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.

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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.

God’s Wrath, Eternal Hell, and Contra Evangelical Annihilationism

In lieu of writing that full fledged paper I’ve been saying I might write here is TF Torrance’s theo-logic contra Annihilationism. As we read Torrance what also is touched upon are God’s wrath, hell, theological anthropology, sin, and a few other superstructural doctrines. I have been alerted to the need to write contrariwise annihilationism primarily because of the movement of annihilationists among evangelicals that have come to collaborate at the ReThinking Hell think-tank. If Torrance’s theo-logic is ascribed to what the annihilationist or so called evangelical conditionalist bases their teaching on crumbles. In other words, if human being is inimically tied to Jesus’s vicarious human being for all of humanity; if Jesus is the image of God whence human beings are created (e.g. as ‘images of the Image’ cf. Col. 1.15; 3.10); then it is not possible for human being to be ‘annihilated’, since its reality is grounded in the indestructible life of the Son of Man, Jesus Christ.

Torrance writes at length:

The law as the primary sign of God’s grace and mercy — judgement within relation to God

That was the reason why the Jews regarded the law itself, with all its judgement, as the primary sign of God’s grace and mercy — they were the commandments and ordinances that presupposed the covenant of grace. But although wrath speaks also of God’s reclaiming of the perverted creature for himself, it speaks nonetheless of utter judgement, of damnation. God’s wrath says that man belongs to God body and soul; that is why even if the sinner in his or her ultimate reaction should deny God’s claim upon them, God’s judgement cannot be equated with annihilation, but only with utter and final judgement within existential relation to God.

That must be clearly understood as we look at sin in the light of the cross and look at the cross in the light of what it reveals of the terrible guilt and sin that is judged there in Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. The cross makes good God’s claim upon humanity and reveals the depth of sin within its relation to its creator. Sin in itself is not simply an act done by  man — it is sin against God. That is why the psalmist, in voicing confession, has to say, ‘Against thee, thee only have I sinned.’ The fact that sin against God means that sin takes its form and nature from being against God. It is not simply because it is against love or goodness or even against man, but because it is ultimately against God himself. As such sin is ‘cursed’ by God — it comes under his total ban.

(ii) The curse of God — banishment into outer darkness

But let us be clear about what the curse of God means. When the Bible speaks of curse, it means that the cursed is no longer within but without, outside the covenant of God. Without the covenant relation with God man is condemned to exist as one who does not belong to it, but is an outsider. Curse means the reprobation of the elect, the casting away of those whom God has made and loves; it means separation from the face of God, banishment from creation into outer darkness. That is what Paul calls the act of God in giving mankind up to their own uncleanness and to their own reprobate mind, to their own self-destruction. Cursing does not mean annihilation, the sending of the cursed into nothingness, into the nihil out of which man and woman were created, but a banishment to their own denial of their being in God, that is, into the very darkness upon which God has for ever turned his back in creation on the cross.

That is the import of the Old Testament sheol, existence in darkness behind God’s back, the darkness from which he has turned away in creation when he divided the light from the darkness. Sheol is existence in man’s self-chosen perversity and blindness. That curse lies upon all sinners as their destiny in their sin and it already casts its shadow over them. In the Old Testament sheol is, however, a sort of suspended darkness, a suspended existence behind the back of God, waiting for his final acts of judgement and or deliverance, although the final act will mean justification for those who cast themselves on his judgement, and utter banishment for those who choose to remain in their alienation. But the Old Testament saints were all aware that the curse is the ultimate and final judgement, and that preferable to that is to fall into the hands of the living God in his wrath and judgement.[1]

The theo-logic, the funding theoanthropology in Torrance’s thought should be apparent. But beyond that what we also see is that for Torrance God’s wrath is real, and requires a response. God’s wrath, though, for Torrance, has to do with God’s ever present love for his creatures; a wrath that is come to precisely because those he has pledged his love for in Christ have alienated themselves from the very reality, the very being for which God had originally created them for; for a life in joyful participation within God’s own self-given Triune life of love. This is the source of God’s wrath; he hates sin, it makes him angry precisely because such alienation from him destroys the bases from whence human creatures, and the creation in general, can flourish coram Deo. It is because of this love, this purpose which God created with, in, for, and from Christ, that God’s wrath has been kindled. It is because of this love that God had always already pledged his life and being for us (pro nobis) that it is not possible for human life to be snuffed out or annihilated; this would require that God’s life in the Son, God’s humanity be snuffed out, because his life, in Christ, is what humanity has always already been yesterday, today, and forever. In other words, God’s life in Christ necessarily rules out the possibility of human being, Christ’s for us, and any human after Christ (which is all of humanity) to be relegated to the oblivion of nothingness precisely because what it means to be human is always already generated from the humanity of God in Jesus Christ. Annihilate his humanity, and then the rest of humanity has the potential to be annihilated; but given the character and quality of what it means to be human (i.e. think Jesus), there is no such potency latent in human being that would ever allow for its being unspoken into non-existence. QED.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 250-51.

