God’s Holiness

Christ as the first-fruits and first-born from the death of death: Reflecting Further Upon Sin and Its ‘Sensuous Origin’

As I continue to get into researching ‘sin’ I am doing so through reading, in part, stuff from Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck. I am reading a section he has from his Dogmatics, Vol.3, called The Origin of Sin; how fitting. I wanted to share a section from him which he entitles The Enigma of Sin’s Origin; in it he gets into how folks have attempted to understand what in fact sin is, and tellingly, where it is generated from, from within the human being (if it is). He focuses in, in this section, on the theory that sin is somehow generated by the sensuous; as such, if this is the case the remedy would be some form of self-deprecating, self-denying asceticism. Note:

The Enigma of Sin’s Origin

[312] The question of the origin of evil, second to that of existence itself, is the greatest enigma of life and the heaviest cross for the intellect to bear. The question, Whence is evil? has occupied the minds of humans in every century and still waits in vain for an answer that is more satisfactory than that of Scripture. Insofar as philosophy has taught us anything significant in this matter, it is, broadly speaking, a strong proof for the scriptural truth that this world is inexplicable without a fall. All the great thinkers, even if they were ignorant of Genesis 3 or rejected it as myth, have, despite themselves, given tacit or explicit support to this simple story. And insofar as philosophy looked for a solution to the problem in another direction, it has gotten off the track and sadly gone astray. This applies first of all to the Pelagian explanation of sin, the many objections to which have been touched on above and will come up at length in our discussion of the essence and propagation of sin. But it applies further to all the systems that trace evil not to a creaturely act of will but to the nature of humanity, the world, or God.

In the first place, sin cannot be inferred from the sensual nature of the human race. If that were the explanation, sin certainly would always have a sensual or carnal character. But this is far from being always the case. There are also spiritual sins, sins of a demonic nature, such as pride, envy, hatred, enmity against God, which, though less visible, are absolutely no less serious than the sins of carnality; and these cannot be explained by sensuality, any more than the existence of fallen angels can be explained on this basis. If sins originated from humanity’s sensual nature, one would certainly expect that they would be most vigorous and numerous in the early years of life, and that to the degree that the mind became more developed it would also exert firmer control over it and finally overcome it altogether. But experience tells a very different story. To the degree that people grow up, sin—also sensual sin—has a stronger grip on them. It is not the child but the young man and the adult male who are frequently enslaved by their lusts and passions; and mental development is often so little able to curb sin that it tends rather to make available the means of seeking the satisfaction of one’s desire on a larger scale and in more refined ways. And even when at a later stage in life the sensual sins have lost their dominance, they still secretly stay on in people’s hearts as desires or make way for others that, though more spiritual in nature, are no less appalling. Accordingly, if this explanation of sin in terms of sensuality is meant in earnest, it should result in seeking release by suppressing the flesh; but it is precisely the history of asceticism that is best calculated to cure us of the error that sin can be overcome in that fashion. People take their hearts with them when they enter a monastery, and from the heart arise all sorts of sins and iniquities.[1]

Clearly from a biblical and properly oriented theological perspective this explanation falls quite short; as Bavinck himself develops. But it is interesting to see how people attempt to philosophize about things, particularly sin.

What if sin has so incapacitated the human intellect, what if the so called noetic effects of sin have so savaged the human’s capacity to self-reflect properly that they are left aimless in their search for attempting to penetrate the mystery of the human situation and pollution? One thing that is clear, even for unregenerate minds and hearts, is that people can look around and know that things are eschew; radically so! But even this, according to Scripture is not a ‘natural’ perception; according to John 16 the Holy Spirit convicts the world of: sin, righteousness, and judgment. In other words, without the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and the attending work of the Holy Spirit, there is no access to the real human condition; there is no access to the actual problem which according to Jesus resides in the deceptive nature of our corrupted hearts (relative to their orientation to God).

What the Bavinck quote should illustrate for us is that sin, human depravity and pollution is an unknowable ‘quantity’; it is a surd of inaccessible magnitude. As Barth orients this discussion, we cannot even begin to know what sin is apart from Christ, and God’s holiness on display therein; and even at this entry point sin remains a surd, an enigma. God in Christ did not come to explain sin’s origin, or even its general whereabouts, he came to destroy it and put it to death (cf. Rom 8). In light of the holiness of God revealed in Christ, yes, sin is amplified, it is given a gravitas as we observe the depths and reach it took for it to be dispelled; i.e. God’s personal enfleshment. What the coming of God in Christ shows about sin is that human beings, autonomous as sin would have them to be, are in no place to deal with its corroding and parasitic power. It takes the very ‘being’ ousia of Godself in the person (hypostasis) of Jesus Christ, the eternal Logos, and ground of all reality to penetrate into the marrow of sin’s possessive non-being and nothingness to reverse its beguiling trajectory; to do nothing short of re-creating all things, with Christ as the first-fruits and first-born from the death of death (per John Owen also cf. Col. 1.15ff; I Cor. 15; II Cor. 5.17).[2]

 

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Origin of Sin, accessed 03-16-2017.

