Living in the Utility of Faust in the Social Media Age: Cruciformed Doxology as the Antidote

In our social media age, and even prior (of course), people have followed the adage that: ‘knowledge is power.’ When we think of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Blogs, and multiple other platforms we can see first hand what “knowledge” offers a variety demographics worldwide. We can see the sort of power that is fomented as a result of the unleashing of a superabundance of knowledges; knowledge of whatever we could imagine, and more. Some knowledge is seemingly pedestrian and general, but other knowledges have profound implications and consequences. Knowledge, particularly as we live in the information-social media age, does not have to be accurate knowledge to count as knowledge; it simply becomes knowledge for the one receiving and perceiving it. In other words, what counts as knowledge today does not have to be tethered to an external reality, it can instead simply be a reality that coheres within the ideological and paradigmatic frame we inhabit (so a coherentist account; a self-referentiality that requires nothing more than the points of contact that fund whatever frame we may be thinking from within). What we see in our moment of history is knowledge that has a utilitarian power which moves tribes of people groups to act in activist ways, potentially, or maybe to refrain and stand back in the cloisters of their own spatial location in society. Whatever the case may be, if we gain knowledge without some sort of limiting or regulative factor, in regard to what these knowledges can foment and produce; if we gain knowledge, and believe that my personal universe is enough to contain its power, then we will see things happen—we will see ‘power’ unleashed—but a power that is devoid of the Spirit—a power that is ultimately demonic and incurved upon the self.

Knowledge is power, but whose power; and knowledge of who or what? There are clearly differing powers operative in the world over. As Christians we know that there is the living God’s power, which looks christological, staurological, and cruciform; and then there is devilish-demonic power that looks self-possessed, self-assertive, and abrasive. The latter looks like this evil age. Without the Spirit, this ‘age’ looks to be the best of possible worlds; at least the best that we can make it as the human species abandoned on a rock in the nether regions of deep space. And if this age isn’t the best, “dangit we are going to strive to make it the best utopia we can.” But where does such incurved thinking, where does such knowledge get us? It gets us further and deeper into the chaos of the world we see all around us. Sure, we can attempt to manipulate nature, as if we’re gods, by deploying all of our technological advancements to accomplish our ‘noble’ efforts to create a “just” and wholesome society (based upon whatever society thinks that ought to be); but where does that really get us?

What if the human animal was created to be a worshipping animal? What if we were never intended to be self-reliant, but instead Theo-reliant? We clearly are worshipping animals, but in the Christian account things went terribly awry! The evidence that we are worshipful beings (a posteriori) is everywhere we look; all of society is built upon the premise that at one level of intensity to another we are intent on worshipping. Ultimately, if we aren’t worshipping the living God, the God who created and recreated us in His lively image in Christ (cf. Col. 1.15), then by the incurvature of sin we will worship ourselves. We might be the greatest philanthropist or the evilest monster in world history, but at the end of the ultimate day, by fallen-nature we are driven to do what we do by our greatest love interest: ourselves. The cure to this destructive waywardness is to come to the reconciliatory knowledge of the living God in Christ; where the hidden God Deus absconditus becomes the Revealed God Deus revelatus as we by the Spirit see the Man from Nazareth for who He really is (for us). In this knowledge genuine power, God’s power, the power that holds all of reality together by His Word, is realized, and we come to the moment we were primally designed for (by the eschatological life of the Triune God); we come to live into our vocation as creatures before our Creator; we start living the life of doxological reality God formed us for to begin with. We come to have the freedom that God has lived in for Himself for time in eternity; we come to find our ‘being’ in the other rather than attempting to construct that mondically in the self. We realize that the basis of our lives is an ec-static one that comes from the heavenlies rather than from the blood and soil of self-constructed citadels.