Analogical Knowledge of God in the Theology of Thomas Torrance

Analogy for the Christian’s knowledge of God is an important feature. We have referred to Thomas Aquinas’s analogia entis (analogy of being) frequently here at the blog; on the other hand we have referred to Karl Barth’s analogia fidei/relationis as an alternative way to think analogical knowledge of God. In this post let me refer us to Thomas Torrance’s understanding of analogy vis-à-vis the hypostatic union; if you are familiar with Barth’s understanding, then this will sound somewhat familiar. The primary point I want to highlight is how analogy is framed for Torrance; he grounds analogical knowledge of God not in a capacity human beings have latent within their accidents to habituate in disciplines that allow them to attain to some sort of knowledge of God. Instead, Torrance grounds analogical knowledge of God exclusively in Jesus Christ (seems pretty biblical to me); and true to form he uses the homoousios/hypostatic union in order to accomplish his development on analogia. He writes:

Analogy and the hypostatic union

Hypostatic union involves two important factors here.

(i) It tells us that we can know God only in human terms, in terms of analogy. All knowledge of God and his relations with mankind are analogical, for in Christ, God has become like man, has taken on a human image, so that we may know God, and understand his revelation in terms of the image, likeness and analogies of man.

(ii) It tells us that it is not by human image, likeness, and analogies that we know God and understand his revelation, but rather through the hypostatic union of the human images, analogies, and likenesses in Jesus Christ to God himself, that we know God. That means that only certain particular analogies are used, those which repose upon, and derive from, this one particular man, for he alone is in hypostatic union with God. All other analogies are empty, and contain nothing of God, but Jesus Christ is filled analogy, analogy where the content and substance lie in the hypostatic union of God and man in Christ. In the language of the epistle to the Hebrews, he is the effulgence of God’s glory, but also the express image of God, the reality of the God he images in himself.. All true knowledge of God is through Christ the Word, for there is only one Word, the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, who has declared him. But that Word has once and for all become man, assumed human form, and never divests himself of that human form. It is in this particular and unique human form for ever joined to the Word or Son of God, that we are given to share in the mystery of God. In Jesus Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, and in him alone, do we know God, and have communion with him.[1]

We see the classical notion of ‘accommodation’ present in Torrance’s offering; we see the Reformed archetypal/ectypal knowledges functioning for Torrance; and we see Jesus Christ as the only fulcrum through which a genuine knowledge of God is arrived at. If we read carefully we can see how Torrance, as he consistently does, grounds the epistemic in the ontological; i.e how he follows an order of being to knowing, and then knowing back to being all enshrined within the unio personalis of the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. This is an important piece for Torrance, he constantly presses upon the idea of mediation, homoousion, and the double consubstantiality of the two natures unioned together in Jesus. We see a dialectic of the divine ground of Jesus’ person allowing for actual knowledge of God to be mediated in human ways, and the reception of the mediation received for humanity in the primacy of Christ’s humanity as archetypal humanity for us. This is why Jesus Christ is so important for Torrance’s analogical knowledge of God. Analogy plays a serious role for Torrance, but it is one that is modulated by Jesus Christ for us; thus it can be said that God reveals Godself in the Son of Man, and in the Son of Man Godself is translated for us in such a way that he meets us in our dusty existence to the point that the cross becomes the ultimate place of revelation. Here he reverses the curse, by becoming the curse for us; he undoes Babel, and speaks to us in the new tongue of the new Creation (II Cor. 5.17), wherein eyes to see and ears to hear are given by the Spirit. This movement for Torrance, at least temporally/historically, starts in the manger and climaxes in the ascension (at least penultimately); accommodation, analogical knowledge of God continues from the right hand of God through the priestly session of the Son of Man for us.

This is the Christological analogia  for Torrance, and it is fundamentally different than what we get in people like Thomas Aquinas, classical theism in general, David Bentley Hart et al. There is a theology of nature, and theory of revelation that reorients things for Torrance, such that analogical knowledge has gravitas precisely because creation itself has primal telos from and in Christ.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 193.

Thomas Torrance’s Doctrine of Salvation

Thomas F. Torrance’s doctrine of salvation is grounded in a Trinitarian frame, and subsequent doctrine of election wherein the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ is understood to be the locus where what it means to be human before God is realized. Given the fall of humanity in Genesis 3, what it means to be human before God was ruptured to the point that human beings became sub-human living in an abstracted status apart from God’s good will for them to be eternally healthy flourishing creatures that live from his sustaining life in and through Jesus Christ. As a result of this rupture Godself freely chose to become human in the Son taking his pre-temporal choice to be humanity into concrete particularity in the Incarnation; thus making the eternal choice/election a realized reality in the manger of Bethlehem. As the Logos became ensarkos, he assumed a fallen humanity thus meeting the Nanzianzine conditions of ‘the unassumed is the unhealed.’ The implication is that the atoning work of God began in the moment God incarnated in Christ thus implicating all of humanity in ontological ways. For Torrance salvation is an ontological event wherein the conditions for salvation concretely inhere and are realized in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This means, for Torrance, that salvation before God has to do with what it means to be human before God. He sees juridical and forensic components involved in salvation, but the primary frame for conceiving of these subsequent entailments are grounded in what it means to be human before God. For Torrance this is the telos of salvation, this is what it ultimately means to be reconciled to God, and justified before him; it means to be fully human before him. It is in this restoration of fellowship between God and humanity and humanity and God wherein salvation is accomplished, and the crowning jewel of God’s creation is given ultimate purpose as they find their purpose and humanity in his humanity for them in Jesus Christ. Torrance writes this: “…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.”[1]

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