The “God” of Atheists in the 16th and 17th Centuries: And How the God of the Post Reformed Orthodox Needs Be Radicalized

The early Christians were thought of as atheists by the Graeco-Romans because they rejected the pantheon of the Roman gods; at least, so the story goes. As somewhat of an inversion of that, many of the Post Reformed Orthodox theologians of 16th and 17th century Western Europe believed that anyone who rejected the true and living God revealed and disclosed in Holy Scripture, and in the living Son, Jesus Christ was to be considered an atheist. Personally, as someone who thinks After Barth, I think anyone who rejects the God solely and principially revealed in Jesus Christ is worshipping, as Barth might say, a No-God; in other words, I believe worshipping a concept of God not explicitly based upon God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ makes one an atheist (so this would be concordant with the sentiment of the Post Reformed Orthodox). And beyond all this, to invert maybe even the Post Reformed Orthodox, although not de jure, I would have to consider myself an “atheist” when and if someone says they worship a concept of God and godness that is based upon human discovery, philosophical discurvity and projection in regard to the god they worship; even if that God is baptized in the name of Jesus. In other words, I would consider myself an atheist when and if even Christians, whoever they might be, base their conception of God upon the god of the philosophers; a concept of God not based purely on the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ (cf. John 1.18).

Getting back to the Post Reformed Orthodox, though; they had a classification of certain types of “atheists,” and one that I find interesting. There is stuff presented in their approach, respectively, that I find constructively helpful towards thinking about this topic with particular reference to the role that “sin” and hamartiology play relative to people’s perceptions of “God.” There are things in the Post Reformed Orthodox’s thinking that I find pretty attractive towards thinking about what atheism might entail, it is just that I don’t really think the Post Reformed Orthodox went far enough; I think they end up relying too much on a philosophical conception of godness in order to conceive of God—particularly when we start thinking about God’s ousia ‘being’ or essendi ‘essence’. Richard Muller offers a helpful detailing of how all of this looked in the development of Post Reformed Orthodoxy; here we pick up Muller as he has just been discussing the role that “proofs” for God’s existence have or have not played in some of the Reformed Orthodox’s thinking. Muller writes:

Although the proofs are posed “against the atheists,” the Reformed orthodox frequently argue that there are no “atheists properly so called,” or, at least, very few. The Reformed orthodox writers typically understood “atheist” in a very broad sense, designed to include all who denied the true God. “There are many kinds of Atheists,” wrote Bucanus, for some entirely deny the existence of God, others worship “feigned gods,” and still others acknowledge the “true God,” but not “as he is,” rather, “as they fancie him to be.” Given this broad sense of the term, the Reformed tend also to direct their arguments against the majority of atheists, namely, against those who do not deny God absolutely, but whose understandings of God are in need of major revision. The homiletical and hortatory dimensions of the Reformed proofs is particularly clear in Charnock’s initial identifications of atheists and atheism. The problem of atheism is not primarily philosophical but hamartiological: “though some few may choke in their hearts the sentiments of God and his providence, and positively deny them, yet there is something of a secret atheism in all, which is the foundation of the evil practices in their lives, not an utter disowning of the being of a God, but a denial or doubting of some of the rights of his nature.”

Whereas, then, there are either no or virtually no “speculative atheists,” those who directly and expressly deny the existence of any superior Being and have absolutely no “sense and belief of deity,” there are many people who have inward doubts concerning the identity of God or may deny to God such attributes or qualities — as providence or justice — that are necessary to any being rightly called God. In addition, they recognize the existence of “practical atheists.” Thus the text of the Psalm (14:1), “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God,” is not a philosophical text but a “description of man’s corruption.” The point resonates strongly with Calvin’s exegesis of the text. Charnock continues:

Practical atheism is natural to man in his corrupt state. It is against nature as constituted by God, but natural, as nature is depraved by man: the absolute disowning of the being of a God is not natural to man, but the contrary is natural; but an inconsideration of God, or misrepresentation of his nature, is natural to man as corrupt. A secret atheism, or a partial atheism, is the spring of all the wicked practices of the world.

Charnock points out that the “fool” speaks in his “heart,” not in his “head”:

Men may have atheistical hearts without atheistical heads. Their reasons may defend the notion of a Deity, while their hearts are empty of affection to the Deity.

They have “unworthy imaginations” concerning God, engage in “debasing the Divine nature” through idolatry, and exalt human nature unduly. If we are the question of who these practical atheists are, the probable answer is the “cultured despisers of religion” in Charnock’s day, many of whom fit the description of Viret’s “Deists.”[1]

In sentiment there is much to be commended here, in my mind. The issue always, in my view, comes down to an issue of the heart. People have been so polluted by sin noetically that left to themselves and their own sensuous desires they will always and only fashion God in their own image (e.g. Feuerbach comes to mind). People’s wills are in such bondage (i.e. Luther), they are so overcome with other affections (other than affection for God) that all they will “freely” choose is themselves; as such the only God they can discover based upon this weeded ground is one that they manufacture themselves (i.e. think of Calvin’s ‘idol factory’ or simply of the idolatry referred to over and over again in the Old Testament with reference to the nations, but also of course with reference to God’s own covenant people, the nation of Israel).

I think this sentiment in the Post Reformed Orthodox is all well and good, but I just don’t think it goes far enough. Although we need to be sensitive to what they had available to them in their own period of theological and ecclesiastical history, my contention is that they rely much too much on conceptions of God that are correlatively based on the god of the philosophers (like Plato and Aristotle). In other words I don’t think they were radical enough in regard to their doctrine of God; as such the concept of God they offer, often, is too laden down with philosophical accretions that actually emphasize things about God’s Self-presentation that end up distorting who God actually is relative to his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ (which gets fleshed out say in a system like Federal theology and the attending forensic emphases that come along with that). Contrariwise, Thomas Torrance, as he describes Barth’s Christ concentrated approach to theology writes this:

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

The Post Reformed Orthodox need help relative to their doctrine of God. They were heading in the right direction, in principle, but they hadn’t developed enough to the point where they could write something like TF Torrance does here.

Conclusion

I’m leaving many loose ends in this post, but I will have to say I agree with the sentiment of the Post Reformed Orthodox in regard to how they thought of atheism; particularly as they focus in on the impact that sin has on that. But in the end, here in the 21st century, with further theological developments that we can now benefit from (as illustrated by Barth and Torrance), I think the orthodox need to be radicalized. Insofar as they aren’t I would have to claim an “atheist” status in regard to the God they offer up when and if they present us with a God based upon an under-evangelized metaphysic and conception of God resulting in emphases that distort who God has revealed himself to be in his Self-revelation and exegesis in Jesus Christ.

It is ironic, I think, many Christians end up becoming “atheists,” but they aren’t really even rejecting an actual conception of God who is based purely upon his Self-revelation in Christ. Instead they are rightfully rejecting a conception of God who is based too much on a philosophical conception and thus human projection of God wherein the type of spirituality on offer is one that is driven by a performance based quid quo pro type of spirituality; of the type that no thinking and self-reflective person can actually bear up under for too long (just ask Martin Luther about that!).

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Divine Essence and Attributes, Volume Three (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 179-80.

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

 

Christ as the first-fruits and first-born from the death of death: Reflecting Further Upon Sin and Its ‘Sensuous Origin’

As I continue to get into researching ‘sin’ I am doing so through reading, in part, stuff from Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck. I am reading a section he has from his Dogmatics, Vol.3, called The Origin of Sin; how fitting. I wanted to share a section from him which he entitles The Enigma of Sin’s Origin; in it he gets into how folks have attempted to understand what in fact sin is, and tellingly, where it is generated from, from within the human being (if it is). He focuses in, in this section, on the theory that sin is somehow generated by the sensuous; as such, if this is the case the remedy would be some form of self-deprecating, self-denying asceticism. Note:

The Enigma of Sin’s Origin

[312] The question of the origin of evil, second to that of existence itself, is the greatest enigma of life and the heaviest cross for the intellect to bear. The question, Whence is evil? has occupied the minds of humans in every century and still waits in vain for an answer that is more satisfactory than that of Scripture. Insofar as philosophy has taught us anything significant in this matter, it is, broadly speaking, a strong proof for the scriptural truth that this world is inexplicable without a fall. All the great thinkers, even if they were ignorant of Genesis 3 or rejected it as myth, have, despite themselves, given tacit or explicit support to this simple story. And insofar as philosophy looked for a solution to the problem in another direction, it has gotten off the track and sadly gone astray. This applies first of all to the Pelagian explanation of sin, the many objections to which have been touched on above and will come up at length in our discussion of the essence and propagation of sin. But it applies further to all the systems that trace evil not to a creaturely act of will but to the nature of humanity, the world, or God.