Paul Hinlicky brings what I’m getting at into further relief, and helps to tamp down what I’m attempting to articulate with more eloquence than I can muster. Here he is writing in the context of Melanchthon’s theology:

It is important to dwell a moment longer on this ultimately doxological nature of science for Melanchthon, and it is interesting to observe in this connection how he recorded one of the first versions of the Faust legend — a cautionary tale about knowledge sought instrumentally, only for power’s sake, as pure technology fulfilling infantile fantasies for magical power severed from God’s final purpose of doxology. Delight and praise in contemplation of the works of God are thus not decoration, so to say, but mark a deep rift between philosophical pragmatism and theological pragmatics: as the final cause of knowledge in the created human mind, the praise of God lends both ethical direction for and aesthetic motivation to reason’s patient inquiry into the efficient material causes of the world. The mandate is progressively to know the world as God the Creator knows it, who is not mere power but always power together with wisdom and love, who rests therefore and rejoices in all His works on the seventh day of creation, a type of the eternal sabbath. True knowledge is not merely power but power qualified by wisdom and love. The eschatological doxology of the redeemed and fulfilled creation now anticipated in turn forms a barrier wall against the purely instrumental, Faustian equation of knowledge with power.[1]

The world, under the sway of the Evil one, will continue to live out its deal with Faust; this is simply definitional reality for the ‘world.’ But as Christians we ought to buck this serpentine deal, and live into and from the doxological life of Jesus Christ who has graciously elected to live for us before the Father by the Spirit. It seems to me that the church, by and large, far too often falls into socio-culturo-politco slide wherein, even in the name of Christ, we end up cultivating a life of worship that is centered on the old-creation that indeed is dead and gone with Christ’s cross. Surely, we are simul et justus et peccator, but the church, particularly the Western church (the part of the church I inhabit) is in serious need of repentance. When the love of many grows cold in the communitas of Christ, we know that we have gotten some bad knowledge. We aren’t masters of the universe; Jesus is! We either live from his broken body, shed blood, and recreated humanity by the Holy Spirit, or we live in the utility of Faust.  

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 194-95.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To make what Hinlicky just wrote crescendo he writes further:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid., 153-54.

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

Gregory of Nyssa’s Doctrine of Evil as an Explanation for the Chaos of this World [dis]Order

Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine of evil, at least as distilled by Paul Hinlicky’s treatment, offers a substantial this-worldly account of evil; beyond that, if offers a way to think of evil in positive rather than simply in privative terms. I think this positive understanding of evil needs to be appreciated much more. It is a reality I was first alerted to by a mentor of mine in his development of this evil as a “positive” reality as he retrieved that in Augustine’s post-Pelagius understanding of evil, and sin more pointedly as concupiscence (‘self-love’). Here in Nyssa’s understanding, Hinlicky helps us to see another aspect of positive evil understood as envy. Envy being driven by the demonic and devilish desire to find existence and being in realities that in fact are deemed as ‘nothingness’ (or privative evil) in God’s Kingdom and economy. Hinlicky writes of Nyssa:

According to Nyssa, it was upon hearing the divine plan of a glorious destiny for the lowly earthling that the ontologically superior angel, Lucifer, resolved to undo God’s work, choosing for himself and the world a destiny refused in God’s primal decision. If this divine destination of the earthling is the “real world,” the inbreaking of chaos in its history under the forms of the powers of sin and death is motivated by the malice of envy, whose parody of the principle of sufficient reason is to exist for the sake of destroying. Such is the uncanny actuality of the demonic. This account has the merit, I think, of locating evil as a positive power, not a mere privation, within the creation, as personified in the figure of the devil; it makes evil intelligible, not absurd, in the sense that it can be named as the envy for existence stemming from the possibilities God primordially refused. Moral evil is to choose for oneself a destiny other than God’s, and in its actualization therefore it spins episodes of sheer, incalculable chaos into the web of life in its series of development. In turn, one who have to think of a certain temporal freedom of the Spirit who blows where He wills — determined by God’s primordial decision to create, redeem, and fulfill the world in Christ and yet free to innovate in response to these essentially unpredictable, intrinsically incalculable incursions of malicious envy.[1]

This represents a powerful way to think about evil, and then how that is personally experienced and lived out in sinful expressions. It coalesces with the world I live in on a daily basis; and I’m sure that is not limited to my experience. Importantly this understanding of evil maps well onto texts like Genesis 3, Matt. 4 etc. Living in and from this ‘evil’ trajectory the world seeks to live in an alternate reality which indeed results in chaos and disorder of the likes that we see being presently lived out in front of us—even from within us—on a daily basis.

