The Babylonian Captivity: The Church Programmed by the Culture Makers Rather than sola Scriptura

In one of Martin Luther’s famous treatises he speaks of the church’s Babylonian Captivity. In his context this was in reference to the way the Gospel (and thus the church) had become conditioned to be what it was, programmed is even better, to imagine that the way people had been told things are by the Church, simply was the way it is. The people, en masse, had no real critical resource to imagine that what they had been told might not be the case; that the Gospel reality, and the Church of Jesus Christ might be much different than what they had been led to believe by their authorities (the magisteria of the Roman church). They simply lived in a world that was shaped by propaganda that led them into a captivity they believed simply was normal life. But Luther, following in the steps of the ad fontes (back to the sources!) movement, largely fostered by Lorenzo Valla et al., began to read the New Testament Greek afresh and anew. In Luther’s case, as he did this, he came to realize that what the church had programmed him to believe about God and the Gospel simply was not the case. As many of us know his story, he was an Augustinian monk living a tortured faith, believing that God could only be angry with him because he was such a dreadful sinner. As the church had taught him, the iustitia Dei (God’s righteousness), and the iustitia Christi (Christ’s righteousness), or the merits won by Christ for those who, by an infusion of faith, through created grace, dispensed by the sacraments of the church, were able to perdue in a way that they might finally merit Christ’s righteousness for them, thus allowing them to meet God’s righteousness, resulting in an eternal reward of beatific vision. This was what Luther agonized under, until at the direction of his spiritual father, Johann von Staupitz, he found the truth of the Gospel held captive in the pages of the New Testament, breaking free as it mediated him to the Mediator between God and humanity, Jesus Christ. Luther had a break through! He was finally able to imagine a conception of God that was outside the walls of the cell the church had built for him, and so many, for the centuries.

We are not unlike Luther back then. As North American (Western) Christians we live in a secular and post-secular world that programs us to think in narrow bounded terms informed by a meta-narrative that proclaims the evangel of humanity’s ability to live like gods; to live the way we want; to live under the dictates of what our desires tell us are the true and the beautiful and the good. The people narrating for us have become our authorities. They are the magisteria for us, just as the Romish religion was for the late mediaeval world that Luther and the people of that time were for them. We might not recognize our ‘social engineers’ this way, indeed, we wouldn’t even want to think, particularly as American Christians, that we might be being programmed by others in a way that comes close to the authorities of Luther’s day. But as Luther once noted: ““It is not unusual in the world for villains and rascals to occupy every office and station in society and to abuse it.” Christians seem to have a hard time admitting that they could be held captive by a cultural conditioning that comes close to resembling the sort of outright programming the mediaeval world had in the ex-cathedra of Rome. If this is you, or if you know of the types I am are referring to, maybe you ought to think again.

Kevin Vanhoozer, to my delight, hits upon these very themes in his new little book: Hearers & Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine. The section we will hear from him is him attempting to convict pastors, and Christians in general, to become alive to the idea that maybe, just maybe, they have become captivated by a type of Babylonian reality that has programmed them, and thus quenched their capacity to imagine that the world and reality of Holy Scripture, could in fact be the more concrete and real world; and that the vanilla status quo world they have come to think of as real and comfortable, or even just manageable, might not be the real world at all. As Vanhoozer notes, people, might be okay with affirming Scripture as God’s Word, but then function in ways that betrays this because they have become ensnared by the secular world that is indeed anti-Christ and anti-thetical to what Christian’s affirm about the Bible. Vanhoozer writes:

Holy Scripture and the Disciple’s Imagination

As I mentioned above, many churches are suffering from malnourished imaginations, captive to culturally conditioned pictures of the good life. Chapter 2 focused on wellness, health, and fitness, but these are only symptomatic of other things that have dominated the social imaginary, like celebrity, wealth, and social power. Christians want to believe the Bible—they do believe it and are prepared to defend doctrinal truth—but they nevertheless find themselves unable to see or feel their world in biblical terms (“I believe; help my unbelief!” Mark 9:24). Consequently, they experience a disconnect between the world they actually inhabit and the world of the biblical text whose truth they confess. Their professions of faith are out of whack with their lived practices. If faith’s influence is waning, then it is largely because of a failure of the evangelical imagination to connect the biblical and cultural dots. Pastors can help, especially by reminding their congregations again and again what the Bible is and what it is for: Sola Scriptura is a shorthand way of doing this insofar as it reminds us that Scripture alone should exercise supreme authority over Christian faith and life, including the imagination.

In his essay “The Demise of Biblical Civilization,” historian Grant Wacker claims that during the twentieth century, the average American did not renounce the Bible but simply stopped using it as the primary plausibility structure with which to make sense of the world. People began to understand the meaning of events in terms of this-worldly historical processes rather than in terms of divine providence. The demise of biblical civilization was a failure of the imagination to read our world in terms of God’s word. The demise of biblical civilization is related to the replacement of sola Scriptura in the social imaginary of the West by other stories.

Christian imaginations are captive to nonbiblical stories that do not lead us to Christ and thus fail to nourish our souls. We need to call these stories out and expose their shortcomings, for there is no other gospel (Gal 1:7). We cannot hide behind orthodox theology and pretend that we are invulnerable to the cultural programming that is happening to us 24/7. We need to know that the church is in competition with the powers and principalities that are trying to capture our imagination, and from thence our body, heart, and soul.

The gospel, especially the dramatic announcement that God has raised Jesus from the dead, sets the captive imagination free. What we might call the “evangelical” imagination—an imagination ruled by the story of the gospel—frees us to see, judge, and act in faith, in accordance with the way things really are rather than the way secular science or Madison Avenue say they are. It is all those other words and all that noise in contemporary culture that disorient and deserve to be called vain imaginings. The evangelical imagination alone opens up the real possibility of living along the grain of reality: according to what is really the case “in Christ.”[1]

The Christian mind and heart are largely in captivity to the Babylonian culture we inhabit. This is a real captivity inhabited by real spiritual dark entities (Eph 6:12) who really do shape and condition and inform people who actively inhabit the ‘kingdom of darkness’ (Col 1:13). Their penetration is deeper, broader, and more intimate to our daily lives than we could ever begin to imagine; that is outwith our reliance upon and obedience to the reality of Scripture, Jesus Christ. This is why, currently, I am so shocked by people’s willingness to simply believe, as gospel truth, what the culture-makers are telling them. It is as if we are even suspicious about the depths of the coronavirus, and the numbers used to fear people into a lockdown and economic destruction of the sorts that a globalized economy has never seen before, that we are now “coronavirus truthers” (which I was recently called by a PhD in theology on Facebook).

But this is exactly the point, I think of what Vanhoozer is after. The Bible gives the Christian the “social imaginary” to think that the world we inhabit is indeed intent on conditioning us with messaging that forms us into its image. Once we become captive to this messaging, once we are thoroughly shaped by this world’s kingdom, we no longer have the spiritual capacity to imagine that something very sinister is in control of this ‘evil age’; and that that is not some abstraction, but in fact is something the enlightened civilized West is held captive to in ways that make the Canannites of old look tame. This is how what Vanhoozer is getting impacts me. I look out at a world, a “Christian” world that is consumed by materialism, and its perceived capacity to master the elements for its own purposes and creature comforts. This is the way of the nihilist and the demonic, not the via crucis (way of the cross). I’m afraid that pastors and Christians reading Vanhoozer will walk away from what he has written with no real felt sense of the depth of what the world is up against; and thus we will not have an urgency about just how needed the power of God, which is the Gospel, is needed to confront and contradict the powers and principalities that seek to suck off the world, at all costs, to its final drop.

This is why I have been so vocal about the “coronavirus,” and the messaging promoting it. It is part of the same Deus ex Machina that has been programming us for years. The Bible’s reality allows us to critically, other-worldedly, see things that this world system, and those in its clutches cannot see. But the church has become too much of this programmed world to even begin to see this. This present misinformation scam on the world will result in real life doom and destruction, and the church will simply sit there and bow the knee to its caesars; not Jesus Christ. This is a deep and broad Babylonian captivity. I pray many in the churches will be able to wake up, through the lens of Holy Scripture, and see what is for what it is. Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Hearers & Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 109-10.