[2] This paragraph is largely and loosely inspired by a Barthian and Torrancean perspective on a Christologically concentrated hamartiology and doctrine of creation/re-creation.

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A Fearful Thing to Speak of God: The Role of God’s Holiness in Our Theological Reflection

Theology is a practice in knowing God with all that we are. While this can only remain a provisional, as the old school would say ectypal endeavor it is something we have been called to as Christians set apart unto God in Jesus Christ. But it is also important to remember that theology is not something that we have initiated, that seminaries and post-doctoral programs have invented. God is
russianGodthe one who initiates true theology; He in himself is the true Theologian as Augustine has said: “God alone is a theologian, and we are truly his disciples.” And so genuine Christian theology starts from God, and our knowledge is contingent upon His graciousness to invite us unto His banqueting table and participate in the meal of holy fellowship that He alone can freely provide for, which He has in His Son, Jesus Christ, God with us.

What viewing theology like this does is that it orients things properly; it takes the keys away from the rationalist who believes that their mind is prior to God’s Self-revelation and action, and it places theological reflection, again, in the domain of God’s holy Word for us, provided for in the election and Incarnation of God (Deus incarnatus), in Jesus Christ. We by nature have unholy thoughts; we by nature are removed from God; we by nature cannot recognize that God has spoken (Deus dixit); we by nature would not approach God even if we could, and if we could we couldn’t because to approach God is to come before Him on holy ground. Moses presented himself before God at the burning bush, only because God condescended and presented Himself, first, to Moses; and in this presentation He initiated the invite to Moses, to come before Him. Modern theological thinking tends to forget this. With the continuing influences of Cartesianism (cogito ergo sum ‘I think therefore I am’), Lockeanism, Kantianism, Schleiermacherianism, etc. we tend to forget that we cannot approach God unless He invites us. The good news is that He has invited us to know Him, to speak with Him, to love and cherish Him, but only on His terms; and His terms or term, is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the holy ground upon which and through whom we have access to God. It is through the broken body of Jesus Christ that the veil between the holy of holies and the outer part of the temple has been torn through. As such, all of our arrogant unholy pretentions about how we conceive of God are contradicted by how God has invited us to think of Him through His personal Self-revelation and exegesis in His Son, Immanuel, Jesus Christ. We come to Him on His predetermined terms not our terms; if we want to come on our terms and name those terms “Jesus Christ” or the “Holy Trinity” we will unfortunately only be worshipping our own self-projections of who we think God is based upon our own self-generated machinations. John Webster clarifies further:

Once again, therefore, we find ourselves running up against the contradictory character of theology as an exercise of holy reason. One of the grand myths of modernity has been that the operations of reason are a sphere from which God’s presence can be banished, where the mind is, as it were, safe from divine intrusion. To that myth, Christian theology is a standing rebuke. As holy reason at work, Christian theology can never escape from the sober realization that we talk in the terrifying presence of God from whom we cannot flee (Ps. 139.7). In Christian theology, the matter of our discourse is not someone absent, someone whom we have managed to exclude from our own intellectual self-presence. When we begin to talk theologically about the holiness of God, we soon enough discover that the tables have been reversed; it is no longer we who summon God before our minds to make him a matter for clever discourse, but the opposite: the holy God shows himself and summons us before him to give account of our thinking. That summons – and not any constellation of cultural, intellectual or political conditions – is the determinative context of holy reason. There are other contexts, of course, other determinations and constraints in the intellectual work of theology: theology is human work in human history. But those determinations and constraints are all subordinate to, and relativized by, the governing claim of the holy God, a claim which is of all things most fearful but also of all things most full of promise.[1]

Christian theology is an enterprise initiated and ingressed by God. When we attempt to talk about God, we must first recognize the fact that ‘God has spoken’ (Deus dixit) first, and that He continues to speak everyday in the same way that He has always freely chosen to speak for us, to us, and with us through Jesus Christ. We are always on holy ground when we speak of God, who alone is wise, immortal, invisible who alone dwells in unapproachable light. I fear that we forget this very often. I fear that we have gotten too comfortable talking about God and the things of God as if He hasn’t first invited us to speak of Him and with Him on His terms. I fear we have domesticated God to the point that when we speak of God we might not really be speaking of Him at all, but instead from a place, a divine spark, as it were, in our minds that we believe has access to God based upon some other terms than those He has given for us through Jesus Christ. It is a holy endeavor to speak of God, but only as we speak from within the domain He has provided for that to happen from does this holiness truly pervade anything we might think we have to say of Him. If the ground and grammar of our theological discourse is not from God in Christ in a principial way, then it is a fearful thing.

[1] John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), Loc. 157, 162, 167 Kindle.