Riposte: The Apocalyptic Paul Against Scott Swain’s ‘god of the Philosophers’


I take special care of those who have publicly criticized our Evangelical Calvinism in published form, as Scott Swain has; especially when they promote mayonnaise as a worthy food product. As such, and on this mundane occasion (since this is a blog post), let me alert my readers to a short essay Swain has written for Pro Ecclesia. The title of his essay is: God, Metaphysics, and the Discourse of TheologyThis locus has special place for me precisely because it has to do with a prolegomenological (totally made-up word) issue; as this has been of particular focus for me (even in published form). Here is Swain’s abstract:


In chapter 4 of his book, God in Himself, Steven Duby grounds theology’s use of metaphysical language and concepts in Scripture’s prior usage of such language and concepts. The following article seeks to fortify Duby’s argument by showing how the discourse of the gospel subversively fulfills the quest of Greco-Roman philosophy and religion to ground divine worship in a proper understanding of the divine nature.1

As we can see Swain’s method will be to engage with Steven Duby’s work (also a friend) on theology proper; with their shared focus on arguing for the classical—and Thomistic!—method of deploying and synthesizing the Greeks with Christian Dogmatic development. They both wholeheartedly maintain that the Hellenic grammar and categories are ‘fitting’ and ‘expedient’ for the Evangel’s promulgation. After describing the problem Duby seeks to engage, as that has ostensibly been presented by the ‘liberal’ (my word) theology of the 19th century moderns, in regard to a development of theology proper, Swain summarizes Duby’s thesis thusly:

In chapter 4 of his book, Duby engages modern Protestant theology’s claim that the discourses of theology and metaphysics are ultimately incompatible. Following precedents in Scripture and tradition, he attempts to show why and how theology may use the language and concepts of metaphysics faithfully and fruitfully in speaking of the gospel’s God while avoiding many of modern Protestant thoughts’ deepest worries.2


Swain, subsequent to this, parses out the various highpoint themes of Duby’s response in argument (we will not engage with that for space and time limits). As Swain’s Abstract underscores, his aim will be to ‘fortify’ the groundwork that Duby has laid out in his book length treatment of the matter. In nucethey both (Duby and Swain, respectively) maintain that Greek metaphysics ought to be deployed in helping the Ecclesia to think God. For Swain, in particular, this entails an argument from Scripture; with focused reference on Paul in the Areopagus (cf. Acts 17.22-34). But before we get to that, Swain is clear on one basic premise; this is not unique to him. As a preamble to all else that follows in Swain’s argument for the usefulness of Greek metaphysics towards an intelligible proclamation of the Gospel, he is clear that what makes the “two-books” of nature (general and special revelation) corollary is God’s providence. He rightfully makes a distinction between Divine Inspiration and Providence, but then allows the Divine qualification to bring a conselium between the two such that the former might be complemented by the latter. He writes (in extenso):

Evangelical discourse is a “third language” that “inherits two languages,” the primary language of Israel’s scriptures and the secondary language of Greek philosophy and religion. Evangelical discourse claims to fulfill the discourse of Israel’s scriptures and the discourse of pagan philosophy and religion. But it claims to fulfill them in two different ways.

The language of Israel’s scriptures and the language of the gospel are bound together by divine inspiration. These two forms of discourse are authored by one God and proclaim one message of salvation. Israel’s scriptures proclaim this message in the mode of promise. The gospel proclaims this message in the mode of fulfillment. Evangelical discourse announces the surprising fulfillment of the promise of Israel’s scriptures, the revelation of a “mystery” once hidden but now revealed (Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:26) and, in so doing, often confounds the expectations of its hearers (Luke 24:25; 1 Cor. 1:23). Nevertheless, evangelical discourse also holds that the mystery it proclaims is hidden within the Old Testament writings themselves and therefore wholly continuous with them as their necessary fulfillment (Luke 24:26-27; John 5:39, 46; Rom. 16:25-27; Eph. 5:32).

The language of Greek philosophy and religion and the language of the gospel are bound together by divine providence. Greek philosophy and religion are not the product of divine inspiration. They are not “pedagogues” (cf. Gal. 3:24) designed to lead the Gentles to Jesus Christ. Greek philosophy and religion are characterized by idolatry, error, and unrighteousness, and the gospel calls their adherents to repentance (Acts 17:30; Rom. 1:18). For this reason, Christian theology cannot hope to find a smooth fit, a hand and glove correlation between evangelical discourse and pagan discourse. The gospel is “foolishness to the Greeks” (1 Cor. 1:23). Evangelical discourse subverts pagan discourse.

