Being Studious So We Know What and Who the Gospel Is: ‘The Weapons of Our Warfare Are Mighty’

In light of tragedy I often hear pastors and teachers in our 21st century context downplay the Gospel; as if the Gospel ultimately is indeed some sort of insurance policy, but at the end of each day does not have the resource to confront the types of tragedies we are faced with on a daily basis as Christians. As if the Gospel itself is not effulgent with the life of very God of very God. Maybe one reason Christians think of the Gospel in these terms—in domesticated and muted terms—is because they have failed to appreciate that understanding the Gospel requires rigor and work. In other words, we live in a fallen state (still!), and as a result even though salvation is by grace alone understanding what grace alone entails requires great depths of work and study. Maybe pastors and teachers gut the Gospel the way they do, particularly in light of travail and torment in people’s lives, because they are simply lazy; as are most in the church. Maybe the Gospel actually is the power of God, and not in some mystical sense, just as the Apostle Paul has asserted (by the Spirit!). Maybe the Gospel has the resource to actually make the crooked straight even in the in-between we currently inhabit, and we ought to entrust ourselves to it (Him) more rather than less. Maybe if we committed to exerting the necessary energy of putting the work in we’d have a greater depth understanding of the Gospel and see it for what it actually is, and for what it actually has the capacity to accomplish in us and for us.

The late John Webster offers a challenging word on this front as he develops his theme on theological theology. He confronts the sin of laziness, and underscores how important it is for Christians to be studious in regard to gaining proper understanding of the fullness attendant with the Gospel. Webster ties study of the Gospel (he calls this theology) into ends and purposes; and notes the impact that the end has on purpose. But more than that, as noted, he wants to impress how if the Christian is to appreciate what they actually have in the Gospel they need to work and be studious. He writes:

Christian theology pursues scientific ends, that is, the acquisition of that knowledge of its matter which is proper to creatures, in accordance with its cognitive principles. Pursuit of scientific ends is an element of the fulfillment of our intellectual nature, and is a creaturely good. Human creatures are by nature studious. We have an appetite to acquire knowledge beyond what is necessary for the immediate fulfillment of our animal nature, and we possess intellectual powers which we apply to satisfy this appetite. Well-ordered, temperate studiousness is not self-derived or wholly spontaneous; it is creaturely, the exercise of powers which have been given and which are moved, preserved and fortified by a movement beyond themselves. Studiousness is the arduous application of these powers; it is not indolent or casual, but concentrated, determined, painstaking and resistant to premature termination.

All theological activity requires this kind of purposive pursuit of scientific ends: revelation awakens theological science. It is through study that God becomes actually intelligible, and defects in the acquisition and exercise of studiousness threaten the attainment of other ends in theology. However, pursuit of scientific ends is instrumental and interim: necessary, but not sufficient or final. Forgetfulness of the instrumental status of scientific ends arises from disordered intention: our purposes for this activity fail to coincide with its intrinsic ends, and excessive devotion to scientific ends inhibits attainment of the true ends of theological intelligence. Much harm to theology is done by this disordered purpose. Theology’s object becomes one which is ours to appropriate or master by scientia; its cognitive principles become naturalized; the dependence of theology on divine instruction is neglected. Some kinds of institutional setting in which theology is undertaken may provide opportunities for such distortions to flourish, but their chief cause is the crookedness and futility of our intellectual nature after the fall. Only with the restoration and regeneration of that nature can our purposes be taught to direct themselves to fitting ends; theology will be theological as it is caught up in this renewal.[1]

It is important to identify, as Webster does, the internal battle we all are facing as Christians. The struggle is indeed real, and we should not be naïve to this as Christian warriors. We are enveloped in the very life of the living God in Christ, and in this envelopment we have been given the mind and heart of Christ. This is where we have the ‘renewal’ to do genuinely theological theology. Meaning: this is where we have the ability to grow deep into the reality of the pleroma (fullness) of the Gospel. Webster’s points are well taken; sin retards our desire, even as Christians, especially as Christians to seek God while he might be found call upon him while he is near. But we must not give into the baser desires of the old nature that continues to seek to assert itself where it has been crushed like the serpent’s head that it is.

In an even more applied sense: as we continue to mourn the loss of Pastor Andrew I fear that Christians won’t allow this tragedy to forge them into the steely new creations they have been made in and through their gracious union with Jesus Christ. As Christians we are in a spiritual battle, and the means of our battle, the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds. But what does this really mean? Is this some sort of mystical appeal that we simply live ethereally into as a New Ager does in their transcendental reflections? No. The weapons of our warfare are exactly what Webster was referring to; it entails work and being studious around the Gospel; around growing into the grace and knowledge of God in Jesus Christ and who he is for us as he is eternally in himself. If we fail to sharpen these weapons, which requires labor, we will indeed reduce the Gospel to some sort of shallow insurance policy shorn of the very power of God that it actually is. Armed with such a Gospel we will remain impotent, and the attacks of the evil one will land hard and furious; we won’t know what hit us till we are on the brink of destruction (even as Christians).

As a brother in Christ I implore you, at the very least, to daily take up your Bible and read it; internalize it. More, I implore you to read sound theology, and learn the tools that will allow you to interpret Scripture in depth ways. The end is to know and love God; the purposes of our activity are to be shaped by this end. If so, if we take this to heart we will be constrained by the love of Christ (the end), and motivated in the proper ways toward reaching the end of who we are in Jesus Christ.

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 219-20.

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Do Humans Have Freewill?: What it Means to Be Free in Christ the King’s Economy Before God

31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. –John 8:31-36

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sinBut if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. –Romans 8:5-8

Discussions surrounding freewill in human agency abound; whether that be between Calvinism and Arminianism, or in the secular world and philosophy in regard to ethics and moral culpability. But is this really how so called “freewill” operates in a genuinely Christian Dogmatic frame? Augustine, even Luther believed that humans have freewill, but that because of the greater loves supervening in the fallen heart’s life, humans, apart from the Spirit of the LORD, will always choose those things that serve themselves; serves their greater appetites and loves that start and end in an incurved self (homo in se incurvatus).

But really, is this what human “freedom” entails? One would think that what and who a human is, purposively, would determine and shape what in fact so called freedom entails. In other words, if human beings’ ultimate teleology or purpose was always already to be in a conciliatory relationship with the Triune God wouldn’t what it means to be free mean to be free for God? I contend that this is indeed what it means to be humanly free; i.e. free for God. I believe that this is what Jesus and the Apostle Paul were referring to when they thought of “freedom”; to be free from our incurved and broken selves (which is the dehumanizing factor), and to be open and genuinely free for the living God—to be able to live in his type of freedom (the only actual ontology of freedom available) as we participate in and from his life through the mediated eternal life in Jesus Christ.

