Personalizing the Creation Rather than the Personalizing Creator: The Convergence of Greek Metaphysics and Modern Physics in Idolatrous Union

We all long to be personal and personalized; whether Greek or Gentile, whether in the Bronze Age or the Information Age all people desire to have relationship. It is this drive that causes people, even pagan people who reject God, to extrapolate and project out upon what they have available to them as a transcendent point of personalization. This was true for the classical Hellenistic philosophers just as it was for early modern thinkers like Spinoza and even 21st century physicists. We will find personalization no matter how out of order and perverse the form of that is, we will press forth and find a way to find some sort of relational quality even in the deepest darkest reaches of space; all in an attempt to quench this ongoing thirst and longing for finding a personalizing force that can ground my desires as a human being to be a relational animal.

Colin Gunton, as he is developing some thinking on ontology with reference to Plotinus, and his impact on Western thought modes in this regard, helps us to appreciate how what I just up-pointed is so in the history and heritage of Western intellectual thought frames. It is interesting to see this reality, and recognize how pantheism is so trenchant in the hearts and minds of people who reject or are unaware of the reality of the Christian God who is indeed the personal ground humanity as a whole was created to find relational satisfaction within and from in koinonial bond. Gunton writes:

Thus the words ‘nature’ and ‘evolution’ are often hypostatised — and, indeed, capitalised — almost as if they are agents that achieve ends, and thus clearly operate as secularised versions of the doctrine of providence, which they displace. Peter Atkins, a chemist, is a particularly egregious proponent of the personalising not only of nature as a whole, but of parts of it. ‘Once molecules have learned to compete and to create other molecules in their own image, elephants and things resembling elephants will in due course be found roaming through the countryside.’ (Just like that!) More is to come: molecules are ‘equipped’ (by whom or what?), they ‘eat’ other molecules, though we are not always sure which eat and which are eaten, they ‘keep’  less successful molecules ‘in herds’ and so on, and that is all by the second page of the book. Mary Midgley draws on other parts of the same book to make a similar point. I quote her at length:

Atkins constantly treats Chaos as a positive force guiding the world in a remarkably full sense, performing many of the roles formerly attributed to God, and seems to regard it as simply a form of Chance . . . [The] extraordinary mixture of strong teleological language with inflationary misuse of the concept of Chaos marks a fairly complete bankruptcy of real explanation.

How easily it happens that where God is not longer understood as the overall creator and upholder of the universe there is a reversion to the pagan attribution of agency to the impersonal worlds of molecules, evolution and chaos. The choice is inescapable: either God or the world itself provides the reason why things are as they are. To ‘personalise’ the universe or parts of it, particularly inert substances like molecules, is to succumb to crude forms of superstition.[1]

The human heart doesn’t change. No matter what period of human history we refer to, idolatry is just the same. We will attribute personal attributes to a piece of wood just as quickly (because of technology) as we will attribute the same to molecules, atoms, and neutrinos.

Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them. –Psalm 115

22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. –Romans 1

The human heart was designed for relationship; it recognizes that there is something more, something transcendent that must ground that; something extra nos outside of us that must be the ultimacy we long for in relationship. Since the heart of stone rejects its actual source and reality in the living God it will cling to all fanciful imaginations about who or what might serve as the replacement; a replacement who ends up looking curiously like the imaginer seeking some sort of relief and solace in a transcendent reality—even if that reality turns out to be a stick or a house (of cards).

Let God be true and every man a liar!

 

[1] Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical And Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), Loc 583, 590, 596 kindle.

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Natural Theology as the Baptizer of Jesus: Thinking From René Descartes to an Interrogation of Natural Theology

René Descartes (31 March 1596 – 11 February 1650) philosopher and mathematician extraordinaire’s natural theology is worth reflecting on. Some have wanted to argue that Descartes’ methodological skepticism, where he doubted to the point where he thought he could doubt no further (cogito ergo sum), served as the basis for the modern turn-to-the-subject rationalism we experienced in the English Enlightenment and French Renaissance. But this can be contested, and has been. That notwithstanding what I want to briefly survey in this post is indeed Descartes’ natural theology. What is interesting to me about his style of natural theology was that he was attempting, in dualistic fashion, to on the one hand think as a Christian (when it came to his personal salvation), and on the other hand think as a critical philosopher as if he could think himself (critically so) to the base of all ‘being’ without reference to a Christian metaphysical framework; that he could achieve this purely as a rational exercise in philosophical reflection.

Étienne Gilson offers some excellent coverage on Descartes in this regard, so I wanted to share a snippet of that with you here. Gilson writes:

We are not beginning to see why, and in what sense, the metaphysics of Descartes was a decisive moment in the evolution of natural theology. Evolution, however, is not always synonymous with progress; and this time it was destined to be a regress. I am not arguing here on the dogmatic assumption that the God of Saint Thomas is the true God. What I am trying to make clear is the objective fact that, even as a philosophical supreme cause, the God of Descartes was a stillborn God. He could not possibly live because, as Descartes had conceived him, he was the God of Christianity reduced to the condition of philosophical principle, in short, an infelicitous hybrid of religious faith and of rational thought. The most striking characteristic of such a God was that his creative function had integrally absorbed his essence. Hence, the name that was hereafter going to be his truest name: no longer “He who is” but rather “The Author of Nature.” Assuredly, the God of Christianity had always been the Author of Nature, but he had always been infinitely more than that, whereas, after Descartes, he was destined progressively to become nothing else than that. Descartes himself was too good a Christian to consider Nature as a particular god; but, strangely enough, it never occurred to him that to reduce the Christian God himself to no more than the supreme cause of Nature was to do identically the same thing. Metaphysical conclusions so necessarily follow from their principles that Descartes himself reached at once what were to be the ultimate conclusions of his eighteenth-century disciples when wrote the following sentence: “By Nature, considered in general, I am now understanding nothing else than either God, or the order and the disposition established by God in created things.”[1]

