The Evangelical Calvinist

"The world was made so that Christ might be born."-David Fergusson

Archive for the ‘Theo-Anthropology’ Category

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)

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Written by Bobby Grow

April 4, 2018 at 8:28 pm

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.

Written by Bobby Grow

March 5, 2018 at 9:45 pm

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.

Written by Bobby Grow

January 1, 2018 at 5:06 am

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).

Written by Bobby Grow

August 29, 2017 at 1:29 pm

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.

Written by Bobby Grow

January 29, 2017 at 8:11 pm

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).

What Does the Practical Syllogism [assurance of salvation] Have to Do With Modern Theology’s Turn-to-the-Subject?

For people concerned about such things—I haven’t come across anyone who seems to be for a long time now, which normally I would think is a good thing, but I’m afraid that the reason despairwhy is not for a good reason—the doctrine of assurance of salvation and certainty about one’s eternal destiny has a long pedigree in the history of the church’s ideas. If you are someone who has struggled with this, and would like to get a handle on where it came from in the history of ideas, then this post is for you (there’s also a twist to this post as the title suggests).

It all started, it can be surmised, back in the days of late medieval and early reformational theology; an apparatus known as the practical syllogism came to the fore, and is what Protestant’s appealed to in an attempt to grasp a sense of certitude about whether or not they were one of the elect of God. It starts early on in the Protestant genesis, and maturates in unhealthy ways as we get into Puritan England, particularly in the theology of William Perkins. Stephen Strehle provides a type of genealogy for the development of the practical syllogism.

Deducing Salvation

The practical syllogism began to be sure much like the doctrine of eternal security, looking to ascertain one’s election a posteriori from its “signs” or “marks.” However, this time instead of focusing upon the promises of God as revealed in Christ, the concentration shifted toward the faith and works of those who would obtain and partake of those promises. The faith and works of one’s salvation experience became signs through which a true believer could discern his relationship to Christ’s promises and his election before the Father. It was all a simple deduction: “Every one that believes is the child of God: But I doe beleeve: Therefore I am the child of God.” This practical syllogism became a significant feature in most accounts of the Reformed orthodox and unfortunately turned the faith of the church away from Christ and toward an inspection of oneself and the fruits of true salvation.

The precise history of the doctrine is not so clear, although we do find certain theologians of note who were influenced in its publication and help us to trace its development. Calvin as we have noted is not a party to this as his focus remains centered upon Christ and his promises throughout his works. While he might at certain points speak of works as providing some assistance to a troubled conscience, they are considered only secondary means of consolation, and generally when he looks at himself Calvin finds nothing but despondency and condemnation. Theodore de Beza, who succeeded Calvin at Geneva, did tend, however, to reverse this order and must be considered prominent in the initial dissemination of the doctrine. He speaks of the practical syllogism a few times in his works, maintaining that it is the “first step” by which we progress toward the “first cause” of our salvation. While it is not a major emphasis of his, just the mere mention of it in his works is all that was needed. His very stature as the only theological professor at Geneva from 1564-1600 and practically all Reformed Europe for that matter would insure its place in the Reformed tradition, along with the rest of his Aristotelian (non-Christocentric) program, as we shall see later. As far as other important figures, Jerome Zanchi, a theologian from Strasbourg and disciple of Calvin, must also be accorded his place in the ascent and prevalence of the doctrine, perhaps providing an even earlier inspiration from Beza. He supplies in his works a syllogistic argument that displays the same basic structure of Beza’s and orthodoxy’s formulation but without supplying the specific name (indicating an early date). He then exhorts the believer to look within, not without, to find Christ working. Zanchi will prove to exert a major influence not only in Europe but especially in England among the Puritans where the doctrine will receive its most protracted and painstaking treatment. The Calvinists will hereafter speak of faith and certitude as involving a “serious exploration of oneself,” a “reflexive act” in which “faith in one self is felt,” and an inner knowledge of what one “feels and believes.” All of this resulted, of course, as they forsook the Christocentric orientation of Calvin for Aristotle, as well as the sacramental basis of personal assurance in Luther, which we had emphasized earlier. The quest for certitude had now devolved into an introspective life from which only depravity and uncertainty could be found, as well as a calculus, deduced from a more general promise and the Christ who made it, both of which seemed strangely at a distance. The Puritans, as we said, serve as the most notable example of this turn and should be accorded special mention in the study of assurance. In contrast to the perfunctory manner in which many of the Calvinists treated the doctrine, often reserving a mere page or two in otherwise prodigious tomes, the Puritans produced numerous and voluminous treatises upon the doctrine, considering it to be the most pressing of all religious issues.[1]

