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For me, a theology of the Word is definitive for what it means to be a Protestant Christian; as such, I think our theologies ought to be conditioned by their reposition upon the Word of God. There seems to be some slide in this area among Protestant retrievers; i.e. the guys and gals who are in the process of developing a ‘Reformed Catholicity’ among other nomenclature. As Protestants we should have a de jure or principled commitment to Holy Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ as the primal initiative for all things theological and praxis. The Word of God ought to be the centraldogma of all that Protestant theology entails and is characterized by, such that when people read a Protestant theology they are thrust back, not upon the church, but Scripture, and its reality in Christ. I think this was a central motivation for the magisterial reformers, and is why we ended up with a sola scriptura. But, as Protestants, in our zeal to ‘recover’ the Great Tradition of the Church, we are seemingly being seduced back into the scholastic tradition-building tradition; and the ecclesial authority attendant with that, thus losing the actual authority of Scripture. As Protestants we say all else, in regard to a theory of authority, is subordinate to Holy Scripture; but in practice, and theological endeavor, I see something else happening.

John Calvin offers a good word on Scripture’s special place for his type of Protestant theology. In the following he is in early discussion on his concept of knowledge of God, and how he sees God’s Word as the special place that the ‘children of God’ are given to have an accurate, and thus non-idolatrous, knowledge of God. The moment we digress into Trad-itional knowledge of God, at least as our regulative authority, we have crossed over into speculative rather than revealed knowledge of God. As one of the early pre-post-Reformed orthodox Reformed theologians, Calvin understood this, in regard to the character that a Word-based theology ought to have for his Protestant brethren and sistren. He writes:

Since it is evident that God used His word with those whom He wanted to instruct fruitfully, because He saw that His form and image which He had imprinted in the edifice of the world was not sufficient, we must walk by this path if we desire with a good heart rightly to contemplate His truth. We must, I say, return to the word in which God is shown very well and painted as if living by His works, when these are considered no according to perversity of our judgment but according to the rule of the eternal truth. If we turn away from this word, no matter how quickly we go, we will never arrive at the goal because we are not running in the path. For we must take into account that the light of God which the apostle calls “inaccessible” is for us like a labyrinth to lose us unless we are led through it by the directing of the word, so that it is better for us to limp along in this path than to run quickly outside of it. That is why David, having recounted how the glory of God is preached by the heavens, the works of His hands proclaimed by the firmament, His glory manifested by the well-ordered succession of day and night, then comes down to the commemoration of His word (Ps. 19[1]). “The law of the Lord,” he says, “is without blemish, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is true, giving wisdom to the lowly; the righteousness of the Lord is right, rejoicing the hearts; the precept of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes” (Ps. 19[7-8]). By this he signifies that the teaching by creatures is universal to all, but the instruction by the word is specific to the children of God.[1]

We can understand Calvin better as we place the above quote into his teaching on the twofold knowledge of God,[2] more broadly; but for our purposes, what is important to highlight is the centrality the Word of God has for Calvin at a base level. For the Protestant there is an aversion to speculation about God, and “Godness,” just at the point that we (as Protestants) are committed to what God has revealed of Himself to and for us in Christ as attested to by the canon that Holy Scripture is.

As I broach this issue, in regard to the material and formal sufficiency of God’s Word, what you might also be alerted to is why I have chosen to go the way I have, in regard to the tradition I have, in Reformed theology. I think to be catholic, in the best sense, is to be committed to the rule of Faith, who is Scripture’s reality, Jesus Christ. I know that many believe that to be genuinely catholic these days, means to one degree or the other, that we tie ourselves into the Tradition of the Church. But I think prior to that, and more decisive than that, what it really means to be catholic is to be tied into the humanity of God in Jesus Christ; how can we be more catholic than that?[3]

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 37.

[2] From the quote we can also pickup Calvin’s notional thinking on the sensus Divinitatis, but again, for our purposes we are focused on the Word in this post.

[3] There are many related and underwriting threads just waiting to be pulled upon in regard to my question here, like: 1) theory of authority, 2) theory of revelation, 3) ecclesiological theory in general, 4) how we think catholicity vis-à-vis progressive historical developments etc.

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Just a thought. Why are so many evangelicals prone to pre-critical/modern theological modes? Why is the recovery that is being done propelling evangelical theologians back pre 18th century theology, and later. John Webster writes:

‘Retrieval’, then, is a mode of theology, an attitude of mind and a way of approaching theological tasks which is present with greater or lesser prominence in a range of different thinkers, not all of them self-consciously ‘conservative’ or ‘orthodox’. Although here we concentrate upon strong versions of this approach, it can be found in less stringent forms and in combination with other styles of theological work. A rough set of resemblances between different examples of this kind of theology would include the following: these theologies are ‘objectivist’ or ‘realist’ insofar as they consider Christian faith and theology to be a response to a self-bestowing divine reality which precedes and overcomes the limited reach of rational intention; their material accounts of this divine reality are heavily indebted to the trinitarian, incarnational, and soteriological teaching of the classical Christianity of the ecumenical councils; they consider that the governing norms of theological inquiry are established by the object by which theology is brought into being (the source of theology is thus its norm); accordingly, they do not accord final weight to external criteria or to the methods and procedures which enjoy prestige outside theology; their accounts of the location, audience, and ends of Christian doctrine are generally governed by the relation of theology to the community of faith as its primary sphere; and in their judgements about the historical setting of systematic theology they tend to deploy a theological (rather than socio-cultural) understanding of tradition which outbids the view that modernity has imposed a new and inescapable set of conditions on theological work. For such theologies, immersion in the texts and habits of thought of earlier (especially pre-modern) theology opens up a wide view of the object of Christian theological reflection, setting before its contemporary practitioners descriptions of the faith unharnessed by current anxieties, and enabling a certain liberty in relation to the present. With this in mind, we begin by considering the study of history as a diagnostic to identify what are taken to be misdirections in modern theology, and then the deployment of history as a resource to overcome them.[1]

I can see the appeal to go back to a time where the Christian God, at least in the Western European world, simply just was. I can see why evangelicals desire to think theological theology from and through the ‘theologians’ (as Gunton calls it), rather than deal with the constant assaults of the higher critics and history of religionists at every turn. Retrieving theology from a time and period that was enveloped by the reality of the triune God is very appealing. Recovering theology from a time where the Bible was understood as God’s Word, particularly for the post reformers in the 16th and 17th centuries, based upon the movements of the magisterial reformers, is very inviting. And so this sort of move by evangelicals makes sense to me.

