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.


An Apologetic Existence

This post is a response to and reflection on C. Michael Patton’s recent post: A Short Defense Of The Christianity (To Myself). He summarizes the gist of his post in his concluding remarks when he writes this:

… this is my trek when I have my doubts. They stabilize me. I am not saying they are going to stabilize you in the same way. It is these four points that keep my faith anchored. There is a God. He has communicated. Jesus rose from the dead demonstrating the truthfulness of his claims. And Jesus is God incarnate (“in the flesh”) who lived a perfect life, making life with God possible to all who put their trust in him. I could believe more. My faith is not perfect. However, when my faith is challenged, these intellectual benchmarks serve as a powerful  immunity to doubt and disbelief.

I could believe more. I hope each day that I believe more. Only in eternity will I have my faith fully vindicated. Only in eternity will my faith be perfect. But until then, these four points are sufficient for me not only to be a Christian, but to sacrifice every moment in service to Jesus.

My response and reflection to this, is this; ultimately, this modus operandi and mode of being somewhat disheartens me. To be clear, like Patton, for years upon years I struggled with deep existential doubt; the kind that can make dark nights of the soul more like black periods of existence. Nevertheless, it was (and sometimes is) this kind of doubt that pushed me to read and study and think in ways that I would not have; lest doubt. So I don’t want the impression to come across that I am coldly dismissing Patton’s honest reflection on his own spiritual plight; instead, the rest of what I am going to say is meant to push Patton (and myself), and other Evangelicals (especially) to move on to an existence and Christian spirituality that is itself, Christian.

To be Christian—to think Christianly—moves beyond Apologetics101. And yet for many, if not all, evangelical Christians, apologetics of a kind that serves to provide a rational defense and basis for one’s faith continues to be the raison d’être (reason for existence) and mode through which people like Patton find their continued coherence for life and purpose. In other words, everything is riding on Patton’s capacity to defend his faith to himself; if for some reason he no longer is able to sustain a virulent labyrinth of responses to the unbelieving self, it seems his life and faith are in jeopardy of at least becoming a simple Theist.

Ultimately, my problem with this is that the anthropology that is funding Patton’s ongoing trial of existence is grounded in an intellectualist one; an anthropology that sees humanities’ mind/intellect/rationality as the defining feature of what it means to be human. This kind of existence and anthropology takes seriously Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), and majors on the premise that in order for my existence to be meaningful I must be in a constant state of flux and thought; continuously ensuring the purpose of my own existence. Ultimately, Patton’s mode is anthropocentric; because it disjoints humanity from humanities’ ground of real existence in the humanity of Jesus Christ ‘for us’. Patton has to somehow conceive of a way, that is abstracted from Christ, to once again join himself with Christ. Patton’s method for doing this is not rooted in what has already taken place in the hypostatic union of God and man in the person of Christ; instead, Patton is, as a pilgrim, seeking a route that will enable him to join his humanity with the humanity of Christ. But where is the Spirit in Patton’s account? Patton is in need of a robust Christological theological anthropology.

Dispensational ‘Pre-Tribulationism’: An “American Theology”

A caveat: The following post is not intended to slam or deface Evangelical Christians who are ‘Classic’ or ‘Progressive’ Dispensational, Premillennial; and as the focal point of this post, Pre-Tribulational. Instead, this post is intended to throw out somewhat suggestive reasons for why I have come to disavow the Pre-Tribulational view in particular, and the Dispensational framework in general. I attend a church where this kind of teaching is taught; I attended a Bible College and Seminary where (for the most part) this kind of thought was communicated; and I grew up as the son of a Baptist pastor where I was weened on this kind of theology as sure as I suckled on my mother’s milk (TMI 😉 ). Thus I am no foreigner to the sub-culture and theological and exegetical assumptions that go into developing and cultivating this kind of thinking; I, in fact, up and until probably the last 6 years was as ardent of a defender of this kind of theological tap that you might ever hope to cross-paths with. I provide all of this back-story in order to let you know, the reader, that my intention is not to be one of those kind of guys who once was this, and now that I am no longer this (and instead am that); that my goal is to destroy, belittle, and beat-up my former belief (and thus all those who still hold to it) in order to make my new belief more stable and secure — and also to make my new belief more credible, while making my old belief incredible and part of my immature theological years. This is not my intention with this post; you know, like someone who grew up as a Fundamentalist Christian, who ended up attending university, becoming an atheist professor, now bent on destroying any and all Fundamentalist or Evangelical Christians who might happen upon their cross-hairs . . . you get my point by now, I gather? Good! Let’s proceed.

