I’m More Thankful for Jesus Than Theology: How Salvation Predisposed Me Towards a Certain Type of Theology

I am sincerely grateful for Christian theology; technical academic theology, historical theology, pastoral theology, theological interpretation, and all manner of theological endeavor. But theology surely did not save my life; Jesus Christ did. In this post I will briefly reflect upon why I am thankful for theology, but not ultimately thankful.

It was about two in the morning, I was three years old, and I woke up. I felt the call to come to Jesus Christ as my personal Savior and Lord. I went and woke my parents up and told them that I wanted to come to Christ. They reviewed a Gospel tract with me and made sure I understood what I was doing; by God’s grace I did. I came to Christ that early morning in Phoenix, AZ on the couch in our living room. That same person who awakened me from my childish slumber is the same person, the same voice I have known ever since. He has walked with me through some of the hardest things I could imagine; depression and anxiety, terminal cancer (that he made sure didn’t become terminal), my daughter having a freak accident at school and almost dying from a traumatic head injury, being underemployed and unemployed for years—and even more personal things that I won’t share. But that voice (in my heart) that woke me up that early morning has always been with me; He has never left or forsaken me, and I don’t ever expect Him to.

As I grew in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ over the years I always sensed God’s presence, that voice, to be ever near. As the Lord brought me close to His side later through doubting His existence, and the subsequent years of depression and anxiety associated with that, I began to seek the deeper things of God; this led me to the formal study of Christian theology. I was confronted with a variety of ways to think theology, but mostly in my evangelical context it was your typical sort of evangelical theologies. After awhile none of that was very satisfying to me; it didn’t really correlate with the voice and the presence of God that I had come to know from the first day that I encountered Him as a young child. So I was still searching for something deeper; for a theology that coalesced better with the person of God I had already known intimately for many years. I continued in my studies and was confronted with historical theology; this was the first time I began to see a way to think about God in terms that felt more resonant with my experience of God. I began to engage mostly with Martin Luther’s, John Calvin’s, and Richard Sibbes’ theologies. There was an affectionate depth, a confessional reality that fit better with my prior experience with the living voice of God. As I pushed further through the years I came across Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth; here I had found a way of theology that fit best with my experience of the living voice of Christ in years prior.

This might help explain my enthrallment with Barth’s and Torrance’s theology. They both offered a theology that emphasized the existential nature of modern theology without sacrificing the orthodox theology that had been developing for centuries in the church catholic. They offered the sort of minimalist theology with a maximalist emphasis upon encounter with the living voice of God in Jesus Christ that fit with my own development as a Christian from the very beginning of my life. They offered a theological trajectory that focused on the person I encountered in my bedroom when I was three years old, and allowed that reality to shape the sort of Trinitarian theology they developed therefrom.

I have certainly learned from other sorts of theologies over the years (and continue to), but the theology that will always captivate me the most will be of the type that is less school focused and more relational focused; a theology that is okay with being de-husked by the personal reality of the living God who continuously in-breaks over and again in His still small voice. I know that voice; I trust that voice; I yearn for that voice. I am thankful for theology, but I am more thankful for the voice that stands behind (and in) the theology and calls me to His side in His mercies that are new every morning.

Advertisements

Theology of Correlation and Analogy of Being: An Evangelical Calvinist Repudiate

Christian theology is as prismatic as the rainbow; there are a variety of ways in based upon multitudinous theories of best methodologies. As an Evangelical Calvinist I have adopted a certain mode for theological endeavor and reflection; a mode that claims to be based, in principal, upon Revelation rather than philosophical discovery and correlation. Bruce McCormack in his book Orthodox and Modern surveys Hans Frei’s five typologies for what he considers to be encompassing of the ways a person can potentially do theology. In the following I want to quote, at length, the way McCormack sketches Frei’s type on theology of correlation. As you will find out, as I follow with my own commentary, I see this type of theologizing as problematic since its basis, in principle, is not to start with Revelation, but instead with some sort of transcendent universally available sense of the Divine (so philosophy in a classical sense).

In the following McCormack, as you will see, engages with Frei as Frei engages with David Tracy’s theology of correlation.

