The Futility of Theology

I must confess often when I open a theology book— which is a frequent occurrence for me—it has an attendant sense of futility and almost depression. As I am reading a theology book, whether it is one I agree with, or one I am antagonistic toward (in regard to material), I start wondering what sort of value there is in reading just some other theologian’s thoughts; creative and imaginative as they might be, in regard to what they think about a given theological locus. I mean, I’m a Protestant after all, and I’m very committed to a robust theology of the Word and the Reformed Scripture Principle. I think what happens, every now and again, is that I wonder how I can know if what I am engaging with, in a given theology, actually is meaningful. In other words, what standards am I looking for to help me adjudicate whether this or that theologian is actually theologizing in such a way that they are communicating something meaningful? And when I say ‘meaningful’ I mean in the sense that they are thinking from the reality of Godself as Self-revealed in Jesus Christ as attested to throughout the crevices and caverns of Holy Writ. So much of theology, even my own thoughts, seems, well, just ad hoc.

Sure, we can make assertions about our theological methodology as grounded in the Trinity, or we can claim to be working out the implications of the Gospel/Incarnation/Atonement; but are we really? Some will assert that our standard is the rather amorphous regulative reality of catholicity; we see this in theology of retrieval, and in Reformed circles this has come to be called: Reformed catholicity. The theory goes that there is an accessible and identifiable pedigree in classical theology/theism wherein an agreed upon conception of who and what God is is graspable for all Christians who are willing (to so grasp). The theory is that this catholicity can hold all strands of Christians together, and can be used as an ecumenical balm to succor the wandering; at least for those who want to be orthodox. As others have attempted, we can recognize the eschatological nature of Revelation, and thus conclude that our endeavors as theologians will always be relativized, and thus always already proximate to the goal of theologizing that can only ultimately be made consummate in beatific vision and eschatological bliss; as we come to know as we are known. Some people like to press coherence and self-referentially in regard to the theological systems they develop; they use this as the standard for the fruitfulness and viability of their theological work. So we have various ways to sophisticate our work, our theologies (nostra theologia), but are we really, and ultimately saying anything that really matters for the edification of the church; are we really saying anything that actually bears witness to the reality of Holy Scripture in Jesus Christ?

I’ve read lots of theology over the years and I almost always have this nagging feeling attending my reading of theologies. But maybe it’s the devil; maybe he and his minions want to cast a dark cloud over me engaging with realities, broken as they are, that will keep my mind and heart on the living God. Or maybe I give the devil too much credit; maybe it’s God himself who sends this sense of futility as a reminder that even as I keep seeking him there is always more of him to find. In the end I don’t think theology is futile, even if I often feel like it is. Don’t get me wrong, some theologies are exceedingly futile; ha!, this must mean I think there is some sort of regulative standard after all—as far as being able to adjudicate sound from unsound theology.     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God is God, the Basis of Theology: Taking Away Lament and Polemic as Places to Do Theology From {According to John Webster}

I want to offer a quick quote from the late John Webster on how two loci, according to Webster, ought to function (or not) in the practice of systematic theology; I think this has application for living the Christian life in general (which would make sense since for the Christian to live the Christian life is engaging in theology from moment to moment conscious or subconscious). In the context Webster is speaking to the domain or ‘sphere’ wherein theology ought to have voice; he believes it ought to have a public character, indeed as it is the discipline of self-criticizing what it means to live in and from the Gospel. In other words, if theology is the necessary corollary of living in and from the Gospel, and if the Gospel itself is God’s demonstration of love that he is for the whole world and not against it, then theology itself will have a public character to it; insofar as the universal application can be derived from its particular scandalization in and from the God-man, Jesus Christ.

The two loci that Webster lifts up for some constructive criticism, as that has to do with the ‘doing of theology’ are: Lament and Polemic. You’ll notice that Webster sees a healthy place for both of these in theological discourse, but what he warns against is an unhealthy absolutization of either; he warns of their corrosive nature if not held in the proper valence.

A critique of this conception of systematic theology would most properly be undertaken, not in prolegomena, but in the course of material dogmatic exposition, and cannot be pursued at this point. But it worth remarking that the contrariety of the conception of systematic theology explored in what follows ought not to be allowed to generate an enduring posture of lament for a lost dogmatic culture. Lament is fitting on some occasions, but as a permanent attitude it can do damage, breeding intellectual vices such as vanity or pessimism, inhibiting a clear-sighted  view of the situation and drawing theology away from its contemplative vocation. Likewise, polemic arrests and coarsens the mind when allowed to become habitual. What should hold lament and polemic in check is a gospel-derived awareness of the necessary pathos which attends theological work, the roots of which lie in the fact that the world is at enmity with the church and is reluctant to learn about the divine wisdom with which the saints have been entrusted. Yet even a due sense of pathos ought not to overwhelm the tranquil pursuit of theology, made possible and fruitful, not by the capacities of its practitioners or the opportunities afforded by its cultural settings, but by the infinite power of divine goodness shedding  abroad the knowledge of itself. That movement, in its boundless depth and its capacity to overcome the mind’s estrangement from its creator, constitutes the principles of systematic theology.[1]

For Webster theology, by way of order (taxis) has a soteriological location; but prior to that locus is God. If so, in the complex of a holy God confronting an unholy world, and an unholy world attempting to confront a holy God, a theological-valence will occur wherein the giver of life himself succeeds in communicating himself to such a world such that the world can finally come to hear him as he invades its sinful and putrid state recreating space for it to hear his Word just as it is confronted by it (or Him!). Within this setting Webster is calling for sobriety when we might want to tend towards lamenting the apparent loss that the in-roads of theological discourse might be having in the world (i.e. from a pragmatic point of view), or by doubling down into a posture of attack and polemic against an unbelieving world; both postures that are resultants of a desperation that in the light of God, and who he is by way of being and capacity, and who he has become for us in Jesus Christ, should not be. Can there be moments of lament, and moments of polemic when occasions call for such? Yes. But these should not be allowed to become our existential warp and woof as we live our lives in and from the theological grist of God’s reality for us in Christ.

