Is The devil a Real and Active Agent? Some Engagement With The Question, and Reference to Schleiermacher

Is the Devil real; some refer to this as: is the Devil personal? Yes, I personally think the Devil is real. I can only arrive at this conclusion based upon the Dominical affirmation and teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is important, I think, because the biblical reality not only asserts that this is the case, but it frames the ‘spiritual battle’ Jesus Christ undertook, and the same battle that his church continues to undertake, as the church militant, in such terms that are clear that our battle is not ‘against flesh and blood, but against the rulers and powers and principalities’ that inhabit the ‘air’ as it were (read the whole Epistle to the Ephesians). None of this is to mention, of course, the most pivotal section of scripture in the whole of the Bible (it could be argued) in regard to the Fall. Genesis:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

We have other references in the Old Testament that refer to the ‘spiritual battle’, particularly in Daniel 10; note:

12 Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. 13 But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia. 14 Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come.”. . . 20 So he said, “Do you know why I have come to you? Soon I will return to fight against the prince of Persia, and when I go, the prince of Greece will come; 21 but first I will tell you what is written in the Book of Truth. (No one supports me against them except Michael, your prince.)

And then of course the infamous battle that Jesus had with the Devil in the wilderness (a recapitulation of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness) in Matthew (and the Synoptic attestation):

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

If we didn’t have the Old Testament witnesses the New Testament account of Jesus’s battle wouldn’t make sense, for one thing. For another thing what we do have in the ‘spiritual battle’ that Jesus undertook in the wilderness and the victory he won (think Irenaeus and recapitulation as far as hermeneutical and soteriological method) is not ‘parabolic’ in literary form but historical prose; in other words its intention is to detail a concrete event with theological depth per the reality of the euaggelion, per the Gospel reality that Jesus is in the incarnation. In other words, the reality of the Devil to this account in Matthew (and Mark) is just as central to the canonical narrative as is Genesis 3 with our first introduction to the Devil. There is a continuity of salvation-history in regard to the character and function of the Devil from the first Adam to the second Adam (to pick up on the Pauline motif cf. Rom. 5), and his role in introducing humanity to an evil that he had already partaken of. This is not to suggest that the Devil is evil, like in a Manichean or dualist sense, or that he helps explain the origin of evil—this would only exceed the bounds and thrust us into a mode of speculation that we dare not engage in as those committed to a revelational theology—but it is to recognize through attention to the textual development that the Devil ought to be understood in a realist and at least ontological sense insofar as he has agency and volition in his textuality.

In short, the text, I contend, wants us to believe that the Devil is a real entity who is maliciously oriented against God and his purposes in Jesus Christ. The text wants us to think that the Devil wants to undo what God has done, and is doing in and through the resurrection power of the risen Christ in the human and created order in general. The text, as we think this canonically, wants us to think that the Devil is real; has agency, ‘prowls around like a roaring lion’; is leader of a cohort that has been made a public spectacle of at the cross of Christ; is ‘accuser of the brethren’ cast down from heaven in warfare with the heavenly host, that soon, along with the rest of death will be put under the Christ’s foot once and for all never to be heard of again. In other words, the text wants us to think that the Devil, with all his ‘being’ wants to destroy the good and very good creation and recreation of God in Jesus Christ; not to mention all of those who are participants in Christ’s life by the Spirit.

I write all of the above to get to Friedrich Schleiermacher; just who you were waiting for! Most evangelical and Reformed Christians couldn’t give two cents for what Schleiermacher thinks; I get that. Nevertheless, I think it is interesting, if not important, to understand where someone as giant and genius as Schleiermacher stood on such things. His theology of the devil is actually pretty scant, and as he notes (as you will see) unnecessary for a Christian theology. Clearly he reflects the ‘enlightened’ thinking of his times, and presupposes upon the developing ‘higher criticism’ of his day. You will see this reflected in what he has to say about the non-importance of the devil relative to scriptural teaching and Christian living. As you read him along with me here, what I opened up with above will become clear; you will see why I wrote what I did in anticipation of what Schleiermacher thinks. He writes:

Thus, even if only a few scriptural passages treat of the devil, or even if all the passages actually cited here and those otherwise still reputable for the purpose treat the devil, all grounds for taking up this notion as an enduring component in our presentation of Christian faith-doctrine would be lacking to us. Accordingly, all grounds would also be lacking for defining the notion so much more closely that everything that is ascribed to the devil could also really be considered together. This is so, for in Christ and his disciples this notion was not used as one that would be derived from the Sacred Scriptures of the old covenant, nor even as on that would be acquired from divine revelation by any pathway whatsoever. Rather, it arose from the common life of that time, thus in the same way in which it more or less arises in all of us, despite our complete ignorance as to the existence of such a being. Moreover, that wherefrom we are to be redeemed remains the same, whether the devil exists or not, and that whereby we are redeemed also remains the same. Thus, the very question concerning the existence of the devil is also no question for Christian theology at all. Rather, it is a cosmological question, in the broadest sense of the word, exactly the same as that concerning the nature of the firmament and of heavenly bodies. Moreover, in a presentation of faith-doctrine we actually have just as little to affirm as to deny on this topic, and likewise we can just as little be required to hold a dispute over that notion in a presentation of faith-doctrine as to provide a grounding for it. What the biblical deposit shows is nothing more than that the notion was a confluence of two or three very different components among the Jewish people themselves. The first component is the servant of God who locates the whereabouts of wickedness, and who has a certain rank and work among the other angels, but of whom there can be no talk of being cast out from being near God. The other main component is the basically evil being of oriental dualism, modified in such a way that the Jews alone would have been in a position to adopt the new version.[1]

Schleiermacher, clearly, was under the influence of his times; as such the Bible was undergoing a radical displacement in regard to being a trustworthy gateway into the strange world operative under the strictures of supernatural reality, as he attempted to theologize.

There are many today, Christians even, who have little time to ponder whether or not the devil is real; many believe we have enough concrete expressions of evil, systemically and personally, to take up our time and attention. But according to the brief survey of Scripture I offered previously, this is errant. The Bible, contra Schleiermacher wants us to think that we are engaged in a real life battle with a ‘personal’ satan who seeks to not only destroy our souls, but the souls of every person for whom Christ died; and along with that the rest of creation as that is tied to our stewardship.

From a personal perspective I have experienced all types of spiritual warfare, in fact I’ve experienced some right now as I’ve come to type this post. I’ve had encounters with tangible contact points with the kingdom of darkness, been exposed to people who are demon-possessed, and confronted such realities in the name of the living Christ. This is why this is important; because it’s a real life struggle that each of us as soldiers of Christ faces on a daily basis. Maybe one positive point we could take from Schleiermacher, in a recontextualized way, is that we don’t want to give the devil too much of our time and focus; but along with the Apostle Paul we don’t want to be ‘ignorant of his devices’ or reality either!

Further, I wouldn’t want to close this post without noting that the ‘spiritual’, just as the resurrection of Christ illustrates, is disembodied, per se. In other words, even though the devil is a ‘spirity’ entity (as are his cohorts) does not mean, as we can infer from Scripture, that his means are always or mostly of the so called ‘paranormal’ sort. Typically, especially in the Western enclave, his most heinous manifestations of evil are very material in orientation. We see this extended into space and time in terms of economic, sexual, physical forms of violence and abuse; in systemic and structural ways. But we ought to remember, nonetheless, that standing behind such ‘beastly’ action is indeed the kingdom of darkness in all its grossness. Devil be damned!

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. –Ephesians 6.10-12

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete. –II Corinthians 10.3-6

[1] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith Volume One, trans. by Terrence N. Tice, Catherine L Kelsey, and Edwina Lawler (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 242-43.

Advertisements

Christian Theology is only For Christians, That’s What My Homey Schleiermacher Says

There seems to be an ascendancy, once again, of philosophical theology [and I apologize, this post, or at least this point of this schleiermacher (1)post is going to have to remain rather general and abstract without any concrete examples at the moment]. The way I understand philosophical theology is pretty close to home; it is a form (it might be THE form) of evangelical theology that I sat under while in undergrad at Bible College (things changed a bit for me in my seminary experience because of two profs in particular). Philosophical theology, as I understand it, and have experienced it, in a nutshell, is what has come to be called: analytical theology. Analytical theology, in a nutshell, is theology, like scholastic theology from the post-Reformed era that feels free to drink freely from the analytical philosophical tradition (like from Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics, et al), and use the categories discovered by these philosophers as they reflected upon creation as the categories through which the Christian God was synthesized and casted.

