Incarnation

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

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

The Enigma of Sin’s Origin

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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To Be ‘In Christ’ and the Bigger Picture of Salvation

In Christ, this little phrase is ubiquitous throughout the writings of St. Paul. If you are a Bible reader this phrase, ‘in Christ,’ will be very familiar to you, and maybe also very encouraging to you, if not somewhat mysterious sounding. Indeed, there is mystery to it (think of John Calvin’s unio mystica), but not so much that we cannot press into it with very fruitful and edifying understanding imagodeitowards our own spiritual formational understanding of what it means to be children of God.

Karl Barth has a very insightful way of understanding what this phrase means, and it is related, of course!, to his unique doctrine of election; it is also related, more generally, to a doctrine of creation and theological-anthropology. Barth is concerned to highlight the reality that Jesus Christ himself is indeed the ‘first-fruits’ of God’s creation, in his vicarious humanity for us (see Col. 1.15ff); he is concerned to show that Jesus Christ is really what it looks like to be a human being, and not concerned in abstraction, but concerned in the concrete reality of His humanity serving as the ground of human life and the imago Dei who humans were originally created in as images of the image (and now recreated in, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ).

This makes Barth’s conception unique, not because his conception of Christ’s vicarious humanity is outside the bounds of historic Christian orthodox teaching, but unique instead because Barth worked within the Reformed tradition. For the Reformed tradition in general to be ‘in Christ’ relative to soteriological thinking has to do with declarative reality for the elect; it has to do with the elect’s positional relationship to God, as God declares them to be forensically justified in and through the penal substitutionary work of Christ. This is different from Barth’s emphasis. Barth (and TF Torrance et. al.), as I noted above, has more to do with ontological reality; that is, what reality, for Barth, stands as the ultimate ground of what it means to be human? Answering this question, for Barth, is to answer the question: what does it mean to be ‘in Christ?’ Barth’s response is this:

“In Christ” means that in him we are reconciled to God, in him we are elect from eternity, in him we are called, in him we are justified and sanctified, in him our sin is carried to the grave, in his resurrection our death is overcome, with him our life is hid with Christ in God, in him everything that has to be done for us has already been done, has previously been removed and put in its place, in him we are children in the Father’s house, just as he is by nature. All that has to be said about us can be said only by describing and explaining our existence in him; not by describing and explaining it as an existence we might have in and for itself…. For by Christ we will never be anything else than just what we are in Christ. And when the Holy Spirit draws and takes us right into the reality of revelation by doing what we cannot do, by opening our eyes and ears and hearts, he does not tell us anything except that we are in Christ by Christ.[1]

Barth’s concern is bigger than simply being concerned with a doctrine of salvation; he is more focused on the big picture of God’s good creation. Yes, sin entered the picture and humanity’s plight went wild in the wilderness of that sin, but sin was not a subversion of God’s plan nor its dictate. In other words, humanity always already had a ground and location apart from sin, and that ground and reality was, like we noted earlier, the humanity of Jesus Christ, whose image humanity was originally created in and recreated ‘in Christ.’

Barth’s conceiving, then, has more to do with ontology and humanity’s orientation relative to God in that ontology. Enclosed within that reality is where a doctrine of salvation and/or soteriology can be premised and built upon, not the other way around (as the Augustinian method has it, the method upon which Reformed-orthodox theology is built).

[1] Karl Barth, CD I/2, 240 cited by George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), Loc. 4577, 4583 Kindle.

Knowing God by God in Christ in Incarnation and Resurrection

Thomas Torrance has made the point that the Incarnation of God is a novum, that there in fact is no genuine analogy from creation from whence we can conceive of such a mysterious thing as God become man. As such, if we are going to think scientifically about God, and in particular, about God become man, that we will allow that reality, that revelation itself unfold and impose upon us its resurrectionown measures and categories of understanding from which we will come to a genuine knowledge of God. What this means then is that we will be unable to start from a general theory of God and attempt to integrate that with who we see revealed in Jesus Christ; in other words, natural theology will not work, instead we will have to work from what TF Torrance calls an epistemological inversion, meaning that knowledge of God is contingent upon His willingness to reveal Himself to us rather than our ability to discover Him through profane modes of human inquiry. Thomas Torrance writes:

The mystery of Christ is presented to us within history — that historical involvement is not an accidental characteristic of the mystery but essential to it. That is the problem.

