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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Steve Duby, source.

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

Barth’s ‘Actualism’, The Fund that Allows His Theology to be Genuinely Protestant versus [c]atholic: The Scripture Principle

The following represents the sort of “metaphysic” I follow, in regard to a God-world relation. It flows from Barth’s style of actualism, and as you will see, it coheres with his stance contra natural theology. If there is anything, beyond election (and these things are related), that has attracted me most to Barth’s theology, it is this actualist alternative to the theological ontology that funds the various classical theisms. In order to understand what I am referring to, if you don’t, we will read along with Darren Sumner, as he describes Barth’s actualism. The following comes from Darren’s published PhD dissertation entitled Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God.

Barth’s methodology thus follows from his doctrine of revelation: there is no creaturely basis for theological speech, which is only speech after God, who summons creatures to an act of repetition in witnessing to His Word. This task thus  begins not with philosophical presuppositions, nor with the creature’s speculation or erection of descriptive categories by which revelation might be understood, but with the event of God’s activity in history—an activity to which Scripture is witness and that has its telos the very presence of God in Jesus Christ. While this may seem self-evident to Christian theologians, Barth’s theology demonstrates the real and radical consequences of strictly adhering to such a method—and thus exposes the tradition’s occasional failures to engage in its task from this starting point and no other.

But because revelation is the utterance of a Word that is God Himself, this epistemology has further ontological implications. Barth’s actualistic ontology describes not only revelation but also the being of God in His activity, over against that which is regarded as a speculative essentialism—that is, a God who exists logically prior to and apart from His works. God is therefore not one who acts, but is His activity. God exists in motion, a motion that springs from the abundance of God’s love and is directed toward creatures. God’s being is pure act—a classically Augustinian way of speaking of divine simplicity and aseity, but which Barth insists is to be anchored in that one event in which God has actually made Himself known to creatures. “God is” means “God loves,” and all further insights about who God is must revolve around this mystery of His loving. Such an ontology suggests that God is the Lord even of His own existence, because God sovereignly wills the activity by which He determines His being. (Thus Barth located election within his doctrine of God, not in creation or reconciliation.) God’s self-determination to be God for creatures—the God of the covenant (Lev. 26.12–13)—has the incarnation of the Son as its fulfillment.

Actualism therefore identifies both Barth’s methodology and divine ontology because revelation and reconciliation are interdependent. Revelation is reconciliation, and vice versa. Revelation is, further, God’s own self-disclosure, which is to say that in Christ God has communicated His own divine life and not merely information about Himself. As Wolfhart Pannenberg put the matter: “The Revealer and what is revealed are identical. God is as much the subject, the author of his self-revelation, as he is its content.” Therefore the Christ event, the divine-human life of Jesus, “belongs to the essence of God himself.” The theological speech of men and women, therefore, must remain continuously attentive to the history of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the covenant. Each aspect—God’s self-giving to creatures in revelation and reconciliation, and God’s own, inner life—is in the dynamic movement of act and giving, never in fixed form.[1]

This articulation from Darren helps to reinforce what I have been presenting here at the blog for many years. This is why it is rather hard to bring Barth’s theology, and the classical theistic theology being retrieved by so many up-and-coming theologians in the evangelical churches into relief. There is a distinct theological ontology—an ontology that is explicitly shaped by dynamic relational characteristics versus those offered up by the ‘substance’ metaphysics imbibed by reference to classical Greek philosophers—that left unrecognized will stymie any sort of fruitful rapprochement, or at least some semblance of dialogue between the theologians.

More applicably: For me personally, Barth’s actualism works much better with the God we come up against in encounter with Him in Holy Scripture. The God we encounter, in Christ, is indeed, the only face of God that the Christian actually knows. We don’t know a prior God to the God that we have met in Jesus Christ. The Christian’s concept of God, particularly the Protestant’s, is grounded in the reality we meet narrated to us through the pages of Scripture. This is why we can say that Barth’s theology is genuinely Protestant in orientation; while he is working constructively with the tradition, and the so called Chalceonian settlement, his primary norm is what is taught in Scripture. But in order to genuinely value this, the Protestant must indeed be committed to semper reformanda in the sense that the organicism of Scripture’s reality (res) gets to shape the categories and emphases through which God is known. All too often, precisely because many Protestants want to cull the ‘catholic’ heritage, what is abandoned, in function, is this sort of principial commitment to Scripture as the norming norm. These sorts of Protestants end up truncating Scripture by reference to the ecumenical creeds, thus disallowing Scripture (signum) and its reality (res) to provide primary shape for how the Christian thinks God.

