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.

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‘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.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Christians& “Us versus Them”

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

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

Concluding Remarks

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

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

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

 

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

God’s Governmental Providence as Cruciform in Shape: Human Suffering and Death, with Reference to Nabeel Qureshi

“The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; 2. for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.” Psalm 27:1-2

The Psalmist captures a reality that many in the world do not like; he identifies a truth that kicks against a self-possessed humanity who thinks it belongs to itself. But the Christian finds great comfort in realizing that this is the reality; that the world and all its bounty belongs to the living God of heaven and earth. The Apostle Paul sharpens this idea from a Christocentric angle; the idea that not only is the earth the LORD’s, but that we, as his people do not belong to ourselves; that God in Christ, owner of the heavens and the earth, penetrated our humanity with his in Christ and replaced our self-possessed selves with the recreated reality of a new humanity that realizes that it is only possessed by the living God. Paul writes pointedly: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”[1] This is almost an unfathomable reality, but one that has been made known as what is real through the goodness and graciousness of God revealed in his cruciform life in Jesus Christ.

These passages could be applied in a variety of ways, but what I want to highlight, at a theological level, is how this works towards thinking about God’s care, about his providential sustenance of the earth. And I want to use that context to discuss life and death; with particular focus, in this instance, on the life and death of Nabeel Qureshi, and all those in the world who are suffering in untold ways. I want to see if I can work toward making sense of it all from the big vantage point of God’s providence.

There are at least three ways to think about God’s providence: 1) Conservation, 2) Concursus, and 3) Governance. I want to focus on God’s governance; i.e. how in a God/world relation we might conceive of his inter-action with his creation in an active way; but in such a way that he remains in control, and thus not conditioned by the creation even as he enters it in the Incarnation (Logos ensarkos). In an effort to bring clarity to what is meant by the third prong of God’s providence—his governance—let us read how Dutch theologians Brink and Kooi develop this idea:

3 Finally now, the third aspect of divine providence: God’s gubernatio (governance), or directio (leadership). Traditionally, this part of God’s providence was conceptualized in rather static terms, as if God rules the world as a manager does a company, doing what needs to be done, minding the store. The Bible, however, speaks in much more dynamic—more precisely, in eschatological—terms about God’s rule. The fact that God rules the world means, first and foremost, that he guides it in a particular direction, toward the final realization of his plans and promises. Therefore, history is geared toward the kingdom, for also in his rule the Father works via—and thus in the mode of—the Son and the Spirit. For the time being, God rules “from the wood of the cross” (Venantius Fortunatus, sixth century), that is, in spite of all kinds of misery, setbacks, and experiences of loss. History becomes ever more similar to Jesus’s road to the cross, just as the apocalyptic portions of the New Testament teach. In addition, it should be noted that God works through his Spirit and not by (human) might or power (Zech. 4:6). We should often pay more attention to small things than to powerful revolutions or major changes in society. Where people are touched by the s/Spirit of the gospel and on that basis experience a decisive renewal in their lives, there God is at work, guiding the world to its future destination. So, God’s direction often proceeds via small things and detours, another reason that God’s providential rule is first and foremost a matter of faith and not something that can be gleaned from a newspaper. But it is precisely this faith that is certain that the outcome will not be a failure.[2]

My guess is that when you first heard the words God, providence, and governance, that your mind, like mine did, turned immediately to the description Brink and Kooi started their paragraph with: “…Traditionally, this part of God’s providence was conceptualized in rather static terms, as if God rules the world as a manager does a company, doing what needs to be done, minding the store.” But, as was encouraging to see they made the turn, as they should, to the reality that God’s governance of the world, of his good earth, is cruciform in shape; that he rules this earth by penetrating it in and through the humanity he assumed in Jesus Christ. That his governance is in his humiliation and vulnerability in his being in becoming man, and his reign climaxes in his exaltation of humanity in his risen and ascended humanity as the God-man who can sympathize with the yet broken humanity; but as the one who has conquered the brokenness of this world precisely at the point where it looked like he was going to lose it.

When I think about the death of Nabeel Qureshi, and think about it from the backdrop of God’s governance as described by Brink and Kooi, I have hope. I don’t have all the answers to the questions that I have, but I have hope because the God who is in control is not an aloof deity governing the world like some sort of removed corporatist; he instead became the One for the many, by becoming one of us, entering our fallen humanity and redeeming it from the inside out. He reigns supreme and providentially over the creation as one who has tasted his own creation; all along remaining distinct from his creation in the miracle of the hypostatic union, of God become human in the singular person of Jesus Christ. This is the hope that Nabeel Qureshi lived and died his life from; from the death and life of Jesus Christ.

