Category Archives: Theo-Anthropology

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.

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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)

Irenaeus of Lyon Against the Annihilationists and Evangelical Conditionalists of the 21st Century

Remember in the past when I said that I was going to write a paper refuting annihilationism or evangelical conditionalism? I haven’t forgot about that, it’s just that I have a lot of other things going on (including the ongoing trial of putting together my PhD proposal). In my reading of my friend’s published PhD dissertation for the University of Manchester, Jerome van Kuiken’s Christ’s Humanity In Current And Ancient Controversy: Fallen Or Not?, as he gets into engaging with Irenaeus of Lyon’s theology/Christology, Jerome refers to Irenaeus’s theological-anthropology. If you remember, part of my thesis in arguing against annihlationism was going to be to refer to the immortality that grounds what it means to be human being as construed from the elect human being of Jesus Christ for us. As Jerome develops Irenaeus’s theology he refers to something therein that helps underscore my own thesis contra the annihilationist position. Note Jerome’s reference to this pertinent point in a footnote he offers on Irenaeus’s theology:

In passages like Haer. 3.20.2 and Epid. 15, Irenaeus can speak of humanity’s possessing immortality prior to the Fall; however, Haer. 5.12.1-3 explains that humanity lost its life in Eden because it had only the ephemeral breath of life, not the eternal Spirit of life available in Christ. Cf. Haer. 5.3.1, which says that humans are naturally mortal, and 5.7.1, which interprets Gen. 2.7 as teaching that human nature comprises an immortal soul and a mortal body (i.e. a soul incapable of decomposition and a body capable of it). Cf. Lane, ‘Irenaeus’, pp. 145-6.[1]

As a reminder the conditionalist position is this (at least for those over at the ReThinking Hell consortium):

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

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

For the conditionalist, contra Irenaeus, immortality is a contingent reality that is only given with the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. Irenaeus, according to van Kuiken’s observation, held that immortality was an inherent property to what it means to be human, albeit a property ultimately grounded in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

My original thesis was going to be to argue the Irenean position, albeit in a modified form through Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth’s theologies, contra the ReThinking Hell conditionalist position. My thesis, now bolstered by Irenaeus’s own reasoning, was and would be that humanity’s ontological grounding in the humanity of Jesus Christ necessarily requires that humanity itself, once originated and created in and from the image of God in Christ’s vicarious humanity is ultimately immortal or unable to be distinguished once created. This, because, to reiterate, what it ultimately and archetypically means to be human is grounded in the singular humanity of Jesus Christ’s humanity for us (pro nobis). On my account, since humanity is always already ‘immortal,’ or unable to be annihilated, the definitional distinctions that must be made come to how we think ‘immortality.’ For my treatment, there is an asymmetrical symmetry between people who experience the light side of immortality—which would be equal, potentially, to the conditionalist position on the univocal relationship between immortality and eternality language vis-à-vis ‘salvation’—and the many people who will experience the shadow side of immortality. The light side of human immortality is to fully experience the divine plenitude of participation within the Triune life, mediated through the gracious humanity of Jesus Christ to those who believe; the shadow side of human immortality would be for those who have chosen to reject the beauty and resplendence of full immortality available for them in the humanity of Jesus Christ; nevertheless, de jure, by virtue of the ground of human being, even those who reject the experience of what it means to be human, and live out of the immortality that is available in the humanity of Christ for them, remain ‘human’ and thus ‘immortal’ insofar as their humanity has ultimately and creationally/recreationally been grounded by Christ’s.

This is a thesis I continue to ponder. And maybe someday I’ll have the time to actual work it out in paper form. Until then I’ll just keep throwing out dispatches about it, like this one, until the time comes for me to finally write the darn thing.

 

[1] E. Jerome van Kuiken, Christ’s Humanity In Current And Ancient Controversy: Fallen Or Not? (London/New York: T&T Clark Bloomsbury, 2017), 94 n.14.

[2] ReThinking Hell, Statement on Evangelical Conditionalism, accessed 03-05-2018.

Nature, Grace and Knowledge of God: Does Michael Allen Really Understand the Thomist’s and Thomas Aquinas’s Position on Created Grace?

Let’s keep on theme. This has been an important thing for me for quite a few years now, and I’m realizing once again that it remains such. It has to do with the theme we’ve been touching on in the last many posts I’ve been writing; i.e. how can a human being have real knowledge of God? This essentially gets underneath that now proverbial question of ‘what hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ Is there something, some moral quality, some created grace, some inherent bent in humanity’s teleology that equips and allows them to know God; or want to know God? There have been many attempts by various theologians over the centuries to engage this question, but I want to start with Holy Scripture; and then think from there. It’s not that those who arrive and different conclusions than me haven’t worked from Scripture, all that that variety illustrates is the impact that certain a priori theological commitments have upon the exegetical practice.

