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.

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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.

A Word on Sanctification from the Apostolic Deposit and the Early Protestants in Response to The Revoice Conference 2018

Writing on themes of God’s holiness, repentance, sanctification, and living a mortified and vivified life before God is getting less and less popular; even among many ‘conservative’ Christians. This post will fit into that ‘unpopular’ category, as I want to at least broach an emergent issue that I think is just gaining steam. Before we get into the issue I want to spend a minute sketching what mortification or sanctification before God entails; at least the way I understand that. The issue we will apply this sketch to has to do with the ostensible in-roads that the LGBTQ community is gaining into what normally might be thought of as ‘conservative evangelicalism.’ Bear in mind, this is a blog post, so I will run out of space quickly, but hopefully I will be able to communicate something of my intention in the short space we do have.

Before we get ahead of ourselves let’s read along with the Apostle Paul with reference to a passage of Scripture that touches on our theme; i.e. the theme of mortificatio-sanctificatio-transformatio (just add an ‘n’):

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. 10 For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. 11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, 13 and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. 14 For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. –Romans 6.8-14

This seems rather straightforward for someone who may have been a Christian for any amount of time. There is a call, by Paul, for the Christian to live a life of participation in the righteousness of God in Christ. We are to ‘present’ ourselves a certain way; we are to be present before God (coram Deo) as if our lives are as Christ’s. St. Peter in stride with Paul wrote the following in regard to the ground of our life in Christ:

Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries.In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign youbut they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God. –I Peter 4.1-6

These types of motifs on mortification and vivification—the life lived in an active submission and obedience to God in such a way that we are constantly living in a posture of repentance and worship with the dialectical result of being enlivened in and from the life of Christ over and over again in this process of participation—can be enumerated many times over as we read through the Apostolic Deposit (the New Testament). The point I want to drive home, a point that many of us want to run away from or soften, is that God takes his holiness, and his people’s holiness seriously; indeed, this is what he invaded our humanity to accomplish: ‘he became us that we might become him’ (paraphrase of Irenaeus), that we might participate in the kind of set-apart life that he experiences in himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I think from Scripture the case is easily made that sanctification in Christ by the Spirit is a reality that God places a premium on for his covenant people in his covenant man, Jesus Christ. Taking their cue from Scripture the early Protestants held that sanctification involved various aspects in the Christian’s life; Richard Muller defines that for them this way:

sanctificatio.: Sanctificatio, therefore, begins with conversion (q.v.), or conversion, and continues throughout the life of the believer. The mortification and vivification that belong to conversio also belong to sanctificatio as the basic form of Christian life, dying to the world and living the new life in Christ. Since it is the continuation of regeneration or conversion, sanctification is sometimes called conversio continuata (q.v.).

The Protestant scholastics further distinguish between sanctification broadly and strictly defined. (1) Sanctificatio late dicta, or sanctification loosely considered, indicates the entire gracious work of the Spirit in the believer; (2) sanctificatio stricte dicta, or sanctification strictly defined, refers directly to the problem of the corrupted imago Dei and the old Adam in believers and is defined as the negative renovation (renovatio negativa) according to which believers daily die to sin and set aside the old Adam; (3) sanctificatio strictissime dicta, or sanctification most strictly considered, is the actual renewal of the imago Dei or positive renovation (renovatio positiva) of the Christian according to which the believer is actually made holy and, by the grace of the Spirit, cooperates willingly in the renewal of life and willingly does good works (bona opera). The Protestant orthodox, Lutheran and Reformed, are unanimous in their teaching that perfect or total sanctification does not occur in this life.[1]

As Evangelical Calvinists we will want to place a concentrated emphasis upon all of these aspects being grounded in Jesus Christ for us; as would John Calvin in his duplex gratia (‘double grace’) understanding of justification and sanctification. What I want to highlight in particular is what falls under Muller’s second definition, with special emphasis upon the ‘negative renovation’. This aspect most closely aligns with daily mortification of the self before God; i.e. what the Apostle Paul refers to in the passage above. This has seemingly fallen out of favor with many Christians.

Application–Revoice Conference

The Revoice Conference is described on their website as this:

Supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.

