God’s Free Electing Grace in Christ Concentration

I will simply refer the reader to a post I once wrote with reference to ‘freewill and human agency’ in the salvific reality. That post dovetails, quite nicely, with the post I am setting out to write thusly. In this post, rather than referring to Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth’s, greatest and best Anglophone student, we will, indeed, be referring to Barth’s explication of the unconditional nature of God’s grace; with particular reference to that bewitching doctrine known as predestination. The simple point I want to drive home through this writing is that: God’s grace is contingent on nothing else other than God’s freedom to be gracious pro nobis. In other words, I will contend, with Barth’s help, that God’s grace is gratia aliena (alien grace) that is extra nos (outside of us); but that comes to us and transforms us from the inside out with the result that we come to have the capacity to be for God rather than against Him (with a properly Christological conditioning). I want the reader to understand, though, that this grace is just as primal as when ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (cf. Gen 1.1). In other words, I want people to think of creation itself as funded by God’s grace, and to understand that even so called ‘nature’ is in fact an aspect of God’s grace to be for and with us rather than outwith us. My hope is that the reader might understand that both the original creation and the re-creation, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is ‘all grace, all the way down’; and that there is no abstract or independent notion of ‘nature’ operative in the created order. One implication the reader should take away from this is that sin (and the broader genus of evil) becomes a surd in this sort of schema. That is that the irrationality, but more significantly, the disaffectivity of sin in a world that is funded purely by the inner-life of God’s triune life of covenant-grace makes absolutely no sense. My hope is that as the reader reads the passage from Barth (that I am about to share) that all of these notions will fill their mind’s eye in such a way that they are left in bewilderment by both the un-reality of sin, and the wonderment of God’s superabundant and overflowing graciousness; even as that serves as the fund of His life for all of creation in His election in the Son to be with us as the man from Nazareth. With this prologue in mind, let’s read along with Barth about God’s grace:

The specific proof of this thesis can be introduced connectedly only in and with the doctrine of predestination grounded upon it. Our preliminary concern is to show how right and necessary it is to set up this thesis at the very outset as a kind of working hypothesis.

We may establish first a point which all serious conceptions of the doctrine have in common. They all find the nerve of the doctrine, the peculiar concern which forces them to present and assert it, in the fact that it characterises the grace of God as absolutely free and thereby divine. In electing, God decides according to His good-pleasure, which as such is holy and righteous. And because He who elects is constant and omnipotent and eternal, the good-pleasure by which He decides, and the decision itself, are independent of all other decisions, of all creaturely decisions. His decision precedes every creaturely decision. Over against all creaturely self-determination it is predetermination—prae-destinatioGrace is the divine movement and condescension on the basis of which men belong to God and God to men. Whether offered or received, whether self-revealing and reconciling or apprehended and active in faith, it is God’s dealing, God’s will and God’s work, God’s lordship, God Himself in all His sovereignty. Grace cannot be called forth or constrained by any claim or merit, by any existing or future condition, on the part of the creature. Nor can it be held up or rendered nugatory and ineffective by any contradiction or opposition on the part of the creature.

But in its being and in its operation its necessity is within itself. In face of it there is no place for the self-glorifying or the self-praise of the creature. It comes upon the creature as absolute miracle, and with absolute power and certainty. It can be received by the creature only where there is a recognition of utter weakness and unworthiness, an utter confidence in its might and dignity, and an utter renunciation of wilful self-despair. What the creature cannot claim or appropriate for itself, it cannot of itself renounce when it does partake of it, nor can it even will to deprive itself of it. The decision by which it receives and affirms grace takes place in fulfillment of the prior divine decision. It cannot, then, be asserted over against God as a purely creaturely achievement, nor can it be revoked. As the fulfilment of that prior divine decision, it redounds per se to the praise of the freedom of grace: of its independence both of the majesty and of the misery of our human volition and achievement; of the sovereignty in which it precedes and thus fully over-rules our human volition and achievement. All serious conceptions of the doctrine (more or less exactly and successfully, and with more or less consistency in detail) do at least aim at this recognition; at the freedom of the grace of God. We can put it more simply: They aim at an understanding of grace as grace. For what kind of grace is it that is conditioned and constrained, and not free grace and freely electing grace? What kind of a God is it who in any sense of the term has to be gracious, whose grace is not His own personal and free good-pleasure.[1]

On the negative side, any inkling of any type of Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, or synergism is defeated before the creation ever gets started. If creation’s very fund, and humanity as the pinnacle of that creation (as Christ is first humanity as the imago Dei), is begotten by the grace of God, it only follows that all of creation (protology), and subsequent re-creation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (eschatology) is an event of God’s free choice to be for the creation in the most primal of ways. If we conceive of God’s grace vis-à-vis creation under these terms, a competition between an unconditional grace and autonomous nature never obtains. In other words, as Barth develops elsewhere, if God’s covenant life of grace is the inner-reality of the created order, then notions of an abstract nature or creation always remain in the realm of das Nichtigein the realm of the reprobate of nothingness that evil and darkness in fact are in God’s Kingdom. selah

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[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §32-33: Study Edition (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 17-18.  