Before turning to the remaining three types, it is worth pointing out the extent to which extremes meet in this typology. However true it may be that type 1 holds optimistically to the existence of theoretical foundations for all knowledge claims while type 5 adamantly denies such a possibility on principle, both wind up with a nonreferential, wholly performative understanding of the meaningfulness of theological language. And thus Frei’s spectrum becomes, as he himself suspected, “like a snake curled in on itself.” To clarify why this should be so, I would suggest that it has everything to do with an insistence on the nonreferential character of theological language. It is only where theological language is understood to be referential, where (in other words) the “reality” described by Christian theologians and philosophers is thought to overlap, that the problem of the relation of external description to internal description can arise at all. As we shall see, it is the latter question and the range of answers given to it which will differentiate types 2, 3, and 4.

The early David Tracy of Blessed Rage for Order is the figure who gives definition to Frei’s second type. For Tracy, like Kaufman, there are “stable, general, and fields-encompassing criteria for meaning (internal conceptual coherence), meaningfulness (language that discloses actual experience), and truth (transcendental or metaphysical explication of the condition of possibility of common human experience).” So type 2 is like type 1 to the extent that both are strictly foundationalist. But a difference arises—on the formal level, at any rate—at the point at which Tracy wants to take Christianity seriously as a concrete religion. Theology does not involve simply the adjustment of theological language to general criteria; Tracy believes that it also entails an “explication of the Christian religion or the Christian ‘fact,’ which has a real specificity of its own and in its integrity has to be correlated to common human experience, the other source of theological reflection, for their mutual compatibility.”

In practice, however, the desire to honor the integrity of the historical givenness of Christian faith (and its object, Jesus of Nazareth) is undermined by Tracy’s procedure. His goal is to “correlate” (i.e., to show the thorough compatibility of) the religious symbols which arise from two sources: “common human experience,” on the one hand, and classical Christian texts (Scripture and tradition), on the other. The first group of symbols he seeks to articulate (or “thematize”) through a phenomenological analysis of an allegedly religious dimension of secular experience. The focus here is, above all, the “basic confidence” which Tracy believes to be an ineradicable feature of all human existence (the confidence that life is worth living). For Tracy, the survival of basic confidence in the midst of certain “limit situations” (i.e., the wholly negative experiences of guilt, anxiety, etc.) demonstrates its ineradicability and raises the question of its ground. He concludes that “basic confidence” has implied within it the cognitive claim that “God” is the ground of that confidence; that is, the only adequate symbolization of that ground is theistic. Tracy then turns to his second source and finds there a “limit language” which is disclosive not only of the very situation which was just thematized through phenomenological analysis but also of a Referent which holds forth the promise that life is indeed meaningful when lived in total commitment to the gracious God of Jesus the Christ.

Though Frei himself does not put it this way, I think it would be fair to say that his principal problem with Tracy’s “theology of correlation” is that no true correlation can ever arise on the foundations laid by him. Christian self-description (the language of Scripture and tradition) has been thoroughly subsumed into the religious symbols attained through phenomenological analysis of “religious dimensions” of human being and existence. And this can happen only because the results of the philosophical analysis are made to be the interpretive key for unlocking the meaning of the New Testament. So Frei is not in the least surprised that Tracy has found in the New Testament precisely what he was looking for; his procedure has guaranteed the outcome in advance. External description and Christian self-description turn out to be one and the same, identical in content. A correlation of tow overlapping but distinguishable descriptions is rendered unnecessary. What is most decisive in defining Frei’s type 2 is the fact that the subsumption of Christian self-description into external description has been made possible by a universally valid integrative theory (which in Tracy’s case is ultimately grounded in a general philosophical anthropology).[1]

What McCormack is describing, in important ways, has a different context from the one I will apply it to; but the principle is present. My application of this recognition of a ‘theology of correlation,’ rather than to someone like Tracy, will be more fitting to my own theological context as an evangelical, Reformed Christian in North America.

The context I often am enmeshed in is indeed the evangelical Reformed context; as such, my theological interlocutors (even if they don’t realize they’re mine) operate in and from a ‘pre-critical’ or premodern ‘theology of correlation’; at least that’s my premise. My interlocutors primarily are drawing off the reappropriation of Thomas’s theology, as that has been mediated in the various Thomisms that are available; particularly as that has been given formation in the 16th and 17th century developments of Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy. This mode of theologizing operates with an inchoate form of ‘theology of correlation.’ They might not think of it that way, they might project what Tracy, for example, has developed from a philosophical anthropology onto the ‘mind of the church’. Nevertheless, the point remains that whether in premodern or modern forms, whether called an analogia entis (analogy of being) or ‘theology of correlation,’ the premises are overlapping and convergent. In other words, both modes of theological endeavor work off the prius that there are catholic or universally available latents or logois of knowledge of God that can be penetrated by appeal to a natural [law] human experience of the divine left in the vestiges and corners of transcendental human apperception.

