On the Completion of Richard Muller’s Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (4vols)

I wanted to offer a quick note: I have been working through Richard Muller’s four volumed Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics over the last season of years. I have read much of Muller’s corpus, but wanted to make my way through his opus to gain greater cogency of understanding in regard to his insights and impulses as a theological historian. My relationship to Muller has always been a strained one; my first introduction to Muller came from my mentor and professor in seminary, Ron Frost. Frost, also a historical theologian who specializes in Puritan theology, had a tango with Muller back in the mid to late nineties in Trinity Journal. As a result of that introduction my perception of Muller has always been on the critical antagonistic side; it still largely is.

I just finished Muller’s PRRD which came with a great sense of accomplishment. I certainly learned things from Muller through that process, and also had certain other misgivings about him only reinforced. He ultimately is not a fan of Karl Barth or Thomas Torrance, and believes they are part of a cabal of 20th century dogmatic theologians who he calls the ‘older scholarship.’ A large part of his work is motivated by the desire to correct and demythologize the older scholarship’s reading of people like John Calvin; as if Calvin was discontinuous from the later school theology that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries among the so called post Reformed orthodox theologians (the Calvin against the Calvinists thesis).

The greatest knock I have on Muller, when it comes down to it, is that he often wants to sell himself as an objective historian doing the work that others have failed to do. But the reality is that he comes to his historical conclusions by presuming upon certain a priori theological assumptions, just as much as Barth or Torrance do (or anyone else). In other words, and this has always bothered me about Muller, he is just as conditioned by his own historical situatedness as Barth and Torrance are; in other words, he is not as objective as he claims to be as a pure historian. This is not to suggest that he doesn’t make strong arguments in regard to the burgeoning of Reformed theology from the Reformers to the Post Reformed orthodox, but it is to intimate that Muller ought to be just as critically received as he claims Barth and Torrance et al should be when it comes to the reception of Reformed history and theology.

I have much more to say, but I really just wanted to register the fact that I just completed a read through—of Muller’s PRRD (all four volumes)—that beguiled me for a few years. Beguiled me because for some reason I felt compelled to read through it all; compelled because I am often a critic of Muller&company, and thus felt and feel that if I am going to be critical then I’d better do the homework that requires such criticism. Even though what I just noted sounds negatively critical I wouldn’t want you all to think that I didn’t learn anything positive from Muller: I did! I would say that his last volume dedicated to the theology of the Triune God is his best of the four.


The Naked Gospel: Primitivism, Protestant Orthodox Theology, and Solo Scriptura

I am often critical of what I have called solo scriptura or what has been called more formally, nuda scriptura. This is a sort of sola scriptura run amuck—some would say taken to its logical conclusion—an approach that believes all tradition making is wrong-headed (except of course for its tradition in regard to Scripture’s ability to speak independent of other interpretive traditions), and thus appeal to Scripture all by itself should be the mode of the theologian’s method. Indeed, there is a fine line between historic sola scriptura and nuda scriptura; in principle we might see them as univocal, but in function the former leaves place for the tradition of the church whereas the latter wants to negate that through “critical” or “deconfessionalized” means that are not reliant upon the church’s doctors or its reception of the tradition itself. This sort of naturalizing of the text of Scripture, and its meaning, started becoming prominent in Protestant theology late in the 17th century; it’s a mode that continues into the present in a blossomed form (maybe even gone-to-seed form) as we continue to see as the dominant form that funds what is currently called biblical studies. Richard Muller, once again, helps to identify how this unfolded in the 17th century in a writing called The Naked Gospel. He writes:

Theological debate was intensified early in 1690 by the anonymous publication of The Naked Gospel by Arthur Bury. The work was not, strictly speaking, either Socinian or directly supportive of the Socinian doctrinal program, but it offered such a blistering attack on the Christian tradition, whether of the later fathers or of the orthodoxy of the late seventeenth century, that it was easily associated with some of the arguments of the Socinians. Specifically, Bury argued that “scholastic” thinking, particularly the use of logic and metaphysics, had created a grand and confusing edifice of “new doctrines” not found in the gospel. It was the task of his book to criticize the rational or “natural” religion of the church in his time and propose a return to the original, simple, “naked” gospel of Christ and the apostles. Bury attacks the ecumenical councils, particularly Nicaea, blaming them for creating a false and highly rationalized christology instead of more simply and directly the high “dignity” and “divinity” of Christ’s person and his divine sonship in the office of mediator. As for the doctrine of the Trinity, Bury indicates that it is ultimately confusing, inasmuch as the identification of three divine “persons” in no way indicates three Gods and the language of the traditional doctrine, therefore, has not good analogy to typical usage. Bury was suspended from the university.[1]

In some ways Bury’s approach might sound what I have been proposing here at The Evangelical Calvinist over the years. There might seem to be a radical biblicism funding the Evangelical Calvinist mood such that people of more trad or conservative sensibilities become concerned or immediately critical.

What we have had described for us by Muller, in regard to The Naked Gospel, might make certain readers think of the 19th century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher’s approach to doing theology. Schleiermacher, ironically, was someone who actually started to reign in much of radical biblicism that we see inchoately in someone like Bury, and which had gone to seed by time Schleiermacher. Nevertheless, as E.J. Hutchinson notes with reference to Schleiermacher’s mode, there is a perception that Schleiermacher was still operating in a way that sought to undercut what had developed previously in the traditionary models of theological doctrinism. That Schleiermacher wanted to reformulate all Christian Dogma under the pressures provided for by a clean (Enlightened) reading of Holy Writ. Hutchinson writes:

Aside from the fact that this view is paradoxical—if “fresh treatment” is adesideratum as such, how can anything ever be “finally settled”?—there is a more basic point that should be highlighted with respect to the idea of “reformation.” On Schleiermacher’s reading, “reformation” entails that all dogmatic loci be revised and overhauled from their very foundations. According to the gloss of a recent commentator, Schleiermacher believed that the Protestants of the sixteenth century “too uncritically took over earlier views without testing them against the Protestant spirit.” Schleiermacher is explicit in the work’s final section that his placement of the doctrine of the Trinity is due to just such a desire for total overhaul. The assumption lurking behind this viewpoint—and it is an assumption—is that there was a unifying drive broader than and undergirding particular theological revisions, that it ought to be generalizable to all doctrinal topics, and that if it has not been so generalized, it is due to a lapse on the part of the Reformers in carrying their Grundsatz all the way through. Thus Schüssler Fiorenza can gloss Schleiermacher’s stance as follows: “The traditional doctrinal formulations [about the Trinity] fail to express [the] reformation impulse.”[2]

Bury and Schleiermacher, while separated by passage of time, might be convergent in ethos and outlook in regard to sensibility and a desire to present a Naked Gospel.

Evangelical Calvinists, following after Barth et al., I believe, are seen as compatriots of the Bury/Schleiermacher feeling. There is a fear that we have imbibed the wrong spirit because we have seemingly chained ourselves to an anti-orthodoxing move that began in the very presence and development of 16th and 17th century Protestant orthodox theology. If this is the perception of Evangelical Calvinism, particularly of those entrenched in classical Calvinism or Reformed theology, then Evangelical Calvinism will always be understood, at least in those quarters, as a marginal or fringe movement that need not be engaged with, or instead, if engaged with, segregated into the mood of Bury et al. and as something that needs to be repented of. But Evangelical Calvinism is more polymorphous than that; we are, for the most part, very traditional and conservative (way more than Bury or Schleiermacher).

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Four. The Triunity of God(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 123.

[2] E.J. Hutchinson, “Melanchthon’s Unintended Reformation? The Case of the Missing Doctrine of God,” in Bradford LittleJohn ed., God of our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Institute, 2018), Loc 571, 581, 593, 603 kindle version.

Why Evangelicals, the Classically Reformed, and the Post-Reformed orthodox Are Suspicious of After Barth Thinkers

If you don’t find yourself in agreement with mainstream evangelical reformed theology you might find yourself placed into a role that plays like the antitriniarian biblicists of 17th and 18th century Western Europeans. In other words, and this helps explain a lot for me personally, any reluctance to be a flaming post reformed orthodox thinker finding your theological marching orders from 16th and 17th century developments ostensibly places you into a mold that, at best, is on the fringes of Protestant orthodoxy, and at worst makes you a far-gone heretic (such as the antitrinitarians just noted). Richard Muller explains the matrix:

Not to be underestimated here is the impact of patristic scholarship in the seventeenth century. If the Reformation altered the balance of Scripture and tradition by declaring that, although tradition stood as a subordinate norm identifying probabilities, it still could err (as demonstrated by the experience of the later Middle Ages), the antitrinitarian debate of the late seventeenth century altered the balance once more. The antitrinitarians claimed a biblical foundation that was radically antitraditionary—to the point that writers like Nye and Smalbroke argued the biblical rectitude of views expressed by early heretics like the Ebionites and Nazarenes.

The last decades of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century saw such a vast alteration of the exegetical and philosophical framework of explanation that the attempts at trinitarian discussion of a whole generation of writers failed to produce a statement of doctrine that was at the same time philosophically contemporary and theologically orthodox. In addition, these English Socinians claimed to be truly Protestant and fundamentally biblicistic, true heirs of the Reformation—noting that the Reformation proclaimed the correct biblical standard but did not go far enough in rooting out the problematic elements of the tradition (among which the doctrine of the Trinity held a place of prominence).[1]

Muller, and many following him, believes that the 18th century is the period where Reformed orthodoxy took a turn for the worse and began a turn to heterodoxy. His development above helps us to see the premises that funded this deleterious turn, in Muller’s eyes. It is a radical-biblicism uncoupled from any norms found in the ecumenical church councils (particularly Nicaea-Constantinople and Chalcedon) that Muller sees as the culprit. We have these contours already present, as Muller notes, in the late 17th century which we see climaxing in the English Enlightenment and the rationalism produced therein (Muller sees Christian Wolff as a key player in this polluting time).

What does this mean for Modern theology vis-à-vis Protestant orthodox theology in the period prior? By and large it means anyone thinking from the former period needs to be approached with some serious suspicion; that such thinkers might well be closer to the antitrinitarians than they are the orthodox. This is why anyone associated with Karl Barth, not just incidentally, but in more overt terms, is typically written off as a “Barthian.” Such people are immediately, by the purported “orthodox” folks (the folks involved in the project of repristinating [oh, constructively of course] the 16th and 17th century orthodox developments), placed into the antitriniarian if not full-fledged Socinian type-set.

Sure, there are multitudinous examples of modern theologians, theological biblicists, who indeed fit Muller’s description of antitraditionary to the core. But it is, for one thing, a sweeping generalization to place people into that same location merely because they happen to believe that particular modern theologians (such as Barth and T Torrance) have some very valuable things to say; often in critique of many of the 16th and 17th century moves. This is unfortunate, to say the least.

I think there is a slippery-slope fear that many of these “conservatives” have. And to be frank, yes, I can think of examples of people I know who went whole-hog into modern theology and indeed fit into this sort of ‘biblicist’ mode; who have bit-the-bullet so hard that they are now denying basic and traditional Christian teaching around the bodily resurrection of Christ, or belief in an “after-life.” But this is  not the necessary conclusion that comes by finding value in modern theologies. I affirm all of the trad teachings of historic Christianity, and yet think very closely alongside of folks like Barth et al.


[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Four. The Triunity of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 121.