To start, let’s take a look at Romans 3:9-18:

What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. 10 As it is written:“There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” 14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery mark their ways, 17 and the way of peace they do not know.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

I take this, particularly the portion I have emboldened, to be definitive of the state of the human heart coram Deo (‘before God’); and I’m not alone. Most Reformed theologians would want to affirm the traditional doctrine of total depravity although maybe not total inability, but because these same theologians also have, what I would contend is a competing (with Scripture) metaphysic underwriting their approach to Scripture, they at some point have to soften the “way” the Romans passage sounds at a prima facie level. Most Reformed theologians follow in the Thomist tradition; the Thomist tradition, also known as the Thomist Intellectualist tradition sees the human intellect as the definitive component of what makes a human being a human being at an essential level. So they must posit that when the fall of Genesis 3 took place that the intellect, at some level, remained untouched[1]; viz. that it maintained some level of operative power even in its capacity to posit, at the most, God (again we can see how something like this would coalesce with a subsequent [but also prior in a basic way] appeal to the philosophers in order to supply such Reformed theologians with the categories they find useful in their theological endeavors). Such Reformed thinkers have their point of contact precisely at this point; i.e. their point of contact between God and humanity. Yes, they would also recognize that the intellect, while still operative, even if living under the dregs of the fall, and because of such dregs, requires the supplement of grace to enter into the [elect] individual and ‘escalate’ or elevate the intellect to a regenerate status resulting in the person’s ability to fully access God (at least in the ways God has generously decided to accommodate that in ectypal fashion). So the mainstay of classical Calvinist or Reformed theologians really don’t affirm that people are fully or even functionally disabled (as the Romans passage would intimate), instead they must, at some level (and there are various ways to nuance that among such theologians) keep, as a live option, the operation of the intellect such that people, in general, have a capacity towards knowledge of God. Sure, it might not ultimately terminate in a true and saving knowledge of God, but nevertheless that moral ‘point of contact’ and hook remains active in fallen humanity (i.e. a proclivity or at least an ability to seek after God).

I wanted to share the full quote from Allen because it helps illustrate the various ways all of this has unfolded in and among both Roman Catholic and Reformed theologians alike. He notes the differences and even the internecine differences among Catholics and the classically Reformed alike; but what stands out, and this is what I’ll share from Allen simply to illustrate the reality, is their shared point of convergence when it comes to working from the Thomist tradition. Yes, this can take numerable directions, from Henri de Lubac, to Thomas Aquinas, to Herman Bavinck, to Kathryn Tanner; but the point is, they all at some level, one way or the other want to affirm and work from the Thomist intellectualist tradition (e.g. remember how I described, a bit, the theological anthropological component that funds this tradition i.e. ‘the intellect’). Allen writes:

How then does the new life relate to the character of created nature or, more specifically, how does the regenerated being of the saints relate to their given nature as sons of Adam and daughters of Eve? Here we enter debates regarding nature and grace, matters which have marked controversies both in the classical era and also into recent decades. Indeed, twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology debated the relationship of nature and grace at length, pointing to even deeper disputes within the tradition. We do well to attend to these conversations, as they suggest realities present in the medieval and early modern context in which the Reformed tradition was shaped decisively. They also present a conversation wherein the heritage of Reformed thought has been altered or misperceived by much more recent developments. Before turning to specifically Reformed approaches, then, we do well to note the broader trends in Roman Catholicism and to find their roots in a shared Thomist heritage, at which point we are in a position to ask about specific concerns flowing out of the Protestant Reformation.[2]

We note in the last emboldened clause just what I was referring to previously; that Allen fully affirms the reliance for the classically Reformed (including himself) upon the Thomist heritage, and all that attends to that. Like I highlighted earlier, there are multiform ways to flesh out said heritage; nevertheless, in categorical ways, certain features remain basic and fundamental for the Thomistically inspired theologian. This is where I found Allen’s coverage rather lacking; he prefers to gloss over the theological anthropological point that I was noting earlier, and which I only alluded to in my prologue, in regard to grace. Remember I noted that some theologians, the Thomist ones, see some source of contact built into even fallen humanity’s bent or capacity for some knowledge of God (even if that remains fleeting among the reprobate). Thomists, and Thomas Aquinas himself, actually posits a concept of created grace (which I’ve written on before, more than once here at the blog), this is an addition and quality that God (to state it crudely) implants into the accidents of elect humanity which allows them, through moral effort and habituation (habitus) activate and allows them to move beyond the fleeting knowledge that all human beings have, in regard to capacity for knowledge of God, and takes them to the next level. Allen glosses this component—in regard to created grace as a thing or quality or stuff—and simply transubstantiates such thinking from a created stuff/quality to the personal work of the Holy Spirit; he writes:

Grace’s gift does not merely heal sin’s harm by returning one to Eden. Grace also moves us forward such that there is escalation from Eden. Grace is not a stuff or substance, of course, but the personal presence and action of God. Specifically, grace is the life-giving work of Christ by his Holy Spirit. We do well to remember the way in which Thomas Aquinas spoke of this effective presence: “The Holy Spirit makes those to whom he is sent like the one whose Spirit he is.” The Spirit, then, conforms the Christian into the image of the invisible God, to the form of Jesus Christ, for the Spirit is none other than the “Spirit of Christ” (e.g., Rom 8:9; Phil 1:19; 1 Pet 1:11).[3]

I mean who am I to question a genuine theologian, I’m just a blogger, but this makes me seriously wonder whether or not Michael Allen actually understands Thomas Aquinas’s superstructure; particularly when it comes to Thomas’s appropriation of Aristotle’s habitus theology and substance metaphysic. Aquinas writes all over his Summa about grace being a created quality, and refers to it as medicine (which fits well with the kind of intellectualist sin/grace-ailment/medicine symmetry that would be funding Thomas’s theology). Note, as an example of many of instances from Thomas:

Now this nature is disordered, however, man falls short even of the goodness natural to him, and cannot wholly achieve it by his own natural abilities. Particular good actions he can still perform in virtue of his nature (building houses, planting vineyards and the like); but he falls short of the total goodness suited to his nature. He is like a sick man able to make certain movements by himself, but unable to move like a man in perfect health until he has had medicine to heal him.[4]

This will have to suffice to illustrate how I’m not sure, exactly, Allen is really reading Aquinas right in this regard. You can go read Thomas for yourself to see if I’m misrepresenting Aquinas on this, or if Allen is.[5]

I digress somewhat; but I wanted to note what I think is a misreading in the analysis of Allen in regard to Thomas’s theology. Further, in this process, I’m hoping you can see how this issue, relative to knowledge of God, gets fleshed out in the ways that it does for the classically Calvinist in particular (at least by way of providing some exposure). But furthermore, let me also just note, that because of this kind of Thomist commitment by many of these guys and gals, I think they end up misrepresenting what Scripture asserts about the noetic impact of the fall on humanity’s capacity to have a point of contact and/or capacity for knowledge of God as an inherent capacity in the created nature (even if that’s in the accidents rather than essential as we have been  highlighting). We can see how they must go the direction they do; and we can start to see how their a priori commitment to Aristotle’s categories mediated through Thomas pressures them into this extra-biblical direction.

The tradition Karl Barth et al. offers does not work from the grace/nature combine that most classical theologies work from; particularly as we’ve noticed that in the Thomist frame. Barth’s offering sees all reality funded by God’s grace and then miracle alone; his doctrine of creation is funded by the covenant of grace, which for Barth works from his doctrine of election and God’s choice to be for us in Christ. For Barth the inner reality of creation is God’s covenant life of grace, consequently leading to the idea that creation itself is the external expression of that life as grounded and conditioned by the humanity of God in Jesus Christ.

That’s enough.

 

[1] The Thomist needs the intellect to remain untouched in some way because without that in the fall, if the intellect along with the will and affections (in a tripartite faculty psychology) fell, the human being would no longer be, at a constituent level, a human being; they’d be some sort of monster or zombie. For the Thomist the affections are what not only led to the fall (i.e. the lust of the flesh etc.), but were what actually fell in toto (in totality); the intellect, for the Thomist, was affected by this in some significant ways, but not in the same way that the affections/will were impacted. It is interesting, the Thomists, because they are working, in basic ways, from anthropological categories (i.e. the faculty psychology) that many theologians of today have abandoned for non-reductive physicalism etc.; so we can see a pretty stark repristination project being engaged in by such theologians in our 21st century.

[2] Michael Allen, Sanctification (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2017), 213 kindle edition. [emboldening mine]

[3] Ibid., 215 kindle edition.

[4] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Concise Translation, 16.

[5] See also a paper I wrote many years ago on grace and nature in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Bear in mind I was very dilettante at this point, in my writing and theologically; but the paper itself will help to illustrate further my point in regard to Allen’s apparent mishandling of Aquinas’s theology on a rather salient front in regard to what Allen is attempting to glean relative to Aquinas’s theology qua Reformed theology simplicter: NATURE AND GRACE IN THE THEOLOGY OF THOMAS AQUINAS.

