What is a Metaphysic? And Do I as a “Barthian” or “Torrancean” Have One?

I just attended the regional meeting of the Pacific Northwest’s Evangelical Theological Society. I was able to meet up with a friend of mine there, Tim, a great brother in Christ who is currently working on his PhD in Systematic Theology under, now, the supervision of Katherine Sonderegger (previously it was under John Webster, before his “untimely” death). We had a chance to attend a couple of papers together, and after one of them, a paper on Thomas Aquinas’s Hylomorphism, Tim asked me a question about my own metaphysical commitments. Tim asked me if I even have a “metaphysic” given my tutelage by guys like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. Tim understands how I disdain substance metaphysics, which was all the more elevated, and reinforced once again by sitting in on this paper on hylomorphism. It’s a good and fair question.

I struggled a bit in responding to Tim, I’ve never really had anyone ask me point blank what my metaphysics actually are. This begs the question in some ways though, what is a metaphysic? Peter van Inwagen over at the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy helps us answer this:

The Word ‘Metaphysics’ and the Concept of Metaphysics

The word ‘metaphysics’ is notoriously hard to define. Twentieth-century coinages like ‘meta-language’ and ‘metaphilosophy’ encourage the impression that metaphysics is a study that somehow “goes beyond” physics, a study devoted to matters that transcend the mundane concerns of Newton and Einstein and Heisenberg. This impression is mistaken. The word ‘metaphysics’ is derived from a collective title of the fourteen books by Aristotle that we currently think of as making up Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Aristotle himself did not know the word. (He had four names for the branch of philosophy that is the subject-matter of Metaphysics: ‘first philosophy’, ‘first science’, ‘wisdom’, and ‘theology’.) At least one hundred years after Aristotle’s death, an editor of his works (in all probability, Andronicus of Rhodes) titled those fourteen books “Ta meta ta phusika”—“the after the physicals” or “the ones after the physical ones”—the “physical ones” being the books contained in what we now call Aristotle’s Physics. The title was probably meant to warn students of Aristotle’s philosophy that they should attempt Metaphysics only after they had mastered “the physical ones”, the books about nature or the natural world—that is to say, about change, for change is the defining feature of the natural world.

This is the probable meaning of the title because Metaphysics is about things that do not change. In one place, Aristotle identifies the subject-matter of first philosophy as “being as such”, and, in another as “first causes”. It is a nice—and vexed—question what the connection between these two definitions is. Perhaps this is the answer: The unchanging first causes have nothing but being in common with the mutable things they cause. Like us and the objects of our experience—they are, and there the resemblance ceases. (For a detailed and informative recent guide to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, see Politis 2004.)

Should we assume that ‘metaphysics’ is a name for that “science” which is the subject-matter of Aristotle’s Metaphysics? If we assume this, we should be committed to something in the neighborhood of the following theses:

  • The subject-matter of metaphysics is “being as such”
  • The subject-matter of metaphysics is the first causes of things
  • The subject-matter of metaphysics is that which does not change[1]

At least we can quickly realize that I am not alone in struggling to not only define what a metaphysic actually is, but also, in light of that, why it would be hard, personally, for me to answer that question about myself and my own commitments. But it is still a good and fair question, particularly since I so often “critique” what has come to be called substance metaphysics (we will have to explore, at a later date, what in fact that all entails particularly).

The thing that makes it very hard for me to answer this question is that I claim to be, and I am committed to revelational theology; a “discipline” that in many ways is at least two steps removed from the definition we have before us, in regard to “metaphysics”, offered up by van Inwagen. 1) I only start my thinking after Deus dixit, ‘God has spoken’; 2) I don’t attempt to think about ‘being’ or ousia in the philosophical ways that Aristotle has ostensibly “discovered” as he supposedly penetrated the meta-physical through the powers of his intellect and wit. Now, as we observe the definition by van Inwagen it becomes exceedingly tempting to quickly correlate what Aristotle was talking about with what is revealed about the Christian God; i.e. as an UnMoved Mover, or even more minimally as the First-causer of every other subsequent and thus contingent cause in the created order.

But this isn’t who I think about, or talk to in the heavenlies, instead I think about and talk to the God who has always already and eternally been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The God I know as a Christian is strictly based, not on his discoverability by human reflection on physical and metaphysical nature, but instead upon the Self-revelation of the only living God in Jesus Christ. As Emil Brunner has pointed out the type of ‘being’ Aristotle speaks of could never nor would ever ‘reveal’ himself because that type of autonomous being needs no, nor desires any type of ‘personal’ interaction; since by definition this ‘being’ is impersonal and turned in on itself as a singularity and monad (that’s a very rough paraphrase of Brunner).[2] Even so, Christians since the beginning have felt compelled to search for a grammar to attempt to articulate God in intelligible and communicative ways. They have even looked to the Greeks to help supply that grammar, but they did so critically, and as Peter Leithart has noted somewhere[3], in a way that we might say they “evangelized metaphysics.” Myk Habets, my evangelical Calvinist colleague-in-arms wrote this in the past, something quite instructive for or purposes here (in extenso):

… When medieval theology adopted Aristotelian philosophy the Greek notion of God as impassible and immutable was also adopted. In this way Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover became associated with the God of the Scriptures. However, in Patristic theology immutability and impassibility, as applied to God, were not associated with these philosophical ideas but were actually a challenge to it. It is true that God is not moved by, and is not changed by, anything outside himself, and that he is not affected by anything or does not suffer from anything beyond himself. But this simply affirms the biblical fact that God is transcendent and the one who created ex nihilo. What the Fathers did not mean is that God does not move himself and is incapable of imparting motion to what he has made. It does not mean that God is devoid of passion, of love, mercy and wrath, and that he is impassibly and immutably related to our world of space and time in such a way that it is thrown back upon itself as a closed continuum of cause and effect.

I grant that patristic theology was tempted constantly by the thrust of Greek thought to change the concepts of impassibility and immutability in this direction, but it remained entrenched within the orbit of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the living God who moves himself, who through his free love created the universe, imparting to its dynamic order, and who through the outgoing of his love moves outside of himself in the incarnation.