What I take away from this most is that God is God and we are not. We should not lament nor polemicize when God does not require such in his economy of overcoming and reversing the way things might appear to us. So theology, if God is God and we are not, ought to be done from a posture of ‘walking by faith not sight.’ We ought to trust, as Christians, that God is not challenged by the puny sub-capacious ways of this world; God does not need us, we need him, whether we are able or willing to recognize this or not. I fear that the church, particularly certain sectors, and the sub-cultures they foster and construct, live in just the opposite direction of this. If we do theology as if God is God, then it will take on a proper orientation and character. The questions asked will be of the right order and not produced by an inconsolable lament about how things should be, but aren’t; or a by a militant polemic to forcibly make things the way we think they should be, but aren’t. Because God is God theology has an order and reality to it that is not contingent upon us, but instead one that makes us contingent upon it; the reality.

 

[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T&T Clark International, 2012), 135.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Theology: Deus Dixit, God-Has-Spoken Theology Versus Aaron’s Golden-Calf Theology

In Karl Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics he has a whole section titled Deus Dixit (lat. God has spoken). As a section prologue he writes:

Christian preachers dare to speak about God. The permission and requirement to do so can rest only on their adoption of the witness of the prophets and apostles that underlies the church, the witness which is to the effect that God himself has spoken and that for this reason, and with this reference, they too must speak about God. This assumption can arise only because they take it that God’s address is directed to them as well. It means that with fear and trembling they recognize God as the true subject of the biblical witness and their own proclamation.[1]

In Barth’s latterly composed Church Dogmatics I/1 he writes something very similar. Here he is critiquing the theology of his modern period wherein theology, according to Barth et al., had become anthropology; as such theology had become nothing but a cacophony of people talking-to-themselves; something we might see in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest rather than what we would expect to find in the church of Jesus Christ. He writes:

As regards the main concept of proclamation this exegesis stands first in antithesis to Modernist dogmatics. This, too, is acquainted with the function specified but it is not aware of its essential distinctiveness as compared with other functions in the Church—a distinctiveness accrues to it when it rests on a commission to and for men, when as man’s talk about God it has to serve God’s own Word spoken from an ineffaceable antithesis to all humanity. Modernist dogmatics is finally unaware of the fact that in relation to God man has constantly to let something be said to him, has constantly to listen to something, which he constantly does not know and which in no circumstances and in no sense can he say to himself. Modernist dogmatics hears man answer when no one has called him. It hears him speak with himself. For it, therefore, proclamation is a necessary expression of the life of the human community known as the “Church,” an expression in which one man, in the name and for the spiritual advancement of a number of others, drawing from a treasure common to him and to them, offers, for the enrichment of this treasure, an interpretation of his own past and present as a witness to the reality alive in this group of men.[2]

This not only applies as a critique to modern-liberal-hyper-subjectivist theology, but it can be applied, I would contend, to the church (pre-critical) in general. In principle (de jure) when we, as Christians, do Christian theology, we should be committed first and foremost to the idea that we cannot do any type of proclamation, any type of dogmatizing or theologizing, without first attending to the voice of God that has spoken (Deus dixit). As Thomas Torrance has written in reflection on this type of theological reality, and as commentary on Barth’s theology:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[3]

God has spoken in Jesus Christ; he has exegeted himself for us in Jesus Christ: “18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”[4] This is why as Evangelical Calvinists we are committed to what Thomas Torrance calls ‘dialogical theology’, which is of a piece with Barth’s ‘dialectical theology’; the idea being that theology can only be done when a person is confronted by the living voice of God (viva vox Dei) in Jesus Christ. And the confrontation itself, much like Moses’s confrontation by Yahweh in the burning bush, becomes a personal and relationally charged encounter that calls for response—this is the way of Christian theology.

If we apply this to the development of classical theism, as an example of what we could find in the history of ideas of the Christian and ecclesial heritage, what happens? What happens to the doing of theology that is principially shaped by the idea that we cannot do theology, that we cannot construct categories, that we cannot create trajectories or emphases, prior to encountering the living God in Christ? It seems to me that the typical philosophical categories—all categories developed pre-encounter-with-God, or outwith such encounter by definition [i.e. since such categories were developed by pagans]—like impassibility, immutability, pure being, pure nature, omni-theology, so on and so forth all become suspect; at the very least. In other words, there seems to be an backwardness to the way Christian theology is usually done; even in the history.

Be that as it may, nevertheless, the theological heritage is there. Has it really been engaged in in such a way that it genuinely has been done only after God has spoken; or has it been artificialized to the point that we have brought so many pre-God-has-spoken categories to help us grammarize God that we have ended up with a sacred-monster rather than a sacred God? These are the ongoing questions I continue to struggle with. I am not an advocate for primitivism, or restorationism, or for the idea that there was a golden-age in church history (i.e. the first century N.T. church) wherein a theology genuinely done only after-God-has-spoken can be found. I do believe that the remnant of ideas scattered throughout church history represent a good faith effort wherein the people of God, and “mind of the church” has sought to provide right doctrine (orthodox) for the church. But I remain unsatisfied, in many ways, that what counts as THE orthodox heritage has adequately provided THE proximate witness to who God actually is (like in static ways). In other words, there is still work to be done; a work that is always attempting to reach that high goal of doing a theology only after-God-has-spoken. I do think much of church history has lost her way by indulging herself on the spoils she has rummaged from Egypt, by slurping from the muddy waters offered by the metaphysicians. If Jesus Christ (as he was for St. Athanasius et al.) is not genuinely regulative for the theological task, then in what way can it be said that the church is actually doing theology, is doing proclamation, is doing preaching that is done after-God-has-spoken? If the church is coming to God with a bunch of gold and silver skimmed from the gentiles, offering it up as worth-ship to him, saying it best represents him; I wonder in what way this differs from Aaron’s Golden-Calf? Are we not prone to wander? Doesn’t the Protestant Reformation itself (the need for it) attest to the reality that God’s people can wander; even for the centuries?

[1] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Instruction on the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 43.

[2] Karl Barth, CD I/1, 58.

[3] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

[4] John 1.18, NRSV.

