T. F. Torrance

The Real Reason for Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation: And How that Confronts and Contradicts what is Known as Reformed Orthodoxy Today

I was first introduced to Martin Luther’s theology, for real, in my 2002 Reformation theology class, during seminary, under the tutelage of Dr. Ron Frost (who I would later serve as a TA for, and be mentored by). Ron had written an essay for the Trinity Journal back in 1997, which caused an exchange—by way of rejoinder—by Richard Muller; who wanted to dispute Frost’s arguments (which I think he failed, because he didn’t really address Ron’s basic thesis and thus subsequent argument). So I wanted to share, with you all, just the first few opening paragraph’s of Ron’s essay in order to give you a feel for what he argued.

Given the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that is upon us, I thought it would be more than apropos to get into this through Frost’s essay. It throws how we think of the reason for the Protestant Reformation into some relief; relief in the sense that for Luther the indulgences weren’t the real driving force for him; what really motivated him had to do with Aristotle’s categories infiltrating Christian theology—primarily through Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis. What Frost convincingly demonstrates in his essay is that Luther’s primary concern had to do with a theological-anthropological locus; i.e. that humanity’s relation to God was set up under conditions that were philosophical and intellectualist rather than biblical and affectionist.

Here is a lengthy quote from Ron’s essay; I will follow it up with a few closing thoughts.

Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?

What was it that stirred Martin Luther to take up a reformer’s mantle? Was it John Tetzel’s fund-raising through the sale of indulgences? The posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences in October, 1517, did, indeed, stir the public at large. But Luther’s main complaint was located elsewhere. He offered his real concern in a response to the Diatribe Concerning Free Will by Desiderius Erasmus:

I give you [Erasmus] hearty praise and commendation on this further account-that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous [alienis] issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like-trifles rather than issues-in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.1

The concern of this article, then, is to go behind the popular perceptions-the “trifles”-of Luther’s early activism in order to identify and examine this “hinge on which all turns.”

What was this vital spot? Luther was reacting to the assimilation of Aristotle’s ethics within the various permutations of scholastic theology that prevailed in his day. Indeed, Luther’s arguments against Aristotle’s presence in Christian theology are to be found in most of his early works, a matter that calls for careful attention in light of recent scholarship that either overlooks or dismisses Luther’s most explicit concerns.

In particular, historical theologian Richard A. Muller has been the most vigorous proponent in a movement among some Reformation-era scholars that affirms the works of seventeenth century Protestant scholasticism-or Protestant Orthodoxy-as the first satisfactory culmination, if not the epitome, of the Reformation as a whole. Muller assumes that the best modern Protestant theology has been shaped by Aristotelian methods and rigor that supported the emerging structure and coherence of Protestant systematic theology. He argues, for instance, that any proper understanding of the Reformation must be made within the framework of a synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotle’s methods:

It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers…. It is also an error to discuss [it] without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages…. the Reformation … is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed as it were by the five-hundred-year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism.2

The implications of Muller’s affirmations may be easily missed. In order to alert readers to the intended significance of the present article at least two points should be made. First, Muller seems to shift the touchstone status for measuring orthodox theology from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas. That is, he makes the Thomistic assimilation of Aristotle-which set up the theological environment of the late middle ages-the staging point for all that follows in orthodox doctrine. It thus promotes a continuity between Aquinas and Reformed theology within certain critical limits3-and this despite the fact that virtually all of the major figures of the early Reformation, and Luther most of all, looked back to Augustine as the most trustworthy interpreter of biblical theology after the apostolic era. Thus citations of Augustine were a constant refrain by Luther and John Calvin, among many others, as evidence of a purer theology than that which emerged from Aquinas and other medieval figures. Second, once a commitment to “Christian Aristotelianism” is affirmed, the use of “one or another of the Reformers” as resources “to characterize Protestant orthodoxy” sets up a paradigm by which key figures, such as Luther, can be marginalized because of their resistance to doctrinal themes that emerge only through the influence of Aristotle in Christian thought.

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed-measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles-a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther-who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week-chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.” His solution was straightforward:

In this regard my advice would be that Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, Concerning the Soil, and Ethics which hitherto have been thought to be his best books, should be completely discarded along with all the rest of his books that boast about nature, although nothing can be learned from them either about nature or the Spirit.

This study will note, especially, three of Luther’s works, along with Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes Theologici. The first is Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, presented in the Fall of 1517, at least a month before he wrote his more famous Ninety-Five Theses. Second is his Heidelberg Disputation, which took place April 26,1518. The third is his Bondage of the Will-which we cited above written in 1525 as a response to Erasmus. Melanchthon’s Loci was published in 1521 as Luther was facing the Diet of Worms.4 A comparative review of Augustine’s responses to Pelagianism will also be offered.[1]

It is interesting that we rarely if ever hear about Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology; Luther posted 97 theses a month prior to his famous 95 that kicked off, at a populace level, what we know of as the Protestant Reformation of today. But because the “indulgence theses” are elevated to a level wherein we associate the Protestant Reformation with that, we miss the real reason Luther was so invigorated to Protest in the first place; and insofar that we miss his motivation we, as Frost notes, may well be living in the wake of a ‘still-born’ Reformation; a Reformation that has very little to do with Luther’s real concern in regard to the impact that Aristotelianism has had upon Christian theology.

Furthermore, as we can see, as Frost is going to argue (and does), because of folks like Richard Muller who have championed the idea that what happened in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox period of the 16th and 17th centuries, wherein an Aristotelian Christianity developed, the theology that Reformed and evangelical theologians are largely retrieving today—for the 21st century—lives out of the hull of a theological development that if Luther were alive today would cause him to start Protesting once again. This is ironic indeed!

And so maybe you, the reader, might gain greater insight into what has been motivating me all these years. I am really a Luther[an] in spirit; along with Frost et al. I am desirous to live out Protestant Reformation theology that is in line with Luther’s original intent; i.e. to genuinely get back to the Bible, and to think and do theology from God’s Self-revelation in Christ in a kataphatic key (or the via positiva ‘positive way’). When I came across Thomas Torrance’s (and Karl Barth’s) theology the original attraction and hook for me was that he was operating under the same type of Luther[an] spirit; in regard to recovering the original intent of the Protestant Reformation. To be clear, Ron Frost’s work has no dependence whatsoever on Torrance (or Barth), his work is purely from a historical theological vantage point; indeed, Frost is Augustinian, whereas Torrance et al. is largely Athanasian. So while there is convergence in regard to the critique of Aristotelianism and its impact on the development of Reformed theology, the way that critique is made, materially, starts to diverge at some key theological vantage points. Frost finds reference to Luther, Calvin, Augustine, and to the Puritan Richard Sibbes as the best way to offer critique of the Reformed orthodox theology that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. Torrance et al. look back more closely attuned to Athanasius, Cyril, Calvin, Jonathan McLeod Campbell, and Karl Barth.

For me, as I engage with all of this, you might see how I have viewed both streams of critique (the Frostian and Torrancean, respectively) as representing a kind of full frontal assault on something like Muller’s positive thesis in regard to the value he sees in Aristotelian Christianity. It’s like opening all canons, both from an Augustinian and Athanasian, a Latin and Greek movement against an Aristotelian Christianity that has taken root; and contra what is now considered ‘orthodox’ theology when it comes to what counts as the Reformed faith.

Evangelical Calvinism, on my end, involves all of these threads; it is not just a Torrancean or “Barthian” critique. And the relevance of it all is that it alerts people to the reality that: 1) The Reformed faith is more complex than it is represented to be; 2) the Reformed faith is much more catholic in its orientation; 3) popular developments like The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God (i.e. John Piper), and the theology they present, is given proper context and orientation—i.e. there is historical and material resource provided for in regard to offering challenges and critique to what they are claiming to be Gospel truth; and 4) the theology that we find in something like the Westminster Confession of Faith, insofar as it reflects the Aristotelian Christianity that Richard Muller lauds, is confronted with the sobering truth that Martin Luther himself would be at stringent odds with what they have explicated for the Reformed faith in general.

