Soteriology

God’s Governmental Providence as Cruciform in Shape: Human Suffering and Death, with Reference to Nabeel Qureshi

“The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; 2. for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.” Psalm 27:1-2

The Psalmist captures a reality that many in the world do not like; he identifies a truth that kicks against a self-possessed humanity who thinks it belongs to itself. But the Christian finds great comfort in realizing that this is the reality; that the world and all its bounty belongs to the living God of heaven and earth. The Apostle Paul sharpens this idea from a Christocentric angle; the idea that not only is the earth the LORD’s, but that we, as his people do not belong to ourselves; that God in Christ, owner of the heavens and the earth, penetrated our humanity with his in Christ and replaced our self-possessed selves with the recreated reality of a new humanity that realizes that it is only possessed by the living God. Paul writes pointedly: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”[1] This is almost an unfathomable reality, but one that has been made known as what is real through the goodness and graciousness of God revealed in his cruciform life in Jesus Christ.

These passages could be applied in a variety of ways, but what I want to highlight, at a theological level, is how this works towards thinking about God’s care, about his providential sustenance of the earth. And I want to use that context to discuss life and death; with particular focus, in this instance, on the life and death of Nabeel Qureshi, and all those in the world who are suffering in untold ways. I want to see if I can work toward making sense of it all from the big vantage point of God’s providence.

There are at least three ways to think about God’s providence: 1) Conservation, 2) Concursus, and 3) Governance. I want to focus on God’s governance; i.e. how in a God/world relation we might conceive of his inter-action with his creation in an active way; but in such a way that he remains in control, and thus not conditioned by the creation even as he enters it in the Incarnation (Logos ensarkos). In an effort to bring clarity to what is meant by the third prong of God’s providence—his governance—let us read how Dutch theologians Brink and Kooi develop this idea:

3 Finally now, the third aspect of divine providence: God’s gubernatio (governance), or directio (leadership). Traditionally, this part of God’s providence was conceptualized in rather static terms, as if God rules the world as a manager does a company, doing what needs to be done, minding the store. The Bible, however, speaks in much more dynamic—more precisely, in eschatological—terms about God’s rule. The fact that God rules the world means, first and foremost, that he guides it in a particular direction, toward the final realization of his plans and promises. Therefore, history is geared toward the kingdom, for also in his rule the Father works via—and thus in the mode of—the Son and the Spirit. For the time being, God rules “from the wood of the cross” (Venantius Fortunatus, sixth century), that is, in spite of all kinds of misery, setbacks, and experiences of loss. History becomes ever more similar to Jesus’s road to the cross, just as the apocalyptic portions of the New Testament teach. In addition, it should be noted that God works through his Spirit and not by (human) might or power (Zech. 4:6). We should often pay more attention to small things than to powerful revolutions or major changes in society. Where people are touched by the s/Spirit of the gospel and on that basis experience a decisive renewal in their lives, there God is at work, guiding the world to its future destination. So, God’s direction often proceeds via small things and detours, another reason that God’s providential rule is first and foremost a matter of faith and not something that can be gleaned from a newspaper. But it is precisely this faith that is certain that the outcome will not be a failure.[2]

My guess is that when you first heard the words God, providence, and governance, that your mind, like mine did, turned immediately to the description Brink and Kooi started their paragraph with: “…Traditionally, this part of God’s providence was conceptualized in rather static terms, as if God rules the world as a manager does a company, doing what needs to be done, minding the store.” But, as was encouraging to see they made the turn, as they should, to the reality that God’s governance of the world, of his good earth, is cruciform in shape; that he rules this earth by penetrating it in and through the humanity he assumed in Jesus Christ. That his governance is in his humiliation and vulnerability in his being in becoming man, and his reign climaxes in his exaltation of humanity in his risen and ascended humanity as the God-man who can sympathize with the yet broken humanity; but as the one who has conquered the brokenness of this world precisely at the point where it looked like he was going to lose it.

When I think about the death of Nabeel Qureshi, and think about it from the backdrop of God’s governance as described by Brink and Kooi, I have hope. I don’t have all the answers to the questions that I have, but I have hope because the God who is in control is not an aloof deity governing the world like some sort of removed corporatist; he instead became the One for the many, by becoming one of us, entering our fallen humanity and redeeming it from the inside out. He reigns supreme and providentially over the creation as one who has tasted his own creation; all along remaining distinct from his creation in the miracle of the hypostatic union, of God become human in the singular person of Jesus Christ. This is the hope that Nabeel Qureshi lived and died his life from; from the death and life of Jesus Christ.

Not only is Jesus the Lamb Slain, but he is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah risen; the One who is prime and supreme over all of creation. He governs the world from the reality of his resurrection, with hands still bearing the scars of their piercing for us. Nabeel, and all those who die in Christ, currently behold those nailed scarred hands; the hands that hold this world together, and for the purpose that all creation, that the sons and daughters of God in that creation, will finally behold the hands of such a King and ruler as this.

 

[1] I Corinthians 6:19-20, NIV.

[2] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 243-44.

Advertisements

On a Christ Concentrated Theology: Its Historical Development from Calvin, to the Federal Theologians, to the Marrow Men, to Barth and Torrance

Evangelical Calvinism is really a bubbling over of a variety of impetuses from within the history of Reformed theology. We look to the Scottish theology of Thomas Torrance, and the antecedent theology he looks to in the theology of John Calvin and also in the Scottish Kirk from yesteryear. We of course also look to the Swiss theology of Karl Barth towards offering a way forward in constructive ways in regard to where some of the historical antecedents trail off (primarily because they didn’t have the necessary formal and material theological resources available to them to finally make the turn that needed to be made in regard to a doctrine of election and other things).

In an attempt to identify this kind of movement, that has led to where we currently stand as Evangelical Calvinists, let me share from Charles Bell’s doctoral work on the Scottish theology that Torrance himself looked to in his own development as an evangelical Calvinist. Bell has been doing genealogical work with reference to various Scottish theologians, and also with reference to John Calvin, in his book. We meet up with Bell just as he is summarizing the development he has done on what is called the Marrow theology. This was theology that was developed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries by a group of twelve men; they sought to offer critique of the legalistic strain they discerned in the mainstream of Federal or Covenantal theology of their day, and hoped to place a priority of grace over law (which they believed their colleagues, the Federal theologians, had inverted thus providing for a legal faith) in regard to the covenantal system of theology. What Bell highlights though, is that while they discerned and even felt the pastoral problems provided by Federal theology, they themselves still did not have the wherewithal to remove themselves from that system; and so they suffered from a serious tension and irresolvable conflict in regard to the correction they saw needing to be made, and the way to actually accomplish that correction. Bell writes:

Boston and Erskine can only be fully appreciated against the background of 17th century Federal theology and the Marrow controversy. The Black Act of 1720 threatened the very heart of Reformed teaching concerning the nature of God’s grace. See in this context, it becomes highly significant that Boston and Erskine contend for the universal offer of Christ in the gospel, for such an offer is necessary to provide a basis for assurance. Not only do the Marrow men’s contemporary Federalists deny this universal offer, but they also deny that a basis for the assurance of faith is necessary since, according to them, assurance is not of the essence of faith. In light of the legalism which pervaded the Scottish scene, it is highly significant that men, who were themselves Federalists, detected this legalism and contended against it for the unconditional freeness of God’s grace. This they did by rejecting the covenant of redemption and insisting that there is but one covenant of grace, made for us by God in Christ. It is, therefore, a unilateral covenant which is not dependant or conditional upon our acts of faith, repentance, or obedience.

