On the Christological Exegesis of the Biblical Text: Christ the Centraldogma of Everything

The Old Testament makes no sense without Jesus as its centraldogma. It was really only after the advent and development of a post-Enlightenment deconfessionalized naturalist biblical studies movement wherein my thesis statement would make no sense. For the Christian, the idea that the Old Testament has any meaning other than its witness to Jesus, and its fulfillment therein, in principle makes no sense. Jesus himself thought as much: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me . . . .” There is historical nuance, descriptions of historical narratives, development of historical characters, and much more in the Old Testament. But without their ultimate referent in Jesus Christ, they have no meaning, no context. They only remain a series of potentially inspiring, and variously interesting stories about a nation amongst the nations, but without Jesus Christ as its canonical-contextual ground, again, these stories remain largely aloof to anything relevant towards the meaning of life before God (coram Deo). Barth agrees:

But when they say that this subject is Jesus Christ, who according to the will of God was slain under Pontius Pilate and was raised from the dead by the power of God, we can only say again that the ultimate exegetical question in relation to these passages—the question of their subject—is identical with the question of faith: whether with the Synagogue both then and now we do not recognize Christ. This question obviously cannot be settled by the Old Testament passages as such. The final result of the passages as such is the difficulty. Again, it is naturally impermissible to accept the reply of the apostles solely because we cannot solve these difficulties in the exegesis of the text itself, or because, on the other hand, we share with them an idea that Jesus Christ is supremely fitted to occupy the place where we are pulled up short. The apostles themselves did not reach their answer as a possibility discovered and selected by themselves, or as a final triumph of Jewish biblical scholarship. They did so because the Old Testament (Lk. 24.27f) was opened up to them by its fulfilment in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and because in light of this fulfilment Old Testament prophecy could no longer be read by them in any other way than as an account of this subject. If we accept the decision of the apostles—for the same reasons as they did, compelled by the affirmation that the elect king, of whom they speak, is Jesus of Nazareth, will be not merely possible but necessary as the last word in the exegesis of these passages, the last word! So far we have mentioned His name in our investigation of these passages. We have remained within the Old Testament world and its possibilities. We have tried in this world to bring out and think through what is said there about the elect king. But we have been forced to the conclusion that the entity in question cannot be brought out or apprehended within the Old Testament world: whether we think of it in terms of the monarchy as willed by God, or of the person of the elect king; whether we think of the matter itself or of its unity. Therefore the decisive question: What is the will of God in this matter? and whom does He will for this purpose? is not a question which can be unambiguously answered from the passages themselves.1

Thomas Torrance summarizes what Barth is after this way:

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

Some people, like Helmut Thielicke, see Barth, and Torrance, respectively, as Christomonist. The idea being that Barth et al. so reduce the contours of Holy Scripture to Jesus, that nothing else is seemingly significant in itself. For the Lutheran, Thielicke, his critique largely stems from his desire to read the Bible through the Law/Gospel dialectic, but for others, the critique of Christomonism simply arises from the facile notion that Barth and company reductionistically reduces all of reality, including Scripture’s, to Jesus Christ. As a Christian, I am left scratching my head in regard to this critique. The Apostle Paul writes, “that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” If Paul is right, and he is, then in what way is seeing Jesus everywhere, and in every way, monist and/or reductionistic? It seems to me that people who make such critiques have already posited a priori some other meaning of Scripture, constructed from some other place than Scripture, about Scripture’s principial meaning as that is found in Jesus Christ alone (Solo Christo).

In certain sectors, there is a lot of talk about theological interpretation of Scripture or theological exegesis these days. But for my money, the only game in the Kingdom, hermeneutically, should really be designated Christological exegesis; at least for the genuinely Christian approach to all things. Barth, and Torrance following, reflect the sort of Christological exegetical approach that I believe every Christian should be about. We see this, even radically so, in someone like Martin Luther, and John Calvin in lesser ways, and I think we ought to see this more today among the exegetes wherever and whenever (which is a huge ask these days) they might actually be found. To not be a Christological exegete only leads to the sort of impoverished biblical exegesis we see attending so much of the evangelical world in our contemporary culture. If all of reality is about Jesus, then this, at least, ought to imply that all of biblical exegesis is self-same. How this gets fleshed out can only happen insofar that the analogy of the Incarnation is allowed to inform our exegetical efforts. Some form of the Chalcedonian Pattern, as George Hunsinger would call this, needs to be the imprimatur of the exegete’s Christian existence. But will the Lord really find such biblical exegetes on earth?

