Barth and Luther, Quasi-Occamist/Thomist Theologians: How To Do Genuinely Protestant Theology Under the Pressure of the Gospel

I thought it would be instructive to review some of Michael Allen Gillespie’s description of Nominalism, and then compare and constructively contrast that with Barth’s actualism. When you read Gillespie’s treatment of nominalism—at least the part I’m going to share—some of it will sound strikingly similar to Barth’s own anti-natural theological impulses; with an emphasis on Divine Revelation to boot. Gillespie writes:

Most nominalists were convinced that human beings could know little about God and his intentions beyond what he reveals to them in Scripture. Natural theology, for example, can proved God’s existence, infinity, and supremacy, according to Ockham, but it cannot even demonstrate that there is only one God. Such a radical rejection of scholastic theology clearly grew out of a deep distrust not merely of Aristotle and his Islamic interpreters but of philosophic reason itself. In this sense, Ockham’s thought strengthened the role of revelation in Christian life.

Ockham also rejected the scholastic understanding of nature. Scholasticism imagined nature to be teleological, a realm in which divine purposes were repeatedly realized. Particular entities became what they already potentially were in attaining their special end. They thus saw motion as directed toward the good. The nominalist rejection of universals was thus a rejection not merely of formal but also of final causes. If there were no universals, there could be no universal ends to be actualized. Nature, thus, does not direct human beings to the good. Or to put the matter more positively, nominalism opens up the possibility of a radically new understanding of human freedom.

The fact that human beings have no defined natural ends does not mean that they have no moral duties. The moral law continues to set limits on human action. However, the nominalists believe that this law is known only by revelation. Moreover, there is no natural or soteriological motive to obey the moral law. God is no man’s debtor and does not respond to man. Therefore, he does not save or damn them because of what they do or don’t do. There is no utilitarian motive to act morally; the only reason for moral action is gratitude. For nominalism, human beings owe their existence solely and simply to God. He has already given them the gift of life, and for this humans should be grateful. To some few he will give a second good, eternal life, but he is neither just nor unjust in his choice since his giving is solely an act of grace. To complain about one’s fate would be irrational because no one deserves existence, let alone eternal existence.[1]

Clearly not a one-for-one correspondence between Ockham and Barth, but there is some similarity between their respective emphases on Divine Revelation as the only point of contact creatures have for a knowledge of God in negation of a natural theological way. One more point of correspondence between the two, respectively, would be the emphasis upon Divine Sovereignty, and God’s relation to the world through covenant rather than through a series of graded conceptions of causality leading to a certain understanding of teleology for the created order.

Yet, Ockham ends up positing a Potentia-God wherein God has two-powers, 1) his absolute, and 2) his ordained. Here there is a rupture placed between the way God may act (according to his absolute) power in his inner and eternal life, versus how he chooses to act (according to his ordained power) in his ad extra or economic life in temporal-salvific reality. For Ockham, because of this strain between the two modes of God there is no guarantee that the God we see in ordained and created reality corresponds to who God actually is in his eternal life; as such we lose any sort of realist connection between what another dualist (Kant) might identify as phenomenological reality vis-à-vis noumenal actuality. Barth doesn’t have this problem.

As George Hunsinger notes in regard to Barth’s actualism and particularism:

“Actualism” is the motif which governs Barth’s complex conception of being and time. Being is always an event and often an act (always an act whenever an agent capable of decision is concerned). The relationship between divine being and human being is one of the most vexed topics in Barth interpretation, and one on which the essay at hand hopes to shed some light. For now let it simply be said, however cryptically, that the possibility for the human creature to act faithfully in relation to the divine creator is thought to rest entirely in the divine act, and therefore continually befalls the human creature as a miracle to be sought ever anew.

“Particularism” is a motif which designates both a noetic procedure and an ontic state of affairs. The noetic procedure is the rule that says, “Let every concept used in dogmatic theology be defined on the basis of a particular event called Jesus Christ.” No generalities derived from elsewhere are to applied without further ado to this particular. Instead one must so proceed from this particular event that all general conceptions are carefully and critically redefined on its basis before being used in theology. The reason for this procedure is found in the accompanying state of affairs. This particular event requires special conceptualization, precisely because it is regarded as unique in kind.[2]

Here we see, per Hunsinger’s treatment of parts of Barth, that there is nothing left ad hoc or potential about the God-world relation. Instead, for Barth Divine reality is known as God makes himself known in the scandalous event of God become man in the elected humanity of Jesus Christ. Herein, for Barth, there is no ‘God behind the back of Jesus’—as there is for Ockham—but instead just the opposite; for Barth God is fully and actually made known without remainder through the Christ event as that becomes actualized over and again, afresh and anew through the miracle of the Evangel. While Barth retains a quasi-Occamist emphasis upon God’s relation to the world through covenant alone, he also has a quasi-Thomistic realism present insofar as God’s being-in-becoming, or the universal-in-the-particular can come to be known by the human agent as the human comes to participate in or becomes ‘a partaker of the Divine nature.’

I think that if the lineaments in my brief sketch hold up to any sort of scrutiny what we ought to realize is that Barth was genuinely engaged in what has come to be called ‘constructive theology.’ As Kenneth Oakes points out in his book Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy, Barth was less stressed about fitting into this or that theological category, and more concerned with allowing the pressure of the Gospel itself to determine the shape of his theological articulation; even if that meant cross-breading various strands of the theological textus receptus as that presented itself to him in the Great Tradition and the Reformed scholastics he had knowledge of. This helps explain, at least for me, why Barth’s theology always tended to reify or reformulate what previously counted as classical theology. He was less concerned about meeting the expectations set out by the Church, and more concerned with meeting the categorical and conceptual expectations set out by the Gospel. He was a Free theologian, who thought under the freedom he believed Christ gave him as one set free, indeed, by the Son of Man: ‘for who He sets free will be freed indeed.’

I think Barth’s theology, like Luther’s, represents some of, if not the best of Protestant theologizing; precisely because they both were slavishly driven to their theological conclusions by following the Gospel itself. They did theology that was in protest to the magisterial norms that the scholastics felt compelled to follow previous. And this is why I am a hearty proponent of both of these theologians: as you work through their respective theologies you will be able to discern reference to the via antiqua and the via moderna, both; and of course other special elements as those were made uniquely available to them per the respective periods of history they inhabited. In the end, Barth and Luther, both, I maintain, were affected by the pieces of various theological (and philosophical) traditions,  which is illustrated in the way they wrote theology such that they operated at almost naïve levels insofar that the conceptual grammars they deployed were second-fiddle to what actually mattered to them: which was bearing witness to Jesus Christ through the proclamation of the written and preached Word.

 

[1] Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 24.

[2] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 16-18.

