Category Archives: T. F. Torrance

A More Responsible Way to Think About Biblical Eschatology: Engaging with Karl Heim Through TF Torrance

In North American evangelical circles when you hear the word eschatology your mind typically races to The Late Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind series. Or, if you’re old enough, you might even think about all the artistic charts providing a linear timeline for biblical prophecy and eschatological events. But when we engage with this word from a more historical and Christian Dogmatic frame of reference, indeed, if we engage with this word and its conceptual matter from the New Testament itself (by engaging with its inner theo-logic) a different sense emerges. The ‘end’ is certainly in view, but the way that transposes with the now supplies us with a very different frame for thinking things eschatological. Clearly, for the Christian our hope is that Jesus Christ will return bodily (just as he ascended Acts 1.8), and usher in the new creation in consummate form unending; this is indeed the eschatological hope. What this ought to do for us though, in a broader less idiosyncratic frame, is cause us to ponder the relationship between time and eternity; and maybe wonder what the latter has to do with the former.

This is sort of pondering actually didn’t happen in earnest until the modern period; or at least the modern developments re-ignited a focus on the biblical understanding of the eschaton that was certainly present in the Patristic period. But what happened in the modern period under the pioneering work of someone like Albert Schweitzer and his Jesus Quest was to recognize just how central eschatological thinking was to the whole of the New Testament. It was in fact the rise of historic-critical tools that developed as a result of Enlightenment forces, that caused this focused engagement with the text of the New Testament that made its critics, Schweitzer among them, recognize the lacuna of previous scholarship in understanding just how central the eschatological was to the New Testament project. While Schweitzer was unable to follow through with his identification of the eschatological as the inner reality of the New Testament witness, vis-à-vis the apocalyptic, it was his work along with some others that brought the need to re-examine the New Testament witness in the light of eschatological reality.

Thomas Torrance offers some important delineation of the impact of this re-focused emphasis on eschatology as he surveys the work of theologians following this sort of New Testament studies revolution. He first identifies the early Barth and his commentary on Romans as taking Schweitzer’s insights to their theological conclusion; taking Schweitzer where Schweitzer himself failed to go. TFT then notes how Barth later corrected some of his early thinking as he matured into the Barth of the Church Dogmatics. But I don’t want to focus on TF’s survey on Barth; instead I want to highlight his sketch of Karl Heim’s work. I find the analogy that emerges in Heim’s thinking to be quite compelling in regard to the way we might think of time’s relationship to eternity in a christological frame. Torrance writes (once again at length):

Even more significant that the work of Althaus, however, has been the work of Karl Heim. On the one hand, his significance lies in the fact that he stands in a closer relation to the biblical message, working out an eschatology in terms of justification and forgiveness, and bringing into history the acute tension manifest in the death of Christ in the contradiction between the powers of evil and the holy love of God. On the other hand, Heim’s significance lies in his efforts to break with the idealist conception of time that has for so long done violence to our understanding of the biblical message. For help in his interpretation, Heim turns partly to Bergson and partly to the changes in modern notions of time due to the new physics, and certainly he manages to introduce into his views something of a Heraclitean tension.

Critics argue that this is only to understand primitive mythology in terms of modern mythology, but although it is not always easy to understand or agree with Heim’s notions of time, particularly when they are influenced by transient scientific theories, he has done us great service both in thinking eschatology and soteriology into each other, and in overthrowing what he calls a static (stabil) view of time in favour of a dynamic (labil) view as the time-form of the Ego. The latter means that he works out a view of eschatology in close association with the life of the church, for our Christian view of time must inevitably be bound up with God’s action in history through the church as the place where eternity is so to speak within time. Eternity does not stand forth only at the end of time but is the frontier of time all along the line. It is the other side of time and beyond time, the final reality that bears upon time. That reality is supremely manifest in the incarnation, and through the death of Christ and through the church in her proclamation of the gospel, it gets to grip with time in the matter of guilt. Thus history, particularly history in relation to the church, is read in terms of the contradiction of sinners against the man of Calvary, and the whole panorama of time has its meaning unfolded there in terms of a dynamic tension so acute that every time is seen to be the last time. Heim does not think in terms of alternatives such as realised eschatology or a future coming of the kingdom at the end of time, but in terms of both.

It is characteristic of Heim that he speaks of these difficult matters again and again through illustrations. Thus he likens the church of the New Testament to a vast iron bridge which spans the torrent of time with a single arch supported by only two pillars, the cross of Christ which stands on this side of time and the coming of Christ in power which stands on the other side of time. The church of Christ in history is maintained from age to age by these two supports and its very being is bound up with the essential unity of these two events, the perfected event of the death and resurrection of Christ and the future event of the parousia. It is because the very being of the church is proleptically conditioned by a new creation to be revealed at the parousia, the return of Christ, that she lives in dynamic tension here and now at the very frontiers of eternity.

This tension is through the tension that lies at the heart of justification, the relation that exists in the conflict between guilt and the power of evil (in which Heim sees behind the outward façade of world history the embattled array of Satanic forces) and the redeeming purpose of God. It is because that struggle was supremely concentrated in the cross, and because Jesus Christ emerged there as absolute victor over all evil that God confronts time through Jesus Christ by whom at last the world will be judged and all history brought to its great consummation. But because it is through Jesus Christ that God confronts the world in its history, history will inevitably repeat on the full scale of humanity the conflict of the cross, but it will be a conflict or cataclysm in which Jesus Christ will emerge triumphant with his new creation of heaven and earth. Because we are concerned through all of this with a dynamic or fluid (labil) view of time we cannot think of the consummation by a lengthening of time but in terms only of God’s moment fulfilling and ending our time. Hence we cannot say in what day or hour the parousia will take place. All we know is that we are confronted now through the gospel with God’s will and with eternity as though this were the last time.[1]

The illustration Torrance shares from Heim is instructive in regard to the hangars of time; hangars that pivot on the first and second advents of Jesus Christ. Biblical eschatology in this approach starts with the res (reality) of Scripture, with Jesus Christ; as if there is a cosmic battle taking place, but one that has been won by the risen Christ. The way the eschaton conditions time and our daily nows is through the proclamation of the Gospel by the witness of the church. It is the reality of new creation known by faith, and given power by the resurrection that the church serves as the witness to the mediator between time and eternity in the hypostatic union of God and man in Jesus Christ. There is a great conflagration inhering in the Christian’s life, of an eschatological vector, as the Christian lives in and from the Omega of God’s eternal life as that implicates the Alpha made present in our daily lives in this mundane world as the Christ’s church.

What we see presented in Heim’s thought, according to Torrance, is a better and more biblical-theological way to think about eschatology. The Bible does not lay out a line of biblical prophetic events that must take place in a domino sort of fashion; it does not give us a code waiting to be decoding by the newspapers, per se. Instead, a biblically rich understanding of the eschatological is to think it in the sort of terms that Heim does; to think it in and from the terms laid out by the incarnation of God, and the obedience of that reality in Jesus Christ as he made a public spectacle of the devil and his demons at the cross. The church, as she bears witness to this powerful reality, in union with Christ by the Spirit, is involved in living the eschatological life that is God’s life in confrontation and destruction of the principalities and powers at work in this ‘world system.’ This is what the eschatological entails; not charts.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 312-14.

