Barth and Luther, Quasi-Occamist/Thomist Theologians: How To Do Genuinely Protestant Theology Under the Pressure of the Gospel

I thought it would be instructive to review some of Michael Allen Gillespie’s description of Nominalism, and then compare and constructively contrast that with Barth’s actualism. When you read Gillespie’s treatment of nominalism—at least the part I’m going to share—some of it will sound strikingly similar to Barth’s own anti-natural theological impulses; with an emphasis on Divine Revelation to boot. Gillespie writes:

Most nominalists were convinced that human beings could know little about God and his intentions beyond what he reveals to them in Scripture. Natural theology, for example, can proved God’s existence, infinity, and supremacy, according to Ockham, but it cannot even demonstrate that there is only one God. Such a radical rejection of scholastic theology clearly grew out of a deep distrust not merely of Aristotle and his Islamic interpreters but of philosophic reason itself. In this sense, Ockham’s thought strengthened the role of revelation in Christian life.

Ockham also rejected the scholastic understanding of nature. Scholasticism imagined nature to be teleological, a realm in which divine purposes were repeatedly realized. Particular entities became what they already potentially were in attaining their special end. They thus saw motion as directed toward the good. The nominalist rejection of universals was thus a rejection not merely of formal but also of final causes. If there were no universals, there could be no universal ends to be actualized. Nature, thus, does not direct human beings to the good. Or to put the matter more positively, nominalism opens up the possibility of a radically new understanding of human freedom.

The fact that human beings have no defined natural ends does not mean that they have no moral duties. The moral law continues to set limits on human action. However, the nominalists believe that this law is known only by revelation. Moreover, there is no natural or soteriological motive to obey the moral law. God is no man’s debtor and does not respond to man. Therefore, he does not save or damn them because of what they do or don’t do. There is no utilitarian motive to act morally; the only reason for moral action is gratitude. For nominalism, human beings owe their existence solely and simply to God. He has already given them the gift of life, and for this humans should be grateful. To some few he will give a second good, eternal life, but he is neither just nor unjust in his choice since his giving is solely an act of grace. To complain about one’s fate would be irrational because no one deserves existence, let alone eternal existence.[1]

Clearly not a one-for-one correspondence between Ockham and Barth, but there is some similarity between their respective emphases on Divine Revelation as the only point of contact creatures have for a knowledge of God in negation of a natural theological way. One more point of correspondence between the two, respectively, would be the emphasis upon Divine Sovereignty, and God’s relation to the world through covenant rather than through a series of graded conceptions of causality leading to a certain understanding of teleology for the created order.

Yet, Ockham ends up positing a Potentia-God wherein God has two-powers, 1) his absolute, and 2) his ordained. Here there is a rupture placed between the way God may act (according to his absolute) power in his inner and eternal life, versus how he chooses to act (according to his ordained power) in his ad extra or economic life in temporal-salvific reality. For Ockham, because of this strain between the two modes of God there is no guarantee that the God we see in ordained and created reality corresponds to who God actually is in his eternal life; as such we lose any sort of realist connection between what another dualist (Kant) might identify as phenomenological reality vis-à-vis noumenal actuality. Barth doesn’t have this problem.

As George Hunsinger notes in regard to Barth’s actualism and particularism:

“Actualism” is the motif which governs Barth’s complex conception of being and time. Being is always an event and often an act (always an act whenever an agent capable of decision is concerned). The relationship between divine being and human being is one of the most vexed topics in Barth interpretation, and one on which the essay at hand hopes to shed some light. For now let it simply be said, however cryptically, that the possibility for the human creature to act faithfully in relation to the divine creator is thought to rest entirely in the divine act, and therefore continually befalls the human creature as a miracle to be sought ever anew.

“Particularism” is a motif which designates both a noetic procedure and an ontic state of affairs. The noetic procedure is the rule that says, “Let every concept used in dogmatic theology be defined on the basis of a particular event called Jesus Christ.” No generalities derived from elsewhere are to applied without further ado to this particular. Instead one must so proceed from this particular event that all general conceptions are carefully and critically redefined on its basis before being used in theology. The reason for this procedure is found in the accompanying state of affairs. This particular event requires special conceptualization, precisely because it is regarded as unique in kind.[2]

Here we see, per Hunsinger’s treatment of parts of Barth, that there is nothing left ad hoc or potential about the God-world relation. Instead, for Barth Divine reality is known as God makes himself known in the scandalous event of God become man in the elected humanity of Jesus Christ. Herein, for Barth, there is no ‘God behind the back of Jesus’—as there is for Ockham—but instead just the opposite; for Barth God is fully and actually made known without remainder through the Christ event as that becomes actualized over and again, afresh and anew through the miracle of the Evangel. While Barth retains a quasi-Occamist emphasis upon God’s relation to the world through covenant alone, he also has a quasi-Thomistic realism present insofar as God’s being-in-becoming, or the universal-in-the-particular can come to be known by the human agent as the human comes to participate in or becomes ‘a partaker of the Divine nature.’

I think that if the lineaments in my brief sketch hold up to any sort of scrutiny what we ought to realize is that Barth was genuinely engaged in what has come to be called ‘constructive theology.’ As Kenneth Oakes points out in his book Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy, Barth was less stressed about fitting into this or that theological category, and more concerned with allowing the pressure of the Gospel itself to determine the shape of his theological articulation; even if that meant cross-breading various strands of the theological textus receptus as that presented itself to him in the Great Tradition and the Reformed scholastics he had knowledge of. This helps explain, at least for me, why Barth’s theology always tended to reify or reformulate what previously counted as classical theology. He was less concerned about meeting the expectations set out by the Church, and more concerned with meeting the categorical and conceptual expectations set out by the Gospel. He was a Free theologian, who thought under the freedom he believed Christ gave him as one set free, indeed, by the Son of Man: ‘for who He sets free will be freed indeed.’

I think Barth’s theology, like Luther’s, represents some of, if not the best of Protestant theologizing; precisely because they both were slavishly driven to their theological conclusions by following the Gospel itself. They did theology that was in protest to the magisterial norms that the scholastics felt compelled to follow previous. And this is why I am a hearty proponent of both of these theologians: as you work through their respective theologies you will be able to discern reference to the via antiqua and the via moderna, both; and of course other special elements as those were made uniquely available to them per the respective periods of history they inhabited. In the end, Barth and Luther, both, I maintain, were affected by the pieces of various theological (and philosophical) traditions,  which is illustrated in the way they wrote theology such that they operated at almost naïve levels insofar that the conceptual grammars they deployed were second-fiddle to what actually mattered to them: which was bearing witness to Jesus Christ through the proclamation of the written and preached Word.


[1] Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 24.

[2] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 16-18.


How and Why I Seek to Operate as a Theologian in the ‘spirit’ of Luther

Martin Luther is really to blame for my theological trajectory. I knew of him in Bible College, and studied his works incidentally, but in Seminary I spent a lot of time with him; indeed, I was mentored in his theology (along with Calvin and some Puritans). It is his ‘spirit’ that I think and work from as a ‘budding’ theologian myself; I think this is important to understand insofar that you care to understand it. Luther is a radically shaped theologian of the Word, and this sits well with my soul. My whole orientation as a Christian is shaped by crisis and the reality of Holy Scripture speaking into that crucible. This, I take it, is the core of Luther’s own theological shape and formation. He was a man riddled with uncertainty about his standing before God, and someone who lived in fear of an imminent death outwith right standing with God. This palpable fear of Luther’s can be largely attributed to his training under Nominalist thought and its powers of God theology therein (i.e. potentia absoluta/potential ordinata). In this frame of reference a person could never ultimately be certain about “which God” they were dealing with since God in the heavens could be totally different than the God revealed in the ordained realities of salvation history. Luther understood this, he internalized it, and it was thus the source of great angst as he attempted to walk in a world under the guise of a God who potentially could turn out to be a monster rather than a marriage partner.

