Was the Cartesian, Pierre Poiret, Post Reformed Orthodoxy’s Version of Karl Barth?

I must admit, I am a bit surprised I have never seen Karl Barth (or Thomas Torrance) compared to 17th century “Reformed” thinker Pierre Poiret; at least by those who are in the know in regard to the history of ideas in the development of Post Reformed Orthodox theology. I mean, yes, Barth is often called a heretic by contemporary after-Westminster theologians of today, but they never really get that specific; it’s just like an appeal to their people, and an announcement to their choir. As I am continuing my trek through Richard Muller’s four volumes (apparently vols. 5–8 are coming out in 2018), in volume three I came upon this following reference to, indeed, Pierre Poiret. I find it interesting, because the way Muller describes Poiret’s Cartesian inspired theology, relative to knowledge of God and what that implicates, one might conclude that Poiret could serve as the poster-boy and precedent for Barth’s later and ostensible heretical theology (at least as many of the classically Reformed of today think of Barth i.e. largely those who follow Van Til’s influence out of Westminster Theological Seminary in both Philly and California). Let me share the quote, and you can take a look and see what you think. I’m sharing this also for future reference purposes. Here’s Muller on Poiret:

An example of the impact of Cartesian thinking on an entire system of nominally Reformed theology is Poiret’s L’Oeconomie divine, ou système universal (1687): in its subtitle, the work indicates  that it demonstrates and explains the origin of Christianity and offers metaphysically certain statements of the “principles and truths of nature and grace, philosophy and theology, reason and faith, natural morality and Christian religion” together with a resolution of “the great and thorny difficulties of predestination, freedom, universal redemption, and providence.” Here we actually have a theology that begins with the problem of Pyrrhonistic skepticism, asserts the certitude of self-existence on the ground of the Cartesian cogito, and proceeds from the existence of certainty to the existence of God. From these arguments, Poiret passes on to a discussion of “the fundamental idea of the divine essence” and “the nothingness of ideas by themselves,” to a positing of “the origin of ideas through the decree of God in his discretionary understanding.” The eternal decree, according to Poiret, is the firm resolve of God “to give birth to ideas in his understanding, and beyond himself to things corresponding to his ideas.” The doctrine of the Trinity is to be understood by inference from the tripartite character of the soul — with the Father as “infinitely living Thought,” the Son as “image” and “light,” and the Spirit as “joy” and activity. The problem of predestination  is resolved in the declaration “that all those who have and who will participate in human nature are all predestined by god to life eternal” on the ground that the god who is infinite thought and who, in the execution of his decree, has realized his own ideas in the finite order, could not decree to create the most admirable creature in his own image and then consign it to eternal death. The irony of Poiret’s formulation is that this sole “decretal” system produced in the seventeenth century rests on Cartesian, not Aristotelian, principles and deduces apokatastasis from the eternal counsel of God! And, by Reformed orthodox standards, Poiret’s decretal Cartesianism had certainly produced heresy.[1]

Obviously there isn’t going to be univocal correspondence between Poiret and Barth, but there is enough there that I am very surprised that some of the proponents of Reformed orthodox theology of today haven’t ever pulled this type of Poiret card out when they are lambasting Barth as a heretic.

If anyone knows of Barth’s actualism, being-in-becoming theology you might see some similar contours of thought between Poiret and Barth, at least in tone and trajectory; particularly when it comes to predestination and its resolution in a Christian universalism (e.g. apokatastasis)—even though Barth rejected universalism as he believes it challenges God’s freedom. Insofar as Anselm’s ontological argument helped to fuel Descartes’ thought, as well as Barth’s, we can also see this in Muller’s portrayal of Poiret’s theology; maybe another point of contact between the respective trajectories. Barth’s theology is also typically aligned with the existentialism of his modern day; in Muller’s description of Poiret’s thinking, we see a type of that in his trajectory in conformity with his own period.

In the end, Barth was not a Cartesian, he was not a Kantian dualist, nor a Hegelian dialecticist (even if the latter two were reified by Barth under the pressure of God’s Self revelation in Jesus Christ). As George Hunsinger has rightfully noted, Barth followed a Chalcedonian Pattern in all of his thinking where Christ was the key and principial reality by which all else was regulated in his theological œuvre.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Divine Essence and Attributes, Volume Three (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 125.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Botanist Loving, Serpent Kissing Prophet of Modern Man

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28 June 1712 – 2 July 1778) was somewhat of a tipping point, a prophet of the modern man to come. It caused him no small angst to be such a harbinger; Karl Barth writes, as he reflects on Rousseau’s place in history: rousseau1“twenty or thirty years later he would have been able to find a thousand people who shared his knowledge.”[1] This begs the question, what exactly was it in Rousseau that caused him to kick up against the waning religious establishment of his day? There are many ways to answer that question, but I thought for the purposes of this post I would share one long paragraph from Barth on Rousseau that I think captures well the broad framework which Rousseau developed in his own rather tortured existence (but not always tortured, just sometimes).

Karl Barth writes of Rousseau’s thought, this (at some length):

But we would be failing to understand Rousseau’s—or Goethe’s—Pelagianism if we simply ascribed it, as theologians have so often done, to a lightness of conscience, and therefore judged it, so to speak, as a moral deficiency. The decisive factor we must take into account in considering Rousseau’s belief in the goodness of man, held with a firmness astonishing even to such a time as his, and the wholehearted support for this view which the age of Goethe then lent him all along, is the fact that this new age, And Rousseau as one of the first within it,  had made a completely new discovery in the realm of anthropology, and that it was this same discovery which underlay its contention that man was good, its rejection of the dogma of original sin, and such self-appreciations as those of Rousseau, so moving to us now in their naïveté; but which also underlay Goethe’s glorified vision of his own existence and development. From this fact it follows also that what we might call optimism of the new age was not only incomparably more powerful, but essentially different from what might strike us as being optimism in those belonging to the age which was then drawing to its close. The natural goodness of man which Rousseau claimed exists is definitely not in any simple or direct sense that which we are in the habit of calling moral goodness, freedom from evil impulses, freedom from all kinds of temptation, and freedom to respect the feelings of our fellow-men. And hence his self praise is not in any simple or direct sense moral self-praise. The goodness of which he speaks is of course moral goodness too: Rousseau imagined that he was good-hearted truly and particularly also in this respect. But his kind of goodness was not primarily moral goodness. If Rousseau believed his heart was good he did so because he imagined that in the midst of a society whose whole striving and interest were directed outwards, he had discovered quite anew that man has a heart, and what the human heart actually is. The heart is simply the man himself, discounting everything he produces or which confronts him as an alien existence or as the work of alien hands. This is what Rousseau has found: himself. And this is what he holds to be good and even precious: the fact that he exists and does not-exist, precisely as the man he is, situated precisely as he is in fact situated. A whole world revealed itself to him when he gazed into himself. He did not do this in the manner of the individualism of his time, which looked within in order to go out again at once into the outside world, desiring to apprehend, form and conquer. Rousseau intended to linger there because he had recognized that in it he possessed his own unique world full of unique forms of truth and beauty. Existence was not just a predicate, not entirely a matter of how I conduct myself towards the outerworld. It was definitely not just acting and suffering. Existence was a beautiful, rich and lively inner life of its own, so beautiful, rich and lively that anyone who has once discovered it no longer attributes any worth to any life which differs from it, and can only have and love anything different from it as it is connected with this life; but he really could have and love it now in this connexion. Existence was, so to speak, the realm of the middle, the mean. It was the paradise of the happy and at the same time the secure haven of the unhappy. It was the dependable norm for all the distinctions and choices that are necessary in life, and a norm which functioned as it were automatically. Man existing, being himself as Rousseau more than once said, was in God’s presence and like him. If a state exists where the soul can find a secure place which can contain it whole, a place secure enough that it can find complete rest in it and can collect again the forces of its being in it, without needing to recall the past, nor encroach upon the future, a place where time is as nothing to the soul and the present lasts for ever, without making its duration noticeable and without leaving any after-effects, a place where the soul is without any other feeling, be it privation or pleasure, joy or pain, fear or desire, except for that existence, if there is such a state and if this feeling can fill the soul utterly, while it lasts he who is enjoying it can call himself happy. It would not be an imperfect, poor and relative happiness, like that found in the pleasures of life, but a happiness which is sufficient, perfect and full, leaving no void in the soul which the soul experiences the need to fill. Such is the state in which I often found myself in St Peter’s Island during my solitary day-dreams, sitting sometimes in my boat, which I simply let drift as the waters took it, or sitting sometimes on the shore of the troubled lake, or beside a river murmuring over the pebbles. What does one enjoy in such a moment? One enjoys nothing exterior to oneself, nothing except oneself and one’s own existence; while it lasts one is self-sufficient, like God. The feeling of peace and security, which would alone be quite enough to make one’s existence sweet and dear.[2]

I share this only to highlight something that I find highly informative; in a way it is like reading commentary on where humanity currently reposes. In fact I think learning such things, about the origins of the modern psyche are beneficial in a way such that it provides space to be self-critical about the ‘spirit’ of our own age; insofar as all of this serves as the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ precursor to what ended up fomenting (and now de-fomenting, but not really).