In the first place, sin cannot be inferred from the sensual nature of the human race. If that were the explanation, sin certainly would always have a sensual or carnal character. But this is far from being always the case. There are also spiritual sins, sins of a demonic nature, such as pride, envy, hatred, enmity against God, which, though less visible, are absolutely no less serious than the sins of carnality; and these cannot be explained by sensuality, any more than the existence of fallen angels can be explained on this basis. If sins originated from humanity’s sensual nature, one would certainly expect that they would be most vigorous and numerous in the early years of life, and that to the degree that the mind became more developed it would also exert firmer control over it and finally overcome it altogether. But experience tells a very different story. To the degree that people grow up, sin—also sensual sin—has a stronger grip on them. It is not the child but the young man and the adult male who are frequently enslaved by their lusts and passions; and mental development is often so little able to curb sin that it tends rather to make available the means of seeking the satisfaction of one’s desire on a larger scale and in more refined ways. And even when at a later stage in life the sensual sins have lost their dominance, they still secretly stay on in people’s hearts as desires or make way for others that, though more spiritual in nature, are no less appalling. Accordingly, if this explanation of sin in terms of sensuality is meant in earnest, it should result in seeking release by suppressing the flesh; but it is precisely the history of asceticism that is best calculated to cure us of the error that sin can be overcome in that fashion. People take their hearts with them when they enter a monastery, and from the heart arise all sorts of sins and iniquities.[1]

Clearly from a biblical and properly oriented theological perspective this explanation falls quite short; as Bavinck himself develops. But it is interesting to see how people attempt to philosophize about things, particularly sin.

What if sin has so incapacitated the human intellect, what if the so called noetic effects of sin have so savaged the human’s capacity to self-reflect properly that they are left aimless in their search for attempting to penetrate the mystery of the human situation and pollution? One thing that is clear, even for unregenerate minds and hearts, is that people can look around and know that things are eschew; radically so! But even this, according to Scripture is not a ‘natural’ perception; according to John 16 the Holy Spirit convicts the world of: sin, righteousness, and judgment. In other words, without the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and the attending work of the Holy Spirit, there is no access to the real human condition; there is no access to the actual problem which according to Jesus resides in the deceptive nature of our corrupted hearts (relative to their orientation to God).

What the Bavinck quote should illustrate for us is that sin, human depravity and pollution is an unknowable ‘quantity’; it is a surd of inaccessible magnitude. As Barth orients this discussion, we cannot even begin to know what sin is apart from Christ, and God’s holiness on display therein; and even at this entry point sin remains a surd, an enigma. God in Christ did not come to explain sin’s origin, or even its general whereabouts, he came to destroy it and put it to death (cf. Rom 8). In light of the holiness of God revealed in Christ, yes, sin is amplified, it is given a gravitas as we observe the depths and reach it took for it to be dispelled; i.e. God’s personal enfleshment. What the coming of God in Christ shows about sin is that human beings, autonomous as sin would have them to be, are in no place to deal with its corroding and parasitic power. It takes the very ‘being’ ousia of Godself in the person (hypostasis) of Jesus Christ, the eternal Logos, and ground of all reality to penetrate into the marrow of sin’s possessive non-being and nothingness to reverse its beguiling trajectory; to do nothing short of re-creating all things, with Christ as the first-fruits and first-born from the death of death (per John Owen also cf. Col. 1.15ff; I Cor. 15; II Cor. 5.17).[2]

 

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Origin of Sin, accessed 03-16-2017.

[2] This paragraph is largely and loosely inspired by a Barthian and Torrancean perspective on a Christologically concentrated hamartiology and doctrine of creation/re-creation.

An Evangelical Calvinist Critique of the Theology that Funds 5 Point Calvinism: A Critique of the Westminster Confession of Faith

Discussion about Calvinism (and Arminianism) really hasn’t waned, even if my blog posts in that regard have. The original motivation for this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist, was to be a place where I offered critique of what I have called “classical Calvinism,” in line with the classical Theism it is derived from. I originally started this blog as a 2nd blog, where, indeed, my aim was to only discuss things revolving around all things Calvinism; and then to offer an alternative account of Calvinism, so: Evangelical Calvinism. After awhile though this blog turned into my primary and only blog, and as a result it morphed into a catch-all where I discuss a variety and sundry things theological. I say all that to simply note that this post will be an old-school Evangelical Calvinist post where we look at T.F. Torrance’s critique of an aspect of classical Calvinism as codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Just recently I offered a spate of posts (three of them: 1, 2, 3) where I offered criticism of the idiosyncratic form of John MacArthur’s 5 point Calvinism. Even though his appropriation of a “soteriological” Calvinism is indeed idiosyncratic, where he appropriates it from is not.[1] MacArthur et al. take their marching orders from the theology articulated and codified, indeed, in the Westminster Confession of the Faith. It is this Confession that can be said to kind of represent the flowering of Post Reformed Orthodoxy as that developed post-magisterial Reformation (i.e. Luther, Calvin, Bullinger, et al.). It is a Confession oriented around a concept of God that is decretal—that God relates to his creation as the impassible/immutable one through impersonal decrees [decretum absolutum] in order to keep him untouched and “unmoved” by his creation—wherein God predestines out of the massa[2] of humanity that some particular and individual people are elected to eternal life while others are reprobated and condemned to an eternal conscious torment in hell (some of the classically Reformed hold a passive idea in regard to the reprobate). J.N.D. Kelly comments on the ancient theo-logic provided for by St. Augustine, it is this type of logic that gets further developed in the medieval and Post Reformed orthodox periods, which finally blossoms in the Westminster Confession of the Faith. Kelly writes critically of Augustine and his view of predestination:

The problem of predestination has so far only been hinted at. Since grace takes the initiative and apart from it all men form a massa damnata, it is for God to determine which shall receive grace and which shall not. This He has done, Augustine believes on the basis of Scripture, from all eternity. The number of the elect is strictly limited, being neither more nor less than is required to replace the fallen angels. Hence he has to twist the text ‘God wills all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2, 4), making it mean that He wills the salvation of all the elect, among whom men of every race and type are represented. God’s choice of those to whom grace is to be given in no way depends on His foreknowledge of their future merits, for whatever good deeds they will do will themselves be the fruit of grace. In so far as His foreknowledge is involved, what He foreknows is what He Himself is going to do. Then how does God decide to justify this man rather than that? There can in the end be no answer to this agonizing question. God has mercy on those whom He wishes to save, and justifies them; He hardens those upon whom He does not wish to have mercy, not offering them grace in conditions in which they are likely to accept it. If this looks like favouritism, we should remember that all are in any case justly condemned, and that if God makes His decision in the light of ‘a secret and, to human calculation, inscrutable justice’. Augustine is therefore prepared to speak of certain people as being predestined to eternal death and damnation; they may include, apparently, decent Christians who have been called and baptized, but to whom the grace of perseverance has not been given. More often, however, he speaks of the predestination of the saints which consists in ‘God’s foreknowledge and preparation of the benefits by which those who are to be delivered are most assuredly delivered’. These alone have the grace of perseverance, and even before they are born they are sons of God and cannot perish.[3]

Here’s how the Westminster Confession of Faith articulates this type of thinking as it was resident in 17th century Puritan England and in parts of the surrounding continent:

Chapter III

Of God’s Eternal Decree

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.[4]

This is hard teaching! That’s what the Federal/Westminster Calvinist would want you to think; i.e. that the reason this might cause people to stumble is because the Gospel itself causes people to stumble. They might want you to think of John 6 when Jesus just finished teaching about the requirement of his disciples to feed on his flesh and drink of his blood, when the text there says:

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Manascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

If you have a hard time at the teaching offered by Augustine, and the theology in the Westminster Confession of Faith, just like those fickle disciples of Jesus in John 6 you must not be a true disciple who has been granted to come to Christ by the Father.