Irenaeus’ Theology of the Cross Contra Our Theology of Glory and Self-Worship

Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, Let not the mighty man glory in his might, Nor let the rich man glory in his riches; But let him who glories glory in this, That he understands and knows Me, That I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the Lord. –Jeremiah 9.23-4

Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him. –I Corinthians 8.1-3

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. I Corinthians 13.1-2

If anyone knows me, I am not against gaining knowledge; even intricate knowledge when it comes to knowing God. I am all for growing into the depth dimension reality that our ineffable God is in Himself. I believe most Christians, particularly when they have abundant means to do so, who don’t work at growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ are lazy (at best) and engaging in the sin of ἀκηδία or acedia. That said the other extreme of this is present mostly among those of us who would be labeled ‘academic’ or maybe even ‘scholastic’ in orientation. It was this class of people that Martin Luther largely had in his sights when he thought of a theologia gloriae or ‘theology of glory.’ These were the clerical class, and theologians who sought approval, not of God, but of other men; ironically in the so called pursuit of God. Luther disdained this sort of theological spirituality, and I would suggest this disdain was in direct echo of Christ’s heart in Luther’s.

God wants us to know Him deeply, but if we equate that with our credentials as Christians, and how those give us status within the church, God hates this; it represents the sort of lukewarm and beguiling state that Jesus, in the book of Revelation, says sickens Him. At some level, one way or the other, as Christians, we all dip in and out of this sort of self-centered sort of Christianity; it is the constant battle between the flesh and the Spirit (cf. Gal 5.17). Unfortunately, where this sort of ‘centeredness’ flourishes, and even has been institutionalized, is within theological higher learning. For those pursuing careers in this field, it is required of them to earn terminal degrees; write peer reviewed essays, book chapters, and books; and build a curriculum vitae that blows the socks off the nearest competitor. When all of this is built into becoming a professor, editor, dean of a seminary or university, so on and so forth, it becomes almost impossible to fight the good fight and not give into the flight of fancies that all of our hearts and minds play on us. When ‘glory’ is built into career status, or even more brutishly, into plain old intellectual standing among one’s peers, the game is almost lost before it even gets started. Irenaeus knew this, a towering Christian intellect of his day, and so he penned the following:

It’s better, and brings greater benefit, to be a simple, uneducated man or woman, and to become akin to God through love, than to be well-read and clever (in our own conceited opinion) and to blaspheme the God who made us, by making up some imaginary God and Father of our own. As Paul cries out, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). Not that Paul wished to condemn himself. But he knew that some people fall away from God’s love by making conceited pretensions to knowledge, imagining themselves to have found some sort of perfection — and then proclaiming a Creator who is less than perfect! To strike down the self-importance in which these folk wall through their so-called knowledge, Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

There can be no notion more self-conceited than this — to imagine that you are better and more perfect than God who created you, formed you, put the breath of life into you, and decreed that you should exist. What good will it do you to have knowledge even of a single reason why anything in creation was made, if you then become proudly puffed-up with this kind of knowledge, and fall away from God’s love which is the very life of the human soul? Far better to believe in God and keep yourself in His love. We should seek no other knowledge but the knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who for our sakes was crucified, rather than go downhill into ungodliness through super-smart inquiries and nit-picking explanations.[1]

May God in Christ have mercy on us all! We are all prone to wandering into self-incurved worship rather than worshipping the only true and living God. Without God we are as Calvin said (paraphrase) idol manufacturers; and as Feuerbach opined in his own way, we, as a people, self-project our image onto the heavens and see that as God. May we only see God, as we only can see God, in the prosopon or face of Christ; herein the glory of God is on full and cheerful display.

[1] Irenaeus, cited by Nick Needham, Daily Readings: The Early Church Fathers (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2017).

What Hath Thomist-Intellectualist Anthropology To Do With Barthian Anti-Natural Theology?

For me, natural theology continues to be one of the most significant theological loci that the Christian thinker must (and ought to) consider. If you have read me for any length of time you know that I am severely opposed to natural theology; in particular, so called: Christian natural theology. If I ever actually get to write my PhD, I’m thinking it will finally be something oriented around this issue; with particular focus on a theory of revelation (as the broader consideration). This is a matter of what is called prolegomena. When the reader opens up a typical systematic theology book, the author of that book will have laid out the method, rationale, and structure she or he seeks to follow as they develop their theology. Most often, when reading evangelical and Reformed systematicians, and their respective theologies, they will have adopted the classical theistic mode of natural theology (Thomas Aquinas is their homeboy, most typically).

Very simply, if you don’t know by now, natural theology is the belief that a generic god concept can be discovered (by just about anybody), and then deployed, by way of synthesis, as the shape and grammar by which whatever god the theologian is seeking to explicate as their chosen god. For the Christian, of course, it is the triune God who is synthesized with these natural categories for knowing God. My contention, along with Karl Barth’s et al., is that this sort of synthesis gives us a tertium quid God, who neither represents the God Self-revealed in Christ, nor the philosopher’s god that the theologian is attempting to synthesize with the Christian God.

Beyond this, Christian theologians who operate in this natural theological mode are making an anthropological move; in regard to the capacity they believe people in general have to think godness. They are presuming upon (either consciously, or not) what Norman Fiering has identified as a Thomist Intellectualist anthropology. Since I don’t have Fiering’s work at hand, I’ll have to rely on Jeffrey Waddington’s summary of Fiering’s description of what this sort of intellectualist (faculty psychology) anthropology entails. Waddington writes, with reference to Fiering:

Historically, this kind of thinking (i.e., where the intellect is given priority over the will) can be seen in what Norman Fiering has labeled “Thomistic-Intellectualism.” The Thomistic-Intellectualistic school, which has typically been traced back to Thomas Aquinas, held that the will was blind and followed the last dictate or judgment of the “practical intellect.” In other words, it is the intellect or judgment that shows the will what is to be accepted or rejected. As such, the will can never be guilty of moral error or corruption. “The will itself is never culpable in the case of moral error, since it only follows the judgment of the intellect. The will as the rational appetite is supposed to govern the lower sensitive appetites, although it may happen that unruly vehement appetites from below will obscure rational judgment and thus influence choice wrongly.” Accordingly, without information from the intellect, “the will is not the will, but a confused appetite.” To summarize the Thomistic-Intellectualistic tradition, we can say with regard to the relationship between the intellect and the will in the human soul, there is a primacy of the intellect in the absolute sense since the will is itself blind. The will, then, must be ruled, governed, or directed by the faculty of the understanding. There is, then, an implied denigration of the will and the other powers.[1]

For our purposes what is important is to recognize the role the intellect plays in defining what in fact the human being is. In Thomas’s schema the intellect didn’t completely fall at the fall. He needs this aspect of humanity to remain intact because it is what he sees as the touchstone between God (as the Big Intellect in the sky), and God’s creatures made in his image. If the intellect would have completely fallen, in the Thomist schema, then the very essence of humanity itself would have been utterly lost; and there would have been no humanity for the Christ to assume in the incarnation; or no humanity to redeem. The intellect, in this schema, as we’ve seen through Fiering’s and Waddington’s analysis, has pride of place as the faculty that controls all others (i.e., will and affections).

Why would I draw this point out in this discussion? Because it speaks to the rationale of why so many retrieving theologians in the 21st century simply recover the natural theology of someone like Aquinas without a thought. They are committed to, whether they acknowledge it or not, this sort of Thomistic-Intellectualistic anthropology that posits that it is within the human being, even if they are fallen and “effectually” unredeemed, to discover and even see ‘God’ embedded within the ratio of the created order. The point: such intellectually capable people have the capacity to make ‘contact’ with truths about God without revelation. It is this schema that funds the flaming approval of natural theology by most of the evangelical and Reformed theologians of our time (although not all Reformed folks affirm natural theologian; there are the Van Tilians, like Waddington and his comrades from Westminster Theological Seminary, who reject natural theology for other reasons). Embedded deep within the fabric of the theologian’s mind, those who are engaging in the “constructive” recovery of the “classical” [Thomistic] theology of the Church, is this belief that the intellect has ‘natural’ powers untouched by the lapse that we read about in Genesis 3.

