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):


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.

Barth on Luther’s Theology of the Cross: The Vulnerability of Faith before God

Here is Karl Barth reflecting on Martin Luther’s theologia crucis (theology of the cross). Notice towards the end how Barth speaks of the vulnerability of faith before God. This is so key, vulnerability and faith aren’t things often linked together, per se. But I think they go together well; faith denotes trust, and trust denotes recognition of the fact that we are placing our hope and crossmedieval1rest somewhere else other than ourselves. We see this exemplified in the life of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane; i.e. ‘not my will, but thine be done.’ It is important to remain vulnerable before God, before whom we stand naked and bear. Soli Deo Gloria. Here is Barth on Luther:

. . . In contrast Luther tries to draw attention to the vacuum, to the fact that passion (suffering) stands at the heart of life and speaks of sin and folly, death and hell. These fearful visible things of God, his strange work, the crucified Christ — these are the themes of true theology. A preaching of despair? No, of hope! For what does that break in the center mean? Who is the God hidden in the passion with his strange work, and what does he desire? Explaining Heidelberg Thesis 16, Luther pointed out that the strange work leads on to the proper work, that God makes us sinners in order to make us righteous. The gap in the horizontal line, the disaster of our own striving, is the point at which God’s vertical line intersects our lives, where God wills to be gracious. Here where our finitude is recognized is true contact with infinity. He who judges us is he who shows mercy to us, he who slays us is he who makes us live, he who leads us into hell is he who leads us into heaven. Only sinners are righteous, only the sad are blessed, only the dying live. But sinners are righteous, the sad are blessed, the dying do live. The God hidden in the passion is the living God who loves us, sinful, wicked, foolish, and weak as we are, in order to make us righteous, good, wise, and strong. It is because the strange work leads to the proper work that there can be no theology of glory, that we must halt at the sharply severed edges of the broken horizontal line where what we find is despair, humility, the fear of God. For despair is hope, humility is exaltation, fear of God is love of God, and nothing else. The center of this theology, then, is the demand for faith as naked trust that casts itself into the arms of God’s mercy; faith that is the last word that can be humanly said about the possibility of justification before God; a faith that is sure of its object — God — because here there is resolute renunciation of the given character of scholastic faith (infused, implicit, and formed) as an element of uncertainty; faith viewed not as itself a human work but as an integral part of God’s strange work, sharing in the whole paradox of it.[1]

In order to get a better grasp of what Luther’s theology of the cross is about check out his Heidelberg Disputation.

[1] Karl Barth, The Theology of John Calvin, 46.


Theology and Cancer: Genuine Christian Theology and How it Comforts Through Revelation

Cancer and theology: my friend Todd Billings has written a book on the relationship between cancer and theology; motivated by his own diagnosis with an incurable cancer known as multiple myeloma. As many of you know I too, back in late 2009/2010, was diagnosed with an incurable/terminal (typically) cancer known as desmoplastic small round cell tumor (sarcoma), or DSRCT. Both Billings and I have miraculously survived our respective cancers, and by God’s grace carry on.

fallleavesThroughout the rest of the post I would like to reflect on cancer and theology, and how they relate and even can inform each other. I am prompted to write this post because of a mini Facebook discussion I had yesterday with my friend, Derrick Peterson. He had written a blog post himself on proofs for God’s existence. Eventually in the conversation I brought up cancer, and how God had worked through that in my own life to assuage and in fact rebuff serious doubts I’ve struggled with about God for many years. The type of doubts I had were not unhealthy doubts, but doubts I believe that God in Christ allowed to come upon me to push me deeper into Him. Nonetheless, I had them, and they were very strong; they caused depression and anxiety; and I just wanted them to go away, so I studied and prayed a lot (we are talking over a season of probably fifteen years). But I am starting to digress, let me move into the post now, and try to bring cancer and theology together.

