On the Christological Exegesis of the Biblical Text: Christ the Centraldogma of Everything

The Old Testament makes no sense without Jesus as its centraldogma. It was really only after the advent and development of a post-Enlightenment deconfessionalized naturalist biblical studies movement wherein my thesis statement would make no sense. For the Christian, the idea that the Old Testament has any meaning other than its witness to Jesus, and its fulfillment therein, in principle makes no sense. Jesus himself thought as much: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me . . . .” There is historical nuance, descriptions of historical narratives, development of historical characters, and much more in the Old Testament. But without their ultimate referent in Jesus Christ, they have no meaning, no context. They only remain a series of potentially inspiring, and variously interesting stories about a nation amongst the nations, but without Jesus Christ as its canonical-contextual ground, again, these stories remain largely aloof to anything relevant towards the meaning of life before God (coram Deo). Barth agrees:

But when they say that this subject is Jesus Christ, who according to the will of God was slain under Pontius Pilate and was raised from the dead by the power of God, we can only say again that the ultimate exegetical question in relation to these passages—the question of their subject—is identical with the question of faith: whether with the Synagogue both then and now we do not recognize Christ. This question obviously cannot be settled by the Old Testament passages as such. The final result of the passages as such is the difficulty. Again, it is naturally impermissible to accept the reply of the apostles solely because we cannot solve these difficulties in the exegesis of the text itself, or because, on the other hand, we share with them an idea that Jesus Christ is supremely fitted to occupy the place where we are pulled up short. The apostles themselves did not reach their answer as a possibility discovered and selected by themselves, or as a final triumph of Jewish biblical scholarship. They did so because the Old Testament (Lk. 24.27f) was opened up to them by its fulfilment in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and because in light of this fulfilment Old Testament prophecy could no longer be read by them in any other way than as an account of this subject. If we accept the decision of the apostles—for the same reasons as they did, compelled by the affirmation that the elect king, of whom they speak, is Jesus of Nazareth, will be not merely possible but necessary as the last word in the exegesis of these passages, the last word! So far we have mentioned His name in our investigation of these passages. We have remained within the Old Testament world and its possibilities. We have tried in this world to bring out and think through what is said there about the elect king. But we have been forced to the conclusion that the entity in question cannot be brought out or apprehended within the Old Testament world: whether we think of it in terms of the monarchy as willed by God, or of the person of the elect king; whether we think of the matter itself or of its unity. Therefore the decisive question: What is the will of God in this matter? and whom does He will for this purpose? is not a question which can be unambiguously answered from the passages themselves.1

Thomas Torrance summarizes what Barth is after this way:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.2

Some people, like Helmut Thielicke, see Barth, and Torrance, respectively, as Christomonist. The idea being that Barth et al. so reduce the contours of Holy Scripture to Jesus, that nothing else is seemingly significant in itself. For the Lutheran, Thielicke, his critique largely stems from his desire to read the Bible through the Law/Gospel dialectic, but for others, the critique of Christomonism simply arises from the facile notion that Barth and company reductionistically reduces all of reality, including Scripture’s, to Jesus Christ. As a Christian, I am left scratching my head in regard to this critique. The Apostle Paul writes, “that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” If Paul is right, and he is, then in what way is seeing Jesus everywhere, and in every way, monist and/or reductionistic? It seems to me that people who make such critiques have already posited a priori some other meaning of Scripture, constructed from some other place than Scripture, about Scripture’s principial meaning as that is found in Jesus Christ alone (Solo Christo).

In certain sectors, there is a lot of talk about theological interpretation of Scripture or theological exegesis these days. But for my money, the only game in the Kingdom, hermeneutically, should really be designated Christological exegesis; at least for the genuinely Christian approach to all things. Barth, and Torrance following, reflect the sort of Christological exegetical approach that I believe every Christian should be about. We see this, even radically so, in someone like Martin Luther, and John Calvin in lesser ways, and I think we ought to see this more today among the exegetes wherever and whenever (which is a huge ask these days) they might actually be found. To not be a Christological exegete only leads to the sort of impoverished biblical exegesis we see attending so much of the evangelical world in our contemporary culture. If all of reality is about Jesus, then this, at least, ought to imply that all of biblical exegesis is self-same. How this gets fleshed out can only happen insofar that the analogy of the Incarnation is allowed to inform our exegetical efforts. Some form of the Chalcedonian Pattern, as George Hunsinger would call this, needs to be the imprimatur of the exegete’s Christian existence. But will the Lord really find such biblical exegetes on earth?

 

1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §35: Study Edition Vol 11 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 196.

2 Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196. 

Ecce Homo, Jesus is the Man! He was First Human for Us that We Might Be Human in Him

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the lawof the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. —Psalm 1.1-2

I once read a biblical exegete, H. A. Ironside, ironically, identify ‘the man’ in Psalm 1 to be none other than, Jesus Christ. This interpretive tradition goes way back into theological history. Some might think this is just Barth, or Torrance, or maybe some Germans in the modern period, like Emil Brunner or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who emphasized the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; the Son of Man; the Son of David. But we see these emphases found in Calvin, Luther, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, and Nicene theology in general. Here is a succinct statement on this interpretive tradition provided by a German, and teacher of mine, named, Helmut Thielicke:

This character of the imago Dei as an alienum, something alien, is supremely brought out by the fact that as a proprium, as a true ontic possession, an attribute in the strict sense, it is ascribed solely and exclusively to Jesus Christ. It is is ascribed to him as a proprium, not merely in the sense that in him alone it has remained intact, but above all in the sense that it is present in him. In the absolute sense Jesus Christ is the only man. More precisely, he is the only man who fulfills humanity; he does not possess humanity merely in the negative mode, as an unrealized possibility. We can say this, of course, only if we at once add the safeguard that “humanity” cannot here be understood as an a priori concept expressing a knowledge of man enjoyed prior to and apart from Jesus Christ. If it were so understood, then Jesus Christ would be understood as merely fulfilling, or having to fulfill, an idea of humanity deriving from our own sovereignly creative consciousness. Our thinking must take the very opposite course. We must first learn from Christ and perceive in him—ecce homo!—what man is. We must first learn from his divine likeness wherein the divine likeness of man consists. For man’s divine likeness is fulfilled only in Christ, in our participating in his divine likeness.1