The Marrow men adhered to such doctrine precisely because they believed them to be both biblical and Reformed truths. Yet, because these men were Federal theologians, they were never able finally to break free of the problems engendered by the Federal theology. The Federal doctrines of two covenants, double predestination, and limited atonement undermined much of their teaching. So, for instance, the concept of a covenant of works obliged them to the priority of law over grace, and to a division between the spheres of nature and redemption. The doctrine of limited atonement removed the possibility of a universal offer of Christ in the gospel, and also removed the basis for assurance of salvation. Ultimately such teaching undermines one’s doctrine of God, causing us to doubt his love and veracity as revealed in the person and work of Christ. The Marrow controversy brought these problems to a head, but unfortunately failed to settle them in a satisfactory and lasting way. However, the stage is now set for the appearance of McLeod Campbell, who, like the Marrow men, saw the problems created by Federal Calvinism, but was able to break free from the Federal system, and therefore, to deal more effectively with the problems.[1]

What I like about Bell’s assessment is his identification of a distinction in and among the Federal theologians themselves; the Marrow men represent how this distinction looked during this period of time. And yet as Bell details even these men were not able to finally overcome the restraints offered by the Federal system of theology; it wasn’t until John McLeod Campbell comes along in the 18th century where what the Marrow men were hoping to accomplish was inchoate[ly] accomplished by his work—but he paid a high price, he was considered a heretic by the standards of the mainstream Federal theologians (we’ll have to detail his theology later).

What I have come to realize is that while we can find promising streams, and even certain moods in the history, we will never be able to overcome the failings that such theologies (like the Federal system) offered because they were, in and of themselves, in self-referential ways, flawed. As much as I appreciate John Calvin’s theology I have to critique him along the same lines as Bell critiques the Marrow men here, even while being very appreciative for the nobility of their work given their historical situation and context. This is why, personally, I am so appreciative of Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance); Barth recognized the real problem plaguing all of these past iterations of Reformed theology, it had to do with their doctrine of God qua election. It is something Barth notes with insight as he offers critique of Calvin, in regard to his double predestination and the problem of assurance that this poses (and this critique equally includes all subsequent developments of classical understanding of double predestination):

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.[2]

This was the problem the Marrow men needed to address; it is the problem that McLeod Campbell attempted to address with the resources he had available to him; and yet, I conclude that it was only Barth who was finally successful in making the turn towards a radically Christ concentrated doctrine of double predestination and election. With Barth’s revolutionary move here he washed away all the sins of the past in regard to the problems presented by being slavishly tied to classical double predestination and the metaphysics that supported that rubric.

Concluding Thought

This is why I am so against what is going on in conservative evangelical theology today (again, think of the ubiquitous impact and work The Gospel Coalition is having at the church level). The attempt is being made to retrieve and repristinate the Reformed past as that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries in particular; and the retrieval isn’t even of the Marrow men, it is of the theology that the Marrow men, as Federal theologians themselves, understood had fatal problems in regard to a doctrine of God and everything else subsequent. My question is: Why in the world would anybody want to resurrect such a system of theology? There is no theological vitality there; it can only set people up to repeat the history of the past, in regard to the type of Christian spirituality it offered. Indeed, a spirituality that caused people to be overly introspective, and focused on their relationship with God in voluntarist (i.e. intellectualist) and law-like ways (because of the emphasis of law over grace precisely because of the covenant of works as the preamble and definitive framework for the covenant of grace/redemption). People might mean well, but as far as I am concerned they are more concerned with retrieving a romantic idea about a period of history in Protestant theological development—an idea that for some reason they have imbued with sacrosanct sentimentality—rather than being concerned with actual and material theological conclusions. For my money it does not matter what period of church history we retain our theological categories from; my concern is that we find theological grammars and categories that best reflect and bear witness to the Gospel reality itself. Federal theology does not do that!

 

[1] M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985), 168.

[2] Karl Barth, CD II/2:111. For further development of this critique, with particular reference to John Calvin, see my personal chapter, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the “Faith of Christ,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene: OR, Pickwick Publications, 2017), 30-57.

The 16th and 17th Century Reformed Covenantal Roots of the 21st Century evangelical and Reformed Theological Understanding of a ‘Legally Strained’ Gospel

When I can, I like to highlight where the legalistic character of the contemporary evangelical and Reformed faith came from. I realize that for many, maybe even most at this point, doctrine doesn’t really mean much these days for evangelicals; but there are still obviously large segments of evangelical Christians who actually do care about what they believe and why—so I write posts for folks
like that in mind. It would be difficult to detail a kind of ideational genealogy in regard to tracing how something like Covenant theology has made its way into 21st century evangelical and Reformed systems of theology. So for lack of doing such genealogical work I will write towards people who are enamored with the theology that The Gospel Coalition distills for the evangelical masses.

If one were to go to TGC’s website you could read up on their confessional or doctrinal statement, and you’d pick up almost immediately—if you were so tuned—the type of legal framework for understanding salvation that they promote. Like I noted, we won’t be able to draw the hard and fast lines between the forensic Gospel promoted by TGC with its predecessor theology found in historical Covenant theology (in a lineament[al] type of way); instead we will just have to leave such linkage at a suggestive and inchoate level.

With the ground cleared a bit, for the remainder of this post I wanted to survey, with M. Charles Bell’s help, the whence from where legally oriented, performance based conceptions of the Gospel came from; to do that we will look at an early Scottish proponent of what is called Federal or ‘Covenant’ theology. Maybe you have never heard of Covenant theology before, but at its base it is made up of two covenants (as a hermeneutical construct): the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

Robert Rollock was a Scottish theologian who operated in the late 1500s in the Scottish Kirk; as Bell develops, Rollock was one of the first Scots to propose and advocate for a Covenant theology in the Scottish Reformed church. As we look at Rollock’s take on Federal theology, my hope is that the reader will organically ‘get’ what I’m suggesting in this post in regard to the antecedent theology that funds the mood we find being promoted in theology offered by associates of The Gospel Coalition. Without further ado, here is Bell’s sketch of Rollock’s understanding of Covenant theology (and as you read others Rollock’s view of Covenant theology is quite standard when it comes to the basic structure and emphases).