 

1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §35: Study Edition Vol 11 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 196.

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

Christological Objectivism::Not Dogmatic Christian Universalism

The Incarnation implies the actualist salvation of all of humanity; or at least so goes the logic of Karl Barth’s ‘Christological objectivism.’ I believe that this is indeed the logic of the Incarnation; viz. that all of humanity has been objectively (extra nos) justified (‘saved’) before God. This is the case precisely because humanity, at a primordial level, I would contend, is Christ’s vicarious humanity; His humanity is humanity. As such, what it means to be human before God, as all humans now are, is what it means for Christ, our high priest, to stand before God for us, as the imago Dei. Some believe that the logic I am forwarding, qua Barth, necessarily leads to a dogmatic Christian universalism, wherein all will finally be saved. I will respond to this latterly, but first let’s hear from Bruce McCormack as he describes Barth’s Christological objectivism vis-à-vis a soteriological frame:

I have already hinted at a major conclusion of my own research on Barth that will have bearing on what is said in the remainder of this section of the current chapter. A final significant development (one of may even speak of an ever-so slight “turn”) took place within the bounds of the Church Dogmatics that would force a recapitulation of all that went before and even a few retractions. The final modulation took place in the revision of election and its most significant result was what I would like to call Barth’s “Christological objectivism” — that is, the understanding that God’s work of reconciliation and redemption is fully accomplished and already effective “for” all human beings even before an awakening to faith makes it effective “in” any particular one of them. What is accomplished by God in Jesus Christ is the reality of reconciliation and redemption, not merely its possibility — a possibility to be made actual later by the work of the Spirit. No, the work of the Spirit in awakening an individual to faith and obedience does not make Christ’s work effective; it simply brings Christ’s work in its efficacy to conscious awareness so that the individual is redirected, reoriented to a future of which they had been unaware. Ex opere operato is a phrase well-suited to describe Barth’s mature understanding of Christ’s work.1

This sits well with what I have highlighted in my sidebar from TF Torrance; he writes:

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.2

First, we have an explication of how Barth came to understand the objective nature of salvation in Jesus Christ, as described by Bruce McCormack. Second, we have an iteration of this type of Christological objectivism as that found its way into the inklings of Barth’s greatest English speaking student, TF Torrance. I wanted to share TFT’s rendition of this doctrine because I think it is important to see how such deep theology has real-life practical implications towards thinking and proclaiming the Gospel.

But certain theologians might spy a Christian universalism in all of this. Indeed, there is a biblical universalism at play here, but it isn’t of the sort of mercantile or causal type that causes these theologians to panic. That is to say: the only way something like Barth’s (and TFT’s following) Christological objectivism leads to a dogmatic Christian universalism is if the theologian applies something like an Aristotelian causal theory to the kerygmatic logic being deployed in the thinking of Barth/TFT. But if the theologian were to simply think from the logic determined by the sui generis Gospel itself, the theologian does not conclude at a dogmatic Christian universalism; such as the aforementioned theologians fear. That is how this works in the theologies of Barth and Torrance; they are not metaphysicians, they are Christian theologians. As such, they think from the theo-logic inherent to the Gospel. As Torrance might qualify: the Christian needs to operate from the kata physin (according to the nature of) of the Gospel itself. As if the Gospel creates and recreates reality, and out of this reality the theologian comes to have the fertile soil needed to think from the foundations which no one else has laid but God Himself. That is, the theologian needs to allow the pure Gospel, rather than some discursive notion of a pure nature to supply the categories by which the theologian thinks God, in a God-world relation.

So let it be written so let it be done.

 

1 Bruce Lindley McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son: Reformed Kenoticism and the Repair of Chalcedon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 104-05. 

2 T.F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94. 

God’s Eternal Time For Us: How Constancy is Better than Immutability

Thomas Torrance, Barth’s greatest English-speaking doctoral student, and lifelong friend, from that point onward, gained many insights from Barth. But he had his own way of articulating dogma; he was his own theologian, so to speak. Torrance had great respect for Barth’s magnum opus the Church Dogmatics; he had such great respect that along with Geoffrey Bromiley, he translated it from Barth’s native Swiss-German tongue into the English. Torrance’s favorite volume of the CD was II.1, on a Doctrine of God. It is in this volume that Barth offers an alternative, or reification of the classical doctrine of divine immutability; Barth calls his treatment of this doctrine, Constancy. As the theologian reads one of Torrance’s most mature books (The Christian Doctrine of God), in regard to the stage of TFT’s thought and development as a theologian, the reader will see how he riffs on Barth’s doctrine of divine constancy but in his own unique way. He writes:

This means that we must think of the constancy of God which is his unchanging eternal Life as characterised by time, not of course our kind of time which is the time of finite created being with beginning and end, and past, present and future, but God’s kind of time which is the time of his eternal Life without beginning and end. While he creates time along with all that is changeable, he does so without any temporal movement in himself. The time of our life is defined by its fleeting creaturely nature, but the time of God’s Life is defined by his everlasting uncreated Nature in which he transcends our temporality while nevertheless holding it within the embrace of his divine time. Just as we distinguish sharply between the uncreated reality of God and the created reality of the world, between the uncreated rationality of God and our created rationality, or between the uncreated Light of God and our created light, so we must distinguish between God’s uncreated time and our created time. On the other hand, just as we think of our creaturely being as contingently grounded upon the eternal being of God, so we must think of our creaturely time as contingently grounded upon the eternal time of God. Thus we may think of the time of our world, which God has created out of nothing along with the world he has made, as unceasingly sustained by him in a created correspondence to the uncreated time of his own eternal Life. And so far from being some kind of timeless eternity or eternal now that devalues or negates time, the real time of God’s eternal Life gives reality and value to the created time of our life through coordinating its contingent temporality with its own movement and constancy. What does this have to say to us about the unchangeableness or constancy of God which is identical with his self-moving eternal Life? The fact that God has time for us in the partnership he maintains with us in which our fleeting time for all its dissimilarity reflects his eternal time, reinforces the conviction that the nature of God’s time is not static but essentially dynamic and as such is the constant power upon which our contingent temporality rests.1

I think at this point it would be helpful to see how Barth, who TFT is writing after, develops a doctrine of the constancy of God. The reader will see where Barth and Torrance converge, and also where they depart in their own unique and prescient ways. The reader might come to see the types of questions both Barth and Torrance are attempting to address, respectively, from their own informing theological pressures. But I want my readers to understand just how close Barth and Torrance are on fundamental doctrinal points. I can think of no better example of that than as we come to their respective doctrines of divine constancy. Barth writes:

But it is not true that the immutable as such is God. The real truth is—and it is very different—that God is “immutable,” and this is the living God in His freedom and love, God Himself. He is what He is in eternal actuality. He never is it only potentially (not even in part). He never is it at any point intermittently. But always at every place He is what He is continually and self-consistently. His love cannot cease to be His love nor His freedom His freedom. He alone could assail, alter, abolish or destroy Himself. But it is just at this point that He is the “immutable” God. For at no place or time can He or will He turn against Himself or contradict Himself, not even in virtue of His freedom or for the sake of His love. What He does in virtue of His freedom for the sake of His love will never be the surrender but always at every point the self-affirmation of His freedom and His love, a fresh demonstration of His life. This self-affirmation is never anywhere an act of holy egotism, but always everywhere an act of the righteousness in which He establishes His glory over all things. And as an act of His righteousness His self-affirmation must be understood as necessary, not subject to any doubt or temptation. The answer, therefore, to the question: “What is immutable?” is: “This living God in His self-affirmation is the immutable.” The immutable is the fact that this God is as the One He is, gracious and holy, merciful and righteous, patient and wise. The immutable is the fact that He is the Creator, Reconciler, Redeemer and Lord. This immutability includes rather than excludes life. In a word it is life. It does not, therefore, need to acquire life from the impulse of the created world, or above all from the emotions of our pious feeling. It not only has nothing whatever to do with the pagan idea of the immobile, which is only a euphemistic description of death, but it is its direct opposite. It does not require, then, and sentimentalisings in sham concealment or embellishment of its terrible reality. For it is not this fearful reality. It is the reality of life and not of death. God’s constancy—which is a better word than the suspiciously negative word “immutability”—is the constancy of His knowing, willing and acting and therefore of His person. It is the continuity, undivertability and indefatigableness in which God both is Himself and also performs His work, maintaining it as such and continually making it His work. It is the self-assurance in which God moves in Himself and in all His works and in which he is rich in Himself and in all His works without either losing Himself or (for fear of this loss) having to petrify in Himself and renounce His movement and His riches. The constancy of God is not then the limit and boundary, the death of His life. For this very reason the right understanding of God’s constancy must not be limited to His presence with creation, as if God in Himself were after all naked “immutability” and therefore in the last analysis death. On the contrary, it is in and by virtue of His constancy that God is alive in Himself and in all His works. The fact that He possesses selfhood and continuity itself makes Him the living One that He is, and is the basis and meaning of His power and might, the inner divine secret of the movement and wealth itself in which He is glorious on His throne and in all the heights and depths of His creation.2