This is the God who was not always Creator but became Creator. This implies the notion that even in the life of God there is change. Nor was God eternally incarnate, for in Jesus Christ he became what he was not without ceasing to be what he was. This teaching altered the whole concept of God, of his Being and Act, in the early centuries of our era. T.F. Torrance sees this doctrine being clearly articulated first by Athanasius and then in our own day by Karl Barth in his account of the Being of God in his Act, and of the Act of God in his Being, inseparably bound up with the transcendent freedom of God in his love. In fact, this principle that God is revealed in his Being and Act and Act and Being is one of the principle tenets of both Barth and Torrance’s theological work.[4]

So there is an appeal to the “language” of the Philosophers, even when it comes to ‘being,’ but that appeal and deployment in the end becomes transposed by the pressures of God’s Self-revelation to such an extent that its appeal, it can be said, is in a non-correlationist way. In other words, it is not the “philosophy” of Aristotle nor any others that is being given pride of place, but simply the language of ‘being’ so on and so forth that they developed which the Patristics saw as a fitting vehicle for helping to “grammarize” genuinely Christian discourse about God. Was the temptation always present to fall off the wagon and apostatize, as it were, back to the wells of the Philosopher’s philosophy about ‘being’? Yes. But along with Torrance, Barth, and Habets I believe it is possible, as illustrated by Nicaea-Constantinople and the councils they hosted in the 4th century, respectively, to use the language of the Philosopher’s and to do so in the non-correlationist way I have alluded to.[5]

So how does this lengthy exercise (for a blog post) help respond to my friend, Tim’s question which he put to me about metaphysics? In a strict sense I wouldn’t say that I actually do have a “metaphysic” per se? Metaphysics, if we follow van Inwagen’s detailing, definitionally applies to a necessarily philosophical engagement with ‘being’ and ‘first-causes.’ Someone might want to argue that the medieval theologians, in particular, simply extended out what the Patristics attempted to do in their ‘pillaging’ of the Greeks; that they simply were further attempting to re-text the Philosopher’s (particularly Aristotle’s) language and conceptuality under the pressures provided by God’s Self-revelation in Christ. But this is where this all becomes a serious judgment call, and requires some level of discernment. I contend that the medieval theologians, and the Post Reformed orthodox theologians after them, failed at “evangelizing metaphysics,” that instead they allowed the concept of God “discovered” by Aristotle and some of the other Greeks to take privileged place over God’s Self-revelation. As a result, I think we could actually say that the medievals and Post Reformed orthodox actually do have a proper metaphysical approach to God whereas what is offered by Barth, Torrance, and the Patristics more successfully “evangelized metaphysics” to the point that Jesus Christ truly is regulative for all things relative to knowledge of God and ourselves in Christ and Christ in us. That’s my thesis, and it is one I work and live from.

We would be naïve not to mention though that how metaphysics have come to be understood in the modern period is a study unto itself. But in principle, and insofar as Christian theology is concerned, if we are going to use the traditional understanding of “metaphysics” I would have to tell Tim that I don’t really have one; not in the proper philosophical sense, anyway. This may or may not be satisfactory for Tim, but I am positive it won’t be satisfactory for many a Christian philosopher or various classical theistic theologians (such as is instantiated by many contemporary classical Reformed and Arminian theologians). But here I stand in all my secondary naïveté; to appeal to a Barthianism.

 

[1] Peter van Inwagen, Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy, accessed 03-07-17.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949).

[3] His book on Athanasius.

[4] Myk Habets, Originally Posted at My Blog.

[5] Here is a long comment on what correlational and non-correlational entails (this comes from a blog post written by a guy named Troy that I came across and interacted with about ten years or so ago). This is going to be long, but I want to share it in full; the last paragraph is the clincher towards what I’m after in my own point about ‘non-correlation’. Here is Troy (a student, also, of John Webster back in the day):

“Last week, Prof. Webster led the systematic theology students in a discussion of the key terms and concepts of Systematic Theology. Dr. Webster had previously given us a copy of his essay, “Introduction to Systematic Theology” from the Oxford Handbook to Systematic Theology, in order that we might use it as the launching pad for discussion in our seminar. Throughout our time together, we developed more than a few questions concerning the task and method of the systematic theologian, but it was the issue of correlation that perked my interest.

Any systematic treatment of a given theology will undoubtedly lean toward either an internal or external orientation. One will either attempt to answer questions set forth by something or someone outside of the church, or one will attempt to positively profess what the church believes concerning God and the world. No one would doubt that Pannenberg’s Systematics are categorically different from Barth’s Dogmatics. It is my opinion that two principles concerning this division must be explained and concretized in order to fully expose the relationship between these two modes of Systematic Theology: 1) The division is helpful because both orientations are necessary, and 2) the division is gray, for the assumed separation of church and world that is presupposed underneath the dichotomy is fundamentally structured by a certain theological assumption.

First, I will address the positive aspect of the division between correlational and non-correlational theologies. In one sense, the split is obvious. Tillich clearly saw the difference between his own theological endeavors and those of Barth. It is fairly obvious that the rejection of liberal Protestantism by Barth and other post-liberals is precisely a rejection of (at least a specific kind of) correlationism. It is impossible to make sense of this historical movement without such a division. In this way, it is helpful to demarcate between two opposing sides of theology when each has a very different theological telos in view.

In addition, it is also noteworthy that not all correlational theologies fall under the Barthian critique (or the Feuerbachian critique, to be more precise). I do not think it is fair to judge every engagement with systematic theology based upon a self-same principle. It is, in fact, possible for different theologies to have distinctive traits that are geared for a unique purpose. For instance, to argue that Jenson’s Systematics are fundamentally lacking in utility for the church because of their speculative and creative character is to neglect the illocutionary challenge to the church’s lukewarm, de-radicalized view of God that is part of Jenson’s work. Likewise, to dismiss Pannenberg as a “correlationist”, or a “modernist”, similarly neglects its own telos: namely, to bring every area of human thought under the discipline of Christ. A churchly dogmatics (like Prof. Webster’s own) should be judged on the merits of how well it informs and leads the church theologically; a speculative theology should be judged on the merits of how well it challenges the blind spots of the church with the radicality of the gospel; and an apologetical theology should be judged on the merits of how well it engages with the world’s discourse without compromising the content of the gospel. To disregard this charge is to miss the church’s (and theology’s) holistic mission.

