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Living in a blog-like world can be dangerous, especially for those of us who keep reading and learning. When posting on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, or other social media the impression might be given that our ideas are concretized, stagnate, immutable even. This is the danger of expressing oneself via social media around theological ideas (and this is the danger, really, for anyone who publishes musicbarthor teaches in whatever venue). For some theologians the case may be that their work is relatively static, but I would venture to say that for most this is not the case. In other words, most of us are changing, moving and breathing theologically in ways that online publication might betray somewhat. Karl Barth, more than anyone attests to this reality in his own theological work; he changed, reified, constructed more than anyone if not more than anyone who has ever published Dogmatic theology like he has; and I count this to be a good thing!

In the 1930s Hugh Ross Mackintosh wrote this of Barth:

Impressive as Barth’s work has been, it is far from being beyond the reach of criticism. Some camp-followers of the movement have inclined to forget this, but the master himself leaves us in no doubt. He criticizes his own statements, often, by modifying them. “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often,” it has been said; and one fact which makes comprehension of this thought so difficult is that in detail it changes constantly. He warns us vehemently against canonizing his results up to date. He offers clear principles, definite assumptions, but never a closed system. Theology on the wing, it has been called. His thought moves; it does not crystallize. Of him as of Dostoievsky [sic] we may say that he is not interested in tepid notions; there is a dash of the spirit of Heraclitus in him, everything is heat and motion, opposition and struggle. Fitly, therefore, he exhibits a most rare and excellent combination of humility and humour. “It is a real question,” he has suggested, “whether there is as much joy in heaven as there is on earth over the growth of the Barthian school.” Far from being an oracle, he is simply a servant of the Church, with no thought of forming a party. He would perhaps not object to my saying that if I succeed in giving a clear account of his thinking, that will prove that I have been successful after all. Life is not simple, hence theology cannot be simple either; and Barth’s thought is not, in any ordinary sense of the words, easy or transparent. [1]

I thought this not only provides a good word on how to read Barth, but by analogy it also points up the fact that to a degree we all are doing this; and if we are going to be doing this in healthy ways and in the mould of Barth we will be humble enough to be self-critical to the point that we can admit that when we got it wrong in the past that we indeed, got it wrong!

If the God we serve is lively, Triune, personal, relational, dynamic, and we are created in His image in Christ, then it follows, that as we are growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, that we will constantly be moving and breathing with the Holy Spirit as He points us to the stereophonic, Jesus.

[1]Hugh Ross Mackintosh, Types Of Modern Theology: Schleiermacher To Barth (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937), 264-65.

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Hugh Ross Mackintosh was a Scottish theologian during the early to mid 20th century; he was also one of my favorite theologian’s – Thomas Forsyth Torrance – favorite teachers. As such, I have started reading some of HR Mackintosh’s books, and I am beginning to see why he was Torrance’s favored teacher. For the rest of this post we will hear from Mackintosh as he writes on the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ in the act of forgiveness for us.

As we quickly become children of the information technology age (no matter how old we are biologically) we have access to insurmountable amounts of all types of information; Christian teaching is penitentno exception. Something though that I have found a dearth of, even in this age, is much theological discussion in regard to forgiveness. Yes, we certainly can find pretty academic discussions about the atoning work of Christ, and all its attendant theories, but rarely have I seen a sustained blog post, theological essay, etc. developing the theme of Christian forgiveness – and I am referring to ‘forgiveness’ as a theo-psychical reality, something that impacts us (the recipients of God’s forgiveness in Christ) at a psychological level; and as something that promotes a healthy well-being and trajectory for us to live from in our relationship with God and in fellowship with others.

Mackintosh actually wrote a whole book dedicated to this reality entitled: The Christian Experience of Forgiveness. He presses into the idea that in the process of forgiveness, and what it took for that to happen, on God’s side, the character of God in Jesus Christ is seen most clearly – this fits well with Karl Barth’s concept of revelation is reconciliation, something that TF Torrance ascribed to as well. But far from being an abstract theological concept, what Mackintosh demonstrates is that God’s forgiveness serves as a concrete reality that has the capacity to penetrate the structures of our sinful minds and hearts to the point that we can experience the freshness of God’s total liberating presence, which not only involves, of course, psychological rest, but in a more important sense it restores us into a participative relationship with the triune God wherein, by grace, we experience the freedom that God experiences within His own life – this is quite radical! Here is what Mackintosh has written:

It is simply psychological fact, I am persuaded, that the only people in the world to-day who live in the glad consciousness that their sins have been forgiven are those who have encountered Jesus. They have met Him in the lives of the good; above all, they have stood face to face with Him as He shows Himself in the Gospels, and in His presence they have been able to trust the Father’s mercy and begin life again. To them He has become the “Word” of God, not in a philosophical sense, but as the living and loving announcement to their troubled hearts that the Father will be at peace with them. They now know that the essence of God’s nature is just such compassion as Christ’s. To look at Jesus is to know how God would have us think of Himself; the three short years recorded in the Gospels were His self-interpretation; and a sinful man soon discovers that they contain all he needs to know. This is personal relationship at last; it is God dealing with men as the foolish and wandering members of His family, and giving them in pure love a place beside Him.

Thus to receive pardon in the presence of Jesus is an experience which revolutionises our natural thoughts of God. The full truth cannot be expressed by saying that Christ simply corroborates an idea of God long familiar to the average man; rather it is in Christ that for the first time we perceive the true character of God and know, without reasoning, that nothing other or less than this could satisfy. And when we have seen Christ what we know is God, we are then able to call Christ Divine with some complete reality of meaning. Athanasius,  a great man if ever there was one, appears to have supposed that ab initio he could give an account of God in agreed and tolerably simple conceptions, since it was quite possible to formulate a statement of His chief attributes which Greek philosophy would have had no difficulty in countersigning. People who take their religion from the New Testament discover that we have first to let Jesus show us what the Father is like, and that forgiveness, about which philosophy as such does not concern itself, is His characteristic gift. As we contemplate Jesus presented in the Gospels, we discern not merely that God is love, but what kind of love this is. On that crucial point our truth thoughts have all been overheard from Christ. The aid our minds, better perhaps than unverified speculation, to understand what is meant by calling God the Absolute Personality. In no other sort of language can we register precisely the impression He makes on us, as He pardons our sins in Jesus. He is Personality, for only a person can forgive; He is Absolute, for in Him we envisage Love and Holiness invested with boundless and mighty dimensions. The Being whose hand meets ours as we bow before Christ is of a nature infinite and unfathomable.[1]

Let the implications of all that Mackintosh has written bear down on you today, and every day, and keep pressing into the reality, that he describes, of what it means to be forgiven by ‘God the Absolute Personality.’

[1] H.R. Mackintosh, The Christian Experience Of Forgiveness (London: Nisbet&Co. LTD., 1947), 82-3.

I cannot but help to sense the ‘spirit’ of Friedrich Schleiermacher alive and well within my own Christian heritage in evangelicalism; but in its younger expression found in what some call progressive Christianity. It is almost as if the same record is being played again, in a way, although at a faster speed with some new notes and lyrics placed onto this old record.

Evangelicalism finds its roots, and mood, in and from within a German movement known as Pietism. Pietism was an attempt by certain Christian thinkers like Phillip Jakob Spener, Count von schleiermacherZinzendorf, et. al. to provide a counter style of Christianity to what had come to be perceived as the dry arid Christianity produced by the schoolmen known as ‘Post-Reformed-Scholastic-orthodoxy. Pietists wanted to return to a warm-hearted Christianity where an intimacy of Christian love of God cultivated by spiritual practices like devotional Bible reading was the emphasis. Note H.R. Mackintosh’s take on this:

The purpose which men like Spener and Francke had in their mind was not so much to remodel doctrine as to quicken the spiritual life. The fought the worldliness and apathy of the Church. Like the Methodists in England, they urged the necessity for a deeper devotional acquaintance with Scripture, and with this in view they encouraged the formation of private circles for Bible study, the tone of which should be devout rather than scientific. In addition, they called upon Christian people to be separate from the world and give up its ways. These principles were recommended by the establishment of noble philanthropic institutions, some of which persist to this day.