I don’t see evangelical theologians, particularly of the Reformed type, wrestling very much with these questions. Instead I seem them rushing headlong into the Trad of the church as if this just is the mind of God for the elect. The Evangelical Calvinist repudiates these types of correlations.

 

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008), 119-20 [emphasis mine].

Making a Distinction; an Existential Theologian vis-à-vis Sapiential Theologian: Finding the Dialectical in the Singular Person, Jesus Christ

David Congdon offers an insightful quote on the distinction between being an existential theologian versus a sapiential one; for his purposes he is using this distinction to help draw some lines between Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. Whoever the characters are, whether Luther/Aquinas (which is the original pairing), Barth/Bultmann et al. I think the distinction is an instructive one, and so I thought I would share it.

Existential theology is the way of doing theology from within the self-actuation of our existence in faith, as we submit to God in the obedience of faith. Its affirmations are so formulated that the actual faith and confession of the speaker are not merely necessary presuppositions but are reflexly thematized. Sapiential theology is the way of doing theology from outside one’s self-actuation in the existence of faith, in the sense that in its doctrinal statements the faith and confession of the speaker is the enduring presupposition, but is not thematic within this theology. This theology strives to mirror and recapitulate God’s own thoughts about the world, men, and history, insofar as God has disclosed them.[1]

The relative distinction is something akin to doing theology from below or from above; the existential (below) would be more soteriologically/theoanthropologically oriented while the sapiential (above) would be more theology proper oriented;  while the dialectical, we might constructively surmise, might be located in the Christological frame (where the below and above intersect and implicate in the singular person of Jesus Christ as the Theanthropos).

 

[1] Otto Hermann Pesch, “Existential and Sapiential Theology—The Theological Confrontation Between Luther and Thomas Aquinas,” in Catholic Scholars Dialogue with Luther, ed. Jared Wicks (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1970), 61-81, at 76-77 cited by David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 71-2.

A Clarification on How I Approach Protestant Reformed Theology that Developed in the 16th and 17th Centuries and Beyond

Just as a clarification to the last post: I am not saying that I see no value in the Protestant Reformed theology that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries; God forbid it! Without this period of development, theologically, we really wouldn’t have the categories and theological grammar that we deploy today. Even so, given the development of theology in this past period, I still believe, and this is the point of my last post, that it needs to be reified in the types of ways that Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance have done. One way I can remain appreciative of past iterations of theological development, and not hold my nose up at it, is to remember that they were simply products of their own time; i.e. they only had a certain finite array of theological categories and grammar to work with. Given that reality, what some of these theologians produced, in regard to the Christocentric altitude they achieved, is highly admirable. John Calvin, an early Protestant reformer, is to be commended most, in my view, for what he achieved; even more than most who followed him as the Post Reformed orthodox theologians in the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively.

I just wanted to add this note, because I wouldn’t want folks to think that I’m a chronological snob, elevating the modern period over and against the pre-modern period, or vice versa, as the crème de la crème of theological development. Each period, in the history of the church, has its pros and cons in regard to what it produced for the church catholic in its theological musings. I just think we do best to remember this, and in our endeavors as theologians, we ought to do the best we can at appropriating and receiving theological development that maximally bears witness to the God of the Gospel in Jesus Christ. This must be the final regula fidei for how the theologian proceeds, in my view; the canon used must, or should be a radically compressed Christological lens through which any and all theological articulation is sifted and concentrated for the edification of the church of God in Jesus Christ.

Language About God’s Life: How Language Ought to Be Transformed By God’s Self-Revelation in Theological Discourse

As Trinitarians Christians often, and rightly, refer to the inner reality of God’s singular life as his ousia or ‘being.’ The fear might be that Christians might be imposing Hellenistic (i.e. classical Greek philosophical) categories onto God thus morphing him into an tertium quid, or even worse something completely alien to who he actually is. This is the critique I often bring against classical Calvinists in their deployment of Aristotle to articulate their Pure Being theology relative to the Christian God;[1] I don’t think they are successful in allowing the Revelation to determine the language’s shape; I think they carry over too much of the Aristotelian philosophical implications in their endeavor to give grammar to articulating God for human understanding. As such, I think they eschew everything else downstream; i.e. whether that be in the area of doctrine of creation, theory of revelation, theory of history, doctrine of Scripture, soteriology, so on and so forth.