Let us first put it this way, recalling the bi-polarity of our theological knowledge. If God has become man in the historical Jesus, that is an historical event that comes under our historical examination so far as the humanity of Jesus is concerned, but the fact that God became man is an event that cannot be appreciated by ordinary historical science, for here we are concerned with more than simply an historical event, namely, with the act of the eternal God. So far as this event is a fact of nature it can be observed, and so far as it is historical in the sense that other natural events are historical, it can be appreciated as such; but the essential becoming behind it cannot be directly perceived except by an act of perception appropriate to the eternal event. That act of perception appropriate to an eternal act, or divine act, would surely be the pure vision of God, which we do not have in history. Here on earth and in time we do not see directly, face to face, but see only in part, as through a glass enigmatically, in a mystery. We see the eternal or divine act within history, within our fallen world where historical observation is essential. Faith would be better described then as the kind of perception appropriate to perceiving a divine act in history, an eternal act in time. So that faith is appropriate both to the true perception of historical facts, and also to the true perception of God’s action in history. Nor is it the way we are given within history to perceive God’s acts in history, and that means that faith is the obedience of our minds to the mystery of Christ, who is God and man in the historical Jesus. What is clearly of paramount importance here is the holding together of the historical and the theological in our relation to Christ.

If the two are not held together, we have broken up the given unity in Christ into the historical on the one hand, and the theological on the other, refracting it into elements which we can no longer put together again. We then find that we cannot start from the historical and move to the theological, or from the theological and move to the historical without distortion, and nor can we rediscover the original unity. We can only start from the given, where the historical and the theological are in indissoluble union in Christ.[1]

As corollary with this, and in terms of applying this approach to the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; likewise, there is no analogy available to us in nature from whence we can construct an analogue towards being able to think a God-man into resurrection. Instead, all we can do, by an analogy of faith, as it were, is to think this reality from what has been given to us and for us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And so if the resurrection, if the Incarnation are allowed to dictate and set the terms from whence we think God become man, and what He has done for us in resurrection and re-creation, we will end up doing theology, and in fact living the Christian life under much different constraints than what is commonly conceived of in Western Christianity in general, and in North American evangelicalism in particular. George Hunsinger writes about this, and how important it is for the resurrection itself to take on the magisterial place it ought to have in our thinking about God in Christ rising again from the dead over against historicist/apologetic modes of knowing and thinking resurrection as is so commonly the case, again, in North American evangelicalism:

The position to be taken here is that an event extraordinary in kind will, of necessity, involve modes of knowledge and significance that are also extraordinary. From the standpoint of the church’s faith, although ordinary ways of knowing, including modern critical methods, need not be ruled out, they cannot be allowed to control the discussion, nor can their relevance be more than secondary. Likewise, Christ’s resurrection is necessarily of uncommon significance. While its revelation may overlap with other, more familiar forms of religious experience, it will necessarily displace and transcend them by virtue of its own singularity. In short, the church’s faith in Christ’s resurrection, as attested by the apostles and affirmed by the creed, cannot be understood, if the resurrection’s uniqueness is not allowed to determine the modes of knowledge and significance appropriate to it. Otherwise, the nature of the resurrection will be determined in advance by resort to inapplicable categories.[2]

I hope the significance of this is appreciated by you!

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation, 6-7

[2] George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), Loc. 3874, 3879, 3884 Kindle.

Reading Scripture In the Life of the Trinity, In Theosis

I must admit, ever since encountering Patristic theology and their hermeneutics in seminary (back in 2002) for the first time, my compass for hermeneutical theory began to take a tailspin. And then a little later, as I continued to dig, and engage with Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth, John Webster, Matthew Levering, and even some Puritans, my compass became even more erratic. I was trained, informally, as an evangelical (growing up as the son bible-compassof a Baptist pastor), to study the Bible inductively, and really through the rationalist history of religions school and German higher criticism that sliced and diced Scripture into manageable, and even unrelated pieces. When I entered Bible College (the first time in 1992, and then 1996-97 at Calvary Chapel Bible College, and then finally my alma mater 1998-2001 at Multnomah Bible College) I began to be taught, formally, how to interpret Scripture, again, in a fragmented way, which could only at the end of my Bible study attempt to integrate Jesus into my biblical interpretation somehow. This culminated for me (which at this point looks like it will be my terminal degree), in 2002-03, when I entered seminary at Multnomah Biblical Seminary; I began work on an MA in Biblical Studies, which included course work, crowned with a Master’s thesis paper, which I had to defend in order to earn my MA. I chose to do my thesis paper on I Corinthians 1:17-25, which was an exegetical analysis of that pericope. I successfully defended that in 2003, and earned my MA in Biblical Studies. But what this paper did (100 pages as it was), was demonstrate and illustrate how I used to study the Bible back then; very analytically, inductively, expositionally, verse by verse, and through hermeneutical premises that were and have been largely absent from the bulk of the Christian church. In other words, even though my passage of consideration was about Jesus and the cross, my method of interpretation was not premised, hermeneutically, upon the reality of Jesus and the cross; instead it was premised upon premises provided for evangelical Bible study that were provided for it by people who are not evangelical (historically and even culturally understood), and who might even be antagonistic to the Christian faith. In the end I actually liked what I was able to produce for my Master’s thesis paper (my examiners did too), but I wonder what it would have looked like if it had been given shape under hermenutical pressure that was more intentionally Christ centered?