John Webster gets at these things as he discussing what human freedom entails within the rubric of Divine Providence. He writes:

God’s governance secures the creature’s freedom. If this fails to commend itself, it is because it contravenes a destructive convention according to which true freedom is indeterminacy and absolute spontaneity or it is nothing at all. To say that is to deny creatureliness. Freedom is existence in accordance with created nature and towards created ends, not self-authorship or aseity. This means that freedom is reception, but not passivity – that is permission and summons, but not spoken by me, but to me by God. ‘God is the abiding cause of man’s being a cause able to determine the character of his existence.’ The free person fulfils her self by perfecting a given nature. That perfecting is the work of providence which does not constrain but fulfils the creature’s self-determination, because, in Aquinas’s terms, God’s providence moves the creature’s will ‘as he influences it interiorly’ (interius eam inclinando). Can a moved will be free? Yes, because ‘to be moved voluntarily is to be moved of one’s own accord, i.e. from a resource within. That inner resource, however, may derive from some other, outward source. In this sense, there is no contradiction between being moved of one’s own accord and being moved by another’. If we are to see that Aquinas’s argument is evangelically well-judged, we need to grasp that divine providential acts are not simple compulsion (the archer sending the arrow) but rather intrinsic to the creature whom God moves, what Aquinas calls ‘natural necessity’, in which the creature is activated and not diminished. And to see this we also need to see that – as that astute reader of Aquinas, Turretin, puts it at the beginning of the modern period, ‘The fount of error is the measuring of the nature of liberty from equilibrium and making indifference essential to it. Liberty must be defined by willingness and spontaneity.’

This points us to how, in the light of the gospel, providence dignifies creatures. As with creaturely freedom, so with creaturely dignity: it does not consist only in being agens seipsum, one’s own director. To be moved by divine government is not to be beaten, but to be moved to act.[1]

Webster’s insights, particularly as he gleans those from Aquinas, can easily get us into discussions revolving around what has been called compatibilism, libertarian free agency, Molinism, synchronic contingency etc. But let’s not get lost in that patch.

The basic point I am wanting to reiterate is that in the Kingdom of God in Christ—in other words, in “really real reality”—what it means to be ‘free’ for human beings is to be free for the Triune God. Webster, via Aquinas, notes the role that teleology and purposiveness as regnant realities have for what being human coram Deo means vis-à-vis a conception of freedom. To be free, in an ultimate and even basic sense, for the creature in God’s economy (which is the only real economy around) is to be free for God. Living in and from his freedom, the type that grounded and grounds his choice to be for us and not against us, the type that grounded and grounds his choice to create and recreate in the resurrection is the only real freedom there is. Thus, for the human, what it means to actually be free and to have free-choice, is what it looks like for God as that is derived through our participation in his life in and through Christ.

And the last point I just iterated needs to be pressed; Webster doesn’t press it in the quote I provide from him, and he has certain antinomy towards it more broadly when it comes to speaking about moral human free agency. That is: we need to ground what it means to be human in the archetypal humanity of Jesus Christ for us. If we don’t we will be prone to think humanity from discoverable (versus revealed) traits and resonances that we think we can discern by reflection upon human experience and circumstance in the profane and mundane world. We need a robust doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ to regulate our theological anthropology if we are going to have a proper understanding of not only what it means to be human coram Deo, but what it subsequently means to be free before God in accord with our given natures as human beings.

 

[1]John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 139.

Thinking Divine Simplicity from a Grace-Alone-Frame

Thomas Torrance’s project was largely about reifying classical theological concepts under the pressure provided for by a personalist understanding of the Triune life; Barth in his own way obviously reformulates the tradition as well. What I want to do with this post is share a snippet from John Webster and his description of Divine Simplicity vis-à-vis a doctrine of creation, and then suggest a way that this might be reified in a Torrancean or Barthian way. Webster writes:

Simplicity is a broad term for the fact that God is not formed from elements, whether internal or external; God has no career, no process of coming-to-be. Simplicity indicates the intrinsic absence or need for derivation in God and, further, betokens that God is not ordered to anything else, even as the most excellent or supreme being. The world, therefore, is not a concomitant to God. ‘[I]t is absolutely necessary that God should be differently related to his effects than any other possible cause to its effects and that he should possess his nature in a different way from any other possible being. The concept of “incompositeness” enables us to secure the assertion of these things.’

Because God is simple, he is absolutely and not merely contingently other than the world. God’s not being part of the world is not such that he is some reality alongside and contrasted with the world, as if God and the world formed a pair with their respective natures determined in part by their divergence and differentiation from each other. The otherness of God as creator is not an instance of correlativity or complementarity. God is non aliud, beyond relations of similarity or contrast. ‘Creatures are not related to God as to a thing of a different genus, but as to something outside of and prior to all genera.’[1]

I want to affirm, in principle, what Simplicity intends to signify in regard to God’s “antecededness” and otherness. What I have emboldened, I believe, is of the upmost to affirm in regard to recognizing the distinction between Creator/creature in a God-world relation. Both Torrance and Barth also want to, and do affirm this reality about God; this is the orthodox and catholic affirmation that we seen present in the lives and thought frames of all orthodox thinkers in the realm of the church catholic transcending all periods of church history.

Simplicity is an important feature of Christian theology. I think though that while it can be and ought to be affirmed in its conceptuality that there are different ways to articulate it within a Dogmatic frame. Interestingly Webster is largely working from Aquinas’s understanding of Simplicity, but Aquinas held along with the Fourth Lateran Council that while there was certainly an absolute distinction between the Creator and creatures that nevertheless there remained a possibility of ‘contact’ of similarity between God as the first mover over against the moved movers wherein a knowledge of God could be connived by way of analogy [of being]. This is where I demur. With Barth (and Torrance) I maintain that while God is Simple, properly reified, that the divide is so great between He and us that outwith his gracious willingness to step down and come to us in Christ in the miracle of resurrection that there is no way to know God; and this precisely because of God’s Simple nature. Barth, and Torrance following, I believe actually is in a place, with his anti-natural-theology approach, to magnify the Creator/creature distinction much more than even Thomas Aquinas.

George Hunsinger helps us grasp how Barth thought we might know God precisely at the point that God in himself is unknowable. Barth had a way to bridge the gap between God and us without positing, as Thomas did, some sort of innate analogical point of contact between us and God. Note:

Barth solved the problem of analogical discourse by appealing not so much to nature as to grace. Although human language was inherently incapable of referring to God, it was nevertheless made capable of doing so. Human language, as sanctified by grace, was at once affirmed, annulled, and elevated — affirmed in its creatureliness and annulled in its incapacity, in order to be elevated beyond itself. This gracious process of affirming, nullifying, and elevating, of capacitating the incapacitated, was associated with being raised from the dead (II/1, 231). It was therefore miraculous and beyond comprehension. Barth’s controlling metaphor was not creation but resurrection.