This changes everything! There is no humanity prior to Christ’s humanity. There is no imago Dei outwith the Deus Incarnandus, the eternal Son, to be incarnate for us. He was not created in our image, but we His! When you encounter theologies that attempt to think of an abstract humanity, as we find in classical Calvinisms and Arminianisms, as that is provided for by their respective doctrines of election and reprobation, you ought to run. Jesus, the elect of God for us, the Anointed One, He is the Man, Christ Jesus, the mediator between God and humanity in his hypostatic unioned person. This is in fact, the Word of the Lord; in flesh and blood.

The Relational Imago Dei in Imago Christi

Helmut Thielicke offers an excellent argument for thinking the imago Dei from the ad extra of human interrelations. He extrapolates from this, from the biblical witness, that if this is so, then speculative thinking about Godself ought to likewise be abandoned. In other words, as Thielicke intones, if this is how the biblical witness depicts the imago, then this, as a prius, ought to be the way that we develop a theology proper itself; that is as we think God from God in Christ. Let me share his argument, and then offer my own constructive adaptation of what Thielicke is after.

The divine likeness is thus a relational entity because it is manifested in man’s ruling position vis-à-vis the rest of creation, or better, because it consists in this manifestation, in this exercise of dominion and lordship. The attempt to differentiate the essence of the image from its manifestation, and therefore to understand man’s ruling position of lordship only as a result of the true properties of the image (reason, will, freedom, etc.), has no foundation in the Bible and betrays a Platonic mode of thinking. The image of God consists in the manifestation, for it is of the very essence of a picture—that is its point!—to “effect” something, for example, in the person who looks at it; it “consists” in this effect, not in the variety of colors. The imago Dei does not consist apart from its specific operation. Luther’s repeated insistence that God is always actuosus, in action, holds true also of God’s image. The same approach is to be seen in Melanchthon’s view that the nature of Christ is to be seen in hi benefits, in his operation in salvation history, rather than in his metaphysical attributes. It is an approach which opposes differentiation between capacity or ability on the one hand, i.e., an attribute which enables us to do something, and activity on the other, i.e., this attribute in operation. We have to see the nature of God, not in his attributes [Eigenschaften], but in his outward relations [Aussenschaften], in what he does with us, in his relation to us, in his being “Emmanuel” [God with us]. The image of God in man is to be similarly defined. It is not a constituent capacity inherent in man but a relational entity, namely, man’s ruling function vis-à-vis the other creatures.[1]

I think Thielicke offers a nice development on the entailments of a biblical conception of what the imago Dei is. But I don’t think this goes far enough. As someone who thinks After Barth and Thomas Torrance, who both thought After Athanasius, it is important to point out that in fact Scripture itself, beyond Thielicke’s helpful development, refers to Jesus Christ, who is both consubstantial God and humanity in His singular person, as the imago Dei (cf. Col. 1.15). Khaled Anatolios provides a really instructive treatment of this development as it occurs in an Athanasian frame, he writes:

A helpful way to synthesize the argument of Against the Greeks—On the Incarnationand to integrate it with Athanasius’s later and more explicitly polemical work is to focus on the trintarian-christological-anthropological nexus that forms the guiding motif of the work: only the One who is true Image can renew humanity’s being according to the image (kat’ eikona). The trinitarian ground of this nexus is the immediate relation (though we do not find the later technical vocabulary of “relation” in this treatise) whereby the Son is the Image of the Father. The soteriological consequence of this immediacy is that the Son is uniquely able to grant direct and immediate access to the Father. The statement that humanity was created according to the Image is simultaneously anthropological and christological: to be created according to the Image is to be granted a participation in the one who is the true and full Image of the Father. When humanity lost its stability, which depended on remaining in the state of being according to the Image, the incarnate Word repaired the image of God in humanity by reuniting it with his own divine imaging of the Father. Jesus Christ is therefore both eternal divine Image and restored human image. The saving union of divine and human image in Christ is characterized by immediacy. One foundational principle of Athanasius’s theological vision is this stress on the continuity of immediate connections between God and humanity and a corresponding abhorrence of obstacles and opaque mediations. As perfect Image, the Son is immediately united to the Father and transparently reflects knowledge of the Father; anything short of this immediate and transparent relation would deconstruct our immediate connection with the Father through the Son from the divine side. Through his incarnation, the Son repairs our human participation in his imaging of the Father from within the human constitution; anything short of a full incarnation would leave humans disconnected from both Father and Son. Thus, incarnation and the full divinity of the Son are both integral to the immediacy of our contact with the Father. Far from indicating inferior divinity, the human life and death of Jesus Christ extend the efficacy of is divine imaging of the Father in the face of humanity’s loss of the state of being according to the image. It is a wonderful display of the loving-kindness that belongs to the divine nature as such, the philanthrōpia that is equally shared by Father and Son.[2] 

I think this is the needed expansion that Thielicke’s treatment needs. In order to have a properly construed theological-anthropology, in my view it must be grounded in and from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. If He is God’s image for us, then it only makes sense to think imago Dei as imago Christi; or that we are ‘images of the Image.’ In this Thielicke’s good insight can flourish in properly theological ways as those are constrained by the conciliar grammar provided for us in the Chalcedeno-Niceno-Constantinopolitan faith. But this is the point: we ought to think ourselves from God’s thinking and reality for us in Jesus Christ. If we do we will end up, necessarily so, with a relational understanding, first of God, and then of ourselves. We won’t think of ourselves as static quantities, but dynamic personalities as we are ‘personed’ in and from the life of God pro nobis in Jesus Christ.