Christian Theology

The first question, if we are going to talk about cancer and theology is to try and define what in fact the entailments of a genuinely Christian theology actually are. This will be an important step, because in order to understand how theology can inform and relate to cancer, we need to have a solid understanding of what Christian theology is. To help us develop what genuine Christian theology is Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance will have the honors as he is describing Karl Barth’s way of doing theology as well as his own:

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.[1]

This is the way I approach theology as well. It is to understand that Jesus Christ in a principled and even absolute way must be the center for knowing God for us; since as the Apostle John makes clear, that was a fundamental part of Jesus’ mission.[2] There are other ways of doing theology out there that don’t do theology this way; as we have noted elsewhere on this blog, classical ways for doing Reformed theology (and I am Reformed, so I will camp on this) are much more abstract and speculative—i.e. they don’t necessarily start with Jesus Christ in an intense way for doing theology. This is not to say that the piety of some of these practitioners does not attempt to make up the difference in some of these other ways of doing theology, but they are not directly given shape by starting with Jesus in the ways that Barth and Torrance do (as does Athanasius).  In other words, I would contend that starting theology with Jesus in a principled way starts with the triune idea that God is love; it does not work its way discursively towards that reality as some classical theologies might be wont to do.

At base then, at least for me (as an evangelical Calvinist, and student of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance), theology is Jesus; theology is objective in the sense that God is God, but genuine Christian theology moves the object into the subject (without losing its objective character) in Jesus Christ. In other words, genuine Christian theology is by definition, personal and relational. It is both of these because theology is not an idea, or simply a discipline, but genuinely Christian theology is a personal subject, it is the triune God Self-revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ. It is this type of revelation that makes theology so inextricable to something like cancer; cancer is personal. So it is fitting, if God who is wise in Himself, if He is going to reveal Himself to us in Christ, does so where we are; hidden in the midst of our squalor and various forms of human suffering brought on by the fall of humanity into the abyss of sin.

To drive this reality of a genuine Christian theology home even further, let’s hear from Karl Barth directly as he writes about what Martin Luther called a theology of the cross versus a theology of glory. This will serve as the bridge that brings my desire to talk about cancer and theology together. Barth writes at length:

[I]n contrast Luther tries to draw attention to the vacuum, to the fact that passion (suffering) stands at the heart of life and speaks of sin and folly, death and hell. These fearful visible thing of God, his strange work, the crucified Christ — these are the theme of true theology. A preaching of despair? No, of hope! For what does that break in the center mean? Who is the God hidden in the passion with his strange work, and what does he desire? Explaining Heidelberg Thesis 16, Luther pointed out that the strange work leads on to the proper work, that God makes us sinners in order to make us righteous. The gap in the horizontal line, the disaster of our own striving, is the point at which God’s vertical line intersects our lives, where God wills to be gracious. Here where our finitude is recognized is true contact with infinity. He who judges us is he who shows mercy to us, he who slays us is he who makes us live, he who leads us into hell is he who leads us into heaven. Only sinners are righteous, only the sad are blessed, only the dying live. But sinners are righteous, the sad are blessed, the dying do live. The God hidden in the passion is the living God who loves us, sinful, wicked, foolish, and weak as we are, in order to make us righteous, good, wise, and strong. It is because the strange work leads to the proper work that there can be no theology of glory, that we must halt at the sharply severed edges of the broken horizontal line where what we find is despair, humility, the fear of God. For despair is hope, humility is exaltation, fear of God is love of God, and nothing else. The center of this theology, then, is the demand for faith as naked trust that casts itself into the arms of God’s mercy; faith that is the last word that can be humanly said about the possibility of justification before God; a faith that is sure of its object — God — because here there is resolute renunciation of the given character of scholastic faith (infused, implicit, and formed) as an element of uncertainty; faith viewed not as itself a human work but as an integral part of God’s strange work, sharing in the whole paradox of it.[3]

For Barth, and now for me, genuine Christian theology, as the Apostle Paul so eloquently declares is the wisdom of the cross (see I Cor. 1.18-25). God in His ineffable wisdom humbles himself to not only become a man, but humbles himself to the point of death, the death of the cross (see Phil. 2.5-10). God reveals Godself, hidden in the manger, in the body (which was His own human body) of a growing boy, and finally in the public ministry of Jesus Christ culminating in his death, burial,  resurrection (see I Cor. 15.1-4), ascension (see Acts 1; Col. 1–2), and coming again (see I Thess. 4; Rev. 19–22). When theology starts with God’s life revealed in the eternal Son, Jesus Christ, it cannot but help but to be meaningfully personal and cruciform in shape, since this is the shape that is most fitting for God become man by His own free and gracious choice; and this concordant with His character (in His inner triune life in se).