It is within this context that Luther had his seminal ‘rebirth.’ As an Augustinian monk he was in the monastery under the watchful eye of Johann von Staupitz. Staupitz led Luther away from both the scholastic and nominalist understandings of God—both heavily imbued with metaphysical baggage, from one direction or another—and pushed him into the New Testament text itself where Luther was introduced, finally!, to a view of God in Christ that brought rest to his famished soul. In the biblical text Luther for the first time came to realize that God is a God of love, and this meant that He was a God who didn’t stand aloof in the heavenlies, but instead was a God who came down and took on the flesh and blood of the every-man. Michael Allen Gillespie in his book The Theological Origins of Modernity offers this good word on Luther’s reformational transformation:

In Luther’s view God accomplishes this work in us by grace, by infusing himself in us, and possessing us. He comes to dwell in us as through the word. His love that binds him to us is the source of our salvation. The word in this way, according to Luther, comes to dwell in our heart. This gracious infusion of the word has a startling effect, creating a new self and a new kind of being. As Luther describes his own experience: “Here I felt I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

This great insight is a rejection of both the via antique and via moderna, of both scholasticism and nominalism. Both, in Luther’s view, derived their doctrines from a reading of Aristotle and other philosophers and not from the word of God. In this respect, neither lives up to the direct evidence principle laid down by Trutfetter and Arnoldi as the core of nominalism. Luther turns one of the fundamental principles of nominalism against its own theology. He admits as much already in 1520, claiming that it is not a question of the authorities but of arguments and firms assertions. “That is why I contradict even my own school of Occamists who follow the modern way, which I have absorbed completely.” Nominalism held that God was supremely free and could consequently be merciless in his wrath and that human beings had only enough free will to welcome God into their lives. Luther’s recognition that God’s righteousness was not an external judgment, but the righteousness or justification that he gave to human beings, reconfigured the supreme force in the universe into a benign being. Luther does not deny divine omnipotence—indeed he magnifies it—but suggests that the awesome power of his God (and the terror it generates) is a blessing because it acts in and through human beings and is the basis of their salvation.[1]

Maybe, if you care, this helps you understand better what serves as the basis for my own theological impulses. And maybe if you can appreciate this you will also be able to appreciate why I often seem so off-put by what is currently underway in the environs of theological retrieval in the evangelical and Reformed world. It is hard for me to grasp how people who claim the ‘Reformed pedigree’ can so quickly gloss over Luther’s real reason for the Protestant Reformation; and the impulses that drove him. He, by and large, rejected the God of scholasticism, indeed the God of nominalism as well, because he was driven by greater, even existential concerns. Luther could see that the metaphysical God he was given in his context was not able to actually ‘touch’ people; and Luther more than anyone else internalized this ‘hands-off’ God.

When touched with infirmity and the felt brokenness of our sinful lives the God of scholasticism and nominalism remains only a ‘school-God,’ and as such fits better in the ivory towers of the academic speculators, untouched by the filth and shit[2] of this grimy world where the majority of humanity lives. The world needs a God like the God revealed in Christ, and Luther personally understood this from the inside. This is the God I realize I need, and as such Luther and those after Luther are the theologians who I resonate with most. This is why Karl Barth (and TF Torrance) is so important to me. Barth quotes Luther more than any other theologian in his Church Dogmatics. This is indicative of the sort of emphasis that Barth shared with Luther, insofar as they both sought to err on the side of emphasizing Jesus Christ, the Word of God, to the breaking point of theological endeavor. Luther, as did Barth following, understood that the God revealed in Christ and attested to in Holy Scripture was a God different than the school-God; insofar that the revealed God made Himself vulnerable to human touch and sense. Luther, with Barth following, understood that as Christ was known by faith, that this God-revealed remained the God who wanted to be known by touch and sense rather than through abstract speculation. This is why I am a ‘budding’ theologian who operates in the ‘spirit’ of Luther, just as Barth is an after Luther theologian, so I seek to be an after Barth theologian; and only because they both, in their respective emphases, attempted to think God as God freely chose to be thought from the bread crumbs and spilled grape juice of eucharistic and eschatological reality.

I could just as easily be known as The Evangelical Lutherian as ‘The Evangelical Calvinist,’ indeed the former is probably more appropriate in important ways. I am concerned about many of my evangelical and Reformed brethren. They have seemingly been directed in the wrong direction, and have failed to really appreciate the radical nature of what Luther et al. undertook. I mean, their misstep is understandable, this turn-back-to-scholastic theology (pace Muller) began to happen almost immediately post-Luther. The happenings and developments of Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology signaled a sort of death-knell to what Luther was attempting to do in his reformatory work; and yet for some reason I can note this, and people simply gloss right past it. I am not the sort who is going to gloss past Luther’s mode and intent. That said, I am less concerned with the various ‘schools’ that have developed, and more concerned with the actual theological content that has been produced; a content that either is driven more by Luther’s and Barth’s emphasis upon the concrete and tangible God in Christ, versus a content driven by speculation and the theological school-masters. For my money, the genuinely Protestant way is much more radical, and thus ‘modern’ in the sense that it constantly turns people back to the concrete-God rather than the antique-God supposedly underwriting the Great catholic Tradition of the Church.

Anyway, another autobiographical post that I hope helps give you further insight into my own impulses. Maybe they well resonate with you as well.

[1] Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 107-08.

[2] Please excuse this scatological reference, but more and more this word captures the warp and woof of this waning world for me; and as such I refer to it within its contextual form as that finds referent in the underbelly of a fallen and uncleansed world.

Knowing God through the Wood of the Cross Rather than from the Metaphysics of the ‘catholics’

I would have to say that I am obsessed with ‘knowledge of God,’ and how from a Christian perspective that is obtained. I have blogged, and written elsewhere, much on this locus; particularly as that gets into what is called the analogia entis and analogia fidei/relationis. I really don’t know why I’m so obsessed with this locus, but I think it has something to do with the pluralism within which I have been weaned, in the Western culture[s]; particularly as my experience of that is in North America. Nevertheless, the so called scandal of particularity of God’s grace in Christ enamors me; this is why I wrote my Master’s thesis on I Corinthians 1.17-25. I was first turned onto this locus in seminary as we studied Martin Luther’s theologia crucis (theology of the cross), and John Calvin’s duplex cognitio domini (twofold knowledge of God as Creator/Redeemer). I was already wrestling with ‘knowledge of God’ theory prior to these introductions, but these teachings of Luther and Calvin gave me some intelligible grammar that helped articulate what only lay latent and inarticulate in the flutter of my mind’s-eye.

The pursuit and infatuation with this locus has only grown since that introduction (back in 2002). I have found my greatest solace in the theology of Karl Barth (so analogia entis/relationis:being/relation), and also in Barth’s greatest English speaking student: Thomas F. Torrance. They have brought greater clarity to a theory of revelation and knowledge of God for me; something that Luther and Calvin alone couldn’t do fully. I have forayed in other directions in the pursuit of assuaging my curiosity in regard to knowledge of God or theory of revelation; I have read many others in fact, but Herman Bavinck and Henri de Lubac have provided me with the greatest alternative vis-à-vis the Barth/Torrance combine. But in the end I keep coming back to Barth’s anti-natural theological approach as that is grounded in his type of apocalyptical-dialectical theology. I am currently reading through his Church Dogmatics I/1 (I’m in the process of reading through the whole CD, in spotty fashion). I came across a passage from Barth that helps illustrate the sort of material focus, in regard to theory of revelation that I have been alluding to above. Let me share that at some length with you here.

The real issue in this whole matter is plain in Luther, to whom also appeal is usually made. It is Luther’s insights that lay behind the statements of Melanchthon and indirectly behind those of Calvin too. From his perception that man’s justification is in Christ alone and therefore by faith alone, Luther rightly concluded that all human theology can only be theology of revelation. As it is arbitrary and dangerous in the matter of justification to orientate oneself to a preconceived idea of the Law or one capriciously abstracted from the statements of Scripture; so it is arbitrary and dangerous in theology generally to start with a preconceived idea of God or one capriciously abstracted from the statements of Scripture. The total theological question, like the question of justification in detail, can be answered only with reference to the God who reveals Himself in Christ. Already in 1519 Luther mentions a thought he was often to repeat: This is the the one and only way of knowing God (shamefully neglected by the teachers of the Sentences with their speculations on pure divinity), that whoever wishes to think or reflect profitably on God should utterly disregard everything except the humanity of Christ (Letter to Spalatin, February 12, 1519, W.A. Br. I, 328 f). About the same time we find him writing polemically: Accordingly, let anyone who wants to know God have regard for the ladder fixed in the ground: here all human reason fails. For nature teaches that we are more eager to turn our attention to great than lowly things. Learn from this, how wickedly and – dare I say? – impiously they behave when they speculate, confident in their diligence, on the lofty mysteries of the Trinity: on where the angels are enthroned and what the saints say, when after all Christ was born in the flesh and will remain in the flesh. But look what happens to them. First: “If they should poke their heads into heaven and look around in heaven they would find no one but Christ laid in the crib and in the woman’s lap, and so they would fall down again and break their necks.” And these are those who write on the first book of the Sentences. And then they attain absolutely nothing from these speculations of theirs, so that they are able to profit or counsel neither themselves or others. “Start here below, Thomas and Philip, and not up above” (Schol. in libr. Gen. on Gen. 28, W.A. 9, 406, 11). Even better known is the following passage: “For I have often said and say it again that when I am dead men should remember and guard against all teachers as ridden and led by the devil who in lofty positions begin to teach and preach about God nakedly and apart from Christ, as heretofore in high schools they have  speculated and played with His works up above in heaven, what He is and thinks and does in Himself, etc. But if thou wilt fare securely and rightly teach to grasp God so that thou find grace and help with Him, then let not thyself be persuaded to seek Him elsewhere than in the Lord Christ, nor go round  about and trouble thyself with other thoughts nor ask about any other work than how He hath sent Christ. Fix thine art and study on Christ, there let them also bide and hold. And where thine own thought and reason or anyone else  leadeth or guideth thee otherwise, do but close thine eyes and say: I should and will know no other God save in my Lord Christ” (Sermon on Jn. 17.3, 1528, W.A. 28, 100, 33; cf also Comm. on Gal. 13, 1535, W.A. 40.1, 75f.; W.A. Ti. 6, 28). One should not fail to note that in so far as these statements of Luther are polemical in content they are not concerned with the doctrine of Christ’s deity, and in so far as they are concerned with the doctrine of Christ’s deity they are not polemical in content. What Luther wants—this is his point in this train thought—is that deity in general and Christ’s deity in particular should not be known along the path of autonomous speculation but along the path of knowledge of God’s revelation, which means in practice along the path of knowledge of the benificia Christi and therefore the humanity of Christ.[1]

