The Patristic Rather than the Protestant, Calvin: Calvin’s Doctrine of Theosis and Ontological Salvation in Con-versation With Irenaeus

It might be said that John Calvin was something of a theologian born out of time. When you read him, particularly the French version of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, what you will find is someone who sounds more like a Patristic theologian more than one who worked in and post late medieval theology. His Christocentric emphasis, I think, leads him to sound like maybe an Athanasius or Irenaeus; he offers insights about the eternal life of salvation that operate from the catholicity borne out by ecumenical councils like the niceno-constantinopolitano-chalcedony offered towards the orthodox grammar and thought of the Church since.

More materially, Calvin’s thinking sounds almost exactly like Irenaeus’s idea of theosis, and how it took God become human in Christ for humanity to become sons of God, by the adoption of grace, and thus participants in the eternal triune life of God. Note Irenaeus, and then Calvin following:

But again, those who assert that He was simply a mere man, begotten by Joseph, remaining in the bondage of the old disobedience, are in a state of death having been not as yet joined to the Word of God the Father, nor receiving liberty through the Son, as He does Himself declare: If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. John 8:36 But, being ignorant of Him who from the Virgin is Emmanuel, they are deprived of His gift, which is eternal life; Romans 6:23 and not receiving the incorruptible Word, they remain in mortal flesh, and are debtors to death, not obtaining the antidote of life. To whom the Word says, mentioning His own gift of grace: I said, You are all the sons of the Highest, and gods; but you shall die like men. He speaks undoubtedly these words to those who have not received the gift of adoption, but who despise the incarnation of the pure generation of the Word of God, defraud human nature of promotion into God, and prove themselves ungrateful to the Word of God, who became flesh for them. For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons?[1]

And Calvin:

What we have said will be clearer if we consider that the office of Mediator is not a common thing — that is; to restore us to God’s grace in such a way that we are made His children, we who were the children of people; to make us heirs of the heavenly kingdom, we who were heirs of hell. Who could have done that unless the Son of God had been made Son of man and had taken our condition so as to transfer to us what was His properly by nature, making it ours by grace? So we have confidence that we are God’s children, having the guarantee that the natural Son of God took a body from our body, flesh from our flesh, bone from our bone, to be united with us. What was properly ours, He accepted in his person in order that what was properly His might belong to us, and thus He had in common with us that He was Son of God and Son of man. For this reason we hope that the heavenly inheritance is ours, because the unique Son of God who completely deserves it, has adopted us as His brothers. Now if we are His brothers, we are His co-heirs.[2]

In context, both Irenaeus and Calvin are writing against people who are attempting to denigrate the full divinity of the Son. Both thinkers identify the necessity of full divinity in Christ in order for ultimate salvation and eternal life to obtain. Interestingly, particularly with reference to Calvin, what we see is an inkling toward what we freely call theosis or divinization in the Patristic writers like Irenaeus. What is significant to me, in this regard, is that Calvin has an ontological understanding of salvation operative in and underwriting his thinking on salvation; contra the steep forensic or declarative understanding of salvation we end up seeing the scholastic Reformed or Post Reformed orthodox theologians of the Protestant period in the 16th and 17th centuries develop. This continues to be an underappreciated reality in Calvin, particularly by those who would like to read him into the Post Reformed orthodox period.

Thomas Torrance picks up on this theosis motif in Calvin’s thinking and rightly brings Calvin into the ontological frame when developing his own constructive doctrine of salvation. Again, this is rebuffed by people like Richard Muller et al. who want to read Calvin away from divinization salvific grammar, and instead see him fitting into the juridical models developed in the Post Reformation period. I think Torrance is right to align Calvin more with the Patristic Fathers rather than with the Post Reformed orthodox Fathers. I commend the aforementioned from Calvin as evidence in that direction. I also present it to you as further evidence that Calvin was someone born out of time; that he often sounds more like the Patristics than the Protestants, so to speak.

[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies: Book III, Chpt. 19 [Emphasis mine].

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 223-24 [Emphasis mine].

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Thinking About the Intermediate Status: What Happens After We Die?