Us Evangelical Calvinists, like classical Calvinists (and other iterations of classical theists), also use the Hellenic language of ‘being’ and ‘persons’ (hypostases), among other expressions. But unlike—and here I’ll just keep picking on the classical Calvinists—the classical Calvinists, or as Richard Muller calls it, the “Christian Aristotelians,”[2] we follow Athanasius’s style and mode in regard to allowing the antecedent and ontological reality of God’s life to give shape and reify the Hellenic language of ‘being’ and ‘persons’; our intention is to allow God’s Self-revelation to retext the Hellenic language in such a way that the language’s meaning itself becomes brand new (recreated even) because of the new context it finds itself in (since context determines meaning anyway). Thomas Torrance explains how this worked out in the Athansian mode:

Athanasius much preferred to use verbs rather than nouns when speaking of God as the mighty living and acting God, for abstract terms or substantives seemed to him (as indeed to the biblical writers) to be inappropriate in speaking about the dynamic Nature of God, or in expressing who God is who makes himself known to us in his mighty acts of deliverance and salvation. For Athanasius, here as elsewhere, the precise meaning of theological terms is to be found in their actual use under the transforming impact of divine revelation. This is how he believed that the words ousia and hypostasis were used at the Council of Nicaea, not in the abstract Greek sense but in a concrete personal sense governed by God’s self-revelation in the incarnation. He preferred a functional and flexible use of language in which the meaning of words varied in accordance with the nature of the realities intended and with the general scope of thought or discourse at the time. Hence he retained the freedom to vary the sense of the words he used in different contexts, and declined to be committed to a fixed formalisation of any specific theological term for all context which might have violated his semantic principle that terms are not prior to realities but realities come first and terms second. This intention is nowhere more evident than in his cautious and differential use of human terms to speak of the Being of God or the Subsistence of Persons in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.[3]

Us Evangelical Calvinists go with TF Torrance and Athanasius; particularly when it comes to the idea that the reality precedes and thus should be allowed to control the terminology in its context and sense.

If you ever wonder how Evangelical Calvinists can use the language of ‘being’ and ‘persons’ and not fall prey to the same temptations as the Christian Aristotelians, refer to this post.

One more important point in closing: If we get our doctrine of God wrong (which includes very much so how we employ theological language), then everything else following will be eschewed. This is why Evangelical Calvinists place such emphasis on our Trinitarian Doctrine of God as the ground and grammar of everything.

[1] See this post.

[2] See Richard Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Three (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 45, 62, 107, 121, 132, 140, 150, 367, 545, 553.

[3] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 117-18.

Historical Theology as Fundamental for the Theologian’s Task

Something that drastically changed my theological development and life was and is historical theology; I first engaged with it in my seminary Reformation and Patristic theology classes. For the first time (at that point), pieces really began to fall into place for me (including my undergrad Bible College experience which didn’t get into, so much, actual historical detail [just generalities]), and it enabled distanciation for me in a way that allowed for critical space wherein I was finally able to identify the conceptual and historical forces that had brought me to where I was at peanutstheologythat seminal point (i.e. my first exposure to historical theology). What good historical theology does is primarily engage in descriptive detail; in other words good historical theology carefully and slowly attends to reconstructing as accurately as possible how theological ideas formed in various periods and strata of the Christian tradition. Once this step is taken, then we are able to resource the categories and emphases present in whatever period we are looking at, and bring all of those threads into a constructive framework that helps serves the present purposes of the advancement and articulation of the Gospel. What engaging in historical theology also has the capacity for (as I already alluded) is to provide a kind of third party perspective on my (our) own theological approach. In a sense, historical theology can marginalize a theological notion or trajectory that I might think is novel; and it can marginalize in a  way that helpfully keeps me from going down a path that might in the end be fruitless, and ultimately a real waste of the time I am supposed to be redeeming. So historical theology can serve as a regulative control on how and what I research, and more prominently it can give me insight into whether or not I am on a fruitful or dilapidated trajectory.

So historical theology is a very important discipline that I think any serious Christian theologian and exegete must attend to. But one danger of historical theology is that we forget that God still speaks. We can get so caught up into listening to the past that we can forget that there is a present.  So good historical theology will, in my view, always give way to Constructive Christian Dogmatic Theology. Which means that we will not only soberly engage with the past, but in this sober engagement we will be doing so with a purpose; the purpose is to listen to the living voice of God as it provides continuous communication from the past into the present. And it is this coming into the present by incorporating the voice of God from the past (so theological remembrance, a very biblical motif) into the present that we are able to constructively join in to the diaologic of the voices present in the people of God. In other words, good historical theology, while providing necessary perspective and fruitful lines of thought, should never be seen as an end in itself; and that is because good Historical Theology is framed by a doctrine of God that is understood as Triune and lively. And God Himself, in Christ, ought to be the One who sets the stage for how we go about engaging in the conversation of His people the Church.

