The Radical Sacrifice of God in Apocalyptic Frame

I just started reading, not only Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, but just this evening, Terry Eagleton’s new book: Radical Sacrifice. They are in tandem percolating my wits in a certain direction and mode of feeling. This particular post will reference Eagleton’s work, in discussion with a burgeoning theological mode that someone like Philip Ziegler is at the forefront of developing; viz. I will bring Eagleton’s thinking into some con-versation with Ziegler’s work, and then not to mention, I will touch upon some of Karl Barth’s thinking as distilled by Robert Dale Dawson (meaning I will be drawing off of previous posts as I bring those into passing with Eagleton’s). The point I want to press has, once again, to do with Apocalyptic Theology, but in this instance, I want to fill that out with Eagleton’s thinking on sacrifice as irruption and representative of a primordial new. To start with I will help refresh our understanding of what apocalyptic theology entails; I will then illustrate that by referring to Dawson’s thinking on Barth’s theology of resurrection; and then use that to lead into Eagleton’s notion of sacrifice.

Here Ziegler refers us to two other thinkers to help us understand what an Apocalyptic Theology is after:

As Gaventa concisely puts it, “Paul’s apocalyptic theology has to do with the conviction that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has invaded the world as it is, thereby revealing the world’s utter distortion and foolishness, reclaiming the world, and inaugurating a battle that will doubtless culminate in the triumph of God over all God’s enemies (including the captors Sin and Death). This means that the Gospel is first, last, and always about God’s powerful and gracious initiative.” Inasmuch as it is an expression of specifically Christian faith, “apocalyptic theology always and everywhere denotes a theology of liberation in an earth that is dying and plagued by evil powers.

In the words of Donald MacKinnon, its subject matters in nothing less than “God’s own protest against the world He has made, by which at the same time that world is renewed and reborn.”[1]

We see this idea that the ‘world is renewed and reborn’ through God’s ‘invasion’ in Christ, the sort of ostensibly discontinuous discord between the world now and the world to come/came in Christ in Barth’s theology as well. Here Robert Dale Dawson unfolds how that looks in relation to Barth’s doctrine of resurrection:

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. 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.[2]

I provide these two ideational vignettes in order, as I noted, to lead us into some similar thinking from Eagleton. The theme to grasp from these previous interlocutors is the idea of disruption; Divine disruption. There is a tumult that occurs in the crucifixion of God in Christ. The fact itself, that it requires God to enflesh, and assume blood and oxygen for us, ought to suggest to us that something alien (meaning radical and extraneous to us, by way of antecedent and determination) has occurred, of the sort that out of its ashes only something new and elevated could arise. In other words, the sacrifice of God’s Son for us, ought to let us know that the depth of sin’s pollution is beyond the scope of a simple remodel (of presently available materials — as if nature simply needed to be ‘perfected’); it ought to alert us to the idea that what was required was a decreation in order for a recreation to enter in and bring us to the heights that God had freely chosen to pre-destine for us according to His eternally gracious and lovely good will to be for us rather than against us in the election of His dearly beloved Son. It is in this vein that Eagleton helps us think about the in-breaking of God’s life for us in Christ, and the sort of radical irruption that necessarily occurred thusly. You’ll notice that Eagleton speaks in more profane and less theologically driven terms than I am.

The most compelling version of sacrifice concerns the flou-rishing of the self, not its extinction. It involves a formidable release of energy, a transformation of the human subject and a turbulent transitus from death to new life. If sacrifice is a political act, it is not least because it concerns an accession to power. As one commentator remarks, ‘almost all sacrifice is about power, or powers’. The ritual is indeed about loss and waste, but in the name of a more fruitful form of life. Julian of Norwich sees it in terms of childbirth, where pain is a prelude to joy. If sacrifice involves yielding something up, it is in order to possess it more deeply. As Hubert and Mauss observe, ‘there is no sacrifice into which some idea of redemption does not enter’. It is true that the institution has a number of retrograde features, as its critics have been at pains t point out. As we shall see, it has been for the most part a profoundly conservative practice. Yet there is a radical kernel to be extracted from its mystical shell. Sacrifice concerns the passage of the lowly, unremarkable thing from weakness to power. It marks a movement from victimhood to full humanity, destitution to riches, the world as we know it to some transfigured domain. It is this disruptive rite of passage that is known among other things as consecration. To make an object sacred is to mark it out by investing it with a sublimely dangerous power. If sacrifice is often violent, it is because the depth of the change it promises cannot be a matter of smooth evolution or simple continuity.

In this sense, the practice of ritual sacrifice nurtures a wisdom beyond the rationality of the modern, at least as its most callow. It sets its face against the consoling illusion that fulfilment can be achieved without a fundamental rupture and rebirth. The consecration of the sacrificial victim is a matter of wholesale transformation, not some piecemeal evolution. One cannot pass from time to eternity while remaining intact. Since the gods are totally other to humanity, any contact with them involves a metamorphosis as fundamental as the passage from living to dying. The idea of sacrifice broods among other things on the mystery by which life springs from death, seeking a passage through loss and devastation in order to thrive. Dennis J. Schmidt writes of how for Hegel, ‘conflict, contradiction, negation, sacrifice, and death saturate the life of the spirit so thoroughly that they define the very truth of the spirit’. In a similar vein, Miguel de Beistegui observes that ‘one should recognise that [for Hegel] the greatness of Spirit in history or of man in his action reveals itself primarily in sundering and in death, in sacrifice and in struggle, and that thought itself derives its depth only from taking the full measure of this tragic grandeur’. Pre-modern societies are conscious in a similar way of a secret complicity between living and dying. If the fumes of burnt offerings no longer waft to the nostrils of petulant deities in our own time, it is partly because modernity enforces a rigorous distinction between the two states.[3]

The basic gist I’d like to leave with is this: There is much more going on in the ‘death, burial, and resurrection’ of Jesus Christ than often meets the prima facie eye. There is, as Torrance would say, a ‘depth dimension’ to the reality of the Gospel that pushes deeper and more vertically, while operating within the horizontal flatland, than we often realize.

