Responding to Jedidiah Paschall’s Case for a Reformed Universalism: With Particular Clarification on Barth’s and Torrance’s Logic as ‘Erroneous’

Jedidiah Paschall, a friend of the blog, has written a post offering an introduction to an ostensible Reformed Christian Universalism over at Aidan’s blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy. In Jed’s post he offers some critique of both Barth and TF Torrance; it is really an old or overly-rehearsed critique of Barth and Torrance’s theo-logic, but clearly one that still has purchase for folks like Jed and others. Roger Olson, in critique of our Evangelical Calvinism (insofar as that is contingent on Barth’s and Torrance’s categories) has made the same critique; as has Kevin Vanhoozer (even here at the blog), and Robert Letham et al. What I mostly want to respond to is the assertion, by Jed, that Torrance’s logic, when it comes to universalism, is ‘erroneous.’ It really isn’t: that’s what this post will, once again, seek to re-clarify (since I will be reposting a lengthy treatment that responds to this, by appealing to a treatment by George Hunsinger). If Barth’s (and by implication, Torrance’s) broader theological commitments are not appreciated, then folks like Paschall et al. will concluded that they operate with an erroneous logic. But this is petitio principii, since the premise is that if Barth and Torrance don’t operate with the same sort of prolegomenal method and attending theo-logic (situated in a prior metaphysical construal), that by virtue of this, Barth and Torrance’s theo-logic just is erroneous. But this is to think in a circle, and not carefully attend to Barth’s and Torrance’s own approaches, respectively.

Here is some of Jed’s critique:

In the related matter of atonement, which Reformed theolo­gians have classically considered limited in scope, Torrance demands that the atonement, which is grounded in an Athanasian understanding of the incarnation, is unlimited:

We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity – that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact – nothing can undo it.

This makes it all the more curious why Torrance, in general agreement with Barth, forgoes logical consistency to both his doctrines of atonement and incarnation when a mere page later he denies universal salvation with equal vehemence:

Objectively, then, we must think of atonement as [a] sufficient and efficacious reality for every human being – it is such sufficient and efficacious reality that it is the rock of offense, the rock of judgement upon which the sinner who refuses the divine love shatters himself or herself and is damned eternally.

It is not entirely clear why Torrance takes with one hand what he gives with another. The whole question of efficacy, as he has already established, is bound up in God’s work in the Incarnate Christ. Efficacy is cannot reasonably called universal if it is not universally accomplished and applied. It would be odd for Torrance to appeal to an Arminian understanding of free will at this point. Torrance’s erroneous logic can easily be cleared up by eliminating this non sequitur and to simply acknowledge that the atoning work of Christ will be universally effective for all in eventual and ultimate reconciliation.[1]

As I noted, the following will be a lengthy treatment offered by George Hunsinger. The treatment directly responds to the charges of Barth’s incoherence (and by implication, Torrance’s). In the original posting of this treatment, I was responding to something Robert Letham had written; something that directly dovetails with Jed’s claim. Here it is:

Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance are both, and often accused of being incoherent in their material theological positions and conclusions. Robert Letham most recently has made this charge against Thomas Torrance in particular (and it might as well have been against Karl Barth as well). Letham writes against Torrance:

It is simply incoherent for Torrance to say what he says about the definitive justification and reconciliation for all people and yet to deny universal salvation. Moreover, if it is possible for people to reject Christ and what he has done, it cannot be definitive and effective for them and cannot have been complete in Christ’s person. It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by the assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis.[2]

What seriously bothers me about such claims is that people like Robert Letham, Roger Olson (who thinks us Evangelical Calvinists are incoherent for the same kinds of reasons), et al. totally fail to appreciate and take Barth and Torrance on their stated terms. It is not as if Barth or Torrance have not provided extended treatments of their terms and prolegomena and approach to things, theological; they have! And so for the rest of this post (and it will turn out to be a long post because of this, but I want to have this available online for whenever I hear that Barth and Torrance are incoherent) I will be quoting George Hunsinger at length on Karl Barth; and Hunsinger will be explaining why Barth (and think Torrance as well, for his own related reasons) is not in fact incoherent while those who are making the claim of incoherence in fact are the ones who are incoherent relative to the particular categories of Scripture and God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ. So here we go:

Testing for Incoherence Within the Framework of the Chalcedonian Pattern

The coherentist mode of testing, as it emerged in the survey of rationalism, also plays a decisive role in Barth’s justification of his position on double agency. Directly and indirectly, therefore, it serves to justify his reliance on the conceptions of miracle and mystery in that position. On the exegetical or hermeneutical premise that the terms of the Chalcedonian pattern are rooted in the biblical testimony regarding how divine and human agency are related, the mode of doctrinal testing proceeds as follows. The Chalcedonian pattern is used to specify counterpositions that would be doctrinally incoherent (and also incoherent with scripture). “Without separation or division” means that no independent human autonomy can be posited in relation to God. “Without confusion or change” means that not divine determinism or monism can be posited in relation to humanity. Finally, “complete in deity and complete in humanity” means that no symmetrical relationship can be posited between divine and human actions (or better, none that is not asymmetrical). It also means that the two cannot be posited as ultimately identical. Taken together, these considerations mean that, if the foregoing conditions are to be met, no nonmiraculous and nonmysterious conception is possible. The charge of incoherence (as previously defined) thereby reveals itself to be abstract, in the sense that it does not adequately take all the necessary factors into account. It does not work inductively from the subject matter (as attested by scripture)–as the motif of particularism would prescribe. Instead, it starts from general considerations such as formal logic and applies them to certain isolated aspects of the more “concrete” position. At the same time, the charge may well have implicated itself, wittingly or unwittingly, in one of the rejected couterpositions.

Without Separation or Division: Against Independent Human Autonomy

No independent human autonomy, Barth argues, may be posited in relation to God. The idea of an independent human autonomy posits the kind of illicit “determinism” that Barth finds to be characteristic of Pelagian and semi-Pelagian positions counter to his own. The actuality of human autonomy or freedom or self-determination (and so on) is, it is important to see, not in question. What is in question is the condition for the possibility of human autonomy, freedom, and self-determination. The Pelagian position finds this condition to be entirely inherent in human nature as created by divine grace, whereas the semi-Pelagian position finds it to be only partially inherent in human nature. The Pelagian sees no need, whereas the semi-Pelagian sees some need, for the special operation of divine grace, if the human creature is to act freely in fellowship with God (I/1, 199-200; II/1, 562-63). Neither position survives Barth’s coherentist form of testing, for neither is seen to do justice either to the radicality of sin or to the finitude of the creature. The same basic inadequacy can be restated with reference to other doctrinal beliefs, and these are actually thought to be the more fundamental. Christologically, the counterpositions fail to do justice to the cross of Christ (as it discloses the radicality of sin) and to the necessity of the mediation of Christ (as it overcomes not only sin, but the finitude of the creature, by exalting the creature to eternal life). Theologically, moreover, the counterpositions fail to do justice to the divine righteousness (as it discloses the radicality of sin) and to the divine majesty (as it discloses the essence of creaturely finitude).