Is it even possible to exegete under a ‘Christ-centered’ and Trinitarian pressure? The early church believed it was possible, and proceeded without apology to exegete the Old Testament as if it was all about Christ; and under the Apostolic mantle provided for that method by the authors of the New Testament themselves. Donald Fairbairn (a Patristics expert par excellence) has just helped me, immensely, to think about this issue once again, in a very helpful and definitive way. My compass has been wandering here and there, hermeneutically, I have been deeply influenced, as I mentioned, by T. F. Torrance, and in particular to this issue, by his book Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics; but I have had problems, quite frankly, trying to practically conceive of a way to interpret and apply Scripture in a way that is genuinely Christ centered, hermeneutically, and at the same time, critically available to the tools provided by what might be called ‘modern’ exegesis (literary, canonical, historical, etc.). This is where what Fairbairn, in a straightforward and succinct way has helped me with today; he has placed hermeneutics, at least in the way I am appropriating it, within the realm of the Greek Christian understanding of theosis, so in the domain of Christian salvation (soteriology)–this would fit well, in some respects, with Matthew Levering’s idea of participatory history. Let me share the two paragraphs from Fairbairn that have helped and edified me today; I hope they will be edifying for you too:

Roots Of Patristic And Modern Old Testament Interpretation

At this point, we as evangelicals should notice a significant incongruity latent in our situation. We accept (albeit with reservation) a method of biblical interpretation that historically arose among scholars who rejected most of our core convictions about the Bible–that it is from God, that it is a book telling a single story, that its various writings are fundamentally unified, that its central subject is Christ. Furthermore, without giving the matter a lot of thought, we reject allegory as a way of interpreting the Hebrew Bible, a way that is found in the New Testament and that was widely used in the early church, even though that kind of interpretation grows out of the same convictions that we share. It is indeed ironic that when a church father who shares all of our basic convictions argues for a connection between this Old Testament passage and that New Testament reality, we reject his argument out of hand because our masters in the school of modern interpretation (masters who do not share our convictions) have branded such exegesis as allegory. And it is even more ironic that our adherence to a plain-sense, nonallegorical method is so intense that the New Testament itself disturbs us when it connects the Testaments in a way that sounds like allegory to us. We wind up thinking that Paul and Matthew were allowed to handle the Old Testament this way because they were divinely inspired, but surely we must not handle the Old Testament this way.

If we recognize the incongruity I have been discussing, then we should also see that there is more than “mere allegory” going on when the church fathers interpret the Old Testament. In contrast to modern liberals (who might see no unifying theme in Scripture) and in partial contrast to modern conservatives (who tend to organize Scripture around concepts such as the covenant or the dispensations which have governed God’s dealings with humanity), the church fathers tended to see the scarlet thread, the unifying theme of Scripture, as Christ. Again, this unifying theme places the emphasis in a rather different place than we do. We today start with ourselves and ask how God relates to us. The church fathers started with God, and especially with Christ, and asked how we participate in Christ. This is why virtually all of patristic thought saw theōsis–humanity’s becoming somehow a participant in the divine life–as the link between God and humanity. Furthermore, this is why one strand of patristic thought, the one I think is most fruitful for us today, understood theōsis in terms of the Father’s relationship to the Son and saw our participation in this relationship as the scarlet thread of the Christian faith. If one does theology in the way the church fathers did, with the life of the three trinitarian persons at the heart, then one will seek to find those trinitarian persons–especially the preincarnate Son–throughout the Old Testament.[1]

This is the way that T.F. Torrance sought to interpret Scripture (just read his two volumes: Incarnation & Atonement), and it is the way that I personally believe is the most fruitful and edifying way for Christians to engage in as exegetes.

So instead of using dispensations (as I was trained to do), or ‘the covenant’ (as people who attend places like Westminster Theological Seminary are trained to do) as hermeneutically regulative for the biblical interpretive process; along with Fairbairn, Torrance, the Patristics, Barth, Webster, Levering and others, it is better, in my estimation, to allow our hermeneutical theory and practice to be established by the One who has given revelation of Himself to begin with; and it is better to practice exegesis from within this relationship, within the realm of ‘salvation’ or ‘reconciliation’ and ‘participation’ in God’s triune life mediated through Christ. Does this mean that we cannot employ modern critical tools while doing exegesis? I don’t think so. But what it means is that we won’t let those tools (whatever they are) be the basis for our hermeneutical theory. In other words we won’t just read Scripture ‘as literature’ (because it is more not less than literature, it has a different location from other literature,  what might be called ‘profane literature’); we won’t just read Scipture ‘as history’ (because it is more not less than history, it is where God providentially has interpreted through His Son for us, His life for us, and our life for Him through the vicarious humanity of Christ through Apostolic Deposit); and we won’t, then, read Scripture but within the domain of grace, and in particular faith, which is established by its rule in Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction To Theology With The Help Of The Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 114-15.

