Knowledge of God and His Holiness Brings Knowledge of Self: Learning How to Live a Counter-Cultural Life from the Culture of Heaven

I have been thinking lately about how easily we, as Christians, are seduced into the ways of the ‘world’; even when we are vigilantly attempting to live sanctified lives unto God. It is seemingly impossible to not be enculturated, at some level, to the point that our guard is taken down and the world system then seeps into the pores of our lives such that we become blind to the stark reality of God’s otherness and holiness; the holiness that He requires us to live into: ‘Be Holy as I am Holy.’ So what’s our hope? Can we have a daily knowledge of God which keeps us from being sucked into the ‘ways of the world,’ such that we have the capacity to not just resist, but discern the various snares set for us by the enemy of our souls?

John Calvin in the very opening of his Institute of the Christian Religion famously offers his thoughts on knowledge of God and knowledge of self. I think his words are a helpful way to think about our position before God, and how it is that we come to have a genuine knowledge of ourselves; just as we come to have a genuine knowledge of God through union with Christ. I want to suggest that it is as we inhabit this frame, on a daily basis, that we will come to have the proper perspective for doing ‘battle’ in a world system that seeks, at every turn, to take us captive to do its will rather than God’s. Calvin writes (in the 1541, French version of his Institute):

For this pride is rooted in all of us, that it always seems to us that we are just and truthful, wise and holy, unless we are convicted by clear evidence of our unrighteousness, lies, madness, and uncleanness. For we are not convinced if we look only at ourselves and not equally at the Lord, who is the unique rule and standard to which this judgment must be conformed. For since we are all naturally inclined to hypocrisy, an empty appearance of righteousness quite satisfies us instead of the truth; and since there is nothing at all around us which is not greatly contaminated, what is a little less dirty is received by us as very pure, so long as we are happy with the limits of our humanity which is completely polluted. Just as the eye which looks at nothing but black-colored things judges something that is a poor white color, or even half-gray, to be the whitest thing in the world. It is also possible to understand better how much we are deceived in our measure of the powers of the soul, by an analogy from physical sight. For if in broad daylight we look down at the earth, or if we look at the things around us, we think that our vision is very good and clear. But when we lift our eyes directly to the sun, the power which was evident on the earth is confounded and blinded by such a great light, so that we are obliged to admit that the good vision with which we look at earthly things is very weak when we look at the sun. The same thing happens when we measure our spiritual abilities. For as long as we do not consider more than earthly matters we are very pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, and flatter and praise ourselves, and thus come close to considering ourselves half divine. But if we once direct our thought to the Lord and recognize the perfection of His righteousness, wisdom, and power (the rule and standard by which we must measure), what pleased us before under the guise of righteousness will appear dirtied with very great wickedness; what deceived us so wondrously under the guise of wisdom will appear to be extreme madness; what had the appearance of power will be shown to be miserable weakness: so it is when what seemed most perfect in us is compared with God’s purity.[1]

Calvin’s thought here is a prescient word for our current moment in world history. As Christians, in the main, we have firmly planted our feet on the slippery slope of cultural appropriation to the point that genuine encounter with the living God has become fleeting; instead we typically end up encountering self-projections who we have conflated with divinity.

Some may read these words from Calvin, and read: Legalism or nomism. But if that’s the conclusion then Calvin’s point is only proven, not repudiated. Christians are so afraid of being legalists, that they’ve lost sight of the demand of God to be holy as He is Holy. Christians, unfortunately, have wrongly read legalism and God’s holiness and purity together; but this couldn’t be further from the reality. Legalism is a man-made standard, the very standard Calvin is attempting to marginalize and undercut, that elevates human-centered wisdom and righteousness to divine status, and then, if at all, attempts to live up to this artificial standard to achieve favor before God and men. But this is all wrong, as Calvin so insightfully identifies. God’s holiness is sui generis, it is of another sort; another world even. God’s holiness is set apart by His eternal Life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in interpenetrative union. This is the knowledge that sets us free to see ourselves as we are; this is the knowledge that undoes our artificial systems of right and wrong. It is a knowledge of God that sets us free to see the world as it is, as God sees it for us in Christ; a world that, in God’s economy has come to have a cruciform shape, such that to think God rightly first requires a daily reckoning of ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in and from Christ.