I am continuing to slowly read Matthew Levering’s book Jesus and the Demise of Death: Resurrection, Afterlife, and the Fate of the Christian. Levering is a Catholic thinker, an Aquinas expert, and as such thinks from this direction. Even so (haha), he offers some really excellent commentary on some very important theological topics. In this instance the issue is ‘death.’ I wanted to share something from him on the ‘intermediate state,’ or the status that obtains upon the death of a Christian person (or non-Christian, for that matter). Here we are at the end of one of his opening chapters where he has been sketching various approaches to this matter; approaches presented by important thinkers such as NT Wright, Pope Benedict XVI, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Thomas Aquinas et al. Let’s read his concluding remarks on these various sketches:

Wright emphasizes the eschatological renewal of space, time, and matter; he fears eschatologies that overspiritualize our future with God. At the same time, he holds that the New Testament attests to an intermediate state in which the dead are conscious prior to the general resurrection. He portrays this intermediate state as a place of uneventful happiness, and he denies that the intermediate state involves purification. By contrast, Balthasar envisions Christ experiencing all sin in solidarity with the damned in Sheol. Numerous Fathers, followed by Metropolitan, Hilarion, understand the intermediate state as marked by Christ’s preaching, opening up the possibility that those who reject Christ in this life may accept him in the intermediate state.

Aquinas likewise affirms the existence of an intermediate state. At the moment of his redemptive death, Jesus entered into the intermediate state and liberated the holy people of God who were waiting for him. His resurrection thus reveals the vindication not only of Jesus, but also of the people of God who welcome Jesus as the messianic King. The happiness of those who welcome him accounts for Jesus’ promise to the good thief that “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43) and for Paul’s remark that he “would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8). Although people can be happy in the intermediate state, nonetheless death retains its bitterness: Jesus experienced the separation of body and soul as a profound privation. In this regard at least, Aquinas’ position is not contrary to Calvin’s view that Jesus’ “descent into hell” describes his suffering the terrible penalty of death on behalf of all sinners.

Aquinas’ connection of Jesus’ entrance into the intermediate state with the vindication of holy Israel avoids Wright’s otherworldly portrait of inactive sameness. At the same time, Aquinas’ position does not overly historicize Jesus’ presence in the intermediate state. Jesus works in the intermediate state by the power of his Passion without having to undertake a new ministry or undergo further desolation. When Christ the king arrived in the intermediate state to await his resurrection as the first-fruits of ours, the joyful passage of faithful Israel—of all who “died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb 11:13)—had indeed begun.[1]

We see Levering, rightfully in my view, offering some critique of Wright’s overly-horizontalized depiction of the eschatological reality through Aquinas’s more metaphysically informed view. But that is not ultimately what I want to press. I simply wanted to broach this topic as an important piece of contemplation that seemingly most Christians (in the churches) never are exposed to. But this shouldn’t be so!

Clearly, there is a lacuna in the church’s teachings in regard to an issue that the global world is confronted with on a daily basis. We all suffer the losses of death, one way or the other and finally ultimate death as we succumb to whatever it is we are going to succumb to in regard to our last breath on this earth. I think it is an important to think about what we will face after we are absent from this body, present with the Lord. What in fact does ‘present with the Lord’ entail, particularly in the in-between time that the so called intermediate state symbolizes? Is the ‘life after life’ (as Wright notes it) just ‘more of the same’ just elevated? According to Levering and his Aquinas, no, the after-life and the eschatological consummate life to come, yet future, even for those in intermediate status, is of a greater sort; it is of a qualitative difference of the sort that only eyes of faith might begin to apprehend (which I agree with).

We will be engaging with this topic further in the days to come. But I wanted to register this now, so you, the reader, can start thinking about this issue. I will say this: “If Christ be not risen we are of all people most to be pitied.”

[1] Matthew Levering, Jesus and the Demise of Death: Resurrection, Afterlife, and the Fate of the Christian (Baylor University Press, 2012), 43 Scribd version.

Barth’s Rejection of Christian Universalism: CD I/2 §16, 37

Recently I was having a bit of discussion with some fellows about Karl Barth and Christian Universalism. They both claimed or asserted that Barth maintained a Dogmatic Christian Universalist position, while I maintained that he didn’t. I knew he didn’t, and have read him that way directly. Unfortunately, in that moment, I didn’t have a pertinent quote from Barth himself at hand; now I do. The confusion is easy to understand with reference to Barth; he does maintain a doctrine of election that encompasses all of humanity. As such, for Barth, if we want to use this sort of grammar, he believes that the extent of the atonement is objectively (and subjectively, grounded in Christ) universal. Yet while he holds to his unique, but Gospel-faithful (I take it to be) reformulated Reformed doctrine of election, he also maintains the classic position on ‘final salvation.’ Barth believes in what the Bible ‘teaches’ (at least for my money); that is, Barth believes that people who do not come to repentance will be eternally destroyed in outer darkness (e.g. not annihilationism either).