Barth goes on, as he closes out his chapter on Rousseau, to tease out the theological implications and impact that Rousseaus’s thought would end up having on 18th and 19th century theological development. What interested me most though was simply what was shared in the long paragraph from Barth on Rousseau above. While most people aren’t deep enough in North American society to think as reflectively as Rousseau, that doesn’t mean that the ‘spirit’ he was “séancing” with isn’t alive and well among even the so called garden variety pagan of the 21st century today; that ‘spirit’ (among many others) indeed is present and is just as alluring and seductive now to the heart of modern and post-modern man as it was in the 18th century. Even though the Serpent looks like an innocent creature doesn’t mean it still is not a Serpent. Rousseau, ironically loved the study of botany; he believed it was the purest form of knowing himself as non-identical and identical with the spirit-nature world he participated in. This is ironic, to me at least, because ‘the garden’ is where this all started to begin with (Gen. 3).

[1] Karl Barth, Protestant Thought: From Rousseau to Ritschl (New York, New York: Simon&Schuster, 1969), 115.

[2] Ibid., 109-11.

A Response to John MacArthur’s and Mike Riccardi’s Outlandish Misreading of Karl Barth’s Theology

Ultimately what John MacArthur thinks about Karl Barth is of no consequence, relative to reality. The problem though is that MacArthur, et al. in the evangelical and Reformed world has a huge impact as he speaks into the lives of his barthmacarthurparishioners and all those who hear him on radio and on the web. Just in the last couple of days I had a scrum (a brief one) with one of John MacArthur’s protégées, Mike Riccardi.Riccardi is a young guy who has a couple of degrees from The Master’s Seminary, and is on pastoral staff at Grace Community Church. I’ve known Riccardi through blogging for years, and was also “friends” with him on Facebook. The scrum he and I had got me interested in seeing if I could find out if MacArthur had ever said anything about Barth from the pulpit; and he has. I found a Q&A he did on April 18th, 2010 at his church. During that Q&A someone asked him about Karl Barth. His response was of course in line with the gist of what Ricarrdi shared on his wall at Facebook, and gets reflected in all those who sit under the teaching of MacArthur, Riccardi, et al; this was made clear in the comment thread under Ricarrdi’s post. Here is how MacArthur responded to the question about Barth:

Now the view of Karl Barth, and Karl Barth is a German and they keep resurrecting Him. If he would just stay dead, we wouldn’t have to deal with this stuff. But liberal theologians love to raise these dead Germans and make them issues. Karl Barth basically denied Scripture truth. He denied the historicity of Scripture, not just Genesis 1 to 11 but the whole thing. He said, “Redemptive history happened but it didn’t happen in history…the German…it happened in Heiliachikdalickta [sic], it happened in elevated super-duper history. He had a kind of category, a mystical category in which redemptive history occurred. So if you say to Karl, “Do you believe in Genesis?” Yes. “Did it happen in history?” No. “Do you believe in the resurrection?” Yes. “Did it happen in history?” No. “Do you believe in the miracles of Jesus? Did they happen in history?” Well they happened in holy history. And it’s a…it’s a…it’s a split world in which he lives. But he…he did the same thing to Genesis that he does with everything. And this is…it has a name, it’s called neo-orthodoxy. And the reason they called Karl Barth a neo-orthodox was the whole world of German theology was liberal. They were all liberal, back in the nineteenth century, they were all liberal and Karl Barth said, “This is not good, you’ve thrown all the miracles out, you’ve thrown everything supernatural out of the Bible. You’ve emptied the Bible of all of this. That’s not good, we’ve got to put it back. Well let’s put it all back.”

Only he couldn’t get it all the way in to history, he just put it back in holy history. So he was called a neo-orthodox cause it was a new kind of orthodoxy that allowed for all of this but not in history, but in the Heiokiachikdalickta, whatever that is…holy history.

So, Karl Barth’s approach to Genesis was the same as his approach to the resurrection. It’s always the same with him. It is not orthodoxy. It is not orthodoxy. It is called neo-orthodoxy, it is liberalism in another dress. And, of course, he would…he would call Genesis 1 to 11 nothing more than sort of spiritual saga, spiritual narrative, spiritual poetry.[1]


Was Karl Barth a German? Come on MacArthur, he was Swiss. Right from the get go we can see that MacArthur’s knowledge of who Barth actually was is suspect. This inaccuracy about Barth’s nationality carries through into MacArthur’s response relative to the entailments of Barth’s theology.

I wrote a post[2] not too long ago that addresses directly MacArthur’s misconstrual of Barth’s approach to history, and in particular how Barth related historical (“calendar” or linear) history to God’s providential inbreaking into that in the events of salvation history (i.e. those recorded in the biblical text). Here’s what I wrote; it silences MacArthur’s critique to the point that MacArthur ought to repent of what he wrongly said of Barth:

I just finished an essay (chapter) by George Hunsinger on Karl Barth’s kind of ‘post-critical’ approach to biblical interpretation. The essay itself is awesome, if in fact you are interested in Barth’s approach to such things. In one of the footnotes Hunsinger describes Barth’s usage of what Barth called Saga as a designation that Barth used in his second naïveté approach to biblical criticism/interpretation (we will have to get into what that means later i.e. second naïveté). What is interesting about Barth is that he did not shy away from the findings of the higher critics of Scripture of his day, but he instead said to them (in my paraphrase): “okay, so now what?” Barth was of the belief that Revelation, attested to in the witness of Holy Scripture, was not something that historical reconstruction or critics ultimately had access to; in other words the critics could only go so far, they could only go so far when attempting to capture revelational phenomenon through naturalistic critera/categories. It is within this reality that Barth used his genre of saga to engage with the theological/revelational reality attested to all throughout the pages of Holy Scripture. Here is what Hunsinger writes:

“Saga” or legend was a term Barth used over against “myth” and “history.” “Myths” were stories that embodied timeless truths, while “history” in the historicist sense excluded God on principle from its accounts. “Sagas” or legends, by contrast, were stories about actual, unrepeatable events in which God could depicted (whether directly or indirectly) as the central acting subject. On the human side, sagas involved elements of theologically informed intuitions (Vorstellungen) as well as imaginative or poetic depictions (Darstellungen) of events that were in some sense beyond ordinary depiction. Although grounded in actual occurrences, sagas were not primarily reports, but witnesses to divine revelation. Barth used the term “saga,” for lack of a better term, in order to bring out the special literary genre of biblical stories about the world’s creation, the Virgin Birth, Christ’s resurrection, and other such ineffable occurrences. It represented a kind of critical realism that was unacceptable to historicists for its audacity and to literalists for its reticence.[3]

Access to the revelation (events) in biblical history, for Barth then, would be grounded in faith (analogia fidei); not because these events are not real or actual but because they are acts that supranaturally go beyond what counts as natural in and through our perceived and observable experiences, in other words, they are acts of God. These acts of God or ‘miracles’ also have a key function in Barth’s theology of revelation. As we just left off with (in the Hunsinger quote), Barth placed ‘miracles’, i.e. the ‘world’s creation,’ the ‘Virgin Birth,’ ‘Christ’s resurrection,’ etc., into his genre of saga. Barth’s understanding of miracles is this,

the special new direct act of God in time and in history. In the form in which it acquires temporal historical actuality, biblically attested revelation is always a miracle, and therefore the witness to it, whether direct or indirect in its course, is a narrative of miracles that happened. Miracle is thus an attribute of revelation.[4]

We can see how saga and miracle functioned within Barth’s conception of revelation. Saga was the genre of revelation (in the Bible’s narrative unfolding), and miracle was a predicate of the revelation itself attested to by the witness deposited within Holy Scripture.