I hope you have found this interesting.

 

[1] Ron Frost, “Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal 18:2 (Fall 1997): 223-24.

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Sola Gratia, Sola Fide in an Evangelical Calvinist-Torrancean Frame: In Distinction from Classical Federal Theology

Some people might wonder how Evangelical Calvinism in any meaningful way could ever be considered Reformed. I mean EC repudiates classical Federal theology, and does not endorse the theology codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith; so people are immediately suspicious of any mood or train of thought that would assert a kind of self-profess Reformed allegiance (relative to theological commitments), but then reject what is so understood as definitive of what it currently means to be a Reformed Christian in the 21st century.

The following quote from Evangelical Calvinist, par excellence, Thomas F. Torrance should illustrate, for anyone who is suspicious, how EC can claim to be Reformed. Here we meet up with Torrance as he is discussing what faith alone by grace alone means in a very EC and Christ concentrated key. He writes:

It is first to last salvation by grace alone — even our faith is not  of ourselves for it is a gift of God — salvation for humanity, among men and women and within them, but a salvation grounded on an immediate act of God himself, and not on both God and man. We are saved by faith, but faith is the empty vessel (as Calvin called it) that receives Christ, faith so to speak is the empty womb through which Christ comes to dwell in our hearts. Faith as our reception of Christ, our capacity for Christ is itself a gift of grace. It is not a creation out of nothing,  however, but a creation out of man, out of the human sphere of our choices and decisions, capacities and possibilities, a creation out of our full humanity but a creation of God — and therefore faith is something that is far beyond all human possibilities and capacities. It is grounded beyond itself in the act of God. In faith we are opened up from above and given to receive what we ourselves are incapable of receiving in and by ourselves. Faith is not therefore the product of our human capacities or insights or abilities. The relation between faith and the Christ received by faith is the Holy Spirit: conceptus de Spiritu Sancto. Just as Jesus was conceived by the Spirit so we cannot say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. It is by the operation of the Spirit that we receive the Word of God which is ingrafted into our souls, and, as it were, conceive the truth in our hearts and minds. We do not bring Christ in by our own power, by our own decision or choice, nor do we make Christ real to ourselves or in ourselves. How could we do that? That is entirely the work of the Holy Spirit — our part in being addressed by the Word is to hear the gracious decision that God has already taken, hear the word of the gospel that God has set his love and favour upon us, although we do not in the least deserve it. Although we have done nothing and can do nothing to bring it about, yet when he works in us what he has been pleased to do, it is ours to work it out in obedient living and faith.[1]

Sounds very unilateral on God’s part, and very Reformed in that sense. But what might not stand out (you may think there’s more context) is the absence of the absolutum decretum (absolute decree), and the Federal or Covenantal frame of the Covenant of Works (Covenant of Redemption), and Covenant of Grace. There is an absence, in Torrance’s theology of conceiving of God’s acts within a decretal framework and the style of substance metaphysics that that approach flows from. Further, even as we reflect currently, what should also stand out is how a doctrine of God is front and center in all of this; in Torrance’s treatment of sola gratia sola fide it is grounded in and within the filial and Triune relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We can see how that is informing Torrance’s development just by looking in on his work in this one quote. This is distinct from classical Reformed formulating; it is distinct, again, because it works from an immediacy relative to God and his relation to the world/creatures. He mediates himself, in Torrance’s theology, not through decrees but through his Son, Jesus Christ. This changes things; it changes the way we think about God’s character. It makes us realize that salvation is always already an adjunct of who God is, and that who he is as Triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love. It deemphasizes any kind of law based approach to God; any kind of performance based conception of salvation; and negates any type of quid pro quo construct which Federal theology emphasizes (through its conditio/promissio/confessio construct within the structure of the covenant or pactum between God and humanity itself).

Conclusion

Hopefully how Evangelical Calvinism can claim to be Reformed is seen through TF Torrance’s development of sola gratia sola fide; and yet how we are also distinct in regard to the filial emphasis we think from relative to the way we are grounded in the Triune life of God as the grammar of theological theology is noticed as well.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 102.

The ‘Logic of Grace’ and the Burden of the Gospel

I really don’t know what it is, I’d have to say it’s Jesus, and the work of the Holy Spirit, but as of late I’ve once again had a real sense of the ‘lostness’ of people all around me; people for whom Jesus died, but people who for some inscrutable reason continue to reject the greatest and deepest love ever offered humankind. “Coincidentally” I just came across a quote from Maximus, it reads this way:

‘Damnation’ and ‘hell’ refer to those who are on the way to nonbeing and whose way of life has reduced them almost to nothingness. –Maximus

This reminded me of some exegesis I did once on I Corinthians 1:18 (for my Master’s thesis which was on I Corinthians 1:17-25). Here’s the passage:

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

In my exegesis I made it a point to underscore a similar thing that Maximus seems to be alerting us to about the condition of those ‘being destroyed’ or ‘perishing.’ Here’s what I offered up on the word πολλυμένοις , the word translated as ‘destroyed’ or ‘perishing’:

ἀπολλυμένοις is a present middle participle coming from the lexical root ἀπόλλυμι (I destroy). The participle is functioning as adjectival-substantive thus identifying a group of people who are destroyed, and are in the process of being destroyed. The participle, according to Kistemaker, “denotes that the process is durative and that the compound is perfective.” This means these kinds of people are characterized by a present and ongoing process.

Further clarification is brought by Daniel Wallace on the concern of how a substantive participle, such as ἀπολλυμένοις, while functioning as a noun, has not lost its verbal aspect. Note his comment,

… with reference to its verbal nature: Just because a participle is adjectival or substantival, this does not mean that its verbal aspect is entirely diminished. Most substantival participles still retain something of their aspect. A general rule of thumb is that the more particular (as opposed to generic) the referent, the more verbal aspect is still seen.

This point serves to bolster the reality of the state that characterizes these people’s lives. That status is one of dynamism and movement within and towards destruction.[1]

As I reread what I offered in my exegesis (there was more) of this passage, with particular focus on those “being destroyed” it is absolutely sobering; sobering in the ways that Maximus’s reflection is.

So while this is the case for “those being destroyed,” as they simply live into who they are as those who know nothing but destruction (something we all know about as those once part of the kingdom of darkness) there of course remains hope.

What’s interesting about Maximus’s reflection is that he pushes into the concept of ‘being,’ an important concept. This concept usually is emphasized in Eastern Christian approaches to salvation, while the West focuses more on the legal and forensic aspects of salvation. Since Maximus is an Eastern it makes sense then that he would press this idea of nonbeing and nothingness in regard to those who choose to remain outside of Christ (even though Christ has not chosen to remain outside of them). So as I was noting there is hope, even for those living in a state of destruction; they aren’t left to nonbeing and nothingness, even if that’s what they are choosing currently. T.F. Torrance makes this clear; here’s a favorite quote of mine of his that touches upon the very topic under consideration:

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

This poses problems for many in the Reformed and evangelical world, theologically; but not for me! What Torrance describes is the good news of Jesus Christ; it’s, as Torrance says elsewhere, the ‘logic of grace.’ Yes, for those of you who don’t know, Torrance is also, even as a Reformed Christian, very influenced by the Eastern way of thinking salvation (let me not give too much away here, this focus of ‘being’ in salvation can even be found in Calvin’s union with Christ theology, and in Luther’s marital mysticism soteriology).

No matter, I’m not as concerned with where the influence comes from, but instead with the veracity of what is being communicated. The logic of grace, the Gospel, provides hope for all of humanity all the way down; right where they need it. We are obviously a fractured people, we need more than our sins paid for, we need a recreation of our humanity; we need to be resurrected. That’s what Maximus knows, that’s what Torrance knows, that’s what the Apostle Paul knows (see Romans 6 — 8); we need a new heart, and orientation towards God where real life and real freedom are found.

