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.

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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.

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

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

philosophers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

What is Natural Theology? and Why It Should be Abhorred.

Often I reference Natural Theology on my forum/blog, but I do not often give an explanation for what it is in a basic sense. So with this post I hope to quickly remedy that by providing a basic definition of what natural hitler1theology entails, and who was one of its most famous and early proponents. Millard Erickson in his systematic theology Introducing Christian Doctrine has written this in description and definition of what natural theology is at a basic level:

The core of natural theology is the idea that it is possible, without prior commitment of faith to the beliefs of Christianity, and without relying upon any special authority, such as an institution (the church) or a document (the Bible), to come to a genuine knowledge of God on the basis of reason alone. Reason here refers to the human capacity to discover, understand, interpret, and evaluate the truth.

Perhaps the outstanding example of natural theology in the history of the church is the massive effort of Thomas Aquinas. According to Thomas, all truth belongs to one of two realms. The lower realm is the realm of nature, the higher the realm of grace. While the claims pertaining to the upper realm must be accepted on authority, those pertaining to the lower realm may be known by reason.[1]

This seems probably pretty vanilla for most evangelical Christians to digest, and something most are pretty familiar with; in fact it seems intuitive, does it not? But I reject this; I reject the idea, along with Karl Barth and against Thomas Aquinas that people in general can come to a genuine knowledge of God apart from God’s particular Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, most of the Western tradition of Christianity (of which almost all of my readers are participants of, i.e. the Western trad) affirms natural theology. It affirms conceiving of God, categorically by way of employing philosophical reflection as determinative for how we supply ourselves with a grammar that articulates God. I reject this though. So does Karl Barth, and here is why[2] (and this is a full length quote, so hang on),

“The content of revelation is wholly God.” The point here is simply that God is not just half revealed, so that another part of his being or attributes or acts will have to remain hidden or will have to be imparted in some other way than by revelation. As regards the second possibility, we have to think especially of the increasing role played in Protestant theology from the end of the 16th century by what is variously called natural theology or revelation or religion (as distinct from the supernatural or Christian revelation). Natural revelation includes not only the voice of God in nature, as the name indicates, but also such things as conscience, the moral light of nature, religious feelings or dispositions or tendencies in us, mathematical and philosophical axioms, what better pagans know about the existence and unity of God, and the creation and overruling of the world by him, and non-Christian analogies even to such central Christian mysteries as the Trinity and the incarnation. Theologians usually regarded and employed this natural revelation as a good and useful narthex or first stage on the way to the true Christian revelation. The older Reformed theology in particular attached high importance to this preliminary structure. According to A. Schweizer one might even see in it one of the most valuable features of Reformed theology. It was given a place of honor in the 19th century both in the first part of Schleiermacher’s Christian Faith and in Schweizer’s own Glaubenslehre. Vestigia terrent! For my part, although I am Reformed, I want no part of it. You will not be surprised at this in view of what I have said earlier. Either God speaks, or he does not. But he does not speak more or less, or partially, or in pieces, here a bit and there a bit. This is a contradiction in terms, an anthropomorphism, a basic naturalizing of revelation which fits Schleiermacher very well, but which ought not to have found any place among the older Reformed. Calvin at the end of the discussion in the first chapters of the Institutes was perspicacious enough to raise the whole question again, to oppose the Christian knowledge of God dialectically to natural knowledge, and to proceed as though there were only the former. And even in Thomas Aquinas the insights one can gain into God’s nature apart from revelation have the significance only of a possible and necessary ancillary construction that pays secondary honor to the truth of revelation. If God speaks, then God speaks, and we have to do with the one Logos that the prophets and apostles received, the one revelation in the incarnation which the people of the Bible know and attest as either promised or manifested. Nothing prevents us, and much urgently inclines us to suppose that others, too, might have had a share, and might still have a share, in the same divine answer. We do well at this point to confess the free and broad outlook of Aquinas when he said that all truth, no matter who speaks it, is of the Holy Spirit, or of Zwingli when he said that whoever speaks truth speaks of God. But the truth must then be understood as the one totality of truth, and the words “Holy Spirit” and “God” must be taken in a pregnant sense. Truth that really goes back to God cannot be a particle of truth. It is either the whole truth or it does not go back to God and is not revelation at all.[3]

Interesting how Barth constructively engages with Aquinas, while at the same time ardently rejecting what Thomas became largely known for: natural theology.

What is the practical implication if we follow natural theology? Does it affect the way we think of God if we seek God and his ways, his perfections from nature before we encounter and meet him in Jesus Christ? What of the Old Testament, someone might ask, don’t we see older people of God engaging in natural theology? Isn’t God ‘progressively’ unfolded for us in the Old Testament before we ever meet him in Christ, and don’t we infer things about God in the Old Testament that are a result of reflecting upon him in his activity in nature (like creation, etc.)?