The Meat and Potatoes Behind My Thinking on the Relationship Between Philosophy and Theology: The Analogy of Being and The Analogy of Faith in Juxta

This is a repost, but as I’ve been thinking about it I think my last three posts have much to do with the following issue (the subject of my post here). Because of that correlation I thought I would repost this as it might fill out further what I meant in my last post when I started getting into the relationship of theological anthropology (in a doctrine of creation) to the question: “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” The following post details and explains, a bit, how and why I might approach the answer to the question—on the relationship between speculative philosophy and theology—differently than maybe other approaches might, and indeed have. As you will see in this post (and I don’t make it all that explicit) the way we think of a doctrine of creation/eschatology will impinge upon the way we think of anthropology, soteriology/redemption, and the relationship between ontology and epistemology as we think that from a Christian Dogmatic frame. My thoughts have probably developed a bit since I initially posted the following post (in 2013 as I recall), but the gist is still something that has resonance with my current position.

The title of my personal chapter in our first edited book (2012) is: Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis? Either Through Christ or Through Nature. While a little different from the way I develop this dichotomy for doing theology in my chapter, George Hunsinger helpfully details what the differences are between Karl Barth’s ‘Analogy of Faith’ approach V. a Roman Catholic (and classically Protestant) inspired ‘Analogy of Being’ approach. He writes of Barth:

aquinas

[A]lthough Barth once wrote that “I regard the analogia entis as the invention of the Antichrist” (I/1, xiii), and although he went on to polemicize against it repeatedly, nowhere in the Church Dogmatics does he pause to directly to define what  he means by it. Indirectly, however; what he means becomes sufficiently clear. The analogia entis is conceived as embracing two matters at once: a constitutive state of affairs and an epistemic procedure based on it. (Where I have said “constitutive” and ‘epistemic,” Barth would tend to say “ontic” and “noetic.”) The state of affairs is one in which human beings are in some sense inherently open to and capable of knowing God. The procedure is then one in which this inherent openness and capacity are exercised such that God becomes known, regardless of how provisionally. As the premise behind natural theology, the analogia entis seems to underwrite almost everything Barth takes to be theologically impossible by virtue of the personalist, objectivist, actualist, and particularist motifs (See pp. 96-99, 255-56.)

Barth’s epistemic alternative to the analogia entis is the analogia fidei: The analogia entis, as Barth understands it, posits an analogy between the human being and the divine being by virtue of their sharing a commonality in “being” (even though the two may not be conceived as related to this commonality in the same way). (This commonality is the condition for the possibility of the human being’s inherent openness to and capability of knowing God.) The analogia fidei, on the other hand, posits an analogy between human action (faith) and a divine action (grace) in just a situation where no ontological commonality is conceived to exist. Grace elicits faith, and faith corresponds analogically to grace, but no ontological of any kind mediates between them. Since no inherent human openness or capability exists to be exercised, grace is the sole condition for the possibility of faith. Faith is conceived as grounded in grace alone, and the mediating term with respect to the analogy is conceived not as “being” but as “miracle.” [George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, fn. 2, pp. 266-67 Nook edition.]

The theology and thought done on this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist, is decidedly done from the analogia fidei the ‘analogy of faith’ as given expression by Barthian formation. There is no common ground, I would argue, between the being of God and the being of humanity; there is no hierarchical and thus necessary interrelation between all being; as if God is the unmoved mover from which all being owes it like being in a graded kind of succession (starting with God’s as the Creator). Instead the succession of being is proper to God’s inner life alone, as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit interpenetratingly coinhere and inter-relate one with the other; it is in this kind of being, a being that is shaped by Divine persons in relation, wherein a Self-givenenss is realized, one for the other—we might call this Self-giveness, Love. And it is out of this Self-sustaining (A-seity) freedom of giveness for the other (in the Subject-Object distinction between the persons of the Divine Monarxia), this eternal choice of life for the other (in God’s inner-life), that He has freely and graciously chosen to create the other (i.e. humanity), in order to serve as a counterpoint (thank you, Habets) wherein He could share this life of Love with the other. The other being created in order to participate in this kind of freedom of life that is sustained by none other than Godself for the other. And in this God-world relation, the nexus between God and humanity finds its ground for being. Not in a necessary relationship between God as brute Creator, and the rest of creation as a necessary relation to this kind of Creator God; but in a dynamic relation, wherein the connection is grounded in God’s freedom to create out of pure unadulterated love for the other, the kind of love that has defined God’s choice to create and then relate to His creation through gracious action inclusive of inviting His creation to participate in His free life of Love on the basis of His gracious action of creation. So the relationship between humanity and God is based upon a relational dynamic of trust (faith) wherein knowledge of God and self is realized through the same Word which upholds all things, and in a continuous state of Event, gives human being its life by graciously sustaining it by His life of Love (so defined). In this relationship, the primacy is not given to humanity’s inherent capacity to possess a knowledge of God upon an extrapolation abstract by the active intellect upon humanity’s being; but instead primacy is given to Christ, and the relation to God therein rests in His very person mediated to us through the humanity of Christ. It is through this relation to God, one that is shaped by the person of God in Christ, wherein the analogy of faith finds its repose; as any conception of necessary being in ourselves, is contradicted by the faith of the Son for us for the Father, wherein the Son receives His being as Son by His Free relation to the Father by His shared nature. So the analogy is one of faith, because there is no other basis upon which creation finds resonance except through the act of God’s grace to create out of Free love for the other, which is first realized antecedently in His inner life which has freely become for us.