Karl Barth and N.T. Wright Side by Side on Philippians 2:5-11 and the ‘Emptying’

Here is the pericope under consideration by both Karl Barth and N.T. Wright, respectively:

kenosis5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. ~Philippians 2:5-11

Here is how Barth comments on the reality of this passage:

Positively his self-emptying refers to the fact that, without detracting from his being in the form of God, he was able and willing to assume the form of a servant and go about in the likeness of a human being, so that the creature could know him only as a creature, and he alone could know himself as God. In other words, he was ready to accept a position in which he could not be known in the world as God, but his divine glory was concealed from the world. This was his self-emptying…. His deity becomes completely invisible to all other eyes but his own. What distinguishes him from the creature disappears from everyone’s sight but his own with his assumption of the human form of a servant with its natural end in death, and above all with his death as that of a criminal on the cross…. He can so empty himself that, without detracting from his form as God, he can take the form of a servant, concealing his form of life as God, and going about in the likeness of a human being…. It all takes place in his freedom and therefore not in self-contradiction or with any alteration or diminution of his divine being…. This means that so far from being contrary to the nature of God, it is of his essence to possess the freedom to be capable of this self-offering and self-concealment, and beyond this to make use of this freedom, and therefore really to effect this self-offering and to give himself up to this self-humiliation. In this above all he is concealed as God. Yet it is here above all that he is really and truly God. Thus it is above all that he must and will also be revealed in his deity by the power of God. [Karl Barth, CD II/1, 516-17 cited by George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 86-7, Nook version.]

And then N. T. Wright on the same passage and reality:

Let’s clear one misunderstanding out of the way in case it still confuses anybody. In verse 7 Paul says that Jesus ’emptied himself’. People have sometimes thought that this means that Jesus, having been divine up to that point, somehow stopped being divine when he became human, and then went back to being divine again. This is, in fact, completely un-true to what Paul has in mind. The point of verse 6 is that Jesus was indeed already equal with God; somehow Paul is saying that Jesus already existed even before he became a human being (verse 7). But the decision to become human, and to go all the way along the road of obedience, obedience to the divine plan of salvation, yes, all the way was not a decision to stop being divine. It was a decision about what it really meant to be divine. [N. T. Wright, Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 84, Nook version.]

Critical Reflection

Both Barth and Wright affirm the traditional (and dare I say contextual) sense of this text; that is, that the ground of Jesus’ person, the ground of his humanity is Godself. As Barth elaborates further on the implications of this, one of those has to do with the way this is perceived by those of us creatures who are confronted by this God who became human; for Barth–according to Hunsinger–what has happened in Christ is not an ontic (at the level of his ‘being’ the Son of the Father, eternally) change, but instead, because of this veiling and/or limiting of himself in human form, there is a noetic challenge that occurs. When we, as humans, encounter Jesus, we might superficially perceive that Jesus is simply another human, and might fail to recognize the reality, that far greater than simply being human (which he is fully), he is Godself, Light of light. And yet God in his own self-determined freedom, and gracious outlook, is willing to be mis-taken by the many (the ‘broad road’) if only to be recognized by the few (those who ‘have eyes to see and ears to hear’).

For Everyone Reflection

The way this most dignified reality impacts me is to wonder, radically, at who this great God of our’s is. I often struggle (most recently) with trying to bring together the pictures of the warrior God we so often come across in the Old Testament, with the Shepherd God we encounter in the New Testament. One thing that viewing God from this self-sacrificing angle does is to orient God in such a way that even his more bodacious activity is able to be calibrated and grounded by his ultimate passion for his creation exemplified most clearly by the fact the he himself entered the very judgment that he inflicts and enacts on the nations, and by entering takes upon himself the depth of anxiety and desperation that it seems is a self-inflicted one, but one that he is compelled to by his being of love and holiness (so mystery).

The more basic, and yet profound reality that is revealed by Jesus is that our lives ought to be dominated by the same kind of self-less, self-given, putting others first attitude as Christ’s. The good news is that even though this is terribly impossible left to ourselves, that because of Jesus’ penetration of our dead hearts, he has saved us from the inside/out, providing his life and his heart as the foundation of our’s (see I Cor. 3:11 and II Cor. 3), and genuinely providing us with the means, by the Holy Spirit (where there is Liberty, see II Corinthians 3:17), to seriously put others before ourselves; in the same posture toward God, that Jesus had/has (a posture of ‘not holding onto ourselves’ but being able to truly spend ourselves, and as Paul ‘pour our lives out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and faith of others’).

Really, Nash? Ronald Nash’s Attempt to Critique Torrance, Barth and the Whole Crew: My Brief Response

It is always nice when an Evangelical (Reformed) philosopher of religion takes note of Christian Dogmaticians outside of their normal sphere of comfortability, but sometimes this is a dangerous path to travel. Such is the path philosophythat Ronald Nash has chosen to trek.