In contrast to the utility of Tillich’s dichotomy, I tend to think that the bifurcation between correlational and non-correlational theologies breaks down upon closer scrutiny. It is my opinion that no theology is truly “non-correlational”, no matter how much it wishes to be so. It is simply a MacIntyrean question of “whose correlation?” A critical reading of any theological text will expose the philosophical underpinnings of its claims.”

 My response to Troy at his blog back then was this:

“This is a great post, thank you Troy! So it’s really Christians pillaging the “Barbarians” for grammatical symbols which then are framed by sacred conceptual trajectory? But wouldn’t this then, in the end, truly be non-correlationist . . . and rather “positive,” internal to the Christian self-referential? In other words, if we “take” (like Constantinople did) grammar from one “context,” and “pretext” it within a Christian conceptuality, so that this becomes the new context . . . isn’t the disjunction between the original context, and the new so great that there really isn’t “correlation?”

Troy in the end actually ended up agreeing with me about ‘non-correlation.’

 

Emil Brunner and Thomas Torrance on the Difference Between Christian Dogmatics and Apologetics

I just picked up Emil Brunner’s The Christian Doctrine of God, which is his volume one in a series of Christian Dogmatics he has written. While he and I won’t see eye to eye on everything, he’s somebody I can learn from; so expect to hear more from him if you read my blog.

As Brunner starts his Christian Dogmatics out, he of course gives explanation of what Dogmatics actually are. In his giving he offers some profound explication; profound, at least from my emilbrunnerperspective, because he explains what in fact Christian Dogmatics represent. His explanation resonates deeply with me, and should help you all to understand where I am coming from as well; i.e. when you read my blog you should know that I am really never attempting to engage in apologetics, but instead always in the work of Christian Dogmatics. Here is what Brunner writes in this regard:

The intellectual enterprise which bears the traditional title of “dogmatics” takes place within the Christian Church. It is this that distinguishes it from similar intellectual undertakings, especially within the sphere of philosophy, as that is usually understood. Our immediate concern is not to ask whether this particular undertaking is legitimate, useful, or necessary. The first thing we have to say about it is that it is closely connected with the existence of the Christian Church, and that it arises only in this sphere. We study dogmatics as members of the Church, with the consciousness that we have a commission from the Church, and a service to render to the Church, due to a compulsion which can only arise within the Church. Historically and actually, the Church exists before dogmatics. The fact that the Christian Faith and the Christian Church exist, precedes the existence, the possibility, and the necessity for dogmatics. Thus if dogmatics is anything at all, it is a function of the Church.

It cannot, however, be taken for granted that there is, or should be, a science of dogmatics within the Christian Church; but if we reverse the question, from the standpoint of dogmatics it is obvious that we would never dream of asking whether there ought to be a Church, or a Christian Faith, or whether the Christian Faith and the Christian Church have any right to exist at all, or whether they are either true or necessary? Where this question does arise—and in days like ours it must be raised—it is not the duty of dogmatics to given the answer. This is a question for apologetics or “eristics”. But dogmatics presupposes the Christian Faith and the Christian Church not only as a fact bu as the possibility of its own existence. From the standpoint of the Church, however, it is right to put the question of the possibility of, and the necessity for, dogmatics.[1]

Thomas F. Torrance briefly describes Christian Dogmatics this way:

Christian Dogmatics – the church’s orderly understanding of scripture and articulation of doctrine in the light of Christ and their coherence in him.[2]

What should be clear from Brunner’s longer explanation, and T.F. Torrance’s shorter one is that Christian Dogmatics is the work of Christians done within the community of the witness of the church of Jesus Christ; as it is pressed up against the reality of its Subject, the living God who is Triune—the ‘God who has spoken’ (Deus dixit).

I am afraid all too many have confused the work of apologetics or “eristics” with the work of Christian Dogmatics; and if they haven’t then they have unfortunately carried over the tools and methods used by apologists, and imported those into the work of Christian Dogmatics. The work of an apologist is largely the work of a philosopher; the work of a Christian Dogmatician is the work of a Christian thinker who self-consciously is working under the pressures of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The Christian Dogmatician is not trying to “prove” God’s existence, so he/she can then talk about God; no. The Christian Dogmatician, by definition has already repented and come under the reality of the Christian God in Christ in and through the witness of the church. This is the work I am doing here at the blog; I engage in Christian dogmatic thinking.

One more point of clarification: I do not think a Christian apologist, in the work they do, actually “proves” the existence of the living God; what they do, if anything, is “prove” a god-concept. What the apologist or Christian philosopher should avoid is the conflation of their work with that of the Christian dogmatician; they are definitionally different. What has happened though, unfortunately, is that often this is exactly what happens; over-zealous Christian philosophers and apologists import the concept of god they have “proven” into Christian Dogmatics, and think they are the same God, they aren’t!

In regard to Brunner, one thing that you will notice in his definition of Christian Dogmatics is an emphasis on the Church; he offers a very ecclesiocentric approach to things. I fully appreciate his description of Christian Dogmatics, but I want to be more radical and less neo-orthodox than that; I think the reality that ought to ‘control’ Christian Dogmatics is not the church, but Jesus Christ as the rule. Barth and Brunner have a famous disagreement where Barth gives Brunner a loud Nein when it comes to the possibility of natural theology. Brunner affirms a qualified understanding of natural theology, while as we know Barth famously rejects it. I think we are already getting a bit of a whiff of this difference even early on in Brunner; his emphasis on the church, I think, is a corollary of his commitment to a qualified notion of a natural theology.

[1] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 3.

[2] T. F. Torrance, ed. Robert T. Walker, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, Glossary.

