How and Why I Seek to Operate as a Theologian in the ‘spirit’ of Luther

Martin Luther is really to blame for my theological trajectory. I knew of him in Bible College, and studied his works incidentally, but in Seminary I spent a lot of time with him; indeed, I was mentored in his theology (along with Calvin and some Puritans). It is his ‘spirit’ that I think and work from as a ‘budding’ theologian myself; I think this is important to understand insofar that you care to understand it. Luther is a radically shaped theologian of the Word, and this sits well with my soul. My whole orientation as a Christian is shaped by crisis and the reality of Holy Scripture speaking into that crucible. This, I take it, is the core of Luther’s own theological shape and formation. He was a man riddled with uncertainty about his standing before God, and someone who lived in fear of an imminent death outwith right standing with God. This palpable fear of Luther’s can be largely attributed to his training under Nominalist thought and its powers of God theology therein (i.e. potentia absoluta/potential ordinata). In this frame of reference a person could never ultimately be certain about “which God” they were dealing with since God in the heavens could be totally different than the God revealed in the ordained realities of salvation history. Luther understood this, he internalized it, and it was thus the source of great angst as he attempted to walk in a world under the guise of a God who potentially could turn out to be a monster rather than a marriage partner.

It is within this context that Luther had his seminal ‘rebirth.’ As an Augustinian monk he was in the monastery under the watchful eye of Johann von Staupitz. Staupitz led Luther away from both the scholastic and nominalist understandings of God—both heavily imbued with metaphysical baggage, from one direction or another—and pushed him into the New Testament text itself where Luther was introduced, finally!, to a view of God in Christ that brought rest to his famished soul. In the biblical text Luther for the first time came to realize that God is a God of love, and this meant that He was a God who didn’t stand aloof in the heavenlies, but instead was a God who came down and took on the flesh and blood of the every-man. Michael Allen Gillespie in his book The Theological Origins of Modernity offers this good word on Luther’s reformational transformation:

In Luther’s view God accomplishes this work in us by grace, by infusing himself in us, and possessing us. He comes to dwell in us as through the word. His love that binds him to us is the source of our salvation. The word in this way, according to Luther, comes to dwell in our heart. This gracious infusion of the word has a startling effect, creating a new self and a new kind of being. As Luther describes his own experience: “Here I felt I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

This great insight is a rejection of both the via antique and via moderna, of both scholasticism and nominalism. Both, in Luther’s view, derived their doctrines from a reading of Aristotle and other philosophers and not from the word of God. In this respect, neither lives up to the direct evidence principle laid down by Trutfetter and Arnoldi as the core of nominalism. Luther turns one of the fundamental principles of nominalism against its own theology. He admits as much already in 1520, claiming that it is not a question of the authorities but of arguments and firms assertions. “That is why I contradict even my own school of Occamists who follow the modern way, which I have absorbed completely.” Nominalism held that God was supremely free and could consequently be merciless in his wrath and that human beings had only enough free will to welcome God into their lives. Luther’s recognition that God’s righteousness was not an external judgment, but the righteousness or justification that he gave to human beings, reconfigured the supreme force in the universe into a benign being. Luther does not deny divine omnipotence—indeed he magnifies it—but suggests that the awesome power of his God (and the terror it generates) is a blessing because it acts in and through human beings and is the basis of their salvation.[1]

Maybe, if you care, this helps you understand better what serves as the basis for my own theological impulses. And maybe if you can appreciate this you will also be able to appreciate why I often seem so off-put by what is currently underway in the environs of theological retrieval in the evangelical and Reformed world. It is hard for me to grasp how people who claim the ‘Reformed pedigree’ can so quickly gloss over Luther’s real reason for the Protestant Reformation; and the impulses that drove him. He, by and large, rejected the God of scholasticism, indeed the God of nominalism as well, because he was driven by greater, even existential concerns. Luther could see that the metaphysical God he was given in his context was not able to actually ‘touch’ people; and Luther more than anyone else internalized this ‘hands-off’ God.

When touched with infirmity and the felt brokenness of our sinful lives the God of scholasticism and nominalism remains only a ‘school-God,’ and as such fits better in the ivory towers of the academic speculators, untouched by the filth and shit[2] of this grimy world where the majority of humanity lives. The world needs a God like the God revealed in Christ, and Luther personally understood this from the inside. This is the God I realize I need, and as such Luther and those after Luther are the theologians who I resonate with most. This is why Karl Barth (and TF Torrance) is so important to me. Barth quotes Luther more than any other theologian in his Church Dogmatics. This is indicative of the sort of emphasis that Barth shared with Luther, insofar as they both sought to err on the side of emphasizing Jesus Christ, the Word of God, to the breaking point of theological endeavor. Luther, as did Barth following, understood that the God revealed in Christ and attested to in Holy Scripture was a God different than the school-God; insofar that the revealed God made Himself vulnerable to human touch and sense. Luther, with Barth following, understood that as Christ was known by faith, that this God-revealed remained the God who wanted to be known by touch and sense rather than through abstract speculation. This is why I am a ‘budding’ theologian who operates in the ‘spirit’ of Luther, just as Barth is an after Luther theologian, so I seek to be an after Barth theologian; and only because they both, in their respective emphases, attempted to think God as God freely chose to be thought from the bread crumbs and spilled grape juice of eucharistic and eschatological reality.

I could just as easily be known as The Evangelical Lutherian as ‘The Evangelical Calvinist,’ indeed the former is probably more appropriate in important ways. I am concerned about many of my evangelical and Reformed brethren. They have seemingly been directed in the wrong direction, and have failed to really appreciate the radical nature of what Luther et al. undertook. I mean, their misstep is understandable, this turn-back-to-scholastic theology (pace Muller) began to happen almost immediately post-Luther. The happenings and developments of Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology signaled a sort of death-knell to what Luther was attempting to do in his reformatory work; and yet for some reason I can note this, and people simply gloss right past it. I am not the sort who is going to gloss past Luther’s mode and intent. That said, I am less concerned with the various ‘schools’ that have developed, and more concerned with the actual theological content that has been produced; a content that either is driven more by Luther’s and Barth’s emphasis upon the concrete and tangible God in Christ, versus a content driven by speculation and the theological school-masters. For my money, the genuinely Protestant way is much more radical, and thus ‘modern’ in the sense that it constantly turns people back to the concrete-God rather than the antique-God supposedly underwriting the Great catholic Tradition of the Church.

Anyway, another autobiographical post that I hope helps give you further insight into my own impulses. Maybe they well resonate with you as well.

[1] Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 107-08.

[2] Please excuse this scatological reference, but more and more this word captures the warp and woof of this waning world for me; and as such I refer to it within its contextual form as that finds referent in the underbelly of a fallen and uncleansed world.

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‘The Love of Many Has Grown Cold’: Bowing the Knee to the Lord Jesus as Our Life and Witness

This world is descending quickly; further and further into the abyss of chaos and destruction. It doesn’t seem to me, that what counts as Christianity today, in our Western enclaves of evangelicalism, has the capacity to cope with what’s going on anymore. It has lost any fortitude to stand in the power of God in Christ just as it has traded its birthright, won by the person and work of Christ, for the pottage of slop that the world has offered it in exchange. The pottage is filled with a God who looks nothing like the One we see in Jesus Christ, instead it looks like the person we stare at in the mirror every morning we wake up.