Advertisements

Jesus is Not a Tradition: Relational Theology as Counter to the God of Theo-Logic Chopping

Jesus is not a tradition. This is important to understand for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that realizing this can help us in the way we end up doing theology; it can help the way we engage with and read Holy Scripture. This is an important thing to understand about my own approach to theological work; I’m in this ‘game’ for one reason: that is, to know Jesus Christ and Him crucified, and the Triune God He brings me into participation with. This is why I’m only ultimately interested in doing the sort of constructive theology that sees Jesus as the centrum of all theological endeavor. The rest of this post will be another autobiographical one wherein I explain a bit further what motivates me to do theology at all; I will also take a look at Scripture as an application and case study of how focusing on a relational God in Christ shapes my approach to Scripture differently than other approaches might offer its respective practitioners.

I’ve shared my life story more than once through my blogging, so I won’t redress that now. But I wanted to at least note that as someone who came to a lively relationship with Jesus Christ as just a wee child (when I was 3), that having a personal and intimate relationship with the voice that awakened me (literally from sleep at about 2am) so many years ago is still my aim today. The voice that spoke to my heart, and the relational God I encountered that early morning so long ago has never changed. So, I think, that the way I do theology ought to be framed most actively by this reality; by the reality that God is a relational God who awakens young children from their sleep to call them to Himself. I’ve had many other experiences since then where this voice has shown up very acutely; whether that be through years of heavy doubts, anxiety/depression, or whether that be during the time that I was diagnosed with an incurable and statistically terminal cancer. The voice, the encounter has always been the same reassuring voice of the Living God who I met when a young boy.

The point of sharing the above is that I find it very strange to attempt to do so called ‘school theology,’ or academic theology. When the LORD got a hold of me in a serious and heavy way, through years of doubt and anxiety, it was during this season that Bible reading became my mainstay (I’m about to finish my 40th read through, probably tonight). Bible reading has only reinforced that the voice I encountered in my bed when a child is the same voice that I encounter when I read Holy Scripture. As such, I become heavily suspicious of theologies that don’t start from the fact that Deus dixit, that God has spoken and continues to speak. Some people, when thinking about the history of theological development would probably place the sort of theology I am most prone towards into the category of ‘existential theology’; maybe of the sort that we get with Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth (and maybe most sinisterly with Rudolf Bultmann —although I reject most of Bultmann), Thomas Torrance, and maybe even Martin Luther. But I’m not so sure about that in particular ways. Whatever category I’m placed into, I know that the focus will always be Christ concentrated (in intensive ways), and the fact that God is a relational God by His very nature; that He speaks to His sheep in a way that His sheep are able to hear His voice and recognize it.

This is all very loaded commentary on my theological development and trajectory. I won’t have time to fully unpack it all, but my blog should help to attest to the way this sort of theologizing has taken shape in written form. But I did start out with the assertion that Jesus is not a tradition, and I want to unpack what I mean by that. In school theology, of its various assortments, it is quite popular to engage in analytical or scholastic locus theo-logic chopping wherein the theologizing itself does not come with the sort of relational character that I have been describing thus far. Instead, the God referred to under these conditions bares almost no resemblance to the personal God I’ve come to know through years of encounter with Him; be that through reading Scripture, Prayer, or Fellowshipping with the Saints. This is why I am off-put by so much of the classical theistic theologizing that is so dominant in and among the conservative Reformed types of Christians (at whatever level). In my view, if the God being referred to while ‘doing theology’ can’t just as easily be prayed to and worshipped in an intimate and relational way while doing the theology, then this God doesn’t have much correlation with the God I’ve come to know in the smiling face of Jesus Christ.

Some might push pack: ‘well that’s all fine and good, Bobby, there is a place for what you’re referring to (like in your devotional and quiet times), but it isn’t what school theology is about.’ ‘Us academic or analytical theologians are interested in working out the technical implications of the great classical theistic theologies of the Church in order to fortify our understanding of the God we are praying to and worshipping.’ They might want to press that ‘there is a place for both.’ But that disjunction makes absolutely no sense to me. If we are doing Christian theology then we are doing lively theology of the sort that is intimate and in dialogical (prayerful) relationship with the viva vox Dei (the living voice of God); there is no meaningful sense wherein academic theology can be done in one moment, and then relational theology in another moment. Either the living God is in our faces in real activity, personal parousia (presence) or He isn’t. And if He is it is with this God that the Christian theologian has to do. We have to do with a God first and foremost who speaks and confronts us, rather than one who sits there, statically like a philosophical monad, and allows us to pick Him apart.

Ultimately, I do not think theology is worth much time unless it is interacting with the lively and revealed voice of God in Jesus Christ. In my view theologies that attempt to elide this aren’t really engaged in theology at all, instead they are engaged in philosophical reflection wherein the ‘theologian’s’ fertile imagination is allowed to supply the chains of reasoning wherein God is ostensibly known. If we must posit God’s voice, and what it entails categorically, prior to moment by moment encounter with Him, then for my money we aren’t doing Christian theology. And so, when I say Jesus isn’t a tradition, I mean to say that Jesus isn’t a ‘principle’ who makes our theological ratiocinations work; instead He is a person who encounters and confronts and negates us moment by moment afresh and anew. If we think this about the theological reality this will impact the way we approach Scripture. We won’t ground it in the idea that the Church or the churches Tradition[s] have any sort of regulative value for how we understand what Scripture is or what it is actively saying. Instead we will understand that Holy Scripture is Holy precisely because it is the place where God actively speaks to us, in a living way, through His Son. It will dispossess Scripture from being enslaved to our ecclesial traditions, and instead understand it as the possession of the living God who instrumentally uses it to speak His unfading voice to us, His sheep.

I think it is important to understand that what I am saying here doesn’t mean that the theologizing of the ancient church doesn’t mean anything. Instead, I am describing a particular way to be as a Christian disciple or theologian. I am describing a posture or way to appropriate and engage with theologies that might even engage in the sort of theologizing that I ultimately cannot follow. I am suggesting that there is a disposition that is the most fitting for the theologian, one that is grounded in lively and loving relationship with God in Jesus Christ. But I am saying because of this disposition certain forms of theologizing become antithetical to knowing God who is Triune Love. But even in the stammerings of those theologies there are things communicated that can still have informative value for the lover of Christ; even if the philosophical husk of those theologies aren’t ultimately life-giving or corollary with the posture I am noting in my post.

More must and should be said, but this will suffice for now.