And so in the end, obviously, my view of historical theology is that if it is going to be a fruitful endeavor must be understood from a genuinely Christian frame of reference. Good historical theology provides perspective because it is an act of humbling ourselves, and accepting the fact that God has meaningfully (and is) spoken to our brothers and sisters in the past. And since God has meaningfully spoken in the past, this guarantees the integrity of what has been communicated in the past since it is not ultimately contingent upon whatever period God’s voice was spoken in and through; but truly, it is contingent upon the integrity of God’s voice. This is not to deny the various modes, expressions, and periods of history in which this voice was given; but it is to recognize that God has spoken (Deus dixit), and we need to listen whenever He speaks.

*This is a post I originally wrote a few years ago. 

Reformed Theology: Affective Theology and Evangelical Calvinism, Highlighting their Reality and Charting New Ways

In the last post we spoke of a development in Reformed theology known as Affective Theology. I was first introduced to this thread of Reformed theology in seminary by my professor (who also became a mentor of mine as I served as his TA for a couple of years, and then beyond my graduate studies as well), Dr. Ron Frost—a Historical Theologian with special focus in the area of Puritan theology bonaventure(his PhD dissertation was on Richard Sibbes with reference to William Perkins, among others). The antecedents to this type of Reformed theology, just as with all traditions within Reformed theology, come from earlier theological developments found in the medieval period, and even into the Patristic era. Richard Muller underscores a development of this style of theology for us in Roman Catholic medieval theology:

The great Franciscans, Alexander of Hales and Bonaventure, insisted on the affective, experimental, and moral character of theology and argued that this character of the discipline prevented it from being considered as a scienta in the Aristotelian sense of a rational or demonstrative discipline. Thus Alexander could write that there is “one mode of certainty in scientia taught according to the human spirit and another in scientia taught according to the divine Spirit” and that this latter mode, a “certainty of speculation” or the “certainty of experience” belonging to other sciences. For Alexander, theology could never be a rational or demonstrative science, because its certainty rests on the work of the Holy Spirit rather than on rational conclusions drawn from its principles. This is not to say that theology must not develop doctrinal formulations and defend them by rational argument or must not draw conclusions from principles, which is the very nature of a scientia, but only that its certitude lies elsewhere.

Bonaventure, even more than Alexander, stresses inward illumination as the source of theological knowledge rather than a scientia resting upon the perception of externals. Bonaventure had already distinguished between the theology of the sacra pagina, that is, Scripture, and the theology of his commentary on the Sentences. The former follows a “revelatory, perceptive mode” whereas the latter adopts a “ratiocinative or inquisitive mode….”[1]

This Affective mode is in contrast to the mode that Thomas Aquinas (and later scholasticism Reformed) would develop, the “ratiocinative mode.” Just to illustrate this contrast here is the beginning clause of the next paragraph just following where we left off with Bonaventure:

That step of defining the character of theological scientia among the various sciences was taken by Thomas Aquinas, who joined the concept of theology as a ratiocinative discipline characterized by definition and division of the subject for purposes of debate to the Aristotelian concepts of scientia and scientia subaltern, subalternate science….”[2]

What I am hoping to illustrate are not the fine details (yet) of the differences in theological methodology between these two approaches to doing theology (both formally and materially), but simply to demonstrate that these trajectories are available in the history itself.

Interestingly the affective approach, if you are tracking so far, might seem at odds with the approach of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance; Barth and Torrance might seem to adopt the ratiocinative or a posteriori approach to doing theology, following a scientific kind of almost positivist mode to doing theology. Whereas in contrast the affective mode seems to be focused more on experiential knowledge of God, and more of maybe an Augustinian a priori even mystical approach toward knowing God. If you were tracking thusly; very perceptive of you!

Even though there might be some variance between an affective mode and a Barthian or Torrancian mode to doing theology I think the point of some convergence between them is that they both seek to focus on revelational theology that is non-speculative and kataphatic or positive in character. I would like to bring these two modes together further in constructive dialogue and see what happens (since I am influenced greatly by both). A point of contact between them could very well be to bring Kierkegaard into the discussion, since Kierkegaard played a big role in the development of the respective theologies of Barth and Torrance; I think the affective might be at play there.