I was just involved in a thread yesterday, on Facebook, where I was ruthlessly belittled and vitriolically attacked simply because I offered an alternative position to the one that was being advocated for via satire. The audience in this group of people are largely “conservative evangelicals,” and yet their ‘love has grown very cold’; if in fact they’ve ever had that love. So, that’s one thing, but on the other hand we just are waking up to the horrific reality of the mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand. The shooter is a self-proclaimed eco-fascist who would like nothing more, but to start a race and arms civil-war in the United States (thus triggering a global conflict); with the goal of thrusting us further into the cesspool this world currently lives in, even if it attempts to gloss it over through the various idolatrous facades we have available to us.

As you might be able to tell I am rather agitated. I am at a total loss. I am fully disillusioned by not only the chaos currently present in the world system, but in the chaos that is present in the evangelical churches. People are not being taught Christ and Him crucified; they are not being taught that Jesus is LORD, that Jesus is Lord and they are not! People have no fortification in themselves, because they seemingly are not being taught that God in Christ, the One who alone has an indestructible Life, is the esse or source of their life; and thus they simply cave into the most primal instincts of their fallen nature as they require resource to face the evil in the world out there; and the evil ‘in there,’ in their hearts. The Church is seemingly in full-on idolatry mode and have fallen for their fallen-selves rather than the One who has raised them from the dead in His new humanity. If Christians don’t know this, how are they to live this; how are they to be salt and light in a world that is in a flaming relationship with the devil himself? Christians, in the main, just as anyone, experience the fall-out that is currently ravaging this world; but if they cannot recognize the Shepherd’s voice among the many hirelings, then all they will really have left is their own voice who they will and do mistake for the Shepherd’s.

I am thoroughly agitated at the moment; and for good reason! Jesus say’s in Luke ‘will I really find faith on the earth when I return?’ Probably not. It doesn’t seem as if people understand that their voices only matter insofar as they are bearing witness to the reality of the living Savior; social media has falsely inflated the importance of all our voices. We have no voice without Christ’s! This is what Barth so eloquently fleshes out for us as he talks about the reality of the Church, and our reality in it; in Christ. He writes:

A second meaning of the description of the Church as Christ’s body is undoubtedly this: that the repetition of the incarnation of the Word of God in the historical existence of the Church excludes at once any possible autonomy in that existence. The Church lives with Christ as the body with its head. This means that the Church is what it is, because in consequence of what human nature and kind became in Jesus Christ, human nature and kind are made obedient to the eternal Word of the Father and are upheld by that Word. “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion (fellowship) of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 10.16f)? In and by this participation the Church lives. It lives by the fact that within it as the circumference nothing happens except a real repetition of what has happened in its midst, in Jesus Christ, to men and for men. It lives by growing up to him who is the head, Christ (Eph. 4.15), i.e. by receiving its whole existence, comfort and direction from Him and only from Him. He is always the subject of the Church. “What believest thou concerning the holy, universal, Christian Church? That the Son of God out of the whole human race gathereth, guardeth and sustaineth for himself an unworldly Church unto eternal life, by his spirit and word in unity with true faith from the beginning of the world unto the end, and that I am and shall eternally remain a living member of the same” (Heid. Cat. qu. 54). Our Lord Jesus Christ does not give us some instructions, like some-one teaching the alphabet to a child, and then gives him to a more excellent teacher. Our Lord does not speak to us in half-measures, but in complete perfection, such that both in life and death, he makes us persist in that which we have from Him, and to renounce that which comes from men. For there is no mixing without corruption . . . It is necessary that the Church be fortified such that Jesus Christ our head always has preeminence. For one wished to exalt men that Jesus Christ was thereby obscured, that would be a fearful construction, and which would bring only ruin and confusion. And in fact, if a man were to become as large as a pillar in this temple, and his head was like a fist, and it was concealed within his shoulders, that would be a monster. It would be much better that he keep the measure common to all (Calvin, Serm. on Gal. 1.11f, 1557; C. R. Calv. 50, 329 f.). “Asketh thou what the Christian Church thou must seek, not that it lie at Rome or at St. James or at Nuremberg or at Wittenberg or among countryfolk, townsfolk or nobility, but it saith, ‘the government shall be upon His shoulders’ … that a right Christian and true member of the Churches is he who believeth that he sitteth upon Christ’s shoulders, that is, that all his sins are hung on Christ’s neck, so that his heart saith, I known no other comfort save that all my sins and misdeeds are laid upon His shoulders. Therefore those who lie on Christ’s shoulders and let themselves be carried by Him, are called and are the Church and proper Christians” (Luther, Pred. üb. Jes. 9. 1 f., 1532. E.A. 6, 59 f.). Therefore, the right order of confession requires that the Church be subordinated to the Trinity, just as a house is to its dweller and the temple to God and state to its founder . . . Therefore neither the whole, nor any part of it should wish to be worshipped instead of God, nor should anything be God which belongs to the temple of God which was built by the gods, which the unmade God made (Augustine, Enchir. 56).[1]

If the Church, and its individual members (I Cor. 12.27) cannot come to terms with the reality that Jesus is Lord, and they are not, then we can count on our ‘love growing cold’ to the point that we seemingly are starting to see in our social-media culture. If Jesus were to come right now (please, Lord!), would He really find faith in His churches? In my experience the answer, in the main, is a resounding NO!

If Christians don’t realize that the source of their life is Christ, then how are they supposed to bear witness to this reality in the world; or even in the Church at large? The love of many has grown cold indeed. People have conflated the simplicity of the true Christ with a different Jesus (II Cor. 11) and called Him Lord. There is no love available there; only self-aggrandizement and the exaltation of the naveled-self as Lord. There is no power for “Christians” living under these sorts of anti-Christ terms, and as such there is no light to shed on the darkness we are plunging further and further into each day. The Church is to have a leavening effect on the culture; in this world system. It cannot nor will not till it starts to live in repentant-living; she isn’t, and probably won’t unfortunately. There is a corresponding relationship between the love of many growing cold, and the darkness we see on the rise as a result.

Pastors are responsible for proclaiming Christ and Him crucified to their congregants; this is a weighty responsibility for which there is stricter judgment coming. Pastors, and those of us who ‘teach,’ are responsible before God for the souls of those under our care. There is a general failure underway, especially in the evangelical churches, such that any ‘power of God’ we might participate in and with through Christ is absent. The absence of power in the Churches to live holy and bold lives before God in Christ, are directly corollary with our unwillingness to recognize that Jesus is Lord; in our unwillingness to live in obedience to Him.

My experience yesterday on Facebook, and now this shooting in New Zealand (not equating them, per se) has only illustrated to me once more how urgent things are! There doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency among the people of God. The churches seem to be stagnating with no real power in the world at large; or even in their own homes and personal lives. There seems to be a lack of living into and for the ‘Great Commission’ that our Lord has commanded we follow Him in as He seeks to save the least and the lost. Lord! Maranatha

[1] Barth, CD I/2 §16, 14-5 [italics mine — these are the Latin phrases in their English translation].