The Natural Theology of The Great Tradition and the Protestant Capitulation to Its Catholic Roots

Did you know that much of the Great (Christian) Tradition is committed to a way of doing theology that is committed to speculation as its primary mode for thinking and articulating God? Did you know that this mode is currently being recovered by most conservative evangelical theologians today? Did you know that metaphysics of the classical philosophical sort is the way the Tradition has sought to do its theology? Did you know that the Protestant Scripture principle was a serious source for undercutting the so-called ancient way (via antiqua) of the Great Tradition; that the Scripture principle majored on a theology of the Word that theretofore hadn’t been fully appreciated? Did you know that present within this sort of ‘Turn to the Word’ there was a fetus waiting to be birthed such that a radical Turn to the Word might come to maturation wherein Jesus Christ, rather than the speculative wit, might become the regulative way for doing genuine Protestant theology? Unfortunately, this conception was still born in the nurseries of scholastic midwifery with the result of returning the Protestant trajectory back to the via antiqua rather than into the bright light of baby Jesus’s face. The effect is that Protestantism is currently in a stage of becoming shaped more by the Latin-Catholic ancestry, and the tradition and commentary building of that sort, rather than by a genuinely formed theology of the Word whose rule of faith is Jesus Christ. So, a radical theology of the Word is being abandoned for a regnant theology of the Church whose regulative principle isn’t ultimately Jesus Christ, but the magisters of the Great Tradition. The Tradition itself becomes authoritative even if it is asserted that it is subordinate to Scripture. It is very hard to see how that is the case in any meaningful sense; particularly when the reality of Holy Scripture is none other than Jesus Christ and the Triune God who He alone has Self-revealed.

I know this doesn’t bother most, not in the evangelical world. Indeed, one of my best brothers, my best friends is committed to this recovery effort. I fully understand the motivation and impulse that pushes brothers and sisters to engage in this sort of theological excavation project; I just think it ultimately falls short in a fundamental way when it comes to the attempt to think God according to the Evangel. The whole project is in fact representative of a basic commitment to natural theology; it is an enthymemic commitment in most cases. In other words, there is an attendant presumption to this excavation project that what ‘just is’ in the Great Tradition has been providentially supervened, in a causal sense, by God Himself. These folks presume that because of the staying-power of certain ideational and theological institutions, that this in itself guarantees a sort of Divine imprimatur upon the Trad. Further, the presumption fortified even more forcefully by the idea that the logoi or ratio of God is so interwoven into the fabric of the created order, and attendant to that, an irresistible and natural capacity to discover this ratio, that these theologians thrush full force ahead under the notion that nature itself is effulgent to declare who God is. They presume that God’s attributes, His predicates of Deity, are latent within the shadows of God’s eternal form as that is shown forth in His power to create and govern a universe of unspeakable depth and source. This is the natural theology that attends the recovery effort of the current crop of theologians; at least certain theologians, in the quadrants I’m referring to.

Yet this natural theology is not supported by Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ. Scripture teaches that no one seeks after God; that Jesus alone Self-exegetes God for us; that Jesus alone is the point and reality of Scripture; that the Logos of God is personal not substantial, and definitely not accidental. Speculation is not the spectacles God has provided for in knowing Him. God has instead stooped into our dusty frames, taken us to the soil of earth, and recreated us anew in the resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ’s humanity. It is only by this analogy of relation, by this analogy of faith, through the adoption of Grace, that we have the capacity by the Spirit to taste and see that God is; and in this tasting to come to know Who God is (not simply that He is). Herein a genuine Quarens Fides Intellectum (Faith Seeking Understanding) comes into form, that is as we are participatio Christi (participating in Christ). There is no assurance that the Great Tradition is ultimately proximate to Who God is; that assurance of Eternal Life only comes in the dearly Son of God in whom the Father is pleased. The Great Tradition might supply an archive for imaginative ways to think God under certain periodic pressures, but they are not authoritative ways, per se. The only authoritative imprimatur of God, for knowing God, is given in the One who has become flesh in the womb of Mary, and resurrected in the arms of the Father by the recreative power of the Spirit.

Reflecting Further on My Theological Method: Supraphysical Rather Than Metaphysical Theology

I wanted to offer a brief word on my last blog post. Let me note what I am attempting to underscore there, and what I’m not. I’m attempting to underscore my desire to do theology from the Self-revelation of Godself in Jesus Christ; in concreto. In other words, my concern, as many know by now, is that we have allowed logical-deductive metaphysics to crowd out the way we think God. This might work for Catholics, and maybe even Orthodox (at least when we think about the role that the Trad plays for them as well); but how this works for a genuinely Protestant approach committed to the Reformed ‘Scripture Principle’ does not make sense to me. When I refer to the scripture principle, I mean the idea that all else, as far as an authority, is actually (not just theoretically) subordinate to Holy Scripture and the reality it attests to in Jesus Christ. If we focus on God’s Self-revelation in Christ, and allow that to dictate the terms through which we receive the Tradition of the Church, then by definition there is going to be reformation that is continuously undertaken insofar as the Christ is an event (and person!) or gift that keeps on giving. ‘And this is eternal life that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ If theological knowledge is definitionally eschatological in character, then this means that nostra theologia (our theology) will constantly be growing and moving closer towards the reality of who God is as we remain in an open and dialogical posture towards His givenness for us; a givenness which is ever afresh and anew, untrammeled by a static grasp we think we might have upon Him.

So, my desire is to move away from so called ‘metaphysics,’ and instead allow the narrative of Holy Scripture and the revelation it bears witness to, to be regulative and determinative of the theological endeavor. This does not necessarily mean that we will not be reflecting upon spiritual things; to the contrary. But it does mean that the way we reflect and articulate these things will have a concrete (thus non-speculative) character to them. I prefer the terminology of ‘supra-physical’ rather than metaphysical. For me, supraphysical allows for a shift from the usual appeal to metaphysics, when thinking God from the classical theistic mode of philosophical and speculative reflection, and instead recognizes that our reflection of God is determined by the concrete givenness of God in the flesh of the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. It is here we encounter the true and living God the way He wants us to understand Him. He comes effulgent with His own categories and emphases. And it is from this effulgence that the theologian can begin to think God for the Church from a genuinely theological vantage point that is grounded, indeed, in God who is spirit. Do you see what I’m getting at? As TF Torrance notes, there is stratified knowledge of God where we encounter Him evangelically in the face of Christ, and only from this kataphysical point of contact are we finally enabled to move ‘up’ into the theological (inner) life of God as we think God from the Son enfleshed. The ‘enablement’ to think God is not a rationalist intellectualist-centered enablement, but a filial enablement as we become participants in God’s eternal life as we come into that mediated life through union with Christ. So, in my model of thinking, we have a supra (or ‘above’ or ‘before’) about God, that is indeed, spiritual and other-worldly, but because He has graciously and freely chosen to allow us to know Him, we cannot know Him apart from this world, as He has apocalyptically entered it through the particularity and fleshyness of the Son in Christ.