Not All Modern Theology Fits the Socinian Mode Contra Post Reformed orthodox Impulses

In some ways I think the following represents the battle that Protestant orthodox, so called, see themselves in. There isn’t a one-for-one correspondence, per se, between the combatants, but I think the corollary, by way of ethos, is present enough in order for the historical battle between the Socinians and the orthodox to provide the sort of role-playing that I think many orthodox see themselves in as they battle modern theology (developments occurring primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries and how those have been taken up by the mainliners et al following) currently. You might wonder what I am referring to. Let me quote something from Richard Muller and then follow with some concluding thoughts.

The problem of antitrinitarian exegesis was, certainly, the most overtly intense of the issues faced by the Reformers and their successors, given the Protestant emphasis on the priority of the biblical norm. For the various antitrinitarians consistently rejected tradition in the name of their own exegesis of Scripture. In addition, in the seventeenth century, there was a partial coincidence, given the textual problems of such texts as 1 John 5:7 and 1 Timothy 3:16, between the Socinian position and the views of various text-critical scholars. The orthodox found themselves in the very difficult position of arguing a traditional view of the Trinity against an antitrinitarian exegesis that appeared, in a few instances, to represent the results of text criticism and, in a few other instances, to represent a literal exegesis of text over against an older allegorism or typological reading — at the same time that, in many of its readings, it appeared to be a contorted and rationalizing attempt to undermine not only the traditional but also the basic literal sense of the text. This latter characteristic of Socinian exegesis cut in two directions: on the one hand, it could be presented, as was typical of the Socinian argumentation, as on a par with the text-critical results used in the Socinian reading of other passages, giving warrant to the antitrinitarian reading at least by association; on the other hand, it could be seen as an excessive result of the newer hermeneutical approaches, creating and otherwise unwarranted suspicion of certain kinds of textual criticism on the part of the orthodox. In either case, the orthodox task of building the primary justification of the doctrine of the Trinity on exegesis was made more difficult.

There were, therefore, three basic issues to follow in the discussion of the trinitarian thought of the Reformers and the Reformed orthodox — namely, the careful use of a well-defined patristic vocabulary, increasingly tuned to the particular needs and issues of Reformed thought, the intense battle over the exegetical ground of the doctrine in both testaments in view of the biblicistic assault on the doctrine from the Socinians and other antitrinitarians, and the struggle to find a suitable set of philosophical categories for the understanding and explanation of the doctrinal result, given the alteration or at least the fluidity of the conception of substance. At the heart of these lay the exegetical issue, given the Reformation emphasis on the priority of Scripture over all other norms of doctrine and alteration of patterns of interpretation away from the patristic and medieval patterns that had initially yielded the doctrine of the Trinity and given it a vocabulary consistent with traditional philosophical usage.[1]

Unfortunately for those in the current iteration of Post Reformed orthodoxy (and its softer evangelical corollaries) they often flatten modern theology out to the point that it ALL ends up falling prey to playing the Socinian and other antitrinitarian role. Much of what is called ‘theology of retrieval’, done by Post Reformed orthodox practitioners is an attempt to correct and even rebuke the purported ills brought upon the evangelical churches by the advent and development of modern theological categories. Note John Webster on theologies of retrieval (who I respect, but take some issue with in regard to the sort of negative hue he gives modern theology [which he knows very well given his many years with Barth and Jüngel]):

For such theologies, immersion in the texts and habits of thought of earlier (especially pre-modern) theology opens up a wide view of the object of Christian theological reflection, setting before its contemporary practitioners descriptions of the faith unharnessed by current anxieties, and enabling a certain liberty in relation to the present. With this in mind, we begin by considering the study of history as a diagnostic to identify what are taken to be misdirections in modern theology, and then the deployment of history as a resource to overcome them.[2]

Are there certain theologians in the modern period that might fit the Socinian mode? Yes! But not all and this is the rub. Obviously, for me, Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance represent modern theologians who not only critically and constructively engaged with the deep past, but they also were beneficiaries of some of the important movements of thought we find developed in the modern period as well. In short: not all modern theology can be or should be relegated to the Socinian mode of the Post Reformed orthodox period; but this seems to be a general characteristic in regard to the way many ensconced in this camp approach those of us who recognize that modern theology is not in fact only something that needs to be ‘overcome.’


[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Four: The Triunity of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 62.

[2] John Webster, “Theologies of Retrieval,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (Oxford/NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 585.

What Does it Mean to Read the Bible ‘Literally?’ Against the Literalistic and other Literalisms via the Sensus Literalis

Of course even as theological exegetes of Holy Scripture, more so, we want to take the text as Literal. But what does this actually entail; what does it mean to be literal in our interpretation? Dispensationalists like Charles Ryrie assert that the sine qua non of the dispensational hermeneutic is to read the Bible literally; he asserts if the reader engages in this type of reading practice they will end up as a dispensationalist. Others, like Doug Hamp similarly assert that their method is of the literal type; but in Hamp’s et als. case he does not end up as a dispensationalist, instead he ends up focusing on a Jewish or Hebraic understanding of the text of Scripture—even in its New Testament iteration (e.g. rather than reading the Bible from an post-Nicene Christologically sourced tradition).