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.

The Old Testament God of ‘Genocide’ and the New Testament God of the Cross: An Eschatological and Staurological Theory in Relief

The God of the Old Testament, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, also known as Yahweh, is often derided as a menacing vengeful God who is seemingly bloodthirsty for anyone’s blood who isn’t one of his “chosen” covenant people. We see God commanding His people, upon entry to Canaan, to wipe out whole nations; sparing no one, not even child or mother. This seems not just harsh, but for some it is akin to outright genocide. We have concepts like the ‘ban’ in place—just open to the Book of Moses and you’ll see this—under which, as noted, when the tribes of Israel entered into ‘The Land’, they were to engage in a scourged-earth campaign wherein EVERYTHING was to be wiped out; including certain types of vegetation. People often read these passages in the 21st century, under such sensibilities, and attempt to cohere ‘this God’ with the God we encounter in the New Testament, in Jesus Christ. They see an almost absolute disjunction between Jesus, and the God of the Old; to the point that they engage in creative reading practices that attempt to attribute the Old Testament understanding to the purview of the people of Israel, rather than to who God actually is in Himself (in se).

Frankly, such things as the ‘ban’ are not easy teaching; indeed, it is hard teaching. My strategy, in regard to engaging with this difficulty, has been to recognize that what was going on in the Ancient Near East (ANE) millennia ago, represents worlds and worlds of difference from what is going on currently in the 21st century under the pressures of modernity (although, honestly, things aren’t really that different when we start comparing the similarities between the wickedness that prevailed then, and the wickedness and blood-shed that prevails currently). It is within this acknowledgement that I am able to say: “okay, God was accommodating Himself and His ways, to the currents of that time, rather than the currents of my time.” I am able to conclude that God’s Providential ways have worked through every periodized period of history in such a way that He has been able to unfold and accomplish His purposes as those are entailed by the reality of His elect Son, Jesus Christ.

But something hit me tonight, as I was reading Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2 §14. It involves a theological understanding, more pointedly, a christological understanding of just what might have been going on with the seeming brutality of the ‘ban’, and the way God commanded His people to act when encountering the Canaanites upon entry into the ‘Land of Israel’ (or what would become that). We know, explicitly from the context of the text, that one of God’s purposes was to keep the people from mixing with these corrupted nations; to keep them from adopting their cultural traditions and gods, in order to remain ‘sanctified’ unto God for His peculiar purposes. But this begs the question: ‘why?’ Why was this so important to Yahweh? Why was God so concerned with covenantally preserving the Hebrews? Why was God so intent upon keeping them untouched by the surrounding nations? Here is what cajoled my thinking towards an answer to the “why” of the questions I have just noted:

The Old Testament like the New Testament is the witness to the revelation in which God remains a hidden God, indeed declares Himself to be the hidden God by revealing Himself. In and with this attested revelation a judgment is pronounced upon the whole world surrounding it, since God—here and now actually present—declares the whole world surrounding His revelation to be godless, irrespective of what it apparently believed itself to possess in the way of divine presence. And by this judgment this entire surrounding world is as such destined to die off, to pass away. If it has a hope, it is not to be found in itself, but only in connexion with the divine presence which breaks out fresh in revelation, and is the only real presence. But in the first instance it has no hope. If must first of all pass away. The nations settled in Palestine, which were in certain respects highly civilised nations, were struck with surprise and horror at the nomad nation that broke in from the desert with their first and second commandments, although it was really questionable how far even they understood and followed these commandments themselves. The revelation which was the origin of this nation was the revelation of the one, only God, to be acknowledged without analogy and to be worshipped without image. What invaded Palestine was the radical dedivinisation of nature, history and culture—a remorseless denial of any other divine presence save the one in the event of drawing up the covenant. If there were any pious Canannites—and why should there not have been such?—the God of Israel must have appeared to them as death incarnate, and the faith of Israel as irreligion itself. But admittedly no time was left them for such reflections. In remembering this hiddenness of the Old Testament covenant-God, we also understand that the question, as it was obviously put to Israel in the time of Joshua and the Judges down to and including Samuel, consisted in the frightful dilemma: either God’s presence, guidance and help and therefore fidelity and obedience to the covenant on the nation’s side, or peaceful assimilation into the nature, history and culture of the country, i.e., a common human life with its inhabitants. Or the question put the opposite way: either surrender of the covenant with consequent loss of the presence of God in the nature, history or culture of the country, even involving the physical elimination of its inhabitants. The whole inexorable sharpness of the difference between Yahweh and the baalim, between the prophets on the one hand and the nation and the kings and the “false” prophets on the other, which constituted the theme of the history of Israel down to the Deuteronomic reform and beyond, is understandable in the light of the typical either/or, which according to tradition, constituted the end of the wandering in the wilderness and the beginning of the history of Israel in the country of their fathers (or, rather, in the country of Yahweh). Was it nationalistic narrow-mindedness, religious fanaticism, hatred of men and lust for blood that commanded this people to take such a stand and to act upon it? According to the unanimous testimony of the Old Testament, it is rather driven, against its will and amid numerous attempts to carry out its own opposite will, along this hard. [sic] inhumane way. It would have been very like them to become one civilised Canaanite nation among others, and to be religiously open and pliable or at least tolerant. King Saul, whom Samuel had to withstand, and later King Ahab, whom Elijah had to withstand, must in their way have been outstanding representatives of this naturally human Israel. But Israel could not do as it wished. Wherever the voice of its prophets thundered and was heard, the abyss reopened between the gods and men of the country, and the holy nation, the natural, human Israel was accused, it was called back to the offensive attitude of unconditional resistance. It is not its religious and natural peculiarity that is the restraint here—it would never have been so unconditional in its resistance—but its God, who cannot become manifest without at the same time becoming hidden. The country belongs to Him. It cannot therefore belong to the baalim also or even at all. No other loyalty is compatible with loyalty to Him. Since by its own existence Israel pointed out God’s revelation to the world around it, it had to deny their gods, i.e., their very deepest, best and most vital thing, the supposedly absolute relations in which they thought they stood. Israel had to point out to this world the end, the judgment coming upon them. That Yahweh’s exclusiveness is fundamental, that His revelation really points out the judgment coming upon the world, is to be seen in the fact that the prophetic accusations and threats, which apart from Israel are in Amos still directed only against the nearest nations, reach over in the later prophets to the great world nations on the Euphrates and the Nile. From this later message of judgment we shall have to read off the meaning and trend of the earlier one.

The revelation of God in Jesus Christ is actually the end and judgment, the revelation of the hidden God which the Old Testament indicates. In the cross of Christ God is really and finally to become hidden from the world, from this æon. And thereby judgment will be passed upon this æon. The old will have passed away in the incarnate Word of God. The history of Israel runs to meet this Word and so this passing away. It only runs to meet it. But it does run to meet it. It signifies the proclamation of world judgment in fulfilled time. It is the time for expecting it. But because it is the time for expecting it, it is itself revelation-time.[1]

I am not going to attempt to exegete what Barth offers. I simply wanted you to see what prompted me to some of my own thinking on this issue; it is related, of course. I also wanted you to have the opportunity to be prompted to your own thinking by reading this passage from Barth.