Much more could be said, but actualism, and Barth’s style of it as applied to a doctrine of God in Christ, undercuts the sort of theological essentialism that defines the various classical theistic traditions and retrievals currently underway. It undercuts precisely at the point that he is attempting to understand who God is by encountering God afresh and anew in Holy Scripture, and allowing that to be the canon by which all other permutations—no matter what their accrued pedigree—are measured by. Barth’s theological approach is indeed Protestant in the best spirit of that Word; i.e. in the sense that his theology is first and foremost committed to the Protestant Scripture principal. When we look around at the landscape of Reformed theologies in the evangelical theologians today, I would argue that the same can’t be said, ultimately.

 

[1] Darren O. Sumner, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), Loc. 326, 334, 342, 350.

Barth’s ‘Actualism’, The Fund that Allows His Theology to be Genuinely Protestant versus [c]atholic: The Scripture Principle

Closing Loops: How to Think Christianly From a Unity of Knowledge Rather than Profanely From a Duality of Knowledges

Let me double down on some comments I made in my last post (you’ll have to go to the comment thread to read). Philosophy and Theology, in my approach, are two distinct things; as such my theory of knowledge/epistemology is going to necessarily start with a theological ontology (thus repudiating philosophy proper as a non-starting mode for Christian intellection). My theory of knowledge with reference to God, and thus all of reality implicated, will start with the doctrine of the primacy of Jesus Christ and his antecedent reality as the Logos asarkos in the Triune life. In other words, the ‘ground’ of knowledge, for me, is rooted in the reality that creation’s inner reality is the covenant of God’s gracious life to not be God without us but with us; as such, there isn’t a speckle of creation that moves and breathes outwith God’s breath and domain in Christ. These commitments necessarily supplant any notion of naturum purum (pure nature), or of abstract human agents as ontic units of their own. In other words, human agents, in my view, because of my theological commitments have no Pelagian, no morally neutral position from whence they might  find capaciousness to cognize; viz. from my view human beings either think from ‘the kingdom of darkness’ or ‘the Kingdom of the Son of His love’ (cf. Col. 1.13). Human agents, by definition vis-à-vis God are contingent dyadic (v monadic) beings who have an ontology (and thus regnant epistemology) outsourced to them either by God or by an incurved enslavement to a faux-possessed self. All of the above means that God’s Self-Revelation, God’s Self-Exegesis (cf. Jn 1.18) is the space wherein all genuine knowledge of the living God is given; given as pure gift, and gift over and again, moment by moment as the heart beats as the Spirit is shed abroad.

Let me close this brief précis by quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer (h/t Paul Hinlicky Paths Not Taken, p. 59):

The division of the total reality into a sacred and profane sphere, a Christian and a secular sphere, creates the possibility of existence in a single one of these spheres, a spiritual existence which has no part in secular existence, and a secular existence which can claim autonomy for itself and can exercise this right of autonomy in dealings with the spiritual sphere. The monk and the 19th century Protestant secularist typify these two possibilities . . . the modern age is characterized by an ever increasing independence of the secular in its relation with the spiritual . . . [even though] it is quite certain that [thinking in terms of two spheres] is in profound contradiction to the thought of the Bible and to the thought of the Reformation, which think of one world created and redeemed in Jesus Christ.[1]

I guess I’m finding it hard to shed my modern location. As such theologians who are cognizant of the challenges that the modern presents—even if that presentation is bankrupt—still impinges upon my own anxieties. Even so, while we often demarcate periods into periods it is not as if there aren’t common themes that dissect all periods of human being. Indeed, the Patristics fought the Hellenists by flipping the Hellenists on their heads even while using Hellenic forms to produce new forms as if there was a new world of resurrection where such sui generis forms were possible; a world where reversal of the old world has become normative. These sorts of paradigms have marched on throughout every period. Barth contra Kant represents an example of someone flipping the Teutonic on its head using it against itself; reifying its forms under the pressures found in the new creation and the eschatos of God’s life in Jesus Christ. These battles, for those involved actively in the church militant will continue. Why not become active?

 

 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. N.H. Smith (New York: Macmillan, 1978), 196-97.