If we follow this mode of theological method we will necessarily be tied to the text of Holy Scripture as that serves as, as it were, the Holy Ground upon which we encounter the burning fire of the living Christ, in the bushyness (cf. Ex 3.15ff) and concreteness of His life made revealed in the hiddeness of the man named Jesus. Holy Scripture, and its narrative reality, at least for the Protestant must be determinative; Church Tradition is not determinative, but only a hand-maid to Holy Scripture. But if the hand-maid becomes the maiden what we have is a mistress and we lose the maiden altogether; in other words, if we displace the reality of Holy Scripture (and its authority) with what is supposed to be its subordinate (Tradition) and help-grammar, then we have given away the whole game. If this means a paradigmatic shift for Protestant Christians to think this way; if this means that being ‘catholic’ is greater than in-stepness with the so called Great Tradition of the Chruch, then so be it. There is a radicality to the Protestant Reformation that I think is being quenched. Maybe even the first and second and third tier reformers didn’t quite grasp what was inchoate within the principles of their reformation movement, but I think it was there. If the Church is supposed to be ‘always reforming’ per Scripture’s reality, and if Scripture’s reality is Jesus Christ, and if Jesus Christ is eschatos (or the eschatological reality), and if Jesus Christ’s paraousia is constantly confronting His Church afresh and anew, then the Church is always on the Way. This does not require that we give away the whole kitchen, but it does mean that the kitchen might need to be updated per the requirements laid down by the ever afresh and ever anew optics provided for the Church by God as He confronts us each day anew in the face of Christ. In other words, we don’t have to give away orthodoxy to engage in the sort of theological method I am suggesting; but we ought to recognize that orthodoxy is only orthodox insofar that she faithfully articulates the right teaching as that is understood under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

My Actualist Theological Method: Reflecting with Congdon and Bultmann on Demythologizing Essentialism

God’s being is in becoming. Two of the six motifs that George Hunsinger identifies as the shapers of Barth’s theology are helpful to review in light of the axiom I just noted about God’s being. Hunsinger writes:

“Actualism” is the motif which governs Barth’s complex conception of being and time. Being is always an event and often an act (always an act whenever an agent capable of decision is concerned). The relationship between divine being and human being is one of the most vexed topics in Barth interpretation, and one on which the essay at hand hopes to shed some light. For now let it simply be said, however cryptically, that the possibility for the human creature to act faithfully in relation to the divine creator is thought to rest entirely in the divine act, and therefore continually befalls the human creature as a miracle to be sought ever anew.

“Particularism” is a motif which designates both a noetic procedure and an ontic state of affairs. The noetic procedure is the rule that say, “Let every concept used in dogmatic theology be defined on the basis of a particular event called Jesus Christ.” No generalities derived from elsewhere are to applied without further ado to this particular. Instead one must so proceed from this particular event that all general conceptions are carefully and critically redefined on its basis before being used in theology. The reason for this procedure is found in the accompanying state of affairs. This particular event requires special conceptualization, precisely because it is regarded as unique in kind.[1]

I wanted to share this, sort of as a ground clearing exercise prior to jumping into the rest of the post. Both actualism and particularism, as they are understood in Barth’s theology, will be important to bear in mind as we get further into this post. For the rest of the post we will be considering David Congdon’s treatment of Rudolf Bultmann’s understanding of mythology, and how he ‘demythologizes’ that through appropriating the sorts of motifs that shape Barth’s theology. He sees, according to Congdon, God’s revelation strictly as event that obtains in the concrete of historical actualization. This view undercuts the essentialist theological ontology that funds what we call classical theism or substance metaphysics; i.e. the traditional view that much of Western theology operates from. So, this places me in a place that is largely contra the classical theists of today; albeit, I think this approach helps explicate some iterations of the classical theism, or what some of the classical theistic theologians wanted to say but couldn’t because of the limitations of their own conditioned time and space (i.e. when it comes to the ideational material they had available to them at the time). With this said, let me share from Congdon’s analysis of Bultmann’s understanding of revelation as event as that is actualized in historical occurrence without remainder vis-à-vis God.

It is this insight above all to which Bultmann appeals in the conclusion to his programmatic essay on demythologizing. The problem with mythology in every age is that it dissolves the paradox and defuses the scandal by narrating the divine in a supernatural, rather than historical manner:

For the salvation-occurrence [Heilsgeschehen] about which we talk is not some miraculous, supernatural occurrence but rather a historical occurrence in space and time. And by presenting it as such, stripping away the mythological garments, we have intended to follow the intention of the New Testament itself and to do full justice to the paradox of its proclamation—the paradox, namely, that God’s eschatological emissary is a concrete historical person, that God’s eschatological act takes place in a human destiny, that it is an occurrence, therefore, that cannot be proved [ausweisen] to be eschatological in any worldly way. It is the paradox formulated in the words “he emptied himself” (Phil 2:7), or “he who was rich became poor” (2 Cor 8:9), or “God sent  his son in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3), or “he was manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim 3:16), or, finally and classically, “the word became flesh” (John 1:14).

The paradox precludes proof, according to Bultmann. It is precisely the “nonprovability” (Nichtausweisharkeit) of the “eschatological phenomena” that “secures Christian proclamation against the charge that it is mythology,” for, unlike myth, “the transcendence [Jenseitigkeit] of God is not made immanent [Diesseits]” in the event of divine revelation. The ability to prove (ausweisen) the eschatological requires having direct access to it, which is what mythology seeks to provide. Mythology grounds revelation in the Revealer’s “essential nature [Wesensart],” that is to say, in “the permanent consubtantiality [Wesensgleichheit, lit. ‘identity of essence’] of the messenger with God.” It is this permanent metaphysical access that the Johannine witness denies in the way that it “historicizes” (vergeschichtlicht) God’s activity in the Revealer. Christian faith in the word-made-flesh is faith in an event that does not permit such access, its salvific significance requires, instead, a constant vigilance against the temptation to stabilize and secure the Christ-event in a readily accessible form. The Revealer therefore calls each person into question and places every theological statement in a position of crisis. The word of revelation coincides with the existential unsettling of the one who hears the word. The truth of God’s self-revelation is thus a truth that works upon the hearer: it demands, negatively, a posture of self-criticism regarding the temptation to speak theoretically about God, but this critique contains the positive and practical demand to live an obedient life of love—a point highlighted especially in the Johannine epistles (cf. 1 John 4:7-8). According to this account of revelation, the hermeneutical problem, which concerns the relation between the event of revelation and the hearer of revelation, is internally necessary to the becoming-flesh of the divine word.[2]

The concern for some is that the ‘event’ itself is collapsed into the ‘hearer,’ thus giving the human agent the capacity to determine just who and what God actually is. But this, as I understand Bultmann, is precisely what he is countering. In other words, he retains the ‘orthodox’ Creator/creature distinction, but at the same time, and dialectically does not allow the ontological reality to be thought apart from the epistemological as those become a piece in the self-revelation of God given in the hypostatic union of Creator/creature in Jesus Christ.

