Our Terrorist Hearts Outwith Jesus Christ: On the Ontological Depths and Reach of Sin

It seems as if we have domesticated everything in our culture, even sin. But this is precisely what Jesus will not let us do; this is precisely what the reality of the cross will not let us do. The prophet Jeremiah writes in 17.9:

“The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?

And the Apostle Paul following writes in Romans 3:

10 As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; 11 There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. 12 They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.” 13 “Their throat is an open tomb; With their tongues they have practiced deceit”; “The poison of asps is under their lips”; 14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 Destruction and misery are in their ways; 17 And the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Karl Barth famously, and in keeping with his normal way, believes we can only know the depths of evil and sin by its reference to Christ. He believes that only as we concentrate on whom Christ is in His righteousness, can the gravity of sin come to be known. Barth works out his doctrine of evil (or ‘nothingness’) through his doctrine of election. For Barth, nothingness, or ‘evil’ is what God passes over and negates through the incarnation and cross-work of Jesus Christ. Mark Lindsay, after much development, writes the following:

At this place, we must qualify our earlier comment that God is not threatened by Nothingness. In the incarnation, God Himself becomes a creature and thus takes upon Himself the creature’s sin, guilt and misery. In “what befalls this man God pronounces His No to the bitter end.” The entire fury of Nothingness – and of God’s wrath directed towards it – falls upon Christ “in all its dreadful fulness…” Precisely, however, because this man is also God, “Nothingness could not master this victim.” It had power over the creature. It could contradict and oppose it and break down its defences. It could make it its slave and instrument and therefore its victim. But it was impotent against the God who humbled Himself, and Himself became a creature, and thus exposed Himself to its power and resisted it.

By confronting and decisively triumphing over Nothingness in Jesus Christ, God has relegated it to the past. In the light of the cross and the empty tomb, “there is no sense in which it can be affirmed that nothingness has any objective existence…” Barth rejects outright the suggestion that radical evil exists in the form of an eternal antithesis. On the contrary, he insists that it has no perpetuity. It is neither created by God, nor maintained in a covenantal relationship with Him. Thus, “we should not get involved in the logical dialectic that if God loves, elects and affirms eternally he must also hate and therefore reject and negate eternally. There is nothing to make God’s activity on the left hand as necessary and perpetual as His activity on the right.” Nothingness has been brought to its end, no longer having even the transient and temporary existence it once had. On this note of “cosmic optimism”, Barth concludes his presentation of his doctrine.[1]

We are reminded of Athanasius’ thinking on evil and sin in his little book On the Incarnation as we read Barth’s own uniquely worked out conception of evil and sin. Inherent to Barth’s understanding there is genuine hope. Because he doesn’t give evil (and its expression in sinful acts) a symmetrical place to God’s work and righteousness in Christ, he offers a way to think of evil/sin as a vanquished foe that in the end will be fully wiped out in a realized way. What stands out, in Lindsay’s description, is how it took God in Christ alone to overcome the wiles of evil’s reach into the human heart; and thus into all of creation.

It doesn’t seem as if folks appreciate just how deep rooted and satanically conditioned their ‘old hearts’ are outwith Jesus Christ. When you hear the ‘world’ speak you would think that they have seemingly overcome evil all by themselves; as if they have an objectively established goodness inherent to who they are, through which they are able to look ‘out’ and make judgments about good and evil as if the latter doesn’t ultimately affect them. On the contrary, the incarnation and cross of Jesus Christ asserts and proves just the opposite. There is no one good, and all our hearts are just as evil as the terrorist’s who shot up the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. The cross of Christ will not allow any of us to escape the terror embedded in each and every one of our hearts.

To press this further, Thomas Torrance underscores just how deep our darkness is by, like Barth, focusing on the depths God had to go to de-root it from our very ‘beings’ as human beings. Torrance writes on the ontological character of the atoning work of Christ, this way:

It is above all in the Cross of Christ that evil is unmasked for what it actually is, in its inconceivable wickedness and malevolence, in its sheer contradiction of the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, in its undiluted enmity to God himself—not to mention the way in which it operates under the cover of the right and the good and the lawful. That the infinite God should take the way of the Cross to save mankind from the pit of evil which has engulfed it and deceived it, is the measure of the evil of evil: its depth is revealed to be ‘absymal’ (literally, ‘without bottom’). However, it is only from the vantage point of God’s victory over evil in the resurrection of Christ, from the bridge which in him God has overthrown across the chasm of evil that has opened up in our violence and death and guilt, that we may look into the full horror of it all and not be destroyed in the withering of our souls through misanthropy, pessimism, and despair. What hope could there ever be for a humanity that crucifies the incarnate love of God and sets itself implacably against the order of divine love even at the point of its atoning and healing operation? But the resurrection tells us that evil, even this abysmal evil, does not and cannot have the last word, for that belongs to the love of God which has negated evil once and for all and which through the Cross and resurrection is able to make all things work together for good, so that nothing in the end will ever separate us from the love of God. It is from the heart of that love in the resurrected Son of God that we may reflect on the radical nature of evil without suffering morbid mesmerization or resurrection and crucifixion events, which belong inseparably together, has behind it the incarnation, the staggering fact that God himself has come directly into our creaturely being to become one of us, for our sakes. Thus the incarnation, passion, and resurrection conjointly tell us that far from evil having to do only with human hearts and minds, it has become entrenched in the ontological depths of created existence and that it is only from within those ontological depths that God could get at the heart of evil in order to destroy it, and set about rebuilding what he had made to be good. (We have to think of that as the only way that God ‘could’ take, for the fact that he has as a matter of fact taken this way in the freedom of his grace excludes any other possibility from our consideration.) It is surely in the light of this ontological salvation that we are to understand the so-called ‘nature of miracles’, as well as the resurrection of Jesus from death, for they represent not a suspension of the natural or created order but the very reverse, the recreation of the natural order wherever it suffers from decay or damage or corruption or disorder through evil. God does not give up his claim that the creation is ‘good’, but insists on upholding that claim by incarnating within the creation the personal presence of his own Logos, the creative and ordering source of the creation, thereby pledging his own eternal constancy and rationality as the ground for the redemption and final establishment of all created reality.[2]

Like Barth, Torrance points up the hope we have because of what Christ has won for humanity. But at the same moment, he also points out just how deep and pervasive sin is in the hearts of men and women, boys and girls. If it took God to become human to deal with each of our ‘desperately wicked’ hearts, how wicked do you think that makes us left to ourselves?

If the world is able to look out and recognize evil, it is only because they live under the grace and mercy of God given for it in Jesus Christ. And yet even as they rightly look at the despicable act that just took place in New Zealand, and condemn it as evil, they condemn themselves; that is, if they remain in an unrepentant state before God. Not only that, they confirm, unconsciously, the righteous judgment of God that not only hangs over terrorists’ heads, but their own. The spiritually dead heart can fabricate a state of self-righteousness only insofar as it borrows that righteousness from the economy of God’s Kingdom in Christ as that has invaded and continues to invade the world through the risen Christ’s life. Christ’s life for the world, the resurrected humanity, in itself, while standing as God’s Yes for the world, at the same moment issues a resounding No to the evil and sin that ALL humanity lives within (realized at various degrees or not). God’s Yes has already run its course and been actualized in the new humanity of Christ, as such anything outside of that lives in God’s No; which ultimately is hell.