What we have in Karl Barth is an evangelical (in the German sense of that word) who worked through the findings of Modern biblical criticism. He found a constructive way to acknowledge it (criticism), and then in his next step, in stride to move beyond it in such a way that Gerhard von Rad could say of Barth on the occasion of his death (Barth’s) in 1968: “What a miracle that one should appear among us who did nothing else than to take God at his Word.”[5]

I can only aspire to be an evangelical like Barth. Unlike the evangelicalism that I have grown up in in North America, Barth was able to approach the text fully acknowledging the value of higher criticism, while at the same time moving beyond it to the theological reality of the text through his second naïveté (approach); i.e. basically what we were engaging within our discussion of ‘saga’ and ‘miracle.’ North American evangelical biblical scholarship, again unlike Barth, instead of being able to move beyond higher criticism has become mired down, ironically in the weeds of higher criticism in their apologetic mode of attempting to thwart higher criticism through their attempt to out ‘critic’ the higher critics on the higher critic’s terms. In the process, evangelicals never really have the capacity (within the discipline of biblical studies) to engage with the text theologically and thus on its own terms. So I would rather be like Barth, in principle, as I approach the Bible.

MacArthur completely misrepresents Barth’s understanding of history, and he does so as a parrot of Cornelius Van Til; i.e. the critique that MacArthur makes of Barth’s doctrine of Scripture, theory of Revelation, and theory of History (Historie/Geschichte) is a bad rendition of Van Til’s misreading of Barth.

For further treatment of this issue, and misreading of Barth see Darren Sumner’s article Revelation and History: Cornelius Van Til’s Critique of Karl Barth where he dismantles Van Til’s reading of Barth (on this particular issue[s]), and thus undercuts MacArthur’s caricature of Barth.


John MacArthur and Mike Ricarrdi have demonstrated that they aren’t competent to comment on Barth; so they shouldn’t! If they want to then they need to put in the time to do that in a Christian and honorable manner. Even if they disagree with him they need to do their best to accurately represent his theology, especially to the people they have sway with in their church and beyond.


[1] John MacArthur, Transcript (April 18th, 2010). YouTube video where he offers this response (start at 58 minutes).

[2] Original Post

[3] 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), 125 fn. 27 kindle.

[4] Karl Barth, CD I/2, 63-4 cited by George Hunsinger in, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed, 125 fn. 16 kindle.

[5] Gerhard von Rad quoted by Smend in, Karl Barth als Ausleger, 216 cited by George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed, 125 fn. 20 kindle.

The “Trinitarian Revival,” and Does Jesus Come After or Before the Oneness of God?


Katherine Sonderegger identifies Karl Rahner and Karl Barth, respectively, as the seminal heads who initiated what has been called the Trinitarian Revival. She writes:

The “Trinitarian Revival” has been traced to twin geniuses: Karl Rahner and Karl Barth. Rahner’s remarkable essay for his encyclopedia, Mysterium Salutis, now published separately as The Trinity. Joseph Donceel, trans. New York: Herder, 1970. (New York: Crossroad, 2003) provides the template for considering much Christian piety as “sheer monotheism”—see p. 42, note 43. Karl Barth announced the Trinity as a form of revelation in his Church Dogmatics, I.1, thereby joining the modern doctrine of revelation to the Triune God as proper and sole Subject of dogmatics. Because of the Christological concentration of these doctrines of the Trinity, they remain distinctly modern, belonging to the pronounced Christological focus of modern theology, and not simply as variants on Peter Lombard’s Sentences and early Trinitarianism in the doctrine of God.[1]

Ultimately Sonderegger does not think this style of “revival” has been a good thing; the above quote is a footnote she wrote tied to commentary she was offering on the impact that modern theology, a la Barth et al., has had upon the shape of Trinitarian theology. She sees the emphasis upon the threeness of God (de Deo trino), promoted by Barth, Rahner, et al., as something that has had a negative impact upon understanding God as One (de Deo uno). Sonderegger writes:

Once more we must pause before a seemingly anodyne, wholly biblical phrase: the One God. Perhaps nothing so marks out the modern in systematic theology as the aversion to the scholastic treatise, De Deo Uno. It belongs not to the preface but rather the body of the dogmatic work to lay out the broad movement in present day dogmatics that has pressed the treatise De Deo Trino to the fore; indeed, it crowds out and supplants the exposition of the One God. But even here we must say that the doctrine of the Trinity, however central to the Christian mystery, must not be allowed to replace or silence the Oneness of God. God is supremely, gloriously One; surpassingly, uniquely One. Nothing is more fundamental to the Reality of God that [sic] this utter Unicity. Such is God’s Nature; such His Person: One. Oneness governs the Divine Perfections: all in the doctrine of God must serve, set forth, and conform to the transcendent Unity of God. Now, to say all this aligns the Christian doctrine of God with the faiths of Abraham, Judaism, and Islam; indeed of all monotheisms—for monotheism is not a shame word! The Christian affirmation of divine Unicity opens it, like the merciful and welcoming Lord it serves, to the peoples and faiths of the good earth. But this cannot serve as ground for such a fundamental axiom in dogmatics. Rather, we must appeal to Holy Scripture.[2]

She clearly has a problem with the modern turn in what has now come to be called Trinitarian theology (ironically because of the modern turn). It appears, though, that she is over-correcting by so emphasizing the Oneness of God that she already is starting to lose sight of how the Oneness is oneness by almost denigrating the Threeness of God; which would be ironic because ever since at least the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople the threeness and oneness of God have been inextricably linked within the Christian grammar.

But as we recall in the footnote I shared from her, she does mention Peter Lombard’s Sentences. This might clue us into the turn-back she is attempting to make, and how she thinks a doctrine of God should develop. It says much about her theory of revelation; she’s obviously not a Barthian (or potentially not even an Athanasian). Like Lombard she is going to want to follow the progressive unfolding of Scripture in salvation history. As such she opens to the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and works her way, in a seemingly linear fashion, from there until she gets to Jesus. Once she gets to Jesus in the New Testament she will start reflecting on the threeness of God. Sonderegger is actually following not only Lombard’s lead, but the lead found in the scholastic developments of theology embedded in Post Reformed orthodoxy.

I once wrote about how the scholastics Reformed placed a rupture between the Oneness of God and the Threeness. Here’s what I wrote as I had just finished comparing how a doctrine of God is developed in various Reformed confessions, and a chatechism:

At first blush there might not be much apparent difference between TheWestminster Confession of Faith (WCF), The Belgic Confession of the Faith (BC), The Heidelberg Catechism (HC) and The Scott’s Confession 1560 (SC); but this requires further reflection. The “Westminster” tradition starts talking about God by highlighting his “attributes,” these are characteristics that are contrasted with what humans are not (analogia entis). We finally make it to God as “Father, Son, Holy Spirit,” but not before we have qualified him through “our” categories using humanity and nature (analogia entis) as our mode of thinking about “godness.” This is true for both the WCF and the BC. Jan Rohls provides a helpful insight on this when he speaks to the nature of the composition of many of the Reformed Confessions (including both the WCF and the BC):

It is characteristic of most of the confessional writings that they begin with a general doctrine of God’s essence and properties, and only then proceed to the doctrine of the Trinity. The two pieces “On the One God” (De deo uno) and “On the Triune God” (De deo trino) are thus separated from each other. . . .[3]

We now see this move being made in Sonderegger’s work. It’s not a new thing then, but a call back to the calmer waters, as Sonderegger might see it, of classical theism; and away from the turbulent seas that modern theology has presented the church with.

Should we be afraid of speaking of God’s Oneness and Threeness in the same breath? Was the ancient church afraid of doing so? I don’t think so. Thomas Torrance, who I also once quoted has this to say about this type of move by Sonderegger:

. . . in the Scots Confession as in John Knox’s Genevan Liturgy, the doctrine of the Trinity is not added on to a prior conception of God—there is no other content but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There was no separation here between the doctrine of the One God (De Deo Uno), and the doctrine of the triune God (De Deo Trino), which had become Roman orthodoxy through the definitive formalisation of Thomas Aquinas. This trinitarian approach was in line with The Little Catechism which Knox brought back from Geneva for the instruction of children in the Kirk. “I believe in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Son and in the Holy Spirit, and look for salvation by no other means.” Within this trinitarian frame the centre of focus in the Confession and Catechism alike is upon Jesus Christ himself, for it is only through him and the Gospel he proclaimed that God’s triune reality is made known, but attention is also given to the Holy Spirit. Here once again we have a different starting point from other Reformation Confessions. Whereas they have a believing anthropocentric starting point, such as in the Heidelberg Catechism, this is quite strongly theocentric and trinitarian. Even in Calvin’s Institute, which follows the fourfold pattern in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the doctrine of the Trinity is given in the thirteenth chapter within the section on the doctrine of God the Creator. Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, however, understandably followed the order of the Apostles’ Creed. The trinitarian teaching in the Scots Confession was by no means limited to the first article for it is found throughout woven into the doctrinal content of subsequent articles.[4]

Sonderegger would most likely respond that Torrance is simply a modern theologian himself; following in the steps of Barth and Rahner working out the so called “Trinitarian Revival.” But I think she’s wrong. I think Torrance’s insight, as well as the facts on the ground, blunts her critique of the modern trajectory within Trinitarian theology. Sure, yes, modern theology has flavored Trinitarian theology a certain way (i.e. in almost anti-metaphysical ways, which is what I think Sonderegger is really troubled by), but I don’t think the allergy of speaking of God’s Oneness and Threeness together is as present say in Pro-Nicene theology as she seems to want to make it.