We know Baruch Spinoza, a contemporary of Descartes, went further with Descartes’ project and radicalized to the point that indeed for Spinoza a pantheist conclusion would be arrived at on some of the very premises produced by Descartes’ own thought processes.

Whether or not Descartes ought to be implicated in the modern-turn, to one degree or another, what is rather clear (at least to me) is that his ‘naturalism’ coheres well some of the later rationalisms that would indeed develop. What these things highlight for me once again is that attempting to think God based purely upon natural/rationalist reflection does not produce the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Some might argue (and do) that inherent to fallen nature there remains a residue of God waiting to be discovered and plundered for the purposes of providing details about who God is (categorically) in such a way that the Revelation of Godself can be pollinated for the edification of the Church and Christians.

But I constantly ask: why? Why as Christians, those who know the voice of our Shepherd, indeed those who are only paying attention to his voice because we have his Spirit, do we need to rely upon the philosophers (of any age) to fill in the gaps or provide the bedrock foundations (like immutability, infinity, omnipotence, etc.) for the Christian to genuinely articulate a theological grammar for explicating who God is? Descartes provides an excellent example of someone who made this attempt, and failed.

What differentiates Descartes from Aristotle? One thing is that Descartes actually had a Christian theological grammar in place as a Christian even before he charted out to think first principles as a philosopher; and even still he ended up thinking a god from negative reflection upon creation. Aristotle didn’t have the advantage of Descartes, maybe some would say this actually was an advantage for Aristotle; in the sense that his discursivity was of a more pure type; that his reflections were actually taking formation in a genuine process of discovery, in regard to arriving at actual infinity and pure being. Either way, and once again, why the need to trek this path? The response from the proponents is: because the ecclesial tradition walked this path, that the church developed these patterns of theological grammar, this sacra doctrina by appealing to figures like Plato, Aristotle, et al. But this itself is an appeal to a ‘natural theology,’ it’s an appeal to reading God’s providence off of the face of the history of church doctrinal development; as if: just because patterns of “orthodox” doctrine have developed in certain lines of trajectory, and have come to dominate the “mind of the church,” that this must be God’s stamp of approval on the ‘way’ that the orthodox doctrine has indeed developed.

But to appeal to church tradition and its development as if God has thus so seen to this in a providential way is only to presume upon the very premise under contest: i.e. natural theology. Why should we commit ourselves to a circle of reasoning like this? It’s as if God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ is not enough; that it does not provide a robust enough explication and exegesis of who God is for his church. What if God were to want to correct certain trajectories in his church; even big trajectories that we call tradition? I mean are there even means to challenge certain trends or trajectories (such as natural theology) in the Church, in the sacra doctrina?

I’m pretty sure the Reformed think so. And yet what counts as the dominant voice in Reformed theology (i.e. the aspect of Reformed theology that is being retrieved) affirms natural theology (not all, but many). Indeed, the movement in Reformed theology, think of Mike Allen and Scott Swain as two young and prominent voices, are constantly arguing for and appealing to a catholic Reformed faith; a faith that is fully contingent upon a common cored commitment to and affirmation of the tradition of the church (particularly as that entails theology proper and Christology and its attending loci). But what if the tradition has component parts in it that undercut the possibility for its own regulation and even contradiction? In other words, what if commitment to natural theology (and an analogia entis as a subset) itself quenches the possibility for self-reformation and re-trajectorizing even within the solid boundaries set by the so called ecumenical creeds? How does a genuine theology of the Word have space to do its reformative work (semper reformanda) at a theological ontological/epistemological level if a prior commitment to a natural theology as a prius is allowed to say what a genuine knowledge of the living God looks like or not; and this prior to meeting God in the New Covenant of his blood in Jesus Christ? What happens when natural theology is the baptizer of Jesus; what kind of Jesus do we encounter in these waters; and as such, what kind of God do we come into union with if natural theology is his preamble to the world rather than the risen Christ?

 

[1] Étienne Gilson, God And Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955), 88-90.