This brings us to the critique I’ve been attempting to get to throughout this post. Karl Barth has critique galore of this sort of natural theological trumpet blowing being currently engaged in by the evangelical and Reformed theologians of our time. Here he is writing about the seduction, and even the dominance, that natural theology has had for the Church for centuries. As you read this, bear in mind what we just covered in regard to theological anthropology. We pick up with Barth in his Church Dogmatics II/1 §26 in a section entitled: The Readiness of Man. You will notice that Barth is referring to the competition the theologians are in with God’s confronting grace; when they affirm and practice natural theology. He writes:

For has he not now exercised his mastery? Has he not won his battle against grace? If grace is alongside nature, however high above it it may be put, it is obviously no longer the grace of God, but the grace which man himself ascribes to himself. If God’s revelation is alongside a knowledge of God proper to man a such, even though it may never be advanced except as a prolegomenon, it is obviously no longer the revelation of God, but a new expression (borrowed or ever stolen) for the revelation which encounters man in his own reflection. If the miracle acknowledged by man—perhaps an inspired Scripture or an infallible Church—is included in his own reckoning, if it is placed by him alongside the other phenomena of his world, it is obviously no longer the miracle of God, but an astounding element in man’s view of the world and of himself. No supranaturalism which man can choose on this higher rung can hold its own against the fact that in the last resort, as chosen by man, it is only a higher, though masked, naturalism. God’s real revelation simply cannot be chosen by man and, as his own possibility, put beside another, and integrated with it into a system. God’s real revelation is the possibility which man does not have to choose, but by which he must regard himself as chosen without having space and time to come to an arrangement with it within the sphere and according to the method of other possibilities. By treating it as if it does not do the choosing but is something to be chosen, not the unique but just one possibility, Christian natural theology very respectfully and in all humility re-casts revelation into a new form of its own devising. But for all that its behavior is so respectful and forbearing, for all that it subordinates itself so consciously and consistently, natural theology has already conquered it at the very outset, making revelation into non-revelation. This will certainly show itself in what it does with the revelation that has been absorbed and domesticated by it. For the naturalism which already exists in the systematisation of the two possibilities will not leave permanently unmolested the supranaturalism of this higher stage which is at first respected and foreborne.[2]

Even though we won’t arrive at Barth’s doctrine of election until CD II/2, we can already see how that is taking form even in this single paragraph from him. Natural theology, by definition, is natural; that’s what Barth is saying. Natural theology confronts God; this is anti-thetical, for Barth, to revelational theology. Revelational theology confronts humanity in the flesh and blood incarnation of God in Christ.

The reader should also notice how Barth is pressing the seductive nature of a Christian natural theology. Indeed, it is so seductive that its proponents are simply taken in by it, based on the supposition that natural theology is subordinate to the superordinate reality of what has been revealed by God of Himself. As Barth so eloquently identifies: the natural theologian will make this sort of claim all along, but because of their prior commitments to an already capacious and active intellect in the human being, the theologian, under this pressure, is in point of fact, able to surmise God simply from their own natural powers. Once this fatal step has been made, such theologians can no longer make a critical heads or tails of what is special and what is natural; indeed the special has become subordinate to the natural, insofar that the Catholicium or so called ‘Great Tradition’ of the Church has pressed out a concept of godness in its own natural image.

You might see why I think this is such a big deal.

[1] Jeffrey C. Waddington, The Unified Operations of the Human Soul: Jonathan Edwards’s Theological Anthropology and Apologetic (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015), 158. I was first alerted to Fiering’s work by my former seminary professor and mentor, Ron Frost. He develops even further, in his own doctoral work, how the Thomistic-Intellectualistic anthropology suffused most of what we now call the Post Reformation Reformed Orthodoxy of the 16th and 17th centuries, and her scholasticism reformed theologians.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 The Doctrine of God: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 136.

The ‘Golden Calf’ of Foundationalism and Natural Theology: No Other Foundation Laid, But Christ

“For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” I Corinthians 3.11

How seriously do Christians take the above Pauline reality when applied to the ‘discipline’ of epistemology, or the discipline that engages with ‘how we know what we know?’ Often, theologians will speak of general revelation and special revelation, as if the former is an adjunct and even a foundation of the latter. They will assert (as a basic belief) something like: ‘all truth is God’s truth.’ This axiom, as far as it goes, may be true. But, from the Christian perspective it doesn’t necessarily take into account the damage that the ‘fall’ of humanity in the garden has done to the noetic (knowing) capacities in human beings. In other words, it presupposes upon a certain intellectualist anthropology (typically Thomist, or more generally: Aristotelian) that believes that humanity, in order to remain humanity, even after the fall, had to retain some intellectual equipment that would allow it to still see the good God in the created order.[1] This is the intellectual, and intellecualist basis that theologians are presupposing upon in order to presume that such a thing as ‘general revelation’ is actually discoverable in the created order; revelation that is anterior, logically, to being confronted by God’s special revelation revealed in Jesus Christ. So, from this framework, theologians and thinkers who follow this line of thinking, have an external basis that comes as a prius to Christ, that serves as the baseline for supplementing and even identifying the Christ as the eternal Son of God. It is this framework that believes utilizing the god of the philosophers is a legitimate practice, as far as ‘grammarizing’ (providing tools for God-speak) God goes.

I, as an Evangelical Calvinist, am thoroughly opposed to the above practice. If we were to label this practice philosophically it would be called ‘foundationalism.’ I reject such a practice because I believe that no matter how it is qualified it always ends up imposing foreign and prior categories and criterion onto God that are not themselves predicated by God, per se. In short: this is why I reject natural theology so vociferously; along with Karl Barth I consider natural theology, and foundationalism, as a sub-set, as anti-Christ—and I mean this! If we claim to have some prior “general” knowledge of God ever before being confronted by God in His own Self-asserted Self-revelation in Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 1.18), in my estimation, along with Douglas Campbell’s, we are idolaters feasting at the banqueting table of the pagans. I just mentioned Campbell, he follows in line with what TF Torrance calls theological science, kataphysin, and epistemological inversion; or in line with what Karl Barth identifies as analogia fidei (analogy of faith), or as Eberhard Jüngel refines this further in Barth’s theology, as analogia relationis (analogy of relation). At base, all mentioned, along with others (including myself), maintain that the only ground or ‘foundation’ for knowing the eternal and triune God is strictly and exhaustively found in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ! If this Self-attested revelation is not the foundation and parameter for knowing who God is then we have no basis for genuinely claiming or maintaining that we have met the real and living God; that is if we base it on prior self-developed constructs that we claim to have discovered in the natural order (taxis) about the attributes of God. As Torrance presses this, as he describes Barth’s theological approach:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[2]

As corollary with Torrance’s helpful description of these things in Barth’s theology (as well as a helpful summary of TFT’s own approach after Barth), Douglas Campbell writes the following in critique of what he simply identifies as ‘foundationalism’:

A more technical name for the procedure whereby we elevate our own truth criteria over the truth that is God, ultimately to judge God’s truth or falsity, is “foundationalism,” which denotes here our provision of a different foundation for truth from the one that God has laid for us in Jesus, and hence a structure that we ultimately build for ourselves. Foundationalism has a more technical, although related, meaning in modern philosophical discussion, referring primarily to the desire of many thinkers post-Descartes to construct an indubitable basis for knowledge—a foundation in this specific sense. So clearly there is some overlap here. Any such philosophical attempt to construct a perfect foundation for all thought and knowledge is indeed a form of foundationalism. In the light of the revelation of the Trinity, however, we can see this exercise in human hubris exists in many more forms than philosophical foundationalism alone, and each of these needs to be identified and resisted. Especially since the Enlightenment, Christians have often themselves employed this way of reasoning—for example, by trying to prove the truthfulness of the Bible on the basis of historical records, reason, appeal to universal moral intuitions, or the like, before explaining what the Bible teaches (an effort labeled “evidentialist apologetics”). Yet, every such effort is also, at bottom, an exercise in idolatry. To build a foundation for the truth ourselves is to reject the truth and to build our own version of the truth, which we then make the judge of all truth, and so the lord of truth, at which moment in effect we bow down before it and proclaim it as our new lord. So epistemological foundationalism, however sophisticated, is, at bottom, nothing more than another golden calf.[3]

If you have been a reader here for any length, these are not strange teachings to you. In fact, this has been the bread and butter of much of what I’ve written over the years. The problem we are identifying touches upon primal realities when attempting to engage in the theological task. We are seeking to know how it is that we might delimit the ways, or way, for claiming that we have a genuine ‘point of contact’ with the living and triune God. As should be clear, by now, I maintain, with gusto, that the only foundation for knowing God has been laid by God Himself; not in some sort of ‘general’ fashion, but in a scandalous and overt manner wherein the ‘hidden God’ (Deus absconditus) becomes the revealed God (Deus revelatus) for us in Christ.

If we are keen to think God from an ostensibly formed general conception of God, prior to the special understanding of God provided for in Christ, then this will impact the way we do the rest of our theological thinking and living; since who we think God is impacts all subsequent theological developments. Likewise, if we think God, at a slavish level, from a special conception, as revealed in Christ, this will affect the way we theologize and live out our daily Christian lives. The former (general) way will, by programmatic form and definition, be contingent upon our savvy to continuously reflect upon the self-discovered attributes of God as those who have supposedly been left on display, at a foundational level, in the natural or created order. The latter (special) way will, by design, be dependent upon a continuous diaological, doxological, and prayerful reliance upon the Word of God who we afresh and anew encounter, through the medium of the written and God-spirated Word of God known as Holy Scripture.

