A Response to Thomas Reid’s Speculative-man from Karl Barth’s non-Speculative man in Jesus Christ

A friend of mine on Facebook, who is a Thomist, theologian, and recently PhDd in such areas, shared this quote from philosopher, Thomas Reid, on his wall a couple of days ago.

The vulgar are satisfied with knowing the fact, and give themselves no trouble about the cause of it: but a philosopher is impatient to know how this event is produced, to account for it, or assign its cause. The avidity to know the causes of things is the parent of all philosophy true and false. Men of speculation place a great part of their happiness in such knowledge.[1]

There is some gusto to this, but for me, in the end, it misses the mark in regard to what a Christian theologian (or disciple) is about. I think what Reid is getting at is akin to something (as far as anecdotes go) like what Socrates noted, “ὁ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ” (‘the unexamined life is not worth living’). As far as that goes, it’s okay; it’s a call for sentient human beings to live reflective lives that press down into the deeper realities of life. For a philosopher this dictum might be a beautiful life giving way, but it only gets so far; it only provides a horizontal vector towards examining what indeed is called life. And its primary mechanism, as the Reid quote illustrates, is speculation. It lives a life of empirical chutzpah, seeking to discover new things that might help us as humans understand what it means to in fact be human being; the emphasis being on being. It attempts to discursively reach to the stars, and far beyond the stars under the constraints of its own self-asserted and possessed powers, through which an examined life might find meaning; it might even find a Pure Being beyond itself that helps its immanently located human being to begin to find a source for transcendent being, vertical being.

This speculative way has characterized much of the history of Christian ideas and theology in its development; most notably what we find in scholastic theology, of the sort we see typified and indeed maybe even climaxed in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (the Angelic doctor). So on the one hand we have the philosophers, like Socrates and Aristotle, seeking to live the examined life by self-discovery and discursive reasoning about life and its source of meaning; and on the other hand we have Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas et al. attempting to synthesize this kind of philosophical speculative way of examined living with Christian Trinitarian theology.

The better way is to elide such approaches, in my view, and instead ground the work of theology in the work of theology done in and through the theological life of God Self-revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ. This way doesn’t apophatically speculate about God from some sort of via negativa or negation of who God is relative to who we aren’t; as human beings. Revealed theology is, by definition, vertical and horizontal; objective and subjective all at once in the singular personalis of Jesus Christ; the Divine and the human, the vertical and the horizontal all hypostatically united incognito in the God who freely chose to be mistaken as purely man for the sake of the world. Revealed theology does not attempt to discover God by discursive reasoning and reflection, but instead its willing to simply rely on the God who apocalyptically revealed himself in the grist and grim of this world coming to it in the wood of the manger and the cross; the blood of life and death in order to bring eternal life to all who will.

Here is a way (and I’ve shared this quote elsewhere before) that someone like Karl Barth could recognize the relative value of philosophy while at the same time putting it in its place in regard to revealed theology. He writes:

The man in this world knows only of the sighs of the creature and of his own sighs, (8:22–23), he can at least know (1:19–20) insofar as he does not evade the ‘emptiness’ of his existence (8:20), the dialectic of opposition, the relativity, and the homesickness of everything given, intuitable, and objective. Suffering sees to the salutary opening of our eyes, and, directly tied to the given boundaries of suffering, in its essence as the interpretation of this fact stands the philosophy worthy of its name. Thus in its not-knowing of God and his Kingdom, in its knowing the sighs of all created things, we agree with every truly profane, but not with any half-theological, consideration of nature and history. For precisely this not-knowing and this knowing are the blade and the flint from which, insofar as they together in spirit and truth, as the new and third thing, bursts forth the fire of the not-knowing knowing of God and of the knowing not-knowing of the emptiness of our existence, the fire of the love for God because he is God (5:5), while the theological, apparent knowledge of God and the apparent not-knowing of the emptiness of our existence neither meets in spirit and in truth, even less in fire, nor is able to ignite the fire of love for God.[2]

For Barth there is a place for Reid’s type of philosophy, but it is only horizontal; it is inimically profane. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but left to itself it doesn’t go far enough; and more importantly shouldn’t be seen as a preamble to Christian theological reflection—which is non-speculative in regard to the God it encounters in Jesus Christ. All the frailties and contingencies that human reason is able to discover on its own, through the brokenness of this polluted world and reason, can really only stay there; ‘under the sun.’ The examined life in this sense only leads to despair and fear. What humanity really needs is an “examined life” that is life itself; the Triune life given freely to all humanity in the graciously elected human of Godself in Jesus Christ. There is no need to speculate in this relationship, because, indeed, it is a relationship grounded in trust and eternal and indestructible self-giving love.