But what if the teaching on election and reprobation as articulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith is causing you to stumble at its harshness because instead of fickleness you have theological and spiritual discernment? That’s what us Evangelical Calvinists contend, and believe; you stumble at this Westminster teaching because you should, it is theologically unsound and anemic. This is what Evangelical Calvinist par excellence, T.F. Torrance thinks; here he offers critique of the WCF in this regard, his critique on this comes on the heels of prior critique he had just offered on the doctrine of God offered up by the WCF. His critique on its doctrine of God has to do with its lack of Trinitarian character as it separates the Oneness of God from the Threeness, which in turn, as he argues, creates an abstract impersonal concept of God which leads to this harsh and impersonal and abstract understanding of election and reprobation as articulated in the WCF. This section, in particular from Torrance, is focusing not only on election, but how the concept of covenant within the Federal system ended up lending itself to a contractual and rigid understanding of God and his relation to creation as exemplified in an impersonal and individualistic understanding of election. Torrance writes:

The ideas that the relations between God and mankind were governed by covenant had both a disadvantage and an advantage. On the one hand, through the notion of a covenant of works it not only altered the biblical notion of law (torah) and covenant (berith), but built into the background of Westminster theology a contractual framework of law (understood in the Latin sense as lex) that pervaded and gave a forensic and condition slant even to the presentation of the truths of the Gospel. On the other hand, the primary place given to the covenant of grace directed the focus of attention upon the fact that God calls people into fellowship with himself, addresses them personally asks for their response in worship and love, within a covenanted correspondence of the whole universe to its creator. At the same time the way in which God’s eternal decrees and the effectual calling of grace were conceived, in terms of election narrowed down to the selection of only some people for redemption, meant that the relation between God and man was conceived in a particularist or individualist way without adequate attention to the corporate nature of salvation in Christ. While the doctrine of election rightly entailed a view of grace as objective and unconditional, the hard conception of double predestination was biblically and evangelically unfortunate. On the one hand, it rested on a mistaken Calvinist interpretation of the teaching of St Paul, ‘Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated’ taken out of its context of the doctrine of the remnant in Old Testament salvation history. On the other hand, it introduced a deep-seated uncertainty into faith which was not adequately met by the later chapter ‘Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation’. As the history of theology in Scotland was to show again and again the lack of assurance in saving grace was due to the idea, as expressed by David Dickson, that ‘Christ died only for his own sheep, viz. intentionally and efficaciously’. The rigidly contractual concept of God as lawgiver together with a necessitarian concept of immutable  divine activity allied to double predestination, with its inescapable implication of a doctrine of limited atonement, set the Church with a serious problem as to its interpretation of biblical statements about the offer of the Gospel freely to all people. Moreover, through a strictly forensic notion of justification in which a judicial relation substituted for an intimate union with Christ, faith failed to be grounder properly in the Person of Christ and inwardly linked in him with the assurance of salvation which he embodied.[5]

According to Torrance et al., and what we as Evangelical Calvinists affirm, Westminster Calvinism because of its lackluster conception of God (i.e. not starting with the Triunity of God in its Confession[s]) ends up offering a rigid conception of God wherein he relates to his creation through, as we noted, impersonal decrees within a juridical or forensic relationship of law-like execution (which is concordant with, and flows directly from the Aristotelian concept of God that informs the theology of Westminster—an impersonal non-relational non-love understanding).

The reason the WCF’s and 5 point Calvinism’s understanding of election and reprobation comes off so harshly (and indeed is harsh), is because its understanding of God, the brute Sovereign conception that typifies their theology, is equally harsh. Contrariwise, Evangelical Calvinists emphasize and start with God’s Triune life of love and grace as the basis for his reason to create, and this basis then colors everything else.

Conclusion

I still think this matters immensely. In many ways, particularly through movements like The Gospel Coalition, and through the winsome personality of someone no less than Tim Keller et al. Westminster theology is making a serious comeback among evangelicals in the main. This has impact, and not positively so, upon many real life people (not just academics and scholars) who are sitting out in the pews. It has impact on how people think about sanctification, spirituality, and just how they go about their daily lives before God. If they think of him in a Westminsterian way, even if only from subtle hues, this conception will have deleterious effect upon their lives. How one thinks of God determines everything else following; that’s why this remains a vital issue of contention.

 

[1] This post is not intended to engage with MacArthur any further.

[2] See Augustine.

[3] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition (New York: Harper Collins, 1978), 368-69.

[4] WCF/III, accessed 03-07-2017 from CRTA.

[5] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 136-37.

What is a Metaphysic? And Do I as a “Barthian” or “Torrancean” Have One?

I just attended the regional meeting of the Pacific Northwest’s Evangelical Theological Society. I was able to meet up with a friend of mine there, Tim, a great brother in Christ who is currently working on his PhD in Systematic Theology under, now, the supervision of Katherine Sonderegger (previously it was under John Webster, before his “untimely” death). We had a chance to attend a couple of papers together, and after one of them, a paper on Thomas Aquinas’s Hylomorphism, Tim asked me a question about my own metaphysical commitments. Tim asked me if I even have a “metaphysic” given my tutelage by guys like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. Tim understands how I disdain substance metaphysics, which was all the more elevated, and reinforced once again by sitting in on this paper on hylomorphism. It’s a good and fair question.

I struggled a bit in responding to Tim, I’ve never really had anyone ask me point blank what my metaphysics actually are. This begs the question in some ways though, what is a metaphysic? Peter van Inwagen over at the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy helps us answer this:

The Word ‘Metaphysics’ and the Concept of Metaphysics

The word ‘metaphysics’ is notoriously hard to define. Twentieth-century coinages like ‘meta-language’ and ‘metaphilosophy’ encourage the impression that metaphysics is a study that somehow “goes beyond” physics, a study devoted to matters that transcend the mundane concerns of Newton and Einstein and Heisenberg. This impression is mistaken. The word ‘metaphysics’ is derived from a collective title of the fourteen books by Aristotle that we currently think of as making up Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Aristotle himself did not know the word. (He had four names for the branch of philosophy that is the subject-matter of Metaphysics: ‘first philosophy’, ‘first science’, ‘wisdom’, and ‘theology’.) At least one hundred years after Aristotle’s death, an editor of his works (in all probability, Andronicus of Rhodes) titled those fourteen books “Ta meta ta phusika”—“the after the physicals” or “the ones after the physical ones”—the “physical ones” being the books contained in what we now call Aristotle’s Physics. The title was probably meant to warn students of Aristotle’s philosophy that they should attempt Metaphysics only after they had mastered “the physical ones”, the books about nature or the natural world—that is to say, about change, for change is the defining feature of the natural world.

This is the probable meaning of the title because Metaphysics is about things that do not change. In one place, Aristotle identifies the subject-matter of first philosophy as “being as such”, and, in another as “first causes”. It is a nice—and vexed—question what the connection between these two definitions is. Perhaps this is the answer: The unchanging first causes have nothing but being in common with the mutable things they cause. Like us and the objects of our experience—they are, and there the resemblance ceases. (For a detailed and informative recent guide to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, see Politis 2004.)

Should we assume that ‘metaphysics’ is a name for that “science” which is the subject-matter of Aristotle’s Metaphysics? If we assume this, we should be committed to something in the neighborhood of the following theses:

  • The subject-matter of metaphysics is “being as such”
  • The subject-matter of metaphysics is the first causes of things
  • The subject-matter of metaphysics is that which does not change[1]

At least we can quickly realize that I am not alone in struggling to not only define what a metaphysic actually is, but also, in light of that, why it would be hard, personally, for me to answer that question about myself and my own commitments. But it is still a good and fair question, particularly since I so often “critique” what has come to be called substance metaphysics (we will have to explore, at a later date, what in fact that all entails particularly).