And:

New Community

Gather together with other gender and sexual minorities and those who love them and experience a new kind of gospel community.[2]

Without getting deep into the details the premise is: that to be an LGBTQ Christian can actually be a reality; that it is a viable expression of what it means to be human before God. Further, this position argues that such dispositions, and thus identities can be ‘morally neutral’ and thus not acted upon (except to act upon identifying as one of the identities that LGBTQ covers). So the premise of the whole movement is that Christians can be gay, transgendered, or any other one of the expressions that they are representing, and that this is a legitimate theological-anthropological category before God; so much so that they use the language of ‘sexual minority’ (which connects them to racial minorities in the cultural and activist lexicon as well). The Revoice conference is sponsored by the PCA (Presbyterian Church of America), and has contributors from The Gospel Coalition as speakers and presenters (Wesley Hill and Matthew Lee Anderson) at the conference. The idea promoted, based on the prior assumption that the identity of LGBTQ is viable before God, is that people with such proclivities can remain celibate in their sexual identities and not act out upon their various sexual orientations; thus keeping them in good stead and purity before God—which is where the morally neutral premise comes in. It goes so far, the “friendship” aspect, that they believe homosexual couples can covenant as ‘friends’ and remain celibate, thus honoring the biblical strictures.

But the question arises, based upon our sketch of Christian sanctification above: is being homosexual so on and so forth really a viable and categorical identity that should be legitimized and recognized before God? What makes homosexuality any different than any other sin? The Apostle Paul provides the following list, with an important qualification in regard to ‘sanctification’:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. –I Corinthians 6.9-11

This is a common passage referred to by folks like me voicing concerns in this area; and the response to this, or the ‘work-around’ is that the term translated ‘homosexual’ isn’t really referring to homosexuality, as we think of it, and has nothing to do with sexual orientation, since ‘sexual orientation’ is a modern societal construct that the Apostle Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit could not have had in mind in his Second Temple Judaic context. On the one hand the Revoice folks might agree with the way I refer to this; as a reference to a reality, a sin forbidden by God. On the other hand I think they wouldn’t  agree with my appropriation of it in the sense that it is a passage that flattens out the idea that being LGBTQ, before God, represents a viable identity category; one that should be celebrated or accepted as a real designation for a purported “people group.” My point in appealing to this is indeed to recognize that for the Apostle Paul homosexuality is just one of many sins that a Christian is to resist and has been rescued from in and through the new humanity, the new creation and identity that Christ has won for us in his vicarious humanity.

Homosexuality is not an identity; there is no such thing as a ‘sexual minority’ before God. Homosexuality so on and so forth is a sin to be resisted not a people group to identify with, and yet this is what Revoice, and that mind is endorsing. They believe homosexuality, simply because of its “isness” in society is indeed a people group, a sexual minority that ought to be celebrated; albeit in chastened and celibate ways. But what makes this sin or this impulse any different than people who have impulses to be involved in pornography or adultery (etc.)? Should we identify new people groups, and establish a minority status for each of these sinful impulses as well? Do some Christian people have same-sex attractions? Yes. Do all Christian people have sinful impulses in all sorts of lurid directions? Yes. What’s the response to that? To resist by standing in the new creation and humanity of Jesus Christ; to stand in the power of the resurrection that the Holy Spirit brings us into union with in Christ (unio cum Christo); and to celebrate our identity in his identity for us before the Father.

Part of the Christian’s vocation in this life is to constantly be in the battle, constantly be militant against the principalities and powers that rule this evil age. This has personal, systemic/societal, and cosmic aspects; in each instance the marching orders are the same. We are to be “daily die[ing] to sin and set[ing] aside the old Adam,” which includes renouncing any other identity than the one we have in Jesus Christ and allowing that to be the witness to the world that a new age has invaded this world and made the crooked straight (the ‘crooked’ being all of us).

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 270.

[2] Revoice Conference Website.

Grace is Not a Phase: Knowledge of God as the Basis for Knowledge of the Justified Self

I have often thought this, and maybe you have too. John Calvin identifies, famously, in his Institute, this, in regard to knowledge of God and knowledge of self, in light of knowledge of God:

Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain. Here, again, the infinitude of good which resides in God becomes more apparent from our poverty. In particular, the miserable ruin into which the revolt of the first man has plunged us, compels us to turn our eyes upwards; not only that while hungry and famishing we may thence ask what we want, but being aroused by fear may learn humility. For as there exists in man something like a world of misery, and ever since we were stript of the divine attire our naked shame discloses an immense series of disgraceful properties every man, being stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness, in this way necessarily obtains at least some knowledge of God. Thus, our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, reminds us, (see Calvin on John 4: 10,) that in the Lord, and none but He, dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness. We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves. For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, so long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is contented with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.

Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self

On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also – He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced. For, since we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself. And since nothing appears within us or around us that is not tainted with very great impurity, so long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled delights us as if it were most pure just as an eye, to which nothing but black had been previously presented, deems an object of a whitish, or even of a brownish hue, to be perfectly white. Nay, the bodily sense may furnish a still stronger illustration of the extent to which we are deluded in estimating the powers of the mind. If, at mid-day, we either look down to the ground, or on the surrounding objects which lie open to our view, we think ourselves endued with a very strong and piercing eyesight; but when we look up to the sun, and gaze at it unveiled, the sight which did excellently well for the earth is instantly so dazzled and confounded by the refulgence, as to oblige us to confess that our acuteness in discerning terrestrial objects is mere dimness when applied to the sun. Thus too, it happens in estimating our spiritual qualities. So long as we do not look beyond the earth, we are quite pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue; we address ourselves in the most flattering terms, and seem only less than demigods. But should we once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and reflect what kind of Being he is, and how absolute the perfection of that righteousness, and wisdom, and virtue, to which, as a standard, we are bound to be conformed, what formerly delighted us by its false show of righteousness will become polluted with the greatest iniquity; what strangely imposed upon us under the name of wisdom will disgust by its extreme folly; and what presented the appearance of virtuous energy will be condemned as the most miserable impotence. So far are those qualities in us, which seem most perfect, from corresponding to the divine purity.[1]

These are such important and profound thoughts; and ones that have relevance for us currently. I am just finishing up Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink’s Christian Dogmatics (approx. 800 pp.). In their section on justification/salvation, and in particular, in their constructive proposal, in their sub-section on participation, they imbibe some of the aspects noted by Calvin, in regard to knowledge of God, and apply them to what it means to be ‘sanctified’ or ‘transformed’ (a term they prefer to sanctification) before the living God. What they highlight is something that I have come to realize over time in my walk with Jesus Christ as well. While genuine transformation can and does take place (mortificatio/vivificatio), there is also the further realization that we never arrive; and thus, I’d inject, why the Apostle Paul in Romans 6—8 uses the language of continuously ‘reckoning ourselves dead to sin.’ The whole point of our ‘old man’ or the ‘flesh’ needing to be put to death is that therein nothing good dwells, and never will. The reality is that we continue to live in these fallen bodies with all of its old wretched desires, and so we needs be reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to the living Christ. It is within this tenor that Kooi and Brink write:

Thus we can understand why Christian dogmatics often has little enthusiasm about trying to describe our progress in becoming transformed into the image of Christ. All our “glittering images” (à la Susan Howatch) can easily blow up in our faces. We must indeed be very circumspect in translating this transformation directly into moral categories. For instance, it is wrong to suppose that believers gradually acquire a nobler character so as to need less and less forgiveness, justification, and communion with Christ. For the transformation they experience is primarily a matter of growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). His grace will never be a phase that we have left behind but will remain the source to which we constantly return and draw upon ever more purposefully. For growing in Christ also implies at least some increase in self-knowledge. When we become aware that we see but little improvement in the passions and imaginations at the bottom of our heart, that nasty tendencies such as jealousy, hedonism, and superficiality seem to be more resilient than we thought, we can become more modest and realistic. If we acknowledge these things in ourselves rather than denying them, we will more consciously deal with them—for instance, by making a greater effort, based on our participation in Christ, to focus on what pleases God and is good for others. This pattern is what the gospel refers to as denying oneself; not disparaging feelings of always having to be submissive to others, but the conscious choice, at different moments in life, to go the way of Christ and to be there for others (Matt 16:24 and pars.).[2]

Walking with Christ can be a discouraging thing; particularly when false expectations are injected into a young believer’s life early on. It is important to realize, I think, what Kooi and Brink alert us to; i.e. that we will never arrive until beatific vision happens, and thus we are at the constant behest of God. I do believe there can certainly be maturation or ‘transformation’ (cf. II Cor. 3.18) in the believer’s life; and that there indeed should be over a life lived. But the reality will always remain, and this is indeed sobering, that the impulses and orientations for the various expressions of sin that we are disposed to personally will always lay just below the surface; albeit in the grave of Jesus Christ. We clearly have been freed from the power of sin in our lives, but with the sober realization that that aspect of our old self hasn’t been repaired, but instead put to death; and so we must continuously reckon that to be so as we participate in the death and life of Jesus Christ by his resurrection power applied to our lives moment by moment afresh and anew by the Holy Spirit. This walk is a daily exercise; a battle even.