Anyone familiar with Richard Muller’s writings will immediately recognize the critique he would make against Strehle’s development; particularly the idea that Beza, contra Calvin, took Reformed theology into Aristotelian and philosophical modes of thought. I myself am critical of Strehle’s idea that Calvin was purely Christocentric when it comes to this issue; in fact in my forthcoming chapter in our EC2 book, I argue, along with Barth and others, that Calvin actually contributed to a non-Christocentric trajectory when dealing with this particular issue of assurance of salvation.

But none of the above withstanding, in a general way Strehle provides a faithful accounting, in my view, for how the practical syllogism developed and made its way into Puritan theology. What I would like to suggest, though, is that this development, this turn to the self, it could be argued at an intellectual-heritage level, contributed to the modern turn to the subject that is often, at least theologically, attributed to the work of someone like Friedrich Schleiermacher. Kelly Kapic sketches Schleiermacher, and his interlocutors this way:

The genius of Schleiermacher’s system is that he takes his anthropological emphases and pulls his entire theology through this grid. Arguably this creates an anthropocentric theology, since he consciously grounds his methods in human experience. This understandably provoked many questions. For example, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), a one-time student of Schleiermacher, later turned this perspective on its head, concluding that there really is no theology at all, since it is all ultimately reducible to anthropology. God is nothing more than the projection of human desires and feelings, but not a reality in itself. Nodding in Schleiermacher’s direction, Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer later commented that “theological anthropocentrism is always a more serious danger than secular anthropocentrism, since we, from the very meaning of theology, might expect that it would not misunderstand man as centrum.” Karl Barth, especially in his younger years, also chastened Schleiermacher with his famous quip: “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice,” since doing so means you will misunderstand both God and man. Finally, Paul Tillich worried that Schleiermacher’s language and emphasis on “feeling,” which he admits was commonly misunderstood, nevertheless contributed to the exodus of men from German churches.  Although this appears to me an unfair charge to level against Schleiermacher, it is fair to say that his proposal to orient all religion, and consequently the truth of theology, to Gefühl does widen the canvas on which theological anthropology will be painted by including more than rationality and will as the core of being human.[2]

It might seem like a stretch to suggest that the type of theology produced by someone like Schleiermacher, or moderns in general, can be attributed by antecedent to what we see developed in the theologies that produced something like the practical syllogism, but I don’t think it is too big of a stretch. I see at least a couple of links: 1) there is an informing anthropology where anthropology starts from a philosophical starting point rather than a Christian Dogmatic one. In other words, the humanity of Jesus Christ, for Beza and Scheiermacher alike is not the ground for what it means to be a human at a first-order level, as such within this abstraction, even from the get go, there is of necessity a turn to the human subject as its own self-defining terminus; i.e. there is not external ground by which humanity can be defined in this frame, instead it is humanity as absolute (obviously at a second order after-this-fact level, Beza, Schleiermacher, et al. then attempt to bring Christ’s humanity into the discussion). 2) There is a methodological focus on a posteriori discovery in regard to knowing God and knowing self before God in practical syllogism theology as well as turn to the subject theology (pre-modern and modern respectively). This in and of itself is not problematic, per se, but it is problematic when informed antecedently by an anthropology that is, at a first order level, detached from Jesus Christ’s humanity as definitive. Again, if humans start with a general sense of humanity devoid of the humanity of Christ as its primal ground, and attempt to know God and place themselves before God from that starting point there are devastating consequences. One of the primary consequences is that all theologizing from that point on, coram Deo, must start epistemologically and ontologically, from below; i.e. from my humanity, from your humanity. At the end of all of  this we end up with a rationalizing affect that colors the way we attempt to negotiate our standing and understanding with and before God.

So What?

Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, both modern theologians,  sought to invert and flip turn-to-the-subject theology on its head by thinking from truly Christian Dogmatic taxis (or ‘order’). Torrance made a special point of emphasizing how an order-of-being must come before and order-of-knowing; in other words, the idea that God’s being precedes our being, and that all conditions for knowing God and thus self (cf. Calvin) must start within this frame and order of things. I.e. There is no general or abstract sense of humanity, if we are going to have genuine knowledge of God, ourselves, and the world, then we must start with the concrete humanity of Jesus Christ. Barth, in his own ways, makes these same points, particularly by flipping Immanuel Kant on his head, and as a consequence flipping Schleiermacher on his.

I would contend that Western society, in general, still is living out what this turn-to-the-subject has meant for society at large. In fact, in the 21st century we see this type of turn in hyper-form; we might want to call it normative relativism. Ideas do have consequences, as such I think getting an idea of where they come from can help us engage those ideas critically; and when needed we are in a better position to repudiate and/or reify ideas that might ultimately be deleterious to our souls.

What I have suggested in this post remains quite general, and some would say reductionistic; but I think there is something to what I’m getting at. Since this is a blog post, and a long one, it will have to simply remain at the level of suggestion.

[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 37-41.

[2] Kelly M. Kapic, “Anthropology,” in Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, eds., Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2012), 192 Scribd version.

The Covenant of Works, The Covenant of Grace; What Are They? The evangelical Calvinists Respond

As evangelical Calvinists we stand within an alternative stream from classical Calvinism, or Federal/Covenantal theology; the type of Calvinism that stands as orthodoxy for Calvinists today in most parts of North America and the Western world in general. The blurb on the back of our book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church makes this distinction clear when it states:

In this exciting volume new and emerging voices join senior Reformed scholars in presenting a coherent and impassioned articulation of Calvinism for today’s world. Evangelical Calvinism represents a mood within current Reformed theology. The various contributors are in different ways articulating that mood, of which their very diversity is a significant element. In attempting to outline features of an Evangelical Calvinism a number of the contributors compare and contrast this approach with that of the Federal Calvinism that is currently dominant in North American Reformed theology, challenging the assumption that Federal Calvinism is the only possible expression of orthodox Reformed theology. This book does not, however, represent the arrival of a “new-Calvinism” or even a “neo-Calvinism,” if by those terms are meant a novel reading of the Reformed faith. An Evangelical Calvinism highlights a Calvinistic tradition that has developed particularly within Scotland, but is not unique to the Scots. The editors have picked up the baton passed on by John Calvin, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and others, in order to offer the family of Reformed theologies a reinvigorated theological and spiritual ethos. This volume promises to set the agenda for Reformed-Calvinist discussion for some time to come.

A question rarely, if ever addressed online in the theological blogosphere, and other online social media outlets, is a description of what Covenant theology actually entails. Many, if acquainted at all with Reformed theology, have heard of the Covenant of Works, Covenant of Grace, and Covenant of Redemption (pactum salutis); but I’m not really sure how many of these same people actually understand what that framework entails—maybe they do, and just don’t talk about it much.

In an effort to highlight the lineaments of Federal theology I thought it might be instructive to hear how Lyle Bierma describes it in one of its seminal formulator’s theology, Caspar Olevianus. So we will hear from Bierma on Olevianus, and then we will offer a word of rejoinder to this theology from Thomas Torrance’s theology summarized for us by Paul Molnar; and then further, a word contra Federal theology from Karl Barth as described by Rinse Reeling Brouwer. Here is Bierma:

When did God make such a pledge? [Referring to the ‘Covenant of Grace’] We will be looking at this question in some detail in Chapter IV, but it should be mentioned here that for Olevianus this covenant of grace or gospel of forgiveness and life was proclaimed to the Old Testament fathers from the beginning; to Adam after the fall (“The seed of the woman shall crush [Satan’s] head”); to Abraham and his descendents (“In your seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed”); to the remnant of Israel in Jeremiah 31 (“I will put my laws in their minds . . . and will remember their sins no more”); and still to hearers of the Word today. To be sure, this oath or testament was not confirmed until the suffering and death of Christ. Christ was still the only way to Seligkeit, since it was only through His sacrifices that the blessing promised to Abraham could be applied to us and the forgiveness and renewal promised through Jeremiah made possible. Nevertheless, even before ratification it was still a covenant — a declaration of God’s will awaiting its final fulfillment.