So even with the scant sketch above of how I understand philosophical or analytical theology what should begin to emerge is how there is no necessary connection between Christian theology, and its revealed categories, and the categories “discovered” by the analytic philosophers. And yet what happens in the analytical theology tradition is that a foundation, of sorts, is constructed so that these two disparate approaches of thinking about metaphysical things can be brought into mutually supporting beams such that God’s life ends up being founded upon our capacity to think God (from reflecting upon creation) instead of being confronted by God Self-revealed and interpreted in Jesus Christ. This is how I see analytical theology functioning, and it is because of this that I must reject it, and search for an approach (and I believe that I have found one years ago now) that does not depend upon my ability as a philosopher and theologian to conceive of God, categorically, apart from his Self-revelation.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German theologian from the 18th and 19th centuries, who became known as the ‘Father of Theological Liberalism’ (wrongly!) offers an alternative to the analytical tradition–when critically received–that I believe is quite refreshing; and that I believe moves us away from attempting to work out correlationist theologies that seek to synthesize Christian theology with classical philosophical categories (Thomas Aquinas is one of the most famous for attempting to do this … I should say though, that I can learn a lot from Aquinas, still, just not uncritically).

I believe, along with Schleiermacher, and Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance, et al) that Christian theology cannot and must not depend upon any attempted correlations between natural reflection upon nature (the analytical philosophers), and then syntheses of these reflections with Christian theology.[1] I do not believe, along with someone as Scottish as Thomas Torrance, that there are any natural analogies for God become man (i.e. the Incarnation); do you? Schleiermacher writes it this way:

Our dogmatic theology will not, however, stand on its own proper ground and soil with the same assurance with which philosophy has long stood on its own, until the separation of the two types of proposition is so complete that, e.g., so extraordinary a question as whether the same proposition can be true in philosophy and false in Christian theology, and *vice versa*, will no longer be asked, for the simple reason that a proposition cannot appear in the one context precisely as it appears in the other; however similar it sounds, a difference must always be assumed.[2]

And this in regard to the audience of Christian theology:

It is obvious that an adherent of some other faith might perhaps be completely convinced by the above account that what we have set forth is really the peculiar essence of Christianty, without being thereby so convinced that Christianity is actually the truth, as to be compelled to accept it. Everything we say in this place is relative to Dogmatics, and Dogmatics is only for Christians; and so this account is only for those who live within the pale of Christianity, and is intended only to give guidance, in the interests of Dogmatics, for determining whether the expressions of any religious consciousness are Christian or not, and whether the Christian quality is strongly expressed in them, or rather doubtfully. We entirely renounce all attempt to prove the truth or necessity of Christianity; and we presuppose, on the contrary, that every Christian, before he enters at all upon inquiries of this kind, has already the inward certainty that his religion cannot take any higher form than this.[3]

For Schleiermacher, then, and many others after him (like Barth, Torrance, and a whole host of more ‘liberal’ theologians), Christian Theology is for Christians! It is exclusive to those who have eyes to see, and ears to hear; as the Revelator has written: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”[4]

The ascendancy of philosophical or analytical theology that I referred to to open this brief piece up continues to make new in-roads into the evangelical heart-land. I think we ought to repent of that, and engage in theological endeavor that ironically comes from someone like Schleiermacher. We want to really be able to hear from the Lord, and attempt to repeat what we hear in a genuine way as Christians. We want to genuinely walk in the way that comes after we come to recognize that Deus dixit, that ‘God has spoken;’ and only after that and from that speech can we truly theologize and in a way that contradicts our words, and our lives instead of flowing from them (which I contend analytical theology does at its base in the methodological form that it flows from).

The end.

[1] If you have not spotted the undercurrent of what I am getting at yet let me help: What this cuts against, what I am about to write about, is natural theology. Natural theology believes that there are analogies in creation (because of an interconnected chain of being between creation and Creator) that can be used as foundation stones for us to build our knowledge of God upon (i.e. analogia entis, ‘analogy of being’). So this is part of the critique, and part of what is going on here. But the deeper concern I have is the impact that analytical theology can possibly have upon a Christian’s spirituality. I believe Christian theology, by definition, is for Christian eyes and ears, and so from this touchstone, of sorts, we proceed onward with Schleiermacher and Barth.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, §16 postscript in Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing, 2008), 72.