But the weaker men who followed in their train were apt to turn principle into narrow and bitter prejudice. Attendance at private Bible-circles came to be regarded as of more importance than Church fellowship. A meager and utilitarian idea of doctrine tended to become a favourite; nothing could pass muster except that which yielded immediate edification; and the rank and file soon forgot that there is such a thing as the study of Christian truth for its own sake. Again, the demand was frequently made that every believer must have undergone a certain prescribed series of conversion-experiences, in a prescribed order–so much in the way of legal terrors, so much new-found joy. Nor, as we might expect, was it long before certain representatives of the Pietistic school began to use expressions, imprudent or worse, which meant that these subjective experiences of the convert are the real ground of his acceptance with God. This was plainly the thin end of the legalistic wedge. It taught men to look inward, not upward, and threatened to silence that open declaration f the free and undeserved grace of God without which the preached Gospel has lost its savour.[1]

Without getting too deep into the history there are interesting parallels, even at a sociological level, that inhere between what is occurring today and what happened back in the day of the Pietists. Like I noted, the Pietists were reacting to the dry, arid Christianity, as they perceived that, produced as it was by the scholastic Reformed Christians. The scholastic Reformed Christians (like what we see given expression, theologically, in the Westminster Confession of Faith) were an institutionalizing group of Christian thinkers, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, who were in a ‘fight’ with Roman Catholic thought, and in this fight there was produced a body of Protestant Reformed teaching suitable for bringing up generations of Christian pastors, students of theology, and lay people who could have recourse to an identifiable and distinctly Protestant body of teaching. In this process, the schoolmen, used academic tools, inherited from their medieval forbears, and philosophical thinking such as could be found in: Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Scotus, Agricola, Ramis, Ockham, et. al. They successively accomplished their task of producing an institutionalized Christianity, but for many, what they produced, again, was a dry, arid, and abstract Christianity that had no personal or intimate components that emphasized and helped to foster relationship with God in Christ; at least not at a felt level.

We can see this song being replayed in a way. At the turn of the 20th century, as a result of the Enlightenment (of the English and German sorts), ‘Liberal’ theology began to penetrate into the walls of and halls of traditionally scholastically Reformed, etc. seminaries. As a result, the ‘conservatives’ or who came to be known as the Fundamentalists reacted (like the original Pietists reacted against their perception of dry, abstract Christianity) against the intellectualist Liberalism of their day, but in the process, ironically, like the scholastic Reformed, produced a rigid form of ‘Fundamentalist’ Christianity that ended up, itself, being rigid, arid, abstract, and rationalist; it lost any type of felt Christianity wherein intimacy with God in Christ was emphasized or could be cultivated. As a result, even among the Fundamentalists, and within its ranks there was a turn, or reaction against the rigidity of rationalist Fundamentalism, without though a total abandonment of the intellectualism that was funding Fundamentalism. In other words, like the Pietists, evangelicals wanted to emphasize a warm-hearted relational Christianity that focused on personal Bible-devotion and intimate Bible-fellowship-meetings; nothing wrong with that.

But as we noted, just as the Pietists originally were reacting to the institutional Christianity they inhabited, part of that reaction involved a turn ‘inward’, a turn to the subject so to speak; a situation wherein the individual’s relationship and experience of God became the standard for Christian reality. It was within this milieu that, ironically, theological liberalism’s most prominent thinker was produced, and it his ‘spirit’ that I see living on among so named progressive Christians; not as a reaction from evangelical pietism, but as its logical extension. When the ‘subject’ becomes the norming norm for Christian doctrine and spirituality, when this is taken to its conclusion we end up with a radical form that wants to push off anything that sounds authoritarian or institutional; whether that be doctrinal, or whatever. Schleiermacher in the 18th century was Pietism’s logical extension then; progressive Christianity, in the ‘spirit’ of Schleiermacher is the logical extension of modern day evangelicalism/Pietism today. Note what Schleiermacher wrote in regard to the mood of Christianity he was attempting to promote:

You reject the dogmas and propositions of religion. Very well, reject them. They are not in any case the essence of religion itself. Religion does not need them; it is only human reflection on the content of our religious feelings or affections which requires anything of the kind, or calls it into being. Do you say that you cannot away with miracles, revelation, inspiration? You are right; we are children no longer; the time for fairy-tales is past. Only cast off as I do faith in everything of that sort, and I will show you miracles and revelations and inspirations of quite another species. To me everything that has an immediate relation to the Infinite, the Universe is a miracle; and everything finite has such a relation, in so far as I find in it a token or indication of the Infinite. What is revelation? Every new and original communication of the Universe to man; and every elemental feeling to me is inspiration. The religion to which I will lead you demands no blind faith, no negation of physics and psychology; it is wholly natural, and yet again, as the immediate product of the Universe, it is all of grace.[2]

For Schleiermacher anthropology was theology, and ‘feeling’ and/or human experience became the canon by which all Christian doctrine was developed and measured.