The Covenant of Works

Rollock states that the covenant of works is a ‘legal or natural covenant’ founded in nature, and God’s law. For when God created man, he engraved his law in man’s heart. After the fall of man it was necessary to republish this covenant, which was done at Mt. Sinai when Moses delivered the written tablets of stone containing God’s commandments for his people. The substance of this covenant of works is the promise of eternal life for those who fulfill the conditions of holiness and good works.

In grounding this covenant in nature and the law, and making the substance of the covenant a conditional promise of eternal life, Rollock denies any place to Christ in this legal covenant. Christ is not the ground of the covenant, its substance or its mediator, he states. In fact, this covenant has no need of a mediator. This is so because the covenant was first made between God and Adam before the fall. Therefore, asserts Rollock, this covenant does not involve Christ in any way. It is not faith in Christ that is needed, but knowledge of the law and obedience to it. The covenant of works relates to Christ only as a means of preparing the individual to receive Christ in the covenant of grace. Rollock stresses time and again that law precedes grace or the gospel. First the covenant of works or the law, is set before us, and only when this works in us a feeling of our miserable, sinful estate are we ready to proceed to the next step of embracing the covenant of grace. The doctrine of the gospel begins with the legal doctrine of works and of the law.’ Rollock insists that if this preparationist ordo is not followed then the preaching and the promises of the gospel are in vain.

The Covenant of Grace

Although the covenant of works is the major concern within the Old Testament, Rollock insists that the ‘mystery of Christ’ is to be found in the Scriptures from Adam to Christ, thought this covenant of grace is expounded ‘sparingly and darkly’ in shadows. This covenant of grace is not entirely a new agreement between God and man, but is actually a ‘reagreement, and a renewing of an old friendship betweene two that first were friends.’ However, because of the breach between God and man since the fall, this second covenant is grounded upon the blood of Christ, and God’s free mercy in Christ. Moreover, the promise of this second covenant is not only that of eternal life, but, because of the fall of man, must involve also a promise of imputed righteousness which comes to us by faith and the work of Christ’s Spirit. On the other hand, like the first covenant, Rollock insists that the covenant of grace is conditional. The condition, however, is not one of works, but faith, ‘which embraces God’s mercy in Christ and makes Christ effectual in us’. Furthermore, this condition is not fulfilled naturally by us, but the required faith is itself God’s gift to us.

Rollock does not, however, do away with the requirement of works in the covenant of grace. The natural works of man have no part in this covenant, since the works of unregenerate man are of no value, and the covenant of works is abolished as a means of salvation for all who are in Christ. However, works are required of the believer not as merits on our part, or as ‘meritorious causes’ of our eternal life, but rather, as tokens of our gratitude and thankfulness to God for his grace. They can also be considered as the means by which we progress from our initial regeneration to eternal life, and so, in a sense, may be deemed ‘causes’, but only when they are first understood as themselves caused ore effected by ‘the only merit of Jesus Christ, whereof they testify’. Rollock is clear that these works do not proceed naturally from us, in our own strength, Rather, these works proceed from us, in our own strength. Rather, these works proceed from, and are produced by ‘the grace of regeneration’. They are God’s doing and not man’s. They are, as well, not perfect works, but merely ‘good beginnings’. Their perfection ‘is supplied, and to be found in Christ Jesus’.

Rollock attempts to make a strong case for the objective ground and nature of salvation in Christ, and the covenant of grace. He states that God’s grace is the ‘sole efficient cause’ of faith, hope, and repentance. Although in the ministry of reconciliation there are two covenant partners involved, Rollock stresses that the initiative for healing lies with God and not us. God the Father seeks and saves us. It is his love manifested in our healing. His call in the gospel comes to us; we do not seek it. Echoing Calvin, Rollock writes that the cause of our salvation lies in God alone, and ‘na pairt in man quha is saved’. Nevertheless, it becomes clear in his writings that because of his conditional covenant schemed and his preparationist ordo salutis, in which law precedes grace, he is forced to return to a subjective basis within man for one’s final assurance of salvation.[1]

There is a lot in there. Rather than attempting to unpack it all, I want to essentially let it stand as is and simply be a kind of proof of where evangelical and Reformed theology’s ‘legally’ flavored conception comes from; as I read it, it is rather self-evident.

To be clear, I am not wanting to suggest that in every detail the Gospel preached by something like TGC is corollary, one-for-one. Instead what I’m hoping the reader can see, especially if you have never been exposed to this, is where the roots are for contemporary 21st century understandings of evangelical and Reformed soteriology; one could also think of the resurgence of Reformed theology we find in the so called Young, Restless and Reformed. I’m not wanting to suggest that all of this type of retrieval and resurgence among the conservative evangelical and Reformed wings of today is one wherein a full blown recovery of Covenant theology is taking place (although for some that’s exactly what is happening). Instead, I’m hoping that the reader will be able to see the framework, in a general type of way, wherein a ‘legal’ performance based understanding of salvation comes from. Many of those retrieving the historical Reformed faith are Baptists; they typically are not Covenantal like what we find in someone like Rollock, or later in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Nevertheless, the forensic way for conceiving of salvation, whether someone is a flaming Federal theologian or not, for the evangelical, comes from something like what we see evidenced in the theology of Robert Rollock. This is, I would submit, the mood of theology that gives us the idea that the Penal Substitutionary Atonement is the theory of the atonement that is the bedrock Gospel understanding of what the Gospel actually is; I contend that without Covenant theology PSA would never have come to have the prominence it does for evangelical and Reformed theories of the atonement and the Gospel itself.

One other point, before we go; I think of the work that someone like Brian Zahnd is doing. His most recent book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, is intended to offer an alternative conception of the Gospel wherein a Gospel of grace and love is presented; i.e. in contrast to the type of theology he is riffing on like what we might find in Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Zahnd is all about critiquing the ‘legal strain’ sense of the Gospel we find say in the theology presented by TGC et al. But I really think that if he wants to offer a full blown critique he needs to engage with the antecedent theology informing the theology he is attempting to critique. He often attributes all of this to Calvin, as if Calvin was the founder of Calvinism. But that’s just not the case, and so his critiques often miss the target when he is attempting to critique a legal forensically styled Gospel. I think he would do better to engage with the type of Post Reformed orthodox theology (of the 16th and 17th centuries) that we are covering here in this post. It helps to provide more context for people in attempting to understand where this type of ‘legal’ quid pro quo Covenantal theology comes from. It also is more honest and truthful as it gets into the actual meat and development of theology that indeed does offer us the ‘legal’ categories for conceiving of salvation that we still work under today in the evangelical and Reformed world.