But what hit me takes us back to Genesis 3, and the satanic temptation of Adam and Eve. We see ‘in the Beginning’ that the devil has been intent on thwarting the purposes of God, and that he will go to great lengths to undo the ‘very good’ creation that God is willing to give His own and eternal Life for. We see Cain, Nimrod, and Noah’s generation rising up under the inspiration of the devil’s lisp in a demonic attempt to rise up against God’s proto-evangelium (Gen 3.15), and thwart God’s plan to redeem the world. We see in the post-diluvian world (post-flood) a new generation rising up, one that took various trajectory through the lines of Noahic genesis; a trajectory wherein nations were birthed through the seed of the women. These nations, from their inception, were seemingly under the spell of satan’s deception; constructing cultures and gods who were systemically aerated with the breath of the Serpent.

My thought, within the aforementioned context of the ‘ban,’ was that these nations, from the beginning were constructed in such a way that their purpose was to keep God’s plan from fruiting. It would be through the intermixing and watering down of God’s covenant people that God’s people, as mediators of the Messiah, were intended on thwarting God’s plan. Even as we read in Barth, this is exactly the sort of waywardness that Israel was so prone to. What we see is that even in the mixture of “God’s people” with the ‘secular nations’, even in the failure of God’s people, as they were allowed to grow and mix with the nations and their ways; we see that God’s Way could not be thwarted. No matter the imperfection of these people, “His people,” He would mediate Himself through their loins, as the Lamb of God come to take away the sins of the world. But it seems that early on as Yahweh was bringing His people into The Land, that the intent was to carve out a space where His sanctified and vivified people might begin to flourish as they moved towards the ‘fullness of time’ (Gal 4).

In a way this helps me understand what was going on in the ‘ban’ period of God’s people as they invaded the Canaanite lands. In the midst of that there was a foreshadowing of the ultimate judgment to come, as that would be realized in the flesh of God in Jesus Christ. Up until that ‘revealed-time’, God worked as leaven in the ‘lost-time’ of the nations with the sole purpose of bringing His rightful judgment of them to an end in the unrightful judgment of Himself as the ‘Judge judged’; which is His Grace enacted. But the harshness of the judgment meted out on these nations, I contend, was ultimately for their own good. It signifies just what is at stake in the coming of the Son of Man, and the harshness of the judgment He bore for them and all of us.

The nations, under the devil’s own motivations, sought, unconsciously, in the spiritually dead state they took formation within, to thwart the means of their own so desperately needed re-conciliation with God. In order to look at this sort of ‘judgment’ for what it is, this requires that we approach this eschatologically, under the staurologic (cross-logic) of God’s ultimate purposes to reverse the curse spawned by the Serpent’s word, by bringing His Word (Logos) to the concretization that the Christ is. But in order for my theory to be persuasive, the primary premise that must be accepted is that Israel was (and is) God’s covenant people; a people with the ‘seed’ (Gal 3) in its loins that would ultimately be the salvation not just for them, but even the nations under Yahweh’s judgment. These things must be thought through this lens, or my thesis falls apart, and we are reverted back to the Enlightenment-critical reading that sees the Old Testament referring to a God of the Hebrew’s own projection. FWIW

[1] Barth, CD I/2 §14, 87-8.

The Radical Sacrifice of God in Apocalyptic Frame

I just started reading, not only Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, but just this evening, Terry Eagleton’s new book: Radical Sacrifice. They are in tandem percolating my wits in a certain direction and mode of feeling. This particular post will reference Eagleton’s work, in discussion with a burgeoning theological mode that someone like Philip Ziegler is at the forefront of developing; viz. I will bring Eagleton’s thinking into some con-versation with Ziegler’s work, and then not to mention, I will touch upon some of Karl Barth’s thinking as distilled by Robert Dale Dawson (meaning I will be drawing off of previous posts as I bring those into passing with Eagleton’s). The point I want to press has, once again, to do with Apocalyptic Theology, but in this instance, I want to fill that out with Eagleton’s thinking on sacrifice as irruption and representative of a primordial new. To start with I will help refresh our understanding of what apocalyptic theology entails; I will then illustrate that by referring to Dawson’s thinking on Barth’s theology of resurrection; and then use that to lead into Eagleton’s notion of sacrifice.

Here Ziegler refers us to two other thinkers to help us understand what an Apocalyptic Theology is after:

As Gaventa concisely puts it, “Paul’s apocalyptic theology has to do with the conviction that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has invaded the world as it is, thereby revealing the world’s utter distortion and foolishness, reclaiming the world, and inaugurating a battle that will doubtless culminate in the triumph of God over all God’s enemies (including the captors Sin and Death). This means that the Gospel is first, last, and always about God’s powerful and gracious initiative.” Inasmuch as it is an expression of specifically Christian faith, “apocalyptic theology always and everywhere denotes a theology of liberation in an earth that is dying and plagued by evil powers.

In the words of Donald MacKinnon, its subject matters in nothing less than “God’s own protest against the world He has made, by which at the same time that world is renewed and reborn.”[1]

We see this idea that the ‘world is renewed and reborn’ through God’s ‘invasion’ in Christ, the sort of ostensibly discontinuous discord between the world now and the world to come/came in Christ in Barth’s theology as well. Here Robert Dale Dawson unfolds how that looks in relation to Barth’s doctrine of resurrection:

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[2]

I provide these two ideational vignettes in order, as I noted, to lead us into some similar thinking from Eagleton. The theme to grasp from these previous interlocutors is the idea of disruption; Divine disruption. There is a tumult that occurs in the crucifixion of God in Christ. The fact itself, that it requires God to enflesh, and assume blood and oxygen for us, ought to suggest to us that something alien (meaning radical and extraneous to us, by way of antecedent and determination) has occurred, of the sort that out of its ashes only something new and elevated could arise. In other words, the sacrifice of God’s Son for us, ought to let us know that the depth of sin’s pollution is beyond the scope of a simple remodel (of presently available materials — as if nature simply needed to be ‘perfected’); it ought to alert us to the idea that what was required was a decreation in order for a recreation to enter in and bring us to the heights that God had freely chosen to pre-destine for us according to His eternally gracious and lovely good will to be for us rather than against us in the election of His dearly beloved Son. It is in this vein that Eagleton helps us think about the in-breaking of God’s life for us in Christ, and the sort of radical irruption that necessarily occurred thusly. You’ll notice that Eagleton speaks in more profane and less theologically driven terms than I am.