Grace made possible, and continued to make possible, what was otherwise impossible. Analogical discourse was grounded not in some metaphysical similarity between God and the creature, but solely in the sovereign freedom of divine grace. Human language, without ceasing to be essentially inadequate, was extended to be made fully appropriate. To be made appropriate despite being inadequate meant becoming absolutely dependent on grace. It was a miraculous dependence that occurred perfectly and perpetually: not statically but dynamically, not merely once and for all, but continually again and again.

Yet in elevating human language beyond its natural capacities, God “does not perform a violent miracle” (II/1, 229). The Creator enjoys an original and proper claim on human language, even though it has no such claim on him. Neither human sin nor creaturely finitude could undo this primordial divine claim. Human language belongs to the good creation in and through which God knows himself as God. When the Lord God graciously elevates human words, concepts, and images to participate in the truth of his own self-knowledge, language is not alienated from its original purpose, “but, on the contrary, restored to it” (II/1, 229).

For Barth, because God and the creature are incommensurable, any ontological continuity between them — not only regarding predicates like goodness, reason, and wisdom, but also regarding “non-agential” predicates like being, beauty, and light — must be seen as miraculously given, again and again, from above. Ontological continuity with the reality of God does not belong to the creature qua creature. It does not belong to the creature as a given endowment or a fixed condition — not originally, and not even subsequently. The continuity does not exist except as it is continually given, and it is not given except miraculously through God’s gracious operation. As continually though miraculously given, the continuity is not merely “occasional” (a common misunderstanding of Barth). It is rather a function of the perpetual operation of God’s grace as grounded and centered in Christ from before the foundation of the world. As such the continuity is always at once real and yet also incomprehensible. Therefore the ontological difference between God and the creature is not seen as “infinitely greater” but as absolute. Any similarities between the creature and God — real though incomprehensible, incomprehensible though real — are not grounded in the creatureliness of the creature, but strictly and entirely (not just partially) in divine grace as a perpetual and miraculous operation from above.[2]

For Barth it is Grace all the way down; grace not a perfected nature is the way Barth traverses the ditch between God and humanity; grace who in fact is Jesus Christ.

While I appreciate Webster’s description of Simplicity I think Barth’s way of thinking it actually magnifies Simplicity insofar as the Creator/creature distinction is honored precisely by radicalizing a concept of Grace by seeing that as the relation that God has always already related to his creation through to begin with; as the ‘first Word’ (cf. Gen. 1.1 / Jn. 1.1). We can all agree that God is incomposite and in that sense ‘untouched’ by his creation, but at the same time we don’t want to soften this (as I believe Aquinas does) in order to think a way for the gap to be bridged, in regard to knowledge of this Simple God, by bridging our apprehension of Him through an intact capacity within an abstract humanity; a humanity that isn’t grounded in the archetypal humanity of God in Jesus Christ.

By the way: to think Simplicity from the ‘Grace-alone-frame’ does things. It implicates a discussion on impassibility/passibility etc.

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 120 [emphasis mine].

[2] Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes, 70-1.

Hallmarks of the Trinity and God’s Inner Life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

When thinking of the Trinity people are often thrown into a quandary, and rightly so. The reality of God is an ineffable ultimate sort of reality that becomes slippery to the inquiring mind. Many, and rightly, caution that the mysterium trinitatis is something more to be adored than parsed and ransacked for intellectual coherence. It is true that the Trinity is ultimately a mystery, but the very fact that we can even use language like ‘trinity’ indicates that there is some level of intelligibility to this grand reality. As the tradition has illumined for the inquiring hearts and minds of the church, it is possible even to develop a grammar for speaking of God’s Triune life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Of course, all of these things are possible only because the impossible has been made possible by God’s choice for us in Christ to make himself known from the ontological inside out in the assumptio carnis (assumption of flesh). As such as Christians we do indeed think God as he has desired to be thought and experienced as filial Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

John Webster as he is attempting to offer a properly ordered treatment on a doctrine of creation dogmatically grounds his development in a doctrine of God; more focused, in God’s life as Triune. As he develops his thinking he offers four hallmarks that might be said of God in his inner life as that is given as gift in extra mode in his Self-revelation. He writes at length:

God’s life in himself is the perfect, still and eternal movement in which the Father generates the Son and together with the Son breathes the Spirit. Generation and spiration ­ the two ‘emanations’ or processions in which we may discern the personal modes of the one God ­ are the manner in which God is limitlessly abundant life, reciprocity and ‘ineffable mutual delight’. Of these internal works, a number of things may be said, all of which are (ectypal) indications of the unfathomable depth and originality of the triune God from which there flows his presence to creatures as their maker, reconciler, and perfecter. (a) God’s ad intra works are intrinsic, their term remaining within the subject of the action (this, over against-for example-Arian ideas that the Father’s generation of the Son is a transitive act, a work like creation, terminating in an object outside God, whereas generation and creation are properly speaking entirely different kinds of divine acts. (b) God’s ad intra works are constitutive, not accidental, activities. They are not ‘voluntary’ in the sense of enacting a decision behind which there lies an agent who might have willed to act otherwise: there is no Father ‘behind’ the generation of the Son, no Father and Son ‘behind’ the breathing of the Spirit (relations of origin are eternal, not sequential). In this sense, therefore, God’s immanent activities are ‘necessary’, not by external compulsion but by absolute or natural necessity: these activities are what it is for God to be God. (c) God’s ad intra activities are unceasing, not temporal or transient. They are not an act of self-constitution or self-causation (talk of God as causa sui makes no sense); they effect no alteration or modification of the godhead; they are not productive activities which might be conceived as finished. (d) God’s ad intra activities require us to speak of distinctions between the persons of the godhead. These distinctions are various. The persons are distinguished by origin (the Son is generated by the Father, but not the Father by the Son; the Spirit proceeds from Father and Son, but not they from him); they are distinguished by the order of the relations of origin which make it possible to speak of the first, second and third persons of the Trinity (though not thereby  to suggest temporal priority and posteriority or descending degrees of glory); they are, accordingly, distinguished by the order and mode of their immanent operations, which repeat the order and mode of their personal existence: the Father acts a nullo, the Son acts a Patre, the Spirit ab utroque ­ though not, of course, at cost to the common aseity in which each person is and acts.[1]

Important points about generation, aseity, and how the persons relate in oneness and threeness threeness and oneness (de Deo uno de Deo trino). We do see a commitment on Webster’s part to the filioque and the Western tradition, but we won’t engage with that now. More important, for my eyes, is his emphasizing of there ‘being no God behind the back of the Father or the Son or the Spirit’, a point us Torranceans and Barthians are fans of in heightened ways. We see Webster contradict the sort of post-metaphysical conception that some attribute to Barth’s theology; i.e. the idea that God’s ‘being is in becoming’, or for what Hunsinger calls the ‘revisionist Barth’ that God constitutes his being in his becoming in the incarnation (more pointedly: the resurrection). Instead Webster emphasizes the catholic view of God’s antecedent life as the ground of what is expressed and given in the outer life of the economy; we see Webster avoiding any sort of confusion between processions in the inner life with the missions given in the outer life.