I think Eagleton’s initial thoughts on sacrifice, while from a different vantage point than a proper ‘apocalyptic theology,’ helps us delve deeper into the history of ideas of what might be informing the way we ought to think a biblical notion of ‘sacrifice.’ It helped illumine things further for me, and hopefully it has done the same for you! PAX CHRISTI

 

[1] Philip G. Ziegler, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018), loc 162, 171 kindle.

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

[3] Terry Eagleton, Radical Sacrifice (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018), Loc. 138, 147, 154, 162 kindle.

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Bearing Witness to the Living Christ in the Midst of Sin and the World: Against Monasticisms

It does no good to pretend like we aren’t still sinners as Christians; we can’t hide from something that is in our hearts simul justus et peccator. Monkery sought to recluse itself into an inner-chamber of cloistery intended to reduce worldly temptation and provide a safer place for devotio Christi; but this represented an abject failure. The Christian’s problem, along with the rest of the world, is that our hearts are desperately wicked above all else, who can know them?; but God. The answer isn’t reclusion; the answer is reckoning and facing our sins through the power of the resurrection. We still have monks among us; often we call them Fundamentalists. Fundamentalists can be found on the progressive left or the religious right; no matter. Fundamentalists-Right attempt to withdraw into a rationalist and rigid moralism, while Fundamentalists-Left attempt to withdraw into a libertine and anti-moralism (which ends up being just another sort of moralism). Søren Kierkegaard, via one of his commentators, Andrew Torrance, had thoughts on the effectiveness (and whimpyness) of the monk’s procedure. Torrance writes of Kierkegaard’s view:

A further problem with monasticism, for Kierkegaard, was that it invited Christians to deal with their anxiety over sin by trying to escape the secular world, by binding themselves to a uniform Christian environment in which it is much easier to copy Christ’s ascetic life and avoid worldly temptation. The problem with this approach is that it avoids what he saw as the highest Christian calling: to imitate Christ by remaining in the world, as a witness. For him, the Christian is not called to hide herself away like a hermit, avoiding the world’s opposition and persecution, but to stand out as a Christian before God and the world – ‘in the middle of actuality before the eyes of all’ – and suffer the consequences that follow. Nonetheless, he was happy to acknowledge that the Christian should try to avoid temptation (Fristelse), so long as it did not entail hiding away from the spiritual trials that he felt were so essential to the Christian life. The Christian is called to ‘go straight toward’ spiritual trial, ‘trusting in God and [Christ]’. This means voluntarily choosing to enter into situations where temptation will be a real factor: situations in which overcoming temptation will itself be a spiritual trial that needs to be faced: ‘one of the most painful forms of spiritual trial’. In these situations, the Christian must turn to Christ to find the strength and courage to endure temptation and be delivered from evil. If, however, he anxiously looks to other means, such as the safety of a monastery, there will be an extent to which he is avoiding Christ. He will be attempting to deal with his sin-anxiety through a worldly retreat from temptation. Under these circumstances,

Even if he prays, calling upon [Christ’s] name fervently, [Christ] is still no savior to him. He fights on his own as well as he can, uses all of his rational powers uprightly, if I can put it like that, to avoid temptation and thus really does avoid temptation and perhaps brings it all gratefully to [Christ]. But he doesn’t have the faith that [Christ] will help him triumph over temptation.

For Kierkegaard, it is the Christian’s loving relationship with God that animates her in her faithful struggle to follow Christ. It is in fellowship with God that the Christian comes to will ‘as God wills’ and thereby develops the passion to follow Christ in the face of tribulation.[1]

Bearing witness in the midst of the struggle with temptation and sin—even and mostly in our many failures—is, for Kierkegaard (and I’d contest, for Scripture’s teaching), the height of what it means to walk participatorially in imatatio Christi. I’d like to place one caveat here: I would contend that to ‘imitate Christ’ is not an effort that we have the capacity or energy within ourselves to accomplish; which is what the small quote from SK, that Andrew shares, I think helps to reinforce. The point is that in our struggle with sin we are confronted with the One who has not only never sinned, but never sinned for us; and beyond that put sin, in and from His ultimacy, to a living death. In other words, we can imitate Christ only insofar as Christ has provided that reality for us in and from His vicarious humanity for us (pro nobis).

Further, and back to the original remarks to open this post: to attempt a withdraw into some sort of monastic space—whether that be in our church communities, social media cliques, actual monasteries, or what have you—can only and ever result in a vicious circle of self-reliance and delusion. Delusion in the sense that we think we have sequestered ourselves off from the ‘world’ and its temptations, when in fact the reality is that the world is in our hearts. Like I asserted earlier, this sort of moral sequestering happens on all ‘sides’ and everywhere. There is no retreat but Christ; and in Christ we have the [resurrection] energy to not only stand, but fall and rise back up in Christ—over and again. It is in this holy cycle of mortificatio/vivificatio, of failure and success canonized for us in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that the living God in the risen Christ is borne witness to mostly.  