So what does it mean to read the Bible literally? Do we follow a wooden-literal approach, like the aforementioned, wherein what it means to be ‘literal’ actually entails being literalistic to the point that every word in the Bible is read without recognizing the various literary qualities inherent to the text (such as is presented by the types of narrative, poetry, or discourse inherent therein etc.)? I.e. that when figures of speech are used they are read as literal realities rather than figures symbolizing some greater reality that transcends its own figural reality. The Protestant Reformed, following their medieval forebears had an understanding of what interpreting Scripture ‘literally’ entailed, but it was much different than what we find in the modern-critical period wherein a rationalist positivism prevails. Note Richard Muller’s definition of the Latin sensus literalis:

sensus literalis: literal sense; the fundamental literal or grammatical sense of the text of Scripture, distinguished into (1) sensus literalis simplex, the simple literal sense, which lies immediately in the grammar and the meaning of individual words, and (2) sensus literalis compositus, the constructed or compounded literal sense, which is inferred from the Scripture as a whole or from individual clear, and therefore normative, passages of Scripture when the simple literal sense of the text in question seems to violate either the articuli fidei (q.v.) or the pracecepta caritatis (q.v.). See historicus; quadriga.[1]

As defined the previous adherents to ‘literal’ interpretation would want to affirm this definition (but they diverge radically from this premodern principle of biblical interpretation). We see, particularly in Muller’s notation on compositus, an allusion to what was called the analogia fidei (analogy of faith) or analogia scriptura (analogy of scripture); the principle where the clearer passages were deployed to shed light on the crux interpretums (the difficult passages to interpret). All of this presupposes a level of clarity or perspicuity inherent to the text that the Reformers held dear based upon their belief that Scripture was representative of the place where the living voice of God (viva vox Dei) could be encountered; undergirding this, further, was the belief that this God, in all of his graciously accommodating ways, intended to communicate exactly what he wanted within the providential unfolding of salvation history as disclosed in Holy Scripture. What is key to this, key for our purposes, is to recognize that in this sensus literalis it is largely funded by a very theological understanding of things. What it means to read the Bible literally is necessarily couched in and from the reality that God has spoken (Deus dixit), and thus to read the Bible ‘literally’ means to read Scripture with attention to the centrality of God’s voice given its primary vocalization through his Self-revealed and explicated reality in his Son, Jesus Christ.

To help us expand on this notion of reading Scripture in a literal key, in the historic mode of the sensus literalis, Stephen Fowl helpfully develops this further; and with reference to what I would contend is Scripture’s primary referent (cf. Jn 5.39), Jesus Christ. Fowl shows how in the case of the medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, a very ‘literal’ interpreter of Holy Scripture, what it meant to be a literal Bible interpreter wasn’t just to attend to the simplex, but more pointedly it was to recognize that the ‘simple’ (i.e. the grammatical, historical, literary contours) had a telos (purpose), that it had a res (reality) that it pointed to as its depth reality.

The foundation for Aquinas’s scriptural interpretation was the “literal sense” (sensus literalis) of Scripture. For Aquinas, the literal sense of Scripture is what the author intends. Thomas holds that the author of Scripture is God, or more precisely, the Holy Spirit. The human authors under the Spirit’s inspiration are significant though secondary in this respect. The Spirit is capable of understanding all things and intending more by the words of Scripture than humans could ever fully grasp. This means that believers should not be surprised to find that there may be many manifestations of the literal sense of a passage. Here is what Thomas says in the Summa Theologiae: “Since the literal sense is what the author intends, and since the author of Holy Scripture is God, Who by one act comprehends everything all at once in God’s understanding, it is not unfitting as Augustine says [Confessions XII], if many meanings are present even in the literal sense of a passage of Scripture” (Summa Theologiae 1.Q.1 art. 10). This notion of authorial intention, which is very different from the modern hermeneutical accounts of authors mentioned above, will allow someone to treat christological interpretations of Isaiah as the literal sense of that text without disallowing other more historical accounts of the literal sense of Isaiah. Moreover, such an approach will allow Christians to treat Psalm 139 in ways that do not invite Christians to pray for revenge on their enemies. Thus, such an approach will keep theological concerns primary in theological interpretation rather than making theological concerns subsidiary to hermeneutical concerns.[2]

For Thomas Aquinas, and the premodern world he inhabited, what it meant to read the Bible ‘literally’ had range; what was privileged was the theological over the “historical-critical.” This belief, about the primacy of the theological, was fueled by the further belief that the world was God’s, that it was providentially administered and sustained by his Word and for his Word; as such interpreters like Aquinas (Luther, Calvin, et al.) felt it warranted to simply read Scripture as if the world belonged to God, and the cattle on a thousand hills, and that the reality of Scripture had an elevation point that redounded in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. So to read the Bible literally from this vantage point was to see the Christ as the primary referent point wherein all else, all the historical proclivities and contingencies unfolded in the panorama of salvation-history, were hued by their canonizing reality in Jesus Christ. Unsurprisingly we see this in Martin Luther’s interpretive approach as well; note:

Luther makes an important distinction between the literal-historical meaning of his Old Testament text (that is, the literal meaning of text, as determined by its historical context), and its literal-prophetic sense (that is, the meaning of the text, as interpreted as referring to the coming of Christ and the establishment of his church). The Christological concentration, which is so characteristic a feature of the Dictata, is achieved by placing emphasis upon the literal-prophetic, rather than the literal-historic, sense of scripture. In this manner, Luther is able to maintain that Christ is the sensus principalis of scripture.[3]

Here we have further elaboration of what Muller referenced for us as the simplex sensus literalis in Luther’s own approach to reading the Bible ‘literally.’ In flow with Fowl’s elucidation of Aquinas, Luther has literal-prophetic; this nuance between the ‘prophetic’ and the ‘historical’ nicely illustrates, again, how in the premodern era of biblical interpretation there was an emphasis upon the theological, more pointedly the christological character of the text of Scripture and its reading. All of this is couched in the theological ideation that this is God’s world, and under his providential governance and giveness. Viz. that there is not an abstract autonomous world of history and artifacts wherein the biblical interpreter can stand within as a ‘critical’ interpreter of Scripture that keeps them sanitized or unimplicated by their own locatedness as creatures before a holy Creator.