What is attractive to me about all of this is the non-speculative emphasis present in Bultmann’s (and Barth’s) approach to theology proper. The speculative mind is put to death in the concrete heart of God as that is given flesh and blood in the humanity of Jesus Christ. I recognize the dangers some see in this, particularly as the focus becomes potentially overly existential. But for me, this danger is worth it. Speculative theology, as that is practiced in various forms of classical theism, is not commensurate with the narrative of Scripture itself; indeed, it is not commensurate with God’s self-revelation in Christ which is anything but speculative. And of issue, and this is what it right at the center of the impasse between something like Barth/Bultmann’s approach and classical theism’s, is what Congdon notes in regard to Bultmann’s theology: the hermeneutical question.

Given the state of humanity’s heart, what capacity does humanity have in itself to ever know God? And in what sense can even a redeemed humanity come to the conclusion that they have been placed into a stable situation that they can now manage between God and themselves? This is the mythology that Bultmann seeks to demythologize (even if he overdoes it in certain ways), and it is the essentialism that Barth’s actualism is intent on undercutting. If God’s self-revelation is an event, meaning a reality that keeps constantly giving Hisself over and over again, then in what sense can we, elect humanity in Christ, ever conclude that a stable bond of nature has now obtained such that we are in a position to speculate about the grandeur of the Holy God? This is what I constructively take from Bultmann’s programmatic move to destabilize what classical theism has asserted is the stable reality from their own powers of wit and speculation.

 

[1] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 16-18.

[2] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 488-90.

Speculative theology “belongs to the devil in hell”: A Way for Dialogical Theology

Rather than speculate God why not actually think God in encounter with God, as God Self-reveals afresh and anew in the ever-presenting of Godself in the Christus praesens; in the face of the risen Christ? This is the mode of theological action this evangelical calvinist operates from. But this operation seems too existentialist for some; particularly those committed to classical classical theism. Even so, it is a worthy approach, I think, and not one that was lost on someone as seminal as Martin Luther himself. The spirit of Luther’s Christocentrism lived on in other Germans, even modern ones; ones like Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Eberhard Jüngel et al. But these names, other than Luther’s, stumble people; at least many in the classical classical theistic grouping. Even so, this evangelical calvinist doesn’t stumble at these modern German names; insofar as these names might have something valuable to say, despite their respective theological genealogies, or the poisoned wells they’ve ostensibly drunk deeply from. This evangelical calvinist can find constructive warrant in these Germans (and the Swiss), with the focus, in particular on the so called “existentialist” emphasis they offer as alternative to what counts, currently, as the only orthodox way to do theology. They offer an alternative way to do theology insofar that they ground theological reality in the faith of Christ as that confronts the sinner in the midst of their sin in need of a Savior. Here, these Germans (and the Swiss) provide a relational way for doing theology that reposes upon the subjective activity of the objective givenness in God for the world. They offer an alternative to the theological stasis that “orthodoxy” gives us in its creedal propositionalism. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for creedal Christianity; but not of the sort that the living Christ becomes the predicate of the creed, rather, I am for a creedal Christianity wherein the creeds are breathed new life, each day, as the risen Christ meets with His people in the tabernacles of their own fallen bodies.

David Congdon gives us some really good things to chew on as we think about the sort of dialogical theology I have been highlighting in the above comments. Here Congdon is giving us Jüngel’s version of Bultmann’s confessional theology; a lively confession that is based in the ever-coming Christ. Here we have a theology that elides the static God of natural theological provenance, and instead gives us a notion of God that emphasizes God as one known in encounter in the parousia of Christ; as Christ meets the sinner in the midst of their sin, and breathes resurrection into their lives with the result that genuine knowledge of God obtains in a lively and refreshing way. This way of theological endeavor presupposes only what the kerygma does, that is that Christ is risen indeed; and as a result, He is able to meet us as lively and real presence. Congdon writes in extension:

On the basis of this starting point Jüngel turns to what he calls the “practical orientation of theology” (Praxisbezug der Theologie) in Bultmann’s theology. Since it is the case that theology “does not wish to accomplish its pursuit  of cognition [Erkenntnis] through a knowledge [Wissen] that is separable from faith,” it follows that “theology for Butlmann therefore has an essentially practical character.” In this way his theology “stands in the tradition of reformational theology,” given Luther’s claim that “true theology is practical” (vera theologia est practica) while speculative theology “belongs to the devil in hell.” Jüngel notes how Bultmann’s theology obliquely references Luther’s famous claim. For instance, in speaking of revelation as a word that encounters us in a particular situation Bultmann goes on to state that “a speculative theory, a general truth, cannot be this word,” because it does not address us in the moment, and in his 1933 essay on natural theology he declares that all talk of God “outside of faith speaks not of God but of the devil.” Bultmann consistently rejects all associations of Christian theology with speculation or scholasticism, even associating the “ancient ideal of θεωρία” with the metaphysical notion of God as “an existing thing, an object of cognition.” Bultmann associates a theoretical conception of theology with those modes of God-talk that understand the object of theology to be something statically available—e.g., the historical object of liberalism, the propositional statements of Protestant orthodoxy, or the sacramental institution of Roman Catholicism—rather than an event of truth in which faith participates. A theoretical science of God thus aims at the construction of a Weltanschauung valid for all times and places.

The fact that Bultmann, like Luther, rejects a theoretical or speculative form of theology in favor of theology as a practical science must be stated with care. Jüngel rightly points out that we would misunderstand both if we took them to be picking a side in Aristotle’s differentiation between theoretical and practical knowledge, in which “the τέλος of theoretical science is truth” while “the τέλος of practical science is work.” Nor can we locate them according to the modern Kantian differentiation between theoretical and practical reason. The reformational claim that faithful God-talk is a theologia practica does not subscribe to either distinction. Neither Luther nor Bultmann thinks theology is confined to morality or ethics; neither reduces the object of theology to human action. This is clear enough from Bultmann’s repeated refusal to specify ethical commands in advance, since that would be to confuse gospel and law, thus forgetting that the command of God only becomes evident in a particular moment. Jüngel additionally points to Bultmann’s 1933 essay on the reform of theological study where the latter says, in implicit agreement with Barth, that theology is “the theory of praxis.” Theology’s practicality, however, does not consist in its ability to offer guidance for how to act “in all possible situations” but rather “arises from a living [lebensmässige] relation to its object”—or, in Jüngel’s terminology, the “orientation to praxis” (Praxisbezug) consists in an “orientation to the object” (Gegenstandsbezug). Because the object is an active event within history, the relation to this object is necessarily an active, practical relation. God “cannot be grasped in any now as one who remains [der Bleibende], but . . . always stands before me as one who is coming [der Komende],” and therefore praxis (that is, our own ongoing refusal to remain still) is the only proper mode of relating to God. But precisely because God is an event—because revelation is a divine praxis—it follows that in faith’s practical mode of existence one truly knows God. A practical science of God indeed has truth as its telos, and not merely work, and that is because the truth does not subsist in either theoretical statements or practical actions but rather in the divine object of this science, to which one can only relate in a concrete practical way that does not exclude but includes theoretical ideas. Jüngel can thus point to passages in Luther where the Reformer affirms the notion that theology is a scientia speculativa, but only because “the truly speculative [science of the theologians] . . . is all the more practical.”[1]

Even someone as “existentialist” as Bultmann was, even given his defunct understanding of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he still has some rich insights to offer in regard to what we like to call the dialogical theology; particularly as mediated through Congdon’s, Jüngel. People often want to simply relegate this sort of thinking into the dust-bin of the modern theologik, but we shouldn’t move so quickly; particularly as the focus on God’s ability to continuously make Himself known is the emphasis. I want to constructively appropriate some of this from Bultmann’s emphasis, even while rejecting much of his framework. Some would say this is unadvisable since, they might intone, this Bultmannian emphasis on the ‘practical’ is of a piece with the rest of his kerygmatic existentialist approach. But I don’t think we must take all just to get a piece. I think we can get a piece here and there and retext it into a broader theological framework wherein there is fruit even among the pits.