Christians do not have ultimate solidarity with the world, even when the world, in parasitic fashion comes to some sort of sense of the heinous nature of evil. This does not mean Christians are superior to their pagan friends, it just means that Christians have an actual basis from which to rightly call darkness darkness and light light; this doesn’t mean Christians consistently live this way. Often Christians operate more like the pagan culture than the heavenly; which is why God’s Grace and Mercy will always remain so important.

[1] Mark R. Lindsay, Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel(UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 48-52.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 115-16.

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Jesus, the Ultimate Question and Questioner for Us: According to Thomas Torrance

As modern and post-modern Christians we are plagued with an impulse, intellectually and socio-culturally, to place the questioner before the object or subject under “question.” In other words in rather Cartesian form we have placed our existence, and thus our rationality and wits before essence, before ‘being’ — as René Descartes was famous for intoning: cogito ergo sum ‘I think therefore I am.’ If we were to reduce modern man and woman to a modus operandi, in regard to a casual, and for some, even an intentional philosophy of life, I can’t think of a better way to frame blackwhitemantegnait than what we find in Cartesianism. The person, in the modern way, is the standard-bearer for creating his or her own reality; once reality is constructed for oneself, then the inquiry process for what life means can begin. But of course this is circular isn’t it? The person serves as the ground of their own reality (even in collectivist and communitarian ways), and once that ground is established, once that context is construed, the modern person can begin the work of establishing their own reasons for being, they can even create a place for God; but of course that ‘place’ is determined to be what it is by the person’s own ‘being’ and not God’s. (sounds like existentialism and idealism in their own ways)

Thomas F. Torrance offers an alternative account for how Christians ought to think about reality in genuinely Christian ways. Contra the ‘modern man’ Torrance identifies the problem as modern people themselves. He would contend that there is no abstract human person, modern or otherwise, but would refer us back to the ancient truth once and for all delivered to the saints in Jesus Christ. He would ask modern persons to look at the cross of Jesus Christ as the indicative of what human beings left to themselves really are; at base. At base, Torrance would contend that persons are contingent beings, who are not only not the Ultimate in their own beings, but that they ecstatically ‘receive’ their being extra nos or from outside of themselves; i.e. that the ground for human ‘being’ is God’s ‘being’ for us in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in His vicarious humanity pro nobis (for us). As such Torrance would ask us to look at the cross of Jesus Christ and call modern and post-modern persons to ponder what God is saying about us through the wisdom of the cross (sofia staurou); that the ground of our ‘beings’ left to themselves in abstraction (i.e. in a ‘Fallen state’) only have one ultimate end: death! Torrance would ask us to repent (metanoia), and understand that God alone has the capacity to serve as the ground of ‘human being’ in the vicarious humanity of His Son, and as such has the capacity to provide the questions – His questions – that are right questions about Him. Torrance would ask us to abandon the Cartesian way, and any other more “sophisticated” ways that terminate upon our abstract selves rather than in God’s concrete self for us in Jesus Christ. Torrance would contend that once we come under the wisdom of the cross that we will finally be in a place to really start doing the work of a Christian disciple; we will be in a place to not only ask the right questions, in echo of God’s questions for us in the Son, but we will be in a place afresh and anew on a daily basis to be interrogated by the wisdom of the cross which reminds us that we are constantly being given over to Christ’s death that His life might also be made manifest in our mortal bodies (II Cor. 4.10). Here’s Torrance in his own words:

That is the way the God of Truth deals with us. He turns to us where we have closed ourselves in him and are imprisoned in our self-will and blindness; he penetrates into our existence and life as one of us in order to open us up from below to the Truth of God and to bring us to acquiesce in the Truth of God. That is Jesus—who stood in our place, the prisoner at the bar interrogated by man and by God, he who plumbed the deepest depth of our questioning of God in order to take it upon himself and receive the counter-questioning of God. Therefore that Man on the Cross, questioned down to the bottom of hell, for our sakes, is the ultimate question that God puts to us.

Unless we recognize that we too are called in question by the Cross, we can neither put our questions to God in truth nor truly hear the answer he provides. Jesus Christ stood in place: that is God’s answer to us. For Jesus stood in our place not to be questioned, but to ask the question in truth as we are unable to, and to give a true and faithful answer to God. He stood in our place and made our ultimate question his own, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ But in taking that question on his lips, he asked it as we cannot, for he altered it from the depths into the cry, ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’

What, then, is the nature of true questioning?

A genuine question is one properly open to the object of inquiry, but a question cannot be open to the object of inquiry if it is foreclosed from behind. Hence to be genuine, a question must allow itself to be called in question; it must be ready for reconstruction in the light of what the inquiry reveals. True questioning involves a backward movement of critical revision of its premises and a forward movement of reformulation of its questions. The further questioning, until real listening becomes possible and judgments are formed under the compulsive power of the objective reality. Genuine questioning is a strenuous form of repentance.

Moreover, behind the questions stands the questioner himself. Every question that is raised has behind it the being of the questioner, and it reacts upon him. Really to ask, we have to put ourselves into our questions. If so, then really to ask, we must allow ourselves to be called into question. The questioner must allow his questions to react critically upon himself, if he is to ask them relentlessly and scientifically.[1]

The modern person cannot go for this, since they are the possessor of their own being; or so they think. As a consequence genuine questions about God and life cannot be asked, only superficial ones can be asked. This all comes back to what the author of Hebrews was so keenly aware of when he wrote: “14 Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” At the very bottom of every modern person there is a fleeting knowledge that at ground ‘death’ is the ultimate for them; but they can’t accept that reality, as such they must continue to assert themselves in the face of that reality, and attempt to hang on to their personal existence, and to existence in general, as the ground of all being, of all reality. Even if said reality is ultimately non-reality, of the sort that can never ask real life questions, because the ground upon which it is situated is sandy-land of its own deluded making.

[1] T.F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965), 122-23.

Responding Further to Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Critique that Evangelical Calvinism Fails: With Appeal to Karl Barth as an Accessory to Thomas Torrance.

It is time to respond a bit further to Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s[1] critique of Evangelical Calvinism. Remember I wrote that post awhile ago letting you all know about the chapter length critique KJV offered of us in the edited book he was a contributor to entitled: Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians andPICKWICK_TemplateNew Testament Scholars; his particular chapter title is: The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism). If you do not remember the post I am referring to where I got into this then click here. For the remainder of this post I am going to respond to his most basic, and I think he thinks, damning critique of the whole Evangelical Calvinist project and premise (in regard to both Christology and its implicate soteriology).