[1] Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics: Foundations (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 157.

[2] Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine,(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011), 107-8.

How Helmut Thielicke’s Law/Gospel Gets Barth’s Judge/judged Wrong

I like Helmut Thielicke for a variety of reasons. But as read his Theological Ethics what he is making more than clear to me is how I am Reformed and not Lutheran. I used to think I could be persuaded to hold Luther’s Law/Gospel (LG) hermeneutic; in other words, I was somewhat open to it. But over time it has become clear to me that I am not open to it; that I am in fact quite Reformed, and Calvinian even, on this locus classicus. The way someone parses this theological combine will impact, for example, the way the exegete approaches their respective theological development. Further, it will have implications towards the way they interact with other exegetes of import. This is the case when we see Thielicke in discussion, and in critique of Karl Barth. In the following Thielicke is offering a critique of Barth’s theology, in the main, by way of deploying the Lutheran Law/Gospel dialectic. Thielicke’s critique, in the name of Law/Gospel, takes an interesting, almost jolting turn as he deploys LG in a way that leads him to argue that Barth’s theology is largely idealistic; and even more pejoratively: Christomonistic. Let’s pick up with Thielicke,

Barth on Gospel and Law

It is thus understandable that the dissolution of this tension which undergirds our faith should necessarily lead to unhistorical thinking. It is understandable that where a theological system contains—however covertly—certain tendencies toward a lack of historicity, they will press for the removal of this tension, and thereby betray themselves.

This seems to us to be the case in Barth’s theology, where Gospel and Law are regarded as two sides of the same thing. When they are thus viewed as correlatives, the tension between them is eliminated. In the words of Barth’s famous definition, “Thus, we can certainly make the general and comprehensive statement that the Law is nothing else than the necessary form of the Gospel, whose content is grace.” As the form of the Gospel, the Law thus conceals the Gospel. The Law does not stand over against the Gospel as something which accuses and destroys us, before which we cannot stand. On the contrary, when we reach the point of confessing our failure, we are already raised up by that which the Law is really intended to be, namely, the promise that “you shall be” what is demanded. Hence judgment and destruction are no longer total. Carried to its extreme by Barth, this means, “The very fact that God speaks to us, that, under all circumstances, is, in itself grace.” But is this really so? Is it really grace when Adam is asked, “Where are you?” Out of the dreadful judgment, devoid of grace, which falls on Adam, salvation comes through the grace which God wrings from himself, painfully, as demonstrated at Golgotha. But is not the miracle precisely this? And is this not quite different from Barth’s correspondence of form and content in terms of conformity to Law? Otherwise, was not Adam’s hiding a case of blind panic? In other words, cannot God’s speech to man be something terrible, something that plunges us into a hopeless impasse? Who in that case may speak of “grace” without doing violence to God’s judgments, and without taking from grace the very thing which makes it grace, namely, the element of miracle, the inexplicable, that which conforms to no law? Who would dare to call judgment “grace,” and understand God’s speech in every case as grace? “If you were blind, you would have no guilt” (John 9:41); if you were deaf, you would likewise have not guilt. But now that you must in fact see, now that you must in fact hear the Law, you are without excuse and the judgments of God break upon you. What else is this but an indication that when our eyes encounter only night, and our ears only silence, this could be because God is graciously sparing us? How then can we ever describe God’s speech “in itself” as grace? We can do so only if we weaken the antithesis between Law and Gospel, for judgment then loses its dark aspect and whispers that we will have a happy ending.

Such a doctrine of Law and Gospel introduces an abstract monism into theology and makes it into a philosophical world view of grace: “The Word of God [is] . . . properly and ultimately grace: free, sovereign grace, God’s grace, which therefore can also mean being Law, which also means judgment, death, and hell, but grace and nothing else.” Even hell has its place in this philosophy of grace. When will the logical consequences of this monism be drawn, namely, the forthright confession and solemn proclamation of the universal consummation of all things, the ἀποκατάστασις pavntwn?[1]

Thielicke, later in his treatment on Barth, admits that what he is critiquing above is the early Barth, in his more dialectical phase, but then he simply asserts that Barth doesn’t really change in his more mature writings as reflected in the Church Dogmatics. This is a rather strange sleight of hand. Not to mention, the implications that Thielicke strains to draw out of Barth’s theology just aren’t there. Even if we grant the Law/Gospel matrix to guide the way we read all things biblically and theologically (which I don’t), Barth does not fall prey to this sort of monism that Thielicke claims for Barth simpliciter. For example (and this is one of many) here is Barth in his Church Dogmatics describing what he calls elsewhere the Judge/judged complex:

The meaning of the death of Jesus Christ is that there God’s condemning and punishing righteousness broke out, really smiting and piercing human sin, man as sinner, and sinful Israel. It did really fall on the sin of Israel, our sin and us sinners. It did so in such a way that in what happened there (not to Israel, or to us, but to Jesus Christ) the righteousness of God which we have offended was really revealed and satisfied. Yet it did so in such a way that it did not happen to Israel or to us, but for Israel, for us. What was suffered there on Israel’s account and ours, was suffered for Israel and for us. The wrath of God which we had merited, by which we must have been annihilated and would long since have been annihilated, was now in our place borne and suffered as though it had smitten us and yet in such a way that it did not smite us and can no more smite us. The reason why the No Spoken on Good Friday is so terrible, but why there is already concealed in it the Eastertide Yes of God’s righteousness, is that He who on the cross took upon Himself and suffered the wrath of God was no other than God’s own Son, and therefore the eternal God Himself in the unity with human nature which He freely accepted in His transcendent mercy.[2]

How can Thielicke simply assert that the earlier Barth, even if we grant Thielicke’s characterization of the early Barth, is present in the CDd Barth?