Afterword: Knowing The Shepherd’s Voice Contra The Hireling’s Natural Theological Voice

I wanted to give a brief afterword regarding my last post. I often write against and about natural theology, the so-called analogy of being (analogia entis), and now what we have called a ‘theology of correlation.’ But I rarely explain what is at stake, at least for my marbles. The reason I have come to detest (not too strong of a word) natural theology in the main is because I believe it allows humans to treat God as something they possess. In other words, my conception of natural theology entails that the theological starting point for the natural theologian is somewhere engrained in an inherent human capacity; whether that be something we are born with (and that was not lost at the Fall), or whether that be a created (quality of) grace that the elect of God have received—the latter being something that remains to be actuated by the elect’s push to habituate in activities becoming one of the elect of God. No matter how one arrives at being a natural theologian and working from a theologia naturalis the specter remains the same; the theologian and his or her wit necessarily precedes God. For one thing this places a primacy on creation that I think is untenable; for another thing it displaces the capacity for God to speak his Word mediated through his chosen Self-mediation in Jesus Christ. If the human voice—an abstract human voice, one not grounded in the human voice of the Christ—is allowed to speak about God prior to God speaking of himself then as a foundation the human voice will always be the mediating voice as it concerns God’s who and what. This is why I repudiate natural theology; it forecloses on the holy ground that belongs to God and the dominion of his life alone. If the human voice (abstract from Christ’s vicarious humanity) is the basis upon which the Christian is allowed to know God from, then that human voice[s] will always need to be present as the foundation upon which God talk can proceed. We can extrapolate out from a singular human voice that speaks of God, to a corporate body, and finally to the Church (and attending tradition); either way, whether singular or multiple, if this voice is allowed to precede God’s voice, then distinguishing God’s voice from the human’s voice will nigh be impossible. This is why I reject natural theology; it makes God a possession of the church; it wipes any space for God’s voice to actually confront not only the world, but his church. How are we to know if we are hearing God’s voice and recognize the character of his vocality if we have allowed the sheep to become the Shepherd; if we have sublimated God’s voice by the Church’s voice? This is why I reject natural theology; I am a sheep, and I know my Shepherd’s voice; it is a voice sui generis, and natural theology offers a voice I don’t recognize as my Shepherd’s; it sounds like a hireling’s voice, a voice this sheep cannot follow.

The Uncontrollable Lion God of Dialectical Theology Rather than the Deus Ex Machina: Disdaining Natural Theology Because of Jesus

Natural theology continues to be a pariah for me, and I’d imagine always will be! I don’t think I can emphasize how much I disdain natural theology; although this hasn’t always been the case. Before I could disdain it I first had to realize what it was, and how most of my theological predilections were contingent upon it. Natural theology, at base, objectifies God; it seeks to possess God by its identification of him as that is grounded in a stable (or so it is perceived) rendition of him as that is abstracted from some form of ideology or previously formed human construct outwith a first love encounter with him (an encounter with him that is ever afresh and anew spirated by the Holy Spirit upon the breath of God’s Word who is the Christ). Natural theology attempts to objectify God or circumscribe God by epistemic centers that are first arrived at by human machinations rather than after God has spoken (Deus Dixit); after God speaks and confronts us with who he is in the risen Christ mediated to us by the Holy Spirit’s ‘paracletic’ work as we participate in that work through being united to Christ’s vicarious humanity. The problem is, at least according to Scripture, is that God is non-objectifiable. In other words, God cannot be grasped or handled; not by the church, the world, or the angels. If this is so, if we cannot sublimate God by our lowly handles we’ve attached to him; if we cannot handle God by correlating him to the discoverable categories of the philosophers; then what is left? This seems to place God out of reach. Indeed.

John McDowell, to refer to a quote I’ve used in another post with a different focus, helps to illustrate how natural theology produces this sort of abstract voluntaristically driven God who might be conceived of—in a God-world relation—apart from rather than concretely grounded in Jesus Christ. McDowell is discussing Barth’s relationship to his French friend Pierre Maury; Maury had played an important role in setting the trajectory for Barth’s reformulation of a classical doctrine of election and reprobation. I think this helps illustrate a reason why I disdain natural theology:

Consequently, Maury and Barth force the Reformed tradition to ask substantively what is meant by claiming that “God was in Christ” if Revelation is separated from the very Word of God eternally articulated, and God’s being (as will) is hidden behind Christ so that the gracefulness of God expressed in Christ is particularized in the decretum absolutum and is therefore not essential to what is meant by God. Can this two-stage deity make sense of the development of Christian Trinitarianism and therefore the Christological doctrine of the homoousion? Reasoning strongly that it cannot, Maury and Barth locate here the regulation of philosophical abstraction in much of the tradition. Criticizing both the Calvinist and Lutheran versions of the doctrine of predestination, Barth detects in them “traces of a natural theology . . . traces, that is, of a general view of the freedom of God, based on one philosophical system or another.” The appeal to “natural theology” and “one philosophical system or another” is rather imprecise, but the import of the shorthand criticism is nonetheless clear enough. The Gospel has to do with what Barth suggestively delineates in his seventh Gifford Lecture through the phrase “the Revelation of God, the God who deals with man.” This he would articulate as the irreducible “concreteness, the contingency, the historical singularity of the eternal, absolute, divine Word” of God (and, of course, as CD III/2 impresses, of humanity as well). Accordingly, Maury appeals in “Election et Foi” to election as being “about God.”[1]

Natural theology separates God from his Word, and in the Reformed context this separation requires that another mechanism be constructed in order for God to enact relationship with the world; i.e. through the decretum absolutum, or through a determining decretal system that inter-links God’s power and being to the rest of the world all along keeping God untouched by the world or the creatures who inhabit it (all in an attempt to sustain the philosophically developed loci known as simplicity, immutability, impassibility, infinity, etc.). The problem, if not recognizable, is that in this ‘classical’ system of theology proper God is taken captive by a set of conditions and categories that have nothing to do with God encountering us in his Word, Jesus Christ. How could it?! If the God produced by natural theology is necessarily uncoupled from his Word for us, the Son, Jesus Christ then how can we ever really say that we have encountered the living God? This is a serious dilemma. Why would I entrust my eternal well-being to a God that history or tradition has produced; wouldn’t this mean that I am really entrusting myself to the producers of the history and the tradition instead?