The thing that makes it very hard for me to answer this question is that I claim to be, and I am committed to revelational theology; a “discipline” that in many ways is at least two steps removed from the definition we have before us, in regard to “metaphysics”, offered up by van Inwagen. 1) I only start my thinking after Deus dixit, ‘God has spoken’; 2) I don’t attempt to think about ‘being’ or ousia in the philosophical ways that Aristotle has ostensibly “discovered” as he supposedly penetrated the meta-physical through the powers of his intellect and wit. Now, as we observe the definition by van Inwagen it becomes exceedingly tempting to quickly correlate what Aristotle was talking about with what is revealed about the Christian God; i.e. as an UnMoved Mover, or even more minimally as the First-causer of every other subsequent and thus contingent cause in the created order.

But this isn’t who I think about, or talk to in the heavenlies, instead I think about and talk to the God who has always already and eternally been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The God I know as a Christian is strictly based, not on his discoverability by human reflection on physical and metaphysical nature, but instead upon the Self-revelation of the only living God in Jesus Christ. As Emil Brunner has pointed out the type of ‘being’ Aristotle speaks of could never nor would ever ‘reveal’ himself because that type of autonomous being needs no, nor desires any type of ‘personal’ interaction; since by definition this ‘being’ is impersonal and turned in on itself as a singularity and monad (that’s a very rough paraphrase of Brunner).[2] Even so, Christians since the beginning have felt compelled to search for a grammar to attempt to articulate God in intelligible and communicative ways. They have even looked to the Greeks to help supply that grammar, but they did so critically, and as Peter Leithart has noted somewhere[3], in a way that we might say they “evangelized metaphysics.” Myk Habets, my evangelical Calvinist colleague-in-arms wrote this in the past, something quite instructive for or purposes here (in extenso):

… When medieval theology adopted Aristotelian philosophy the Greek notion of God as impassible and immutable was also adopted. In this way Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover became associated with the God of the Scriptures. However, in Patristic theology immutability and impassibility, as applied to God, were not associated with these philosophical ideas but were actually a challenge to it. It is true that God is not moved by, and is not changed by, anything outside himself, and that he is not affected by anything or does not suffer from anything beyond himself. But this simply affirms the biblical fact that God is transcendent and the one who created ex nihilo. What the Fathers did not mean is that God does not move himself and is incapable of imparting motion to what he has made. It does not mean that God is devoid of passion, of love, mercy and wrath, and that he is impassibly and immutably related to our world of space and time in such a way that it is thrown back upon itself as a closed continuum of cause and effect.

I grant that patristic theology was tempted constantly by the thrust of Greek thought to change the concepts of impassibility and immutability in this direction, but it remained entrenched within the orbit of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the living God who moves himself, who through his free love created the universe, imparting to its dynamic order, and who through the outgoing of his love moves outside of himself in the incarnation.

This is the God who was not always Creator but became Creator. This implies the notion that even in the life of God there is change. Nor was God eternally incarnate, for in Jesus Christ he became what he was not without ceasing to be what he was. This teaching altered the whole concept of God, of his Being and Act, in the early centuries of our era. T.F. Torrance sees this doctrine being clearly articulated first by Athanasius and then in our own day by Karl Barth in his account of the Being of God in his Act, and of the Act of God in his Being, inseparably bound up with the transcendent freedom of God in his love. In fact, this principle that God is revealed in his Being and Act and Act and Being is one of the principle tenets of both Barth and Torrance’s theological work.[4]

So there is an appeal to the “language” of the Philosophers, even when it comes to ‘being,’ but that appeal and deployment in the end becomes transposed by the pressures of God’s Self-revelation to such an extent that its appeal, it can be said, is in a non-correlationist way. In other words, it is not the “philosophy” of Aristotle nor any others that is being given pride of place, but simply the language of ‘being’ so on and so forth that they developed which the Patristics saw as a fitting vehicle for helping to “grammarize” genuinely Christian discourse about God. Was the temptation always present to fall off the wagon and apostatize, as it were, back to the wells of the Philosopher’s philosophy about ‘being’? Yes. But along with Torrance, Barth, and Habets I believe it is possible, as illustrated by Nicaea-Constantinople and the councils they hosted in the 4th century, respectively, to use the language of the Philosopher’s and to do so in the non-correlationist way I have alluded to.[5]

So how does this lengthy exercise (for a blog post) help respond to my friend, Tim’s question which he put to me about metaphysics? In a strict sense I wouldn’t say that I actually do have a “metaphysic” per se? Metaphysics, if we follow van Inwagen’s detailing, definitionally applies to a necessarily philosophical engagement with ‘being’ and ‘first-causes.’ Someone might want to argue that the medieval theologians, in particular, simply extended out what the Patristics attempted to do in their ‘pillaging’ of the Greeks; that they simply were further attempting to re-text the Philosopher’s (particularly Aristotle’s) language and conceptuality under the pressures provided by God’s Self-revelation in Christ. But this is where this all becomes a serious judgment call, and requires some level of discernment. I contend that the medieval theologians, and the Post Reformed orthodox theologians after them, failed at “evangelizing metaphysics,” that instead they allowed the concept of God “discovered” by Aristotle and some of the other Greeks to take privileged place over God’s Self-revelation. As a result, I think we could actually say that the medievals and Post Reformed orthodox actually do have a proper metaphysical approach to God whereas what is offered by Barth, Torrance, and the Patristics more successfully “evangelized metaphysics” to the point that Jesus Christ truly is regulative for all things relative to knowledge of God and ourselves in Christ and Christ in us. That’s my thesis, and it is one I work and live from.

We would be naïve not to mention though that how metaphysics have come to be understood in the modern period is a study unto itself. But in principle, and insofar as Christian theology is concerned, if we are going to use the traditional understanding of “metaphysics” I would have to tell Tim that I don’t really have one; not in the proper philosophical sense, anyway. This may or may not be satisfactory for Tim, but I am positive it won’t be satisfactory for many a Christian philosopher or various classical theistic theologians (such as is instantiated by many contemporary classical Reformed and Arminian theologians). But here I stand in all my secondary naïveté; to appeal to a Barthianism.

 

[1] Peter van Inwagen, Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy, accessed 03-07-17.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949).

[3] His book on Athanasius.

[4] Myk Habets, Originally Posted at My Blog.

[5] Here is a long comment on what correlational and non-correlational entails (this comes from a blog post written by a guy named Troy that I came across and interacted with about ten years or so ago). This is going to be long, but I want to share it in full; the last paragraph is the clincher towards what I’m after in my own point about ‘non-correlation’. Here is Troy (a student, also, of John Webster back in the day):

“Last week, Prof. Webster led the systematic theology students in a discussion of the key terms and concepts of Systematic Theology. Dr. Webster had previously given us a copy of his essay, “Introduction to Systematic Theology” from the Oxford Handbook to Systematic Theology, in order that we might use it as the launching pad for discussion in our seminar. Throughout our time together, we developed more than a few questions concerning the task and method of the systematic theologian, but it was the issue of correlation that perked my interest.

Any systematic treatment of a given theology will undoubtedly lean toward either an internal or external orientation. One will either attempt to answer questions set forth by something or someone outside of the church, or one will attempt to positively profess what the church believes concerning God and the world. No one would doubt that Pannenberg’s Systematics are categorically different from Barth’s Dogmatics. It is my opinion that two principles concerning this division must be explained and concretized in order to fully expose the relationship between these two modes of Systematic Theology: 1) The division is helpful because both orientations are necessary, and 2) the division is gray, for the assumed separation of church and world that is presupposed underneath the dichotomy is fundamentally structured by a certain theological assumption.