KJV, and many others by the way, believes that the theo-logic of Evangelical Calvinism necessarily leads to some form of Christian Universalism, and if it doesn’t, KJV believes that there is a glaring incoherence. Here is what he writes:

Torrance does not want to say that Christ died “sufficiently for all, but efficiently only for the elect.” However, what he does say, in agreement with John Cameron (1579–1625), is remarkably similar, namely, that Christ died “conditionally for all, absolutely for the elect.” The difference is important inasmuch as it describes two different ways of construing the plan of salvation, two different meanings of “the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:5). The outstanding challenge for Evangelical Calvinists is to explain, from Scripture, how God elects all but not all are saved, for at present there is a troubling incoherence between the ontological objectivity of incarnational redemption in Christ and the non-universal scope of salvation, as well as confusion in the way they conceive the place of human faith and its relationship to grace. Specifically, does divine grace take the place of freedom, enable libertarian freedom, or secure freedom? As we have seen, human freedom is a libertarian link in the chain of Evangelical Calvinism’s ordo salutis, the weakest link that reintroduces the very contingency into the ordo that the notion of incarnational union was designed to eliminate.[2]

To clarify, initially, we don’t subscribe to an ordo salutis or order of salvation in the classical sense that KJV or ‘classical Calvinists’ in general would; I will have to explain that aspect of our approach some other time.[3] But even being able to highlight this helps illustrate what KJV’s critique is ultimately missing; i.e. it is missing the point that Evangelical Calvinism is not working from vanhoozereither the formal or material prolegomenon (theological methodology) nor theologoumena (learned theological opinions present within the Post-Reformation Reformed orthodox theologian’s judgments) that impinges upon and shapes KJV’s own commitments. Does this mean that KJV, or others, cannot  attempt to make material critiques of our (Evangelical Calvinist’s) theological conclusions; that we have been hermetically sealed off from any heat or light that someone might want to apply to us and our theological theses? Nein! No!, it doesn’t mean that, and we are open to critique. But it is important, again, to clear ground (as I did in my first post in response to KJV) and let everyone know that if the ruler being used against us is only a twelve inch ruler and we start operating on the twenty-fourth inch then the measurement (critique) really does not even get started.

That notwithstanding, KJV’s critique does need to be responded to. This is the problem that I would say almost everyone has with Evangelical Calvinism; if indeed someone has a problem with it, it is this point. It is the question that KJV highlights in what I quoted from him: i.e. if God in Christ elects all of humanity for salvation in His election of humanity for Himself which is temporally realized and given concrete expression in the Incarnation; and if Jesus dies for all of humanity at the cross; and if Christ’s union with us in our humanity is more than declarative, juridical, or forensic, but it is also ontological, meaning the eternal Word, Jesus Christ assumes all that humanity is, at ontic depth, and redeems it from there; then how can it be said that some, even the many are doomed, damned, and not eternally “saved?” For someone like KJV, a classically Reformed/Calvinist, there is a logical-causal deterministic relationship between who Jesus dies for on the cross, and who ends up getting “saved” through union with Him; which is why for his system of thought it is so important to major on the idea that there are individually elect people who Jesus died for. So we can see what is informing the premise upon which KJV is attempting to critique the Evangelical Calvinist’s ontological theory of the atonement; if we followed his logic it looks like this: Jesus dies for you=you will be saved in an irresistible beyond a shadow of a doubt way (because you are elected to it). But you will notice further, that in KJV’s critique he also thinks that our only way out of this dilemma, since we indeed repudiate Christian universalism (e.g. eventually all people will be “saved” through Christ even post-mortem), is to fall back into some form of libertarian free agency, which would end up making us look something like an Arminian and consequently undercut the objective de jure reality for all of humanity that Christ ostensibly accomplished in His choice to elect humanity for Himself, and thus be for all Humanity resulting in the reconciliation of all things unto God (Col. 1:15ff).

But, not so fast! It is important to remember something, what we have identified as Evangelical Calvinism comes from a theological tradition; especially in regard to election and salvation. When Vanhoozer critiques Evangelical Calvinists at the point that he does, he also, of course is critiquing the one who has inspired the language of Evangelical Calvinism, Thomas F. Torrance (which Vanhoozer clearly understands), but he is also critiquing the ‘founder’, as it were, of the tradition that Evangelical Calvinism largely works from: i.e. Karl Barth.

Thomas Torrance responds that something like Vanhoozer’s critique fails because he (TFT) is not bound to the metaphysics or logico-causal necessitarian deterministic mechanics that Vanhoozer is, and thus on those grounds alone Torrance would demur. But he would go further than that; he might say (my paraphrase): Indeed, all of humanity has been elected/assumed by the humanity of Jesus Christ, and thus He died for all, and all the conditions are present for all of humanity to be saved, but not all humanity in the end is saved; and all we can say is that this is a ‘surd’ that sin is inexplicable and a mystery, and this is why people reject what has been done for them in Christ—we cannot explain that. But we can explain why people say yes to their election and salvation in Jesus Christ, because of the Holy Spirit’s vivifying activity in people’s lives bringing them to repentance and salvation through the vicarious repentance and salvation accomplished for them in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. So Torrance’s response turns on an asymmetrical response to Vanhoozer’s question: i.e. we have a positive answer for ‘why’ someone says yes to Christ, and a negative answer to ‘why’ someone else says no to Christ. But this is not satisfactory to Vanhoozer.

Beyond Torrance, though, we have Karl Barth, and Torrance gets much of his thinking on this particular point straight from Barth. As such, it is fitting to understand how Barth would respond to a similar critique of his view of election applied to soteriological questions and the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individual people.

Karl Barth has of course as many critics, if not more, than Thomas Torrance; some of those critics are more charitable in their critiques (as far as tone) than others. W. Travis McMaken (a friend of mine over the years through blogging) wrote his PhD dissertation on Barth and Baptism, and it has recently been published by Fortress Press; it is an excellent book! In his development of various ‘Barthian’ themes throughout the body of his book he engages with and develops how Barth has responded to similar critics of Torrance, especially in regard to human free agency and how that gets worked out in Barth’s view of election. As I have already noted, but to reiterate, Barth and Torrance are open to the same types of critiques. McMaken highlights three critics of Barth on election, soteriology, and human free agency; the same theological loci that Vanhoozer thinks is the Achilles heel in Torrance’s presentation. These three critics of Barth are Nate Kerr, Suzanne MacDonald, and Michael Horton. In a fundamental way these three critique Barth the same way Vanhoozer critiques Torrance. For them they wonder how it is that Barth can maintain the universal scope of election, atonement, and the offer of salvation for all and at the same time not fall into universalism and/or give way to some sort of libertarian free agency. Here is how McMaken (in an abridged form) responds to MacDonald and Horton (he responds more to Kerr just prior to what I am going to share from him here):

signofgospelThis raises the second aspect of the “twofold diminution in the Spirit’s role” that McDonald finds in Barth’s theology, namely, that Barth’s understanding of the Spirit as the one in whose power the individual awakens to faith implicitly reestablishes something like the traditional Reformed double-decree.

Given that the Spirit awakens some but not others, and given that Barth credits this awakening to divine power in the mode of the Holy Spirit, does it not follow that God has made some unknown decision about whom to awaken and whom to pass over? Of course, Barth wants to do no such thing. Part of his criticism of Calvin’s doctrine of election concerns how it functions to make sense of precisely that sort of question. For Barth’s money, however, basing one’s doctrine of election on “a datum of experience” such as this is “decidedly to be rejected” (CD II/2, 38;
KD II/2, 39–40). All this does play into Barth’s reticence in affirming universal salvation, however. He honors this observation, but locates its meaning not in any lack of divine action but in a persisting disobedience on the human side—and this persistence is not to be taken lightly. But Barth insists in the very next paragraph that the possibility of universal salvation should not be renounced (see CD IV/3, 477–78; KD IV/3, 549–51).

Some believe that Barth’s refusal to simply affirm universalism as the logical consequence of his doctrine of election ultimately smuggles a deus absconditus back into Barth’s theology. For instance, consider the following comment from Michael Horton, who asserts that Barth’s holding back from universalism “presents . . . [the] ominous threat of a breach between the hidden and revealed God. Barth holds that, despite one’s being chosen, redeemed, called, justified, and sanctified, it is at least possible that one may not at last be glorified but will be reprobate after all.”