Conclusion

My little historical genealogical development, and attempt to parallel things did not correlate one-for-one throughout. But the point was simply to underscore that there are interesting patterns inherent in the history and development of ideas that provide precedence for what is happening today among former evangelical and now progressive Christians. It is a ‘spirit’, I would contend, the ‘spirit’ of Schleiermacher, and others too, that progressives (and that itself represents a continuum) imbibe and think from. What used to be sacrosanct, in regard to Christian holiness, is no longer binding because it does not meet currently with the standards of what counts as ethical and ‘holy’ in our 21st century context. Schleiermacher had a ‘coming out’ party in his day, and the progressives are having theirs today. There really isn’t a lot of difference between the two; our experience of God has become conflated with the Spirit of the Lord’s voice which allows movements in the culture to dictate new standards for what counts as ‘good’ (across all spectrums: doctrinally, ethically, etc.), and as if from God Himself.

[1] Hugh Ross Macintosh, Types of Modern Theology: Schleiermacher to Barth (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937), 11-12.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher cited in Ibid., 43-4.

I don’t know about you, but I struggled with guilt and forgiveness in my life for many years; years that reached back into my childhood, repentantsinnerthrough my teen years, and finally into my young adult years (at which point the Lord broke in and began to do a mighty work to teach me what his forgiveness and his person are all about).

Today I just picked up a book from Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon entitled: The Christian Experience Of Forgiveness by H.R. Macintosh (Thomas F. Torrance’s teacher at the University of Edinburgh). Macintosh is very much so a theologian of the modern period, and his sensibilities are situated within a pietist (albeit, Reformed) framework; of the sort that you might find in a trajectory provided for by Schleiermacher. And yet, Macintosh, while focusing on the ‘modern’ mode of theology as grounded in human experience, moves beyond that as he seeks to ground what that experience looks like from the giver of all experiences, from God.

As I have been reading through Macintosh’s volume I have come across quite a few exemplary things worthy of quotation and reflection, but since this is a blog post I will have to reduce that to one (quote). I found Macintosh’s insight on forgiveness, in the section that I am going to quote, to be very encouraging and edifying (which is why I want to share it). So often it seems that in the Christian sub-culture ‘forgiveness’ as a category is so taken for granted nowadays that it seems to have lost its necessary force (necessary because we are all in such need of it). I think that part of the problem (i.e. lack of focus on forgiveness) is that we have domesticated the concepts of sin and forgiveness so much, or we have psychologized everything away so much, that forgiveness’ significance is either lost on us, or we don’t even really understand our deep need of it in concrete ways. I am afraid if anything, that if we even think about forgiveness we do so in a cliché Christianese sort of way, such that, again, the concept itself has lost its real and transformative force that it ought to have as we live our lives coram Deo before God and before others (and before ourselves). Hopefully what Macintosh has to say about forgiveness will help to re-ignite how important forgiveness is (if its importance has been lost on you) for each and every one of us and as a result we will just magnify him as the only one who can truly forgive us as our heavenly Father. H.R. Macintosh writes:

… To the saint it is a daily discovery that God does not cast him out. Christian as he is, he remains a sinner; saved, doubtless, in respect that he is now in filial communion with the Father, yet not translated magically into a sphere where temptation is unknown, but set to develop moral freedom through struggle and discipline, under the leadership of God and in His enjoyed love. Recurring faults are met by a mercy which he would not dare to claim in right and which excludes the notion that “salvation”, given freely at the start, could be sustained in being by meritorious performance. In the family of God all are in this sense “unprofitable servants” to the end, costing more than the worth of any service.