 

[1] M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985), 53-4.

Getting Past the Caricatures of Calvin: Calvin the ‘in Christ’ Participatory Theologian

John Calvin often gets caricatured for a variety of reasons; the unfortunate thing about such caricatures is they keep people from benefiting from some very rich theology that he offers in the whole of his oeuvre. What I appreciate most about Calvin’s theology is both his union with Christ (unio cum Christo) and double grace (duplex gratia) motifs. Both emphasize in very Pauline and Christologically rich ways what a good participationist soteriology should look like, and yet most miss this because they get hung up on his thinking in regard to God’s decretive activities, and his doctrine of double predestination (both things I recently critiqued him on through Barth and Torrance in my personal chapter in our EC2 book). But note the following; here in a pretty famous passage from Calvin’s Institutes we see just this kind of participationist emphasis that we might even mistake for some patristic theologian’s offering. Calvin writes:

We must now examine this question. How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only-begotten Son—not for Christ’s own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men? First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us. For this reason, he is called “our Head” [Eph. 4:15], and “the first-born among many brethren” [Rom. 8:29]. We also, in turn, are said to be “engrafted into him” [Rom. 11:17], and to “put on Christ” [Gal. 3:37]; for, as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him. It is true that we obtain this by faith. Yet since we see that not all indiscriminately embrace that communion with Christ which is offered through the gospel, reason itself teaches us to climb higher and to examine into the secret energy of the Spirit, by which we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits.[1]

Do you see what I mean? For Calvin, the whole of salvation is accomplished in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ (we might even mistake this for Barth or Torrance — but they receive such emphases from Calvin, actually). For Calvin, Justification/Sanctification and ultimately Glorification are all resplendent and present in Jesus Christ; our only hope is to be united to him by the Spirit in the bond of faith.

But if you follow all the caricatures of Calvin’s theology you’ll naively end up thinking that he was the foment of some of the most hideous monstrous theology on planet earth. As the passage above should illustrate you and your caricature would be severely out of place.

Note: I am taking a break from Facebook. This post will automatically feed through to Facebook, so anyone reading this from there, if you’d like to interact, then leave a comment in the thread of this post here at the blog.

[1] Calvin, Institutes 3.1.1.

The Patristic Calvinists versus the Medieval Calvinists: Engaging with Athanasius’s Theology of Theosis in Conversation with Barth’s and Torrance’s Themes

I write about the same themes over and over again; someone even griped about that about me on FaceBook (I don’t think he thought I could see his gripe). But there’s a reason; I’ve been taken aback by the theology I have been confronted with in the writings of Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Augustine, et al. I’ve been surprised by the depth and richness available in the history of ecclesial ideas; surprised in the sense that what so often is presented to evangelicals at the popular and mainstream levels barely scratches the surfaces. I’ve been surprised by finding out that the Christian theological world is not comprised of nor defined by the usual binaries (i.e. Calvinism versus Arminianism etc.) that are so often presented to the evangelical Christian world in North America and the West as if these are the absolute parameters wherein Christians can think and still be considered orthodox. So yes, I do write a lot about the same themes because I don’t think the themes I write about have been emphasized enough; at least not for the evangelicals.

With the above noted, this post will be in reference to Athanasius’s theology of deification or theosis; a doctrine us Evangelical Calvinists are very interested in and informed by. I am just finishing up Thomas Weinandy’s fine work on Athanasius’s theology, and so we will hear from his treatment of Athanasius’s theology in regard to this particular locus. What is striking about Weinandy’s account here is, if you didn’t know he was describing Athanasius’s theology you would think he was referring to either Barth or Torrance’s understanding of election and salvation in general. So when Torrance says he’s not a Barthian, but instead an Athanasian, when you read the following from Weinandy you might understand why. It’s not that Torrance was not a joyful student of Barth, it’s just that Torrance understood that much of what he found in Barth was first presented by Athanasius. Here is how Weinandy details Athanasius’ understanding of deification (at some considerable length):

Thus, the Son became man precisely that humankind might be ‘perfected in him and restored, as it was made at the beginning – with yet greater grace. For, on rising from the dead we shall no longer fear death, but in Christ shall reign forever in the heavens.’ As Jesus took on incorruptibility in his resurrection, so ‘it is clear that the resurrection of all of us will take place; and since his body remained without corruption, there can be no doubt regarding our incorruption’.

Athanasius equally understands Jesus’ resurrection, again following Philippians, as his perfecting ‘exaltation’. The Son is exalted not as God, ‘but the exaltation is of the manhood’, for he humbled himself in assuming humankind’s humanity even unto death on the cross. The Son’s humanity was raised up and exalted because it was not external to him, but his own. For Athanasius, the exaltation of the Son’s humanity was none other than that it was fully deified and so made perfect. Moreover, since all Christians die in him, so now the share in his exaltation. ‘He himself should be exalted, for he is the highest, but that he may become righteousness for us, and we may be exalted in him.’ As the second Adam then, the exalted and so deified incarnate Son becomes the paradigm in whom all human beings can come to share in his perfected risen humanity. Where the ‘first man’ brought death to humankind’s humanity, the Son ‘quickened it with the blood of his own body’.

In a similar fashion, Athanasius perceives that, in being exalted and so perfectly hallowed, the incarnate Son becomes ‘Lord’, ‘in order to hallow all by the Spirit’. In being made fully holy in the Spirit, Athanasius argues that we can rightly be called ‘gods’, not in the sense that we are equal to the Son by nature, but because we have become beneficiaries of his grace. Human beings are, therefore, ‘sons and gods’ because they ‘were adopted and deified through the Word’. Since the Son is himself God who became man, humankind can be deified by being united to his glorious humanity, ‘for because of our relationship to his body, we too have become God’s temple, and in consequence are made God’s sons’.