So we have been discussing things revolving around prolegomena (theological methodology), but where all of this gets even more interesting is when we start getting into theological anthropology; this is where I would like to do most of the nuancing and work in regard to bringing the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ (so important and centraldogma to Barth’s and Torrance’s theologies) into discussion with affective theological-anthropological categories. This will implicate much, not to mention how we conceive of ethics, which I would rather really call personal holiness, which for the evangelical Calvinist is grounded and conditioned by Jesus Christ’s life for us–in other words we participate in and from His holiness for us from His heart which is aligned with the Father’s heart by the Spirit’s heart (which is a shared heart in perichoresis) in Triune life.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1500 to 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 91-2.

[2] Ibid., 92.

There is No Secret Eternal Will of God, There is Only Jesus

When you read Karl Barth what you get is the usual Reformed lexicon, but with a different theological grammar defining it. In other barthglasseswords you will get words like ‘election’ ‘reprobation’ ‘covenant’ ‘extra Calvinisticum’ and a host of other Reformedisms. In this Reformed mode the most prominent, even dominant Reformed concept that Barth recalibrates through his Christ concentrated hermeneutic is his doctrine of election/reprobation. For Barth it is not as if there is some sort of dark shadow side behind the back of Jesus; for Barth God’s ineffable and Triune life is revealed without remainder in Jesus Christ. When this is applied to a doctrine of election in one aspect of this doctrine in part, (in particular as it applies to the usual questions surrounding election/reprobation like questions flowing from articulating the mechanics of God’s salvation for humanity) we see how all things are enclosed in Christ’s vicarious life for all of humanity.

One of Barth’s earliest commentators and critics was Dutch Reformed theologian G.C. Berkouwer (he wrote a book length treatment and critique of Barth’s theology ever before Barth’s Church Dogmatics had been translated into English, and ever before Barth even finished it to the point that we have it now). Berkouwer wrote this really concise description of Barth’s principial Christ-centered doctrine of election:

Therefore Jesus Christ is in the most absolute sense of the word the decision of God, the decision, namely, to become man. What decree can possibly exist outside of this decision? God’s election in Christ is the beginning of all His works. The electing God is not an abstract highest being with all kinds of qualities by reason of which He elects in an absolute decree of which Christ then later becomes the “executor decreti.” Christ Himself is the decretum concretum, the mode of God’s operation. For this reason, the eternal will of God in Christ is not unknown to us, but is made known in the history of God with man. This is the effulgent light of the overcoming love of God. This is the mystery, not of an abstract sovereignty, but of the “victorious affirmation and love of God for men.” This history is the unique Triumph of Grace and as such the Triumph of the Sovereignty of God.”[1]

Why Does This Matter?

I like to ask this question. How does what Barth is saying help me to know God in Jesus Christ better? I think that is a great question! This is what I have found so revolutionary about Barth, Barth doesn’t really provide us with a normal or classical approach to doing theology (although there are precedents of his approach strewn throughout Patristic theology, and other theologians in the so called ‘classical’ tradition); Barth offers us an approach that attempts to think all of God’s reality from an all encompassing supreme Christ, as if all of creation and its purpose (telos) are only known in and from Christ (see Col. 1.15ff). I have never come across another theologian who offers this stringent type of Christological approach to theology (except in Thomas F. Torrance, Barth’s best English speaking student), and leaving Bible College and Seminary I knew that there was one answer to every theological question (in spite of much of theological education), and that answer is Jesus Christ (the same answer I learned of in Sunday School when just a kid). This is the simplicity and profundity of Barth’s theology; Jesus Christ and an intense focus upon Him in ways that radically present us with a method that isn’t really a method at all, instead it is a person (and that is radical when placed against all other theology prior to Barth’s offering).

So why does all of this matter? Because Jesus matters. Because you can never go wrong if you want to interpret Scripture or live ethically (holily) if your ground and condition is Jesus Christ; if he conditions all that you are from His own life for you. If you are looking for a ‘rule of faith’ then look no further than Jesus, that’s what Barth says. And not just as an abstract part of a broader theological endeavor, but instead as the concentrated point of a concrete theological framework revealed in flesh and blood.

[1] G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph Of Grace In The Theology Of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1956), 103.

