the primary push-back I have received here at the blog over the last seven years (ever since I started this particular blog). It is the type of question that is worthy of a PhD dissertation, one that maybe I’ll research and I write someday. But until then all you’re going to get are blog posts J.

In Responsio

I think the simple response to what Vanhoozer writes, particularly when it comes to his point about ‘sufficient for all’ is to say: no. No, we are not, of course, affirming of that old Peter Lombardian adage of ‘sufficient for all, efficient for the elect’ that many a Reformed has used to speak of the efficacy (or in-efficacy) of the atoning work of Christ. Since this post isn’t just intended to be a direct response to Vanhoozer, but also informative for others, let me share a description and some history on this adage of ‘sufficient for all, efficient for the elect.’ Escondido theologian, and church historian, R. Scott Clark explains it this way:

In the midst of controversy over the nature of God’s sovereignty, Godescalc of Orbais defended Augustine vigorously and suffered for it. He taught that there are two “worlds,” that which Christ has purchased with his blood and that which he has not. Thus when Scripture says that Christ died for the “world” (e.g., John 3:16) it is extensive of all those Christ has actually redeemed, but it does not include everyone who has ever lived. 18 In the same way, those passages which seem to say that Christ died for all, in all times and places must but understood to refer to all the elect. Thus he saw 1 John 2:2 not as a problem passage, but a proof-text for definite atonement.19

The Lombard’s teaching on the atonement is most famous for his use of the distinction between the sufficiency of Christ’s death and its efficiency. Though they are not familiar to many of us today, from their publication in the late 12th century until the late 16th century, Peter’s Sentences were the most important theological text in the Latin-speaking world. Theological students even earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the Sentences.

In Book 3, distinction 20 he taught that Christ’s death was “sufficient” to redeem all (quantum ad pretii) but it is “efficient” only “for the elect” (pro electis).20 This distinction, though not followed by all Western theologians after Lombard, was adopted by most until the nominalist movement (e.g., William of Ockham, d. 1347) overturned the “Old School” (via antiqua).21

In his great work, Summa Theologiae, Thomas distinguished between God’s will considered as his antecedent will, by which he could be said to have willed the salvation of all; and his will considered as consequent, i.e., what he actually decreed to exist, i.e., that only the elect would be saved and that some will be reprobated (damned).22 Later, Protestant theologians would revise this distinction to refer to his revealed and hidden will. With respect to his revealed will, God is said to desire certain things (i.e., that none should perish). It is his revealed will that we should know the existence of a hidden decree (who will be saved and who will perish) but the content of that decree is part of his hidden will.

Thomas also made it very clear that he adopted Lombard’s sufficient/efficient distinction but also taught unambiguously that Christ died effectively only for the elect.[1] 

Vanhoozer is implying since not all believe, and yet Christ died for all humanity (so EC), then it would seem that, according to Vanhoozer’s logic, that evangelical Calvinists are majoring on one half of the equation: i.e. that Christ’s death is sufficient for all, but only hypothetically efficient for the elect. But of course this is where we so disparately depart from one another; i.e. evangelical Calvinists from classical Calvinists (such as Kevin Vanhoozer).

To take this in another direction a bit I am going supply a few quotes, and provide some reflection on them in the context of this response to Vanhoozer. As Vanhoozer rightly observes the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ is the key for evangelical Calvinists. This doesn’t, at a first order level, have to do with the question Vanhoozer is concerned with in regard to his conclusion that our view leads to a ‘Christ sufficient for all’ view, but it absolutely implicates it. So, as has been cycled through over and over here at the blog, we see Jesus as both the object and subject of God’s election and reprobation; we see Jesus as archetypal humanity before God, as such we do not think of humanity in abstraction, we think it from Christ’s humanity as the imago Dei. As such redemption and reconciliation (and all that attends that) has been exhaustively realized in Jesus Christ’s humanity. George Hunsinger unpacks this reality well as he explains Barth’s thinking at this very point:

To say that Jesus Christ is the “pioneer of faith” (Heb. 12:2), Barth suggests, is not to say that his faith is merely the exemplar of ours, but that it is the vicarious ground and source of our faith. “There is vicarious faith,” writes Barth, “… only in the form of the faith which Jesus Christ established for us all as the archegos tes pisteos (Heb. 12:2), who empowers us for our own faith, and summons us to it, even as he stands there in our stead with his faith. Through his faith, we are not only moved but liberated to believe for ourselves” (IV/4, 186). Our faith may be said to exist “as a predicate” of his in the sense that whatever is real and true “in this Subject” is the foundation for whatever is correspondingly real and true in us (cf. II/2, 539). In short, our subjective apprehension of God does not exist independently, but only insofar as its source, mediation, and ground are found in the humanity of Jesus Christ.[2]