To prove my assertion about Barth let me offer the pertinent quote. In the broader context Barth is indeed talking about justification/salvation, and how that is fully actualized for all of humanity in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. Following this snippet from Barth, he gets into Pneumatology and his doctrine of the Holy Spirit vis-à-vis salvation. But for our purposes this small quote from Barth should suffice (if not, pick up his CD and read the context for yourself). Barth writes:

It is the truth, even if man is not in the truth. It is true that God is with us in Christ and that we are his children, even if we ourselves do not perceive it. It is true from all eternity, for Jesus Christ who assumed our nature is the eternal Son of God. And it is always true in time, even before we perceive it to be true. It is still true even if we never perceive it to be true, except that in this case it is true to our eternal destruction.[1]

Rather clear, eh? It is true that many of Barth’s followers hold to a dogmatic form of Christian Universalism; and they do indeed attach it to what they think is taking Barth’s theo-logic to its logical conclusion. But Barth himself, as Hunsinger might call him, ‘the textual Barth,’ rejects Christian Universalism (even if he had theological space to remain ‘hopeful’). Barth’s rejection of universalism was grounded in his radical commitment to Divine freedom. Barth believed that if we foreclosed on God, and what he ‘must’ do, in regard to final salvation, that God’s freedom would be squashed, and His identity as God compromised. The press back to this could be: ‘Well, Barth apparently believes that God does indeed damn people to an eternal hell; how is this not a foreclosure?’ Barth might respond: ‘Because God freely chose this, and not that.’

Others might say: ‘Who cares what Barth thinks!’ Tru Dat. Ultimately as Protestant Christians we will hang our hats on what Holy Scripture teaches. In this case, though, I maintain, that Barth is following Scripture’s teaching; and his theo-logic, in my view, is spot on. Divine Freedom is of the utmost; it means that God is God and we are not. We must acknowledge Divine freedom, and allow Scripture’s teaching to curtail the way we see that applied in the economy of God’s life in Christ. Yes, many have been arguing, attempting to from Scripture’s teaching, that the Bible teaches Christian Universalism. But I’ve read all of that, and I don’t think these arguments are successful; nor did Barth (at least the arguments he would have been aware of at his time).

At the finis, I wish all could be saved. But currently, as I understand Scripture’s teaching, along with Barth, I have to conclude that people who die without Christ as their Lord and Savior, in a ‘perceived’ and repentant way, will be eternally separated from the elect life of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, they will not die in union with Christ who is eternal life for them. This means we ought to be proclaiming Jesus from the rooftops, so that faith, which comes by hearing, hearing the Word of God, might penetrate the hearts of those on the broad way, and allow them to enter the narrow way of eternal life in Christ.

[1] Barth, CD I/2 §16, 37 [emboldening mine].

Our Terrorist Hearts Outwith Jesus Christ: On the Ontological Depths and Reach of Sin

It seems as if we have domesticated everything in our culture, even sin. But this is precisely what Jesus will not let us do; this is precisely what the reality of the cross will not let us do. The prophet Jeremiah writes in 17.9:

“The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?

And the Apostle Paul following writes in Romans 3:

10 As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; 11 There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. 12 They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.” 13 “Their throat is an open tomb; With their tongues they have practiced deceit”; “The poison of asps is under their lips”; 14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 Destruction and misery are in their ways; 17 And the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Karl Barth famously, and in keeping with his normal way, believes we can only know the depths of evil and sin by its reference to Christ. He believes that only as we concentrate on whom Christ is in His righteousness, can the gravity of sin come to be known. Barth works out his doctrine of evil (or ‘nothingness’) through his doctrine of election. For Barth, nothingness, or ‘evil’ is what God passes over and negates through the incarnation and cross-work of Jesus Christ. Mark Lindsay, after much development, writes the following:

At this place, we must qualify our earlier comment that God is not threatened by Nothingness. In the incarnation, God Himself becomes a creature and thus takes upon Himself the creature’s sin, guilt and misery. In “what befalls this man God pronounces His No to the bitter end.” The entire fury of Nothingness – and of God’s wrath directed towards it – falls upon Christ “in all its dreadful fulness…” Precisely, however, because this man is also God, “Nothingness could not master this victim.” It had power over the creature. It could contradict and oppose it and break down its defences. It could make it its slave and instrument and therefore its victim. But it was impotent against the God who humbled Himself, and Himself became a creature, and thus exposed Himself to its power and resisted it.