In discussing the question of double agency, it is most often the radicality of sin and the majesty of God to which coherentist appeal adverts (although the other beliefs do not cease to be presupposed, of course, and are sometimes invoked). The radicality of sin, as already documented on more than one occasion, is regarded as meaning that we have “completely lost the capacity for God” (I/1, 238). The majesty of God, on the other hand, is characteristically conceived in terms of the “conditioned” and the “unconditioned.” “The creature which conditions God is no longer God’s creature, and the God who is conditioned by the creature is no longer God” (II/1, 580). Or again: “Grace would not be grace if it were not free, but were conditioned by a reciprocal achievement on the part of the one to whom it is addressed” (I/1, 45). Or again: “Grace cannot be called forth or constrained by any claim or merit, by any existing or future condition, on the part of the creature…. Both in its being and in its operation its necessity is in itself” (II/2, 19). That God’s grace is absolutely free in relation to the creature, ant that the creature can in no way condition God, is as axiomatic in Barth’s theology as he believes it to be axiomatic in scripture. Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism both fail, because they posit a creature who by nature conditions God, and a God who by nature can be and is conditioned by the creature. What is worse, these counterpositions do so even in the face of the radicality of sin. They are therefore judged to be incoherent from the standpoint of doctrinal testing. “What takes place in the covenant of grace takes place wholly for the human creature. A creatura mediatrix gratiarum or even corredemptrix is a self-contradiction” (I/1, 45).

Barth’s position over against these counterpositions may be briefly restated. The actuality of human freedom is affirmed (and by no means denied). But the condition for its possibility in relation to God is found not at all in human nature itself, but entirely in divine grace. In the event of human fellowship autonomy is not at all independent. It is entirely subsequent to and dependent on grace. The missing capacity for freedom in fellowship with God is given and received as a gift–“not as a supernatural quality, but as a capacity which is actual only as it is used, which is not in any sense magical, but absolutely free and natural in its exercise” (III/1, 128). In and through him it is called by grace “out of nothingness into being, out of death into life.” The event of grace on which the capacity for freedom completely depends is thereby a miracle and a mystery. But in and with this complete dependence, it is “real in the way in which creation generally can be in its relationship to the Creator.” Human freedom in all its reality is “encompassed,” “established,” “delimited,” and “determined” by divine grace (II/1, 128). The “mystery of human autonomy” is clearly not “an autonomous mystery” (II/2, 194). It is rather included within “the one divine mystery.” It is, that is to say, included within “the mystery of grace,” within “the mystery of God’s triumphant affirmation and love.” Only in this sense (but certainly in this sense) is it included within “the mystery of God’s omnipotence.” The reality of human freedom takes place, therefore, not as “the second point in an ellipse” (the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian counterpositions), but as “the circumference around one central point of which it is the repetition and confirmation” (II/2, 194). Divine grace and human freedom stand, in other words, in a conceptually asymmetrical relationship rather than in one of conceptual interdependence.

The features of this argument may also be stated in terms of the various motifs. The reality of fellowship is in question by way of the problem of double agency (personalism). The mode of testing for incoherence takes place in terms of the remaining web of doctrinal beliefs (rationalism). The bestowal, by grace, of freedom for fellowship with God is described as a miraculous event (actualism). This event also takes place in such a way that divine omnipotence and human freedom coexist in mutual love and freedom as the mystery of God with humanity and of humanity with God (particularism). Furthermore, the miracle and the mystery of the event are said to be dependent upon and mediated through the saving person and work of Jesus Christ (objectivism). The counterpositions (Pelgianism and semi-Pelagianism) are shown to be incoherent at essential points with the presupposed web of doctrinal beliefs (especially “the radicality of sin” and “the majesty of God”), whereas the position in question is shown in fact to be coherent with it in the mode of miracle and mystery (rationalism, actualism, particularism). Since the web of presupposed beliefs is taken to be in accord with scripture, it follows (granted the assumption) that the challenged position is also in accord with scripture, and that the proposed counterpositions are not (although this could and would need to be argued also on independent exegetical grounds) (realism). Thus all six motifs are in force in one way or another in the mode of testing for the possible coherence or incoherence of the challenged belief.[3]

I submit that after carefully considering these various theological motifs that fund Barth’s and Torrance’s theologies, respectively, that Jed Paschall’s claim about Torrance’s theo-logic being erroneous fall by the way. I realize Jed wants to appropriate the universalist theo-logic present in both Barth and Torrance, while at the same time distancing himself from what he thinks represents faulty logic in their ultimate rejection of an absolute Christian universalism (the position Jed wants to argue for as a Reformed Christian). But, again, in light of Hunsinger’s treatment, and simply reading both Barth and Torrance carefully, one will not arrive at the conclusion that they operate with an erroneous logic; particularly when that comes to the issue of Christian universalism as a theological conclusion.

 

[1] Jedidiah Paschall, Source.

[2] Robert Letham, The Triune God, Incarnation, and Definite Atonement in edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 454. When Letham writes of Torrance: ‘…It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by the assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis….’ What he is referring to is this in Torrance’s writings:

The rationalism of both universalism and limited atonement. Here we see that man’s proud reason insists in pushing through its own partial insight into the death of the cross to its logical conclusion, and so the great mystery of the atonement is subjected to the rationalism of human thought. That is just as true of the universalist as it is of those who hold limited atonement for in both cases they have not yet bowed their reason before the cross of Christ. (Atonement, 187-88)

And this:

 (i) Christ’s death for all is an inescapable reality. We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity — that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact — nothing can undo it. That means that God has taken the great positive decision for man, the decision of love translated into fact. But because the work and the person of Christ are one, that finished work is identical with the self-giving of God to all humanity which he extends to everyone in the living Christ. God does not withhold himself from any one, but he gives himself to all whether they will or not — even if they will not have him, he gives himself to them, for he has once and for all given himself, and therefore the giving of himself in the cross when opposed by the will of man inevitably opposes that will of man and is its judgement. As we saw, it is the positive will of God in loving humanity that becomes humanity’s judgement when they refuse it. (Thomas F. Torrance,Atonement, 188-89)

What Letham, as others, fails to appreciate is the very point that Hunsinger (above and below) highlights about Barth’s approach; primarily having to do with the ‘radicality of sin’, and thinking from the grammar and mystery of the Incarnationitself. Torrance, as Letham asserts, is not merely making an ‘assertion,’ but in fact has his assertion squarely grounded within Christian, historical, and constructive theological proposals that are both robust and cogent within a coherent framework of thought. Hunsinger, I believe, defeats Letham’s (and other’s) charge of incoherence against Torrance, and by relation Karl Barth; and for the very reasons that Hunsinger registers in his clarification and defense of Karl Barth. The irony is that Barth and Torrance, if understood through classical patterns of Christian theological engagement are seen to be the coherent ones while those who are critiquing them are the ones who end up being incoherent by engaging abstract patterns of thought that are foreign to the mysterious Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It is not that mystery is being appealed to in abstraction by either Barth or Torrance, instead the parameters of thought for both of them is chastened and cordoned off by the mystery of God en sarkos (‘in the flesh’); and any Christian intelligibility must be thought from within this center, and not a center of our own active intellectual making.

[3] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 195-98 nook version. 

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Responding to Jedidiah Paschall’s Case for a Reformed Universalism: With Particular Clarification on Barth’s and Torrance’s Logic as ‘Erroneous’

Pastors Will Be Held to a Higher Standard than Group Think; The Elder Said ‘God just is Wrath’: Miscellanies on FaceBook Posts

This post will attempt to expand and clarify upon two FaceBook posts that seemed to cause some people confusion and even consternation. I mean this is usually the case on such platforms, isn’t it? People share context-less anecdotes, or enthymemic notions that are usually sub a greater and more fulsome context of meaning. This post will attempt to provide some of that for these two little ‘posts.’ Here’s the first one:

Much theology is adopted for purposes of pastoral polity and expediency, not necessarily because it represents the best alternatives critically available.