[1] Andrew B. Torrance, The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God (London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 144-45.

‘Early’ Does Not Necessarily Mean It Should Be Normative: Engaging with Assurance of Salvation in the Early Church

I wanted to respond to a tweet that an anonymous tweeter tweeted the other day on his Twitter account.[1] The tweet has to do with eternal justification coram Deo; more pointedly it has to do with so called ‘assurance of salvation.’ As you’ll note, the tweeter believes, along with his reading of ‘early Christians’ (which I think he offers a sweeping generalization that is ultimately unhelpful) that it is not possible for Christians to have a certainty of hope in regard to eternal life. He believes if a certainty of hope is given to Christians that, for one thing, there will not be impetus for Christians to engage in ‘good works,’ to persevere in faithfulness. I wonder if you are starting to get a sense of where this thinking is situated in the history of Christian ideas. Let’s read the tweet, and then I will respond further on the other side.

For the early Christians, salvation was eschatological. We are not declared righteous (i.e., justified) until the final judgment. Not conversion, good works, baptism, wonders, or profession guarantees our justification, but faithfulness (i.e., perseverance). If you were to ask an early Christian to describe salvation, he would analogize it with a race or contest. We are runners racing for an imperishable crown. Along the way, we can benefit from assurances, but we lack total certainty in our salvation until we reach the end of life. We find this mentality present also in Scripture. It is not until he is being led to his execution that Paul can at last say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). One could say that from the perspective of the Father, I am already justified since all time exists before His eyes as a single consummate present. But if you are to ask me, I would have to say, “No, not yet. But my hope is in Christ and on Him I daily rely.” If I am currently justified and my salvation is certain, then I am suddenly without any incentive to continue trusting Christ for something already guaranteed. Good works become weirdly superfluous “expressions” of faith, rather than the practice of faith.[2]

I do believe this tweeter has grounds in the early church for coming to his conclusion about the ‘incentive to continue trusting Christ,’ but it isn’t with the orthodox among the earlies; it is with what came to be understood as heretical. I emboldened the crux of the problematic that is presented in the tweet. The tweeter seems to think that if a Christian is going to ‘persevere’ in order to attain to a realized and personal experience of eternal life, the would-be saint will constantly live in a life of good works. The theological reductio to this is not promising for the tweeter. It is true that in the early church there was much confusion about various loci, and doctrines. T.F. Torrance identifies in many of the early fathers a strain of what can only be called out-right Pelagianism, and at best semi-Pelagianism.[3] If the tweeter has picked up on anything in his engagement with the early Christians it is this unfortunate strain. JND Kelly helps us appreciate what Pelagius taught; as you read this I think you will be able to place the tweet as corollary with the sentiment in Pelagius’s positioning:

Pelagius was primarily a moralist, concerned for right conduct and shocked by what he considered demoralizingly pessimistic views of what could be expected of human nature. The assumption that man could not help sinning seemed to him an insult to his Creator. Augustine’s prayer, ‘Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt’ (da quod iubes et iube quod vis), particularly distressed him, for it seemed to suggest that men were puppets wholly determined by the movements of divine grace. In reaction to this the keystone of his whole system is the idea of unconditional free will and responsibility. In creating man God did not subject him, like other creatures, to the law of nature, but gave him the unique privilege of being able to accomplish the divine will by his own choice. He set life and death before him, bidding him choose life (Deut. 30, 19), but leaving the final decision to his free will. Thus it depends on the man himself whether he acts rightly or wrongly: the possibility of freely choosing the good entails the possibility of choosing evil. There are, he argues, three features in action—the power (posse), the will (velle), and the realization (esse). The first of these comes exclusively from God, but the other two belong to us; hence, according as we act, we merit praise or blame. It would be wrong to infer, however, that he regarded this autonomy as somehow withdrawing man from the purview of God’s sovereignty. Whatever his followers may have said, Pelagius himself made no such claim. On the contrary, along with his belief in free will he has the conception of a divine law proclaiming to men what they ought to do and setting the prospect of supernatural rewards and pains before them. If a man enjoys the freedom of choice, it is by the express bounty of his Creator, and he ought to use it for the ends which He prescribes.[4]

Kelly gives us a good sense of Pelagius’s theology, and beyond that he helps us see how the tweet we’ve been engaging with has the same sort of feel and trajectory as we find set forth in Pelagius. The tweeter himself might push back and repudiate any sort of necessary connection to Pelagius’s idea of reward or pain, but I think the push back would be artificial based upon what the tweet itself is funded by.

Beyond all of the above, I also think in regard to method it is not advisable to simply read off one’s theology from this or that period of theological development; in other words, as 21st century Christians we ought to be more critical and constructive than that. More importantly, for the Protestant Christian what ought to be normative and authoritative for life and practice is not our reception of the theologoumena (theological opinions) of various theologians, per se, but only Holy Scripture and its reality. If we come across theologians who faithfully explicate the inner theo-logic of Scripture then appealing to their imaginary, in regard to the grammar they help develop, can be helpful; but this should be done with care. Either way, ‘early’ does not always or ever mean better; this seems to be the supposition of the tweeter.

 

[1] I am going to keep the tweeter anonymous because I didn’t ask him if I could quote his tweet; I just am. If he happens to come across my response, and wants me to give him credit for his tweet, I will. But the sentiment he articulates, in my view is, to say the least, highly troubling; thus I want to respond to it.

[2] Anonymous Tweet, accessed 11-17-2018 [emphasis mine].

[3] See Thomas F. Torrance, The Doctrine Of Grace In The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1960).