First, I will address the positive aspect of the division between correlational and non-correlational theologies. In one sense, the split is obvious. Tillich clearly saw the difference between his own theological endeavors and those of Barth. It is fairly obvious that the rejection of liberal Protestantism by Barth and other post-liberals is precisely a rejection of (at least a specific kind of) correlationism. It is impossible to make sense of this historical movement without such a division. In this way, it is helpful to demarcate between two opposing sides of theology when each has a very different theological telos in view.

In addition, it is also noteworthy that not all correlational theologies fall under the Barthian critique (or the Feuerbachian critique, to be more precise). I do not think it is fair to judge every engagement with systematic theology based upon a self-same principle. It is, in fact, possible for different theologies to have distinctive traits that are geared for a unique purpose. For instance, to argue that Jenson’s Systematics are fundamentally lacking in utility for the church because of their speculative and creative character is to neglect the illocutionary challenge to the church’s lukewarm, de-radicalized view of God that is part of Jenson’s work. Likewise, to dismiss Pannenberg as a “correlationist”, or a “modernist”, similarly neglects its own telos: namely, to bring every area of human thought under the discipline of Christ. A churchly dogmatics (like Prof. Webster’s own) should be judged on the merits of how well it informs and leads the church theologically; a speculative theology should be judged on the merits of how well it challenges the blind spots of the church with the radicality of the gospel; and an apologetical theology should be judged on the merits of how well it engages with the world’s discourse without compromising the content of the gospel. To disregard this charge is to miss the church’s (and theology’s) holistic mission.

In contrast to the utility of Tillich’s dichotomy, I tend to think that the bifurcation between correlational and non-correlational theologies breaks down upon closer scrutiny. It is my opinion that no theology is truly “non-correlational”, no matter how much it wishes to be so. It is simply a MacIntyrean question of “whose correlation?” A critical reading of any theological text will expose the philosophical underpinnings of its claims.”

 My response to Troy at his blog back then was this:

“This is a great post, thank you Troy! So it’s really Christians pillaging the “Barbarians” for grammatical symbols which then are framed by sacred conceptual trajectory? But wouldn’t this then, in the end, truly be non-correlationist . . . and rather “positive,” internal to the Christian self-referential? In other words, if we “take” (like Constantinople did) grammar from one “context,” and “pretext” it within a Christian conceptuality, so that this becomes the new context . . . isn’t the disjunction between the original context, and the new so great that there really isn’t “correlation?”

Troy in the end actually ended up agreeing with me about ‘non-correlation.’

 

The Bible is not the End, Jesus Is: Reflections on a Distinction Between Paper, Papal, and Jesus

Jesus is the reality. Everything else is in service to him, particularly Holy Scripture. Karl Barth famously had Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece above his desk in his study; this illustrates well what genuinely Christian theology should be all about: Jesus. As Thomas Torrance often highlights Jesus is the res (reality) while Scripture is the signa (symbol), or witness bearer. Indeed each of us as ambassadors of Jesus Christ function, in proclamation, much as Scripture does (although even subordinate to that, in a qualified way), as those who bear witness to the reality of Jesus Christ.[1]

mattiasgrunewaldUnfortunately what has often happened is that what was supposed to be witness to Jesus instead confused themselves with the reality (of Jesus) himself, and absolutized themselves as an end (even if only relatively construed) rather than a means or symbol or witness bearer to the end, Jesus Christ. A fundamental aspect of the Protestant Reformation was to correct this overplay by the Roman Catholic Church, by developing a theology of the Word. Indeed this became known as the ‘Scripture principle,’ and serves as a hallmark of the Protestant-turn as it were. As should be, Scripture, relative to a theory of authority, ascended to its rightful place within Protestantism, but as with all things human, this turn went too far, and replaced  papal with paper; Protestantism, particularly the Post Reformed Orthodox, and the theology that seeks to repristinate that contemporaneously, began to identify Scripture as an absolute end—in other words the ontology of Scripture lost its rightful place, relative to God, and ascended to heights that really only should belong to the reality of all things, Jesus Christ. Emil Brunner explains it this way:

Doctrine, rightly understood, is the finger which points to Him, along which they eye of faith is directed towards Him. So long as faith clings to the “finger”, to the interpretative doctrine, it has not really arrived at its goal; thus it is not yet actually faith. Faith is the encounter with Him, Himself, but it is not submission to a doctrine about Him, whether it be the doctrine of the Church, or that of the Apostles and Prophets. The transference of faith from the dimension of personal encounter into the dimension of factual instruction is the great tragedy in the history of Christianity. The Reformers were right when they rejected the unconditional authority of ecclesiastical doctrine as such; but when the theologians of the Reformation began to believe in a doctrine about Jesus Christ, instead of in Jesus Christ Himself, they lost the best fruit of the Reformation. Reformation theology was right in setting up the Biblical doctrinal authority above the ecclesiastical authority as their norm; but they were wrong, when they made the Biblical doctrine their final unassailable authority, by identifying the Word of God with the word of the Bible. When they did this, in principle, they relapsed into Catholic error; the Protestant faith also became a doctrinal faith, belief in dogma, only now the Biblical dogma took the place of the doctrine of the Church. Protestant orthodoxy arrested the development of the Reformation as a religious awakening.

This distinction between “Jesus Christ Himself” and the doctrine about Him, as final authority, must not, however, be misunderstood in the sense of separation. We do not possess “Jesus Christ Himself” otherwise than in and with the doctrine about Him. But it is precisely this doctrine, without which we cannot have “Him Himself”, which is not Himself, and therefore has only a relative authority. This authority increases the more plainly and clearly as it is connected with Jesus Christ Himself. Thus it is precisely the duty of a genuinely religious—which means, also, a genuinely critical—system of dogmatics to undertake a careful examination of this necessary, obvious connexion between Jesus Christ and the doctrine concerning Him.[2]

There is this constant struggle, well for some, between getting stuck in doctrine and making it to a point where we get beyond the doctrine to its reality in Jesus Christ. As Brunner rightfully leaves off, there is an inextricable linkage between the reality (as absolute) and the witness/doctrine (as relative); but if we are not careful we will fall prey to majoring on the minors, and failing to realize that in the end it has really always already been about a personal encounter with the personal and living God revealed afresh in Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] Think of Barth’s three-fold form of the Word.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God: Dogmatics: Vol. I (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 54.

Emil Brunner and Thomas Torrance on the Difference Between Christian Dogmatics and Apologetics

I just picked up Emil Brunner’s The Christian Doctrine of God, which is his volume one in a series of Christian Dogmatics he has written. While he and I won’t see eye to eye on everything, he’s somebody I can learn from; so expect to hear more from him if you read my blog.

As Brunner starts his Christian Dogmatics out, he of course gives explanation of what Dogmatics actually are. In his giving he offers some profound explication; profound, at least from my emilbrunnerperspective, because he explains what in fact Christian Dogmatics represent. His explanation resonates deeply with me, and should help you all to understand where I am coming from as well; i.e. when you read my blog you should know that I am really never attempting to engage in apologetics, but instead always in the work of Christian Dogmatics. Here is what Brunner writes in this regard:

The intellectual enterprise which bears the traditional title of “dogmatics” takes place within the Christian Church. It is this that distinguishes it from similar intellectual undertakings, especially within the sphere of philosophy, as that is usually understood. Our immediate concern is not to ask whether this particular undertaking is legitimate, useful, or necessary. The first thing we have to say about it is that it is closely connected with the existence of the Christian Church, and that it arises only in this sphere. We study dogmatics as members of the Church, with the consciousness that we have a commission from the Church, and a service to render to the Church, due to a compulsion which can only arise within the Church. Historically and actually, the Church exists before dogmatics. The fact that the Christian Faith and the Christian Church exist, precedes the existence, the possibility, and the necessity for dogmatics. Thus if dogmatics is anything at all, it is a function of the Church.