The ‘Nashville Statement’ and TF Torrance on Human Sexuality and Same-Sex Relationships

The following is a post I wrote back in January of this year (2017). I thought in light of the so called ‘Nashville Statement’, that came out today, that I would repost this as I think it dovetails with what these Nashville signers were engaging with (as far as human sexuality, so on and so forth). This issue has become a very divisive one that is not going to go away. I think the way we handle this discussion ought to be done with care, and theological nuance; nuance that reflects the thoughtfulness of the church through the centuries. I have read the statement (it’s short and precise), and, in its gist, I don’t think I have to demur at all from what it affirms or denies. The issue I probably do have, theologically and culturally, has more to do with the signers themselves (on other issues). Anyway, I think TF Torrance, as usual, offers good insights on how to proceed with a discussion on this pressing issue facing the church and the world. 

We are a fractured people, the current state of sexuality and gender ideology illustrates this fracturous state. As Christians we have insight on why this is so, that the ‘world’ or secular perspectives do not have access to (or at least they reject their access to it). There is a confusion about what it means to be male and female; the confusion, I submit, comes from a deeply grounded interruption between the ground of being and what it means to be a gendered human coram Deo (‘before God’). This confusion is given all types of expression, whether of the heterosexual, homosexual, or trinitysketchtranssexual form (among other expressions). As is the case for all of reality there is a theological reason that provides explanatory power for our current state; power that has the capacity to break into the confusion and bring clarity. Thomas Torrance describes the source of this sexual confusion this way:

We begin by going right back to Genesis to examine its theological account of the divine purpose of creation and redemption. God made man, male and female, and placed man in a perfect environment. As man and woman they are made to have fellowship with God, and in themselves they are essentially social beings, in harmony with God, and in harmony with their environment. It is as male and female, in the unity of man, that they are made in communion with God, and as male and female, one man, they reflect the glory of God. Man is in the image of God.

Then we discover that the bond of fellowship between God and man is broken by rebellion and sin. It belongs to the nature of sin to divide, to create disorder, to disrupt, to destroy fellowship. What are the consequences of sin? Not only is the bond of communion between God and man broken, issuing in man’s guilty fear of God, but the bond between man and woman is impaired: guilt and shame come in between them, and even the symbol of wearing clothes is interpreted in terms of the hiddenness of man from woman and of woman from man. The man-woman relationship is involved in the broken relation with God. With the bond between them broken, man and woman are individualised, and each is turned in upon himself or herself. But even the unity of man as male, and the unity of woman as female, within the individual heart is disrupted, in the knowledge of good and evil. Each knows that he or she is no longer what he or she ought to be.

Thus the rupture in the relation between God and man, and man and woman, entails a rupture within each between what a person is and the person ought to be. Once the constitutive bond between God and man is broken, every other relation suffers irreparable damage. And so we find the relation between man and the environment broken. Adam and Eve are thrust out of the garden of Eden, and the way back to utopia  is barred by divine judgement. Moreover, man now exists in a state of tension with nature. Man must earn his living by the sweat of his brow among thorns and thistles, and woman has pain in childbirth. Mankind is out of gear with nature, and anxiety characterises their life. But the consequences of broken fellowship with God extend deep into human life and keep spreading. The first brothers fall out with each other, and one slays the other. And so the story of the theological narrative goes on. It is a double story. On one side it is the story of the atomisation of mankind, for the internal rupture results in individualisation and conflict. On the other it is the story of human attempts at re-socialisation, great attempts to mend the broken relations, to heal the internal rupture, to bind divided humanity together again, as at Babel. But all the attempts to heal man partake of our fallen nature and cannot but give new orientation in sin to the broken relationship with God, so that all attempts break themselves on the divine judgement and result in further disintegration. Mankind is unable to re-socialise itself, unable to heal its internal rupture for that which really makes man man is the bond between man and God.[1]

Human sexuality, as TF Torrance rightly understands, is part and parcel with what it means to be created in the imago Dei (‘image of God’). Once that relationship was marred and thrown into disrepute in Adam’s and Eve’s choice to choose their way instead of God’s the fallout of that has become irreversible (lest God become human in Christ).