I can’t help but think the Lord is reworking into me, once again, how urgent the Gospel is. When I look at people I see people for whom God in Christ pledged his very being so that they wouldn’t have to be catapulting towards nonbeing and nothingness. My burden is to share that reality with them; this is my great reward. Think about it, we are around broken people, as broken people ourselves, who the living God gave His very life; for whom God shed His blood (Acts 20:28). How can we not want to share that with people; how could we not want people to be transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of the Son of His love (Colossians 1:13)?

[1] Robert Allen Grow, Christ Crucified, The Wisdom and Power of God: An Exegetical Analysis of I Corinthians 1:17-25 (Portland, OR: Multnomah Biblical Seminary [Unpublished Master’s Thesis], 2003), 41.

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

repost

Ruminating on an Argument Against Annihilationism

Ground Clearing

I recently came across a group of people I’ve never given a second thought to prior to coming across them. I never gave this group a second thought because I found the position it is a proponent for so odious and incredible that I didn’t think it warranted any time or energy engaging with and refuting. But I have since changed my mind. Not because I’ve come to think that the position is any more credible than I had previously thought it was, but because I’ve realized how many people this view is coming to pollute; among evangelical Christians. The position I’m referring to is popularly known as annihilationism, or among its adherents: conditional immortality and/or evangelical conditionalism. Here is how they succinctly describe their position:

Conditionalism is the view that life or existence is the Creator’s provisional gift to all, which will ultimately either be granted forever on the basis of righteousness (by grace, through faith), or revoked forever on the basis of unrighteousness.

Evangelical conditionalists believe that the saved in Christ will receive glory, honor and immortality, being raised with an incorruptible body to inherit eternal life (Romans 2:7). The unsaved will be raised in shame and dishonor, to face God and receive the just condemnation for their sins. When the penalty is carried out, they will be permanently excluded from eternal life by means of a final death (loss of being; destruction of the whole person; Matthew 10:28).[1]

So according to this particular iteration of conditionalists, as their label portends, they believe that people are born with a potential status; i.e. either a person will be finally granted immortality by receiving the gift of salvation offered by Jesus Christ; or they will die in their sins, and be left in their mortal state—meaning that, according to the conditionalist, at the Great White Throne Judgment they will be “annihilated,” their lives will be eternally extinguished from existence (what many people believe happens to animals when they die).

I had said, in another blog post (that I have subsequently taken down), that I am going to write an actual paper (with real research) on this issue; and I still intend to. But writing such papers take time and research, and my blog posts take me (typically), on average, about an hour to write and publish. Until I am able to finish that paper, I will of course!, keep putting up blog posts; and this post, as you can already tell from what I’ve been saying thus far, is going to engage with what I consider to be the erroneous view known as annihilationism.

Body of Thought

In an earlier blog post on this issue I had quoted Thomas Torrance, and hinted at how I might go about critiquing the conditional immortality (CI hereafter) position; I was going to tie my argument into the doctrine of imago Dei—oh, and I still am! I shared a link to that post in the Facebook group ReThinking Hell where Peter Grice (one of the primary founders of the “movement” ReThinking Hell), and some others pounced on my tact and what I was going to argue. Peter said I’d need to engage with actual scriptural exegesis in order to offer a persuasive argument for his clan; and another admin in the group offered a weird passive-aggressive sniping comment that he could see, in no way, how an argument from the ‘image of God’ could undercut his and their position on hell and annihilation. This all seemed too weird to me; I mean was the dimmer on in the living room? Isn’t their position fundamentally grounded in a theological-anthropological premise about what humanity is; what bearing that has on a human being’s eternal destiny before God? How could these guys, the luminaries of the group, have such trouble grasping how my critique would not only start by thinking about all of this theologically (God forbid it!), but more pointedly theologically-anthropologically? If I didn’t know any better I’d think that I had shown a light on something they didn’t really want to talk about, or maybe something they feel ill-prepared to respond to; and this is me giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Since this is a blog post let me get to a quote from my Evangelical Calvinist colleague, Myk Habets, that he offers up in his published dissertation on Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance. I’ll share the quote, and then tie it into how I think its material substance, theologically, works directly against the erroneous position known as conditional immortality. Here’s Myk (and he’s discussing Torrance’s theology, in case that wasn’t clear):

If humanity is created to know God and to revel in the joy this knowledge brings (worship), then theosis is the attainment of that knowledge and the joyous communion it creates. The problem with this is, of course, the fact that humanity has fallen. Any discussion of humanity created in the imago Dei must deal with the fact of the Fall and its consequences. For Torrance, the Fall of humanity resulted in total depravity, in Calvinistic fashion. Total depravity does not entail, according to Torrance’s reading of Reformed theology, a thorough ontological break in humanity’s relation with God, but it does mean the essential relation in which true human nature is grounded has been perverted and turned into its opposite, something which only makes sense in a relational-teleological understanding of the imago Dei. Sin is properly of the mind and drags humanity into an active rebellion against God. It is only by the grace of God that human beings still exist at all. The imago Dei is not destroyed by the Fall but ‘continues to hang over man as a destiny which he can realise no longer, and as a judgment upon his actual state of perversity’. As a consequence, Torrance follows Barth and Calvin in maintaining that the imago Dei can now only be found in Jesus Christ, not in the creature properly speaking. He writes, ‘…justification by grace alone declares in no uncertain terms that fallen man is utterly destitute of justitia originalis or imago dei. It must be imputed by free grace’.

There are tensions within Torrance’s anthropology (as in Calvin’s). On the one hand he argues the imago is an inherent rationality within all humans. On the other hand he argues the imago no longer remains in the creature after the Fall as creatures are utterly depraved. The sole existence of the imago Dei is found in Christ and in those in communion with him. For sure this communion is only possible through the incarnate Son and by the Holy Spirit, but the inherent capacity for communion with God is there nonetheless. How do we account for this tension? Our options are, as I see it, twofold: first, Torrance is inconsistent, or second, there is a deeper explanation. It is my conviction that Torrance is so influenced by Calvin’s anthropology that he adopts his ‘perspectival approach’, to use Engel’s words. From the perspective of traditionally conceived explanations of the imago Dei in substantial terms, the imago Dei has been obliterated in fallen creatures. And yet, from a christological perspective the imago is present, incipiently, as all humans have a capacity for God because the incarnation proleptically conditions creation. Outside of a saving relationship with Christ this avails them the condemnation of God. Savingly reconciled to Christ his Imago becomes theirs through the Holy Spirit. In this way Christ alone naturally possess the imago Dei, he shares this realised imago with creatures by grace, and those not in Christ ‘make more out of the imago dei than they ought’  as they ‘continue to sin against the Word and Law of God’.[2]

There is a lot going on here, and Myk is actually developing Torrance’s Reformed doctrine of theosis. Nevertheless, it has purchase in this discussion insofar as the imago Dei is referred to, and the attendant doctrines of creation (protology) and recreation (eschatology) that frame how we think of the image of God from a Christological and subsequent theological-anthropological direction are present.

To me the theo-logic is simple: even in the intricacies of how TFT understands imago Dei, I think it becomes clear, if he is correct (and I obviously think he is, and so would St. Athanasius, and I’d argue the Apostle Paul), that for humanity to be created and recreated in the image of God requires that once created a human being can never fully or objectively go out of existence. What Myk writes here is basically important to what I will want to argue latterly in my paper: “. . . The imago Dei is not destroyed by the Fall but ‘continues to hang over man as a destiny which he can realise no longer, and as a judgment upon his actual state of perversity’. . . .” It is this idea of suspended humanity post-lapse (Fall) that ‘hang[s] over man’ that is singularly important to the argument against any idea of annihilationism or conditional immortality.