No God Behind the Back of Jesus: God is Love not an UnMoved Mover

I don’t know about you, but as a North American evangelical, growing up, I was taught and given the impression, theologically, that God is somewhat performance driven; i.e. that he is concerned with me keeping his law in order for me to maintain fellowship with him (a quid pro quo type of relationship). Don’t get me wrong, it was never quite this explicit, in fact just the opposite might have been what was on the surface; i.e. that ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.’ But underneath the pietism that the Sunday school song captures remained a God who was shaped goodshepherdby his relation to me and the world by us (humanity) keeping a rigid performance shaped spirituality. Even if I was told that God was love, and even if those telling me that he is love were genuine, there still, even at a tacit level, remained a detachment or rupture between what they were saying and the theology they, and then I had available to fall back on; in other words there was a fissure between the pietism, and the actual theology behind said pietism. If I am not being cryptic enough what I am referring to is the classically Reformed theology that funded, ostensibly, the piety I lived under as a child and young adult; bearing in mind that my background was just a basic baptistic “biblicist” Free church mode of being.

An antidote to all of this came for me in seminary, particularly through my professor, Ron Frost’s instruction; he introduced me to Trinitarian theology (at that time it was presented to me through Colin Gunton’s work). Since, then, of course, as many of you know, Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth have become my teachers in regard to informing the way I think about God as Triune love and what that means for my development as a Christian person. I thought I would share a lengthy quote from Thomas Torrance that illustrates the type of teaching I’ve been sitting under for the last eleven years. Here Torrance explicates what it means for God to be love:

… Just as we can never go behind God’s saving and revealing acts in Jesus Christ and in the mission of his Spirit, so we can never think or speak of him truly apart from his revealing and saving acts behind the back of Jesus Christ, for there is no other God.

It is of course because God actively loves us, and actually loves us so much that he has given us his only Son to be the Saviour of the world, that he reveals himself to us as the Loving One, and as he whose Love belongs to his innermost Being as God. If he were not Love in his innermost Being, his love toward us in Christ and the Holy Spirit would be ontologically groundless. God is who he is as he who loves us with his very Being, he whose loving is as inexhaustible as his infinite Being for his Love is his Being in ceaseless triune movement and activity. It is precisely as this living, loving, and acting God that he has come to us in Jesus Christ and unites us to himself by his one Spirit, interacting with us in creation and history, and in our human and physical existence in time and space, all in order to be our God and to have us for his people.

It is thus that we understand why Christians believe the God and Father of Jesus Christ to be the one and only God and Saviour of the world. He is not different in himself from what he is in the activity of his saving and redeeming love in the singularity of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the God who is loving and saving us has once for all given his very Self to us in his Son and in his Spirit, and who in giving himself freely and unreservedly to us gives us with him all things. It is in the Cross of Christ that the utterly astonishing nature of the Love that God is has been fully disclosed, for in refusing to spare his own Son whom he delivered up for us all, God has revealed that he loves us more than he loves himself. And so it is in the Cross of Jesus Christ above all that God has both exhibited the very Nature of his Being as Love and has irrevocably committed his Being to relationship with us in unconditional Love. In Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit we know no other God, and believe that there is no other God for us than this God, who freely seeks and creates fellowship with us, utterly undeserving sinners though we are.[1]

There are no decrees, no artificial covenants (of works/redemption/grace), or stipulations in regard to how we can relate to a God like this, or who we are relating to. It is all contingent upon who he is in his triune life, and how that shapes his uncomplicated but ineffable relationship to us through his election and free choice to not be God without us, but with us, Immanuel. This is the God, the One revealed and explicated in Jesus Christ, that the piety I grew up with has been in search of; it is not the God, in my evangelical Calvinist view, who we get through Aristotelian, Thomistic, and scholastic decrees and covenants—the God who hides behind the back of a pretty soft face of Jesus.

It is unfortunate to see a whole new crop of young evangelical theologians drinking deeply from the well of scholasticism Reformed theology, and the God provided for in that schema. It is not the God simply revealed in Jesus Christ, and thought of from there. Instead the God of the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox, the God evangelical theologians are pressing into currently, is a God conceived of through philosophical speculation and appeal to the analogia entis; a God conceived of in abstraction, and then fitted to the God revealed in Christ.

If we cannot simply look at Jesus as the fullest explication and exegesis of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit then I would highly suggest that we not talk too much about any other conception of God. This is a serious matter, which I realize the other “side” would agree to. Unfortunately for some vested reason they can’t seem to accept the fact that the classical theism they have embraced unnecessarily layers a conception of God with the dregs of philosophical projection that muddles the face of God in Jesus Christ to un-recognition. Yes, you might end up with a sense of apophatic transcendence, in regard to the philosophically conceived God, but that sense of transcendence, so conceived, really, ironically, is more of a psychological sense of ‘feeling’ God which is generated by the self, more than a real sense of God’s transcendence as that is given in his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ unmitigated. Torrance speaks of this unmitigated God, I wish the evangelicals would swarm towards his approach to things rather than to what they have been now for these past many years.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 4-5.

I. Open Theism and Cancer. J. Todd Billings and John Sanders

I was going to try and do this in one post, but it will be too long; so I am breaking these postings up into two installments (this one and creationthe next one forthcoming). In this first post I will try to give a brief and summative introduction to the Open Theism of theologian John Sanders, and then in the next installment we will engage with J. Todd Billings’ brief treatment and critique of John Sanders’ Open Theism and how we can or should think about human suffering and God without going to the extreme of positing an Open Theism.