Realistically what this means is that the gender dysphoria we are seeing unfold in the 21st century is only going to get worse, it will never get better. Yes, there will be individual people who are currently arrested by the current state of gender and sexuality dysfunction, who will experience reversal of all of this in their lives personally as they come to Christ. But the ‘secular’ the profane world we inhabit in this in-between time will only continue its downward spiral into the chaos created by the rupture introduced between the bond of God and humanity in the fall. Yes, there’s hope, and as Christians we are supposed to be spreading that hope as we bear witness to the great reversal of Christ in our own lives; as we bear witness to the eschatological reality of Christ come and coming again.

Let me also submit that the current acquiescence of some Christians to gender dysphoria and the confusion surrounding human sexuality does no one any good. God in Christ has come to re-create indeed, but according to a taxis or order that he has decided to be coordinate with his purposes not ours. So, I think, part of what it means to point people to Christ is to point them to the new creation; a creation that is corollary with the original creation but far surpasses it in its telos in and for Christ. It’s a new-creation and kingdom wherein all its component parts work within the perfectly calibrated and egalitarian way God has always intended. There’s no false binary between the sexes in this new-creation but a new way for twoness to be oriented by the threeness and oneness God.[2]

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 38-9.

[2] See Sarah Coakely, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Trying to Understand evangelical Moral Reasoning and Trump: What Role Does Theological Anthropology Play?

This whole Donald Trump immigration policy thing has me reeling; particularly because of how I have seen many (not all!) my evangelical brothers and sisters responding affirmatively to it (or cautiously optimistic in some cases). This only adds to my disillusionment with evangelicalism as of late, at least its adameveoriginalsinNorth American instantiation within which I have been ensconced my whole life. I am trying to figure out how evangelicals, who ostensibly love Jesus, can look at what Trump is doing in this regard and cheer him on; particularly when what he is doing is at diabolical odds with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My conclusion thus far is that well meaning Christians have become co-opted by the culture wars, a nationalist bent, and a desire to once again be the moral majority.

Theologian, John Webster, helps us get at what is going on in the type of Christian psyche we see on display in many North American evangelicals in our current political atmosphere; he does this as he explicates Karl Barth’s own analysis of the Christians inhabiting Nazi Germany as they ended up colluding with Hitler in very naïve ways.[1] Webster writes this of Barth’s analysis:

A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.[2]

As if often the case, as Webster underscores through engagement with Barth, what this boils down to is an anthropological question. You might have noticed how ‘liberal Protestantism’ is in the cross hairs of Barth, but when it comes to anthropological considerations, North American evangelicalism, ironically, mimics ‘liberal Protestantism’ in some surprising ways[3]. What I want to key in on is what Webster concludes with in his last clause about the certainty that people operate with when it comes to morality, and what is Gospel faithful thinking; this: “…This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.”[4] I would submit that evangelicals supporting Trump (even if cautiously) have placed too much confidence in themselves, and their ability to objectively discern what is ethically expedient and right relative to their place in the world.

Fergus Kerr, like Webster, also offers some valuable insight on Barth’s critique of humanity’s propensity, even ‘Christian’ humanity, to have too much certainty relative to their own machinations in regard to engaging with reality.[5] Here Kerr describes Barth’s critique of Rene Descartes’ methodological skepticism in his quest to find rational certainty about God, and all subsequent reality; what we end up with in Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (‘I think therefore I am’). As you read this, as with Webster’s analysis of Barth, you will note how theological anthropology is at play in a central way. Kerr writes:

Karl Barth, as one would expect, has provided the most substantial modern critique of theological anthropology. But he had already come to grips in an interesting way with the Cartesian picture of the self.

There are two points to note. First, according to Barth, the Cartesian proof of the existence of God spirals back into the Cartesian metaphysics of the self:

This idea of divinity as innate in man. Man can produce it at will from the treasury or deficiency of his mind. It is made up of a series of pre-eminent attributes which are relatively and primarily attributes of the human mind, and in which the latter sees its own characteristics – temporality, finitude, limited knowledge and ability and creative power – transcended in the absolute, contemplating itself in the mirror of its possible infinitude, and yet remaining all the time within itself even though allowing its prospect of itself to be infinitely expanded by this speculative extension and deepening. By transcending myself, I never come upon an absolute being confronting and transcendent to me, but only again and again upon my own being. And by proving the existence of a being whom I have conjured up only by means of my own self-transcendence, I shall again and again succeed only in proving my own existence. (CD III/2, 46)

… In the Cartesian proof of God’s existence, it is a certain conception of the human being’s capacity for self-transcendence that Barth finds endlessly reflected.