By confronting and decisively triumphing over Nothingness in Jesus Christ, God has relegated it to the past. In the light of the cross and the empty tomb, “there is no sense in which it can be affirmed that nothingness has any objective existence…” Barth rejects outright the suggestion that radical evil exists in the form of an eternal antithesis. On the contrary, he insists that it has no perpetuity. It is neither created by God, nor maintained in a covenantal relationship with Him. Thus, “we should not get involved in the logical dialectic that if God loves, elects and affirms eternally he must also hate and therefore reject and negate eternally. There is nothing to make God’s activity on the left hand as necessary and perpetual as His activity on the right.” Nothingness has been brought to its end, no longer having even the transient and temporary existence it once had. On this note of “cosmic optimism”, Barth concludes his presentation of his doctrine.[1]

We are reminded of Athanasius’ thinking on evil and sin in his little book On the Incarnation as we read Barth’s own uniquely worked out conception of evil and sin. Inherent to Barth’s understanding there is genuine hope. Because he doesn’t give evil (and its expression in sinful acts) a symmetrical place to God’s work and righteousness in Christ, he offers a way to think of evil/sin as a vanquished foe that in the end will be fully wiped out in a realized way. What stands out, in Lindsay’s description, is how it took God in Christ alone to overcome the wiles of evil’s reach into the human heart; and thus into all of creation.

It doesn’t seem as if folks appreciate just how deep rooted and satanically conditioned their ‘old hearts’ are outwith Jesus Christ. When you hear the ‘world’ speak you would think that they have seemingly overcome evil all by themselves; as if they have an objectively established goodness inherent to who they are, through which they are able to look ‘out’ and make judgments about good and evil as if the latter doesn’t ultimately affect them. On the contrary, the incarnation and cross of Jesus Christ asserts and proves just the opposite. There is no one good, and all our hearts are just as evil as the terrorist’s who shot up the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. The cross of Christ will not allow any of us to escape the terror embedded in each and every one of our hearts.

To press this further, Thomas Torrance underscores just how deep our darkness is by, like Barth, focusing on the depths God had to go to de-root it from our very ‘beings’ as human beings. Torrance writes on the ontological character of the atoning work of Christ, this way:

It is above all in the Cross of Christ that evil is unmasked for what it actually is, in its inconceivable wickedness and malevolence, in its sheer contradiction of the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, in its undiluted enmity to God himself—not to mention the way in which it operates under the cover of the right and the good and the lawful. That the infinite God should take the way of the Cross to save mankind from the pit of evil which has engulfed it and deceived it, is the measure of the evil of evil: its depth is revealed to be ‘absymal’ (literally, ‘without bottom’). However, it is only from the vantage point of God’s victory over evil in the resurrection of Christ, from the bridge which in him God has overthrown across the chasm of evil that has opened up in our violence and death and guilt, that we may look into the full horror of it all and not be destroyed in the withering of our souls through misanthropy, pessimism, and despair. What hope could there ever be for a humanity that crucifies the incarnate love of God and sets itself implacably against the order of divine love even at the point of its atoning and healing operation? But the resurrection tells us that evil, even this abysmal evil, does not and cannot have the last word, for that belongs to the love of God which has negated evil once and for all and which through the Cross and resurrection is able to make all things work together for good, so that nothing in the end will ever separate us from the love of God. It is from the heart of that love in the resurrected Son of God that we may reflect on the radical nature of evil without suffering morbid mesmerization or resurrection and crucifixion events, which belong inseparably together, has behind it the incarnation, the staggering fact that God himself has come directly into our creaturely being to become one of us, for our sakes. Thus the incarnation, passion, and resurrection conjointly tell us that far from evil having to do only with human hearts and minds, it has become entrenched in the ontological depths of created existence and that it is only from within those ontological depths that God could get at the heart of evil in order to destroy it, and set about rebuilding what he had made to be good. (We have to think of that as the only way that God ‘could’ take, for the fact that he has as a matter of fact taken this way in the freedom of his grace excludes any other possibility from our consideration.) It is surely in the light of this ontological salvation that we are to understand the so-called ‘nature of miracles’, as well as the resurrection of Jesus from death, for they represent not a suspension of the natural or created order but the very reverse, the recreation of the natural order wherever it suffers from decay or damage or corruption or disorder through evil. God does not give up his claim that the creation is ‘good’, but insists on upholding that claim by incarnating within the creation the personal presence of his own Logos, the creative and ordering source of the creation, thereby pledging his own eternal constancy and rationality as the ground for the redemption and final establishment of all created reality.[2]

Like Barth, Torrance points up the hope we have because of what Christ has won for humanity. But at the same moment, he also points out just how deep and pervasive sin is in the hearts of men and women, boys and girls. If it took God to become human to deal with each of our ‘desperately wicked’ hearts, how wicked do you think that makes us left to ourselves?