Cancer is one of the most visceral fearful things, it seems, in our society of which people hope they never have to face. The sad reality though is that statistically more than fifty percent of all North Americans will receive some sort of cancer diagnosis in their life time (probably most towards their aging years, but that is also unfortunately changing quickly). I had to face it, and many of you (God forbid it!) might well have to face it yourself; if not, someone you know closely will in their life time. So cancer, among other ills produced by living in a fallen world, is an inevitability (although I think through proper diet most of cancer could be eradicated) that we will face one way or the other.

As I described theology above, that was not an abstract exercise for me; that is real life. When I received my “terminal” incurable cancer diagnosis it was the God revealed in Jesus Christ, in the cross and resurrection where I found immediate hope, confidence, and comfort. I did not have to work through an abstract apparatus of theology in order to work my way to God; because of the theological moorings I already had I knew He was ever present in this real time of trouble. I already knew that the God who I desperately needed was a humble, but all powerful God, who is able to enter into the depths of death and sin, and overcome it because of the inner-strength of His triune life of love. I knew that God first loved me, because He wasn’t a God who just talked the talk but He walked the walk before I was ever born or thought of (at least humanly speaking). I knew that I had an immediate and direct access to God because He had made clear to me in His Self-revelation in Christ that He had already come to me by enfleshing Himself with humanity and entering into all my suffering and despair. I found comfort in knowing that not only was God all powerful, but that His almightiness was shaped by immediate and personal love. I knew that He had power over death, because while He might appear to be hidden in the cross, for those with eyes of faith it was there where I could see Him most brightly.


When I started this post I had mentioned that discussion I had had with my friend Derrick about God and doubt. God revealed Himself, and met me so strongly in the midst of cancer that many of the doubts I had dealt with prior (for around fifteen long years) were crushed. It was through encounter with the living God in Christ, as I woke up every morning only to remember that “oh yeah, I have an incurable cancer in my body,” that this God of the cross broke in quickly on that fearful thought and made clear that nothing could separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This is how good theology ought to work. It shouldn’t, at base, be an elaborate, even scholastic web of intellectualisms; instead it should be able to bring knowledge of God in the spaces of life where we would least expect to find Him.


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

[2] See John 1.18.

[3] Karl Barth, The Theology of John Calvin, 46.


Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross for the Suffering and even the Arrogant Among Us

I was first introduced to Martin Luther’s theologia crucis, or “Theology of the Cross,” in seminary, in my Reformation Theology class. Once I heard of it, I was hooked! It is absolutely brilliant, and represents the best of Martin Luther’s theological offering for the church. My previous post was a tribute to Rory Wheeler, who just went home to be with the Lord as a result of the effects of cancer. Death, even for the Christian, presents lingering questions; the primary one being “why dear Lord, cannot you just vanquish this curse, right now?” It is obvious to all of those with eyes of faith, that the Lord works in ways that would appear “hidden.” He became man, a babe
christcrucifiedwrapped in swaddling cloths in a manger. He was born into a poor-man’s family from ridiculed Nazareth. The list of God’s hiddeness (Deus absconditus), of course, can be enumerated over and again. Indeed, this is where Luther’s theology of the cross finds its footing; that God works in ways that to the naked eye seem foolish (see I Corinthians 1:17-25, the passage of my Master’s thesis, and motivated by Luther’s theology of the cross). Randall Zachman provides one of the best descriptions of Luther’s theology of the cross that I have ever read. I am going to quote it in full, it is worth it; in fact if you want to continue to read my blog, your ticket 😉 is that you have to read this whole post because what Zachman has to say is that good! Here we go:

In the context of theologia crucis, faith means believing with certainty that God’s Word is true even when the whole world, the heart of the believer, and even God himself contradict the truth that is revealed in the Word, particularly the Word of promise. Thus, when God begins to show mercy, God does so by first revealing wrath (in law); when God makes alive, God does so by slaying. The same contradictions apply especially to those who have already come to faith. God promises the forgiveness of sins, yet our conscience feels nothing but sin and wrath; God promises life, yet we see nothing but death. Faith, therefore, is the art of believing the Word while experiencing, seeing, and feeling the opposite. We believe that Christ is the Son of God, even though we see and abandoned man on the cross; we believe that God cares for the church, even though we see nothing but a church persecuted by the world and apparently abandoned by God; we believe in eternal life, even though we see and feel nothing but death.

