Zwingli, The Pluralist Universalist

I am just finishing up Bruce Gordon’s excellent book Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet. In it, Gordon, almost in passing, notes that in Zwingli’s final theological confession, his Exposition of the Faith, in his dedication to France’s king, Francis I, he writes the following. You will notice the universalistic intonations of Zwingli’s correspondence; Luther, and the Germans most certainly did. Indeed, in the following quotation, Gordon also supplies Luther’s acerbic response to what I would take, similarly, to be a highly unChristian way to think about the salvation of pagan peoples.  

In his dedication, Zwingli urged the king to rule well, that he might join the heavenly company of exalted monarchs: 

Then you may hope to see the whole company and assemblage of all the saints, the wise, the faithful, brave, and good who have lived since the world began. Here you will see the two Adams, the redeemed and the redeemer, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, Phineas, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, and the Virgin Mother of God of whom he prophesied, David, Hezekiah, Josiah, the Baptist, Peter, Paul; here too, Hercules, Theseus, Socrates, Aristides, Antigonus, Numa, Camillus, the Catos and Scipios, here Louis the Pious, and your predecessors, the Louis, Philips, Pepins, and all your ancestors, who have gone hence in faith. In short there has not been a good man and will not be a holy heart or faithful soul from the beginning of the world to the end thereof that you will not see in heaven with God. And what can be imagined more glad, what more delightful, what, finally, more honourable than such a sight? 

As Luther and others quickly noted, Zwingli’s words were arresting. Alongside the kings of Israel and France, the blessed included Socrates and the Catos. The virtuous pagans would find their place among the elect. From Wittenberg came the caustic reply: 

Tell me, any one of you who wants to be a Christian, what need is there of baptism, the sacrament, Christ, the Gospel, or the prophets and Holy Scripture, if such godless heathen, Socrates, Aristides, yes, the cruel Numa, who was the first to instigate every kind of idolatry at Rome by the devil’s revelation, as St Augustine writes in the City of God, and Scipio the Epicurean, are saved and sanctified along with the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles in heaven, even though they knew nothing about God, Scripture, the Gospel, Christ, baptism, the sacrament, or the Christian faith? What can such an author, preacher, and teacher believe about the Christian faith except that it is no better than any other faith and that everyone can be saved by his own faith, even an idolater and an Epicurean like Numa and Scipio? 

The list was not the first time Zwingli had expressed himself on the salvation of non-Christians. Against his beloved Augustine, he was adamant that unbaptized infants would be saved. On the noble heathen, he had made his point most emphatically in his sermon on providence in 1530, when he claimed that Seneca was ‘the unparalleled cultivator of the soul among pagans’. He was a ‘theologian’ and his works ‘divine oracles’.  

Salvation was not limited to Israel or the visible Church. Zwingli’s conviction was consistent: God is entirely free in election to choose whom he wills with reasons completely beyond human comprehension. Profound attachment to divine freedom led Zwingli to find God working through the deeds and thoughts of non-Christians. God was the source of all goodness, and faith and goodness were to be found among virtuous pagans as they were somehow part of God’s election. Unlike John Milton later, Zwingli felt no need to explain the ways of God to humanity.1 

Interestingly, Zwingli himself, according to Gordon’s commentary, has no problem imposing his soteriology on God’s freedom; this is precisely what Karl Barth would not do. Barth, like Zwingli, had a high view of Divine freedom, but just because of that, definitionally, Barth rightly saw that a person, like Zwingli, could not foreclose on said freedom; and “make” God’s freedom the cipher by which an array of theological adiaphora might be smuggled into the Divine way. This is what kept Barth et al. from following Zwingli’s apparent universalistic-turn. At most, for Barth, God’s freedom could allow for a hopeful universalism, but not of the sort that we find, ostensibly, in Zwingli’s absolute, and even pluralistic form of universalism (I say anachronistically after Paul Tillich). Indeed, I find this rather striking; Zwingli seems to have an incipient form of what would later come to be Karl Rahner’s anonymous Christian notion. Again, to read modern theologians, and their respective categories, back into someone like Zwingli would be, at best, anachronistic. But at a conceptual level it is interesting that there is at least some inchoate corollary between him and some moderns who would follow latterly.  

I found this nugget interesting, and something I didn’t know in regard to Zwingli’s soteriological imagination. Maybe you’ll find this interesting as well, which is why I’ve shared this. Solo Christo  

 

1 Bruce Gordon, Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2021), 238-39.

 

The Headquarters of Evil: The Satanic in Christian Dogmatic Explanation

Sin by definition is irrational. More pointedly we could say sin is “disaffective,” that is in regard to sin’s relational nature as a rupturing of relationship between God and us. Ultimately, sin has no anatomy. We can identify what it does, but are unable to explain where it came from, per se. As such, attempting to answer theological questions based upon ostensible answers to sin’s “nature,” is always a fool’s-errand. Thomas Torrance avoids such foolishness, and instead explains the irrational nature of sin up against the order of God’s triune life, and how the latter provides for an ordered universe vis-à-vis Him. Torrance writes: 

Second, by its very nature, moral or natural evil is essentially anarchic. It is an utterly irrational factor that has inexplicably entered into the created order. Whatever else evil is it involves the introduction of a radical discontinuity into the world that affects the relation of mankind to God, of man to himself, and of man to woman and woman to man, and of course of men and women to nature. It affects the entire relation of the universe to God, infecting its contingent nature or the relative independence given by God to the created order. As such evil defies human comprehension and any rational explanation. It is a virulent, demonic force radically antagonistic to all that is holy and orderly, right and good. St Paul spoke of it as the mystery of lawlessness (ἀνομία) of a strangely personal kind, in fact a malevolent will. It was in similar terms that Jesus referred to the Devil as the father of lies, the Satan with whom Jesus himself struggled in his temptation. And it is in similar terms that the Gospels tell us of the conflict of Jesus with the demonic powers of darkness that infested people’s lives in mind and body, but which he denounced as the enemy, rebuked and cast out of people’s lives, thereby showing that with his presence the Kingdom of God had been ushered in and deliverance from the power of darkness had been brought about. The sharp personal conflict of Jesus with evil reveals it to be more than the hypostatisation of a principle of contradiction between God and the world, and to be in fact an organised kingdom of evil and darkness with a kind of headquarters of its own, the power house of an utterly rebellious evil will or spirit which the Holy Scriptures call Satan. We are unable to understand how God continues to deal with the forces of darkness, but we believe that as he dealt miraculously with sickness and death, miraculously brought the turbulent winds and waves under his command, ‘Peace, be still;’ so we believe that he will bring his divine peace and power to bear marvellously and triumphantly upon the physical conditions of human existence in history, not to be sure in accordance with our conceptions, but in accordance with his transcendent wisdom.1 