I was sent some copies of pages (Pdf file) from Ronald Nash’s book The Word of God and the Mind of Man  from a reader of my blog, an MDiv student (just finishing up) at Fuller Seminary—this reader is about to become (Lord willing!) a pastor in a Presbyterian church in the States. Anyway, he has been turned on to Torrance as a result of some exposure that he has received while attending Fuller (which is no surprise). Apparently he was reading this book by Nash (or became aware of Nash’s critique [of Barth, Torrance, and others like minded]), and came across the points of critique that the rest of this post will endeavor to engage. I am not really intending on mounting a defense, but more of a short (bloggy) exercise in providing context that will contravene and contradict Nash’s reading of Torrance in particular. In the following, as we read along with Nash, I hope you will notice how shallow of an attempt Nash’s is to provide critical depth in engaging Torrance’s perspective on reality, theology, etc. Here is what Nash writes (I will offer quote in full, in order to provide the necessary context):

[…] Can a similar distrust for or contempt for logic and reason be found in the writings of Christian theologians [Nash has just finished reviewing a theologian or philosopher with the last name of Stace, who I am unfamiliar with; but Nash seems to think that Torrance, Barth and others are engaging in the same style of mystical aberrant and irrationalist kind of theologizing as Stace, it is just that Nash thinks Torrance is more cloaked in his mode]?  One thing that hinders a simple answer to this question is that few writers are as daring and as explicit as Stace. Discussions about the proper place of reason in religion are frequently plagued by inattention to tow quite different senses the word reason can have. Consider the following claims:

(1) The Incarnation is unreasonable; that is, the claim that Jesus Christ is God in incredible. I simply cannot believe it.

(2) The Incarnation is unreasonable; that is, the doctrine of the Incarnation violates the Law of noncontradiction.

In the second case, a particular Christian belief allegedly violates a principle or law of logic. Anything that is unreasonable or irrational in sense (2) is such in an objective and universal way. But in the first case, a particular Christian belief is called unreasonable simply because some person cannot understand it or believe it. Unreasonableness in sense (1) is person-relative. It should be obvious that all sorts of beliefs that some people cannot accept and thus find irrational are readily acceptable and rational to others.

When religious thinkers [ha, not Christian, eh, Nash?] like Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and Emil Brunner proclaimed the irrationality of certain Christian beliefs, I suspect that what they really meant to say was that something about Christianity was so shocking and so offensive to the “reason” of many unbelievers that they (the unbelievers) found it irrational. Since the New Testament itself suggest this position, and since it accords with what any observer can detect in the reactions of people to many Christian claims, the view itself is quite unexceptional.

Unfortunately, the extreme rhetoric of some Christian writers suggests that they also mean to say that Christianity is unreasonable in the second sense, that it actually involves violations of the law of non-contradiction. The writings of the Scottish disciple of Karl Barth [which by the way, Torrance was not an uncritical disciple of Barth, see Alister McGrath’s T. F. Torrance, An Intellectual Biography], Thomas Torrance, are a case in point. Torrance certainly appears to claim that there is a difference between God’s logic and human logic [that’s weird!, God forbit it!, you mean I don’t have anything in myself to stand on that provides rational certitude?], and, further, that the forms of “human logic” cannot be extended to a transcendent God. Torrance seems to believe that human “ideas and conceptions and analogies and words are too limited and narrow and poor for knowledge of God.” His suspicions about purely “human” logic are evident in such statements as: “Real theological thinking” should be freed from “imprisonment in timeless logical connections.” Knowledge of eternal truth, he suggests, is hindered by insisting on “fixed categories of thought.” What Torrance seems to give us is a statement that human knowledge about God is impossible and that human forms of reasoning are completely incapable of understanding truth and reason as it exists in the mind of God. [brackets throughout are mine] [Ronald N. Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man, 93-4.]

Grr … where do I start? Let me start with Torrance himself; here is a kind of summarizing quote of Torrance’s style of theologizing, and something that directly illustrates the kind of thing that Nash is seeking to critique (in a passive aggressive way, you’ll notice his frequent usage of “it seems” throughout this quote from him, but then he later offers the aggressive side of this in his critique of Torrance as he apparently has moved beyond his perception of “it seems” into “it is” or “this is how it is” and “this is why Torrance and others like him are wrong”). Anyway, here is Thomas Torrance:

[O]ur task in christology is to yield the obedience of our mind to what is given, which is God’s self-revelation in its objective reality, Jesus Christ. A primary and basic fact which we discover here is this: that the object of our knowledge gives itself to us to be apprehended. It does that within our mundane existence, within our worldly history and all its contingency, but it does that also beyond the limits of previous experience and ordinary thought, beyond the range of what is regarded by human standards as empirically possible. Thus when we encounter God in Jesus Christ, the truth comes to us in its own authority and self-sufficiency. It comes into our experience and into the midst of our knowledge as a novum, a new reality which we cannot incorporate into the series of other objects, or simply assimilate to what we already know. [Thomas F. Torrance “Incarnation: The Person And Life Of Christ,” 1.]