We might say that in Christ, the second Adam (the greater Adam cf. Rom. 5): what it means to be human has a brand new horizon. In other words, what it means to be human before God, is what Christ’s humanity is for us; truly the One for the all; not just sufficiently (to use the Lombardian language), but efficiently—since his humanity is the all of what it means to be genuinely human before and with God. But Vanhoozer’s issue is how does what Christ did in his vicarious humanity work its way into the rest of humanity; if this re-birth (or re-creation) has happened then how does that implicate all other humans? The answer to that question is the Holy Spirit, and by individual faith. Robert Dale Dawson does a superb job of explaining how this Spirit breathed miracle takes place in the theology of Barth; he writes:

The Miraculous Character of the Power of Transition

The power of the resurrection is, therefore, in Barth’s view, the power of the transition from Jesus Christ in himself pro nobis to human persons. Not only is the power of the resurrection active as a revelatory event, it is also clearly a miraculous power. It is not to be understood as a factor or phenomenon, albeit extraordinary and striking, in the closed nexus of world occurrence. Nevertheless, it is a definite power with a definite character, the power and character of resurrection. It is the power of God:

The power of the transition on which the New Testament counts when it looks from the basis and origin of its witness in Jesus Christ to its goal in the existence of Christians is absolutely unique as the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Barth describes the particular character of this power of transition as light, liberation, knowledge, peace and life. Summarizing, he asserts: ‘It aims at enlightened, liberated and understanding life which is at peace in all dimensions. … The power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ may be known by the fact that it snatches man upwards.’ That is to say, this power is ‘the power which proceeds from His resurrection, and He Himself as the Resurrected.’ As such, this power sows ‘a seed which is not only psychical by physical, and gives nourishment which is not only spiritual but material – a whole preservation of the whole man.’

As this miraculous power of transition, the resurrection of Jesus Christ enables human persons to live in the hope of their own resurrection and eternal life. The proof of the power of the resurrection, according to Barth, lay in the fact that it reveals the life of the man Jesus as ‘exalted to participation in the eternal life of God’ and in so doing it effectively brings the human person ‘the promise of eternal life which is given in it, making it his own, and moving him for his part to make it his own, to grasp it, to allow it to be the comfort and confidence and hope of his life as he still lives it in the shadow of death.’ No other force can bring about this miraculous result, that is, the enabling of men and women, who receive and possess the promise, ‘to live a life which already defies death, and arrests that discontinuity, and persists even in that flight through the times.’

It is on account of this miraculous power of God, says Barth, that it is both possible and actual that a human person becomes and is a Christian. The answer to our plaguing question can only be that:

deriving from Jesus Christ, i.e., His resurrection, there is a sovereignly operative power of revelation, and therefore of the transition from Him to us, of His communication with us; a power by whose working there is revealed and made known to us our own election as it has taken place in Him … and therefore the deliverance and establishment of our own being, so that our existence receives a new determination. It is by the operation of this power that we become and are Christians.

Once again, it is in his description of the particularity and definiteness of the miraculous power that Barth adds force to his argument that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is indeed the transition of reconciled human being and action in him to the remaining anthropological sphere.[3]

Whatever, then, is possible for the ‘remaining anthropological sphere’ is only so because it first became realized in the humanity of Jesus Christ for all.

Evangelical Calvinists, such as myself, are fundamentally at odds with Vanhoozer’s more classical Reformed perspective right from the starting block. In other words, we might use much of the same lexicon, but per Barth’s radical reformulation of that lexicon, insofar as evangelical Calvinists imbibe that vibe, we depart. We are much more Eastern (and even patristic) in many ways in contrast to what I would suggest is the more Western (and mediaeval) character of classical Reformed theology; the type that I think Vanhoozer is critiquing evangelical Calvinism from.

Patristic theologian par excellence, Donald Fairbairn, offers a way forward (from a patristic theological vantage point), with particular reference to the issue of predestination, extent of atonement, so on and so forth that I think the feeling of evangelical Calvinism coheres with quite well. Fairbairn writes:

To spell this idea out a bit more, I suggest that in our discussion of election/predestination, we should not place such priority on God’s choosing particular people that we imply he has nothing to do with those he will not ultimately save. Conversely, I suggest that we not place such priority on God’s universal desire to save that we imply that he deals exactly equally with everyone and all differences between people are due to their own responses to God (responses that God foreknows). Rather, I suggest that we place the priority on God’s eternal decision to honor his own relationship with his beloved Son and his Spirit by bringing people into that relationship. God’s eternal will was, first and foremost, a will to accomplish human redemption through the person and work of his Son and his Spirit. That eternal will included within its determination all that God ordained to happen, all that he knew would happen, all that both he and we would do. This means that when a person begins to trust in Christ or a believer prays for the salvation of others or someone proclaims the gospel, these people are privileged to share in what God has from all eternity determined that he would do. We are not merely the means by which he achieves his purpose, we are somehow privileged to be a part of the determination of that purpose, the establishment of the will of God in connection with his Son Jesus Christ. Such a way of looking at the relation between election and human action may help to ease the logjam the Western discussions of this issue have created for a millennium and a half. But even if it does not succeed in doing that, such a way of looking at the issue does place the emphasis where Scripture indicates it should lie–not on a seemingly arbitrary decree or on allegedly independent, free human action but instead on Christ the beloved Son of the Father, the one in whom we are chosen to participate.[4]

Along with the patristic trajectory offered by Fairbairn, along with Karl Barth’s focus, along with T.F. Torrance’s resourcefulness; evangelical Calvinists are not concerned with answering the ‘who’ question of election when that is in reference to individual people. We are not concerned with explaining a theory of causation (like classical Calvinism does with primary and secondary causation, etc.); we are content to simply attribute salvation to all that has been done in Christ, and to the work that the Holy Spirit brings to that as he miraculously creates space for all of humanity to echo in the yes of God, in Jesus Christ. This might well sound Arminian, but of course Arminianism works within the same theological and metaphysical sphere that we find funding classical Calvinism; evangelical Calvinists simply do not fit into that mold of conception or analysis.


In brief, I think at the end of the day (not to shut discussion down), evangelical Calvinism is doing something much different than classical Reformed theology. While we do have, on the negative side of things, critical points of departure from (and critique of) classical Federal theology (or Westminster Calvinism); on the other side, the positive side, we are proposing a style of Reformed theology that thinks from a wholly other starting point—from a fundamentally different hermeneutic. Does that mean we are not open for critique? No. But it does mean that the level of critique needs to be at the more formal level, I suppose. It’s hard to say that Calvin’s or the Apostle Paul’s emphasis is more this or that, when in order to say that, the informing hermeneutic helps us to reach that conclusion; i.e. in other words, it is hard to say the Apostle Paul says this or that without engaging in petitio principii, at least if that’s the basis of the critique (even if its not the only basis of critique).

Professor Vanhoozer, I very much so appreciate your willingness to interact with me, and the evangelical Calvinists. I do think it is possible, by way of mood, for us to constructively engage with each other; but at least for my money, in many ways, as I’ve been iterating over and again, we are probably different species even if within the same genus.


[1] R. Scott Clark, resource is no longer available. I originally posted this quote in this blog post.

[2] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 96, Nook.

[3] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 147-48.

[4] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 197-98.

A Response to R. Scott Clark’s sharing of Richard Muller’s Essay: What I Haven’t Learned from Karl Barth


Over at R. Scott Clark’s Heidelblog, the guy who once called me a lazy provocateur (which I thought was sweet of him), he just recently posted a 1987 mini-essay written by Reformed historian, Richard Muller. Let’s be clear and up front, neither Scott Clark or Richard Muller are fans of Barth; indeed, they could be placed in the category of some of Barth’s antagonists. Yes, if you read the essay from Muller in full you will notice a kind of passive-aggressiveness and academic backhandedness about it, but to be sure, the spirit of which Muller wrote this in, and I could only imagine, which Clark shared it in is anything but attempting to speak sweet nothings about ole’ uncle Karl.

My friend Jonathan Kleis has already written his own reflection and response to the Muller essay; it is very good, you ought to go read it. And I had planned on writing something up myself, when I first saw it a couple of days ago. I just had the chance to read it, and so now I will take this opportunity to briefly respond.

Muller in the essay offers three points on what he hasn’t learned from Karl Barth. He states, with explanation that: 1) he hasn’t learned how to do theology from Barth; 2) he hasn’t learned how to do biblical exegesis from Barth; and 3) he hasn’t learned how appropriate insights from the tradition of the church. I don’t have the time or the patience to deal with everything that Muller has said, but let me engage with a couple of things that piqued my interest the most.

Muller writes: “In the first place, I haven’t learned how to “do theology” from Karl Barth—and I would hazard the guess that no one else has either.”