[1] Thomas Reid, source unknown. By the way, ironically, Reid is known for his prominent role in Scottish Common Sense Realism, so it’s a bit of a riff, contextually, for me to use him as a springboard into discussing ‘being philosophers’; but what is a shared proclivity, one way or the other, is their intellectualist and discursive approach to epistemology and ontology. For me, more personally, it’s interesting to think about the role that Reid’s theology of reality has had upon my own evangelical background and upbringing. As the post develops you will see that I have expanded beyond Reid’s own approach, and tied him into a stream of classical philosophers who indeed get into ‘being’ and more metaphysically based philosophical reflection. Nonetheless, I see them all as either intellectualist or rationalist based in approach. I see them all, even Reid, even if he objects and his whole life and work militates against this, as grounding human reflection in the “I” rather than the “Thou.”

[2] Karl Barth cited in Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 82-4.


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.

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.

What do Victoria Osteen and Aristotle have in common?: Eudaimonia

“I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God—I mean, that’s one way to look at it—we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy ….”[1]

aristotleThis is the quote, and gist of what Joel Osteen’s wife, Victoria Osteen has come under scrutiny for, at large, by many within the Christian community, especially from the evangelical Christian community (and especially via social media). Here is a transcript of what she said more fully, done by my friend, Steven Nemes:

When we obey God, we’re not doing it for God. I mean, that’s one way to look at it. We’re doing it for ourselves. Because God takes pleasure when we’re happy; that’s the thing that gets him the greatest joy this morning. So I want you to know this morning: just do good for your own self, do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship him, you’re not doing it for God really; you’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.[2]

It is no secret that for the Osteen’s ‘happiness’ and living “Your Best Life Now” (the title of one of Joel’s more bestselling books) is of a premium; in fact I would like to suggest, especially in light of Victoria’s recent comments that happiness, personal happiness and self actualization as a person (even if she claims that this is what God wants for us, and what makes him happy) represents her personal philosophy of life.

In light of this, if the pursuit of happiness (a very American virtue isn’t it?) can be someone’s philosophy of life, then I would like to further suggest that this theory of life flows from a certain philosophy of what the highest good is for a human being; apparently it is, for Victoria Osteen, to be self-fulfilled (which comes for the Osteen’s through wealth, health, and a variety of other ‘goods’). In light of all this, I would like to further suggest that what Victoria Osteen is proposing as the philosophy of life fits very well, no, not with Christianity, but with classical philosopher, Aristotle’s idea of life which he too believed was ‘happiness,’ or in the Greek eudaimonia. Read what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to communicate about Aristotle’s philosophy of life as eudaimonia (at length):

Aristotle thinks everyone will agree that the terms “eudaimonia” (“happiness”) and “eu zên” (“living well”) designate such an end. The Greek term “eudaimon” is composed of two parts: “eu” means “well” and “daimon” means “divinity” or “spirit.” To be eudaimon is therefore to be living in a way that is well-favored by a god. But Aristotle never calls attention to this etymology in his ethical writings, and it seems to have little influence on his thinking. He regards “eudaimon” as a mere substitute for eu zên (“living well”). These terms play an evaluative role, and are not simply descriptions of someone’s state of mind.

No one tries to live well for the sake of some further goal; rather, being eudaimon is the highest end, and all subordinate goals—health, wealth, and other such resources—are sought because they promote well-being, not because they are what well-being consists in. But unless we can determine which good or goods happiness consists in, it is of little use to acknowledge that it is the highest end. To resolve this issue, Aristotle asks what the ergon (“function,” “task,” “work”) of a human being is, and argues that it consists in activity of the rational part of the soul in accordance with virtue (1097b22–1098a20). One important component of this argument is expressed in terms of distinctions he makes in his psychological and biological works. The soul is analyzed into a connected series of capacities: the nutritive soul is responsible for growth and reproduction, the locomotive soul for motion, the perceptive soul for perception, and so on. The biological fact Aristotle makes use of is that human beings are the only species that has not only these lower capacities but a rational soul as well. The good of a human being must have something to do with being human; and what sets humanity off from other species, giving us the potential to live a better life, is our capacity to guide ourselves by using reason. If we use reason well, we live well as human beings; or, to be more precise, using reason well over the course of a full life is what happiness consists in. Doing anything well requires virtue or excellence, and therefore living well consists in activities caused by the rational soul in accordance with virtue or excellence.