I confess that this is the way I approach my reading of Holy Scripture. Does this mean that some of the relative gains garnished by the turn to the modern must be completely evacuated? No, it simply means that the theological ought to be given priority of place in the biblical interpretive process, and that the so called ‘critical’ is given due notice only within this sort of humiliating reality (i.e. humiliating in the sense that the critical reader of Scripture is not so critical after all; in the sense that they/we are sinners). Does reading the Bible theologically mean that we cannot pay attention to various historical vicissitudes present within the text that might not seem to have direct relation to the Messiah? No, it just means that when engaging with historical instances, or personages in the text of Scripture, that we will always be cognizant of the fact that they are part of a greater historical sweep wherein their place within the salvation-history unfolded and deposited in the text of Scripture only has telos, only has meaning in light of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.


[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 279.

[2] Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 49-50 kindle.

[3] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxdford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 80. Quote sourced from this post: The Quingentesimus of the Protestant Reformation and the Analogia Lutherano in Christ Concentrated Biblical Exegesis.

Convergence in Muller, Barth, and Torrance on Immutability and Incarnation

When you read Richard Muller back in 1983 on immutability and incarnation he sounds like Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth in significant ways. Obviously there are important differences as far as the modes of theological appropriation—in regard to the periods of theological development within which Muller is drawing versus Torrance/Barth—but what is shared is a common orthodoxy vis-à-vis the Chalcedonian tradition in its principle parts. Here is Muller followed by two quotes; one from Torrance the other from Barth:


think of the economic Trinity as the freely predetermined manifestation in the history of salvation of the eternal Trinity which God himself was before the foundation of the world, and eternally is. Hence, when we rightly speak of the oneness between the ontological Trinity and the economic Trinity, we may not speak of that oneness without distinguishing and delimiting it from the ontological Trinity—there are in any case . . . elements in the incarnate economy such as the time patter of human life in this world which we may not read back into the eternal Life of God. (Christian Doctrine of God, p. 109)[1]


it is not just good sense but absolutely essential that along with all older theology we make a deliberate and sharp distinction between the Trinity of God as we may know it in the Word of God revealed, written and proclaimed, and God’s immanent Trinity, i.e., between “God in Himself” and “God for us,” between the “eternal history of God” and His temporal acts. . . . “God for us” does not arise as a matter of course out of the “God in Himself.” . . . It is true as an act of God, as a step which God takes towards man. (CD I/1, p. 72)[2]

Clearly, where Muller ends up going, theologically, and where Barth/Torrance arrive are substantially different in particular ways. But I thought it was at least worth highlighting that Barth/Torrance and Muller, at least in regard to some basic commitments relative to Christology share a common desire to work in and from the Chalcedonian patterning of the ecumenical church. Of course, this is not uncontroversial, particularly when it comes to the way Barth is read based upon his actualistic “metaphysic” or “postmetaphysic” as the case might be. Paul Molnar argues, almost exhaustively, that Barth ought to be read traditionally; this in contrast to the Bruce McCormack camp that sees shift in Barth’s Christological fathoming between his Church Dogmatics I/1 and IV/1 based upon his reformulation of election in II/1. But that’s a story for another day.


*Richard Muller quotes: from this essay.

[1] Cited by Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 348.

[2] Ibid.

It Wasn’t Just Barth Who Rejected Natural Theology; It’s the Reformed orthodox Too

I often kick against the concept of natural theology here at the blog and elsewhere. Usually the appeal I make is to Karl Barth and his rejection of natural theology as a methodological font by which theological work might be done; particularly with reference to a theology proper. But, interestingly, it isn’t just Barth, or me who reject ‘natural theology,’ in the main, according to Richard Muller, the Protestant Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians also had an allergy towards natural theology (theologia naturalis). Note Muller,

duplex cognitio Dei: twofold knowledge of God; a distinction emphasized by Calvin in the final edition (1559) of the Institutes, and carried over into Reformed orthodoxy as a barrier to inclusion of natural theology in the orthodox system of doctrine, according to which the general, nonsaving knowledge of God as Creator and as the wrathful Judge of sin, accessible to pagan and Christian alike, is distinguished from special, saving knowledge of God as Redeemer. This latter saving knowledge is available only in the revelation given in Christ. Lutherans did not enunciate the principle in the same terms; they nevertheless observe it equally rigorously, to the end that neither of the major forms of Protestant orthodoxy has any genuine affinity for natural theology.[1]

We see differences, quite immediately, between the style of non-natural theology that the Reformed orthodox worked from versus someone like Barth. But the point of contact (pun intended) between them is one of ‘spirit.’ There is a general desire to allow God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ to be the elucidating reality wherein knowledge of God is developed in its most redeeming mode.

The points of departure is when we attempt to compare Barth’s and the orthodox’s non-natural theology at the level of the ‘letter.’ This is the case, I would suggest, primarily because of differences of period, occasion, and sitz em leben.[2] In other words, because of the variety of circumstances these various theologians were faced with, separated by time and space, they worked with what they had available to them and thus arrived at emphasizing various loci in such ways that best served their immediate and now historic audiences, respectively. This isn’t to suggest that, at the letter level, Barth’s non-natural theology, framed within the contexts of two world wars in his Western European theater, correlates specifically with the orthodox’s conception, but instead, again, it is to reiterate that the mood was present and apparent to Barth when he engaged with the orthodox such that he was furnished with grammar that he sought to appropriate and radicalize for the needs of his own context.

I simply wanted to highlight how non-natural theology is actually not just an adjunct of Barth’s theology, but that it, in a general way, is something present in Reformed theology across the board; even if the orthodox, and those repristinating that today want to draw the lines between Barth et al. more brightly than others of us would like.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 97.