The above might represent challenges to Barth’s position against natural theology, and in fact, there are even more nuanced Greek ones that appeal to the Logos and His place in the taxis or order of nature itself (the Eastern Orthodox are fond of going this way).

I think you “non-specialist” Christian out there, you would be very surprised if you dug deeper how entrenched your understanding of God is by natural theology. I think natural theology ends up in idolatry, and it elevates humanity’s capacity to know God that in the end supplants a need for God by a continual need for us and our intellects in order to create space and grammar for God without allowing God’s own life to determine the shape of the grammar he would have us use in order to understand him under the force and compelling reality of his own life.[4]

 

 

 

[1] Millard J. Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1996), 35.

[2] I have used the picture of Adolf Hitler in this post because it was the context within which Barth wrote and wrote against. Hitler and the Reich would have represented a socio-cultural expression and logical/theological conclusion to where natural theology when consistently held to could potentially lead. In other words, natural theology is an ‘under the sun’ theology such that what ‘is’ (for the natural theologian) is what ‘ought’ to be. If we start any other place other than God in Jesus Christ as the ‘is’ and thus the ‘ought’, if we start from below, like Hitler did, if we start from our own thinking and reflection upon nature, consistent with this, in an extreme but logical form, might result in something like the Holocaust, or even the Apartheid of South Africa. So I appeal to Hitler not to shut any further arguments down, but to illustrate Barth’s context, and why he with such fervor abhorred natural theology as the following quote from him will demonstrate.

[3] Karl Barth, The Gottingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 91-2.

[4] Also see my chapter, “Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either Through Christ or Through Nature,” in Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church, eds. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 94-113. Also I should note, that I am not suggesting that we are not part of the equation, and that we do not or should not engage with every ounce of capacity the Lord has given us; instead with my point here, I am suggesting that we need to, by way of order, allow God’s crystalline voice spoken most evidently and clearly in his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ by the breath of the Holy Spirit, to be the voice we seek first. There is no voice in nature, apart from the One who first gave nature by fiat in and for Jesus Christ (Col. 1.15ff; Rev. 21–22; etc.). He alone exegetes, explains the Father, the God-head for us. If domain of the Word, of Jesus Christ, is inclusive of nature, then it behooves us to start with her King, and think from there. This whole post, this whole consideration comes back to a matter of theological methodology–and yet I cannot stress how important this at a most basic level, that is, knowing God.

What Does Doing Trinitarian Theology Really Mean, Bobby? Come on, We are all evangelicals here; we all affirm the Trinity!

To elaborate further on my last post, and a move (by myself, personally) into a Trinitarian jesusicon2theology approach towards doing theology, let me highlight what this means a little more extensively. I mean after all, what I am asserting (about doing Trinitarian theology) might sound strange to most evangelical theologians, and Christians in general, since all evangelicals affirm the doctrine of the Trinity as an article of the Faith; indeed when in seminary, when I told one of my evangelical profs that I was into Trinitarian theology (at that point for me it was mostly Colin Gunton’s work), he said: “aren’t we all?” But he wasn’t really grasping what I meant; and I am afraid his refrain might really be the common one among many evangelicals when they hear such things. So let me elaborate.

Michael Bird in his yet to be released (October 29th, 2013) systematic theology captures well what is going on when I refer to the doing of Trinitarian theology. And so let me quote him, and then quote Timothy Keller (so that I can appear less critical than I have been of Keller in a few prior posts to this one) who Bird quotes in his footnote to the quote that I am offering from him (Bird). He writes:

If the gospel is the anchor point for our study of God, we must start with the Trinity. We do not commence theology with apologetic arguments and theistic proofs that seemingly prove God’s existence since we are not going to let skeptics set the agenda for the order of our study. We do not open our theological project with bibliology or a doctrine of Scripture since that would make reasoning from Scripture our foundation, whereas the foundation for our knowledge of God is God himself as revealed in the gospel. Theology is about God; therefore, we must begin with the person of God as we encounter him in the gospel through his operations as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[1]

And Bird’s favorable quote from Timothy Keller and D. A. Carson:

We also thought it was important to begin our confession with God rather than with Scripture. This is significant. The Enlightenment was overconfident about human rationality. Some strands of it assumed it was possible to build systems of thought on unassailable foundations that could be absolutely certain to unaided human reason. Despite their frequent vilification of the Enlightenment, many conservative evangelicals have nevertheless been shaped by it. This can be seen in how many evangelical statements of faith start with the Scripture, not with God. They proceed from Scripture to doctrine through rigorous exegesis in order to build (what they consider) an absolutely sure, guaranteed-true-to-Scripture theology. The problem is that this is essentially a foundationalist approach to knowledge. It ignores the degree to which our cultural location affects our interpretation of the Bible, and it assumes a very rigid subject-object distinction. It ignores historical theology, philosophy, and cultural reflection. Starting with the Scripture leads readers to the over confidence that their exegesis of biblical texts has produced a system of perfect doctrinal truth. This can create pride and rigidity because it may not sufficiently acknowledge the fallenness of human reason. We believe it is best to start with God, to declare (with John Calvin, Institutes 1.1) that without knowledge of God we cannot know ourselves, our world, or anything else. If there is no God, we would have no reason to trust our reason.[2]

johnlockeThere are some things that I would take issue with in regard to what Carson and Keller communicate about the impact of the enlightenment; I do not see it as negatively as they do, even though, to be sure, there are some negative things about it—as there is with any period of ideational development. But in principle, what Bird, Carson and Keller affirm about doing theology, theocentrically, and more pointedly, in Bird, Trinitarianly is laudable!

In my own published writing, I have engaged with this in an even more pointed fashion by comparing and contrasting an analogy of faith/relation approach (pace Barth and Torrance) with an analogy of being approach (pace Thomas Aquinas and some of the post Reformed orthodox after him). After developing what these two disparate approaches are, I then compared how these have had the propensity to get cashed out into the making of some Reformed Confessions (Scots Confession, Westminster Confession, Belgic Confession), and one Catechism (the Heidelberg). Let me quote what I wrote in the last section of my chapter after doing the comparative work and some commentary on these Confessions & Catechism. I will have to follow this up later, with another post, since after I quote myself, this will make this post twice as long as the attention span is for most blog readers (which is usually about 1,000 words, and not any longer). The following then is taken from my chapter in our edited book (Evangelical Calvinism), the chapter is entitled: Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis?: Either through Christ or through Nature, covering pp. 108-11:

The Preaching of Knox before the Lords of the Congregation, 10th June 1559 1832 by Sir David Wilkie 1785-1841

At first blush there might not be much apparent difference between The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), The Belgic Confession of the Faith (BC), The Heidelberg Catechism (HC) and The Scott’s [sic] Confession 1560 (SC); but this requires further reflection. The “Westminster” tradition starts talking about God by highlighting his “attributes,” these are characteristics that are contrasted with what humans are not (analogia entis). We finally make it to God as “Father, Son, Holy Spirit,” but not before we have qualified him through “our” categories using humanity and nature (analogia entis) as our mode of thinking about “godness.” This is true for both the WCF and the BC. Jan Rohls provides a helpful insight on this when he speaks to the nature of the composition of many of the Reformed Confessions (including both the WCF and the BC):

It is characteristic of most of the confessional writings that they begin with a general doctrine of God’s essence and properties, and only then proceed to the doctrine of the Trinity. The two pieces “On the One God” (De deo uno) and “On the Triune God” (De deo trino) are thus separated from each other. . . .[3]

Nevertheless, this is not the case for all Reformed confessions and/or catechisms. We should consider the possibility of learning to read some confessions and catechisms together, relative to shared theological emphases.[4]

The Heidelberg Catechism and The Scots Confession both emphasize the Triune nature of God as Father; in other words, as Rohls notes above, these two statements do not separate God’s personal relations from his works or attributes—as does both The Belgic Confession of the Faith and The Westminster Confession of Faith. The emphasis of these documents is thus on the economic revelation of God in Christ as the “eternal Son of God” who exegetes God’s inner-life as loving Father of, Son, by the Holy Spirit as the shape of his being. James K. A. Smith picks up on this same reality as he comments on The Heidelberg Catechism, when he expresses his opinion that:

But I have to confess that when I discovered the Heidelberg Catechism, it was like discovering a nourishing oasis compared to the arid desert of Westminster’s cool scholasticism. The God of the Heidelberg Catechism is not just a Sovereign Lord of the Universe, nor merely the impartial Judge at the trial of justification; the God of the Heidelberg Catechism keeps showing up as a Father. For example, when expounding the first article of the Apostles’ Creed (“I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth”), the Heidelberg Catechism discusses all the ways that God upholds the universe by his hand, but also affirms that this sovereign Creator attends to me, a speck in that universe. And it concludes the answer to question 26 by summarizing: “He is able to do this because he is almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.” [5]

This illustrates the reason why, out of the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms, these reflect themes which are central to Evangelical Calvinism. It is the all important Doctrine of God embedded within these statements that Evangelical Calvinism believes is so important. In Smith’s words, it is the language of Father that should be emphasized; the Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit—or the Trinitarian nature of God. To repeat for sake of emphasis: according to Evangelical Calvinism, God is Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit—constituently—before he ever becomes or is known as Creator (Law-giver, etc.). God becomes Creator by a free act of gracious love for the other, and out of this free un-restrained act he graciously creates because he is a lover first; which shapes his creating (and saving and re-creating) activity in grace.