To be created in the image of God, even if that image is tarnished or even lost, does not mean, either theologically or biblically, that a person’s humanity is ultimately lost; it just means it might not be being presently realized. It is to presume upon the idea that what it means to be human is a de jure or objective reality that is extra nos (outside of us), and that is grounded both objectively and subjectively in the humanity of Jesus Christ. Because being human is funded and founded upon the archetypal humanity of Christ, and because creation’s purpose has always already been generated by this realization, annihilation of any part of God’s good and very good creation is at diametrical cross-purposes to what God has accomplished in his free choice to be not be God without us, but with us in the elected humanity of Jesus Christ.

So on my view, when a person, at the Final Judgment, is not in Christ in a de facto or subjective (participatory) way, it is this state that ultimately serves as their judgment. In other words, it is not possible, given the purposes of God’s creation and recreation (resurrection) for any part of it to be annihilated—not if the indestructible life of Christ is its telos and ground—but it is possible for parts of that creation to not existentially or subjectively experience the reality for which it was ultimately created. This is what I would call Hell!

Because annihilationists can’t account for a Pauline doctrine of the primacy of Christ relative to creation and recreation, as that is found, in particular in Colossians 1:15ff, then I think their position flounders and indeed is erroneous relative to what it means to be human in and from Christ. I clearly believe Torrance, Athanasius, and the Apostle Paul are at logger-heads with the annihilationist position; and for the reasons I just roughly and quickly outlined. It will be along these lines that I will attempt to make an argument against the CI position in paper form. That is yet forthcoming, I’ll let you know when it actually has come. jusqu’à ce que nous nous revoyions

 

[1] ReThinking Hell, Statement on Evangelical Conditionalism, accessed 09-28-17.

[2] Myk Habets, Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance (UK: Ashgate Publishing Unlimited, 2008), 32-3.

How solo Scriptura is Demonic: Conditional Immortality, Annihilationism, and a Defense of After Barth Theological Exegesis

In this post I want to respond to a comment made in my previous post from a reader named, Phil Lueck. My last post was going to simply serve as an introduction to a larger post I had intended on writing as an argument against what is called conditionalism, conditional immortality, and often is associated with annhiliationism. I was motivated to write such a post because I had just recently
joined a group on Facebook called Re-Thinking Hell; one of its founding members is a guy named Chris Date (a Masters student at Fuller Seminary NW), and then there are others. They engage in debates (in real life and online) promoting what they think is the only viable reading of the text when it comes to ‘hell’ or ‘punishment’ texts; i.e. their conditionalism. After I’ve now had the chance to interact with them in their group, and listened to a few video interviews of Chris Date about his style of conditionalism, I’ve come to realize that they are simply advocating for a solo scriptura approach; the idea that people can read the bible, pretty much, without presuppositions and theological preunderstandings—which is horrifically dangerous. I shared a link to my previous post in that group, and one of the admins made it clear that they only wanted to hear what the Bible says about hell; they wouldn’t be that interested in getting into theological or Christian Dogmatic concerns. Oh, he was clear that he’d considered all the theological stuff (as if that’s distinct from biblical exegesis), and that he didn’t want me, really, to offer the type of post I was intent on offering. He thinks that I prioritize theology over scripture (again as if those two things can be disentangled in the neat and tidy ways he seems to think). This segues us back to Phil’s comment; let me share that, and then I will offer some response to him. If I seem defensive, it’s because I am. Here’s Phil:

Dear Bobby,

I have been reading your posts for several years and have appreciated your sand[sic], even when I have not agreed with you. While I have had a long interest in TFT and a more recent interest in Barth, I am not a Confessional Christian. I have studied church history, Christian thought and historical theology enough (M.A., Wheaton Grad School) to realize the diversity that exists within Christianity makes for significant challenges to the Reformation concept of the authority of God as it is mediated through Scripture.

Two years ago, after considerable consideration, I changed my understanding of Hell, from the traditional ECT view to CI. I have found RethinkingHell.com a useful site for that understanding. However, I do not merely believe just anything that they post. The test of truth for the evangelical believer must, in the final analysis, be Scripture. If I find a weakness in your site it is that your appeal to the truth of your theological understandings on just about any biblical text or theme seems to loyalty to Torrance and Barth.

I await you your follow of today’s post and trust that you will seek to make a greater place for the Scriptures themselves (i.e. some independent exegesis) instead just of using TFT and Barth as your support.

Blessings in Christ,

Phil Lueck

We can quickly see how Phil’s disposition fits the description I provided of those I encountered in the group: ReThinking Hell. But Phil, as does anyone who advocates for solo scriptura or de nuda scriptura (the idea that we can just read the Bible for all its worth without theological preunderstandings forming our exegetical conclusions), has a serious dilemma. The dilemma arises when Phil, or any solo scriptura advocate have to make interpretive decisions, and even translational decisions when it comes to the text of scripture; particularly when we are doing exegesis in the original languages.

Okay, so from Phil’s comment, he thinks I favor Barth and Torrance too much when I interpret scripture. But then I’m left asking: who does Phil favor; and who does the ReThinking Hell crowd favor? You see, the fact is this: theological-exegesis is something that all Christians do. Yes, those still under the spell of modernity would like to think that they can approach the text as a tabula rasa and simply allow the external stimuli and data of the text of scripture fill out the blank pages of their brain; but this just is not the case (Kant, if nothing else deconstructed that notion). Since this isn’t the case, since biblical exegesis will always already be a spiraling dialogue between scripture’s inner theo-logic and the lexical and grammatical realities of the text itself, it would do everyone really well to admit how this whole process works; and adjust their hermeneutical approaches accordingly.

Phil has to engage in the work of developing a theological-anthropology, as do those who are proponents of ReThinking Hell, in general; but as far as I can see that doesn’t even enter their minds. This is interesting, really, because the very premise of conditional immortality is grounded in how we conceive of the nature or being of humanity; i.e. when humans were created, originally, were they immortal or simply mortal awaiting immortality? In other words, the primary question, contra Chris Date, isn’t the nature of ‘eternal punishment’, as he asserts in the video interviews I’ve watched of him; but instead the issue here has to do with the nature of humanity itself. But interrogating this issue is not a matter of simply reading the text of scripture and using the analogy of scripture, comparing this scripture with that scripture in the interpretive process; no, it’s much more basic than even that. The process here is one where the interpreter must engage with the inner-logic of scripture; in other words, we mustn’t go beyond scripture, but we must dig into the depth-dimension of scripture. This is what theological-exegesis entails, and this is what ReThinking Hell proponents reject.

So they aren’t interested in me writing a post that engages this issue from a theological-exegetical approach; they want me to offer a more enlightened biblical exegetical process and conclusion based upon the type of form/redaction criticism interpretive process they’ve inherited as evangelicals. They want me to ignore confessional exegesis; they want me to ignore the history of interpretation; they want me wipe my brain clean of any other stimuli I might bring to the text, and simply offer a clean prima facie reading of the text that they themselves have ostensibly offered the church catholic.

As far as Phil’s desire to see me not rely so much on Barth and Torrance, I’m afraid he’s not appreciating the revolutionary type of thing Barth, in particular, has offered the church. Barth might be a single man, but his reworking of election/predestination (as he inherited some of that from a French school of thought), and his style of Christ concentration is nothing more than an interpretive tradition in and  of itself; as explanatory and weighty as what we get from Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, Athanasius, Augustine et al. So why would I attempt to do theological-exegesis from outside of a theological tradition that I think provides the greatest explanatory power when we come to consider some very basic realities as we get into engaging with the inner-logic of the text of scripture? I’m wondering what interpretive tradition informs Phil’s exegesis of the biblical text? Or what about Chris Date of ReThinking Hell? He claims to be a Calvinist, a classically styled Calvinist; which of course means his interpretive tradition comes mediated through Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine; to one degree or another. This is the type of non-criticalness that a commitment to a solo scriptura can foster; it can cause someone like Phil to tell me to quit relying so much on Barth and Torrance, when he in the same instance is relying on his own broader theological framework and interpretive tradition, at a macro, first order level.