I am an evangelical. And I don’t think some people get this, but this is why Karl Barth, among the various premoderns I am attracted to, is so appealing to me. If you shorn Barth of his period, and his self-conscious and intentional engagement with the sources from his time, what you get is someone who is attempting to simply follow the contours of Holy Scripture. If it was possible to think Barth as a theologian of the post reformed orthodox period, and there are some antecedents in that period (just read Muller’s PRRD), he isn’t as far removed as some of those who see him as an antagonist might think.

Anyway, it all makes sense to me. We are evangelicals. We have veneration for Holy Scripture and its reality in Christ; as such, finding theologians who had an equal heart-beat for such things, and without the anxieties created by modernity, is a boon to the evangelical’s mode and mood as theologians and disciples of Jesus Christ. I get it.

[1] John Webster, “Theologies of Retrieval,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (Oxford/NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 584-85.

I am reposting the following—not that old of a post—in lieu of writing another one of the same flavor. I was intending on writing a new post that offers more thinking on this most important of issues, but then began scanning through some of my posts, and thought this would do. Young evangelical-reformed theologians are currently being trained, and just in the blossoming years of their careers, to retrieve Protestant theology for the evangelical churches in a certain mode and way. They have largely failed to self-critically question some of the various categories they have simply received (textus receptus) from the past, and instead have embarked upon an endeavor that is enflamed by a burning quest to repristinate or re-present what the golden age that they believe the evangelical churches have lost vis-à-vis her theological heritage. I am not against theology of retrieval, in fact I’m for it, but I believe it must be done constructive-critically with a realistic expectation that the Bible and its reality alone in Jesus Christ is allowed to be regulative for the lenses by which the ressourcement work is done. But I don’t see this as the ultimate lens through which most of this work is being done; instead there is a seeming dismissal of anything that smacks of ‘modernity,’ even if the theologically modern have produced material critiques (despite their formal beginnings) that the ‘repristinators’ ought to be obliged to engage with. Instead the repristinators simply relegate the modern into the abyss of hell, and thus only find things inspired by the devil and his minions therein. As such where they see anti-Christ, ironically, there, often, can be the voice of the risen Christ. Ultimately it shouldn’t matter what period of theological development produces the ideas we Christians rally to. What should matter is whether or not Jesus is being most magnified and identified as prime over and against all else when it comes to theological reflection. I could go on, instead I commend to you a long blog post that says what I want to say, and have already said.

Who is God? This basic but all important question has significant ramifications for everything; it is not just a “theological academic” question, it is a question that people live out of every day of their daily lives (whether they are a theist or not). This question drives me in all that I do, and it has for all the years I can remember; one way or the other. This is why I am so passionate about issues revolving around Reformed theology, and theology in general. As a Protestant Christian I have a certain way into thinking God, it is one that is in dialogue with the tradition of the church, but at the same time is not slavishly linked to the tradition when the tradition veers from its subordination to the reality of Holy Scripture, Jesus Christ. It is this commitment, and this reality that continues to propel me forward in my quest to know who God is; it is for this reason that I am an Evangelical Calvinist, so called. An Evangelical Calvinist operates in a mood that is by definition dialogical or dialekin; where an emphasis on a living encounter with God’s Word in Christ is elevated, and the ability, therein, is given to continue to know God in ever deepening and freshening ways. As a result of this way engaging with the tradition of the church, particularly when it comes to theology proper, provides certain concrete parameters, or least grammars, but it is not necessarily the end of the discussion only the beginning. For the remainder of this post we will look briefly at the tradition, in regard to a doctrine of God, and then will use that as the foil to highlight the better way that I have found in Barth’s theology and in modern theology in general. We will conclude this post with my fleeting thoughts on why I think this is important for what I will call ‘church theology’ (some call this “practical theology”).

In one part of the medieval tradition of the church, when it came to a theology proper, we had what is known as nominalism; often William of Ockham is noted as its primary purveyor (even if that is under contest today). In nominalism there are two ways to think God: 1) God as he is in eternity in himself (in se), which is tied into his ‘power’ or what is called potentia absoluta; 2) God as he is in the economy (ad extra) of salvation in temporal history, which is also tied into his ‘power’ and what is called potentia ordinata. The effect of this conception is to present a rupture, potentially, between who God is in eternity (in his antecedent life), and who God is in Jesus Christ in the Incarnation and salvation history (in life concrete). The nominalist way of securing a relationship between these two modes of God was to inject a concept of ‘covenant’ into the mix resulting, as the case may be, in an ad hoc relationship between God and the world; one that was based, indeed, upon God, but one that did not secure a relationship between the God in eternity and his acts in time such that his acts in time in Jesus Christ necessarily had any relationship to who God really was or might be in his interior life (we might also want to bring Scotus voluntarism into the discussion at this point as well).