The description of sin by Torrance, and its incubator, evil, could not be more apropos for our current status in the world at large. What shouldn’t be lost is the point that TF rightly underscores: viz. “As such evil defies human comprehension and any rational explanation.” This is the all-important point in regard to not only the ‘noetic effects of the fall,’ but more significantly the possibility for humanity to identify their actual problem as they stand in this world order. Without the light of knowledge provided for by God in Christ, particularly in the Incarnation&Atonement, human depravity will continue to lead itself into its own self-possessed inborn sense of divinity. This is why theologies that are based in speculation and discursive reasoning about God, speculation that starts from an epistemological ingress-point abstract from a ground of God in Christ, are doomed to theories of God, and thus everything, that only end in the circle of self-projection. 

Beyond that, and to one of the primary points of TFT’s treatment, evil is personal. Not in an abstract sense, but up against the personal God of Jesus Christ. That is to say, evil, and its adjunct, sin, has a “personal” origination insofar as that is embodied by a literal Satan and his literal demonic coven. The modern world, in post-Enlightenment form, has sought to demythologize the world of monsters, demons, and the angelic just the same. This is rooted, following TF’s point, in fallen humanity’s propensity to ignore the reality of the fall, and thus live into it by elevating themselves as the gods of the universe. As such, the unseen world, the invisible world is not manageable to them, thus the need to demythologize, or ‘disenchant’ the world of things they cannot seemingly master themselves. The irony of this “fool’s-errand,” is that such people, the people in the ‘Broadway,’ are in fact mastered by this unseen world to the point that the satanic ‘headquarters’ convinces unregenerate humanity that it does not exist. One result is that such people, the massa, do the bidding of Satan as he, indeed, is their father:  

41 You people are doing the deeds of your father.” Then they said to Jesus, “We were not born as a result of immorality! We have only one Father, God himself.” 42 Jesus replied, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come from God and am now here. I have not come on my own initiative, but he sent me. 43 Why don’t you understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot accept my teaching. 44 You people are from your father the devil, and you want to do what your father desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not uphold the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, because he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I am telling you the truth, you do not believe me. 46 Who among you can prove me guilty of any sin? If I am telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me? 47 The one who belongs to God listens and responds to God’s words. You don’t listen and respond, because you don’t belong to God.” -John 8:41-47 

The only remedy to this cosmic malady is for the person to repent and submit to the Word of God, rather than continuing to submit to the Serpent’s fake word. 

 

1 Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 227.  

 

 

Augustine and TF Torrance in Deified Rapprochement?

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. -II Peter 1.3-4

The above passage is the locus classicus for many a Patristic theologian, in regard to articulating a doctrine of theosis vis-à-vis salvation. But typically, this articulation is only reserved for theologians of the ‘Eastern’ persuasion; the Westerners are often left out. Indeed, the primary Latin theologian, the progenitor of all that is holy in the West, St. Augustine himself, is painted as someone who suffered from this lacuna of theosis in his soteriological oeuvre. But as, David Vincent Meconi has iterated: “… Augustine far outpaces any other Latin patristic writer in his use of the technical term deificare and its cognates.”1 Meconi writes further,

Augustine was unique among the Church Fathers in arguing that the human person was the only creature brought into the world incompletely. Whereas the other days of creation receive an “and it was good,” Augustine’s very careful reading of Scripture alerted him to the fact that God does not stamp the sixth day with its own exclusive declaration, “esset bonum,” but instead on the sixth day God overlooks all things together and declares that all things together (cuncta) are very good (cf. Gen 1:31). As such, the day on which humans are created is still incomplete, pointing to something beyond itself. Adam is thus presented as “foreshadowing another something still to come” (Gn. litt. 3.24; CSEL 28.92). This is how Augustine accounts for the divine dynamism inherent in the human soul; although created naturally good, the imago Dei still longs to be like God, and in Adam’s very humanity, how that will be accomplished is foreshadowed.

This desire of a copy to be like its paradigmatic archetype was something Augustine had worked out very early on. In his Solilooquia (386–87) he famously admits to wanting to know nothing more than “God and the soul,” and the two meet in his subsequent discussion on the imago Dei where Augustine cleverly depicts himself [A] talking to reason personified [R]:

R: Does it not seem to you that your image in a mirror wants, in a way, to be you and is false because it is not?

A: That certainly seems so.

R: Do not all pictures and replicas of that kind and all artists’ works of that type strive to be that in whose likeness they are made?

A: I am completely convinced that they do

(sol. 2.9.17; Paffenroth 2000, 72-73; cf. c. Acad. 3.17.39).

This move is essential to understand. Deifying union with God for Augustine is not the abolishing of human nature but its only true fulfillment. The heart is inquietum outside the divine life for which it has been created. Sin depersonalizes and destroys. Growing in likeness with God restores the otherwise fragmented self. “I shudder inasmuch as I am unlike him, yet I am afire with longing because I am like him” . . . . The doctrine of the imago Dei allows Augustine to explain deification as the consummation of all human impulse and agency, the copy’s full share in its model, the final rest for which every human person is created.2

I wanted to point this up because, often, TF Torrance, my homeboy and teacher, is known for his critique of Augustine’s theology, in general, which he identifies with what he calls the Latin Heresy. This heresy, for Torrance, is simply the idea that Augustine suffered too much from his commitment to neo-Platonism, and the inherent dualism (between the eternal and the temporal / the spiritual-material) therein. But in relief, Meconi might help provide a constructive point of rapprochement between Torrance and Augustine; at least when it comes to thinking soteriologically about a God-human relation.

 

1 David Vincent Meconi, S.J., “Augustine’s doctrine of deification,” in David Vincent Meconi, S.J. and Eleonore Stump eds., The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 208.

2 Ibid., 212-13.

Is Southern Baptist ‘Traditionalism’ or Leighton Flowers’ ‘Provisionism’, Semi-Pelagian?: An Engagement with Adam Harwood’s Essay

Is Provisionism or Southern Baptist Traditionalism semi-Pelagian? That is the question Dr. Adam Harwood attempts to answer in the negative. In other words, in a short essay he wrote for the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry he sets out to demonstrate the way that Traditionalism or Leighton Flowers’ Provisionism definitionally elides the oft made charge that their respective soteriological position fits the historic bill of semi-Pelagianism.