These are all important points to emphasize when thinking God. Even though we have supposedly passed through a Trinitarian renaissance in Christian theology (Barth being one of its most important initiators) we might scratch our heads at the continued dereliction of thought of many, particularly within the realms of Protestant theology. We might think of someone like Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, or Owen Strachan and their eternal functional subordinationism or eternal submission of the Son to the Father. And now we have moved beyond, supposedly, the Trinitarian renaissance and have come to a point, according to Katherine Sonderegger et al. where God’s singularity needs to take precedence to help extinguish the relative emphasis on his multiplicity that has apparently obtained because of modern thinkers like Barth. It is interesting, really, because even Webster himself as a result of his turn to Aquinas et al. seems to want to correct the trinitarian excesses that even he had given himself over to in his early years with Barth and Jüngel. Much of Webster’s desire to correct has more to do with prolegomena or method when it comes to thinking God rather than a simple material correction in regard to a doctrine of God; when we come to that, as we have in the quote above, what we find is a Webster who is still a buddy of the ‘textual Barth’, as Hunsinger calls him.

Trinitarian theology is alive and well with many interesting trends and threads still fluttering in the minds and hearts of those who care. The Trinity matters because God matters. For the Christian there is no generic understanding of who God is; for the Christian God is necessarily Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and this reality, his persons-in-relation are the basis of his oneness, just as his oneness is the basis of his persons. When we get sidelined from the all-important reality of the Trinity, when we fail to emphasize that God is an eternal relation of love (i.e. self-giveness one for the other one in the other) precisely because he is a godhead who is personal, we end up constructing subsequent theologies that reflect whatever emphasis of God we hold dear. For an Evangelical Calvinist, as myself, understanding that God is Father by me entering that reality through the Son by the Spirit, means that the theology I do will always have a personalist and familial shape to it precisely because God in this frame just is Love.

 

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 89-90.

The Shepherd’s Voice: Nein! Natural Theology

Why do I reject natural theology? Why is this such a big deal for me you might wonder. Because I don’t think this is your normal theological locus; I think it is in a class all its own. Theological ontology-epistemology are the bases upon which God-talk can occur to begin with. How we understand these bases will say much about how we understand the God we portend to speak of and more importantly after (if that’s the order we end up following). So why I do reject the idea that human beings can come to a knowledge of God outside of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ?

John Webster, even as he is imbibing the spirit of classical Reformed theology, helps to elucidate why someone like me would reject natural theology. As an aside: it’s not just “Barthians” who reject natural theology, it is Bavinckians, and many of the Post Reformed orthodox themselves (see Muller, PRRD). As Webster identifies there are two prongs that inhibit a natural knowledge of God: 1) God’s ineffability, and 2) our fallen and finite capacities. He writes:

A third principle requires a little more extensive explanation. A Christian doctrine of creation is doubly inhibited: by the ineffability of its object, and by the limits of fallen intelligence. The doctrine is chiefly concerned, no so much with causal explanation of what is as with contemplation of the fact that what is might not have been and yet is, and of the infinite bliss of God who lies on the other side of that ‘might not have been’. The doctrine’s core, in other words, is not cosmology but theology proper — God’s ‘invisible nature’ (Rom. 1.20), which, even when manifest in the visibilia of created reality, exceeds comprehensive intelligence (a point obscured when teaching about creation is annexed by natural theology). Knowledge of the creator and of creation is creaturely knowledge; in knowing the creator and his act, and ourselves as creatures, we do not transcend our creaturely condition, but repeat it: ‘no point of contemplation can be found outside Himself’, Hilary reminds his readers. More particularly, in this matter, creaturely knowledge is directed to an agent wholly surpassing us, to an act from whose occurrence we were absent: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ (Job 38.4). Moreover — as God’s question to Job discloses — what restricts us is not simply the finiteness of created intelligence but its fallenness and ‘futility’ (Rom. 1.21), its darkening of counsel by words without wisdom (Job 38.2). Knowledge of the creator and of ourselves as creatures is a casualty of the fall: we will not honour the creator (Rom. 1.21), we will not acknowledge ourselves to be his creatures. Fallen intelligence tends away from God, in the forgetfulness and impatience (Ps. 106.13). To know its creator, reason must be healed by repentance and the suffering of divine instruction, by which love of God is made to grow. The rule which governs teaching about the Trinity, and therefore about creation as one of its extensions, is: love alone restores knowledge. Love, furthermore, is the end of theological contemplation of the creator and his work. The goal of the redeemed mind’s exercise in this matter is ‘that [God] may himself be sought, and himself be loved.’ Or, as a later Augustinian put it, the task of trinitarian theology is ‘to manifest what is expressly revealed in the Scripture concerning God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; so as that we may duly believe in him, yield obedience unto him, enjoy communion with him, walk in his love and fear, and so come at length to be blessed with him for evermore.[1]

On the latter locus I am reminded of the Petrine wisdom:

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.[2]

God —> Knowledge of God —> Through Participation —> Leading to Moral and Noetic Transformation in Faith as Knowledge —> To Orthopraxis —> Grounded in the Love of God in Christ. Sum: All of this movement is grounded in God’s choice to be God for us in Jesus Christ. From this springs the only possibility wherein genuine knowledge of God can obtain. None of this would occur without the reality that God is Love.

These represent some of the realities why I reject a theologia naturalis or natural theology as a preamble to a genuine knowledge of God. For one thing it is unnecessary to posit a natural theology—at least for the Christian—because by definitional reality Christians are already Christians by being those in encounter with the living Word as by the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12.3). It’s a redundancy for those who already know the voice of God (his sheep cf. Jn 10) to attempt a look elsewhere for a foundational knowledge of God. True, philosophy and its lexicon is undeniably present in the history and development of theologics; but the grammar that has reified the various philosophies is a heavenly sui generis one that has no parallel, and needs none when the Christian knows the voice of their Shepherd. This is why I think Barth’s analogia fidei/relationis (faith-relation) de jure is the better way to go when attempting to be a theologian of the cross.

 

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury-T&T Clark, 2015), 83-4.