[3] Ibid.

[4] New American Standard Bible, Revelation 3.22.

Turning to Ourselves Instead of God: The Evangelicals and Herman Bavinck

Victoria Osteen’s recent faux pas (well some think it was a faux pas, I do) about God being happy when we are happy is a helpful illustrator of what I want to address in this mini-albrechtritschlessay. For many North American evangelical Christians God has become our buddy in the sky, the God who snuggles up with us in our quiet times away from the hustle and bustle of everyday real life. For many evangelicals, God is more at our whim, he is meant to meet our psychological needs, and intended (by us) to make us feel normal in an otherwise abnormal world. For many an evangelical God is at our behest, and becomes who we make him to be rather than the other way around.

Theologian, J. Todd Billings, after sociologist, Christian Smith has labeled this type of movement, and evangelical making of God as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD, hereafter). Here is how Smith defines the lineaments of MTD:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.[1]

My guess is that this sounds very familiar to you, in fact it might hit closer to him than you would like to admit. Truth be told, this inclination has been around for centuries, but it is modern man and woman who have been plagued with this style of pedestrian religion, in the name of Christ, probably more than any other age. We are conditioned by an understanding of God that suits us, that is fits well with being an American, or living with the relative creature comforts the Western world has to offer us. But there is a history behind this.

Herman Bavinck, a Dutch Reformed theologian who lived and wrote during the latter half of the 19th century (in Amsterdam) gets into the theological history that has led to what Christian Smith and Todd Billings have labeled as moralistic therapeutic deism. Bavinck was working in the period just after much of the theology behind MTD was being developed by certain German theologians like Fredrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Hermann, et al. What he has written on the topic sounds eerily close to what we have now come to call MTD. Here Bavinck is commenting on how some of the theologians of his day were articulating this early form of what has now more popularly been labeled as moralistic therapeutic deism:

Revelation, he says [he is referring to one of these theologians, i.e. Ritschl], is not an external thing, but “man receives the revelation, which is the ground of his religion, because the depths of his own being are opened to him.” Religion is a new life, and rests upon an experience of the power of moral good, as Jesus has shown us. To trust in that power is to believe, to live, to be saved. And because religion is thus “the complete quickening of a man, there is no general religion, the same for every one, but there are only individuals in religion.” So we see that from the standpoint of religious psychology there is no longer a place for metaphysics, theology, or dogmatics, nor even for an “ethics of the religious personality.” For every standard fails here; there is no single law or rule; the individual  man is the measure of all things, also of religion; God does not say how he will be served, but man decides how he will serve him.[2]

I think Bavinck’s insight, from the late 19th century is penetrating and pertinent to our own 21st century context as North American evangelicals in particular. What becomes difficult for us, as evangelicals, to identify this type of self-serving religion in our midst, in our personal lives is that we have no real critical space to distinguish between this type of moralistic religion and the real Christian religion that we claim to inhabit; because we have conflated the two. As I have written elsewhere in regard to this very issue, and drawing off of Swiss theologian Karl Barth and his critique of the 20th century German Christianity that he was a part of during World War I and II: “It is this absolutized ‘Conservative Self’ that presumes that what it means to be moral, and Christian is to ask, simply, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ This perfectly illustrates Barth’s critique of the German Liberal Protestant. For them, as for us, to be Christian, was to be nationalist, exceptional, and normal.” And so we end up worshipping a projection of God that looks more like ourselves, our better morally good self, than the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

I know this little essay has probably come off like something that makes you feel like you have been beaten around the head, but isn’t that what we need sometimes? I think the most dangerous thing about living the way we do, as moralistic therapeutic Deists who have absolutized ourselves, and adopted a morally good Gospel (as Bavinck described it) is that we really have no space to actually hear from God. We have no capacity to see that God is truly Lord who contradicts us at our every step, but who at the same time graciously nurtures us even as he rebukes us in our sinful mode of being. There is hope, just not in ourselves.