Contra Mundum: A Riposte to Leighton Flowers’ ‘Provisionism’, the Classical Calvinists and Arminians, and the Rest of the ‘Latins’: Human Agency in Salvation

In the predominately Calvinist world many Christian people, especially conservatives, inhabit online, this post might not have much interface with you. Indeed, what we will be considering might be more demographically relevant than it is conceptually. My guess is that Millennial and younger generations will not really see this as very pertinent to their Christianity. I mean most, Millennial and under, have simply been given a theological entrée, that if they are theologically astute and ‘serious,’ if they are conservative and evangelical, has been flavored with TULIP petals and Dutch chocolates; not to mention Latin cigars and German beer. But be that as it may, I wanted to touch on something I just said I would; I want to engage further with the ‘traditionalism,’ or what Leighton Flowers calls ‘Provisionism,’ when it comes to things salvific. You see, what Leighton is re-iterating for his Southern Baptist tribespeople, and anyone else who will listen, is something I grew up with myself (as a Conservative Baptist pastor’s kid); only we called it “Biblicism.” Let me offer something of a sketch of Flowers’ offering, at least one part of it, the part that has to do with his view of human agency in the appropriation of salvation; and then after I will offer the Evangelical Calvinist alternative.

What will make some of this difficult, in regard to presenting Flowers’ views, is that most of them are articulated via podcasts, and interviews he’s done with guests (he has written some books, so maybe someday I’ll read and engage with those as well); so we will have to rely on my recall and ability to accurately re-present (via paraphrase) what was communicated in said podcast. Let me focus on a podcast that Flowers recently did (they are videoed on YouTube as well) with Augustine expert, Ken Wilson. In this podcast the basic thesis was this: It wasn’t until Augustine entered the picture that Christian theology/soteriology received its deterministic shape. Wilson’s argument is that Augustine is at fault for introducing the notion that later Martin Luther would call (in response to Erasmus) The Bondage of the Will. That is, that original sin entered the picture, and as a result all of humanity became guilty and noetically and volitionally impotent to respond to God’s free offer of salvation. The argument went further, per Wilson (with Flowers’ approval): Wilson argues that because Augustine was really more of a rhetorician and apologist, even a popular one, that his teachings, especially his later teachings gained the traction that they did. In the process, as Wilson contends, Pelagius’ ideas on human freedom for or against God were besmirched, and as such Pelagius became a ‘boogeyman’ and the arch-heresiarch of the Church catholic (and Catholic). Wilson, and Flowers following, seek to re-boot Pelagius’ view on human freedom, and apparently his understanding on the ‘naturalized’ will as orthodox; thus, displacing Augustine’s view, and placing it in the heretical bin of history instead.

The claim is also made that prior to Augustine, the Eastern church, and the church in the first three hundred years, in general, operated in the mold of Pelagius’ viewpoint when it came to human free agency. That it was Augustine’s introduction of Manichean-Gnostic-Platonist inspired conceptual matter into Christian teaching that has set the Western church on the trajectory it took ever since his synthesis of such things. I think though, it is very important to note that the early church, pre-Augustine, really did not operate with the notion of libertarian freedom that Wilson, Flowers and others in this community are asserting. For one thing, this would be philosophically anachronistic, but more importantly what we find in folks like Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria is a heavy emphasis on a Christologically based notion of human freedom for and thus from God. In other words, Athanasius offered a view that bases human freedom on the freedom God has offered us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ (see his book On the Incarnation). Cyril of Alexandria, similarly, sees human freedom for God in salvation, grounded in a thick understanding on participation with God through union with Christ; again, emphasizing our participation in and from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ (see Donald Fairbairn’s work on Cyril in particular). Not to mention, John Calvin himself, known as the ‘theologian of the Spirit,’ places weighted emphasis on salvation only being found in Christ alone and our being united to Christ by the Spirit (think of his so called duplex gratia or double grace soteriology, and emphasis on union with Christ unio cum Christo). All of this is in agreement with the Apostle Paul’s teaching and understanding of human freedom for God (see Rom 6–8 and II Cor 8.9). Indeed, Paul’s teaching on the vicarious humanity of Christ, and thus human freedom for God in Christ, is most evident in a passage like Gal 2.20; as we translate that (as we should) with the subjective (V the objective) genitive. If we translate this passage thusly it reads (as the KJV correctly does):