Not only is Jesus the Lamb Slain, but he is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah risen; the One who is prime and supreme over all of creation. He governs the world from the reality of his resurrection, with hands still bearing the scars of their piercing for us. Nabeel, and all those who die in Christ, currently behold those nailed scarred hands; the hands that hold this world together, and for the purpose that all creation, that the sons and daughters of God in that creation, will finally behold the hands of such a King and ruler as this.

 

[1] I Corinthians 6:19-20, NIV.

[2] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 243-44.

Myk Habets and the Evangelical Calvinists Against Apophatic Theology: How Cataphatic Theology and the Theology of the Cross are the Better Way

There seems to be a revival of apophatic theology taking place in our moment; I’m thinking of someone like Katherine Sonderegger and her newish Systematic Theology: Volume One. This trend seems prevalent, even as a mood, among others (because this is a blog post I’m not going to get into proving this further at this point). In contrast, we as Evangelical Calvinists are committed to the via positiva (‘positive way’), or cataphatic theology; thinking that is contingent, relative to its knowledge of God, upon God’s Self-revelation and explication in the eternal Logos made flesh, Jesus Christ. This commitment is based upon at least two realities: 1) that the noetic effects of the fall have so affected our constitution as human beings that any knowledge of God we might innately have is so polluted as to be useless and idolatry producing (so in other words there’s an epistemological and ontological issue); 2) more positively, we believe that the Incarnation and Accommodation of God in Christ therein implies that God himself understands that our need is such that without his stooping down to us in the grace of his life in Christ, without his Self-revelation, the gap between a genuine knowledge and him and us is unattainable.

In our newly released book (May 2017), Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion, Myk Habets, in one of his personal chapters wrote a chapter entitled: Crossing the Epistemological Impasse Thinking out of a Center in God and Not out of a Center in Ourselves. In this chapter Myk develops a Torrancean epistemology that is grounded in the objective life of God in Jesus Christ for us. His development is rich, and places all of the weight of epistemology vis-à-vis knowledge of God where it should be: on and in and from Christ. In the conclusion to his chapter, based on the catatphatic epistemology he just developed, he contrasts that with apophatic theology (via negativa) in this way (at length):

CONCLUSION

The epistemological stance developed in this essay has an obvious implication for Christian dogmatics, namely, that constructive theology is possible due to the work of the Word and Spirit. As a final note, this essay makes the claim that dogmatics is a cataphatic enterprise, and not, contra the current trend in some theological circles, an apophatic one. At the very least it is what A. N. Williams once described as “lukewarm apophaticism” which is nothing more than a qualification of cataphaticism.42

In light of 1 Cor 2:4, we do not rely on “natural reason” or “human logic,” which is fallen and in need of redemption. Rather, this human inadequacy forces us to rely on what has been given by the Spirit.43 It is the Spirit alone who grants us union and communion with God such that we can participate in the divine life and know the mind of Christ as we think out of a center in God and not in ourselves, something unattainable by human discourse or intellect alone.44

There is no denying that God is above and beyond human reason; Rom 11:33, to name but one text, is clear here. But to argue for a robust apophaticism is to deny either the ability or the intention of God to communicate with his creatures. Knowledge of God is basic to the Christian

life, and such knowledge comes via God’s self-revelation, most fully through the Word written; and never without the Spirit. Williams offers sage advice when she asserts that “Scripture thus declares our epistemological predicament, not so as to discourage us in our journey towards knowledge and love of God, but so as to spare us futile forms of striving, and the God whom Scripture proclaims to be unknowable is the very same who grants us enlightenment, notably through the sacred page.”45 “Come Holy Spirit, renew the whole creation.”[1]

I remember the first time I ever was confronted with this disjunction, between doing theology apophatically versus cataphatically, it was in seminary; it was tied into Martin Luther’s theologia crucis or theology of the cross, and it intrigued me supremely.[2] Luther’s theology of the cross fits into the cataphatic mood of theology that us Evangelical Calvinists are interested in. Fitting, particularly in light of what Myk has developed and argued (in his whole chapter); it is fitting because Martin’s theology starts with God’s Self-revelation right in the very climax of what needed to take place in order for humanity to have a genuine knowledge of God; i.e. naked human reason needed to be put to death, which is what was accomplished at the cross of Christ, and in the light of that reality, a kind of theological double entendre and dialectic, wherein not only was revelation happening, but the reconciliation between God and humanity, in order for the cross-work to be really appreciated as revelation took place at once in Christ. As Barth and Torrance assert (and argue): revelation is reconciliation; it is this that cataphatic theology orbits around and from—it’s a cruciform, staurological way of theology wherein out of the death of death, in Christ, comes the light and life of revelation. In other words, in keeping with Myk’s argument, apophatic theology, the idea that humans can conceive of God through discursive reasoning and speculation, doesn’t get off the ground because, as we believe, genuine Christian theology can only start from the ground up a posteriori (versus a priori) in the concrete reality of the dusty humanity of God in Jesus Christ wherein God is humbled and humanity is exalted at once in the singular and particular person, the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ.