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Torrance’s Demythologization of Bultmann: Re-Metaphysicalizing the Gospel Through the Gospel

Because of David Congdon’s book on Bultmann, his book big which I have been reading, I am here going to continue to throw significant noise back at any sort of positive “retrieval” of Bultmann’s theology. The “noise” will, once again, come from my teacher, Thomas F. Torrance. If you want to read his fuller treatment on Bultmann’s theology then pick up his posthumously published book Incarnation and flip to the end notes; Walker (the editor) included a quite lengthy dossier from TFT on Bultmann in critique.

As becomes clear, as you are reading Congdon’s Big Book on Bultmann, there is a disavowal of the metaphysical God of Christian tradition and classical theism[s]. This is simply in line with the period of theological undevelopment that Bultmann was groomed in; the so called postmetaphysical understanding of God, primarily among the Teutonics. Torrance identifies the ideational genealogy of this line of thinking, and helps to further expose the narrow shoulders upon which Bultmann stood in the development of his own thinking. Torrance writes (in extenso):

This brings us to another important but difficult point: Bultmann’s peculiar understanding of history. That is even more clear in the teaching of Gogarten, especially in his little work Demythologisation and History. This is the view that we are ourselves the real creators of history, and that the existence we know is historicised existence. Here two streams of thought run together, and we may best understand that by looking at those two streams of thought: one from Kant through Dilthey, and the other from Roman Catholicism through Heidegger. In Kant’s famous Copernican revolution, idealist philosophers came to think of the human mind as creating its data out of a formless raw material through certain categories of understanding, so that in the very act of knowing we give shape and form to the chaotic flux of experience. Now this notion was carried over by Dilthey to an understanding of history, and so he set himself to write a critique of the historical reason, parallel to Kant’s critique of the pure reason – for Dilthey, this was necessary if the humanistic sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) were not simply to take their criteria and hermeneutical method from the exact natural sciences.

But there is another line of thought that flows into this from the Roman Catholic notion of tradition, that is, of the real meaning of history in an organically developing tradition. This notion was transferred to the understanding of existence by Heidegger, for whom the real existence of a thing is found in its traditions. A thing is what its tradition is, and beyond that tradition there is no thing in itself. In this way, Heidegger transposed the medieval view of existence and essence by telescoping them into each other. For him, essence is found in existence, and on that ground, existence in essence. In Bultmann and Gogarten both of these lines of interpreting history run together, and for them history is that which we make it to be, so that beyond our historicisation of existence, there is no reality.

Historical existence and the history of existence are identical. Applied to the gospel tradition, that means that what is actually historical is what the apostles made of the raw material in front of them, and behind that there is no reality. The historical reality is what they made it to be – apart from their creation there is nothing, there exists nothing. The only real historical Jesus is what we make of him. That helps to explain why for Bultmann the apostles (from our point of view) had to distort the picture of Jesus in their presentation – there is in fact no other Jesus than that, their creation of him. This view of history destroys what Bultmann and Gogarten call the metaphysical interpretation of the faith or the historical Jesus, and eliminates from the Christ-event anything of an objective, independent, ontological nature. Or to put it in other words, according to Bultmann and Gogarten, modern men and women cannot understand history apart from our own responsibility for it; and apart from our responsible handling of it, there is in point of fact no history, for there is no history apart from the changes human beings have introduced into it. By our decisions we give the world its particular form, so that reality is now this changing history which we create, and beyond and apart from that there is nothing real for us.

Now quite frankly this is the biggest myth yet created by man – that we ourselves are the creators of all history, and that apart from the history created by human beings, nothing else is real! Man is the God of history! In view of this, it is clear that it is not the New Testament that Bultmann and Gogarten themselves that need to be radically demythologised! So long as they work with such inverted conceptions of history, scientific interpretation of the New Testament is quite impossible.[1]

Torrance opines further and latterly in his treatment this way:

In point of fact, then, Bultmann’s demythologization of the kerygma means stripping it of its physical elements – its setting in physical history and the physical world of space and time in which we live. The whole process which takes the kerygma out of that setting and plants it in some setting of existential decision, cuts out of the gospel its historical particularity, and cuts out of the incarnation its ephapax, its ‘once and for all’ finality. It cuts the kerygma adrift from history altogether. Now Bultmann declares that he does not do that, for the existential decision is in historical encounter with the crucified Jesus, but once that decision is made, history as we know it is set aside, and in point of fact he does therefore cut the kerygma adrift from history, for history has no essential relation to the substance and content of faith. The historical event of Christ, apart from the appeal it addresses to us, signifies nothing for our salvation, for it is not a source of salvation independent of ourselves. The historical fact of Christ cannot be the object of the kerygma, since it is the kerygma, says Bultmann, that is, the kerygma as he understands it, that declares its meaning and confers on it its value as saving event. It is only because the kerygma is a function of man’s self understanding that it invests the historical fact of the crucified Christ with a meaning and an existential reality which it does not have in itself.[2]

And in a zinging type of way Torrance offers a final critique of Bultmann’s lack of theologia crucis:

The plain fact is that Bultmann shies away from the weakness of God on the cross, as Paul called it, and so is offended at the cross. The fact that the eternal God is there in all that weakness is a scandal to his ‘Greek’ mind, and the fact that his eternal salvation must repose upon a contingent fact of history in Jesus frightens him – and therefore it is Bultmann himself above all who seeks false security by cutting the kerygma adrift from history and all its weakness, so that it will not be open to the criticisms of rationalism. Or, paradoxically, he deliberately uses all the weapons of positivist science in order to destroy the historical foundations of faith, so that faith may rest on something that is not subject to weakness or change and relativity and contingency. He thus has not the courage to rest his faith upon the weakness of God in the historical Jesus, and so seek falsely to secure himself and his self-understanding within the limits of scientism.[3]

Torrance’s critiques do not fall on deaf ears. As one reads Congdon’s book on Bultmann all of TFT’s points are spot on. It is unfortunate that Congdon didn’t really interact with Torrance’s points of critique, but that does not negate the force of Torrance’s critiques. It is interesting to me, because as I have followed Congdon’s theological development and present conclusions, his conclusions are exactly that of Bultmann’s; and thus fall under the mantle of Torrance’s insights and critiques. Congdon offers certain words of pushback against critiques like Torrance’s, particularly in regard to the idea that Bultmann relied upon Heidegger in paradigmatic ways, but he only asserts that Bultmann arrived at his views prior to reliance upon Heidegger, and that he found in Heidegger a like-minded companion to help round out his thinking. But that’s hardly an adequate response to the sort of penetrating critique that Torrance offers.