Thomas Torrance quite clearly understood how important this emphasis is to our understanding of God, especially as this is expressed in our confessional documents. He is worth quoting in full here:

 . . . in the Scots Confession as in John Knox’s Genevan Liturgy, the doctrine of the Trinity is not added on to a prior conception of God — there is no other content but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There was no separation here between the doctrine of the One God (De Deo Uno), and the doctrine of the triune God (De Deo Trino), which had become Roman orthodoxy through the definitive formalisation of Thomas Aquinas. This trinitarian approach was in line with The Little Catechism which Knox brought back from Geneva for the instruction of children in the Kirk. “I believe in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Son and in the Holy Spirit, and look for salvation by no other means.” Within this trinitarian frame the centre of focus in the Confession and Catechism alike is upon Jesus Christ himself, for it is only through him and the Gospel he proclaimed that God’s triune reality is made known, but attention is also given to the Holy Spirit. Here once again we have a different starting point from other Reformation Confessions. Whereas they have a believing anthropocentric starting point, such as in the Heidelberg Catechism, this is quite strongly theocentric and trinitarian. Even in Calvin’s Institute, which follows the fourfold pattern in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the doctrine of the Trinity is given in the thirteenth chapter within the section on the doctrine of God the Creator. Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, however, understandably followed the order of the Apostles’ Creed. The trinitarian teaching in the Scots Confession was by no means limited to the first article for it is found throughout woven into the doctrinal content of subsequent articles.[6]

This delineates how Evangelical Calvinism substantially moves away from the Thomist doctrine of God presented by Classical Theism and Classical Calvinism. Torrance’s point on a wedge between the “single substance” of God versus the “thrice personages” of the Trinity within “‘Classical’ Theologies” is significant. In other words, as Torrance highlights, we should not start with a notion of “god,” and then add on the hypostasis of the Trinity to that concept; instead Evangelical Calvinists believe, along with Torrance, that the ousia of God (de Deo uno) finds its shape in the coinhering inter-relations of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (de Deo trino).[7]


[1] Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (USA: Zondervan Publishing, 2013), 92-3.

[2] D. A. Carson and Timothy Keller, Gospel-Centered Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 6 in Bird, Evangelical Theology, 93, n. 11.

[3] Jan Rohls, Reformed Confessions: Theology from Zurich to Barmen, (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Westminster Press, 1998), 48.

[4] Reading confessions and catechisms together is not a foreign practice in the Reformed churches, for example the Dutch Reformed church has, historically, read The Belgic Confession of the Faith, The Heidelberg Catechism, and The Canons of the Synod Dort together as an ecclesiological basis for “unity” among the Reformed churches—known as “The Three Forms of Unity.” Jonathan Neil Gerstner writes:

The Three Forms of Unity, the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of the Synod of Dort, form the confessional basis of the Dutch Reformed Church. They also demonstrate how much the Dutch Reformed church was influenced by the broader Reformed community. The Canons of Dort were the only one of the three Dutch Reformed confessions composed in the Netherlands, and it included delegates from every Reformed church in Europe which were permitted to attend. The earlier two creeds reflect the two major strands of the Reformed tradition which merged in the Netherlands, the French and the German.

 Gerstner, The Thousand Generation Covenant, 11. For more discussion on various usages of the Reformed confessions and catechisms see Rohls, Reformed Confessions, 265–302. Given the subordinate nature of the Reformed confessions to Scripture, there is a flexibility that inheres with their relative usage. Just as the Dutch Reform church adopted three particular Reformed statements within the confessional framework; likewise, Evangelical Calvinists operate with the same liberty in appropriating The Heidelberg Catechism and The Scots Confession of Faith for theological purposes.

[5] Smith, Letters To A Young Calvinist, 55.

[6] Torrance, Scottish Theology,  3–4.

[7] It is important to keep in mind that all “Protestant Reformed Confessions” intend on presenting a way to think about God that accurately captures who he has revealed himself to be. The point of contention then is not over an issue of intention, but instead whether or not the chosen philosophical apparatus actually allows some of these Confessions to present a doctrine of God that should be emphasized if in fact we are being sensitive to the Revelation of God in Jesus Christ; and all of the categories and emphases that are attendant with “that” Revelation.