It is possible to maneuver the terrain of the current world system as a Christian, and not be fully sublimated by the seductive siren calls of its minions of “light.” But it requires the sort of knowledge Calvin alerts us to. It requires a daily battle that we ourselves have no strength to fight; so it requires that we actively recognize our passive posture before God, with the hope that He, in His mercy, will supply us with the grace sufficient for us to see as He sees. It seems that, by-and-large, the church, even the so called evangelical churches, is failing at this in radical ways. If we are going to be ‘saved’ we must have to do with the real and living God, not with a god who is a manifest destiny of our own making. This is the challenge that Calvin leaves us with: Are we going to battle to seek God while He may be found; are we going to wake up each morning, and reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ? It is only in this Spirit empowered mode of living coram Deo that the Christian will have the resource to be an ‘overcomer’ rather than someone overcome by this world system.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 24.


What Impact Does Personal Holiness Have Upon Our Knowledge of God?

In light of the Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum posts I have really been contemplating what might have motivated my strong reaction to finding out about, in detail, the nature of their relationship. But it now goes beyond just that situation, more generally I have been thinking about how personal holiness impacts knowledge of God; does it? The following are some sample passages that indeed have been present in my life, and might help explain why I did have the response I had (to Barth/CvK); but more importantly these passages get into how sanctification, or being ‘set apart’ unto God, in participation with his holiness, might serve as the basis through which we, as God’s children, might experience the same type of koinonial knowledge of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that they do in their interpenetrative relationship (ours of course will always be a knowledge of God contingent upon the grace of God grounded in the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ).

14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. Hebrews 12:14

15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” I Peter 1:15-16

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! Matthew 6:22-23

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. I Corinthians 1:13

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. I John 1:5-10

John Calvin helps us to contemplate further upon what it means to have knowledge of a Holy God; and what that holiness does to humanity as we attempt to stand before Him in all our frailty and wantonness:

. . . As long as we do not look beyond the earth, being quite content with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, we flatter ourselves most sweetly, and fancy ourselves all but demigods. Suppose we but once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and to ponder his nature, and how completely perfect are his righteousness, wisdom, and power—the straightedge to which we must be shaped. Then, what masquerading earlier as righteousness was pleasing in us will soon grow filthy in its consummate wickedness. What wonderfully impressed us under the name of wisdom will stink in its very foolishness. What wore the face of power will prove itself the most miserable weakness. That is, what in us seems perfection itself corresponds ill to the purity of God.[1]

I think all orthodox Christians will confess the holiness of God, and our station before such holiness as weak and frail. And Calvin helps drive this reality home for us; he wants to get us past any type of projection-God; a god we extrapolate from ourselves bedded in and from a purely horizontal plane.

But my question still remains: what does personal participatory fellowshipping holiness have to do with our knowledge of God; does it? In the Barth scenario I concluded, with many, it seems, that there is an ex opera operato nature to human witness to God. In other words, the objective reality of the Gospel itself is not contingent upon anything else but its own reality; i.e. it can be borne witness to by imperfect vessels (which is why God must accommodate himself to us, for example). But my question pushes deeper than this, really. If God is holy, and we are not, then how can we have any hope for knowledge of God; and more significantly, does our true (even if analogical) knowledge of God depend, at some level, upon our own personal holiness—meaning, as the Hebrews passage intimates “without holiness no one will see the Lord.” What my question is asking is: if we are living disobedient lives to God, if we secretly or openly are living in sin before God without repentance, is it possible to peer into the holy of holies and see the face of God in Christ? Or is our humanity so overshadowed by God’s objective humanity in Jesus Christ that our personal holiness has nothing to do with it?