That said, there is no absolute metaphysical contrast between evangelical discourse and pagan discourse. Although these two forms of discourse are not bound together by divine inspiration, they are bound together by divine providence. Although Jew and Greek, Christian and non-Christian do not share a common language, they do share a common human nature; both are objects of God’s providential goodness. The existence of Greek philosophy and religion presupposes the existence of God’s general revelation (Rom. 1:20-23). Idolatry is parasitic on religion, error is parasitic on truth, and unrighteousness is parasitic on righteousness. For this reason, in subverting the idolatry and error of pagan discourse, evangelical discourse may also claim to fulfill its deepest, albeit distorted, longings (Acts 17:26-27). The gospel can take up the language, concepts, and even the judgments of pagan discourse, make them its own, and proclaim in Jesus Christ their fulfillment. The word of the cross confounds the Greek quest for wisdom. But in doing so, it also answers that quest. For Christ is “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).

In the gospel’s subversive fulfillment of pagan philosophy and religion, we find the evangelical logic for critically appropriating the language and concepts of metaphysics in the discourse of theology. As we will see more fully below, the discourse of the gospel and the discourse of pagan philosophy and religion not only share common language and concepts. They also share a common judgment, namely, the conviction that divine worship should correspond to the divine being and nature. This shared judgment grounds the gospel’s claim to fulfill pagan philosophy and religion and warrants Christian theology’s use of metaphysical language and concepts in speaking of the gospel’s God.3

I shared this in full because I want my readers to understand exactly what Swain’s proposal is (and because by copying and pasting it saves me the time of summarizing his argument in my own words, and thus fulfills the blogger’s dream of covering lots of ground in short amounts of time). So, we can see that Swain presupposes as a basic a priori that a belief in God’s providence is essential in grounding an argument for deploying Greek metaphysics as the most fitting grammar, as a ‘handmaiden’ to the inspired witness of Scripture, in regard to the Gospel’s intelligible and thus kerygmatic proclamation.

Subsequent to this, in the next section of the essay (which you can read for yourself of course), Swain attempts to make his argument by developing an exegesis of Acts 17, and the means the Apostle Paul uses to ‘prove’ to the Greeks that Jesus is Lord; and that the ‘unknown’ god, is in fact the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as revealed in Christ. Whether or not Swain is successful in his argument here, the reader will have to discern (notice his reference to interpretatio). Swain sees what he calls a ‘subversive fulfillment’ in the fittingness of Greek metaphysics for articulating a Christian theological dogmatic. He maintains that while there isn’t a one-for-one correspondence between the Greek god of Pure Being, and the God revealed in Christ, at the same time, as the long quote above reinforces, for Swain, there is a ‘parasitic’ correlation between the Greek gods and the true God such that the latter, through the wisdom of the cross, can in-break and subvert the secular with the sacred; to the point that what the Greeks only grasped in part (by reflecting on nature simpliciter), they might now know in [ful]fill through the ultimate revelation of the God of nature in Jesus Christ.


In light of the above (hopefully I shared enough in order for you to get the gist) I only have one question: where does Swain get his understanding of Divine providence from? As noted previously, Swain needs this premise about the commonality that providence provides for shared spheres of knowledge between the Pagans and Christians, vis-à-vis God, in order to argue that Greek metaphysics provides the most fitting grammar necessary for articulating God. What if the concept of providence Swain is operating with itself is Hellenic? How does Swain know that God’s providence functions this way; ie as the ground of shared knowledge about God between the Greeks and the Christians (albeit in an asymmetrically corresponding way)?

Is the Apostle Paul’s intent to show the Aeropagites that Zeus or an ‘unknown god’ is in fact Yahweh? Or is it to show them that their longing for ultimacy can only be fulfilled as they place their faith in a God who is sui generis? Indeed, the Apostle Paul himself didn’t come to know God by means of Greek metaphysics; surely a man of his learnedness (and he was brilliant for his day, in general) would have had recourse to think God along with Philo et alia by way of Greek metaphysics. But that isn’t the correlation he makes in Galatians (1.11-17), instead he writes:

 “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone;  nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.”