Both Barth and Torrance, respectively, are intent on demonstrating to the Church, that God is not immobile, but that He has an eternal movement, or an eternal time in Himself. Barth, as we have just read goes so far to say that classical sacra doctrina on divine immutability implies a ‘death’ in God; I agree. What we know of God, as both theologians are committed to, is only the Deus revelatus; the God who is revealed. If this is how the Christian first encounters God, as a God who has moved toward us in Jesus Christ, then to think God in static unmoved mover terms indeed would be to think God in terms of a type of death. We only know God as activity, as eternal and gracious movement; we only know God as His prosopon shines on us like the rays of the Sun shine upon the earth. This is the constancy, or stability of God’s life for the Christian knower; it is indeed an ‘unchangeableness,’ but one that is defined by the perichoretic interpenetrative koinonial Life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in processive intimacy. God’s life is an eternal activity of sabbath rest and shalom. Not immobile, but mobile to the point that He graciously stoops to us, gifts us with an echo-life, one in correspondence with His type of Life, in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

It is within this creaturely structuring, within His gracious movement and humanity for us (Deus incarnandus), that we can come to share in the inner reality of that movement as that is funded by the eternal fount of His forever Life of love for the other. This is what characterizes the changelessness, and thus constancy of God’s Life; it is the triunity of time funded by the ineffability of His eternal threeness (de Deo trino) in oneness (de Deo uno). As such, as we are graciously included in that Life by participatio Christi we experience His eternal time as that has been given its total correspondence in the time of His life for us in the temporality of Life, in the skin and bone of Jesus Christ. As the Christian moves from this temporal life into the consummate eternal Life of God there is a seamlessness to it precisely because we aren’t experiencing something different, relative to the two aspects of time, but simply a transition from one sphere, one seen by the faith of Christ, to another sphere, one seen by the sight of Christ for us; both finding their visio Dei in the Light of God’s free life to be for and with us. There is great hope and expectation here; of the sort that the angels long to understand. And so, they observe us in order to gain some semblance of this strange grace of God for whom they serve at His pleasure; even when they don’t fully grasp just how great this God is.

 

1 Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 241.  

2 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 §31: Study Edition Vol 9 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 58-9. 

 

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.  

 

 

The Cosmic Ontological Frame of Salvation: God’s Providence Goes Deeper than Creation out of Nothing

So much of the soteriological discussion these days is focused on individual salvation; that is as that takes shape in the combine between the elect and reprobate within substance causal theories of God and His relation to the world through the decretrum absolutum. While ‘individual salvation’ is a central, if not centraldogma of the soteriological reality, its reach is rather more extensive and cosmic than purely focused on various individual people—and their angst of whether or not they are one of the elect (by whatever means that is actualized). The Apostle Paul understands the cosmic aspect of salvation in the following way:

18 For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the coming glory that will be revealed to us. 19 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly but because of God who subjected it—in hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 23 Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance. -Romans 8.18-25

This throws much of the soteriological discussion into relief precisely at the point that it isn’t obsessively focused on me, but instead it focuses on the ‘revealing of the sons of God.’ As is clear from the Genesis narrative God’s economy elevates humanity to a level distinct from general creation in the sense that humanity is the height of His created order; in the sense that humanity is supposed to steward and cultivate the created order with the aim of magnifying its Creator in Jesus Christ. If we allow the creation-pressure to frame a soteriological discussion we end up with a different focus in our own spirituality, among other things. Salvation’s frame becomes an ontological rather than purely forensic focus precisely because we are now focused on the One who created, rather than the ones created. In this frame we can come to see the depth dimension of sin’s rupturing power vis-a-vis its relationship to God’s relation to the world. We can come to realize that what is required for genuine salvation to obtain goes deeper than the creatio ex nihilo; it goes as deep as the mystery of the incarnation, of the Creator become human so that humanity might become one with the Creator through the grace of adoption.