I intend on engaging with Harwood’s essay by interrogating each of the sections that make up his total essay, respectively. The first section is entitled: Historical and Theological Definitions of Semi-Pelagianism Which are Contradicted by the Traditional Statement. I will limit myself to engaging solely with what Harwood presents in his essay. In other words, I will not engage with the Traditional Statement (TS) directly; instead, I will engage with the way that Harwood represents the TS in his essay—and trust that he accurately represents his own soteriological tradition accurately.

Harwood writes the following with reference to his thesis:

Shedding a false charge can be difficult. Consider as an example McCarthyism in the 1950s. A person publicly accused of belonging to the Communist Party had difficulty shaking the accusation. “You’re a Communist. Prove you’re not!” How does one disprove such an accusation? Those who affirm “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” (TS) find themselves in a similar situation. Claims have been made that the TS is, or appears to be, semi-Pelagian. This chapter seeks to disprove the charge in four ways. First, historical and theological definitions of semi-Pelagianism will be provided and will be shown to be contradicted by claims in the TS. Second, it will be demonstrated that the theological claims made at the Second Council of Orange (529) fail to indict the TS as unbiblical. Third, the historical-theological context of fifth-century semi-Pelagianism suggests that the historical debate has no connection to the current conversation among Southern Baptists regarding the TS. Fourth, errors will be exposed in an early assessment of the TS. [1]

Here we see the way he will organize the entirety of his essay. To the point of this riposte, we will simply engage with his first section, first, and then proceed, through forthcoming blog posts, to engage with the rest in succession.

His first section is terse and right to the point. He offers examples, from various theological dictionaries, of what semi-Pelagianism is generally understood to be. He then, as a counter, offers quotes from the TS which he claims offers the ‘proof’ that TS (or Provisionism) does not fit the definitional frame of how historic semi-Pelagianism is typically (and universally) characterized. In order to review his argument, I will now share the definitions he appeals to in order to establish the entailments of semi-Pelagianism, and then the quotes from the Southern Baptist Traditional Statement that Harwood believes demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that the TS understanding of salvation does not fall prey to the charge of being semi-Pelagian.

Definitions of Semi-Pelagianism

It “maintained that the first steps towards the Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and that grace supervened only later.” – The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

 It “affirmed that the unaided will performed the initial act of faith” and “the priority of the human will over the grace of God in the initial work of salvation.” – Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 

“The semi-Pelagians claimed that sinners make the first move toward salvation by choosing to repent and believe.” Also, “The semi-Pelagian scheme of salvation thus may be described by the statement ‘I started to come, and God helped me.’” – Integrative Theology

A term which has been used to describe several theories which were thought to imply that the first movement towards God is made by human efforts unaided by grace.” – The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology [2]

And:

Semi-Pelagianism Contradicted by the Traditional Statement

“While no one is even remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, no sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.” – Article 2

 “We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement.” – Article 4

 “God’s gracious call to salvation” is made “by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.” – Article 8 [3]

Harwood engages in a basic category mistake. It is hard to square how he could make this sort of mistake given its forthright nature. In other words, he is equivocating. The ‘definitions of semi-Pelagianism’ he supplies are referring to anthropological dispositioning. That is, semi-Pelagians, as we can infer from the definitions Harwood provides, has to do with the movement of humanity; or it presupposes on a capacity innate within the human agent that would allow them to make a ‘natural’ move towards God.

The responses Harwood offers from the Traditional Statement, that ostensibly counter the charge that Traditionalism is semi-Pelagian, aren’t all that clear; that is in regard to answering the question of whether or not the human agent in salvation has an innate capacity to make a movement towards God. Indeed, this is the abiding question under consideration. What we get in the TS, as offered by Harwood, are statements that ‘appear’ to potentially contradict the definition of semi-Pelagianism; but on closer inspection what they really seem to be communicating is that God has objectively offered a way for salvation. But the question under consideration has to do with an anthropological question, in regard to the internal makeup of the human being vis-à-vis God. Semi-Pelagianism has to do with the human agent’s posture towards God; it doesn’t have to do, per se, with God’s posture (so to speak) towards humanity.

What Harwood remains unclear on, with reference to his deployment of the TS, is whether or not human agents have an innate capacity to be for or against God; that is apart from God’s unilateral activity upon the human agent. In other words, for Harwood, in particular, and the TS, in general, does the grace that comes with the Gospel offer itself internally ‘enable’ the human agent to make a choice for or against God that heretofore it didn’t have prior? In other words, do the ‘Provisionists’ maintain that the human agent in salvation is inborn with all of the ‘equipment’ necessary in order to say yes or no to the Gospel; or does the Gospel itself, in its objective reality, confront the human agent in such a way that the “internals” of the person are given an alien capacity (to its own native or natural capacities; ie freewill etc) that allows them to say yes or no, subjectively, or ontically to the Gospel reality?

Harwood’s brief presentation, in his first section, does not offer clarity on these things. It leaves us wondering if he isn’t equivocating with the terms in order to elide the charge he is attempting to evade; ie semi-Pelagianism. It seems to me that we could posit that the Gospel reality is an objective or alien reality indeed. That person X could be presented with the Gospel, and that person X, even while standing in the presence of the graciousness of the Gospel, is not affected one way or the other, internally, in regard to their capacity to say yes or no to the Gospel. This is what Harwood’s analysis, thus far, is unclear on.

All Christians agree that there is a general call made by the Holy Spirit in regard to the Gospel. But that isn’t the question under consideration. The question remains open and is not answered by Harwood’s comparative analysis. His deployment of the TS does not answer the anthropological question. Instead, it claims to offer an answer by using a theological proper category, which does not directly address the anthropological question about human agency in salvation. It says that, “We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement,” but this, again, only speaks to God’s objective decision to provide salvation through the atoning work of Christ. This doesn’t address the question of ‘how’ this works towards ‘moving’ the human heart towards or away from God.

In this brief engagement, thus far, we are left, at least by my lights, to conclude that Harwood (and Flowers following) has not addressed the all-important question of how the Gospel ‘initiates’ God’s unilateral movement of salvation in the human heart. Harwood’s appeal to the TS only shows what all Christians affirm: viz. That God has provided Himself, in Christ, objectively for the salvation of the world. The TS does not address the subjective impact that that offering has on the human agent in salvation; it only asserts that the Holy Spirit draws, but then does not indicate what in fact that drawing entails. Maybe the remaining sections in Harwood’s essay will address the question his essay set out to answer. We will see.