Let me just say in response that I have learned (and am learning) how to do theology from Barth. Indeed many people have learned how to do theology from Barth, and continue to. When Muller says something as global as “I would hazard to guess that no else” has learned how to do theology from Barth “either,” we would have to conclude that he is only speaking to his own choir and not to the other choirs held up in other chambers of the church. Think of someone like Thomas F. Torrance, if anyone has learned how to do theology from Barth it is his best English speaking student TFT. Torrance wrote this of Barth’s theology and its impact in the foreword of his book on Barth Karl Barth Biblical and Evangelical Theologian:

It is a collection of papers originally produced as lectures or articles in which I have tried to present the theology of Karl Barth from the centre of his biblical and evangelical convictions, and in ways that may appeal to people who are deeply concerned with the historic faith of the Christian Church, but who have been prejudiced against Barth by uninformed criticism on the right and on the left. Those who are really prepared to read the Church Dogmatics, or even some of Barth’s smaller works like The Faith of the Church or Evangelical Theology, will learn to think rather differently of him. Some will find that far from being unevangelical, he was the most powerfully biblical and evangelical theologian of our age; and others will find that far from being an irrational fideist, and far from compromising faith in divine revelation, Barth was one of the most rational and rigorous theologians the world has seen. The main difficulty that people have with Karl Barth arises as they try to understand him within the dualist frame of thought that has prevailed within our western culture since the age of the Enlightenment, whereas Barth’s thought has moved far beyond that. Through probing into and recasting the foundations of theological understanding and bringing it into close alignment with the incarnation of the Word of God he has brought about in the rational structure of theology today the same kind of transition in the rational structure of scientific thought carried through by Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein.[1]

Does this sound like someone who hasn’t learned how to do theology from Karl Barth; like someone who doesn’t have the upmost esteem for Barth and his theological offering for the church catholic? Clearly Muller is being rhetorical in his essay on this one point.

In the same paragraph we read from Muller (which I just briefly shared from in regard to “Muller’s ‘first place’” comment), we read Muller retort:

… As I peruse the Church Dogmatics, I have the consistent experience of excessive verbiage and of ideas that refuse to achieve closure. It is inter­esting and sometimes even instructive to watch a bril­liant mind play with concepts and subject them to intense scrutiny from every conceivable angle But Barth’s dialectical method, which assumes the impos­sibility of stating divine truth in human words and therefore continually negates and restates its own im­possible formulations, could easily and more instruc­tively have simply stated the problem of formulation between two poles of theological statement—and then passed on to another issue, finally providing the reader with a finished dogmatics in no more than three or four volumes, with no loss of content. The Protestant scho­lastics, whose works Barth read with respect, recog­nized in formulae remarkable for their clarity and brevity that all human theology must be ectypal, an imperfect, finite statement about God that successfully reflects the divine archetype only by the grace of God’s gift of rev­elation. Barth taught me where to find that rule for theo­logical formulation, but I cannot say that I learned the rule itself from Barth.

Here we gain insight more into Muller’s own scholasticized locus-Ramist stylized idea of how theology ought to be done versus the way other people, Christian people, have chosen to engage in theological discourse and development. Again, when Muller writes things like this it certainly will get play with an audience like we find over at Clark’s Heidelblog, but in the broader Christian world Muller’s critique is not going to have the same bite.

George Hunsinger in his monumental book How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology has identified six motifs that help the reader—indeed it would help Muller if he was willing enough to allow it—to understand what Barth’s theological method is all about. When Muller critiques Barth’s theology for lack of closure, and the dialectic nature of it all, he should read this from Hunsinger so he might avoid making such silly comments going forward. Hunsinger writes of the ‘open’ nature of Barth’s theology:

 “Rationalism,” finally, again as used in this essay, is the motif which pertains to the construction and assessment of doctrine. Theological language as such is understood to include an important rational or cognitive component. This component is subject to conceptual elaboration, and that elaboration (along with scriptura exegesis) is what constitutes the theological task. Because of the peculiar nature of the object on which it is based, rationalism takes pains to rule out certain illegitimate criteria and procedures in the work of doctrinal construction and assessment. Within the critical limits open to it, however, doctrines may be derived beyond the surface content of scripture as a way of understanding scripture’s deeper conceptual implications and underlying unity.[2]

In other words, for Barth the nature of God Godself requires that things remain open without the type of “closure” that Muller wants from Barth. Muller tries to reign in some of his comments by bringing up ectypal theology indeed that is an appropriate move on Muller’s part. It is interesting then that Muller even has this critique of Barth to begin with, and this is why I find his comments on this point so silly. Barth just like Muller’s beloved post reformed orthodox theologians is simply attempting as a finite human being to know the holy Triune ineffable God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. For Muller the problem is that Barth wasn’t born in the 16th and or the 17th centuries; I’ve yet to find a theologian who Muller likes who isn’t someone we can find in those centuries.

And this is what I find most troubling about folks like Muller and Clark et al., they want to engage in repristination of a certain period of theological development which they deem sacrosanct and as magisterial as the development of the pontificate is for the Romans. Any constructive engagement with what folks like Clark, Muller, et al. deem orthodox (i.e. the tradition of the church) is ipso facto anathema.