TF Torrance, as he is reflecting on God’s sovereignty with particular reference to Divine providence, writes the following. You will see that he is very much so in line with the Pauline motif, and the notes we have been previously discussing:

First, human existence and history are not separable from the material universe, for man precisely as man is body of his soul as well as soul of his body and it is in the wholeness of that soul-body, body-soul relation that he has been created for fellowship with God. This means that the human being is not exempt from the material forces imminent in the spatio-temporal universe, or therefore exempt from the control of its physical laws impressed upon it by the Creator. Somehow it is not just man who has fallen but the whole created order along with him, so that we may not isolate our understanding of human evil from natural evil, or moral evil from material evil, the pain and suffering of human being from the suffering and misery, the pain and travail of the whole creation. There is what may be called a principle of evil in nature, but of course a perverted principle. It is not surprising, therefore, as the Holy Scriptures tell us, that real redemption from the power of human sin and guilt involves a radical change in the material world and calls for the complete redemption of the created order. That is why both the Old and the New Testaments speak prophetically of a new heaven and a new earth. Our understanding of what this means is governed by the physical or bodily nature of the death and resurrection of Christ, an event with space-time coordinates. Redemption is somatic as well as spiritual, for moral and physical evil infecting the creation may not finally be separated from one another. This cannot but apply to the providential activity of God which involves material as well as spiritual power and therefore an on-going interaction of God ad Creator and Redeemer with the physical universe. The power by which he redeems the world and exercises his providential care over its history is the very same power as that by which he created the world in matter and form out of nothing. Just as his creative power brought the world into physical existence and endowed it with a rational order, so it is in virtue of the same creative power that his redemptive and providential activity operate with the space-time structures of the ongoing world. But just as we cannot comprehend how God created the world out of nothing, or how he brought Jesus Christ forth from the grave, so we are unable to grasp how his redemptive and providential activity makes all things, material as well as spiritual, to serve his eternal purpose of love.1

Rather than thinking God’s relation to the world, and thus thinking the world’s relation to God through a dualistic frame, as Torrance underscores, it is better to think the God-world relation through the analogy of the incarnation. There is a mystery, indeed, to all of this, but God has so made himself vulnerable for us in Christ, that this mystery has concrete extension for us flatlanders to abide with. In other words, while all of the created reality is vouched in the mystery of God’s aseity, at the same time, He has freely elected that we might not remain orphans in a blind universe, but instead participants in the seen reality of God’s life for the world.

One other thing of note: the created order is such that God has mysteriously baked His very life into it, as He is for it, while at the same time remaining distinct from it as its Creator. This might help explain why God did not simply scrap this world, and start over. He had already personally invested Himself in and for this world in Christ, just as the very telos of the world is for the magnification of the Son, Jesus Christ. If this is creation’s frame, that is its recreation in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then God’s investment goes simply beyond some sort of brute power an actus purus (pure being) god might be known for. The Christian God, who is Father of the Son by the Spirit’s bond of lovely fellowship, cannot abandon His first creation, simply because He had always already planned to elevate this creation to the Right Hand of His fellowship in the Son in the second recreation of the second Adam; the greater Adam.

 

1 Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 226.

The Aseity of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Revealed in the Littleness of God’s Becoming

It is important for the Christian to get lost in the aseity of God; in the Self-existence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. His eternal life is truly the mysterium Trinitatis (mystery of the Trinity). He alone dwells in unapproachable light; He alone is immortal, the only wise God. His majesty consumes all of reality seen and unseen. No person can see Him unmediated and live; thus Jesus. The ineffable ultimacy of God in Christ is ultimately inexplicable, and thus the source of ultimate worship and adoration. It is this life that God has freely chosen to share with us in the most intimate of ways; He has made us co-heirs, participants with Himself, through the mediatorial vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. This is what TF Torrance explicates for us: 

The incarnation. This is the new act of the eternal God whereby God himself becomes man without ceasing to be God, the Creator becomes creature without ceasing to be Creator, the transcendent becomes contingent without ceasing to be transcendent, the eternal becomes time without ceasing to be eternal. This is an even more astounding act than that of the creation of the universe out of nothing, for in the incarnation the almighty living God becomes little without ceasing to be the mighty omnipotent eternal God. The self-humiliation of God in Jesus Christ, his kenosis or tapeinosis, does not mean the self-limitation of God or the curtailment of his power, but the staggering exercise of his power within the limitations of our contingent existence in space and time. Thus in it the omnipotent sovereign Lord God is revealed to have the inconceivable power of becoming little and contingent, while remaining what he eternally and almightily is. The sovereignty of God is here revealed to be omnipotence clothed in littleness, and it is as such that God exerts and exhibits his indescribable, inconceivable power in his revealing and saving acts for us in space and time.1 

God’s life is an impenetrable mystery; the fact that He has always been, and always will be supersedes any possibility for comprehension. His eternal life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as the One God (de Deo uno) is beyond the vanishing point of our vision. Even hidden as we are in the humanity of Jesus Christ, the very mystery of God’s life and eternality exceeds the very breaking point of circumscription.  