________________________________________________

[1] Adam Harwood, “Is the Traditional Statement Semi-Pelagian?,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry (Spring 2013), 47-56. 

[2] Ibid., 49

[3] Ibid.

 

Christ Conditioned Assurance of Salvation: Against ‘Conditional Security’ and Synergisms

The following is the concluding summary from my personal chapter for our last book. The title of my chapter is: “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith” Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the “Faith of Christ.” As you can see the body of work prior to this conclusion engaged with John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Thomas Torrance on the issue of assurance of salvation. I offered some constructive critique of Calvin’s insufficiency, stemming directly from his doctrine of predestination; and attempted to correct that with the work of Barth/Torrance. The result, insofar as the correction was successful, were my following summative thoughts on assurance of salvation vis-à-vis a doctrine of predestination qua election/reprobation. I was prompted to share this because I just listened to a podcast where the speakers were attempting to argue for what they call ‘conditional security.’ They both affirm some form of what is more commonly known, in church history, as “semi-Pelagianism” (for better or worse). They both claim to be proponents of synergism vis-a-vis salvation. In other words, they both believe that we must cooperate or work ‘concurrently’ with God in order for final salvation (glorification) to ultimately obtain. They both think of salvation from an abstract frame, meaning their respective views of salvation are not principially grounded in the vicarious (homoousios) humanity of Jesus Christ. As such they place space between humanity and God in Christ in the reconciliatory event that a concrete understanding of a Christ conditioned notion of salvation does not suffer from. As a result of their ‘synergism’ and abstract notion of soteriology vis-à-vis Christology, they arrive at the conclusion that personal salvation is ultimately contingent on the human agent’s drive to maintain relationship with the triune God. As such, for my money, they operate from the very homo incurvatus in se that a Christ conditioned notion of salvation has come to save us from; not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit of the Lord. But it is because of this ‘space’ between the human agent in salvation, and God’s salvation for humanity accomplished in Christ, that these two must think a way to continuously make salvation somehow conditional upon the part ‘they’ play in the salvific event (which for them isn’t an event at all, but a process).

In light of the aforementioned, as already noted, I offer the following as a correction to any sort of synergistic or even so-called ‘semi-Pelagian’ understandings of salvation wherein Christ himself isn’t salvation for all humanity, in his vicarious humanity, which indeed is archetype humanity for all. Indeed, he isn’t called the ‘second Adam’ for nothing.

Having surveyed Calvin’s, Barth’s, and Torrance’s respective doctrines of union with Christ and vicarious humanity, it remains to offer a constructive retrieval of their theology and apply this directly to a doctrine of assurance. We will see how Calvin’s belief that “assurance is of the essence of faith” might be affirmed, particularly as we tease out Barth’s and Torrance’s thinking on the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

    1. Calvin was onto something profound, and this is why Evangelical Calvinists gravitate towards his belief that “assurance is of the essence of faith.” That notwithstanding, as we developed previously, Calvin’s lack of place for reprobation in his soteriology coupled with the idea of “temporary faith” can be problematic. It has the potential to cause serious anxiety for anyone struggling with whether or not they are truly one of God’s elect. In this frame someone can look and sound like a Christian, but in the end might just be someone who has a “temporary” or “ineffectual faith.” The problem for Calvin, as with the tradition he is representing, is that the focus of election is not first on Jesus Christ, but instead it is upon individuals. Even though, as we have seen, Calvin does have some valuable things to say in regard to a theology of union with Christ, if we simply stayed with his doctrine of election and eternal decrees, we would always find assurance of salvation elusive.
    2. Despite what is lacking in Calvin’s superstructure he nevertheless was able to offer some brilliant trajectories for the development of a doctrine of assurance. Union with Christ and the duplex gratia in Calvin’s theology provide a focus on salvation that sees salvation extra nos (outside of us), and consequently as an objective reality that Grow—“Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith” 53 is not contingent upon us, but solely contingent on the person and achievements of Jesus Christ for us. This is where assurance can be developed from Calvin’s theology in a constructive manner. If salvation is not predicated upon my faith or by my works, but instead is a predicate of Jesus’ faith and faithfulness, then there is no longer space for anyone to look but to Christ. As we have already noted, Calvin did not necessarily press into the idea of Jesus’ faith for us, but that could be an implication in an inchoate way within Calvin’s thought. Calvin provides hope for weary and seeking souls because of his doctrines of union with Christ and the duplex gratia; primarily because what these doctrines say is that all aspects of salvation have been accomplished by Jesus Christ (namely here, justification and sanctification). Calvin’s theology, when we simply look at his theology of union with Christ and grace, leaves no space for seekers to look anywhere else but to Christ for assurance of salvation. And at this level Calvin can truly say that “assurance is the essence of faith.”
    3. As we moved from Calvin to Barth and Torrance what we have are the theological resources required for a robust doctrine of assurance. With Barth and Torrance we certainly have Calvin’s emphases on union with Christ and grace, as Christ is understood as the objective (and subjective) ground of salvation. But moving beyond this we have Calvin’s weaknesses corrected when it comes to a doctrine of election. Because Barth and Torrance see Jesus as both elect and reprobate simultaneously in his vicarious humanity for all of humanity, there is absolutely no space for anxiety in the life of the seeker of assurance. Since, for Barth and Torrance, there is no such thing as “temporary faith,” since faith, from their perspective, is the “faith of Christ” (pistis Christou) for all of humanity, there is no room for the elect to attempt to prove that they have a genuine saving faith, since the only saving faith is Christ’s “for us and our salvation.” Further, since there is no hidden or secret decree where the reprobate can be relegated, since God’s choice is on full display in Jesus Christ— with “no decree behind the back of Jesus”—the seeker of assurance does not have to wonder whether or not God is for them or not; the fact and act of the incarnation itself already says explicitly that God is for the elect and not against them.
    4. If there is no such thing as elect and reprobate individuals, if God in Christ gave his life for all of humanity in his own elect humanity, if there is no such thing as temporary faith, if Christ’s faith for us is representative of the only type of saving faith there is; then Christ is all consuming, as such he is God’s assurance of salvation for all of humanity. The moment someone starts to wonder if they are elect, properly understood, the only place that person can look is to Jesus. There is no abstract concept of salvation; Jesus Christ is salvation, and assurance of salvation and any lingering questions associated with that have no space other than to look at Jesus. The moment someone gets caught up in anxious thoughts and behavior associated with assurance, is the moment that person has ceased thinking about salvation in, by, and for Christ. Anxiety about salvation, about whether or not I am elect only comes from a faulty doctrine of election which, as we have seen, is in reality the result of a faulty Christology. We only have salvation with God in Christ because of what Jesus Christ did for us by the grace of God; as such our only hope is to be in union with Christ, and participate in what Calvin called the “double grace” of God’s life for us. It is this reality that quenches any fears about whether or not I am genuinely elect; because it places the total burden of that question on what God has done for us, including having faith for us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

