A Mini-Sketch of Pelagius and His Teaching in Continued Response to Leighton Flowers and His Soteriological ‘Traditionalism’

I continue to listen to Leighton Flower’s podcasts on the way home from and to work. As he acknowledges, he is not an “academic,” per se, but a popularizer of various academic themes within the sphere he is associated. Nonetheless, he is constantly engaging with so called “academic theology,” and has various guests on his podcasts who are. The one that stands out most to me, thus far, is his interview of Augustine scholar, Ken Wilson. What was most striking to me about this interview is that both Wilson and Flowers attempt to invert the usual and historic understanding of Pelagius and Augustine; they denigrate Augustine as the heretic and elevate Pelagius as the champion of how we ought to understand ‘freewill’ vis-à-vis salvific appropriation. This is rather striking, for obvious reasons, but also concerning because this message is being advocated for among the popular; a group of folks who don’t have critical resource (or time) to see if what Wilson and Flowers are proposing be so. In an effort to provide some sort of online counter I wanted to provide a small sketch of Pelagius, and the implications of his teaching. My contention, along with the church catholic’s, is that when Pelagius’s teachings are placed up against the Scriptural teaching, particularly the New Testament’s teaching (cf. Rom 3 etc), that it flounders just at the point Wilson, Flowers et al claim that it achieves the proper balance for how we ought to understand humanity’s capacity to choose God rather than self. There is a reason ‘no one seeks after God,’ it is because we ‘love the darkness rather than the light’ (cf. Jn 3.17ff). Pelagius’s teaching operates out of a notion of ‘pure nature’ that is funded by the idea that creation itself has an absolute and ontological orientation of its own, such that it remains impermeable to anything other than its own self-determination; ironically, we might identify this orientation, of the self-determined self, as the definition of a Genesis 3 understanding of sin. This is why Pelagius’s teaching has rightly been identified as heretical; i.e. because his teaching on the nature of humanity is grounded, narrativally, in an understanding of humanity that finds its antecedents in the very conception of humanity’s ability ‘to choose’ that God unilaterally came to put to death in the cross and humanity of Jesus Christ.

With the above noted, here is a short sketch on Pelagius and his theology that I offered a couple of years ago here at the blog.

We often hear of Pelagianism, or of Pelagius himself. We know it is a heresy which Augustine in the 5th century combated; but we don’t often hear exactly what Pelagianism entails. I thought in an effort to remedy this type of lacuna, at least for those who don’t know, that I would share something from JND Kelly on Pelagius, and in brief, what the main aspect of his troubling teaching entails.

Kelly writes:

Pelagius was primarily a moralist, concerned for right conduct and shocked by what he considered demoralizingly pessimistic views of what could be expected of human nature. The assumption that man could not help sinning seemed to him an insult to his Creator. Augustine’s prayer, ‘Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt’ (da quod iubes et iube quod vis), particularly distressed him, for it seemed to suggest that men were puppets wholly determined by the movements of divine grace. In reaction to this the keystone of his whole system is the idea of unconditional free will and responsibility. In creating man God did not subject him, like other creatures, to the law of nature, but gave him the unique privilege of being able to accomplish the divine will by his own choice. He set life and death before him, bidding him choose life (Deut. 30, 19), but leaving the final decision to his free will. Thus it depends on the man himself whether he acts rightly or wrongly: the possibility of freely choosing the good entails the possibility of choosing evil. There are, he argues, three features in action—the power (posse), the will (velle), and the realization (esse). The first of these comes exclusively from God, but the other two belong to us; hence, according as we act, we merit praise or blame. It would be wrong to infer, however, that he regarded this autonomy as somehow withdrawing man from the purview of God’s sovereignty. Whatever his followers may have said, Pelagius himself made no such claim. On the contrary, along with his belief in free will he has the conception of a divine law proclaiming to men what they ought to do and setting the prospect of supernatural rewards and pains before them. If a man enjoys the freedom of choice, it is by the express bounty of his Creator, and he ought to use it for the ends which He prescribes.[1]

Augustine famously opposed this with his development not only of sin as privatio (privation), but also concupiscence (self-love). But beyond that, if you have ever wondered about Pelagius, or more pointedly about his teaching which has become known as Pelagianism, then this should at least give you a good start. If you want to see what Kelly says further about Pelagius I recommend you pick up his excellent book where he covers this, among other important developments in the early period of the church.

I think all Christians, whether classical Calvinist, classical Arminian, Evangelical Calvinist, Barthian, Lutheran, or what have you share common ground in their opposition towards Pelagianism. Sometimes it requires heresy in order for orthodoxy to be sharpened and articulated in such a way that it provides a fruitful way forward for the church. In this case what Augustine offered against Pelagius served as the basis for what many Christians, even today, think of Pelagianism, and more importantly, how Christians conceive of grace (of course we’ve had other developments since Augustine and Pelagius as well).

For my two cents, I think when attempting to offer an alternative model to classical Calvinism and Arminianism it is best to avoid associating your alternative, even grounding some of its key themes, in the theology of a known and worldwide heretic. This approach may work well when presented to folks who don’t have critical access to the history of ideas and their development, but that’s really as far as it will go; other than idiosyncratic appropriation in and among a small number of a scholarly caste of people. It is true that credentials, one way or the other, do not establish the veracity of ideas, but ultimately that is not my appeal here. My appeal to the “theologians” in the church catholic is to note that Pelagius is a known heretic precisely because his teaching correlates with what Scripture identifies as something we need to be saved from (i.e. ourselves and our enslavement to only and always freely choose us rather than God).

[1] JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 356-57.