So we have the aforementioned in the history, and that gets appropriated and redressed in the Post Reformed Orthodox period (16th/17th c.); it is this type of distinction that really never leaves us, even in the modern period. Here is an example of this in the theology of Herman Gollwitzer, as that is critiqued by Eberhard Jüngel, according to David Congdon. What I want the reader to see is not only how this sort of dualism continues to persist, but how someone like Jüngel responded to it. What I hope the reader will recognize is the sort of development inherent to a doctrine of God, and that even the moderns, with all the sloppy talk of them ALL distorting a doctrine of God, instead were steeply engaged with an orthodox doctrine of God while at the same time attempting to provide for better treatments wherein knowledge of God could be secured, and controlled by a concentrated referral to God’s Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. Here is Congdon on Jüngel and Gollwitzer:

The fundamental criticism Jüngel levels against Gollwitzer is that he posits a bifurcation in God’s being between nature and will, between essence and existence. In other words, Gollwitzer inserts an ontological separation between “God-in-and-for-God-self” and “God-for-us,” between Deus in se and Deus pro nobis. Jüngel summarizes the issue in the following way: “Gollwitzer stresses . . . that the mode of being [Seinsart] of revelation has its ground ‘not in the essence of God but in the will of God,’ so that it is ‘not possible per analogiam to infer back’ from the understanding of God’s being-as-revelation in the mode of being [Seinsweise] of an innerhistorical subject ‘to the essence of God in the sense of God’s constitutive nature [Beschaffenheit], but only to the essence of God’s will, i.e., from God’s will as made known in history to God’s eternal will as the will of God’s free love’” (ibid., 6). Gollwitzer affirms that God ad extra reveals God ad intra, but he rejects the notion that God’s historical acts reveal God’s eternal being; instead, they only reveal God’s eternal will. Gollwitzer backs away, then, from the work of theological ontology. He does this in order to preserve God’s freedom, which Gollwitzer secures by—as Jüngel puts it—leaving “a metaphysical background in the being of God that is indifferent to God’s historical acts of revelation” (ibid.). He separates the “essence of God” from the “essence of God’s will”: the former existing as the ontological ground of the latter, though otherwise having no obvious relation to it. The constitution of God’s eternal being is, therefore, static and unaffected by the acts of God in time and space. Unfortunately, in speaking about the “essence of God’s will” Gollwitzer failed to speak correspondingly of the “will of God’s essence” (ibid.). By separating essence and will he ends up creating an abstract hidden “God behind God,” in which case there is no guarantee that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is ontologically the same God who exists from all eternity.[1]

This sounds similar to my sketch of the potentias; I think. This is a continuing and pervasive problem in the churches; particularly as the evangelical churches attempt to resource the categories developed for a doctrine of God in the mediaeval and Post Reformation Reformed orthodox periods. Whether the resourcing is on the nominalist, Thomist, or Scotus side, the problem remains in the sense that there is always a rupture placed between God’s inner life and outer life; between God’s essence and acts. The problems, on a continuum, vis-à-vis the various traditions, can be nuanced in significant ways, and some do better than others in closing the gap between the problem we see illustrated by Gollwitzer’s distinction, but the problem remains (e.g. appeal to decrees or the decretum absolutum). We see, according to Congdon’s development, Jüngel’s critique of Gollwitzer; it is this tradition of critique that developed in the modern period (which is constantly derided as doing irreparable damage to a doctrine of God; thus part of the emphasis for theology of retrieval by evangelical conservatives) that we will turn to through appeal to Bruce McCormack’s development of Karl Barth’s own critique and movement beyond another modern theologian named Alexander Schweizer. As with Gollwitzer and the Nominalists et al., Schweizer similarly has this problem of having an excess of God that stands above or behind the back of Jesus Christ. Barth seeks to correct this—and I think he does!—pervasive problem by using the traditional category of election with the function of bringing God in eternity and his acts in time together in the singular person of Jesus Christ. He writes:

That election is “the sum of the Gospel” was grounded by Karl Barth in the fundamental claim that the primary object of election is not humankind but God himself. In Barth’s view, the primal decision of God (the “decree” if you will) is never to be God apart from humankind. Alternately expressed, God chooses himself for us; God decides himself for grace. In this wholly gracious, wholly free, unconditional primal decision of God for grace is contained in nuce all else that follows in time: the election of the eternal Son for incarnation, suffering, and death on a cross; the election in him of the whole of humanity for communion with God; the outpouring of the Spirit, the creation and upbuilding of a community of believers who represent the whole of humanity. It is at this point that Barth’s most original contribution to the historical development of the doctrine of election must be seen to lie. In making God to be not only the subject of election but also its primary object, Barth was making election to be the key of his doctrine of God. Barth would have been in formal agreement with the Schweizerian dictum “What God does in time must be grounded in the eternal being of God”; indeed, it was one of his most cherished convictions. But the material connections in which such a claim stands in Barth’s theology as a whole give it a very different meaning than it had for Alexander Schweizer.

Barth took as the starting-point for all of his dogmatic reflections the Self-revelation of God in the history of Jesus Christ, that is, the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the God-man. To put it this way is already to suggest that the starting-point is not simply the man Jesus as he appeared on the surface of history. The starting-point is the God-man as witnessed to in Scripture, and the history of this God-man begins in the way taken by God in taking to himself a fully human life as his very own (in all its limitations, up to including death). It is this history which Barth has in mind.

On the basis of the Self-revelation, he then asked, what must God be like if he can do what he has in fact done? What is the condition of the possibility in eternity for the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God in time? In taking this approach, Barth was taking a principled stance against the more traditional procedure (followed in large measure by Schweizer) of beginning with an “abstract” concept of God (which is to say, one that has been completely fleshed out without reference to God’s Self-revelation in Christ) and only then turning to that revelation to find in it confirmation of what was already attributed to God without it. Such a procedure, as we have already seen in relation to Schweizer, determines in advance what revelation in Christ will be allowed to say. Against this procedure employed by theism in all its forms (classical and neo-Protestant), Barth proposed to work in an a posteriori fashion, beginning not with a general concept of God or a general concept of human being but with a most highly concrete reality, Jesus Christ. And so, if God has in fact done something, it will not do to say that God cannot do it. Theologically responsible reflection will only be able to ask, What is the eternal ground for God’s acts in time?[2]

The ‘procedure’ for Barth, as McCormack details, was to refer theological method to the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, as decisive for reflecting upon who God is. In this procedure the gap is closed between God’s being in eternity and time, not by appeal to speculative or discursive means made by assertion via the theologians, but instead by appeal to God himself as that is revealed by Godself in God clothed with the particular flesh of the man from Nazareth. This becomes important precisely because it dispossesses the controls for considering who God might be away from the theologians, and places that within the control of God as now regulated by God’s Self-revelation in Christ. The ‘God of eternity’ in his immanent life is now the same God we see in the ‘God of the economy’ in the life of Christ. For Barth, according to McCormack, the even more radical reality is that God has freely elected to not be God without us, and has chosen that this be the very ground of his ‘being’ as God; as that is realized in his becoming for us in grace (this of course is not uncontroversial in North American Barth studies).