An important and related theme, particularly as this relates to Protestant and Reformed theological loci, is the theme of: election. In fact, I would contest that the doctrine of election is the radix or ‘root’ aspect for understanding how these disparate ways for knowing God (or theories of revelation) take shape within the variant theological systems. I will try to develop this suggestion in a later post; maybe you’ll figure that out on your own. Blessings in Christ.

[1] See this post on Thomist intellectualism and anthropology.

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

[3] Douglas A. Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 37-8.

Karl Barth’s Nein to Serene Jones’ Rejection of the Physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ

If you aren’t on Theological Twitter (good for you!) you might have missed the tweet storms currently underway in regard to Serene Jones’ and the interview she undertook with the New York Times. If you don’t know, Serene Jones is the current President of Union Theological Seminary, in New York; and formerly a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School. Her statements in this interview are not really all that surprising, she has made other statements previously that would have foreshadowed what she said to the NYT. Nevertheless, it’s worth highlighting, if for no other reason because her views are becoming more and more trendy; although theological Twitter, representative of a large swath of Christians, surprised me a bit (in a good way). You might be wondering what I am referring to, at a material level. In particular, the NYT’s reporter, Nicholas Kristof, asked Jones what she thought about the bodily or physical resurrection of Jesus and the Virgin Birth: She rejects both.

For the purposes of this post I want to focus on her view of the resurrection; which is most significant in regard to what it means to be a Christian (that said The Virgin birth is actually of a piece … something Karl Barth, among others, understood quite well). I will share the pertinent part of the interview with Jones, and then I am going to quote a riposte from Barth; with reference to his view of the bodily/physical resurrection of Jesus (I recently posted on this very issue). Here is the New York Times’ piece:

KRISTOF Happy Easter, Reverend Jones! To start, do you think of Easter as a literal flesh-and-blood resurrection? I have problems with that.

JONES When you look in the Gospels, the stories are all over the place. There’s no resurrection story in Mark, just an empty tomb. Those who claim to know whether or not it happened are kidding themselves. But that empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.

For me it’s impossible to tell the story of Easter without also telling the story of the cross. The crucifixion is a first-century lynching. It couldn’t be more pertinent to our world today.

But without a physical resurrection, isn’t there a risk that we are left with just the crucifixion?

Crucifixion is not something that God is orchestrating from upstairs. The pervasive idea of an abusive God-father who sends his own kid to the cross so God could forgive people is nuts. For me, the cross is an enactment of our human hatred. But what happens on Easter is the triumph of love in the midst of suffering. Isn’t that reason for hope?

You alluded to child abuse. So how do we reconcile an omnipotent, omniscient God with evil and suffering?

At the heart of faith is mystery. God is beyond our knowing, not a being or an essence or an object. But I don’t worship an all-powerful, all-controlling omnipotent, omniscient being. That is a fabrication of Roman juridical theory and Greek mythology. That’s not the God of Easter. The God of Easter is vulnerable and is connected to the world in profound ways that don’t involve manipulating the world but constantly inviting us into love, justice, mercy.

Isn’t a Christianity without a physical resurrection less powerful and awesome? When the message is about love, that’s less religion, more philosophy.

For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith. What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.[1]

Jones’ views are nothing new (under the sun). She has simply succumbed to the pressures of the intellectual life; in the context she has been groomed. But I am not going to pretend to actually understand what in fact has led her to unbelief; usually, as Holy Scripture makes clear, the Gospel of John in particular, it is when we seek the glory of people rather than God that belief seeps in and overtakes us—often not recognizing that it is even happening to us.

Barth was groomed in a similar intellectual/theological context as Jones; albeit right in the heart of it all in the halls of the great German universities, and under the great teachers who taught the sort of Gnosticism that Jones is now a proponent of. So, it seems fitting to refer to Barth; with reference to what he thought about the bodily resurrection of Jesus. He writes in his early Church Dogmatics:

The Easter story is not for nothing the story whose most illuminating moment according to the account of Mark’s Gospel consists in the inconceivable fact of an empty sepulcher, a fact which (in producing a trembling and astonishment) lays hold of the three woman disciples and reduces them to complete silence for they told no one of it, for they were afraid (Mk. 16.8). Everything else related by this story can be heard and believed in the very literalness in which it stands, but can really only be believed, because it drops out of all categories and so out of all conceivability. It cannot be sufficiently observed that in the most artless possible way all the New Testament Easter narratives fail to supply the very thing most eagerly expected in the interests of clearness, namely an account of the resurrection itself.[2]

Interesting that Barth refers to the Markan account of the resurrection, just as Jones does. But Barth arrives at a completely different conclusion. He sees in the absence of the telling of the empty tomb, via the women’s witness, as a substantiation of the physical resurrection of Jesus. Barth sees in that silence the note of utter awe and wonder that a genuine follower of Christ would and should have. This is in contrast to Jones’ interpretation, one formed by unbelief and capitulation to a cultural atmosphere that is current in the sector of the academy she inhabits. What Barth has in his doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus, that Jones doesn’t (because she doesn’t even have the doctrine to begin with), is the same awe and wonder that the first female witnesses had of it. He understands its sui generis nature, and sees the resurrection as the history delimiting and primal reality that it is; at least according to Scripture.

If we were going to go simply on the quality of the theologian, Barth wins. But we don’t have to simply go on that, as significant as Barth is. We, of course, have Holy Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition, the Tradition of the Church, and the ongoing experience of countless people who speak with the risen Christ each and every day (including myself). The very existence of the Church bears witness to the fact that He is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! The Church’s existence is contingent upon the reality and doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without it, as the Apostle Paul makes clear, we might as well ‘go eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ No amount of existentialist oomph can generate the sort of transcendent meaning and hope that the literal and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ has generated. And yet Jones seems to think that she can generate this very power; the power of God. But we know that the Power of God is the Gospel (cf. Rom 1.16). Ironic: the very thing Jones, and that we all need, is the very thing she denies in order to construct a vision of the kerygma that is built on the very foundation that the bodily resurrection shouts a resounding victory over; US and our incurved love of self. Jones has simply taken ‘turn to the subject-theology’ to heart, and built an edifice based on self-love from there (another theme Barth counters in CD I/2 §18).

 

[1] “Reverend, You Say the Virgin Birth is a ‘Bizarre Claim’?,” New York Times, accessed 04-20-2019 [Emboldening mine].

[2] Barth, CD I/2 §14, 115.

Bone and Flesh of the Christ: An Imaginary Grounded in the Bloody Cross for Knowledge of God

Something I just tweeted and want to expand upon: “If Heaven and the coming eschaton are pervaded by the face of Christ, all the way through, then what use do I have for discursive and abstract theologies that only attempt to work their way up to Him from other places. Why not start and end with Christ; the Alpha and Omega?” Nothing too off theme from what I often post on, but I keep coming back to this over and again. We live in a barrage of theological methodology—at least we do if we inhabit theological-social-media—that is constantly telling us that the only real, historic, orthodox, and conservative way to do theology is to follow the canons handed to us by our forebears in ecclesial history. We are constantly told that in order to be orthodox—and not heterodox—we must simply follow in the foot-steps of what is understood as classical theism; that we must follow the consensus καθολικός. But why?

As Protestants (sometimes Reformed, or Lutheran etc.) who are committed to the Reformation Scripture Principle, and the attending Theology of the Word, why is it required that we affirm what I take to be a petitio principii? Why must we simply presume that ‘Church Tradition’ just is what God mandates for theological consumption?; as if we can access God’s mind through the panoply of the ecclesial historical offering. Alarm bells usually start going off for folks at this point. If they have insight into the divergencies of doctrinal development in the history, they start to think that I might be veering off into Socinian or Arminian heresy. But in reality, what I am really doing is challenging the common notion that Church Tradition is so concretized that it cannot be challenged, or improved upon in any way. I am not saying that the trad has no value, or that it doesn’t set some sort of baseline parameters by which Christians might move out and in constructively. But what I am suggesting is that tradition, even the ecumenical kind, is purely eschatological. In other words, it is of only proximate value insofar as it represents the machinations of men and women through the centuries as they have been confronted with the living reality of Jesus Christ. In other words, the trad is relative; it is only valuable insofar as it accurately accesses the Holy of Holies of God’s inner life as that is revealed in Jesus Christ. As such, Church Tradition, and the conciliar reality that stands behind that, at least for the Protestant, is not something that has sacerdotal force over the confessing Christian. And this, precisely because we are not bound by the creedal but by the living Christ who the creedal is attempting to grammarize and bear witness to the best it can.