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The Doctrine of the Vicarious Humanity of Christ Cannot Be Overstated for The Evangelical Calvinist Understanding of All Things

For Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and us Evangelical Calvinists following, what it means to be human is grounded in our participation in and from Jesus Christ’s vicarious humanity for us (pro nobis). This has broad reaching implications for theoanthropology, soteriology, and other important theological loci. I know I have iterated this before, and multiple times, but I thought I would reiterate it again because the significance of this point cannot be overstated if you are going to be an adherent to the mood of Evangelical Calvinism we are presenting to the church catholic. I am just now starting to read Jeff McSwain’s published PhD dissertation Simul Sanctification: Barth’s Hidden Vision for Human Transformation, which he accomplished under the watchful eye of Alan Torrance at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He offers a nice precise description of what the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ entails in the theology of Barth. He writes:

For Barth, when God becomes a human being he lives not only as a singular Jewish man of humble origins, but  he also represents in himself every human being—the whole spectrum of the human race. Jesus Christ is the true and original human being beloved by God, and at the same time the representative human sinner—and therefore “the greatest of all sinners”—being forsaken by God. In his person, Christ defines the goodness of humanity, and he also delimits the evil and brokenness of humanity. The implications are somewhat startling: every single human being exists in the human being of Jesus Christ, eternal Son of God. In terms of Barth’s beloved Colossians, we describe the simul iustus et peccator as the simultaneous, twofold, “Christ is your life” (see 3:4) and “Christ is your death” (see 3:3). In Barth’s view, then, righteousness is not primarily a forensic term to be fitted into a legal scheme of atonement but signifies true life from above, life derived solely from the life of God. Righteousness and life cannot be separated in Barth’s view any more than sin and death.[1]

We see foreshadowing’s of McSwain’s thesis on Barth’s simul, but for our purposes we get a sense of the radical nature of Barth’s understanding of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. We see what Luther and the tradition calls the mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’), or what the Apostle Paul notes here, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (II Cor 8.9). We get a sense of Barth’s doctrine of election, even though McSwain doesn’t explicitly refer to it; to be sure, that is what is underwriting this understanding of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ: viz. in eternity past the eternal Logos freely elected, with the Father, by the spiration of the Spirit, our humanity for Himself thus by becoming us He has graciously allowed us to become what He is for us in His elected humanity; and all that implies vis-à-vis participation in God’s triune life.

Much more to be said, but this will have to suffice for now. I simply wanted to elevate this doctrine once more because I do not think it can be overstated for those who are seeking to affirm an Evangelical Calvinist posture. Without this doctrine, grounded in the primacy of Jesus Christ as it is, the Evangelical Calvinist project doesn’t work. As McSwain underscored, “righteousness is not primarily a forensic term to be fitted into a legal scheme of atonement but signifies true life from above, life derived solely from the life of God.” This represents the deeper reality, the depth dimension of what Evangelical Calvinists are seeking to offer the church catholic as it reflects upon the reality of God become man, and how that affects all else. We don’t ultimately elide the forensic aspects of the atoning work of Christ, but we don’t see that as the frame of how atonement theory ought to be understood; instead we see the frame grounded in the ‘ontological’ reality of the God-human relationship rooted in the hypostatic union of God and human in Jesus Christ. Herein is the emphasis that Evangelical Calvinists promote in regard to the way we see God’s relationship to and for us; it isn’t ultimately based on a legal brief, but in a marriage proposal of the Son of Man for us (cf. Eph 5.18ff).

[1] Jeff McSwain, Simul Sanctification: Barth’s Hidden Vision for Human Transformation (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018), 4.

God As Psychologist Par Excellence: Thinking Constructively About Psychology and TheoAnthropology

Behavioral Psychology, as we know it in the modern period, is necessarily conditioned by what Christians might call ‘natural theology,’ or what secularists might call ‘natural law.’ Psychology is grounded in ‘effect-to-cause’ symmetry, such that what we are able to observe in behavioral patterns, inter-personal dynamics, and at the broader level, societal movements, comes to be the bases by which we attempt to not only describe such patterns, but then prescribe methods for bringing remedy to those patterns that ‘seem’ deleterious to the well-being of the individual or society at large. It follows, then, that as Christians seek to provide remedies for psychological disorders, that they would attempt to integrate the discoveries of modern psychology with Christian theology and biblical teaching. It follows, in general, because within the Christian tradition, in the main, there is a broad commitment to natural theology; i.e. again, the idea of tracing effects back to their causes—whether that be more positively, tracing the effect of creation back to God; or more negatively, the effect of a psychological disorder back to its malformed genesis in the souls of a fallen people. If you hadn’t noticed, what I’m doing here is drawing an analogy between natural theological premises, and natural law premises as those relate to psychological consequents.

But the above approach seems troubling. It seems to start upon a starting point that the Gospel itself disallows. If this is the case, it seems to me, there ought be an alternative, for the Christian, that coheres with the Gospel reality itself; with the revelational and miraculous nature of the Gospel as it bespeaks God to us, and as such bespeaks us to ourselves as we come to know God, and thus ourselves, in the rightly ordered relationship that God first pre-destined for us in Christ. Karl Barth captures this paradigm well when he writes:

What we concede to the Word of God will always be an attempt to make good a claim to our own freedom, to go on believing in our own possibilities. If we imagine that we can talk out this freedom ourselves, we have already talked it in again. Our talking out, however radical (and the more radical it is the more obviously this is true), is quite unable to talk out what really has to be talked out. It is better for us to recognize our total inability in this respect, to admit to ourselves that on the basis of our own possibilities we shall always be men who require to believe in their own possibilities. The only power for this talking out is simply the power of the Word itself. In so far as we ourselves do the talking out, it is the power of the Holy Spirit. We must remember that what we have to do here is just to receive revelation as revelation. We have to see that his reception is the reception of revelation. We have to see that man is finally and actually confronted with God, with the Lord, as Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer. We have to realise that God’s revealedness for us is God’s own person and God’s own work. All the comfort, all the power, all the truth of this revealedness depends upon the fact that it is with God that we are dealing. All our understanding of this revealedness depends upon the fact that we identify it with God Himself, ruling out all other possibilities but God’s possibility. We have therefore to realise that as the recipient of revelation man is brought under God’s judgment. It is only because of this that he is brought under God’s promise. It is only because of this that God meets him as the One who intercedes for him, who undertakes and directs his cause, who does not therefore quench his own ability and will and accomplishment but subordinates it to His own, since man must always be subordinated to God, if God’s glory is to triumph and man is to be helped. We are to understand, therefore, that for God to be revealed involves the dislodging of man from the estimation of his own freedom, and his enrichment with the freedom of the children of God.[1]