And to press this thought line further Torrance commentates this on Barth’s style of evangelical 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]

Barth goes to proving that the aim of THE original Reformer, Martin Luther, was to move away from the discursive and speculative way of the mediaeval theology he was nurtured in. We see his disdain for not only Lombard’s Sentences, but how those became the mainstay of mediaeval theology, to the point that they had their own commentaries; they became the authority for the theological developments of Luther’s day, and days prior. The original Reformer repudiated these speculative meanderings, according to Barth, by recognition of the fact that as sinners we need salvation; this never changes. As such, for Luther, according to Barth, ‘metaphysics’ are not the ply of the Christian; instead, focusing on the wood of the manger and cross of Jesus Christ are—indeed always will be and should be. It is the Christ who is the always already mainstay of theological reflection; the way into knowledge of God. This never changes; we are always in a mode of ‘reckoning’ ourselves ‘dead to sin and alive to Christ.’ If this is the case, as I distill Barth on Luther et al. then moving into the philosopher’s head, in regard to Ultimacy, is not the way of the Christian; the way of the Christian is to live in and from the heart of God as that pulses in the risen Christ given breath by the Holy Spirit. This is a repudiation of ‘metaphysical’ speculation about Pure Beings and Unmoved Movers, just as salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone.

Ironically, those who claim to be recovering the Reformed heritage in the 21st century evangelical and Reformed churches are not recovering this “Barthian” emphasis, this “Luther[an]” emphasis of focus on Christ alone. Instead these “recoverers,” as they retrieve not only the 16th and 17th centuries of Protestant orthodoxy, but also as they retrieve Thomas Aquinas and much of the rest of the so called ‘classical’ or ‘catholic’ tradition, move quickly past what initiated the Protestant Reformation to begin with. Luther offered a repudiation of speculative apophatic theologies, and in its place offered a theology that is constantly refreshed by the eternal well-springs of the heavenly God made human for us all. Christ alone, in all his flesh and blood, in the concreteness of his humanity, for Luther, for Barth is God’s way for us to himself. All theological knowledge, thusly, is delimited by this concrete and earthen vessel who is the Christ. But the retrievers of today have opted for the very muddle that Luther rightly saw through on his way to a knowledge of God that not only liberated him from the maelstroms of his Augustinian monkery, but after Luther liberated the world from its bondages to the self and its speculative projections about just who God might be.

I hope the evangelical churches can finally recover the reality that God alone in Jesus Christ as attested to in Holy Scripture is the only way to have a genuine knowledge of just who God is [for us].



[1] Barth, CD I/1 §11, 125-27. The italics in the quote are mine; I italicized what is originally in the Latin, but what in the study edition of the CD has been translated by way of footnotes. I have offered the translation.

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

‘Martin Luther’s Hedonism’: The Role of the Affections in the Blood of the Cross

I often refer to Affective Theology (well I have sporadically over the years); affective theology is a way of theologizing I was first alerted to by my former seminary prof and mentor, Ron Frost. He primarily developed the themes, in his own constructive way, that make up his understanding of  affective theology in his PhD work on Richard Sibbes; but he didn’t necessarily arrive at these themes through Sibbes (at least not alone). Frost found the affective modes in Luther’s theology as that reached back to Augustine himself. Affective Theology is a theological construct that we might think of as a soteriologically driven paradigm; and this would make sense given its reliance on Luther, the solifidian theologian. In other words, the concerns that affective theology is enamored with have to do with what makes a human being human; at a theological anthropological level. And further, it wonders about these things as that relates to who God is in his own inner-life (in se). As you might imagine, affective theology sees the affections as central in regard to what makes a human, human at a componential level. Interestingly, most of the Western tradition, when it comes to these issues, sees the intellect as the defining component of what it means to be human; at least in the trad (things have changed in some ways these days; as far as developing a theological-anthropology; but what hasn’t changed are the conceptual impulses at play in this discussion). In other words, the Aristotelian impact on Western Christianity, particularly as modulated through Thomas Aquinas, and modulated further through many of the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries, continues to press upon the way many conservative evangelical and Reformed Christians think about what it means to be human. As an aside: Don’t lose sight of the fact that when we talk like this, about humans and their composition, that what we are ultimately going to do is get back to Who God is. As Calvin so insightfully helped us understand: We have no knowledge of ourselves without knowledge of God first. This is what I mean: who we think we are as human beings will first arise, at least for Christians, from who we think God is. Will we think of God as a Pure Being, a Pure Intellect in the heavens; or will we think of God primarily as filial love, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? This is what this whole discussion is about; this is what affective theology at its best is oriented by.

I noted earlier that Frost found these themes, that make up affective theology, by studying Martin Luther and Augustine’s theologies, respectively. I think it would be fitting then to think about this further with the help of a Lutheran theologian. Paul Hinlicky in his book Paths Not Taken, surprisingly to me, gets into the very loci that we’ve been noting in regard to Affective Theology. I want to share a quote from him that helps not only to illustrate what we’ve been covering (in this post), but helps to develop how ‘affective theology’ impacted Luther’s confidant and fellow-professor-theologian, Melanchthon. What I am going to share from Hinlicky in this regard has a greater context, as far as what he is developing as his argument in the book, but I wanted to lift some of his treatment out in order to help us see that Frost’s idea on affective theology is not something idiosyncratic to Frost; as some would have us believe (like Richard Muller). While Hinlicky’s own orientation is distinct from Frost, the themes they identify in Luther, Augustine et al. are convergent. Let us partake of some of Hinlicky’s writing now, and allow that to in-form (and maybe trans-form) the way we think about the dynamics at play in what it means to be human in a soterio-centric mode (so to speak). Hinlicky writes:

In any case, what actually gave Melanchthon pause in the course of the controversies of the 1520s was the criticism by papist opponents of the hedonism of Luther’s teaching on the will: “by equating the will (which directed reason) with the affections and by insisting that the highest affections were in bondage, [Melanchthon following Luther following Augustine had] made human beings no better than beasts.”

Wengert comes to Melanchthon’s defense: he “was not asking whether it is in a human being’s power to eat, drink, come, go, hear, and other natural matters. . . . The question was ‘whether without the Holy Spirit we can fear God and believe in God and love the cross, etc.’” This defense then is that Luther’s hedonism was that of a higher order. Yet the commonplace distinction here between things above us and things below rings hollow, in that apart from the Word and Spirit of God the self incurvatus in se fails to make this very distinction; it exchanges the glory of the immortal Creator for degrading images of creatures; it cannot find its way back unless someone comes and finds it. According to the “hedonist” psychology, the self is bound to do so in our race’s state of exile, where the creaturely will is spontaneously bound to love whatever object appears good to it, yet has little, if any, disposal over what appears to it as good. All such appearances are outside us, if not above us, and in any case not within our control. This is what is meant by servitude of the will. Thinking this way, the early Melanchthon had grasped Luther’s essential theological point: “why [is] the Holy Spirit necessary, if the human will by its powers could fear God, trust God, overcome concupiscence, and love the cross (in one’s own life),” i.e., if the human will could apprehend as good the God who spared not His own Son and displayed love for us in the repulsive form of the Crucified? It is the apprehension of God on a cross as our true good that is barred to fallen humanity, which naturally averts its eyes from the shame. It is the coming of the Spirit that makes the cross of Jesus appear as the supreme good it actually is by presenting the same Jesus alive and victorious. In this “objective” way the Holy Spirit alters perception of a sight that otherwise revolts the natural will by giving the same thing a new signification. This is “the work of the Holy Spirit, who moved the hearts of true hearers of the Word and helped them effect true virtues.” Note well: in the earlier Melanchthon the heart is moved from without, by the Word giving the Spirit and the Spirit illuminating the Word, not, as later in the scheme “imputative justification-effective sanctification,” from within, independently of the Word, as human feelings.[1]

We can see as Hinlicky tails off that he will be dealing with a shift in Melanchthon’s own views here. But for our purposes I wanted to introduce you, my readers, to this concept of the affections as a theological mode; and one that goes back to a primal Protestant emphasis as we find that located in the very heart of Luther’s theology itself.