Why Can’t I Just Read the Bible to Know Who God Is? Identifying the Modern Impact on Evangelicals and a Tentative Way Forward

Following up on the last post, let’s continue to think about how things have been conceived of in the history of the church’s thinking, and how things have potentially changed. When I write ‘potentially’ I use this passive to signal the push back I am anticipating to this particular post; I will attempt, throughout, to redirect some of the concerns that might arise in regard to the content I will be referring to in order to make my own peculiar point (cryptic enough yet?).

I am somewhere in-between on the spectrum that is between what we might call pre-modern and modern theology; my sensibilities tend heavily toward modern modes, but in such a way that I want to resource and retrieve the past for the 21st century church (and for myself). In my last post I decried the impact that synthesizing Aristotelian philosophy has had upon the development and grammarization of an ostensibly orthodox doctrine of God; but I didn’t provide any real alternatives. The content often shared here on The Evangelical Calvinist, and in our two edited books does get into alternative ways of developing a doctrine of God in conversation with the past categories. But in some ways I want to be more radical, yet still retaining my evangelical and Reformed identity; I want to be a theologian who is genuinely always reforming as that is dictated by dialogue with the living Word of God on an ongoing basis. I want to hold onto what George Hunsinger has called the ‘Chalcedonian Pattern’ in reference to Barth’s appropriation and engagement with the past, and allow that pattern to regulate the way forward—so recognizing that God has indeed spoken in the past, but under the realization that he continues to speak. This is my conviction: that God is not done with his church yet, and so I am unwilling to give certain periods of church history a sacrosanct status; in other words, I am unwilling to give the 16th and 17th centuries in the development of Protestant theology the type of end all status that I’d say 90% (or more) of conservative evangelical theologians are currently giving it today. Further, it is important to understand this (about me): I don’t ultimately see myself as a Reformed Catholic; if anything I see myself as a catholic Reforming. In other words, I am a Protestant. This means that, in principle, I go to Holy Scripture as my primary authority (not ecclesial tradition); and I realize that the Bible itself is not the end, but only the ground upon which I come into encounter with the living Word of God who stands behind Scripture giving it its telos or purpose or meaning.

So what’s an alternative way forward to thinking God? Answering this question becomes more challenging. Not because I don’t have my thoughts on this, but because the moment I share what I am about to share people will immediately read me into a particular category, read all the stereotypes of that category onto me, and then wash their hands of me and move on. How do I know people will do this? Because I’ve done it myself. All of that notwithstanding, let me share, indeed, an alternative way forward. What I am going to share is simply to register relative ways forward, not necessarily absolute; but I think it is something to be considered and reckoned with. The author I am sharing draws out certain conclusions about why he thinks modern theology has become a requirement, simply because of the developments of ideas in the history. I am more free-floating than that, and don’t think his conclusions are fully justified or necessarily able to be periodized in the way he wants to. In other words, I think the inclinations he ties fully into modern developments were in fact present at least as far back as the Nominalist medieval times. David Congdon writes of the shift that took place from doing premodern theology to modern theology this way (this will be a lengthier than normal quote):

What is the condition of possibility for a modern theology? In pursuing this question, we are not asking what it is that makes a theology modern as opposed to, say, premodern? We are rather asking, in typical transcendental form: Given that there is such a thing as modern theology, what must be the case in order to make such a theology possible? What must be true about the Christian faith to make sense, for example, of Karl Barth’s “reconstruction of Christian orthodoxy” under the conditions of modernity?[1] At a minimum, an answer to this problem must be that Christianity is intrinsically capable of being reconstructed. But then, what is it about the Christian message, the gospel, that permits, even empowers, this process of reconstruction?[2] How does one carry out this process responsibly?

Assuming that the notion of modern theology is not dismissed outright as oxymoronic—on the basis of the false belief that the conditions for modernity are antithetical to the conditions for Christianity—a typical rejoinder is that this line of inquiry is nevertheless asking about the conditions of possibility for liberal theology, understood as a modern reinterpretation of Christianity.[3] The assumption is that such a theology is beyond the bounds of genuine Christianity. Liberalism is repudiated as an “accommodation” to modernity, which conforms the gospel to an alien context that demands a thorough reconstruction of traditional doctrines.[4] Ironically, at the same time that liberalism is disparaged as an accommodation to modernity, mission is praised as a “contextualization” of the gospel for a particular culture. This presents us with a dilemma: the same logic rejected under the name of liberalism is affirmed under the name of mission. The only discernible difference, it seems, is chronological.[5] Reinterpreting cross- culturally is the gospel; reinterpreting crossculturally over time, apparently, is heresy. Christianity can be reconstructed synchronically but not diachronically. Matters are only made more confusing when we find Paul’s method in 1 Cor 9:19-23 defined as “missionary accommodation.”[6] Where exactly does mission end and the threat of liberalism begin?

The problem represented by the apparent tension between liberalism and mission comes to expression, however obliquely, in Joseph Cahill’s retrospective on Rudolf Bultmann’s legacy. “All forms of liberalism, be they political, social, economic, or religious,” he writes, “are ultimately based on accommodation—accommodating old truths to new realities.”[7] Later in the article, he then situates Bultmann in the context of “missionary efforts at propagating the gospel”:

[Matteo] Ricci’s visit to Nan-ch’angin in 1595, to Nanking in 1597, to Peking in 1601, and [Roberto] de Nobili’s work in India, beginning in 1610, were brief and early flashes across the religious sky—efforts at accommodation to the realistically pluralistic world which have only recently begun to have a permanent effect. The basic question they and their immediate followers raised (now surfacing in serious fashion) was whether or not different styles manifested in varying religious conventions, genres, habits, and linguistic modes of expression could conceal similar religious substances. In his own way, Bultmann raised the same question but confined it to the Bible and “modern man.” Could Christianity, by contact with supposedly alien religions, be subject to creative transformations? Could divergent axial mythologies be modified by deferential encounter? Could the assumed hegemony of one culturally postulated form of claimed transcendence create a common universe of discourse with another form? These questions posed by de Nobili and Ricci were logical extensions of the Bultmannian problematic.[8]