In light of all these developments I’m really not all that motivated to write that long post on conditional immortality anymore. Not to mention that in that group on Facebook, once I shared my post from last night it caused a few in the group to come after me. I actually de-joined the group and one of them stalked me to my page and private messaged me attempting to egg me on into further jousting and debate; that didn’t make me happy at all (it caused some unfortunate words on my part). I think I’ll let this issue die immortally for a bit, and maybe revisit it when I’ve cooled off a little. I’ll just leave with this parting shot: solo Scriptura is demonic.

 

 

An Introductory Post to a Longer Post that Will Argue Against Conditional Immortality and Annihilationism from a Barthian and Torrancean Doctrine of Election

I am currently writing a long post/mini-essay as an argument against what is called Conditional Immortality and/or Annihilationism. In the post I will clarify what that all entails, definitionally, and then of course I will refute CI and ‘annihilationism’ by appealing to Karl Barth’s, Thomas Torrance’s, and to a lesser degree, Athanasius’s doctrine of election and the imago Dei. While we wait for that, let me quickly share a quote I’ve had in my sidebar ever since I started this blog; it’s a passage that comes from Thomas Torrance. In this passion you’ll note some theo-logic that implicitly undercuts the logic being used to argue for the CI position. I will explain what I mean about that in the long post to come. Here’s what Torrance writes about the Incarnation, Atonement, and what that means in regard to what it means to be human vis-à-vis God:

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

The basis of my argument against CI and annihilationism will be what I emboldened in the Torrance quote. These emboldened parts, in particular, are quite loaded theologically; and they are funded by an antecedent theology of election/reprobation and, indeed, understanding, in light of a Christologically concentrated doctrine of election, how the imago Dei functions as the basis upon which all of humanity, even originally in the garden, have a [human] being that is grounded de jure in the vicarious humanity of Christ; the humanity that God elected for himself in Christ before the foundation of the world. I will follow this theo-logic out in such a way that its application will organically, all by itself, undercut the thesis of conditional immortality that claims that ‘immortality’ is only something given to human beings who receive Christ as their savior. I think already, you can already start to see how the way I will approach this will indeed, if the case, undercut the premises that fund CI.

I just became a member of group on Facebook called Re-Thinking Hell. I didn’t realize it when I joined, but they are proponents of conditional immortality and annihilationism. Me joining this group is what has prompted me to think about this issue, and then want to deploy the unique and theologically rich resources that Barth’s and Torrance’s theologies offer, respectively, in order to undercut the CI position.

 

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

On a Christ Concentrated Theology: Its Historical Development from Calvin, to the Federal Theologians, to the Marrow Men, to Barth and Torrance

Evangelical Calvinism is really a bubbling over of a variety of impetuses from within the history of Reformed theology. We look to the Scottish theology of Thomas Torrance, and the antecedent theology he looks to in the theology of John Calvin and also in the Scottish Kirk from yesteryear. We of course also look to the Swiss theology of Karl Barth towards offering a way forward in constructive ways in regard to where some of the historical antecedents trail off (primarily because they didn’t have the necessary formal and material theological resources available to them to finally make the turn that needed to be made in regard to a doctrine of election and other things).

In an attempt to identify this kind of movement, that has led to where we currently stand as Evangelical Calvinists, let me share from Charles Bell’s doctoral work on the Scottish theology that Torrance himself looked to in his own development as an evangelical Calvinist. Bell has been doing genealogical work with reference to various Scottish theologians, and also with reference to John Calvin, in his book. We meet up with Bell just as he is summarizing the development he has done on what is called the Marrow theology. This was theology that was developed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries by a group of twelve men; they sought to offer critique of the legalistic strain they discerned in the mainstream of Federal or Covenantal theology of their day, and hoped to place a priority of grace over law (which they believed their colleagues, the Federal theologians, had inverted thus providing for a legal faith) in regard to the covenantal system of theology. What Bell highlights though, is that while they discerned and even felt the pastoral problems provided by Federal theology, they themselves still did not have the wherewithal to remove themselves from that system; and so they suffered from a serious tension and irresolvable conflict in regard to the correction they saw needing to be made, and the way to actually accomplish that correction. Bell writes:

Boston and Erskine can only be fully appreciated against the background of 17th century Federal theology and the Marrow controversy. The Black Act of 1720 threatened the very heart of Reformed teaching concerning the nature of God’s grace. See in this context, it becomes highly significant that Boston and Erskine contend for the universal offer of Christ in the gospel, for such an offer is necessary to provide a basis for assurance. Not only do the Marrow men’s contemporary Federalists deny this universal offer, but they also deny that a basis for the assurance of faith is necessary since, according to them, assurance is not of the essence of faith. In light of the legalism which pervaded the Scottish scene, it is highly significant that men, who were themselves Federalists, detected this legalism and contended against it for the unconditional freeness of God’s grace. This they did by rejecting the covenant of redemption and insisting that there is but one covenant of grace, made for us by God in Christ. It is, therefore, a unilateral covenant which is not dependant or conditional upon our acts of faith, repentance, or obedience.

The Marrow men adhered to such doctrine precisely because they believed them to be both biblical and Reformed truths. Yet, because these men were Federal theologians, they were never able finally to break free of the problems engendered by the Federal theology. The Federal doctrines of two covenants, double predestination, and limited atonement undermined much of their teaching. So, for instance, the concept of a covenant of works obliged them to the priority of law over grace, and to a division between the spheres of nature and redemption. The doctrine of limited atonement removed the possibility of a universal offer of Christ in the gospel, and also removed the basis for assurance of salvation. Ultimately such teaching undermines one’s doctrine of God, causing us to doubt his love and veracity as revealed in the person and work of Christ. The Marrow controversy brought these problems to a head, but unfortunately failed to settle them in a satisfactory and lasting way. However, the stage is now set for the appearance of McLeod Campbell, who, like the Marrow men, saw the problems created by Federal Calvinism, but was able to break free from the Federal system, and therefore, to deal more effectively with the problems.[1]

What I like about Bell’s assessment is his identification of a distinction in and among the Federal theologians themselves; the Marrow men represent how this distinction looked during this period of time. And yet as Bell details even these men were not able to finally overcome the restraints offered by the Federal system of theology; it wasn’t until John McLeod Campbell comes along in the 18th century where what the Marrow men were hoping to accomplish was inchoate[ly] accomplished by his work—but he paid a high price, he was considered a heretic by the standards of the mainstream Federal theologians (we’ll have to detail his theology later).

What I have come to realize is that while we can find promising streams, and even certain moods in the history, we will never be able to overcome the failings that such theologies (like the Federal system) offered because they were, in and of themselves, in self-referential ways, flawed. As much as I appreciate John Calvin’s theology I have to critique him along the same lines as Bell critiques the Marrow men here, even while being very appreciative for the nobility of their work given their historical situation and context. This is why, personally, I am so appreciative of Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance); Barth recognized the real problem plaguing all of these past iterations of Reformed theology, it had to do with their doctrine of God qua election. It is something Barth notes with insight as he offers critique of Calvin, in regard to his double predestination and the problem of assurance that this poses (and this critique equally includes all subsequent developments of classical understanding of double predestination):

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[2]

This was the problem the Marrow men needed to address; it is the problem that McLeod Campbell attempted to address with the resources he had available to him; and yet, I conclude that it was only Barth who was finally successful in making the turn towards a radically Christ concentrated doctrine of double predestination and election. With Barth’s revolutionary move here he washed away all the sins of the past in regard to the problems presented by being slavishly tied to classical double predestination and the metaphysics that supported that rubric.