Should we surmise from Paul that the Greeks provided a framework for thinking the revealed God, as that knowledge-frame is conditioned by a reflection on the natural order of things in the created sphere? Or should we rather conclude that Paul believed that who he encountered in Christ was solely based on a sui generis confrontation such that even his Jewish teachers could never have imagined (like the ones who crucified the Christ)? The Galatian Paul, the epistolary Paul, who by genre is intending to didact his readers and hearers, asserts that he didn’t receive his knowledge of the living God by even his Hebrew fathers, but instead through the revelation of the risen Christ himself. We don’t see Paul affirming the teachings of the Greeks as fitting in regard to coming to a genuine knowledge of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Instead, we see him discomfiting the fittingness of any ‘man’, whether Jew or Greek (see I Cor. 1.17-25), to furnish grounds for thinking the revealed God (Deus revelatus). If anything, according to the ‘apocalyptic Paul,’ as we find in Galatians, there is a discorrespondence between the Greek conception of God, and instead one that is purely grounded in the Hebraic understanding of a God revealed.


In the end, really, I think Swain’s essay is funded by tautologous thinking, and remains petitio principii as far as his major premise on Divine providence. I think that if we are careful to focus on the intention provided for by the literary types found in Scripture, that what we actually get in the didactic (think discourse literature) Paul of the Galatian correspondence is what he wants the churches to understand as sacra doctrinaWhen an argument, such as Swain’s, is grounded in a narrative trope, as we find in the Lukan story of the Acts of the Apostles, it is hard to tell whether what is being communicated therein ought to be taken as prescriptive or descriptive; normative or non-normative. Typically, and I would say always, narrative literature, such as we find in Acts, is descriptive and non-normative. What this means for Swain’s biblical argument is that it doesn’t come with the same force we find in the discourse literature (ie Galatians), which is thus intended to be prescriptive and thus normative, for the Church’s understanding on doctrinal matters. In other words, it would have served Swain better, in an attempt to make a biblical argument on this matter, to do so from an Epistle of Paul’s rather than a narrative account that could be taken in a variety of ways. But then I would argue that the delimiter, in regard to the way that Paul is arguing in the Aeropagus, was purely a situational moment wherein he subverted (or negated) the whole edifice upon which Greek knowledge of the gods was built. Since Paul’s knowledge of God was clearly built on God’s Self-revelation, rather than on Greek metaphysics. That is, he was discarding the bases upon which the Greek’s ‘unknown god’ was built upon, and saying that what they were ultimately seeking for could not be found in the No-God they had left a placeholder for, and instead could only be found in the revealed God that no man had ever thought of prior to His showing up in the face of Jesus Christ.

1 Scott R. Swain, “God, Metaphysics, and the Discourse of Theology,” Pro Ecclesia (2021): 1.

2 Ibid., 2.

3 Ibid., 5-6.

A Note on the Christian Conception of the Relationship Between Church and State: A Christopolitical Dispatch

Theo-politics have been somewhat of an uninterrogated reality for me. As a conservative evangelical, growing up, I sloppily and haphazardly went the way of the Republican party as “the lesser of two-evils” in our representative government in North America. As time has progressed, and I have developed more (at least I like to think that) I have become what might be called unenthralled and agnostic when it comes to politics, but the reality is that this just cannot be. As a Christian politics is always a present reality; the fact that Jesus is Lord (kyrios) is in itself a call to action, and to be engaged in such a way that requires that I be intentionally thoughtful about theopolitical action. The theo attached to the political is of upmost and adjectival significance for me; it might be better, just for sake of clarity and specificity to call this concern christopolitical. So this has caused me a bit of anguish—although the realities of daily life often keep me preoccupied such that I have less time to critically contemplate such verities with the type of acuity that I’d like—as a result I keep seeking ways to think about my relation to the state as a member of Christ’s church (catholic).

In seminary I took a class called Church and Culture; this class was taught by Paul Metzger, and in it we worked through Karl Barth’s concepts on the relationship between the sacred and secular—we spent our time working through Metzger’s PhD dissertation on the subject helping him get it ready for publication. It was in this class that I really began to see a critical way to think theopolitics, but that remained an inchoate reality for me; nevertheless the frame was set for thinking such things through the analogy of the incarnation and the Chalcedonian pattern which the hypostatic union provided the component concepts towards. Not too long ago I read Barth’s book Against the Stream, which represent some post-second world war talks and lectures he gave, as I recall, in Hungary and Poland. In these published lectures I gained an even better grasp for what I was introduced to in Metzger’s class; in regard to how to think of the relationship between the state/church in a Christic frame. Most recently (like tonight) I have continued to read through Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink’s Christian Dogmatics, and have come to the section where they are sketching the various approaches that have developed in the history of ecclesial interpretation in regard to how Christians have thought the relation of church/state together. Here I want to share two of the four frames that I find most attractive (and leave the other two frames to the side since they are less attractive to me). What you will find is that Barth’s approach juxtaposed with a sort of Reformized Anabaptist tradition is what comes to the fore in my own proclivities relative to thinking state/church, and ‘kingdom theology’ together (and apart in some ways). Here is what Kooi and Brink have to offer us:

The church as a Christ-confessing church for all people. After the Second World War the Dutch Reformed Church promoted the ideal of a Christ-confessing church for all people; in this way it tried to connect distance from and commitment to public affairs. The model followed Barth’s proposal that the church, by its proclamation, should fulfill a public role for the common good. This “theology of the apostolate” has also been referred to as proclamation-theocracy: the church does not directly interfere in the government and does not attempt t usurp its powers but rather, on the basis of the Bible, holds up a prophetical-critical mirror before those who govern. The ideals of the World Council of Churches and other efforts to have the church assume a prophetic role in the world also belong in this category. The supporters of this view were optimistic about its possibilities, but in the Netherlands their attempt failed because the forces of secularization were stronger than expected.[1]

They continue with the fourth frame, which is that much more amenable with an Apocalyptic theological frame that I am oriented from (see Philip Ziegler’s new book Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology); but also with an Anabaptist tenor in the flux of this frame of understanding.

The church as a counterculture or contrast community. A recent and popular image for the church’s role in the public domain proposes that it be a “contrast community” (Yoder, Hauerwas; but also  more and more theologians from mainline Protestant churches feel attracted to  this model; e.g., see Bruijne 2012). That is, the church is not primarily an association with some good ideas; its vitality is found by living under a new life order, namely, that of the kingdom. This kingdom produces its own politics, a structure of practices in which people bless each other, wish each other well, forgive each other, and reject all forms of violence. It only bears witness of the heavenly kingdom but is itself a witness through its praxis. This praxis, in fact, answers the question of how the church may speak.

This position strongly emphasizes the difference between the church and the world; it may indeed be called Anabaptist to the extent that the orders of heavenly and earthly citizenship are kept far apart. Practically, it leaves the political order to its own devices. But it can also take a more Reformed or Catholic shape through a new appreciation of the Augustinian doctrine of the two kingdoms—by recognizing, in other words, that in real life the two realms cannot be totally separated. They are intertwined here below and will be separated by God only in the eschaton. (see Matt 13:29-30). In this world Christians must live with this tension. When they try to escape and eliminate that tension (as in the Anabaptist view), they withdraw from the ongoing course of history, in which God ordains that his church live. A real continuity connects the fallen world and redemption, and the work of the Holy Spirit is not confined to the domains of the church and believer; it seeks to have an impact upon the world. What we noted in chapter 8 about a responsible doctrine of sin is relevant at this point. It enables us to take a realistic view of the world and to implement damage control from the perspective of God’s new reality. This attitude differs from that of older Protestant positions in consciously leaving behind the quest for relevance, and with it the majority strategy that for many centuries burdened and plagued the church in the public domain.[2]

Between these two frames, particularly the latter paragraph in the latter frame emerges a semblance of my own approach to the relationship between the state/church-secular/sacred. I alluded to Ziegler’s work in his book Militant Grace, the themes he identifies and develops therein also provide the sort of theological depth that I like to appeal to in order to thicken what these sketches only present in introductory form. What’s at center for me in all of this, from a theological perspective (what other perspective is there for the Christian?), is that the doctrine of the primacy of Jesus Christ orients all considerations about Everything. In other words, this whole discussion takes place, for me, between the two poles of protology and eschatology, original creation and disruptive recreation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There still yet remains agnosticisms in regard to how all of this gets applied in daily life, and in my own perceptual encounter with the complexities foisted upon us by the travail and groaning that this old creation, and the human governments therein present; but this ought to let you in on how I intend to approach this world, in its highly charged christopolitical context, for the glory of God in the name of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 636-37.

[2] Ibid. 637-38.