Secondly, and even more instructively, Barth finds it necessary to attack the Cartesian emphasis on the thinking self when he discusses the right use of imagination in learning from Scripture. The biblical account of the creation is a saga that has a great deal to teach us:

We must dismiss and resist to the very last any idea of the inferiority or untrustworthiness or even worthlessness of a ‘non-historical’ depiction and narration of history. This is in fact only a ridiculous and middle-class habit of the modern Western mind which is supremely phantastic in its chronic lack of imaginative phantasy, and hopes to rid itself of its complexes through suppression. (CD III/1, 81)

As the original practitioner of ‘narrative theology’, Barth denounces the rationalist epistemological bias that has affected so much biblical exegesis since the Enlightenment:

But the human possibility of knowing is not exhausted by the ability to perceive and comprehend. Imagination, too, belongs no less legitimately in its way to the human possibility of knowing. A man without imagination is more of an invalid than one who lacks a leg. (CD III/1, 91)

Theologians are thus well aware of the difficulties that the modern philosophy of the self has created. My suspicion, however, is that version of the mental ego of Cartesianism are ensconced in a great deal of Christian thinking, and that many theologians regard this as inevitable and even desirable. The appeal of some theological writing also seems inexplicable unless it touches crypto-Cartesian assumptions which many readers share.[6]

Remember what I am trying to do in this post; I am attempting to understand how it is that my evangelical brothers and sisters can affirm, even tacitly, Donald Trump’s morality, with particular focus, in this instance on his recent policy move in regard to immigration. So you might be asking by now: what in the world do these insights from Webster and Kerr on Barth’s theology have to do with that?

My Contention

I see American evangelicals, in general, living unexamined intellectual and moral lives. As such I believe they have inherited, from the history of ideas, a kind of Kantian moral imperative shrouded by a Cartesian certainty about who they are and what they know, morally. When Kerr quotes Barth and Barth’s critique of Christians who end up creating God in their own image by way of speculation and projection, and the loss of real ‘transcendence’ and ‘outside of us’ (ecstatic) grounding that this entails, I think this helps explain, at a moral level, how it is that Trump can be affirmed by evangelicals. The center of morality in this schema becomes the all determining self, guised as it were in a sense of false-transcendence that looks all too much like a RealPolitik, and nothing like the morality engendered by what is given by the real deal transcendence revealed in the Gospel of God’s triune life in Jesus Christ. Political pragmatism and the absolute self go hand in hand in this schema, all the while framed ostensibly by a notion of the divine and sense of other. Unfortunately, if Barth is right, what these Christians are actually engaging in is idolatry. They have conflated their conception of God, and the values he gives us in Christ, with what they perceive as morally expedient embedded within a “conservative” framework of right and wrong which is determined to be by the ‘absolute self.’ In other words, evangelicals, in the main, at least the ones supporting Trump (at various levels), have been appealing to a conception of God, and the values engendered by who He is, that in the end is really just a projection of the self and not One who is encountered in the face of Jesus Christ.

When Kerr moves to Barth’s thinking on imagination and biblical narrative theology, he is attempting to highlight how Christians, of all people, ought to move away from rationalist certitude, generated from the absolute self, and instead submit to the God encountered in the pages of Holy Scripture. We will have to say more about this aspect later. But it is pertinent to how evangelicals approach Scripture through their ‘lack’ of an ontology of Scripture vis-à-vis God’s taxis.

Conclusion

My conclusion, at this point, in regard to answering my question about evangelicals and Trump, is that evangelicals, in the main, have uncritically conflated their perception of God, which is based on projection, resulting in skewed moral reasoning. If evangelicalism, in the main, is funded by an anthropology that is circular, one that starts with their mind and ends with their mind, then the mind of Christ has no space to contradict how they think about all things real. This helps explain, for me, how well intentioned evangelical Christians in North America can support someone like Donald Trump in the main, and now in particular, and at the forefront currently, his denigration of human life (immigrants) simply based upon personal fears and expediency that is determined to be expedient by a moral self that is only accountable to an absolute self. As far as I am concerned what we are witnessing, because of this kind of idolatry, is anti-Christ, of the sort that we have unfortunately witnessed over and again through the annuls of history. May Christians repent of this kind of idolatry and genuinely allow the mind of Christ to contradict their minds to the point that repentance is realized and genuine Christian witness and prophetic positioning can once again be the reality for the church of Jesus Christ. Isn’t that our role; to point the world to Christ?

 

[1] To be clear I am not intimating that there is a one-to-one correspondence between WW2 Nazi Germany, and the conditions inherent in 21st century North America, and evangelicalism. What is similar, I would contend, is the innate ‘human’ desire to feel a sense of security and control, and its propensity to do that by looking to human governmental structure and policies in order to bring that about; this propensity implicates both so called “conservatives” and “liberals” alike.

[2] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought (UK: T&T Clark, 1998), 35-6.

[3] An assertion that will have to be established later.

[4] Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology, 36.

[5] Ironically, as I write this I am listening to Depeche Mode’s song, World In My Eyes.