When you think about it: If God is the center of your thinking you will not have an aversion to metaphysics, per se; but if you are the center of your thinking you will indeed have an aversion to metaphysics. Metaphysics, in a denotative sense, does not mean that the thinker must be overly committed to Hellenic forms of thinking; indeed, as Torrance intimates, Bultmann himself suffers from this over reliance in his so called demythologized postmetaphysics. The concern that some of us have, myself included, is that metaphysics are not properly evangelized by the Gospel reality; that metaphysics come prior to the Revelation thus modulating the Gospel into something it isn’t. But this concern is different than Bultmann and his impulses. He was under the sway of a humanistic idealism that was attempting to navigate the Enlightenment waters by giving full head nod to them while still attempting to have a lively Christian faith under those constraints. Torrance helps us see how Bultmann’s noble attempts failed radically!

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 284-85.

[2] Ibid., 289-90.

[3] Ibid., 290.

Retrieving the Modern Conception of God’s Being-in-Becoming For the Sake of the Church; For the Sake of Orthodoxy and Biblical Faithfulness

We will get back to the analogia entis and a doctrine of creation at a later date. In this post we will explore, briefly, a theology proper of God’s being-in-becoming within a dialectical theological frame. What I am going to share (again from David Congdon — I’m currently reading through his big book on Bultmann) represents an approach I was first exposed to probably back in about 2005, and is the style of theology that has in-formed the shape of my theological existence since. As you will see it has shreds of narratival, existential, dialectical, post-liberal components making up the trajectory; but importantly, for me, while I am a serious fan of this idea of ‘being-in-becoming’ I still am also committed to orthodox components, and traditional elements that go into supplying a grammar for thinking God that I believe best comports with what we have given to us and for us in God’s Self-revelation and exegesis in the eternal Logos made flesh, in Jesus Christ. So maybe I’m Orthodox&Modern. But it should also be noted that while I retrieve from the modern period, I’m doing just that. In other words, I’m not arriving at all my theological conclusions under the same pressures say as someone like Schleiermacher, Barth, Bultmann, or Jüngel; instead I’m reaping the benefits of their labors and conclusions, attempting to constructively bring them into relief such that they help to edify a doctrine of God that, in my view, best reflects the Evangel.

In the following Congdon helps explicate the soundings of Bultmann’s theology proper for us. What you will see is that at this level Bultmann and Barth have much in common (you’ll also want to reference Eberhard Jüngel’s book God’s Being is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth); they have a shared vision, at least when it comes to the actualism funding this understanding of God. Let’s dig in, and then I will follow with some closing comments (this post will not be as long as the last one).

We must begin where Bultmann himself does: with Jesus as understood in the tradition of early Christianity. In his 1926 Jesus book Bultmann describes the concept of God that comes to expression in as his teaching within the Synoptic tradition. He begins by contrasting the Jewish and Greek notions of God. The Greeks conceive of God as a law-governing worldly phenomena, as “the origin and formative principle of the world” that lies beyond but always connected to the cosmos. God is therefore an idea graspable by reason, an object that “can be subjected to observational thinking.” Judaism, by contrast, views God not as an idea or principle but as the sovereign, creative will. God is the creator who wills the existence of the world, and thus “in relation to human beings God is the sovereign lord who deals with people according to God’s will as the potter deals with the clay.” There is no talk of metaphysical natures or substances. God’s transcendence is not secured by rational principles that bind the idea of God necessarily to the world; rather, God is transcendent by virtue of the creation’s relatedness to and dependence upon the will of the creator.

As a Jewish prophet and teacher, Jesus shares the Jewish conception of God and weds it to his proclamation of the coming eschatological kingdom, which serves only to heighten the distinctiveness of his understanding of God in contrast to all Hellenistic notions.

For him God is not an object of thinking, of speculation. . . . God is for him neither a metaphysical substance [Wesenheit] nor a cosmic power nor a law of the world, but rather a personal will, holy and gracious will. Jesus speaks of God only to say that the human person is claimed by God’s will and is determined in the person’s present existence by God’s demand, God’s judgment, God’s grace. The remote God is form him at the same time the God who is near. . . . Jesus speaks of God not in universals truths and theorems but only of how God is for human beings, how God deals with human beings. He therefore does not speak objectively of the attributes of God, of God’s eternity, immutability, etc., by which Greek thinking endeavored to describe the transcendent essence of God.

Anticipating the objection that this account seems to suggest that Jesus only speaks of God subjectively, in terms of God’s being ad extra, and not objectively in terms of the ad intra, Bultmann adds that “Jesus does not differentiate between a remote, mysterious, metaphysical essence of God and God’s action toward us as the expression of this essence. Rather, the remote and the near God are one, and we cannot speak of God in Jesus’ sense if we do not speak of God’s action.” In other words, God is what God does, the being of God, according to this interpretation of Jesus, has to be identified with God’s action in history. The divine essence is the divine will. God’s will is determinative of God’s very being.[1]

If you have ever heard of a postmetaphysical or anti-metaphysical approach to theology then what you just read is that. What you just read is also what is at the nub of controversy between Barth scholars (e.g. “Barth Wars” or “Companion Controversy”); some believe Barth should be read just as we have explicated above, and others believe Barth should be read more “metaphysically.” Personally, I slide back and forth on a continuum in-between. Sometimes I feel more metaphysical in orientation, but usually my default is more post-metaphysical; what I prefer to call narratival (i.e. following the contours of the narrative of written Scripture; Robert Jenson exemplifies this style).

Many will be rebuffed by the Jewish versus Greek distinction underscored by Congdon’s treatment of Bultmann, but I still believe that distinction has teeth (even acknowledging the von Harnackian thesis and its supposed defeat among certain thinkers; thinkers who want to “Greekify” God in certain ways). But I will submit: I think the reason I have been attracted to this distinction and to the actualist narratival approach to developing a doctrine of God, in particular, and doing theology in general is because I have first and foremost been a bible reader (and remain such). So my own default is going to almost sound like de nuda scriptura (or solo scriptura) rather than a sola scriptura that allows the tradition of the Church to inform its interpretation of Scripture, theologically. But, again, I’m somewhere in-between; but then again I think Barth was too. I’m interested in engaging constructively with the grammar the tradition of the church has supplied for us, and then reifying that grammar, or better, refining that grammar such that the God revealed in Jesus Christ, under the terms we have just been exposed to through Congdon’s Bultmann/Barth, is allowed to excavate the traditional symbols under the recognition that God’s being in becoming looks exactly like Jesus acts (e.g. ‘If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father’ cf. Jn. 14). Thomas Torrance is also in this camp; representing more of a mediating character from Bultmann/Barth to an even more focused approach and emphasis upon the ecclesiological symbols or grammar of the tradition. Bringing Torrance into this discussion; I often find myself siding with the Barth side rather than the Torrance ecclesiocentric type (the Barth emphasis of God’s being-in-becoming).

Anyway, another blog post; more to think about; thanks for thinking with me.

 

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 322-24.