Natural theology presumes upon an idea of ‘pure nature,’ but this itself is another presumption about a God-world relation; a presumption, just as the absolute decree that ruptures God from his Word. If we posit that God has constructed a world wherein latent within this world (nature) there are vestiges of who God is waiting to be discovered by even unregenerate minds, isn’t this positing effort itself just more presumption? How am I supposed to know that the God-world relation you are positing is the true God? And if you point me to apologetic efforts, aren’t these efforts themselves grounded in more presumption about history, physical reality, and epistemic centers? Ultimately, even if a natural theology can be devised (and there are some) that assert a non-reliance upon a naturum purum (pure nature) no matter what, what ends up happening is more presumption as a foundation for knowledge of God.

What if instead knowledge of God is purely relationally and personalistically based? What if knowledge of God is solely based upon the risen Christ confronting and encountering us through his written and preached Word as those in derivatively given senses break away and towards, in stratified ways, their reality found in the eternal Logos of God, Jesus Christ? This way forward, as it engages with God’s dealing with his church and the interpretation that has ensued as a result, results in a very complicated and interesting discussion in and of itself. But I want to suggest to you (forcefully) that I think this is the best way for thinking God. Not based upon structures that help us to negotiate a way with God, but instead upon a more concrete and ever present and pressing reality that we are confronted with (ec-statically so) moment by moment as the everlasting God in Christ relentlessly pursues us from his vicarious humanity as that is seated at the right hand of the Father. This approach to God, at least for my marbles, comes to recognize that God is more like a Lion rather than a machine (Deus ex machina); that God is more uncontrollable and ineffable even as we dialectically come to only know him exhaustively as he Self-unveils himself for us in the risen Christ; in the re-conciliatory encounter of the power of God, also known as the Gospel (cf. Rom. 1.16).

 

[1] John C. McDowell, “Afterword,” in Simon Hattrell, ed., Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a “Decisive Impetus” to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), loc 3769, 3778.

The Confessing Church’s Word Against Jeff Sessions and the Natural Theology of the Trump Administration

The German Confessing Church

Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, as many of us know by now, quoted Romans 13 in defense of the barbarous policy of separating children from their parents as they are seeking asylum from their third world living conditions which are embroiled in gang and drug cartel warfare. These children are being taken away from their loving parents and placed in detention camps (apparently with more to come) with no substantial chance of maybe ever being able to find their parents again. And Jeff Sessions has the gall to quote the Apostle Paul, and make appeal to Christian theology in order to justify this heinous and evil practice. Here is a transcript of his appeal:

I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” he said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful. (source)

Here a “leader” in the so called ‘Free world’ conflates his authority in an absolute way with God’s based upon Paul’s text; a text that is contextually qualified by loving our neighbors and overcoming evil with good. What happens when the government itself, “ordained of God,” is in need of God’s ‘law and order,’ a law and order based upon the kerygmatic reality revealed in God’s life in Jesus Christ? What happens when God’s compassionate heart of love for the other, ‘for the widows and orphans and destitute among us,’ is contravened by governmental policy and practice grounded in perverse, evil, and inhumane principles towards the other; whose law do we follow at that point? Do the ‘ordained powers’ ever come to negate themselves to the point that they ought to be repudiated and ignored in the most activist of terms?

Nazi Germany, the Third Reich made appeal to just the type of perverted hermeneutical practice that Jeff Sessions as representative of Donald Trump’s administration just made. Hitler and company used the national church of Germany, and many of Germany’s finest Christian theologians, to pervert Scripture in its favor; just the way Sessions has done in his appeal to Romans 13. The premise of such action, at one primary level, is based upon a brute natural theology; as if what is ought to be; that simply because the Hitler regime was in ‘power’ that their actions were ordained of God. Similarly, by way of logical corollary, the Trump regime seems to think that just because they are in ‘power’ that they now possess the keys to the heavenly kingdom; which they apparently believe is synonymous with the Trump administration. In other words, natural theology presumes to know God’s designs by collapsing God into the immanent processes of history, and presuming that ‘they’ are on the ‘right side of history.’ Natural theology presumes that God’s ‘goodness’ and ‘righteousness’ can be inferred by an analogy of being latent in heart of humankind. Does someone have to be conscious of these component parts, in regard to natural theology, in order to practice it? No; remember, it’s ‘natural.’

In Nazi Germany a group of Christians who came to be known as the Confessing Church united—we know this movement most as represented by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth—and under the insightful pen of Karl Barth they produced The Barmen Declaration. Given the current state of affairs of our state I thought it would be more than apropos to reproduce in full the whole text of the declaration. One would hope that people like Sessions, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Donald Trump et al. might be alerted to the contextual reality of the declaration and recognize their own patterns as contravened by the theology declared in this confession made by the confessing church in the Rhineland so many years ago. If you have never read this before you will note its strong antidote against natural theology based as it is on a principled and intensive Theology of the Word.