If the basis for our knowing ourselves is first knowing God, then knowledge of self cannot remain an abstract venture which we come to discover by studying humankind as a species. If revelation is God’s, if God is revelation of the reality of his life—and reality as such—then the human being, in themselves, have no freedom for discovering what reality actually is outwith dependence upon God in Christ who is Lord. As Barth writes about God’s Word, “By the outpouring of the Holy Spirit it becomes possible for man in his freedom to be met by God’s revelation, because in it the Word of God becomes unavoidably his master.”[2] In other words, Christians are not their own masters; they have not been imbued, by virtue of “creation” or “nature,” with the capaciousness to arrive at right conclusions about anything; let alone themselves. Creation, and human beings as creatures, are not tabula rasa, full of potential, simply waiting to be activated and ‘perfected’ by God with the consequence of being able to engage in ‘self-discovery.’ No, the Gospel itself asserts, and proves!, just the opposite. The Gospel demonstrates that people are wayward all the way down. As such, we, by definition, are waiting for a self-determination that is outside of us (extra nos); and in this self-determination, as that is supplied for us in the vicarious humanity of Christ, shaped by the eternal Logos in consubstantial union with the Father and the Holy Spirit, we are given, and thus taught the ordered life that God pre-destined for us in His dearly beloved Son.

When I take the above and apply it towards psychology, what I arrive at is the idea that God alone has the place to ‘psychologize’ us. God alone knows what it means to be human in Christ, and in that archetypal humanity the rest of humanity finds its locus to genuinely operate, to genuinely think and love as human beings. It is only as this ‘power of resurrection’ penetrates the hearts and minds of wayward people, that we then come to have the capacity to live in a truly ordered standing before God and humankind. I take this orientation to be the ground upon which a broken and disturbed people can come to have a psychological life that is healthy and flourishing; only insofar as that, again, is confronted by the lordly reality of God in Jesus Christ; and as that reality undergirds and funds who we are as we live in and from the Revelation of Godself in Christ.

What this means for modern behavioral psychological models is that they are funded by faulty theological suppositions. They operate from a natural theological foundation that never is able to resurrect; thus, it has no ‘lasting’ or ‘eternal’ power. Christians, particularly those in the psychological discipline, ought to take this more seriously, and maybe reevaluate the foundations upon which they have built their models for engaging with the ‘interior life.’ There is an objective ground who has become the subjective ground for us in the Gospel who is the Christ.

 

[1] Barth, CD I/2 §16, 59-60 [emboldening mine].

[2] Ibid., 66.

Radicalized Christus Praesens as the Alternative to the Natural Knowledge of God Posited by the Dubyian and Thomist Tradition

Not to continue to harp on Steve Duby (I mean, I like him, but that doesn’t have anything to do with this), but let me very briefly respond to another point of his in regard to that rejoinder he wrote to Peter Leithart’s critique of his book. Duby has offered us a service in succinctly spelling out what the logic of a ‘metaphysic’ is, and how that is developed and deployed in the ostensible service of
Christian theology. Duby writes in response to Leithart:

Leithart’s first fundamental complaint is most fully articulated in Objection #3. Here he asserts, “Philosophy bewitches by her rhetoric,” making us “think that speaking in her dialect is more precise or profound than speaking in the poetic dialect of Scripture.” However, according to Leithart, “the Scriptural talk of God is the most precise and adequate language we can have. It’s God’s own talk about Himself.” But did Scripture itself instruct Leithart that precision is a desideratum for theological description? He clearly believes that it is a desideratum, but why? The call for precision is not explicitly spelled out in Scripture. It is a philosophical presupposition (i.e., one discovered by the natural use of the mind, without the mind being directly instructed on this point by supernatural revelation). Is it a good philosophical presupposition? To answer the question, one cannot appeal to particular statements of Scripture. One could argue that the Bible underscores the importance of understanding the truth about God, but moving from there to a call for precision in theological language will require the use of reason. Also, from where has the phrase “poetic dialect” come? Such a phrase cannot be lifted verbatim from Scripture. It is extrabiblical rhetoric. That does not make it bad, but it does not sit well with Leithart’s avowed approach to doing theology. Moreover, it is odd to deem poetic language more precise than metaphysical language. To clarify his meaning here, Leithart would have to explain what the word “poetic” means (and why he’s employing it in an unusual way). Doing this would require Leithart to flesh out his doctrine of Scripture with the use of terms and insights gleaned from the field of natural knowledge, for Scripture nowhere gives us a treatise on the nature of poetry, metaphor and so on.[1]

I have emboldened the part I want to focus on. This is where Duby, and the tradition he thinks from, doesn’t really track so well with Leithart. But I don’t want to speak for Leithart, or give the impression that I am Leithartian; I’m not! Instead I am somewhat abstracting Duby’s points from their occasional context, and responding to the basic premise of his responses.