[4] JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 356-57 [emphasis mine].

Torrance Against Annihilationism or Evangelical Conditionalism, Not to Mention Christian Universalisms

Not too long ago here at the blog I wrote some posts on annihilationism or what some call evangelical conditionalism; the idea being that there is not an eternal hell, instead when someone dies outside of Christ, ultimately, their existence and being is dis-integrated by its un-hinging from the eternal life of God. There are some interesting implications surrounding this; and the folks at ReThinking Hell (proponents of annihilationism) want to present the implications they see in a way that is grounded in biblical exegesis and reality. Indeed, as orthodox Christians, who wouldn’t want to ground their thinking about this issue in the reality of the biblical witness? But as is typical there is always more to the story, never less, than just quoting bible passages, or doing word studies; indeed, there is always an inner-theological reality that allows Scripture to presume what it does in its occasional teachings.

As I originally opined on this issue what I stated was that there was a need to think about this issue from a theological exegetical point of view, such that the Dogmatic loci have the opportunity to supply the necessary pressure for biblical exegesis to have the sort of fully rounded elucidation that it ought to have when dealing with this particular teaching among every other biblical teaching. What I suggested originally was that at base annihilationism has to do with the way a theological anthropology is detailed, and how that gets developed vis-à-vis a doctrine of election/reprobation. When it comes to these particular loci my go to theologians are of course Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance (not to mention their reliance on Athanasius when it comes to these themes). What I suggest is that if we understand all human being to be grounded in Christ’s vicarious humanity—which is what Barth’s and Torrance’s reformulated doctrine of election details—if we see human ontology grounded in Christ’s election to become human for us, then human being has an ec-static source that is not contingent upon itself, but upon God (insofar as the Son’s humanity is given enhypostatic particularity through his being as the eternal Logos in the triune life). If this is so, then human being, even if that being refuses to acknowledge its reality by repentance and coming into full union with its reality in Christ, is held together for all eternity just as sure as the humanity of Christ is of the indestructible sort (Hebrews). Some might take this to mean that universalism then is the conclusion; versus annihilationism. But Torrance explicitly rejects that conclusion, and simply lives in the tension of the biblical witness. He works out of the implications of the Incarnation, and at the same time, dialectically allows Scripture’s teaching to chasten thinking that might lead us to think that all human being will ultimately experience eternal life simply because its ontological ground is in the humanity of Jesus Christ. Torrance repudiates these sorts of logico-causal/necessitarian conclusions just as Einstein rejected mechanical conclusions about the cosmos based upon the reality of relativity in the time-space continuum.

Geordie Ziegler helps to elucidate what we have been thinking about above and helps to reinforce my suggestions in regard to hell, election, and annihilationism in the theology of Thomas Torrance. Ziegler writes:

Because God is committed to his creature, human beings are bound eternally in an “existential relation to God.” Accordingly, Torrance rejects equating God’s final judgment with annihilation. In an effort to root final judgment and reprobation biblically, he develops the Old Testament concepts of the curse of God and sheol. In being cursed, the reprobate are given up to their own uncleanness, separated from the face of God and banished from creation into “outer darkness.” But, fundamentally, this is “a banishment to their own denial of their being in God.” It is the confirmation of their choice to exist outside of the covenant of God, as those who do not belong to it. Whereas sheol, as Torrance expounds it, is this state of existence “in darkness behind God’s back . . . in man’s self-chosen perversity and blindness.” Sheol is a kind of suspended darkness, that already casts its shadow over all sinners as their self-chosen destiny, yet awaits God’s final acts of judgment. The curse then is God’s ultimate and final judgment in which those who cast themselves upon God’s wrath and judgment will be justified; and those who choose to remain in their alienation will be utterly banished. Torrance describes hell as “the chasm that separates man from God in the very existence of sinful man,” who is conditioned and determined by sin and guilt. Hell is not an abstract place, nor is it the no-thing of nothingness. Hell is the personal and concrete existence of the human being in alienation from God. It is the sinner choosing isolation from God’s love. As such, the alienation of hell is always a possibility—for both the living as well as for the living dead. For those whose “ultimate reaction” is to deny God’s claim upon them, they will bear the pain of a continued existence of “utter and final judgement within existential relation to God.” God gives sinners the freedom to deny his claim upon them, yet his claim remains nonetheless.[1]

The key to understanding this contra annihiliationism is to recognize that human being, all of human being’s perduring is encompassed by the reality that God’s humanity is humanity, and as such humanity can never be eradicated, none of it, by virtue of this. In other words, if the humanity of God stands behind the back, as it were, of the humanity of all instances of humanity (this gets us into another quagmire in regard to dealing with a concern about positing a metaphysical humanity, which we will have to engage later) then humanity, even if it spiritually fails to submit to its reality in Christ, nonetheless will endure through all the æon’s of time to come (for all eternity). As far as Torrance’s (and Barth’s) doctrine of election, and attending theological anthropology vis-à-vis redemption, leading to Christian universalism: this need not be the conclusion precisely at the point that Scripture itself delimits this as a viable conclusion in regard to the experience of eternal life in Christ. In other words, people can reject what in fact stands over them, their very life in Christ. Some might think this then leads to the binary of Calvinism and Arminianism, as far as so called ‘free-will,’ but that’s only if we believe that the theological paradigm and theory of causation that classical Calvinism and Arminianism are embedded within, are the only ways to think about a relation inhering between God and his creation. But that’s not the only way to think about such things.

[1] Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 176-77.