What I had in mind with this one isn’t all that profound, but here’s the context of thought: Growing up as an evangelical Baptist Christian, particularly as a ‘pastor’s kid’, it has made me sensitive to trends in the evangelical churches; as I’m sure it has for many of us. As someone who has been trained formally to be involved in some sort of Christian ministry, and been involved in pastoral and evangelical ministry over the years, what I’ve come to recognize in the Free churches, is that they are largely driven by trends. Usually because of time and personnel constraints, which is almost always driven by fiscal issues, pastors and leadership teams in churches are simply attempting to stay afloat among the rigors of daily ministry. As a result, there isn’t seemingly a lot of time for doctrinal reflection or development, so they fall back on whatever their ‘denomination’ or ‘tradition’ has adopted or gravitated towards. In the baptistic oriented churches, if they are wanting some sort of doctrinal bases, they seemingly have looked to outlets and ministries like The Gospel Coalition, John MacArthur’s ‘Grace to You’, Mark Dever’s 9Marks, or even Paul Washer (so on and so forth); but something in this range of theological trad. What, of course, is common to these various outlets is that they are largely shaped directly by what I call soteriological (versus Federal/Covenantal) Calvinism. But this is what is expedient and in the air for those who want to be doctrinally astute, at least at some level. So, the churches are being fed this sort of theological fare, whether that be in a more aggressive or passive way, respectively.

This is really all I was getting at with my FB post. Most local churches, for mostly administrative reasons, and then the way that pastors are trained to think to be pastors these days, are caught in this doctrinal web. If not, then they’ve caught other trends, like: moralistic therapeutic deism, self-help, seeker sensitive, market-based churching. But my basic premise is: That churches, largely because of their pastor[s], end up going along with theological group-think, rather than being critically reflective on what in fact the Bible might actually teach; and then the attending theological grammar and thought that comes along with that. Pastors will be held to a higher standard than ‘group think.’

My second post was this (this one was more doctrinally focused):

We attended a church for a while where one of the elders, as he was going to lead us in prayer stated: we just thank God for His wrath. Everything has a theological background. Do you want to guess the theological background that would lead someone to say something like this, in an abstraction?

Knowing me, this one should be pretty clear already. The theological background I’m referring to is classical Calvinism, of the sort we’ve already mentioned in the last explanation. The stunning thing to me about this pronouncement, from this elder, was that there was no qualification. He just got up, and as a matter of fact, he simply stated what I’ve noted; I’d never heard, not even a Calvinist be so blatant in language like this before (that was actually our last Sunday at this church). Does God have wrath? Yes, but in the sense noted by Thomas Torrance:

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]

Or in the Barthian sense that God in Christ is the Judge, judged. The point being that God’s first Word of wrath is one of love. He first loved us that we might love Him, and in this God’s wrath begins to make theological sense. To simply state that we thank God for his wrath without explicitly grounding that first in His life of triune love gives the impression that God just is wrathful, full stop. But we know that this isn’t the case. We know who God is first, as Athanasius says (paraphrase): as Father of the Son; we know Him filially, and familially, as a child knows their parent—but in a primal, ultimate way. To unhinge God’s wrath from His love, from His being that is shaped by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to give the people a No-God; at least not a God who the Christian first has come to know as their Lord and Savior.

Clearly, there is an interpretive tradition this particular elder has been formed by; one that I’ve spilled much cyber-ink over. What this elder illustrated for me once again, is that theologies have consequences; of the sort that could potentially destroy people’s recognition of the true and living God; the God Christians only know, by definition, through the biblical reality who is the Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria.

 

 

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

Pastors Will Be Held to a Higher Standard than Group Think; The Elder Said ‘God just is Wrath’: Miscellanies on FaceBook Posts

Evangelical Calvinism’s Christmas Doctrine of Pre-Destination and Election

In my Bible reading tonight (by the way, I am almost done with my 39th read through of Holy Writ), as I was reading through I Peter, I once again came across the following passage:

“He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.” I Peter 1:20

This is a sort of sine qua non for an Evangelical Calvinist conception of election. The focus for us is grounded from the homoousion, the idea that God became human in the singular person of Jesus Christ; viz. that He became human pro nobis (for us). Along with TF Torrance, Karl Barth, Pierre Maury et al. we see election focused on the vicarious humanity of Christ; a humanity that God the Son, with God the Father, by the Holy Spirit, elected for Himself so that as Irenaeus says ‘we might become what He is’ (by grace, not nature). As the Apostle Peter writes, this ‘election’ or pre-destination was something that was focused on the Son prior to the creation of the world (so a supralapsarianism), rather than (contra ‘classical’ understandings of double predestination) focusing on individual humans who are thought of in abstraction from the humanity of Christ’s.

But the point I want to mostly focus on is that for Evangelical Calvinists election has to do with God’s inner-life, in pre-temporal reality, as a life that chooses to not be God without us, but with us. So, election in this frame, when referring to pre-destination has to do with God’s life in Christ for us, rather than God’s choice of individual people inhabiting the earth; inhabiting in such a way that they can be thought of apart from Christ’s humanity when it comes to the very ground or esse of election. Election for the Evangelical Calvinist, thusly, has to do with God’s pre-temporal choice, and then its historical (via historia) actualization in the Incarnation—so a Christmas conception of predestination and election. Thomas Torrance captures all of this in the following way:

Eternal election becomes temporal event confronting people in Jesus

Once again, we cannot now pursue this further into the doctrine of the church, which is the doctrine of the corporate election moving into history as the body of Christ. But at this point we must look back again at the incarnate life of Jesus Christ in light of the threefold mysterion, prosthesis and koinonia. The eternal prothesis of God has become incarnate in Jesus Christ, has become history. In Jesus Christ, the prothesis became encounter, became decision in the living temporal relations with which we men and women have to do in our interactions with one another. Election is the person of Christ, true God and true man in one person, the union of the Father and the Son in eternal love incarnated in our flesh, and bodied forth among sinners. And so men and women in history, in their temporal actions and relations, in the midst of their temporal choices and decisions, are confronted by the Word made flesh, with the eternal decision of God’s eternal love. In Jesus Christ, therefore, eternal election has become temporal event.

Election is thus not some static act in a still point of eternity. Election is eternal pre-destination, moving out of its eternal prius into time as living act that from moment to moment confronts people in Jesus Christ. This is living act that cannot be abstracted from the person of Christ. On the contrary, here the person and act of Jesus Christ are one. Election is Christ the beloved son of the Father, and the act of election in him is once and for all, a perfectum praesens, an eternal decision that is ever present. God’s eternal decision does not halt or come to rest at any particular point or result, but is dynamic, and ever takes the field in its identity with the living person of Christ. As such election is contemporary with us, acting upon us and acting upon us through our reactions in the personal relations of men and women which it invades and which it sets into crisis. It does that by facing them with the ultimate decision which God has already taken in his love on our behalf and now sets forth in Jesus Christ, but it confronts us with that ultimate decision in such a way that we are summoned in decision before it. What do you think of Christ? Who do people say that I, the Son of Man, am? Who do you say that I am? That is precisely what we see taking place in the whole ministry of Jesus as he penetrated into people’s lives by his compassion, and revelation, and confronted them as the truth in the form of personal being, as election in the form of personal being.

That is the dimension of depth in which we are to see everything that Jesus did and said and was during the three years of his ministry as he pressed toward the cross, and the cross itself we see supremely in its setting in that context of the divine mysterion, prothesis, and koinonia.[1]

Conclusion

You aren’t going to find a more organic or ‘natural’ way of understanding election and predestination than what we are offering in Evangelical Calvinism vis-à-vis our teachers and interlocutors. As you read the New Testament, in particular, you will see this sort of theme emerging over and over again; i.e. the idea that we ‘live through Christ’ (see I Jn), or we have life through union with Christ (see the Apostle Paul’s ‘in Christ’ motif scattered throughout his oeuvre). We can amplify the various examples of this sort of ‘textual’ (versus metaphysical) understanding of election, grounded a posteriori in Christ’s vicarious humanity as it is, as we continue to engage with Holy Scripture in a maximal way. I commend this way of theology and life to you.  