However, the primary locus of the theology of the cross is the experience of trial or tribulation (Anfechtung), when the very heart and conscience of the believer sense that God’s promise of grace and forgiveness is a lie. The believer must regard the promise of forgiveness as true and certain even though the conscience testifies to the contrary.

But under the cross which we experience, eternal life lies hidden. . . . We, too, experience the cross, and death appears to us, if not in fact, yet in our conscience through Satan. Death and sin appear, but I announce life and faith, but in hope. Therefore, if you want to be saved, you must battle against your feelings. Hope means to expect life in the midst of death, and righteousness in the midst of sins.

This is the very meaning of being simultaneously righteous and a sinner (simul iustus et peccator): to believe that we are righteous coram Deo even though we feel like condemned sinners.

Within the context of the theology of the cross, the grace of sanctification and its attestation in the testimony of a good conscience would necessarily be subordinated to the grace of justification and the promise of the forgiveness of sins. This is because the testimony of the good conscience confirms one’s faith in the promise, whereas the theology of the cross emphasizes that testimony of the conscience that contradicts faith in the promise; that is, Anfechtung. Therefore, although Luther continually insisted upon the necessity of sanctification and of the testimony of the good conscience, within the framework of theologia crucis he could not help but consistently subordinate the grace of sanctification to that of justification.

Luther’s concentration on the theology of the cross also accounts for his refusal to involve the Reformation directly in the external reform of the church. The Word of God does not deal with external, temporal things, but rather with invisible, eternal things; and such invisible things are revealed under an external appearance that contradicts what is being revealed. The theology of glory, in contrast—such as Luther found in the papacy—emphasizes externals to the point of neglecting the invisible truths revealed by the Word: indeed, to the point of calling God’s Word a lie. Thus, those in the Reformation who would introduce concern for externals—such as Karlstadt with his rejection of idols and the papal mass—misunderstanding the whole nature of the Word of the cross, and divert the attention of believers from the invisible, eternal things of God’s promises to the visible, temporal things of human reason and senses. Yet it is precisely reason and the senses that must be mortified if we are to believe that the Word of the cross is true.

Luther’s theologia crucis also explains his suspicion of those, such as the Anabaptists, who emphasized the external holiness and moral behavior of the church. If the Word of the cross reveals the truth of God under a contrary appearance, then one would expect the true church not to look like the church at all, but rather to look like God-forsaken sinners. The “synagogue of Satan,” on the other hand, with its theology glory, would look like the true church of God and would demonstrate a superior holiness externally—as in the monks and friars—but inwardly it would be rejected by God. The theology of the cross would therefore lead one not to stress the conformity of the appearance of the church with its faith, but rather stress the ways in which the appearance of the church denies its claim to be the people of God. The church looks like a gathering of sinners rejected by God and the world, whereas it is in truth the beloved people of God. The church cannot be judged by its appearance, but only by whether it has the Word of Christ crucified. Hence the primary task of the church is to preach the Word of God, while letting externals take their course. [Randall C. Zachman, The Assurance of Faith, 9-10]

How can that not bless you?! There is a lot in this, too much to talk about in toto; as far as the implications and applications, let me grab just a couple. But first I should also notice something else for us. You see Zachman refer to Luther’ “theology of glory,” this was in contrast to the theology of the cross; and it refers to (oversimplified) focusing on doing things for the praise and glory of men, instead of God (just do a word study or theology of glory study in the Gospel of John, you’ll see how this plays out) [Luther attacked the scholastic theology of his day as based upon the “theology of glory” instead of the “cross”]. Now to my applications.

1) It seems like a loving God would vanquish death so that humanity would no longer have to endure the torment of it. Indeed, he has, but it is only with eyes of faith that we understand the significance of the cross and resurrection and ascension. To the world if God is all powerful, and loving (David Hume) why doesn’t he do something about it now? The wisdom of God is displayed in hiddeness, in the unexpected; God is the God whose ways are not our ways, but the way of the cross, the unexpected! Why did the holocaust happen? Why do little kids die from cancer, or starvation? We have to interpret these kinds of questions through the hidden ways of God, through the cruciformity and cross-shaped work of God’s life. That’s the answer to Luther’s theology of the cross; the wisdom and knowledge of God is only penetrated by those who are wedded to him, in Christ, by the Spirit. And it is when we are pressed up against the most dastardly things of this life—tribulations—that we quit depending on ourselves, and throw ourselves on God’s mercy that we enter into the kind of life that God gives himself in his inner-life of mutual and interpenetrating love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is when we are pushed beyond ourselves that God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ is just waiting to smile on is in the midst of our thlipsis, tribulation! Here is the wisdom of God, to take what is intended to destroy, and bring resurrection life out of it!