Closing Loops: How to Think Christianly From a Unity of Knowledge Rather than Profanely From a Duality of Knowledges

No to the ‘Just Is’ God: Knowing God in Fulfillment Rather than Promise; Knowing God as Christians Rather than as Pre-Christian Christians

Classical theism, particularly of the medieval and post reformed orthodox (16th and 17th c.) style operates from a rather discursive notion of God. We might come to imagine that we just do know God; that is if we press our powers enough and rely heavily enough upon the yet unintroduced Holy Spirit in our lives. It is from this posture that many classical theists pick up their Bibles, at least of the Protestant sort, and just think that the God they have come to accept as their personal Lord (soli Deo gloria) starts out as God for them in Genesis 1:1 and linearly eventuates through the turns and eddies of salvation-history as the Savior they have met in Jesus Christ. It is upon this type of basis—as I have severely oversimplified it—that many classical theists operate from a just is assertive posture about God’s existence and their relative knowledge of this God (aided by the creative quality of grace each of the elect have in the accidents of their souls).

We have covered this ground on this blog a million times; I know! But I want to reiterate it again. I cannot get over how significant this is; viz. how we have knowledge of God, and which God we actually have knowledge of. If we get this most basic point wrong then everything else following will have the shape of how wrong we are or how right we are; in the sense that the God we believe we’ve come to know is actually the real and living God or not. What I am after—always—even as dramatic as I’ve just painted it has to do with prolegomena (or theological method and how that is given pre-Dogmatic shape by the God we believe we’ve come to know). Do creatures just have an implicit knowledge or sense of God; or is knowledge of God something completely and utterly and absolutely alien to us; is knowledge of God in its most intensive and principial modes something that is fully contingent upon God encountering us? More pointedly, is knowledge of God something that we can principally call Christian Knowledge of God?

Here is what I think (you know this): I only have come to know God, in my Christian experience and realization through the Son, Jesus Christ. As such my knowledge of God, even in the Old Testament, does not have an abstract character to it, instead it always already has a Christ conditioned character to it. My knowledge of God, as a Christian, never was generic; my knowledge of God has always been filled out by the illumination that has come from my position as a Christian in union with Christ (unio cum Christo). So I didn’t come to the God of the Old Testament without the Son; I’ve only come to God, as a Christian, within the fulfillment of the promises made about him as the new creation of God in the vicarious and mediatorial humanity he assumed in the incarnation. As such my knowledge of God is not from a hypothetical space as if I was born a Jew in the ancient near east; my knowledge of God, as a Christian, at a definitional and prescriptive level comes bound up in the man from Nazareth. If this is the case we have, what I would like to call, a ‘retroactive recognition’ and knowledge of God; meaning that as Christians we don’t read God linearly from Genesis 1:1, instead we read God starting in the reality of John 1:1 and understand God, even in the Old Testament, only as the Father of the Son and the Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit.

If the above is true then a just is knowledge of God, of the sort that we find in many classical theisms does not make sense as a genuinely Christian mode for knowledge of God. For the Christian, in principle, there has never been a generic starting point for knowledge of God; there has never been a time where we, as a Christian, would pick up the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible and think of God in any other terms as the Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit, as if we could think of God in a time before (in salvation-history terms) we first knew him as the God who first loved us in the Son, Christ, that we might love him. We wouldn’t have the motivation or care to read the Old Testament and think God in personal and relational terms without first having relationship with this God as the Father of the Son Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit. But this is the route so many classical theists of the classical type want us to take in our knowledge of God. I don’t want to take this route; I don’t think it’s consistent with my position as a Christian. In other words, my knowledge of God as a Christian is necessarily what it is precisely because I am a Christian. As such the knowledge of God I have access to is fully and contingent upon his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. As a Christian I don’t have another way, no churchly way, and no profane way of knowing God. God is either Self-explicated for us or he is explicated as is by us in abstraction from his Self-explication. There is no just is God; there is only the God for us that we know through Jesus Christ as the Son of the Father Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit. If this is so we can’t have a refracted knowledge of God that beams off of Scripture as if we meet God in the promises; no, our knowledge of God only comes to us in the fulfillment of the promises, in the seed of David, Jesus Christ. This does things to theological methodology, and subsequently to Christian spirituality.

No to the ‘Just Is’ God: Knowing God in Fulfillment Rather than Promise; Knowing God as Christians Rather than as Pre-Christian Christians