Conclusion

In closing, in an attempt to make this already too long of a blog post shorter than it could be, let me bring some of this home in more personal terms. When I am sitting in the pew at church on Sunday mornings in my evangelical conservative church that is committed to recovering the God articulated in the Post Reformed orthodox period it becomes difficult for me to sit there without at least squirming. Some people want to reduce Christian ministry to meeting the needs of broken people with the love of Christ, and this reduction entails the minimization of rigorous doctrinal reflection in the name of expediency for the Christian ministry. But what if the God you think you are doing ministry for and in the name of is different than the God you think you are doing ministry for; viz. will who God is, and your understanding of that impact the type of ministry you are doing? Is all of this awash in the end such that our good intentions will cover the multitude of theological errors we operated under? God’s grace is certainly bigger than our misunderstandings, but this does not excuse us from being people of the truth and ‘aiming for perfection’ as the Apostle Paul exhorts us to. But this is why I am troubled when sitting in church and I hear, over and again, things asserted about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that I KNOW are not from the Bible but instead derive from the speculative thoughts and developed traditions of the theologians; and these traditions simply received based upon the good-will of the people in the name of conservative Protestant orthodox theology.

In short: I want my understanding of God to be regulated and controlled by God, under the constraints he has set out for himself in his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Does this mean we no longer have to rigorously work out what even this type of theology proper looks like? No. But it means we are much better footing than before. If we get God wrong all subsequent thinking following, all subsequent doctrinal developments will be awry. Simply dismissing this—as almost ALL conservative evangelical theologians do—as merely Barthian or modern theological rubbish shouldn’t be taken that seriously, and they should quit taking themselves so seriously. I realize that I am mostly speaking into the wind, but be that as it may, hopefully there are some of you in the wind who have ears to hear and eyes to see even in the midst of the storm.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 15 n19. [emphasis mine]

[2] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 57-8.

John Calvin provided for a Protestantly Reformed turn towards a genuinely Christocentric theology of the Word, that prior (except in lineaments found in some Patristics and then in Martin Luther) was hard to find; particularly in the mediaeval context within which Calvin found himself, even if that was of the late variety. In the modern period when we read someone like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and then compare that with a reading of John Calvin, what stands out is the way that Barth/Torrance followed Calvin’s ‘turn,’ but only in even more radical or theo-logically conclusive ways. This is something I don’t think current Protestants who are attempting to retrieve the ‘classical’ past appreciate very much; viz. this turn that Calvin helped initiate (along with Luther), a radical turn to a genuine theology of the Word in Jesus Christ—a turn to a christocentric approach to theological endeavor versus the theocentric that reigned supreme in the Tridentine.

Julie Canlis—as we once again refer to her magisterial work, Calvin’s Ladder—helps us appreciate this Calvinian turn as she contrasts that with the Aquinasian approach (you’ll see her reference the structure of Thomas’s Summa Theologiae and how that materially illustrates her point). She writes:

A comparison of Aquinas and Calvin reveals that, while Calvin picks up on this scholastic scheme, he also fundamentally alters it. Pushing beyond Wyatt’s insight, we discover that it no longer is the story of humanity’s ascent to God by grace (Aquinas), or of the soul’s ascent (Augustine), but of Christ’s ascent. Calvin refuses to tack Christ as a tertia pars onto the Plotinian circle of creation’s procession from and return to God. Instead, Christ breaks open the circle and grafts it onto himself. For Calvin, the figure of Christ has shattered any scheme that begins with creation and allows creation to be considered apart from Christ, through whom it was made and to whom it is directed. In subtly shifting Aquinas’s exitus- reditus scheme from anthropology to Christ, Calvin challenges Aquinas’s attempt at theocentrism as not going far enough. It is not Christ who fits into the procrustean bed of anthropology but we who are fitted to Christ and his ascent. In him and by his Spirit, we ascend to the Father.[1]

She is certainly right to recognize that Calvin operated in the milieu of his own period; how could he not? But, as Canlis also helps us see, Calvin was a constructive and ingenious Christian thinker propelled by his newfound Protest-ant faith; a faith given direction and shape by a principled commitment to the Word rather than to the Church as his ultimate authority. Within this complex Calvin was ingressed into a new world that had the imaginary to think the church from Christ rather than Christ from the church; as such, he was able to make the turn that others prior couldn’t.

I would suggest that Barth and Torrance picked up on this turn in Calvin, and as I noted previously, radicalized it further; to its rightful conclusion even. Both Barth and Torrance, and us Evangelical Calvinists, are genuinely Calvinian in the sense that we operate not just in the spirit, but the letter of Calvin’s turn to Jesus Christ as the centraldogma of all that is viable in theological endeavor. I think our counterparts in other tributaries of the Reformed faith, in their zeal to recover the ‘catholic faith’ have unfortunately overlooked the sort of Christ conditioned notion of God that Calvin (and Luther) did not. As Evangelical Calvinists we attempt to move and breath in this Christ concentrated spirit, with the result that all our theologizing is principially and intensively Christ pressured. We think this is the right trajectory to be on since Jesus himself seemed to take this approach when engaging with Holy Scripture (cf. Jn 5.39; etc.).

[1] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension(Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), Loc. 493, 498.