An [onto]Relational Rather than Metaphysical Doctrine of Sin: An Altar-Call for Metaphysics

One reason I am continuously enamored with Thomas Torrance (and have been for years now) is because he has this knack for being able to mediate, well, between various periods and lexicons of ecclesial ideational development; in other words, he is a constructive theologian and Church Dogmatician par excellence. He is able to bring various voices into conversation, and allow those voices (and periods) to help in-form and cross-pollinate in such a way that what is produced are emphases, that I think!, best proximate the Gospel’s reality and various implications. Take for example his doctrine of sin: because of his commitment to what he calls onto-relationality, that is the being and personalizing constituting reality of God’s inner-Triune-life as not only the ground of who he is in himself, but as that is shared in its over-pouring reality as he freely chooses to create beings in his image (an act of grace) in the imago Christi, Torrance’s theological methodology (prolegomenon) becomes one that is less metaphysical, and instead one that is focused on [onto] relationality. What this means is that Torrance’s terms, even if he converses with the school or ancient theological lexicons, get reified or re-oriented by his focus on the Triune life and the relationality and personalization he sees co-inhering therein.

With the above sketch, in regard to Torrance’s theological method, Trinitarian as it is, person-constituting as it is, this does things further down the line as we get into the development of his other loci (or doctrines). Again, take his doctrine of sin; Torrance thinks sin not in terms of a static metaphysical given, but instead in terms of relational organic dynamism—viz. in terms of how Torrance sees sin in the concrete vis-à-vis its grounding and amplification in relation to grace and God’s life of grace given in Christ. In other words, much like Barth in this instance, Torrance sees sin’s definition only given reality as it is understood from within the reality of grace; and its attempt to thwart God’s goodness and loveliness therein. Geordie Ziegler helps us to appreciate this with greater development as he writes:

Torrance views sin as profoundly and irreducibly personal and relational. As such, his interests lie in sin’s actual existence within the dynamic and personal life-relation that creatures have with God, not in historical questions regarding original sin as an inherent hereditary or fatalistic determinate of our nature. His concerns are the concrete consequences of sin and how sin is manifested in human beings as “an active perversity”: a “positive contradiction,” which “maintains itself in an active opposition.”

Torrance would concur with McFarland, who states that original sin does not refer to an act but to “the ground of all our acts apart from the transforming power of grace.” Original sin represents a profound dis-orientation of our life-relation in communion with God. What separates human creatures from God is that men and women have turned their face away from God; and it is this turning away, this separation, which causes “intrinsic damage” to our nature and irreversibly and inextricably locates us as “fallen.” It is in this context that terms such as “total depravity” and “original sin” have their meaning. A “constitutive change” has taken place which involves the whole person and in which the whole person is involved. By turning away from our Maker, the mirror image which we were created to be is literally “de-faced.” We have a “sinning being” and therefore all repeat our original sin. Isolated acts of sin “are but the outward manifestation of this perversion at the very roots of human being.” Torrance’s relational ontology makes it entirely compatible both with a doctrine of theosis and one of healing from sin.

Descriptively, Torrance frequently uses the metaphorical language of distance to depict the destructive and tragic effects of sin. The fact of the incarnation itself reveals that humanity is “far away from” and “cut off from” God. Yet, it would be a mistake to construe this distance metaphysically. Rather, “the distance between man and God is due to the nearness of God! That distance is a moral one.” For Torrance, to describe human beings as alienated and estranged from both God and themselves is to speak of an incompatibility of immanence. That is, it indicates the profound “antagonism between God’s holy will of love and our sin.” This difference is exposed in bold relief at the coming near of God in Jesus Christ. “Sin presupposes the nearness of God.” It is the distance of differentness, the “clash of wills,” the gap created by opposing desires and the incompatibility of loves between the human creature and the central reality of their existence—namely, their life-unity with the Creator. Thus, when Torrance defines sin as the motion contrary to Grace, he is not setting sin up as Grace’s opposite (for that would be impossible); he is exposing both the personal nature and the utter emptiness of sin. Sin is not sin against an impersonal law, but is a crime against Grace itself—against God’s loving, holy will and being. Consequently, Torrance refuses to allow moralistic categories to drive his description of human fallenness. Sin ‘is not sin simply because it is against love or goodness or even against man but because it is ultimately against God himself.”[1]

Given Torrance’s disposition to think in onto-relational terms what we are presented with is an onto-theo-logical doctrine of sin. As such the emphasis, prior to this development, on an understanding of salvation/justification itself that is grounded not in a forensic framework (as we get in Federal theology’s Covenant of Works/Grace), but as corollary, or as protasis, we get a soteriology that focuses on humanity’s relationship/fellowship with the living God. It’s not that the forensic/juridical is completely elided; it’s just that the theoretical framework for developing a doctrine of justification/sanctification is not generated by a commitment to a conception of God that is rooted in an improperly evangelized metaphysic (what we get in the classical theisms that inadequately pay attention to the Trinitarian personalization that is the co-inhering reality of who God is as the ultimate koinonial/fellowship of persons in perichoretic relation and simple oneness [de Deo uno]).  These relational categories are often lacking in what we find being retrieved by many classical theists today.

Hopefully this helps, at the very least, illustrate how Torrance operates as a constructive theologian par excellence. Torrance ends up giving us a focus on what some might call the existentialism of modern theology’s emphasis, while reifying that emphasis under ontological and relational categories supplied by his engagement with some of the Patristic and Eastern theologians. This is what makes Torrance and Evangelical Calvinism’s appropriation of Torrance’s themes rather unique; and I think highly needed and fruitful for the 21st century church who is seeking out ways to be most faithful to the Evangel’s reality while at the same time seeking to do so in the most catholic and orthodox of ways. I offer Torrance’s doctrine of sin, through Ziegler’s development, up to you as a case study in point.