The most compelling version of sacrifice concerns the flou-rishing of the self, not its extinction. It involves a formidable release of energy, a transformation of the human subject and a turbulent transitus from death to new life. If sacrifice is a political act, it is not least because it concerns an accession to power. As one commentator remarks, ‘almost all sacrifice is about power, or powers’. The ritual is indeed about loss and waste, but in the name of a more fruitful form of life. Julian of Norwich sees it in terms of childbirth, where pain is a prelude to joy. If sacrifice involves yielding something up, it is in order to possess it more deeply. As Hubert and Mauss observe, ‘there is no sacrifice into which some idea of redemption does not enter’. It is true that the institution has a number of retrograde features, as its critics have been at pains t point out. As we shall see, it has been for the most part a profoundly conservative practice. Yet there is a radical kernel to be extracted from its mystical shell. Sacrifice concerns the passage of the lowly, unremarkable thing from weakness to power. It marks a movement from victimhood to full humanity, destitution to riches, the world as we know it to some transfigured domain. It is this disruptive rite of passage that is known among other things as consecration. To make an object sacred is to mark it out by investing it with a sublimely dangerous power. If sacrifice is often violent, it is because the depth of the change it promises cannot be a matter of smooth evolution or simple continuity.

In this sense, the practice of ritual sacrifice nurtures a wisdom beyond the rationality of the modern, at least as its most callow. It sets its face against the consoling illusion that fulfilment can be achieved without a fundamental rupture and rebirth. The consecration of the sacrificial victim is a matter of wholesale transformation, not some piecemeal evolution. One cannot pass from time to eternity while remaining intact. Since the gods are totally other to humanity, any contact with them involves a metamorphosis as fundamental as the passage from living to dying. The idea of sacrifice broods among other things on the mystery by which life springs from death, seeking a passage through loss and devastation in order to thrive. Dennis J. Schmidt writes of how for Hegel, ‘conflict, contradiction, negation, sacrifice, and death saturate the life of the spirit so thoroughly that they define the very truth of the spirit’. In a similar vein, Miguel de Beistegui observes that ‘one should recognise that [for Hegel] the greatness of Spirit in history or of man in his action reveals itself primarily in sundering and in death, in sacrifice and in struggle, and that thought itself derives its depth only from taking the full measure of this tragic grandeur’. Pre-modern societies are conscious in a similar way of a secret complicity between living and dying. If the fumes of burnt offerings no longer waft to the nostrils of petulant deities in our own time, it is partly because modernity enforces a rigorous distinction between the two states.[3]

The basic gist I’d like to leave with is this: There is much more going on in the ‘death, burial, and resurrection’ of Jesus Christ than often meets the prima facie eye. There is, as Torrance would say, a ‘depth dimension’ to the reality of the Gospel that pushes deeper and more vertically, while operating within the horizontal flatland, than we often realize.

I think Eagleton’s initial thoughts on sacrifice, while from a different vantage point than a proper ‘apocalyptic theology,’ helps us delve deeper into the history of ideas of what might be informing the way we ought to think a biblical notion of ‘sacrifice.’ It helped illumine things further for me, and hopefully it has done the same for you! PAX CHRISTI

 

[1] Philip G. Ziegler, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018), loc 162, 171 kindle.

[2] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13 [Emphasis is mine].

[3] Terry Eagleton, Radical Sacrifice (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018), Loc. 138, 147, 154, 162 kindle.

Living in the Utility of Faust in the Social Media Age: Cruciformed Doxology as the Antidote

In our social media age, and even prior (of course), people have followed the adage that: ‘knowledge is power.’ When we think of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Blogs, and multiple other platforms we can see first hand what “knowledge” offers a variety demographics worldwide. We can see the sort of power that is fomented as a result of the unleashing of a superabundance of knowledges; knowledge of whatever we could imagine, and more. Some knowledge is seemingly pedestrian and general, but other knowledges have profound implications and consequences. Knowledge, particularly as we live in the information-social media age, does not have to be accurate knowledge to count as knowledge; it simply becomes knowledge for the one receiving and perceiving it. In other words, what counts as knowledge today does not have to be tethered to an external reality, it can instead simply be a reality that coheres within the ideological and paradigmatic frame we inhabit (so a coherentist account; a self-referentiality that requires nothing more than the points of contact that fund whatever frame we may be thinking from within). What we see in our moment of history is knowledge that has a utilitarian power which moves tribes of people groups to act in activist ways, potentially, or maybe to refrain and stand back in the cloisters of their own spatial location in society. Whatever the case may be, if we gain knowledge without some sort of limiting or regulative factor, in regard to what these knowledges can foment and produce; if we gain knowledge, and believe that my personal universe is enough to contain its power, then we will see things happen—we will see ‘power’ unleashed—but a power that is devoid of the Spirit—a power that is ultimately demonic and incurved upon the self.

Knowledge is power, but whose power; and knowledge of who or what? There are clearly differing powers operative in the world over. As Christians we know that there is the living God’s power, which looks christological, staurological, and cruciform; and then there is devilish-demonic power that looks self-possessed, self-assertive, and abrasive. The latter looks like this evil age. Without the Spirit, this ‘age’ looks to be the best of possible worlds; at least the best that we can make it as the human species abandoned on a rock in the nether regions of deep space. And if this age isn’t the best, “dangit we are going to strive to make it the best utopia we can.” But where does such incurved thinking, where does such knowledge get us? It gets us further and deeper into the chaos of the world we see all around us. Sure, we can attempt to manipulate nature, as if we’re gods, by deploying all of our technological advancements to accomplish our ‘noble’ efforts to create a “just” and wholesome society (based upon whatever society thinks that ought to be); but where does that really get us?

What if the human animal was created to be a worshipping animal? What if we were never intended to be self-reliant, but instead Theo-reliant? We clearly are worshipping animals, but in the Christian account things went terribly awry! The evidence that we are worshipful beings (a posteriori) is everywhere we look; all of society is built upon the premise that at one level of intensity to another we are intent on worshipping. Ultimately, if we aren’t worshipping the living God, the God who created and recreated us in His lively image in Christ (cf. Col. 1.15), then by the incurvature of sin we will worship ourselves. We might be the greatest philanthropist or the evilest monster in world history, but at the end of the ultimate day, by fallen-nature we are driven to do what we do by our greatest love interest: ourselves. The cure to this destructive waywardness is to come to the reconciliatory knowledge of the living God in Christ; where the hidden God Deus absconditus becomes the Revealed God Deus revelatus as we by the Spirit see the Man from Nazareth for who He really is (for us). In this knowledge genuine power, God’s power, the power that holds all of reality together by His Word, is realized, and we come to the moment we were primally designed for (by the eschatological life of the Triune God); we come to live into our vocation as creatures before our Creator; we start living the life of doxological reality God formed us for to begin with. We come to have the freedom that God has lived in for Himself for time in eternity; we come to find our ‘being’ in the other rather than attempting to construct that mondically in the self. We realize that the basis of our lives is an ec-static one that comes from the heavenlies rather than from the blood and soil of self-constructed citadels.