The Great Divorce from God’s Sustenance: Mapping Divine Providence

I am continuing to read John Webster’s chapter on providence in the edited book Mapping Modern Theology. As usual Webster offers keen insights on every page he writes, and in the quote I am going to share from him we get to see how he thinks the doctrine of Divine providence has become less ‘Divine’ and more anthropocentric or naturalist. Webster writes:

pantocratorroundIn the modern history of the doctrine of providence, then, we have an incremental transformation from a Christian metaphysics of nature and history (including the nature and history of human creatures) toward one in which appeal to Christian beliefs about God’s relation to creation comes to be considered as at best redundant and at worst destructive. This transformation is effected both by elements of internal disarray in Christian theology and by the increasing cultural prestige of ways of thinking about nature, history, and humankind critical of or indifferent to Christian providential teaching. Of the factors “internal” to theology, three related elements should be noted. First, there is a gradual “anonymization” of providence. Little significance is accorded to the identity of the agent of providence, which can be stripped down to a nameless causal force, the term “providence” itself often becoming a substitute for “God.” Second, there is the “immanentization” of providence: the effects of divine maintenance of the world are considered in and for themselves, without reference to their origin in the divine counsel or to present intentional action by a divine agent. Providence means “world order.” Third, there is the “generalization” of providence, so that the domain of providence is the order of nature and time considered apart from the special history of the elect. These internal shifts in Christian teaching are closely related to wider alterations in the understanding of the natural order and of human history that, in effect, weaken conceptions of nature and history as created realities sustained and directed by their Creator. [1]

It would be easy to blame this kind of ‘turn’ to the modern on the world ‘out there,’ but more apropos to blame it instead on the thinking and acting of the Christian church, across the board (progressive, evangelical, liberal, conservative, etc.). We live in a time where it is common for Christians to speak of ‘being on the right side of history,’ or to hear people say ‘it will just work out, things always do.’ But none of that is Christian.

It is time that Christians repent and return to a genuinely Christian order of thinking about God. Not just on Sundays, but every day, as if in God’s providence He has given us the means in His Son, Jesus Christ, to think properly and orderly about His acts in creation and as those acts and sustenance impinge upon our daily mundane lives; that we realize that every step we take and every move we make is given purpose because of the providential care of God in Christ. That we inhabit the theater of God’s glory (theatrum dei gloriam), as such there is artistry, God’s, embedded in His creation and creatures; as the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 2, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” We are God’s ποημα or ‘workmanship’, literally, we are God’s ‘poem’ created in Christ Jesus.

The turn to the modern has sought to put God to death, and to give history its own Stoic-like, fate-like force divorced from the personal Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ. This great divorce has penetrated the church insofar as the church has allowed itself to be shaped more by the deistic and/or agnostic shape of the culture rather than by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It is time to repent, and return to our first love; the love who orders all things to find their beginning and end in the Alpha and Omega, Jesus Christ.


[1] John Webster, Providence, in eds. Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, April 2012), 310 Scribd.

John Webster on Divine Providence and Concurrence with a Christ Concentrated Edge

God’s providence is a doctrine referred to often, but explicated less. John Webster offers a nice description of the entailments that make Divine providence what it is relative to God. He writes:

The modes of God’s providential activity are often identified as preservation, concurrence, and government (the three modes are not three separate divine works but the one work of pantoc23providence variously apprehended and conceived). In preservation God acts upon and within created reality to hold it in being, maintaining by his power and goodness the order of nature and history that he has established at the act of creation. Concurrence specifies this preserving activity by speaking of how God’s providential work is not simply a force brought to bear upon creation from outside, but is integral or interior to creation: providence works through creaturely working. In his acts of government, God directs creation to its goal, ensuring that the fulfillment he has purposed for it will be attained. In these acts, God operates medially, that is, through the power that he has himself bestowed upon creation. Created reality is not merely passive, for it has been given a movement of its own by which it maintains itself and moves toward its end. Providence does not eliminate but enables this creaturely movement; providence moves creation to move itself, working “interiorly” rather than as an extrinsic impulse. Providence is not merely to be thought of as maintaining a static creation, a set of unchanging natural or cultural forms. It concerns the teleology of creation: created reality is purposive or historical. Accordingly, providence is related not only backwards to the initial act of creation out of nothing, but also forward, to the saving work of God and to the eschatological future of the new creation.[1]

Concurrence as one of the prongs of providence is very intriguing to me. It conjures up thinking about theories of causation, and how those relate to God’s providence. What is more interesting to me though is how concurrence gets thought into human agency. I see this type of thinking bearing most fruit (because of my prior commitment to a particular theological-anthropology) when tied into the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; when we understand that the Domain of His life is indeed both the protological (backward looking) and eschatological (forward looking) context in which medial and thus creaturely agency finds its scope and/or range of movement. In other words, when we think of concursus Dei (God’s concurrence), to think that from within the relational frame provided for by the inter-relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we begin to see a dynamic in regard to creaturely agency and movement that is at once both mysterious and yet witness bearing to creation’s inner-reality in the covenant of God’s life for us and with us.