Duby’s response is funded by a prior theological-anthropology; in the tradition it can be, and has been identified as Thomist Intellectualism. You note how he focuses on a sort of abstract or profane epistemology, one that is not necessarily or intentionally tethered to a Christian doctrine of God? He refers to ‘natural’ knowledge about God-things, without first referring us to God; instead he only offers us an ‘accidental’ relationship between God-knowledge and human/natural knowledge of god-things. But this just is what Leithart, and for my purposes, the Barth-Torrance axis repudiates. In my tradition there is no abstract knowledge of God; there can be no natural knowledge of God, prior to God revealing God. There can be no general conception of godness gleaned prior to God that we bring to God in an attempt to fill/feel God out with our natural knowledge. Even if we qualify this natural knowledge as a token gift from God, as some sort of vestiges of God latent in the created order, this does not help us concretely develop a genuinely Christian theological epistemology; just at the point that it elides a genuine acknowledgement for a theological ontology that is grounded in the Triune life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Gospel is sui generis; it is God’s Grace. The Gospel comes with its own eschatological rationality; rationality not gleaned from the residue of some sort of pure nature. The fact that theologians, even Barth, use ‘philosophical grammar’ does not require a commitment to the sort of abstract theological anthropology, and thus epistemology, that Duby et al operates with. Instead, it simply acknowledges that this world is fulsome with the presence and plenitude in Jesus Christ (Christus Praesens); but not prior to this plenitude, only after (both as protological and eschatological realities). Duby, and the tradition he has committed himself to seem to take this as too naïve to consider viable. As an alternative account they will then continue to posit themselves and their intellects in a sort of pristine mode as the source of their bases for developing knowledge of God.

For further explication of what I’m getting at, read the following post: Defending Barth and Torrance from the Charge of Incoherence.

Duby et al. and the tradition he/they think from doesn’t seem to really understand the bases of what a genuinely Revelational theology entails. It isn’t irrationalism or anti-rationalism, instead it understands that a properly Christian theological ontology/epistemology is one that starts and ends in the Alpha and Omega of God, in Jesus Christ. Sure there is a long standing tradition in the church that is unfortunately enslaved to a philosophical theology (and you must think this in terms of prolegomena in order to avoid this constant confusion of thinking that I am referring us to some sort of blanket fideism or something), but just because this is so, doesn’t make it so; or that it should be so.   

[1] Steve Duby, source.

Karl Barth’s Reformulated Doctrine of Election, And Its Implications Towards the Way We Speak of Others; Including Donald Trump

I want to share some quotes from Karl Barth and Tom Greggs. All of these quotes either come from the body or footnotes of my personal chapter for our latest Evangelical Calvinism book (2017). I want to share the quotes, comment a little on their material presence, and then offer some sort of reflective application of them for the churches. In other words, the aim of this post is to attempt to take a technical theological locus and show how it has so called ‘practical’ value; say for human relationships, and maybe even political ones.

Karl Barth writes,

This all rests on the fact that from the very first He participates in the divine election; that that election is also His election; that it is He Himself who posits this beginning of all things; that it is He Himself who executes the decision which issues in the establishment of the covenant between God and man; that He too, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is the electing God. If this is not the case, then in respect of the election, in respect of this primal and basic decision of God, we shall have to pass by Jesus Christ, asking of God the Father, or perhaps of the Holy Spirit, how there can be any disclosure of this decision at all. For where can it ever be disclosed to us except where it is executed? The result will be, of course, that we shall be driven to speculating about a decretum absolutum instead of grasping and affirming in God’s electing the manifest grace of God. And that means that we shall not know into whose hands we are committing ourselves when we believe in the divine predestination. So much depends upon our acknowledgement of the Son, of the Son of God, as the Subject of this predestination, because it is only in the Son that it is revealed to us as the predestination of God, and therefore of the Father and the Holy Spirit, because it is only as we believe in the Son that we can also believe in the Father and the Holy Spirit, and therefore in the one divine election.[1]

And Tom Greggs offers commentary on the sort of sentiment we just witnessed in Barth’s reformulation of election, as a Christ concentrated conception:

There is no room for a prior decision of God to create, or elect and condemn before the decision to elect Jesus Christ (no decretum absolutum); instead, Jesus Christ is Himself the ultimate decretum absolutum.[2]

Further:

Election’s nature is . . . Gospel. The dialectic evident in Romans remains and can be seen between electing God and elected human in its most extreme form in terms of election and rejection. Humanity continues to need to be rescued by God in its rejection of Him. What is new is that this dialectic is now considered in a wholly Christological way which brings together the Yes and No of God in the simultaneity of the elected and rejected Christ. It is He who demonstrates salvation as its originator and archetype. It is, therefore, in the humanity of the elected Christ that one needs to consider the destiny of human nature.[3]

Maybe you can infer how I would use these quotes in the chapter I wrote on assurance of salvation. But the most important point I want to highlight, currently, is that in the Barthian reformulation of election the focus is no longer on individual/abstract people scurrying around on the earth, but instead upon the ground of all humanity as that is realized in the archetypal and elect humanity of Jesus Christ. There is a universalizing underneath in the doctrine of election in Barth’s theology, with the result that our focus is not on ourselves, as if we have some sort of inherent value or worth in se; but instead the realization is always present that we find our life and being in extra nos or outside of us, only as that extra enters into us by the gift of God in the grace who is the Christ.

The shift that happens, juxtaposed with a classical double predestinarian view, is that election first and foremost is about a doctrine of God; but a doctrine of God that can never be thought of apart from or abstracted out of His choice to not be God without us. In other words, in this reified doctrine our knowledge of God and selves is contingent always already upon God’s choice to be with us and for us in Christ. This transforms the way we think humanity, for one thing. In other words, we are unable to think about what genuine humanity is without first thinking about humanity in union with God in the Son’s union with us in the vicarious humanity of Christ.