 

 

[1] Christian Smith, Soul Searching, 162-63 cited by J. Todd Billings in Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church, 22.

[2] Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, loc. 2853, 2862 kindle.

Responding to Eboo Patel on Interfaith Action and Pluralism

I just posted the following to my group blog for a program I am a part of through Princeton Theological Seminary. One of our assignments was to listen to the following podcast by Eboo Patel, and the following is what I wrote in response to what he had to say. Patel is a Muslim, and yet he promotes an inter-faith approach to things. As you will be able to infer from what I wrote in response, I don’t agree with him, even if I think his desires are noble (which I do think they are). Click here to listen to the podcast if you want (it is approx 18 minutes). Here is my response:

ghandiI just finished listening to the assigned podcast for pre-session #4 class work which was a short lecture given by Eboo Patel on interfaith interaction and ecumenical and inclusive engagement between various faith traditions; in particular, for him, between Christians, and his faith tradition, Islam. And yet as I listened to Patel’s very articulate and winsome talk, what stood out to me was that he seemed to be ameliorating the substantial differences and distinctives inherent between Islam, Christianity, and other ‘faith’ traditions. And that he places a higher premium on our shared human and earthly situation, and in the process diminishes the ‘eternal’ realities that give each of our faith traditions there actual distinctiveness; that is, I see Patel diminishing the significance and thus importance of what we think about God. It appears that Patel holds to the an idea that the concept ‘God’ is actually an ‘eternal’ reality, who in the end ends up being the same reality, and thus in the present what is important in the ‘earthly’ experience of ‘God’ is to focus on our shared experiences and various, but shared expressions of ‘faith.’

Interestingly, what Eboo Patel is doing, and the way he is emphasizing a ‘pluralistic’ approach to inter-faith cooperation sounds very similar to the way that theologian John Hick approached his expression and understanding of Christianity through his ‘pluralist universalist’ approach. Christian theologian Christian Kettler describes Hick’s approach (and quotes Hick in the process); notice, as you read this, how well Hick’s approach (as described by Kettler) dovetails with Patel’s approach. I think there is more than coincidence going on between Patel’s informing approach, and how Hick approaches things; here is Kettler on Hick:

Hick responds to this challenge by stressing 1) the structural continuity of religious experience with other spheres of reality, and 2) an openness to experimental confirmation. “Meaning” is the key concept which links religious and mundane experience. “Meaning” for Hick is seen in the difference which a particular conscious act makes for an individual. This, of course, is relative to any particular individual. Verification of this experience is eschatological because of the universal belief in all religions that the universe is in a process leading towards a state of perfection.

The epistemological basis for such an approach is found in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Hick’s soteriology is based on “Kant’s broad theme, recognizing the mind’s own positive contribution to the character of its perceived environment,” which “has been massively confirmed as an empirical thesis by modern work in cognition and social psychology and in the sociology of knowledge.” The Kantian phenomena in this case are the varied experiences of religion. All have their obvious limitations in finite humanity, so none are absolutely true.

In contrast to Kant, however, Hick believes that the “noumenal” world is reached by the “phenomenal” world of religious experience. “The Eternal One” is “the divine noumenon” experienced in many different “phenomena.” So the divine can be experienced, but only under certain limitations faced by the phenomenal world. Many appropriate responses can be made to “the divine noumenon.” But these responses are as many as the different cultures and personalities which represent the world in which we live. Similar to Wittgenstein’s epistemology of “seeing-as,” Hick sees continuity between ordinary experience and religious experience which he calls “experiencing-as”.

The goal of all these religious experiences is the same, Hick contends: “the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness.” This transformation cannot be restated to any one tradition.

When I meet a devout Jew, or Muslim, or Sikh, or Hindu, or Buddhist in whom the fruits of openness to the divine Reality are gloriously evident, I cannot realistically regard the Christian experience of the divine as authentic and their non-Christian experiences as inauthentic. [Kettler quoting: Hick, Problems of Religious Pluralism, 91.][1]

Even if Patel is not directly drawing from Hick’s pluralism (which I doubt that he is not), it becomes quite apparent how Patel’s ‘earthly’ vis-á-vis ‘eternal’ correlates with Hick’s appropriation of Kant’s ‘noumenal’ (which would be Patel’s ‘eternal’), and ‘phenomenal’ (which would be Patel’s ‘earthly’). What happens is that the actual reality of God is reduced to our shared human experience of what then becomes a kind of ‘mystical’ religious experience of God determined to be what it is by our disparate and various cultural, national, and ‘nurtural’ experiences. In other words, God and the ‘eternal’ becomes a captive of the human experience, and our phenomenal ‘earthly’ experiences becomes the absolutized end for what human flourishing and prosperity (peace) is all about.