I’ll leave you to decide …

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology. Volume 1 Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), xxiii, n. 4.

[2] Ibid., xiv.

[3] Bobby Grow, “Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either Through Christ or Through Nature,”  in eds. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 108.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology cited Ibid., 110.

‘Parables’ and the ‘Analogy of Faith’ in the Theology of Barth’s Romans II

As we all know by now Karl Barth was not a proponent of natural theology, or the analogia entis (‘analogy of being’). But what we do find in Barth is an appeal to ‘secular parables,’ something equivalent to what Thomas Torrance, in his own way, calls ‘social co-efficients.’ barthblackwhiteThese Barth parables are grounded in his alternative approach to the ‘analogy of being’ in his analogia fidei or analogy of faith stylized mode of theological endeavor. Kenneth Oakes in his book Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy helps us gain further insight into how parables functioned in Barth’s thought, particularly as that was operative in Barth’s Der Römerbrief II. Oakes writes:

While notorious for his dialectics, Romans II is one of the most analogical works within Barth’s oeuvre. Romans II belongs alongside CD III/1 and III/2 given prominent and significant role the concept of ‘parable,’ or Gleichnis, plays throughout the commentary. While Spieckermann has noted the presence of an ‘analogy of the cross’ in the commentary and Beintker has pointed out the analogies between divine acting and speaking and human acting and speaking, the full extent of Barth’s use of analogy and the pivotal functions it serves have largely been ignored. In contrast to the analogy of faith he develops in CD I/1, whereby a correspondence exists between God and the subject who knows God, in Romans II Barth talks about parables between the corruptible and the incorruptible, between each ‘moment’ in time and the ‘Moment’ of revelation, between this world and human history and the coming world, between Christ’s resurrection and our resurrection, and even between the No-God of our own making and the one true God. When discussing Romans 8:1–2 with an eye to Christ taking on the likeness (omoiōmati) of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3), Barth notes ‘there remains nothing relative which is not relatedness, nothing concrete which is not a reference to something beyond itself, nothing given which is not also a parable.’ In Christ, God has taken up what is worldly, historical, and ‘natural’ and has re-established its relativity to God. Everything corruptible is indeed a parable, but only a parable, of the incorruptible God, who is still qualitatively different from creation. Neither dialectics nor the infinite qualitative distinction can negate the myriad of analogies that arise from Barth’s use of the concept of parable. The different types of dialectics in the work often serve the same purposes as Barth’s invocation of ‘parable’ in Romans II: to relate and distinguish creation and God, to qualify  all statements about God as statements made by fallible humans, and to emphasize the ‘not yet’ of God’s final redemption over the ‘already’ of the salvation wrought by Christ. The infamous ‘infinite qualitative distinction’ does not obliterate  the possibility of analogies between God and the world, but provides the infinite difference which provokes and enables the use of analogy in the first place.[1]

It might seem like Barth is playing fast and loose here; it might seem like he is opening the door to natural theology by attempting to find analogies in the creation, analogies that point to God. But remember, as Oakes underscores, these parables are first given context from within Barth’s ‘analogy of faith;’ and these analogies, in the creation, are given telos as they find eschatological reality within the orientation of the new creation realized in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So for Barth there is no abstract creation or naturum purum (pure nature), there is only what God has created in the first and second Adam by His Triune grace. There is no nature/grace duality in Barth; for Barth, even his doctrine of creation is funded by a strong doctrine of grace, a grace that ‘goes all the way down’ (to quote a Torrancism).


[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 75.

Understanding and Critiquing Paleo-Covenant Theology: Do Contemporary Covenant Theologians Genuinely Represent Old School Federal Theology?

Heinrich Bullinger

Heinrich Bullinger

There has certainly been a resurgence of Reformed theology in the last ten to fifteen years or so; one notable, at a popular level is the so called: Young, Restless, and Reformed. The evangelical Calvinism that Myk Habets and I have promoted through our edited book (we have a volume two at the publishers), and what I have done here at the blog, is an aspect of this type of resurgence (of course ours is from a very distinct Barthian/Torrancean approach). And now we see Oliver Crisp with his two new books: Deviant Calvinism and Saving Calvinism also contributing to this type of resurgence of Reformed theology by attempting to alert folks to the expansive nature of Reformed theology itself (something we evangelical Calvinists are also interested in doing).

For anyone who has read our Evangelical Calvinism book, or for anyone who has read my blog with any kind of regularity you will know that evangelical Calvinists offer some material theological (as well as formal) critique  of what is generally understood to be representative of “classical Reformed” theology; i.e. the type we find articulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith, or at places like Westminster Theological Seminary, Westminster Seminary California, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Reformed Theological Seminary, etc. More than offering critique of the popular 5-Point Calvinism, it is more of a critique of “classical” Federal or Covenant theology; i.e. the Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Grace (with the Covenant of Redemption included). To that end for the rest of this post we will engage with a historical sketch and critique of Federal theology, and how that seminally developed in the Zurich reformer, Heinrich Bullinger’s Covenant theology; and then how that impacted, in general ways, Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology. What will concern us in this exercise will be the critique that someone like Thomas Torrance himself (along with his brother James) makes of the bilateral nature of the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace[1], and how those two implicated each other in such a way that, at least for Bullinger and the orthodox, according to Stephen Strehle[2], there is a contingency built into the Covenant of Grace (i.e. its reception among the elect) such that the conditions of the Covenant of Works remain conditions to be met by the ostensibly elect person if and fact the elect person is truly one of the elect of God. Contemporary Reformed Federal theologians often push back at this, but I will contend, through reliance on Strehle’s research that they are not pushing back at me or the Torrance brothers, or Barth et al. but instead they are pushing back against the theology and the theologians they claim to represent themselves.

Strehle writes of Bullinger’s and the Post Reformed orthodox’s understanding of the Covenant of Works and Grace; here he is offering a fifth point of analysis in regard to Henrich Bullinger’s theology (at length):

Fifth, he so stresses a human component in the fulfillment of God’s work that he verges upon the synergism of humanistic teaching. In creation he speaks of God as working through certain creaturely means to achieve his end so that even if he is to be praised as the author of all good things in man, he does not accomplish his work without human cooperation. Following Augustine Bullinger is now inclined to employ the term “free will” (liberum arbitrium) as he recounts the stages of man’s relationship to God: 1) Adam is said to have been created with free will, 2) fallen man is said to do his evil through it, and 3) the regenerate is said to be renewed in it, “not by the power of nature but through the power of divine grace.” In salvation he speaks of man’s complicity in the entire process from his initial acceptance to his final perseverance. He can speak of repentance as a “preparation” for faith, faith as a “requirement” for receiving grace, and grace as less coercive and more resistible than that which Paul had experienced on the Damascus road. Once saved the faculty to serve God is said to be restored and the faithful are said to “actively,” not “passively” work with grace unto the salvation of the entire man. God as  our “helper” gives to us his cooperation (gratia cooperans), not to circumvent our participation or insure our perseverance but to provide what is necessary in a process that remains contingent upon us. We must therefore endeavor to work with God, for all is lost if we do not continue in the grace once received.

This synergism comes to a most definitive expression in his doctrine of a bilateral covenant between God and man. Zwingli had previously set forth a doctrine of covenant in order to unify the promises and precepts of God to man, but he never spoke as if this was a bilateral or contingent compact. It is Bullinger who decides to recast the doctrine in this way through the synergistic tendencies and thus coordinate what is promised by God and exacted of man. God and man are now to be understood as confederated into a relationship of mutual responsibility, contingent not only upon the faithfulness of God but also upon that of man. While God might have initiated the relationship, man has his “conditions” to fulfill in order to receive the blessings offered.

The text states the conditions under which they bound themselves together, specifically that God wished to be the God of the descendants of Abraham and that the descendants of Abraham ought to walk uprightly before God.