It is this ‘best it can’ reality that my tweet is attempting to draw attention to though. My conviction, as so many of you know by now—and this is why Barth has been such an important character for me—is there is only One possible way to the Father, or to the inner-life of God; and that, is through Jesus Christ alone. I am slavishly committed to the reality that Jesus Christ, alone, is God’s Self-exegasto (exegesis), and that without Him there is absolutely no way for the Christian, or non-Christian to arrive at an accurate or compelling knowledge of who God is. And this is important as well; I am committed to the idea that Christian theology is fully and only circumscribed by engaging with Who rather than What God is. Indeed, this is precisely the point that I go off the rails, just as theologians presume to speak as if they know what God is prior to meeting Him as the who. The moment we start thinking in terms of ‘whatness’ God ceases to be a personal God who can only be known by encounter with Him. To bring whatness to God, and allow that to be regulative for the theologically proper task, from the start, subjugates God to human whims and imaginaries. The God Revealed is a Who; I know Him as my elder brother, and my Holy Father; I know God in and from this filial stand-point. It is because of this stand-point, because God is not simply a brute-being, but my loving Father, that I come to know Him as I speak with Him by the Spirit’s breath as I participate in that from the mediatorial-humanity of Jesus Christ.

Ultimately, I don’t want to imagine God. I don’t think the developers of church tradition ever had that as their goal either. Nevertheless, the metaphysics they had available to them in the past were only of relative value; just as the tools we have at our behest have relative value as well. But I am persuaded that we can and should advance forward in our knowledge of God. That we can learn and retrieve from listening to the past, but at the same token we can do so constructively. There are too many passages in the New Testament that call us to be growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ; to keep pursuing knowledge of God until we are all united in the One faith delivered once and for all to the saints; and to be being transformed from glory to glory as we grow in the eternal life of God which is the knowledge of Jesus Christ as an eternal well-spring that keeps bursting forth with depths of knowledge that cannot be contained by discursive means of contemplation and speculation.

I see so much of what is happening in the sacred halls of the conservative evangelical seminaries and universities as motivated by fear. They seemingly are afraid that we will fall back into the Socinian, Romantic, Rationalist, Enlightened traps and compromise the genuinely evangelical Gospel that they believe was sufficiently cordoned off by our 16th and 17th century fathers. But this is not the way I think. I am just as conservative as these guys and gals in mood and ethos. Yet, I am persuaded that God is bigger than the fear this approach seemingly operates from. I am convinced that God’s Ways are not our Ways, and His Thoughts not our Thoughts; as such, this supplies the ‘orthodox’ Christian with the hope that it’s possible to know Him in greater ways than even our fathers did.

And I happen to think that this quest to know Him in ever in-creasing ways only comes as we are open to seeing Him in the sorts of imaginative and beautiful ways that He alone has revealed in His glory, as that is observed in the inviting Face of Jesus Christ. I believe that only God can reveal God, and that to presume upon some sort of latency or vestiges of God in the created order (taxis) can only lead us to self-project our fancies upon God rather than allow Him to speak to us who in fact He actually is. I don’t think there is any sort of epistemic warrant for humanity to simply come and say ‘well, this just is the way God is … we can know this by observing, and negating the created order, and then use that as the negative mold by which we positively come to understand God.’ Clearly, I am referring us to a theological taxis at this point. I am concerned that we have placed a doctrine of creation/salvation prior to God, through which we subsume God to this order and then assert that the rationality embedded in the created order must be effect[ually] determinative of just what God is as God; as if God left a treasure map in the sand for us to discover Him through. But I am pretty sure that just the opposite is the case.

As far as I’m concerned, the Bible is perspicuous on all of this. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no man comes to the Father except through Him. Yes, we have ‘dogmatized’ this verse and sublimated it by our dogmatic category of justification; but I think it attests to something much grander than that (that is, not less than that, but much more and even prior to that in a theological ordo). I think when it says that Jesus is the way, truth, and life that this circumscribes everything! That this means that anterior to any sort of human-cognizing of God, that God in His pre-determined life for us, that His way as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the pre-cognate reality, as that is given ‘whoness’ in His eternal and antecedent (to us) plenitude is the only basis upon which humanity might come to a genuine knowledge of God. Only as God stoops down in the bone and flesh of Jesus Christ and confronts the world, it is here that the scales can be peeled back, and the sons of men can finally see God afresh and anew. I take this to be the Gospel reality; the Gospel reality is a limiting reality, such that it puts humanity in its place with Christ on the cross. And only as such a time as this, as that reality of being constantly given over to the death of Christ might we also know the life of Christ; the life of God. The classical theologies do not give us this God, not in their methods. They have become drunk with the god of the philosophers rather than being drunk with the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph 5.18). Yes, they might say “oh, dearest Bobby, we have heard this all before” . . . okay, then repent.

Resourcing Martin Luther: A Gospel for the Common Person, not the Metaphysicians

I am about a third of the way through Mark Mattes’ new book Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty, and it is exquisite. His chapter on Luther and philosophy is insightful, and reinforces notions I’d already been exposed to (years ago) in regard to the way Luther saw philosophy’s role in the theological task—as a handmaiden, and as something that has more horizontal value (i.e. related to the biblical analogue of ‘law’) rather than vertical/theological (i.e. related to the Gospel and its implicates). There is a reason why Karl Barth quoted Martin Luther in his Church Dogmatics more than anyone else; Barth and Luther are very like-minded (in their own periodized ways) when it comes to the way they see a usefulness to philosophy. But that’s not what this post is going to be about; this post will refer to the Conclusion in Mattes next chapter: Luther On Goodness. I think, as I share this quote from Mattes, again, anyone who is familiar with Barth will see a likeness and even foreshadowing in Luther’s theology vis-à-vis Barth’s.For Martin Luther, according to Mattes, Luther’s theology of goodness was much more experientially based rather than metaphysically so; Mattes writes:

The doctrine of justification bears on how God’s goodness is to be understood. Unlike his contemporaries and forebears, Luther has no confidence in either metaphysics or mysticism to establish God’s goodness, in spite of the fact that both approaches influenced his theological development. Luther’s is a highly experiential theology—not that experience is a criterion for truth but that sinners can never detach emotionally when doing theology, and at some point in the lives all sinners will do theology….[1]

This resonates deeply with me; and it fits the vector of my own theological development, and one of the primary aims of my own theological blogging and writing. Maybe you haven’t picked this up yet, maybe you’re too ensconced in the current resurgence of classical scholastic Reformed theology to appreciate this type of counterpointing I am attempting to engage in. I want people to realize that not all historical theology is as entrenched in the mathematics and philosophics that we see constantly being “retrieved” over and over again by these Reformed retrievers. In other words, someone like Martin Luther himself, should be understood as, as Mattes reinforces for us, a theologian who sees experience of God, a personal Triune God, at the center of what sound theology of the cross is all about; it is inimically personal, because the God the creature is pushed up against is inimically personal—indeed, He is the personalizing God. So it’s not just the ‘modern turn to the subject’ or German Romanticism or existentialist theology that is to blame for a focus on the personaling  non-metaphysicalizing approach to God; nein, it is a basic emphasis that we can see present in THE magisterial reformer himself, Martin Luther. It isn’t just Søren Kierkegaard, Isaac Dorner, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and the other modern heretics who want to approach God through a personalist “I-Thou” relational theology; no, as Mattes underscores for us, it is Martin Luther himself. To be sure we wouldn’t want to read each of these folks in absolute ways relative to Luther, but as a thematic, they all share this urge to come before God (coram Deo) on experiential, soteriological terms; and those terms are to be grounded and regulated by the “preached God” in Jesus Christ.

To continue to elaborate this idea that for Martin Luther relationship to God was not of the metaphysical sort (even though he had plenty of the metaphysical categories floating around his theological universe—yet he reified them under the Gospel pressures just as Barth does), let us refer to Mattes at length now (we will see how Mattes summarizes the whole development of his current chapter):

Luther was vitally concerned to address the question of God’s goodness. It bears on salvation. His point was that people do not need merely an incentive and an example to be good. They need in fact to be made good from the core of their being, their hearts. Counterintuitively, God does this by granting sinners his favor and promising them new, eternal life in Christ. As believers’ status with respect to God is changed, so is their identity. The law accuses old beings who seek to be their own gods for themselves and so control their lots and the lots of others to death. Humbled by the law, despairing of self, sinners can look to none other than Christ for salvation. In Christ they have a new identity and a new calling—to serve as Christ served in the world—and so to help especially those in need. The gospel promise unites believers with Christ, and Christ impels believers to serve their neighbors freely.