Horton incorrectly implies that Barth is reticent about the eternal condition of those who have awakened to faith. In truth, Barth is more interested in a fundamental optimism about those who have not yet awakened. But the logic of Horton’s argument deserves fuller treatment: (1) Barth argues that all are elect in Jesus Christ, (2) some people seem to have faith while others seem not to, (3) those who seem to have faith only have it—if they do—because the Holy Spirit awakened them to it, (4) this means that those who seem not to have faith—if they do not—lack it because the Holy Spirit has not awakened them, (5) such selective pneumatological deployment must depend on a divine decision concerning whom to awaken and whom not to, (6) this decision must be independent of election in Jesus Christ, or else all would be awakened, and (7) ergo, a rather traditional Reformed predestinarianism lies hidden in Barth’s theology.

This criticism is misguided, however. Barth’s intention is not to introduce a gap between humanity’s election in Christ and the eternal condition of individuals; rather, it is to recognize humanity’s eschatological location. As those baptized by the Spirit and living under the second form of the parousia, we do not yet know what the parousia’s third form will be.

We cannot explain why it is that some people, and even the vast majority of people, seem not (yet?) to have come to faith in Jesus Christ. Some things we do know, however: we know what Jesus Christ has accomplished for us, we know of our election—and of all humanity’s election—in him, and we know that election includes not only our own but also their baptism by the Spirit. In other words, we know that the eschatological consummation will be the consummation of Jesus Christ, of his history. All this we know and confess by faith, without understanding how God will close the gap between what we see and what we believe. To attempt closure of this gap ourselves would be to cease treating Jesus Christ as a living and active agent, and to transform him into a principle.

We can only live as those who confess by faith that Spirit baptism is always already on the way to each and every human being and, perhaps even more strikingly, that this renewal is likewise always already on the way to us. Consequently, and as Hunsinger puts it, “we will not abandon hope for anyone, not even for ourselves.”[4]

I am certain that this will also and equally be just as dissatisfying of a response to Vanhoozer as is Torrance’s. Especially given the universalistic tone of Barth’s (according to McMaken) trajectory. The thing is, the Apostle Paul has a universalistic tone throughout his epistolary corpus; and Paul only gets really particular when he qualifies that type of discussion of his with “in Christ.”

Conclusion

We have run way too long for a blog past, in fact the word count on this almost makes this 3x longer than an acceptably lengthed blog post of a thousand words.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer believes that us Evangelical Calvinists have misread the Apostle Paul and Calvin, he writes, “It is not self-evident that Evangelical Calvinists have understood either Paul or Calvin, or that they have done a better job at explaining the relationship between election, incarnation, and redemption than their Calvinist forbearers.”[5] You will have to read his whole argument at some point to see if this statement is a bit triumphalistic or not. But maybe we are not necessarily trying to out-narrate our “Calvinist forebearers,” maybe we are attempting to identify a parallel possibility and reading of things, from within the Reformed tradition, of the Apostle Paul and Calvin that is resourceful, constructive, and faithful to the implications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ itself.

Hopefully at the very least what this exercise has done, appealing to McMaken’s Barth as I have, will throw KJV’s critique of us Evangelical Calvinists and Thomas Torrance into some critical relief. That there is a way to respond to the charges made by those who I call “classical Calvinists,” and that the theological well provided for by the Gospel is deeper than the Hellenists could have ever imagined. When we abandon modes of theological methodology that require us to fit the Gospel into predetermined a priori philosophically derived categories (like those that Vanhoozer’s tradition work from) we have the freedom to stand in front of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, and say at points: ‘I don’t know.’ This does not usually sit well with the theological types, but we should be excited to realize that even when we come to a point where we must say ‘I don’t know because the Bible hasn’t told me so … and neither has the Revelation of God in Jesus Christ’, like Torrance and Barth do, particularly on this issue, that it is still possible to have over six hundred published works on theological issues as Torrance accomplished in his life, or to have written six million words on Jesus, as Barth did in his Church Dogmatics, and still satisfy the longing that every theologian has which is: to know God in Jesus Christ. Take heart!

[1] KJV hereafter, or if you prefer Textus Receptus. 😉

[2] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism) in Benjamin E. Reynolds, Brian Lugioyo, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer eds., Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars (Germany, Tubignen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 33 [pagination does not correlate to published volume].

[3] At most it could be said that Evangelical Calvinists subscribe to a via historia (way of history relative to salvation’s unfolding and temporal expression).

[4] W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism After Karl Barth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 357 Scribd version.

[5] KJV, 34 [pagination does not correlate to published volume].

What is an ‘Onto-Relation’?: Thomas Torrance, Stephen Holmes, and Trinitarian Theology in Relief

Let me just pull this quote out of the broader context from which it is russiantrinitytaken in order to preserve this definition in online form for future reference; if for no one else but me (and keep reading, because at the end of the quote I go off on a tangent in regard to Steve Holmes’ recent book on the Trinity and Thomas Torrance’s following definition of ‘onto-relational’). This definition is so important to understand in regard to grasping Thomas Torrance’s theological project that it is hard to overemphasize it. If Torrance has a metaphysic (which I think he does), then this is it in brief. The following quote from Torrance comes from within a broader context where he is discussing Clerk Maxwell’s approach to science. Torrance argues that Maxwell’s approach comes from a Patristic based conception of relationality and persons-in-relation against the mechanical paradigm of things that dominated the universities and sciences during Maxwell’s era (and we could say still does in many sectors of the sciences: Just think of someone like Richard Dawkins). While Torrance is describing Clerk Maxwell’s approach he provides a definition for what became quite definitive for himself; what became definitive at a metaphysical and even physical level for Torrance was what he called onto-relations. Here is how TF Torrance defines what onto-relations entail:

… It will be sufficient to recall that it was due to the development of relational thinking about the activity of God in creation and incarnation that enabled Christian theology to overcome the static container notion of space, and it was out of this relational thinking that there came the concept of person, unknown in the world before Christianity, in accordance with which it was held that the relations between persons are of constitutive importance for they enter into what persons really are as persons. Thus an onto-relational way of understanding persons in community rejected an atomistic way of thinking of them as self-sufficient, independent, separated individuals who may be organised into a society only through their external relations with one another–the very notion into which John Locke disastrously carried European socio-political thought under the impact of Newtonian atomism and action at a distance….[1]

Recently I read Steve Holmes’ book on the Trinity, in that book he critiques Barth and Dorner, in particular, of introducing an existentialist understanding of person into Trinitarian theology. He argued that the result of this had nothing to do with the way ‘person’ was conceived of for the Patristic framers of ecumenical Trinitarian theology. Whether or not I fully agree with Holmes on this point (which I don’t fully), what would have been of great benefit, would have been if Holmes attempted to engage with Thomas Torrance as an interlocutor on the conception of ‘person’; to engage with TF Torrance’s onto-relational understanding of relationship not only between the Divine Monarxia, but subsequently at an theological anthropological level. I think Torrance offers something from a modern theological landscape, retrieved somewhat from the Patristic period, that would challenge the idea that modern theology should be totally junked in regard to a Trinitarian theology. Torrance stands out as someone, with his category of ‘onto-relational’, that indicates that the modern project has not been a complete waste when it comes to articulating afresh categories for thinking Trinitarian theology.