[2] II Peter 1.3-9, NIV.

Christology as Theology: John Webster’s Turn to the Immanent God as the Salvage of the Economic God of Modernity

John Webster surveys three important modern theologians as examples of thinkers who to one extent or another, as he notes, reduce all theological endeavor to Christology or ‘incarnation.’

Formation of Christology by some or all of these principles may result from various factors, theological or non-theological. Chief among the theological factors is a commitment to a view of divine revelation as embodied divine self-manifestation: in effect, revelation is incarnation. One consequence of this strong identity between the divine Word and the historical form which it assumes is to close the space between God absolutely considered and God relatively considered. By virtue of the incarnational union of deity and humanity, there is consubstantiality between God’s immanent self and God’s revealed self, so that ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ are not simply coherent but identical. Theology cannot ‘get behind the back of Jesus to the eternal Son of God’. The non-theological factors are more diverse and less easy to specify. They include such matters as: consent to the metaphysical restrictions imposed by Kant’s placing of the noumenal beyond the reach of the human intellect; the effects of historical naturalism on interpretation of New Testament Christology; a valorization of history as first reality; a concomitant loss of confidence in the explanation of temporal events, acts and agents by reduction to their causes.[1]

As I noted, Webster then sketches three thinkers to one degree or another who fit what Webster sees as a lamentable turn for theological trajectory that took place in the modern period; the thinkers he surveys in this vein are Izaak Dorner, Albrecht Ritschl, and Karl Barth. The former two are used as par excellence examples of his negative description of this theological turn, while Barth is elevated, somewhat, as someone who was able to ‘mediate’ things between the orthodox and modern (or heterodox) periods of development.

I have great respect for John Webster, but I think it is unfortunate that he made a turn in his more mature theological reflection from what he finally came to think of as corrosive to a genuinely Christian theological project to the classical theistic mode he ended with prior to his call home. Nonetheless, I want to share his summary of Barth’s theology as the best of the mediating theologies to come from the modern turn; at least that’s the impression one gets as they read Webster’s detailing of the matter.

A final example is that of Barth, generally judged the most consistently Christocentric modern theologian. The unequalled intellectual grandeur of Barth’s achievement in the Church Dogmatics, along with its rhetorical, imaginative and spiritual force and its descriptive prowess, have combined to convey an impression of originality about his concentration on Christology, an impression which Barth himself did not discourage. However, his indebtedness to the great dogmaticians of the nineteenth century ought not to be understated (Barth himself did not understate it). What was original to Barth was not his Christological concentration so much as his combination of it with classical conciliar incarnational dogma and Reformed teaching about the hypostatic union, and his refusal to concur with the moralization of Christology into the soteriological background to religious-ethical society.

Barth’s concentration on Christology is more complex than admirers and critics often allow, and than some of his own programmatic statements about the place and function of Christology statements about the place and function of Christology suggest (understanding the Church Dogmatics requires attention both to Barth’s uncompromising enunciations of principles and his often much more nuanced and fine-grained exposition of detail). There are certainly many occasions when he announces the Christological determination of all dogmatic loci: revelation, the being of God in his freedom and his love, the election of humankind, human nature, sin, the Spirit, and more besides. Often the vigour of Barth’s statements derives from his resistance to what he considered the corrosive effects of natural theology. Moreover, the fourth volume of the Dogmatics, which treats the doctrine of reconciliation by an innovative interlaced account of the person and work of Christ, his natures, offices and states and their saving efficacy, is without doubt the point at which Barth’s powers are at full stretch. In the details of his exposition, however, Barth rarely reduces all other doctrines to derivatives or implicates of Christology. In part this is because he fears systematic master principles, even dogmatic ones, and seeks to preserve the freedom of the Word of God in dogmatic construction. In part, too, it is because he has a well-developed sense of the range of dogmatics, and an especially strong conviction that, in a dogmatics in which the covenant between God and humanity is of primary import, Christology in the economy must not overwhelm either the freedom of the eternal divine decision or the integrity of the human creature. In addition, Barth remains convinced that Christology and Trinity are inseparable and mutually implicating, and that teaching about the immanent Trinity is of great Christological import (this may be lost from view if Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation is detached from his doctrine of the Trinity in Church Dogmatics 1). Jesus Christ is the name, form and act of God; yet where those in Ristchl’s school (including the theological existentialists with whom Barth engaged in skirmishes in the 1950s whilst writing Church Dogmatics IV) took this as permission to set theology proper to one side in favour of an exclusively economic orientation, Barth continued to think that teaching about the eternal Son is essential to identifying the acting subject of revelation and reconciliation. In the overall sweep of his exposition of Christian doctrine, Barth does not allow theology to atrophy, though he is consistently and powerfully attentive to the economy as the sphere of the Son’s presence and action.[2]

By and large a favorable account of Barth’s theology; especially when placed against his teachers or forerunners, as we find in Dorner, Ristchl et al. Nevertheless, for Webster, Barth fits into the mold of a modern Christological theologian; even if he is more prescient or sensitive to the import of maintaining an antecedent ground or ‘primary objectivity’ to God’s being in becoming in the economy (‘secondary objectivity’). If you have ever read Paul Molnar or George Hunsinger on Barth you will find resonances with their interpretations and Webster’s here.

My concern, at least for my evangelical brethren and sistren, is that Webster’s turn will thrust people back into another ‘turn’ a turn away from, indeed, seeing Jesus Christ as the key to all theological knowledge. This is what has so attracted me to Barth, Torrance, et al; their emphasis upon Jesus Christ. Jesus was interested in emphasizing himself as the key to biblical exegesis and reality, and I take this impulse this centraldogma of dominical teaching as the mode for doing all theology. Sure, we could blame this turn to Christology as the key for theological explication on Kant and the modern turn to the subject; but why? Or even so, why is this turn ultimately a bad thing? Isn’t Webster’s own explication of Barth’s theology an example of how this ‘turn’ can be balanced out by recourse to a proper valence between the immanent God and the economic? Even with this valence, for Barth et al, Christ remains the concentrated and intensive key to all theological knowledge; to all Trinitarian knowledge, as the Son is the Son of the Father in pneumatic bondage.

My basic concern is that our knowledge of God, in principle is based upon a just is self possessed discursive root rather than the givenness of the God who speaks as gift in the face of Jesus Christ. In other words, my concern always seems to come back to natural theology; to base knowledge of God upon a pure nature, or even a given nature that epistemically precedes God’s confrontation with us in and through his Divine Logos, as far as I am concerned, lays a foundation for knowledge of God that necessarily starts from within the confines of a posit that has germinated in the mind of man rather than in the mind and heart of the living God. An appeal to the Tradition at this point only is to illustrate, by the way, the role that natural theology has in confirming the classical bias towards a naturum purum (pure nature).