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 179-80.

Evangelical Calvinism’s Christmas Doctrine of Pre-Destination and Election

Jesus is God’s ‘Space’ for Us: In Contest with ‘Container’ Notions of Space

An important undervalued or critically engaged with locus in current Reformed retrievals of theology has to do with ‘space’ vis-à-vis God. The way we think space, and its other corollary, time, has important features attendant to it that implicate the way we think God’s relationship to us. In other words, theories of causation, participation, and koinonia are given shape by the way we approach this particular locus and/or loci. Thomas Torrance argues that the Patristics, particularly, Athanasius, imbibed a critical conception of space that was oriented by a relational conception that was given impetus by reflecting deeply into the paradeigmata (pointer) of the Incarnation itself. In other words, as Torrance maintains, with reference to Athanasius et al., the normal (of the time) Platonic, Aristotelian, or even Stoic conceptions thought space in ways that ultimately were antithetical to the Gospel’s Revelation of God’s relation to us; albeit, Torrance does acknowledge that the Stoic notion of an embodied space had closer resonances to the implications of the Gospel features versus other alternatives. Torrance’s greatest concern was to move away from what he calls a ‘container’ notion of space-time wherein the limit of space was dictated by a stable center that ultimately was unmoved; thus, injecting a mechanical notion into time-space wherein there is no room for a dynamic relational understanding of space that is demanded by the Incarnation itself. Torrance writes, after giving a sketch of Aristotle’s conception of space,

Two problems may be noted here. Aristotle’s thought is clearly governed by his demand for a point of absolute rest as the centre of reference for the understanding of change and transition. If everything were in flux we would have no standard by which to gauge anything. That centre of immobility was supplied by Aristotle’s cosmology by the centre of the material universe, for although it rotated it did not move forwards or change place. Thus although from his approach to the notion of space through the examination of movement in and out of place, Aristotle appeared to offer a dynamic view of space, he offered instead a rather static concept grounded finally upon relation to a point of absolute rest, which was of course in line with his doctrine of the ‘unmoved Mover’. The definition of place as the first unmoved limit of the container involved a further problem, for in equating being in place with a particular volume, it also equated volume with a spatial magnitude. The effect of this predominately volumetric notion of space was not only to isolate the notion of space from that of time, with all the paradoxes that involves, but to import such a rigidity into the concept of space that it could only be made flexible through a highly artificial disjunction of substance from accidents—the endless difficulties of Western Medieval theology at these points may be taken as sufficient commentary upon these problems.[1]

But Torrance understands another way, along with Athanasius and others. The way Torrance proposes, with many of the Fathers, is the way that is certainly working with the grammar provided for by such systems of thought like Plato, the Stoics, and others provided; but this way takes the grammatical of such systems and reifies it under the pressure of God’s Self Revelation in Jesus Christ (Torrance calls this kata physin ‘according to the nature of’ way). The result of this is to think of God’s relations with us through a personalist and relationally charged ‘metaphysic,’ one that is given illumination by the bond that has eternally cohered between the Father of the Son and the Son of the Father in koinonia by the Holy Spirit. This presents us, according to Torrance, with an alternative, and even spermatic way to think of the space that God has provided for, in Himself, as His relation to, with, and for us. The space is charged with the pleroma, or fullness of God; God who is by nature a multiplicity of relation in the persons as the Singular God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Torrance writes with eloquence:

In the nature of the case, the paradeigmata . . . that we employ in theology are not those we choose, but those that are thrust upon us through divine revelation, and which have their ultimate ground, correction and validity in the relation between the Father and the Incarnate Son, and the Incarnate Son and the Father. That is the relation that bridges the separation . . . between God and man and supplies the epistemological basis for all theological concepts, and therefore for our understanding of the relation between their creaturely content and the reality of God Himself. It is in Christ that the objective reality of God is intelligibly linked with creaturely and physical forms of thought, so that the latter may be adapted and given an orientation enabling them to direct our minds to what God really makes known of Himself, although in view of His infinite nature they will not be able to seize hold of Him as He is in Himself.

It was by using paradeigma in this way that Athanasius sought to relate the being and activity of the Son of God to bodily place . . . when He entered into our human space . . . and became man, without leaving God’s ‘place’ and without leaving the universe devoid of His presence and rule. Since space is regarded here from a central point in the creative and redemptive activity of God in Christ, the concepts of space as infinite receptacle or infinite substance, or as extension conceived as essence of matter, or as a mere necessity of our human apprehension, and certainly the concept of space in terms of the ultimate immobile limit of the container independent of time, all fall away, and instead there emerges a concept of space in terms of the ontological and dynamic relations between God and the physical universe established in creation and incarnation. Space is here a differential concept that is essentially open-ended, for it is defined in accordance with the interaction between God and man, eternal and contingent happening. It is treated as a sort of coordinate system (to use a later expression) between two horizontal dimensions, space and time, and one vertical dimension, relation to God. In this kind of coordination, space and time are given a sort of trans-worldly aspect in which they are open to the transcendent ground of the order they bear within nature. This means that the concept of space which we use in the Nicene Creed is one that is relatively closed, so to speak, on our side where it has to do with physical existence, but is one which is infinitely open on God’s side. This is why frequently when Byzantine art sought express this ikonically it deliberately reversed the natural perspective of the dais upon which Christ was represented. The Son of God become man could not be presented as one who had become so confined in the limits of the body that the universe was left empty of His government. He could not be represented, therefore, as captured by lines which when produced upwards met at some point in finite space, but only between lines which even when produced to infinity could never meet, for they reached out on either side into the absolute openness and eternity of the transcendent God.[2]

Earlier I noted that current retrievals of Reformed theology have not really attended to the subject matter we are considering alongside Torrance. They have failed to recognize what Torrance has emphasized; that is, that the mechanical and ‘static’ world of Aristotle, which shapes so much of the Latin theology us Protestants are inheritors of, eschews what the Fathers were presenting the church catholic with. As such we end up with an emphasis on a Decretal God who engages with His world through an Absolute Decree that keeps the created order away from Him, but artificially brought near through artificial droplets of His will and power for humanity and the created order at large. In other words, Latin theology presents us with a conception of space wherein space becomes a series of self-enclosed concentric circles that only stop moving once they meet their stable center of the circle who turns out to be the cause and unmoved Mover; but not necessarily the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The original emphasis, that Torrance is pressing, places a primacy on God’s life as Triune relationality as the basis for how space and thus movement within that space between God and humanity inheres; it inheres in the mirifica commutatio (wonderful exchange) of God’s assumption of our flesh. In this inherence, and the eternally antecedent basis for it in the Father’s life with the Son and the Son’s life with the Father, in and through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, is the space wherein we as God’s re-creatures have a place and a time to think out what it means to be a child of God; a Christian.

Further, we see Torrance noting the notion of the ‘open-endedness’ that this conception of Incarnated space inscribes for us. Of importance, we need to bear in mind that this openness is not understood in and from a container notion of space (which might lead us to ‘Open theology’), but instead it is an openness that recognizes the reality of the mysterium Trinitatis; that we are pressed up against an Ultimacy in God that will be and always already is forever giving (the logic of grace). This should supply us with great hope, and present us into a posture of utter adoration of a God like this; our Father who art in Heaven.

 

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Space Time & Incarnation (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 8-9.

[2] Ibid., 17-18. You can hear traces of ‘Calvin’s Extra’ in what is being communicated here as well; indeed Torrance previously refers to the ‘extra’ in the broader context of this discussion about space and the Incarnation.