[2] Definition: Sitz Im Leben

‘He Descended to Hell’: How Historic Protestants Interpreted this Phrase in the Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
      he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

This Maundy Thursday I thought it would be fitting to press into the reality of what in fact took place not only on Good Friday, but Holy Saturday. In the Apostles’ Creed we have the (not uncontroversial) phrase ‘he descended into hell.’ For the remainder of this post we will look at how this phrase has been taken in and among the Protestant Reformed and Lutheran traditions; particularly as that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Richard Muller in his book Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (which I am currently working through) offers this definition on the Latin phrase descensus ad inferos (‘the descent into hell’),

viz., that portion of Christ’s work, in the text of the Apostles’ Creed, is mentioned immediately after the death and burial of Christ and immediately before the proclamation of the resurrection. The concept was a cause of debate between Lutherans and Reformed and subject to various interpretations on both sides. In general, the Reformed view the descensus as the final stage of Christ’s state of humiliation (status humiliationis, q.v.), while the Lutherans view it as the first stage of the status exaltationis (q.v.), or state of exaltation. Among the Reformed, Martin Bucer and Theodore Beza viewed the descensus as identical with the burial of Christ, while Calvin referred the descensus to the suffering of Christ’s soul coincident with the death and burial of the body. The Reformed scholastics tend to draw these themes together and argue that, loosely, the descensus refers to all the spiritual suffering of Christ’s passion and death and, strictly, to the bondage to death indicated by Christ’s three days in the tomb. The Reformed deny both the idea of a local descent of Christ’s soul into a place called hell or Hades and the teaching (based on 1 Peter 3:19) that he entered Hades to preach salvation to the patriarchs or to men from the age before Noah. Two sixteenth-century Lutheran theologians, Aepinus and Parsimonius, expressed doctrines similar to the Reformed. Aepinus clearly placed the descensus as the final stage of the status humiliationis and viewed it as the suffering of Christ’s soul in his conquest of death. Like the Reformed, Aepinus denied the relevance of 1 Peter 3:19. Parsimonious denied any physical or spatial descensus and similarly referred the descensus to Christ’s suffering. The Formula of Concord condemned speculative controversy on the descensus and argued that the descensus indicated Christ’s deliverance of believers from the “jaws of hell” in and through his victory over death, Satan, and hell. This positive, redemptive reading of the descensus carried over into Lutheran orthodoxy where the descensus ad inferos is interpreted as spiritual (i.e., neither physical nor local) descent to the domain of Satan to announce victory and triumph over the demonic powers. In this interpretation, 1 Peter 3:19 is not an evangelical preaching of salvation to the inhabitants of Hades but a legal preaching of the just damnation of the wicked. This is an act, not of the humiliated and suffering Christ, but of the exalted Christ. According to Lutheran dogmaticians, the descensus follows the quickening of Christ’s body and is the first stage of the status exaltationis.[1]

This provides insight into the ways that the primary traditions that developed out of the Protestant Reformation read the Apostles’ Creed and its phrase descensus ad inferos. No matter what emphasis we want to place on whichever theological syllable, what stands out is the wonder of the reality that God in Christ graciously humbled himself to the point of becoming man and was obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross; and this for us.

Beyond the mystery of it all there is a concrete physicality to it and existential grist that is felt in our lives as we participated with Christ, as he first participated with us, in the death, burial, and resurrection (cf. Rom. 6). The fact that he humbled himself also, as apiece, means that he exalted himself and this for us that we might be what he is, by adoption, and become flesh and blood children of the living God. The only thing I really know to say is: thank you, Lord.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 89-90.

Richard Muller and Scott Oliphint Both Need to Repent: Responding to the Thomas Aquinas Analogy of Being Discussion Through Barth

I have been interested in the locus known as analogia entis, or ‘analogy of being’ for a long time; and have written about it as well. I have also been reading Richard Muller for many years, and have read most of his published writings. So it caught my eye when I saw an internecine rejoinder by him to his classical Reformed brother Scott Oliphint in regard to Oliphint’s reading of Thomas Aquinas and the analogia entis. For those who don’t know, the analogia entis is basically the idea that humanity has a capacity latent in themselves (intellectually) to conceive of God by way of negating the finite (i.e. the being of human) to the infinite (i.e. the being of God), even if there is great dissimilarity between the two beings (so ‘analogy’). Oliphant believes that Thomas Aquinas, and the whole Thomist project following, is in error by attributing too much to the fallen human being’s ability to think God in any way. Muller thinks Oliphint completely distorts Thomas’ thinking on the ‘light of natural reason’ (i.e. think Romans 1–2), and critiques Oliphint thusly:

The problem is most apparent in Oliphint’s highly selective use of Aquinas’ commentary on John 1:9, which leaves out the portions that undermine his argument. Aquinas indicates that human beings are enlightened by “the light of natural knowledge,” which insofar as it is light is such by participation in the “true light,” which is the Word. He adds, “If anyone is not enlightened, it is due to himself, because he turns from the light that enlightens.” Aquinas also distinguishes this true light, given to all by God, from which human beings turn away, from the “false light” which “the philosophers prided themselves on having,” citing Romans 1:21.11 Despite what Aquinas says quite clearly, Oliphint concludes, “We should make it clear here that Thomas does not think that the ‘enlightening’ of which John speaks necessarily includes divine truth or content” (p. 15).