For Athanasius, the perfecting and so hallowing of Jesus through his glorious exaltation as a risen man is summed up in his notion of deification. Moreover, as Jesus is deified so those who are united to him are perfected and so hallowed by being united to him and so deified as well. Deification is not then the changing of our human nature into something other than it is, that is, into another kind of being. Rather, deification for Athanasius is the making of humankind into what it was meant to be from the very beginning, that is, the perfect image of the Word who is the perfect image of the Father. Moreover, this deification is only effected by being taken into the very divine life of the Trinity. Thus, as the Son is the Son of the Father because he is begotten of the Father and so is ontologically one with the Father, so Christians imitate this divine oneness by being taken up into it. Commenting on Jesus’ prayer, that Christians would be one with him as he is with the Father (see Jn. 17:21), Athanasius perceives that it is through being united to Jesus’ ‘body’ that we become one body with him and so are united to the Father himself. This ‘uniting’ is the work of the Holy Spirit. ‘The Son is in the Father, as his proper Word and Radiance; but we, apart from the Spirit, are strange and distant from God, yet by the participation of the Spirit we are knit into the Godhead.’ Thus the goal of creation is now achieved, that is, human beings have communion with the Father through his eternal Word.

For since the Word is in the Father, and the Spirit is given from the Word, he wills that we should receive the Spirit, that when we receive it, thus having the Spirit of the Word which is in the Father, we too may be found, on account of the Spirit, to become one in the Word, and through him in the Father. [Contra Arianos, 3.25]

Divinization then, for Athanasius, is the sharing fully in the life of the Trinity and it is this sharing in the divine life that thoroughly transforms the believer into the adopted likeness of the Son.[1]  

If you have read here regularly for any amount of time the themes of deification/theosis note in Athanasius’ theology will be or should be recognizable to you. As we have looked into the idea of Jesus being the image of God, and humanity being first created and recreated in the resurrection as the images of the image in Christ, again, what we just covered should be familiar to you. Or maybe as we think back to Barth’s or Torrance’s understanding of election, Athanasius’s theology, as told by Weinandy, should be familiar to you.

What this reinforces for me, other than that rich theological material that we can find in Athanasius’s thought, is that Evangelical Calvinism represents a distinct mode of Reformed theology. Surely it is not foreign to the aims nor many of the trajectories set forth in the Protestant Reformation (particularly as we think about Calvin, Luther, Knox and some other magisterial reformers, and some Scottish ones), indeed, what Evangelical Calvinism is seeking to do is to operate in the ‘spirit’ of Calvinist/Reformed theology by working in a type of ad fontes (back to the sources) mood. What this means though, is that just like the original Protestant Reformers, ensconced in their own time and circumstance, we will be looking back through the centuries from a modern, even postmodern vista. With that noted, I think Evangelical Calvinism in many ways could be said to be a Patristic Calvinism, as far as the Athanasian and Irenean type of categories we want to use; whereas classical Calvinists, I would like to suggest should probably be called Medieval Calvinists, given their proclivity to appeal to Aristotelian theories of causation and metaphysics. In this sense Evangelical Calvinists are more prone to thinking of salvation in terms of ontology and personalist Trinitarian understandings in regard to a God-world relation; whereas classical Calvinists are more prone to thinking in terms of declarational/forensic and decretral categories in a God-world relation.

We have covered a lot; we have looked at Athanasius’s theology of deification, and then used that as an occasion to draw further points of departure between Evangelical Calvinists and so called classical Calvinists. Hopefully you can see that; and hopefully you have benefited from the sharing of Weinandy’ treatment of Athanasius’s theology as I have.

[1] Thomas G. Weindandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 98-100.

‘The Eternally Fruitful Father’: How Creation and Salvation only Make Sense if God is Father of the Son in Athanasius’s Theology by Weinandy

Thomas Torrance picks up on the Athanasian idea that God has always already been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but that becoming Creator was something new for God. As we dig further into Athanasius’s theology itself, as told by Thomas Weinandy, what we see behind this is how this notion took place within Athanasius’s defense of the homoousion language Contra Arionos relative to both a doctrine of creation and how soteriology is understood within that frame; a Christologically induced frame grounded in the intra-Trinitarian life of God. Honestly the way Weinandy unfolds all of this is one of the most profound things I have ever come across in regard to answering the question of why God would create in the first place; in other words, how does creation itself flow organically from the who God is in his inner and eternal life (in se)?

As Weinandy details it is precisely because God is Father of the Son, and Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit (that:  by the Holy Spirit is my addition) that creation makes sense; i.e. there is place for the other in God by nature (or ‘being’ ousia). In other words the fact that God is, by nature, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit allows for the type of space to conceive of a God who could create ‘others’ if he wanted to; i.e. he’s a God, eternally so as revealed in Christ (the Son), who is relational—i.e. his oneness (De Deo uno) is given shape by his threeness (De Deo trino), and vice versa. A God who is Pure Being, or monadic, like the God of Islam or the Modalists, or of Arius, would never create, not for any theo-logical reasons anyway.[1]

Let’s get to it, here’s how Weinandy unfolds all of this in Athanasius’s theology (the quote is lengthy):

The central soteriological issue in Athanasius’ Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione was creation. Athanasius continues to stress within his anti-Arian and pro-Nicene writing that is only because the Son is truly divine  that the Father creates through his so that creation always possesses an intimate and immediate relationship with the Father through the Son. Employing Irenaeus’ famous analogy, Athanasius states that the Son is ‘the hand’ though [sic] which the Father brings into being all that is. This is again the theological basis upon which Athanasius founds the Father’s love for humankind and the Son’s innate responsibility, in the light of sin, for humankind’s subsequent redemption. ‘It is fitting that redemption should take place through none other than him who is Lord by nature, lest, though created by the Son, we should name another Lord.’ Thus, unlike Arianism, there is no need for an intermediate cosmological third party that bridges the ontological gap between the Father and creation, for the Son, through whom the Father creates, unites in an unmediated manner, in that he too, is God, the whole creation to the Father.

Moreover, in response to the Arian claim that the Son is a creature, Athanasius innovatively asks a veryinsightful and new question. How can God be ‘Creator’ if he is not first ‘Father’? ‘If the divine essence is not fruitful in itself but barren, as they hold, as a light that does not lighten or a dry fountain’, how is it that it can give being and life to others? For Athanasius, only if God is eternally the fruitful Father who, by the very nature of who he is, eternally begets his Son, is it possible for the Father, by his will, to create through his Son. ‘If then that which comes first, which is according to nature, did not exist, as they would have it in their folly, how could that which is second come to be, which is according to will? For the Word is first, and then the creation.’ However, since the Father has created, this manifests that he is inherently fruitful by nature and so he is first of all Father of the Son. ‘If he, by willing them to be, frames things that are external to him and before were not, and thus becomes their maker, much more will he first be Father of an offspring from his proper essence.’ If creation is the foundation of all soteriology, then, for Athanasius, its requisite is found only within the fruitful creativity of the Father begetting the Son.