The second condition of the covenant prescribes to man what he should do and how he should conduct himself toward the initiator and his fellow member of the covenant (confoedo), namely God. “Walk,” he says, “before me and be whole.” They walk before God who purposes throughout their whole life to always say and do the will of God. This is what makes us “whole.” That wholeness is being produced by faith, hope, and love. In these things every duty of the blessed confederation is comprehended. [Bullinger]

While these conditions are found throughout scripture, the charge to Abraham is considered its most succinct and important form. And yet, regardless of the form, the same essential conditions are necessary to secure divine favor. According to Bullinger, upon fulfilling these conditions we are now in a position to expect God to fulfill his part and thus receive his blessings. If we spurn them, we become disinherited (i.e. we lose our salvation).

This doctrine of covenant, we cannot say, is central to the overall theology of Bullinger, but we can say that through his monumental work on the covenant, The One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God (1534), it did become an important and permanent fixture of Reformed theology. The influence of Bullinger has already been noted among the Puritan elders of Massachusetts Bay and can be noted also among the Scholastics of Continental Europe. These Scholastics speak of the covenant in much the same way, even if more subtle in expression.

However, strictly and properly it denotes the covenant of God with man, through which God by his goodness promises above all eternal life and he demands from man in turn his service and worship, with certain outward signs which provided for confirmation. It is said to be two-sided or reciprocal because it consists from the reciprocal obligation of the two members of the covenant: from the side of God, a promise, and from the side of man, the demand of a condition.

In that covenant there is mutual obligation, both in regard to God to be gracious and in regard to man to present his penance.

The covenant generally speaking is a mutual pact between two parties by which one member binds himself to do, give, or receive something under certain conditions. In order to confirm this promise and make it inviolable, external signs and symbols are attached as a most solemn testimony. [Ursinus]

They can even speak of God as man’s debtor.

In the covenant of God with man, there is something which God does and another which man does. God by his most eminent right commands or demands from man a service, love of himself and compliance, and promises life to the one who loves and complies. By agreeing (astipulando) man promises to love and be obedient to God who demands and prescribes his duty, and by demanding in return (restipulando) from God he claims and expects with confidence life by right of the promise. [J. Heidegger]

The tensions between the doctrine of a bilateral covenant and other staples of Reformed orthodoxy, such as unconditional election and justification by faith—doctrines that exalt in divine grace—did summon their theologians to employ their skills in concocting some sort of a solution. Sometimes the sovereignty of God was invoked in order to emphasize that faith or whatever condition might be exacted of us does not arise out of our own strength but is a product of God’s work within us, making it, in their words, an a posteriori condition. Such a solution, however, did not eliminate the problem since divine favor was still made to depend upon a condition wrought within us—no matter how irresistible this grace was conceived. Luther and Protestantism had originally sought to eliminate any basis within man for his justification, and such a solution did raise this specter again. Other times a Franciscan concept of covenant was invoked in order to mitigate the value of any human contribution before God. In other words, faith and whatever condition might be exacted of man was seen to receive its reward, not so much in accordance with strict justice as if worthy of eternal life (meritum ex condign), but through a God who voluntarily condescends by his covenant to accept the mere pittance that we render to God beyond its just due. However, such a solution did not utterly eliminate the conditional force of the covenant, for something—no matter how disproportionate to its reward—must still be offered to God in exchange for salvation. Salvation was still made contingent on something we do.[3]

In referring to Bullinger, Ursinus, and others Strehle is depending upon the fathers, as it were, when it comes to Federal or Covenant theology. His point is basic, and demonstrable (which he does extensively by appeal to primary sources in the Latin in the footnotes): Bullinger’s and the Post Reformed orthodox Covenant theology, as a subsequent development (historically), offers a covenantal scheme of salvation that makes justification not simply contingent upon faith, but contingent upon keeping the conditions of the covenantal frame. In other words, there is a move away from a radically Christ-centered focus on salvation, and one that collapses into an eye toward the self.

Concluding Remarks

I have read people like Scott Swain et al try to reify this classical type of federal theology for today’s ears, but to me that is not really coming to terms or at least honestly presenting the rawness of what classical federal theology actually entails. It is understandable why contemporary Reformed thinkers, who are “federal” would want to soften the old Federal theology indeed; but again, let’s have an honest conversation about the component parts of what makes a federal theology. I think Stephen Strehle’s analysis helps us to do that, and allows us to see some serious pitfalls associated with old and I would contend new Federal theology.

Karl Barth saw these pitfalls, as did the Torrance brothers, and Barth in particular Christ concentrated and did indeed reify covenant theology in ways that Bullinger et al could never have imagined (see Barth’s little book The Humanity of God to see an example of how Barth uses covenant in a principled Christ focused way).

It would be great to get some push back to Strehle’s analysis, I’ve never seen any in print. To be clear, Strehle is not a Barthian, nor a Torrancean, nor a Brian Armstrongian, et al. he is making a case from direct engagement with primary sources and distilling that in his most excellent book. I would tell you to take up and read, except last I looked at Amazon Strehle’s book is going for around $1,100.

I think the reason this all matters is because it’s not just academic. I know some think that that’s what this is, but it is not. All of this type of stuff trickles down and impacts real life Christians and spirituality. We started this post out with notation of the fact that Reformed theology has and is making a resurgence. I’m hopeful that posts like this will help people to ask critical types of questions about just what genre of Reformed theology they are getting themselves into. Evangelical Calvinism and Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism, and the more resourcing mood those alternatives offer, have open arms. At the end of the day I cannot accept classical or contemporary Federal or Covenantal theology, but that’s not to say that I cannot accept Reformed theology. Indeed, Reformed theology is not monolithic, it is expansive with many tributaries and inlets. One common theme of Reformed theology is the primacy of God’s grace; this is a reality that we can all rally around. How that gets fleshed out later can remain one of intramural engagement, but that’s not to say we won’t have sharp and basic differences among ourselves.


[1] See Thomas Torrance Objects to Federal Calvinism, and So Do I!

[2] I would like to thank Ron Frost, a former seminary professor, and a mentor of mine, for turning me onto Stephen Strehle’s research.

[3] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 55-61.

What Does the Practical Syllogism [assurance of salvation] Have to Do With Modern Theology’s Turn-to-the-Subject?

For people concerned about such things—I haven’t come across anyone who seems to be for a long time now, which normally I would think is a good thing, but I’m afraid that the reason despairwhy is not for a good reason—the doctrine of assurance of salvation and certainty about one’s eternal destiny has a long pedigree in the history of the church’s ideas. If you are someone who has struggled with this, and would like to get a handle on where it came from in the history of ideas, then this post is for you (there’s also a twist to this post as the title suggests).

It all started, it can be surmised, back in the days of late medieval and early reformational theology; an apparatus known as the practical syllogism came to the fore, and is what Protestant’s appealed to in an attempt to grasp a sense of certitude about whether or not they were one of the elect of God. It starts early on in the Protestant genesis, and maturates in unhealthy ways as we get into Puritan England, particularly in the theology of William Perkins. Stephen Strehle provides a type of genealogy for the development of the practical syllogism.

Deducing Salvation

The practical syllogism began to be sure much like the doctrine of eternal security, looking to ascertain one’s election a posteriori from its “signs” or “marks.” However, this time instead of focusing upon the promises of God as revealed in Christ, the concentration shifted toward the faith and works of those who would obtain and partake of those promises. The faith and works of one’s salvation experience became signs through which a true believer could discern his relationship to Christ’s promises and his election before the Father. It was all a simple deduction: “Every one that believes is the child of God: But I doe beleeve: Therefore I am the child of God.” This practical syllogism became a significant feature in most accounts of the Reformed orthodox and unfortunately turned the faith of the church away from Christ and toward an inspection of oneself and the fruits of true salvation.