[1] Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 169-71.

How Does the Christian ‘Get’ the Holy Spirit; Or How Does the Holy Spirit ‘Get’ the Christian: The Locus: Christ’s Vicarious Humanity

Have you ever wondered how you might construe a Christ concentrated understanding of how the Christian receives the Holy Spirit; how the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ serves as the basis through whom Christians come to participate in the lively reality of the Holy Spirit? Often we abstract the Spirit’s work from the Son’s (and the Father’s) as if the Spirit is the divine agent who imbibes or woos faith into the forthcoming believer, and by this creative act of Divine plenitude the would be believer comes to the confession of faith in Christ. Indeed, the Spirit has his own unique and active work in regard to the salvific reality, but as Thomas Torrance points out it would be wrong to think this work abstract from the person and work of the Son in Jesus Christ, or indeed, abstract from the Triune life itself. But in a very specific way here we see Torrance’s bringing together of the Spirit and the Son as the place wherein salvation first inheres, in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; and as an echo of that reality, we as images of this image (Jesus Christ cf. Col. 1.15), as we are brought into union with the vicarious humanity of Christ, indeed by the Holy Spirit, come to participate in the humanity, Christ’s humanity for us, wherein the Holy Spirit is fully operative as the One who leads and casts out, as the One who directs our steps in the way they should go; to the right hand of the Father. Torrance writes:

Our receiving of the Spirit is objectively grounded in and derives from Christ who as the incarnate Son was anointed by the Spirit in his humanity and endowed with the Spirit without measure, not for his own sake (for he was eternally one in being with the Spirit in God) but for our sakes, and who then mediates the Spirit to us through himself. As one of us and one with us he sanctified himself in the Spirit that we might be sanctified in him and thus be sanctified in the truth. Our receiving of the Spirit, therefore, is not independent of or different from the vicarious receiving of the Spirit by Christ himself but is a sharing in it. Since he received the Spirit in the humanity he took from us, we on our part receive the Spirit through union with him and through him with the Father. This was the point Athanasius had in mind when he wrote: ‘Our being in the Father is not ours, but is the Spirit’s who is in us and dwells in us . . . It is the Spirit who is in God, and not we viewed in ourselves.’[1]

For one thing, just from an identity point of view for the Christian, this should let us know that our salvation is not our salvation, but instead is a reality extra nos (outside of us); a reality that we have no control over, but who is in control of us as we submit to his reality for us in Christ by the Spirit of Christ who is the Holy Spirit of the Triune life. This should let us know that we do not find what we need, as the ‘world’ and liberal theologies call us to, by recessing deeper and deeper into ourselves. The fact that our very ‘being’ is grounded somewhere alien to ourselves, and in Christ’s being as we are brought into union with his humanity by the creative and recreative work of the Holy Spirit in his humanity and now our humanity in union with his, ought to alert us to the reality that there was and is nothing good that dwells here (that is in our ‘old person’).

I can’t help but think of the reality of the cross in this context; in order for us to come to this Dogmatic point of reasoning requires something greater than an abstract or discursive moment in our intellectual lives. What is required for these categories to work is both the Incarnation&Atonement; more pointedly, what is required is a putting to death of our ‘old man’ and resurrecting of the ‘new man’ in Jesus Christ. This is where the ‘being’ of humanity brought to breath by the Holy Spirit comes to reality; as THE man, the mediator between God and humanity, Jesus Christ, is breathed into life by the Holy Spirit in concert with the Father and in the strength of his own life Divine, and in this reality we can come to speak in the terms that Torrance and Athanasius do.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark Publishing, 2016), 148.

God’s Triune Life as Grace: In Contrast to Latin Theologies of the Catholic and Protestant Varieties

Where was I? Oh yeah, about a third of the way through my friend Geordie Ziegler’s book Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F. Torrance. I’ve had Geordie’s book for probably a couple of years now, and I’m supposed to write a review for it. Well I’m continuing on, and the review is forthcoming. I’ve already done a few posts engaging with Geordie’s book, and this will be another one. I will just say that Geordie has done a wonderful job in exposing what comprises TFT’s theology; particularly as Geordie’s thesis focuses on the Trinitarian nature of Torrance’s prolegomena, and the way that grace is embodied and acted out in the very Triune relations.

In this post I am going to offer a long quote from Geordie where he is discussing how Torrance refers to grace in homoousial terms. This might seem striking to the uninitiated, but Torrance offers a personalist understanding of orthodox Reformed theology—in contrast to the school theology of late mediaevalism and post Reformed orthodoxy that he is reifying in Christ concentrated mode—as such TFT does not think of grace in the scholastic frame as created grace. We won’t venture further into the details of so called ‘created grace’ (which we find in Thomas Aquinas, and carried over in some of the post Reformed orthodox), but it is contrary to this, and from a more ‘Eastern’ approach that Torrance develops his understanding of grace in a personalist Triune frame. As you read Ziegler’s development remember this prior context.