[1] John Webster, Providence, in eds. Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, April 2012), 306 Scribd.

I might have been dead right now because of DSRCT (my cancer). God’s Providence and Contingency

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and cancerbobbysprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. ~Isaiah 55:8-11

This post won’t be a popular one, because it isn’t controversial, and it simply represents a reflection on my part about a real life scenario that I was faced with back in late 2009 through much of 2010; so goes the reality of online interaction and blogging.

‘His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are our ways his ways, says the Lord.’ Indeed. As many of you know I was diagnosed with a rare and usually deadly cancer called Desmoplastic Small Round Cell Tumor (which is in the sarcoma family), or DSRCT. There is no actual protocol for it, in other words, there really is no treatment for it; they ended up borrowing the Ewings sarcoma protocol to treat me. But instead of getting into the nitty gritty details of how all of that played out for me (I have been cancer free for almost five years … a long story), I want to focus on God’s providential ways.

I met my wife, Angela, in Bible College in early 1999; we were married in late 1999 (in fact on December 18th, 1999), so fifteen years ago (of wedded bliss!) She is originally from Olympia, WA, and I am originally from Long Beach, CA. When we married we intended on heading back to Southern California once I graduated from undergrad in 2001. We in fact did head back to Southern California, but things didn’t work out; I couldn’t find adequate work to allow us to afford to live there, so we headed back to the Pacific Northwest (Portland, OR and eventually Vancouver, WA where we live now). I scurried around from low paying job to low paying job, and then to some higher paying jobs, and currently in a pretty good paying job (with sucky hours J ). But I am getting ahead of myself; as I was working for Toyota Logistics Services in Portland, OR (a good paying job with sweet medical benefits that essentially paid a hundred percent of all of our medical bills), in early 1999, it was then that I was diagnosed with my horrible diagnosis! We found out what kind of cancer it was, after a long ordeal (at first they misdiagnosed it as Lymphoma, which would have been better), and realized that we “coincidentally” lived right next to one of the only sarcoma centers in the whole country (United States) at OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute in Portland, OR. We got hooked up with a great team of doctors, and they went to work on me. Again, without all of the details, miraculously, I made it!

God’s Providential Ways and Contingency

What I was thinking about was how God worked way before any of this cancer stuff ever happened. He had me meet my beautiful wife, whose heart is bent on the Pacific Northwest, and who is very open to healthy living (as far as diet and alternative medicine); she is a Pac NW girl! He had it so that I couldn’t find the kind of work in Southern California that would keep us there, and which essentially forced us back to the Pacific Northwest. He put me into a position at Toyota where my medical benefits (union benefits) were outstanding! And he put us in an area where we were right next to one of the only medical institutions that specializes in the family of cancer that I ended up getting (a sarcoma center).

I was thinking about God’s providential ways, and contingency in this context. What if I hadn’t met my wife, Angela? What if I had graduated from Multnomah in 2001, a single guy, and headed back to Southern California and did seminary there? What if I was in Southern California, and wasn’t next to a medical facility and specialists like this? What if I wasn’t married to a woman who was prone to alternative medicine (which I have been participating in ever since I became cancer free in 2010)? I might be dead.


Being Really Free: God’s Sovereignty and Human Freedom in Resolution

Something that continues to shape theological constructs in Christian theology is the nexus that is present between God’s Sovereignty and Human autonomy/responsibility/freedom. Depending on which side the theological system leans toward will help to determine where that system will find its moorings within the history of ideas and interpretation. Obviously this nexus, as I just cryptically described it finds its most blatant expressions in either Calvinism sov1or Arminianism (and/or nowadays Open Theism). In general (and in oversimplification), the classical Calvinists are afraid if God’s sovereignty is not absolutely emphasized that our theology will end up in heresy, in Pelagianism; and God will become held captive by His own creation. On the other hand (and in oversimplification), the classical Arminian or Open Theist fears that if human freedom (sometimes=’free-will’) or responsibility is over-determined and objectified by God’s sovereignty that it no longer truly can remain HUMAN freedom, and now God has become the author of everything that happens (meticulously so), even sin.