When I am afraid; when fears assail me from without and within; I turn to God’s aseity as He has Self-revealed that reality in the Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit’s ‘hovering’ work. This is important: we don’t think God’s aseity as an abstract black abyss; we think it only as God has chosen for us to think it: as the triune koinonia of the threeness of God (de Deo trino). This is where I repose when I tremble in the darkness of this world; I flee to the Light of God’s never-ending / never-beginning life. He welcomes me as my Father, as my life now is garbed in the adoptive grace He has bestowed upon me, upon us, through the nature of Christ’s vicarious humanity pro nobis. The aseity of God’s life has a face, and for us that face is Jesus Christ. We will always only know God as Father of the Son / Son of the Father by the bond of love provided for by the Holy Spirit. 

 

1 Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 214-15.   

The Big Words of Theology: Pushing into the Depth Dimension of the God Beyond the Words

I often get accused, or maybe that’s too strong, I often am told by some of my contacts on social media that their eyes glaze over when coming to a post or tweet of mine. They are referring to the theological jargon I often use when giving self-expression to some thought I have about God, or anything related. I like to say that either 1) I’m speaking freely, or 2) that the jargon I’m using has a theological context within which it makes sense; and that it is used for precision purposes among those who study such things. But the ultimate point remains: technical theological language is useful insofar that it is symbolizing a deeper (than the word) theological reality that no other word[s] heretofore have been found suitable. I like to encourage people to push on, to elevate, and get past the “prestige jargon,” and attempt to stretch and think into the depth dimension that the words are inviting them/us into. This is what TF Torrance is after when he writes the following:

Throughout the last two chapters our thought has centered on the Triunity of God as three Persons, one Being, and towards the end of the last chapter attention was directed particularly to the concept of perichoresis for our understanding of the coactivity of the Holy Trinity. It was pointed out that it is very easy when using technical terms to think concepts rather than the realities denoted by them. Technical terms are a kind of theological shorthand which helps us to give careful expression to basic truths and their conceptual interconnections, as we noted earlier, in the passage of theological clarification from one level of understanding to another and back again. However, in the last resort they are no more than empty abstract propositions apart from their real content in the specific self-communication of God to us in his revealing and saving acts in history in which he has made himself known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was such an essentially dynamic approach to the coactivity of the three divine Persons that we found to be entailed in the theological shorthand of perichoresis.1

TF’s reference to ‘perichoresis’ is fitting. How many people on the street, or in the pew, would have ever heard of perichoresis? And of course, this is to the point. People, often, are much too squeamish when it comes to thinking big. But personally, this baffles me. The God we serve, who is our Lord, spoke, and the world leapt into existence. The God we worship is the Ultimate, is the ineffable God whose ways are not our ways; but He has stooped to our ways by assuming our humanity that we might begin to peer into the Holy of Holies of His Triune Life.

So, let’s get past the eyes glazing over stage, when it comes to big theological words, and imagine that in Christ we have now been given the capacity to be more enamored, more enthralled by the majesty of our ineffable God in such a way that the words used, in an attempt to provide some intelligible and articulate way to think God, aren’t greater than the gift God has given us to see Him with through the eyes of faith (the faith of Christ). As TFT says elsewhere with reference to Holy Scripture (my paraphrase): ‘The words of Scripture are the signs (signum) that point beyond themselves to their reality (res) in God in Jesus Christ.’ This is why Jesus says to Thomas, ‘when you see me you see the Father.’ Jesus is the ultimate signum whoin we see the reality of the Triune God in the Face of God’s Son, enfleshed. The veil, serves as the means of revelation wherein the Deus absconditus (hidden God) becomes the Deus revelatus (revealed God); never predicated by the human condition, but predicating it in a constant frame, and event[uating] of the anointing work of the Holy Spirit (so An / -enhypostasis).

My last paragraph here is an attempt to illustrate further usage of big words in the service of their greater reality found in God in Jesus Christ.

 

1 Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark), 203. 