Aristotle’s conclusion about the nature of happiness is in a sense uniquely his own. No other writer or thinker had said precisely what he says about what it is to live well. But at the same time his view is not too distant from a common idea. As he himself points out, one traditional conception of happiness identifies it with virtue (1098b30–1). Aristotle’s theory should be construed as a refinement of this position. He says, not that happiness is virtue, but that it is virtuous activity. Living well consists in doing something, not just being in a certain state or condition. It consists in those lifelong activities that actualize the virtues of the rational part of the soul.

At the same time, Aristotle makes it clear that in order to be happy one must possess others goods as well—such goods as friends, wealth, and power. And one’s happiness is endangered if one is severely lacking in certain advantages—if, for example, one is extremely ugly, or has lost children or good friends through death (1099a31-b6). But why so? If one’s ultimate end should simply be virtuous activity, then why should it make any difference to one’s happiness whether one has or lacks these other types of good? Aristotle’s reply is that one’s virtuous activity will be to some extent diminished or defective, if one lacks an adequate supply of other goods (1153b17–19). Someone who is friendless, childless, powerless, weak, and ugly will simply not be able to find many opportunities for virtuous activity over a long period of time, and what little he can accomplish will not be of great merit. To some extent, then, living well requires good fortune; happenstance can rob even the most excellent human beings of happiness. Nonetheless, Aristotle insists, the highest good, virtuous activity, is not something that comes to us by chance. Although we must be fortunate enough to have parents and fellow citizens who help us become virtuous, we ourselves share much of the responsibility for acquiring and exercising the virtues.[3]

For Aristotle, if the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy can be trusted as a trustworthy resource, eudaimonia or happiness was the highest good, of which other subordinate goods helped to provide (like health, wealth, friends, etc.) the grounds for living in this highest virtue of what it truly means to live.

Based upon this brief comparison, I would submit that what Victoria Osteen is offering as the end and highest good of life fits better with Aristotle’s philosophy of life of eudaimonia versus the Christian end and highest good of life which is to participate in the cruciform (i.e. cross-shaped) life of God.


[1] Taken from this online article, http://christiannews.net/2014/08/28/do-good-for-your-own-self-osteen-says-obedience-worship-not-for-god-video/ , accessed 09-01-2014.

[2] Taken from this blog post by Steven Nemes,  http://thecrucifiedgod.blogspot.com/2014/09/victoria-olsteen-and-heresy-hunters.html , accessed 09-01-2014.

[3] Taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/ , accessed 09-01-2014.

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

We Need More Christian Dogmatics and Less Apologetics

I am just rereading John Webster’s chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology on ‘Theologies of Retrieval’. As he begins his essay he sketches how theologian Eberhard Jüngel engages this mode of theological endeavor in his book God As the Mystery of the World. In his sketching, Webster highlights Jüngel’s primary thesis overriding his book, and that is […] “The book is best read as a set of analytical soundings in the modern history of the relation between theology and philosophy, seeking to show how the rise of atheistic philosophy is parasitic upon decay in Christian thought about God….” (Webster, p. 586) This is a very intriguing point, and one that Christian Fundamentalism, which has now come of age in American Evangelicalism would do well to take heed to. I say this because in many quarters of Evangelicalism—and I say in the quarters that make up the academic side of Evangelicalism, mostly found in seminaries, and then parachurch ministries—there is still to be found the ‘fighting Fundy’ spirit. That is, Evangelicals are consumed with matching wits with their atheist and “Liberal” counterparts by engaging the atheist (or whomever) on their own terms; nary realizing that maybe the terms set by the atheist panoply might be a result of Christians (Evangelicals or otherwise) not taking care of proper business in their own house. Namely, that Christians, in their abandonment of the doing of actual Christian Dogmatics (Theology) have in this vacuum created space for antagonists to the Christian faith to bottom feed off of the waste produced or not-produced by Christian thought today. Webster writes further of Jüngel’s thesis:


[W]hat is most noteworthy in Jüngel’s diagnosis is its focus on the mismatch between the authentic content of Christian faith and the conceptual version of itself by which it sought to retain its authority in the face of modern critiques. ‘Atheism’ is as much a child of theology’s theistic self-alienation as of philosophical unbelief. Jüngel’s presentation of this authentic content is undoubtedly dogmatically compressed, appealing to only a narrow selection of doctrinal material; and his historical narrative can lack complexity and nuance. The book’s appeal is, indeed, as much kerygmatic as historical. What gives strength to his account is his insistence that the crisis of Christian thought and speech about God ‘is to be worked through in terms of the particular character, the proprium of the Christian faith’ (Jüngel 1983:229). What is required is not a more effective apologetic strategy but a better dogmatics. [emboldening mine] [John Webster, The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, Chapter 32 Theologies of Retrieval, 587.]