Thankfully the quagmire noted above, while dealing with real and material concerns, is not where we have to preside; in fact we ought not to dwell there too long. The above (as I oversimply described it), is a result of engaging in negative theology; it is thinking philosophically about God and humanity, and it is not (by way of method) thinking from the center of God’s life, Jesus Christ. If we think from God’s Self-revelation, and allow that to interpret how we think about the ‘union’ between God’s sovereignty and Human Freedom, we will think directly and methodologically from the Hypostatic Union of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ. This is exactly how, of course, Karl Barth maneuvers through this. He gives objective primacy to Jesus Christ, and allows Him to determine the categories through which we should think about God’s sovereignty and Human freedom. Of course, then, as a consequent, what it means to be truly human will be given its understanding from what it means to be human for Christ. Christ’s humanity, by nature, is given shape and reality by its determinate reality as the second person of the Trinity, as the Son. We, by participation in His humanity by the Holy Spirit, and not by nature but grace and adoption, have a Divinely shaped humanity that like Christ’s can only truly be for God (which is the terminus or end/purpose of what it means to be human and free). Prior to hearing from R. Michael Allen’s commentary on Barth in this regard, and prior to hearing from Karl Barth himself; let’s first hear from the Apostle Paul:

15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! 16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. ~Romans 6:15-18

If Jesus’ humanity for us (in his active obedience—the Reformed concept) is what it means to be objectively human, if he obeyed for us; then we have been set free and opened up for what it means to be truly human. In other words, there is no other way to be truly human except for the way that that is given ultimate shape in and through Christ’s vicarious humanity for all.

Michael Allen will open Barth up further for us, and then I will close with a couple of Karl Barth quotes. Interestingly, Allen places his discussion on this in his category of Providence, in his Karl Barth Reader that I take his thinking from. Allen writes of Barth:

[B]arth’s attention to providence is attuned to ethical concerns, namely, to sketching out the shape of human agency. While he is criticized by many as christomonist – as giving insufficient space to creaturely agency – his dogmatic approach is not meant to supplant, but to situate human agency. In his ethical reflections, he will address the crucial concept of freedom, following the early Reformed tradition in affirming real human freedom while defining it as freedom ‘within the limits which correspond to its creaturely existence (III/3.61). Barth affirms what seems contradictory to those who believe human and divine agency exist in a competitive fashion: ‘That the creature may continue to be by virtue of the divine preserving means that it may itself be actual within its limits: actual, and therefore not a mere appearance engendered by some heavenly or hellish power; itself actual, and therefore not an emanation from the being of God … God preserves the creatures in the reality which is distinct from His own. It is relative to and dependent upon His reality, but in its relativity and dependence autonmous towards it, existing because it owes its existence to Him, as subject with which He can have dealings and which have dealings with Him’ (III/3.86). Barth argues that divine providence in no way rules out creaturely agency, though it does locate such human freedom within the economy of grace. Barth will even speak of human autonomy, though he will always maintain that it is an autonomy given by God – a counter-intuitive sort of autonomy if ever there were one. [emboldening mine, that is Barth being quoted by Allen] [R. Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: And Introduction and Reader, 134 Nook version.]

And here are a few more quotes from Barth to help illustrate what Allen just sketched:

[…] the perfection of God’s giving of himself to man in the person of Jesus Christ consists in the fact that far from merely playing with man, far from merely moving or using him, far from dealing with him as an object, this self giving sets man up as a subject, awakens him to genuine individuality and autonomy, frees him, makes him a king, so that in his rule the kingly rule of God himself attains form and revelation. How can there be any possible rivalry here, let alone usurpation? How can there be any conflict between theonomy and autonomy? How can God be jealous or man self assertive? [CD I I/2, p. 179]

Genuine freedom as it is realized in Jesus is not a freedom from God but a freedom for God (and, with that, a freedom for other human beings). ‘ To the creature God determined, therefore, to give an individuality an autonomy, not that these gifts should be possessed outside Him, let alone against Him, but for him and within his kingdom; not in rivalry with his sovereignty but for its confirming and glorifying’ [CD I I/2, p. 178].

Ultimately, what is being argued is that there is no other ontological category known as ‘freedom’ by which humanity can operate. Even if human freedom, and I believe it is (in honoring the Creator/creature distinction), is independently contingent, it is still contingent and derived from God’s independent non-contingent freedom which is derived from nowhere but from His own Self determined, Free, and Triune life. If creation is the external reality of the Covenant of which God’s life is its inner ground – and I believe it is! – then creaturely freedom can only be understood from this position, from the purpose that is ec-statically given to it by Christ Himself; who according to Col. 1.15-20 is the point and purpose and ground of all of creation’s reality. Note:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Jesus has realized, for us, in His resurrection and ascension what it truly means to be human. To be genuinely and humanly free, means to be free for God. The rest of creation recognizes this (on this earth day, ironically), us humans ought to repent and recognize this too!