Paul Hinlicky brings what I’m getting at into further relief, and helps to tamp down what I’m attempting to articulate with more eloquence than I can muster. Here he is writing in the context of Melanchthon’s theology:

It is important to dwell a moment longer on this ultimately doxological nature of science for Melanchthon, and it is interesting to observe in this connection how he recorded one of the first versions of the Faust legend — a cautionary tale about knowledge sought instrumentally, only for power’s sake, as pure technology fulfilling infantile fantasies for magical power severed from God’s final purpose of doxology. Delight and praise in contemplation of the works of God are thus not decoration, so to say, but mark a deep rift between philosophical pragmatism and theological pragmatics: as the final cause of knowledge in the created human mind, the praise of God lends both ethical direction for and aesthetic motivation to reason’s patient inquiry into the efficient material causes of the world. The mandate is progressively to know the world as God the Creator knows it, who is not mere power but always power together with wisdom and love, who rests therefore and rejoices in all His works on the seventh day of creation, a type of the eternal sabbath. True knowledge is not merely power but power qualified by wisdom and love. The eschatological doxology of the redeemed and fulfilled creation now anticipated in turn forms a barrier wall against the purely instrumental, Faustian equation of knowledge with power.[1]

The world, under the sway of the Evil one, will continue to live out its deal with Faust; this is simply definitional reality for the ‘world.’ But as Christians we ought to buck this serpentine deal, and live into and from the doxological life of Jesus Christ who has graciously elected to live for us before the Father by the Spirit. It seems to me that the church, by and large, far too often falls into socio-culturo-politco slide wherein, even in the name of Christ, we end up cultivating a life of worship that is centered on the old-creation that indeed is dead and gone with Christ’s cross. Surely, we are simul et justus et peccator, but the church, particularly the Western church (the part of the church I inhabit) is in serious need of repentance. When the love of many grows cold in the communitas of Christ, we know that we have gotten some bad knowledge. We aren’t masters of the universe; Jesus is! We either live from his broken body, shed blood, and recreated humanity by the Holy Spirit, or we live in the utility of Faust.  

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 194-95.

‘Martin Luther’s Hedonism’: The Role of the Affections in the Blood of the Cross

I often refer to Affective Theology (well I have sporadically over the years); affective theology is a way of theologizing I was first alerted to by my former seminary prof and mentor, Ron Frost. He primarily developed the themes, in his own constructive way, that make up his understanding of  affective theology in his PhD work on Richard Sibbes; but he didn’t necessarily arrive at these themes through Sibbes (at least not alone). Frost found the affective modes in Luther’s theology as that reached back to Augustine himself. Affective Theology is a theological construct that we might think of as a soteriologically driven paradigm; and this would make sense given its reliance on Luther, the solifidian theologian. In other words, the concerns that affective theology is enamored with have to do with what makes a human being human; at a theological anthropological level. And further, it wonders about these things as that relates to who God is in his own inner-life (in se). As you might imagine, affective theology sees the affections as central in regard to what makes a human, human at a componential level. Interestingly, most of the Western tradition, when it comes to these issues, sees the intellect as the defining component of what it means to be human; at least in the trad (things have changed in some ways these days; as far as developing a theological-anthropology; but what hasn’t changed are the conceptual impulses at play in this discussion). In other words, the Aristotelian impact on Western Christianity, particularly as modulated through Thomas Aquinas, and modulated further through many of the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries, continues to press upon the way many conservative evangelical and Reformed Christians think about what it means to be human. As an aside: Don’t lose sight of the fact that when we talk like this, about humans and their composition, that what we are ultimately going to do is get back to Who God is. As Calvin so insightfully helped us understand: We have no knowledge of ourselves without knowledge of God first. This is what I mean: who we think we are as human beings will first arise, at least for Christians, from who we think God is. Will we think of God as a Pure Being, a Pure Intellect in the heavens; or will we think of God primarily as filial love, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? This is what this whole discussion is about; this is what affective theology at its best is oriented by.

I noted earlier that Frost found these themes, that make up affective theology, by studying Martin Luther and Augustine’s theologies, respectively. I think it would be fitting then to think about this further with the help of a Lutheran theologian. Paul Hinlicky in his book Paths Not Taken, surprisingly to me, gets into the very loci that we’ve been noting in regard to Affective Theology. I want to share a quote from him that helps not only to illustrate what we’ve been covering (in this post), but helps to develop how ‘affective theology’ impacted Luther’s confidant and fellow-professor-theologian, Melanchthon. What I am going to share from Hinlicky in this regard has a greater context, as far as what he is developing as his argument in the book, but I wanted to lift some of his treatment out in order to help us see that Frost’s idea on affective theology is not something idiosyncratic to Frost; as some would have us believe (like Richard Muller). While Hinlicky’s own orientation is distinct from Frost, the themes they identify in Luther, Augustine et al. are convergent. Let us partake of some of Hinlicky’s writing now, and allow that to in-form (and maybe trans-form) the way we think about the dynamics at play in what it means to be human in a soterio-centric mode (so to speak). Hinlicky writes:

In any case, what actually gave Melanchthon pause in the course of the controversies of the 1520s was the criticism by papist opponents of the hedonism of Luther’s teaching on the will: “by equating the will (which directed reason) with the affections and by insisting that the highest affections were in bondage, [Melanchthon following Luther following Augustine had] made human beings no better than beasts.”

Wengert comes to Melanchthon’s defense: he “was not asking whether it is in a human being’s power to eat, drink, come, go, hear, and other natural matters. . . . The question was ‘whether without the Holy Spirit we can fear God and believe in God and love the cross, etc.’” This defense then is that Luther’s hedonism was that of a higher order. Yet the commonplace distinction here between things above us and things below rings hollow, in that apart from the Word and Spirit of God the self incurvatus in se fails to make this very distinction; it exchanges the glory of the immortal Creator for degrading images of creatures; it cannot find its way back unless someone comes and finds it. According to the “hedonist” psychology, the self is bound to do so in our race’s state of exile, where the creaturely will is spontaneously bound to love whatever object appears good to it, yet has little, if any, disposal over what appears to it as good. All such appearances are outside us, if not above us, and in any case not within our control. This is what is meant by servitude of the will. Thinking this way, the early Melanchthon had grasped Luther’s essential theological point: “why [is] the Holy Spirit necessary, if the human will by its powers could fear God, trust God, overcome concupiscence, and love the cross (in one’s own life),” i.e., if the human will could apprehend as good the God who spared not His own Son and displayed love for us in the repulsive form of the Crucified? It is the apprehension of God on a cross as our true good that is barred to fallen humanity, which naturally averts its eyes from the shame. It is the coming of the Spirit that makes the cross of Jesus appear as the supreme good it actually is by presenting the same Jesus alive and victorious. In this “objective” way the Holy Spirit alters perception of a sight that otherwise revolts the natural will by giving the same thing a new signification. This is “the work of the Holy Spirit, who moved the hearts of true hearers of the Word and helped them effect true virtues.” Note well: in the earlier Melanchthon the heart is moved from without, by the Word giving the Spirit and the Spirit illuminating the Word, not, as later in the scheme “imputative justification-effective sanctification,” from within, independently of the Word, as human feelings.[1]

We can see as Hinlicky tails off that he will be dealing with a shift in Melanchthon’s own views here. But for our purposes I wanted to introduce you, my readers, to this concept of the affections as a theological mode; and one that goes back to a primal Protestant emphasis as we find that located in the very heart of Luther’s theology itself.