This is a marvelous insight. If God was simply a singular existing being – a monad, something after the manner of Aristotle’s ‘self-thinking thought’, then God could never conceive of anything other than himself. Being simply One, it would be metaphysically impossible for him to conceive of two, or of three, or of an infinite multitude, for One is all there is. Actually, God would not even conceive of himself as One because ‘One’ itself implies a further numerical sequence of others. We only know what ‘one’ means because we equally know what ‘two’ means, without ‘two’, ‘one’ not only has no meaning, it is also, literally, inconceivable. God would just be and nothing more could be conceived, imagined, or said. As Athanasius rightly perceives, only if God is, by his very nature, the Father begetting the Son, could that God conceive of bringing into existence other beings that are not God.[2]

Much richness to consider.

One way to reflect on this, at least one way that I’d like to, is to note the theological taxis or ‘order’ present in all of this. It all starts with the Triune God as the ground and grammar of everything else; which is given shape by a Christological conditioning in regard to who we know God to be as Father of the Son, and as such we only have the capacity to know God as the Creator in this way first; i.e. as Father of the Son and Son of the Father. It is this basis upon which creation can be conceived of theo-logically, as the Father is understood to be, coinherently, as eternally fruitful; since that’s what Fatherhood entails, i.e. in having a Son. From this creation gains its telos or ‘purpose’, it is a Christologically oriented trajectory. And from within this frame we can finally have a discussion about everything else—like salvation, a doctrine of Scripture, so on and so forth—since everything else as far as we’re concerned requires created reality given the fact that we’re creatures coram Deo (‘before God’).

Let’s leave off there. But it is quite astounding, really, to see how thinking things from a Trinitarian ground, and one that is Christological conditioned, as Athanasius originally did, provides such rich and fertile soil to think about everything else that is subsequent; i.e. meaning all else that we might want to call “theology.”

 

[1] This insight comes directly from Thomas G. Weinandy.

[2] Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Hampshire/Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 79-80.

I am an Athanasian: How the Homoousion Saved Christianity by Inimically Implicating the Reality of Salvation

Thomas Torrance is known for his deployment of the homoousion, the grammar developed primarily at the Council of Nicaea in 325ad. It is the attempt to articulate how it is that Jesus, the eternal Logos, and Son of God is eternally consubstantial and of the same ‘substance’ or better ‘being’ (ousia) with the Father [and the Holy Spirit]. It is this idea that Athanasius, particularly after the Council of Nicaea went on to develop and argue for in his engagement with Arius et al. This serves as a key piece for all orthodox Christians because it helps us double down on what is revealed in Jesus Christ about himself as the Savior of the world, and how that is, as he is eternally Son of the Father. This doctrine is significant because it identifies the Trinitarian structure of the Gospel, and demonstrates how it is that the Son must be God, not just man (i.e. against Ebionite Christology and any other adoptionistic thinking), if in fact he would actually have the capacity to ‘save’, to redeem, to reconcile humanity unto God. This doctrine also is significant because it goes both ways, it not only positively notes the Son’s eternal relation to the Father as his one and only begot, but it also does double duty by pressing home the fact that he, the Son, is also fully consubstantial with human being; i.e. that he is fully human. Here the ‘bridge’ is realized between God and humanity, as the Son assumes flesh for himself, and in so doing becomes the Mediator between God and man (cf. I Tim. 2:5-6). It is in this reality, the homoousial reality that the gap between God and humanity, because of not only our finitude, but also our falleness is remedied; and we are brought from our lowly fractured state and elevated to God’s kind of life, not by nature, but by the grace of God who is Jesus Christ. It is because of the homoousial reality that we, as the Petrine theology asserts, are brought into the divine nature as participants through the grace of God’s life in Jesus Christ for us and with us. And it is because of the homoousial reality that any type of dualism between God and humanity is mitigated and brought into unity of both being (ontology) and thought (epistemology) as Jesus mediates God’s life to us, and our lives to God’s triune life in and through his life with the Father by the Holy Spirit. Because of all of this, and more, Thomas Torrance writes this about the importance of the homoousion:

As the epitomised expression of this truth, the homoousion is the ontological and epistemological linchpin of Christian theology. It gives expression to the truth with which everything hangs together, and without which everything ultimately falls apart. The decisive point for Christian theology, and not least for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, lies here, where we move from one level to another: from the basic evangelical and doxological level to the theological level, and from that level to the high theological level of the ontological relations in God. In that movement a radical shift in the basic fabric of theological thought takes place along with a reconstruction in the foundations of our prior knowledge. This is evident not least in the fact that in formulating the homoousion of Christ in connection with both his creative and redemptive activity, Nicene theology laid the axe to the epistemological dualism latent in Greek philosophy and religion that threatened the very heart of the Gospel; and as such it gave powerful expression to the indissoluble connection in Act and Being between the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity, between οἰκονομία and θεολογία, which secured the Church in its belief that in the Lord Jesus Christ and his Gospel they had to do directly with the ultimate Presence and downright Reality of God himself. Jesus Christ does for us and to us, and what the Holy Spirit does in us, is what God himself does for us, to us and in us.[1]

As Torrance highlights when we see the Father we see the Son; i.e. the ontological inner life of God (in se) is really made known in the economic outer life of God (ad extra). If it wasn’t, as Athanasius would argue, we are of ‘all men most to be pitied;’ because if true God of true God did not come for us then we would be doomed and left to ourselves in our sins. The gap between the Creator, who has always already been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the creation (humanity) was so great that if God did not stoop down to us in the grace of his life in Christ we would forever be in our sins and creation itself would be lost. This is what Arius’s theology entails; i.e. since his view of the eternal Son [Jesus] is that he is generate, meaning a creature; if this was so all that humanity would be left with in this scheme, soteriologically, is a salvation that remains contingent upon us to ‘work out our salvation’ in such a way that we might find merit before God. Jesus becomes an instrument or exemplar in the Arian way of Christology and soteriology, such that there is no bridge, no Divine mediation between God and humanity; there is no union of God and humanity and humanity and God in Arian theology. Athanasius would go on and show how the homoousion undercuts this faulty way of Arian thinking both theologically and biblically. Thomas Weinandy explicates how this worked out, in Athanasius’s theology, and how the homoousion functioned as key for providing an orthodox understanding of salvation (Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2007), 63-4.):

As Weinandy has demonstrated without the homoousion, in Athanasian and orthodox theology, Christianity may have failed. We might still be in our sins. We must believe the Dominical teaching here when Jesus proclaimed that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Gospel reality (cf. Mt. 18); we must acknowledge God’s providential care in providing people like Athanasius for his church in seminal and early ways. Without such guidance we could only imagine where the church might be today.

Thomas Torrance understands all of this, and this is why he has made the homoousion  key to the whole of his theological program. As he once said of himself: “I’m an Athanasian, if anything” (my paraphrase).

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 95.