I do not want to trivialize the book I am currently reading; it is a sober, reflective, and Christian theological engagement dealing with, in particular, an incurable cancer (like one that I had, but of a different species, although not genus). The book I am referring to is my friend’s (we have never met personally, but we have corresponded via Facebook and email), J. Todd Billings’ newly released book entitled Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ (Brazos Press, 2015). I start out mentioning the fact that I don’t want to trivialize this important book because often academic debates (like this one can become) reduce to an abstract exercise that has no contact with real life realities, and further I wanted to broach something that Todd touches upon as he is writing about (and even arguing for) the place of ‘lament’ before God in the Christian’s life, especially, in Todd’s case (and mine) when involving an incurable or ‘terminal’ cancer for which there is no real lasting treatment. The issue that Todd touches upon, on one side of a discussion he is developing in regard to God’s providence and the so called problem of evil, is the theological paradigm which has come to be known as Open Theism. So for the rest of this post I will engage with what Billings has written on this, and engage with it in a way that hopefully illustrates the real life impact that academic theology (which often stays abstract in people’s minds) has when it interfaces with life and death in the lives of real life people.

As with any identified and intentional framework of belief or theological trajectory there is a variety of nuance among those who self-identify with said framework; this is the case with what has come to be known as ‘Open Theism.’ But since Todd Billings focuses on one prominent advocate of Open Theism, I will use this advocate’s understanding of what Open Theism is in general; I will quote from him voluminously throughout the beginning stages of this post. This advocate of Open Theism that Billings refers to is John Sanders. Sanders is an able and ardent defender of this position, and so I think we will gain a good and general understanding simply hearing from him on what he thinks constitutes Open Theism. Sanders writes this in regard to his personal explanation of what Open Theism actually entails (and in a general way):

Openness Theology (commonly referred to as Open Theism and Free Will Theism) connects with the spirituality of many Christians throughout the history of the church especially when it comes to prayer. Many Christians feel that our prayers or lack of them can make a difference as to what God does in history. The Openness of God is an attempt to think out more consistently what it means that God enters into personal relationships with humanity. We want to develop an understanding of the triune God and God’s relationship to the world that is Biblically faithful, finds consonance with the tradition, is theologically coherent and which enhances the way we live our Christian lives. On the core tenets of the Christian faith, we agree, but we believe that some aspects of the tradition need reforming, particularly when it comes to what is called “Classical Theism.” We believe that some aspects of this model of God have led Christians to misread certain Scriptures and develop some serious problems in our understanding of God which affect the way we live, pray and answer the problem of evil. (source)

As Sanders understands Open Theism it is a theological trajectory that sees itself within the ambit of historical Christian orthodoxy, but it at the same time wants to critique what it thinks has become a cumbersome understanding of an overly-deterministic God in relation to human agency and contingency in the world. In other words, Open Theists want to make room for what they believe is representative of a world where human beings can make ‘genuine’ human decisions that not only affect themselves and their own personal trajectories, but indeed affect God and his relation to creation. Sanders believes that God chose to create a world like this–where God’s knowledge of future events is not exhaustive, but instead is responsive to our choices–because he believes this ensures a real dynamism in who God is in a God-world relation such that human freedom and the contingencies of this world cannot or should not be attributed to God, per se, but instead to the real contingencies built into the fabric of this world. Sanders writes further:

Third, the only wise God has chosen to exercise general rather than meticulous providence, allowing space for us to operate and for God to be creative and resourceful in working with us. It was solely God’s decision not to control every detail that happens in our lives. Moreover, God has flexible strategies. Though the divine nature does not change, God reacts to contingencies, even adjusting his plans, if necessary, to take into account the decisions of his free creatures. God is endlessly resourceful and wise in working towards the fulfillment of his ultimate goals. Sometimes God alone decides how to accomplish these goals. Usually, however, God elicits human cooperation such that it is both God and humanity who decide what the future shall be. God’s plan is not a detailed script or blueprint, but a broad intention that allows for a variety of options regarding precisely how these goals may be reached. What God and people do in history matters. If the Hebrew midwives had feared Pharaoh rather than God and killed the baby boys, then God would have responded accordingly and a different story would have emerged. What people do and whether they come to trust God makes a difference concerning what God does-God does not fake the story of human history. (source)

Sanders mentions ‘meticulous providence’ (what Sanders would see as the ‘Classical Theist’ position on Divine providence) versus a ‘general providence’ (which would be Sanders’ Open Theist view of God’s providential relation to history, and ‘dynamic’ relation); it is this type of meticulous providence or monocausality that Open Theists deplore with much vehemence. Open Theists, like Sanders, believe that the ostensible ‘classical’ view of providence reduces all of reality to God’s hyper-deterministic supervening over human and natural history such that there remains no space for genuine human story making, and even more negatively, Open Theists believe that this kind of ‘static’ supervening of God over history in deterministic ways ultimately can only lead us to conclude that God is the author of evil and human suffering (along with everything else in the world). We can see how the Open Theist is genuinely trying to, among other loci, engage with the purported philosophical problem of ‘God and evil’ (theodicy).

It is these issues and others (how to avoid the kind of meticulous providence, without falling into an Open Theist ‘solution’) that Todd Billings touches upon in his discussion on cancer, human suffering, and more broadly on God and evil in the world. We will get into Todd’s critique of Open Theism, and John Sanders in the next installment of this little mini-series on Open Theism and cancer.

Until then I hope this brief introduction to Open Theism has served somewhat informative. To get a the full meal deal, and John Sanders full (summative) articulation of what Open Theism entails (it is relatively short), click here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this in regard to the audience of Christian theology:

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

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

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

The end.

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

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

[3] Ibid.

[4] New American Standard Bible, Revelation 3.22.