All this grounded in God’s own goodness. Outside of Christ, God is encountered as sheer power, a terror and threat to humans because such omnipotence jeopardizes sinners’ own quest for power, status, and authority. But Luther admonishes sinners not to neutralize this power by harmonizing it with some modicum of human power, such as establishing a free will. Instead, only God has a free will (though humans indeed make choices with respect to temporal matters). If we are to see the content or center of God and find him as good, then se must cling to the gospel alone. It establishes God as wholly love and goodness, indeed overflowing generosity, and serves as a basis from which to affirm life and explore mystery in the world. Goodness can no longer be established as a transcendental through metaphysics. Instead, goodness as a proper name for God and as a means by which every creature can participate in God is established only on the basis of how God acts in Christ, and that is to reconcile, redeem, and renew. Insofar as beauty is tied to goodness, it too will only be established through the gospel and not through metaphysics.[2]

As we can see there is a lot of good coverage, and various themes of development that Mattes covers in his chapter. But what I want to highlight is this idea of ‘established through the gospel and not through metaphysics.’ I want to press this home because all too often we see the theological metaphysicians of today (largely those young evangelical and reformed theologians retrieving a certain aspect and mode of the history through a certain lens [i.e. provided for by the historiography of someone like Richard Muller et al]) asserting as brute fact that the theology of the past was simply wrapped up in the unadulterated metaphysics of St. Thomas, St. Scotus, and others. The sense we get, if we follow these 21st century retrievers, is that the only heritage, in the history, that evangelicals and other Christian disciples have access to, is a God who is actually only really available to a small egg-headed sector of Christian academics of a certain intellectual aptitude and bent. That if someone wants to know the God of the evangelical/reformed heritage they pretty much have to be trained (or budding) metaphysicians in their own right. But this just is not so; at least not for Luther and many others who operate within his theme and theological disposition. For Luther, the Gospel is visceral and has a grist to it that is palatable for the common Christian; the wisdom of God is to meet all of humanity through the wood of the manger and the cross, with afterbirth and corpse as component realities. There is a realness to the type of theology that Luther presents the church with, and it is real precisely at the point that metaphysics are brought low, and the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ for us is elevated as the boundary point through which all humans, and particularly all Christians are invited to sup from over and over again.

 

[1] Mark C. Mattes, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017), 54.

[2] Ibid., 66-7. [emboldening mine]

Responding to Paul Tripp’s Sweeping Generalization against Christian Theologians and Academics: The Theology of the Cross as Antidote

[Qualification: My response in this post has more to do with the sentiment that the Tripp quote ostensibly communicates; it is a sentiment that I know many of us have experienced in our own ecclesial settings. The quote from Tripp is contextless for me, so maybe he qualifies or develops it in such a way that it eludes my critique; I hope that is the case. So read my comments more in the direction of targeting the sentiment of the Tripp quote (and how it was used from where I lifted it) rather than Tripp himself; even though I do tend to attach things to Tripp, in my post, that would make it seem like I have an absolute context I’m working with in regard to the quote, I don’t.]

I wanted to quickly respond to a quote from Paul Tripp I just came across on Facebook; shared by someone I know. It has to do with what he perceives to be the false-faith of evangelical academics (I wonder what he would think of non-evangelical albeit Christian academic circles?). Tripp writes:

True biblical faith is always something we live. If our faith does not reshape our lives, it is not true faith. I’m afraid that is what faith looks like in evangelical academic circles. But real faith radically rearranges our lives. Three examples of how real faith in God transforms the way we live 1. Faith redirects and recaptures the worship of our hearts. (Cain) 2. Faith produces in us hearts of obedience.  (Enoch) 3. Faith causes us to submit to the calling of God. (Noah)True, living, biblical faith causes us to submit all three of these shaping influences to God.[1]

There are at least a few ways into engaging with what Tripp writes: 1) His critique can apply equally across the board with all Christians (not just academics); 2) his critique helps to create a culture, within the church, of an us versus them (i.e. the laity/pastors versus the academics among them); 3) his critique, theologically, is grounded on soteriological (i.e. having to do with salvation) assumptions that flow from an experimental predestinarian approach. I will address the first two in this post, and leave the third way of critique for another post; or maybe I’ll never get into that one at all (even though I have multitudes of posts here on the blog in a variety of ways and developments).

All Christians& “Us versus Them”

The reality is, is that all Christian people struggle with walking faithfully with God in Christ; not just Christian academics. That’s what God’s grace is all about; the reality that no matter what our personal dispositions and personalities lead us to, in our fallen bodies, that his grace (in Christ) enters into our lives and redeems them from the inside out. The struggle for people disposed towards intellectual ventures is that they will struggle with not boasting in knowledge; indeed many folks will fall prey to such boasting for a season of time, if not their whole life. Nevertheless, God’s mercy and grace prevails, not just for folks oriented in this way (an “intellectualist” direction), but for any Christian; and any disposition. For some people the struggle is more relationally oriented; in other words, many Christian people will assert that what genuine Christian faith looks like has everything (in an exclusive way) to do with establishing good nuclear family life, and having good Christian “fellowship” all of the time. But when such things are elevated what happens is that the experience, the “good” itself begins to push God out of the center and elevates the good of family life and human relationships above God; or at least it names such thing as “God” (Focus on the Family and James Dobson comes to mind). My point is, is that all people, no matter what predisposition they have (they might be good at business, at real estate, etc.), all Christian people, I should say, have their own temptations, and their own struggles. And some times, as noted, some of those struggles are with things that are actually “good”, just as intellectual endeavor can be; the problem arises when that good is taken captive by our own sinful hearts and turned into an idol rather than a means or instrument for bearing witness to the reality of God in Jesus Christ.

So Paul Tripp is wrong to single out evangelical academics in his discussion; he ought to discuss, in a responsible manner, the dangers present not only for academics, but for anyone who is a Christian. The battle is real, and the “enemy” will attempt to take us out no matter what our place is in this life; no matter what our career is; no matter what our family and relational life is. It’s not Christian academia that is inherently evil; it’s that it is inhabited by sinful (but redeemed) people; just as every other sphere in the Christian world is.

Concluding Remarks

My concern with comments like Tripp’s are that the laity, when they hear this, are led to believe that any Christian academic they come across forthwith (say in their church context or elsewhere) will be profiled and labeled with Tripp’s sweeping generalization in regard to evangelical Christian academics (in the theological sphere; I’m imagining that’s Tripp’s target in this). This will have multiples of negative consequences for the local church. I.e. it will keep Christian theologians from wanting to attend churches where the culture of the church is antagonistic towards Christian scholars; it will keep these churches from benefiting from the gifts and knowledge God has given such individuals precisely for the purposes of edifying the local church; it will keep people who are predisposed this way, either from cultivating who they are as God’s children, or it will completely push them away from the church allowing them to reenergize their intellectual predispositions maybe (and most negatively) for tearing down the church (there are plenty of atheist academics out there with precisely this background).

Because of all of this, and more, I think Tripp’s comments are very dangerous, and at the least sloppy; but in fact both. A teacher in the church (who himself has a doctorate) should not be disparaging whole groups of Christians in the church just to make oneself look more noble than they (i.e. like you have escaped the lures and dangers of being a Christian academic in a nobler way than the others you are referring to).

Is the danger that Tripp notes a real one? Yes. Martin Luther, the original Protestant Reformer called such a danger a theology of glory; his antidote was what he called a theology of the cross. I know plenty of Christian academics and theologians who have chosen to go the way of cross; of course, yes, I know (or know of) plenty of others who have chosen the way of glory; and I know others who are struggling somewhere in between on that continuum. But we shouldn’t engage in sweeping generalizations, as Tripp has, just to elevate our own status as a teacher in the church that belongs to Jesus. Hopefully you can see why I’m so concerned; enough to write a post about Tripp’s remarks. I know the sub-culture he’s speaking into, and it only reinforces the wherewithal of said sub-culture; a sub-culture that could use the rigor and thought provided for by genuine theologians of the cross, who love Jesus, and express that, in their own way, as deep thinking and researching Christian people—people I would contend that Jesus wants to gift the church with.