The precise history of the doctrine is not so clear, although we do find certain theologians of note who were influenced in its publication and help us to trace its development. Calvin as we have noted is not a party to this as his focus remains centered upon Christ and his promises throughout his works. While he might at certain points speak of works as providing some assistance to a troubled conscience, they are considered only secondary means of consolation, and generally when he looks at himself Calvin finds nothing but despondency and condemnation. Theodore de Beza, who succeeded Calvin at Geneva, did tend, however, to reverse this order and must be considered prominent in the initial dissemination of the doctrine. He speaks of the practical syllogism a few times in his works, maintaining that it is the “first step” by which we progress toward the “first cause” of our salvation. While it is not a major emphasis of his, just the mere mention of it in his works is all that was needed. His very stature as the only theological professor at Geneva from 1564-1600 and practically all Reformed Europe for that matter would insure its place in the Reformed tradition, along with the rest of his Aristotelian (non-Christocentric) program, as we shall see later. As far as other important figures, Jerome Zanchi, a theologian from Strasbourg and disciple of Calvin, must also be accorded his place in the ascent and prevalence of the doctrine, perhaps providing an even earlier inspiration from Beza. He supplies in his works a syllogistic argument that displays the same basic structure of Beza’s and orthodoxy’s formulation but without supplying the specific name (indicating an early date). He then exhorts the believer to look within, not without, to find Christ working. Zanchi will prove to exert a major influence not only in Europe but especially in England among the Puritans where the doctrine will receive its most protracted and painstaking treatment. The Calvinists will hereafter speak of faith and certitude as involving a “serious exploration of oneself,” a “reflexive act” in which “faith in one self is felt,” and an inner knowledge of what one “feels and believes.” All of this resulted, of course, as they forsook the Christocentric orientation of Calvin for Aristotle, as well as the sacramental basis of personal assurance in Luther, which we had emphasized earlier. The quest for certitude had now devolved into an introspective life from which only depravity and uncertainty could be found, as well as a calculus, deduced from a more general promise and the Christ who made it, both of which seemed strangely at a distance. The Puritans, as we said, serve as the most notable example of this turn and should be accorded special mention in the study of assurance. In contrast to the perfunctory manner in which many of the Calvinists treated the doctrine, often reserving a mere page or two in otherwise prodigious tomes, the Puritans produced numerous and voluminous treatises upon the doctrine, considering it to be the most pressing of all religious issues.[1]

Anyone familiar with Richard Muller’s writings will immediately recognize the critique he would make against Strehle’s development; particularly the idea that Beza, contra Calvin, took Reformed theology into Aristotelian and philosophical modes of thought. I myself am critical of Strehle’s idea that Calvin was purely Christocentric when it comes to this issue; in fact in my forthcoming chapter in our EC2 book, I argue, along with Barth and others, that Calvin actually contributed to a non-Christocentric trajectory when dealing with this particular issue of assurance of salvation.

But none of the above withstanding, in a general way Strehle provides a faithful accounting, in my view, for how the practical syllogism developed and made its way into Puritan theology. What I would like to suggest, though, is that this development, this turn to the self, it could be argued at an intellectual-heritage level, contributed to the modern turn to the subject that is often, at least theologically, attributed to the work of someone like Friedrich Schleiermacher. Kelly Kapic sketches Schleiermacher, and his interlocutors this way:

The genius of Schleiermacher’s system is that he takes his anthropological emphases and pulls his entire theology through this grid. Arguably this creates an anthropocentric theology, since he consciously grounds his methods in human experience. This understandably provoked many questions. For example, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), a one-time student of Schleiermacher, later turned this perspective on its head, concluding that there really is no theology at all, since it is all ultimately reducible to anthropology. God is nothing more than the projection of human desires and feelings, but not a reality in itself. Nodding in Schleiermacher’s direction, Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer later commented that “theological anthropocentrism is always a more serious danger than secular anthropocentrism, since we, from the very meaning of theology, might expect that it would not misunderstand man as centrum.” Karl Barth, especially in his younger years, also chastened Schleiermacher with his famous quip: “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice,” since doing so means you will misunderstand both God and man. Finally, Paul Tillich worried that Schleiermacher’s language and emphasis on “feeling,” which he admits was commonly misunderstood, nevertheless contributed to the exodus of men from German churches.  Although this appears to me an unfair charge to level against Schleiermacher, it is fair to say that his proposal to orient all religion, and consequently the truth of theology, to Gefühl does widen the canvas on which theological anthropology will be painted by including more than rationality and will as the core of being human.[2]

It might seem like a stretch to suggest that the type of theology produced by someone like Schleiermacher, or moderns in general, can be attributed by antecedent to what we see developed in the theologies that produced something like the practical syllogism, but I don’t think it is too big of a stretch. I see at least a couple of links: 1) there is an informing anthropology where anthropology starts from a philosophical starting point rather than a Christian Dogmatic one. In other words, the humanity of Jesus Christ, for Beza and Scheiermacher alike is not the ground for what it means to be a human at a first-order level, as such within this abstraction, even from the get go, there is of necessity a turn to the human subject as its own self-defining terminus; i.e. there is not external ground by which humanity can be defined in this frame, instead it is humanity as absolute (obviously at a second order after-this-fact level, Beza, Schleiermacher, et al. then attempt to bring Christ’s humanity into the discussion). 2) There is a methodological focus on a posteriori discovery in regard to knowing God and knowing self before God in practical syllogism theology as well as turn to the subject theology (pre-modern and modern respectively). This in and of itself is not problematic, per se, but it is problematic when informed antecedently by an anthropology that is, at a first order level, detached from Jesus Christ’s humanity as definitive. Again, if humans start with a general sense of humanity devoid of the humanity of Christ as its primal ground, and attempt to know God and place themselves before God from that starting point there are devastating consequences. One of the primary consequences is that all theologizing from that point on, coram Deo, must start epistemologically and ontologically, from below; i.e. from my humanity, from your humanity. At the end of all of  this we end up with a rationalizing affect that colors the way we attempt to negotiate our standing and understanding with and before God.

So What?

Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, both modern theologians,  sought to invert and flip turn-to-the-subject theology on its head by thinking from truly Christian Dogmatic taxis (or ‘order’). Torrance made a special point of emphasizing how an order-of-being must come before and order-of-knowing; in other words, the idea that God’s being precedes our being, and that all conditions for knowing God and thus self (cf. Calvin) must start within this frame and order of things. I.e. There is no general or abstract sense of humanity, if we are going to have genuine knowledge of God, ourselves, and the world, then we must start with the concrete humanity of Jesus Christ. Barth, in his own ways, makes these same points, particularly by flipping Immanuel Kant on his head, and as a consequence flipping Schleiermacher on his.

I would contend that Western society, in general, still is living out what this turn-to-the-subject has meant for society at large. In fact, in the 21st century we see this type of turn in hyper-form; we might want to call it normative relativism. Ideas do have consequences, as such I think getting an idea of where they come from can help us engage those ideas critically; and when needed we are in a better position to repudiate and/or reify ideas that might ultimately be deleterious to our souls.

What I have suggested in this post remains quite general, and some would say reductionistic; but I think there is something to what I’m getting at. Since this is a blog post, and a long one, it will have to simply remain at the level of suggestion.

[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 37-41.

[2] Kelly M. Kapic, “Anthropology,” in Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, eds., Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2012), 192 Scribd version.

Assurance of Salvation in Martin Luther, with Reference to Barth and Torrance. ‘I absolve you!’

Myk Habets and I have edited our volume two Evangelical Calvinism book due out in the early half of 2017. My personal chapter in that volume is on John Calvin’s, Karl Barth’s, and Thomas Torrance’s doctrine of assurance of salvation. This topic has always been of luther_martin-3interest to me, at one point it was something I struggled with; and I’ve known others (who are very close to me) who have struggled with this as well. Currently, I’m not really sure many evangelicals struggle with this anymore; mostly, I would suggest, because of the kind of superficiality present in most evangelical churches today when it comes to actual doctrine and doctrinal understanding or interest (and I’m including the leadership levels as well). That said, the rest of this post will be dealing with this ancient doctrine; we will have particular focus on how this doctrine functioned in the thought and theology of Martin Luther.

Luther, as so many know, was an Augustinian monk; to say he was devout and driven would be an understatement. He, not unlike many in his day, struggled deeply with assurance of salvation. Because of the teaching of the medieval Roman Catholic church people could never really know with certainty if they had done enough penance and engaged in enough heartfelt contrition to know if they were right with God; the result was that people languished with a sense of doubt and fear before a perceived wrathful God. It was this framework Luther was succored in as a monk, indeed it was the air he breathed his whole life; and he was tormented.