In other words, for Torrance, there is no analogy in nature for the Incarnation; I am not aware of any analogies that ontologically correlate to the Incarnation, apparently Nash, though thinks that the Incarnation represents something ordinary and mundane; such that any average sentient person could rationally conceive of such—simply by reflecting on the proclivities of nature, abstracting said proclivities and then using this as the Foundation[alism] upon which we as humans know God through, and by which we justify His existence as God. Torrance, if Nash would have taken the time to actually read or attempt to faithfully understand him, would have understood what causes Torrance to write such as he does in the quote that I just provided from TF. Torrance inverts Nash’s paradigm, and sees our order of knowledge contingent upon an antecedent (or ‘outside of us’) order of ontology. In other words, Torrance believes in what he calls an epistemological inversion (which if Nash really read Torrance’s ‘Theological Science’ he would know) wherein for knowledge of God to be truly determinative of a genuine knowledge of God, that this knowledge is Revealed not philosophically discovered. And so, we can only come to know God under the constraints and categories that are imposed upon us by the nature of the reality with whom we encounter, God in Christ.

There is much more that I need to say about this. And it gets even more philosophical, but of the kind that Nash is not comfortable(it has already been made into a demon by him, in need of exorcism); there is the reality of Continental Philosophy at play in much of what Torrance and Barth are dealing with. But I think I will save that discussion for another day, and another post. Suffice it to say, Nash, and anyone really serious about critiquing Barth, Torrance & co. ought to read the more recently released book (2011)  Karl Barth And American Evangelicalism edited by Bruce L. McCormack & Clifford B. Anderson. Obviously this book post-dates Nash’s book, but in a revision, this could be helpful for Nash and his students. McCormack’s and Anderson’s edited book (which I am still reading) provides excellent background and coverage of the issues that Nash is superficially (without understanding) critiquing in the aforementioned quote from him.

I will close by asserting that it is all about Faith, not of the blind variety, but of the variety that is grounded in the vicarious humanity of Christ. The kind that provides vision of the Father, that outwith all we will end up doing is worshipping the creation rather than the Creator.

I almost forgot; I ran a series of posts that dealt with this kind of issue of Torrance and his purported method before. Here is the link to the index of those posts: Click Here

Too Much Jesus? Your Method of Biblical Interpretation

I would like to expose you all to Thomas Torrance’s take on Irenaeus’ understanding on what could be called a Christocentric Hermeneutic. As you read Torrance’s account of Irenaeus, understand that you are reading Torrance too. Here is Torrance on Irenaeus:

It is, then, to the Incarnation that Irenaeus turns for the clue to the interpretation of the history of creation and redemption and therefore for the clue to the interpretation of the Scriptures. The essential order and connection of things is embodied in Jesus Christ and it is by reference to him that the economic ministrations of God in humanity and the historical covenants are to be understood aright, and therefore the interconnection between the scriptures of the prophets and the scriptures of the Apostles, ‘the Gospel and the Apostles. Even the Scriptures of the old covenant have to be read in the light of Christ’s advent in the flesh, for his coming connected the end with the beginning and made the beginning predictive of the end, thus showing that the faith of the patriarchs and prophets and ours is one and the same. They sowed the seed, the word about Christ (sermonem de Christo), but it is in us that the fruit is reaped and received, and only in the Church is the truth of the things prefigured realised. ‘Certain facts had to be announced beforehand by the fathers in a paternal manner, (paternaliter), and others prefigured by the prophets in a legal manner (legaliter), but others delineated according to the pattern of Christ (deformari secundum formationem Christi) by those who perceived the adoption, for in one God are all things shown forth.’ [Thomas F. Torrance, Divine Meaning, 122-23]

How does this strike you? Do you think this is too intense for a hermeneutic or mode for interpreting Scripture? Is your method of biblical interpretation this intensively Christ focused? I am really curious how you all think of this; I obviously highly appreciate this kind of ‘Patristic’ method of interpreting and reinterpreting (the OT) Scripture in light of  its fulfillment in Christ. This rubs against the method of interpretation I learned (by and large) in Bible College and Seminary; which is the Literal Grammatical Historical method (the kind that leads to and from Dispensationalism).