Concluding Thought

This is why I am so against what is going on in conservative evangelical theology today (again, think of the ubiquitous impact and work The Gospel Coalition is having at the church level). The attempt is being made to retrieve and repristinate the Reformed past as that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries in particular; and the retrieval isn’t even of the Marrow men, it is of the theology that the Marrow men, as Federal theologians themselves, understood had fatal problems in regard to a doctrine of God and everything else subsequent. My question is: Why in the world would anybody want to resurrect such a system of theology? There is no theological vitality there; it can only set people up to repeat the history of the past, in regard to the type of Christian spirituality it offered. Indeed, a spirituality that caused people to be overly introspective, and focused on their relationship with God in voluntarist (i.e. intellectualist) and law-like ways (because of the emphasis of law over grace precisely because of the covenant of works as the preamble and definitive framework for the covenant of grace/redemption). People might mean well, but as far as I am concerned they are more concerned with retrieving a romantic idea about a period of history in Protestant theological development—an idea that for some reason they have imbued with sacrosanct sentimentality—rather than being concerned with actual and material theological conclusions. For my money it does not matter what period of church history we retain our theological categories from; my concern is that we find theological grammars and categories that best reflect and bear witness to the Gospel reality itself. Federal theology does not do that!

 

[1] M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985), 168.

[2] Karl Barth, CD II/2:111. For further development of this critique, with particular reference to John Calvin, see my personal chapter, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the “Faith of Christ,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene: OR, Pickwick Publications, 2017), 30-57.

The Atonement of God in Christ: Covenant Theology, Penal Substitution, Ontology Atonement, Brian Zahnd, and Life Everlasting

Here at The Evangelical Calvinist we like to emphasize God’s grace, ‘all the way down’ as it were. We see this a necessary course correction given the imbalance that has been present, in particular,  in the Western enclave of the church;  since at least the mediaeval period, and working its way through Reformation and Post Reformation Western Europe and finally to the shores of the Americas (North to be specific). I am sure, intelligent reader that you are, you know what I’m referring to; i.e. the impact, on the Protestant side (which is simply my focus here, we could also bring up the Roman Catholic roots of the Protestant past and present), that Post Reformed orthodox theology has had upon the development of what counts today as conservative evangelical theology (think, as a type The Gospel Coalition and the theology it distills for evangelical churches and pastors throughout the United States and beyond). We necessarily have been bequeathed a ‘legal’ faith which flows organically from the Covenant or Federal theology developed by the scholastics reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries. In other words, because of the ‘Covenantal’ framework defined by its two primary covenants, the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, Covenant theology starts its way into a God/world, God/humanity discussion from a soteriological perspective that is grounded in a relationship that is contingent upon a ‘mercantile’ or contractual understanding. And so what gets emphasized in this theology is a God who relates in a kind of “bilateral” way wherein he makes a pact (‘pactum’) with the elect where they will ostensibly live up to their end of God’s bargain by actuating the effectual faith they have been given, by God, in order to stay in good stead with God; a God who has made sure that all the ‘legal requirements’ of the broken covenant of works have been met by his sending of the Son, in Christ, fulfilling the righteous requirements of the covenant of works (i.e. the ‘law’), and thus instigating or establishing God’s covenant of grace. What happens here though is not an abandonment of a legal strain in God’s relationship between himself and humanity instead there is a reinforcement of that type of relationship; albeit it is now contingent upon Christ’s active obedience for the elect rather than on human beings without that type of grace. We could say more, but hopefully the gist has been felt.

Laudably people like Brian Zahnd have been trying to come up against this type of ‘legally strained’ theology in an attempt to emphasize God’s grace and compassion apart from the forensics of it all. Unfortunately, as is often typical when we react, some things get lost in translation. In Zahnd et al. we almost end up with a type of antinomianism wherein the ‘legal’ aspects of Scripture’s teaching (now in contrast to the Covenantal framework) are completely vanquished from the picture; I don’t think this ought to be so. That said, we want to emphasize that God is gracious, and that his relationship to humanity is based upon His creative and first Word of grace; since this is what he has revealed to be the case in his Self exegesis in Jesus Christ. Karl Barth, of all people (can you believe it?!), offers an alternative and more balanced account (juxtaposed with Zahnd’s) when it comes to thinking about God’s relationship to humanity; when it comes to thinking about how God can still be thought of as someone who still has wrath and anger towards sin; and how that gets fleshed out in a radically Christ concentrated atonement theology. George Hunsinger helps us think about this in Barth’s theology, and he alerts us, along the way, to Barth’s own words on this:

2 The saving significance of Christ’s death cannot be adequately understood, Barth proposes, if legal or juridical considerations are allowed to take precedence over those that are more merciful or compassionate. Although God’s grace never occurs without judgment, nor God’s judgment without grace, in Jesus Christ it is always God’s grace, Barth believes, that is decisive. Therefore, although the traditional themes of punishment and penalty are not eliminated from Barth’s discourse about Christ’s death, they are displaced from being central or predominant.

The decisive thing is not that he has suffered what we ought to have suffered so that we do not have to suffer it, the destruction to which we have fallen victim by our guilt, and therefore the punishment which we deserve. This is true, of course. But it is true only as it derives from the decisive thing that in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ it has come to pass that in his own person he has made an end of us sinners and therefore of sin itself by going to death as the one who took our place as sinners. In his person he has delivered up us sinners and sin itself to destruction. (IV/1, p. 253)

The uncompromising judgment of God is seen in the suffering love of the cross. Because this judgment is uncompromising, the sinner is delivered up to the death and destruction which sin inevitably deserves. Yet because this judgment is carried out in the person of Jesus Christ, very God and very man, it is borne only to be removed and borne away. “In the deliverance of sinful man and sin itself to destruction, which he accomplished when he suffered our punishment, he has on the other side blocked the source of our destruction” (IV/1, p. 254). By taking our place as sinners before God, “he has seen to it that we do not have to suffer what we ought to suffer; he has removed the accusation and condemnation and perdition which had passed upon us; he has canceled their relevance to us; he has saved us from destruction and rescued us from eternal death” (IV/1, p. 254). The cross reveals an abyss of sin allowed up by the suffering of divine love.[1]

There’s something rather profound about this; we can still speak of God’s unrelenting judgment, it’s just that it is redirected in such a way that the focus comes to be on his desire to actually save us from our own self-destruction by giving us his own Self-vitality and eternal life in and through his Self-offering in Christ. The frame is one of eternal life and death; it is no longer about God meeting some sort of Self-imposed legal conditions so that he can have a relationship with his creatures.

I find this to be a much more winsome way, much more biblically and Christ-centered way to think about a God-world relation versus the one offered by Covenant theology and its covenantal schema of works/grace. In Barth’s alternative what’s at stake is not Penal Substitutionary atonement, but instead what Torrance calls an ‘ontological theory of the atonement.’ That is, the idea that reconciliation with God, i.e. salvation, is about pressing deep into the inner reaches of humanity’s real problem in relation to God; its problem with sin, and how that has plunged humanity into sub-humanity and living in a life of non-life and das Nichtige ‘nothingness.’ We see here in Barth, as we do so often with Thomas Torrance, the influence of St. Athanasius, and even an ‘Eastern’ understanding of what salvation entails in its most Christological senses.

God is still all about judging sin; he’s still wrathful and angry about sin; he still is all about righting the wrongs, and making the crooked straight; it’s just that, contra what I would contend is an artificial way to think about the Bible and God’s relation to the world in the Federal schema, the real issue is highlighted. The real problem with humanity’s plight is elevated to the level it should be at when we think about God and salvation; viz. what it means to be human before God. All of that is dealt with by Jesus, according to Barth [and Torrance] when God freely elects to become human in Christ for us, for the world.

I realize that those who are committed to Federal or classic Covenantal theology won’t have their minds changed by this; although they should. But I hope that for those of you with an open mind that this makes sense; that what God in Christ did, and is doing is not framed by a type of legalism (as it is in Federal theology – just go read some books on its history and development), but instead is framed by God’s gracious gift of eternal life for the world in himself, in Jesus Christ. And that because of this, because of who he is in this way for us, he graciously steps into our situation, and as the Judge becomes the judged. Has he met some  sort of ad hoc legal conditions in this process; is that what he was ultimately about in reconciling the world to himself? Nein. Instead, he ‘elevated’ or exalted us to his position, by the grace of his life in the vicarious humanity of Christ, and recreated anew humanity in Jesus Christ. This is what salvation, and atonement was about; and it is out of this new eschatos humanity, Christ’s, where we participate daily in the triune life of God. This is the great salvation Paul tells Titus to be looking for; it is the one that was won in the incarnation and atonement of God in Christ.