It cannot, however, be taken for granted that there is, or should be, a science of dogmatics within the Christian Church; but if we reverse the question, from the standpoint of dogmatics it is obvious that we would never dream of asking whether there ought to be a Church, or a Christian Faith, or whether the Christian Faith and the Christian Church have any right to exist at all, or whether they are either true or necessary? Where this question does arise—and in days like ours it must be raised—it is not the duty of dogmatics to given the answer. This is a question for apologetics or “eristics”. But dogmatics presupposes the Christian Faith and the Christian Church not only as a fact bu as the possibility of its own existence. From the standpoint of the Church, however, it is right to put the question of the possibility of, and the necessity for, dogmatics.[1]

Thomas F. Torrance briefly describes Christian Dogmatics this way:

Christian Dogmatics – the church’s orderly understanding of scripture and articulation of doctrine in the light of Christ and their coherence in him.[2]

What should be clear from Brunner’s longer explanation, and T.F. Torrance’s shorter one is that Christian Dogmatics is the work of Christians done within the community of the witness of the church of Jesus Christ; as it is pressed up against the reality of its Subject, the living God who is Triune—the ‘God who has spoken’ (Deus dixit).

I am afraid all too many have confused the work of apologetics or “eristics” with the work of Christian Dogmatics; and if they haven’t then they have unfortunately carried over the tools and methods used by apologists, and imported those into the work of Christian Dogmatics. The work of an apologist is largely the work of a philosopher; the work of a Christian Dogmatician is the work of a Christian thinker who self-consciously is working under the pressures of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The Christian Dogmatician is not trying to “prove” God’s existence, so he/she can then talk about God; no. The Christian Dogmatician, by definition has already repented and come under the reality of the Christian God in Christ in and through the witness of the church. This is the work I am doing here at the blog; I engage in Christian dogmatic thinking.

One more point of clarification: I do not think a Christian apologist, in the work they do, actually “proves” the existence of the living God; what they do, if anything, is “prove” a god-concept. What the apologist or Christian philosopher should avoid is the conflation of their work with that of the Christian dogmatician; they are definitionally different. What has happened though, unfortunately, is that often this is exactly what happens; over-zealous Christian philosophers and apologists import the concept of god they have “proven” into Christian Dogmatics, and think they are the same God, they aren’t!

In regard to Brunner, one thing that you will notice in his definition of Christian Dogmatics is an emphasis on the Church; he offers a very ecclesiocentric approach to things. I fully appreciate his description of Christian Dogmatics, but I want to be more radical and less neo-orthodox than that; I think the reality that ought to ‘control’ Christian Dogmatics is not the church, but Jesus Christ as the rule. Barth and Brunner have a famous disagreement where Barth gives Brunner a loud Nein when it comes to the possibility of natural theology. Brunner affirms a qualified understanding of natural theology, while as we know Barth famously rejects it. I think we are already getting a bit of a whiff of this difference even early on in Brunner; his emphasis on the church, I think, is a corollary of his commitment to a qualified notion of a natural theology.

[1] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 3.

[2] T. F. Torrance, ed. Robert T. Walker, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, Glossary.

Reading Scripture for Information or Instead for Encounter with the Living Voice of God: A Trinitarian Account of Scripture Reading

When we read the Bible as Christians we are doing so from a certain disposition, or we should be. When we read the Bible as Christians we aren’t primarily doing so in order to map out all of its ancient near eastern context, or figure out where all the chiasmus and inclusios are, or to understand how this syntax matches up with that syntax, or reconstruct a ‘historical Jesus’ and/or ‘Apostle Paul’ who fits within all of the historicist apparatus we can avail ourselves of; no, when we read Scripture alongside the rest of the saints, presently and in the history (and in the heavenlies) we are scriptureribbonseeking to hear from God, to hear His living voice viva vox Dei. Christians, if they do in fact read Scripture at all, need to get back to this confessional Christian approach and reading ethic; one where God’s voice in Christ has the primacy and not our biblical studies guilds, or our personalist and individualist postures.

Thomas Torrance, along with John Webster (elsewhere) articulates the importance of approaching Scripture as if it is the holy ground upon which, indeed, we move beyond reducing it all down to manageable propositions, and instead allow the wild nature of Scripture to reign supreme in our lives as it mediates God’s Word to us by the Spirit’s activity in our lives in the event of justification and process of sanctification. Here’s what TF Torrance writes:

In a faithful interpretation of the New Testament we many not treat the words employed in it as if they were no more than transient linguistic symbols detached from any objective content in divine revelation, and as if they were not lively oracles through which God speaks to us in Person. Rather must we treat them as words which the incarnate Word of God has deliberately assimilated to himself in communicating and interpreting himself to us in the course of his reconciling activity. That is to say, in the words of the Bible through which the Word of God’s trinitarian self-revelation reaches us, we have to do not with some divine Word detached from his Being and Activity, but with the very Being of God speaking to us and acting upon us in an intensely personal way. In and through them we encounter the living Word who is identical with God himself, the Word in whom we have to do with the Person and Act of God, the Son made man in Jesus Christ, and are thereby summoned to personal commitment of faith in Christ and through cognitive union with him to have knowledge of God the Father. Thus we interpret his human words as the direct personal address of God in whom he communicates to us not just some information about himself but his own divine Self, and therefore interpret them not from a centre in the man Jesus detached from his Deity, but from the organising and controlling centre of his divine-human reality. To indwell the words of Christ, therefore, is to participate in the mutual indwelling of God and man in him, or the mutual indwelling of the Father and his incarnate Son. And so through union with Jesus Christ we are drawn by the Spirit of the Father and of the Son into the Communion of the Father and the Son.[1]

I think this challenges the typical evangelical and Reformed way of approaching Scripture; it is less about epistemology and gaining information about God, and instead more about ontology/soteriology and having a personal encounter with the risen Jesus as he’s given spiration by the Spirit’s resurrection. It is about participating in the triune life through Christ, and understanding that there is no rupture between the person and work of Jesus; and no rupture between the consubstantial being of the Son with the Father, and the Son with humanity as he mediates that in his consubstantial life of being both God and man in his singular person as the eternal Son (Logos).

Reading Scripture in this frame, then, is a dialogical exercise. In other words, it pivots on prayerful relation to God through Christ, and understanding that He has freely chosen to meet us as we meet him in the intersection of His life as human, in Christ, and realize that the communicative context for that, for us, takes place primarily in the triune speech act known as Holy Scripture. Practically, the way this works itself out is by simply prayerfully and consistently reading Scripture; or as Torrance said it ‘indwelling’ Scripture, allowing it to wash over us over and again, and understanding that its context cannot be detached from its giveness in the incarnation of God in Christ.

None of this is to intimate that understanding the linguistic realities of Scripture, its cultural situadedness, so on and so forth have no place; it’s just to recognize that none of that should have primacy of place. Scripture has a context, and it is God’s triune life in Christ for us. When we read Scripture it shouldn’t primarily be an intellectualist activity (as I fear way too many Christians think), but instead a devotional and doxological activity where we are set apart  (Jn. 17.17) ever amore ever afresh as we encounter the living voice of God in the christological context of His life found in and throughout the pages of Holy Writ. Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ should act upon us ever before we attempt to act upon it.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Pesons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 42.

A Better More ‘evangelical’ and Reformed Way When it Comes to God: Repudiating Aristotelian Metaphysics and its Theology

I wanted to highlight something very important from Torrance’s book Divine and Contingent Order; something so important that I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that what I am going to share from him is as fundamental to understanding Torrance’s theology as is anything from him. The fact that Torrance dedicates this book to his long time Greek Orthodox compatriot Georges Florovsky should say something; that is, that this book, per classic Torrance, is going to take us back to the patristic past, and constructively, through retrieval, bring us into some modern and aristotle1contemporary discussion–in the case of this book it will have mostly to do with issues surrounding science, with obvious overlap with theology.