No Knowledge of God Outside of Christ: A Christian Faith Understanding

I thought this quote from Paul Molnar on Thomas Torrance’s Trinitarian Theology of Creation would be timely:

Torrance’s view of God the Creator was strictly determined by his Trinitarian theology so that, in order to understand his explication of the doctrine of creation, it is important to realize that his thinking remains structured by Athanasius’ insight that it is better to “signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate”. What this means is not only that, following the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius stressed the centrality of the Father/Son relation for understanding God the Father Almighty who is the Creator, but that he wanted to stress that this same relation must have “primacy over the Creator/creature relation. The latter is to be understood in the light of the former and not vice versa”. Or, to put it another way, “while God is always Father he is not always Creator” and “it is as Father that God is Creator, not vice versa”. . . .[1]

And then how Thomas Torrance understood theological method as Christological method. This might help, for some, to illustrate how and why Torrance would not be an advocate for what is known as natural theology (knowing God from a naked creation), or an analogy of being (using humanities’ reflection upon itself and as the analogy for what God’s being must be like—this is also extrapolated out as man reflects on nature in general, conceiving of what kind of God it must have taken to create (or what kind of power)—it is through this kind of abstractive reasoning that  concept of godness is constructed (Philosophers like Aristotle and Plato would be prime examples of this kind of work). Instead, Torrance, in the footsteps of Barth (although with his own rationale and emphases) works through an analogy of faith (the idea that knowledge of God, as Athanasius articulates in Molnar’s quote above, only comes through relation to God in and through Christ’s vicarious faith for us). Here is what Torrance conceives:

Our task in christology is to yield the obedience of our mind to what is given, which is God’s self-revelation in its objective reality, Jesus Christ. A primary and basic fact which we discover here is this: that the object of our knowledge gives itself to us to be apprehended. It does that within our mundane existence, within our worldly history and all its contingency, but it does that also beyond the limits of previous experience and ordinary thought, beyond the range of what is regarded by human standards as empirically possible. Thus when we encounter God in Jesus Christ, the truth comes to us in its own authority and self-sufficiency. It comes into our experience and into the midst of our knowledge as a novum, a new reality which we cannot incorporate into the series of other objects, or simply assimilate to what we already know. Thomas F. Torrance says in his, “Incarnation: The Person And Life Of Christ,” 1

So for Torrance, and me, there is no “natural” knowledge of God available; it is strictly limited to God’s Self-revealed knowledge of Himself in Christ. Just as Jesus said, “Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” As Athanasius and Torrance press, knowledge of God, for the Christian, must be knowledge of God as Triune or it is not truly knowledge of God; nor, is it Christian.


[1] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian Of The Trinity, (Ashgate Publishing Limited, England, 2009), 73.

How To Think Theologically and Historically, or Christianly, as an Evangelist

Analytic theology would have us bound by analytics, and even foundationalism. The general populace at large has been infected by this disease of “faith seeking proof of the self.” This bait is always present for the theologian and biblical exegete; that is the bait of establishing the self as the canon of all that is right and true in the world. I recently fell prey to this bait when in discussion with someone from the general populace side. The bait, in this instance was “proving” the historicity of the resurrection of Christ through the canon of self (or maybe positivism). The Apostle Paul admonishes us, and writes: “For although we are walking in the flesh, we do not wage war in a fleshly way, since the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly, but are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds. We demolish arguments and every high minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” [II Corinthians 10:3-5] We are Christians, and we are guardians of the truth of the Gospel as we participate with Christ in his ongoing priestly ministry. We don’t fight to establish ourselves so that we can establish Christ; Christ fought for us through his battle with the principalities and powers [Col. 2:15] so that he might establish us and our humanity in his!

Thomas Torrance has a good word on how we ought, as Christian theologians, operate in a way that demolishes arguments against the knowledge of God. It is not through engaging the world on their terms (the constant battle and bait), but it is through approaching the world through a differentiated mode of witness. In other words, we assume a posture that stands from within the uniqueness and weirdness of the Gospel and the Incarnation of Christ. Here is Torrance,

[T]he mystery of Christ is presented to us within history — that historical involvement is not an accidental characteristic of the mystery but essential to it. That is the problem.

Let us first put it this way, recalling the bi-polarity of our theological knowledge. If God has become man in the historical Jesus, that is an historical event that comes under our historical examination so far as the humanity of Jesus is concerned, but the fact that God became man is an event that cannot be appreciated by ordinary historical science, for here we are concerned with more than simply an historical event, namely, with the act of the eternal God. So far as this event is a fact of nature it can be observed, and so far as it is historical in the sense that other natural events are historical, it can be appreciated as such; but the essential becoming behind it cannot be directly perceived except by an act of perception appropriate to the eternal event. That act of perception appropriate to the eternal event is faith, which is an enabling of reason given to it in the very act of receiving revelation.

But now we have not said too much? The act of perception appropriate to an eternal act, or divine act, would surely be the pure vision of God, which we do not have in history. Here on earth and in time we do not see directly, face to face, but see only in part, as through a glass enigmatically, in a mystery. We see the eternal or divine act within history, within our fallen world where historical observation is essential. Faith would be better described then as the kind of perception appropriate to perceiving a divine act in history, an eternal act in time. So that faith is appropriate both to the true perception of historical facts, and also to the true perception of God’s action in history. Nor is it the perception of history by itself, divorced from revelation, but it is the way we are given within history to perceive God’s acts in history, and that means that faith is the obedience of our minds to the mystery of Christ, who is God and man in the historical Jesus. What is clearly of paramount importance here is the holding together of the historical and the theological in our relation to Christ.