In some contexts, however, Olevianus understands the covenant of grace in a broader sense than as God’s unilateral promise of reconciliation ratified in Jesus Christ. He employs some of the same terms as before — Bund, Gnadenbund, foedus, foedus gratiae, and foedus gratuitum — but this time to mean a bilateral commitment between God and believers. The covenant so understood is more than a promise of reconciliation; it is the  realization of that promise — reconciliation itself — through a mutual coming to terms. Not only does God bind Himself to us in a pledge that He will be our Father; we also bind ourselves to Him in a pledge of acceptance of His paternal beneficence. Not only does God promise that He will blot out all memory of our sins; we in turn promise that we will walk uprightly before Him. The covenant in this sense includes both God’s promissio and our repromissio.

This semantical shift from a unilateral to a bilateral promise is most clearly seen in two passages in Olevanius’s writings where he compares the covenant of grace to a human Bund. In Vester Grundt, as we have seen, he portrays the covenant strictly as a divine pledge. While we were yet sinners, God bound Himself to us with an oath and a promise that through His Son He would repair the broken relationship. It was expected, of course, that we accept the Son (whether promised or already sent) in faith, but Olevianus here does not treat this response as part of the covenant. The emphasis is on what God would do because of what we could not do.

In a similar passage in the Expositio, however, Olevianus not only identifies the covenant with reconciliation itself but describes it as a mutual agreement (mutuus assensus) between the estranged parties. Here God binds Himself not to us “who were yet sinners” but to us “who repent and believe,” to us who in turn are bound to Him in faith and worship. This “covenant of grace or union between God and us” is not established at just one point in history; it is ratified personally with each believer. Christ the Bridegroom enters into “covenant or fellowship” with the Church His Bride by the ministry of the Word and sacraments and through the Holy Spirit seals the promises of reconciliation in the hearts of the faithful. But this is also a covenant into which we enter, a “covenant of faith.” As full partners in the arrangement we become not merely God’s children but His Bundgesnossen, His confoederati.

When he discusses the covenant of grace in this broader sense, i.e., as a bilateral commitment between God and us, Olevianus does not hesitate t use the term conditio [conditional]. We see already in the establishment of the covenant with Abraham that the covenant of grace has not one but two parts: not merely God’s promissio [promise] to be the God of Abraham and his seed, but that promise on the condition (qua conditione) of Abraham’s (and our) repromissio [repromising] to walk before Him and be perfect. Simply put, God’s covenantal blessings are contingent upon our faith and obedience. It is to those who repent, believe, and are baptized that He reconciles Himself and binds Himself in covenant.[1]

What we see in Olevianus’s theology, according to Bierma, is a schema of salvation that is contingent upon the elect’s doing their part, as it were. In other words, what binds salvation together in the Federal scheme is not only the act of God, but the act of the elect; an act that is ensured to be acted upon by the absolute decree (absolutum decretum). The ground of salvation involves, then, God’s act and humanity’s response; the objective (or de jure) side is God’s, the subjective (or de facto) side is the elect’s—a quid pro quo framework for understanding salvation. What this inevitability leads to, especially when getting into issues of assurance of salvation, is for the elect to turn inward to themselves as the subjective side of salvation is contingent upon their ‘faith and obedience.’

Thomas F. Torrance, patron saint of evangelical Calvinists like me, rightly objects to this type of juridical and transactional and/or bilateral understanding of salvation. Paul Molnar, TF Torrance scholar par excellence, describes Torrance’s rejection of Federal theology this way and for these reasons:

Torrance’s objections to aspects of the “Westminster theology” should be seen together with his objection to “Federal Theology”. His main objection to Federal theology is to the ideas that Christ died only for the elect and not for the whole human race and that salvation is conditional on our observance of the law. The ultimate difficulty here that one could “trace the ultimate ground of belief back to eternal divine decrees behind the back of the Incarnation of God’s beloved Son, as in a federal concept of pre-destination, [and this] tended to foster a hidden Nestorian Torrance between the divine and human natures in the on Person of Jesus Christ, and thus even to provide ground for a dangerous form of Arian and Socinian heresy in which the atoning work of Christ regarded as an organ of God’s activity was separated from the intrinsic nature and character of God as Love” (Scottish Theology, p. 133). This then allowed people to read back into “God’s saving purpose” the idea that “in the end some people will not actually be saved”, thus limiting the scope of God’s grace (p. 134). And Torrance believed they reached their conclusions precisely because they allowed the law rather than the Gospel to shape their thinking about our covenant relations with God fulfilled in Christ’s atonement. Torrance noted that the framework of Westminster theology “derived from seventeenth-century federal theology formulated in sharp contrast to the highly rationalised conception of a sacramental universe of Roman theology, but combined with a similar way of thinking in terms of primary and secondary causes (reached through various stages of grace leading to union with Christ), which reversed the teaching of Calvin that it is through union with Christ first that we participate in all his benefits” (Scottish Theology, p. 128). This gave the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “a very legalistic and constitutional character in which theological statements were formalised at times with ‘almost frigidly logical definiton’” (pp. 128-9). Torrance’s main objection to the federal view of the covenant was that it allowed its theology to be dictated on grounds other than the grace of God attested in Scripture and was then allowed to dictate in a legalistic way God’s actions in his Word and Spirit, thus undermining ultimately the freedom of grace and the assurance of salvation that could only be had by seeing that our regenerated lives were hidden with Christ in God. Torrance thought of the Federal theologians as embracing a kind of “biblical nominalism” because “biblical sentences tend to be adduced out of their context and to be interpreted arbitrarily and singly in detachment from the spiritual ground and theological intention and content” (p. 129). Most importantly, they tended to give biblical statements, understood in this way, priority over “fundamental doctrines of the Gospel” with the result that “Westminster theology treats biblical statements as definitive propositions from which deductions are to be made, so that in their expression doctrines thus logically derived are given a categorical or canonical character” (p. 129). For Torrance, these statements should have been treated, as in theScots Confession, in an “open-structured” way, “pointing away from themselves to divine truth which by its nature cannot be contained in finite forms of speech and thought, although it may be mediated through them” (pp. 129-30). Among other things, Torrance believed that the Westminster approach led them to weaken the importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity because their concept of God fored without reference to who God is in revelation led them ultimately to a different God than the God of classical Nicene theology (p. 131). For Barth’s assessment of Federal theology, which is quite similar to Torrance’s in a number of ways, see CD IV/1, pp. 54-66.[2]

And here is how Brouwer describes Barth’s feeling on Federal theology, with particular reference to another founder of Federal theology, Johannes Cocceius. Brouwer writes of Barth:

Barth writes ‘For the rest you shall enjoy Heppe’ s Locus xiii only with caution. He has left too much room for the leaven of federal theology. It was not good, when the foedus naturae was also called a foedus operum’. In Barth’ s eyes, the notion of a relationship between God and Adam as two contractual partners in which man promises to fulfil the law and God promises him life eternal in return, is a Pelagian one that should not even be applied to the homo paradisiacus. Therefore,

one has to speak of the foedus naturae in such a way that one has nothing to be ashamed of when one speaks of the foedus gratiae later on, and, conversely, that one does not have to go to the historians of religion, but rather in such a way that one can say the same things in a more detailed and powerful way in the new context of the foedus gratiae, which is determined by the contrast between sin and grace. For there is re vera only one covenant, as there is only one God. The fact that Cocceius and his followers could not and would not say this is where we should not follow them – not in the older form, and even less in the modern form.

 In this way paragraph ends as it began: the demarcation of sound theology from federal theology in its Cocceian shape is as sharp as it was before. Nevertheless, the attentive reader will notice that the category of the covenant itself is ‘rescued’ for Barth’ s own dogmatic thinking.[3]

For Barth, as for Torrance, as for me, the problem with Federal theology is that it assumes upon various wills of God at work at various levels determined by the absolute decree. The primary theological problem with this, as the stuff we read from Torrance highlights, is that it ruptures the person and work of God in Christ from Christ; i.e. it sees Jesus, the eternal Logos, as merely an instrument, not necessarily related to the Father, who carries out the will of God on behalf of the elect in fulfilling the conditions of the covenant of works ratifying the covenant of grace. Yet, even in this establishment of the Federal framework, salvation is still not accomplished for the elect; it is contingent upon the faith and obedience of those who will receive salvation, which finally brings to completion the loop of salvation in the Federal schema.

These are serious issues, that require sober reflection; more so than we will be able to do in a little blog post. At the very least I am hopeful that what we have sketched from various angles will be sufficient to underscore what’s at stake in these types of depth theological issues, and how indeed theology, like Federal theology offers, can impact someone’s Christian spirituality if in fact said theology is grasped and internalized; i.e. it is understood beyond academic reflection, and understood existentially as it impacts the psychology and well being of human beings coram Deo.