 

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1 God And The Works Of God (London-New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), Loc 1269, 1277 kindle version.

[2] Ibid., 1318, 1327, 1334, 1341, 1348.

The Eternal Submission of the Son: John ‘the Baptist’ Webster Calls Her Proponents to Repentance

Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, Owen Strachan et al. are all proponents of what is called Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) or Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS) in regard to the Son’s relation to the Father. They claim to get this idea from biblical exegesis. But what is clear is that they actually get it from reading a prior socio-anthropological commitment into the Bible, as they see it, in support of their hard complementarianism as that relates to male-female relationships (particularly in the marriage bond). At a theological level, because they want to further bolster their socio-anthropological perspective, what they end up doing is conflating the economic reality of God’s triune life (ad extra) with God’s so called immanent life (ad intra); thus conflating processions and origin of relation with God’s missions as that is revealed in salvation-history. The result of this conflation (of collapsing the immanent into the economic tout court) is that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father, in the ESS view, and the result is that we end up with some form of subordinationist theology proper; whether that be akin to something like Arianism or Monarchianism or Tri-theism (pick your poison).

In contradistinction from the ESS proponents, and in line with orthodox and historic teaching (meaning with reference to the ecumenical church councils and the Trinitarian as well as the Christological grammar produced) John Webster offers some prudential counsel on why we should reject the ESS position and call it what it is: heresy (he doesn’t use this word, but I infer it from his lengthy treatment of this topic of which the following is only one point of many). Here is Webster speaking directly to the eternal generation of the Son, and how that precisely does not support any sort of eternal subordination of the Son to the Father but in point of fact actually grounds the missions of the God-head without collapsing or conflating the processions into the missions in absolute terms (i.e. it honors archetypal and ectypal knowledge of God).

No subordination of the Son is entailed by his generation by the Father. There is certainly active and passive in their relation: the Father begets, the Son does not, but has his personal subsistence by virtue of the Father’s act. But the passive generation attributed to the Son, his being generated, is no less an ontological perfection than the Father’s active generation. Once again, generation and consubstantiality support each other.

At a relatively straightforward level, generation does not involve the Father’s temporal priority over the Son, because eternal generation is not temporal beginning. Begetting is ‘above all “when” or ‘beyond the sphere of time’. The Son is from but not after the Father. But this opens into a larger point about the Son’s perfect deity. In being generated by the Father, Hilary tells us, the Son retains ‘the fullness of that Godhead from which and in which he was born as true and infinite and perfect God’. This extends a point made earlier, namely that the relation unbegotten:begotten is of a different order from the relation creator:creature, since begetting is not making. The extension consists in denying the identity of being unbegotten with the divine essence. Gregory of Nazianzen pushes the point against opponents who claim that ‘if the Son is the same as the Father in respect of essence, then if the Father is unbegotten, the Son must be so likewise’. ‘Quite so’, he says, ‘if the essence of God consists in being unbegotten’. But it does not: ‘Unbegotten is not a synonym of God’. Unbegottenness is in fact the personal characteristic of the Father, not a property of the common divine essence; and so the Son’s being begotten does not exclude him from deity.

Using a slightly different idiom, Aquinas argues that to speak of the Father as principle (principium) is not to think of him as superordinate over the other two persons for principle means ‘not priority but simply origin’. This means that it is proper to speak of the unregenerate Father as ‘a principle not from a principle’, and of the Son as ‘a principle from a principle’ by virtue of his generation, without disturbing the eternal co-equality of Father and Son. In the terminology of post-Reformation divinity, the Son is still autotheos. He is this, not in respect of his person (which he has from the Father) but in respect of the common aseity which he has as a sharer in the one divine essence. The Father is a se in his person (as the principium of the triune life); the Son is a se only in his divine essence. ‘The Son is God from himself although not the Son from himself.’

In terms of trinitarian doctrine, this affirmation that begottenness is a divine perfection offers protection against what Tom Weinandy has called ‘emanationist sequentialism’: origin and order in the triune life are not a matter of ‘priority, precedence and sequence’. There is a proper reciprocity between Father and Son, in which the Father’s personal character as Father is confirmed and glorified by the Son. Certainly, the Father is a nemine, from no one; but he is not solitary, for he is the eternal Father of the eternal Son, and so ‘the Father is glorified through the Son when men recognise that he is Father of a Son so divine.’ In Christological terms, it reinforces the core conviction of Nicaea, that the ‘ek’ in ‘God from God, light from light, true God from true God’ does not alienate the Son from the life of God, and that the Son’s coming down from heaven is truly the presence of the perfect God.[1]

In light of such sustained consideration one wonders how the evangelical contingent of ESS or EFS proponents can continue to live life unrepentant. I don’t expect them to repent, even if they were to read such eloquent consideration of such a beautiful doctrine as we find in the eternal generation of the Son in his utter begotteness. The unfortunate thing is that the evangelical’s commitment to constructing cultural idols (complementarianism, egalitarianism, etc.) is allowed to shape the conclusions of their biblical exegetical projects; which then makes their projects eisegetical. This is unfortunate because such voices have large places in the broader mainstream of the evangelical churches across North America and beyond.

You might be wondering why this ultimately matters. Because Christians are people of the truth, and we want to make sure the God we worship is the God Self-revealed in Jesus Christ (i.e. working out the inner-logical reality of that as far as we can) rather than one constructed upon social or other whims that end up hybridizing him thus turning him into a human projection rather than the God of God who he is for us.

I think many of these EFS proponents think they have out-lasted the social media or blog cycle, as far as attention span. Nope, some of us are still watching; we see you, and continue to call you to repentance. You are living in doctrinal sin, and thus have a root of theological sinfulness fomenting your life and ministries to and for others; and even for yourselves. We are still watching, and my five-hundred readers will continue to be made aware of your intentional sinfulness when it comes to this most important doctrinal consideration. So I say again: Repent!

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1 God And The Works Of God (London-New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), Loc 839, 848, 857, 866 kindle version.

Not All Modern Theology Fits the Socinian Mode Contra Post Reformed orthodox Impulses

In some ways I think the following represents the battle that Protestant orthodox, so called, see themselves in. There isn’t a one-for-one correspondence, per se, between the combatants, but I think the corollary, by way of ethos, is present enough in order for the historical battle between the Socinians and the orthodox to provide the sort of role-playing that I think many orthodox see themselves in as they battle modern theology (developments occurring primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries and how those have been taken up by the mainliners et al following) currently. You might wonder what I am referring to. Let me quote something from Richard Muller and then follow with some concluding thoughts.