 

[1] Paul Tripp, source unknown. Accessed from friend’s Facebook status, 10-05-2017.

Christian Aristotelianism: Understanding the Reformed and evangelical Intellectual and Theological History

I originally wrote this post on September 5th, 2010, I thought I’d share it again. It’s relevance hasn’t gone away in these last seven years, and remains unchanged for many folks either just cutting their teeth on Reformed theology, and/or for those who are flamingly Reformed and have been for years. Aristotle’s place in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox (or simply classical Calvinist) heritage will always be unchallenged and unshaken; anyone who has spent any time at all studying the history of Reformed theology will know this. But in my experience many people don’t know aristotle1this, many ostensibly Reformed people; they just think that what they are getting in Reformed theology is the meaty stuff, the purely “biblical” stuff. Yet, many have not done the self-critical, or just plain old critical work required in order to really know what they have gotten themselves into. These folk think they are working in a tradition known for its sola Scriptura – and indeed they are – but they remain unaware that historically sola Scriptura does not mean just pure Bible alone; no the Reformers were much more sophisticated and honest than that. They understood the role that philosophy, substance metaphysics, so on and so forth will need to play in order to unpack the inner-logic, the theo-logic resident and underneath the text of the occasional writings that make up Holy Writ. Of course, my contention is that Aristotle need not play any role in un-packing the theo-logic and reality of Holy Scripture; but that’s not to say that there is no place for the retextualization of philosophical language under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is to say, though, that Aristotle, particularly as we have received him in and from the medieval tradition, in my view, has done irreparable damage to how millions of Christians across the globe conceive of God today. But developing that is fodder for another post (that I’ve already written many times over here at the blog). Let’s stay focused though.

The following is to alert Reformed people, and other interested Christians to the role that Aristotle’s philosophy has played, is playing, and always will play in the center of the most dominant strand of Reformed theology today; the theology of the so called Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians. In case you didn’t know, these theologians are those who followed on the heels of the magisterial Reformers (i.e. Luther, Calvin, et al.) in the later 16th and then into the 17th century. Aristotle was present prior to the 16th and 17th centuries by way, primarily of Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis of Christian theology with Aristotelian philosophy. Unfortunately the Reformation really never shook itself loose of this impact; it did for awhile say in Luther and Calvin, but then in the Post Reformation period this mantle and way was picked up once again. This long quote from historian, Richard Muller is intended to alert you all to this, if you’re unaware.

Trajectories in Aristotelianism and Rationalism. Although the early orthodox era (from roughly 1565 to 1640) is also the era during which the new science was being set forth by Kepler, Galileo, and Bacon, and the new rationalism was being initially expounded by Descartes and Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the rise of modern science and modern rationalism did not profoundly affect Protestant orthodox theology until the latter half of the seventeenth century. For the most part, early orthodox Protestant theologians doubted the new cosmology and rejected rationalist philosophy, resting content with the late Renaissance revisions of Christian Aristotelianism at the hands of Roman Catholic philosophers like Zabarella and Sua´rez and of Protestant thinkers like Ramus and Burgersdijk. The new cosmology had to wait until the latter part of the seventeenth century for Isaac Newton’s physical and mathematical discoveries to make any sense at all and seventeenth-century rationalism, particularly in the deductive model presented by Descartes, has never proved entirely congenial to traditional theology and was never incorporated either universally or without intense debate into Reformed orthodox thought.

Just as the Ptolemaic universe remained the basis of the Western worldview until the end of the seventeenth century and continued to affect literary and philosophical forms of expression well into the eighteenth, so did Christianized Aristotelianism remain the dominant philosophical perspective throughout the era of orthodoxy. Here too, as in the area of theological system, important developments took place in the context of the Protestant universities in the late sixteenth century. Where Melanchthon, Vermigli, and others of their generation had tended to content themselves with the teaching of rhetoric, logic, ethics, and physics without giving particular attention to the potential impact of these disciplines on theology, in the second half of the century, the philosophical disciplines began to have a marked effect on Protestant theology. Aristotelian physics served the doctrine of creation in the works of Hyperius, Daneau and Zanchi; aquinas2Agricolan and Ramist logic began to clarify the structure of theological systems, and metaphysics re-entered the Protestant classroom in the writings of Schegk, Martinius, Keckermann, Alsted, and Timpler.

This development of Christian Aristotelianism in the Protestant universities not only parallels the development of Protestant scholasticism but bears witness to a similar phenomenon. The gradual production of philosophical tradition was set aside followed by a sudden return to philosophy. Instead, it indicates a transition from medieval textbooks, like the Summulae logicales of Peter of Spain and the De dialectia inventione of Rudolf Agricola, to textbooks written by Protestants for Protestants, like Melanchthon’s De rhetorica libri tres (1519), Institutiones rhetoricae (1521), his commentaries on Aristotles’Politics and Ethics (1536) and the De Anima (1540), Seton’s Dialectica (1545), Ramus’ Dialectica (1543) and the spate of works based upon it, or somewhat eclectic but also more traditional manuals like Sanderson’s Logicae artis compendium (1615) and Burgersdijk’s Institutiones logicae (1626) or is Idea philosophiae naturalis (1622). The absence of Protestant works from the era of the early Reformation points toward a use of established textbooks prior to the development of new ones under the pressure not only of Protestant theology but also of humanism and of changes and developments in the philosophical disciplines themselves. The publication of Protestant works in these areas parallels the rise and flowering of Protestant academies, gymnasia, and universities. Schmitt summarizes the situation neatly:

. . . Latin Aristotelianism stretching from the twelfth to the seventeenth century had a degree of unity and organic development that cannot be easily dismissed. . . . the differences distinguishing the Catholic, Lutheran,  or Calvinist varieties, are far outweighed by a unifying concern for the same philosophical and scientific problems and an invocation of the same sources of inspiration by which to solve them.

Furthermore, the continuity must be understood in terms of the subsequent trajectories and modifications of late medieval schools of thought — Thomism, Scotism, nominalism, the varieties of via antiqua and via moderna — and the ways in which these schools of thought were received and mediated by the various trajectories of theology and philosophy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. For if the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist theologians shared a common Christian Aristotelian foundation, they differed, even  among themselves, over the nuances of the model and over which of the late medieval trajectories was most suitable a vehicle for their theological formulation.

The continuity of Christian Aristotelianism and scholastic method from the medieval into the early modern period together with the relationship of these two phenomena to Protestant orthodoxy pinpoint one further issue to be considered in the study of orthodox or scholastic Protestantism. It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers (as in the case of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” thesis). It is also an error to discuss Protestant orthodoxy without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages, through the Reformation, into post-Reformation Protestantism. Whereas the Reformation is surely the formative event for Protestantism, it is also true that the Reformation, which took place during the first half of the sixteenth century, is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed, as it were by the five-hundred year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism. In accord, moreover, with the older scholastic models as well as with the assumptions of the Reformers concerning the biblical norm of theology, The Reformed scholastics uniformly maintained the priority of revelation over reason and insisted on the ancillary status of philosophy. In approaching the continuities and discontinuities of Protestant scholasticism with the Middle Ages and the Reformation, the chief task is to assess the Protestant adjustment of traditional scholastic categories in the light of the Reformation and the patterns according to which it mediated that tradition, both positively and negatively, to future generations of Protestants. This approach is not only more adequate to the understanding of Protestant orthodoxy, but is also the framework for a clearer understanding of the meaning of the Reformation itself.[1]

Points of Implication

  1. Muller’s thesis is somewhat acceptable — given the expansive nature he sets for the accounting of the various streams represented by the “Reformed tradition.”
  2. petervermigliChristian Aristotelianism is the framework wherein Protestant theology took shape in the main.
  3. Muller admits to both a conceptual and methodological Aristotelianism within the period known as the “post-Reformation.”
  4. Muller holds that the continuity which he argues for between all periods of the “Reformation” is grounded in late Medievalism — thus construing the magesterial (early and “high”) Protestant Reformation as a hick-up in comparison to the tsunami that swept through from the 12th into the 17th century.
  5. For Muller, it seems, the only real difference between Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist Aristotelians is a matter of emphasis and theological order. In other words, for Muller Christian Aristotelianism is the best philosophical framework commensurate with articulating Christian dogma.