 

[1] George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 142-43.

The Second Coming of Christ: Reorienting How We Think of That Through Eschatology and Apocalyptic

Like many evangelicals I grew up under the pale of Left Behind Theology (i.e. Premillennial, Pretribulational, Dispensational theology). Attendant with this type of approach is living with a kind of futurist ‘apocalyptic’ dread (yet at the same time excited anticipation). It is this mood that I would contend has largely created a lot of what we have been seeing Hollywood produce in their dystopian or ‘end of days’ zombie apocalypse types of thrillers; they do so because there’s a market for it. Living this way, the person interprets every hurricane, earthquake, massive tornado, geo-political kerfuffle, and war as portending of the rapture of Jesus Christ for his church. The focus of this mood only gets heightened when things appear to be kicking off in the nation of Israel; since Left Behind Theology believes world history, according to God’s prophetic timetable, is all about the nation of Israel. Proponents of this approach will often refer to Israel, and in particular, Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, as God’s prophetic timepiece.

I thought writing a post on this issue would be timely given what’s currently going on in the world. Don’t get me wrong, my reading of Scripture, and Jesus’s teaching in particular, lends itself to the idea that things will only be getting worse (like birth pangs) right up until the end. And given my current belief (as an amillennial advocate) that we are in the tribulation Jesus spoke of, and the idea that right before he comes a second time there will be unparalleled tribulation (gk. thlipsis) worldwide, what is unfolding in the world as I write this does raise the antennae a bit. It is the intensity of it all; the convergence of seemingly a million points. Now, some of this sense of intensity could be because of our instant exposure to everything, as it is distilled for us via social media. But I think the conflagration of so many things at once—natural disasters, wars, global economic upheaval, genocide, moral rot, super-diseases—does or should suggest that this world, given to the unwilling futility that it is (cf. Rom. 8), is ready for the reality of the sons of God to be revealed in Jesus Christ; in other words, she seems ripe for the return of Jesus Christ.

With the above said, and in an attempt to bring sobriety to this issue, I thought I would try to give another twist on how we approach two key terms that are used to speak of ‘end times’; i.e. eschatology and apocalyptic. Neither term is all that easy to define, particularly because of how they have been used in various contexts. Both terms are Greek in origin, eschatology simply meaning: ‘the study of last times’ and apocalyptic meaning ‘the unveiling’ (in Greek this is the word we get ‘Revelation’ from, as in the biblical book Revelation). But there’s more to it than just these types of lexical or denotative definitions, and it is this range of meaning, per the Christian theological context I want to alert us to. In order to do that I will refer us to TF Torrance to help us get a fuller, more theologically attuned grasp for how the term eschatology and apocalyptic can be used. After we get more depth understanding on this terminology, we will then return to a discussion about the second coming of Christ, and hopefully be able to integrate this thickening measure (by appeal to Torrance) into our discussion. Admittedly, this is probably not what you were expecting when you clicked over to a post on the second coming of Christ, and after reading my first two paragraphs; but bear with me.[1]

Here Torrance gives us a kind of genealogy of how the language of eschatology and apocalyptic have been used; and how he thinks they have been co-opted in an unfortunate way by Left Behind Theology. Within his kind of bemoaning of how this language has come to be used in ill-advised ways, we will also see how he thinks the terminology has and should been used within the history of the church. It is this that I want to draw our attention to, primarily, and what I will respond to further as we pick this discussion back up on the other side of Torrance. Torrance writes (at length):

(a) The loss of mainstream eschatology and the divorce of apocalyptic from prophetic

The main teaching about the last things in the West (apart from isolated thinkers like Bengel) has largely been left to sects whose roots go back into the Anabaptist tradition. Although the extremes of those early Schwärmer have not been repeated to the same extent in modern times, it still remains true that their modern successors have developed an eschatological emphasis that is one sided in its divorce of the apocalyptic view of the kingdom as other-worldly, coming at the end of time, from the prophetic view of the kingdom as breaking into the midst of time and involving history, and therefore that is constantly on the brink of becoming fantastic. Against this apocalyptic eschatology divorced from actual history, the church will always be in revolt, for apocalypse can only have Christian meaning in the closest association with present history.

(b) The relegation of eschatology from the centre to the end of dogmatics

When the church came to formulate her teaching about such doctrines as death and judgement, the life everlasting and the return of Christ, she tended to append it to the end of dogmatics rather uncertainly, failing to grasp these doctrines aright in themselves, and failing to take up the New Testament stress upon eschatology as integral to the very heart of the gospel and to every doctrine of the faith. With a tradition such as this in the church, the words of H.R. Mackintosh have great relevance and point: ‘It is a just and illumining thought that every system of theology should be read backwards at least once, commencing with the last things, since it is in the conclusion that we find the truest index of the whole.’[2]

Okay, let’s try to rein this rather academic sounding stuff back into accessible discussion, and within a context about the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Let’s start with Torrance’s point b, and work into his point a from there. I am going to oversimplify all of this with the hope of making this more understandable for a broader audience; and also with the hope of bringing a broader audience back into a more sober thought process when it comes to “eschatological” or ‘end times’ discussions; a sobriety that I think is lacking in the broader North American evangelical church. In Torrance’s second paragraph (“b”), he is referring to the Apostle’s Creed,[3] he’s critiquing, through his former teacher, H.R. Mackintosh, how even early on ‘end times’ stuff (i.e. ‘the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting’) is essentially annexed or appended to the end of the creed rather than foregrounding it. This, in Torrance’s mind, has the unintended effect of making it seem like creation has been moving in a linear/progressive march forward till we come to the end; but for Torrance, and really for much of the church’s history, this isn’t how end times stuff was thought of (at least not in an Athanasian stream of thought). What Torrance wants to re-emphasize is what another Scottish theologian, David Fergusson, says so well, “The world was made so that Christ might be born.” In other words, what most Christians, of today, think is coming at the “end” of history, in fact was what motivated the beginning of history to begin with; i.e. that creation’s purpose (telos) has always already been conditioned by and for the reality of God in Jesus Christ.[4]

This brings us to Torrance’s point a. Torrance is concerned, and so am I, that because ‘sects’ of Christians (like those who promote Dispensational inspired popularly called Left Behind Theology) have separated thinking about eschatology (in a dualist fashion) from this present [historical] reality, and relegated it to an apocalyptic understanding of things as we see it in the movies; and thus eschatology has more to do with an ‘unveiling’ or apocalypse that is solely futurist oriented (i.e. at the ‘end’ of history), and grounded in some sort of non-worldly (ethereal – Platonic) reality, when in fact an actual Christian understanding of eschatology is grounded in the idea that God in Christ has always already been breaking into the world apocalyptically (dramatically) from the moment he decided to create and give the world its purpose in and from and for his Son incarnate (incarnandus), Jesus Christ. In other words, from Torrance’s perspective, and from much of the church’s perspective in the history (although not as articulate and ‘modern’ as Torrance’s accounting), world history, ‘natural’ history, ‘creational’ reality has always been tensed and conditioned by the apocalyptic in-breaking reality of God’s freely elected life to be God Immanuel (‘with us’) in Christ. Torrance, as do I, sees all of history from an apocalyptic reality; meaning that it has always been grounded by and oriented for the unveiling of his life for the world in Jesus Christ.