Convergence in Muller, Barth, and Torrance on Immutability and Incarnation

When you read Richard Muller back in 1983 on immutability and incarnation he sounds like Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth in significant ways. Obviously there are important differences as far as the modes of theological appropriation—in regard to the periods of theological development within which Muller is drawing versus Torrance/Barth—but what is shared is a common orthodoxy vis-à-vis the Chalcedonian tradition in its principle parts. Here is Muller followed by two quotes; one from Torrance the other from Barth:

Torrance,

think of the economic Trinity as the freely predetermined manifestation in the history of salvation of the eternal Trinity which God himself was before the foundation of the world, and eternally is. Hence, when we rightly speak of the oneness between the ontological Trinity and the economic Trinity, we may not speak of that oneness without distinguishing and delimiting it from the ontological Trinity—there are in any case . . . elements in the incarnate economy such as the time patter of human life in this world which we may not read back into the eternal Life of God. (Christian Doctrine of God, p. 109)[1]

Barth,

it is not just good sense but absolutely essential that along with all older theology we make a deliberate and sharp distinction between the Trinity of God as we may know it in the Word of God revealed, written and proclaimed, and God’s immanent Trinity, i.e., between “God in Himself” and “God for us,” between the “eternal history of God” and His temporal acts. . . . “God for us” does not arise as a matter of course out of the “God in Himself.” . . . It is true as an act of God, as a step which God takes towards man. (CD I/1, p. 72)[2]

Clearly, where Muller ends up going, theologically, and where Barth/Torrance arrive are substantially different in particular ways. But I thought it was at least worth highlighting that Barth/Torrance and Muller, at least in regard to some basic commitments relative to Christology share a common desire to work in and from the Chalcedonian patterning of the ecumenical church. Of course, this is not uncontroversial, particularly when it comes to the way Barth is read based upon his actualistic “metaphysic” or “postmetaphysic” as the case might be. Paul Molnar argues, almost exhaustively, that Barth ought to be read traditionally; this in contrast to the Bruce McCormack camp that sees shift in Barth’s Christological fathoming between his Church Dogmatics I/1 and IV/1 based upon his reformulation of election in II/1. But that’s a story for another day.

 

*Richard Muller quotes: from this essay.

[1] Cited by Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 348.

[2] Ibid.

The Prius of God’s Life IS God’s Life of Triune Personal Love: An Alternative Account of Predestination Referred to God’s Life

Predestination that shibboleth of Reformed theology; it has been shibboleth to me as well. Predestination is the idea that God arbitrarily elects particular people to eternal life, and chooses that others either remain (passive) reprobate or are (active) reprobate with no actual hope for eternal life. This approach to a God-world relation relies upon a philosophical theory of causation of the sort that we find in Aristotle’s theology; a theory of causation that relegates God’s relation to the world to a set of necessary commitments—primary of which is that God is the Unmoved Mover (e.g. impassibility; immuatability). Without getting into the details of what this theory of causation entails specifically I will refer us instead to the Westminster Confession of Faith’s (WCF) chapter three where it confesses what it thinks about a God-world relation in the doctrine of Predestination:

Chapter III

Of God’s Eternal Decree

I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. II. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions. III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death. IV. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished. V. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto; and all to the praise of His glorious grace. VI. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only. VII. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extends or withholds mercy, as He pleases, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice. VIII. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel.[1]

For its time and place this might have been the best the Westminster Divines could do; viz. with the theological categories they had available to them—although that is contestable, given the reality that there were counter voices within the Reformed world at that time who emphasized a God of immediate personal love (think, Richard Sibbes). But we live in the 21st century, and time has passed; reflection has been undertaken; theological categories have developed; and I would suggest that the Gospel can be better for it. Thomas Torrance under the influence of Athanasius and Karl Barth (and Michael Polyani, Clerk Maxwell, Einstein et al.) offers an alternative account of Predestination wherein the reference is not individual people scattered throughout the annals of created history, but instead the reference is God’s life in Christ. In other words, Pre-destination, in Torrance’s theology, and Evangelical Calvinist theology after, refers to God’s life in Christ, his choice to be for the world and not against it, his prothesis grounded in who he is as eternal Triune love. For Torrance God’s life of love just is the inner-factor that grounds his choice to be Immanuel, God with us. This is counter the ad hoc choice of God we see orienting the doctrine of predestination in the theology of the Westminsterians; a choice that he makes based upon his secret will hidden in the recesses of his remote life that remains inaccessible (Deus absconditus) even with the revelation (Deus revelatus) of Godself in Christ. In other words, again as both Barth and Torrance would say, there is a ‘god behind the back of Jesus’ in the Westminsterian schema such that we aren’t ultimately sure of why God does what he does; only that he indeed does it. But this isn’t concordant with Holy Scripture or the reality it attests to in Jesus Christ. What we know is that God does what he does because he is love, of the sort that shapes his response to the human predicament by electing to be human, and giving his life in Christ for the sheep. What we know is that God acts in personal and intimately driven ways, filial ways, of the sort that inhere eternally between the Father and the Son by the fellowshipping love of the Holy Spirit. Place this up against the Westminsterian conception of God in the doctrine of predestination and see if it coheres.

Paul Molnar, as he develops Thomas Torrance’s theology (and Barth’s) of predestination offers a wonderful account of all that we have just been sketching. Let me offer, at length, his considerations, and commend them to you. As Evangelical Calvinists, what follows, by way of description of Torrance’s theology, is what shapes our own approach to a doctrine of Pre-destination.

The second important thing to notice is that Torrance insists that in Jesus Christ we are confronted with “the eternal decision of God’s eternal love. In Jesus Christ, therefore, eternal election has become temporal event.” But that means that election is not “some static act in a still point of eternity.” Rather it is “eternal pre-destination, moving out of its eternal prius into time as living act that from moment to moment confronts people in Jesus Christ.” Hence, “the ‘pre’ in predestination refers neither to a temporal nor to a logical prius, but simply to God Himself, the Eternal.” This is a vital insight. For Torrance, while we tend to think of eternity “as strung out in an infinite line with past, present, and future though without beginning and without end, in the form of an elongated circular time,” this must not lead us to suppose that there is a “worldly prius” in God, because that would introduce immediately a “logical one” as well. If and when predestination is brought within the compass of created time, then it would be thought of within the “compass of the temporal-causal series” and “interpreted in terms of cause and effect,” and this would necessarily lead to determinism, which is the very opposite of what is actually affirmed in the “pre” of predestination. Torrance says the “pre” in predestination, when rightly understood, is “the most vigorous protest against determinism” known to Christian theology. Since the “pre” in predestination does not refer to a “prius to anything here in space and time,” it cannot be construed as “the result of an inference from effect to first cause, or from relative to absolute, or to any world-principle.” Rather, because election is “in Jesus Christ,” the “pre” does not take election “out of time” but “grounds it in an act of the Eternal which we can only describe as ‘per se’ or ‘a se.’” That means it is grounded “in the personal relations of the Trinity” so that “because we know God to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we know the Will of God to be supremely Personal—and it is to that Will that predestination tells us our salvation is to be referred.”