While the notion of “religious substances” is not exactly faithful to Bultmann’s thought, the problematic that Cahill describes certainly is. Unfortunately, he does not go on to thematize the question of mission and accommodation. He instead fleshes out the present cultural situation in terms of a “new axial period,” that is, a period shaped by new convictions, assumptions, and myths that shape one’s self-identity and consciousness. Cahill describes this new age as “dominated by historical consciousness.”[9]

By referring to historical consciousness Cahill draws on themes developed extensively by Bultmann’s contemporaries and students, especially Friedrich Gogarten and Gerhard Ebeling. According to Gogarten, the old metaphysical and teleological interpretation of the world and our existence in it, which understood the world to be the unfolding of an overarching divine plan, was replaced by a historical interpretation:

Just as the contents of a play are established beforehand in the major and minor roles which appear in it, so too the occurrences in this history are predetermined in the “spiritual substances of all hierarchies,” which “are united in the church into a mystical body, which extends from the trinity and the angels that are nearest to the trinity down to the beggar at the church door and to the serf kneeling humbly in the furthest corner of the church to receive the sacrifice of the Mass.” But since history is understood in this way as a kingdom of metaphysical essences or substances, moved teleologically in itself and encompassing the entire world in this teleology, we lose precisely what we understand as the actual occurrence, namely, the living personal experiences of particular individuals in their distinctiveness and responsibility, their historical significance. Their historicity is taken away when history anticipates them by occurring within the framework of metaphysical essences. And it is only because this metaphysical framework contains the life of human beings with all that has happened that they have a part in the history which takes place there.[10]

Modernity is the age in which this metaphysical understanding of history was called radically and irrevocably into question, as indicated paradigmatically by the rise of the historical-critical method. “Only with the collapse of traditional western metaphysics, i.e., with the loss of its self-evident character, did the historicity of existence fully enter into consciousness,” out of which arose “the freedom, but also the absolute necessity, to regard the historical [Historische] in its pure historicalness [Historizität].”[11] No longer was the hierarchical and essentialist “chain of being” taken for granted. No longer was the ecclesiastical tale of our given place in God’s order accepted on faith. It was no longer assumed that the old stories could narrate each person’s identity. For those institutions and ideologies that pend on this authority, new strategies were devised to shore up faith: most notably, Roman Catholics put forward the doctrine of papal infallibility in the early 1870s, while Reformed Protestants formulated the doctrine of biblical inerrancy in the early 1880s. Both sides were able to claim that such views were held long before they were codified in their modern form, and yet it is significant that these doctrines were codified when they were.

This brings us back to our starting question: what is the condition of possibility for a modern theology? To put it another way, what enables theology to address the collapse of traditional metaphysics and the rise of modern historical consciousness while remaining in genuine contact with the kerygmatic content of faith? How is it possible, to use Cahill’s phrase, for Christianity to “be subject to creativetransformations?”[12] The only satisfactory answer to this question is one that understands the logic behind such creative reconstruction as internal to Christianity. Understood appropriately, mission is this logic. It is what makes the transformations of Christian faith possible, insofar as mission is essentially the pursuit of vernacular modes of Christian existence. Mission is the daring venture of theological reconstruction. It articulates the possibility and process of (re)interpreting the faith for a new time and place. The task now, following on Cahill’s suggestive remarks, is to understand this missionary impulse at the heart of Christianity in conjunction with the hermeneutical problem posed by historical consciousness. In order to address the new mission situation of modernity we need a theology, conditioned by historical consciousness, that incorporates this missionary, and thus hermeneutical, logic into its very understanding of the gospel. This brings us to the immediate concern of the present study.[1]

I shared all of that to give you all the broader context from whence Congdon is working from. He has found his way forward, by and large, through the impulses provided for by Rudolf Bultmann; I have not. But what I want to really highlight is how things have shifted from the premodern to the modern; at least as far as the way the world and reality are conceived. Some folks simply reject this reality, but it’s interesting, because these folks, in many ways are simply reading many of the assumptions they were born under (i.e. as modern people) back into the history; as if 16th and 17th century thinkers were reading the Bible under the same lights as we currently do today. In other words, many 21st century evangelicals simply want to pretend like they aren’t “modern” and repristinate the past theological developments as if they aren’t involved in an interpretive process when they do that. I’d rather acknowledge my place as a modern person, and attempt to recognize any good that may have developed as a result of the times we live in and under (or those more close to us like in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries).

What I am really trying to do here is complexify and problematize how things currently stand for evangelicals. I grew up as a conservative evangelical, and in many ways I am still a conservative evangelical (although not of the Trumpian sort). Evangelicals are renowned for their desire to be Biblicists; those impulses are still present within me as well. I think it naïve to think we can read the Bible nakedly (i.e. de nuda scriptura or solo scriptura), but at the same time I want to allow Scripture (within an proper ontology of Scripture relative to its Dogmatic placement in the Domain of God’s life in Christ) to actually speak for itself; i.e. more than I think the metaphysics of the 16th and 17th century Protestant church allows for. The “modern shift” actually, I would argue, is what has ingrained this attitude toward being the type of Biblicists that evangelicals want to be. In other words, I think evangelical Protestants are much more a phenomenon of modernity than they are of the 16th and 17th century Protestant developments. This is not to say that that period (16th and 17th centuries) has no bearing on how evangelicals think about God so on and so forth, but instead it is to identify the type of Biblicist mode that orients the way modern evangelical Protestants look to the past from. It is a mode that is less metaphysical and more existential in orientation (and I’m not sure why that’s an inherently bad thing).

So we have shifted, in some important ways, and along with Congdon I actually think this shift in some ways is inescapable; and I even think there are many things of value as a result of the modern shift. One of the values I see is that we are invited to look more closely at the person and work of Jesus Christ as the lens through which we might construct a knowledge of God. In other words, if in fact we have moved beyond an essentialized universe constructed by a kind of hierarchical interlocked chain of being- from-God-to-all-other-contingent-reality (so Aristotle, Aquinas et al.) then we are no longer to read godness off of the discoverable world (as the philosophers did). We are, as Christians, at that point, fully and absolutely contingent upon God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ in order to know who God is. This is a valuable thing, I think; and it’s a value that someone like Karl Barth not only realized but lived into in his theologizing (and Thomas Torrance benefited greatly from this as well).