Sola fide. Faith alone is the material principle of the Lutheran Protestant Reformation, and it is principial for the Reformed basis of knowledge of God and self. But because of classical metaphysics this principle didn’t blossom into the full flowered reality it had inherent to it in inchoate ways. In other words, because of an undeveloped grammar, because of the constraints presented by classical substance metaphysics, the idea of faith grounded in the kerygmatic reality (Evangelical reality) was moribund (I’ll have to leave at the level of assertion) in the sense that its full potential was not realizable until later developments.

Whether or not you agree with my assessment, and the sort of ‘retrieval’ I’m thinking of methodologically, David Congdon describes how faith alone as a material reality vis-à-vis the Gospel has resource to function in ‘critically’ ‘realistic’ ways in how we understood God and his relation to us through the Gospel (kerygma); how we understand the undertaking of theological discourse as that is objectively determined by the reality of God, and subjectively inhabited in human agents as they are in vicarious union with God’s subject for us in the humanity of Jesus Christ (that is some of my own interpolation, in regard to constructive thought based upon my reading of Congdon). Here Congdon has just finished some technical philosophical discussion in regard to developing what ‘correlation’ entails, particularly among French continental philosophy, and how grasping that helps us better locate the sort of dialectical theologies that both Barth and Bultmann operate from. For our purposes we will not engage with the technical philosophical discussion and instead engage with some of the conclusions of that as Congdon details its implications for us in the theologies of Barth/Bultmann (and dialectical theology in general).

What, then, is distinctively theological about the kind of strong correlationism that characterizes dialectical theology? Simply this: that the correlation is established and grounded in God. The action of God in the saving event of revelation is what creates the correlation between God and the human person. This correlation is faith, understood as a gift of divine grace. Unlike other objects, the object of faith is the divine subject, who is the active agent in the relation to humanity. The divine fides quae establishes the human fides qua. The human person does not have this correlation at her disposal but can only receive it ever anew. It is thus a kerygmatic correlation in that God constitutes the relation in and through the event of the divine word. A strong correlationism thus accomplishes what critical realism seeks to maintain—a real divine subject only accessible in and through this subject’s self-giving in faith—without the unnecessary and misleading baggage associated with the words “critical” and “realism.”[1]

This is important because God is understood as the personal object and subject of theology, and the gift of himself that he gives us in Christ comes with a corollary reality for us in that faith becomes the most fitting locus by which knowledge of this God can be ascertained by. In other words, there is no prior intuition that a person can come by in regard to knowledge of the Christian God; there is no naked knowledge of God in this understanding of correlation, as if human beings possess some sort of latent capacity (created grace) for an abstract knowledge of God. No, in this frame there is a ‘correlative’ component between our theology (nostra theologia) and God, but it isn’t idealistically determined by a free-floating or presumed upon human agency in the world of nature. Instead, knowledge of God, regulated by the Gospel (kerygmatic) is only accessible through the mediating faith of Christ. As we are in union with Christ’s knowledge of God for us, as he is in the center of God’s life as Godself, the faith we think from in regard to God is itself a reality generated by the ground that this faith breaks into. In short: dialectical theology and the Reformed faith it offers, a kerygmatic correlationist type, is one that is particularly shaped not by the human agent, but by the God who has spoken (Deus dixit).

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 422.

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]

Have you ever heard of theology of retrieval? If not, it is a rather popular move among certain confessional Protestant Christian theologians; I am a fan of it myself. At its most basic level it is beardeddudesimply an approach or an attempt to recover, primarily, pre-modern theological doctrinal developments, and resource those in a way that the doctrine retrieved can be translated and used to edify the 21st century church. One big motivation for theology of retrieval is driven by the perception that modern theology has infiltrated the church in such a way that it has actually damaged the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the church catholic. Understood in this way, theology of retrieval is often an attempt to right the ship of doctrinal drift in the church and return it to a stable buoyancy; to an anchor that is closer to the ancient or paleo developments of the early ecumenical church councils—and for Protestants this often also means a return to what is called Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy, or the doctrine that developed post-magisterial reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. In a way, theology of retrieval is itself driven by what might be considered the original theology of retrieval movement like we find taking place in the middle and late medieval theologies driven by Christian Humanism and the ad fontes (‘back to the sources’) trajectory.

John Webster offers a good description of what theology of retrieval entails, but one thing I want to underscore prior to getting to that is something that I think can start to plague theologies of retrieval. Often what I have observed among practitioners of theology of retrieval is a certain attendant mood; i.e. not only do many who are engaged in this discipline seek to recover the doctrinal riches from the dead, but along with that there seems to be a desire to retrieve the culture of say Reformation Western Europe—with the beards (for men), pipe and cigar smoking, and the consumption of craft beers (these accouterments among other things). What I have noticed is an almost unhealthy elevation of a retrieval of a perceived culture to the point that the point of retrieval is lost. For my money the point of retrieval is not to create holy Reformed huddles, but instead it is to retrieve doctrinal reality that points people to Jesus Christ. What I have noticed, particularly among the so called Young, Restless, and Reformed might be something akin to Messianic Christians, with more of an engrossment with trying to somehow reenact what they perceive of the past culture (in which the theology they are retrieving is situated), to the point that the broader point of retrieval is lost. In other words, and this is the broader point, if Jesus Christ is not the reason for theology of retrieval, or if he gets lost in our enamorization with our perception of past Christian cultures, then the point of theology of retrieval means nothing.