But my question continues to be why?! Jesus is still Lord of his church, the church he said he would provide teachers for (Eph. 4). Jesus never said that those teachers would only be found in the 3rd and 4th centuries of the church, or in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries of the church; and yet that’s what we get from someone like Muller et al. Barth is one of a new crop of teachers who creatively and constructively engaged with Muller’s post reformed orthodox theologians; which Muller acknowledges himself in his essay. But since Barth deviates and reformulates, from the ground up as it were, the constructs and frameworks offered by the post reformed orthodox, Barth, for Muller&co., can only be one thing in the end: a heretic. And anyone else who appreciates Barth, as Torrance does, and others of us, are also, in the end simply heretics (and our salvation is questionable to them).

I am not surprised by this essay from Muller, I have read him voluminously, and he says harsher things about Barth&co. But I thought I would respond just a little, since I have spent so much time with both; both Barth and Muller.



[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990), ix.

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

Reformulating the Reformed Faith after Karl Barth: An evangelical Calvinist Response

Bruce McCormack offers some very instructive words when it comes to defining Orthodoxy, and how that functions as a definer for Barth’s mode of theologizing as a Reformed Protestant Christian who inhabited the Modern period. In this post we will work through a section of McCormack’s book Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, and conclude with an evangelical Calvinist response to what we have engaged with. Here is McCormack’s development of how he thinks Barth was an “orthodox” theologian:

orthodox-and-modernBut what of my other term—“orthodox”? In what sense do I mean to employ this term in relation to Barth’s theology? “Orthodoxy” means “right teaching” or “right doctrine.” But what and who determines what is “right teaching”? The what-question is more easily answered. For any Protestant theologian worth his or her salt, the material norm of what can and must be said within the bounds of Christian dogmatics can be only Holy Scripture. But Scripture must be interpreted—and it is at this point that the who-question becomes pressing. Protestantism in its originating form did not really differ from Catholicism in its insistence that the proper “subject” of theology is finally a church and individuals only as servants of the Word in and for a church—“doctors of the church,” in other words. It was for this reason that Calvin could insist that confessions of a church ought not to be written by an individual but by a company of learned pastors. In cases of doctrinal conflict, he wrote, “we indeed willingly concede, if any discussion arises over doctrine, that the best and surest remedy is for a synod of true bishops to be convened, where the doctrine at issue may be examined. Such a definition, upon which the pastors of the church in common, invoking Christ’s Spirit, agree, will have much more weight than if each one, having conceived it separately at home, should teach it to the people, or if a few private individuals should compose it. Then, when the bishops are assembled, they can more conveniently deliberate in common what they ought to teach and in what form, lest diversity breed offense.” But he could also say, “Whenever the decree of any council is brought forward, I should like men first of all diligently to ponder at what time it was held, on what issue, and with what intention, what sort of men were present; then to examine by the standard of Scripture what it dealt with—and to do this in such a way that the definition of the council may have its weight and be like a provisional judgment, yet not hinder the examination I have mentioned.” Both traditional Protestantism and traditional Catholicism held that a church must finally decide questions of controversy. For both, the ancient councils and their creeds and definitions have a high degree of authority as interpretations of Holy Scripture. But for the older Protestants, the ancient councils were not to be regarded as irreformable—and that marked a major difference from the Catholic view. Protestants also believed that the confessions of their own churches constituted a relatively binding, authoritative interpretation of and/ or addition to the ancient councils and, as a consequence, had to be taken with as much seriousness as the pronouncements of the ecumenical councils.[1]

Barth followed, just as all Reformed theologians did, and do, the idea that God and Scripture are the principia of the Reformed Christian faith. As such, his final canon for establishing ‘right teaching’ in a norming way was to test all things and hold fast to the regulative reality of what Scripture attests to, Jesus Christ. Following this principle, the Protestant principle of Scripture, as McCormack notes, Barth remained open to the possibility that even the ecumenical councils themselves could be ‘reformed’ (i.e. not done away with) as the church of Jesus Christ pressed deeper and deeper into the inner-reality of Scripture; in other words, because of the provisional nature of theological knowledge of God (dare I say ectypal knowledge), for Barth even the catholic teaching always has room for further precision and clarification as we as the church move closer to the one faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. McCormack expands further on how the provisional nature of church knowledge of God was just that, particularly because, as Barth maintained, since we are up against a perfect God, our theological pronouncements and Dogma are an eschatological concept. McCormack writes:

I say all of this to indicate that even the ecumenical creeds are only provisional statements. They are only relatively binding as definitions of what constitutes “orthodoxy.” Ultimately, orthodox teaching is that which conforms perfectly to the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture. But given that such perfection is not attainable in this world, it is understandable that Karl Barth should have regarded “Dogma” as an eschatological concept. The “dogmas” (i.e., the teachings formally adopted and promulgated by individual churches) are witnesses to the Dogma and stand in a relation of greater or lesser approximation to it. But they do not attain to it perfectly—hence, the inherent reformability of all “dogmas.” Orthodoxy is not therefore a static, fixed reality; it is a body of teachings which have arisen out of, and belong to, a history which is as yet incomplete and constantly in need of reevaluation.[2]

And so Barth has this openness in his theological mode, but an openness toward God in Christ; which means a constant sensitivity to what the teachers and doctors of the ecumenical church concluded as they too wrestled with and produced theological grammar that reposed upon the reality disclosed in Holy Scripture: Jesus Christ. Barth held to the traditional teachings of the catholic church, but of course in light of what we have been developing (through McCormack), Barth reformulated all of these teachings in light of the type of Christ concentrated focus he had in his theological posture. McCormack writes further:

All of this is relevant to an evaluation of Karl Barth’s “orthodoxy.” On the face of it, it would seem to be very hard to deny to anyone who affirms, as Barth does, the doctrine of the Trinity, a two-natures Christology, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the visible return of Christ, the immutability of God, and so on, the honorific of “orthodox.” And yet the issue is not quite so simple. The truth is that Barth has not simply taken over unchanged any doctrinal formulation of the ancient or the Reformation churches. He has reconstructed the whole of “orthodox” teaching from the ground up. It is not the case that he simply tinkered with the machinery. What he did was to ask, in the case of each piece of authoritative teaching, exactly what Calvin would have him ask: What was at issue? What was the intention? How was it formulated? Did the formulation do justice to the theological subject matter to which it sought to bear witness? And most important, perhaps, is it necessary to affirm the philosophical commitments which aided the ancients and the Reformers in their efforts to articulate the theological subject matters under consideration? Or may one draw upon more modern philosophies in one’s efforts to explain the creeds and confessions today?[3]

Barth never lost the curiosity that John Webster maintained was and is a hallmark of a genuinely Christian imagination as it attempts to engage with God ever afresh and anew; even from within what George Hunsinger identifies as the ‘Chalcedonian pattern’ in Barth’s theology.[4] Webster writes, “Theological curiosity is checked and theological studiousness promoted when the intellects of saintly persons are directed to the proper object of theology and to the proper ends of contemplation and edification.”[5] It is this lively curiosity that marked Barth’s theological engagement as his intellect and passions were ‘directed to the proper object of theology’ who is Jesus Christ. It was this preoccupation that drove Barth to re-work even the ecumenical pronouncements of the church ‘from the ground up’; Barth after-all was a Modern, who just also happened to be Orthodox in a very ‘curious’ way. McCormack offers his opinion on how these two realties melded together in Barth’s theology as both Orthodox&Modern:

My own view is this: what Barth was doing, in the end, was seeking to understand what it means to be orthodox under the conditions of modernity. This is the explanation, I think, for the freedom he exhibited over against the decrees of the ecumenical councils and the confessions of his own Reformed tradition. He took the creeds and the confessions seriously—how could he not, believing as he did in the virgin birth and so forth? But he did not follow them slavishly. His was a confessionalism of the spirit and never of the letter. This is why he was willing to think for long stretches with the help of Kant’s epistemology and (later) Hegelian ontology. This is why he was willing to set forth an actualistic understanding of divine and human being. Still, I would argue, his reconstruction of Christian orthodoxy succeeded in upholding all of the theological values that were in play in its originating formulations. For this reason, Barth was both modern and orthodox.[6]

This kind of openness seems scary to some people, but it shouldn’t. If the reality that regulates this type of theological curiosity is Holy Scripture and Jesus Christ; if someone in this theological posture is committed to the spirit of the Protestant Reformed faith; then there is nothing to be fearful of except God in Jesus Christ—which is a healthy, purifying fear.

An Evangelical Calvinist Response

What we have been surveying in regard to Karl Barth’s posture and mode towards the orthodox Christian faith is one that I as an evangelical Calvinist adopt myself. There is some vulnerability here, but only a vulnerability to the reality of Jesus Christ imposing who He is upon me rather than me closing that down by restricting Him to language that only has the capacity to be provisional to begin with. There isn’t an abandonment of the sacred and catholic grammar of the church and the ecumenical councils, including the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms, but there also isn’t a slavish bounded-ness to them in such a way that there is no room for reformulation as dictated by the reality and attestation of Holy Scripture. For an evangelical Calvinist, like myself, there remains room for reformulating things from the ground up, if need be, in light of God’s Self-interpreting Word, in Jesus Christ. While recognizing, along with Barth, the provisional nature of the ecumenical creeds and Reformed Confessions, it is important to me as an evangelical Calvinist, as it was for Barth as his own man, to not think in lesser terms than those provided for by the grammar of the tradition, but instead in greater terms as, again, we as the church of Jesus Christ move closer to the light of God’s life in Christ than when we first believed.