The spiritual battle, when we bring this conception to that level, is a struggle to fight against the forces of darkness, ‘the prince of the power of the air’, that constantly and ceaselessly, in seductive malice attempts to lure us into these sorts of base desires that the devil and his putrid minions have given themselves over to tout court. I personally feel the tear of this luring in my life on a daily basis; I’d rather live in and from a world of nothingness and destruction rather than from the life that God has elected for me in Jesus Christ simul justus et peccator. Although, in truth, I can honestly say that this represents the battle; the reality is that I’d rather flee the body of death I currently inhabit, and live once and for all in and from the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ iustiti Christi.

We live in a world where nothingness abounds, because envy abounds; an envy driven by self-love and collapse into the self-possessed self homo in se incurvatus. We desire to be like God in our basest selves; as such we live in a non-world that is funded by nothing but disorder and monstrous chaos. The church, in many respects, continues to reflect an existence that is bounded to this evil world of envy, rather than the pure world that is characterized by a God who became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. If the church cannot recognize, if it cannot discern between the holy and the profane (Lev 10), if it continues to allow the strange fire of a nothingness-world to be its reality, then the church itself (not her esse) stands to be judged more than the world (I Pet 4).

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 110-11.

Closing Loops: How to Think Christianly From a Unity of Knowledge Rather than Profanely From a Duality of Knowledges

Let me double down on some comments I made in my last post (you’ll have to go to the comment thread to read). Philosophy and Theology, in my approach, are two distinct things; as such my theory of knowledge/epistemology is going to necessarily start with a theological ontology (thus repudiating philosophy proper as a non-starting mode for Christian intellection). My theory of knowledge with reference to God, and thus all of reality implicated, will start with the doctrine of the primacy of Jesus Christ and his antecedent reality as the Logos asarkos in the Triune life. In other words, the ‘ground’ of knowledge, for me, is rooted in the reality that creation’s inner reality is the covenant of God’s gracious life to not be God without us but with us; as such, there isn’t a speckle of creation that moves and breathes outwith God’s breath and domain in Christ. These commitments necessarily supplant any notion of naturum purum (pure nature), or of abstract human agents as ontic units of their own. In other words, human agents, in my view, because of my theological commitments have no Pelagian, no morally neutral position from whence they might  find capaciousness to cognize; viz. from my view human beings either think from ‘the kingdom of darkness’ or ‘the Kingdom of the Son of His love’ (cf. Col. 1.13). Human agents, by definition vis-à-vis God are contingent dyadic (v monadic) beings who have an ontology (and thus regnant epistemology) outsourced to them either by God or by an incurved enslavement to a faux-possessed self. All of the above means that God’s Self-Revelation, God’s Self-Exegesis (cf. Jn 1.18) is the space wherein all genuine knowledge of the living God is given; given as pure gift, and gift over and again, moment by moment as the heart beats as the Spirit is shed abroad.

Let me close this brief précis by quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer (h/t Paul Hinlicky Paths Not Taken, p. 59):

The division of the total reality into a sacred and profane sphere, a Christian and a secular sphere, creates the possibility of existence in a single one of these spheres, a spiritual existence which has no part in secular existence, and a secular existence which can claim autonomy for itself and can exercise this right of autonomy in dealings with the spiritual sphere. The monk and the 19th century Protestant secularist typify these two possibilities . . . the modern age is characterized by an ever increasing independence of the secular in its relation with the spiritual . . . [even though] it is quite certain that [thinking in terms of two spheres] is in profound contradiction to the thought of the Bible and to the thought of the Reformation, which think of one world created and redeemed in Jesus Christ.[1]

I guess I’m finding it hard to shed my modern location. As such theologians who are cognizant of the challenges that the modern presents—even if that presentation is bankrupt—still impinges upon my own anxieties. Even so, while we often demarcate periods into periods it is not as if there aren’t common themes that dissect all periods of human being. Indeed, the Patristics fought the Hellenists by flipping the Hellenists on their heads even while using Hellenic forms to produce new forms as if there was a new world of resurrection where such sui generis forms were possible; a world where reversal of the old world has become normative. These sorts of paradigms have marched on throughout every period. Barth contra Kant represents an example of someone flipping the Teutonic on its head using it against itself; reifying its forms under the pressures found in the new creation and the eschatos of God’s life in Jesus Christ. These battles, for those involved actively in the church militant will continue. Why not become active?