An Appeal to the Evangelical Congregations and Christians in Germany

8.01 The Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church met in Barmen, May 29-31, 1934. Here representatives from all the German Confessional Churches met with one accord in a confession of the one Lord of the one, holy, apostolic Church. In fidelity to their Confession of Faith, members of Lutheran, Reformed, and United Churches sought a common message for the need and temptation of the Church in our day. With gratitude to God they are convinced that they have been given a common word to utter. It was not their intention to found a new Church or to form a union. For nothing was farther from their minds than the abolition of the confessional status of our Churches. Their intention was, rather, to withstand in faith and unanimity the destruction of the Confession of Faith, and thus of the Evangelical Church in Germany. In opposition to attempts to establish the unity of the German Evangelical Church by means of false doctrine, by the use of force and insincere practices, the Confessional Synod insists that the unity of the Evangelical Churches in Germany can come only from the Word of God in faith through the Holy Spirit. Thus alone is the Church renewed.

8.02 Therefore the Confessional Synod calls upon the congregations to range themselves behind it in prayer, and steadfastly to gather around those pastors and teachers who are loyal to the Confessions.

8.03 Be not deceived by loose talk, as if we meant to oppose the unity of the German nation! Do not listen to the seducers who pervert our intentions, as if we wanted to break up the unity of the German Evangelical Church or to forsake the Confessions of the Fathers!

8.04 Try the spirits whether they are of God! Prove also the words of the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church to see whether they agree with Holy Scripture and with the Confessions of the Fathers. If you find that we are speaking contrary to Scripture, then do not listen to us! But if you find that we are taking our stand upon Scripture, then let no fear or temptation keep you from treading with us the path of faith and obedience to the Word of God, in order that God’s people be of one mind upon earth and that we in faith experience what he himself has said: “I will never leave you, nor forsake you.” Therefore, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Theological Declaration Concerning the Present Situation of the German Evangelical Church

8.05 According to the opening words of its constitution of July 11, 1933, the German Evangelical Church is a federation of Confessional Churches that grew our of the Reformation and that enjoy equal rights. The theological basis for the unification of these Churches is laid down in Article 1 and Article 2(1) of the constitution of the German Evangelical Church that was recognized by the Reich Government on July 14, 1933:

Article 1. The inviolable foundation of the German Evangelical Church is the gospel of Jesus Christ as it is attested for us in Holy Scripture and brought to light again in the Confessions of the Reformation. The full powers that the Church needs for its mission are hereby determined and limited.

Article 2 (1). The German Evangelical Church is divided into member Churches Landeskirchen).

8.06 We, the representatives of Lutheran, Reformed, and United Churches, of free synods, Church assemblies, and parish organizations united in the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church, declare that we stand together on the ground of the German Evangelical Church as a federation of German Confessional Churches. We are bound together by the confession of the one Lord of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

8.07 We publicly declare before all evangelical Churches in Germany that what they hold in common in this Confession is grievously imperiled, and with it the unity of the German Evangelical Church. It is threatened by the teaching methods and actions of the ruling Church party of the “German Christians” and of the Church administration carried on by them. These have become more and more apparent during the first year of the existence of the German Evangelical Church. This threat consists in the fact that the theological basis, in which the German Evangelical Church is united, has been continually and systematically thwarted and rendered ineffective by alien principles, on the part of the leaders and spokesmen of the “German Christians” as well as on the part of the Church administration. When these principles are held to be valid, then, according to all the Confessions in force among us, the Church ceases to be the Church and th German Evangelical Church, as a federation of Confessional Churches, becomes intrinsically impossible.

8.08 As members of Lutheran, Reformed, and United Churches we may and must speak with one voice in this matter today. Precisely because we want to be and to remain faithful to our various Confessions, we may not keep silent, since we believe that we have been given a common message to utter in a time of common need and temptation. We commend to God what this may mean for the intrrelations of the Confessional Churches.

8.09 In view of the errors of the “German Christians” of the present Reich Church government which are devastating the Church and also therefore breaking up the unity of the German Evangelical Church, we confess the following evangelical truths:

8.10 – 1. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14.6). “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. . . . I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” (John 10:1, 9.)

8.11 Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

8.12 We reiect the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.

8.13 – 2. “Christ Jesus, whom God has made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (1 Cor. 1:30.)

8.14 As Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, in the same way and with the same seriousness he is also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures.

8.15 We reiect the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords–areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

8.16 – 3. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body [is] joined and knit together.” (Eph. 4:15,16.)

8.17 The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.

8.18 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.

8.19 – 4. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men excercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your srvant.” (Matt. 20:25,26.)

8.20 The various offices in the Church do not establish a dominion of some over the others; on the contrary, they are for the excercise of the ministry entrusted to and enjoined upon the whole congregation.

8.21 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, apart from this ministry, could and were permitted to give itself, or allow to be given to it, special leaders vested with ruling powers.

8.22 – 5. “Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17.) Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the Church also exists, the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. [It fulfills this task] by means of the threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The Church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the Kingdom of God, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things.

8.23 We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commision, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church’s vocation as well.

8.24 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.

8.25 – 6. “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matt. 28:20.) “The word of God is not fettered.” (2 Tim. 2:9.)

8.26 The Church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and sacrament.

8.27 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.