Jesus is God’s ‘Space’ for Us: In Contest with ‘Container’ Notions of Space

The Calvinian Turn to Jesus Christ Versus the Catholic Turn to the Vicar: A Rationale for the Evangelical Calvinist Via

John Calvin provided for a Protestantly Reformed turn towards a genuinely Christocentric theology of the Word, that prior (except in lineaments found in some Patristics and then in Martin Luther) was hard to find; particularly in the mediaeval context within which Calvin found himself, even if that was of the late variety. In the modern period when we read someone like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and then compare that with a reading of John Calvin, what stands out is the way that Barth/Torrance followed Calvin’s ‘turn,’ but only in even more radical or theo-logically conclusive ways. This is something I don’t think current Protestants who are attempting to retrieve the ‘classical’ past appreciate very much; viz. this turn that Calvin helped initiate (along with Luther), a radical turn to a genuine theology of the Word in Jesus Christ—a turn to a christocentric approach to theological endeavor versus the theocentric that reigned supreme in the Tridentine.

Julie Canlis—as we once again refer to her magisterial work, Calvin’s Ladder—helps us appreciate this Calvinian turn as she contrasts that with the Aquinasian approach (you’ll see her reference the structure of Thomas’s Summa Theologiae and how that materially illustrates her point). She writes:

A comparison of Aquinas and Calvin reveals that, while Calvin picks up on this scholastic scheme, he also fundamentally alters it. Pushing beyond Wyatt’s insight, we discover that it no longer is the story of humanity’s ascent to God by grace (Aquinas), or of the soul’s ascent (Augustine), but of Christ’s ascent. Calvin refuses to tack Christ as a tertia pars onto the Plotinian circle of creation’s procession from and return to God. Instead, Christ breaks open the circle and grafts it onto himself. For Calvin, the figure of Christ has shattered any scheme that begins with creation and allows creation to be considered apart from Christ, through whom it was made and to whom it is directed. In subtly shifting Aquinas’s exitus- reditus scheme from anthropology to Christ, Calvin challenges Aquinas’s attempt at theocentrism as not going far enough. It is not Christ who fits into the procrustean bed of anthropology but we who are fitted to Christ and his ascent. In him and by his Spirit, we ascend to the Father.[1]

She is certainly right to recognize that Calvin operated in the milieu of his own period; how could he not? But, as Canlis also helps us see, Calvin was a constructive and ingenious Christian thinker propelled by his newfound Protest-ant faith; a faith given direction and shape by a principled commitment to the Word rather than to the Church as his ultimate authority. Within this complex Calvin was ingressed into a new world that had the imaginary to think the church from Christ rather than Christ from the church; as such, he was able to make the turn that others prior couldn’t.

I would suggest that Barth and Torrance picked up on this turn in Calvin, and as I noted previously, radicalized it further; to its rightful conclusion even. Both Barth and Torrance, and us Evangelical Calvinists, are genuinely Calvinian in the sense that we operate not just in the spirit, but the letter of Calvin’s turn to Jesus Christ as the centraldogma of all that is viable in theological endeavor. I think our counterparts in other tributaries of the Reformed faith, in their zeal to recover the ‘catholic faith’ have unfortunately overlooked the sort of Christ conditioned notion of God that Calvin (and Luther) did not. As Evangelical Calvinists we attempt to move and breath in this Christ concentrated spirit, with the result that all our theologizing is principially and intensively Christ pressured. We think this is the right trajectory to be on since Jesus himself seemed to take this approach when engaging with Holy Scripture (cf. Jn 5.39; etc.).

[1] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension(Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), Loc. 493, 498.

The Calvinian Turn to Jesus Christ Versus the Catholic Turn to the Vicar: A Rationale for the Evangelical Calvinist Via

Knowing God through the Wood of the Cross Rather than from the Metaphysics of the ‘catholics’

I would have to say that I am obsessed with ‘knowledge of God,’ and how from a Christian perspective that is obtained. I have blogged, and written elsewhere, much on this locus; particularly as that gets into what is called the analogia entis and analogia fidei/relationis. I really don’t know why I’m so obsessed with this locus, but I think it has something to do with the pluralism within which I have been weaned, in the Western culture[s]; particularly as my experience of that is in North America. Nevertheless, the so called scandal of particularity of God’s grace in Christ enamors me; this is why I wrote my Master’s thesis on I Corinthians 1.17-25. I was first turned onto this locus in seminary as we studied Martin Luther’s theologia crucis (theology of the cross), and John Calvin’s duplex cognitio domini (twofold knowledge of God as Creator/Redeemer). I was already wrestling with ‘knowledge of God’ theory prior to these introductions, but these teachings of Luther and Calvin gave me some intelligible grammar that helped articulate what only lay latent and inarticulate in the flutter of my mind’s-eye.

The pursuit and infatuation with this locus has only grown since that introduction (back in 2002). I have found my greatest solace in the theology of Karl Barth (so analogia entis/relationis:being/relation), and also in Barth’s greatest English speaking student: Thomas F. Torrance. They have brought greater clarity to a theory of revelation and knowledge of God for me; something that Luther and Calvin alone couldn’t do fully. I have forayed in other directions in the pursuit of assuaging my curiosity in regard to knowledge of God or theory of revelation; I have read many others in fact, but Herman Bavinck and Henri de Lubac have provided me with the greatest alternative vis-à-vis the Barth/Torrance combine. But in the end I keep coming back to Barth’s anti-natural theological approach as that is grounded in his type of apocalyptical-dialectical theology. I am currently reading through his Church Dogmatics I/1 (I’m in the process of reading through the whole CD, in spotty fashion). I came across a passage from Barth that helps illustrate the sort of material focus, in regard to theory of revelation that I have been alluding to above. Let me share that at some length with you here.

The real issue in this whole matter is plain in Luther, to whom also appeal is usually made. It is Luther’s insights that lay behind the statements of Melanchthon and indirectly behind those of Calvin too. From his perception that man’s justification is in Christ alone and therefore by faith alone, Luther rightly concluded that all human theology can only be theology of revelation. As it is arbitrary and dangerous in the matter of justification to orientate oneself to a preconceived idea of the Law or one capriciously abstracted from the statements of Scripture; so it is arbitrary and dangerous in theology generally to start with a preconceived idea of God or one capriciously abstracted from the statements of Scripture. The total theological question, like the question of justification in detail, can be answered only with reference to the God who reveals Himself in Christ. Already in 1519 Luther mentions a thought he was often to repeat: This is the the one and only way of knowing God (shamefully neglected by the teachers of the Sentences with their speculations on pure divinity), that whoever wishes to think or reflect profitably on God should utterly disregard everything except the humanity of Christ (Letter to Spalatin, February 12, 1519, W.A. Br. I, 328 f). About the same time we find him writing polemically: Accordingly, let anyone who wants to know God have regard for the ladder fixed in the ground: here all human reason fails. For nature teaches that we are more eager to turn our attention to great than lowly things. Learn from this, how wickedly and – dare I say? – impiously they behave when they speculate, confident in their diligence, on the lofty mysteries of the Trinity: on where the angels are enthroned and what the saints say, when after all Christ was born in the flesh and will remain in the flesh. But look what happens to them. First: “If they should poke their heads into heaven and look around in heaven they would find no one but Christ laid in the crib and in the woman’s lap, and so they would fall down again and break their necks.” And these are those who write on the first book of the Sentences. And then they attain absolutely nothing from these speculations of theirs, so that they are able to profit or counsel neither themselves or others. “Start here below, Thomas and Philip, and not up above” (Schol. in libr. Gen. on Gen. 28, W.A. 9, 406, 11). Even better known is the following passage: “For I have often said and say it again that when I am dead men should remember and guard against all teachers as ridden and led by the devil who in lofty positions begin to teach and preach about God nakedly and apart from Christ, as heretofore in high schools they have  speculated and played with His works up above in heaven, what He is and thinks and does in Himself, etc. But if thou wilt fare securely and rightly teach to grasp God so that thou find grace and help with Him, then let not thyself be persuaded to seek Him elsewhere than in the Lord Christ, nor go round  about and trouble thyself with other thoughts nor ask about any other work than how He hath sent Christ. Fix thine art and study on Christ, there let them also bide and hold. And where thine own thought and reason or anyone else  leadeth or guideth thee otherwise, do but close thine eyes and say: I should and will know no other God save in my Lord Christ” (Sermon on Jn. 17.3, 1528, W.A. 28, 100, 33; cf also Comm. on Gal. 13, 1535, W.A. 40.1, 75f.; W.A. Ti. 6, 28). One should not fail to note that in so far as these statements of Luther are polemical in content they are not concerned with the doctrine of Christ’s deity, and in so far as they are concerned with the doctrine of Christ’s deity they are not polemical in content. What Luther wants—this is his point in this train thought—is that deity in general and Christ’s deity in particular should not be known along the path of autonomous speculation but along the path of knowledge of God’s revelation, which means in practice along the path of knowledge of the benificia Christi and therefore the humanity of Christ.[1]