What I find invigorating in Hinlicky’s treatment, brief as that is in my sharing of it, is the role that the Holy Spirit plays from without the would-be believer, and how that impacts what it means to be human; a human who sees God—is there any other sort of [real] humanity in the Kingdom of the Son of His love? What this gets at, more than defining component parts of what it means to be human, is how it is that us humans come to know who God is; because of who God is for us. He comes to us where we are, seemingly dead on the cross, and He takes our place on that wood, in gruesome display, and by the igniting of our affections, as those are first His for us in Jesus Christ, He gives us new spectacles through which we see the shed blood of the Lamb of God for what it is. It is through this ignition of our affections, as those are first His affections for us in Christ, it is as we participate in the vicarious-mediatorial-priestly humanity of the Son of Man that the broken flesh and spilt blood of the Christ comes to take on the actual significance and power it has in the economy of God’s life for us. You see, who we understand God to be will determine who we understand ourselves to be; and this will impact not only our relationship with God, but with our neighbors and enemies. This is an important issue that cannot be overstated. Theologia crucis.

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 172-73.

Theology of the Cross Retrieved and Reformed by a Radical and Dialectical Understanding of Correlation and Faith

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.

A Message for the Churches From Kyle Strobel and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: God’s Power in the Lamb that was Slain

I just listened to a very convicting message by Brother Kyle Strobel. He is offering a compressed message from his co-authored book with Jamin Goggin titled  The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church that Has Abandoned It to a conference being held by the Calvary Global Network (Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa — my former church from years past). He is referring people to a genuinely Gospel conditioned notion of power and wisdom; what Martin Luther might call a theology of the cross. It is this reality that gripped my heart many years ago—which I fall short of more than I want to admit—and why I wrote my master’s thesis on a key passage in this area I Corinthians 1.17-25. It’s a conception of power that flips the wisdom of the world on its head; it is power in weakness. Unfortunately just as in the cosmopolitan church of Corinth, so too in the cosmopolitan church of evangelical North America worldly wisdom, worldly power has entered into the gates of the church and subverted the genuine power that God has supplied for his church through the broken veins of his Son, Jesus Christ. Please watch Kyle’s message here.

As a dovetail and corollary with the message that Kyle has brought the churches I just finished a book where in the last chapter of that book a contributing author offered the following quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It fits very well with Kyle’s message; with the Apostle Paul’s message; with Jesus’s message about power, and what that ought to look like in his church. Note:

God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science, has been surmounted and abolished; and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion (Feuerbach!). For the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped, or as far as possible eliminated…. Anxious souls will ask what room is left for God now; and as they know of no answer to the question, they condemn the whole development that has brought them to such straits. I wrote … before about the various emergency exits that have been contrived; and we ought to add to them the salto mortale (death-leap) back into the Middle Ages is heteronomy in the form of clericalism; a return to that can be a counsel of despair, and it would be at the cost of intellectually honesty. It’s a dream that reminds one of the Song O wüsst’ ich doch den Wegzurück, den wieten Weg ins Kinderland [commonly translated “Oh, I wish I knew the way back, the way into childhood”]. There is no such way—at any rate not if it means deliberately abandoning our mental integrity; the only way is that of Matt. 18.3, i.e. through repentance, through ultimate honesty. And we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [commonly translated “as if God did not exist”]. And this is just what we do recognize—before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15.34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which He is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; God is the deux ex machine. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may that the development towards the world’s coming of age outline above, which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness.[1]

If we look at the evangelical churches in North America, and beyond (into other movements and traditions in the churches), we don’t see ‘God’s weakness’ characterizing the type of ‘power’ that the churches seek to operate from; we see, as Strobel emphasizes for us, the demonic power that comes from below. There are plenty of good intentions operative in the churches, but it’s no mistake that the adage says ‘the path to hell is paved by good intentions.’ We ought to recognize that we are at God’s mercy in Jesus Christ in every step that we take. We ought to recognize as thinkers and leaders in the church of Jesus Christ, as everyday Christians, that we can operate with all the piety and speak with all the Christianese available; but absent the death and life of Christ in our lives, as the sustenance that serves as our ‘adequacy’ we will be injecting into the leaven of the Gospel a de-leavening agent that mitigates and pollutes the genuine transformative power of the Gospel that God intends for his church; that God desires that the world see in the guarantee of his Kingdom resident in the heart of his new creation.

Let’s be convicted.

 

[1] Bonhoeffer, “Letters & Papers From Prison,” (New York: Simon&Schuster, 1997) cited by Jospeh Minich, “Classical Theism In A World Come Of Age,” in Bradford LittleJohn ed., God of our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Institute, 2018), Loc 4542, 4551, 4558, 4563 kindle version.

A Theology of Scars and Remembrance

God has a way of keeping his people close to his side; I would like to suggest one of his primary means for doing this is through suffering. For the remainder of this post I want to attempt to offer a theology of scars and remembrance.

We all walk through various forms of suffering in this life, this is what it means to live in a fallen world; there is fall-out in this fallen world—both internal and external to ourselves—that we will in one way or the other be exposed to and experience in various measures of intensity and duration. The wisdom of God was to enter this world precisely at the point of our weakness, and redeem and reverse the human travail from there (I Cor. 1.17-25); as we walk through whatever suffering we are going to be faced with that will leave these scars, whether those be physical, spiritual-emotional, or all of the above. This has been my experience after walking through many years of various trials.

In my early twenties (starting in 1995) I began to experience severe anxiety attacks, deep depression, associated with a doubt of God’s existence (even though I still believed in Him), and a host of other emotional-psychological woes that wouldn’t abate for a period of at least six years. I won’t wear you out with indexing the details of all the woes I struggled with during that season, but suffice it to say there are deep and abiding scars left over from that season. Indeed, God in Jesus Christ brought me healing and comfort through it all; but He let me go through it, in all of its excruciating torment and pain. Yet, He never left or forsook me; He cared for me through apocalyptic in-breakings bringing total relief to tortuous moments where I thought all sanity would finally be lost; and He did this over and over again. He brought relief this way so much, He met me in the depths so frequently that I began to have confidence and expectation that He would deliver me through each episode of despondency and horror. In the midst of the torment He was building His life into mine in such ways that I would learn to recognize His voice, to understand His presence, and to expect Him to show up just when all seemed lost. When this series of events happens over and again for a season of years you begin to have an abiding trust in God that no one can rattle or shake. You begin to realize that the very ground of your identity and essence as a person is fully contingent upon the Living God and His Word of sustenance. If nothing else, this is what this season of time taught me about God. Yet it came with scars. The scars are reminders that I am not my own, that I’ve been bought with a hefty price, and my life can never go beyond the life that God chooses to give me in and from Himself in His Son, Jesus Christ.