The following quote from this book brings me back to what I have probably become known for best (at least in my past iteration as a blogger) in the theo-blogosphere, that is my rather contentious relationship with what I have called classical Calvinist (and Arminian) theology (but I wouldn’t want to limit my contentiousness to just the Calvinists and Arminians, I believe in offering equal opportunity of contention for other expressions and certain kinds of classical, mostly Aristotelian inspired, medieval theologies). And so this quote is intended to once again–for I fear that people have become lax in regard to the current takeover of North American evangelical theology by tributaries of resource that are flowing directly from the Aristotelian stream of deterministic logico-causality present and funding evangelical movements like The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, et. al. etc.–re-register that Bobby Grow is still watching 😉 , and I haven’t grown lax in my disdain for the mechanical God of classical Calvinism, in particular, even if I understand that many Calvinists have a deep piety and love for God. So consider my vigor, in this regard, to be motivated, in part, by a desire to align said Calvinist piety and love of God, with a ground and grammar for articulating God and dogma in a way that is correlative and consistent with who the Calvinists and Arminians want to love as God.

In step with the above then, let me get to this quote from Thomas Torrance. In this quote Torrance is sketching the impact that Aristotelian and then Newtonian categories have had upon God and the subsequent development of theology that followed, in particular, and for our purposes, in the post Reformed orthodox era of Calvinist and Arminian theology. And given the fact that much of this theology is being repristinated and resurrected by the neo-Calvinists/Puritans et. al., again, it will only be apropos to visit its informing background through the lens that Torrance provides for that. Torrance writes (at length),

It was in terms of these basic ideas that classical Christian theology of the fourth and fifth centuries set out to reconstruct the foundations of ancient philosophy and science upon which the pagan picture of God and the cosmos rested.  Today we can see that they were masterful ideas which lay deep in the development of Western science, and with which we are more than ever concerned in the new science of our own day and its underlying concept of a unifying order. But what became of these ideas in thought subsequent to the Nicene and immediately post-Nicene era? For a short period they bore remarkable fruit in the physics of space and time, and of light and motion, that arose in Alexandria in the fifth and sixth centuries and which, like the theology out of which it grew, was thoroughly anti-dualist in its basic orientation. Before long, however, these ideas became swamped in the massive upsurge of dualist cosmologies and epistemologies which took somewhat different forms in the Augustinian West and Byzantine East. The idea that the created universe is rational because its Creator and Preserver is rational remained, and was to see considerable development, especially in Western medieval theology and philosophy, which thus has contributed immensely to our scientific understanding of the universe. Unfortunately, however, the doctrine of God behind it all suffered not a little modification in terms of his inertial motion which was to have considerable effect upon classical Newtonian physics. Here the conception of the impassibility and immutability of God (i.e. that God is not subject to suffering or change), which has patristic sources, became allied to the Aristotelian notion of the Unmoved Mover. Although the idea of the creation of the universe out of nothing remained, that became difficult to maintain when the universe itself came to be construed more and more in terms of Aristotle’s four causes in which the effect was understood as following inexorably from its antecedent and defining cause, for to regard the Creator as the First Cause from which the universe took its rise appears to imply ‘the eternity of the world’ if only the mind of God who knows himself as its First Cause. Mediaeval theology on evangelical grounds had to reject the notion of ‘the eternity of the world’ but it remained trapped, for the most part at least, in notions of impassibility and immutability of God which had as their counterpart a notion of the world which, given its original momentum by the First Cause, constituted a system of necessary and causal relations in which it was very difficult to find room for any genuine contingence. Contingence could only be thought of in so far as there was an element of necessity in it, so that contingence could be thought of only by being thought away. The inertial relation of an immutable God to the world he has made thus gave rise to a rather static conception of the world and its immanent structures. Looked at in this way it seems that the groundwork for the Newtonian system of the world was already to found in mediaeval thought.[1]

Does this, at all, sound familiar to you? Have you been exposed to this kind of over-determined world in what you have been taught at church or elsewhere? What do we lose if we affirm the kind of mechanical world that Torrance just described? We lose intimate relationship with God in Christ for one thing. We also have potential for losing compassion for others; we might conclude that the plight of some people, or a whole group or nation of people are ‘just’ determined to be where they are in their own lived lives, no matter how miserable. We might not overtly or consciously think all of this, but it surely would be informing the way we view ourselves and other selves in relation to God in the world.

Let me just leave off by suggesting that what Torrance describes above, about a mechanical-world is the world you get when you embrace classical Calvinism, Arminianism, etc. (philosophically, theologically, ethically, etc.). And let me suggest that there is a better way forward that is more consistent with the idea that God is love, and that he serves (or should) as the ground and grammar of everything.

Conclusion

I know that for many evangelical theologians the tide keeps pushing on, and for them what counts as the most resourceful fount for constructive Reformed and evangelical theology is the theology produced in the 16th and 17th centuries, or what we might call Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy (as Richard Muller does). I am not so naïve to think that this trend won’t continue, but I want to offer you all an off-ramp through alerting you to what Torrance is getting at in regard to the metaphysics present in the current evangelical and Reformed trend as it comes to doing theology for the church. If you’re okay (I’m not!) with offering the church a conception of God where things (like people’s lives) are determined by a God who relates to the world through abstract decrees (in order to keep God as a philosophical Unmoved Mover), then yes, continue on in your resourcing of classical Reformed theology (at least what is considered that by the mainline of evangelical and Reformed theologians); but if you want to offer a conception of God as lively, dynamic, and triune who relates personally and mediately through his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ, then repudiate this trendy move, and start engaging with God on the terms that Torrance is interested in introducing us to.

You see, what Torrance is onto isn’t really something new, he is simply looking further back than the evangelicals and Reformed; he is looking back to some of the Patristic theologians (i.e. what he calls the Athanasian-Cyrilian axis) who do indeed come up against these Hellenic patterns of thinking, but who resist the temptation of sublimating God to those patterns, and instead allow the patterns of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ to re-text the ‘Greek-grammar’ in such a way that the correlation is no longer to the god of the philosophers, but instead to the Christian God revealed in Jesus Christ.

I have given up on trying to convince the Young, Restless, and Reformed, but I haven’t given up on you. For me, personally, what’s really at stake isn’t trying to preserve a certain tradition, per se, the picture is much bigger than that. We are talking about reality itself here, and the implications that come along with that. Like I recently noted elsewhere: “Just remember who we have been “saved” to: Not to a denomination, or a tradition, or a sub-culture, but to the triune God in Christ.” As such we shouldn’t be as worried about who we identify with sub-culturally (like what tradition or denomination we think gives us place and identity in the broader body of Christ), but who we are identified by as we participate in and from the triune life of God in Jesus Christ. I think a lot of theology, unfortunately, has a lot to do with identity-church-politics; once we feel like we’ve been given purpose by that (even if it takes us time to find that) it becomes exceedingly hard to move away from that even if confronted with compelling information about how things are and how they’ve come to be in the history of ideas.

I just want to invite you to re-think where you’re at theologically, and think about what Torrance (and I) have been talking about in this post. Maybe you’ll come to the conclusion, like I have, that there is a better more evangelical way than what we’ve been offered thus far.

P.S. It isn’t just Torrance who makes this critique about the metaphysics funding Aristotelian formed classical theologies; there are others, and they aren’t even “Barthians.”

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 5-6.

[2] Picture credit: Wendell B. Johnson .