Knowing God in an Evangelistic Context: “Getting Beyond Barth”

Ha, tricked you! Actually this post is directly dealing with the ‘material Barth,’ he is not anything like the ‘material girl’. The ‘material Barth’ goes beyond the politicking that has unfortunately marginalized Barth for many; the material Barth (and what I mean by this frame) engages directly with what Barth has communicated materially and theologically. So I am asking you, dear reader, to lay aside the caricatures and pretensions you might have with Karl Barth’s theory of revelation, theory of knowledge of God, and consider him more critically in light of your own material theological commitments on this important locus; the locus being: how do we have a genuine knowledge of God?

philosophers

The reason I am so concerned about the issue I am going to highlight here in this post has to do with a very practical issue, an existential issue, even. I was in a unique and almost unbelievable evangelistic situation yesterday as I was being seen by a doctor. In the process of my exam somehow the fact that I was a Christian came up, and the fact that she was a former Christian but not one now (since she was 32), and that she sees Christ as in-credible came up. We had an interesting discussion, in a strange context (really). But what this prompted, once again, in my thinking, is how do we have knowledge of God? Is it something that we, out of our own analytical powers construct by our free choice to do so? And out of these intellectual powers that we purportedly have do we have the capacity to conceive of the categories that God must fit into? This doctor I was being examined by used her ‘powers’ to snuff the Christian God out of her life. But I got the distinct impression that she wasn’t reading the Christian God through the right categories; categories that come from ‘faith’. In other words, it seemed that she was putting herself, her experiences, and her rationalizations prior to meeting with God instead of allowing God to shape and reshape all of her preconceived images of him–and so based upon her machinations about God, through her natural categories about God, she rejected this God.

What makes what she is doing, other than predisposition and asserted posture, different than what natural theologians do? Natural theologians start with analytical categories about God derived from reflection upon nature, and use the grammar created by said reflection and active intellects to conceive of how God is and acts; some of these Natural Theologians sound very very orthodox. In fact, much of what passes as the Orthodox understanding of God is driven by natural theology categories. Am I suggesting that divine impassibility and immutability, for example, are heretical concepts, or Hellenized concepts, to the point that these two examples of what is included in the Orthodox understanding of God should be rejected out of hand? No, not necessarily. What I am suggesting is that if knowledge of God is not slavishly driven by God’s own Self revelation in Jesus Christ, if we go to a general revelation of God in creation, and try to conceive of God prior to conceiving of him in his own Self-conception in Christ, then these categories (like immutability and impassibility) end up morphing God into something that he is not, or at least not in the way these categories (as examples) are deployed in articulating God.

Karl Barth, more succinctly makes what I have been struggling to communicate more clear:

True knowledge of God is not and cannot be attacked; it is without anxiety and without doubt. But only that which is fulfilled under the constraint of God’s Word is such a true knowledge of God. Any escape out of the constraint of the Word of God means crossing over to the false gods and no-gods. And this will show itself by leading inevitably to uncertainty in the knowledge of God, and therefore to doubt. A knowledge of God which is the knowledge of false gods can be attacked, and, indeed, is attacked. Under the constraint of the Word, however, only the question as to the mode of knowledge and of the knowability of God can be put–in the freedom and therefore in the certainty which reigns when the choice is arbitrary. The battle against uncertainty and doubt is not foreign to man even here. But here it will always be a victorious battle. For it goes to the very root of uncertainty and doubt, and it will be simply the one good fight of faith–the fight for a renewal of the confirmation and acknowledgement of our constraint by God’s Word as the point of departure from which uncertainty and doubt become impossible possibilities.[1]

We, of course, here Anselm’s fides quarens intellectum (‘faith seeking understanding’) mantra in Barth, and we also see Anselm’s type of ontological argument funding what Barth is communicating. But beyond these formalities, getting into the material subject, if what Barth is communicating about the ‘Word’s’ power to guide and direct inquiry into who God is was at the forefront of this doctor’s mind, or in the forefront of the natural theologian’s heart, I think the outcome would be much different for both. I think this doctor who was a professing Christian for 32 years of her life may have well not rejected Christ; and I think natural theologians in general would not attempt to rest upon their analytical laurels when type-setting God, and instead would find their address reposing from within God’s own Self-address driven and given life by the Son, by Jesus Christ.

To close, if what Barth communicated above isn’t clear enough, let me share something from Barth’s best English speaking student, Thomas Torrance to the same effect:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[2]

 

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics §II.1 The Doctrine of God (London/New York: T&T Clark A Continuum Imprint, 2009), 5.

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

The Problem of Historicism and Apocalyptic as its Answer

The following is pretty academic, but it is important to grasp this, and how it impacts, for one thing, the current state of Biblical Studies; and for another thing, how political theories (like North America’s and any other) in the modern marxand so called post modern periods function with a kind of materialistic and biased slant toward making its force—the historical progression itself—an insular and closed reality that thinks of the cross of Christ as foolish and weak. Here is what Nathan Kerr has written:

. . . as Pierre Manent has shown, the belief that ‘all is historical’ and ‘history is irreversible’ achieves with modernity for the first time the status of a political authority. Particularly since Hegel, but even as far back as Montesquieu, it has been assumed that genuine political sovereignty — the freedom of Absolute Spirit — must engender itself, and must itself be engendered, by and through the processes of historical and institutional development. True freedom — ‘liberty’ — can be achieved only as the result of these processes. The ‘authority of history’ thus assumes a politically ideological function: history becomes the artifice which produces, and thus protects and encourages, the endurance of that institution which alone guarantees the attainment of freedom: the nation state. ‘History’ has itself come to be recognized as ‘sovereign’. Humanity’s very freedom assumes the sovereignty of the historical process, a sovereignty which itself requires, and includes, nothing from beyond or outside its own immanent circulation.

Given these assumptions, the status of Christian apocalyptic, which stresses that, in a singular historical event, God has acted to inaugurate the reign of God by making real and present an eschatologically perfect love in the middle of history, has — to say the least — been something of a contended issue in modern theological thought. For apocalyptic calls into question the very presuppositions of modern philosophical historicism: it challenges the many explanations of history as an immanental, self-contained sphere of contingent yet analogous happenings, which are nonetheless related in the intrahistorical development towards a single unified telos; its unabashed insistence upon singularity troubles the universalist aspirations of modern religious thought. Where history is seen as a universal nexus of distinct yet analogously related events which are relativized in their absoluteness by way of reference to a shared telos, then to portray Jesus of Nazareth as a unique, unsubstitutable event of the inbreaking of God’s eschatological kingdom within history becomes incomprehensible. It thereby becomes necessary to relativize claims to Christ’s absoluteness by submitting to Jesus of Nazareth to the rigorous canons of modern historical reason and by assessing his significance as it arises from within the rational structures of historical development itself. So it is that we have learned to ‘translate’ apocalyptic into categories comprehensible to the modern mind. We have learned to historicize apocalyptic itself, to circumscribe it within the thought-world of a distant day, to demythologize and then to reconceptualize it as a way of fitting it into our own historical, intellectual, and political categories. [Nathan Kerr, Christ, History and Apocaclyptic, 3-4.]