For Aquinas, reason, “the light of nature,” is itself a gift of God to human beings in the original creation of humanity that is capable of knowing not only that God exists, but that God is good, wise, and powerful. Where reason falls short, because of its finitude, its rootedness in sense perception, and the errors brought about by sin, is that, without the aid of revelation, it cannot know the truths of salvation. This “Thomistic” assumption should have a familiar ring in Reformed circles. It is paralleled by the very first sentence of the Westminster Confession—as also by the second article of the Belgic Confession, and Calvin’s commentary on the passage. Oliphint’s claim that Aquinas’ reading has “no basis” in the text of Scripture becomes an indictment of Calvin and the Reformed tradition as well.[1]

Anyone familiar with Thomas’s theology knows that he has an axiom underwriting it, this: “grace perfects nature.” Latent in this axiom is the presupposition that nature has not been fully destroyed by the fall, but instead has retained some ‘light’ (there are theoanthropological reasons for this); that there is a continuity yet to be realized between nature and grace that is indeed realized, for Aquinas’s theology, by the coming of Jesus Christ. For Aquinas this bond between nature and grace is the basis by which he can construct his style of analogy of being, and suppose that humans, to a point, have this capacity retained within their natures (even as ‘fallen’) to reach towards a knowledge of God; even if that necessarily is an impoverished reaching requiring grace to bring it (to bridge it) to completion in its terminating cause in the Unmoving mover, God.

Oliphint, to his credit, rejects this type of Thomist understanding while Muller (to his discredit) embraces it and argues for it (as much as I argue against it). The quote I have shared from Muller should help to illustrate this. This is where it is pretty interesting to me; I think Muller is right to identify the heavy Thomist influence in the Westminster and Belgic Confessions of Faith; one would have to wonder what Oliphant wants to make of that.

So the timing of all of this is interesting because in my reading of Barth’s CD I/1 I have just come across his section where he is responding to Emil Brunner’s ‘point of contact’ theology, and the type of natural theology that funds that. Whether it be John Cassian, Thomas Aquinas, or Emil Brunner, in their own respective ways they all share the common idea that there is a ‘hook’ within humanity, or moral capacity that allows them to have some real knowledge of God apart from God’s “special” revelation in Jesus Christ and Holy Scripture. Barth rejects this notion, as do I! The following is indeed Barth’s response to Brunner, and yet I share it to not only observe Barth’s response to Brunner, but to illustrate how far the breach actually is between someone like Muller (and the Westminster theology he represents), and Barth in regard to natural theology and all the attending loci that are present therein:

This point of contact is what theological anthropology on the basis of Gen. 1.27 calls the “image of God” in man. In this connexion we cannot possibly agree with E. Brunner (Gott und Mensch, 1930, 55 f.) when he takes this to refer to the humanity and personality which even sinful man retains from creation, for the humanity and personality of sinful man cannot possibly signify conformity to God, a point of contact for the Word of God. In this sense, as a possibility which is proper to man qua creature, the image of God is not just, as it is said, destroyed apart from a few relics; it is totally annihilated. What remains of the image of God even in sinful man is recta natura [the good nature], to which as such a rectitude [goodness] cannot be ascribed even potentialiter [potentially]. No matter how it may be with his humanity and personality, man has completely lost the capacity for God. Hence we fail to see how there comes into view here any common basis of discussion for philosophical and theological anthropology, any occasion for the common exhibition of at least the possibility of enquiring about God. The image of God in man of which we must speak here and which forms the real point of contact for God’s Word is the rectitudo which through Christ is raised up from real death and thus restored or created anew, and which is real as man’s possibility for the Word of God. The reconciliation of man with God in Christ also includes, or already begins with, the restitution of the lost point of contact. Hence this point of contact is not real outside faith; it is real only in faith. In faith man is created by the Word of God for the Word of God, existing in the Word of God and not in himself, not in virtue of his humanity and personality, not even on the basis of creation, for that which by creation was possible for man in relation to God has been lost by the fall. Hence one can only speak theologically and not both theologically and also philosophically of this point of contact, as of all else that is real in faith, i.e., through the grace of reconciliation.[2]

Following on in this small print section, Barth continues, in contrast to the analogia entis (‘point of contact’), develops his analogia fidei (‘analogy of faith’) which we can already see him segueing to towards the end of his paragraph. What we have heard from him though is sufficient for our purposes. And this is the point at which I sometimes scratch my head, particularly when it comes to classically Reformed people touting a doctrine of the total depravity of humanity. True, many of them will qualify what they mean by distinguishing total depravity from something like total inability, but it still leaves me wondering why. This is where Barth, in my view, out-Reforms the Reformed; viz. when it comes to thinking biblically about total depravity (in particular, from a Pauline perspective found in such pericopes like Rom. 3; Eph. 4 etc.).

Unlike Richard Muller, and the Westminster Confessional theology he represents, Karl Barth sees a total discontinuity between original creation and new creation; particularly when it comes to issues that have to do with purported ‘moral capacities’ that humans may or may not retain post-fall. For Barth the point of contact is the Word of God (extra nos), and faith is the knowledge of God that comes from the Word of God; and the Word of God, for Barth, is the Logos of God, Jesus Christ. It is because of this principia in Barth’s theology—a radically Reformed focus on the living Word of God, Jesus Christ—that a doctrine of resurrection necessarily becomes centrally-dogmatic and important. The point of contact between God and humanity in Barth’s theology is not a continuity between creation and new creation, it is instead a continuity between the God of original creation and the God of new creation, and the Logos that has been present and central for both creations to actualize. Robert Dale Dawson helps to emphasize this point for us:

For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[3]

As George Hunsinger has developed Barth’s theology he refers to ‘disruption’ as an apropos way to think of how grace works in the theology of Barth; I couldn’t agree more! Resurrection in Barth’s theology provides the new basis from whence a genuine knowledge of God can be obtained; in Christ. There is no old man, or old creation to think from; there is only the Word of God. Yes the Word of God present for the original creation, but with the knowledge that this original creation would be superseded by a required new creation bringing all of creation to its ordered telos in the beatific vision of God that God had always already desired from the very beginning. We can see why nature doesn’t have a ‘point of contact’ between God and humans for Barth now; creation was never intended to have this type of capacity (i.e. for knowledge of God), only God in se could be capacious enough for such knowledge—and in Barth’s theology the point of contact that God freely chose was/is grounded in his eternal Logos and Son, Jesus Christ.