What I find invigorating in Hinlicky’s treatment, brief as that is in my sharing of it, is the role that the Holy Spirit plays from without the would-be believer, and how that impacts what it means to be human; a human who sees God—is there any other sort of [real] humanity in the Kingdom of the Son of His love? What this gets at, more than defining component parts of what it means to be human, is how it is that us humans come to know who God is; because of who God is for us. He comes to us where we are, seemingly dead on the cross, and He takes our place on that wood, in gruesome display, and by the igniting of our affections, as those are first His for us in Jesus Christ, He gives us new spectacles through which we see the shed blood of the Lamb of God for what it is. It is through this ignition of our affections, as those are first His affections for us in Christ, it is as we participate in the vicarious-mediatorial-priestly humanity of the Son of Man that the broken flesh and spilt blood of the Christ comes to take on the actual significance and power it has in the economy of God’s life for us. You see, who we understand God to be will determine who we understand ourselves to be; and this will impact not only our relationship with God, but with our neighbors and enemies. This is an important issue that cannot be overstated. Theologia crucis.

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 172-73.

“Disbelief in God’s love is the root of all evil”: Engaging With Luther’s Theology of Desire, Doctrine of Sin, and Freewill

Sin, desire, and freewill; each of these can be trigger words that often lead to intense theological debate among various parties. In this post I want to address these loci from a particular angle; the angle will have to do with salvation and theological anthropology in particular. When I was in seminary my mentor/professor, Ron Frost, introduced me to his work on what he calls Affective Theology; I’ve written of it, more than once here at the blog, and years ago wrote a very introductory post detailing what it entails in its entailments. I want to redress this ‘theology’ again, not only referring to Frost, but some insights that I’ve picked up from Paul Hinlicky and his work with Luther, Melanchthon, Leibniz, and Barth’s theology; and how his work dovetails nicely with Frost’s work in the area of Affective Theology.

In brief Frost’s Affective Theology is largely a theological anthropological endeavor that, of course, as with all theological projects, reaches back into a doctrine of God. In the main Frost’s thesis, as he focuses most pointedly on Puritan, Richard Sibbes, is to argue, from within a tripartite faculty psychology (per theological-anthropological concerns), that unlike the Thomist Intellectualist tradition, the most basic and defining component of what makes someone human is not their intellect/rationales (which is the major Western Tradition following Thomas Aquinas et al.), but instead it is their ‘affections’ or more biblically attuned, the ‘heart.’ Frost argues that this anthropology can be identified all the way back to Augustine, and then into Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventura, Gerson, Von Staupitz, Luther, Calvin, Sibbes, Cotton et al. Here is some of Frost’s work that should help the reader get a better feel for what his thesis was about. Here you see him comparing and contrasting Richard Sibbes and William Perkins; the latter representative of the more dominant Western tradition—the tradition being uncritically retrieved today by young (and many older forebears) evangelical Reformed theologians.

Some final observations may be made about the positive and privative views of sin. The two approaches differ fundamentally on the reason for sin; while man is identified as responsible for sin in both views, he tends to be portrayed more as a pliable innocent overcome by the serpent’s deceit in the privative model. It is Adam presented as inadequate, not because he was unable to fulfill the law, but, because, in his mutability as a creature, he was vulnerable to moral change. This the serpent exploited while God was willfully away. In scholastic terms, the formal cause of sin was twofold, given the double causality associated with God’s sovereignty. God, as the primary agent for all things, determined the outcome by his withdrawal. In this he was arbitrary but just. The second agent, Adam, failed to apply the grace he had available and thus was culpable for his own fall, albeit as something of a victim. In both considerations the issue of grace is pivotal in its absence. For the privative model, as seen in both Thomistic and Reformed theology, this leads to a greater emphasis on the acquisition and application of grace in hypostatized or commodity-like terms, and a tendency toward Aristotelian moralism — the establishing of one’s righteousness through righteous actions based on grace. To the degree that grace becomes an impersonal quality, the greater the impression one has that something worthy of appreciation, if not merit, is being accomplished.

The doctrine of positive sin, on the other hand, rejects any tendency to see man as a victim; Adam is always the culprit in that he willfully replaced the Creator with the creature as the object of absolute devotion. It also recognizes human mutability as a fact which allows the fall, but rejects it as a meaningful explanation. The fall, in positive sin, remains an impenetrable mystery; Adam is not portrayed as deceived and God is not portrayed as withholding grace. In the positive model sin is always a competition: Adam seeks to usurp God’s role while God confounds Adam’s autonomy.

Thus, the most important difference between the two models is found in the way God is portrayed. In the privative view, as Aquinas and Perkins have it, he remains a supplier of grace — withholding what is needed for salvation except to the elect. He even remains parsimonious to the elect but, as their efforts prevail, is increasingly generous. In the positive view, on the other hand, he is an enemy until conversion which comes by the Spirit’s direct intervention. He invites the elect to see God as he really is: righteous, strong, and loving. Conversion, in fact, is a litmus for the two views: the privative model generally adopts a catechetical process which culminates in an affirmation of faith. The positive model, while recognizing that the Spirit uses prevenient stirrings, expects a more distinct Paul-light conversion which displays the moment in which selfish autonomy melts before God’s self disclosure. For the one, nature remains very much in view; for the other, God, once unveiled by grace, dominates the scene.

The importance of the affections for Sibbes and the nomists differed in profound ways. For Sibbes the affections were both the avenue by which sin entered the world and the avenue by which God, through the Spirit, restores the fallen soul. Slavery of the will was seen to be an enslavement by one’s own desires, something broken only by transforming vision of God as more desirable than anything human autonomy offers. Perkins and the nomists, on the other hand, saw the affections as a subordinate element of the will; they also provided a suitable theology for the prominent will by adopting the Thomist privation-enablement model of sin and grace.

Perkins and the nomists thus established human responsibility as the center-theme of salvation; the moral law became the locus of the soul in the process of sanctification. The belief that the covenant of grace is essentially a legal contract shaped all spirituality into a restorative stance: life is seen as an effort to regain and sustain Adam’s original obedience through the Spirit-enabled will. This generated a Christology which emphasized the juridical work of Christ to the point that, for pastoral ministry, the purpose of restored communion was easily reduced into the preaching of moralist endeavor.

Against this view, Sibbes, in line with Augustine, emphasized the place of Christ as much more than the source of justification, but primarily as one to be loved. The promise of the indwelling Spirit, whose ministry in Christ’s life is now allocated to the Christian, gives promise of a greater hope than the nomists offered: full and eternal intimacy of the Godhead through a true, although mystical, union with Christ. The feet of the soul are the affections and the affections are meant for communion with God.[1]

Hopefully you can get a better grasp on what Frost’s theory on Affective Theology entails. I think he identifies a pivotal reality that is lost, in serious ways, when it comes to the Reformed theology being retrieved today. Frost’s is actually a retrieval of a genuinely formed Reformational (versus post-Reformational) theology, one that hearkens from Luther himself; one that has been lost to the Christian Aristotelian tradition that Richard Muller et al. is wont to emphasize as THE dye that ostensibly serves pervasive in the whole of Reformed theology in thematic ways. What Frost demonstrates is that this ‘affective theology’ was as pervasive in and among the development of post-reformation theology as was the Christian Aristotelian form that people focus on today.