This is my tentative way forward. I think what Congdon notes in regard to mission is very important. Missionaries have to learn new languages, become enculturated, and learn the customs of the people groups they come to live with and among. As this process takes place the natural outflow is to begin the process of translation; translation presupposes a stable reality, or a fixed reality that is translatable (i.e. the objective reality of God’s Triune life). This is what I think is required for the 21st century church. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as translating from English to German; as we have been noting, the way reality itself is conceived of in the modern and now postmodern periods is quite distinct from the so called premodern (although we can see antecedents to the modern in Nominalism, and other currents of past times). As a result new categories for thinking reality, and those categories and the pressures they create come to bear upon the way Christians think God. They don’t change who God is, but they change our understanding of God in some important ways; and this is why Congdon was intent on ending what we heard from him by highlighting the importance of hermeneutics.

Yes, conservative evangelical and reformed thinkers can pretend they are not modern and postmodern people, but they are. They can attempt to repristinate the past, and somehow re-enculturate the 21st century with the 16th and 17th centuries as found in Protestant and Catholic Western Europe. But why? Do we really want to allow the BIBLE and its reality to genuinely regulate the way we think God, or would we rather allow the PHILOSOPHERS do that? As it currently stands, I’d say the philosophers are winning the day in the evangelical/reformed world.

I’m not claiming to have an absolute way forward; I’m simply noting a problem that I see in the current way for doing evangelical/reformed theology. I’m not suggesting that we see ourselves as some new breed of latter day saints who think that the church was corrupt in all its teaching up until the “liberation” of the modern period. Instead I am suggesting that we allow some of the goods provided for by the modern period to disentangle God from the onerous baggage that has accrued to his name through the overly-laden philosophical categories imposed upon him. I am asking us to consider some deconstruction when it comes to synthesizing God with metaphysics that end up distorting who he has revealed himself to be (I contend). I am asking us to think that God is actually Love, and really does have passions and emotions, and that these aren’t simply figures of speech. I am asking us to allow Holy Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ to be the standard by which we determine whether or not our conception of God is orthodox, and not bequeath that privilege to the philosophers who supposedly discovered the “God-categories” latent in the universe.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), xvii-xxii.

Chasing the God feeling: How Correct Praise is Orthodoxy, and How Orthodoxy is right Worship

We all want to experience God, at least I do! But since we live in a fallen world experiencing God the right way requires sweat; it requires work. Most people, most Christians I’d venture to say, don’t want to put in the work; they want others to do it for them. They want to be able to go to church, sit down, stand up, raise their hands (if they aren’t Presbyterians or Baptists anyway) and “experience” the warm and fuzzy God feeling. Most Christians don’t want to spend the hard time thinking about, and reading about what the Triunity of God is about; how it developed in the history of the church; or understand how it might shape the very fabric of their identity as coheirs with Christ. But this is all wrong.

If we want to worship God rightly, if we really want to experience and encounter the real and living God we’re going to have to put some time in. If we want more than just chasing after a rush or some feelings once or twice a week, then we’re going to have study. I know, I’m sorry I used the 5-letter word. Now, I realize that most people who read theoblogs aren’t of the type who don’t study and read theology; but I needed to get this off my chest. Dutch theologians Kooi and Brink drive all of this home very well when they write this:

The Greek from which we get the commonly used terms “orthodox” and “orthodoxy” shows us that, strictly speaking, they refer not to correct doctrine but to correct praise. In their origin they refer to the appropriate words and thought patterns for praising God and praying to him, whether by individual believers or in the assemblies of the Christian community. Dogmatics, especially the doctrine of God, is to be regarded as an aid in our worship. Correct doctrine is not a formal system of propositions to which we must give assent but is embedded in our worship. The core of the matter is that we worship the true God, not some kind of idol (honor to whom honor is due!), and that we worship the true God in the right way. The right kind of worship thus demands a right kind of doctrine, an “orthodox” discourse that does justice to the one who is worthy of our praise. It is because of this doxology that we must carefully define our doctrine of God.[1]

This is deeply profound; I love how they tie the lexical reality of “orthodoxy” into the theological reality of doxology and right worship.

Maybe if more Christians understood this, evangelicalism in North America, and elsewhere, wouldn’t currently be imploding. Maybe if leadership and people in the churches took this to heart people who have been in the evangelical church for 30, 40, 50 years would be further along in their knowledge of God than they were on day 1 or 2; or even year 1 or year 5; or whatever. If Christians really want to have a worship service, if they really want to encounter God in some deep and astounding ways then maybe they should crack open a good theology book; and then keep opening them till they have beatific vision one day.

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 129.

Not the Binity But the Trinity: The Holy Spirit’s Place in the Life of God

The Holy Spirit, unless you’re a Pentecostal or Charismatic, is often left in the background somewhere in theological discussion. Never mind that John Calvin has been called the ‘theologian of the Spirit’ or the fact that Colin Gunton made great appeal to the Spirit in his doctrine of creation, or that folks like my friend and Evangelical Calvinist colleague, has edited books devoted to Third Article Theology; the Spirit, in my experience anyway, is often under-referenced in the Reformed circles I have contact with when discussing things theological. And maybe some of this is actually by design: I mean the Holy Spirit’s ministry is to magnify the person and work of Jesus Christ; so He, by His person (hypostasis) stands in the background. As T Torrance was fond of highlighting, the Holy Spirit comes along for us with the coming of the eternal Son in the Incarnation; in other words, the Spirit comes with the Son for us, indeed he paves the way (think of the overshadowing of the waters in Genesis [protology – creation] or the overshadowing of Mary’s womb in Luke [eschatology – recreation]).