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 15-16.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] Ibid., 16.

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

[5] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2012), 200.

[6] McCormack, Orthodox and Modern, 17.

Mysterium Trinitatis: George Hunsinger on Barth’s Trinitarian Dialecticism, and the Deus Incarnandus

Here is one more post from another old blog of mine from back in 2008. This one is also engaging with George Hunsinger, but this time with reference to uncle Karl rather than Torrance. The way I run with the quote from Hunsinger is interesting to me as I look at it again. You will also notice reference to Halden Doerge’s blog, Inhabitatio Dei, which no longer exists (although I trinitylogohave found a cached version of his blog, but I could not find the blog post I referenced in this post). Anyway, maybe you’ll find this post interesting. I actually think the quote could be applied to the ongoing eternal functional subordination (EFS) debate currently underway among the evangelicals and Reformed.

This post was prompted by this one, McCabe on the Trinity, over at Inhabitatio Dei. The following is George Hunsinger articulating Barth’s view on the Trinity. He is discussing how Barth dealt
with oneness/threeness, being/becoming, in the life of God’s eternal ousia.

God’s life takes a particular form. It resides, says Barth, in the “process of generation” whereby God “posits himself as the living and loving God” (II/1, pp. 305, 302). That is, God’s life is the process by which he posits himself as the Holy Trinity. His life is a life of free distinction and communion in the perichoresis of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the freedom of his eternal love, “God lives as he who is” (II/1, p. 307). God is the One who lives in the perichoresis of the three hypostases, “in their being with each other and for each other and in each other, in their succession one to another” (II/1, p. 297). Therefore, God’s being, Barth concludes, does not exclude but includes becoming. If it is possible to speak of “an eternal self-realization” in God (II/1, p. 306), it can only be in the sense of a perpetual movement from perfection to perfection. The unity of the triune God, Barth states, is “the unity of a being one which is always also a becoming one” (I/1, p. 369). It is a unity always becoming one because it is perpetually positing itself as three. With respect to the Trinity Barth writes: “What is real in God must constantly become real precisely because it is real in God (not after the manner of created being). But this becoming (because it is this becoming) rules out every need of this being for completion. Indeed, this becoming simply confirms the perfection of this being” (I/1, p. 427). God’s life in and for himself, his inner life in love and freedom, his being in the process of becoming, his one ousia in thee hypostases in the process of perichoresis, is a perfect work (opus perfectum) that occurs in perpetual operation (in operatione perpetuus) (I/1, p. 427). In the dynamism of his one eternal life, God, who is his own basis, his own goal, and his own way from the one to the other, continually becomes who he is.[1]

With the above in mind, apply this being/becoming in the life of God to the incarnation of Christ; what does this imply? It implies that in the very ousia or being of God, the Son is always and already becoming deus incarnandus (God in the flesh Jn 1:14). In other words, what Jesus becomes in ‘historic time’, in the man from Nazareth, His “being” has always been in supra-time. Does this then necessarily mean that Jesus has always had hair, bones, and skin? No! It only means that Who Jesus is, has always been oriented toward assuming hair, bones, and skin. Maybe an analogy would be helpful, John 1:18 says: No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. . . . , to use the language of ‘bosom’ and take it to its breaking point: Jesus, just like a fetus in its mother’s womb, is truly and completely all that He will be, constituently, in His “being”, what He “becomes” in the man from Nazareth. Sorry that was crude.

In this sense, then, as with the very trinitarian life of God, historic time remains distinct from “super-time” (eternity) insofar as “being” is distinct from “becoming.” In other words the who (ousia) determines the what (hypostases), while at the same time the who and the what are held together in an inseparable informing tension of perichoresis. I think this helps us avoid, when thinking about the inter-relationship between super-time and historic-time, falling into a process notion of God’s being; which does not have a doctrine of perichoresis holding these two concepts of time in tension. Which results in the inversion of what Hunsinger describes above, i.e. that historic-time and super-time become indistinguishable, in essence allowing historic time to be determinative of super-time.

I think Barth, according to Hunsinger, is right to give precedence to God’s ousia, while at the same time not subordinating His hypostases which is upheld by a strong doctrine of perichoresis. I wonder if McCabe (the article linked above) has a doctrine of perichoresis in his thinking on this? I also wonder if Barth spoke of perichoresis as prominently and explicitly as Hunsinger attributes to him?