8.28 The Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church declares that it sees in the acknowledgment of these truths and in the rejection of these errors the indispensable theological basis of the German Evangelical Church as a federation of Confessional Churches. It invites all who are able to accept its declaration to be mindful of these theological principles in their decisions in Church politics. It entreats all whom it concerns to return to the unity of faith, love, and hope.[1]

8.27 stands out particularly when thinking of how Sessions appealed to Romans 13. ‘The Word and work of the Lord’ is not at the behest of any human machinations; not even to governments who have a relative power ordained of God. My hope is that Trump&co. will repent and genuinely recognize what it means to properly be instruments of God’s ordination as government officials and renounce the wicked actions they are currently taking toward the very people God in Christ says will inherit the Kingdom.

 

[1] The Church’s Confession Under Hitler by Arthur C. Cochrane. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962, pp. 237-242.

It Wasn’t Just Barth Who Rejected Natural Theology; It’s the Reformed orthodox Too

I often kick against the concept of natural theology here at the blog and elsewhere. Usually the appeal I make is to Karl Barth and his rejection of natural theology as a methodological font by which theological work might be done; particularly with reference to a theology proper. But, interestingly, it isn’t just Barth, or me who reject ‘natural theology,’ in the main, according to Richard Muller, the Protestant Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians also had an allergy towards natural theology (theologia naturalis). Note Muller,

duplex cognitio Dei: twofold knowledge of God; a distinction emphasized by Calvin in the final edition (1559) of the Institutes, and carried over into Reformed orthodoxy as a barrier to inclusion of natural theology in the orthodox system of doctrine, according to which the general, nonsaving knowledge of God as Creator and as the wrathful Judge of sin, accessible to pagan and Christian alike, is distinguished from special, saving knowledge of God as Redeemer. This latter saving knowledge is available only in the revelation given in Christ. Lutherans did not enunciate the principle in the same terms; they nevertheless observe it equally rigorously, to the end that neither of the major forms of Protestant orthodoxy has any genuine affinity for natural theology.[1]

We see differences, quite immediately, between the style of non-natural theology that the Reformed orthodox worked from versus someone like Barth. But the point of contact (pun intended) between them is one of ‘spirit.’ There is a general desire to allow God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ to be the elucidating reality wherein knowledge of God is developed in its most redeeming mode.

The points of departure is when we attempt to compare Barth’s and the orthodox’s non-natural theology at the level of the ‘letter.’ This is the case, I would suggest, primarily because of differences of period, occasion, and sitz em leben.[2] In other words, because of the variety of circumstances these various theologians were faced with, separated by time and space, they worked with what they had available to them and thus arrived at emphasizing various loci in such ways that best served their immediate and now historic audiences, respectively. This isn’t to suggest that, at the letter level, Barth’s non-natural theology, framed within the contexts of two world wars in his Western European theater, correlates specifically with the orthodox’s conception, but instead, again, it is to reiterate that the mood was present and apparent to Barth when he engaged with the orthodox such that he was furnished with grammar that he sought to appropriate and radicalize for the needs of his own context.

I simply wanted to highlight how non-natural theology is actually not just an adjunct of Barth’s theology, but that it, in a general way, is something present in Reformed theology across the board; even if the orthodox, and those repristinating that today want to draw the lines between Barth et al. more brightly than others of us would like.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 97.

[2] Definition: Sitz Im Leben

Reading God: Retrieving Classical Theism as orthodoxy, and The Role of Theologia Naturalis

I have been thinking about writing this post for some time; indeed, I’m sure somewhere in the archives of my blog I’ve written on this, in gist, quite a bit. But I wanted to offer something fresh on this topic, a topic that is near and dear to my heart; it is a topic that affects each and every Christian who wants to know God better. What I am referring to is hermeneutics. The way I refer to this word is more broadly construed than simply referring to the common understanding of ‘the art and science of biblical interpretation.’ When I use this word I am also referring to the inner-theo-logic that allows Holy Scripture to assert and articulate the things that it does (in its very occasional offerings). For me, and for many of us, those of us interested in resourcing and retrieving the past for present interpretive purposes, what begins to happen as we attempt to consciously construct a hermeneutic is that we realize we are up against something greater than simply learning Greek, Hebrew, text criticism, philology, rhetorical analysis, narratoloy, so on and so forth. In other words, when we look to the past what we find is that our forbears very intentionally engaged the text of Scripture with some very deep questions; questions that were given by engaging with the text, but questions that invite the interpreter to delve deep into what Thomas Torrance has called the depth dimension of the text. In other words, the symbols (words) of the text are seen as instruments, lenses (as Calvin has opined) that point beyond itself unto a deeper clarity; the clarity of God’s life in Jesus Christ for us.