And to press this thought line further Torrance commentates this on Barth’s style of evangelical theology:

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]

Barth goes to proving that the aim of THE original Reformer, Martin Luther, was to move away from the discursive and speculative way of the mediaeval theology he was nurtured in. We see his disdain for not only Lombard’s Sentences, but how those became the mainstay of mediaeval theology, to the point that they had their own commentaries; they became the authority for the theological developments of Luther’s day, and days prior. The original Reformer repudiated these speculative meanderings, according to Barth, by recognition of the fact that as sinners we need salvation; this never changes. As such, for Luther, according to Barth, ‘metaphysics’ are not the ply of the Christian; instead, focusing on the wood of the manger and cross of Jesus Christ are—indeed always will be and should be. It is the Christ who is the always already mainstay of theological reflection; the way into knowledge of God. This never changes; we are always in a mode of ‘reckoning’ ourselves ‘dead to sin and alive to Christ.’ If this is the case, as I distill Barth on Luther et al. then moving into the philosopher’s head, in regard to Ultimacy, is not the way of the Christian; the way of the Christian is to live in and from the heart of God as that pulses in the risen Christ given breath by the Holy Spirit. This is a repudiation of ‘metaphysical’ speculation about Pure Beings and Unmoved Movers, just as salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone.

Ironically, those who claim to be recovering the Reformed heritage in the 21st century evangelical and Reformed churches are not recovering this “Barthian” emphasis, this “Luther[an]” emphasis of focus on Christ alone. Instead these “recoverers,” as they retrieve not only the 16th and 17th centuries of Protestant orthodoxy, but also as they retrieve Thomas Aquinas and much of the rest of the so called ‘classical’ or ‘catholic’ tradition, move quickly past what initiated the Protestant Reformation to begin with. Luther offered a repudiation of speculative apophatic theologies, and in its place offered a theology that is constantly refreshed by the eternal well-springs of the heavenly God made human for us all. Christ alone, in all his flesh and blood, in the concreteness of his humanity, for Luther, for Barth is God’s way for us to himself. All theological knowledge, thusly, is delimited by this concrete and earthen vessel who is the Christ. But the retrievers of today have opted for the very muddle that Luther rightly saw through on his way to a knowledge of God that not only liberated him from the maelstroms of his Augustinian monkery, but after Luther liberated the world from its bondages to the self and its speculative projections about just who God might be.

I hope the evangelical churches can finally recover the reality that God alone in Jesus Christ as attested to in Holy Scripture is the only way to have a genuine knowledge of just who God is [for us].

 

 

[1] Barth, CD I/1 §11, 125-27. The italics in the quote are mine; I italicized what is originally in the Latin, but what in the study edition of the CD has been translated by way of footnotes. I have offered the translation.

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

Knowing God through the Wood of the Cross Rather than from the Metaphysics of the ‘catholics’

Election Was Barth’s Hook: Contra the Five Point Calvinists and the Absolutum Decretum

What initially attracted me to Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance? It really was a matter of theological utility, and need. I lived in a nut, and I needed it cracked; they cracked it for me with integrity and theological acumen. That was the hook for me. What am I referring to; what’s the nut? Election/Reprobation/Predestination. Some people simply want to ignore these words, and the concepts they symbolize, because they would claim they aren’t biblical words (but neither is the Trinity). So for those of us who don’t want to live with our heads in the theological sands we feel compelled to deal with the material language like election represent. For me, growing up as an evangelical, a Conservative Baptist to boot, my inculcation in this area was to live in a mode that some call: Calmanian. You see what’s being done there? The smooshing together of the words Calvinist and Arminian; this was the smooshy world I lived in all the way through seminary. I freely chose to reject the idea that God in Christ only died for a limited elect group of people (the “U” in the TULIP: ‘Unconditional Election’ and the “L” ‘Limited Atonement’); indeed, I have always found that idea reprehensible and at severe odds with who I’ve always understood God to be as Triune love. I could never stomach the idea, and still can’t, that God only ultimately loves certain people that He chooses to love based on an ad hoc choice that He makes for reasons known only to Him. I find this reprehensible because I don’t find it cohering with who God has revealed Himself to be in Jesus Christ; never have!

Barth, and Torrance following, offered a way out for me; but not in the negative way that might sound. In other words, what I found in them, with there intensive concentration on Jesus Christ, was a way to think about election-reprobation in and from what Hunsinger calls the ‘Chalcedonian Pattern’ (in reference to Barth’s theology). In the spirit of Athanasius, Barth and Torrance, both take the categories of election-reprobation and ground them principally in Jesus Christ; they see Him as both the electing God, and the elected human. In His free choice to be elected human, by virtue of His electing work, he assumes the reprobate status of what it means to be human (post-lapse). When we think about election-reprobation alongside Barth-Torrance we start thinking in terms of what has been called the mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’), or in the more Pauline terms of ‘by His poverty we’ve been made rich’ (cf. II Cor. 8.9). So the focus for Barth and Torrance is on a concrete humanity versus the abstract and individualistic conception of humanity we find in the so called absolutum decretum funding five point soteriology. In other words, for Barth and Torrance, Jesus is archetypal humanity, the ‘firstborn from the dead’ (cf. Col. 1.15-18), the ‘new creation’ (cf. II Cor. 5.17); by virtue of this status it is not possible to connive any other ontology or concept of humanity except by thinking that through the resurrected/recreated humanity of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, this isn’t just in Barth-Torrance, Calvin’s union with Christ (unio cum Christo) and double grace (duplex gratia) concepts are inchoate seeds that finally led to what Barth ultimately developed (see Pierre Maury’s influence on Barth’s aha moment in regard to his reformulation of election — Maury can be seen as a stepping stone between Calvin and Barth).

Some people are troubled by this schema for election-reprobation because of the theory of causation and the metaphysics they have imbibed (that produced the absolutum decretum), but that’s their problem. If people want to conflate a foreign ideological framework with kerygmatic reality, and then petitio principii (circular) argue that anyone who disagrees with them is disagreeing with the Gospel and its implications has deeper problems they ought to attend to; like an inability to critically engage with their own theological methodology. In other words, the Calvinist is very concerned, with reference to Barth’s reformulation, with how someone will finally come to the point that they need Jesus; i.e. given their totally depraved state. Given their options, in the metaphysics they live in, all they have available to them is a world that either emphasizes God’s choice, or the human choice. But that’s not the only alternative (in regard to thinking about causality); and Torrance’s work with Einstein’s theory of relativity and Maxwell’s field theory, helps to illustrate, by engagement with what Torrance calls ‘social-coefficients’ (what Barth might call ‘secular parables’ and some Patristics might call Logoi) how things are more dynamic in the warp and woof of the fabric of contingent/created reality vis-à-vis God.