Without getting into Luther’s whole biography, and theological antecedents, suffice it to say Luther needed a way out; he needed an assuaged conscience before God. He became a monk with the goal of finding such consolation; but would he find it? As most of us know, yes, indeed, Luther did think he found it; but as many of us might not know he didn’t find it by abandoning his Catholic medieval framework of thought, instead he found it afresh as he read the New Testament for himself. Luther came to realize that he could only stand before God by trusting God’s Word, by standing by faith with the understanding that the righteousness of God wasn’t something he could muster up, instead it was an ‘alien righteousness’ external to Luther and all humanity found in Christ. With this new found insight Luther reified the Catholic penitential system by grounding it in a theology of God’s Word, and understanding that as the priest spoke absolution over people it was in actuality the Word of God itself. Luther was finally able to find certainty of standing before God, not by cooperating with God in penance, or by mustering up heartfelt contrition, but by looking to the cross of Jesus Christ itself; by knowing that the righteousness he needed before God was not latent in him, but explicit in Jesus Christ. Stephen Strehle explains all of this for us this way:

Luther, the founder of the Protestant doctrine, often spoke of his fifteen (sometimes twenty) years as a monk in the Catholic Church as a time of bondage to the works of self-righteousness and the fear of God. As a monk he did not trust in the righteousness of Christ but in the incessant performance of vigils, prayers, and fasts—a righteousness that was a veritable “cesspool and delightful kingdom of the devil.” Such righteousness, of course, brought nothing but despair to Luther. His confessions did not bring help or solace, for his sins, he felt, were too great to mention and his contrition never sufficient to satisfy the demands of true righteousness. His experience was thus filled with fear, doubt, and torment, and his concept of Catholicism became slanted accordingly, as he imputed those anxieties to the church’s own teachings and practice.

Luther, however, did not abandon the practice of penance in order to rediscover his Gospel elsewhere, as is so often supposed among scholars, but found assurance and faith by reinterpreting the purpose of the sacrament along a direction other than the one that we have just witnessed. Instead of pointing to the worthiness of one’s own righteousness or contrition, which is indeed the kingdom of the devil and leads to despair, Luther pointed the penitent in another direction. He exhorted the penitent to listen and trust in the words of comfort, uttered by the priest in the sacrament, as the very word of God. He exhorted them to no longer trust in their “contrition of the heart, the confession of the mouth, or satisfaction of works,” but to listen to the mercy that God freely offers them through the priest. The priest’s role after all is said to bring comfort to those who are shackled with anguish over their sins. His words must be seen as God’s words; his actions God’s actions; his forgiveness God’s forgiveness. When he pronounces the simple words “I absolve you,” this must be seen as a special pronouncement from God to the individual that his sins have been forgiven.

This is how Luther first became so absolutely assured of his standing before God. God had told him personally. This word was not a promise spoken generally to all men or made contingent upon the fulfillment of conditions, always subject to human frailty and their misconceptions. It was a word spoken from God’s mouth to Luther’s ear. When the priest said, “I absolve you,” the “I” was God and the “you” was Luther.[1]

Strehle gives a sense of how Luther reified assurance of salvation; placing the referent for “certitude” no longer in self, but in Jesus Christ. In my view what Luther did serves only as a first step; he needs to be taken further.

Just as with Calvin, Luther offers pregnant contours of thought that are weighted with a Christ concentration just waiting for further development. I contend that that type of development is exactly what we’ve been given in the theologies of Barth and Torrance. Here’s what I mean with reference to a Barthian development. Here Barth offers critique of Calvin’s doctrine of election and assurance; while Luther was different than Calvin in some important ways (especially in the early Luther we just had elucidated for us by Strehle), the Christ-direction that Barth takes this would equally serve Luther just as well as it serves Calvin. Barth writes:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[2]

The moral is the Word of God. What is missing, in an explicit way, in both Calvin and Luther is a focus on the vicarious humanity of Christ. We see the lineaments of that in both of them at important points, but not in explicit ways. For Barth, as for Torrance, the word of absolution that Luther found in the priest’s words, were actually first spoken by God over the humanity of Jesus Christ, for us. As we are in union with Christ and his vicarious humanity, the ground of our assurance isn’t found from the lips of a priest, or pastor, they are found in the very Word of God Himself; we look directly and thus not indirectly to Christ. The mediation isn’t through sacraments, it is directly given through Christ; the mediation isn’t through decrees, it is directly through Jesus Christ. We look to Christ.

Martin Luther and John Calvin, as noted, provided a very fruitful and rich trajectory; Barth and Torrance stood on their shoulders (and other’s), and took it straight to the heavenlies in Christ. Assurance isn’t a concept, it isn’t something we generate; it’s Jesus Christ.

[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 8-10.

[2] Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.

The Early Barth. The anti-Metaphysical Barth. The Biblicist Barth.

Kenneth Oakes in his book Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy in his first chapter entitled The Earlier Barth concludes a section in that chapter with a summary of the characteristics that formed the core of who the young Barth was. This was a time prior to pencilbarthBarth’s ‘conversion’ to the Barth that so many have come to know through his more mature writings found in his Church Dogmatics. What’s of interest, at least to me, is that as we see in Oakes’ development, even in the young Barth there are many recognizable traits that will emerge later in the maturing and older Barth. Here is what Oakes writes:

A number of the young Barth’s intuitions and practices have now been covered. Barth’s earlier theology is stamped with ethical, experiential, and individualistic characteristics. It is focused on the ‘historical’ and the concrete over the transcendental and the abstract, and is highly suspicious of the effects of metaphysics upon the doctrines of God and Christ. Particularly worrisome are the neutralization, reification, and intellectualization of God at the hands of metaphysics. Faith is generated by God, and it is primarily an affective and practical matter that is either indifferent or hostile towards apologetics and metaphysics and impervious to the yet good and necessary work of historical and psychological knowledges. In a telling sign of his freedom from historical Protestantism and Protestant confessions, Barth can even criticize the Reformers for understanding faith as a matter of believing certain things to be true. Revelation is the inner communication of an objective Jesus Christ, and this revelation is objective even if not primarily cognitive. Barth can even call religion and the religious life ‘irrational,’ insofar as they lie outside the strictures and sphere of transcendental consciousness even if they still motivate and ground cultural consciousness in reality. There is a fundamental passivity of the human being before revelation, but the human being, nevertheless, actively responds and submits to revelation. The young Barth can look favourably upon Socrates, Plato, and Kant while criticizing the re-emergence of metaphysics within theology inasmuch as what impresses him the most are Socrates’ questioning and critical spirit, Plato’s emphasis upon the good, the true, the beautiful, Kant’s ethical austerity, and the moral, self-involved nature of all three of their philosophies. Finally, while Jesus Christ should not be identified with the church or with any kind of Christian worldview, he is and should be identified with the social movement.[1]

One of the traits, noted by Oakes, that is most controversial in Barth’s theology (for people who approach Barth’s theology), and one that remains throughout Barth’s life, is his posture towards metaphysics. Later on his animism, if we can call it that, towards metaphysics is circumscribed by his heavy concentration upon Christ, and even more pointedly, by his doctrine of election. Instead of an Augustinian a priori method for thinking God, for Barth there is a focus on an a posteriori method for knowing God; by encountering the personal Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. For Barth Christ exhausts God’s Self-revelation, as such any a priori metaphysical reflection about Godness detached from Jesus Christ becomes a non-starter for Barth. Thomas Torrance makes this clear when he writes of Barth’s theology:

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

Because of this Barth is often charged with being someone who has historicized God’s revelation; even more foreboding that Barth has Hegelianized theology; or even that he has offered a kind of positivistic theology. While some of these things may be true, at a certain level, in reality none of these charges actually take much care in attending to Barth’s reification and constructive appropriation of his own modern context. In other words, I would contend, that even though Barth was as much of a product of his own context as we are, he was self-critical (or he became such throughout his life) enough to materially move beyond some of the negative connotations of the labels that he has been tagged with.

But still, what of metaphysics? Does Barth’s ostensible allergy towards metaphysics place him at odds with the pre-critical, pre-modern tradition of the church; the tradition given shape in various streams of theological development by appeal to both Aristotelian as well as Platonic metaphysics when attempting to speak of God and his ways? There are obviously different ways to answer this, which in our North American context has resulted in what has become known as the ‘Barth Wars.’

What is clear though, particularly from Oakes’ summary, all that we have received from Barth started in seminal ways for him very early on in his theological development. Truly, Barth, the young and old was a modern theologian, but one who sought to constructively and imaginatively engage with the tradition of the church; so much so that George Hunsinger identifies what he calls the Chalcedonian pattern framing Barth’s theology. This is why I personally am edified by Barth so much; while he serves as a polarizing figure for some, he doesn’t for me. He represents a modern Christian thinker who loves Jesus Christ, and who seeks to express that love for the church of Jesus Christ in ways that engages with the whole stream of the intellectual history available to him in the Christian church. I find his focus on Jesus, and as such his de-emphasis upon metaphysics, refreshingly ‘biblical.’ Barth attempts to think from the ‘event’ of God’s Self-revelation as attested authoritatively in Holy Scripture; he attempts to allow the contours of Scripture’s themes and motifs to dictate the way he speaks of God. It is his dialectical approach, at this point, that I find truly refreshing. Barth does not attempt to artificially impose intellectualized or scholasticized ‘fixes’ on the teachings of Scripture as they find their reality in Jesus Christ; he is content to live within the tensions and pressures created by the living and ineffable God who is Triune as given literary attestation in the written Word of God. Sometimes metaphysics aren’t all they are cracked up to be, they can do more damage than good to the Word of God by imposing certain emphases and characteristics upon God that are not true to who he is as revealed in Christ and spoken to in the Bible.