This is rather profound, even in its generalized expression. I wonder, if this is true; I wonder if our thinking does not develop in a vacuum; if the above reality about the modern understanding of history doesn’t then impinge upon the way that we reconstruct biblical history and apply it towards our interpretation of the text of Scripture? Maybe we uncritically just accept ‘history’, even biblical history, and we do so in the mode just described by Kerr. Maybe this is why it is hard for people to accept something like Thomas Torrance’s approach to theology, which presses on the idea that God’s Self-revelation in Christ is a novum, not circumscribable by the contingent forces of history. This from Torrance:

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 emperically 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, ed. Robert T. Walker, “Incarnation,” 1]

Anyway, just something to ponder.

The Problem of God and Evil answered in Dramatic-Narrative Form and in the Wisdom of the Cross

One question that never seems to go away, even if we would prefer that it did; is the so called problem of evil and God. The Scottish philosopher par excellence, David Hume is famous for rhetorically musing:

“Is He willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

crucifiedMy usual response to this kind of Humian skepticism, when I encounter it usually in evangelistic situations, is that they are starting in the wrong place; more pointedly, that they are starting in the wrong story, and thus ultimately with the wrong conception and categories for thinking about who God is, and how this God acts, and how he has concretely acted for us in and through Jesus Christ. And not only as a past reality, but in a perfect tense, in an ongoing reality that flows from the particular event and act of God in Jesus Christ for us at the cross; which inaugurated and presupposed a whole bunch of things about God’s eschatological life breaking in on us then and now, and into the future. Basically all I want to highlight with this post is a quote from Michael Horton, he captures this kind of shifting-the-story approach when engaging with this purported problem of God and evil:

[O]ur question, therefore, could be transposed in the following manner: If God is a player at all in this drama, much less the playwright, why doesn’t he reduce the problems the characters encounter? In the “divine drama” model, the problem of evil needs to be reconfigured. Without determining the possible positions in advance, the root metaphor nevertheless resists metaphysical speculation. Here, the question is, given the facts of this play. It is a drama with its own plot: creation in the divine image, forfeiting the consummation by rebellion, a promised Messiah and a typological kingdom of God, the advent of the second Adam to rescue fallen image-bearers, and his return “at the end of the age” in order to consummate the forfeited kingdom forever. Its central actor is an unsubstitutable character, as Hans Frei would say. And its answer to evil is practical (acted out) rather than theoretical. No other story could be substantiated to make basically the same point. [Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama, 92.]

Obviously, this kind of narrative-shifting approach to dealing with this philosophical and ethical dilemma of God and evil, is situated in a kind of presuppositionalist mode; which in some ways needs to be corrected a bit. But that notwithstanding, the general principle of this approach is laudable, precisely because it discerns the underlying problem at the center of conceiving of God and the problem of evil. Contrary to Hume’s approach—one that starts in a story wherein humanity’s autonomous reason and rationality reigns supreme—the theo-dramatic approach highlighted by Horton presupposes one crucial thing; that the story is not one of our making, but God who is Lord over creation (not able then to be collapsed into His creation as hyperimmenant approaches do), and this story (creation, in general/salvation-history, in particular) is His story; and His story has cruciform shape come hidden and at the same time revealed in the sullen vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ for us.

So far,  from evil being in competition with a Holy God; what the right story does for the interested reader, is that it reorients the starting questions to those that God Himself has provided in His-tory; and the antecedent reality to this-story is really His kind of life that He has always already shared with His dearly beloved Son bonded in the communing love of the Holy Spirit. An inner life that is shaped by the kind of cross-shapedness that is fitting and fitted for what is finally revealed as the ultimate fulcrum for which creation was originally made; that is to participate in this kind of cruciform life in union with Christ for all eternity. This is the wisdom of God, logos tou staurou, the cross of Christ, the wisdom of the cross.

One consequence of holding to this ‘right story’ is that we come to understand that through God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ, and the story that is funded by that (our lives in relation to His), is that creation/nature has not ever impinged upon God’s character. Our sin did not determine how God has decided to determine Himself for us. What this story underscores is that God has always already, in His wise life, been in the shape that could answer and engage with whatever proclivities His creation might conjure up under its own contingent independence—say starting in the Garden of Eden. Because God is love (i.e. in free Self-given mode), and because He is grace (which is what creation is under-girded by), anything that occurs in this sphere (including evil and its adjunct, sin) has no independent ontology of its own; in other words, sin and evil are always realities that are within the scope of the answer provided by God’s life. Not as if sin and evil determine God’s life, nor in the sense that God determines what evil and sin are; but in the sense that God’s life in its singular core, in its Triune relation, has the overwhelming capacity to answer such things in a way that is fitting to His life of humility and exaltation all in one moment of gracious time.

Jesus, the ‘Criterion of Truth’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really, Nash? Ronald Nash’s Attempt to Critique Torrance, Barth and the Whole Crew: My Brief Response

It is always nice when an Evangelical (Reformed) philosopher of religion takes note of Christian Dogmaticians outside of their normal sphere of comfortability, but sometimes this is a dangerous path to travel. Such is the path philosophythat Ronald Nash has chosen to trek.