Let me leave us with a good quote from Barth:

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.[1]

I develop all of this further in my personal chapter for our last Evangelical Calvinism book; which you can read via google books here.

I don’t know if you hang around in Calvinist circles (like I do!), but it’s interesting, they hardly ever talk about this doctrine. There is good reason why! Roger Olson, the evangelical Arminian, often refers to the Calvinist God as a monster, precisely because of their doctrine of election-reprobation. But Olson, ironically, works in and from the same theological material, and the same basic metaphysic that the Calvinists do; he doesn’t offer a viable alternative.

[1] Karl Barth, CD II/2, 111.

Election Was Barth’s Hook: Contra the Five Point Calvinists and the Absolutum Decretum

Torrance Against Annihilationism or Evangelical Conditionalism, Not to Mention Christian Universalisms

Not too long ago here at the blog I wrote some posts on annihilationism or what some call evangelical conditionalism; the idea being that there is not an eternal hell, instead when someone dies outside of Christ, ultimately, their existence and being is dis-integrated by its un-hinging from the eternal life of God. There are some interesting implications surrounding this; and the folks at ReThinking Hell (proponents of annihilationism) want to present the implications they see in a way that is grounded in biblical exegesis and reality. Indeed, as orthodox Christians, who wouldn’t want to ground their thinking about this issue in the reality of the biblical witness? But as is typical there is always more to the story, never less, than just quoting bible passages, or doing word studies; indeed, there is always an inner-theological reality that allows Scripture to presume what it does in its occasional teachings.

As I originally opined on this issue what I stated was that there was a need to think about this issue from a theological exegetical point of view, such that the Dogmatic loci have the opportunity to supply the necessary pressure for biblical exegesis to have the sort of fully rounded elucidation that it ought to have when dealing with this particular teaching among every other biblical teaching. What I suggested originally was that at base annihilationism has to do with the way a theological anthropology is detailed, and how that gets developed vis-à-vis a doctrine of election/reprobation. When it comes to these particular loci my go to theologians are of course Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance (not to mention their reliance on Athanasius when it comes to these themes). What I suggest is that if we understand all human being to be grounded in Christ’s vicarious humanity—which is what Barth’s and Torrance’s reformulated doctrine of election details—if we see human ontology grounded in Christ’s election to become human for us, then human being has an ec-static source that is not contingent upon itself, but upon God (insofar as the Son’s humanity is given enhypostatic particularity through his being as the eternal Logos in the triune life). If this is so, then human being, even if that being refuses to acknowledge its reality by repentance and coming into full union with its reality in Christ, is held together for all eternity just as sure as the humanity of Christ is of the indestructible sort (Hebrews). Some might take this to mean that universalism then is the conclusion; versus annihilationism. But Torrance explicitly rejects that conclusion, and simply lives in the tension of the biblical witness. He works out of the implications of the Incarnation, and at the same time, dialectically allows Scripture’s teaching to chasten thinking that might lead us to think that all human being will ultimately experience eternal life simply because its ontological ground is in the humanity of Jesus Christ. Torrance repudiates these sorts of logico-causal/necessitarian conclusions just as Einstein rejected mechanical conclusions about the cosmos based upon the reality of relativity in the time-space continuum.

Geordie Ziegler helps to elucidate what we have been thinking about above and helps to reinforce my suggestions in regard to hell, election, and annihilationism in the theology of Thomas Torrance. Ziegler writes:

Because God is committed to his creature, human beings are bound eternally in an “existential relation to God.” Accordingly, Torrance rejects equating God’s final judgment with annihilation. In an effort to root final judgment and reprobation biblically, he develops the Old Testament concepts of the curse of God and sheol. In being cursed, the reprobate are given up to their own uncleanness, separated from the face of God and banished from creation into “outer darkness.” But, fundamentally, this is “a banishment to their own denial of their being in God.” It is the confirmation of their choice to exist outside of the covenant of God, as those who do not belong to it. Whereas sheol, as Torrance expounds it, is this state of existence “in darkness behind God’s back . . . in man’s self-chosen perversity and blindness.” Sheol is a kind of suspended darkness, that already casts its shadow over all sinners as their self-chosen destiny, yet awaits God’s final acts of judgment. The curse then is God’s ultimate and final judgment in which those who cast themselves upon God’s wrath and judgment will be justified; and those who choose to remain in their alienation will be utterly banished. Torrance describes hell as “the chasm that separates man from God in the very existence of sinful man,” who is conditioned and determined by sin and guilt. Hell is not an abstract place, nor is it the no-thing of nothingness. Hell is the personal and concrete existence of the human being in alienation from God. It is the sinner choosing isolation from God’s love. As such, the alienation of hell is always a possibility—for both the living as well as for the living dead. For those whose “ultimate reaction” is to deny God’s claim upon them, they will bear the pain of a continued existence of “utter and final judgement within existential relation to God.” God gives sinners the freedom to deny his claim upon them, yet his claim remains nonetheless.[1]

The key to understanding this contra annihiliationism is to recognize that human being, all of human being’s perduring is encompassed by the reality that God’s humanity is humanity, and as such humanity can never be eradicated, none of it, by virtue of this. In other words, if the humanity of God stands behind the back, as it were, of the humanity of all instances of humanity (this gets us into another quagmire in regard to dealing with a concern about positing a metaphysical humanity, which we will have to engage later) then humanity, even if it spiritually fails to submit to its reality in Christ, nonetheless will endure through all the æon’s of time to come (for all eternity). As far as Torrance’s (and Barth’s) doctrine of election, and attending theological anthropology vis-à-vis redemption, leading to Christian universalism: this need not be the conclusion precisely at the point that Scripture itself delimits this as a viable conclusion in regard to the experience of eternal life in Christ. In other words, people can reject what in fact stands over them, their very life in Christ. Some might think this then leads to the binary of Calvinism and Arminianism, as far as so called ‘free-will,’ but that’s only if we believe that the theological paradigm and theory of causation that classical Calvinism and Arminianism are embedded within, are the only ways to think about a relation inhering between God and his creation. But that’s not the only way to think about such things.

[1] Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 176-77.

Torrance Against Annihilationism or Evangelical Conditionalism, Not to Mention Christian Universalisms

An [onto]Relational Rather than Metaphysical Doctrine of Sin: An Altar-Call for Metaphysics

One reason I am continuously enamored with Thomas Torrance (and have been for years now) is because he has this knack for being able to mediate, well, between various periods and lexicons of ecclesial ideational development; in other words, he is a constructive theologian and Church Dogmatician par excellence. He is able to bring various voices into conversation, and allow those voices (and periods) to help in-form and cross-pollinate in such a way that what is produced are emphases, that I think!, best proximate the Gospel’s reality and various implications. Take for example his doctrine of sin: because of his commitment to what he calls onto-relationality, that is the being and personalizing constituting reality of God’s inner-Triune-life as not only the ground of who he is in himself, but as that is shared in its over-pouring reality as he freely chooses to create beings in his image (an act of grace) in the imago Christi, Torrance’s theological methodology (prolegomenon) becomes one that is less metaphysical, and instead one that is focused on [onto] relationality. What this means is that Torrance’s terms, even if he converses with the school or ancient theological lexicons, get reified or re-oriented by his focus on the Triune life and the relationality and personalization he sees co-inhering therein.