But we can make that reference only “if that Will has first come among us and been made personally known. That has happened (ἐγένετο) in Christ, and in Him the act of predestination is seen to be the act of creative Grace in the communion of the Holy Spirit.” Election thus refers to God’s “choice or decision” and “guarantees to us the freedom of God. His sovereignty, His omnipotence is not one that acts arbitrarily, nor by necessity, but by personal decision. God is therefore no blind fate, no immanent force acting under the compulsion of some prius or unknown law within His being.” The importance of emphasizing choice here concerns the fact that election cannot involve any necessity without becoming immediately a form of determinism. Instead, election refers to God’s freedom “to break the bondage of a sinful world, and to bring Himself into personal relations with man”; election refers to a personal action from God’s side and from the human side. Hence it is an act that creates personal relations. While God freely creates our human personal relations, human freedom is “essentially dependent freedom,” while “the divine freedom is independent, ‘a se’ freedom; the freedom of the Creator as distinguished from the freedom of the creature.” In this connection Torrance describes election as “an act of love.” It means that “God has chosen us because He loves us, and the He loves us because He loves us.”

That may sound a bit strange. But it is loaded comment, because what Torrance means is that if we try to get behind this act of God’s love toward us to find a reason beyond the simple fact that God loves us because he does, we will end up turning God’s free love of us into a necessity in one way or another and thus once again compromise both divine and human freedom in the process. So Torrance insists,

The reason why God loves us is love. To give any other reason for love than love itself, whether it be a reason in God Himself, such as an election according to some divine prius that precedes Grace, or whether it be in man, is to deny love, to disrupt the Christian apprehension of God and to condemn the world to chaos! [Torrance, “Predestination in Christ,” 117]

Election is Christ the beloved Son of the Father, and the act of election in him is once and for all, a perfectum praesens, an eternal decision that is ever present. God’s eternal decision does not halt or come to rest at any particular point or result, but is dynamic, and ever takes the field in its identity with the living person of Chirst. [Torrance, “Predestination in Christ,” 117]

Hence it is “contemporary with us” and summons us to decision as to who we say he is. Here we must confront more directly the relationship between time and eternity. How exactly can one maintain that election is an eternal decision without reducing the eternal love between the Father and Son to the love of God enacted in the history of Jesus Christ for us? How can one maintain the strength of Torrance’s insight that creation and incarnation are new acts even for God without obviating the power contained in the assertion that Jesus Christ is the ever-present act of God’s electing love?[2]

Molnar leaves off with some questions that alert us to the discussion and critique he has been making in regard to a McCormackian reading of Barth’s theology, in particular. But that does not currently concern us. I wanted to share this very lengthy quote (and thus risk losing blog readers who typically won’t go beyond 1500 words) in order to provide insight into theology that I rarely see shared online; at least not in the context of Reformed theology. People need to know that Reformed theology is expansive, but they also need to appreciate that Christian theology in general isn’t ultimately about being able to align with that interpretive tradition, or this; but instead what we should really care about is whether or not what is being communicated is most proximate with the Gospel itself.

What I hope you have come to see is that God loves us because he just is, LOVE! I hope you can see that there is a way to think of soteriological issues from within the concrete revelation of God’s life in Jesus Christ; and that from that vantage point how we conceive of the God-world relation ought to be thought of in personal rather than abstract terms. Theological systems are often averse to thinking in personal and relational terms because they are afraid that this reduces God-thought to an existentialist frame of reference (oh no, not that!), or that it so subjectivizes God that theology becomes a form of anthropology (the boogeyman, Schleiermacher). But within the theologies of Barth, Torrance et al. what becomes apparent is that none of those fears are true. If we want to think about Predestination properly then we ought to think it from God’s Self-revelation itself; where the Son of the Father is the primary means by which we understand God to be—in other words in personal terms.

[1]Westminster Confession of Faith.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 202-05.

The Athanasian God of Love: He Hasn’t Always Been the Creator; But He Has Always Been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

I think an important reality to grasp when thinking about God’s relationship to us is that there is nothing in that relationship that is contingent upon us; it is all contingent upon who God is in himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This kicks against our natural inclinations, inclinations that remain present even after we are made alive by the Spirit in union with Christ’s humanity; we are still sinners, as a result we will continue to attempt to introduce ourselves into the ground of the relationship that inheres between ourselves and God. Indeed, this attempt will work its way into our theologies, and into the praxis that follows. Paul Molnar has been working against what he discerns as an attempt to ground God’s inner life in his outer life in the economy; this attempt, according to Molnar, has been made by folks like Bruce McCormack, Ben Myers, Kevin Hector, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Dafyyd Jones as each of these theologians have attempted to read the implications of Barth’s theology in rather creative, or constructive ways. The verities of this particular discussion get rather technical, and so for this blog post we will avoid such weeds; but I wanted to note some background in order to make sense of what I will be sharing from Molnar with reference to who God is for us in Christ and what that means in regard to creation and recreation. Most importantly, I simply want to highlight how God is love, and how that love is inimical to whom God is.

Paul Molnar writes the following in regard to who God is, and what that looks like in an Athanasian–Torrancean frame. Maybe after you read the quote some of what I shared above will make a little more sense. After the quote I will reflect more personally on how knowing that God is love makes a difference for me; and hopefully this reality will make a difference for you too.

At this point it would helpful to point out that much of the difficulty surrounding the issues discussed in the last chapter centers on how to relate God’s external and internal activities and on the proper understanding of the relationship between time and eternity. Following Thomas F. Torrance and Karl Barth, I have argued that there is and must be a priority of the Father/Son relation over the creator/creature relation because what God is toward us he is eternally in himself; and in his sovereign actions of love for us in his Word and Spirit, the eternal generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit cannot be confused with God’s actions as creator, reconciler, and redeemer. The ultimate indications of such a confusion would be any idea that the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit might be seen as the result of an act of will on God’s part. God freely willed to relate with us by creating us, reconciling us and redeeming us. But these actions are an overflow of his eternal love and glory, not in any emanationist sense, but as acts of will expressing God’s superabundance rather than any lack; thus they are not in any sense necessary to God. They are, as Torrance often said, acts of amazing grace.

Importantly, then, any idea that what God is toward us is in any sense constitutive of God’s eternal being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit would be a clear indication of the Origenist confusion of God’s internal and external relations. This is why, following Torrance especially, I have stressed that while God was eternally the Father he was not always creator, and that while God was always the Son he was not always incarnate. Hence, creation and incarnation must be seen as new actions, new even for God. There is a delicate balance that is required here because once the incarnation has taken place, it is impossible to disjoin Christ’s divinity and humanity; from then on he lives as the incarnate Word, and now he lives as the risen ascended Lord of history and interacts with us as the eternal high priest and as the Mediator in both his human and divine natures in virtue of the hypostatic union. It is just at this point in Christology where it is imperative, however, that one distinguish between God’s internal and external relations. Without this distinction in the eternal being of the Son will be thought to be changed or constituted in some sense by his human history. Yet, his human history is the history of God acting for us in the world as the reconciler without ceasing to be the Word through who God created the world and through whom God continues to uphold it in the power of his eternal Spirit. We have already seen that Athanasius insisted on the importance of this point by rejecting any idea that the Word came to exist by an act of will on the part of the Father.[1]

There is a lot going on here, but for our purposes what I want us to notice is that who God is, particularly as he is for us, is something that graciously flows from who he is first in his inner and eternal life. If we can grasp this we will find great stability, not in ourselves, but in who he is. Once we can accept this reality about God we can rest in his eternal life of triune love.