The thought occurred to me, as I was reflecting on Thielicke’s critique last night: Law/Gospel for the Lutherans is just as artificial to the text of Scripture as is Federal theology for the orthodox Reformed, as is Dispensationalism for the low-church evangelicals. What Barth (and Torrance following) offer is a genuinely catholic reading of Holy Scripture, and its res in Jesus Christ, insofar as they think from the christological pattern originally grammarized at the ecumenical church Council of Chalcedon. I think this is what has attracted me to Barth (and Torrance) so much. There is an authenticity to his theology, respectively, that goes beyond what seems like the contrived or artificial approaches just mentioned. This doesn’t mean that Barth might not have some sort of artificiality in his own ectypal sort of theological development. But it is to say that, thematically, he starts at the right place (in my humble estimation).


[1] Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics: Volume 1: Foundations, edited by William H. Lazarus(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 99-100.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 §30 The Doctrine of God: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 145.

Law/Gospel Actualized as Gospel Alone in Contraposition to Thomistically Retreived Soteriologies

Protestants of a certain stripe are all about retrieving classical theologies, particularly of a Thomistic[1] hue. These Protestants typically, and rightly, as the case may be, start by retrieving theology proper (doctrine of God) categories, and then work their way from there. They terminate in soteriology; and in the Protestant frame I’m thinking of, this termination looks most closely akin to Federal (Covenantal) theology.[2] Built into Federal theology is a notion of bi-lateral contract between God and humanity. God provides the grace and salvation, and the elect person (if they don’t have a temporary faith) co-operates with that grace thus meeting the conditions required for acquiring final justification (aka ‘glorification’).[3]

Lutheran theologian, and ethicist, Helmut Thielicke describes this theory of salvation in the following way. You will notice that his sketch is in discussion with the Augsburg Confession which stands in contraposition to the Catholic (and Thomistic) understanding of salvation. If you are familiar with Lutheran (and Reformed theology) you will immediately pick up on the Law/Gospel combine Thielicke and the Augsburg Confession are thinking through.

What happens when particular emphasis is laid on the imperative? The Apology draws attention to this problem in a polemical section of Article IV on “Love and the Keeping of the Law.” According to the Thomistic doctrine of justification the imperative, although not exactly isolated and absolutized, is nonetheless accorded an autonomous significance. For justification is linked with the “keeping of the Law,” and the imperative, i.e., the requirement of good and meritorious works, has the significance of co-operation in the attainment of justification. The Apology finds the reason for this primacy of the imperative, or at least for the high degree of emphasis laid upon it, in the Thomistic concept of prima gratia.

In opposition to this accentuating of “initial grace,” the Apology maintains that Christ does not cease to be the mediator after we are renewed. “All those err who maintain that he [Christ] has merited for us only the ‘initial grace’ and that we then subsequently attain acceptance and ear for ourselves eternal life by our keeping of the Law. Christ remains the mediator, and we must always maintain that on his account we have a reconciled God, even though we ourselves be unworthy.

By way of interpretation, it should be noted that the expression “Christ remains the mediator” is an exaggerated formulation which is to be taken with a grain of salt. For it goes without saying, as the Apology realizes well enough, that Thomism does not present the doctrine of justification in such crude and deistic fashion that Christ is, as it were, only the initiator of justification, and that then, having started the movement, he withdraws, after the manner of Deism, and leaves everything to the human action thus “cranked up” and released. Thomism cannot mean this, since it regards all the “merits” attained by man as merits only through grace, and hence only for the sake of Jesus Christ. Hence we must not allow this polemical formulation to give us too simple a view of Thomism.

Nevertheless, the Apology does use this polemical formulation; and if we cannot think that it is simply caricaturing its opponents in order to ease the task of refuting them, we must interpret it as follows. The concept of prima gratia involves a decisive infringement upon and restriction of the mediatorial significance of Christ. For when justification is linked with the prima gratia, this initial grace is regarded as the basis which makes possible our doing of the meritorious works necessary for salvation. Thus grace becomes merely the basis which makes possible the real thing. The real thing is the meritorious works; they are the key to the process of justification. For it is by works that we see whether the grace lent to us is actualized and put to good use, or whether it remains instead idle capital. In the strict sense, therefore, initiatory grace is really the basis of the possibility, the indispensable condition of the real event. In relation to the merits which are normative for salvation, justification has liberating and creative power. Its position is rather like that of a means to an end.

In thus characterizing Thomistic faith as a “means to an end,” we should not forget, of course, that this is an exaggerated formulation because in Thomism grace is in some sense final as well as primary. For what man merits is grace in its quality as an end, as ultimate “goal.” Between the two, however, merits have a decisive position, since they can challenge and even block the way from primary grace to ultimate grace.

In Rome’s assigning of a key position to works, the Apology sees not only an infringement upon the exclusiveness of Jesus Christ, but also a threatened perpetuation of the assaults of doubt [Anfechtung] which Luther sought to overcome. “If those who are regenerated are supposed later to believe that they will be accepted because they have kept the law, how can our conscience be sure that it pleases God, since we never satisfy the law?” If good works occupy the key process of justification, then the assurance of our being accepted and justified by God (the “sure conscience” [conscientia certa]) is continually threatened. For this assurance depends in turn on the assurance that we have fully kept the Law, an assurance that can never be definitive and unequivocal. To the degree that the decisive phase in the process of justification passes into the hands of men, there is always instability, and hence assaults of doubt.[4]

This, in a nutshell, is the stuff that Federal theology is made of. While it is all vouchsafed by the absolutum decretum, and God’s brute sovereignty therein, this is how the Divine pactum unfolds, in a loose way, in Federal theology. Is this by mistake, or is there a correlation between the doctrine of God and soteriology present in the Thomist (Aristotelian) frame? There is a correlation. In other words, the way a theological system thinks God, so goes the rest of its subsequent theologizing. If a system gets a doctrine of God wrong, everything following will be eschewed in orientation to the wrongness of who and what God is conceived to be.