Some, in response to the Barth scenario, have lifted up (and rather snidely in some cases): King David, Balaam’s Ass, Jonah, King Solomon et al. But this completely misses the point of the question I have in regard to personal holiness. Yes, these examples, in varying degrees (given the fact that none of their stories are the same, exactly) illustrate how God’s message is not ultimately contingent upon the messenger; or their “personal holiness.” But what I’m thinking about, instead, is what impact someone’s attitude towards God has upon their ability to genuinely know God. The Calvin quote gets into this: there seems to be a necessity for humility and repentance, in an ongoing mode, before God in order for us to have a growing and flourishing knowledge of God. In other words, knowledge of God isn’t simply an objective thing, it is a subjective reality. This is where some would find fault in Barth’s theological-anthropology; i.e. that he so objectivizes humanity in the humanity of Christ that there is no space left to think about issues like personal holiness. That all of reality is so taken up within and oriented by the objective/subjective humanity of Jesus Christ that all that is required for knowledge of God is to, crudely put, annex ourselves to Jesus’s life as a kind of cipher. The critique of Barth is that he so metaphysizes humanity, that physical humanity, even if understood from within the elect humanity of Christ, has no real ground or room for our corresponding humanity to his; that personal holiness has no bearing on whether we can have a genuine knowledge of God.

Even without appealing to the medieval tripartite faculty psychology (i.e. heart/affection, mind, will), in regard to a theological anthropology, I believe this is where a concept of biblical affections has something to say. As II Corinthians 3 notes: “You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” The Apostle Paul believed that the orientation of our hearts has much to do with our response to God; with our ability to actually see God, such that the veils over our mind’s eye is removed through the new heart of God in Christ that we are given in the recreation/resurrection. If we live in contradiction to this by living in constant unrepentant disobedience, it would seem that we are attempting to know God through our old hearts of stone rather than the new heart of soft flesh towards God.

These are the questions and issues I have floating throw my mind and heart; and this is why my response to the Barth and von Kirschbaum relationship was what it was. I had these convictions, and have been developing them for a long time, much before I read the Christiane Tietz essay on Barth. But I don’t think these types of questions are moralistic or legalistic; they are questions that naturally arise from the text of Scripture as it bears witness to the Holy Living God revealed in Jesus Christ. I don’t think we get to decide how the nature of that relationship works, nor what is required; He does. I realize that indeed does sound moralistic, but if it is then; well I’ll let you decide.


[1] John Calvin, Institutes 1.II.2, ed. McNeil, 38-9.

What Does Holiness Have to Do With Theological Reflection and Epistemology?

The author to the Hebrews writes this: “14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” We might want to read this as a purely eschatological reality, but even in the context it is clear that it is a present admonition. It is an eschatological reality, of course, as that breaks in on us from the eschaton of God’s Triune life; but its experienced reality is one that comes through walking in a submitted and repentant life of obedience and faith in God in Christ. In other words, and this is something I once argued back in a talk I once gave in the past, if we want to genuinely behold God in Christ, holiness is required. The Good News, of course, is that this has been provided for in Jesus Christ; as we participate in and from his life for us which is seated at the right hand of the Father, we indeed behold God; we experience tastes of beatific vision now. This, I think, is a basic aspect for accomplishing the theological task for all Christians; that we think God from the holiness that his life provides for us. This is where a genuine theological epistemology is grounded for the Christian, mediated for us in and through the set-apart life and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ for us. But without living in a submitted life, one of ongoing repentance before God (a theme so important for TF Torrance’s theology i.e. repentant thinking), this truly hampers (or potentially negates) the work of the theologian; both personally and collectively for the church.

There are geniuses among us; it’s possible to construct genius sounding theological constructs, and to produce materially rich sounding theological grammars. But one must ask: At what point is genius doing the work, and at what point is actual engagement with the holy living God taking place? This is a question I will be contemplating for years to come. Is it possible to be living in constant unrepentant sin, and at the same time be thinking with and from the holy Triune-life of God?

The following is a post I wrote some years ago, but it touches on the issue of holiness and Christian theological reflection. I thought I would share it again as a kind of kick off for me in regard to contemplating the relationship of holiness to theological reflection and epistemology.

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 the 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.