Popular Implications

  1. There is a “popular” ground-swell towards returning the church back to our Protestant heritage — this move works under the assumption that our “past” is a “strictly biblical one.” What is never presented is what we are looking at here, and that is the history and conceptual frame from whence “most of the Protestant” heritage has taken shape (at least in the “Reformed” heritage). People naively assume that the categories that the “Reformed” provide them with are actually Gospel truth (i.e. not associate with a school of interpretation).
  2. These are in fact, typically, the categories that ALL “Evangelical” Christians think through when they approach Scripture (this is the vacuum from whence they/we typically think).
  3. If people fail to realize the affect Aristotle has had upon the way they understand God, they will fail to understand the true nature of God, and thus their daily walk with Jesus is going to be severely skewed.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. One,  71-73.

 

The ‘Young Marburg’ Barth against Charles Ryrie, Thomas Aquinas, and the Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

The first time I attended Bible College was just after I graduated high school in 1992; I attended a small Conservative Baptist Bible College in Phoenix, Arizona, at that time called Southwestern College (it is now called Arizona Christian University). I was a bible and theology major, as such I had an introduction to Systematic Theology class; it was taught by an old school theology standingthomasaquinasprofessor, meaning he was of the very conservative, almost fundamentalist type (and he was also an old guy). The text he had us use for our primary theology text was Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth. When the title says ‘Basic’, it indeed is very basic theology, almost completely cut off from any of the confessional riches available in the Protestant past. But what is typical of Ryrie’s theology relative to other “evangelically” oriented theology texts is his appeal to philosophical proofs for the existence of God in the prolegomena of the text itself.

For Ryrie’s part, the first proof for God’s existence he appeals to is the cosmological argument; he explains it this way:

General revelation comes to mankind in several ways.

1.Through Creation

1.Statement. Simply stated this line of evidence (the cosmological argument for the existence of God) points out that the universe around us is an effect which connotes an adequate cause.

2.Presupposition. This line of evidence depends on three presuppositions: (a) every effect has a cause; (b) the effect caused depends on the cause for its existence; and (c) nature cannot originate itself.

 3.Development. If something now exists (the cosmos) then either it came from nothing or it came from something which must be eternal. The something eternal in the second option could either be the cosmos itself which would have to be eternal, or chance as an eternal principle, or God the eternal Being.

To say that the cosmos came from nothing means it was self-created. This is a logical contradiction, because for something to be self-created it must exist and not exist at the same time in the same way. Furthermore, self-creation has never been scientifically demonstrated and observed.[1]

Ryrie goes on and elaborates this further, but this represents a good representation of his line of thought. Clearly there are more sophisticated presentations of this argument, starting with Thomas Aquinas himself, and even by contemporary thinkers like William Lane Craig. But the basic tenets of the argument are presented by Ryrie, and are probably what most young bible college students, seminarians, and pastors have been exposed to in their training.

I open this post up like this to actually transition to a critique of approaching theology proper, to approaching God in this way. For the rest of this post we will consider young Karl Barth and his critique of the cosmological argument for the existence of God.

The Marburg Barth

Karl Barth attended Marburg University in Germany under the watchful eye of Wilhelm Herrmann, among other theology and biblical studies professors. Barth graduated from Marburg in 1908, but did not immediately enter pastoral ministry, instead he stayed on in the Marburg area and wrote for Die Christliche Welt. Kenneth Oakes gives us more background information:

Slow to enter pastoral work immediately after his university studies, Barth stayed in Marburg for another year, working as an editorial assistant for Die Christliche Welt, a journal published under the direction of Martin Rade, a friend and colleague of Herrmann. Thus from 1908-9 Barth was allowed to imbibe more deeply the ‘modern school’ and Marburg theology….[2]

During this time, according to Oakes, Barth wrote two pieces that caused some controversy, at least for some.[3] We will consider the second piece, which has to do with Barth’s critique of the cosmological argument, and that whole mode of theologizing. Oakes details this at length for us:

The second and more revealing piece as regards theology and philosophy is a talk Barth wrote against the cosmological proof for the existence of God. In this piece, Barth begins with an explanation of the argument’s formulations in Thomas Aquinas, the defence of the possibility for knowing God in Vatican I, Leo the XIII’s recommendation of Aquinas in the 1879 Aeterna Patris, and the censuring of the agnosticism of modern philosophy and philosophy of religion in the 1907 encyclical Pascendi. He covers the distinction between the natural knowledge of God and the revealed knowledge of God, along with their concomitant disciplines, natural and revealed theology. He then considers the cosmological argument as found within J.A. Becker’s work and Thomas’ five ways. He defends Thomas against the common charge of pantheism, although he thinks Thomas comes close to such a position at times. Nevertheless, Barth is still worried about the status of God’s ‘Persönlichkeit,’ a good Ritschilian concern, in Thomas’s doctrine of God. Barth wonders whether the free and textured identity and agency of God is lost when God is described in abstract and impersonal terms such as the highest thing, the most necessary being, or the first cause.

The cosmological proof has two serious problems. The first is philosophical. Barth brings the full weight of Kant’s critical philosophy onto the proof. Following Kant, he argues that the cosmological proof tacitly depends upon the ontological proof, and that the ontological proof (or at least Anselm’s version of it) fails insofar as the proposition ‘God is’ is deemed to be analytic (the predicate ‘is’ adding nothing to the subject ‘God’). The cosmological proof fails, as the ontological proof on which it relies is specious. The second problem is theological. Barth argues that even if the cosmological proof were true, what it proves would remain quite different from the God of Persönlichkeit:

Such is clear: the way of the syllogism, of the subordination of individual, empirical things underneath universal concepts, absolutely does not reach a final, real, and in this respect transcendent being, but only to the idea of one, to the idea of a being about whom there is nothing to say other than that he is the negation of his not-being on the one hand, and that he is absolutely prior to everything finite on the other; by its construction and the concepts used such a being remains entirely within the world.

By definition, philosophical metaphysics can neither reach the God beyond the cosmos nor his specific ‘personality,’ and in this judgment Kant and the modern theology are in complete agreement.[4]

Remember, this is the young Barth, barely a college graduate, but this type of critique from him in regard to ‘natural theology’ and knowledge of God given foundation through philosophical proofs, would perdure in Barth’s thought and life throughout.

In a very reduced sense Barth is arguing that the philosophers might be able to prove a conception of godness all day and all night, but at the end or beginning of the day all they’ve proven is something they were able to conceive of through their own intellectual prowess; i.e. they haven’t begun to access the holy of holies and touch the feet of the living and true God.

I agree with Barth, in contrast to Ryrie, Aquinas, Craig, et al., and this of course is what makes Barth such a controversial figure for so many evangelical theologians (young and old) to this day. They fundamentally disagree with Barth’s critique of something like the cosmological argument since they base so much of their theological methodology and approach upon the foundations laid by people like Thomas Aquinas and the rest of that tradition which is imbibed deeply by the post-reformation reformed orthodox theologians.

What This Has Meant To Me

As I noted, my seminal introduction to systematic theology started with Charles Ryrie, and a very basic presentation of the cosmological argument or proof as a credible foundation for how I could know with certainty that God exists, and that he exists in a certain way. But this has never satisfied me. Later I went to Multnomah Bible College, this time I was presented with more sophisticated instruction, but at base the way I was taught to think of God from Ryrie remained the way I was taught to think of God by my professors at Multnomah. It wasn’t till I attended seminary, at Multnomah’s seminary, where I was finally introduced to historical theology, and I began to explore, quite deeply, the history of ideas and how they were given formation. It was a breath of fresh air to realize that there was another way, a way that I believed was more faithful to the God I was encountering over and again as I read Holy Scripture.

I was introduced to Barth and Torrance (a bit), in seminary as well. I graduated from seminary in 2003, but it wasn’t until about 2006 that I started reading Barth and Torrance intensely, and I found what I was looking for in their critiques and way of thinking; particularly as that has to do with this very issue. I had already given up on the idea that God could or should be “proven,” but it wasn’t until I hit Barth and Torrance that I really appreciated how to work that out by focusing on revelational theology; by focusing on Christ as the key. Yes, in seminary, in my studies of John Calvin and Martin Luther et al. I was introduced to what is called kataphatic or ‘positive theology,’ and I relied on both Calvin and Luther, deeply, to enable me to move forward into a revealed theology approach.  But what I found in Barth and Torrance were teachers who took that to the next level, and offered a grammar and way to think that filled out what I only latently picked up through Calvin and Luther.

It is refreshing to know that God cannot nor should not be “proven.” If we think he can be the foundations for how we are thinking of God, by definition and method, are not supplied by God in Jesus Christ, but instead by our own trained wits. Our wits will always let us down, but the Word of God will endure forever.

 

[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (USA: Victor Books, 1986), 28-9.

[2] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 28.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4]Ibid., 29-30.