I was sent some copies of pages (Pdf file) from Ronald Nash’s book The Word of God and the Mind of Man  from a reader of my blog, an MDiv student (just finishing up) at Fuller Seminary—this reader is about to become (Lord willing!) a pastor in a Presbyterian church in the States. Anyway, he has been turned on to Torrance as a result of some exposure that he has received while attending Fuller (which is no surprise). Apparently he was reading this book by Nash (or became aware of Nash’s critique [of Barth, Torrance, and others like minded]), and came across the points of critique that the rest of this post will endeavor to engage. I am not really intending on mounting a defense, but more of a short (bloggy) exercise in providing context that will contravene and contradict Nash’s reading of Torrance in particular. In the following, as we read along with Nash, I hope you will notice how shallow of an attempt Nash’s is to provide critical depth in engaging Torrance’s perspective on reality, theology, etc. Here is what Nash writes (I will offer quote in full, in order to provide the necessary context):

[…] Can a similar distrust for or contempt for logic and reason be found in the writings of Christian theologians [Nash has just finished reviewing a theologian or philosopher with the last name of Stace, who I am unfamiliar with; but Nash seems to think that Torrance, Barth and others are engaging in the same style of mystical aberrant and irrationalist kind of theologizing as Stace, it is just that Nash thinks Torrance is more cloaked in his mode]?  One thing that hinders a simple answer to this question is that few writers are as daring and as explicit as Stace. Discussions about the proper place of reason in religion are frequently plagued by inattention to tow quite different senses the word reason can have. Consider the following claims:

(1) The Incarnation is unreasonable; that is, the claim that Jesus Christ is God in incredible. I simply cannot believe it.

(2) The Incarnation is unreasonable; that is, the doctrine of the Incarnation violates the Law of noncontradiction.

In the second case, a particular Christian belief allegedly violates a principle or law of logic. Anything that is unreasonable or irrational in sense (2) is such in an objective and universal way. But in the first case, a particular Christian belief is called unreasonable simply because some person cannot understand it or believe it. Unreasonableness in sense (1) is person-relative. It should be obvious that all sorts of beliefs that some people cannot accept and thus find irrational are readily acceptable and rational to others.

When religious thinkers [ha, not Christian, eh, Nash?] like Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and Emil Brunner proclaimed the irrationality of certain Christian beliefs, I suspect that what they really meant to say was that something about Christianity was so shocking and so offensive to the “reason” of many unbelievers that they (the unbelievers) found it irrational. Since the New Testament itself suggest this position, and since it accords with what any observer can detect in the reactions of people to many Christian claims, the view itself is quite unexceptional.

Unfortunately, the extreme rhetoric of some Christian writers suggests that they also mean to say that Christianity is unreasonable in the second sense, that it actually involves violations of the law of non-contradiction. The writings of the Scottish disciple of Karl Barth [which by the way, Torrance was not an uncritical disciple of Barth, see Alister McGrath’s T. F. Torrance, An Intellectual Biography], Thomas Torrance, are a case in point. Torrance certainly appears to claim that there is a difference between God’s logic and human logic [that’s weird!, God forbit it!, you mean I don’t have anything in myself to stand on that provides rational certitude?], and, further, that the forms of “human logic” cannot be extended to a transcendent God. Torrance seems to believe that human “ideas and conceptions and analogies and words are too limited and narrow and poor for knowledge of God.” His suspicions about purely “human” logic are evident in such statements as: “Real theological thinking” should be freed from “imprisonment in timeless logical connections.” Knowledge of eternal truth, he suggests, is hindered by insisting on “fixed categories of thought.” What Torrance seems to give us is a statement that human knowledge about God is impossible and that human forms of reasoning are completely incapable of understanding truth and reason as it exists in the mind of God. [brackets throughout are mine] [Ronald N. Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man, 93-4.]

Grr … where do I start? Let me start with Torrance himself; here is a kind of summarizing quote of Torrance’s style of theologizing, and something that directly illustrates the kind of thing that Nash is seeking to critique (in a passive aggressive way, you’ll notice his frequent usage of “it seems” throughout this quote from him, but then he later offers the aggressive side of this in his critique of Torrance as he apparently has moved beyond his perception of “it seems” into “it is” or “this is how it is” and “this is why Torrance and others like him are wrong”). Anyway, here is Thomas Torrance:

[O]ur 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 “Incarnation: The Person And Life Of Christ,” 1.]

In other words, for Torrance, there is no analogy in nature for the Incarnation; I am not aware of any analogies that ontologically correlate to the Incarnation, apparently Nash, though thinks that the Incarnation represents something ordinary and mundane; such that any average sentient person could rationally conceive of such—simply by reflecting on the proclivities of nature, abstracting said proclivities and then using this as the Foundation[alism] upon which we as humans know God through, and by which we justify His existence as God. Torrance, if Nash would have taken the time to actually read or attempt to faithfully understand him, would have understood what causes Torrance to write such as he does in the quote that I just provided from TF. Torrance inverts Nash’s paradigm, and sees our order of knowledge contingent upon an antecedent (or ‘outside of us’) order of ontology. In other words, Torrance believes in what he calls an epistemological inversion (which if Nash really read Torrance’s ‘Theological Science’ he would know) wherein for knowledge of God to be truly determinative of a genuine knowledge of God, that this knowledge is Revealed not philosophically discovered. And so, we can only come to know God under the constraints and categories that are imposed upon us by the nature of the reality with whom we encounter, God in Christ.

There is much more that I need to say about this. And it gets even more philosophical, but of the kind that Nash is not comfortable(it has already been made into a demon by him, in need of exorcism); there is the reality of Continental Philosophy at play in much of what Torrance and Barth are dealing with. But I think I will save that discussion for another day, and another post. Suffice it to say, Nash, and anyone really serious about critiquing Barth, Torrance & co. ought to read the more recently released book (2011)  Karl Barth And American Evangelicalism edited by Bruce L. McCormack & Clifford B. Anderson. Obviously this book post-dates Nash’s book, but in a revision, this could be helpful for Nash and his students. McCormack’s and Anderson’s edited book (which I am still reading) provides excellent background and coverage of the issues that Nash is superficially (without understanding) critiquing in the aforementioned quote from him.

I will close by asserting that it is all about Faith, not of the blind variety, but of the variety that is grounded in the vicarious humanity of Christ. The kind that provides vision of the Father, that outwith all we will end up doing is worshipping the creation rather than the Creator.

I almost forgot; I ran a series of posts that dealt with this kind of issue of Torrance and his purported method before. Here is the link to the index of those posts: Click Here