And we could and should argue that Torrance’s proposal is modern insofar as it draws directly off of the work of Einstein and Clerk Maxwell (among other moderns). The unique thing with Torrance is that he hagiographically ties these modern concepts back into the Patristic paradigm more stridently than someone like Barth does. Nevertheless, Torrance is still largely a modern theologian who seeks to be one in ressourcement.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Christian Theology & Scientific Culture (Belfast: Christian Journals Limited, 1980), 50.

What do we know of evil and sin?: A Response to Open Theism from Christ Concentrated Theism

I have been having a quick discussion, once again, around the issue of so called ‘Open Theism.’ I had a “friend” on Facebook who is a strong proponent for Open Theism, so strong that he helped organize (I think) the first Open Theology theological conference (last year) that has ever taken place in the United States. This quick discussion (I really did not engage that much this time, although I have more in the past) is prompting me to write this post. So this post will be briefly sketching and engaging with Open Theism, and its antidote provided through the theological thinking of Karl Barth.

creationgod

For my Old Testament class at Princeton Theological Seminary, we were assigned reading from Old Testament scholar, Terence Fretheim’s book Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters. As is apparent from the sub-title, the theme of the book is to engage with the problem of God and evil (theodicy); more particularly with God and human suffering (vis-à-vis natural disasters, human caused disasters, etc.). I was excited to get into this book, but once I made it through chapter one I quickly realized Fretheim’s method to answering this purported problem (of God and evil, i.e. theodicy) was going to be his employment of ‘Open theology’ categories. Maybe you have never heard of Open theology, here is an example of it from Terence Fretheim applied to answering how human beings relate to God and creation in purely ‘free’ ways (supposedly):

Though human beings certainly need to hear that they often think of themselves more highly than they ought to think, it is also important for them to hear that they often think of themselves less highly than they ought to think. To speak less highly of the human is to diminish the quality of God’s own work. And this is the case not least because of such continuing divine evaluations of them as good. The creational commands in Genesis 1:28 and God’s engagement with the human in 2:19-20 indicate that God values human beings, places confidence in them, and honors what they do and say, though not uncritically. Human words and deeds count; they make a difference to the world and to God, not least because God has chosen to use human agents in getting God’s work done in the world…. We need constantly to be reminded that the godness of God cannot be bought at the expense of creaturely diminishment.

Another word that can be used to designate the goodness of creatures is “free.” One way in which the creation accounts witness to this reality is the seventh day of creation (Gen. 2:1-3); this day on which God rests (not human beings) is testimony to God’s suspension of creative activity, which allows the creatures, each in its own way, to be what they were created to be. God thereby gives to all creatures a certain independence and freedom. With regard to human beings, God leaves room for genuine decisions as they exercise their God-given power (see already 2:19). With regard to nonhuman creatures, God releases them from “tight divine control” and permits them to be themselves as the creatures they are. The latter includes the becoming of creation, from the movement of tectonic plates to volcanic activity, to the spread of viruses, to the procreation of animals. This divine commitment to the creatures entails an ongoing divine constraint and restraint in the exercise of power, a divine commitment that we often wish has not been made, especially when suffering and death are in view. But God will remain true to God’s commitments, come what may.[1]

Further:

And so God creates a dynamic world in which the future is open to a number of possibilities and in which creaturely activity is crucial for proper creational developments. In other words, God chooses  to establish an interdependent relationship with the creation; God chooses to work with others in creating. Certain constants are in place: seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night (Gen. 8:22). But beyond that, the future of the world is characterized by a remarkable open-endedness, in which more than God is involved….[2]

What stands out most immediately and prominently is how for Fretheim in order for creation to be ‘free’ it needs to be independent from God, and so he can conclude that in creation something ‘more than God is involved.’ But this is precisely the point of departure between thinking Christianly or from God’s Self-revelation in Christ, and thinking philosophically about God’s relation to His grace contained creation. By trying to create space for human suffering, evil in the world, etc. Fretheim unnecessarily unhinges God from creation in a way that God is placed into competition with creation; leaving room for creation to act independently from God. Which for Fretheim allows him to leave creation open, not just for human beings, but for God himself; and so this then becomes the way for Fretheim to start thinking about why humans suffer, and in a way that does not implicate God (since there is ‘more than God involved’).

What Fretheim does, though, is in order to explain God and evil (theodicy), he sacrifices orthodox Christian reality for heterodox Christian un-reality. If he was thinking christologically, he is offering us an adoptionistic version by unhinging humanity from God in the way that he does (I will have to get into this further later).

But since I am running out of time for this post, let me get to the antidote to Fretheim’s ‘Open’ thinking. We should not attempt, as Christians, to elevate our own reasoning and interpretive capacities beyond their given reality (especially in light of the ‘Fall’ and the noetic effects of the ‘Fall’). When we attempt to move beyond God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ we indeed are exalting ourselves too much, and at least signaling what kind of theo-anthropology and doctrine of sin we are operating from (and how that shapes our hermeneutic and the confidence we have in accessing reality apart from God in Christ). I believe Fretheim in particular, and Open Theology, in general, move within this kind of analytical philosophical venture of doing theology that thinks beyond and outside of Christ while at the same time trying to work its way back to Christ (which would be Pelagian). But I digress. Here, I suggest, is the proper way to think of God and human suffering; and how to do so from a genuinely Christ-centered way versus the philosophical way that Fretheim and Open Theology gives us.

What does it mean? Is it not the opposite of what we might expect from the news that God became Man? Here there is suffering. Notice that it is here for the first time in the Confession that the great problem of evil and suffering meets us directly. Already, of course, we have frequently had to refer to it. But according to the letter this is the first time we have an indication of the fact that in the relation between Creator and creature everything is not at its best, that lawlessness and destruction hold sway, that pain is added and suffered. Here for the first time the shadowy side of existence enters into our field of view, and not in the first article, which speaks of God the Creator. Not in the description of creation as heaven and earth, but here in the description of the existence of the Creator become creature, evil appears; here afar off death also becomes visible. The fact that this is so at least means this: that discretion is demanded in all descriptions of wickedness and evil as being to some extent independent. When that was done later, it was more or less overlooked that all this enters the field only in connexion with Jesus Christ. He has suffered, He has rendered visible what the nature of evil is, of man’s revolt against God. What do we know of evil and sin? What do we know of what is called suffering or what death means? Here we get to know it. Here appears this complete darkness in its reality and truth. Here complaint is raise and punished, here the relation between God and man is really made clear. What are all our sighs, what is all that man thinks he knows about his folly and sinfulness and about the lost state of the world, what is all speculation about suffering and death beside what becomes manifest here? He, He has suffered, who is true God and true man. All independent talk on the subject—that is, talk cut loose from Him—will necessarily be inadequate and imperfect. Unless talk on this matter goes out from this centre, it will be unreal. That man can bear the most frightful strokes of Fate and comes through untouched by anything as through a shower of rain: that can be seen by us to-day. We are simply untouched either by suffering or by evil in its proper reality; we know that now. So we can repeatedly escape from knowledge of our guilt and sin. We can only achieve proper knowledge, when we know that He who is true God and true man has suffered. In other words, it needs faith to see what suffering is. Here there was suffering. Everything else that we know as suffering is unreal suffering compared with what has happened here. Only from this standpoint, by sharing in the suffering He suffered, can we recognize that fact and the cause of suffering everywhere in the creaturely cosmos, secretly and openly.[3]

There is much to commend here, but I best stop for now. (See footnotes below for further comment)


[1] Terence E. Fretheim, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010), 15-16.