We still haven’t pressed into what theology of retrieval actually is, other than my brief introduction to it above. John Webster describes it this way:

‘Retrieval’, then, is a mode of theology, an attitude of mind and a way of approaching theological tasks which is present with greater or lesser prominence in a range of different thinkers, not all of them self-consciously ‘conservative’ or ‘orthodox’. Although here we concentrate upon strong versions of this approach, it can be found in less stringent forms and in combination with other styles of theological work. A rough set of resemblances between different examples of this kind of theology would include the following: these theologies are ‘objectivist’ or ‘realist’ insofar as they consider Christian faith and theology to be a response to a self-bestowing divine reality which precedes and overcomes the limited reach of rational intention; their material accounts of this divine reality are heavily indebted to the trinitarian, incarnational, and soteriological teaching of the classical Christianity of the ecumenical councils; they consider that the governing norms of theological inquiry are established by the object by which theology is brought into being (the source of theology is thus its norm); accordingly, they do not accord final weight to external criteria or to the methods and procedures which enjoy prestige outside theology; their accounts of the location, audience, and ends of Christian doctrine are generally governed by the relation of theology to the community of faith as its primary sphere; and in their judgements about the historical setting of systematic theology they tend to deploy a theological (rather than socio-cultural) understanding of tradition which outbids the view that modernity has imposed a new and inescapable set of conditions on theological work. For such theologies, immersion in the texts and habits of thought of earlier (especially pre-modern) theology opens up a wide view of the object of Christian theological reflection, setting before its contemporary practitioners descriptions of the faith unharnessed by current anxieties, and enabling a certain liberty in relation to the present. With this in mind, we begin by considering the study of history as a diagnostic to identify what are taken to be misdirections in modern theology, and then the deployment of history as a resource to overcome them.[1]

From Webster’s description we can see that he primarily understands theology of retrieval to provide a corrective for the impact that modern impulses and doctrinal trajectories have often supplied the 21st century church with; and from Webster’s perspective that has often been much more negative rather than positive.

Conclusion

We have covered two points in this post: 1) We have sought to introduce people to what in fact theology of retrieval actually is, and 2) we have noticed, usually at more popular levels, that there sometimes, attendant with looking to the past, comes an unhealthy focus on the various cultures we are retrieving said doctrine from. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with big beards, beer, or cigars (except the latter two have terrible health consequences associated with them); but the point I am driving at instead is that those, among other things, can become symbols that, at a deeper level, an unhealthy fixation on the past culture[s] might have crept in to the point that the real reason for retrieval, Jesus, gets swallowed up by more horizontal things.

More positively, I think Webster is right, that theology of retrieval can offer the type of critical perspective we moderns need in the 21st century to speak of God well. While Webster gives the impression that modern theology, in the main, is mostly bad, I will have to demur a bit from him at this point. I think there are some good theologians and theologies to learn from, and retrieve, from the modern period as well (obviously I am referring to Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, et al.). Webster himself, of course, has drunk deeply (more deeply than me even, as far as breadth and depth) from the wells of Barth, Torrance, Jüngel, et al; but of course in the latter years of his life he started to turn back to a more broadly received Christianity with particular reference to Thomas Aquinas, and of course some of the Post Reformed reformers, and then all the way back to the patristic Pro-Nicene theology.

I would like to encourage anyone who reads here to start the process of theology of retrieval. If you haven’t taken any steps in that direction the first thing you might consider is picking up a good church history book, and or an introduction to historical theology.

[1] John Webster, “Theologies of Retrieval,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (Oxford/NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 584-85.

A theology of the Word is the distinctive gift of the Protestant Reformation. The Word for the Protestant is the principle reality upon which all else is built, whether that be a theory of ecclesial authority or a theology of nature*; the Word of God is the ‘foundation’ (or fundamentum) for Protestant Christianity. Karl Barth was a Protestant (versus Roman Catholic) theologian, as such he based all of his theologizing in a Word-based mode of expression; this was well within the ‘spirit’ if not in some ways the ‘letter’ of the classical or Post-Reformed orthodox articulation of the cropped-whitebarth.jpgProtestant faith (the articulation that stands behind most of Protestant theology even today, at least by way of lineaments and over-lap with Lutheran and Anabaptist theologies in regard to a fundamental commitment to a theology of the Word).

Karl Barth famously articulated his theology of the Word from within a theory of revelation that started from the idea that ‘God has spoken’ (Deus dixit), and he grounded this in an anti-natural theology frame. In other words, Barth was concerned with the idea that humans (like Hitler et al.) could possess and imbue Scripture with their own strength and own machinations; the consequence being that man’s and woman’s voice could sublate or displace God’s living voice (viva vox Dei) in Scripture with their voices. Barth, in his own context and day saw this naturalizing of Scripture played out all too clearly with the development of the third Reich, and Hitler’s madness. So he innovatively articulated a theology of the Word from a theory of revelation that understood its context from the humanity of God’s life in Christ; i.e. the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ not only mediates God’s Word in written and preached form, but is the primacy of Word as the eternal Word of God for humanity (cf. John 1.1) — this is Barth’s understanding of the threefold form of the Word. Bruce McCormack of Princeton Theological Seminary and Kait Dugan of The Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary helpfully and collaboratively write this of Barth’s theory of revelation and doctrine of the Word:

Before it was anything else, Barth’s theology was a theology of the Word of God. The Word of God is, he maintained in the early years of his work on Christian dogmatics (in the 1920s and on into the 1930s), an address; a speaking of divine Person with human persons. But this theology of the Word is also “dialectical theology” – because the Word itself is never more than indirectly available to its human addressees. The Word of God comes to human beings in three “forms”: the humanity of Christ, the words of the prophets and the apostles (i.e. the canonical Scriptures) and the words of preachers. But the “forms” of revelation – even the humanity of Christ – are not “divinized” through God’s use of them in revealing God’s Self. And for that reason, revelation must never be directly identified with the “forms” through which it is divinely mediated. Put another way, revelation is never an “object” which is directly perceptible to human sensory activity (whether sight or hearing), even though God gives God’s Self to be known through “objects” of God’s own choosing. Revelation takes place in a “hiddenness” which is a function of the modality of God’s Self-revelation. To describe revelation in this way is to understand it as “dis-possessive.” The revelation of the Christian God cannot be taken under the control and management of human beings and made to serve the purposes established by human persons. Barth would continue to emphasize the hiddenness of revelation and its “dis-possessive” character throughout his life because he never ceased to be concerned with attending to the freedom of God.[1]

As they articulate this we can maybe sense a bit of Kant in Barth’s thought; but Kant on his head. The noumenal transcendent reality of the eternal Word comes hidden in the phenomenological of the manger, garbed in the real flesh and blood of the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ; but the point is that the Word of God is ever present, ever breaking through the creaturely modes of its deliverance to humanity. First this comes through the humanity of Christ (which is homoousion or consubstantial with God as Christ is the God-man), and then it comes garbed through the broken language of Scripture (albeit inspired anew and afresh as lively testimony) which is given further attestation through its proclamation.