Here is Ziegler at length (I don’t like to offer quotes without length, have you noticed?):

First, in asserting the homoousion of Grace, Torrance is highlighting and clarifying two key aspects of Grace: (1) Grace is intensely personal and implacably objective. In an unpublished response to his critics, Torrance explains the movement of his thought in more detail:

What [the Reformers] did, then, was to apply the homoousion also to the acts of God, to revelation and grace, and to insist that what we have in the Word is God speaking personally, and what we have in grace is not something detachable from God, some sort of created grace or Arian entity, but very God of very God. They emphasized that the Word of God is God speaking Himself to us, that the Grace of God is total, God giving Himself unreservedly to us. This created in the most intense way personal relationships on the one hand—destroying the impersonalism and the objectivism of mediaeval theology—and yet emphasized the implacable objectivity of God on the other hand, for it is the sheer majesty of His Being, His ultimate Self-giving that we encounter in His Word and Grace.

For Torrance, Grace is the personal self−giving of the Triune God through Christ and the Spirit, by which creatures are given to share in the Father−Son relation. Grace is not a nebulous divine ‘good will,’ but has real content: “for what God communicates to us in his grace is none other than himself. The Gift and the Giver are one.” The application of the homoousion to Grace is to recognize Grace as “the one indivisible self-giving of God in Christ.” Grace is not therefore something abstract, an impersonal force, or a generalized divine favor; nor is it a generic term for the gratuitous character of all God’s gifts. Grace is irreducibly personal; in fact, Grace has a name. Torrance writes,

Grace is not something that can be detached from God and made to inhere in creaturely being as ‘created grace’; nor is it something that can be proliferated in many forms; nor is it something that we can have more or less of, as if grace could be construed in quantitive terms. This is the Reformation doctrine of tota gratia. Grace is whole and indivisible because it is identical with the personal self−giving of God to us in his Son. It is identical with Jesus Christ. Thus it would be just as wrong to speak of many graces as many Christs, or of sacramental grace as of a sacramental Christ, or of created grace as of a created Christ.

While Grace is not to be generalized, it cannot be delegated to just one member of the Trinity’s activity either, for that would reduce it to a purely economic and instrumental function. Thus as we have observed and argued throughout Torrance roots Grace in “the living relations of the Persons of the Holy Trinity”; which in freedom and love issue forth through the missions as a movement from the Father, through the Son in the Spirit, and which return in the Spirit through the Son to the Father. Thus,

Between its going forth from God and its coming out upon the creature grace at no point ceases to be what it is within the Trinity, in order to become what it was not, some impersonal entity or causality. Grace can never be regarded in an instrumental sense, for from beginning to end in grace God is immediately present and active as living Agent.

Torrance will not abide any break between the being of God and his activity, for that would involve the trading of impersonal instrumentalities for real relations of communion.

Practically speaking, the recognition that Grace is irreducibly personal and objective and raises strong objections to the “impersonal determinism” of some Protestant doctrines of election. By construing the operation of Grace according to some notion of causality, “the sui generis movement of grace” is converted into “causal terms,” which “can then appear to be only quite arbitrary.” Equally problematic in Torrance’s estimation is the Augustinian notion of irresistible Grace. He suggests that the doctrine deleteriously introduced an internal connection between Grace and cause, which made way for the more general view of Grace “as a divine mode of causation at work in the universe.” Torrance argues that at least partially the development of the notion of irresistible Grace is an anthropomorphic projection of pragmatism upon the Divine: God uses Grace to administrate his salvific agenda for humankind and in that way God’s use of Grace mirrors human means of Grace.[1]

For an elaboration on the discussion orbiting around grace as created, uncreated, and the like refer to my friend and fellow blogger, Fr Aidan Kimel’s post which engages with how grace has functioned for the big three traditions in Christendom: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. As you read Kimel’s post what you’ll recognize, after reading what I just shared from Geordie, is that Torrance’s approach clearly is in-formed by the Eastern trad (if we want to speak cleanly like that). But Torrance’s theology and logic of grace, as Ziegler develops it (and Geordie follows TFT to a T), even counters some of the things that Aidan shares in his post with reference to Augustine (as we see particularly in the last paragraph of the Ziegler quote).

What I want to press is really one thing: As Evangelical Calvinists we are less concerned with where the conceptual matter comes from—in regard to the various trads of the church—and more concerned with the fiduciary nature of the theological material and development itself. As such, when we think of God’s Triune life as a movement of dynamic grace, as he moves in and among Godself, and from there moves out for us, we think this is the right way to think precisely because it coheres and inheres so well with the reality of the Evangel itself. In other words, the God we encounter in Christ, as Athanasius is so prone to emphasize, is a God who is unity of being, which antecedes his will be done; the God we meet mediated through the God-man, Jesus Christ, is always and eternally already the Son of the Father. We don’t meet God as the Creator, first; not as Christians. We come to call God, LORD!, by the Spirit. It is in this onto-relation, as the reality of God’s inner-life, that the sheep come to know their God’s voice. It is in the dynamic of being-in-relation; the subject-in-being relationship (Torrance’s ‘onto-relation’) that has always already been the eternal reality of the Father-Son-Holy Spirit, and then this shared reality in his movement outward (humanward) towards us that we might move towards him in the Godward movement of his life for us in Christ.

You won’t find these emphases and foci in classical Reformed theology, of the Latin sort, precisely because of the type of voluntarist, on the one hand, and Thomist commitments, on the other hand that help fund the way they think of a God-world relation and what that does to concepts like grace in soteriological frame. This assertion will have to suffice for now, but you can peruse my various blog posts or two edited books for further development and substantiation of this thesis. What I do want to leave with is that Evangelical Calvinism works from the sort of conceptual matter that we see Geordie developing in his work on Torrance’s theology of grace.