One immediate consequence of this is that the way we think people is no longer from a class structure, or from the psychological vantage point that God loves some and not others (as the classical notion of election/reprobation leaves us with). As such, we are genuinely free to look out at others and recognize a humanity, in full, that God loves; a humanity, no matter how wretched (maybe as we think of ourselves) that is valuable precisely at the point that Jesus is the Yes and not the No for them and us. This is not to suggest that a blind eye is given to the sub-humanity that people continue to live in—because we love the darkness rather than the light—but it is to alert us to the fact, in the Barthian reification, that all people have inherent value, just because God first loved us that we might love Him. It is to recognize that even if people choose to reject the election freely offered to them in Christ, that because that election is not contingent upon their choice, but God’s, they live in suspension from the imago Dei who is the imago Christi (cf. Col. 1.15), and as such continue to have inherent value, and even capacity to say yes to God in correspondence to Jesus’s Yes for them. Here, we can agree with the evangelist that ‘God so loved the world, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.’

The premise is that there is no person outside the reach/grace of God. A contemporary application of this might be directed Donald Trump’s way. Trump, by many sectors of people, and many Christians in fact, has come to be considered the scum of the earth. He is the target of untold ridicule and vitriolic attack. At base though, it ought to be recognized, that even Trump’s life is encompassed by the life of God in Jesus Christ; which is why we should continuously be praying for him. This is not to suggest that we can’t be critical of Trump’s policies, speech, and other negatives; but it is to suggest that in this critique what should be characteristic is one where we keep on recognizing what God does about Trump. That is, that Trump is valuable to God, as a person. Indeed, that God in Christ pledged His life for Trump’s, and at the very least our rhetoric ought to be seasoned with this reality of Grace; even in our critiques.

I think this represents one possible application of the implications of Barth’s doctrine of election. It ought to cause us to pause in our speech, at the very least. We ought to bear witness to Christ in our speech and act, even when we have people like Trump in front of us, or others we think of in ridiculing ways. We can be critical, like I noted, of Trump’s policies or even personality, but at the same time we can bear in mind that Jesus loves Trump, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. And I’m only using Trump as a symbolic example for anyone else we could fill in the blank with. What Barth’s doctrine of election does to me, in this sense, is it makes me continually cognizant of the fact that I am no different than Trump; or any of my enemies. Without God’s Grace, who is Christ for us, we would all sink into the sub-humanity we were born into. In other words, as Christ is the One for the many, the many come to have that in common; viz. that we are now all grounded in the One humanity of Jesus Christ. This does not mean we have anonymous brothers and sisters in Christ, at a spiritual level, but it does mean at a ‘carnal’ (de jure) level, that we share a universe with every other person who derives their value and worth from the same reality we do—Jesus Christ! This ought to do something in regard to the way we treat others (I’m preaching to myself).

 

[1] Barth, CD II/2:110.

[2] Greggs, Barth, Origen, and Universal Salvation, 25.

[3] Ibid., 26.

How Does the Christian ‘Get’ the Holy Spirit; Or How Does the Holy Spirit ‘Get’ the Christian: The Locus: Christ’s Vicarious Humanity

Have you ever wondered how you might construe a Christ concentrated understanding of how the Christian receives the Holy Spirit; how the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ serves as the basis through whom Christians come to participate in the lively reality of the Holy Spirit? Often we abstract the Spirit’s work from the Son’s (and the Father’s) as if the Spirit is the divine agent who imbibes or woos faith into the forthcoming believer, and by this creative act of Divine plenitude the would be believer comes to the confession of faith in Christ. Indeed, the Spirit has his own unique and active work in regard to the salvific reality, but as Thomas Torrance points out it would be wrong to think this work abstract from the person and work of the Son in Jesus Christ, or indeed, abstract from the Triune life itself. But in a very specific way here we see Torrance’s bringing together of the Spirit and the Son as the place wherein salvation first inheres, in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; and as an echo of that reality, we as images of this image (Jesus Christ cf. Col. 1.15), as we are brought into union with the vicarious humanity of Christ, indeed by the Holy Spirit, come to participate in the humanity, Christ’s humanity for us, wherein the Holy Spirit is fully operative as the One who leads and casts out, as the One who directs our steps in the way they should go; to the right hand of the Father. Torrance writes:

Our receiving of the Spirit is objectively grounded in and derives from Christ who as the incarnate Son was anointed by the Spirit in his humanity and endowed with the Spirit without measure, not for his own sake (for he was eternally one in being with the Spirit in God) but for our sakes, and who then mediates the Spirit to us through himself. As one of us and one with us he sanctified himself in the Spirit that we might be sanctified in him and thus be sanctified in the truth. Our receiving of the Spirit, therefore, is not independent of or different from the vicarious receiving of the Spirit by Christ himself but is a sharing in it. Since he received the Spirit in the humanity he took from us, we on our part receive the Spirit through union with him and through him with the Father. This was the point Athanasius had in mind when he wrote: ‘Our being in the Father is not ours, but is the Spirit’s who is in us and dwells in us . . . It is the Spirit who is in God, and not we viewed in ourselves.’[1]

For one thing, just from an identity point of view for the Christian, this should let us know that our salvation is not our salvation, but instead is a reality extra nos (outside of us); a reality that we have no control over, but who is in control of us as we submit to his reality for us in Christ by the Spirit of Christ who is the Holy Spirit of the Triune life. This should let us know that we do not find what we need, as the ‘world’ and liberal theologies call us to, by recessing deeper and deeper into ourselves. The fact that our very ‘being’ is grounded somewhere alien to ourselves, and in Christ’s being as we are brought into union with his humanity by the creative and recreative work of the Holy Spirit in his humanity and now our humanity in union with his, ought to alert us to the reality that there was and is nothing good that dwells here (that is in our ‘old person’).