I think that we need to understand all of the above (and more!) so that we are not easily swayed by the winds of doctrine currently blowing around the church. We want to recognize as John does that ‘God is love,’ but we don’t want to work our ‘worldly’ conceptions of what that entails into God’s life; we want to allow God’s life to determine what his love looks like. It isn’t a sentimentalism or a God who is my teddy-bear that we after; instead we should want to submit ourselves to whatever and whomever God is. We can only accept this about who God is if we allow our thoughts to be shaped and reshaped by encounter with him in and through the humanity of Christ by the Holy Spirit; it is here where the type of ‘repentant thinking’ that Torrance was so concerned with will and can take place.

My broader concern is that God is not being presented to the evangelical churches this way; that God instead is being presented in a way where he comes with edges and performance based expectations that in fact he does not have. My concern is that a nomist (law) God, a Wyatt Earp God is who people are being introduced to, such that their understanding of him isn’t really based upon his Self-revelation itself, but instead upon a philosophical conception of God who operates in impersonal and decretive ways towards his creation, toward people.

So, on the one hand, we have the Progressive God, and on the other hand the Puritan God being given to the people. I want to suggest that this introduces conceptions of God into the mix that are not actually contingent upon who he actually is, but instead contingent upon who we have posited him to be; and this positing might be very organic and sophisticated in the way it attempts to imagine its way into how we think God, but in the end I do not believe these approaches, usually, are based upon God’s Self-determination of who he actually is for us from who he eternally and antecedently is in himself.

Once I realized this; once I realized that there was a way to think God from the way God has revealed himself to be in the Incarnation a real peace began to minister to my soul. I am well aware of the piety that many folks, both on the Progressive and Puritan sides have in regard to the way that they attempt to think God, but I don’t think piety is able to cover a multitude of sins; only God’s love can do that.

[1] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 187-88.

Theology of Ascension

*Something I wrote years ago, but something that I am thankful for everyday. If Jesus had not ascended He would not be seated at the right hand of the Father always living to make intercession for those of us who have come to inherit His eternal life. I know Ascension Sunday is a ways a way yet, but I enjoy thinking about it. So here’s a post that helps us, or at least me, do that.

As Christians we often think about the theology of cross, and the hope of the resurrection (as we should!); but often what gets lost is a theology of the Ascension, and what that means for both now, and the future. Colossians 2, and the language of pleroma, or the plenitude of God’s fullness embodied in Christ dovetails with this, and the primacy of Christ’s life for creation as we are lead into chapter two from chapter one of Colossians, starting in verse 15. Without the ascension we would have no hope of salvation, no assurance of salvation, no High Priestly praying for us by Jesus, and no hope for final and bodily consummation. So the ascension, beyond just signifying that Jesus is above all, and beyond being the means by which he left this earth for the eyewitnesses to see, provides for us a multitude of other hopes and assurances; that without which, we would be a pitiable mass. Here is how Thomas Torrance makes this significant in a discussion he is providing for how ascension functioned in the theology of Scottish reformer, John Knox:

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Knox laid unusually strong emphasis on the ascension of Jesus Christ in the self-same body which was born of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified, dead and buried and which rose again, and very rightly. It is one of the most neglected doctrines of the Faith. Ascension is not just an addendum to the story of Jesus, a ringing down of the curtain on his earthly life, but it is one of the great essential salvation events. The ascension of the Lord Jesus is the inauguration of the Kingdom of God over the whole creation, but as centred in Christ it is the Kingdom of Christ. What did the ascension do?

(1) It was the completion of the Incarnation event. He who descended also ascended. The very same body which had been born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, and died and was buried, ascended into heaven, for the accomplishment of all things. Thus the saving work of Christ reaches up into eternity, into the ultimate mystery of God.

(2) The union of God and man in Christ was assumed into the immediate presence of God the Father on his throne — there Christ wears our human life, and it is in our name that he is there at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, standing in for us.

(3) In our name and for our comfort he ascended to take possession of his Kingdom, to inaugurate it and enlarge it. There he is given and receives all power in heaven and on earth — there the crucified Christ sits at the right hand of power and glory.

(4) The Heavenly Session of Christ speaks of the fact that he ever lives to make intercession for us as our Advocate and High Priest and only Mediator, and prays and intercedes for us. This is the teaching of the Epistle of Hebrews, and plays a central role in Knox’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

(5) In his ascension Christ opened the heavens into which we may appear in him before the throne of the Father’s mercy. Christ’s ascension is the ground of our comfort and assurance. It is the ascended Christ who sends us his Spirit, the Comforter. Thus the full meaning of the ascension is to be discerned in relation to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. It is in this light that the Church of Christ is to be understood, as ‘the blessed society which we the members have with our Head and only Mediator Christ Jesus, whom we confess and avow to be the Messiah promised, the only Head of his Kirk, our just Lawgiver, our only High Priest, Advocate and Mediator.

Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 21-2.

Be enriched, be edified; I am.

A Response to Kevin DeYoung’s Response to Tom McCall’s Christianity Today Article on the Atonement: A ‘Depth Dimensional’ Consideration

Christianity Today shared an article written by professor Tom McCall (a friend of mine) just as we were upon Good Friday; it had to do with the atonement and the cry of dereliction ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken Me?’ that Jesus cried out on the cross. Kevin DeYoung, a few days following offered a response article via The Gospel Coalition. In conclusion he challenges McCall’s reading this way:

Hodge would agree with McCall’s point that Christ did not suffer exactly what sinners deserve, but would McCall agree with Hodge that Christ suffered the weight of what sinners deserved? More to the point, would he agree with Hodge’s understanding of forensic satisfaction? “The essence of the penalty of the divine law,” Hodge writes, “is the manifestation of God’s displeasure, the withdrawal of the divine favor. This Christ suffered in our stead. He bore the wrath of God.” For sinners this would lead to “hopeless perdition,” but for Christ it meant “a transient hiding of the Father’s face” (473). And lest this be confused with a breach of Trinitarian relations, Hodges makes clear that the “satisfaction of Christ” was a “matter of covenant between the Father and the Son” (472).

Granted, McCall is from the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, so he may deny all that Calvin and Hodge affirm. But at the very least, they show us a way to deny what McCall wants to deny—a crass Father versus Son Trinitarian breach—while still affirming a wrath-satisfying, God-appeasing, Father-turns-his-face-away penal substitutionary atonement. Whether this way is a better way is beyond scope of this post. But for my part, it’s hard to understand why Christ would ask for the cup to be taken from him unless he believed it to be the cup of God’s wrath that he would drink to the bitter dregs for sinners like us. (source)

DeYoung, predictably, is arguing, because he’s concerned, that McCall just might not really be on board with the classical Protestant understanding of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) after all. We see this particularly as DeYoung leaves off with this quip: “But for my part, it’s hard to understand why Christ would ask for the cup to be taken from him unless he believed it to be the cup of God’s wrath that he would drink to the bitter dregs for sinners like us.” Yet, this makes one wonder, at least it makes me wonder, does DeYoung really think that “God’s wrath” can only be understand from a forensic/juridical frame? Indeed, I’m positive this is the only way that DeYoung sees God’s wrath vis-à-vis the atoning cross-work of Christ.