Sorry, my reflections above are a bit crude and organic, but hey I am thinking out-loud here 🙂 .

The way I applied this to the incarnation is interesting; I don’t think I would do the same today if I were to attempt to reflect once again on this quote from Hunsinger. I think today what stands out about the quote from Hunsinger is how it illustrates how Barth’s Trinitarian dialecticism looks and works as a theological program; how it reveals the way Barth attempted to re-work and work within the categories of the tradition; how Barth attempted to engage with what indeed is the mysterium Trinitatis.

[1] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, 192-93.


George Hunsinger Clarifies the Doctrine of Vicarious Humanity in TF Torrance’s Theology

Here is something I originally posted at another blog way back in December 2008. At this point I was still in the process of just cutting my teeth on Torrance’s theology, and grasping better how central the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ (and the homoousion) was in his theology. I had already been reading TFT at this point for around two years, but I found this blog comment christcenteredfrom George Hunsinger very clarifying; I am sharing it because maybe it will be the same for you. You will note at the end of this post that I offer a bit of critique of classical Calvinism; I wasn’t even the evangelical Calvinist at this point yet, but it was in the making 🙂 .

The following are some thoughts presented by Professor George Hunsinger (Princeton Theological Seminary) over at Ben’s site Faith and Theology. He is discussing T. F. Torrance’s understanding of the mediation of Christ, and how this relates to the incarnation, at an ontological level. He is highlighting how the incarnation (assumptio), for Torrance, is ‘mediation’ where fallen humanity, united with Him, finds ‘healing’ through Christ’s acts of obedience to the Father; in this sense, Christ vicariously achieves regeneration ‘for us’, and prior to us, through which we, by His faith, find life super-abundant. Here is Prof. Hunsinger’s initial statement, and then his further elaboration, per a commenter’s request:

Torrance’s idea about “ontological healing” was an attempt to re-think the doctrine of sanctification. It attempted to place it within the frame of Christ’s incarnational mediation, in which our Lord “took this conflict into his own being” and “took part in it from both sides,” including therefore from the human side. Like Barth, only more so, Torrance explained both our justification and our sanctification by means of Christ’s obedient humanity. For sanctification this meant that regeneration took place in Christ before it took place in us. For Torrance there was one sanctification common to Christ and the church, and it was ours only by virtue of our participation in him (unio mystica).

Torrance maintained that the Incarnate Son’s assumptio carnis involved the assumption of our human nature, not in a neutral sense but in the sense of our fallenness, our “flesh.” In other words, Christ made “the status, constitution and situation” of the fallen human race his own.

Torrance interpreted Rom. 8:3 to mean that Christ “condemned sin in the flesh” by bearing God’s judgment on sin, for our sakes and in our place, in his own humanity.

However, Christ’s human obedience meant not only that he submitted to God’s judgment in our place, but that he also brought about the regeneration (“ontological healing”) of the very humanity he had assumed, again for our sakes and in our place. Christ was, in this sense, the “firstborn” of the new creation.

The regeneration of the faithful was then understood to take place through their participatio Christi, that is, through their union and communion with Christ. Those who entered into union with Christ by grace through faith were given a share in his regenerate or sanctified humanity. What had been perfected in him was imparted by the Spirit to them, and this spiritual impartation was understood to occur through mystical union with Christ.

He joins himself to us, and us to himself, by means of his body and blood.

Regeneration was therefore vicarious first, and then a matter of union with Christ. It was a matter of internal rather than external relations. Christ and the church were one mystical body. Christ’s giving of himself to the church meant, among other things, his imparting to the faithful of the regeneration he had accomplished for them in the flesh. For them it was a matter of participation, not merely of repetition or imitation. [Quote taken from: here — see both the body of the post, and subsequently, the comment section for full context]

I find this very helpful, and clarifying, I hope you do as well! The emphasis in this framework is on Christ’s ‘assumption of us’, prior to our reception of Him, by faith. This framing identifies the stress Torrance placed on the need for ‘ontological healing’ to occur on our behalf, through Christ’s vicarious mediation, in order for us to ‘participate’ in His life, through ‘Spirit-enlivened-union’ with Him. This goes beyond the typical and classical (Calvinist) framing of mediation as an ‘act’ of juridical (‘law-based’) duty on the part of Christ for us—this goes to the crux of humanity’s problem, and deals with the heart of the matter—our ‘inner-sin’ problem expressed in ‘outer-behavioral-patterns’ (it is an inner to outer movement, instead of, say a ‘Thomistic’, outter to inner movement). Be edified! And thank you Prof. Hunsinger for sharing these thoughts!