In other words, as Torrance notes of Barth’s theology, all theological and biblical thought is circumscribed and sublimated by Christ alone (solo Christo); there is no free reign for thinking God but from the field of God’s life in Christ for us. Note Torrance on Barth at this juncture, and with this we end:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[3]

[1] Myk Habets, “Crossing the Epistemological Impasse Thinking out of a Center in God and Not out of a Center in Ourselves,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2017), 27-8.

[2] To be clear I am constructively building upon Myk’s insights; he doesn’t bring Luther’s theology of the cross into the mix in his chapter, but I think it fits.

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

 

Martin Luther, Thomas Torrance, and Karl Barth on the Theology of the Cross and its Marginalization of Human Reason

I just finished, for the second time in thirteen years, Alister McGrath’s wonderful book Luther’s Theology Of The Cross. As the title indicates, the book is about developing the historical and theological context in which Luther had his theological and reformational breakthrough; a breakthrough that theologically led to his theologia crucis, or ‘theology of the cross.’ I have found this “breakthrough” intriguing, ever since I was first exposed to it by my historical theology professor in seminary, Ron Frost. Indeed, this topic spurred me on in my Master’s thesis research as
luthercranachI ended up writing an exegetical analysis of I Corinthians 1:17–25; precisely because of Martin Luther’s theology of the cross. For those of you who haven’t been fortunate enough to be exposed to its tenets, I thought I would put this post together to fill in that lacuna for you. Of interest, particularly to me, and maybe to you, is that the various loci or theological contours that make up Luther’s theology of the cross correlate very well with what we will find funding both Thomas Torrance’s and Karl Barth’s theological impulses, respectively. To that end we will look at a quote from Torrance that coheres very well with the emphases of Luther’s theology of the cross, and then we will hear from McGrath as he provides five points that help detail and unpack what Luther’s theologia crucis is all about (we will actually look at McGrath’s fifth point in a separate post from this one since it is long and quite detailed). We will close with a look at Barth’s resonances with Luther’s theologia crucis.

Thomas Torrance’s Theology of the Cross

Here Thomas Torrance is commenting on the type of  rationalist thinking that he thinks is necessary for arriving at the conclusion that the atonement is limited or particular to specially elect individuals (commonly understood as ‘limited atonement’). And then we also have Torrance commenting, in this same little quote, on the inescapable reality of the universal range of the atonement, but not the universal salvation that a rationalist approach must reduce to; which Torrance is, of course, as am I, against! Torrance writes:

The rationalism of both universalism and limited atonement

Here we see that man’s proud reason insists in pushing through its own partial insight into the death of the cross to its logical conclusion, and so the great mystery of the atonement is subjected to the rationalism of human thought. That is just as true of the universalist as it is of those who hold limited atonement for in both cases they have not yet bowed their reason before the cross of Christ.[1]

Not wanting to get mired down in discussion about the merits or demerits of universalism and/or limited atonement, what I want this quote to do is illustrate how Torrance sees human ‘reason’ being put to death, and given occasion to be resurrected by the cross and death of Jesus Christ; again, something endemic to the theology of the cross in the theology of Martin Luther. To that end, here is McGrath offering four loci or ‘places’ that help us understand what Luther’s theologia crucis is all about:

(1) The theologia crucis is a theology of revelation, which stands in sharp contrast to speculation. Those who speculate on the created order (ea quae facta sunt) have, in effect, forfeited their right to be called ‘theologians’. God has revealed himself, and it is the task of the theologian to concern himself with God as he has chosen to reveal himself, instead of constructing preconceived notions of God which ultimately must be destroyed.

(2)This revelation must be regarded as indirect and concealed. This is one of the most difficult aspects of the theologia crucis to grasp: how can one speak of a concealed revelation? Luther’s allusion to Exodus 33.23 in Thesis 20 is the key to understanding this fundamental point: although it is indeed God who is revealed in the passion and the cross of Christ, he is not immediately recongisable as God. Those who expect a direct revelation of the face of God are unable to discern him in his revelation, precisely because it is the posteriora Dei which are made visible in this revelation. In that it is God who is made known in the passion and cross of Christ, it is revelation; in that this revelation can only be discerned by the eye of faith, it is concealed. The ‘friends of the cross’ know that beneath the humility and shame of the cross lie concealed the power and the glory of God — but to others, this insight is denied.

(3) This revelation is to be recognised in the sufferings and the cross of Christ, rather than in human moral activity or the created order. Both the moralist and the rationalist expect to find God through intelligent reflection upon the nature of man’s moral sense or the pattern of the created order: for Luther, ‘true theology and knowledge of God are found in Christ crucified’. The cross shatters human illusions concerning the capacity of human reason to discern God in this manner.