Do Humans Have Freewill?: What it Means to Be Free in Christ the King’s Economy Before God

31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. –John 8:31-36

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sinBut if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. –Romans 8:5-8

Discussions surrounding freewill in human agency abound; whether that be between Calvinism and Arminianism, or in the secular world and philosophy in regard to ethics and moral culpability. But is this really how so called “freewill” operates in a genuinely Christian Dogmatic frame? Augustine, even Luther believed that humans have freewill, but that because of the greater loves supervening in the fallen heart’s life, humans, apart from the Spirit of the LORD, will always choose those things that serve themselves; serves their greater appetites and loves that start and end in an incurved self (homo in se incurvatus).

But really, is this what human “freedom” entails? One would think that what and who a human is, purposively, would determine and shape what in fact so called freedom entails. In other words, if human beings’ ultimate teleology or purpose was always already to be in a conciliatory relationship with the Triune God wouldn’t what it means to be free mean to be free for God? I contend that this is indeed what it means to be humanly free; i.e. free for God. I believe that this is what Jesus and the Apostle Paul were referring to when they thought of “freedom”; to be free from our incurved and broken selves (which is the dehumanizing factor), and to be open and genuinely free for the living God—to be able to live in his type of freedom (the only actual ontology of freedom available) as we participate in and from his life through the mediated eternal life in Jesus Christ.

John Webster gets at these things as he discussing what human freedom entails within the rubric of Divine Providence. He writes:

God’s governance secures the creature’s freedom. If this fails to commend itself, it is because it contravenes a destructive convention according to which true freedom is indeterminacy and absolute spontaneity or it is nothing at all. To say that is to deny creatureliness. Freedom is existence in accordance with created nature and towards created ends, not self-authorship or aseity. This means that freedom is reception, but not passivity – that is permission and summons, but not spoken by me, but to me by God. ‘God is the abiding cause of man’s being a cause able to determine the character of his existence.’ The free person fulfils her self by perfecting a given nature. That perfecting is the work of providence which does not constrain but fulfils the creature’s self-determination, because, in Aquinas’s terms, God’s providence moves the creature’s will ‘as he influences it interiorly’ (interius eam inclinando). Can a moved will be free? Yes, because ‘to be moved voluntarily is to be moved of one’s own accord, i.e. from a resource within. That inner resource, however, may derive from some other, outward source. In this sense, there is no contradiction between being moved of one’s own accord and being moved by another’. If we are to see that Aquinas’s argument is evangelically well-judged, we need to grasp that divine providential acts are not simple compulsion (the archer sending the arrow) but rather intrinsic to the creature whom God moves, what Aquinas calls ‘natural necessity’, in which the creature is activated and not diminished. And to see this we also need to see that – as that astute reader of Aquinas, Turretin, puts it at the beginning of the modern period, ‘The fount of error is the measuring of the nature of liberty from equilibrium and making indifference essential to it. Liberty must be defined by willingness and spontaneity.’

This points us to how, in the light of the gospel, providence dignifies creatures. As with creaturely freedom, so with creaturely dignity: it does not consist only in being agens seipsum, one’s own director. To be moved by divine government is not to be beaten, but to be moved to act.[1]

Webster’s insights, particularly as he gleans those from Aquinas, can easily get us into discussions revolving around what has been called compatibilism, libertarian free agency, Molinism, synchronic contingency etc. But let’s not get lost in that patch.

The basic point I am wanting to reiterate is that in the Kingdom of God in Christ—in other words, in “really real reality”—what it means to be ‘free’ for human beings is to be free for the Triune God. Webster, via Aquinas, notes the role that teleology and purposiveness as regnant realities have for what being human coram Deo means vis-à-vis a conception of freedom. To be free, in an ultimate and even basic sense, for the creature in God’s economy (which is the only real economy around) is to be free for God. Living in and from his freedom, the type that grounded and grounds his choice to be for us and not against us, the type that grounded and grounds his choice to create and recreate in the resurrection is the only real freedom there is. Thus, for the human, what it means to actually be free and to have free-choice, is what it looks like for God as that is derived through our participation in his life in and through Christ.

And the last point I just iterated needs to be pressed; Webster doesn’t press it in the quote I provide from him, and he has certain antinomy towards it more broadly when it comes to speaking about moral human free agency. That is: we need to ground what it means to be human in the archetypal humanity of Jesus Christ for us. If we don’t we will be prone to think humanity from discoverable (versus revealed) traits and resonances that we think we can discern by reflection upon human experience and circumstance in the profane and mundane world. We need a robust doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ to regulate our theological anthropology if we are going to have a proper understanding of not only what it means to be human coram Deo, but what it subsequently means to be free before God in accord with our given natures as human beings.

 

[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), 139.

Miscellanies on How the Order of a Doctrine of Election Affects the Pyromaniacs and The Gospel Coalition

The Gospel is Kingdom initiating, Kingdom grounding; indeed it could be said that the Gospel is the disruptive orientation of the original creation’s ultimate purpose as that is realized in the re-creation of God in Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead. As David Fergusson has written, “the world was made so that Christ might be born;” this adage captures well the inherent value or the inner reality that the creation itself has. It is one born only in and from God’s reality to graciously be for the world and to do so in himself, in the Son, by the Spirit and thus to pretend as if the Triune reality is not the ground and grammar of ALL of reality—inclusive of morality—is to reduce the Gospel to a pietist individualism that only has to do with me and my salvation/me and my eternal destiny. While personal salvation, its appropriation, is very important, it is grounded more objectively and universally in the reality of redemption that God in Christ has proffered for all of creation, with Jesus being its crowning reality and jewel. In other words, the cosmic reality of salvation, grounded in the humanity and divinity (an/enhypostasis) of the eternal Logos become flesh, Jesus Christ, encompasses all aspects of created reality. It is not simply a matter of sufficiency but of efficacy; in other words, in the Kingdom, in the recreation there is not a delimitation of that to particular parts (i.e. classic election/reprobation) of the creation; no, the Kingdom of God in Christ (which is given reality in the Gospel which is embodied and lived in the Christ) is a macrocosmic reality (Rom. 8.18ff) that indeed disruptively impacts individuals who are willing, by the Holy Spirit’s wooing, to participate in this new created reality in and through the priestly-vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. This is why when people like Phil Johnson want to attempt to reduce the Gospel reality to its more individualistic provenance they end up critiquing work like The Gospel Coalition is engaging in as it sees the whole of reality implicated by the Kingdom Gospel; he fails to recognize that the Gospel is about a broader work and doctrine of creation/recreation than it simply being about ‘fire-insurance’ for an elect group of people elevated over and against the rest of creation (what TF Torrance identifies as ‘The Latin Heresy’ or an inherent dualism that comes to pass when we start denominating parts of creation from the mass of the creation). In this vein note what Johnson recently wrote in critique of The Gospel Coalition and its engagement with popular culture:

The “gospel-centered” movement that many of us were so enthusiastic for just one decade ago has gone with the drift. The Gospel Coalition has for some time now shown a pattern of embracing whatever new moral issue or political cause is currently popular in Western culture by arguing that this, too, is a legitimate “gospel issue.” They are by no means alone in this. Everything from the latest Marvel movie to gun control legislation has been deemed a “gospel issue” by some savvy evangelical writer at one or more of the most heavily trafficked evangelical websites. But if everything is supposedly a gospel issue, the expression “gospel-centered” is rendered meaningless.

As I said in a Tweet earlier today, we must not abandon the focused simplicity of Luke 24:46-47 in favor of a social gospel that encompasses a large complex of racial, economic, and political issues. Every denomination, every educational institution, and every church that has ever made that error has seen a quick demise. I for one don’t intend to watch in silence while the current generation repeats that mistake.[1]

In response to this I have read others on Twitter raise the question of sufficiency; in other words, is Scripture itself sufficient in responding to race or human sexuality questions, or in Scripture’s overt silence on these things are we able and responsible to turn to other resources—latent within God’s good creation (i.e. common grace)—to seek responses to the ills that the fallen world presents us with in an attempt to ultimately point people to the ultimate sufficiency of the living God as that is provided for in Jesus Christ? So the response seems to be: not all things are intensively or directly related to the narrower message of the Gospel, instead they are related but only in an extensive or indirect matter which allows for and even calls for Christian thinkers to respond to questions not explicitly spoken to in Scripture in such a way that honors the general reality of the Gospel; and within that space has freedom to address issues that might not otherwise seem to have to do with the Gospel in any meaningful sense, but in fact are Gospel issues insofar as they are indirectly impacted by the ultimate reality of it (in other words: natural law, or a natural ethic is going to be appealed to—something that in this line of thinking does not undercut the sufficiency of Scripture to speak to what it intends to speak to, but in fact works in a complementary way to Scripture with the a priori recognition that all of creation belongs to God and is within the realm of his Providential care, governance, and sustenance).

There is a certain irony to these views (Johnson’s and Twitter’s). Both of these approaches share a similar doctrine of creation, theologically/soteriologically. They both share a particular view on the sufficiency of the Gospel and Scripture, but apply that differently (because of broader hermeneutical differences). They denominate parts of creation out from the greater mass of creation, believing that one part is the elect of God while the rest is damned. Johnson focuses on the elect part of creation, but dispensationally neglecting the whole of creation, while the other side also focuses on the elect part of creation, but they see that as the seed that ultimately cashes out in the new creation; they place election into a cosmic understanding of salvation and Providence while Johnson places election into an individualistic and pietist understanding of salvation wherein what ultimately matters is not this creation simpliciter, but the legal salvation of an elect people from an eternal hell. The irony is that they share some overlapping soteriological assumptions, in regard to election, but where that doctrine is placed in their respective theologies cashes out differently in the way that they see the Gospel itself implicating the whole of creation. The Twitter-view works from a cosmic doctrine of salvation, while the Johnson view works from a pietistic, individualist understanding of salvation that is discontinuous from creation as a cosmic reality. The difference in the end is that the Twitter view is Covenantal while the Johnson view is Dispensational. The Twitter view reflects a historic confessionally Reformed perspective, while the Johnson view reflects his Calvinist-lite perspective which is the reduction of Reformed theology to the so called five-points.

Just take this post for what it’s worth. I was going to totally go in another direction and refer us to Oliver O’Dononvan and Philip Ziegler (and apocalyptic theology), but the above is what came out instead. It’s just me thinking out loud. But I think there might be something to my theoretical meanderings. And I only think this is a worthwhile exercise because I think it illustrates a substantial theological polarity that is present within the so called Reformed world. I’ll want to return to how I opened this post up, and get into the relationship of the Gospel and the Kingdom within an Apocalyptic Theology and how I think that informs discussions like these.

[1] Phil Johnson, The Root of the Matter, accessed 05-28-2018.

Using Apocalyptic Theology to ‘Re-fund’ the Doctrine of Total Depravity with the Hope of ‘De-funding’ the Pelagian-Impulse in the Christian Church

I don’t have any quotes from someone else in this post; I simply wanted to state something very briefly. Many of my posts are in critique of what I have called classical Calvinism, which is a designation I use to classify the dominant form (in its reception) of ‘Reformed theology’ or Calvinism in its common expressions in the 21st century west (whether that be an elaborate form of federal theology, or a reduced form of five-pointism). That notwithstanding, Evangelical Calvinism, as myself and Myk Habets articulate it (and in this post I am really just speaking for myself) have a strong doctrine of total depravity. That is, we believe that at a moral/spiritual level, theological-anthropologically, there is nothing in humanity but a homo incurvatus in se (human incurved upon themselves); a very Augustinian concept, or more pointedly, I’d argue, Pauline. It is at this point that Evangelical Calvinists can lock-arms with their classical Calvinist cousins; yet, I’d argue, that in many cases this is only in principle (de jure). The intention of articulating a doctrine of total depravity is to take away any sort of Pelagian notion that within humanity there is a neutral spot, a point of contact that remains lively between God and humanity; a point of contact that is not contingent upon God’s choice to be for humanity, but instead upon humanity’s choice to be or not to be for God. We see this principle, the ‘Pelagian-principle’ rearing its head over and over again through the history of interpretation in the church. Whether that be in Pelagius himself, John Cassian following, the Roman Catholic church with its teaching on created and cooperative grace, certain iterations of Reformed federal theology that have a doctrine of preparationism (quid pro quo contractual conception of salvation), or what have you. I contend that this impulse, this Pelagianizing impulse remains a pernicious devil that wants to remain present at all costs; and as such through many forms of sophistication and subtleties we do indeed see it remaining, even in various iterations (significant ones) of so called Christian theology.