2) The second application here is a quicker observation. This one has to do with Luther’s/Zachman’s point about how the church should look vis-á-vis the theology of the cross. Frankly, it shouldn’t look like what Western, and in particular, American, upward mobile churches strive to look like. It shouldn’t look like people who have it all together. It should look like people who are broken, needy, and beggarly. When did Jesus do his greatest work of atonement? What was the crescendo of his work? When he went to the cross. When he was most broken. It was here that he brought life to all of humanity, through his death; by rupturing the bonds of self love (homo incurvatus in se), with the unbreakable bond that he shares consubstantially with the Father and Holy Spirit. That is, a life is given shape, by self-giveness; between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is through this kind of brokeness, in the mirror image of the cruci-shaped Son, that we can be the church for the world. That we have something to offer them; only when we are broken, and realize that we receive life as gift from the Father, in Christ, by the Holy Spirit.

Much more to say, but this has run long enough. I think I will talk more about the theologia gloriae “theology of glory,” in the near future.

*This is a repost, I really like what Zachman has to say on Luther’s ‘theology of the cross’; I hope you’re blessed by it today as well! Blessings.

Knowing God: Martin Luther, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance. Theologia Crucis against Analogia Entis

Knowing God, it is what we as Christians all desire; we want to not only know Him, but know that we have a more sure way of knowing God. In the history of the church and ideas there have been multiple ways to try and tackle this. There have been mystical (Platonic) types of attempts at this; there have been chain-of-being attempts at this (Thomism) wherein humans are able to work martinluthermiddleagethemselves back to their final source of causation (God) and know God through the analogy and point of contact between Him as Infinite cause over against us as finite causes (indeed effects of His cause) [think analogia entis]; and another way was simply by understanding that words as symbols within a Covenant relation between God and humanity become the source for knowing God in an authoritative way (Nominalism).

It was this latter convention for knowing God that drove the thinking of the spitfire, the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther. He repudiated the chain-of-being way, and yet was much more circumspect and concrete than the mystical way would allow for (although influences from this approach are present within the makeup of Luther’s overall attitude and approach to thinking God). As a result, Luther focused on what he called theologia crucis (theology of the cross) not analogia entis (analogy of being)—analogia entis was what gave the Roman Catholic church its authority in a hierarchical scheme for knowing God and mediating knowledge of God (as representative of Christ on earth [i.e. the Papal office] the medieval Roman Catholic church of Luther’s day was a step above [in the chain of being between God and humanity] the laity and regular people, as such they held the keys to knowledge of God). Luther’s appropriation of nominalism (theologically, not philosophically) is what allowed him to forward his idea on a theology of the cross over against the analogy of being (or also what Luther referred to as the theologia gloriae ‘theology of glory’); it cut the link between an analogy to be found in human beings vis-à-vis God. For Luther’s theology of the cross the only way for us to know God was to be found in God’s Self-revelation, which meant the words of Holy Scripture, and more radically the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ on the cross (where Deus absconditus becomes Deus revelatus ‘the hiddeness of God becomes the revealedness of God’).

Richard Muller has written this of Luther:

One of the elements of late medieval Scotist and nominalist theology that had a profound impact on Luther was its denial of any analogy between God and man and its consequent recognition of the impossibility of formulating a rational metaphysic concerning God. All knowledge of God must rest on authoritative testimony, primarily on that of Scripture. Luther not only denied any recourse of theology to an analogia entis between God and man and insisted on the necessity of scriptural revelation, but also argued, in the light of his denial of human merit and his sense of the immediacy of Christ as revealer and savior, against any rational theologia gloriae that claimed to describe God as he is in himself and proposed that our earthly theology be a theologia crucis, conformed to the pattern of God’s revelation in Christ….[1]

Theology of the cross could later correlate to what some have called a theology of crisis (what we find in someone like Jurgen Möltmann, and even in the early Karl Barth). God is known as we meet Him at the cross over and again; as we are depleted of our resources and thrown on the mercy of His resources revealed to us as He freely and graciously met and meets with us through the cross of His dearly beloved Son. The cross is where God’s power and reality is revealed as: God humbled and humanity exalted in the unio personalis (the singular person), Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul was one of the foremost and earliest theologians of the cross, this typifies the attitude that a theologian of the cross thinks and lives from:

Brothers and sisters, we don’t want you to be unaware of the troubles that we went through in Asia. We were weighed down with a load of suffering that was so far beyond our strength that we were afraid we might not survive. It certainly seemed to us as if we had gotten the death penalty. This was so that we would have confidence in God, who raises the dead, instead of ourselves. 10 God rescued us from a terrible death, and he will rescue us. We have set our hope on him that he will rescue us again, 11 since you are helping with your prayer for us. Then many people can thank God on our behalf for the gift that was given to us through the prayers of many people.[2]

Closing Remarks

It is interesting, because when we think of the nominalist/Scotist types of dispositions that Luther had it would seem at odds with the realist/Thomist ones that we find in the theologies of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. I think what brings them together constructively is their (i.e. Luther’s, Barth’s, Torrance’s) focuses on a theology of the Word. Barth and Torrance, it can be said, have an a posteriori approach to thinking God; i.e. from God’s Self-revelation in Christ back up to the ontological God (so a chain-of-being way of thinking, but instead of a this chain taking link from a general conception of human being back up to God’s being, it takes link from God’s being given and revealed in Jesus Christ as a center of God’s life). I think if Luther was around when Barth and Torrance came on the scene he would approve of this kind of christologically conditioned chain-of-being thinking, because it takes the christological focus of Luther’s theology of the cross and of the Word and understands that the Covenant between God and humanity that provides genuine knowledge of God is found nowhere else but in theanthropos, the Godman, Jesus Christ. Barth and Torrance actually take the insights that Martin Luther’s via positiva ‘positive way’ (kataphatic) of doing theology emphasizes while at the same time plundering the Thomist way of knowing God non-metaphysically (as it were) from God’s reality given in Jesus Christ. What Barth and Torrance don’t take over, and now in alignment with Luther, is the Thomist chain-of-being separation of cause and effect when it comes to the person and work of Jesus Christ. This might be where Luther, Barth, and Torrance are most closely aligned; for Luther, when we see Jesus, we see God / for Barth and Torrance when we see Jesus, we see God.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 223-24.

[2] II Corinthians 1:8-11, Common English Bible.

The Perspective of Death

Life is a strange and wonderful thing. But most things that occupy us moment from moment day to day in the grand scheme of things aren’t crucifiedthings that really matter; I mean they do, but when confronted with the real reality of our own mortality so many of the things that seem so pressing to us in the moment simply melt away and the real things that matter rise to the fore. I experienced this when I was diagnosed with my typically (and statistically) incurable cancer (DSRCT) back in late 2009.

I was just thinking about all of this tonight; life (as James says) is indeed but a vapor. If this is the case, if the world as we know it, as Paul says, is passing away then how we ought to live as Peter ponders? When I thought I was going to die (from my cancer) everything changed. I went into a strange world unbeknownst to me prior; it was a world full of anxiety (so overwhelmingly so that it went beyond a feeling of anxiety … if that makes sense), fear (I didn’t want to die, especially not the death of the type of cancer I had), darkness (there was major spiritual warfare that happened, an oppression that filled my atmosphere, at points). But, of course, there was much ministry and grace from God in Christ by the Holy Spirit that was always present; he ministered in miraculous ways (one of those ways being realized now … I am alive and still cancer free after 5 years).

But I wasn’t really intending on writing about my cancer, even if it is relevant to what I want to say, and it is. I was just thinking though about perspective. We get so lost in our daily circumstances, and in the drama of everyday life (whether that be at work, school, play, etc.), and what is really important (Jesus) get’s lost; the great hope we have as Christians gets squashed by our most immediate pursuits (which usually involves some sort of self-promotion). And yet there will be that moment for you and I alike where all of the drama of our daily lives (the stuff that seems so important, so pressing right now) will be confronted with what really matters; life itself, and life itself in Christ.

When you think you are most probably going to die (like I did) everything narrows. The hopes that motivated and drove you (all in the future) get cut off, and your future becomes limited to one day at a time. When you lose horizontal hope in the things and pursuits of this world and this life, the future becomes a vertical affair; you begin to look to the heavens for your future, for your hope. You begin to cast your vision on God in Christ, and trust him each day to be your future for that day; when you have the sentence of death upon you you no longer (as a Christian) trust in yourself but in the One you know raises the dead.