The problem of antitrinitarian exegesis was, certainly, the most overtly intense of the issues faced by the Reformers and their successors, given the Protestant emphasis on the priority of the biblical norm. For the various antitrinitarians consistently rejected tradition in the name of their own exegesis of Scripture. In addition, in the seventeenth century, there was a partial coincidence, given the textual problems of such texts as 1 John 5:7 and 1 Timothy 3:16, between the Socinian position and the views of various text-critical scholars. The orthodox found themselves in the very difficult position of arguing a traditional view of the Trinity against an antitrinitarian exegesis that appeared, in a few instances, to represent the results of text criticism and, in a few other instances, to represent a literal exegesis of text over against an older allegorism or typological reading — at the same time that, in many of its readings, it appeared to be a contorted and rationalizing attempt to undermine not only the traditional but also the basic literal sense of the text. This latter characteristic of Socinian exegesis cut in two directions: on the one hand, it could be presented, as was typical of the Socinian argumentation, as on a par with the text-critical results used in the Socinian reading of other passages, giving warrant to the antitrinitarian reading at least by association; on the other hand, it could be seen as an excessive result of the newer hermeneutical approaches, creating and otherwise unwarranted suspicion of certain kinds of textual criticism on the part of the orthodox. In either case, the orthodox task of building the primary justification of the doctrine of the Trinity on exegesis was made more difficult.

There were, therefore, three basic issues to follow in the discussion of the trinitarian thought of the Reformers and the Reformed orthodox — namely, the careful use of a well-defined patristic vocabulary, increasingly tuned to the particular needs and issues of Reformed thought, the intense battle over the exegetical ground of the doctrine in both testaments in view of the biblicistic assault on the doctrine from the Socinians and other antitrinitarians, and the struggle to find a suitable set of philosophical categories for the understanding and explanation of the doctrinal result, given the alteration or at least the fluidity of the conception of substance. At the heart of these lay the exegetical issue, given the Reformation emphasis on the priority of Scripture over all other norms of doctrine and alteration of patterns of interpretation away from the patristic and medieval patterns that had initially yielded the doctrine of the Trinity and given it a vocabulary consistent with traditional philosophical usage.[1]

Unfortunately for those in the current iteration of Post Reformed orthodoxy (and its softer evangelical corollaries) they often flatten modern theology out to the point that it ALL ends up falling prey to playing the Socinian and other antitrinitarian role. Much of what is called ‘theology of retrieval’, done by Post Reformed orthodox practitioners is an attempt to correct and even rebuke the purported ills brought upon the evangelical churches by the advent and development of modern theological categories. Note John Webster on theologies of retrieval (who I respect, but take some issue with in regard to the sort of negative hue he gives modern theology [which he knows very well given his many years with Barth and Jüngel]):

For such theologies, immersion in the texts and habits of thought of earlier (especially pre-modern) theology opens up a wide view of the object of Christian theological reflection, setting before its contemporary practitioners descriptions of the faith unharnessed by current anxieties, and enabling a certain liberty in relation to the present. With this in mind, we begin by considering the study of history as a diagnostic to identify what are taken to be misdirections in modern theology, and then the deployment of history as a resource to overcome them.[2]

Are there certain theologians in the modern period that might fit the Socinian mode? Yes! But not all and this is the rub. Obviously, for me, Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance represent modern theologians who not only critically and constructively engaged with the deep past, but they also were beneficiaries of some of the important movements of thought we find developed in the modern period as well. In short: not all modern theology can be or should be relegated to the Socinian mode of the Post Reformed orthodox period; but this seems to be a general characteristic in regard to the way many ensconced in this camp approach those of us who recognize that modern theology is not in fact only something that needs to be ‘overcome.’

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Four: The Triunity of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 62.

[2] John Webster, “Theologies of Retrieval,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (Oxford/NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 585.

Thinking About God’s Aseity Alongside John Webster: And Its Impact on Mental Health

Divine aseity as a doctrine and reality has helped me almost more than any other theological locus I can think of. That might seem strange given my apparent predisposition towards kataphatic theology, or theology based solely on God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. But it is this white-hot purifying reality that seemingly God himself has brought me back to over and over again. When the Lord really got a depth hold on me say back in 1995ish (moving me beyond my childhood faith—which was real), he used reality and existence as his means. I became hyper aware, even fixated upon reality and unreality, to the point that it caused me anxiety of the sort I would rather never repeat again. But the reality is is that he learned me into his reality, the reality that all other perceived and physically observable reality pales compared to his real reality. It is the childish idea of getting fixated on the thought that God always just has existed; with no external cause or source, he just is. I say childish because this idea operates under the assumption that God is of a sort—qualitatively—that fits into the created class; as if if we could burrow deep enough we’d finally come to some sort of ‘beginning’ for God. This is childish; we ought to move into meatier ideas about God. Aseity offers a meaty way to think God, but not comprehend him nor circumscribe him with our own powers; aseity simply identifies a reality about God—from his gracious Self-revelation—that recognizes our inability to surmise such a being. This is a purifying reality.

In order to gain better traction on what Divine aseity entails let’s hear from a theologian who I would call a theologian of Divine aseity, the late John Webster. In the following he describes and defines for us the entailments of God’s aseity. I’ll follow with some further reflection based upon Webster’s insights:

Second, it indicates that God’s originality and fullness constitute the ground of his self-communication. He is the one who, out of nothing other than his own self-sufficiency, brings creatures into being, sustains and reconciles them, and brings them to perfection in fellowship with himself. A theology of God’s aseity is an indication of the one who is and acts thus, who is the object of the church’s knowledge, love and fear, and whose praise is the church’s chief employment.

The concept of aseity tries to indicate God’s identity; it is not a definition of God but a gesture towards God’s objective and self-expressive being. The task of the concept is not to establish conditions for conceivability but rather to have rational dealings with the God who is, and is self-communicative, anterior to rational work on our part. God is objective and expressive being, presenting himself to us and making himself perceptible, intelligible and nameable (this is part of the meaning of ‘revelation’). Consequently, in theology aseity is a positive or material concept, determined by the particular form of God’s self-expressive perfection. Its content is grasped as regenerate intelligence, prompted by divine instruction, considers God absolutely and relatively, in his inner being and his outer works. Because of this, theology will not over-invest in whatever generic sense may be attached to the concept of aseity (or of any of the other divine attributes). This, not because of intellectual sectarianism, a desire to segregate theological use in an absolute way from all other speech about deity – after all, aseity, like nearly all Christian theological concepts, is a borrowed term with a wider currency. Rather, theology is simply concerned to ensure that its talk of aseity concentrates on that which is proper to this one.[1]

Do you see how as a limiting doctrine, insofar as it recognizes the type of capacities we have as creatures to think God, this might have a purifying impact? It places the Christian supplicant up against the mighty reality of God. Personally as I ponder this reality the created order gains a proper order; maybe not in a fully spelled out sense, but in the sense that the whole world, as Isaiah notes, is nothing more than a ‘drop in a bucket’ before God. Living in the reality of God’s aseity takes the pressure off of me to perform and sustain, and places that burden on the shoulders it should be placed. Aseity recognizes that God is God and I am not, and it’s a relief. Aseity contradicts the original lie of Genesis 3; a lie that has placed untold burden on humanity, a burden that makes it seem like each individual human being must assert its own inner-divinity. Aseity takes that away from the creature and recognizes that God alone is big enough to bear the burdens of holding the world together; even our own worlds that seemingly fall apart the moment we wake up each day.