20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (KJV)

ζῶ δὲ οὐκέτι ἐγώ, ζῇ δὲ ἐν ἐμοὶ Χριστός: ὃ δὲ νῦν ζῶ ἐν σαρκί, ν πστει ζ τ το υο το θεο τοῦ ἀγαπήσαντός με καὶ παραδόντος ἑαυτὸν ὑπὲρ ἐμοῦ. (GNT)

I have emboldened the language that serves our purposes; i.e. ‘the faith of the Son of God.’ We don’t trust God from our own resources; there is no ‘created grace’ that we are given to believe from in abstraction from Christ’s priestly and mediatorial trust for us. For the Apostle Paul, and much of the early church (pre-Augustine, and even post-Augustine in spite of Augustine and his Latin theology) freedom for God has a decidedly Christ concentrated grounding to it; such that when freedom is used in the New Testament it always already has reference to what Christ has accomplished for us as our High Priest, and the Greater Adam (think first and second Adam motif cf. Rom 5). In other words, the Wilson/Flowers thesis, in regard to human freedom for or against God in the early Church, and more importantly as found in the New Testament witness isn’t correlative with the actual reality. For the Apostle Paul we never think of humanity apart from Christ’s resurrected humanity, and our union with His humanity by grace (see Rom 6).

Ironically, Wilson, Flowers et al. continue to operate with the same sort of dualistic and abstract conception of humanity that they claim the Calvinists and Augustine himself did (which they do). They are right to find certain problems in Augustine’s understanding of salvation. They are wrong to offer up Pelagius as a shining star for understanding human freedom (he is the heretic that he has been rightly labeled as). And they are wrong to think there is some notion of libertarian free agency that has some sort of free-standing ontological status of its own; a status that can be de-linked and gifted to humanity’s ‘accidents’ as a means by which the mass of humanity can either say yes or no to God by a capacity they have sovereignly been given by God—we might call it, in reminiscence of Pelagius’s understanding: a ‘naturalized grace.’ Next post I will push further into the irony of Wilson’s and Flower’s usage of Augustine’s soteriological or abstract conception of humanity (labelled by TF Torrance as ‘The Latin Heresy’), and how they deploy that just as readily as Augustine did.

P.S. Make sure you click on all the hyper-links I have strewn throughout this post. They will lead you to pertinent posts that help to develop and establish my thesis further.

 

Human Agency in Salvation

gardeneden

This is not the post I was going to post, which I noted in my last post, because this is a post I wrote years ago; I was going to post a fresh post on this subject, and I still will. In lieu of that at the moment this will have to suffice; I think it suffices quite well, to be honest. I find it interesting that Calvinists are never satisfied with responses like this; I suppose that makes sense, since they are slavishly committed to a certain metaphysics and theory of causation. But please dear Calvinist, don’t assert that this somehow just sounds like Arminianism; that’s about as honest as me asserting that you aren’t committed to Aristotelian Christianity, when we know you are.

Something that continues to shape theological constructs in Christian theology is the nexus that is present between God’s Sovereignty and Human autonomy/responsibility/freedom. Depending on which side the theological system leans toward will help to determine where that system will find its moorings within the history of ideas and interpretation. Obviously this nexus, as I just cryptically described it finds its most blatant expressions in either Calvinism or Arminianism (and/or nowadays Open Theism). In general (and in oversimplification), the classical Calvinists are afraid if God’s sovereignty is not absolutely emphasized that our theology will end up in heresy, in Pelagianism; and God will become held captive by His own creation. On the other hand (and in oversimplification), the classical Arminian or Open Theist fears that if human freedom (sometimes=’free-will’) or responsibility is over-determined and objectified by God’s sovereignty that it no longer truly can remain HUMAN freedom, and now God has become the author of everything that happens (meticulously so), even sin.