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Karl Barth, Dogmatics In Outline (Great Britain: The Camelot Press Ltd., 1949), 103-04. This book is an off the top (for Barth) series of lectures that he gave to students at the University of Bonn (Germany) in the summer of 1946. It was his explication of The Apostles’ Creed, and the quote I have from him above is his reflection on the part of the creed that goes: ‘Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell….’

What Barth is taking seriously is the theological/christological and biblical reality that all of creation is within the domain of God’s grace in Christ; and furthermore, that all of creation’s point and purpose, then, is in and for and from Christ. If this is so then what becomes impossible is to attempt to think about anything unhinged, as it were, from Christ (so against Fretheim, Open Theology, et. al.).

 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. 19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. ~Colossians 1:15-20

Miracles Can’t ‘Prove’ God: The Evangelical Heritage

I don’t want this post to be another one of those posts that bashes the Christian Fundamentalist and Evangelical past; the past that I was weened in, and moved and breathed in (still do, somewhat!) for my whole life. But, I grunewald_crucifixionam afraid some of this post will have to be just that. I, indeed, grew up under the intellectual and spiritual strictures of what it meant to be an Fundy/Evangellybelly. A essential part of that growing up process was to follow a mode of existence that engaged with Scripture and Christian life in a way that hearkened me to have to conceive of ways to constantly defend Scripture’s viability, and to defend the miraculous stories therein; in contrast to those who were ‘attacking’ it, like the higher critics and ‘Liberals’. And so my whole life, like many of yours, was involved in this task; much of my undergrad and graduate studies involved, in one way or another, a development and sophistication of this kind of way (i.e. being an apologist, before being able to be a theologian).

What I have come to realize over these last 12 years (starting in seminary) is that I have got it all wrong. God does not need me to defend him, I need him to defend me from my incurved self and desires (that are against him, that are anti-Christ). What I have realized is that we cannot and should not separate the work from the person of God in Christ, as if we could talk about his purported works (which are miraculous) in abstraction from the person from whence these works flow; and then use those works in a way that props him up, for ourselves and for the world to see. This is the wrong direction to take, and the wrong way to think by way of order. God precedes us (simply because he created us), we do not preceded him. How we know what we know has an ontic (i.e. the very essence of reality itself, ‘being’) ground supporting that; in other words, we will either ground how we know what we claim to know about God by grounding that from somewhere in ourselves, or we will recognize the actual ground as it is given to us in God in Jesus Christ. And so the consequence of this recognition is that we will no longer attempt to work our way to God by proving his existence by first proving the viability of his works (‘miracles’) in creation. We will instead, stand under them, and allow who he is to contradict our puny attempts to make him known to ourselves and to the world.

There is no one better to confront this kind of problem than George Hunsinger on Karl Barth. The following quote comes from a section where Hunsinger is discussing divine-human agency, in general, and in particular, the reality of ‘revelation’ and ‘miracle’, and the way that miracle functions within the sphere provided it by God’s Self-revelation:

God is not identical with any cosmic process, and therefore God is “not identical with the laws known to us” (III/3, 161). God is identical only with God’s sovereign freedom, “with the free disposing and directing of his own good-pleasure.” God does not overthrow the order of creation when miraculously engaging in self-revelation. “Naturally there can be no question of his contravening or overturning any real ontic law of creaturely occurence. This would mean that he was not at unity with himself in his will and work.” We must allow, however, that our perception of these laws is creaturely and finite. “We must allow that he can ruthlessly ignore the laws known to us, that is, our own perception of the ontic laws of creaturely occurrence…. He is not bound by our human concepts of order, however great may be the noetic clarity and certainty we believe them to possess” (III/3, 161). Everything depends on theology’s offering a conceptual redescription of the biblical narratives that remains faithful to the witness that is found there:

The more definitely the coming of the Son of God is announced in the Old Testament, and the more directly his revelation is attested in the New, the more natural it appears to unprejudiced reason that mention has to be made of events which can be understood only as an activity supra et contra naturam, as an ordering and forming which is beyond the stage of development so far reached by our concepts. And the final revelation of the Son of God at the end of all times was an event of this kind. We must be quite clear in our minds that what is revealed in these events is not a miraculous exception but the rule of divine activity, the free goodwill of God himself, i.e., the law at which we are aiming with our concept of law. And we must also be quite clear in our minds that with all our concepts of law we can never do more than aim at this law. (III/3, 129-30) [George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 183-4, Nook.]

It is a constant temptation to feel as if we must rush to the defense of God’s existence, in general, and his reality, in Christ, in particular. But we must submit to God, resist the devil, and he will flee from us (James 4). Resisting this temptation might cause us to look like fools to the world, we might appear weak (I Cor. 1:17-25); but the message of the cross always does. I am not suggesting that we cannot actively engage the world through proclamation; in fact we are commanded and commissioned to do so (Mt. 28). What we can do, in apologia or in defense of the Gospel, is to call ourselves, and the world to sit under the Self-revealed categories given by God in Christ. What we can do is to argue that if someone is going to think Christianly (even if they aren’t one yet), is to think from the internal and eternal consistency of God’s Self-revelation, and demand that if they or we are going to think Christianity from anywhere, it must be under the constraints and integrity of its own reality found in Jesus Christ; it will only be from this vantage point that the weakness of God will be seen as power, and the foolishness of God as wisdom.

A Brief Rejoinder (not really) To Roger Olson’s Reading of Karl Barth as a [hopeful] Universalist

I wish I had more time, this will have to suffice until then.

barthartRoger Olson, evangelical Arminian par excellence, has offered an argument in an essay he has written for his blog (the essay was just released today, Sunday March 10th, 2013) that argues that Karl Barth was—by the implicit logic of Barth’s theological program—an Christian universalist. Here is how Olson concludes his over 10,000 word essay:

The main contribution, if it can be called that, of this research project is that Barth was and was not a universalist. The solution is not sheer paradox, however. He was a universalist in the sense of everyone, all human persons, being reconciled to God, not just as something potential but as something actual from God’s side. He was not a universalist in the sense of believing that everyone, all human persons, will necessarily know and experience that reconciliation automatically, apart from any faith, having fellowship with God now or hereafter. Without doubt, however, he was a hopeful universalist in that second sense of the word. [read full essay here]

And here is how I initially responded via comment at his blog:

[First, thank you for engaging Barth this way—and again, thank you for noticing us “Evangelical Calvinists” :-) !]

My initial response is that your final conclusion is unremarkable (as I’m sure you already know) in regard to the kind of “double election” Barth was committed to; and that this all takes shape through Barth’s critically dialectical hermeneutic. So I say your conclusion is unremarkable because it is only consistent with what one should expect if they start and end where Barth does; i.e. dialectically.

I think I will save most of my response (since I don’t have it yet) for a blog post (at my blog https://growrag.wordpress.com). I have been reading Arminius lately, and I am not sure you have an alternative theological construct that provides the kind of hermeneutical and exegetical haven of rest that you seem to think is available. To be sure, either way, this wouldn’t undercut Barth’s alternative way (vis-a-vis your Arminian one), but I would venture to say that given the finite explanation of things–relatively speaking of course–Barth’s conclusion versus Arminius’ or Calvin’s might not look as foreboding (or heterodox, or worse, heretical) as you seem to be suggesting ‘implicitly’ (i.e. following your logic through) throughout your essay in regard to Barth’s offering.

Anyway, I look forward to responding to this essay in days to come. Thanks for taking the time to do this, Roger!