 

[1] Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 132-34. I copy and pasted Ziegler’s quote from a PDF copy I have, as such his emphases and italicizes were negated in that process.

Being Studious So We Know What and Who the Gospel Is: ‘The Weapons of Our Warfare Are Mighty’

In light of tragedy I often hear pastors and teachers in our 21st century context downplay the Gospel; as if the Gospel ultimately is indeed some sort of insurance policy, but at the end of each day does not have the resource to confront the types of tragedies we are faced with on a daily basis as Christians. As if the Gospel itself is not effulgent with the life of very God of very God. Maybe one reason Christians think of the Gospel in these terms—in domesticated and muted terms—is because they have failed to appreciate that understanding the Gospel requires rigor and work. In other words, we live in a fallen state (still!), and as a result even though salvation is by grace alone understanding what grace alone entails requires great depths of work and study. Maybe pastors and teachers gut the Gospel the way they do, particularly in light of travail and torment in people’s lives, because they are simply lazy; as are most in the church. Maybe the Gospel actually is the power of God, and not in some mystical sense, just as the Apostle Paul has asserted (by the Spirit!). Maybe the Gospel has the resource to actually make the crooked straight even in the in-between we currently inhabit, and we ought to entrust ourselves to it (Him) more rather than less. Maybe if we committed to exerting the necessary energy of putting the work in we’d have a greater depth understanding of the Gospel and see it for what it actually is, and for what it actually has the capacity to accomplish in us and for us.

The late John Webster offers a challenging word on this front as he develops his theme on theological theology. He confronts the sin of laziness, and underscores how important it is for Christians to be studious in regard to gaining proper understanding of the fullness attendant with the Gospel. Webster ties study of the Gospel (he calls this theology) into ends and purposes; and notes the impact that the end has on purpose. But more than that, as noted, he wants to impress how if the Christian is to appreciate what they actually have in the Gospel they need to work and be studious. He writes:

Christian theology pursues scientific ends, that is, the acquisition of that knowledge of its matter which is proper to creatures, in accordance with its cognitive principles. Pursuit of scientific ends is an element of the fulfillment of our intellectual nature, and is a creaturely good. Human creatures are by nature studious. We have an appetite to acquire knowledge beyond what is necessary for the immediate fulfillment of our animal nature, and we possess intellectual powers which we apply to satisfy this appetite. Well-ordered, temperate studiousness is not self-derived or wholly spontaneous; it is creaturely, the exercise of powers which have been given and which are moved, preserved and fortified by a movement beyond themselves. Studiousness is the arduous application of these powers; it is not indolent or casual, but concentrated, determined, painstaking and resistant to premature termination.

All theological activity requires this kind of purposive pursuit of scientific ends: revelation awakens theological science. It is through study that God becomes actually intelligible, and defects in the acquisition and exercise of studiousness threaten the attainment of other ends in theology. However, pursuit of scientific ends is instrumental and interim: necessary, but not sufficient or final. Forgetfulness of the instrumental status of scientific ends arises from disordered intention: our purposes for this activity fail to coincide with its intrinsic ends, and excessive devotion to scientific ends inhibits attainment of the true ends of theological intelligence. Much harm to theology is done by this disordered purpose. Theology’s object becomes one which is ours to appropriate or master by scientia; its cognitive principles become naturalized; the dependence of theology on divine instruction is neglected. Some kinds of institutional setting in which theology is undertaken may provide opportunities for such distortions to flourish, but their chief cause is the crookedness and futility of our intellectual nature after the fall. Only with the restoration and regeneration of that nature can our purposes be taught to direct themselves to fitting ends; theology will be theological as it is caught up in this renewal.[1]

It is important to identify, as Webster does, the internal battle we all are facing as Christians. The struggle is indeed real, and we should not be naïve to this as Christian warriors. We are enveloped in the very life of the living God in Christ, and in this envelopment we have been given the mind and heart of Christ. This is where we have the ‘renewal’ to do genuinely theological theology. Meaning: this is where we have the ability to grow deep into the reality of the pleroma (fullness) of the Gospel. Webster’s points are well taken; sin retards our desire, even as Christians, especially as Christians to seek God while he might be found call upon him while he is near. But we must not give into the baser desires of the old nature that continues to seek to assert itself where it has been crushed like the serpent’s head that it is.

In an even more applied sense: as we continue to mourn the loss of Pastor Andrew I fear that Christians won’t allow this tragedy to forge them into the steely new creations they have been made in and through their gracious union with Jesus Christ. As Christians we are in a spiritual battle, and the means of our battle, the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds. But what does this really mean? Is this some sort of mystical appeal that we simply live ethereally into as a New Ager does in their transcendental reflections? No. The weapons of our warfare are exactly what Webster was referring to; it entails work and being studious around the Gospel; around growing into the grace and knowledge of God in Jesus Christ and who he is for us as he is eternally in himself. If we fail to sharpen these weapons, which requires labor, we will indeed reduce the Gospel to some sort of shallow insurance policy shorn of the very power of God that it actually is. Armed with such a Gospel we will remain impotent, and the attacks of the evil one will land hard and furious; we won’t know what hit us till we are on the brink of destruction (even as Christians).

As a brother in Christ I implore you, at the very least, to daily take up your Bible and read it; internalize it. More, I implore you to read sound theology, and learn the tools that will allow you to interpret Scripture in depth ways. The end is to know and love God; the purposes of our activity are to be shaped by this end. If so, if we take this to heart we will be constrained by the love of Christ (the end), and motivated in the proper ways toward reaching the end of who we are in Jesus Christ.

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 219-20.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.