As a proponent of what has come to be called ‘Apocalyptic theology’ I think that theology, which I take ultimately to be heavenly and Pauline, has the realistic resources to counter this Pelagian-impulse; in the sense that apocalyptic theology takes seriously the radicality required in order to deal with the human-inspired desire to continuously inject itself into the realm that alone belongs to God. Apocalyptic theology ultimately recognizes that creation is in such a dire place of irreconciliation with God that its only hope is if God breaks into his creation in Jesus Christ, puts it to death, resurrects and recreates such that creation itself only has hope if it lives from this new creation whose name is Jesus Christ. Apocalyptic theology sees nothing of value left in the old creation (in the sense of a moral component left in humanity before God), and by consequent, Pelagianism, and all its Genesis 3.15ish iterations go the way of the ‘stony ground.’ Humanity, soteriologically, only has hope as it lives from the reality of the new creation, from the new humanity in Jesus Christ; the humanity whose reality is only realized by the person of the eternal Logos, the Son of God, who we now know as Jesus Christ (an/enhypostasis).

We need to constantly repent and live from Christ. Total depravity recognizes the dangers of presuming a place in humanity that has spark for God apart from God’s intervention in Christ. Sometimes people who are proponents of total depravity in word, in deed end up undercutting the intention of total depravity by offering theological models and constructs that end up re-inserting the very premises that total depravity was intended to guard against (think of ‘created grace’ for example).

The AChristological Focus of Covenant Theology: A Note on What in Fact is Being Retrieved in the Reformed ‘Resurgence’

The ‘resurgence’ of Reformed theology in the conservative evangelical sub-culture and beyond continues, but what is being retrieved in this recovery of the so called ‘doctrines of grace?’ In this post I wanted to briefly highlight an emphasis, or lack thereof, that is present in the style of Reformed theology that is currently being recovered. It might be argued that the English and American Puritan forms of Reformed theology represent a type of flowering or blossoming of the Post Reformed orthodox theology that developed most formidably in the 16th and 17th centuries; indeed we see an organic overlap between these developments, something of the theoretical/doctrinal (i.e. ‘school theology’) moving to the applied practical outworking in the Puritan experiment. It is this period that is being looked to as the resource that is supposed to revitalize and reorient the wayward evangelical churches of the 21st century. But again, I ask, what in fact is being recovered; what is present, theologically, by way of emphasis that is informing the reconstructive work being done by the theologians presently involved in this effort?

Janice Knight in her book Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism offers some helpful insight on the role that reception of William Ames’s form of Puritanism, his ‘Intellectual’ style, had in regard to shaping what we even now are seeing in the recovery of Federal or Covenantal theology. What you will note, and this has been the source of my own critique, along with others of Federal theology, is the lack of focus on the personal Christ, with an alternative focus, instead, on a legal contract (Divine Pactum) and its conditions. You will notice, through Knight’s analysis, that Christ is seen more as an instrument of meeting the conditions of the covenant (of works/grace). Knight writes at length:

Students of the period have long regarded this preference for the functional rather than the personal Christ as characteristic of all Puritan preachers. John Eusden, for example, draws a sharp distinction between Lutheran and Reformed christology, arguing that Luther’s emphasis on the mystery of incarnation was never of crucial importance to English divines: “The Christocentrism of Martin Luther is not shared by most English Puritans . . . The incarnation . . . was not a mystery in which man should lose himself.” A chorus of scholars has echoed this conclusion, arguing that Puritans “minimized the role of the Savior in their glorification of the sovereignty of the Father.” Their means was to focus on the ascended Christ and their purpose was “as far as mortals could” to emphasize the distance between heaven and earth.” The only bridge was the contractual covenant, not the personal Christ.

This argument is confirmed by the structure as well as the content of the Marrow. The person and life of Christ are only briefly treated, and again in language that is figurally abstract. Christ as agent of the covenant assumes center stage in the Marrow. This emphasis on Christ’s legal function effectively forces Ames’s discussion away from godly essence and toward divine omnipotence.

Ames’s real interest is indeed the efficiency or the “working power of God by which he works all things in all things.” Other aspects of God’s nature are subordinated to this application of power. “the meaning both of the essence of God and of his subsistence shines forth in his efficiency.” In this somewhat surprising move, Ames collapses distinctions he had been careful to establish: “The power of God, considered as simple power, is plainly identical with his sufficiency.” In these statements Ames shifts the focus of divinity from a mediation on the being of God (esse) to his performance (operati) in the world—from God’s nature ad intra to his being ad extra.

This stress on the exercise of power is inscribed in the works of Ames’s disciples as well. Again, the caveat obtains: while they celebrated the beauty of Christ and the blessings of grace, on balance preachers like Hooker, Shepard, and Bulkeley focused on the functional application not the indwelling of Christ. It is not God as he is in himself, but as he deals with the sinner that engages them—God as exacting lord, implacable judge, or demanding covenanter. God is imagined as the creditor who will “have the utmost farthering” due him, or the landlord pressing his claim. Repeatedly, Hooker refers to Christ as “Lord Jesus,” or “Lord Christ”—terms which are found with far less frequency in the writings of Sibbes and Cotton. To be sure, this is a loving God, but he is also a “dreadful enemy,” an “all-seeing, terrible Judge,” a consuming infinite fire” of wrath.

And when these preachers use familial tropes to describe God’s dealings, they often warn that loving fathers are also harsh disciplinarians; there is “no greater sign of God’s wrath than for the Lord to give thee thy swing as a father never looks after a desperate son, but lets him run where he pleases.” Though God is merciful, if is a mercy with measure, “it is to a very few . . . it is a thousand to one if ever . . . [one] escape this wrath to come.” Such restriction of the saving remnant is of course an axiom of Reformed faith, but one that Sibbes rarely stressed. On the other hand, Hooker and Shepard’s God often acts by “an holy kind of violence,” holding sinners over the flames or plucking them from sin at his pleasure. This God wounds humankind, hammers and humbles the heart until it is broken.