The important thing for us to consider, at least what I would like us to consider, is that for Barth the Word of God is Jesus; and inextricably linked to Jesus are the special words that he commandeers in Scripture as symbols that are given life as they break off and find their reality in and from Him by the Holy Spirit. The thing is, some have attempted to demonize Barth at this point, they have wanted to ridicule him because his understanding of the Word doesn’t fit well within North American developments on inerrancy. But to get hung up on this point could make you miss out on the depth available in Barth’s Christ concentrated theology of the Word; one that is attempting to elevate Scripture within a dogmatic frame, and within a theory of revelation that is grounded firmly in Triune Godself.

And here’s the real reason I am writing this post. It is not to draw lines of correlation that are not there in full, but it is to point up the fact that Barth did not think about such things in a vacuum of his own Swiss/German making. The Post-Reformed Orthodox theologians themselves, who Barth engaged with and learned from with vigor, had a theology of the Word that sounds eerily similar to the intent of Barth’s own compunction. We will close now with a quote from ecclesial historian Richard Muller on how the Post-Reformed Orthodox had their own framing of the Word, not in threefold but fourfold form. You might find it intriguing to see how precedence was already laid down for someone like Barth to come along, within his own context, from his respective “metaphysic,” and appropriate certain categories and extend them out to meet the needs of his own day while remaining faithful to the underlying Protestant commitment to a theology of the Word. With this quote we will close:

The Scripture, upon which true knowledge of God rests, is the Word of God, not a word of man brought into being “by the will of man” but rather the revealed Word of God put in writing at the command of God and through the agency of the Holy Spirit by the prophets and the apostles. Since the Scriptures are the “true Word of God” and have “sufficient authority of themselves”, they supersede all human authority in the “confirmation of doctrines” and the “confutation of all errors. [sic] No authority stands above Scripture except the authority of God himself. Even the great ecumenical symbols of the church, the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, have authority only insofar as they reflect the truth of Scripture.

It is theologically incorrect and historically inaccurate to claim, as some recent writers have done, that the Reformers and the earliest of the Reformed symbols make a distinction between Jesus Christ as the only true Word of God and the Scriptures as Word in the derivative sense of witness to the incarnate Word. Nor can it be argued that any of the confessions — not even the Articles of the Synod of Bern (1532) — so identify revelation with Word and Word with Jesus Christ as to exclude any revelation of God outside of Christ. Both the Reformers and the confessions use the term “Word” with reference to Christ and to Scripture, recognizing that the identity of Christ as the incarnation of the eternal Word and Wisdom of God in no way diminishes but instead establishes the status of Scripture as Word. Thus Scripture is definitively Word, but not exclusively so. Word is, first of all, the eternal Word of God, the personal and archetypal self-knowledge of God. Second, Word is the unwritten revelation of God given to the prophets and the apostles. Third, it is the Word written and, fourth, it is the inward Word of the Spirit which testifies to the heart of truth of Scripture.[2]

Based upon what was shared earlier in regard to Barth we can see, I think, points of convergence and then points of departure relative to the Post-Reformed Orthodox and Barth. But all of that notwithstanding, one way or the other, hopefully for those who might be reticent to tolle lege (take up and read) Barth, maybe some of this will help to squash some of the fear and allow you to realize that Barth was a Protestant theologian working in his day and time (just like the Post Reformed Orthodox) who gave a theology of Word that was faithful to Protestant principles but in an ‘always reforming’ type of way; a way that magnifies Jesus, and may well better address the concerns of 21st century issues than can those voices from the 17th century. The point is, it is possible to constructively resource the past (which I am contending Barth did), which not only honors that past, but speaks in ways that the present can better understand and appreciate.

 

*Richard Muller writes, “… No Reformed confession, therefore, views natural theology as a preparation for revealed theology, since only the regenerate, who have learned from Scripture, can return to creation and find there the truth of God.” Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Volume Two, Holy Scripture The Cognitive Foundation of Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 154.

[1] Bruce McCormack and Kait Dugan, The Center for Barth Studies, accessed 05-10-2016.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Volume Two, Holy Scripture The Cognitive Foundation of Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 154-55.

My “e-friend” and blogging colleague (i.e. he is a theo-blogger too), Derek Rishmawy has just reposted 5 ingredients to being a good theologian from one of his favorite theologians, Thomas Weinandy (and Weinandy is good!). So in that spirit, I thought I would repost 5 reasons on how and why theological controversy and polemics can be edifying from my favorite living theologian, John Webster. Be edified!

Luther95Thesis

I have had a long and varied blogging career (since 2005, so relatively speaking), and in that career lots of life has happened. One part of that happening has been continued theological development, hopefully toward the unity of faith that has already found its terminus in Christ’s unity for us with the Father by the Spirit. Some of you have been with me for my entire blogging career (almost), and others started with me mid-career, while others of you are just new comers. Much of my career has been characterized by polemical speech. In the beginning of my career, being new to the online world, I was more intrigued than anything else; and the sense of anonymity coupled with being too close to the halls of Bible College and Seminary dorm life, fused together in a way that found ultimate expression in online debates about minutiae that might only be characterized by Fundamentalist idiosyncrasy, and zeal. This zeal, though, I can honestly say, was not born out of a vindictive heart, or a desire to show people that I was smarter than them, or better at rhetorical wit (well, maybe sometimes it could be so reduced!); but really, I have always had a passion for the truth of the Gospel and the edification of the body of Christ. My zeal for the Gospel, in its best moments could be stated this way and for this end:  “Zeal is public passion for gospel truth; without it the church drifts into indifference, weariness or irony of the late career religious professional.” [John Webster, The Domain of the Word, 167.] I don’t ever want to experience this kind of drift, but a growing in zeal with knowledge. And I would like to believe that most of my blogging career has been characterized not by wandering polemic aiming at a bunch of moving targets; but a ‘zeal’ and ‘public passion for gospel truth’!