Okay, Hinlicky, someone who works even more so as a constructive theologian (versus Frost who is more of a historical theologian) whose period is from the modern angle, interestingly (to me), identifies these same themes in Luther’s et al. theology as Frost gleaned from Puritan theology; the point of convergence for both of them is indeed, Martin Luther and Augustine. Hinlicky brings the discussion that I want to have, on the role of desires, loves, sin, and freewill into relief as he writes (at serious length):

What Augustine and his tradition chiefly deny, however, is that any conceivable creature, pre- or postlapsarian, has freedom of desire. This is the “popular” sense of human free-will (which Luther identified and rejected as presuming “a power of freely turning in any direction, yielding to none and subject to none”). Creaturely desire instead spontaneously and as such involuntarily seeks the good and averts from evil. Desire that sought its evil would be pathological. The creature cannot help but seek its good and assent to it, or conversely, avert from its evil. The creature is motivated by its loves. It is analytic to the creaturely state that, as Aristotle famously declared at the outset of the Nichomachean Ethics, all by nature seek the good. Being creatures, they do not, as Martin Luther put it commenting on the first article of the creed, have life in themselves such that they can ever be free from desire: “Thus we learn from this article that none of us has life — or anything else that has been mentioned or could be mentioned — from ourselves, nor can we by ourselves preserve any of them, however small and unimportant.” As long as they live, in order to live, creatures must desire what appears good to them and avert the evil; the will spontaneously desires its perceived good. If it did not, it would be sick to death. The will is bound to desire and is bound to desire. This is what is in mind, then, when this tradition speaks of the bound or enslaved will, voluntas, not arbitrium (though Luther muddles the two terms). As Jan Lindhardt has shown: “St Augustine (d. 431) determined in extension of the Platonic tradition, that a man was identical with his love. He defined love itself as concupiscentia (desire).” This yielded a view of “man more as a unity than as a creature subdivided into various departments. . . . It was not the distinction between body/soul/reason, which occupied his attention, but the direction adopted by the soul or will, or drive,” and this “was interpreted during the Renaissance as representing a completely different view of man,” “not conceived of as an active subject, but as a receptive object” taking on the form of what is loved. Luther agreed with this understanding of Augustine’s anthropology, that “a man is his love.” This is the basis for his eccentric anthropology. Any will other than God’s is a will bound to desire the good that appears to it from without; this desire becomes one’s own will (not another’s) by virtue of free choices from among the available goods that one actually, historically, biographically pursues, since a human being is free to act, or to critically refrain from action, in the face of such choices. In just this way she forms the story of her life, as patient of her own passions and agent of her own actions.[2]

To make what Hinlicky just wrote crescendo he writes further:

In running roughshod over the important differentiation between freedom of choice and freedom of desire, Luther wanted to indicate how making choices contrary to God’s will in disobedience reflects the deeper fault of a root usurpation of God’s place as Creator. The root of all evil choices is disbelief in God’s love, seeking instead by one’s own choices and actions creatively to bestow value on something by one’s own sovereign good-pleasure. Human works are never what they appear to be on the surface; they are always acts of faith or disbelief. Choices are never merely temporal decisions, but decide whether or not in faith to rest in God’s good pleasure that bestows value on oneself, precisely as patient of one’s own sufferings, maker of one’s own choices, and agent of one’s own actions. Disbelief in God’s love is the root of all evil. Thus the ontologically impossible possibility of human freedom of desire, that desire sovereignly creates the object of its desire by the triumphant assertion of its will. This usurpation no theology that upholds the ontological difference between Creator and creature can admit. Even as arrogant pride presumes this freedom, there comes a Day of the Lord to topple it from its throne. One can want to be Hitler or Stalin, one can really make this choice, one can provisionally and disastrously for self, for others, and for the cosmos act on it. But finally one cannot succeed in it. “God’s purpose in this [causing failure of the human choice to be one’s own god] is that the heavenly City, during its exile on earth, by contrasting itself with the vessels of wrath, should learn not to expect too much from the freedom of the power of choice, but should trust in the ‘hope to call upon the name of the Lord God.’” We may recall here as well Barth’s well-intended but problematic teaching that a real alternative between God and the abyss of nihilism is ontologically impossible. Unlike Barth, however, for Luther or Augustine the nihilism of human superbia is impossible because hell puts the end to evil that will not otherwise die. The wrath of the God of love forces away from His company the usurper who wants to be God and not let God be God. That finally (not until then! Rev. 20:10) is how the real evil in the world is refuted. Actual evil is the presumption of divine “power of freely turning in any direction, yielding to none and subject to none,” that is met and matched, fire met by fire, not by persuasion but with force. If there are possibilities of mercy beyond this ultimate threat, they cannot in any event be conceived apart from it, only somehow through it and beyond it. In the interim, for Augustine, the relation of human freedom to divine sovereignty is not symmetrical: “when the will turns from the good and does evil, it does so by the freedom of its own choice [i.e., a logical alternative is available], but when it turns from evil and does good, it does so only with the help of God.”[3]

There is too much to attempt to address, but let me try and emphasize the themes we started out with. We see in Hinlicky’s treatment the same sorts of themes present in Frost’s analyses of different figures. But as I highlighted earlier the common thread between Frost and Hinlicky is to focus on Luther and Augustine. What I am hoping you, the reader, are picking up is how profound the affections/desires are and were for Luther[an] theology, and how that theme never went away; even if it unfortunately became overshadowed by much of the Aristotelian formed post-reformation theology that developed latterly.

Something else I hope the reader is picking up, without me attempting to draw all the pieces together (between Frost’s and Hinlicky’s analyses) is how the way we view humanity flows from the way we view God. If God is Triune love, a God’s who being is defined by his intra-relation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, if that reality defines our “metaphysics,” if that reality is allowed to evangelize our metaphysics, then the way we develop anthropology, and our doctrines of sin/evil, so on and so forth will be radically re-oriented by this understanding of God. We see this re-orientation in what Frost and Hinlicky are offering us as they engage with Augustine, Luther, and the tradition itself. It is an emphasis that many today would make us think is fringe or non-existent; or that it reflects a revisionist understanding of the history of ecclesial ideas that isn’t totally accurate. To the contrary! There are threads in the tradition that fit much better with the idea that what stands at the center of who humans are has to do with God’s love,[4] and the human love attenuated by that love, rather than seeing people defined by their intellect; the latter coming from an understanding that sees God as the Big Brain in the sky, the Brain that relates through decrees rather than filial love by the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ.

There is more to say, more technical things to get into and unpack. But let’s what I’ve offered from Frost and Hinlicky suffice for now, and maybe we can attempt to distill these things further, and more technically at a later date. We never really did get too far into the issues broached in regard to freewill etc. But hopefully, at the very least, from the long quotes, you can see how we might develop these themes vis-à-vis the greater frame provided for by a theology of desire/love.

P.S. This new theme I just plugged in doesn’t seem to overtly provide a way for commenting (if you want to). If you’d like to comment on this post then simply click on the title of the post, and it will open up the combox for you to write a comment[s].


[1] Ron Frost, Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology, [unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, 1996 University of London Kings College], 94-96. Frost’s work has since been published as, Richard Sibbes God’s Spreading Goodness.

[2] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 151-52.

[3] Ibid., 153-54.

[4] Which is what we are also identifying with Evangelical Calvinism, with a particular focus on Thomas F. Torrance’s theology.

Using Modern Theology as Apparatus for Retrieving Classical Theology: Spinoza, Kant, Barth, and Luther in Critical Convergence

It is not always easy to grasp what drives modern theology; indeed, most traditional evangelical theologians have steered away these days, seeking to skip back to the 16th and 17th centuries and back from there—in regard to what they are attempting to retrieve from the classical theistic tradition. But I think this is at their peril, in some ways. Modern theology, one way or the other, impacts the Christian thinker, simply because we are conditioned by our location in the 21st century and the history of ideas (as our context) therein. Sure, we can attempt to distantiate ourselves from our intellectual locations, but to what end? I think it’s more prudent to admit where we are, and then think constructively from there; allow the fruit of the present to help pollinate the past, and at the same time allow the past to contradict any of the rot our locations have presented us with (maybe only realized when placed up against the past).

With that said, I want to help introduce some of the primary soundings of modern theology through engagement with Paul Hinlicky’s analyses; particularly of the impact of Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Karl Barth, and Martin Luther’s theologia crucis (‘theology of the cross’) as that is indeed used as a constructive cross-point to enter into a constructive theological project that emphasizes God’s Self-revelation and mediation of Godself to the world—to meet us where we are; to bring His transcendence to our immanence in a broken humanity. Let me quote Hinlicky at some length (of course!), and then close with some reflective comments in response.