[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. N.H. Smith (New York: Macmillan, 1978), 196-97.

What If Kant Was Wrong, Does This Wipe Out the Need for Modern Theology?

Earlier on Facebook I posted this: If you start with the premise that Kant was wrong it pretty much wipes out the “need” for much of modern theology. That said: some of the fruit produced by some modern theologies is still materially present despite its cultural context supplied by Kant. At the prompting of a friend I will attempt to elaborate.

This is something I have known for a long while, intellectually; but am coming to terms with currently, existentially. Kant made a division of knowledges such that the so called noumenal (objective, even Divine reality) is not ultimately accessible by those entrapped by the phenomenal (subjective, human agency); thus a ‘great gulf’ is present between an extra world out there, and the inner world from which we think as human subjects. Further, as Paul Hinlicky helps me think this (and now I distill in my own tongue): Kant presupposed that God was essentially and purely an object out there who certain people attempted to use as an authority figure for imposing ad hoc rules (‘priestcraft’) upon an “un-reasoned” people. In other words, if anything, for Kant, God is simply a brute object. Without attempting to distill further this will have to suffice for now. At base if Kant was right, in an absolute sense, then we might simply despair and attempt to produce existential meaning for our lives, albeit lives purely in bondage to our own reason and the self-projections and constructs of reality that flow from there.

But what if the dualism (the noumenal/phenomenal gulf) of Kant was wrong? What if there is a unity of knowledge, albeit one supplied by God through revelation? We will proceed with the premise that Kant was wrong, which has become the conclusion of most forward thinkers today, particularly, at least in the philosophical realm, in and among thinkers under the sway of Post Modern (PoMo) pressures. So we can say that we live in a post-Kantian age; but how the ‘post’ has arrived might well have never been necessary to begin with. In an oversimplified description the way people have become PoMo is something like what happened when Spinoza took Descartes to his logical conclusion, and Nietzsche took Kant et al to theirs. But the problem with this sort of practice is that it still presupposes that Kant, and other Enlightenment thinkers, were more right about human agency and reason than they were wrong; in other words, it gives Kant credit where credit wasn’t do. When we attempt to deconstruct we often acknowledge that the construct we are deconstructing was worth deconstructing in the first place. In the end some recognize that the construct itself, left to itself, would have imploded under the weight of its own ‘cards’ given the foundation it was built. To be post-Kantian might mean either of these approaches: some have felt the need to swallow Kant and attempt to re-work his premises from other directions, even while at some level accepting the relative weight of his thought, while on the other hand, others have simply seen Kant’s folly and rather than seeking to overcome him they have reduced his logic to its conclusion; viz. they have simply asked how Kant could ever prove his disjunction between the phenomenal and noumenal based upon his own categories.

The above is my attempt to introduce and ground clear for what I really want to get to; that is, I want to opine further on how modern theology itself may have never taken the shape it did if Kant wasn’t taken as if he thought from sound premises. Since this is a blog post I can’t do a full survey, or offer developed arguments for what I am about to articulate; so there will be a large level of assertion in what follows. How am I supposed to concisely survey the large swathed development, and its antecedents, that modern theology represents (in this space frame)? In order to delimit, let me elevate a person of interest for me, and use his theological development as my case experiment for this bloggy exercise.