But this clearly is not the only way, nor should it be construed as THE way wherein God’s wrath is most severely focused. As an Evangelical Calvinist I will contend, along with Thomas Torrance et al., that the source of God’s wrath is ultimately creational rather than juridical; that what God is most wrathful of is that his good and very good creation has been polluted by the dregs of sin to the point that God’s intended desire to fellowship with us in the ‘cool of the Garden’ was disrupted. In other words, what it means to be human was distorted to the point that its intended telos or purpose has lost orientation; that human being itself has become so sub-humanized that the only hope was for God to assume humanity, all the way down to the very heart of it all, and redeem through recreation/resurrection from that depth; to rehumanize through the recreation wrought by the resurrection of the forever God-human, Jesus Christ. This was the ultimate source of God’s wrath; that a foreigner like sin would seek to so disrupt his good and very good plan that his love fellowship with his graciously created counter-points in creation was lost. Yes, the forensic was present, but there is no forensic without the creation first—noting not only the logical but chronological and priority of the ground of ‘being’ that precedes all else.

In an attempt to detail this further let me share something I have written previously with the hopes of potentially identifying one way in which there is a greater depth, and as such, a greater wrath of God to be understood in and through the revelation of Godself in the atoning work of Jesus Christ; a work that started in the manger (temporally). You will see, I hope, how what I’ve written applies to this current discussion; and you might see further how it’s possible to think of God’s wrath with greater theological acuity than DeYoung himself seems to think. Beyond that, it identifies the type of space that I think McCall might just have been suggesting is needed in discussions like this one.

For Thomas Torrance the atonement is the contradiction of sin by which Godself inserts himself into the brokenness and fallen-ness of our humanity, through the humanity of Christ, and by so doing vanquishes sin—its death and destruction—by his very own and sui generis being as God and man in Christ. We left off in the last post referring to sin in the theology of Torrance, let me briefly touch upon that further here.

For Torrance sin isn’t simply a transactional or legal situation it is something that touches the deepest reaches of what it means to be a human being; it sub-humanizes people because it disintegrates the koinonial bond that was originally inherent to what it meant for a human to be a human created in the image of God as an image of the image who is Christ (cf. Col. 1.15). This is why for Torrance, and us Evangelical Calvinists following, what was required in the atonement was that our very beings as human beings be recreated in the human being that Jesus assumed enhypostatically as the man from Nazareth. You won’t find this type of penetrative consideration in the forensic framing of atonement that you find in Federal or Covenantal theology; or for that matter, as a subset, what you find in more basic accounts of Reformed theology as we see typified in what is popularly called Five-Point-Calvinism.

Here is an example of how Torrance thinks about the depth dimension of salvation/atonement:

On the cross, the oneness of God and man in Christ is inserted into the midst of our being, into the midst of our sinful existence and history, into the midst of our guilt and death. The inserting of the oneness of God and man into the deepest depths of human existence in its awful estrangement from God, and the enactment of it in the midst of its sin and in spite of all that sin can do against it, is atonement. In a profound sense, atonement is the insertion of the union into the very being of our alienated and fallen humanity. That insertion of oneness by atonement results in koinōnia, in the church as the communion in which Christ dwells, and in which we are made partakers of the divine nature. The koinōnia thus created by the atonement and resurrection of Christ is fully actualised in our midst by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and is maintained by the power of the Spirit as the church continues in the fellowship of word and sacrament….[1]

As we have been emphasizing, for Torrance, and then us Evangelical Calvinists in his wake, salvation is an ontological occurrence; of necessity. The Apostle Paul is quite clear about the depth and reach of sin’s impact, which is why he emphasizes creational and new creational themes so frequently (cf. II Cor. 5:17; Rom. 8:18ff; Col. 1:15ff; etc.). Torrance along with a part of the Christian tradition simply notes this reality in the Apostolic deposit found in the New Testament and seeks to develop the inner logic being presupposed upon by Apostles like Paul et al.

Here is one more example of how Torrance thinks salvation. Here we have an example of what Torrance calls the ‘ontological theory of the atonement,’ it is in line with what we just read from him previously:

It is above all in the Cross of Christ that evil is unmasked for what it actually is, in its inconceivable wickedness and malevolence, in its sheer contradiction of the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, in its undiluted enmity to God himself—not to mention the way in which it operates under the cover of the right and the good and the lawful. That the infinite God should take the way of the Cross to save mankind from the pit of evil which has engulfed it and deceived it, is the measure of the evil of evil: its depth is revealed to be ‘absymal’ (literally, ‘without bottom’). However, it is only from the vantage point of God’s victory over evil in the resurrection of Christ, from the bridge which in him God has overthrown across the chasm of evil that has opened up in our violence and death and guilt, that we may look into the full horror of it all and not be destroyed in the withering of our souls through misanthropy, pessimism, and despair. What hope could there ever be for a humanity that crucifies the incarnate love of God and sets itself implacably against the order of divine love even at the point of its atoning and healing operation? But the resurrection tells us that evil, even this abysmal evil, does not and cannot have the last word, for that belongs to the love of God which has negated evil once and for all and which through the Cross and resurrection is able to make all things work together for good, so that nothing in the end will ever separate us from the love of God. It is from the heart of that love in the resurrected Son of God that we may reflect on the radical nature of evil without suffering morbid mesmerization or resurrection and crucifixion events, which belong inseparably together, has behind it the incarnation, the staggering fact that God himself has come directly into our creaturely being to become one of us, for our sakes. Thus the incarnation, passion, and resurrection conjointly tell us that far from evil having to do only with human hearts and minds, it has become entrenched in the ontological depths of created existence and that it is only from within those ontological depths that God could get at the heart of evil in order to destroy it, and set about rebuilding what he had made to be good. (We have to think of that as the only way that God ‘could’ take, for the fact that he has as a matter of fact taken this way in the freedom of his grace excludes any other possibility from our consideration.) It is surely in the light of this ontological salvation that we are to understand the so-called ‘nature of miracles’, as well as the resurrection of Jesus from death, for they represent not a suspension of the natural or created order but the very reverse, the recreation of the natural order wherever it suffers from decay or damage or corruption or disorder through evil. God does not give up his claim that the creation is ‘good’, but insists on upholding that claim by incarnating within the creation the personal presence of his own Logos, the creative and ordering source of the creation, thereby pledging his own eternal constancy and rationality as the ground for the redemption and final establishment of all created reality.[2]

We see the ontological aspect noted once again, and even further we see Torrance, in step with Barth, highlighting how even the knowledge and depth of sin can really only be understood Christologically; as we understand its depths through dwelling upon the reality of what actually was required for salvation to be accomplished. We see in this quote components that we find in Patristic thinkers like Athanasius, and even Maximus the Confessor; particularly as the latter gets into proposing things along the lines of the logoi thread that is interwoven throughout the created order as its taxis or order.