With the above sketch, in regard to Torrance’s theological method, Trinitarian as it is, person-constituting as it is, this does things further down the line as we get into the development of his other loci (or doctrines). Again, take his doctrine of sin; Torrance thinks sin not in terms of a static metaphysical given, but instead in terms of relational organic dynamism—viz. in terms of how Torrance sees sin in the concrete vis-à-vis its grounding and amplification in relation to grace and God’s life of grace given in Christ. In other words, much like Barth in this instance, Torrance sees sin’s definition only given reality as it is understood from within the reality of grace; and its attempt to thwart God’s goodness and loveliness therein. Geordie Ziegler helps us to appreciate this with greater development as he writes:

Torrance views sin as profoundly and irreducibly personal and relational. As such, his interests lie in sin’s actual existence within the dynamic and personal life-relation that creatures have with God, not in historical questions regarding original sin as an inherent hereditary or fatalistic determinate of our nature. His concerns are the concrete consequences of sin and how sin is manifested in human beings as “an active perversity”: a “positive contradiction,” which “maintains itself in an active opposition.”

Torrance would concur with McFarland, who states that original sin does not refer to an act but to “the ground of all our acts apart from the transforming power of grace.” Original sin represents a profound dis-orientation of our life-relation in communion with God. What separates human creatures from God is that men and women have turned their face away from God; and it is this turning away, this separation, which causes “intrinsic damage” to our nature and irreversibly and inextricably locates us as “fallen.” It is in this context that terms such as “total depravity” and “original sin” have their meaning. A “constitutive change” has taken place which involves the whole person and in which the whole person is involved. By turning away from our Maker, the mirror image which we were created to be is literally “de-faced.” We have a “sinning being” and therefore all repeat our original sin. Isolated acts of sin “are but the outward manifestation of this perversion at the very roots of human being.” Torrance’s relational ontology makes it entirely compatible both with a doctrine of theosis and one of healing from sin.

Descriptively, Torrance frequently uses the metaphorical language of distance to depict the destructive and tragic effects of sin. The fact of the incarnation itself reveals that humanity is “far away from” and “cut off from” God. Yet, it would be a mistake to construe this distance metaphysically. Rather, “the distance between man and God is due to the nearness of God! That distance is a moral one.” For Torrance, to describe human beings as alienated and estranged from both God and themselves is to speak of an incompatibility of immanence. That is, it indicates the profound “antagonism between God’s holy will of love and our sin.” This difference is exposed in bold relief at the coming near of God in Jesus Christ. “Sin presupposes the nearness of God.” It is the distance of differentness, the “clash of wills,” the gap created by opposing desires and the incompatibility of loves between the human creature and the central reality of their existence—namely, their life-unity with the Creator. Thus, when Torrance defines sin as the motion contrary to Grace, he is not setting sin up as Grace’s opposite (for that would be impossible); he is exposing both the personal nature and the utter emptiness of sin. Sin is not sin against an impersonal law, but is a crime against Grace itself—against God’s loving, holy will and being. Consequently, Torrance refuses to allow moralistic categories to drive his description of human fallenness. Sin ‘is not sin simply because it is against love or goodness or even against man but because it is ultimately against God himself.”[1]

Given Torrance’s disposition to think in onto-relational terms what we are presented with is an onto-theo-logical doctrine of sin. As such the emphasis, prior to this development, on an understanding of salvation/justification itself that is grounded not in a forensic framework (as we get in Federal theology’s Covenant of Works/Grace), but as corollary, or as protasis, we get a soteriology that focuses on humanity’s relationship/fellowship with the living God. It’s not that the forensic/juridical is completely elided; it’s just that the theoretical framework for developing a doctrine of justification/sanctification is not generated by a commitment to a conception of God that is rooted in an improperly evangelized metaphysic (what we get in the classical theisms that inadequately pay attention to the Trinitarian personalization that is the co-inhering reality of who God is as the ultimate koinonial/fellowship of persons in perichoretic relation and simple oneness [de Deo uno]).  These relational categories are often lacking in what we find being retrieved by many classical theists today.

Hopefully this helps, at the very least, illustrate how Torrance operates as a constructive theologian par excellence. Torrance ends up giving us a focus on what some might call the existentialism of modern theology’s emphasis, while reifying that emphasis under ontological and relational categories supplied by his engagement with some of the Patristic and Eastern theologians. This is what makes Torrance and Evangelical Calvinism’s appropriation of Torrance’s themes rather unique; and I think highly needed and fruitful for the 21st century church who is seeking out ways to be most faithful to the Evangel’s reality while at the same time seeking to do so in the most catholic and orthodox of ways. I offer Torrance’s doctrine of sin, through Ziegler’s development, up to you as a case study in point.

[1] Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 169-71.

An [onto]Relational Rather than Metaphysical Doctrine of Sin: An Altar-Call for Metaphysics

The Postmetaphysical God: Corrected by Thomas F. Torrance

There are so called postmetaphysical theologians out there who follow in the wake of the mediating theologians of Germany. Some attempt to read Barth’s doctrine of election in these terms; the idea being that in Barth’s reformulated doctrine of election as the Son elects humanity for himself as the electing God in this act, in this being in becoming, in the resurrection of new humanity in Christ’s, God’s very being is constituted. The caveat, at least for some, is that this avoids a panentheistic collapse of God into his creation precisely because God’s life of freedom stands behind this choice to not be God without us, but only with us. But then this is ironic since this caveat, ironically, ends up introducing a metaphysic back into the mix; it’s just that the metaphysic now has to do with Divine Freedom rather than Divine “isness.” Further, the caveat itself doesn’t actually work: God’s being still ends up being what it is by its actualization in the creation; in the miracle of resurrection and the new life therein.

I can’t accept this sort of postmetaphysical approach to theology. I can accept the idea that God has chosen to be for us and not God without us, but I can’t make that constitutive of God’s being. This ultimately makes God as much a predicate of his creation as does God entering the creation under the dictates of the absolutum decretum. Thomas Torrance offers an alternative tradition to the one we’ve just been describing. It still has some common features as far as an emphasis on God’s freedom to be for us, and it takes up much of Barth’s reformulation of the classical doctrine of election, but it avoids falling into the sort of panentheistic collapse that plagues the “postmetaphysical” approach. He writes:

Let it be repeated that the God who has revealed himself to us in the Gospel as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not a God who lives for himself alone, but who lives his all self-sufficient divine Life in love for others and has poured out his love without reserve in the gift of his only begotten Son to us as our Saviour, and in the Holy Spirit who sheds abroad that very love in our hearts. This does not imply, as we have taken care to show, that God is conditioned by, far less constituted through, his relation to us who are quite other than he is, for he is already concerned with Others eternally and inherently in himself, in the three-fold otherness of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in their Love for one another and Communion with another. It is from the free ground of that transcendent otherness in himself in his Triune being, that God freely and spontaneously creates others outwith himself for fellowship with himself and brings them into actual communion with himself. This free-flowing unconditioned outgoing movement of his Being means that God refuses to shut off from us in his unapproachable Majesty, infinite otherness and incomprehensibility. He makes himself really accessible to us, and does so not only in communicating himself to us in the incarnation of his Son, but in imparting to us his Holy Spirit in such an utterly astonishing way as to actualize among us his self-giving to us as the Lord and at the same time to effect our receiving of him in his self-giving.[1]

In Torrance we still have a classical conception of God’s antecedent life; his ontological life prior to his outer revealed in the economy. The ‘collapse’ is not present, but there is still an emphasis on God’s being in his inner Triune life being for the other; precisely because this has been the eternal reality of God’s life as Father for the Son, Son for the Father, Holy Spirit for Son and Father as the koinonial reality of eternal fullness. I commend Torrance’s view to you.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark Publishing, 2016), 148.

The Postmetaphysical God: Corrected by Thomas F. Torrance