I can’t help but think of the reality of the cross in this context; in order for us to come to this Dogmatic point of reasoning requires something greater than an abstract or discursive moment in our intellectual lives. What is required for these categories to work is both the Incarnation&Atonement; more pointedly, what is required is a putting to death of our ‘old man’ and resurrecting of the ‘new man’ in Jesus Christ. This is where the ‘being’ of humanity brought to breath by the Holy Spirit comes to reality; as THE man, the mediator between God and humanity, Jesus Christ, is breathed into life by the Holy Spirit in concert with the Father and in the strength of his own life Divine, and in this reality we can come to speak in the terms that Torrance and Athanasius do.

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

Do Humans Have Freewill?: What it Means to Be Free in Christ the King’s Economy Before God

31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. –John 8:31-36

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sinBut if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. –Romans 8:5-8

Discussions surrounding freewill in human agency abound; whether that be between Calvinism and Arminianism, or in the secular world and philosophy in regard to ethics and moral culpability. But is this really how so called “freewill” operates in a genuinely Christian Dogmatic frame? Augustine, even Luther believed that humans have freewill, but that because of the greater loves supervening in the fallen heart’s life, humans, apart from the Spirit of the LORD, will always choose those things that serve themselves; serves their greater appetites and loves that start and end in an incurved self (homo in se incurvatus).

But really, is this what human “freedom” entails? One would think that what and who a human is, purposively, would determine and shape what in fact so called freedom entails. In other words, if human beings’ ultimate teleology or purpose was always already to be in a conciliatory relationship with the Triune God wouldn’t what it means to be free mean to be free for God? I contend that this is indeed what it means to be humanly free; i.e. free for God. I believe that this is what Jesus and the Apostle Paul were referring to when they thought of “freedom”; to be free from our incurved and broken selves (which is the dehumanizing factor), and to be open and genuinely free for the living God—to be able to live in his type of freedom (the only actual ontology of freedom available) as we participate in and from his life through the mediated eternal life in Jesus Christ.

John Webster gets at these things as he discussing what human freedom entails within the rubric of Divine Providence. He writes:

God’s governance secures the creature’s freedom. If this fails to commend itself, it is because it contravenes a destructive convention according to which true freedom is indeterminacy and absolute spontaneity or it is nothing at all. To say that is to deny creatureliness. Freedom is existence in accordance with created nature and towards created ends, not self-authorship or aseity. This means that freedom is reception, but not passivity – that is permission and summons, but not spoken by me, but to me by God. ‘God is the abiding cause of man’s being a cause able to determine the character of his existence.’ The free person fulfils her self by perfecting a given nature. That perfecting is the work of providence which does not constrain but fulfils the creature’s self-determination, because, in Aquinas’s terms, God’s providence moves the creature’s will ‘as he influences it interiorly’ (interius eam inclinando). Can a moved will be free? Yes, because ‘to be moved voluntarily is to be moved of one’s own accord, i.e. from a resource within. That inner resource, however, may derive from some other, outward source. In this sense, there is no contradiction between being moved of one’s own accord and being moved by another’. If we are to see that Aquinas’s argument is evangelically well-judged, we need to grasp that divine providential acts are not simple compulsion (the archer sending the arrow) but rather intrinsic to the creature whom God moves, what Aquinas calls ‘natural necessity’, in which the creature is activated and not diminished. And to see this we also need to see that – as that astute reader of Aquinas, Turretin, puts it at the beginning of the modern period, ‘The fount of error is the measuring of the nature of liberty from equilibrium and making indifference essential to it. Liberty must be defined by willingness and spontaneity.’

This points us to how, in the light of the gospel, providence dignifies creatures. As with creaturely freedom, so with creaturely dignity: it does not consist only in being agens seipsum, one’s own director. To be moved by divine government is not to be beaten, but to be moved to act.[1]

Webster’s insights, particularly as he gleans those from Aquinas, can easily get us into discussions revolving around what has been called compatibilism, libertarian free agency, Molinism, synchronic contingency etc. But let’s not get lost in that patch.

The basic point I am wanting to reiterate is that in the Kingdom of God in Christ—in other words, in “really real reality”—what it means to be ‘free’ for human beings is to be free for the Triune God. Webster, via Aquinas, notes the role that teleology and purposiveness as regnant realities have for what being human coram Deo means vis-à-vis a conception of freedom. To be free, in an ultimate and even basic sense, for the creature in God’s economy (which is the only real economy around) is to be free for God. Living in and from his freedom, the type that grounded and grounds his choice to be for us and not against us, the type that grounded and grounds his choice to create and recreate in the resurrection is the only real freedom there is. Thus, for the human, what it means to actually be free and to have free-choice, is what it looks like for God as that is derived through our participation in his life in and through Christ.

And the last point I just iterated needs to be pressed; Webster doesn’t press it in the quote I provide from him, and he has certain antinomy towards it more broadly when it comes to speaking about moral human free agency. That is: we need to ground what it means to be human in the archetypal humanity of Jesus Christ for us. If we don’t we will be prone to think humanity from discoverable (versus revealed) traits and resonances that we think we can discern by reflection upon human experience and circumstance in the profane and mundane world. We need a robust doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ to regulate our theological anthropology if we are going to have a proper understanding of not only what it means to be human coram Deo, but what it subsequently means to be free before God in accord with our given natures as human beings.

 

[1]John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 139.

Karl Marx, Karl Barth, and the Inner-Life of Christian Sanctification

As a Christian I am concerned with the ‘inner life’; my inner life. If this concern is not properly ordered or placed into a properly formed Christian Dogmatic, with a properly construed theological-anthropology, then this concern could reduce to something like a so called modern ‘turn-to-the-subject’ or an overly pietistic concern with perfectionism. But I am intentional about avoiding such errors by working at thinking things through, indeed, a properly shaped Christian Dogmatic; which then impinges upon and implicates a properly formed Christian spirituality. The inner-life, for the Christian though, I maintain, is very important.