Beyond this, Patel, towards the end of his talk uses a concept of ‘love’ that again becomes circumscribed by and abstracted to the ‘earthly’ human experience of that; as if the human experience of love has the capacity to define what love is apart from God’s life. But as Karl Barth has written in this regard:

God is He who in His Son Jesus Christ loves all His children, in His children all men, and in men His whole creation. God’s being is His loving. He is all that He is as the One who loves. All His perfections are the perfections of His love. Since our knowledge of God is grounded in His revelation in Jesus Christ and remains bound up with it, we cannot begin elsewhere—if we are now to consider and state in detail and in order who and what God is—than with the consideration of His love.[2]

In other words, for the Christian, our approach and understanding of ‘love’ cannot be reduced to a shared and pluralistic experience of that in the ‘earthly’ phenomenal realm. Genuine love for the Christian starts in our very conception of God which is not something deduced from our shared universal experience, but is something that is grounded in and given to us in God’s own particular Self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

In conclusion, I would argue that Eboo Patel’s ‘earthly’ pluralist approach is noble, but his approach is flawed because 1) ‘God’ cannot be adumbrated by our human experience (because for the Christian that our understanding of God is revealed from outside of us); and 2) ‘love’ is not simply an human experience that transcends all else, but instead is the fundamental reality of God’s Triune life. If love is the fundamental reality of who the Christian God is, then the object of our ‘faith’ as Christians, by definition, starts in a different place than all other religions and their various conceptions of God. If this is the case, then Christianity offers a particular (not universal) understanding and starting point to knowing God, and thus to understanding how love relates to truth (and vice versa). And yet, Christianity remains the most inclusive ‘religion’ in the world, because God loves all, and died for all of humanity; but this can only be appreciated as we start with the particular reality of God’s life in Jesus Christ.

None of what I just wrote means that we cannot work alongside or with other ‘faith’ traditions; it is just important, I think, to remember that who God is remains very important, and in fact distinguishes us one from the other. And that while we can and should befriend and conversate with other faith traditions, in the midst of this, we should not forget that there still is only one ‘way, truth, and life’ to the Father, and that way comes from God’s life himself, in his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ. If we don’t want to affirm what I just suggested, then what we will be left with is something like John Hick’s ‘anonymous Christians’ with the notion that all ways are ‘valid’ expressions towards the one God ‘out there’ somewhere.

 


[1] Christian D. Kettler, The Vicarious Humanity of Christ and the Reality of Salvation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publications, 1991), 65-6.

[2] Barth, CD II/1, 351.

Jesus, the ‘Criterion of Truth’

Let me respond to these comments made by commenter Stephen by quoting something from TF Torrance on Barth that I think is apropos to what Stephen has communicated about his own process and method of theological jesusphilosopherengagement. I don’t think Stephen is as far afield as what Torrance on Barth is critiquing, but then, I don’t really know. Here is what Stephen wrote of his approach:

In all honesty, I am extremely averse to theological precision. (I think I spend most of my time questioning dogmatics unnecessary dogmatic claims!) My exposure to world (particularly, Chile, Korea, Japan) Christianity and different Christian traditions has in many ways made me a theological minimalist.

Also, I take the consequences of positions extremely seriously and must negotiate accordingly. This does not mean I compromise on the essentials (Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and Authority of Scripture), but it does mean that certain dogmatic statements are accountable to human experience of reality (like a doctrine of Scripture, creation, etc).