Spinoza, not Kant, represents the true antagonist in the story of modern theology’s loss of subject matter and of audience. That is to say, the great role apparently played by Kant masks the real story. The knowledge he putatively destroyed to make room for faith was the moral knowledge of God as Judge through the law inscribed upon the human heart (Rom. 2:15) on the basis of which an acknowledgement is due of God as creative Origin worthy or praise and thanksgiving through consideration of His cosmic works (Rom. 1:20; Acts 17). This inchoate “sense of divinity” becomes a historical possibility in the religions, as Wolfhart Panneberg argued at the beginning of his illustrious theological career. In turn, the philosophical doctrine of the being of perfection inferred from created effects represents a rational critique indigenous to the religions — analogous to the Hebrew prophets’ assault on idolatry — which functions ethically to expose the superstitious manipulation and distorting representation that attend the cults. The “natural knowledge” of God thus acquired in philosophical theology ascertains minimal core requirements for any adequate conception of God as origin and norm of what exists. It is this rational/moral knowledge of God as origin and norm of what exists that Kant destroyed; with Kant God becomes a subjectively necessary regulative idea and as such the practical postulate of a transcendent Guarantor of human moral striving. God as origin and humanity as estranged from this origin in guilt and fallen under the powers of sin and death cannot henceforth emerge for theological thought. Christian theology cannot build upon its ruined foundation; it cannot offer a Cyrillian Christ for Augustinian humanity, since neither the need of such a Christ nor the possibility of such a God can any longer appear. So it appears today.

Once the dominant Kantian narrative of the modernization of theology is deconstructed, however, we are able to see what really has transpired. Karl Barth’s antifoundationalist doctrine of the advent of God’s reign in the act of trinitarian self-revelation accomplished this; it overcame Kant by Kant. John Dillenberger posed the decisive question in this connection in his study on Barth’s revisionist “Lutheranism” a generation ago: “Is the transcendence of God to be defined from the side of man’s inability to grasp God, or is it grounded upon man’s confession of the act of revelation?” Is God’s transcendence something we already know when we know that God is ineffable, beyond words, beyond thought? Or is it something we come to know in its own act and event, and so also in words, something available for thought? Is God’s transcendence God’s inaccessible location, as it were, beyond space and time, or God self-locating into the depths of at the cross of Jesus, there in space and time to win back the wayward creation? What if the transcendence we imagine we know about in our state of guilty alienation merely reflects that alienation back outward and projects to infinity the sinful aspiration for escape? What if the unknown God remains, too, just another idol? What if the unknown God is just another strategy for keeping the true God safely away? If transcendence on the other hand is the eternal life of the Trinity into which we are incorporated through faith in Jesus Christ, knowledge of transcendence is “grounded upon man’s confession in the act of revelation.” The believer comes to ascribe the life that is truly eternal to the love of the Father and the Son in the Spirit. The first possibility of transcendence as professed ignorance or agnosticism but that actually knows how to keep the God of revelation at a safe distance is Kantianism; the second is Kantianism overcome. But, as I have just implied, this latter only awakens us to see what the real problem is.[1]

This is the constant pink elephant in the room that so many of my evangelical ilk don’t ever seem pressed to address; and this precisely because they choose to ‘skip’ merrily over these sorts of dilemmas—even as the ‘dilemmas’ themselves have direct reference to reformational and classical theologies, respectively. But beyond this, what of the import that Hinlicky is identifying materially?

Just from a practical point of view: the continual problem that plagues all theological knowledge is how the potential knower believes it possible to have actual knowledge of God. This process involves a whole complex of various loci, but for my money what is a constant is the relationship between the ontological and the epistemological and the impact that the noetic effects of the fall have had upon that complex. That’s what Luther’s theology of the cross seeks to ameliorate and help theologians come to understand that the bases of their knowledge of God—even, and especially in his transcendence—can only come as our capacities as knowers of God are recreated. This is where Barth’s ‘reconciliation is revelation’ coalesces so nicely with Luther’s theologia crucis, and at the same time turns Kant’s dualism of the noumenal/phenomenal on its head. The veiledness of God (transcendence) can only really come to be known for human agents as God chooses to become unveiled, but only for the eyes of faith, in the sarx (flesh) and the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ. In other words, God’s transcendence can’t be connived from a distance, but only as he freely elects to penetrate our fallenness in and through the flesh and blood of the baby in the wooden manger, and in the shed blood of Man on timbered cross.

This is why I constantly have an aversion to the seemingly unvarnished and all enthralled embracement of classical metaphysics when it comes to doing Christian theology. It is not that I think that metaphysics have no place in Christian theology; it is that the Gospel itself contradicts metaphysics only just as they are attempting to get started in the machinations of a fallen humanity. I honestly do not think many evangelical theologians et al. are self-critical enough about these issues, and as such don’t offer theological projects that I find very attractive or even biblical. Hinlicky’s sketch of these things, as I have offered it, only represents the introduction to his chapter; he will develop these dilemmas and theses more. But I hope you can see the dilemma, and why it is important to not skip over modern theology per se. It can help to provide a self-critical apparatus that actually allows us to retrieve from reformational theologies et al. with much more fruitful and evangelistic productions and redressments.

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 43-4.

Luther’s Papists as the Crucible for Becoming a Theologian of the Word

In Luther’s Works, vol. 34 in “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings” Luther writes the following in regard to the role that the devil and his minions play in the formation of becoming a good theologian, particularly as that is understood through persecution and suffering in the context of being a theologian of the Word:

Thirdly, there is tentatio, Anfechtung. This is the touchstone which teaches you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdom.

Thus you see how David, in the Psalm mentioned, complains so often about all kinds of enemies, arrogant princes or tyrants, false spirits and factions, whom he must tolerate because he meditates, that is, because he is occupied with God’s Word (as has been said) in all manner of ways. For as soon as God’s Word takes root and grows in you, the devil will harry you, and will make a real doctor of you, and by his assaults will teach you to seek and love God’s Word. I myself (if you will permit me, mere mouse-dirt, to be mingled with pepper) am deeply indebted to my papists that through the devil’s raging they have beaten, oppressed, and distressed me so much. That is to say, they have made a fairly good theologian of me, which I would not have become otherwise. And I heartily grant them what they have won in return for making this of me, honor, victory, and triumph, for that’s the way they wanted it.

Trial and tribulation cause us to rely on the One who raises the dead; as the Apostle Paul underscores in II Corinthians 1. Luther understood the role that crisis has, no matter what the external source, in regard to the forming of a Christian theologian who is reliant upon the Word of God rather than the words of men. Theologia crucis is ever present in the thought of Luther, which is why I will always remain one of his fans and students. Soli Deo Gloria

Rachael Denhollander and Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross

Like many of you, most likely, I watched Rachael Denhollander’s powerful testimony and statement made at Larry Nassar’s sentencing for his molestation of not only her but of more than a hundred other USA Gymnasts; he was the team doctor. Denhollander, I’ve since found out, is now a lawyer, and I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that she was largely motivated to become a lawyer to pursue Nassar through legal means (I’m sure there is more to her choice to become a lawyer than that). Be that as it may, Nassar was sentenced to over a hundred years for his molestation of countless young female gymnasts under his care for years and years; but he did not leave the courtroom without hearing from many of his victims, and not without hearing most eloquently and forcefully from Rachael Denhollander herself (she was the first one, as I understand it, to break her silence about Nassar and bring charges against him).

Someone else shared a link to this story on Facebook, and here is what I shared there:

It sounds like she has been reading Luther. I watched the video of this earlier (TGC shared it). It is powerful; her words are cutting and right; and she deploys Law/Gospel in a way that I think would make Luther, if not the Apostle Paul proud. Beyond that, it is sobering to hear the power of God—the Gospel—proclaimed in such a context as this.

If you listen, or read her statement you might see why I was left with this impression. Here is the full transcript of the pertinent part of her statement to Dr. Larry Nassar:

You have become a man ruled by selfish and perverted desires, a man defined by his daily choices repeatedly to feed that selfishness and perversion. You chose to pursue your wickedness no matter what it cost others and the opposite of what you have done is for me to choose to love sacrificially, no matter what it costs me.

In our early hearings. you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.

If the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.

The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well.

Throughout this process, I have clung to a quote by C.S. Lewis, where he says:

My argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how did I get this idea of just, unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he first has some idea of straight. What was I comparing the universe to when I called it unjust?

Larry, I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else’s perception, and this means I can speak the truth about my abuse without minimization or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is. And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good.

When a person can harm another human being, especially a child, without true guilt, they have lost the ability to truly love. Larry, you have shut yourself off from every truly beautiful and good thing in this world that could have and should have brought you joy and fulfillment, and I pity you for it. You could have had everything you pretended to be. Every woman who stood up here truly loved you as an innocent child, real genuine love for you, and it did not satisfy.