In Evangelical Calvinism, even more expressly than we find in Thielicke’s Lutheran frame, the object of salvation is the subject. In other words, there is no discussion that takes place, about salvation (or anything else!), in abstraction from the concrete life of God in Jesus Christ. Both the person and work of Jesus Christ are thought together, never apart. As such, the ‘imperative’ (Law) of the Christian life is never thought in rupture from its indicative (Gospel), but only together. This is because, for the Evangelical Calvinist, as Thomas Torrance would emphasize, salvation is Grace all the way down; insofar that salvation is God become human in Christ for us (pro nobis). This means, simply, that insofar that the person is in union with the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, that this person is justified, sanctified, and glorified, from head to toe, in the robe of Christ’s righteousness. Further, this means that the ‘eternal indicative’ is also the eternal imperative insofar that God freely elected to step into the gap between Himself and fallen humanity. As He stepped into this gap, which is Grace, all conditions, particular to the actualization of re-conciliation between God and humanity, were immediately realized. In other words, the dilemma that Thielicke and the Augsburg Confession are addressing, in regard to the Thomist categories, are never raised as real dilemmas.

For the Evangelical Calvinist there is no sunlight between God’s inner life for us and the human conscience and concrete lived existence we inhabit on a day-to-day basis. And all of this is because the Evangelical Calvinist does not think God from the speculative and Aristotelian categories that Thomism, and her Calvinist (and Lutheran orthodox) iterations do. We think concretely from the evangelical life of God for us revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ. In other words, we think of God in relational and personalist ways which avoid thinking of Him in terms that are law-like, decretal, and juridical. As such, the dilemma Thielicke is rightly countering, as presented by the Thomist categories, are non-starters for the Evangelical Calvinist. Nevertheless, it is important to understand, contextually, why Evangelical Calvinism offers a positive way forward that does not fall prey to these sorts of dilemmas as given rise by speculative theologies like we find under the umbrella of the Thomisms.

[1] Thomas Aquinas’ theology, and its subsequent “neo-Thomist” receptions and developments.

[2] We get ‘poser’ versions of this in sub-set forms in lower iterations of Reformed or more accurately “Calvinist” theologies (think of Five-Point Calvinism, and other like versions; whether those be in direct correlation with, or in contraposition to Five-Pointism).

[3] See Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theologia Reformata et Semper Reformanda: Towards an Evangelical Calvinism,” in Editors Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 1: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 1-19. Also see Bobby Grow, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the ‘Faith of Christ,'” in Editors Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics and Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017), 30-57.

[4] Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics: Volume 1: Foundations, edited by William H. Lazarus (Philadelphia: Fortess Press, 1966), 74-6.

Simul Justus et Peccator: ‘Simultaneously Justified and Sinner’

“He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of the Son he loves, . . .” –Colossians 1.13 (NET)

ὃς ἐρρύσατο ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ σκότους καὶ μετέστησεν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ υἱοῦ τῆς ἀγάπης αὐτοῦ, –Colossians 1.13 (GNT)

Simul justus et peccator–Martin Luther

As Christians in Christ we are simultaneously inhabitants of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, and at the same time we continue to dwell in a world full of the darkness we have been redeemed from; this world is yet present in our old hearts, and in the bodies of death we continuously inhabit. This seems paradoxical, dialectical even; it is. Sin no longer has its filthy grip on our lives / instead the righteousness of Christ does. In this we have the freedom of God to live in the holiness He has always already inhabited in the perichoresis of His Triune Life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; we have become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ by the adoption of God’s Grace; been made co-heirs with Jesus Christ as we are now in union with the life that He has always had by nature with the Father in the Holy bond of matrimony provided for by the Holy Spirit. As Christians we paradoxically live in-between two ages; even as we inhabit both of them, yet in asymmetrical ways. We are citizens of the heavenly Kingdom, seated in the heavenly places with Christ; yet we are still in this world, in these bodies. Helmut Thielicke explains these things in the language of  æon, which is the Latin transliteration of the classical and Koine Greek, αἰών; the word simply means: ‘age.’ He writes:

In the second form the question runs, “How do I move from faith to action?” That is, how do I make my Christianity concrete? What is life in the new aeon to be like? For to be baptized is, after all, to let oneself be called into God’s salvation history, and hence out of the old aeon. But to be called out in this way can mean only that we are delivered from the ruling powers of this aeon and set under the dominion of a new and different Lord. It means, for example, to acquire a new relation to the god Mammon, and to the powers of property and possession (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13; 12:16-20; Mark 10:21, 24 f.). It means also that I have to revise my relationship to my body (I Cor. 6:19) and its passions (Phil. 3:19; I Cor. 6:16), to the things of this world (I Cor. 7:29 ff.) and anxiety concerning them (Matt. 6:25 ff.), to the Thou of my neighbor and to the groups to which I belong. It implies, in fact, the total revision of my existence in all its dimensions, since Christ is ruler of the entire cosmos and not just Lord of my inwardness. The orientation of my existence—and this means concretely my life in the plenitude of its relationships—is completely transformed because I am now the member of another history and of another aeon.

On the other hand I am simultaneously—by virtue of a mysterious simul—a member of the old aeon. For Christ did not pray the Father that he should take his own out of the world, but that he should keep them alliance with wickedness (John 17:15). After all, they are no more “of the world” (in terms of origin and destiny) than is Christ who, even though he walks in it, still is not “of” the world (John 17:16).