I think this Luther[an] emphasis on the faith of Christ as the source-bed for proper theological modus is the proper focus; particularly as that is placed over and even against the plentiful forms of speculative theology. I’d rather default to the categories of revelation themselves, as those are given in the writ of Holy Scripture’s reality, rather than in the categories of the philosophers. And yet, what it means to do evangelical theology is just this: it is to engage the speculative entailments of the philosophers, as the means by which revelation is ostensibly “unpacked” for the Church. But why should Protestant theologians defer to the “Church’s categories,” when the Church needs her Lord’s categories in order to live the sort of healthy and flourishing life that He has elevated her to live? Why opt for theoretical knowledge when we have concrete knowledge of God given to and for us, on a daily basis, in the presence of Christ as that is mediated by the presence of the Holy Spirit?

I can understand why people opt for natural theology, and the ostensible stability they find in that. I can understand why people want to elevate the Church to lordly levels; I mean the Church and the various churches have addresses and doctors. I can understand why we are afraid of falling prey to heresy, and falling under the spell of existentialist whims driven by turning to the subject of our navels. But I don’t see that in the focus that even someone like Bultmann, in critical appropriation, is giving us. Just because something is labelled “existentialist theology,” doesn’t negate its possibility for offering critical and objective modes for knowing God. Indeed, if we understand who the proper subject of theology is, if we understand that the subject is God, and that in His subject we find objective ground as He is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in His inner life, then maybe this sort of “existentialist theology” is what the Church needs. The sort that finds its existence in the esse of God’s life for us in Christ. This is ‘practical’ and not speculative because it is the wisdom of God to meet the sinner where they are, in their sin simul peccator, and understand that God meets us in the scuz of our bewildered lives rather than in some sort of ethereal theoria of speculative and mind-numbing reality of our own positing—as if we can posit the Holy Ground upon which God meets us; we can’t: He meets us as Holy Fire in things like dusty tumbleweed and in His assumed humanity.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 473-75.

Presenting a Genuinely and Radically Word-Based Christian Theology Contra Theologies of Speculation and Negation

Most of what dominates conservative evangelical Reformed theology these days is rooted in the speculative tradition, or what, more medievally is known as the via negativa (‘negative way’). Katherine Sonderegger, as a contemporary thinker, typifies it this way. Here she writes:

Note what I said here! Our reading of the priestly-prophetic visio Dei is not principally Trinitarian in character. We are not hearing and seeking out in this witness of ancient Israel a sign and foretaste of Triune Persons. It is not the Father, say, that we see breaking through the cloud and smoke to descend upon Moses and upon the people Israel. Nor do we look for an intimation of the Son in these royal Appearances in the temple. We do not bring forward first and principally the Holy Spirit as personal disclosure in Dame Wisdom or in the maternal brooding over the dark sea at creation’s dawn. The forward press of so much modern theology—the drive to subsume the doctrine of God within the Trinity and the Triune Persons—does not, I believe, properly attest the Unicity of the God of Israel. The Deity and Nature of God is personal: the One God is a Person; we can dare to put it this way. Monotheism is no shame word! At once God is Nature and Person, and the witness of ancient Israel to its Lord is to an Object inalienably Subject, a Subject lowered and handed over to be Object. This oscillation in Israel’s and therefore our religious life before God—now our experience of the I AM—is the gracious condescension of the Lord God to usward, for these are not two, not distinct or segmented, but One, One Mystery, One God.[1]

There is an ancient pedigree to this approach, one laid down by none other than Peter Lombard in the structuring of his Sentences; we might even call this the salvation-history approach. But inherent to this, as illustrated by Sonderegger, is a need to decentralize the threeness of God over-against the oneness; just because this is the ‘order’ we ostensibly receive in the linear unfolding of the Old Testament disclosure. So, in this sense, in the tradition Sonderegger forays forth for us, we could say she is following the contours of Scripture; but we could also say that she is doing so in an abstract way. Her approach can be characterized as ‘abstract’ at the point that she does not principially ground her ‘Word-based’ theologizing in the Christian understanding of the Logos of God. Contrariwise, what we see the New Testament authors doing, the Gospel of John comes quickly to mind, is a retroactive or recapitulatory reading of the Old Testament wherein the Word of God, who is the Christ, seemingly breaks in and all over the Old Testament and sees Christ as the revelation of God all along. In other words, in light of Christ, we come to recognize, by the Spirit, that the Old Testament was a witness to Jesus the Messiah all along. If this is the case, the so called ‘unicity’ of God is never an abstract oneness, but one that is inextricably understood in the multiplicity of the Triune Life of God as revealed in the Son, who is Jesus Christ.

In contrast to Sonderegger, and the tradition she typifies—which is often considered The Tradition of the Church when it comes to theological endeavor in the Western iteration—I want to suggest that we follow the New Testament authors, and understand that our theological entrée must be grounded in the Word of God alone. What I want to introduce us to is not without controversy though. But, I think we can constructively appropriate ways of thinking from contexts that might not end up correlating with the way we end up recasting them vis-à-vis their original context. Here, Eberhard Jüngel, through the telling of David Congdon, helps typify the sort of Word-based theology I think is more principially grounded in the concrete reality of God for us in Christ. Read with me for a moment, and then we will attempt to provide the constructive appropriation I am referring to. Congdon writes:

Jüngel begins by summarizing the way Bultmann differentiates the object of theology from the fides qua creditur of liberal theology, the fides quae creditur of Protestant orthodoxy, and the unknowable God of mysticism. Each of these approaches in theology either loses the divine object of theology altogether or speaks of God in abstraction from God’s “saving deed” (Heilstat) in Christ. If it is not to be mere speculation, theology can be the science of God only as the science of God’s word, the kerygma, the fides quae creditur. But the kerygma is the concrete event in which God’s saving action takes place: it is the eschatological word of God’s justifying judgment in Christ. One can only speak about this event by participating in it and existing as the object of this divine judgment. That is why “theology is the science of God, in that it is the science of faith, and vice versa.” Or as Luther famously put it in his Large Catechism, “these two things belong together, faith and God.” Theology, according to Bultmann, is a particular understanding of God that arises from the event of faith in the word of God. It is a task “enjoined to faith from faith and for faith,” and thus it does not derive from any general account of science or any human capacity for revelation. The encounter with Christ in the kerygma is the sole basis for theological speech and must occur ever anew. According to Jüngel, “the kerygma that faith accepts thus elicits along with faith a cognition [Erkennen], which is a knowledge [Wissen] that is never separable from the event of the kerygma and from the event of faith, but remains related to the Lord who encounters us in the kerygma.” Put more succinctly: “the truth of faith is the event of truth.”[2]

Sounds “existentialist,” right? The emphasis is indeed on encounter, but not an encounter generated by the “I” instead one that comes from the “Thou,” from God in Christ. Some might be concerned that Bultmann’s breath is too close to this to be of value for the conservative evangelical theology. But we can avoid going all the way with Bultmann, and instead critically appropriate the good in the bad.[3] And what we are really being presented with, through Congdon, is Jüngel’s Word-based basis for doing theology that is shaped by the concrete kataphatic reality of God in Christ.

Maybe you also noticed as you read Congdon’s development, the priority that is given to God confronting us, and giving us capacity that we did not have prior to the justification and reconcilation He brings for us in Christ. This, in itself levels a resounding no to the sort of theological method that Sonderegger, and her tradition, gives us. It says no to the inherent analogy of being and natural theology that allows the theologian to speculate about God in the first place; even if that speculation is said to be driven by the salvation-history unfolded in the Old Testament disclosure. For a genuinely Word-based theology there is no space for speculation about who God is, or what God is just because God’s revelation for us is given without remainder in Christ; and our knowledge of God in this frame is fully contingent upon this ‘without-remainder’ givenness for us in the face of God in Christ.

To summarize: Sonderegger, and the tradition she typifies, is committed to a speculative mode for doing theology; a mode that presupposes upon an inherent capacity within the human agent to discern or discover God simply by reflecting on the ‘nature’ of things as they are disclosed in the fabric of the created order. It is this mode of theologizing that necessarily starts with an emphasis on the oneness or monadic quiddity or whatness of God precisely because it starts by speculating about the singular power that might have been able to ‘cause’ what the thinker is discovering via the negative of the negating process they are enthralled by. Contrariwise, the Word-based tradition that Jüngel can help us understand is one that is based necessarily upon the premise that ‘reconciliation is revelation.’ What comes with this axiom is the notion that human agents have no capacity in themselves to discover God no matter how hard they try. In this Word-based approach, the theologian is fully dependent upon God encountering them, rather than vice-versa. Herein, in the encounter, the theologian becomes capacious to know God, but only as God is made known to them, without remainder, in the face of Christ.

I commend the Word-based approach to you; even if we might have to do some constructive work in order to keep it genuinely in line with orthodox premises. The fear of existential theology is unfounded just as it is possible to critically appropriate themes from existentialism, as it developed in the modern period and retext them under the pressures presented by the encounter of God Hisself. The fear of existential theology is unfounded just as the object of our theology is in fact also the Subject of theology; in other words, just as theology is grounded in the personal and Triune givenness of God for us in the person of the Son, Jesus Christ. This, I contend, is the better way forward for doing a genuinely Christian and evangelical theology. A theology that elides speculation about God from our own resources, and instead trusts the God revealed to have the capacity to explain Himself to us as both One and Three, Three in One in the tremendous mystery of the God who is for us, with us, and not against us.

 

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), Loc. 6577, 6584 Kindle.

[2] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 472-73.

[3] The bad being Bultmann’s understanding of the bodily resurrection of Christ and its untetheredness from historical concrete reality. We can follow Barth’s understanding of resurrection while at the same time appropriating some of Jüngel’s Bultmannian-like approach to grounding theological approach in the concrete reality of the Word of God in Christ. Here is Barth’s understanding of resurrection, just for point of reference:

The Easter story is not for nothing the story whose most illuminating moment according to the account of Mark’s Gospel consists in the inconceivable fact of an empty sepulcher, a fact which (in producing atrembling and astonishment) lays hold of the three woman disciples and reduces them to complete silence for they told no one of it, for they were afraid (Mk. 16.8). Everything else related by this story can be heard and believed in the very literalness in which it stands, but can really only be believed, because it drops out of all categories and so out of all conceivability. It cannot be sufficiently observed that in the most artless possible way all the New Testament Easter narratives fail to supply the very thing most eagerly expected in the interests of clearness, namely an account of the resurrection itself. CD I/2 §14, 115

“Revelation does not link up with a human religion which is already present and practised. It contradicts it”: Barth’s Critique of Religion as Unbelief

Religion, a term bandied around by many. It is a word people use frequently, but aren’t totally sure what they mean by it. It has a cultural context, informed by an “understood” or colloquial meaning that is probably fleeting for most. If we were to go out on the street and survey people, we’d get a variety of responses; probably having something to do with “organized religion,” versus “unorganized” (whatever that might mean). The Epistle of James speaks about a genuine and true religion; which is to pay attention to the poor and widows among us. In this sense, religion is seemingly given shape by a prior ethical demand that is met when the “religious” go and do. But what is it that gives the Christian religion its shape; is it primarily a ‘moral imperative?’ Should we, as Christians, refer to our ‘faith’ as ‘religion?’ Does religion itself contain an a priori commitment to a ‘before’ God; that is does religion inherently operate with a sense of humanity’s own capacity to approach God, whoever that God might be?

Karl Barth is critical of any form of ‘religion.’ He sees religion as unbelief, as an attempt by human communities to reach out to God from their own resource, context, and circumstance. As such, he sees God come in Christ as a contradiction to all religions, even Christian expressions. This, I think, is right! But rather than falling prey to the common evangelical refrain of: ‘it’s a relationship not a religion,’ Barth, unsurprisingly, focuses on God’s Self-revelation; he sees Godself as the contradiction to all forms of human attempts to reach Him from their own capaciousness. There is a subtlety to this that I think might be lost on various Christian traditions. I think it would be safe to say that Christians, of all expressions, in good-faith, believe that they are operating from a place of submission to God; that they aren’t engaging in “religious” behavior, per se. But I wonder if this is actually the case? I mean, when we think about theological methodology, is it the case that the Christian traditions, and the Christian Tradition actually operates in and from a place where they are actually committed to a mode that, de jure, is seeking God’s living voice (viva vox Dei) prior to elevating their own? Barth writes:

The image of God is always that reality of perception or thought in which man assumes and asserts something unique and ultimate and decisive either beyond or within his own existence, by which he believes himself to be posited or at least determined and conditioned. From the standpoint of revelation, man’s religion is simply an assumption and assertion of this kind, and as such it is an activity which contradicts revelation—contradicts it, because it is only through truth that truth can come to man. If man tries to grasp at truth of himself, he tries to grasp at it a priori. But in that case he does not do what he has to do when the truth comes to him. He does not believe. If he did, he would listen; but in religion he talks. If he did, he would accept a gift; but religion he takes something for himself. If he did, he would let God Himself intercede for God: but in religion he ventures to grasp at God. Because it is a grasping, religion is the contradiction of revelation, the concentrated expression of human unbelief, i.e., an attitude and activity which is directly opposed to faith. It is a feeble but defiant, an arrogant but hopeless, attempt to create something which man could do, but now cannot do, or can do only because and if God Himself creates it for him: the knowledge of the truth, the knowledge of God. We cannot, therefore, interpret the attempt as a harmonious co-operating of man with the revelation of God, as though religion were a kind of outstretched hand which is filled by God in His revelation. Again, we cannot say of the evident religious capacity of man that it is, so to speak, the general form of human knowledge, which acquires its true and proper content in the shape of revelation. On the contrary, we have here an exclusive contradiction. In religion man bolts and bars himself against revelation by providing a substitute, by taking away in advance the very thing which has to be given by God.

Non apprehendunt (Deum) qualem se offert, sed qualem pro temeritate fabricati sunt, imanginantur [They do not accept (God) as He offers Himself, but they imagine Him, rashly, to be as they have made him (Calvin, Instit. I, 4, 1)

He has, of course, the power to do this. But what he achieves and acquires in virtue of this power is never the knowledge of God as Lord and God. It is never the truth. It is a complete fiction, which has not only little but not relation to God. It is an anti-God who has first to be known as such and discarded when the truth comes to him. But it can be known as such, as a fiction, only as the truth does come to him.

Notitia Dei, quails hominibus restat, nihil aliud est, qualm horrenda idololatriae et superstitionum omnium scaturigo [The knowledge of God, as it is now among men, is nothing other than an abhorrent source of idolatry and all superstitions] (Calvin, Comm. on Jn. 3.6, C.R. 47, 57)

Revelation does not link up with a human religion which is already present and practised. It contradicts it, just as religion previously contradicted revelation. It displaces it, just as religion previously displaced revelation; just as faith cannot link up with a mistaken faith, but must contradict and displace it as unbelief, as an act of contradiction.[1]

We might say religion was invented the moment Eve reached down to pluck the forbidden fruit. The moment Eve and Adam plunged their teeth into that seductive produce human religion was seeded. It is only the invasion of God’s alien life in Christ wherein this root is dug out, and replaced with the seed of His life; it is here where religion is confronted, contradicted, and displaced with the only reality that can meet the human need for worship and purpose.

Barth’s critique of religion, if ever needed, is now! I write from the North American evangelical context. It feels as if we are so wayward from the living reality of God that we wouldn’t recognize Christ’s voice if it confronted us to our faces. If Barth ever needed an example of the sort of religion he is thinking of, then he needn’t look any further than the American evangelical church. She is awash in the grasping that Barth rightfully identifies as the definition of religion. The evangelical Church in America has lost her first love, and unless she is open to the Revelation of God in Christ she will never find her way back. But she has also lost the concept of Revelation; that concept in itself is ostensibly too deep for the evangelical mind these days. Kyrie eleison!

[1]Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2 §17: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 105-06.

The Calvinian Turn to Jesus Christ Versus the Catholic Turn to the Vicar: A Rationale for the Evangelical Calvinist Via

John Calvin provided for a Protestantly Reformed turn towards a genuinely Christocentric theology of the Word, that prior (except in lineaments found in some Patristics and then in Martin Luther) was hard to find; particularly in the mediaeval context within which Calvin found himself, even if that was of the late variety. In the modern period when we read someone like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and then compare that with a reading of John Calvin, what stands out is the way that Barth/Torrance followed Calvin’s ‘turn,’ but only in even more radical or theo-logically conclusive ways. This is something I don’t think current Protestants who are attempting to retrieve the ‘classical’ past appreciate very much; viz. this turn that Calvin helped initiate (along with Luther), a radical turn to a genuine theology of the Word in Jesus Christ—a turn to a christocentric approach to theological endeavor versus the theocentric that reigned supreme in the Tridentine.

Julie Canlis—as we once again refer to her magisterial work, Calvin’s Ladder—helps us appreciate this Calvinian turn as she contrasts that with the Aquinasian approach (you’ll see her reference the structure of Thomas’s Summa Theologiae and how that materially illustrates her point). She writes:

A comparison of Aquinas and Calvin reveals that, while Calvin picks up on this scholastic scheme, he also fundamentally alters it. Pushing beyond Wyatt’s insight, we discover that it no longer is the story of humanity’s ascent to God by grace (Aquinas), or of the soul’s ascent (Augustine), but of Christ’s ascent. Calvin refuses to tack Christ as a tertia pars onto the Plotinian circle of creation’s procession from and return to God. Instead, Christ breaks open the circle and grafts it onto himself. For Calvin, the figure of Christ has shattered any scheme that begins with creation and allows creation to be considered apart from Christ, through whom it was made and to whom it is directed. In subtly shifting Aquinas’s exitus- reditus scheme from anthropology to Christ, Calvin challenges Aquinas’s attempt at theocentrism as not going far enough. It is not Christ who fits into the procrustean bed of anthropology but we who are fitted to Christ and his ascent. In him and by his Spirit, we ascend to the Father.[1]

She is certainly right to recognize that Calvin operated in the milieu of his own period; how could he not? But, as Canlis also helps us see, Calvin was a constructive and ingenious Christian thinker propelled by his newfound Protest-ant faith; a faith given direction and shape by a principled commitment to the Word rather than to the Church as his ultimate authority. Within this complex Calvin was ingressed into a new world that had the imaginary to think the church from Christ rather than Christ from the church; as such, he was able to make the turn that others prior couldn’t.

I would suggest that Barth and Torrance picked up on this turn in Calvin, and as I noted previously, radicalized it further; to its rightful conclusion even. Both Barth and Torrance, and us Evangelical Calvinists, are genuinely Calvinian in the sense that we operate not just in the spirit, but the letter of Calvin’s turn to Jesus Christ as the centraldogma of all that is viable in theological endeavor. I think our counterparts in other tributaries of the Reformed faith, in their zeal to recover the ‘catholic faith’ have unfortunately overlooked the sort of Christ conditioned notion of God that Calvin (and Luther) did not. As Evangelical Calvinists we attempt to move and breath in this Christ concentrated spirit, with the result that all our theologizing is principially and intensively Christ pressured. We think this is the right trajectory to be on since Jesus himself seemed to take this approach when engaging with Holy Scripture (cf. Jn 5.39; etc.).

[1] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension(Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), Loc. 493, 498.

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.