These are ways into a discussion about the atonement and salvation that are lacking, typically, in the Western mode. John Calvin, though, is an exception to this rule; and we could say this is because of his hyper-Christ concentrated approach. If a thinker genuinely focuses on the deep Christologicalness we find in the New Testament it is almost an axiom that that thinker will end up pressing into union with Christ themes that look something like what we find in Torrance’s presentation. Federal theology and the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology does not have this emphasis when thinking salvation; it is framed forensically and under a legal strain, necessarily, precisely because their hermeneutical system starts with a Covenant of Works only to be succeeded by the Covenant of Grace. Some will argue that this does not give Covenant theology a necessary legal character, but I think the proof is in the pudding.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 173.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 115-16.

Anonymous Christians and Knowing God

Karl Rahner’s idea of ‘anonymous Christians’ is quite the concept, but it is one that flows organically from his conception of knowledge of God as that is related to moments of existential transcendental experiences that human beings have qua human being. As Paul Molnar explains, this is why, for Rahner, all people, whether they know it or not, are anonymously Christian; because as they look inward and have a sense, a non-conceptual sense of the Divine, they are in fact experiencing or encountering the living God present to each person’s experience as that is extrapolated outward to a transcendental point of contact. Molnar writes this as he is contrasting Karl Barth’s Christ focused aapologetic knowledge of God with Molnar’s transcendental existential:

This is an enormously important point because it is false apologetics that separates the thinking of those who, like Karl Rahner, believe that they can and must begin their thinking about God with our self-transcending experiences. It is exactly for this reason that Rahner believes “we cannot begin with Jesus Christ as the absolute and final datum, but we must begin further back than that.” He thus chooses to begin with “a knowledge of God which is not mediated completely by an encounter with Jesus Christ.” He begins with our transcendental experience, which he claims mediates an “unthematic and anonymous . . . knowledge of God,” which, as seen in chapter one, both Barth and Torrance rightly rejected because such knowledge amounts only to a symbolic description of ourselves in place of the triune God. He thus claims that knowledge of God is always present unthematically to anyone reflecting on themselves, so that all talk about God “always only points to this transcendental experience as such, an experience in which he whom we call ‘God’ encounters man in silence . . . as the absolute and the incomprehensible, as the term of his transcendence.” This term of transcendence Rahner eventually calls a holy mystery because he believes that whenever this experience of transcendence is an experience of love, its term is the God of Christian revelation. It is just this thinking that leads to Rahner’s idea of “Searching Christology,” which, as seen above in chapter one, essentially refers to the fact that anyone who truly loves another, for instance, is already an “anonymous Christian” in that search. In that sense Rahner believer their activity and thinking is in line with what traditional Christology teaches. This approach to Christology presumes that we must find a basis for belief in Christ in a transcendental anthropology. This led Rahner to embrace the idea that we have an obedential potency for revelation and that our lives are marked by a “supernatural existential,” as seen in chapter one. Finally, it led him to the idea that self-acceptance is the same as accepting Christ and God himself. In this context I think one can see rather clearly that the crucial difference between Barth and Rahner is that Barth’s thinking begins and ends with the Holy Spirit as the awakening power of faith—not faith in ourselves (our transcendental dynamisms)—but in the Word of truth, namely, Jesus Christ. And that of course rules out the idea of anonymous Christianity as the projection of an idea that is at variance with what is actually revealed by Jesus himself as the Word incarnate and through his Holy Spirit as the risen and ascended Lord here and now. It also rules out any notion that we have any “potency” or capacity for the revelation of God; that we have an existential on the basis of which we can rely on ourselves in our experience of grace to speak accurately about God; and that we can look to anyone or anything other than Jesus Christ himself to know who God is and what he has done and does for us as the reconciler and redeemer.[1]

What this insight from Molnar helps us to see, beyond Rahner’s logic towards his ‘anonymous Christian,’ is how interrelated things are theologically. We see how theological anthropology is couched in a doctrine of creation, which itself is cradled in a doctrine of God; we see how all of these converge into a discussion about how creatures can have a knowledge of God.

For Rahner the ground of knowledge of God is not the Word of God, and not even the church (which is interesting given Rahner’s Catholic status), but instead it is the shared bond and the experience therein that human beings ostensibly share as they contemplate the deeper things of life. For Barth and Torrance, as Molnar ably develops in his book, if knowledge of God is detached from the concrete given of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ, then we will look elsewhere—if we look at all—for constructing a theory of knowledge of God.

It would not be a reach, I would contend, to extrapolate out from Rahner’s more ‘modern’ Schleiermacherean like turn to the subject theologizing, and ask if other, even more ‘classically’ construed theologies engage in the same type of abstract reasoning when it comes to developing a framework wherein a theory of knowledge of God is developed; I most immediately think of Thomas Aquinas’s analogia entis (‘analogy of being’). Is there a basis, a built in-capacity, or even God-given capacity (post-salvation/conversion) within humanity wherein they can establish a holy ground to think the living God from? It isn’t just Rahner who works things out this way, I would contend that any type of ‘analogy of being’ theologizing equally ends up positing a theological-anthropology vis-à-vis their doctrine of creation that leaves room for an abstractive knowledge of God wherein the human being can habituate in a process of discursive reasoning and reach a point of contact with God that itself is untethered from God’s concrete given in Jesus Christ, the living Word of God. This is not to suggest that Thomists, for example, might arrive at an unthematic non-conceptual knowledge of God, like Rahner’s position leads to, but it is my attempt to draw a point of convergence, thematically, between the types of theological-anthropology that both Thomists and Rahnerians might affirm in regard to the belief that an abstract notion of God can be connived of apart from God’s immediate yet mediate Self-explication of Himself for us in the eternal huios, Jesus Christ.

Are there anonymous Christians? Nein.

 

[1] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downer Groves, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 102-04.

The Love of the Triune Life as the Reality of Salvation in the Theology of Hugh Binning

Here is young Scottish theologian (1627–1653), Hugh Binning. He died at a very young age, but in his short life he was able to communicate some beautiful things about God, and how the Triune life was involved in the reality of salvation. Here is a short snippet from him on a Trinitarian salvation,

our salvation is not the business of Christ alone but the whole Godhead is interested in it deeply, so deeply, that you cannot say, who loves it most, or likes it most. The Father is the very fountain of it, his love is the spring of all — “God so loved the world that he hath sent his Son”. Christ hath not purchased that eternal love to us, but it is rather the gift of eternal love . . . Whoever thou be that wouldst flee to God for mercy, do it in confidence. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are ready to welcome thee, all of one mind to shut out none, to cast out none. But to speak properly, it is but one love, one will, one council, and purpose in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, for these Three are One, and not only agree in One, they are One, and what one loves and purposes, all love and purpose.[1]

[1] Hugh Binning cited by Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 79.