Maybe if Christians, and Evangelicals in particular, got back to engaging with actual positively shaped Christian Dogmatics (instead of following the ‘negative way’), and abandoned the current trend of continuing to engage with a god largely shaped by classical theism (still!); then maybe atheists and the rest of the unbelieving crowd would lose the traction they currently have in the culture today. It is much easier for an atheist to argue with a conception of god that is humanistically constructed based on philosophical reflection and abstraction of the universe versus dealing with a God, who by definition, is shaped by His own internal Self-presentation and revelation through Jesus Christ. If ‘apologists’ were to become theologians, instead of philosophers, atheism might fade away; and if not fade away, it would at least have to reconsider how to assail the conception of the Christian God who resists philosophical manipulation, and instead contradicts it (by the wisdom of the cross!). We need more Christian Dogmaticians, and less Christian philosophers of religion.

‘Running To and Fro’, Gun Control and the Vanity of it All

I am amazed by the rapidity of this world. The Apocalyptic prophet, Daniel, wrote once:

4. But you, Daniel, roll up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge. ~Daniel 12:4 (NIV)

obamagunIt is easy to be culture conditioned, and not realize how fast things are moving; since if we don’t move with it we won’t continue to have our being, it seems. But on reflection what Daniel wrote (had revealed to him) a couple millenia/+ ago seems to be ever increasingly true. One of the reasons I am reflecting like this is because I just came across an open source movement—in our gun control frenzy era—called Defense Distributed, they are intending on producing what they are calling a Wiki Weapon; a weapon that can be fully printed from your computer using a 3-d printer and plastic resin. The founder of this move is Cody R. Wilson, a University of Texas Law School in Austin Law student; and he seems to be motivated more by philosophical (and even chastened or principled anarchist) principles than he is by the actual production of the weapon. Indeed, his desire seems to be one that is shaped more by subterfuge than sales of weapons; his goal is to, apparently, tell the man that he has already lost. His aim appears to be one that says “so what” governments of the world; you can regulate and ban guns, but you can’t ban the ideas that produces guns. And ultimately, given the free access to the internet, Wilson seems to think that governments can’t ban the actual production of physical weapons/guns either. But I wonder what Wilson thinks about governments banning or regulating the internet; I wonder if he has pondered what would happen if these governments so clamped down that the free dissemination of information on the internet ceases.

Anyway, I just thought this was an interesting example of how fast information is exploding. There is a sense of empowerment that comes with knowledge and information; indeed, for Wilson and his cohort, it appears, this kind of information, philosophically, serves as horizontal salvation from institutionalized humanity. It is a statement of individual liberty, and even autonomy, that if collectively manipulated—by free autonomous individuals (like Wilson & co.)—can say ‘F*%$’ you to the man (and Wilson does in some of his interviews and at his blog). But the reality ultimately and inevitably is, is that knowledge untethered from reality is always already impotent to achieve the kind of principled anarchy and thus liberation that Wilson and cohort, and clans like theirs hope to actualize for the indomitable human spirit. This hope, this idea that is driving Defense Distributed is noble, but in the end its doomed. Not because it is not noble, but because it starts with the wrong supposition. It supposes that man and woman are essentially ‘free’. But if the cross of Jesus Christ has anything to say about that (and it does!), then what the cross says is that we are totally un-free and in bondage to our own wants (which is our perception of freedom … i.e. freedom from the man). Cody Wilson’s plans are full of idealism and horizontal hope, but they are ultimately crushed on the rocky shoreline of ultimate reality; the reality that there is no horizontal hope without vertical in-breaking and intervention, the kind that is extra nos (outside of us) and pro nobis (for us). The kind of hope and ideal that Cody is looking for, that we all are can only be found and actualised in and through Jesus Christ, Immanuel. 

This has been a rather strange rant, but it has been a strange day; so this post is fitting ;-).  C’est la vie