I’ve been getting overwhelmed by my most immediate circumstances, and I sense that the enemy has been trying to rob me of the real reality and hope that I have in Jesus Christ. Perspective from the center of God’s life in Christ is so important to participate and live in and from; it is hard to overstate this! I need to be less like Israel (remember them in Exodus etc.), and more like Jesus (as I live from him). I need to remember the perspective that came from my cancer diagnosis, or at least that that diagnosis did as it caused me to throw myself on God’s mercy. I don’t want to forget; I don’t want to let other people (like at work or elsewhere) impose their un-belief or un-perspective upon me (and this is a constant battle: to live in a world that is structured by unbelief and self-worship). We are all going to have that day of perspective, let’s live that way.

Doing Genuine Christian Theology: The Praise of God or the Praise of Man

Just a quick reflection on theology as a discipline. Theology as a discipline is strange thing, in a way. It is immersed in two worlds;  1) the world of the confessing Church of Jesus Christ (a doxological world), and 2) the world of the unconfessing academy that seeks to make something that might look foolish as wise in the ‘world’s eyes’. So doing theology as a Christian, doing Christian theology becomes a very tenuous task; it almost seems as if it is a balancing act. One where on the one hand we are seeking the praise of God while on the other the praise of men. Typically the only way to discern what is really going on is to take inventory of one’s heart, but really only God can do that. This makes doing Christian theology a dangerous task. We ourselves aren’t always sure of whether or not we are doing most of our theologizing for the praise of God or the praise of men. Even so, this does not make us any less accountable, and so our only hope is to continuously throw ourselves, as theologians, at the mercy of God; to constantly live in a state of repentance, realizing how broken we are as vessels in the hands of a loving God.

It is hard to say sometimes whether or not we as Christian theologians are really doing Christian theology; because if it is not of love, or from love it means nothing (and we know that genuine Christian theology is something, at the very least!)

Theology of the Cross Par Excellence: The Problem of Evil, The Ontological Theory of the Atonement, Knowledge of God; All Dealt With

The theology of the Cross, the ontological theory of the atonement, the problem of evil, our capacity to know God in the face of evil, and to comprehend an intelligibility within a fallen world; where does all of this come from, where does it intersect in a concrete way in our daily lives? I bet all of these questions and locations of thought run around in your head all day long; if not, they should, among other theological things—we are Christians after all!


Thomas Torrance offers such a rich account of how the Incarnation of God in his dearly beloved Son Jesus Christ engages with and implicates all of the aforementioned topics of consideration that for your benefit and mine I am going to transcribe his lengthy paragraph that engages with each of the points above in his own and unique Torrance way.

It is above all in the Cross of Christ that evil is unmasked for what it actually is, in its inconceivable wickedness and malevolence, in its sheer contradiction of the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, in its undiluted enmity to God himself—not to mention the way in which it operates under the cover of the right and the good and the lawful. That the infinite God should take the way of the Cross to save mankind from the pit of evil which has engulfed it and deceived it, is the measure of the evil of evil: its depth is revealed to be ‘absymal’ (literally, ‘without bottom’). However, it is only from the vantage point of God’s victory over evil in the resurrection of Christ, from the bridge which in him God has overthrown across the chasm of evil that has opened up in our violence and death and guilt, that we may look into the full horror of it all and not be destroyed in the withering of our souls through misanthropy, pessimism, and despair. What hope could there ever be for a humanity that crucifies the incarnate love of God and sets itself implacably against the order of divine love even at the point of its atoning and healing operation? But the resurrection tells us that evil, even this abysmal evil, does not and cannot have the last word, for that belongs to the love of God which has negated evil once and for all and which through the Cross and resurrection is able to make all things work together for good, so that nothing in the end will ever separate us from the love of God. It is from the heart of that love in the resurrected Son of God that we may reflect on the radical nature of evil without suffering morbid mesmerization or resurrection and crucifixion events, which belong inseparably together, has behind it the incarnation, the staggering fact that God himself has come directly into our creaturely being to become one of us, for our sakes. Thus the incarnation, passion, and resurrection conjointly tell us that far from evil having to do only with human hearts and minds, it has become entrenched in the ontological depths of created existence and that it is only from within those ontological depths that God could get at the heart of evil in order to destroy it, and set about rebuilding what he had made to be good. (We have to think of that as the only way that God ‘could’ take, for the fact that he has as a matter of fact taken this way in the freedom of his grace excludes any other possibility from our consideration.) It is surely in the light of this ontological salvation that we are to understand the so-called ‘nature of miracles’, as well as the resurrection of Jesus from death, for they represent not a suspension of the natural or created order but the very reverse, the recreation of the natural order wherever it suffers from decay or damage or corruption or disorder through evil. God does not give up his claim that the creation is ‘good’, but insists on upholding that claim by incarnating within the creation the personal presence of his own Logos, the creative and ordering source of the creation, thereby pledging his own eternal constancy and rationality as the ground for the redemption and final establishment of all created reality.[1]