[1] John Calvin, Institute.

[2] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 690.

Living in the ‘Feeling’ and Reality of Freedom from Sin that God Desires For Us In Christ: From Gestation to Resurrection

I really struggled with a false sense of guilt and condemnation for particular sins from my past for years upon years. The enemy of my soul kept me living under ‘a yoke of bondage’ that Jesus said I ‘would be free indeed’ from. The Lord did not leave me as an orphan though, by the Spirit he ministered to me through a sort of rigorous exercise of training me to think rightly about reality as declared in the evangel of His life as borne witness to in Holy Scripture. After many years of anxiety and depression, particularly stemming from living under this false yoke of condemnation the Lord used the reality of creation and recreation to bring the freedom that I so desperately desired. I am sure that I am not alone in this walk, and so I thought I would share a little bit of how this ‘training’ from the Lord looks; at least the way it looks for me.

As I just intimated a doctrine of creation and recreation, along with God’s sovereign providential care of all reality, played the required roles for me to finally see that I truly was and am free (for God and others). As already noted this sort of education from God was motivated by a crisis—we might refer to it as a theology of crisis—a crisis that brought the realization home that I did not have the resources in myself to bring the freedom that God alone could bring.[1] So how does this relate to God being Creator; and not just in an intellectual sense, but how does that reality relate to these real life spiritual issues in a existential felt manner?

In order to help explain what I’m attempting to detail let me offer a very brief definition of the theological concept creatio ex nihilo (‘creation out of nothing’). Keith Ward offers this definition:

Creatio ex nihilo (Latin for “creation from nothing”) refers to the view that the universe, the whole of space-time, is created by a free act of God out of nothing, and not either out of some preexisting material or out of the divine substance itself. This view was widely, though not universally, accepted in the early Christian Church, and was formally defined as dogma by the fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Creatio ex nihilo is now almost universally accepted by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Indian theism generally holds that the universe is substantially one with God, though it is usually still thought of as a free and unconstrained act of God.[2]

There are many important theological implications we could explore simply based upon this brief definition, but for our purposes I wanted to inject this definition into this discussion to elevate the idea that God is the Creator, and thus all of creation is contingent upon his Word. It was this idea that God started to use in my life, years ago, before I ever had any understanding of ‘creation out of nothing’, that I could have freedom from my past. This concept, before I knew the theological parlance was captured for me in this Bible verse, “3And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high….” (Heb. 1.3). Interesting how even in this verse the concept of being purified from sins and God’s ‘upholding all things by the word of His power’ are connected. It was this connection that God used to bring freedom for me. The lesson took many years, and was full of ‘anfechtung’ (trial-tribulation). The Lord allowed me to existentially feel the weight of what this world might look like without him as the One holding it together. It is very hard for me to verbalize the sense that I experienced, but it was as if I was questioning all of reality; even physical reality. I would look out at the world and based upon the sort of nihilistic logic that had infiltrated my mind (as a Christian!) over the years I would have this excruciating condition of feeling the transitoriness of all of reality. It was living in this reality, accompanied by ‘intellectual doubts’ (not spiritual) about God’s existence, that of course!, threw me into great pits of despondency and despair. But it was also through this that my perception of reality was transferred from one contingent upon my word—and this world system’s word—to God’s Word. It was this process, ironically, that allowed me to finally understand that “If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; 34 who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.” (Rom. 8.31–32) Again, like with the Hebrews passage, we see here in Paul’s theology that a connection is made between freedom from condemnation and the creational reality of God’s Word; except here what is emphasized is not creation in general, but creation in particular as that is particularized in the re-creation of God in Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Once I’d been schooled enough with the reality that ‘reality’ is God’s reality based alone upon his given and sustaining Word; once I could ‘feel’ that weight, not just intellectually, but spiritually-affectively, the resurrection and re-creation therein had the real life impact I personally needed to be ‘free’ and stand fast in the freedom that the Son said I would be free within (Jn. 8.36); his freedom in the re-creation; the resurrection; the new creation; the new humanity that is his for us.