The aforementioned noted, the Holy Spirit was given his rightful place in the development of the Trinitarian theology that took was given expression in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. Kooi and Brink highlight this especially well when they write:

The question might be posed as to why, between 325 and 381, the view arose to describe the Spirit too as being of one essence (“consubstantial”) with the Father and the Son. Was that not a little too much of a good thing? Was a binitarian concept that safeguarded Jesus’s divinity not complicated enough? It was precisely in the fourth-century controversy with those who doubted the divinity of the Spirit that it became clear that the Trinitarian concept was not to be relinquished. It was not based just on some Bible texts that linked the Spirit to God; it had much more to do with the pneumatological insight developing in the early church that we human beings do not have the Spirit at our disposal and that we cannot manipulate the Spirit. A spirit that does not issue from God would automatically be on the side of the creatures and open to such manipulation. Nor would such a spirit be able to genuinely connect us with God. We would be left out on our own. Only because the Spirit is radically on God’s side is he able, through the Son, to incorporate us into communion with the Father. However, this work can happen only if the Spirit belongs fully, as a distinct person, to the divine essence. This soteriological insight played a major role in the labors of Athanasius and the Cappadocians and would eventually lead to the confession that the Spirit “is Lord and gives life” and must “be worshiped and glorified together with the Father and the Son” (the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, an expansion of the Nicene Creed; hereafter we will refer to both forms simply as the Nicene Creed).[1]

I like how they highlight that the Holy Spirit indeed is God of God; i.e. that He is indeed a hypostasis within the Godhead (Monarxia), and as such is Lord (cf. II Cor. 3.17). He is not an energy or a spark within humanity, He finds His reality in the eternal relation and coinhering life of the Father, Son, and indeed, the Holy Spirit.

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 94-5.

The Relationship Between Secularization and Christian Theology. Kooi and Brink

The world has been thoroughly secularized at this point; I think it is safe to say that we most certainly live in a post-Christian society, globally. During pre-modern times the way Christian theology developed, because of the overt belief in the Christian God (in the West and in large swaths of the East), in ways that are different than what the 21st century Christian theologian is confronted with. We inhabit a pluralistic and secular society wherein belief in the Christian God is set up next to the Buddha, Allah, and many other nature worshipping religions. Clearly all of this has been present ever since the beginning, but we live in unique times given our information age and the rapidity with which ideas are marketed and exchanged. Christian theology lives in this environment, as such the way it navigates its way through or within such an environment requires prudence on the thinker’s part and reliance upon the Holy Spirit’s leading. Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink opine on the secularization of the world and its ramifications for Christian theology; they write:

The process of desacralization poses an enormous challenge for Christian theology. It makes it impossible to point to a world that is divine in nature; instead, it must point to a revelation in the past (the gift of the covenant and the law, the prophets, the mission of Jesus Christ, the gift of the Spirit) that is historical in nature and represented in the present through the ministry of the church. This arrangement implies a drastic reduction of the grounds to which Christian theology can refer. The truth of the gospel cannot at all times and all places be called forth and made available by mystical experience, esoteric induction, or practice. Such attempts will almost inevitably lead to malformation and confusion.

In short, we do not deny that human religious awareness may be a road toward the Christian faith. It may help us in our sincere search for God. But we remember Calvin’s observation that the religious urge, the sensus divinitatis, may come to the front much more often in explicit or subtle perversions of the way in which God has made himself known. In a culture that manifests a widespread interest in the cohesiveness of life (holism, spirituality, esoteric movements), Christian faith is confronted with many difficulties, just as the imageless faith in YHWH faced major challenges in Israel. Both have, at first glance, less to point to. Nature religions and the esoteric live from what is always at hand; in contrast, the Judeo-Christian tradition points to what is not at hand. It invites us to learn from what is invisible. It posits an intrinsic relationship with a specific tradition, with a faith community that meets together around sacred scriptures; and as far as Christianity is concerned, it implies an extraordinary coming of God into the world. Only through the power of the Spirit does the believer become involved with these movements in his or her inner being….[1]

As I transcribe and thus reflect upon this quote, it makes me wonder if I fully agree. I agree that in our modern/post-modern period we clearly live in a profane and/or secular time. But in reality, for the Chrisitan, and in particular, the Christian theologian, I am wondering what in fact a secular world does to the act of theologizing itself. Yes, as theologians we are to be exegeting the cultures and societies within which we live; and yes, we are conditioned very much so by the times we live within. But at the same time God’s Self-revelation is not delimited or conditioned, per se, by the time we find ourselves inhabiting. The human heart has not changed, even if technologies have; as such, I am not totally sure I agree that living in a secular “desacralized” world poses the type of enormous challenge for the development of Christian theology that Kooi and Brink seem to think.

Christian theology, Dogmatic theology, while being something that is developed within whatever time it is indeed done within is contingent, objectively, upon the Self-giveneness of God in Christ. This is an event reality that breaks in upon us ever afresh and anew in such a way that in fact a new culture and new society is given other-worldly shape by the foolishness and weirdness of the Gospel itself. If this is so, I am not sure a desacralized world has the type of impact upon a Christian person who is living under the pressure of God’s life and Kingdom come in Jesus Christ that Kook and Brink seem to think.

It almost seems that Kooi and Brink are focused on the apologetic aspect of Christian theology. Indeed, it should be noted that the quote I provided from them comes in a section where they are talking about the phenomenon of religion, and Christianity’s place within that phenomenon. Nevertheless, I am not persuaded that Christian theology’s primary concern is trying to figure out how to engage with the culture; instead I believe that some of the fruit of Christian theology will actually confront societies and cultures with the power of God and the strangeness of the Gospel itself. In other words I see a centripetal to centrifugal movement from the communio sanctorum (the church), as it lives coram Deo, in koinonial bond with Christ and his church which moves in such a way that it represents and ambassadors Christ to the nations as it bears witness to her sustenance and reality in Jesus Christ. As I write all of this, I don’t think Kooi and Brink would disagree, but at least in the section I just shared from them it causes me some pause.

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 66.