In this spirit, John Webster offers five reasons wherein theological controversy can be fruitful and edifying. I was contemplating only emphasizing the last thesis statement by Webster, but I think I will give it a go, and transcribe all five reasons; because, well, they are that good! I will offer each thesis, and then provide a summary/response at the end.

[F]irst, and most generally, theological controversy must be an exercise within the communio sanctorum. Those who contend are saints, not mere ‘civil neighbours’. They are bound together by bonds beyond the natural, together placed in the tranquil realm of reconciliation. It is as reconciled and sanctified persons that they engage in controversy; reconciled and sanctified controversy is a very different exercise from its unregenerate counterpart. Moreover, the end of controversy is the furtherance of communion, not its erosion. Righteous conduct in theological controversy requires charity, and therefore resists the flight from society which contests commonly precipitate.

Second, theological controversy must be undertaken in a way which displays and magnifies the truth of the gospel whose author and content in is peace. This principle brings with it a remarkably demanding ascetical requirement: controversy will only serve peace in the church if it has an external orientation, if it is a movement in response to an object beyond the contending parties. Without this reference to the object – an object, we should remember, which is primarily and antecedently a divine subject, living, personally, active communicative and directive – controversy will simply reinforce discord by embedding in the public life of the church the self-absorption of sensuous minds which, the apostle tells us, do not ‘hold fast to the Head’ (Col. 2.19). may controversy be conducted without self-conceit, mutual provocation and envy (Gal. 5.25), and assist in the uniting of the hearts and minds of the saints in a common object of delight.

Third, theological controversy must not allow divergence of opinion to become divergence of will otherwise it will fail as an exercise of charity. ‘Concord is a union of will, not of opinions’. In many cases, however, we allow divergence of opinion to become inflamed, and so to erode concord, failing to rest content with the fact that those from whom we diverge in opinion may be at one with us in a commonly cherished good. There are, of course, conflicts which are generated from fundamental divergences about the gospel, and which cannot be contained within concord, there being no common object of love. But these are not conflicts within the church so much as about the church. In such cases concord must wait for conversion to the truth.

Fourth, theological controversy must have an eye to the catholicity of the object of Christian faith and confession, an object which exceeds any specification of it which we may make. The object which constitutes the peace of the church and which is the substance of common Christian love is infinite and inexhaustible. This does not give licence to any representation which may court our favour – the object of common love is this one, not a formless reality. Yet, of all possible objects of love, this one is not such that we can ever end our dealings with him, determine him in such a way that we put ourselves beyond learning from our companions. Controversy turns into conflict when opinions become weapons of the will, that is, when some one reading of the gospel becomes that to which others must conform even at cost to that friendly concord in which ‘the hearts of many are joined into one focal point’.

Fifth, and most of all, theological controversy must be undertaken with tranquil confidence that, with the illuminating power of the Spirit, Jesus Christ will instruct and unify the church through Holy Scripture. Properly conducted, theological controversy is an exercise in reading the Bible in common with the calm expectation of discovering again what makes up peace and builds up our common life. We often talk ourselves into (or perhaps allow ourselves to be talked into) a kind of barren naturalism according to which appeals to Scripture founder on irresolvable exegetical and hermeneutical conflict. Once confidence in the power of Scripture to determine matters in the church is lost, the politics of the saints quickly slides into agonistic practices in which we expect no divine comfort or direction. This is not a new experience in the history of the church; it has afflicted Western Protestants since at least the early seventeenth century – John Owen, in a melachonly aside, lamented that ‘men do hardly believe that there is an efficacy and power accompanying the institutions of Christ’. The only corrective to loss of trust is recovery of trust. Because there are divine institutions, because there are prophets and apostles in service to the prophetic presence of Christ, we are not devoid of divine assistance and we may be confident that exegesis, rightly and spiritually ventured, will not exacerbate conflict but draw its sting, and guide our feet into the way of peace.[1]

All of these are good (even excellent, at points!). But let me close by focusing on the fifth point. This is one that I have struggled with over the years, and what Christian Smith has called the problem of Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism; the idea that we all have our own kind of Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. And given this reality, coupled with the ‘Reformed’ Priesthood of All Believers, it becomes almost terminally difficult to come to any commonly held interpretive conclusions around the text of Scripture. And so in argument, among ourselves (per some of the dictates highlighted by Webster), we all appeal to Scripture, but we proof text right past each other. I have often argued in the past that we need to become aware of the theology that we are committed to prior to using Scripture to challenge each other’s conclusions; but what I have fallen prey to, is what Webster cautions us to. That is, a sequestering of the text of Scripture by theological concerns, such that Scripture no longer really has any kind of norming norming effect or centrality of place in our theological discussions. Scripture becomes a relic and trophy of our  heritage, but not the place where the Lordly Word can accost us in such a way that it can strip all of us bare and level us out in a way where we all are kneeling together at the foot of the cross, which is the preamble and shape of the throne at the right hand of the Father. So I am convicted by Webster’s last point! And the rest too …


[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word:Scripture and Theological Reason, (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 169-70.

Welcome

Hello my name is Bobby Grow, and I author this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist. Feel free to peruse the posts, and comment at your leisure. I look forward to the exchange we might have here, and hope you are provoked to love Jesus even more as a result. Pax Christi!

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A Little Thomas Torrance

“God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

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“We must always keep in mind that the reason the Son of God came down from the hidden throne of the eternal Father and revealed heavenly doctrine was not to furnish material for seminary debates, in which the display of ingenuity might be the game, but rather so that human beings should be instructed concerning true knowledge of God and of all those things which are necessary to the pursuit of eternal salvation.” Martin Chemnitz, Loci theol. ed., 1590, Hypomnemata 9 cited by Barth, CD I/1, 82.

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