I have experienced the soul satisfying joy of a marriage built on sacrificial love and safety and tenderness and care. I have experienced true intimacy in its deepest joys, and it is beautiful and sacred and glorious. And that is a joy you have cut yourself off from ever experiencing, and I pity you for it.

I have been there for young gymnasts and helped them transform from awkward little girls to graceful, beautiful, confident athletes and taken joy in their success because I wanted what was best for them. And this is a joy you have cut yourself off from forever because your desire to help was nothing more than a facade for your desire to harm.

I have lived the deep satisfaction of wrapping my small children up in my arms and making them feel safe and secure because I was safe, and this is a rich joy beyond what I can express, and you have cut yourself off from it, because you were not safe. And I pity you for that.

In losing the ability to call evil what it is without mitigation, without minimization, you have lost the ability to define and enjoy love and goodness. You have fashioned for yourself a prison that is far, far worse than any I could ever put you in, and I pity you for that.[1]

The reason her statement brought Martin Luther’s Law/Gospel and theology of cross thinking to mind, primarily, is because I just finished reading Mark Mattes’s really good book on Luther’s theology of beauty: Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty. Let me share an excerpt, and section that I think is pertinent and corollary with the sentiment that Denhollander expressed in her statement to Nassar. Mattes writes this of Luther’s theology:

Already in Luther’s early theology of humility we see the beginnings of what would be his unique approach to theology: God must kill us as sinners before he makes us alive as new creatures, ones with clean hearts. God forensically regards those who are nothing on the basis of their own merit as the raw material of his new creation. Luther’s whole approach in the theology of humility is one increasingly governed by a forensic approach to the human relationship with God. That is, what counts in the human relationship with God is how God evaluates us. As we admit our nothingness, so are we embraced by God. Through his study of specific mystics, such as Johannes Tauler (ca. 1300–1361), Luther claimed that the core Christian identity before God—as all human identity—is one that is wholly passive. New creations are active with respect to their fellow creatures, their neighbors, by serving others in their need, but before God they know that they are entirely receivers. Hence, the humility of the earliest phase of Luther’s theological career is transformed over time into a theology of the cross, Through various “trials and sufferings” and the accusing voice of the law, God is crucifying the old Adam or Eve so that humans lose confidence in the old being’s claims for its own self-deification and ability to control life. As a result, sinners put their trust in God’s goodness—and beauty—granted in Jesus Christ. But such beauty is hidden. It is grasped by the eyes of faith alone. Smug sinners appear to their own thinking as beautiful but in fact coram deo are ugly. Accused by God’s law, repentant Christians know their complete dependence on Christ, who before the world had “no form or comeliness” (Isa. 53:2 KJV) but who grants them the beauty of his righteousness. Such beauty is trust in God’s word, which as law reduces sinners to their nothingness and as gospel allows them to claim Christ’s righteousness of their own. Thus, rid of self-justifying egocentrism as definitive of the core of their being, they live extrinsically, outside themselves, first in Christ in whom their confidence is centered, but also in their neighbor in whose service they now become “Christs.”[2]

All of the themes we see in Luther’s theology we see Rachael Denhollander hit upon and emphasize in her statement to Nassar. Her statement bore witness to a power not her own, but one that is contingent upon the power of Godself; the power of the Gospel. We see her statement emphasizing the work of the Law, but then the Gospel; we see goodness and beauty hit upon in Rachael’s statement in contrast to the ugliness that the Law reveals. Her statement was powerful because it did not mitigate the reality of what happened, it did not wash away what Nassar did (indeed it magnified it), but it became powerful the moment repentance and the Gospel were elevated as “greater thans” than the evil Larry Nassar perpetrated upon these innocent young girls. The Gospel ultimately brings life, not death; but it doesn’t pretend like death and its ugliness is not a reality, nor present. The Gospel magnifies the ugliness of sin and death by providing light and exposure that the darkness of sin and death cannot finally overcome. This is what Denhollander’s statement eloquently underscored and communicated; it communicated the power of God, the Gospel; and it allowed Rachael to become a “Christ” to Nassar and the watching world.

[1]Source. [emboldening mine]

[2] Mark C. Mattes, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017), 85-6.

Martin Luther the Theologian of Beauty: Contra Analogy of Being, David Bentley Hart, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, Nouvelle Théologie, and even Karl Barth (?)

I can go with beauty as a way into knowing God, but I cannot go with beauty as an a priori transcendental as identified by the philosophers as a way to know God; I am with Luther in identifying God’s beauty through the prism of the incarnation and cross of God in Jesus Christ—a stuarologically shaped beauty. This is the way Mark Mattes has been developing Martin Luther’s theology of beauty (I would say in close alignment with Luther’s theologia crucis ‘theology of the cross’) in contrast to the mediaeval ways into metaphysical beauty, and now, as we will see in the following quote, in contrast to modern ressourcements of beauty through Nouvelle Théologie (cf. Henri de Lubac et al).

I have been very outspoken against analogy of being, particularly Thomas Aquinas’s version. Indeed, I’m still not on board with analogy of being, whether that be articulated through someone as contemporary as David Bentley Hart or as old as Thomas. Interestingly Mattes argues that Luther was contra analogy of being (which I knew), but that he’d also be against more Kantian critiques of analogy of being of the sort that we might (I’d suggest) find in Karl Barth’s or Thomas Torrance’s theologies. I am open to Mattes’ argument and development (haven’t read it yet), but I’m curious to see how he contrasts Luther’s cross-shaped approach to God with someone like Barth’s more ‘modern’, dare I say ‘Kantian’ styled ideas on knowledge of God and the cross. In an effort to introduce you all to how Mattes summarizes the going-ons with all this, and to see how he segues into his claim that Luther offers an alternative third way into a discussion about knowledge of God, I thought I’d share, in full, his prologue to his chapter 8 entitled: Luther and Nouvelle Théologie.

The last half century has seen a renewal of the topic of beauty in theology, led by those following the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) and David Bentley Hart, and who work is dependent on the nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac and others. These theologians have sought to recover beauty in response to modern and postmodern thinking that focuses not primarily on aesthetics but on epistemology, on whether the conditions for knowing anything can be met. For Kant, whose philosophy has dominated modern thinking, humans can know how they experience the world (the phenomenal), but they have no access to reality as such (the noumenal). In this view, beauty belongs not properly to reality but instead is a feature that the human mind brings to experience. In contrast, for von Balthasar and Hart, modern and postmodern skepticism about knowing is unwarranted and unproductive: skepticism presumes at least some knowledge as a basis from which to determine the knowable from the unknowable. Indeed, mathematics and the hard sciences, those disciplines less vulnerable to skepticism, imply the need for some ontology, drawing inferences about underlying structures of reality as such, regardless of how it should be articulated. For these thinkers, like many ancient Greek fathers (and presumably Augustine and Aquinas at their best), all beautiful things point to the transcendental reality of Beauty itself. The Christian faith witnesses to this beauty: the gospel is inherently attractive. God is the ultimate end or purpose for which humanity can find the fulfillment of its deepest hunger and desire. Grace helps creatures reach their perfection. Appreciating beautiful things directs us “upward” to seek God as the source and goal of beauty. In order to restore beauty as a proper theological topic, von Balthasar and Hart oppose Thomistic Scholasticism, which , beginning in the sixteenth century, separated the “natural” from the “supernatural” and so offered a trajectory of thought that, along with trends in modern philosophy, unintentionally bifurcated public and private spheres. In such bifurcation, the public realm is secular, independent of God as its final end, and religious experience is private affecting people’s inner lives without bearing on public life.