No Metaphysic, Just God. Albrecht Ritschl, Karl Barth, and Thomas Torrance on Doing Storied Theology

Karl Barth is famous for wanting to think theological thoughts strictly and only after Deus dixit (‘God has spoken’); he is famous for his desire to do Revelational Theology. Thomas F. Torrance, in his own way, but in the wake of Barth is likewise famous for his desire to do Revelational Theology. They were both very successful at this, and have left a great heritage for those of us who want ritschlto do theology After Barth&After Torrance. Neither Barth nor Torrance invented this approach; we could identify strains towards this type of approach strewn throughout church history. In this post I want to identify a more recent voice (relative to Barth’s location in history) that helped to foster the kind of trajectory that Barth, Torrance, and others picked up on later. I am sure for those who are Barth-haters that they would be tempted to use this as ammunition to tar-and-feather Barth (and Torrance) to the dump of theological Liberalism; be that as it may, I am going to risk it, and name this voice for you.

As you have been reading this post thus far you might wonder what the big deal is; you might be thinking “don’t all Christian theologians do revelational theology;” “don’t all Christian theologians attempt to avoid philosophical metaphysics in their theologizing and attempt to think God directly from Jesus Christ as God’s Self-exegesis and interpretation (Jn 1.18)?” Most would claim to do so, but most in Protestant theology have cozied up to the idea that some metaphysics (whether that be Thomist, Scotist, Nominalist, etc.) are inevitable; that some philosophical categories are necessary in order to attempt to think and communicate God in an intelligible coherent way. Barth and Torrance, and this voice I am going to identify don’t think this is the case, and they have not cozied up to this idea about using philosophy and metaphysics as the driver for the doing of Christian theology; like I noted they are committed principially to the idea that we can only do Christian theology after God has spoken (Deus dixit), and thus revelational theology.

The ‘voice’ that helped to pave the way for someone like Barth, at least in his emphasis on revelational theology was famed theologian Albrecht Ritschl (1822). Ritschl was anti-Hegel, and anti After Hegel theologians; if you know anything about Hegel you know that he wanted to supplant traditional Christian theology with his philosophically shaped pantheistic dialectically styled theologizing. Ristchl was responding to this style of philosophy and “metaphysics” (as it were); Barth similarly was responding to Hegel, but Kant even more. Nonetheless, it is interesting (at least to me) to see in Ritschl that in an de jure objective and principled way I can agree with; even if I cannot agree with probably anything else Ritschl stood for in his exegetical and theological conclusions.

In order to get an idea about all of this we will hear from H.R. Mackintosh (Thomas F. Torrance’s beloved teacher) as he develops Ritschl’s thinking on this, while at the same time offers a bit of critique.

Our study of this method may suitably begin with an allusion to two pernicious influences which, at every stage of his development except the first, Ritschl sought to drive from the field. One is Speculative Rationalism, with its claim that the true basis of theology is to be found in theoretical metaphysics. No doubt in a broad sense most of us are speculative rationalists in so far as we try to think out and think through the implications of Christian faith, in an effort to correlate each belief with all the rest. And in calling for the expulsion of metaphysics from theology, as I think we shall see Ritschl in form asked for more than could be conceded, and as it were drove the nail in so hard as to split the wood. Faith must always be metaphysical, for it rests upon convictions which, if true, must profoundly affect our whole view of the universe and the conduct befitting us within it. In this important sense, a metaphysical import belongs to every judgment concerning Ultimate Reality. Yet the belief or judgment in question need not have been reached by way of metaphysical argument, and in point of fact no essential Christian belief has ever been so reached, although metaphysical argument may later have been employed to defend it. And this, in the last resort, is the point Ritschl is bent on making. There is a Speculative Rationalism which comes to meet the Gospel with a ready-made framework of philosophical conceptions, insisting that faith is bound to use these conceptions, and no other, when it proceeds to formulate its own living content, and this in spite of the fact that its fundamental categories may have taken shape quite irrespectively of the experiences that make man a Christian. Philosophy as such is, even for the believer, the final court of appeal. This type of thought, of which Hegelianism is the classic instance, Ritschl strove not without success to dislodge from the seat of power. Anyone who knows more than the rudiments of his thought will acknowledge that his view of the living God, of revelation of Christ, of miracle, of the Church, is such as to lift the mind beyond the range of any metaphysic operating with general ideas. It becomes plain that, in spite of its great intellectual value, technical philosophy leaves on one side just those problems which possess a life-and-death interest for believing men. No books on metaphysics can be named which contain a serious handling of such matters as fellowship with God, the guilt of sin, the hearing of prayer, above all the redeeming Person of Jesus. By insisting that the Christian mind must at every point of religious belief be guided solely by revelation of God in Christ, Ritschl did his utmost to expel any and every presumptuous form of Speculative Rationalism; and it may well be that the future historian will reckon this to have been his best service to theology.[1]

And in case you were wondering how Ritschl fits with the trajectory of Barth/Torrance, or vice versa, here is what Torrance commentates in regard to Barth’s approach (which Torrance shared in this regard):

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[2]

Moral of the Story:

Allow God’s own Self-exegeis, His own Self-interpretation to impose Godself upon you and the way you think about God and all His works (without separation between His Person and Work). Allow the categories and conceptions supplied by God Himself in Christ to provide the way we think God, and repudiate any approach to theologizing that allows philosophy and foreign metaphysics to set the tone for how we think God. If you do this things will go better; because if we get God wrong everything else that follows will be wrong.

 

[1] Hugh Ross Mackintosh, Types of Modern Theology: Schleiermacher to Barth (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937), 142-43.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

*repost, a post I really like. I like modern theology. 

The Relationship Between Philosophy and Christian Theology: A Theology of the Word

What is it that I have against Philosophy; I mean what did it ever do to me? Nothing really. Except when it is used in place of or even as Christian Theology, proper, it’s at that point that it starts to intrude into my life, and more importantly the church’s life in such a way that I believe the Gospel and theology done from and through the Gospel gets distorted. I know many think this is naïve, but it’s all a matter of method; that is, how ought a genuinely Christian theology be done, and where from? One of the primary principles of the Protestant Reformation is that Scripture, the Word is where all theology for the church of Jesus Christ ought to be done from; I couldn’t agree more. But what that meant, as far as explicating the inner-logic of Scripture (so theology), was based too much in Aristotelian metaphysics, to the point that that type of (substance) metaphysic distorted the intention of Reformed theologian’s task. Yes, the intention was always good, but the tools available to the Protestant Reformed, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, were not, I contend, compatible with the Gospel; in other words, the metaphysic was not amenable to being evangelized by the Gospel.