(4) This knowledge of God who is hidden in his revelation is a matter of faith. Revelation of the posteriora Dei is addressed to faith, which alone recognises it as a revelation of God. Luther illustrates this point with reference to John 14.8. Philip here asks Jesus to show him the Father — which, according to Luther, makes him a ‘theologian of glory’, in that he considers that God may be found and known apart from Christ. Jesus then explains to him that there is no knowledge of God other than that which may be found in his own person: ‘Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father’ (John 14.9). For Luther, the ‘theologian of the cross’ is he who, through faith, discerns the presence of the hidden God in his revelation in Christ and his passion and cross — and who is thus able to acknowledge the truth of Isaiah’s dictum: ‘Truly you are a hidden God!’ The concept of a hidden God (absconditus Deus) lies at the centre of the theology of the cross: vivimus in abscondito Dei, id est, in nuda fiducia misericordiae eius. For Luther, Philip represents the tendency of the theologia gloriae to seek for God apart from Christ, unaware that God is revealed in him, although concealed in that revelation.[2]

For Luther, according to McGrath’s explication, as for Torrance, the cross of Jesus Christ and what is accomplished therein, ontologically, in the hypostasized life of God in Christ, accomplishes the putting to death of the fleshy mind, and provides for the occasion of the mind of Christ to be the ground of all thought of God as revealed ‘hiddenly’ in the crucified God. So not only does the cross-work have impact upon all of humanity through the vicarious humanity of Christ ontologically, as applied by the Holy Spirit, but Christ on the cross himself reveals who God is as the humiliated God who so loves his creatures that he is willing to become man, and suffer the consequences of what that means even to the point of being put to death on the cross.

Barth’s Theology of the Cross

In closing I think it would be interesting to look at Karl Barth’s theology in this regard, and observe how well, just as with Torrance, Luther’s theology of the cross coalesces with the emphases of Barth’s own type of incarnational theology and theologia crucis. One thing that is ironic about Barth’s critics is that because of his focus on the ‘hiddeness of God’ and the requirement of ‘faith’ in order to see God in the man from Nazareth, they often reduce his theology to working through the categories of Immanuel Kant and his noumenal/phenomenal paradigm for engaging with reality. It is true that Barth was a modern theologian working in a theological playground committed to a Kantian world of pure reason; but Barth was intent on exploding that playground of the theologians by correcting it with a theology of the Word. More ironically is that Barth’s most quoted theologian in his Church Dogmatics is none other than Martin Luther; I can’t help but think that Barth had Luther’s theology of the cross in mind when he was flipping Kantian “metaphysics” and “analytics” on its head. Bruce McCormack offers insight on Barth’s Kantian context and what in fact Barth was doing contrariwise to it (you will notice the themes of ‘hiddeness of God’ absconditus Deus and ‘revealed God’ revelatus Deus underwriting Barth’s thinking as McCormack describes it in Barth’s modern and Kantian context):

Alas, I thought I had the quote I wanted to use here from McCormack, but I don’t. It is given in Bruce McCormack’s Afterword in his edited book with Clifford B. Anderson Karl Barth And American Evangelicalism. The title of the Afterword is: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Barth. You will just have to take my word for it, at the moment, that what you will find described therein correlates well with the contours of thought we have been looking at in Luther’s theology of the cross.

So What!

For Luther, for Torrance, for Barth in their own respective ways they all were theologians of the cross; they all believed that human reason and rationality needed to be put to death in order to truly see God. The spectacle (to use Calvin’s imagery) necessary to see God in Christ; to see the hidden God hanging on a tree; was the faith of Christ. How that gets detailed and developed in our theologians is distinct one from the other, but the principle is there. The bottom line is that for all of them, and I would contend for the Apostle Paul himself, human thought on its own cannot conceive of God; particularly of a God who would become human, die on a cross, and rise again from the dead. It is this specter that was so inimical for Luther’s theology as he criticized, in his day, the Aristotelianized theology that placed such a high priority on the human intellect as the place where theological reasoning could peek-out, as it were. Torrance, in his own time, took aim at Newtonian metaphysics, among other intellectualizing modes for knowing God (including Aristotle’s closed system of thought). And Barth, for his part, offered critique of the intellectualized theology offered by Kant, Schleiermacher, and other moderns. For each of them, to one degree or another, the cross of Jesus Christ provided the central way forward, and the necessary move of God, in order for humanity to have the capacity to actually know and see God (encapsulated in this, particularly for Barth and Torrance, was the importance of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ).

So what? I think if we follow the lead of Luther, Torrance, and Barth much of what counts as Christian theology today, given its informing theology found in the Aristotelianized Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy, will be marginalized, as it should be, by the cross of Jesus Christ and the theologia crucis.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement, 187-88.

[2] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology Of The Cross (Oxford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 149-50.