If the world is able to look out and recognize evil, it is only because they live under the grace and mercy of God given for it in Jesus Christ. And yet even as they rightly look at the despicable act that just took place in New Zealand, and condemn it as evil, they condemn themselves; that is, if they remain in an unrepentant state before God. Not only that, they confirm, unconsciously, the righteous judgment of God that not only hangs over terrorists’ heads, but their own. The spiritually dead heart can fabricate a state of self-righteousness only insofar as it borrows that righteousness from the economy of God’s Kingdom in Christ as that has invaded and continues to invade the world through the risen Christ’s life. Christ’s life for the world, the resurrected humanity, in itself, while standing as God’s Yes for the world, at the same moment issues a resounding No to the evil and sin that ALL humanity lives within (realized at various degrees or not). God’s Yes has already run its course and been actualized in the new humanity of Christ, as such anything outside of that lives in God’s No; which ultimately is hell.

Christians do not have ultimate solidarity with the world, even when the world, in parasitic fashion comes to some sort of sense of the heinous nature of evil. This does not mean Christians are superior to their pagan friends, it just means that Christians have an actual basis from which to rightly call darkness darkness and light light; this doesn’t mean Christians consistently live this way. Often Christians operate more like the pagan culture than the heavenly; which is why God’s Grace and Mercy will always remain so important.

[1] Mark R. Lindsay, Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel(UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 48-52.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 115-16.

The Sheep Know the Shepherd’s Voice, In Contrast to the Non-voice of the No-God in Scholasticisms: Thinking on Assurance of Salvation Again

Let us consider assurance of salvation, once again. As many of you know I have elaborated on this theme further in our last EC book, but I wanted to continue thinking further on it here. This will be brief, and we will use a quote I have used more than once from Barth in critique of Calvin’s ability to offer a real doctrine of assurance of salvation. But we will not be focusing on Barth and Calvin, per
se, we will only use the quote as a jumping off point for another point I want to make on the same theme. Here is that quote:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[1]

The aspect of this quote I do want to appropriate is the emphasis on the Word of God, on Jesus Christ. The thought that seemingly and randomly occurred to me this evening was how the ‘hidden God’ functions as a contributory to doubt of one’s personal salvation. In other words, if God is a brute Creator God who relates to the world via decretum absolutum, through decrees that keep God untouched and unmoved by His creation, then it becomes psychologically plausible that a person could live an entire life in doubt that they genuinely are participants in eternal salvation. If God’s salvation remains hidden back up in a decree, then what correlation is there between God’s voice and knowledge of God and thus self? In other words, the Bible says (cf. Jn 10) that the sheep know their Shepherd’s (Jesus’s) voice; which presumably means that the Christian is in a dialogical/con-versational relationship with their Lord. If this is so, the decretal God is, at best, a total misunderstanding of who the God of biblical reality is.

This is the thought that hit me: Pro me, God is not an impersonal and objective/capricious being I have no access to. NEIN! Pro me, God is a personal God I have an intimate relationship with bonded in the sweetness of love bounded by the Holy Spirit, who has placed me into union with God in and through the grace of Christ’s vicarious humanity. In other words, I actually KNOW God. I know His character, and hear His still small voice in the inner recesses of my heart. I know that I am my beloveds and He is mine! This knowledge quenches any concept of a hidden God; like the sort of hidden God who stands behind an absolute decree to choose some and reject others. For the Christian, God is not an unknowable quantity; we know Him, because He first has known us in the Son made flesh.

But the point I want to get across in this post, most fervently, is that I actually KNOW my Lord; I actually KNOW His voice, and He speaks to me. If there is a theology that mitigates this most biblical reality, then it is no theology at all; instead it is a philosophy going under the name of theology—no matter its historical lineage.

[1] Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.

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.

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.