He does mention us Evangelical Calvinists, as you will see if you read the essay.

I really do not know what else to say, other than what my brief comment mentions. Olson’s conclusion is not surprising in the slightest; in fact there are numerous publications by Barth scholars, and others, that have concluded much the same many many years ago. In fact there is nothing controversial or that insightful about Professor Olson’s final conclusions; I guess I am underwhelmed. I appreciate the time he put into engaging in this personal voyage of self discovery, relative to understanding Barth for himself. But I am unsure how Olson’s conclusions give us anything more conclusive than what has been available and accepted knowledge about Barth for many years.

Olson believes that Barth’s view of salvation, objectified as it is in the elected humanity of Christ, necessarily requires that all of humanity is ontologically redeemed in the humanity of Christ; and I would say Olson is correct. But the interesting critique that Olson offers of Barth is this:

[…] So, what is the distinction between Christians and other “men?” The context (long paragraph) makes absolutely clear that the difference is not “being saved” versus “not being saved” but knowing and testifying of the “new being of man” in Jesus Christ versus not knowing it. It is epistemological, not ontological. [read the full essay here]

This is rather odd, really. Since Barth (as Olson has just illustrated, prior to his conclusion, which I just quoted) just has made the argument (of Barth’s view) that salvation is deeply ontological; so deep, in fact, that it took God in Christ to penetrate the ontological depths of humanity, and recreate that in the resurrection of Jesus. So “saving” faith is not “just” epistemological for Barth (or Torrance), it is ontologically grounded in the vicarious faith of Christ for us (He is our “High Priest” and mediator after all I Tim. 2.5-6). This is one of the continued problems that Professor Olson has with reading us Evangelical Calvinists, and now Barth; there is a latent dualism informing Olson’s interpretive strategy when it comes to interpreting Barth and his respective theo-anthropology. A counter question could be; if Christ’s humanity (as the image of God Col. 1.15) is not the ground of all humanity (as its ‘first-fruits’), then what serves as that ground? Is there a separate ontology for our humanity that is indeed distinct from the kind that Jesus assumed for us in His incarnation? And if there is a separate humanity (ontologically), as Olson, enthymemically must presume, then who is it that is arguing that salvation is “just” epistemological? It is clearly not Barth (nor Torrance, nor us Evangelical Calvinists), but it would be Olson’s style of Arminianism. Since the ground of faith comes from individual people (the elect who God predestined, according to Arminius and Arminian theology, as he looked down [foreknowledge] the halls of history and saw who of their own free will place their faith in Christ) and their assent (and trust) in the fact of what Jesus did for them. It is not Barth who affirms what Olson argues he does, in this regard; instead it is Olson who affirms that salvation is merely an epistmeological exercise. I think “one” of the problems attendant with Olson’s reading of Barth here, is that there is a lacunae in Olson’s theological anthropology (among other things). I should say, that Olson has abstracted humanity out from Christ’s in a way, that the only real affect salvation has for people is if “they choose” salvation or not. This is a soley subjective understanding of salvation, that for one thing is epistemological only (i.e. there is nothing of ontological significance in what Christ has done for humanity, for Olson’s view).

Anyway, this isn’t a very careful response to Olson (I will try to do that in print form someday); but it is an initial response, and so it is what it is.

The Trinitarian Love Knot: Don’t try to love, without Christ that is.

Let’s talk about love. Not just any love, but true love; the kind of love that shapes who the Christian God is, my God (and your God if you’re in Christ). There are all kinds of popular and sentimental parodies of love at work in our world today; mostly lust is mistaken for love in our day and age. There is also a more developed conception of love amongst people in the world that believes that there is some sort of creaturely independence about love that is shared between two people (like in a marriage or boyfriend/girlfriend relationship). Indeed, there is this kind of bond, and a created one, that ought to inhere between a man and a woman (by way of God’s good creation and recreation, in Christ). But is it enough to say ‘I do’ to another, if the ground of that ‘I do’ is not intentionally and consciously centered in the love of Christ as the Son of the Father in and through the communion of the Spirit?

The divorce rate in America (and the world, but I will focus on America since I am an American) does not suggest that a kind of independent creaturely love (and I mean one that is not shaped in the ‘bosom’ of the Father of the Son) has any kind of committal force or dynamis to it. Instead the statistics on marriage in America suggest that a love without the cross of Christ and cruciform shape (which is the kind of sacrificial other focused love that shapes God’s intra-Trinitarian life love) has no staying power. At bottom this kind of love, devoid of the Spirit as it is, can only and always seek it’s own good; it cannot, definitionally, seek anything else because it loves the darkness rather than the light (according to John 3:16ff).

So I will simply make the assertion and thesis statement: That there is no true ontology or conception of love apart from its ground in the Triune life of God in Christ. Further, that human love has no purpose (or telos) if it is un-tethered from the life of God through the Spirit anointed mediating gracious humanity of Jesus Christ. The conclusion, then, is that human love as an end in itself has nowhere to finally look but back at self (homo in se incurvatus); because human love was always already intended to find its verve and slide in and through Christ’s Spirit empowered love of the Father.

Thomas Torrance provides a helpful description of what God’s Triune love is; he writes:

The fact that, as St John tells us, God is Love, who has manifested his love to us in sending his only Son into the world so that we might live through him, does not meant that God is Love in virtue of his love for us, but that God is in himself the fullness and perfection of Love in loving and being loved which out of sheer love overflows freely toward others. It means that the Love that God is, is not that of solitary inactive or static love, whatever that may be, but the active movement of reciprocal loving within the eternal Being of God which the one ultimate Source of all love. That God is Love means that he is the eternally loving One in himself who loves through himself, whose Love moves unceasingly within his eternal Life as God, so that in loving us in the gift of his dear Son and the mission of his Spirit he loves us with the very Love which he is. In other words, that God is Love as this loving One in Christ and in the Spirit, means that in their interpersonal reciprocal relations the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are the Communion of Love which the One God eternally is in himself, and indeed is also toward us. It is as this ever living and acting Communion of loving and being loved that God is who he is, the perfection and fullness of Love that will not be confined with the Godhead but freely and lovingly moves outward toward others whom God creates for fellowship with himself so that they may share with him the very Communion of Love which is his own divine Life and Being. [Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons, 5-6]

As Torrance highlights, and in agreement with what I have been sketching previously, God’s Triune life is the only category of love available. We have been created and recreated in Christ to participate in God’s life of Triune life of love which as revealed in Christ is cruciform in shape. If we are not actively participating in this life of love, we cannot anonymously claim to be actually loving. A relationship without being grounded in participation in God’s life through Christ will only spin hopelessly and endlessly back to self. It won’t find its true orientation, as Augustine noted when he wrote: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” Hearts that are seeking union and communion, one with the other; hearts that are not the new ‘fleshy’ hearts (II Cor. 3) that we have in and through the heart of Christ cannot find rest and true union, but only disarray and destruction (ultimately).

God is Love. Amen.