Thankfully the quagmire noted above, while dealing with real and material concerns, is not where we have to preside; in fact we ought not to dwell there too long. The above (as I oversimply described it), is a result of engaging in negative theology; it is thinking philosophically about God and humanity, and it is not (by way of method) thinking from the center of God’s life, Jesus Christ. If we think from God’s Self-revelation, and allow that to interpret how we think about the ‘union’ between God’s sovereignty and Human Freedom, we will think directly and methodologically from the Hypostatic Union of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ. This is exactly how, of course, Karl Barth maneuvers through this. He gives objective primacy to Jesus Christ, and allows Him to determine the categories through which we should think about God’s sovereignty and Human freedom. Of course, then, as a consequent, what it means to be truly human will be given its understanding from what it means to be human for Christ. Christ’s humanity, by nature, is given shape and reality by its determinate reality as the second person of the Trinity, as the Son. We, by participation in His humanity by the Holy Spirit, and not by nature but grace and adoption, have a Divinely shaped humanity that like Christ’s can only truly be for God (which is the terminus or end/purpose of what it means to be human and free). Prior to hearing from R. Michael Allen’s commentary on Barth in this regard, and prior to hearing from Karl Barth himself; let’s first hear from the Apostle Paul:

15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! 16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. ~Romans 6:15-18

If Jesus’ humanity for us (in his active obedience—the Reformed concept) is what it means to be objectively human, if he obeyed for us; then we have been set free and opened up for what it means to be truly human. In other words, there is no other way to be truly human except for the way that that is given ultimate shape in and through Christ’s vicarious humanity for all.

Michael Allen will open Barth up further for us, and then I will close with a couple of Karl Barth quotes. Interestingly, Allen places his discussion on this in his category of Providence, in his Karl Barth Reader that I take his thinking from. Allen writes of Barth:

[B]arth’s attention to providence is attuned to ethical concerns, namely, to sketching out the shape of human agency. While he is criticized by many as christomonist – as giving insufficient space to creaturely agency – his dogmatic approach is not meant to supplant, but to situate human agency. In his ethical reflections, he will address the crucial concept of freedom, following the early Reformed tradition in affirming real human freedom while defining it as freedom ‘within the limits which correspond to its creaturely existence (III/3.61). Barth affirms what seems contradictory to those who believe human and divine agency exist in a competitive fashion: ‘That the creature may continue to be by virtue of the divine preserving means that it may itself be actual within its limits: actual, and therefore not a mere appearance engendered by some heavenly or hellish power; itself actual, and therefore not an emanation from the being of God … God preserves the creatures in the reality which is distinct from His own. It is relative to and dependent upon His reality, but in its relativity and dependence autonmous towards it, existing because it owes its existence to Him, as subject with which He can have dealings and which have dealings with Him’ (III/3.86). Barth argues that divine providence in no way rules out creaturely agency, though it does locate such human freedom within the economy of grace. Barth will even speak of human autonomy, though he will always maintain that it is an autonomy given by God – a counter-intuitive sort of autonomy if ever there were one. [emboldening mine, that is Barth being quoted by Allen] [R. Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: And Introduction and Reader, 134 Nook version.]

And here are a few more quotes from Barth to help illustrate what Allen just sketched:

[…] the perfection of God’s giving of himself to man in the person of Jesus Christ consists in the fact that far from merely playing with man, far from merely moving or using him, far from dealing with him as an object, this self giving sets man up as a subject, awakens him to genuine individuality and autonomy, frees him, makes him a king, so that in his rule the kingly rule of God himself attains form and revelation. How can there be any possible rivalry here, let alone usurpation? How can there be any conflict between theonomy and autonomy? How can God be jealous or man self assertive? [CD I I/2, p. 179]

Genuine freedom as it is realized in Jesus is not a freedom from God but a freedom for God (and, with that, a freedom for other human beings). ‘ To the creature God determined, therefore, to give an individuality an autonomy, not that these gifts should be possessed outside Him, let alone against Him, but for him and within his kingdom; not in rivalry with his sovereignty but for its confirming and glorifying’ [CD I I/2, p. 178].

Ultimately, what is being argued is that there is no other ontological category known as ‘freedom’ by which humanity can operate. Even if human freedom, and I believe it is (in honoring the Creator/creature distinction), is independently contingent, it is still contingent and derived from God’s independent non-contingent freedom which is derived from nowhere but from His own Self determined, Free, and Triune life. If creation is the external reality of the Covenant of which God’s life is its inner ground – and I believe it is! – then creaturely freedom can only be understood from this position, from the purpose that is ec-statically given to it by Christ Himself; who according to Col. 1.15-20 is the point and purpose and ground of all of creation’s reality. Note:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Jesus has realized, for us, in His resurrection and ascension what it truly means to be human. To be genuinely and humanly free, means to be free for God. The rest of creation recognizes this (on this earth day, ironically), us humans ought to repent and recognize this too!

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that  the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. ~Romans 8.18-25