For the Christian aseity does not suggest a nebulous reality greater than can be conceived; instead aseity is particularized in the God-man for us, Jesus Christ (thinking about how the Deus absconditus is Deus revelatus – the ‘hidden God’ is the ‘revealed God’). In other words, aseity, for the Christian comes to us in personal terms. The Son introduces us to the Father by the Holy Spirit and we enter into his reality by grace becoming participants and partakers of the divine nature wherein recognition of just who this God, our God is. He truly is. It is this personal reality that makes thinking aseity possible; in other words, God’s Self-revelation sets the conditions for coming to recognition that God just is. Just is in the sense that he just is without explanation; he’s just there, and he’s said he’s just there for us—and he said this in such a way that his self-sufficiency in his inexplicability is the basis upon which he has freely chosen to be for us apart from needing us to be who he is for and with us.

An aside. Like I noted above, I struggled with serious anxiety and depression for many years; much of that had to do with precisely this issue: the issue of reality and existence. When we can start to live and move in the reality of God’s aseity, in the face of Jesus Christ, so many of the pressures we place upon ourselves simply melt away. I would suggest that much of what our culture popularly and even academically identifies as mental-illness in the 21st century context is a result of the human condition and its inner-impulse and propulsion to be God without having the a se resource to actually pull such a feat off. Coming to the brink of my own beginning and end by living in the recognition that God, who has no beginning or end, becomes the strong shelter, the everlasting arms I constantly flee to to find refuge. When I can come to that place, as the prophets speak of, that I am just silent before this God who just is, it is here that the shalom of God comes to be experienced. I am not suggesting that mental and other issues are magically ‘cured’ by coming to live in the realization of God’s a se life, but I am suggesting that without this recognition the conditions for personal liberation and healing (in a genuinely theological proper way) will not be present.

 

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1 God And The Works Of God (London-New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), Loc 283, 290, 296 kindle version.

God is God, the Basis of Theology: Taking Away Lament and Polemic as Places to Do Theology From {According to John Webster}

I want to offer a quick quote from the late John Webster on how two loci, according to Webster, ought to function (or not) in the practice of systematic theology; I think this has application for living the Christian life in general (which would make sense since for the Christian to live the Christian life is engaging in theology from moment to moment conscious or subconscious). In the context Webster is speaking to the domain or ‘sphere’ wherein theology ought to have voice; he believes it ought to have a public character, indeed as it is the discipline of self-criticizing what it means to live in and from the Gospel. In other words, if theology is the necessary corollary of living in and from the Gospel, and if the Gospel itself is God’s demonstration of love that he is for the whole world and not against it, then theology itself will have a public character to it; insofar as the universal application can be derived from its particular scandalization in and from the God-man, Jesus Christ.

The two loci that Webster lifts up for some constructive criticism, as that has to do with the ‘doing of theology’ are: Lament and Polemic. You’ll notice that Webster sees a healthy place for both of these in theological discourse, but what he warns against is an unhealthy absolutization of either; he warns of their corrosive nature if not held in the proper valence.

A critique of this conception of systematic theology would most properly be undertaken, not in prolegomena, but in the course of material dogmatic exposition, and cannot be pursued at this point. But it worth remarking that the contrariety of the conception of systematic theology explored in what follows ought not to be allowed to generate an enduring posture of lament for a lost dogmatic culture. Lament is fitting on some occasions, but as a permanent attitude it can do damage, breeding intellectual vices such as vanity or pessimism, inhibiting a clear-sighted  view of the situation and drawing theology away from its contemplative vocation. Likewise, polemic arrests and coarsens the mind when allowed to become habitual. What should hold lament and polemic in check is a gospel-derived awareness of the necessary pathos which attends theological work, the roots of which lie in the fact that the world is at enmity with the church and is reluctant to learn about the divine wisdom with which the saints have been entrusted. Yet even a due sense of pathos ought not to overwhelm the tranquil pursuit of theology, made possible and fruitful, not by the capacities of its practitioners or the opportunities afforded by its cultural settings, but by the infinite power of divine goodness shedding  abroad the knowledge of itself. That movement, in its boundless depth and its capacity to overcome the mind’s estrangement from its creator, constitutes the principles of systematic theology.[1]

For Webster theology, by way of order (taxis) has a soteriological location; but prior to that locus is God. If so, in the complex of a holy God confronting an unholy world, and an unholy world attempting to confront a holy God, a theological-valence will occur wherein the giver of life himself succeeds in communicating himself to such a world such that the world can finally come to hear him as he invades its sinful and putrid state recreating space for it to hear his Word just as it is confronted by it (or Him!). Within this setting Webster is calling for sobriety when we might want to tend towards lamenting the apparent loss that the in-roads of theological discourse might be having in the world (i.e. from a pragmatic point of view), or by doubling down into a posture of attack and polemic against an unbelieving world; both postures that are resultants of a desperation that in the light of God, and who he is by way of being and capacity, and who he has become for us in Jesus Christ, should not be. Can there be moments of lament, and moments of polemic when occasions call for such? Yes. But these should not be allowed to become our existential warp and woof as we live our lives in and from the theological grist of God’s reality for us in Christ.

What I take away from this most is that God is God and we are not. We should not lament nor polemicize when God does not require such in his economy of overcoming and reversing the way things might appear to us. So theology, if God is God and we are not, ought to be done from a posture of ‘walking by faith not sight.’ We ought to trust, as Christians, that God is not challenged by the puny sub-capacious ways of this world; God does not need us, we need him, whether we are able or willing to recognize this or not. I fear that the church, particularly certain sectors, and the sub-cultures they foster and construct, live in just the opposite direction of this. If we do theology as if God is God, then it will take on a proper orientation and character. The questions asked will be of the right order and not produced by an inconsolable lament about how things should be, but aren’t; or a by a militant polemic to forcibly make things the way we think they should be, but aren’t. Because God is God theology has an order and reality to it that is not contingent upon us, but instead one that makes us contingent upon it; the reality.

 

[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T&T Clark International, 2012), 135.