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that  the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. ~Romans 8.18-25 

God’s Providence: Applied to Cancer and Human Suffering

I have just been reading Scottish theologian, David Fergusson on the topic of Divine Providence; and he broaches (and develops) the reality of a God-world relation wherein we must take serious how it is that it ‘appears’ (and 184862_1895595029145_1219653647_2300170_3295680_nin point of fact is) that evil—in all of its malevolent expression—(as if we live in a Manichaean dualism) is winning. One of the things that Fergusson lists as an evil that is apparently ruing the day is sicknesses, diseases, untimely death, and what simply appear as brutal arbitrary ad-hoc sufferings being realized on a daily basis, encompassing all peoples from the four corners of earth. [I have my own personal experience with this, cancer seems to be an irremediable form of evil that haunts the psyches of most.] Here is what Fergusson writes:

[T]he biblical account of “creation as Yahweh’s partner” depicts the world as blessed. It is a fitting home for human and other creatures in which to flourish and multiply (e.g., Pss. 24 and 104). This flourishing requires wisdom to discern, attention to maintain, and worship that celebrates and reminds the people of the character of the world and God’s rule. The affirmation of providence is less a philosophical hypothesis (although philosophical elements are present in the Wisdom literature) and more an act of faith set in the context of worship and ethics. At the same time, God’s rule is threatened by forces of chaos that manifest themselves in a variety of forms, including sickness, injustice, misfortune, and untimely death. The language of combat, victory, and enthronement cannot be understood except in terms of forces active in creation that jeopardize God’s reign and call forth resistance. It is a recurrent criticism that Christian theology has for too long ignored this central feature of the configuration of the God-world relationship in the Hebrew Bible. The psalms of lament, Job, and passages from prophets inter alia (among other things) return to the theme that there is resistance to God’s reign. This resistance is not constructed in a Manichaean sense since there is no other creator. God ultimately commands the world order. Nonetheless, God is inexplicably delayed and too often silent in dealing with these palpable threats to the divine rule. This delay and silence are frequent sources of Israel’s complaint that are resolved only by the action of God in reasserting the order of the world through the vindication of the righteous. It can hardly be stressed too often here that there is no attempt to expound a theodicy that explains why the world is the way it is. The solution rests in divine action that obliterates evil. Even in Jeremiah 12:1-3, where something like the classical dilemma of evil is posed, the desire of the prophet is not for explanation. It is for God’s banishing the “workers of treachery.” [David Fergusson, Chapter 11, Divine Providence and Action in, God’s Life In Trinity, edited by Miroslav Volf and Michael Welker, 154-55.]

When I was walking through my cancer (Desmoplatic Small Round Cell Tumor, sarcoma), I often wondered at God’s delay; he seemed silent and un-present. Yet this piece of chaos (cancer) that interrupted our lives (my life and my families’ life) did not threaten God’s rule in my life, indeed, it was through this season that I found comfort in the fact that God is ruler, and not an anarchist mass of cells in my body. Nevertheless, I had frequent moments of anxiety (the whole time I had cancer); I had times where the silence of God, and his apparent slowness to work caused me to cry out in bewilderment and desperation. But the point I take away from this is that the evil imposed upon my body did not cause me to want to look away from God, instead it caused me to desperately depend upon him (and his body, the church … my wife included in that, especially!) in ways that I never would have lest faced with my mortality and an “untimely death.”

As Fergusson rightly notes; how we understand God’s providence is grounded more in faith than it is in analytics. And of course there is more to this story (which Fergusson gets to later); how can a Christian conceive of God’s providence without interpreting that through the lens that he himself provided for us to interpret that through? That is, through the cross of Jesus Christ, and the cruciform life of God on display in Jesus’ humility for us. God wants us to wait and depend on him; this is his wisdom, and the wisdom of the cross. What is intended to destroy us, God turns on its head and uses it as the occasion for us to grow in intimacy and ecstatic dependency upon him. And these trials and tribulations won’t disappoint, they aren’t an end in themselves; they will be swallowed up (death will) finally as it is put under Jesus’ feet in the consummation. It is in the consummation where the existential realization finally comes. As the Revelator writes,

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” ~Revelation 21:3-4

We walk by faith, not sight.