If the two are not held together, we have broken up the given unity in Christ into the historical on the one hand, and the theological on the other, refracting it into elements which we can no longer put together again. We then find that we cannot start from the historical and move to the theological, or from the theological and move to the historical without distortion, and nor can we rediscover the original unity. We can only start from the given, where the historical and the theological are in indissoluble union in Christ. [Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ,” edited by Robert T. Walker, 6-7]

We can hear Torrance’s influences, from Polyani and his Tacit Knowledge, and maybe some of Anselm’s Fides Quaerens Intellectum (faith seeking understanding) tradition. This has led to Torrance’s epistemological inversion and kata physin (according to the nature of the thing, or scientific knowledge); wherein the object of consideration acts upon the knower, and the object opens itself up more and more as the knower engages with the object (and subject in our case) on its own terms. This is Torrance’s way of demolishing arguments against the knowledge of God. It is not to fall prey to the constant bait of self; it doesn’t take the self that seriously. Instead it is to work within the canons of knowledge that God has revealed of himself in Christ. It rebuffs Cartesian foundationalism; so that humanity is not engaged in proving their structures of thought prior to their ability to affirm God’s existence, the historicity of the resurrection and a whole host of other things. Instead, what justifies humanities’ belief is faith (so Barth and Torrance’s, amongst others, ‘analogy of faith’ methodology). It isn’t rationalist certitude; it isn’t basic ideas formed in the halls of the academy; it is Faith!

So how am I supposed to interact with someone at my workplace who operates from a convoluted, water downed rationalist mode of thinking (where the self is king)? My method, even amongst the most hostile, is to frame the whole discussion by starting out with; “as a Christian,” and then begin to explain what it is that Christians (like Evangelical Calvinists) believe about God (as love and Triune etc.). At the end I can invite that person into a participatory relationship with the God of the resurrection. I have done this often in Evangelistic situations (even in the church 😉 ), and it is one of the best ways to counter the world’s mode of rationalist self perpetuation. And it allows me to freely talk about Christ, without also having to prove Christ (that’s just not proper theological method). Battle on!

Is the Trinity negotiable for Evangelical Christians and the Gospel?

What is happening to ‘Evangelical’ Christianity? Brian LePort just posted this: Is Rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity a Rejection of the Gospel? Brian is simply continuing a dialogue that Marc Cortez started on his blog, and then others responded to Marc by way of posts at their blogs (you can get all the links at Brian’s blog). What is astounding to me is not anything that Brian has said or asked, but some of the responses that have been provided in the comment meta at Brian’s. Evangelicalism is in a relativist slide, in general. If the sentiment being voiced at Brian’s in the comment meta is at all representative of the kind of ‘Evangelical’ thinking out there; then indeed we have come a long way, and I don’t mean forward.

Anyway, given the occasion, I thought I would re-post a post I wrote quite awhile ago that engages this very question and issue. To be honest, the kind of responses over at Brian’s scares me for Evangelicalism. Here’s the body of my post:

There are certain “Christian” belief systems that assert that the Trinity is a man-made distortion of who God is. They assert that Jesus is either: a creation of God, an exalted Angel, a demiurge, a mode or expression of the one God. They assert much more, and there are many more views of who Jesus is, that are under or beyond whom Jesus really is as disclosed in Scripture. Conversely, it is those who make such assertions about who Jesus is, whom preach a different gospel — since Jesus is the gospel. And if we get who Jesus is, wrong, then we get the Gospel wrong. If Jesus isn’t the second person of the Trinity, then we end up with a gospel that necessarily starts with man. It took God assuming humanity to himself to bridge the gap between sinful man, and a holy God. If Jesus is just a creation, or a mode, then he is unable to bridge this gap … since He “really” cannot represent us before God — this requires a God-Man. Thankfully Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, which makes the Gospel a predicate of the Trinity. The Gospel is necessarily Trinitarian. Vanhoozer says this way more succinctly than I:

In sum, the Gospel is ultimately unintelligible apart from Trinitarian theology. Only the doctrine of the Trinity adequately accounts for how those who are not God come to share in the fellowship of Father and Son through the Spirit. The Trinity is both the Christian specification of God and a summary statement of the Gospel, in that the possibility of life with God depends on the person and work of the Son and Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity thus serves both as an identification of the dramatis personae and as a precis of the drama itself. “He is risen indeed!” (Kevin Vanhoozer, “The Drama of Doctrine,” 43-44)

This illustrates my point above, that in order for man to truly be brought into the presence of a holy God, requires that God bring us into his very life! Which He did, in Christ. Unfortunately, this means that LDS, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostolic Oneness Pentecostals, Unitarians, et al. all preach a different gospel than the one proclaimed by the Apostles in the New Testament. The Gospel is exclusive by definition, to Trinitarians.