 

[1] Lyle D. Bierma, German Calvinism in the Confessional Age: The Covenant Theology of Caspar Olevianus, 64-68.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity,  181-2 fn. 165.

[3] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 112-13.

Miscellanies on the Thomist Intellectualist Tradition and its Impact on Reformed Theology

westminster

Something that I don’t think most Reformed theologians, whether yet budding, or senior are all that concerned with or cognizant of is the role that their respective anthropology plays in their theological prolegomena. I would say that most if not almost all of North American (and Western) Protestant Reformed theologies are funded by thinkers who are committed, in one form or another, to what is called an intellectualist anthropology. The originator of this type of anthropology, for Christian theological consumption, is most prominently, Thomas Aquinas; indeed Norman Fiering, in his index of medievally derived anthropologies, calls Thomas’s anthropology Thomist intellectualist—which would be a general label for anyone who receives Thomas’s intellectualist anthropology after him, in one way or the other. Here is how Aquinas describes the centrality of the ‘intellect’ or reason as definitive for what it means to be human:

In the original integrated state of man reason controlled our lower powers perfectly and God perfected the reason subordinated to him. This state was lost to us by Adam’s sin, and the resulting lack of order among the powers of our soul that incline us to virtue we call a wounding of nature. Ignorance is a wound in reason’s response to truth, wickedness in will’s response to good; weakness wounds the response of our aggressive emotions to challenge and difficulty, and disordered desire our affections’ reasonable and balanced response to pleasure. All sins inflict these four wounds blunting reason’s practical sense, hardening the will against good, increasing the difficulty of acting well and inflaming desire.[1]

For Thomas, the intellect, in a faculty psychology, is the defining component of what it means to be human. As we can see from his Summa Thomas does not believe that, during the fall, the ‘intellect’ was touched[2], instead it is only the ‘disordered desire [of] our affections’ that corrupts the rest of our humanity; as such the mind/intellect becomes central to what it means to be human relative to God as ultimate mind/intellect and Creator.

Ron Frost develops this further, and the impact this type of intellectualist anthropology had on the theology/soteriology of Post Reformed orthodox theologian William Perkins:

… William Perkins was answering the question of how God reaches humanity—the relation of grace to nature—by reengaging Thomas Aquinas’s thirteenth-century cooperative approach to salvation. Aquinas, with Aristotle, believed that morality is determined by the will, so that virtue is gained by making the virtuous choice. In its Christian expression the human will must be engaged in a saving choice to believe. But Aquinas also held, with Augustine, that the will is crippled by sin. Aquinas’s solution was to synthesize the moral axiom of Aristotle and Augustine’s axiom of disability: God places a newly created gift of grace in the souls of the elect that enables the will to operate once again. By this means of gracious enabling the will receives the necessary power to embrace salvation by an act of faith. This enabling “habit of grace” allows a person to make the saving decision, a decision God crowns with merit.

This cooperative scheme featured the human and divine wills working together, with the mind using the information offered by God. When the will has a set of operations set before it, its challenge is to overcome distracting affections. The greater power of the properly informed will, the greater its ability to defeat faulty passions. The act of believing is thus the premier work of the will, and is only accomplished by the prevenient enabling grace God provides.[3]

It is the mind/intellect that is given primacy in Perkins’s theological anthropology, and we can see (as reported by Frost) how this gets cashed out in Perkins’s soteriology.

Perkins was not alone, he was simply expressing what was common fare among the Post Reformation Protestant scholastic theology he was a part of during his period of history. Richard Muller speaks to the reality of this Thomist intellectualist tradition as he describes Arminius’s context as a theologian of his time:

The enlightenment of the intellect that draws man spiritually into final union with God leads to the “enlargement” of the will “from the inborn agreement of the will the intellect, and the analogy implanted in both, according to which the understanding extends itself to acts of volition, in the very proportion that it understands and knows.” Arminius, in summary, places himself fully into the intellectualist tradition.

What is more, Arminius’ argument for the priority of intellect in the final vision of God perfectly reproduces the classic intellectualist thesis of Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, intellect is higher or nobler than will inasmuch as the intellect does not merely address an object that is external to itself (as does the will) but, in addressing the object, also in some sense receives the object into itself and possesses in itself the form of the object. In the final vision of God, according to Aquinas, the soul has direct vision of the divine essence that is higher and nobler than the will’s love of God.