Living Under Pressure

Pressure. Pressure is an important concept when it comes to theology and thinking about God. I was out in the rail yard building trains today, pressure cookerand as I had a moment or two to reflect I thought about the guys I was working with; I thought about all of the people driving by me on the Fremont bridge (the biggest bridge in Portland that traverses the Willamette River); and all of the other people in the world. I started wondering about pressure and how that relates to knowledge of God. I thought about relativism, and how that relates to pressure; particularly the type of pressure that gets exerted upon each of us as we come to consider what reality is, more pointedly, what or who God is. I mean who really cares about my ideas about God, or the people I work with and their ideas about God (or non-God as they might assert), or the people driving by on the bridge, or the rest of the people in the world?

This line of thought got me thinking; it made me think about pressure. Like what pressures or pressure is determinative towards giving shape about people’s ideas about God (or non-God) and reality? Like I said above, there is pressure that gives rise to all of our ideas; and ultimately that comes down to a pressure that is driven by my own projections and manipulations of reality for my own desired ends, or it comes down to a pressure external to us (extra nos), like from God himself. In this latter pressure then there are different ways to approach this, but for my money I think the only real way to approach this–knowledge of God–is if we allow God and the pressure of his life to shape and form the categories through which we come to know of and conceive of God. As Thomas Torrance says it of Karl Barth’s approach:

. . . Barth found his theology thrust back more and more upon its proper object, and so he set himself to think through the whole of theological knowledge in such a way that it might be consistently faithful to the concrete act of God in Jesus Christ from which it actually takes its rise in the Church, and, further, in the course of that inquiry to ask about the presuppositions and conditions on the basis of which it comes about that God is known, in order to develop from within the actual content of theology its own interior logic and its own inner criticism which will help to set theology free from every form of ideological corruption.[1]

As you peruse Torrance’s and Barth’s various works you will come across this type of approach to theology; Torrance calls it Theological Science (something he picked up from Barth among others). But this really isn’t a post about Barth or Torrance, but about where the pressure comes from when we conceive of reality in general, and God in particular.

At the end of the day I really don’t care what other people think about God, or reality; I mean I care, because I care about people. But what I mean is that what I am going to stake my life on isn’t going to be some philosopher’s creative ideas, or some theologian’s imaginative ideas about reality and/or God; I will stake my life on the God revealed by God in Christ. I will seek to allow the pressure of his life (whether that be through the teaching of Scripture and/or following out the interior logic of the Gospel) to impose itself upon all of my mused meanderings, and allow him to pressure me into his way instead of a way that pressures him into mine (no small task!).

[1] Torrance, Theological Science, 7.

‘Schooled in the faith of Christ’: Thomas Torrance Responds to Rachel Held Evans’ “Questioning” Approach

As you all know I had an interesting engagement with Rachel Held Evans this last week here at the blog; particularly because I chose to write too quickly, jesusteacherand thus not respectfully of RHE. In the aftermath of that I have continued to think about ways to engage with RHE, and her post on Abraham and Isaac (which was really a post on hermeneutical theory). What was more central though to Rachel’s post was actually her questioning of how God is represented as the one who commanded the Israelites to go into the Canaanite nations and slaughter them (Rachel uses the more provocative language of ethnic cleansing, with all of the modern political and ethical connotations attached to that that language conjures for all of us). I want to take another shot at engaging with Rachel, and the content of her post. In particular I want to focus, this time on how she has claimed that she is simply engaging in honest questioning of the text of scripture and its ethical implications. Many others, in Rachel’s defense, also asserted that this is all that Rachel is doing. The post that got me in trouble with many of her readers (whether those readers be fans or not of Rachel’s writings in general) revolved around the fact that I was questioning Rachel’s questioning. Of course the way I came at Rachel, like I have already noted, was disrespectful and not right on my part. But I still think in spite of my foolishness in that first post, there was still a nub of criticism therein that was legitimate. In that sense then, let me focus on one aspect of Rachel’s general and overall mode; i.e. on the way that she approaches just about every issue: She tends to claim that all that she is doing is being a skeptic, a ‘questioner.’ It is this mode that I will engage throughout the rest of this post.