Hence believers in Christ stand to the old aeon in a relationship of both continuity and discontinuity. The relationship is one of continuity insofar as they eat and drink, marry and are given in marriage, laugh and cry, stand under authorities and within orders, etc. It is one of discontinuity because they no longer receive their orientation from all of this. Their relation to that which is relative can no longer be something absolute (to put it in Kierkegaardain terms). They live “in the flesh” to be sure, but no longer “according to the flesh.” We shall see later to what degree Luther’s well-known phrase “at once righteous and sinful” [simul justus et peccator] reflects this relationship to the two aeons, especially when it is seen to involve an interrelating of res and spes, of present and future, of this aeon and the coming aeon: ‘sinful in fact, righteous in hope” [peccator in re, justus in spe].[1]

What a glorious, yet precarious status we inhabit. We are redeemed, and indwell, in and through the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ, the Holy of Holies of God’s inner and triune Life. Yet, we remain in the far country of this groaning world, and the bodies that inhabit it, until we fully realize the beatifico visio in the consummation of all things yet to come at the shout of the coming Son of Man.

I long to be saved from my ‘body of death.’

“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”–Romans 7.24 (NET)

[1] Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics: Volume 1: Foundations, edited by William H. Lazarus (Philadelphia: Fortess Press, 1966), 40-1.

What is Christian Faith: Contra Christian Secularisms

The modern person has a variety of conceptions of what “faith” entails; this includes the modern Christian person as well. It is common, among large swaths of evangelical Christianity, to hear people refer to saving faith as something that is seemingly inherent to the person; as if it’s a self-generative ‘thing.’ But this is not what biblical faith entails. John Calvin emphasized ‘faith as knowledge of God’; Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth think faith from God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ, as a reality that co-inheres between the Father and Son by the Holy Spirit—as a notion of intimate trust that characterizes the eternal bond of the triune life. The point: contrary to modern conceptions of faith, biblical faith is a reality that is extra nos (outside of us). It is not something that we have inherent to ourselves. Instead, faith is a reality that is gifted to us and for us in the ‘faith of Christ’ (pistis Christou). In other words, a right and biblical understanding of faith entails the idea that humanity is not born with it as an inherent capacity. Faith, in the biblical understanding, is a supranatural miraculous reality that only God has capacity to bring for us in His believing and trusting for us in His humanity in Christ. If we don’t think this way, we end up conniving an independent factor or concept or ontology of faith that is somehow abstract and non-contingent upon God; a tertium quid, that ultimately would be in a competitive relationship with God vis-à-vis human agency.

Helmut Thielicke agrees, and says it this way:

Faith too is susceptible of interpretation in terms of immanent categories, such as those of psychology for example. With the help of secular history men have been able to reduce the figure of Jesus of Nazareth to the level of general religious history. In the same secular way, with the help of psychology it is possible to reduce faith to the level of the spiritual processes inside a man. It is characteristic of those who thus view Christian faith as only a subjective, psychological matter that they employ many expressions which receive their stamp from secularization. For example, the [sic] typically employ the term “credulity” in order to suggest that faith does not primarily refer to and receive its character from its object, but is simply one of the many products of man’s creative subjectivity. Credulity as a property or disposition [habitus] of subjectivity is primary. Instead of being determined by its object, credulity itself determines on its own the object to which it wishes to refer, e.g., a certain world view of a particular religious confession.

It was Schleiermacher who in his book On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers developed in a classic way this notion of a creative credulity which fashions is own object. He held that those things which religion cherishes in the way of objective elements, and in which religion has set down a record of itself, e.g., as “Word” (in such things as holy scriptures, dogmas, or doctrines), are not things which encounter human subjectivity from without or from above, addressing and claiming it. On the contrary, it is this subjectivity itself which is the source of all these things. Religious feeling, because it is so powerful, produces a need to communicate: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). This means, however, that there is a need for verbal expression, since this is the medium of communication. It is thus that the “music” of the heart is transposed into verbal form; it is—to use the famous phrase of Rudolf Otto—“schematized” by the Word. Dogma and doctrine are thus nothing but ossified religious feeling. It is of course possible that the record of this feeling may have a stimulating effect on the subjectivity of others, especially when what is recorded is such classical music as that of prophetic charismatics. But even here what is involved is solely and exclusively the outward-streaming subjectivity, the habitus of credulity.[1]

If the reader is familiar with Thomas Torrance’s concept of kata physin (according to the thing’s nature); Thielicke’s thinking on faith as an extramental reality will make sense. Torrance’s thinking, from the influence that science had on his theological endeavor, maintained that the object under consideration ought to be allowed to determine its own categories and emphases. We see this same sort of thinking in what Thielicke is telling us about faith; i.e. that faith ought to be thought from its reality as that is given to us in Godself in the humanity of Jesus Christ. That is, there isn’t an abstract psychology of faith towards God that can be thought apart from its givenness in Jesus Christ. This is the nexus, the [hypostatic] union between God and humanity/humanity and God wherein the ‘pipeline’ of faith as a relational correspondence between God and humanity, as that is first actualized in the faith of Christ for us, comes to fruition. There is a psychology to faith, but it isn’t, as Thielicke underscores vis-à-vis Schleiermacher, an immanence that is determined by an innate human capacity; instead, and again, it is a relational reality that inheres for us as that first inheres in the existential reality of the Father-Son bond in the Pneumatic Triune life. And we might want to avoid the language of ‘psychology’ altogether, insofar as that is derived from below rather than above.

In conclusion, this ought to confront the common and secular ways Christians, many Christians, think of ‘faith.’ It is prevalent, currently, in a certain theological movement currently underway on YouTube. Its purveyor, unfortunately, is making in-roads with many, and he is teaching them to think about soteriological issues in non-confessional and non-Dogmatic ways. Indeed, his conception of faith mirrors something like what Thielicke describes with reference to Schleiermacher; but it is even less “theological,” and more secular yet, than that.

 

[1] Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics: Volume 1: Foundations, edited by William H. Lazarus (Philadelphia: Fortess Press, 1966), 15-16.