And this [he is applying his method to a discussion about Biblical translation and human epistemology]:

My final disclaimer is that knowing the author’s original intention does not settle the issue. Even if (lest say for argument’s sake) the author meant inerrancy as traditionally understood, if human experience does not allow me to say this, than I have to reformulate reinterpret the author’s views in light experience. (Truth is truth!) Certain doctrines must take into account experience. Actually all do, but the incarnation, trinity, atonement are inaccessible now, but hopefully these views will be vindicated at the parousia by are [sic] experience when all will be revealed. [taken from here]

Here is how Thomas Torrance on Karl Barth would respond to placing this kind of premium on human experience and absolutizing it as the criterion by which we know:

[T]here is still another line of development that must be noted, not one concerned so much with history considered as the product of man’s creative spirituality or with the existentialist fear of rational criticism, but with a psychological analysis and interpretation of the religious self-consciousness that is deliberately pursued as an extension of the Cartesian line of thought – what Wobbermin called ‘religo-psychological existential thought’. This is a line of thought which takes seriously the interrelation between man’s knowledge of God and his self-knowledge, and between his self-knowledge and knowledge of God, that is, the correlation between God and man, but it is one which thinks away the free ground of that correlation in God, takes its starting-point in man’s immediate self-consciousness, and makes its ultimate criterion man’s certainty of himself. Even it that means starting from a religious ego-consciousness and returning to it as the criterion of certainty, it involves a religio-psychological circle which is fundamentally ‘vicious’, for it has no objective ground independent of its subjective movement, and no point where its circular movement comes to an end, since the ‘God’ at the opposite pole is only the correlate of man’s consciousness, and so points back to man for its testing and truth.

In all these different movements there is, insisted Barth, a basic homogeneity of method from Schleiermacher to Bultmann, in which theological thinking takes its rise from a basic determination in the being of man, so that the only truth is is concerned with or can be concerned with is truth for man, truth which can be validated only by reference to his self-explication controlled by historical analysis of human existence. Two fundamental propositions are involved in this whole line of thought: a) Man’s meeting with God is a human experience historically and psychologically fixable; and b) this is the realisation of a religious potentiality in man generally demonstrable. These fundamental propositions remain essentially the same even if the idiom is changed to that of existentialism. It is this line of thought which throws up a theology in which the Church and faith are regarded as but part of a larger context of being and in which dogmatics is only part of a more comprehensive scientific pursuit which provides the general structural laws that determine its procedure, and so are the test of its scientific character. This means that theology can he [sic] pursued only within the prior understanding, and by submission to a criterion of truth, derived from a general self-interpretation of man’s existence. Thus theological activity becomes merely the servant of man’s advancing culture, and the tool of a preliminary understanding which, as Bultmann claimed, is reached ‘prior to faith’. [Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian, 34-5.]

Not wanting to push commenter, Stephen to places he might not want to go, or be identified in; I cannot help but see Stephen’s methodology being critiqued and described in Torrance’s accounting. The Bible and Theology know nothing of a human experience (ontologically) abstracted from the human experience of God in Jesus Christ (as definitive and determinative of what it means to be human). There cannot be some sort of notion of human epistemology that has an active intellect of its own that is able to abstract a logical-deductive schemata of categories from its interplay with a pure nature of passive reality that then becomes the criterion by which humanity vindicates the reality of God in Christ. As Torrance notes, “… one which thinks away the free ground of that correlation in God, takes its starting-point in man’s immediate self-consciousness, and makes its ultimate criterion man’s certainty of himself. Even it that means starting from a religious ego-consciousness and returning to it as the criterion of certainty, it involves a religio-psychological circle which is fundamentally ‘vicious’, for it has no objective ground independent of its subjective movement, and no point where its circular movement comes to an end, since the ‘God’ at the opposite pole is only the correlate of man’s consciousness, and so points back to man for its testing and truth….”

If we believe that our experience is more certain than the objective experience of God, REVEALED (exegeted cf. Jn. 1.18) in Jesus Christ; then we will only haplessly be able to end up back in the ‘vicious’ circle, that Torrance notes above, of displacing God’s certainty with a religio-psychologically certainty of our own. And in the end we end up back in the ‘Liberal’ theological project of Schleiermacher, and not the orthodox one of Barth and even the Trad. And theology becomes driven by my experience, my ‘feeling’, and by anthropology of a certain kind; the kind that believes our capacity to speak of God can only be fleeting projections of our own imaginations that remain cut off from the inaccessibility of the Triune God who became incarnate and left nuanced and detailed disclosure and attestation of that in Scripture.