Philosophy is good at observing things empirically and horizontally, from the human condition, and attempting to abstract “metaphysical” reality from that vantage point; but Christian theology, a genuine approach, doesn’t start there. Christian theology starts from above and only works a posteriori (or from ‘what’s in front of us’) as Deus absconditus (the hidden God) becomes Deus revelatus (the revealed God) in Jesus Christ. In other words, Christian theology is distinct from Philosophy (of Religion), as such the “metaphysic” appealed to for the Christian theologian must be determined by the Logos (Word) o f God. God is his own metaphysic; indeed God is meta-metaphysical. In other words, if the human agent in general wants to have access to this ‘hidden God’ then they must come through the veil of his flesh in Christ. Yes, this might sound foolish or weak, but it is the way of the Christian theologian.

This all does beg the question: Is there a metaphysic for the Christian theologian then? One of my theologian friends (in person) asked me this, in the context of my affection for Barth. I suppose the closest we could get to that, in my view, is Barth’s type of actualism[1]; i.e. being in becoming. It is this kind of “metaphysic” that I see as much more corollary with the reality of Gospel; it gets away from the ‘Pure Being’ static type of conception of God that Aristotle and other philosophers provide for, and of which classical theism and Post Reformed orthodoxy have drunk from so freely. In light of this I thought it would be apropos to hear from Barth himself on how he sees the relationship between Philosophy and genuine Christian Theology which is radically Logocentric and/or Word based. Barth writes:

Theology’s essential hypothesis, or axiom, is revelation, which is God’s own act done in His Word and through His Spirit. How shall this axiom be exhibited or determined? It cannot be done directly, but indirectly. Not positively by negatively. Not by setting it a bound among other sciences. Theology would be falsified or misinterpreted, betrayed or given up, if it sought to make its fundamental assumption or axiom a direct and tangible exhibit. Theology would have ceased to be theology, if it sought to, or could, justify itself. It has always been forsaken by its guardian angels above, every time it has sought to take this way.

For example, is there anything more hopeless than the attempt that has been made in the last two hundred years with ever-increasing enthusiasm to create a systematic link-up, or synthesis, or even a discriminate relationship, between the realms of theology and philosophy? Has there been one reputable philosopher who has paid the least attention to the work which the theologians have attempted in this direction? Has it not become apparent that the anxiety and uncertainty with which we pursued this course only reminded us that we can pursue this course only with an uneasy conscience? Theology can become noticed by philosophy only after that moment when it no longer seeks to be interesting. Its relation to philosophy can become positive and fruitful only after it resolutely refuses to be itself a philosophy and refuses to demonstrate and base its existence upon a principle with, or alongside of, philosophy.[2]

Clearly, from this quote we can see the period that Barth has in his sights in particular; i.e. his ‘modern’ antecedents (e.g. Hermann, Schleiermacher, Kant, Hegel, et al.). And I would be remiss if I didn’t note how appreciative Barth actually was of many of the themes provided for by the Post Reformed orthodox, or we might call them the scholasticism reformed theologians. Nevertheless, what’s at stake here is a critique of how philosophy is ‘synthesized’ and appropriated by Christian theologians.

If we are going to do a genuine Christian theology, the Christian theologian, I believe, will avail themselves of the best grammar available to them. In other words, they won’t, at a formal level, commit themselves to a period of theologizing as if that period is inherently sacrosanct and limit themselves to the theological grammar of that period. Instead they will be driven more by the expectations of the Gospel itself, as if the Gospel is lively and is anew and afresh today; we might call this the ‘Gospel for Today’ approach. The theologian will resource whatever they can with the goal of allowing the Gospel itself to determine its own categories and emphases; and if the theologian comes across “metaphysics” that comport with the reality that God is indeed lively and dynamic in his inner-being as revealed in Christ, then the theologian will adjust themselves accordingly. In my view, what’s more important is that the categories of the Gospel itself be determinative of what is orthodox versus what is heterodox; I think if we follow this then we won’t be afraid of some of the important gains that modern theology has afforded the church of Jesus Christ.

On a material point: Something that Barth&co. did was identify the import that a theology of the Word has for the Protestant theologian, but then he/they developed that further. He (Barth) saw Christ as the ‘Word’ that ‘God has spoken’ (Deus dixit) for the world; for the church. As such this changes the manner and indeed the way “metaphysics” are commingled with the Gospel itself. In other words, things change when the Word with whom we have to do is the second person of the Triune Godhead (Monarxia). The theologian recognizes that God in Christ is alive, and ever present; the theologian while bounded by the text of Scripture, realizing that as being within the ‘Domain of the Word,’ recognizes that He is Risen! as such the theologian continues to engage theologically as if we can actually grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. The theologian starts with the Word, and sees the living Word as determinative of who God is and how we ought to engage with Scripture itself. But the point is, is that the Word is genuinely alive; as such the theologian should want to seek out a way to articulate that for the church in such a way that comports with the lively reality of God’s inner life. The theologian should move away from theologies that have attempted to synthesize God with a philosophy that sees God as ‘Pure Being’ and all the attendant baggage associated with that.

[1] See this definition of actualism in Barth’s theology:

“Actualism” is the motif which governs Barth’s complex conception of being and time. Being is always an event and often an act (always an act whenever an agent capable of decision is concerned). The relationship between divine being and human being is one of the most vexed topics in Barth interpretation, and one on which the essay at hand hopes to shed some light. For now let it simply be said, however cryptically, that the possibility for the human creature to act faithfully in relation to the divine creator is thought to rest entirely in the divine act, and therefore continually befalls the human creature as a miracle to be sought ever anew. (Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth, 16.) Also see this post

[2] Karl Barth, God In Action (Manhasset, NY: Round Table Press, 1963), 41-2.