I had mentioned Paul Hinlicky above, I am currently reading his book Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology from Luther through Leibinz. It is my reading of his book that prompted by original post on Facebook earlier today (the one I share above). So I will limit my reflection to the way he has been framing things; of interest for me is that he places Karl Barth into discussion with Immanuel Kant. Indeed, Hinlicky offers a sub-section called Barth Overcomes Kant by Kant.  As I read this section it pushed me again into what I have known for many years: that is that Kant et al. has had an inordinate impact on the development of modern theology; to the point that someone like Barth felt compelled not to go around or simply reject Kant, but he felt compelled to take Kant seriously, and attempt to overcome Kant by using Kant’s categories to develop his own theological corpus. Hinlicky writes:

In light of the foregoing discussion, we may see how right McCormack is to stat about Barth: “All of his efforts in theology may be considered, from one point of view, as an attempt to overcome Kant by means of Kant; not retreating behind him or seeking to go around him, but going through him.” On the one hand, Kant’s stricture against the human possibility of a claim to possess revelation is taken up and affirmed: ‘inscrutability, hiddenness, is of the very essence of Him who is called God in the Bible.’ Therefore, on the other hand, revelation can come only from above, from the paradoxical or mysterious self-unveiling of the veiled. In revelation as this event, God speaks as subject of His own discourse and is heard only as such. God’s Word is God spoken: it cannot then be taken into possession as an object of human cognition apart from the God who speaks and the God who is heard. There is no Word without the Spirit, no Spirit without the Word, and neither of these without the font of the deity who issues them, the eternal Father. “In a bridging of the gulf (from God’s side) between the divine and human comprehensibility,” Barth writes in terms formally, if not materially, reminiscent of Kant, “it comes to pass that in the sphere and within the limits of human comprehensibility there is a true knowledge of God’s essence generally and hence also of the triunity.”[1]

If Kant needed to be ‘overcome’ Barth’s response, from a theological perspective, is absolutely genius! But what if Kant didn’t need to be overcome?! The reason Barth felt compelled to overcome Kant is because the intellectual cultural climate Barth was weaned in (by his teachers) was under the spell of Kant; the culture itself dictated that Kant, and the elevation of reason itself, is ultimately determinative for all intellectual tasks and conclusions. This presented a dilemma of immeasurable magnitude. We see someone like Friedrich Schleiermacher respond, at least on one of his fronts, by appealing to an aesthetic quality inherent to humanity; and others, maybe someone like Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and later Jewish thinker Martin Buber develop an “I/Thou” relationship; thus framing reality in terms of personal and relational realities rather than brute objects like a perception of the classical God might have presented for someone like Kant (which pushed him to think the way he did in regard to God and the noumenal). We see these sorts of “work arounds,” but, again, what if they were not necessary; would this re-shape the terrain of modern theological development in rather radical ways?

So I’m personally left with a bit of dilemma, although I don’t feel it too heavily. If I reject the need to ‘overcome’ or work-around Kant, if I don’t feel compelled to ‘go through’ him then does this mean that modern theology was purely and absolutely an utter waste of time? Many Christians would say an “unqualified yes!” Many would consider me a “Barthian,” others wouldn’t; whether I am or not, Barth’s thought has been seriously influential for me over the last thirteen years, in particular. Does his relationship to Kant, and the way he made that relationship work mean that his theological conclusions are all in vain at a material level? Can formal missteps, in regard to theological methodology, still produce material conclusions that are fruitful and edifying for the church and individual members therein? Was modern theology in the main an utter waste of time; did their formal misstep, in regard to feeling like they needed to respond to Kant, in particular, and the Enlightenment in general, doom every material theological idea produced to the idiosyncratic dust bin of interesting theological artifacts, but nothing else?

I remain hopeful that in God’s providence He can speak through various dialects of theological lexicon, and that His voice has the ability to miraculously pierce through the darkness of the manifold human machinations of various periods of theological development. But what if Kant was wrong? Kant was wrong, but in the case of Barth, at least, much of what he produced, materially, can still be understood as relatively right; relative to the eschatos that is. I still have more thinking to do on this, but these are my inchoate thoughts. I’m sure there will be more to come. I doubt this will be a satisfactory development (my blog post) in regard to what my friend may have been looking for. But it’s all I have time and space for at the moment. Blessings.


[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 54-5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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