No Compartment Complexes in the Christian Life: Contra Christian Apoliticism

There is a sentiment out there, among Christians, that Christians should not be involved in politics. But Christians aren’t on-again/off-again beings; we are either for Christ, all the way down, or we are against Him all the way down. The point: there are no abstract compartments in the Christian life. When this is applied to politics, or any realm, this means that it is not possible, if we are in fact political animals, to not be involved in politics. We can pretend like we aren’t involved in politics, but the reality will always be that we are inescapably embedded within them. As such, since there are no compartments available in the Christian complex, it is not possible to live this life as a Christian and not involve ourselves in this world. We will necessarily bring all of who we are [in Christ] to all aspects of this life; all the aspects we are inescapably related to as creatures with space and extension into the creaturely and concrete reality. Helmut Thielicke says it this way:

If the liberating significance of justification for all these dimensions of life is not indicated, the Christian is in danger of succumbing to schizophrenia. For he will live a life that is divided into different compartments. In his private life he will be a believer living, as it were, supernaturally in a kind of superworld. But as a man of the world he will follow the laws of the world. We know very well that highly unsatisfactory forms that such a divided, half-Christian humanity can take. We often refer to them—and not without cause—in terms of “hypocrisy.” The very same man who comes away from the solemnity of the divine worship on Sunday forgets it, or regards it as irrelevant, when he sits at his desk on Monday. His motto now is, “Business is business.” The heart may beat for God, it may honestly feel it is a redeemed heart, but it does not pump blood into the extremities. There are limbs which are cold and clammy, not yet connected to the heart.[1]

Clearly, this applies to more facets than politics; but politics seems to represent the most pressing application of this in our current moment. This is where the battle happens: i.e. when we attempt to be who we actually are in front of the world, not just the church. This is where witness for Jesus Christ obtains, as it is given friction through pressing up against the world that is not for Christ but against Him.

When we apply this to the political sphere there are Christians who are so sick of that whole enchilada that they simply want to shrink back and deny that their Christian life has anything to do with such evils. While this does represent the path of least resistance (for a moment), the reality remains that as humans we are inextricably related to politics. Like I have noted previously, the statement, Jesus is Lord!, is an undeniable political statement that forces the Christian to negotiate with His kingship; often in opposition to the kings and lords of this world.

In my view: Christians are well advised to constructively engage with politics in a way wherein the sanctity of human life is magnified above all else. Since I take all of human life to be grounded in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, it makes sense that I would see the sanctity of human life, and all its implications, as the primary point of political contact that a Christian can have in the world. It wouldn’t make sense, then, to promote political parties, no matter what country, that denigrates and have a low view (by way of policy) of human life. Since we live in a fallen world we will never find a perfect match between the Christian witness and the secular politik; but, in my view, we must do our best to support the parties that do indeed represent this sort of Christian witness in regard to the holiness of human life vis-à-vis the vicarious humanity of Christ.

[1] Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics: Volume 1: Foundations, edited by William H. Lazarus (Philadelphia: Fortess Press, 1966), xiv.

A Christmastide Theo-Anthropology: What Christmas Tells Us About What It Means To Be Human

Christmas time, for the Christian, is an intensity of time to reflect on the season of advent, and what it means for God’s Son to become human for us. At a surface level we don’t often ponder the deeper theological ramifications of what the incarnation of God entails for humankind. In this post we will get into the deeper thinking of Christmas’s implications with particular reference to the theological-anthropological import of the incarnation. Maybe you have never thought of Christmas from this perspective, but it is the sine qua non of what Christmas is all about. Christmas is about what Irenaeus writes: “The Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”[1] Do you see the implicit questions in Irenaeus’s statement? When he writes ‘what we are’ and ‘what He is Himself,’ these are the questions of theological-anthropology; points of reference that press us into asking what in fact we are as humans, and who Christ is as the human that we might become through union with Him.

Rene Descartes famously is known for his cogito ergo sum, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Helmut Thielicke, among others, notices that Descartes was among the very first to start thinking what it means to be human in abstraction from God. In other words, as Thielicke argues, prior to Descartes humanity was never thought of as a singular “I,” or in abstraction from relationship with God. In the “pre-critical” period, prior to Descartes’ turn to the subject, Thielicke notes that humanity, for the Christian, was only and always thought in and through its fellowship with God; indeed, this ‘ground of being’ was taken for granted, according to Thielicke. In order to grasp this seriously important point we will read along, at length, with Thielicke, as he sketches what it meant to be human pre-Descartes and post-Descartes. Following, we will apply some of the implications of Thielicke’s thinking towards Christmastide, and what it means to be human as found in concreto in Christ.

Second, concentration on the “I” and the “I think” tells us more. In the Middle Ages, as in Aquinas or Luther, self-knowledge means knowledge of the relationship to God. The nature of the self cannot be abstracted from the fact that it is created by God, that it has guiltily broken free from him, and that it is visited and redeemed by him. We are those who have a history with God. This is the point of our existence. The point is not to be found—primarily—in ontic qualities, e.g., the possession of reason or the upright stance. If the history with God constitutes our being, this being can only be defined relationally. It is a being under judgment and grace. Our worth is also relational. Ours is an alien dignity.

We can thus know who we are only as we know who and what God is. But we learn about God only as he reveals himself in Jesus Christ. We can know ourselves, therefore, only as we relate ourselves to this self-revelation. We find our humanity in the humanity of Jesus Christ. We see in him the original of humanity. We perceive our goal in a living person. We cannot say of ourselves who we are, for we cannot say of ourselves who God is. In this sense anthropology is always for Christians a part of theology.

Epigrammatically, one might say that we learn our nature through revelation. We are ourselves an object of faith. To try to know our nature by listing ontic qualities is thus pointless. As Norbert Wiener says bluntly and ironically, it leads us only to the definition of ourselves as “featherless bipeds,” puts us in the same category as plucked hens, kangaroos, and jerboas, and does not seize on anything specific to us. In contrast, Augustine’s Confessions is the classical expression of a Christian anthropology. This biography is in fact a history of divine leading. The underlying relationship finds formal expression in the fact that it conceived of as a prayer.[2]

In this instance we might as well be reading Karl Barth or Thomas Torrance; Thielicke like the Swissman and Scotsman, has a significant notion of the vicarious humanity of Christ as the fund of what it means to be human before God. What is significant for our purposes is to simply notice, along with Thielicke, that prior to Descartes’ turn to the subject anthropology, humanity could never be thought apart but only from Christ’s humanity for us. As an aside: Barth (and Torrance) is singled out as a modern theologian. But at the very base of Barth’s theology, in particular, his infamous doctrine of election is this return to the pre-modern theological anthropology that Thielicke is referring us to.