We reach the conclusion, accordingly, that the ground and spring of forgiveness is in God, not in man. The source and presupposition of its occurrence lies in His being what He is—faithfully and unchangeably the Lover of men. But this implies that the sweep of His mercy must not be narrowed at any stage. When Jesus spoke of the goodness of the Father who sends rains on the just and the unjust, and is kind to the unthankful, He uttered a truth which evangelicalism has been tempted to ignore, or defend in tones of apology. It is not only the good, thank God, who live as His beneficiaries. Mercy is His being, and streams forth to all in uninterrupted kindness. To all, however evil, He continues the gifts and possibilities of life, with a throng of varied powers and impulses suited to the development of personality in the kingdom of free and loving spirits; this also is grace to sinners, given not reluctantly but willingly; in a sense it is forgiveness, manifesting His untiring will to save. How men often reflect on this in a marvelling temper when they have found God in Christ, and look back across years of dull insensibility! How many things in that old life become expressive, witnessing to the ceaseless patience that had pursued us! Even then we were not forsaken by the Father. He surrounded us with persons, influences, appeals which are a proof, in retrospect, that He had never turned from us. That is a fact revealed to us through personal and individual experience, but it must hold good for the whole world. He who was merciful to our folly is merciful to all.[1]

Rich stuff!

I finally overcame the guilt of sin I mentioned above, but not until I came to a point where I could truly trust Jesus. Part of my problem, in the past, in receiving God’s forgiveness was that I had a lot of doubt in my heart about God (his existence, etc.). But the reality was, was that I had this deep sense of guilt over sin, in fact it was of the condemnatory type, and I came to realize (Romans 8) that this was not from God (II Corinthians 7), because it was producing in me an unrecoverable sorry of the type that pointed further into my own resources and not out to God’s in Christ’s. But once I came to realize that God truly was there and there for me abundantly in Christ, I was able to fully receive God’s forgiveness, I was able to rest in the reality that there is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ; the reality that if God is for me in Christ who can be against me; if the Lord does not condemn me, then where was this condemnation and guilt over already confessed sins coming from? It wasn’t coming from the God who already told me that he had forgiven me, that I had already been absolved in Jesus Christ’s confession for me (at the cross and in his priestly session at the Right Hand of the Father).

We need to experience God’s forgiveness, in real and particular ways. I would say that it is precisely because the world (including most of the church) does not experience God’s forgiveness that the world looks the way it does today. It is because we are trying to fulfill desires and wants that mask over our even deeper need to experience the liberating and humanizing forgiveness of God in Christ for us.

 

[1] H.R. Macintosh, The Christian Experience Of Forgiveness (London: Nisbet&Co. LTD., 1947), 36-7.

Here is a great question that was posed by Scottish theologian H. R. Macintosh in a sermon he was giving in 1938; certainly how one answers this question speaks volumes to what “tradition” you approach God through, indeed there are at least two major traditions that theologians have tried to talk about and know God through — and Macintosh’s question revolves around those two traditions.

FIFTY years ago, and indeed much nearer our own day, discussion went on constantly regarding the Divinity of Christ. People raised the question: Is Christ one with God, is His nature the same as the Father’s? That was a vital problem, and will always remain so; but you will observe that it assumed that we knew beforehand what God is like, and could compare Jesus with Him, and thereupon decide whether Jesus corresponded to the Divine nature as we knew it. I think it is fairly accurate to say that just at present people are chiefly concerned not about the question whether Jesus is the same as God, but rather the question whether God is the same as Jesus. You see, they have turned the problem round and are looking at it from the other end. They say, we know what Christ was like, for we can read about Him in the Gospels; is God’s character of the same kind? Can we argue confidently from the one to the other? Can I take the mind and heart of Jesus Christ, as He lived among men and for men, and say to the perplexed, or to my own heart when it is troubled: There, that is what you can rely on at the very heart of the universe? God is exactly like Jesus, and as Dr. A. B. Bruce once said: “If God is like Jesus, this world has reason to be glad.” (Quote taken from: here)

Have you ever thought about this? Does your understanding of God come from looking at Jesus, or do you have an understanding of God, generically considered, which you fit the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to? Or maybe you’re wondering, what about the Old Testament time, this was prior to Jesus’ incarnation, right? 😉

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Hello my name is Bobby Grow, and I author this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist. Feel free to peruse the posts, and comment at your leisure. I look forward to the exchange we might have here, and hope you are provoked to love Jesus even more as a result. Pax Christi!

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A Little Thomas Torrance

“God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

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