In the premodern, and in particular in the mediaeval time it was popular to think about the inner-life through what is called a tripartite faculty psychology (made up of affections, intellect, and will). In modern times it is becoming popular, at least for some Christian theologians, to think in terms of what is called non-reductive physicalism; so to think of the soul-body as an integrated whole, and develop theological anthropology and subsequent models of Christian spirituality (by way of recognizing its contours) from there. What I have come to realize is that much of what I have been being exposed to, by hanging out (online mostly) with young Barthians (and some older ones), and being exposed to so called ‘progressive’ or ‘leftist’ Christian thinking is that the theological anthropology shaping that trajectory is much more like what we find in the materialism of Karl Marx rather than what we find in orthodox Christian thinking; and more importantly, than what we find in the Bible.

Karl Barth’s own theology lacks the type of attention to a properly formed conception of the inner life, and as such suffers from a weakness when it comes to real life Christian sanctification. This has made me really think about the relationship between the attractiveness of Marx to so many of these so called Barthians (and other ‘ians’ ensconced in the same ethos); while there are many important differences between Barth and Marx in regard to theology in general, and theological-anthropology in particular, there seems to be a sort of resonance between the lack of focus on the inner life of human beings in both of their respective ways of thinking. In other words, there seems to be such a focus on “embodiedness” that there is neglect when it comes to the soulish realities; realities, I’d contend, that are of primary concern when it comes to Christian sanctification in Holy Scripture. I’m not, on the other hand, denying the reality or importance of recognizing that Christianity is indeed focused on an embodied conception of what it means to be bodied and physical human beings; but I am noticing that a certain sort of physicalism (not simply non-reductive), or materialism seems to be informing and present in the minds and hearts of many of these folks I have had contact with over the years.

In order to help us understand what I’m referring to with more clarity let’s turn to Terry Eagleton now as he helps develop an entrée into Marx’s own inklings on a materialist-anthropology.

Materialism for Marx meant starting from what human beings actually were, rather than from some shadowy ideal to which we could aspire. And what we were was in the first place a species of practical, material, bodily beings. Anything else we were, or could be, had to be derived from this fundamental fact.

In a boldly innovative move, Marx rejected the passive human subject of middle-class materialism and put in its place an active one. All philosophy had to start from the premise that whatever else they were, men and women were first of all agents. They were creatures who transformed themselves in the act of transforming their material surroundings. They were not the pawns of History or Matter or Spirit, but active, self-determinating beings who were capable of making their own history. And this means that the Marxist version of materialism is a democratic one, in contrast to the intellectual elitism of the Enlightenment. Only through the collective practical activity of the majority of people can the ideas which govern our lives be really changed. And this is because these ideas are deeply embedded in our actual behaviour.

In this sense, Marx was more of an antiphilosopher than a philosopher. In fact, Étienne Balibar has called him “perhaps … the greatest antiphilosopher of the modern age.” Antiphilosophers are those who are wary of philosophy—not just in the sense that Brad Pitt might be, but nervous of it for philosophically interesting reasons. They tend to come up with ideas that are suspicious of ideas; and though they are for the most part entirely rational, they tend not to believe that reason is what it all comes down to. Feuerbach, from whom Marx learned some of his materialism, wrote that any authentic philosophy has to begin with its opposite, nonphilosophy. The philosopher, he remarked, must accept “what in man does not philosophise, what is rather opposed to philosophy and abstract thought.” He also commented that “it is man who thinks, not the Ego or Reason.” As Alfred Schmidt observes, “The understanding of man as a needy, sensuous, physiological being is therefore the precondition of any theory of subjectivity.” Human consciousness, in other words, is corporeal—which is not to say that it is nothing more than the body. It is rather a sign of the way in which the body is always in a sense unfinished, open-ended, always capable of more creative activity than what it may be manifesting right now.[1]

We can see certain currents of thought, as Eagleton tells it in Marx, that fit well with the modern desire to think “post-metaphysically”; these are currents that in some ways I have some sort of lurid affinity for myself. I do happen to think that a non-reductive physicalism is probably the best way to construct a theological-anthropology these days (rather than a tripartite faculty psychology etc.), but I think I see more than that in many of these thinkers of today (the ones I’ve been mentioning). I think I see more of an actual physicalism, of the Marxist materialist type, informing the lack of focus on the inner life, and the traditional notion of sanctification and walking in the holiness of God when that comes to personal and individual attention. Indeed, I sense almost zero spirituality in and among the folks I’m thinking of; as if the living Lord has been reduced to material reality only symbolized by the Christ of faith. In the mode I’m thinking of everything seems to be materialized and externalized and existentialized rather than spiritualized by the Christian God who is ‘spirit’ (cf. Jn 4.24).

To be clear, I am only thinking out loud about my own experiences and senses I’ve had with various thinkers over the last many years. Most of these thinkers are of Marx in one way or another, so I think there might be something to my observations. Do I think Barth and Marx offer a similar spirituality? Not really. But I do think that Barth’s lack of attention to sanctification and the Christian life in general is a serious lacuna in his work. As far as Marx goes, I do think he might have some insightful things to say about how humans function on a purely empirical basis, but beyond that I’m not interested in referring to him or synthesizing him with Christian theology in the main.

One more word. You might be wondering why studying Marx is important. Because, his presence is increasingly everywhere. If you pay attention to the so called social issues in the public square then the current rupture in the North American society between right and left can generally be correlated with a rupture (as far as political theory goes) between Marxism and Capitalism. One more word; I’m just as critical of Capitalism as I am of Marxism.

[1] Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right (New Haven&London: Yale University Press, 2011), Loc 1462, 1469, 1477 kindle version.