Today I had a great time of fellowship and discussion with my pastor, and a fellow (and awesome) brother in Christ at our local Star Bucks (where else? we live in the Pac NW). One of the topics of discussion, brief as it may have been (on this particular issue), had to do with my proclamation that I am no longer a “Pre-Tribber” (or Dispensationalist for that matter). All along, as I made this known, I am well aware that both my pastor (and I believe brother in Christ) are both dispensational and pre-trib in orientation. I simply want to expand upon ‘why’ I am no longer pre-trib . . . (for those who don’t know ‘Pre-Tribulational’ has to do with the belief that certain Christians believe that we are facing a 7 year period [Jacob’s Trouble] that will come upon this earth that will involve upheaval and global “tribulation” that the earth has never known before [cf. Mt. 24] — in particular this is tied into the dispensational teaching on Daniel’s 70th Week found in Daniel 9 — this is where the 7 year number comes from. This period is one where God’s Wrath [as ‘The Day of the LORD’] will be focused in particularly on the Jewish nation for their rejection of the Messiah — while this “wrath” is pin-pointed on the nation of Israel, it will have global implications in which the nations of the world will rise up to destroy Israel [and they will get close], ultimately seeking battle with the God of the Bible. Since according to Pre-Tribbers, this period has to do with God’s Wrath being poured out on an unbelieving world [to the Jew first, see this principle in Rom. 2.11 for example], and since Christians have not been appointed to wrath but salvation in Christ [cf. I Thess. 5.9]; the pre-tribber argues that there is no reason for us [as the Church, part of the Church-Age] to be here. It is at this point that God’s focus is turned back onto His original prophetic plan [and that has to do with the nation of Israel, the Church—according to Dispensationalists—is simply a parenthesis in God’s original prophetic plan, which was to save Israel]. And so this, then, serves as another argument for why pre-tribbers believe that we won’t be here—it serves as an alleviation of a pressure valve of sorts—the pre-trib rapture [which says that Jesus will secretly remove His Church from this earth prior to the 7 year Tribulation period] serves as a necessary mechanism which removes the Church [a ‘Mystery Kingdom’ of sorts pace Charles Ryrie] from the scene [as a subsidiary story line in the larger plot line of God’s salvation story—again, according to pre-tribbers, as having to do originally with the nation of Israel] so that God can get back to the business of dealing with Israel—sorry for this aside, but I thought I should include this for someone who might not know what Pre-Tribulationism is about.).

. . . I am no longer pre-trib because I reject the hard and fast distinction between Israel and the Church (as does the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2.11ff). Thus, I no longer need to have a mechanism in place that needs to somehow have the Church out of the picture so that God can supposedly deal with His real aim in salvation history; that is to save the nation of Israel. 2) I am no longer pre-trib because I believe that Paul argues against the idea—in first and second Thessalonians—that there will be a removal of the Church prior to the Lawless one, being revealed (Dispies take the ‘Lawless one’ to be the Anti-Christ); he hadn’t been revealed in the first century, and as I gather he hasn’t as of yet been revealed in our context either. This is a significant point. According to the pre-trib understanding, we will be off the scene prior to the Anti-Christ revealing himself to be someone who ought to be venerated (like God). Yet, according to Paul’s argument, in II Thessalonians (if we take all of his referents to be correlative to how pre-tribbers take them) the man of Lawlessness (or the ‘Anti-Christ’) will be revealed while the Church is present. According to pre-tribbers, the Anti-Christ will not reveal himself in the way that II Thessalonians 2 says, until the middle of the Tribulation period (at the start of the last 3.5 years of ‘Jacob’s Trouble’); this is a fatal blow (in my opinion) to the pre-trib chronology and basic argumentation (and this, granting their supposition that the Church will not experience the ‘Great Tribulation’ since they make this synonymous with ‘God’s/Lamb’s Wrath). 3) I am no longer a pre-tribber because I believe that it represents a privileged understanding of reality; or, that it is an American-exceptionalist theology. What I mean is that the pre-trib position fits well with a society who has been, relatively, pampered in her ‘American’ (Western) experience; it fits well with a society that is escapist and shaped by amusement in orientation. Go and preach pre-trib theology in the Sudan, Indonesia, or any other place in the world where Christians have been suffering ‘Great Tribulation’ on the kind of scale that one would imagine the book of Revelation to be describing. This point is not so much of an argument, but more of a call to pause and think about what ‘Tribulation’ might mean within various contexts throughout the globe—Pre-Tribulationism, in light of this, could only have taken shape in a society that, at all costs, wants to avoid any persecution, suffering, or martyrdom (this all makes sense psychologically). 4) I am no longer pre-trib because I believe the exegesis, especially the exegesis of the pre-tribber’s locus classicus—I Thessalonians 4 and I Corinthians 15—to be artificial and contrived (I could never make sense of this, even as a trained pre-tribber who understood ‘how’ they were ‘trying’ to make this work). 5) I am no longer a pre-tribber because I do not believe that either Jesus or the Apostle Paul or Peter (amongst others) presupposed this kind of theology as part of their theological oeuvre’s. 6) I am no longer pre-trib because I reject the hermeneutics that one must presuppose in order to get all the way to the pre-trib position (through dispensationalism).