Some Thoughts on Salvation and Grace from T.F. Torrance

Those who are justified by grace, by faith in Christ, are the only ones who really know that they are lost sinners, apart from Christ, but those who have not received Christ’s forgiveness and the verdict it entails upon their humanity are the ones who regard themselves as able to justify themselves. Similarly, those who have come to know the mystery of Christ as true God and true man are the only ones who really know that they themselves are in ignorance, and that by themselves, by their own capacities, they cannot know the mystery. But those who have not received Jesus Christ, who have avoided the mystery. But those who have not received Jesus Christ, who have avoided the mystery and therefore have not come to know it, are those who think they can understand how God and man can come together. Both the sinner who is forgiven by Christ and the man or woman who has come to see the face of God in the face of Christ, know that they can never master or dominate the mystery of Christ in their hearts, but can only acknowledge it gladly with wonder and thankfulness, and seek to understand  the mystery out of itself, that is, seek to let it declare itself  to them, seek to let themselves be told by the mystery what it is. They will acknowledge that this is a mystery that is not conceivable in ordinary human thought — it is a miracle. And if they know something of this miracle they will know that even their knowing of it is a very wonderful thing, that it is an act of God. They know the mystery by faith, in the power of the Spirit, but not by themselves alone. It is a gift of God. That belongs to the very content of the doctrine of the virgin birth and its significance for our knowing of Christ.[1]

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, 87-88.

 

Providing Some Theological Correction for John Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance: From Evangelical Calvinism, Volume 2

I think I am going to start doing some posts that refer to our just released book Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion; in other words, I will share particular quotes from particular chapters, and do what I do as a blogger: reflect and
engage with that material. In this post I will briefly engage with something I wrote in my personal chapter for the book entitled: “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance and the ‘Faith of Christ.’ In my chapter I offer a constructive critique of Calvin’s doctrine of assurance of salvation, while also constructively picking up on the themes within it that indeed fit well with the type of Christ concentrated/conditioned understanding of all things that Evangelical Calvinism is becoming known;  particularly, of course, as we rely on Barth and Torrance for much of our theological impulses. In our volume 1 Evangelical Calvinism book Myk Habets and I co-wrote a chapter wherein we offered 15 theological thesis that he and I see as the kind of touchstone contours of thought that we see as definitive for our style of EC thinking. One of those was that we believe, along with John Calvin, that assurance of salvation is of the essence of faith. My chapter in this new volume 2 actually takes a critical look at that through critique offered by the theological soundings present in Barth’s and Torrance’s theological offerings.

That said, part of the critique I made of Calvin on this front gets into Calvin’s doctrine of election/reprobation, and how he deploys the absolutum decretum. This doctrine, and the way Calvin’s kind of asymmetrical understanding of election and reprobation functions is the point at which I conclude that Calvin’s theological superstructure can’t really support his laudable thesis that assurance is the essence of saving faith. So I critique him on that front, and then contructively help him along through the theological categories of Barth and Torrance; with particular focus on the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. But in critique of Calvin I actually appeal to a critique that Steve Holmes made of Calvin on Calvin’s doctrine of assurance and reprobation and temporary faith. Here’s the quote I quoted from Holmes on this in my chapter:

The weakness in Calvin’s account of predestination, I suggest, is that the doctrine of reprobation is detached, Christless and hidden in the unsearchable purposes of God. As such it bears no comparison with the doctrine of election, but remains something less than a Christian doctrine. There is, in Calvin’s account, a fundamental difference between election and reprobation. Contra Barth, Calvin’s failure is not that he teaches a symmetrical double decree (Barth speaks of ‘the classical doctrine with its opposing categories of “elect” and “reprobate”’), but that he has almost no room for the doctrine of reprobation in his account.

This difference, this asymmetry, is ‘a very amiable fault’; it gives insight into Calvin the pastor, whose heart and mind were full of the glories of God’s gift of salvation in Christ—so different from the caricature so often painted. Calvin’s doctrine fails not because of a double decree, because the ‘No’ is equal to the ‘Yes’, but because the ‘No’ does not really enter his thinking. It is a logical result of the ‘Yes’, and necessary for the ‘Yes’ truly to be ‘Yes’, but, whereas election is bound up in his theology, it is the very fact that he is seemingly not interested in reprobation, that he has not brought it within the Trinitarian scope of his system, that makes it such a weak point. That is to say, Calvin’s doctrine fails to be gospel, is not ‘of all words . . . the best’, because he gives no doctrinal content to his account of reprobation and hence has no meaningful symmetry between the two decrees.[1]

And I write, just following this quote from Holmes in my chapter:

For Holmes, Calvin is so enamored with the positive aspect of election for the elect of God in Christ, that reprobation, as a doctrine, really has little or no place in the theology of Calvin.20 Holmes believes this is further exacerbated when attempting to provide assurance for weary souls, because, as Holmes writes, “the point at which Calvin appears to engage in special pleading in his attempt to give assurance to believers is when he speaks of ‘temporary faith’ (III.24.7–9)….”[2]

In brief, the problem for Calvin, and for anyone who holds to a classical doctrine of double predestination, is that assurance of salvation will indeed be elusive for the weary soul. If Christ only reveals the positive side of predestination, election, and not the negative side, reprobation, then we end up with some serious issues in regard to giving an account for assurance of salvation. In Calvin’s mind the elect could look to the decree, to Christ, and see him as the mirror of election for them; but of course, as we leave off with reference to Holmes’ critique of Calvin, Calvin also had the concept of ‘temporary faith’ operative in his theology, coupled with the idea that reprobation was hidden back in the secret decree of God (unlike his doctrine of election which was revealed, according to Calvin, in Christ). If someone could “look” elect, but only have a temporary ineffectual faith, and if reprobation was not accounted for positively in Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, then it becomes clear how anxiety for folks could remain; and it did.

These are the areas I critique Calvin of; I use Holmes and Barth. But I don’t leave off there, and of course I offer more development and substantiation for my critique of Calvin on this front in the chapter. After a description of Calvin’s understanding of reprobation/election and its implications towards assurance of salvation, I get into Barth’s and Torrance’s theology as a helper and constructive course correction for Calvin. I point up Barth’s reification of the classical doctrine of election/reprobation, and then how Torrance also develops that; I show, in contrast to Calvin’s doctrine here, how they have the resources to actually offer a real doctrine of assurance precisely at the point where Calvin’s doctrine is less than laudable: i.e. when we start talking about election and reprobation.

I don’t leave off with a negative note in regard to Calvin though; I show how he offered a properly Christ concentrated mode of theology in other areas of his theology, particularly when that came to his double grace and union with Christ conceptions of salvation and Christology.