Leithart and Torrance on the Primordiality of the Virgin Conception as New Humanity

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

   “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). -Matthew 1:21-23

Peter Leithart offers some important insight on the significance of the Virgin Birth of the Messiah, Jesus. It has nothing to do with sinlessness, per se; and everything to do with something deeper than that: with what it means to be genuinely human before God. This impacts our sinful statuses, indeed, but the frame, exegetically understood, isn’t about sinlessness; the frame goes to an antecedent reality, and what it means to be genuinely human before God. This is the significance of the incarnation of God in the womb of Mary: it is only the sort of work that the Creator God, who is Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit, can accomplish.

Matthew’s point is different. He says nothing about Jesus’ sinlessness here. The emphasis is on Jesus as the Deliverer from sin, not on Jesus’ own freedom from sin. This episode is framed as part of a creation story. Like 1:1, verse 18 uses the word “genesis” (γένεσις, translated “birth”). In this creation context, the references to the Holy Spirit (vv. 18, 20) allude back to Genesis 1:2. Mary is the “earth” over which the heavenly Spirit hovers to form a new creation. Joseph rising from sleep to take his wife reminds us of Adam in the garden (Genesis 2:18-25), taking Mary as his wife just as Adam took the newly created Eve as his wife.

This virgin birth is thus a sign of God’s new initiative, of God’s new creation, which begins with the creation of the new Man, Jesus. Our salvation does not come—it cannot come—from inside humanity. We are not capable of saving ourselves. God has to come in from the outside if we are going to be saved. We cannot repair the damage of sin or construct a new creation by our own initiative, by our own reproduction, by our own expertise or power. The virgin birth passes a judgment on all human efforts at self-salvation, all our prideful pretense that we can put the world right through political or technological or educational means. If the world is going to be put to right, God must enter the world from the outside, because everything that comes from within humanity is corrupted and weak.

We can also note Isaiah’s and Matthew’s use of the name Immanuel, “God with us.” The virgin birth means that Jesus is God with us, God in human flesh, God who has taken on human nature to be with His people and to save us. The virgin birth thus tells us something about the nature of Christ. It is not as if Joesph and Mary had a son who later became the Son of God. It is not as if there as a pre-existing human being who was later infused with Godness. Rather, the virgin conception and birth shows that Jesus only exists as the humanity of the Son of God. There is not even a single moment when the humanity of Jesus exists by itself. It is always, from the moment of conception, the humanity of the Son of God. It is God’s humanity. And this means that Jesus really is God-with-us, God near us, God entered into human nature, into human history, in the fullest possible sense. There is no distance between God and Jesus, not ever for a single second. Donald Macleod has written, “God was involved in a peculiarly direct and intimate way in the creation of his humanity. To deny the virgin birth and introduce instead human sexual activity is to distance God unacceptably from the production of the Holy One.” To touch the humanity of Jesus is to touch the humanity of God. To see and hear Jesus is to see and hear God in human flesh. Because of the Virgin Conception and Birth, Jesus truly is, in the most direct way possible, both God and with us.1

T.F. Torrance fills out the richness that Leithart has identified for us, and in concert with that; but with an application of the analogy of the virgin birth to the possibility for ‘saving faith,’ Torrance writes,

By that we are guided to think and given to understand something of our own salvation and recreation. As in the annunciation of the word to Mary, Christ the Word himself became flesh, so in the enunciation of the gospel, we surrender in like manner to Christ the Word now made flesh, and there takes place in us the birth of Jesus, or rather, we are in a remarkable way given to share through grace in his birth and to share in the new creation in him. That is the Christian message – the Christmas message. It is not of our self-will or free-will that we are saved and born anew from above. ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.’ Here there is a ‘become’ dependent on the ‘become’ of ‘the Word become flesh’, grounded in it and derivative from it. What happened once and for all, in utter uniqueness in Jesus Christ, happens in every instance of rebirth into Christ, when Christ enters into our hearts and recreates us. Just as he was born from above of the Holy Spirit, so we are born from above of the Holy Spirit through sharing in his birth. Just as in the birth of Jesus there was no preceding action on our part, or human co-operation, such as the co-operation between a human father and a human mother, just as there was no prior human activity there, so in our salvation and in our knowledge of God there is no a priori, no human presupposition, no Pelagian, semi-Pelagian or synergistic activity.2