UnBelief in God is Not an Intellectual but Instead a Moral-Heart Issue Before God

I wanted to reiterate something I wrote on Facebook, I think it was yesterday. Here’s what I wrote: I will never believe that unbelief in the living God is an intellectual problem, it’s a moral/heart problem. People might say they are wired in more rationalist or analytical modes, and thus imply that if their intellect could be satisfied they’d believe in Jesus, but that’s a self-deluded self-aggrandizing bluff; maybe one they believe is real, but a bluff nonetheless. The reality is that the human heart wants to live a life of self-induced peace untrammeled by the invading and captivating love of God. The human heart wants to live unto its own desires and passions, and thus will invent any means necessary to explain away God’s ferocious love; explain away God’s indicative of a life defined by the other-in-relation; a life that is not self-absorbed. The human heart, captivated by its own self-affection, incurved upon itself to the bitter end, cannot allow for a world where they have been displaced from its center.

I actually received some push back from someone which went this way: ‘I’d be very careful before making grand pronouncements about atheism. After all, there are many varieties of atheism and agnosticism, with a whole range of complex motivations. So there are many for whom belief in God simply doesn’t make sense. Moreover, any moral argument made by Christians in the current climate looks distinctly hollow.’

It is an interesting response, as it doesn’t seemingly engage with what I wrote. What I wrote doesn’t undercut the reality of their being many expression of atheism, agnosticism, relativism, or whatever the form the unbelief takes. I wasn’t making an evangelistic statement, nor attempting to engage in public relations with the world, nor was I making an argument based on morality to attempt to persuade an atheist, agnostic, or neo-gnostic to ‘come to Jesus.’ Instead, my statement, as I took it, is inspired by Scripture. I was indeed thinking of someone I’ve had recent contact with in real life who is agnostic, maybe atheist. And so with that motivation I was reflecting on the mood that Scripture takes when thinking about unbelievers; people who reject God. In the tradition someone like Augustine might intone that it is because of concupiscence or ‘self-love’—what we see funding something like Luther’s ‘bondage of the will’—that people, at an anthropological level continue to reject God (at an “essential” level). And Scripturally in John 3 we see Jesus teaching that people reject God ‘because they love the darkness rather than the light’; again, the implication is that people for inexplicable reasons (apart from recognition of the ‘fall’) love themselves, love the darkness they have been born into rather than the light.

Sure, we can come up with real life reasons, existential reasons, why people reject God. The holocaust comes to mind, dealing with a terminal illness, dealing with the ongoing famines and wars that plague the world, so on and so forth. We can also attempt to sophisticate this issue to the point that it is reduced not to a heart issue before and with God, but to an intellectual problem; which is what the interlocutor is suggesting (i.e. “So there are many for whom belief in God simply doesn’t make sense.”). My point, behind the interlocutor’s suggestion, is that the reason belief in God ‘doesn’t make sense’ is because they have a prior and overriding commitment to themselves (homo incurvatus in se); they have a greater affection for themselves than they do for others or God, and as such they can’t imagine a world where they aren’t ultimately the center, even if they are the greatest philanthropist this world has ever seen. This is why I see unbelief as a moral issue. I could cite other points from Scripture; think of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John, he tells the Pharisees and religious teachers that they can’t believe because they seek the praise of men rather than God. The question is why do they have this proclivity and how does that lend itself to their continued state of unbelief? I think part of what I have been asserting helps to answer that question; i.e. the issue according to Holy Scripture (and not my opinion) is that we have ‘wicked and deceived hearts’ (Jer. 17.9). Can we refer to surface experiences, even deep and real experiences of existential import that represent real and significant issues for people towards belief in God in Christ? Yes! But at base, no matter what the experiences of people, I am suggesting that the reason people finally cannot repent and bow the knee to the crucified God is because they love themselves too much; because they live in a bondage they themselves cannot remove themselves from. While this may be controversial in certain circles, I don’t think it is controversial in regard to what the Bible teaches. The Revelator puts the depth of the unbelief in these stark terms:

20 The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. 21 Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts. – Revelation 9.20-21

While there are theodic type reasons people use to continue on within their states of unbelief. Or while there is hypocrisy among believers themselves relative to their profession vis-à-vis their actual practice (morally); I will continue to contend that all of this can be attributed to a heart that loves itself more than it loves God. Whether someone has been awakened to that reality or not, the point remains that the heart, the ‘heart of stone’ is still something to contend with; whether that be among unbelievers or believers. I think Scripture is clear on this, even if sectors of theological culture bristles at it.

 

A Reflection on Why People Are Important For Christians

It is interesting to contemplate upon things when we start with God–as we ought to–and work from there. And so in light of that, I wanted to quickly reflect upon a reason why other people (from ourselves) are important for our life as humanity in general. We need each other to understand what it means to be humans-in-relation, and this is so because we were created and recreated in the image of God who himself is a communion of relation, and in his communion there is his union given shape, and from this union, his communion is given shape. Likewise, we as God’s people who share in this kind of intimate relationship, have been recreated in Jesus Christ in order to fellowship one with the other. This fellowship is given its reality as we participate from Christ’s humanity for us. This fellowship has all kinds of questions and answers associated with it; in other words, inimical to this fellowship is that we are to be pointing each other to Christ. A way this happens, a very important way, is through studying and knowing God together.

I find the most purpose, and the most joy, when I am able to interact with other Christians, or even non-Christians, around understanding, better who God in Jesus Christ is. We are to motivate each other unto love and good works as we see the day of Christ approaching; and this takes shape as we are of those who do not become reclusive in our walks with Christ, but in the community of the saints. We need each other, because we were created and participate in the image of God who needs the other persons he is in eternal relation with to be who he is in himself and for us.

24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. ~Hebrews 10:24-25 (NIV)