The above noted, for the rest of this post, I want to engage with ‘how’ people in the 21st century are attempting to listen to the past; and from what footing. In other words, there is a majority report among younger (as they learn it from their older counterparts) theologians and exegetes that seems to say that just because something developed in the ‘orthodox’ stream of so called “pre-modern” biblical exegesis, and hermeneutical development, that the depth reality therein (i.e. the theological res) just is and must be The orthodox way for how we ought to proceed into the future as biblical exegetes and hermeneuticians. Matt Emerson, just today in fact, put up a post at his group blog illustrating exactly this; he writes:

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that there were quite a few major movements in twentieth century theology, from a variety of theological streams, that concerned themselves with overturning or significantly revising classical Christian theism (CCT). Influences as varied as biblical theology, apologetics, philosophy, church history, and the history of interpretation have contributed to the suspicion, revision, and rejection of CCT. These rejections, revisions, and suspicions have resulted in everything from process theism to denials or thorough revisions of, for example, simplicity and impassibility. The basic gist of objections to these and other CCT-related doctrines is that they are unbiblical and philosophically untenable. And, at bottom, that basic objection rests on the assumption that CCT developed via reflection on God through the lens of Greek philosophy rather than through the lenses God’s Word or his actions in history.

This kind of gross mis-characterization needs to stop. The early Christian theologians were just as concerned as, say, 21st century conservative evangelicals, with demonstrating that their doctrinal formulations were thoroughly biblical. The distinction between pre-modern and modern exegesis and theology is not that the former is philosophical and the latter is biblical, but between what counts as “biblical” in either period. For pre-modern interpreters, “biblical” meant considering passages in their original historical and literary context, but it also meant considering those passages in their canonical, narratival, and metaphysical context.[1]

Just as a caveat; I like Matt, and am not “picking on” him in a particular; I only am referring to him because he has offered the most recent example of what I want to engage with in this post (and it is a post I’ve been thinking about writing for a long time, as I’ve noted).

Now, do I disagree with Matt, in principle? Nein. We need to be careful to engage with the past carefully. But what I see informing Matt’s thought is a critique that I often make here of classical Calvinism, in particular, and classical theism (of the medieval sort) in general, in regard to the mode that is used in the appropriation of the past. In other words—how to say this—my question is: Why must we just receive the past; why is the test of reception, ostensibly, to see just how closely we can mimic (repristinate) the past in our own language today? This seems to be what Emerson et al. are calling us to; i.e. that just because it’s there—in the history of ‘orthodox’ interpretation—that this placement has been providentially ordered by God. As such, and if this is the case, the logic seems to flow, our job is to reiterate over and over again what the past orthodox church has articulated; as if knowledge of God is as “immutable” as God himself. But what if knowledge of God isn’t “immutable?” What if nostra theologia (our theology) is merely proximate; what if our knowledge of God is really an eschatological reality, as Karl Barth maintained?

When Emerson et al. lift up loci like Divine impassibility and simplicity what doesn’t seem to get emphasized is that these terms themselves have a history; and in light of Emerson’s post this seems ironic to note because it seems to be what Matt is hoping to emphasize. In other words, why must I as a 21st century Christian pretend like only the 3rd, 4th, 16th, and 17th centuries in the church represent peek moments, or the most intense moments wherein God has providentially moved upon his church (as far as theological development)? Yes, we can all recognize that some very formative things happened, doctrinally, for the church catholic in these periods—the latter set of centuries for the Protestants in particular—but why does this necessarily mean that I must read God the same way these saints read God? Can’t I acknowledge that they indeed, for their time under their metaphysical categories and pressures, read him as faithfully as they could; but then also recognize that further developments have taken place since then which might indeed allow me to take the categories and doctrinal developments they left behind and reify them further under the developing knowledge of God that the church is confronted with over and again in ongoing dialogical encounter with the Living Word of God?

There is a latent theologia naturalis (natural theology) attending Emerson’s et al. observations about engagement with and retrieval of the past, and for some, indeed for many in this tribe that’s fine. But for many others, including myself, natural theology, particularly of this sort, the sort that presumes that human beings, even regenerate ones, have this inherent capacity to simply read Divine things off the cover of history that has developed in the last two millennia in the church, this is not acceptable! But this is the mode; this is the method; this is the prolegomena; this is the hermeneutic Emerson et al. operate with and from, and so it is a natural thing to chide those who reject such an approach with an almost shock that folks might be critical of such an approach (e.g. the approach Emerson is calling us back to). The irony to me is that viewing history this way—from the natural theological way I just noted—is itself a product of a history of religions, text-critical mode of thinking and method that developed precisely because of the British Enlightenment.

Do we need to just accept Divine impassibility, simplicity, immutability, and omni-theology just because it just is the orthodox way? Maybe. But how about leaving open the possibility that such categories are only proximate ectypal loci that the church has fumbled around with in order to attempt to talk about an ineffable God? If we leave this as a possibility we might be allowed to have some constructive space to dynamically engage with these categories in such a way that they might not only be marginalized, as far as their adequacy to do the heavy lifting of God-talk, but in such a way that the terms themselves might be free to be reified further under the pressure of the Living God we have to do with on an ongoing basis as the Living Church of God in Jesus Christ. You see, this is what I’m looking for; not a way to be reckless, or progressive, but instead always reforming (semper reformanda) under the weighty reality of the God with whom we have to do in Christ; and with the full realization that we actually can still talk to this God today (in the 21st century), and that he still talks back to us and for us. Orthodoxy is greater than not lesser than what the past developed; and our knowledge of God, according to the Apostle Peter, is one that has the capacity to be growing (II Pet. 3). This is my concern with what Emerson et al. are presenting us with. There seems to be a fear, a need for shoring up the wreckage that the mainliners and progressives have done in the evangelical church; but I don’t think ‘fear’ should motivate the way we think about what or how we retrieve the past. Is there an orthodoxy in the past? Yes. But orthodoxy is an on the way reality, and one that is guaranteed as such by the reality that Jesus is coming again; but hasn’t come yet.