[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 45.

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

The ‘Young Marburg’ Barth against Charles Ryrie, Thomas Aquinas, and the Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

The first time I attended Bible College was just after I graduated high school in 1992; I attended a small Conservative Baptist Bible College in Phoenix, Arizona, at that time called Southwestern College (it is now called Arizona Christian University). I was a bible and theology major, as such I had an introduction to Systematic Theology class; it was taught by an old school theology standingthomasaquinasprofessor, meaning he was of the very conservative, almost fundamentalist type (and he was also an old guy). The text he had us use for our primary theology text was Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth. When the title says ‘Basic’, it indeed is very basic theology, almost completely cut off from any of the confessional riches available in the Protestant past. But what is typical of Ryrie’s theology relative to other “evangelically” oriented theology texts is his appeal to philosophical proofs for the existence of God in the prolegomena of the text itself.

For Ryrie’s part, the first proof for God’s existence he appeals to is the cosmological argument; he explains it this way:

General revelation comes to mankind in several ways.

1.Through Creation

1.Statement. Simply stated this line of evidence (the cosmological argument for the existence of God) points out that the universe around us is an effect which connotes an adequate cause.

2.Presupposition. This line of evidence depends on three presuppositions: (a) every effect has a cause; (b) the effect caused depends on the cause for its existence; and (c) nature cannot originate itself.

 3.Development. If something now exists (the cosmos) then either it came from nothing or it came from something which must be eternal. The something eternal in the second option could either be the cosmos itself which would have to be eternal, or chance as an eternal principle, or God the eternal Being.

To say that the cosmos came from nothing means it was self-created. This is a logical contradiction, because for something to be self-created it must exist and not exist at the same time in the same way. Furthermore, self-creation has never been scientifically demonstrated and observed.[1]

Ryrie goes on and elaborates this further, but this represents a good representation of his line of thought. Clearly there are more sophisticated presentations of this argument, starting with Thomas Aquinas himself, and even by contemporary thinkers like William Lane Craig. But the basic tenets of the argument are presented by Ryrie, and are probably what most young bible college students, seminarians, and pastors have been exposed to in their training.

I open this post up like this to actually transition to a critique of approaching theology proper, to approaching God in this way. For the rest of this post we will consider young Karl Barth and his critique of the cosmological argument for the existence of God.

The Marburg Barth

Karl Barth attended Marburg University in Germany under the watchful eye of Wilhelm Herrmann, among other theology and biblical studies professors. Barth graduated from Marburg in 1908, but did not immediately enter pastoral ministry, instead he stayed on in the Marburg area and wrote for Die Christliche Welt. Kenneth Oakes gives us more background information:

Slow to enter pastoral work immediately after his university studies, Barth stayed in Marburg for another year, working as an editorial assistant for Die Christliche Welt, a journal published under the direction of Martin Rade, a friend and colleague of Herrmann. Thus from 1908-9 Barth was allowed to imbibe more deeply the ‘modern school’ and Marburg theology….[2]

During this time, according to Oakes, Barth wrote two pieces that caused some controversy, at least for some.[3] We will consider the second piece, which has to do with Barth’s critique of the cosmological argument, and that whole mode of theologizing. Oakes details this at length for us:

The second and more revealing piece as regards theology and philosophy is a talk Barth wrote against the cosmological proof for the existence of God. In this piece, Barth begins with an explanation of the argument’s formulations in Thomas Aquinas, the defence of the possibility for knowing God in Vatican I, Leo the XIII’s recommendation of Aquinas in the 1879 Aeterna Patris, and the censuring of the agnosticism of modern philosophy and philosophy of religion in the 1907 encyclical Pascendi. He covers the distinction between the natural knowledge of God and the revealed knowledge of God, along with their concomitant disciplines, natural and revealed theology. He then considers the cosmological argument as found within J.A. Becker’s work and Thomas’ five ways. He defends Thomas against the common charge of pantheism, although he thinks Thomas comes close to such a position at times. Nevertheless, Barth is still worried about the status of God’s ‘Persönlichkeit,’ a good Ritschilian concern, in Thomas’s doctrine of God. Barth wonders whether the free and textured identity and agency of God is lost when God is described in abstract and impersonal terms such as the highest thing, the most necessary being, or the first cause.

The cosmological proof has two serious problems. The first is philosophical. Barth brings the full weight of Kant’s critical philosophy onto the proof. Following Kant, he argues that the cosmological proof tacitly depends upon the ontological proof, and that the ontological proof (or at least Anselm’s version of it) fails insofar as the proposition ‘God is’ is deemed to be analytic (the predicate ‘is’ adding nothing to the subject ‘God’). The cosmological proof fails, as the ontological proof on which it relies is specious. The second problem is theological. Barth argues that even if the cosmological proof were true, what it proves would remain quite different from the God of Persönlichkeit:

Such is clear: the way of the syllogism, of the subordination of individual, empirical things underneath universal concepts, absolutely does not reach a final, real, and in this respect transcendent being, but only to the idea of one, to the idea of a being about whom there is nothing to say other than that he is the negation of his not-being on the one hand, and that he is absolutely prior to everything finite on the other; by its construction and the concepts used such a being remains entirely within the world.

By definition, philosophical metaphysics can neither reach the God beyond the cosmos nor his specific ‘personality,’ and in this judgment Kant and the modern theology are in complete agreement.[4]

Remember, this is the young Barth, barely a college graduate, but this type of critique from him in regard to ‘natural theology’ and knowledge of God given foundation through philosophical proofs, would perdure in Barth’s thought and life throughout.

In a very reduced sense Barth is arguing that the philosophers might be able to prove a conception of godness all day and all night, but at the end or beginning of the day all they’ve proven is something they were able to conceive of through their own intellectual prowess; i.e. they haven’t begun to access the holy of holies and touch the feet of the living and true God.

I agree with Barth, in contrast to Ryrie, Aquinas, Craig, et al., and this of course is what makes Barth such a controversial figure for so many evangelical theologians (young and old) to this day. They fundamentally disagree with Barth’s critique of something like the cosmological argument since they base so much of their theological methodology and approach upon the foundations laid by people like Thomas Aquinas and the rest of that tradition which is imbibed deeply by the post-reformation reformed orthodox theologians.

What This Has Meant To Me

As I noted, my seminal introduction to systematic theology started with Charles Ryrie, and a very basic presentation of the cosmological argument or proof as a credible foundation for how I could know with certainty that God exists, and that he exists in a certain way. But this has never satisfied me. Later I went to Multnomah Bible College, this time I was presented with more sophisticated instruction, but at base the way I was taught to think of God from Ryrie remained the way I was taught to think of God by my professors at Multnomah. It wasn’t till I attended seminary, at Multnomah’s seminary, where I was finally introduced to historical theology, and I began to explore, quite deeply, the history of ideas and how they were given formation. It was a breath of fresh air to realize that there was another way, a way that I believed was more faithful to the God I was encountering over and again as I read Holy Scripture.

I was introduced to Barth and Torrance (a bit), in seminary as well. I graduated from seminary in 2003, but it wasn’t until about 2006 that I started reading Barth and Torrance intensely, and I found what I was looking for in their critiques and way of thinking; particularly as that has to do with this very issue. I had already given up on the idea that God could or should be “proven,” but it wasn’t until I hit Barth and Torrance that I really appreciated how to work that out by focusing on revelational theology; by focusing on Christ as the key. Yes, in seminary, in my studies of John Calvin and Martin Luther et al. I was introduced to what is called kataphatic or ‘positive theology,’ and I relied on both Calvin and Luther, deeply, to enable me to move forward into a revealed theology approach.  But what I found in Barth and Torrance were teachers who took that to the next level, and offered a grammar and way to think that filled out what I only latently picked up through Calvin and Luther.

It is refreshing to know that God cannot nor should not be “proven.” If we think he can be the foundations for how we are thinking of God, by definition and method, are not supplied by God in Jesus Christ, but instead by our own trained wits. Our wits will always let us down, but the Word of God will endure forever.


[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (USA: Victor Books, 1986), 28-9.

[2] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 28.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4]Ibid., 29-30.