 

An Easterly Influenced Reformed Theology Rather than a Westerly

The ontological characterizes the theology of Thomas Torrance, as it does, consequently for so called evangelical Calvinism. In brief, the Eastern branch of Christianity has focused on the whole person in salvation in the imago Dei. The problem for humanity in the East is a broken humanity coram Deo (before God), rather than a broken Law (and thus required penalty in need of requite), as we see emphasized in the Western frame—i.e. forensic or juridical models of atonement like what we see in the so called Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory. In passing, Sarah Coakley, as athanasius2she is discussing Trinitarianism in iconography, and shifts her focus from West to East writes this:

All our recent illustrations have traced a Western trajectory, in which a concentration of Christ’s death is one marked feature, and a problematically abstruse didacticism, another. But what of the Byzantine East, with its quite different and well-codified conventions of iconography, its perception of the icon as a non-propositional ‘door to the sacred’, and its tendency to emphasize and Athanasian salvation through Christ’s reconstitution of humanity (rather than through ‘satisfaction’ for sin)?[1]

Torrance was once asked if he was a Barthian; he replied that he was an Athanasian. It is this emphasis that streams through an evangelical Calvinist understanding of salvation; one that focuses on the recreation or resurrection of humanity in Jesus Christ. Khaled Anatolios describes this way of seeing things well:

A helpful way to synthesize the argument of Against the Greeks—On the Incarnation and to integrate it with Athanasius’s later and more explicitly polemical work is to focus on the trintarian-christological-anthropological nexus that forms the guiding motif of the work: only the One who is true Image can renew humanity’s being according to the image (kat’ eikona). The trinitarian ground of this nexus is the immediate relation (though we do not find the later technical vocabulary of “relation” in this treatise) whereby the Son is the Image of the Father. The soteriological consequence of this immediacy is that the Son is uniquely able to grant direct and immediate access to the Father. The statement that humanity was created according to the Image is simultaneously anthropological and christological: to be created according to the Image is to be granted a participation in the one who is the true and full Image of the Father. When humanity lost its stability, which depended on remaining in the state of being according to the Image, the incarnate Word repaired the image of God in humanity by reuniting it with his own divine imaging of the Father. Jesus Christ is therefore both eternal divine Image and restored human image. The saving union of divine and human image in Christ is characterized by immediacy. One foundational principle of Athanasius’s theological vision is this stress on the continuity of immediate connections between God and humanity and a corresponding abhorrence of obstacles and opaque mediations. As perfect Image, the Son is immediately united to the Father and transparently reflects knowledge of the Father; anything short of this immediate and transparent relation would deconstruct our immediate connection with the Father through the Son from the divine side. Through his incarnation, the Son repairs our human participation in his imaging of the Father from within the human constitution; anything short of a full incarnation would leave humans disconnected from both Father and Son. Thus, incarnation and the full divinity of the Son are both integral to the immediacy of our contact with the Father. Far from indicating inferior divinity, the human life and death of Jesus Christ extend the efficacy of is divine imaging of the Father in the face of humanity’s loss of the state of being according to the image. It is a wonderful display of the loving-kindness that belongs to the divine nature as such, the philanthrōpia that is equally shared by Father and Son.[2]

I am not going to quote Torrance directly here, but I have voluminously elsewhere here on my blog. The point I want to get across is that evangelical Calvinism, as an alternative to classical Calvinism, works from a more Eastern direction when it comes to construing things; albeit through Calvinian and Barthian lenses as well. We do have a place for the juridical or forensic, but it is not the frame of things as it is in Western and classical Calvinist trajectory.

If you are a newer reader here, and you’re wondering what’s so different about evangelical Calvinism, you would do well to consider what was just communicated. I have seen many, and understandably so, become confused when they read here and try to interpret things through their Western Reformed lenses; it is time to take those off and put on your Eastern lenses (realizing, again, that we have some decidedly Western influence as well).

[1] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 234-35.

[2] Khaled Anatolios,Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine,(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011), 107-8.

No God Behind the Back of Jesus: God is Love not an UnMoved Mover

I don’t know about you, but as a North American evangelical, growing up, I was taught and given the impression, theologically, that God is somewhat performance driven; i.e. that he is concerned with me keeping his law in order for me to maintain fellowship with him (a quid pro quo type of relationship). Don’t get me wrong, it was never quite this explicit, in fact just the opposite might have been what was on the surface; i.e. that ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.’ But underneath the pietism that the Sunday school song captures remained a God who was shaped goodshepherdby his relation to me and the world by us (humanity) keeping a rigid performance shaped spirituality. Even if I was told that God was love, and even if those telling me that he is love were genuine, there still, even at a tacit level, remained a detachment or rupture between what they were saying and the theology they, and then I had available to fall back on; in other words there was a fissure between the pietism, and the actual theology behind said pietism. If I am not being cryptic enough what I am referring to is the classically Reformed theology that funded, ostensibly, the piety I lived under as a child and young adult; bearing in mind that my background was just a basic baptistic “biblicist” Free church mode of being.

An antidote to all of this came for me in seminary, particularly through my professor, Ron Frost’s instruction; he introduced me to Trinitarian theology (at that time it was presented to me through Colin Gunton’s work). Since, then, of course, as many of you know, Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth have become my teachers in regard to informing the way I think about God as Triune love and what that means for my development as a Christian person. I thought I would share a lengthy quote from Thomas Torrance that illustrates the type of teaching I’ve been sitting under for the last eleven years. Here Torrance explicates what it means for God to be love:

… Just as we can never go behind God’s saving and revealing acts in Jesus Christ and in the mission of his Spirit, so we can never think or speak of him truly apart from his revealing and saving acts behind the back of Jesus Christ, for there is no other God.

It is of course because God actively loves us, and actually loves us so much that he has given us his only Son to be the Saviour of the world, that he reveals himself to us as the Loving One, and as he whose Love belongs to his innermost Being as God. If he were not Love in his innermost Being, his love toward us in Christ and the Holy Spirit would be ontologically groundless. God is who he is as he who loves us with his very Being, he whose loving is as inexhaustible as his infinite Being for his Love is his Being in ceaseless triune movement and activity. It is precisely as this living, loving, and acting God that he has come to us in Jesus Christ and unites us to himself by his one Spirit, interacting with us in creation and history, and in our human and physical existence in time and space, all in order to be our God and to have us for his people.

It is thus that we understand why Christians believe the God and Father of Jesus Christ to be the one and only God and Saviour of the world. He is not different in himself from what he is in the activity of his saving and redeeming love in the singularity of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the God who is loving and saving us has once for all given his very Self to us in his Son and in his Spirit, and who in giving himself freely and unreservedly to us gives us with him all things. It is in the Cross of Christ that the utterly astonishing nature of the Love that God is has been fully disclosed, for in refusing to spare his own Son whom he delivered up for us all, God has revealed that he loves us more than he loves himself. And so it is in the Cross of Jesus Christ above all that God has both exhibited the very Nature of his Being as Love and has irrevocably committed his Being to relationship with us in unconditional Love. In Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit we know no other God, and believe that there is no other God for us than this God, who freely seeks and creates fellowship with us, utterly undeserving sinners though we are.[1]

There are no decrees, no artificial covenants (of works/redemption/grace), or stipulations in regard to how we can relate to a God like this, or who we are relating to. It is all contingent upon who he is in his triune life, and how that shapes his uncomplicated but ineffable relationship to us through his election and free choice to not be God without us, but with us, Immanuel. This is the God, the One revealed and explicated in Jesus Christ, that the piety I grew up with has been in search of; it is not the God, in my evangelical Calvinist view, who we get through Aristotelian, Thomistic, and scholastic decrees and covenants—the God who hides behind the back of a pretty soft face of Jesus.

It is unfortunate to see a whole new crop of young evangelical theologians drinking deeply from the well of scholasticism Reformed theology, and the God provided for in that schema. It is not the God simply revealed in Jesus Christ, and thought of from there. Instead the God of the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox, the God evangelical theologians are pressing into currently, is a God conceived of through philosophical speculation and appeal to the analogia entis; a God conceived of in abstraction, and then fitted to the God revealed in Christ.

If we cannot simply look at Jesus as the fullest explication and exegesis of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit then I would highly suggest that we not talk too much about any other conception of God. This is a serious matter, which I realize the other “side” would agree to. Unfortunately for some vested reason they can’t seem to accept the fact that the classical theism they have embraced unnecessarily layers a conception of God with the dregs of philosophical projection that muddles the face of God in Jesus Christ to un-recognition. Yes, you might end up with a sense of apophatic transcendence, in regard to the philosophically conceived God, but that sense of transcendence, so conceived, really, ironically, is more of a psychological sense of ‘feeling’ God which is generated by the self, more than a real sense of God’s transcendence as that is given in his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ unmitigated. Torrance speaks of this unmitigated God, I wish the evangelicals would swarm towards his approach to things rather than to what they have been now for these past many years.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 4-5.