Anyway, maybe this will whet your appetite enough to go and buy our book. If not I’ll share stuff from other chapters in order to give you all a feel for what to expect. Our authors really did bring a set of stellar contributions to make this volume 2 the outstanding work that I think it is.

[1] Holmes, Listening To The Past, 129–30 in Bobby Grow, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance and the ‘Faith of Christ’,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017), 39.

[2] Bobby Grow, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith,” 39-40.

Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Theosis in Convergence with the Eastern Orthodox: Part Two

Picking up where we left off yesterday, in this post we will jump right into how Adam Neder places Barth in a positive relation to the doctrine of theosis; particularly within the Orthodox iteration of that. Just as a reminder let me repost what I ended the post with yesterday; it is another short quote from Neder where he offers a distillation of the component parts of what makes up the doctrine of theosis; he himself is quoting Anna Williams’ compression of this doctrine for easy identification.

In her summary of the patristic doctrine of theosis, Williams offers just such a list. After acknowledging “considerable diversity in the ways various theologians describe deification,” she observes that nonetheless, “there is a firm core that distinguishes this doctrine from other model of sanctification.” According to Williams, four criteria must be met: “Where we find the ideas of [a] participation in divine life, [b] union with God and [c] humanity portrayed as human destiny, and [d] a mode of articulating  divine transcendence in this context, we can say we are dealing with a doctrine of deification.”[1]

Neder is contesting that Barth himself, a Westerner, contributes to the development of this prestigious doctrine along with other notables spanning from East to West (even though theosis is typically thought of as an Eastern theological reality).

Again, in the last post we saw how Neder framed Barth in rather oppositional terms relative to theosis, here Neder will place Barth in a positive stance towards the constructive development of the doctrine of theosis. Neder writes (in extenso):

There are of course other and important differences between Barth’s conception of the meaning of human participation in God and that of the Orthodox. I do not deny that such differences exist nor do I want to argue for some kind of rapprochement by smoothing them out. I am arguing, rather, that Barth is a contributor to the church’s history of reflection on this important issue, and that the quality of his contribution merits consideration within the present discussion. The following are just a few of the areas where their concerns overlap considerably:

[1] Both Barth and Orthodoxy conceive of participation in God teleologically and eschatologically. Participation in God represents the “ultimate destiny” of humanity. For Barth, this means the fulfillment of a perfect reality (i.e., the objective participation of all humanity in Christ is fulfilled as believers subjectively participate in Christ), whereas for the Orthodox the teleological movement is conceived along more gradual lines, as the final realization of a partial beginning. Nevertheless, both agree that participation in God is a teleological and eschatological concept.

[2] Both Barth and Orthodoxy insist that participation in God is not the abolition of true humanity, but its realization. Each works this out in a different way, but both agree that participation in God “does not suppress humanity, but makes humanity truly human.” Moreover, they agree that while the union between God and human beings is real, it is real as a union in distinction.

[3] For much of Orthodoxy, God’s nature (ousia) is unapproachable, unknowable, and imparticible. Deification is participation in God’s energies. Nevertheless, “these energies are not something that exists apart from God, not a gift which God confers upon humans; they are God Himself in His action and revelation to the world. God exists complete and entire in each of His divine energies.” Barth does not share this distinction between essence and energies, but he affirms something analogous to it. According to Barth, that which most basically distinguishes God from all else is his gracious and sovereign action. This action is God’s alone. God does not share it. God’s being is in-act, and God’s act is sovereign and gracious. But God freely shares himself with us. And he does so by including us in this action of his and therefore in himself. In the event of the union of God’s free primary action and our correspondingly free secondary response, we are given a creaturely share in God’s being. Thus, for Barth and Orthodoxy, God’s “nature” is imparticible even as human beings really participate in God.

[4] Barth’s actualistic anthropology, his insistence that human “being” does not precede human action, but rather is in-act, overlaps with what Meyendorff describes as “the central theme, or intuition, of Byzantine theology,” which, he writes, “is that man’s nature is not a static, ‘closed,’ autonomous entity, but a dynamic reality, determined in its very existence by its relationship to God,” such that “his very nature is truly itself only as much as it exists ‘in God’ or ‘in grace.’” I have already noted the divergent ways in which Barth and Orthodoxy conceive of nature and grace, and it goes without saying that Barth’s Christocentric framework for understanding creature nature is very different from that of Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, there is an important shared emphasis among them that human nature is only properly described in dynamic, active, and one might even say kinetic terms. What Meyendorff writes of Orthodoxy could, in its own way, apply equally well to Barth: “The logos  of every creature consists, therefore, in being essentially active; there is no ‘nature’ without ‘energy’ or movement.” Furthermore, both agree that participation in God is the event in which human nature is actively realized.[2]

Conclusion

Personally, I like Neder’s observations in regard to Barth’s relationship to the doctrine of theosis. As I alluded to above, theosis itself is not just an Eastern Orthodox teaching, it has prevailed throughout Western theology as well (even, as Neder suggests elsewhere, in Augustine himself). Off the top Martin Luther with his marriage mysticism and belief in the mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’); John Calvin with his unio cum Christo (‘union with Christ’), unio mystica (‘mystical union’), and duplex gratia (‘double grace’) conception of salvation; T.F. Torrance with his actual doctrine of theosis in direct conversation with the Eastern church and Patristic theology all represent examples of how this doctrine was present in its own particular way within ‘Western’ theology—the examples could be enumerated exponentially.

As Neder has decisively shown, I think, Barth is one other significant figure who has helped forward our understanding of the doctrine of theosis; albeit from within his own unique framing of things. As we noted in the last post, as is the normal pace of Barth, he reformulates almost everything he gets his hands on through his actualistic theological ontology, driven by his intensively principial Christ concentrated way. He works, as Torrance, as a Reformed theologian with categories like: election/reprobation, covenant (foedus), and the Scripture principle in play; among other important identifying features as found within Reformed theology.

Even if you are Eastern Orthodox, maybe especially so, I commend Barth’s alternative approach to the doctrine of theosis to you. I think he offers a more robust version of this doctrine, and avoids the pitfalls that come along with the classical understanding of theosis as it affirms something like Luther’s commuticatio idiomatum, and a kind of attendant synergism in the “appropriation” of salvation.

I might do one more post based upon Neder’s work. If I do I will share four points where Adam Neder explicates what union with Christ theology actually is in Barth’s theology. These four points significantly differentiate, or at least nuance Barth’s understanding of ‘theosis’ and/or union with Christ theology from the Orthodox understanding. While, as Neder has pointed out there are some important points of contact between Barth and Orthodoxy on this doctrine, there are also significant points of departure (as my first post indicated, but these other four points might make that even clearer).

 

[1] Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics(Louisville/Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 91.

[2] Ibid., 90-1.