 

[1] Matt Emerson, Early Christian Interpretation and Classical Christian Theism, accessed 03-09-2018.

 

Miscellenies on Natural Theology in Acts 7, Romans 1, and the Late Post Reformed Orthodox

I am in the book of Acts in my Bible reading right now, and something just hit me, even though I’ve read it literally hundreds of times, that in Stephen’s speech in chapter 7 we have a perfect example and intertextual (i.e. canonical) link between what the Apostle Paul wrote of in Romans 1, and what Stephen articulates as he is recounting the history of Israel with particular focus on  Moses and the Exodus. We pick up Stephen mid-way through his speech to the religious leadership here:

39 Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us; for this Moses who led us out of the land of Egypt—we do not know what happened to him.’ 41 At that time they made a calf and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and were rejoicing in the works of their hands.42 But God turned away and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, ‘It was not to Me that you offered victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, Ohouse of Israel? 43 You also took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rompha, the images which you made to worship. I also will remove you beyond Babylon.’[1]

And then the Apostle Paul famously writes this in Romans 1:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural,27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer,God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips,30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, untrustworthy,unloving, unmerciful; 32 and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.[2]

Often the Pauline passage is referred to, at least by some within the classical Calvinist tradition (or even with someone like Emil Brunner), as a kind of exegetical defense and apparent prima facie illustration and maybe even prescription for a natural theology. But I’d like to suggest that given Paul’s own Hebraic-Jewish psyche and milieu as he wrote to the Roman church (a mixed church of both Gentiles and Jews, cf. Acts 28:16-17), he would have had what we see Stephen (ironically a Hellenistic Jew) referencing in mind, I would argue, in regard to the knowledge of God that people had available to them in creation. It wouldn’t be an abstract or purely discoverable knowledge of God, but instead one grounded in the fact and reality that God had personally revealed Himself to His covenant people the Jews as we see it most explicitly disclosed in Exodus 3:15 and the famous tetragrammton or the ‘I am that I am’ passage, where God names Himself for His covenant people as YHWH. I would want to argue that the universe that the Apostle Paul inhabited was so saturated with this background reality that it would be like tacit knowledge that fueled even what he pens in Romans 1; i.e. that there is no abstract knowledge of the true and living God, but instead an concrete and particular knowledge of God revealed to Moses and His covenant people as the prefigural mediators of God’s salvation to all nations [ethnos] (cf. Gen. 15 and the ‘Abrahamic Covenant’).

Interesting, at least to me, that we see the same progression Paul writes of in Romans as we see Stephen reference in his biblical theologizing of the history of salvation as embedded in the Torah (or Latinized Pentateuch). God freely and graciously gives Himself to His covenant people, who in fact, I would argue along with TF Torrance, are simply prefigural of the true Mediator, the second and greater Moses, the second and greater Adam, Jesus Christ. Without a revealed knowledge of God there is no true God to deny or rebel against; I think this is the backdrop of the Apostle Paul’s writing in Romans 1, and I think Stephen’s speech (as recorded by Luke, the author of Acts) helps provide further context and substantiation for how prevalent this background context was in the period of Second Temple Judaism.

Essentially, what I’m suggesting is that there is no ground for natural theology provided for in Romans 1. I actually think Richard Muller agrees with me, which you can read about in his Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Three as he highlights how the early and high Post Reformed orthodox theologians didn’t actually have a full-frontal natural theology at play in theology; Muller shows that it wasn’t until the 18th century where a naked type of natural theology became prominent for the Post Reformed orthodox in its late iteration. It was those who followed after Christian Wolff, known as the Wolffian’s who really argued for a natural theology as the basis and prolegomena for theological endeavor in late Post Reformed orthodox theology. Note Muller as he comments on how and when this shift happened; here he is referring to the “proofs of God,” which were used by the early and high orthodox theologians only in apologetic discussion and not as the basis for actual theologizing:

… The proofs now lose their purely apologetic function and become a positive prologue offered by reason to the system of revelation. Here, for the first time in the development of Reformed theological system, natural or philosophical theology provides a foundation on which revelation can build: we have lost the inherent fideism of the seventeenth century Protestant scholastics.[3]

I find this very interesting. Often you will hear contemporary Reformed theologians who believe they are simply re-iterating what their orthodox forefathers first iterated in founding their theological endeavor upon a natural theology. Clearly the early and high orthodox theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries were not Barthians by any stretch of the imagination, but they did have much more in common with Barth and Torrance in some ways than is often acknowledged; at least insofar as they had a lively fideism at play, and a staunch stance upon revelational Word-centered theology and theologizing.

Conclusion

This post actually needs a conclusion to tie some of the loose links together, but I’m not going to. I just think Barth and Torrance might well have had more in common with the early and high orthodox theologians than many think; at least in regard to the issue of natural theology. Yes Barth and Torrance radicalize things, but they never would have gotten there without the rigorous (in principle) Word based theology found in the early and high Post Reformed orthodox theologians. That’s interesting to me.

[1] Acts 7:39-43, NASB.

[2] Romans 1:18-32, NASB.

[3] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Three, The Divine Essence and Attributes (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 194.