So I had this doctrine of creation out of nothing in place, in a ‘felt’ way; with the emphasis being upon the reality that God alone holds all of reality together. It was within this conceptual frame that the doctrine of re-creation and resurrection came alive for me; in an existential-spiritual-felt and lived sense. This is why Karl Barth’s doctrine of resurrection has resonated with me so deeply. It is tied into the type of ‘primordial’ thinking that creatio ex nihilo operates from—as part and parcel of God’s upholding Word—and then explicates that from within a theology of God’s Word wherein the primacy of Christ’s life is understood as the telos the fulcrum of what created reality is all about. Robert Dale Dawson really helped me to appreciate this sort of connection between creation out of nothing and Barth’s doctrine of re-creation as he wrote this:

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.[3]

Threading out the academic technicalities (that are important in their original context), and focusing on the concepts that serve our purposes, what I draw from this is the significance of what Dawson identifies in Barth’s theology as ‘the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.’ Can you see how all of this might provide the sort of apocalyptic freedom we are in need of in order to live the sort of ‘free’ life that God wants us to before him? It does seem rather mechanical and academic; I agree. Let me try to summarize and draw together the themes I’ve been attempting to highlight in order to provide you with a maybe-way forward in your own spiritual walk and life as a Christian.

The Conclusion. It is actually rather basic, but deeply profound; at least for me. What is required is that we ask for eyes of faith to see what God sees in Christ. He will school us in his ways as we seek him first in the Scripture’s reality in Christ. He will work things into our lives that will shorn away the accretions of the ‘worldly-system-wisdom’ with his wisdom; the wisdom of the cross. He will allow you to ‘feel’ the existential weight of his life, and the reality that that upholds, and within this, this apocalyptic reality of his in-breaking life into ours, the reality that the God who could rightly condemn us has broken into the surly contingencies of our sinful lives and become the ‘Judge, judged.’ If the God who holds all reality together by the Word of his power in Jesus Christ invades this world in the Son, takes his just condemnation of our sins (no matter what they are!) upon himself for us, puts that death to death in his death on the cross, and then re-creates all of reality in his resurrection; then there remains no space for condemnation. The One who could condemn me stands in the way and has eliminated the sphere for condemnation insofar that he has re-created a world wherein only his righteousness reigns and dwells in his enfleshed life for us in his Son, Jesus Christ. What I just noted is the key to grasp. There is another world in Christ; a world accessible by the eyes of faith, provided by the eyes of Christ, in his vicarious humanity which we are enlivened into by the Holy Spirit. This is the real reality that Christians live in and from; and it is this reality that I cling to whenever the enemy of my soul wants to bring me into a life of bondage that belongs to the world that he is king over; a world that is dead and no longer real by virtue of the reality of God’s new world re-created and realized in the primacy of Jesus Christ.

I hope this small reflection might help provide some liberation for some of you out there as well. I realize this all might seem pretty academic, but I don’t really see things that way; I’m hoping you’ll see as a result of this post why I don’t see things in terms of the ‘academic.’ I think good theology, whether people think it is “academic” or not can begin to see that at spiritual levels these ideas can have real life impact and consequences, and that God can use them for the good; he did so, and continues to work this way for me. Just recently, as recent as yesterday, the devil tried to bring me back into a sense of false condemnation and guilt, and I found relief in the very ideas I’ve just outlined. The process, in the head, can be somewhat mechanistic, when working through things this way, but, at least for me, it is what is required for to live a life of freedom that God wants me to live in and from his Son, and my Savior, Jesus Christ. Soli Deo Gloria.

 

[1] This might also explain why I have so much resonance with Karl Barth’s theology. Early on Barth was known as a theologian of crisis. Martin Luther’s theology was spawned by deep angst, and his theology is often related to what is known in German as Anfechtung (trial/tribulation). This is why I have found these theologians, among others, as some of my most insightful teachers; they understand that the ‘wisdom of the cross’, that a theologia crucis and a theologia resurrectionis are the key components for knowing God and making him known to others. This is where God meets us; it’s where he knows we must be met if we are going to meet him.

[2] Keith Ward, Creatio Ex Nihilo (Encyclopedia.com), accessed 05-18-2018.

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