Divine sovereignty also animates Hooker’s description of conversion as royal conquest and dominion: Christ is like “the King [who] taketh the Soveraigne command of the place where he is, and if there be any guests there they must be gone, and resigne up all the house to him: so the Lord Jesus comes to take soveraigne possession of the soule.” With sins banished and the heart pledged to a new master, the saint begins the long journey of sanctification. This repetition of the language of lordship insists not only on the centrality of domination in conversion but in the general tenor of human/divine relations—abjection replaces the melted heart so often imagined by Cotton and Sibbes.[1]

This helps summarize what I have been writing on for many years; writing against in fact! It is this harsh version of ‘Calvinism’ that became orthodoxy in New England and North America at large; it is this version of Reformed theology that is currently being retrieved for purposes of revitalization for the evangelical churches in North America and elsewhere. But we see the emphasis that is being imported into the evangelical church world; an emphasis wherein Jesus Christ is underemphasized as the centrum of salvation, instead instrumentalized as the organ that keeps the heart of Federal theology pumping.

The concern, at least mine, is that pew sitters sitting under such ‘recovery’ are getting this type of theology; one where Jesus Christ is not the center, instead the contract, the covenant of works/grace is. The emphasis of salvation, and the correlating spirituality present in this framework does not provide the type of existential contact with the living God that there ought to be; at least according to Scripture. We see Knight mention folks like Richard Sibbes and John Cotton; they offered an alternative focus juxtaposed with what we just surveyed. They offer an emphasis upon God’s triune love, and his winsome character; they focus on God in Christ as the Bridegroom and we the Bride. Evangelical Calvinists, like me, work within the Sibbesian emphasis, albeit informed further by folks like Karl Barth’s and Thomas Torrance’s theological loci. I invite you to the genuinely evangelical focus we are offering by seeing Christ as the center of all reality, in particular salvation, and within this emphasis we might experience what it is to have a participatory relationship with the living God mediated through the second person of the trinity, enfleshed, Jesus Christ.

 

[1] Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994), 77-8.

*Artwork: Gwen Meharg, He Will Not Snuff Out!accessed 05-09-2018.

UnBelief in God is Not an Intellectual but Instead a Moral-Heart Issue Before God

I wanted to reiterate something I wrote on Facebook, I think it was yesterday. Here’s what I wrote: I will never believe that unbelief in the living God is an intellectual problem, it’s a moral/heart problem. People might say they are wired in more rationalist or analytical modes, and thus imply that if their intellect could be satisfied they’d believe in Jesus, but that’s a self-deluded self-aggrandizing bluff; maybe one they believe is real, but a bluff nonetheless. The reality is that the human heart wants to live a life of self-induced peace untrammeled by the invading and captivating love of God. The human heart wants to live unto its own desires and passions, and thus will invent any means necessary to explain away God’s ferocious love; explain away God’s indicative of a life defined by the other-in-relation; a life that is not self-absorbed. The human heart, captivated by its own self-affection, incurved upon itself to the bitter end, cannot allow for a world where they have been displaced from its center.

I actually received some push back from someone which went this way: ‘I’d be very careful before making grand pronouncements about atheism. After all, there are many varieties of atheism and agnosticism, with a whole range of complex motivations. So there are many for whom belief in God simply doesn’t make sense. Moreover, any moral argument made by Christians in the current climate looks distinctly hollow.’

It is an interesting response, as it doesn’t seemingly engage with what I wrote. What I wrote doesn’t undercut the reality of their being many expression of atheism, agnosticism, relativism, or whatever the form the unbelief takes. I wasn’t making an evangelistic statement, nor attempting to engage in public relations with the world, nor was I making an argument based on morality to attempt to persuade an atheist, agnostic, or neo-gnostic to ‘come to Jesus.’ Instead, my statement, as I took it, is inspired by Scripture. I was indeed thinking of someone I’ve had recent contact with in real life who is agnostic, maybe atheist. And so with that motivation I was reflecting on the mood that Scripture takes when thinking about unbelievers; people who reject God. In the tradition someone like Augustine might intone that it is because of concupiscence or ‘self-love’—what we see funding something like Luther’s ‘bondage of the will’—that people, at an anthropological level continue to reject God (at an “essential” level). And Scripturally in John 3 we see Jesus teaching that people reject God ‘because they love the darkness rather than the light’; again, the implication is that people for inexplicable reasons (apart from recognition of the ‘fall’) love themselves, love the darkness they have been born into rather than the light.

Sure, we can come up with real life reasons, existential reasons, why people reject God. The holocaust comes to mind, dealing with a terminal illness, dealing with the ongoing famines and wars that plague the world, so on and so forth. We can also attempt to sophisticate this issue to the point that it is reduced not to a heart issue before and with God, but to an intellectual problem; which is what the interlocutor is suggesting (i.e. “So there are many for whom belief in God simply doesn’t make sense.”). My point, behind the interlocutor’s suggestion, is that the reason belief in God ‘doesn’t make sense’ is because they have a prior and overriding commitment to themselves (homo incurvatus in se); they have a greater affection for themselves than they do for others or God, and as such they can’t imagine a world where they aren’t ultimately the center, even if they are the greatest philanthropist this world has ever seen. This is why I see unbelief as a moral issue. I could cite other points from Scripture; think of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John, he tells the Pharisees and religious teachers that they can’t believe because they seek the praise of men rather than God. The question is why do they have this proclivity and how does that lend itself to their continued state of unbelief? I think part of what I have been asserting helps to answer that question; i.e. the issue according to Holy Scripture (and not my opinion) is that we have ‘wicked and deceived hearts’ (Jer. 17.9). Can we refer to surface experiences, even deep and real experiences of existential import that represent real and significant issues for people towards belief in God in Christ? Yes! But at base, no matter what the experiences of people, I am suggesting that the reason people finally cannot repent and bow the knee to the crucified God is because they love themselves too much; because they live in a bondage they themselves cannot remove themselves from. While this may be controversial in certain circles, I don’t think it is controversial in regard to what the Bible teaches. The Revelator puts the depth of the unbelief in these stark terms:

20 The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. 21 Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts. – Revelation 9.20-21

While there are theodic type reasons people use to continue on within their states of unbelief. Or while there is hypocrisy among believers themselves relative to their profession vis-à-vis their actual practice (morally); I will continue to contend that all of this can be attributed to a heart that loves itself more than it loves God. Whether someone has been awakened to that reality or not, the point remains that the heart, the ‘heart of stone’ is still something to contend with; whether that be among unbelievers or believers. I think Scripture is clear on this, even if sectors of theological culture bristles at it.