Fast forward to 2009, another epic trial hit me; this time it wasn’t just me, but it would impact my young family—my wife and two kids, most immediately (but all of my family). I was diagnosed with what is normally a terminal and incurable cancer called Desmoplastic Small Round Cell Tumor (DSRCT). I thought I had experience anxiety before—and I had—but this brought things to a new level. This season that lasted just about a year held me in a state that went beyond anxiety, it took me to depths of anguish that I didn’t know were possible. Attendant with this season of life there was, of course, the physical component to the suffering that I had never experience previously in any measure in my life. The chemo literally ravished my body, and the lack of having a sense of ‘future’—with my family on this earth—was more than overwhelming. Yet again, the Lord met us in so many ways it would be hard to detail them. He provided for us financially, with the best of medical care, He provided me with what I could only describe as “visions” of Him, He made sure we knew He was tangibly present by angelic visitors, and so many other means of provision. And for some reason, only known to Him, He walked us through that to the point that I was allowed to live. This season of suffering likewise brought scars, not just emotional-psychological, but this time I have physical scars I can look down at on my belly and upper chest. What was made clear in this season is that at the deepest depths God is faithful to meet us where we need Him most; He meets us in our moments of deepest suffering and anguish and reveals Himself in the times where by all outward appearances He seems to be Hidden.

I sketch these two seasons of suffering from my own life to help segue into some biblical passages that I think tie into my own moments of suffering, and into the moments of human suffering in general which we all are partakers of to one degree or another. Let me quote some of these passages, and then I will offer some reflection on them as they relate to this topic of consideration.

13 The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. 14 “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. Exodus 12:13-14

When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’… that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” Joshua 4:1-3, 6-7

67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. 71 It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. Psalm 119:67, 71

42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” 43 And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. 45 And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, 46 and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Luke 22:42-46

28 After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” 29 A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19:28-30

27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” John 20:27

14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16 And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. 17 From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. Galatians 6:14-17

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers,  of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. II Corinthians 1:8-10

10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, Hebrews 2:10-11

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Revelation 1:17-18

These only represent a small sampling of the various passages we could refer to when thinking about a theology of scars, remembrance, and suffering; but they are the ones that most immediately came to mind. Very early on God provides new life for His people through the shedding of innocent blood; He creates a framework wherein sacrifice and substitution for the other becomes the means by which we are to understand our relationship to God. There was much travail and anguish that attended this time of Passover; there was death and judgment, and yet out of this sprung new life, and the hope for all of humanity that would ultimately come through the offspring of Israel in the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. As Leviticus notes ‘the life is in the blood,’ and it is this that comes through most clairvoyantly as we contemplate what happened in Exodus; life was lost, through suffering and the death of the other, in order that life might be reborn in the creation of a new people that would ultimately lead to life for the nations. But I want to highlight the tie in between suffering and new life.

As this new people is formed through much tribulation God has the priests place remembrance stones in the Jordan as a sign of God’s faithfulness; we might see them as ‘scars’ that the people in solidarity could look back upon and remember that they are a people not of their own making, but of the creative hand of Yahweh. These ‘scars’ were intended to be a resource for the people to look at particularly in times where they might be tempted to forget God’s faithfulness; more positively, they were intended to be a sort of sacramental means by which the people were to understand God’s presence in their lives, and for their lives in a very concrete rock hard way.

King David understood how important affliction was; he knew of his heritage and the God who created and formed his lineage. He was so aware of God’s faithfulness that he could look upon his deep and tortuous suffering as the means by which he understood God to be showing Himself faithful to him rather than as an onerous overlord arbitrarily beating him for sadistic purposes. He could look at suffering and affliction and know that there God’s faithfulness was present in it, and that God was using it to teach deep and abiding things about Himself to David.

We meet the son of David, Jesus Christ, in the travail of the Garden; the substantive Passover (I Cor. 5:7). He along with David knew that in order for the plight of new life to come to pass He, as the Lamb of God, must endure suffering for the ‘joy set before Him.’ The depth of His anguish only caused Him to press that much more deeply into His Father’s sustenance and love in reliance upon the Holy Spirit’s comforting presence. Even while in the intensity of the suffering, He knew the Father’s faithfulness would carry Him through in and through the bond of eternal love that He shared with the Father through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Christ’s great travail, most notably observed in the Garden, ironically where the Fall of Humanity occurred (in ‘the Garden’ Gen. 3), eventuated in the deepest travail to ever be experienced in all of history. The suffering and tribulation that Jesus experienced at the point of the cross was of depths that no greater suffering will ever or ever has been known throughout all the long corridors of human suffering and travail. The suffering Jesus endured required that the very ground of His humanity be Divine in nature; outwith this fortification His frail dusty humanity would have been vaporized into the oblivion that the Devil himself and humanity’s incurved souls would have hoped for.

But He is risen! Even in His resurrected body, as Thomas realized, the scars of the cross remained. They will serve as reminders and signs of remembrance for all eternity that God’s faithfulness is greater than humanity’s unfaithfulness; that what it means to be truly human before God is to be reconciled to Him in New Creation and Reconciliation. These scars, at a macro-level, serve to remind us that God in the Son is not untouched by human suffering and anguish, but that His heart is immediately in the midst of all that we walk through in this life, and in the life to come in eschatological vision.

We see the Apostle Paul, as a partaker of the Divine nature, experiencing suffering tribulation and anguish in the same sorts of ways we’ve seen starting in Exodus, in the King David, and ultimately in Jesus Christ himself. The Apostle Paul, like King David understood the value of the trials (even though he’d rather not walk through them cf. II Cor. 12), and could later look at all of his scars and gain great strength and purpose from realizing that God would never leave or forsake him. The Apostle Paul, as he cared for the various churches, wanted people to realize that this pattern was going to be normative for all those who would become spiritual participants in the life of God through Jesus Christ. His writings are filled with notations of how the Christian life will be one that is lived out of brokenness, and in this brokenness God’s resurrected life in Jesus Christ will be made strong and complete; will be the place where He is borne witness to most, and His glory displayed for the world to see and experience.

We understand as we look at Christ that the hope we have laid before us in the heavenlies is one where His indestructible life is the reality. Not an ethereal abstract reality to the human experience, but one where the human experience has been assumed, renewed, and resurrected in the triumph of the living God. The scars of Jesus show the world that there is real hope.

Conclusion

I’ve written this post more as an exercise in reminding myself that God is faithful at all costs; that His love will never cease; and that His ability to take care of His people (including me) is unmatched by any challenge we might face in this life. My scars sometimes become more apparent to me than at other times; I’ve been pressed into a situation, once again, where my weaknesses and inabilities in myself are on full display for me to see. And I can recognize these moments as God’s mercy in my life, keeping me from drifting from His more sure Word for my life. Hopefully my reflecting can serve as some sort of reminder to you of His faithfulness to you in your own life; that you will be able to value the scars in your life, and appreciate the development of new ones—even though these are not welcomed when we are walking through whatever we are walking through. At the very least our scars can cause us to remember God’s faithfulness in the past, and this might provide the kind of Manna we need to walk through whatever dark night of the soul we might be experiencing this time. Maybe, ever so faintly, we will see our scars as grounded in the scars of the Son for us; and in that vision recognize that our lives are securely grounded in the One who has ‘died’ and yet ‘alive forevermore.’