Influenced by the Roman Catholic nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac and others, these theologians interpret beauty through the lens of the analogy of being (analogia entis), which as formulated by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) reads: “One cannot note any similarity between Creator and creature, however great, without being compelled to note an even greater dissimilarity between them.” The analogy of being, as developed for instance in the work of Erich Przywara (1889-1972), acknowledges an approach to God in which ontologically realistic propositions can be made about God while simultaneously honoring God’s apophatic mysteriousness. Attempts to reclaim beauty in contemporary theology have sought in various ways to appropriate the Neoplatonic heritage latent in patristic theology. Through this Christianized Neoplatonism, beauty is retrieved as a way to reclaim mystery for the world, a “sacramental ontology,” in the face of the modern tendency to disenchant the cosmos by mapping or carving up all reality through quantification, and in the process nihilistically flatlining it, rendering it a cadaver for dissection. The appropriation of a Christianized Neoplationism is said to provide depth and meaning in contrast to nihilism, since God is the mystery present in all reality. All particular things are in some way or another icons of God, directing us above to find our ultimate happiness in God. Hence, these theologians claim beauty as a transcendental, descriptive of and instantiated in all finite things, in opposition to modern tendencies that make beauty a private, subjective matter, latent not in reality as such but only in how the mind works. So David Bentley Hart employs the analogy being in order to show metaphysically that beauty is definitive of infinity, the basis from which to quell postmodern descriptions of competitive violence allegedly lying at the core of all relationships. All this raises questions for a contemporary appropriation of Luther: If Luther is not on the same page with these scholars on the analogy of being, then does he lead us to a disenchanted view of the cosmos? Is he a contributor to secularism? Apart from the analogy of being, is Luther able to offer a satisfying account of beauty in which beauty accords with reality and is nor a mere accidental epiphenomenon of human mental processes? The purpose of this chapter is to critique contemporary theologies of beauty in light of Luther’s approach. Contrasting Luther’s view with current thinking will bring out aspects of his theology that have been ignored by existentialist interpretations of Luther and will help position the Reformer as offering a path more faithful to the gospel than recent theologians of beauty. In contrast to contemporary theologies that tend to default to a Platonism, such as the nouvelle théologie, or to a Kantianism, such as mainline Protestantism, Luther offers a third path.[1]

Beside the fact that this is a really good sketch of the landscape currently present when it comes to big things like analogy of being and theology of beauty, Mattes offers a very provocative and then weighty challenge for himself in his presentation of Luther’s own theology of beauty. I’ll be interested to see how he comes against what he identifies as existentialist, or Kantian theologies of beauty (he already intimates in what I shared from him where he sees some of the deficiencies). His critique of Hart, von Balthasar, de Lubac and others will be less surprising to me since he has already been making a case against that approach throughout his book; nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how he pins them down vis-à-vis his treatment of Luther’s theology in juxtaposition.

I am genuinely open to his development of Luther’s theology here, and am definitely willing to use it to reify maybe even some of Barth’s and Torrance’s thinking on analogia entis. But I will be curious on this front since I think Barth himself, like in his Romerbrief for example, is quite correlate, with Luther’s theology of the cross (which is present in the way Mattes’ is developing Luther’s theology of beauty); even in Barth’s Dogmatics In Outline where he appears to be a little critical of Luther’s theology of the cross, it is only because Barth thinks there remains an imbalance to it (not that it is inherently deficient) that needs to be buoyed by a thicker doctrine of resurrection. Mattes has my attention; hopefully he has yours too, and you might tolle lege his wonderful book on Luther.

[1] Mark C. Mattes, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017), 155-58.

Resourcing Martin Luther: A Gospel for the Common Person, not the Metaphysicians

I am about a third of the way through Mark Mattes’ new book Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty, and it is exquisite. His chapter on Luther and philosophy is insightful, and reinforces notions I’d already been exposed to (years ago) in regard to the way Luther saw philosophy’s role in the theological task—as a handmaiden, and as something that has more horizontal value (i.e. related to the biblical analogue of ‘law’) rather than vertical/theological (i.e. related to the Gospel and its implicates). There is a reason why Karl Barth quoted Martin Luther in his Church Dogmatics more than anyone else; Barth and Luther are very like-minded (in their own periodized ways) when it comes to the way they see a usefulness to philosophy. But that’s not what this post is going to be about; this post will refer to the Conclusion in Mattes next chapter: Luther On Goodness. I think, as I share this quote from Mattes, again, anyone who is familiar with Barth will see a likeness and even foreshadowing in Luther’s theology vis-à-vis Barth’s.For Martin Luther, according to Mattes, Luther’s theology of goodness was much more experientially based rather than metaphysically so; Mattes writes:

The doctrine of justification bears on how God’s goodness is to be understood. Unlike his contemporaries and forebears, Luther has no confidence in either metaphysics or mysticism to establish God’s goodness, in spite of the fact that both approaches influenced his theological development. Luther’s is a highly experiential theology—not that experience is a criterion for truth but that sinners can never detach emotionally when doing theology, and at some point in the lives all sinners will do theology….[1]

This resonates deeply with me; and it fits the vector of my own theological development, and one of the primary aims of my own theological blogging and writing. Maybe you haven’t picked this up yet, maybe you’re too ensconced in the current resurgence of classical scholastic Reformed theology to appreciate this type of counterpointing I am attempting to engage in. I want people to realize that not all historical theology is as entrenched in the mathematics and philosophics that we see constantly being “retrieved” over and over again by these Reformed retrievers. In other words, someone like Martin Luther himself, should be understood as, as Mattes reinforces for us, a theologian who sees experience of God, a personal Triune God, at the center of what sound theology of the cross is all about; it is inimically personal, because the God the creature is pushed up against is inimically personal—indeed, He is the personalizing God. So it’s not just the ‘modern turn to the subject’ or German Romanticism or existentialist theology that is to blame for a focus on the personaling  non-metaphysicalizing approach to God; nein, it is a basic emphasis that we can see present in THE magisterial reformer himself, Martin Luther. It isn’t just Søren Kierkegaard, Isaac Dorner, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and the other modern heretics who want to approach God through a personalist “I-Thou” relational theology; no, as Mattes underscores for us, it is Martin Luther himself. To be sure we wouldn’t want to read each of these folks in absolute ways relative to Luther, but as a thematic, they all share this urge to come before God (coram Deo) on experiential, soteriological terms; and those terms are to be grounded and regulated by the “preached God” in Jesus Christ.

To continue to elaborate this idea that for Martin Luther relationship to God was not of the metaphysical sort (even though he had plenty of the metaphysical categories floating around his theological universe—yet he reified them under the Gospel pressures just as Barth does), let us refer to Mattes at length now (we will see how Mattes summarizes the whole development of his current chapter):

Luther was vitally concerned to address the question of God’s goodness. It bears on salvation. His point was that people do not need merely an incentive and an example to be good. They need in fact to be made good from the core of their being, their hearts. Counterintuitively, God does this by granting sinners his favor and promising them new, eternal life in Christ. As believers’ status with respect to God is changed, so is their identity. The law accuses old beings who seek to be their own gods for themselves and so control their lots and the lots of others to death. Humbled by the law, despairing of self, sinners can look to none other than Christ for salvation. In Christ they have a new identity and a new calling—to serve as Christ served in the world—and so to help especially those in need. The gospel promise unites believers with Christ, and Christ impels believers to serve their neighbors freely.

All this grounded in God’s own goodness. Outside of Christ, God is encountered as sheer power, a terror and threat to humans because such omnipotence jeopardizes sinners’ own quest for power, status, and authority. But Luther admonishes sinners not to neutralize this power by harmonizing it with some modicum of human power, such as establishing a free will. Instead, only God has a free will (though humans indeed make choices with respect to temporal matters). If we are to see the content or center of God and find him as good, then se must cling to the gospel alone. It establishes God as wholly love and goodness, indeed overflowing generosity, and serves as a basis from which to affirm life and explore mystery in the world. Goodness can no longer be established as a transcendental through metaphysics. Instead, goodness as a proper name for God and as a means by which every creature can participate in God is established only on the basis of how God acts in Christ, and that is to reconcile, redeem, and renew. Insofar as beauty is tied to goodness, it too will only be established through the gospel and not through metaphysics.[2]

As we can see there is a lot of good coverage, and various themes of development that Mattes covers in his chapter. But what I want to highlight is this idea of ‘established through the gospel and not through metaphysics.’ I want to press this home because all too often we see the theological metaphysicians of today (largely those young evangelical and reformed theologians retrieving a certain aspect and mode of the history through a certain lens [i.e. provided for by the historiography of someone like Richard Muller et al]) asserting as brute fact that the theology of the past was simply wrapped up in the unadulterated metaphysics of St. Thomas, St. Scotus, and others. The sense we get, if we follow these 21st century retrievers, is that the only heritage, in the history, that evangelicals and other Christian disciples have access to, is a God who is actually only really available to a small egg-headed sector of Christian academics of a certain intellectual aptitude and bent. That if someone wants to know the God of the evangelical/reformed heritage they pretty much have to be trained (or budding) metaphysicians in their own right. But this just is not so; at least not for Luther and many others who operate within his theme and theological disposition. For Luther, the Gospel is visceral and has a grist to it that is palatable for the common Christian; the wisdom of God is to meet all of humanity through the wood of the manger and the cross, with afterbirth and corpse as component realities. There is a realness to the type of theology that Luther presents the church with, and it is real precisely at the point that metaphysics are brought low, and the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ for us is elevated as the boundary point through which all humans, and particularly all Christians are invited to sup from over and over again.


[1] Mark C. Mattes, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017), 54.

[2] Ibid., 66-7. [emboldening mine]