Learning To Be ‘Christian’ Questioners

Is it right to be a skeptic, a questioner, a ‘naked-questioner’ as a Christian; or do we as Christians have a higher calling a more ennobling task set before us? I would argue that we have a higher task set before us, one that we do not get to determine, but one that is imposed upon us. Those of us, Rachel included!, who name Jesus as Lord are not allowed to ask random, or arbitrary questions of God in Jesus Christ; we have been called to submit to the questions and answers imposed upon us by God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. And so this brings me back to Rachel’s mode[1], she claims to be an honest questioner and skeptic, and that she is bringing her experience, science, modern ethics, etc. to God, and asking him to meet her expectations based upon those various loci. Note Rachel as she ‘questions’ God’s apparent ruthlessness (in the story of Joshua toward the Canaanites) based upon the aforementioned loci:

This is a hard God to root for.  It’s a hard God to defend against all my doubts and all the challenges posed by science, reason, experience, and intuition.   I once heard someone say he became an atheist for theological reasons, and that makes sense to me. Once you are convinced that the deity you were taught to worship does evil things, it’s easier to question the deity’s very existence than it is to set aside your moral objections and worship anyway.[2]

But this is not what we have been called to as Christians, as I just noted; with the Revelation of God in Jesus Christ there comes a method, a set of questions that God has determined as the norming questions that he would have us ask of him, conditioned as they are by the center of his life given for us in his Son. Thomas F. Torrance (as he reflects on Karl Barth’s method of theologizing) might counsel us (including Rachel and her readers) this way:

. . . Barth found his theology thrust back more and more upon its proper object, and so he set himself to think through the whole of theological knowledge in such a way that it might be consistently faithful to the concrete act of God in Jesus Christ from which it actually takes its rise in the Church, and, further, in the course of that inquiry to ask about the presuppositions and conditions on the basis of which it comes about that God is known, in order to develop from within the actual content of theology its own interior logic and its own inner criticism which will help to set theology free from every form of ideological corruption.[3]

For Barth, for Torrance there is not an arbitrary way to question God or the way he acts, there is a concrete way that is given to us. It is a way that is not in our hands, not reposing upon our intellectual misgivings; it is a way that is imposed upon us, and thus not in our control – and so it scandalizes us. Torrance comments further on this way as he thinks about the benefits of catechesis and the scientific method (which means seeing Jesus alone as the regulator and giver of the questions that God has given us to bring to him as a freewill offering):

… The really scientific questions are questions which the object, that we are studying, through its very nature puts to us, so that we in our turn put only those questions which will allow the object to declare itself to us or to yield to us its secrets. The more we know about a thing the more we know the kind of questions to ask which will serve its revealing and be the means of communicating knowledge of it. This scientific principle has to be applied to Christian instruction, and it is here that we see the fundamental importance of the catechetical method. The young learner does not know enough as yet to ask the right questions. We have to encourage him to ask questions, but also to learn that only the appropriate questions will be a means of knowledge. This is nowhere more true than in regard to Christian communication. Christianity does not set out to answer man’s questions. If it did it would only give him what he already desires to know and has secretly determined how he will know it. Christianity is above all the question the Truth puts to man at every point in his life, so that it teaches him to ask the right, the true questions about himself, and to form on his lips the questions which the Truth by its own nature puts to him to ask of the Truth itself that it may disclose or reveal itself to him….[4]

Conclusion

I would suggest, moving away from Rachel H Evans, but staying close, that Rachel’s popularity (other than the fact that she is a smart, intelligent, genuine person) has a lot to do with the way people, Christian people in general have been trained to approach God. Christians, especially in North America, have been trained to approach God on their own heart-felt terms, and the questions that arise out of that frame of reference. Rachel Held Evans’ approach, I would suggest, embodies that in a way that gives voice and words to the questions that so many post-evangelicals have. They are questions, I would further suggest, that are hang-overs from their evangelicalism; apologetic questions that arise from an apologetic faith. This remains, among other things, a great irony of the Rachel Held Evans movement (and I am simply referencing her prominence among many many like-minded sojourners), if I can call it that; a desire, in some sense to be “post” evangelical, and yet still operating from the very premises of evangelicalism (as far as the kind of rationalist and apologetic questions that have plagued it for so long).

As an alternative, Rachel Held Evans & companions, all Christians could follow Thomas Torrance’s advice and be ‘schooled in the faith of Christ’ and allow his life to impose upon us his questions (and then answers). This way there will be a ‘rule of faith’ regulating our approach to God that will keep us from asserting a lordship of our own, and allow us to assume a posture wherein we recognize that Jesus is Lord, and that we can only then operate in and from the domain of his Word, instead of in and from the domain of our own words.

 

[1] Why am I focusing on Rachel so much? Because she is high profile, and has massive impact upon a gigantic swath of the Christian church. Her influence is massive! And so she deserves special attention, especially if she is ‘teaching’ people how to think biblically and theologically; and she is!

[2] Rachel Held Evans, SOURCE

[3] Torrance, Theological Science, 7.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, The School Of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf&Stock Publishers, 1996), xxvi.