[6] Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein (London: SPCK, 1997), 9-10.

TF Torrance on Human Sexuality: Gender Dysphoria and its Relationship to God

We are a fractured people, the current state of sexuality and gender ideology illustrates this fracturous state. As Christians we have insight on why this is so, that the ‘world’ or secular perspectives do not have access to (or at least they reject their access to it). There is a confusion about what it means to be male and female; the confusion, I submit, comes from a deeply grounded interruption between the ground of being and what it means to be a gendered human coram Deo (‘before God’). This confusion is given all types of expression, whether of the heterosexual, homosexual, or trinitysketchtranssexual form (among other expressions). As is the case for all of reality there is a theological reason that provides explanatory power for our current state; power that has the capacity to break into the confusion and bring clarity. Thomas Torrance describes the source of this sexual confusion this way:

We begin by going right back to Genesis to examine its theological account of the divine purpose of creation and redemption. God made man, male and female, and placed man in a perfect environment. As man and woman they are made to have fellowship with God, and in themselves they are essentially social beings, in harmony with God, and in harmony with their environment. It is as male and female, in the unity of man, that they are made in communion with God, and as male and female, one man, they reflect the glory of God. Man is in the image of God.

Then we discover that the bond of fellowship between God and man is broken by rebellion and sin. It belongs to the nature of sin to divide, to create disorder, to disrupt, to destroy fellowship. What are the consequences of sin? Not only is the bond of communion between God and man broken, issuing in man’s guilty fear of God, but the bond between man and woman is impaired: guilt and shame come in between them, and even the symbol of wearing clothes is interpreted in terms of the hiddenness of man from woman and of woman from man. The man-woman relationship is involved in the broken relation with God. With the bond between them broken, man and woman are individualised, and each is turned in upon himself or herself. But even the unity of man as male, and the unity of woman as female, within the individual heart is disrupted, in the knowledge of good and evil. Each knows that he or she is no longer what he or she ought to be.

Thus the rupture in the relation between God and man, and man and woman, entails a rupture within each between what a person is and the person ought to be. Once the constitutive bond between God and man is broken, every other relation suffers irreparable damage. And so we find the relation between man and the environment broken. Adam and Eve are thrust out of the garden of Eden, and the way back to utopia  is barred by divine judgement. Moreover, man now exists in a state of tension with nature. Man must earn his living by the sweat of his brow among thorns and thistles, and woman has pain in childbirth. Mankind is out of gear with nature, and anxiety characterises their life. But the consequences of broken fellowship with God extend deep into human life and keep spreading. The first brothers fall out with each other, and one slays the other. And so the story of the theological narrative goes on. It is a double story. On one side it is the story of the atomisation of mankind, for the internal rupture results in individualisation and conflict. On the other it is the story of human attempts at re-socialisation, great attempts to mend the broken relations, to heal the internal rupture, to bind divided humanity together again, as at Babel. But all the attempts to heal man partake of our fallen nature and cannot but give new orientation in sin to the broken relationship with God, so that all attempts break themselves on the divine judgement and result in further disintegration. Mankind is unable to re-socialise itself, unable to heal its internal rupture for that which really makes man man is the bond between man and God.[1]

Human sexuality, as TF Torrance rightly understands, is part and parcel with what it means to be created in the imago Dei (‘image of God’). Once that relationship was marred and thrown into disrepute in Adam’s and Eve’s choice to choose their way instead of God’s the fallout of that has become irreversible (lest God become human in Christ).

Realistically what this means is that the gender dysphoria we are seeing unfold in the 21st century is only going to get worse, it will never get better. Yes, there will be individual people who are currently arrested by the current state of gender and sexuality dysfunction, who will experience reversal of all of this in their lives personally as they come to Christ. But the ‘secular’ the profane world we inhabit in this in-between time will only continue its downward spiral into the chaos created by the rupture introduced between the bond of God and humanity in the fall. Yes, there’s hope, and as Christians we are supposed to be spreading that hope as we bear witness to the great reversal of Christ in our own lives; as we bear witness to the eschatological reality of Christ come and coming again.

Let me also submit that the current acquiescence of some Christians to gender dysphoria and the confusion surrounding human sexuality does no one any good. God in Christ has come to re-create indeed, but according to a taxis or order that he has decided to be coordinate with his purposes not ours. So, I think, part of what it means to point people to Christ is to point them to the new creation; a creation that is corollary with the original creation but far surpasses it in its telos in and for Christ. It’s a new-creation and kingdom wherein all its component parts work within the perfectly calibrated and egalitarian way God has always intended. There’s no false binary between the sexes in this new-creation but a new way for twoness to be oriented by the threeness and oneness God.[2]

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 38-9.

[2] See Sarah Coakely, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013).