I think Richard Muller and Scott Oliphint should both repent and recognize how radical things need to get in order for there to be a genuine way for knowing God. Sure, the 16th and 17th centuries did the best they could do with the metaphysics they had available to them, but in my view such categories don’t jive so well with the categories and emphases we find in a Bible that Jesus thinks is all about him.

[1] Richard Muller, Aquinas Reconsidered, accessed 02-19-2018.

[2] Karl Barth, CD I/1, 235. [emboldening mine]

[3] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

Knowing God: Martin Luther, Karl Barth, and Thomas Torrance. Theologia Crucis against Analogia Entis

Knowing God, it is what we as Christians all desire; we want to not only know Him, but know that we have a more sure way of knowing God. In the history of the church and ideas there have been multiple ways to try and tackle this. There have been mystical (Platonic) types of attempts at this; there have been chain-of-being attempts at this (Thomism) wherein humans are able to work martinluthermiddleagethemselves back to their final source of causation (God) and know God through the analogy and point of contact between Him as Infinite cause over against us as finite causes (indeed effects of His cause) [think analogia entis]; and another way was simply by understanding that words as symbols within a Covenant relation between God and humanity become the source for knowing God in an authoritative way (Nominalism).

It was this latter convention for knowing God that drove the thinking of the spitfire, the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther. He repudiated the chain-of-being way, and yet was much more circumspect and concrete than the mystical way would allow for (although influences from this approach are present within the makeup of Luther’s overall attitude and approach to thinking God). As a result, Luther focused on what he called theologia crucis (theology of the cross) not analogia entis (analogy of being)—analogia entis was what gave the Roman Catholic church its authority in a hierarchical scheme for knowing God and mediating knowledge of God (as representative of Christ on earth [i.e. the Papal office] the medieval Roman Catholic church of Luther’s day was a step above [in the chain of being between God and humanity] the laity and regular people, as such they held the keys to knowledge of God). Luther’s appropriation of nominalism (theologically, not philosophically) is what allowed him to forward his idea on a theology of the cross over against the analogy of being (or also what Luther referred to as the theologia gloriae ‘theology of glory’); it cut the link between an analogy to be found in human beings vis-à-vis God. For Luther’s theology of the cross the only way for us to know God was to be found in God’s Self-revelation, which meant the words of Holy Scripture, and more radically the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ on the cross (where Deus absconditus becomes Deus revelatus ‘the hiddeness of God becomes the revealedness of God’).

Richard Muller has written this of Luther:

One of the elements of late medieval Scotist and nominalist theology that had a profound impact on Luther was its denial of any analogy between God and man and its consequent recognition of the impossibility of formulating a rational metaphysic concerning God. All knowledge of God must rest on authoritative testimony, primarily on that of Scripture. Luther not only denied any recourse of theology to an analogia entis between God and man and insisted on the necessity of scriptural revelation, but also argued, in the light of his denial of human merit and his sense of the immediacy of Christ as revealer and savior, against any rational theologia gloriae that claimed to describe God as he is in himself and proposed that our earthly theology be a theologia crucis, conformed to the pattern of God’s revelation in Christ….[1]

Theology of the cross could later correlate to what some have called a theology of crisis (what we find in someone like Jurgen Möltmann, and even in the early Karl Barth). God is known as we meet Him at the cross over and again; as we are depleted of our resources and thrown on the mercy of His resources revealed to us as He freely and graciously met and meets with us through the cross of His dearly beloved Son. The cross is where God’s power and reality is revealed as: God humbled and humanity exalted in the unio personalis (the singular person), Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul was one of the foremost and earliest theologians of the cross, this typifies the attitude that a theologian of the cross thinks and lives from:

Brothers and sisters, we don’t want you to be unaware of the troubles that we went through in Asia. We were weighed down with a load of suffering that was so far beyond our strength that we were afraid we might not survive. It certainly seemed to us as if we had gotten the death penalty. This was so that we would have confidence in God, who raises the dead, instead of ourselves. 10 God rescued us from a terrible death, and he will rescue us. We have set our hope on him that he will rescue us again, 11 since you are helping with your prayer for us. Then many people can thank God on our behalf for the gift that was given to us through the prayers of many people.[2]

Closing Remarks

It is interesting, because when we think of the nominalist/Scotist types of dispositions that Luther had it would seem at odds with the realist/Thomist ones that we find in the theologies of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. I think what brings them together constructively is their (i.e. Luther’s, Barth’s, Torrance’s) focuses on a theology of the Word. Barth and Torrance, it can be said, have an a posteriori approach to thinking God; i.e. from God’s Self-revelation in Christ back up to the ontological God (so a chain-of-being way of thinking, but instead of a this chain taking link from a general conception of human being back up to God’s being, it takes link from God’s being given and revealed in Jesus Christ as a center of God’s life). I think if Luther was around when Barth and Torrance came on the scene he would approve of this kind of christologically conditioned chain-of-being thinking, because it takes the christological focus of Luther’s theology of the cross and of the Word and understands that the Covenant between God and humanity that provides genuine knowledge of God is found nowhere else but in theanthropos, the Godman, Jesus Christ. Barth and Torrance actually take the insights that Martin Luther’s via positiva ‘positive way’ (kataphatic) of doing theology emphasizes while at the same time plundering the Thomist way of knowing God non-metaphysically (as it were) from God’s reality given in Jesus Christ. What Barth and Torrance don’t take over, and now in alignment with Luther, is the Thomist chain-of-being separation of cause and effect when it comes to the person and work of Jesus Christ. This might be where Luther, Barth, and Torrance are most closely aligned; for Luther, when we see Jesus, we see God / for Barth and Torrance when we see Jesus, we see God.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 223-24.

[2] II Corinthians 1:8-11, Common English Bible.