I have other reasons, and concerns; but ultimately I believe that the pre-trib position, in particular, is reflective of an American Theology. While I do not believe that chronological arguments are good ones; I do think that the absence of both dispensationalism and thus pre-tribism in church history is a significant point. I could say much more, with more detail; but this post is already approx. 1500 words, and so I will close. This is obviously more of a vent, and off the top, and so take it as such.

Barth’s Critique of the LGH and Schleiermacher, with Some ‘EC’

Friedrich Schleiermacher is known as the Father of Theological Liberalism. Karl Barth grew up in the shadow of, and under the stature of men who drank freely from the fountain waters that Schleiermacher’s theologizing represented. Barth left his ‘Liberal Theology’ studies, for the small country parish in his homeland of Switzerland. He tried to preach and teach the Schleiermacherean theology that he had learned to his “flock,” but in light of World War I and the reality that the ground of Schleiermacher’s theology was actually the source of the War, Man; Barth had a crisis of faith, and reformulated his theological views, primarily by going back to the strange new world of the Bible — starting with Paul’s Romans. His commentary on Romans thrust him back into the realm of academia, once again; this time he would start a tsunami shift for modern theology that is still being felt today (in many ways we are just getting started). One of the lectures that he provided for his students (of the many over the years), an early lecture, was on the theology of his old teacher (mediated through his personal teachers like Hermann), Schleiermacher. Here is what he had to say in criticism of Schleiermacher’s rather ”creative” theological approach:

[T]he first difficulty to be noted obviously arises for Schleiermacher from the fact that linking proclamation to the figure of the Savior unavoidably means linking it to the Bible. It was clear that even Schleiermacher could not self-evidently find his Christ, the Christ of synthesis, in the Bible. He was happy to find John’s Gospel in the Bible, which he found to be congenial to his message. He gave homilies on it for four years from 1823 to 1826, and afterward as well as before he turned again and again to Johannine texts. But no matter how he might interpret John, he could not preach only on this gospel. The whole of the Old Testament lay before him like a rock. The solution that Schleiermacher found here is radical as it possibly could be. In all the years that concern us he never preached on an Old Testament text, and a glance at his lectures on practical theology . . . the printed version of which is from the same period, shows us that this was no accident but by principle and design: “If I take a text from the Old Testament, I place myself and my hearers in a historical situation and give them an alien consciousness and evoke a train of thought that is not related to what I ought to derive from the text if I am to speak as a Christian. . . . We must treat our hearers as Christians and not as people who have still to become such and who have to be led through the torment of the law.” I cannot recall ever having come across a passage in these sermons in which Schleiermacher speaks of Old Testament man and his relation to God except as something abhorrent. It is obvious, however, that even the New Testament does not fit smoothly into the schematism of his teaching. Much in the attitude of Jesus and the apostles and in the wording of the biblical text seems to point in other directions than he would like and to breathe a very different spirit from his. The total impression of the relation of the preacher to his texts is that of violent wrestling in which one hardly knows which to admire most: the incontestable seriousness with which he exerts himself really to let the text speak for itself (in this regard he does not like to leave any term in the text unexplained); the exegetical thoroughness with which he often tests the patience of his readers for many pages with perspicacious historical explanations leading up to what he wishes to convey, or finally the dialectical skill with which he is able to exploit the situation happily created by exegesis in favor of his own lessons and admonitions.) [Karl Barth, The Theology Of Schleiermacher, 15-16]

A lesson here, and one that many actually charge Barth with ironically (i.e. the one that Barth is critiquing Schleiermacher of), is to avoid what Barth calls “perspicacious historical explanations leading up to what he wishes to convey, or finally the dialectical skill with which he is able to exploit the situation happily created by exegesis in favor of his own lessons and admonitions. . . .” This provides a critique (one that Barth and T. F. Torrance would make) of what we (and when I say “we” I mean modern “Evangelicals” alongside “Liberals” “Higher Critics” et al.) call the Literal, Grammatical, Historical (LGH) method of interpretation. This is the approach that engages in historical reconstruction of the text (as well as historical, evidentiary apologetics of the ‘events’ in the text), as the mode for providing the ground from which we can then finally engage in the actual interpretation (exegesis, through “Literal/Grammatical” means) of the reconstructed text.

To bring this back to Evangelical Calvinism, and to piggy-back on Barth’s critique of Schleiermacher, we, instead of following an un-critical application of the LGH (wherein we can mould the wax-nose of Scripture through our historicist man-handling . . . like Scheliermacher); seek to engage the text of Scripture from what T. F. Torrance would call its depth-dimension (Adam Nigh in our forthcoming book has a chapter on this very topic). So that instead of having a reconstructed history (from our fertile minds) as the control and super-structure of the text (or the inner-coherence and logic); the reality (res) of the text, instead, becomes the one that Jesus (in the text) proclaims as its center and depth — Himself! (John 5:39). This is something that has moved me away from a strict LGH hermeneutic, viz. what is voiced in Barth’s critique of Schleiermacher (making the text conform to my inner-feelings projected out upon the text as the history that purportedly supports and shapes it).