No Knowledge of God Outside of Christ: A Christian Faith Understanding

I thought this quote from Paul Molnar on Thomas Torrance’s Trinitarian Theology of Creation would be timely:

Torrance’s view of God the Creator was strictly determined by his Trinitarian theology so that, in order to understand his explication of the doctrine of creation, it is important to realize that his thinking remains structured by Athanasius’ insight that it is better to “signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate”. What this means is not only that, following the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius stressed the centrality of the Father/Son relation for understanding God the Father Almighty who is the Creator, but that he wanted to stress that this same relation must have “primacy over the Creator/creature relation. The latter is to be understood in the light of the former and not vice versa”. Or, to put it another way, “while God is always Father he is not always Creator” and “it is as Father that God is Creator, not vice versa”. . . .[1]

And then how Thomas Torrance understood theological method as Christological method. This might help, for some, to illustrate how and why Torrance would not be an advocate for what is known as natural theology (knowing God from a naked creation), or an analogy of being (using humanities’ reflection upon itself and as the analogy for what God’s being must be like—this is also extrapolated out as man reflects on nature in general, conceiving of what kind of God it must have taken to create (or what kind of power)—it is through this kind of abstractive reasoning that  concept of godness is constructed (Philosophers like Aristotle and Plato would be prime examples of this kind of work). Instead, Torrance, in the footsteps of Barth (although with his own rationale and emphases) works through an analogy of faith (the idea that knowledge of God, as Athanasius articulates in Molnar’s quote above, only comes through relation to God in and through Christ’s vicarious faith for us). Here is what Torrance conceives:

Our task in christology is to yield the obedience of our mind to what is given, which is God’s self-revelation in its objective reality, Jesus Christ. A primary and basic fact which we discover here is this: that the object of our knowledge gives itself to us to be apprehended. It does that within our mundane existence, within our worldly history and all its contingency, but it does that also beyond the limits of previous experience and ordinary thought, beyond the range of what is regarded by human standards as empirically possible. Thus when we encounter God in Jesus Christ, the truth comes to us in its own authority and self-sufficiency. It comes into our experience and into the midst of our knowledge as a novum, a new reality which we cannot incorporate into the series of other objects, or simply assimilate to what we already know. Thomas F. Torrance says in his, “Incarnation: The Person And Life Of Christ,” 1

So for Torrance, and me, there is no “natural” knowledge of God available; it is strictly limited to God’s Self-revealed knowledge of Himself in Christ. Just as Jesus said, “Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” As Athanasius and Torrance press, knowledge of God, for the Christian, must be knowledge of God as Triune or it is not truly knowledge of God; nor, is it Christian.


[1] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian Of The Trinity, (Ashgate Publishing Limited, England, 2009), 73.

Thomas Torrance V. Charles Ryrie on Biblical Inerrancy

The following will be jolting to an Evangelical’s ear. This is Thomas Torrance’s rationale for understanding Holy Scripture to be errant; the analogy he uses, or really the ontology he uses is that of fallen humanity. He correlates humanities’ fallness, and human language as part and parcel with this; as the mode which Scripture takes as God’s redemptive and inerrant Word takes hold of human language, and in his in-spirated obedience ‘bends’ it back to find its purpose in its reality; the reality to which it points. So for Torrance, it is unthinkable to think that Scripture could be anything other than errant; only because it is this very human language that needed to be redeemed in the first place. With this as the reality, Torrance’s aversion to biblical inerrancy is not a function of holding to what Evangelicals might consider Liberalism (the kind of ‘Liberalism’ that gave rise to Christian fundamentalism and the doctrine of inerrancy in the first place); but instead Torrance’s account is situated within his Christological/soteriological frame in which Scripture—according to Torrance—ought to be situated. Here’s Thomas F. Torrance,

[T]he extraordinary fact about the Bible is that in the hands of God it is the instrument he uses to convey to us his revelation and reconciliation and yet it belongs to the very sphere where redemption is necessary. The Bible stands above us speaking to us the Word of God and yet the Bible belongs to history which comes under the judgment of God and requires the cleansing and atoning activity of the Cross. When we hear the Word of God in the Bible, therefore, we hear it in such a way that the human word of Holy Scripture bows under the divine judgment, for that is part of its function in the communication of divine revelation and reconciliation. Considered merely it in itself it is imperfect and inadequate and its text may be faulty and errant, but it is precisely in its imperfection and inadequacy and faultiness and errancy that God’s inerrant Holy Word has laid hold of it that it may serve his reconciling revelation and the inerrant communication of his Truth. Therefore the Bible has to be heard as Word of God within the ambiguity of its poverty and riches, its weakness and power, and heard in such a way that we acknowledge that in itself in its human expression, the Bible comprises the word of man with all the limitations and imperfection of human flesh, in order to allow the human expression to fulfill its divinely appointed and holy function for us, in pointing beyond itself, to what it is not in itself, but to what God has marvellously made it to be in the adoption of his Grace. The Bible itself will pass away with this world, but the Word of God which it has been inspired to convey to us does not pass away but endures for ever. [Thomas F. Torrance, Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics, 9-10]

This, then, does not represent an insensitive frontal attack on Biblical inerrancy; in fact Torrance’s project seeks to understand Scripture from within a Christically framed understanding of the relation of the divine and the human in the hypostatic union realized in Jesus Christ. Torrance’s view of Scripture is corollary with his view on the ‘kind of humanity’ that Christ assumed in the incarnation; viz. a fallen human in need of redemption (so Scripture as human language).

This kicks against the goads, as I already noted, for the American Evangelical. I would suggest though, that one of the reasons this is hard teaching for the Evangelical is because it takes Scripture and its mastery away from our control; and instead it places the control of Scripture in the hands of its reality, Jesus Christ. No longer is Scripture open for public consumption, but for Torrance the Bible is a decidedly Christian venture that requires eyes and ears of faith to see and hear God’s Word confront us through it. Here is how Charles Ryrie would respond to Torrance:

[T]he logic of some still insists that anything involving humanity has to allow for the possibility of sin. So as long as the Bible is both a divine and human Book the possibility and actuality of errors exist.

Let’s examine that premise. Is it always inevitable that sin is involved where humanity is?

If you were tempted to respond affirmatively, an exception probably came to mind almost immediately. The title of this chapter put the clue in your mind. The exception is our Lord Jesus Christ. He was the God-Man, and yet, His humanity did not involve sin. So He serves as a clear example of an exception to the logic pressed by people who believe in errancy.

The true doctrine of the God-Man states that He possessed the full and perfect divine nature and a perfect human nature and that these were united in one Person forever. His deity was not in any detail diminished; His humanity was not in any way sinful or unreal, though sinless; and in His one person His natures were without mixture, change, division, or separation.

Similarly, the Bible is a divine-human Book. Though it originated from God, it was actually written by man. It is God’s Word, conveyed through the Holy Spirit. Sinful men wrote that Word but did so without error. Just as in the Incarnation, Christ took humanity but was not tainted in any way with sin, so the production of the Bible was not tainted with any errors. [Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology, 83]

And Ryrie further:

[…] Even if the errors are supposedly in “minor” matters, any error opens the Bible to suspicion on other points which may not be so “minor.” If inerrancy falls, other doctrines will fall too. . . . When inerrancy is denied one may expect some serious fallout in both doctrinal and practical areas. [p. 77]

For Torrance, Scripture is in God’s hands first; for Ryrie, for Scripture to be Scripture it is in our hands first—once we’ve “proven” through scientific rigor, that Scripture is reliable, then we can approach the Bible as reliable, and in fact God’s Word to humanity. So for Ryrie it all depends upon our defense of Scripture; if we can’t prove it to be Scripture (without error), then it is no longer a reliable Word from God, and thus Christianity ought to go the way of other myths—this is the implication of Ryrie’s approach.

I could say much more, but this post just went over that magic word count number for posts on blogs (a 1000 words), and so I better stop or you won’t read.