Thematically, both Torrance and Leithart see the primordiality of the virgin birth as the event sui generis; of the sort that only an otherworldly reality, extra nos, could conceive. In order for salvation to actualistically obtain for all of humanity, the particular humanity of God graciously invaded the crust of the broken human body and offered His primal life, the Bread of Life for the world, in the humble womb of a backwater country-girl named, Mary. By this move of God, this ‘hovering,’ humanity came to be humanity once again, the moment the Spirit conceived the humanity of the Son out of the ‘seed of the woman.’ He inspired this ‘seed,’ the woman’s seed, the day that He took woman from the rib of the first Adam, in preparation for the parousia of the second and Greater Adam for whom the world was created. It is from the miracle, the protological first, and the eschatological second, that the Spirit of God brought reconciliation between God and humanity, as that elected reality was given actual/temporal flesh in the Virgin Conception. Magnificant 

 

1 Peter J. Leithart, Matthew Through New Eyes: Volume One: Jesus as Israel (Louisiana, Monroe: Athanasius Press, 2017), loc. 801, 810, 817 kindle.

2 Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 100-02.

 

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.

TF Torrance’s Copy-and-Paste of Barth’s Doctrine of Christ Concentrated Election

I have had the following quote from Thomas Torrance up at the blog (in the sidebar) since at least 2009. It reads as follows: 

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.1 

It is rich with ‘Chalcedonian pattern,’ and the homoousial reality of the eternal Logos, the Son of the Father become human pro nobis. Karl Barth writes something very similar—and so my guess is that he inspired TFT’s above statement—in regard to the election of God in Christ for the world: 

§ 35

THE ELECTION OF THE INDIVIDUAL 

The man who is isolated over against God is as such rejected by God. But to be this man can only be by the godless man’s own choice. The witness of the community of God to every individual man consists in this: that this choice of the godless man is void; that he belongs eternally to Jesus Christ and therefore is not rejected, but elected by God in Jesus Christ; that the rejection which he deserves on account of his perverse choice is borne and cancelled by Jesus Christ; and that he is appointed to eternal life with God on the basis of the righteous, divine decision. The promise of his election determines that as a member of the community he himself shall be a bearer of its witness to the whole world. And the revelation of his rejection can only determine him to believe in Jesus Christ as the One by whom it has been borne and cancelled.2 

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.”  

These two statements from these two men, respectively, is what has drawn me to their theologies like none other. In the past I was awash, as many still are, in the false binaries on offer, in regard to the classical doctrines of election and reprobation. I always knew there was something wrong with them, but really had no alternatives to satisfy my deepest christological inclinations and disposition. That is until I came across both Barth and Torrance, and the way they took the Chalcedonian Christology, and brought it to its rightful conclusion. These theologians, the both (Barth as the forerunner, following his friend Pierre Maury), constructively and canonically tied up the loose, and negative ends that Chalcedon leftover. Barth and Torrance, respectively, go beyond the conciliar theology, but they don’t leave it behind. Instead, in my view, they achieve a pro-level focus on the esse of what Chalcedon (among the other important Christological councils around that time) theology had only left in inchoate form.  

The focus of a genuinely framed Christian theology is what we see in nuce in both of these statements. To know God, and to know ourselves before God (coram Deo) is to first know Christ by the Spirit. It is in this knowing that we come to have capacity and orientation to know the God who alone has freely chosen to reveal Himself to, for, and in us in the centraldogma of His life with us in, Jesus Christ. This is a unilateral move of God; ie His being in becoming in such a way that ‘He who knew no sin, became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.’ This becoming has never been contingent on us in abstraction from God for us. This being has become for us prior to us, but not without us; since, as Barth emphasizes: God freely determined to not be God without us, but with us Immanuel.  

This is the Evangel, the kerygmatic reality that is so precisely encapsulated by both Barth and TFT in the aforementioned statements. If pastors, theologians, and Christian witnesses in general could come to grasp the nut of these statements the Christian Church, and world, would be the better for it. As we observe in the above Barth and TFT reduce deep dimensional theology in a way that doesn’t leave us in the lurch of a reductionism. Instead, they both, respectively, present the Gospel reality—and its sum in the ‘election of God’—in a way that respects all of the creedal theology of the ecumenical past, while emphasizing the canonical and Scriptural reality that sees Jesus as the center of everything (cf. John 5:39). They think from the Protestant ‘Scripture Principle,’ but do so in ways that are church catholic and deeply Christologically conditioned.  

 

1 T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

2 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §35 The Doctrine of God: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 111.