This is apocalyptic (!), that the Kingdom of God in Christ (cf. Dan. 2) stands behind and indeed over the kingdoms of this world in such a way that as we read the book of Revelation, for instance, we ought to see all of that imagery, the imagery that finds its reality in God’s ineffable life for the world in Christ, as what this world has always already been up against.[5] Apocalypse, I would contend, along with Torrance, in a properly Christian eschatological accounting of things, understands that creation has always been about recreation in the resurrection of God in Christ; and recreation thus was the impetus for creation to begin with. I.e. the apocalyptic reality and idea that humanity would forever be and stand with and participate in and from the Triune life of God in and through the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

I absolutely failed at making this accessible; it’s still quite academic and dealing with many theological themes, that unless you have the proper context, remains, I would imagine, rather inaccessible. But let me leave us with this: what I am hoping has come through is that as Christians the sensational and ‘fantastic’ reality that orients our whole existence as Christian persons before God is that creation has been infused (not pantheistically or panentheistically mind you) with the dramatic and apocalyptic reality that we were created to be recreated in Christ, in such a way, that we might behold the ‘face of God’ in and through Jesus Christ as the very ground of our lives; as such human history has always been suffused with the apocalyptic reality, in and from the eschatological hope that creation would eventually realize its ultimate purpose as she met her end as a new beginning in the recreation of all things made new in Jesus Christ.

What this should do, at least in my opinion, as far as posture in the world as Christians goes (think of II Peter 3), is that we should live in an expectant state; realizing that even as we see the world apparently unraveling at the seams, we understand that creation, on the analogy of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ always had to go through the rupture of creation to recreation in order to realize its actual purpose for living. The consequences of the Fall, the consequences that the Son of Man entered into for us in his assumption of a fallen humanity, have not left us, but we indeed live with the reality that the eschatology of God’s life in Christ has provided the kind of apocalyptic outlook that we need to maintain as we engage with a world that indeed has no hope but to make it through the next hurricane or big earthquake or threat of WW3. That is, we already, by faith, participate in and from the apocalyptic reality of God, as he entered the drama of human history, culminating in death, and then resurrecting to new life in the resurrection of Christ. As Christians, as an apocalyptic people, as we walk by faith, we need to bear witness to the world that eventually faith will give way to sight. This is the eschatology we live from; from the apocalypse of God’s life made known to the world in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

[1] I’m thinking you were hoping for something more sensational, something more “apocalyptic.” I’m hoping after you read this post you will come away with a new sense for the sensational and fantastic when it comes to thinking about eschatology and the apocalyptic; precisely because you’ll see how central Jesus Christ is to it all. Not just with reference to the ‘future’, but how that future reality has been shaping the beginning (protology cf. Gen. 1.1) from before the beginning; how Jesus has been the reason from time before “time” in regard to what this world was created for to begin with (just look at my little sidebar anecdote from David Fergusson).

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, ed. Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 303-04.

[3] I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Amen.

[4] This has to do with what is called in the Greek protology, or “the study of first things” (e.g. original creation).

[5] See Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, for further biblical theological context.

Chalcedonian Logic and the Diminished Christology of The Nashville Statement

When we separate the work of Jesus Christ from his person, or vice versa we will necessarily end up with not only a deflated expression of the Gospel, but also attendant with that, a weakened sense of ethics and holiness. It is the Chalcedonian logic to keep these two realities inseparably related—the person and work of Jesus Christ—while not failing to continually recognize that there is a distinction between the human and divine natures in the singular person of Jesus Christ. I just conflated two different things, but they too are related; I conflated a discussion about the two-natures/one person reality that Chalcedon sought to provide orthodox grammar for, with the idea that we should never separate the person and work and the work and person of Jesus Christ one from the other. The reason the conflation is present, I think, is by design. It’s the realization by the early church Fathers that any statement about God become man was one with deeply grounded soteriological impact. George Hunsinger, as he develops the Chalcedon logic, interacting with a pithy and elegant statement by George Herbert notes this:

“In Christ two natures met to be thy cure.” When George Herbert wrote these words, he captured the essence of Chalcedonian Christology, with all its strange complexity and simplicity, in a single elegant line. It is sometimes overlooked that the interest behind Chalcedonian Christology has always been largely soteriological. Herbert’s line, however, makes the point very well. It is the saving work of Christ—to be thy cure—which serves as the guiding intention behind the Chalcedonian definition of Christ’s person, just as the definition of his person (following Herbert) — in Christ two natures met — serves as the crucial premise of Christ’s saving work. Change the definition of Christ’s person — make him less than fully God and fully human at the same time — and the saving cure Christ offers changes drastically as well. In other words, just as it makes no sense to have a high view of Christ’s person without an equally high view of his work, so a high view of Christ’s work — in particular, his saving death — cannot be sustained without a suitably high view of his person. The work presupposes the person just as the person conditions the work.[1]

Hunsinger in a following footnote comments further on the relationship between the person and work of Christ, and how, if diminished in any way, one from the other or vice versa, that diminishes one side of the equation or the other. Here, in particular, Hunsinger is offering elaboration in the last sentence we just read from him above:

This latter sentence, by the way, states a basic rule of all Christology, although as applied here it sheds light on a particular type, namely, the Chalcedonian. In any Christology, at least when internally coherent (which cannot always be presupposed), the person (p) and the work (w) of Christ mutually imply each other: if w, then p; and if p, then w. Insofar as modern Christology has typically abandoned a high view of Christ’s person, it has also abandoned the correspondingly high conception of Christ’s saving work that Chalcedonian Christology is meant to sustain. Only a high Christology can state without equivocation, for example, that Jesus Christ is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). If Christ’s saving work consists in no more than his functioning as a spiritual teacher, a moral example, a symbol of religious experience, or even a unique bearer and transmitter of the Holy Spirit, a high or Chalcedonian view of Christ’s person is logically unnecessary. As modernist Christologies typically evidence (though not always forthrightly), such a saving figure need only be “fully human” without also being “fully God.”[2]

Application

This discussion can be taken in a variety of ways, but I want to take it towards ethics; I actually prefer a discussion on holiness, but ethics is a related loci (at least for the Christian). I simply want to state that: insofar as Christians talk about what it means to be holy before God, and more generally how that works out in a theory of ethics, that this should never be done in abstraction from the person of Jesus Christ. I think this is a symptom of a faulty theological endeavor; i.e. to somehow think the church  could ever talk about holiness without in the same breath tying that concretely into Christology. Without the person of Jesus Christ there is no work of salvation, and without the work of salvation there is no way for Christians to participate in and from the holiness of God; and without that participation there is no way to develop a Christian ethic.

I am really trying to get past the Nashville Statement, but I think this is another reason I really really dislike it so much. It actually reflects a way of thinking that thinks about things in abstraction from Jesus Christ. Thomas Torrance would say that this is because of what he calls the ‘Latin Heresy,’ or a dualistic way of conceiving of God’s person and work in Jesus Christ. I see a lack of the Chalcedonian pattern and logic funding evangelical statements like the Nashville Statement, and maybe this all flows from my years and years long critique of evangelical and classical Reformed theology in general; indeed, I’m sure it does flow from this.

To attempt to speak about being holy before God is not possible without first speaking about the person and work of God in Jesus Christ. The picture is too flat, and Christologically speaking, too adoptionistic when Christians attempt to make statements about being holy (no matter what that entails: i.e. human sexuality, race issues, age issues, socio-economic issues etc.). If we sever, even in our speech, the work of Christ from the person of Christ, on the Chalcedonian logic we inevitably diminish the person of Christ. It’s interesting that many of those, or at least some of the more prominent signers of the Nashville Statement endorse the heretical view of the eternal functional subordination (EFS) of the Son to the Father. I wonder if there is a tacit relationship between that, and the diminished Christology we see functioning in statements like the one from Nashville?

I clearly have more work to do in regard to tying many of the loose ends I’m leaving us with together, but such is a blog post. I am seriously going to make this the last post I write on the Nashville Statement.

 

[1] George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 131.

[2] Ibid., 131-2 n.2.

*I stole the picture of the Chinese Jesus from Paul Metzger’s usage of it in his post.