The juxtaposition of an intellectualist philosophical perspective with a practical orientation in Arminius’ theology represents, as noted earlier, a significant departure from the major medieval paradigms and a use of the scholastic past that is best characterized as eclectic. Praxis is, typically, associated with love and will, speculatio or contemplatio with intellect: the intellectualist model will, therefore, advocate a theology that is either primarily or utterly contemplative while the voluntarist model will define theology as primarily or utterly practical. Thus Aquinas assumes that theology is primarily contemplative whereas Scotus defines theology as practical. The Reformed tended toward a compromise that respect the balance of intellect and will but recognized the underlying soteriological issue as voluntaristic and, therefore, defined theology as both speculative and practical with emphasis on the practical….[4]

An Evangelical Calvinist Response

As we have just surveyed—I fear too fragementedly—what was predominate in Post Reformed orthodox theology was a mind/will centered anthropology that reflects (through an analogy of being) upon who God is conceived to be in this frame. The intellectualist tradition presumes that God as eternal ‘being’ implicates (as reflection as it were) what it means to be human being; and thus reasoning from the effect back to the cause, the intellectualist tradition believes that what it means to be God is someone who exists a se as a big intellect. This shapes the way classically Reformed (inclusive of Arminians) thinkers think of God, and it follows then that ‘feeling’ or ‘movement’ in God, which love presupposes upon, is simply an anthropopathism; in other words, love is not real, in an ontological sense. What defines God is something like an ultimate-Spock like being of existence, as such this God relates to humanity in a God-world relation in very impersonal ways (like through decrees).

The evangelical Calvinist after Barth and Torrance, on the other hand, does not think of God from within an intellectualist speculative tradition. Instead evangelical Calvinists along with Athanasius think it is better to think God, and as consequent, theological anthropology, from the eternal relation of Father-Son revealed by the Holy Spirit in Christ in the incarnation of the Son. As Athanasius famously asserts, “Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.” Evangelical Calvinists don’t attempt to think God from an analogy of being (analogia entis) in and from an abstract humanity; we think God from a center in God, in His Self-exegesis in the Son, Jesus Christ.

As we have illustrated in this post, if someone is committed to an intellectualist anthropology and tradition it gets cashed out in interesting ways; particularly with reference to how a thinker conceives of God, and how salvation is understood and given shape after that conception of God. As is the case in all instances, how God is conceived in the first order, will have subsequent and second order consequences for every other theological loci following.

I am afraid I have only started to pull on a whole bunch of threads all at once in this post, but I wanted to start pulling those threads so that maybe someone’s curiosity might be piqued to the point of doing further research themselves. I realize this post has a kind of palpable incoherence to it, but I am simply wanting to provide soundings for you as you come to realize that there are alternative traditions available to you, even in the Reformed world of thought.

What evangelical Calvinism does is to eschew thinking from a center within an abstract humanity; in other words we repudiate the idea that there is an analogy of being between God and humanity. There is no point of contact, then, between God and humanity from whence God can be conceived of apart from God’s own Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. If this is true, evangelical Calvinists have the advantage of the ground of all theological grammar, anthropology, and worship being the Triune life of God itself as ‘mediated’ to humanity in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. We do not have to think God from a faculty psychology as the ground of being from whence we think God. We can eschew thinking God from the accidents and effects that we discover and observe in the created order[5], and instead think directly of God, mediated in the hidden-ness of God in the humanity of God enfleshed in Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Concise Translation, 270-71.

[2] This is an important point because it keeps it keeps the imago Dei intact, and an analogy of being can be interconnected between God’s being (who is ultimate intellect) and human being (who is penultimate intellect).

[3] Ronald N. Frost, “The Bruised Reed: By Richard Sibbes (1577–1635),” in The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics, eds. Kelly M. Kapic and Randall C. Gleason (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 88-9.

[4] Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991), 78-9.

[5] See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 7.: “. . . the proposition that “God exists” is self evident in itself, for, as we shall see later, its subject and predicate are identical, since God is his own existence. But, because what it is to be God is not evident to us, the proposition is not self-evident to us, and needs to be made evident. This is done by means of things which, though less evident in themselves, are nevertheless more evident to us, by means, namely of God’s effects.”