Even so, the joy of Christmas is that God has become human that we might become genuinely human before God; human in and through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. This is the Good News of Christmas: we were plunged into sub-humanity at the Fall (cf. Gen 3), but elevated to the ultimacy of what it means to be human as that is understood through the archetypal humanity of Jesus Christ. We have been elevated from the straw of the manger’s bed, to the Kingly throne-room of the Almighty. Christmas, as understood through this theological-anthropological lens, tells us that the sanctity and nobility of what it means to be human only comes as that is refracted in the light of God’s light in the face of Jesus Christ. He has invited us to partake of His humanity so we might feast with Him at the banqueting table of the Father. He has called us into relationship with Him; this is the pinnacle of what it means to be human according to the analogy of the incarnation: viz. we are thoroughly relational beings insofar as what it means to be human is to be participants in the eternally relational life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We have been brought into this eternal life; this is the good news of Christmastide. Maranatha.

 

[1] Irenaeus, “Preface,” in Against Heresies, book 5.

[2] Helmut Thielicke, Modern Faith&Thought (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 53.

The Logos is Greater than the Greek: The Resurrection of Language

This builds on my last post, and continues to reference Helmut Thielicke. As we had occasion to notice in the last post, Thielicke helped us understand how the New Testament writers, and early Christian theologians (at their best) ‘used’ Greek philosophical grammar in order to help articulate the invisible God made visible in the mystery of the Incarnation. We came to a better understanding, I hope, of just how world-breaking and category smashing the sui generis nature of the Incarnation was (and is) for the world’s trajectory and telos at large. We came to understand how the profane categories of the pagan world could be utilized in a way, under the recreative pressure of God become human, that reifies or redefines the original meaning of said categories and words to the point that they now have a heavenly rather than secular meaning. If we are to think from the analogy of the Incarnation, and we should, it would be something like this: people often confuse Jesus as a simple man (and not the God-man) because He clearly was and is a man; so He looks profane like the rest of us. But He clearly is not profane; He is Holy God come in the flesh. He has made what was once sub-human, human, by re-conciling profane humanity with His Holy resurrected humanity; the sort of humanity that now can eternally and fully abide in peace with God. Likewise, this sort of thing happens with profane language. It can be ‘resurrected’ under the pressurized meaning that comes from ‘above’ in God’s Self-revelation, such that the profane language, say of the philosophers, can be commandeered, and given a completely new context and referent point for its meaning.

Thielicke, sticking with his previous example of the Stoic concept of Logos found reanimated in the Gospel of John 1.1 writes this:

before the Johannine Prologue could formulate the statement that the Word was made flesh, Greek philosophy, especially Stoicism, had played with the logos concept and given it cosmological significance as world reason or the subjective ratio that is analogous to the cosmic logos. When the Prologue adopts the term to describe the mystery of the incarnation, John strips it of its ideological content and uses it as an empty shell, as mere synonym for the Word of God. He thus avoids defining the phenomenon of Christ by the Stoic concept and in this way integrating Christ into the sphere of Greek thought. The reverse happens. What Logos means in John’s Gospel is defined by Christ, i.e., by what follows in the ensuing chapters. In second-century Apologists like Justin Martyr, however, we find the very opposite. To make Christianity understandable to those stamped by the Greek tradition, to bring it closer to them, an attempt was made to show that the Greek philosophers were in a sense precursors of Christ. What they said about the logos contained serious particles of truth and indications of what Christ would reveal in fulness and perfection as the manifestation of the world logos. The apologetic aim was that those influenced by Greek thought should not find in Christ something absolutely new and hence scandalous and offensive (1 Cor. 1:23), but a confirmation of their own thinking and a transcending and completing of their own fragmentary knowledge. This missionary view presupposed the need to accommodate the Christian message to Greek thought and hence to define Christ by the Greek logos, in contradistinction from John’s Gospel. Clearly, many essentials of the gospel, e.g., the folly of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18; 2:6ff) or miracles, fell by the wayside with this procedure. The logos concept loses its servant role as a conceptual instrument and takes on a normative and governing role. Christ is subsumed under the concept and becomes a mere illustration. We thus have here a classical example of the revolt of the conceptual means. In such cases it is impossible to extract the mere form of the term and cast off the material intention. The form becomes the content. This is the hermeneutical difficulty we constantly encounter.[1]

This reality, what Helmut is referring us to, is pretty much what has animated me for my whole blogging career. People’s failure to properly reify theological language and conceptuality UNDER God’s Self-revelation results in the sort of example Thielicke gives us with reference to the imposition of the Greek over the Revelation. I believe much of classical theism’s heritage, particularly the kind that developed in the Aristotelian mediaeval period, and what was unloaded into much of so called classical Calvinism (post reformed orthodoxy) [and Arminianism, and much of Lutheranism] went awry at just the point where this ‘translation’ process has unfortunately favored the Greek over the Revelation of God. The intention, in the best of cases, has been to not allow the Greek undo weight; but the reality is that the Greek has often been given undo weight. When the theologian’s conversation about God has language like simplicity, impassibility, immutability, eternality so on and so forth constantly attending and framing it—before language like Father-Son, triune Love, Incarnation etc.—we know almost immediately that we have fallen prey to what Thielicke identifies as a negative.

[1] Helmut Thielicke, Modern Faith & Thought, trans. by Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 11-12.