There are so many scarlet threads waiting to be pulled upon in this rich tapestry of linguistic flare and theological acumen that Torrance (in his typical fashion) has offered. But let me just tug on one. You noticed as you read this that Torrance speaks of the ontological depth of the atonement, this gets us back into his view that God in Christ assumed a sinful humanity in the incarnation. That he didn’t just come to pay a penalty (even though he did this too) for our sins, but in fact came to radically save us from the inside out. That he came to give us a new heart, and take away our hearts of stone, and give us hearts of flesh soft towards God (II Cor. 3). This is one reason why a strictly conceived penal, forensic, juridical view of the atonement simply will not do. A penal view might deal with the consequences of sin in our lives, but it does not engage with the depth reality and cause of sin; sinful hearts (cf. Jer. 17.9).

There is more to be said, of course, but I’ll just refer you to Torrance’s quote.


[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 115-16.

Defending Barth and Torrance from the Charge of Incoherence: Contra Robert Letham and Others

Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance are both, and often accused of being incoherent in their material theological positions and conclusions. Robert Letham most recently has made this charge against Thomas Torrance in particular (and it might as well have been against Karl Barth as well). Letham writes against Torrance:

… It is simply incoherent for Torrance to say what he says about the definitive justification and reconciliation for all people and yet to deny universal salvation. Moreover, if it is possible for people to reject Christ and what he has done, it cannot be definitive and effective for them and cannot have been complete in Christ’s person. It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by the assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis.[1]

What seriously bothers me about such claims is that people like Robert Letham, Roger Olson (who thinks us Evangelical Calvinists are incoherent for the same kinds of reasons), et al. totally fail to appreciate and take Barth and Torrance on their stated terms. It is not as if Barth or Torrance have not provided extended treatments of their terms and prolegomena and approach to things, theological; they have! And so for the rest of this post (and it will turn out to be a long post because of this, but I want to have this available online for whenever I hear that Barth and Torrance are incoherent) I will be quoting George Hunsinger at length on Karl Barth; and Hunsinger will be explaining why Barth (and think Torrance as well, for his own related reasons) is not in fact incoherent while those who are making the claim of incoherence in fact are the ones who are incoherent relative to the particular categories of Scripture and God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ. So here we go:


Testing for Incoherence Within the Framework of the Chalcedonian Pattern

The coherentist mode of testing, as it emerged in the survey of rationalism, also plays a decisive role in Barth’s justification of his position on double agency. Directly and indirectly, therefore, it serves to justify his reliance on the conceptions of miracle and mystery in that position. On the exegetical or hermeneutical premise that the terms of the Chalcedonian pattern are rooted in the biblical testimony regarding how divine and human agency are related, the mode of doctrinal testing proceeds as follows. The Chalcedonian pattern is used to specify counterpositions that would be doctrinally incoherent (and also incoherent with scripture). “Without separation or division” means that no independent human autonomy can be posited in relation to God. “Without confusion or change” means that not divine determinism or monism can be posited in relation to humanity. Finally, “complete in deity and complete in humanity” means that no symmetrical relationship can be posited between divine and human actions (or better, none that is not asymmetrical). It also means that the two cannot be posited as ultimately identical. Taken together, these considerations mean that, if the foregoing conditions are to be met, no nonmiraculous and nonmysterious conception is possible. The charge of incoherence (as previously defined) thereby reveals itself to be abstract, in the sense that it does not adequately take all the necessary factors into account. It does not work inductively from the subject matter (as attested by scripture)–as the motif of particularism would prescribe. Instead, it starts from general considerations such as formal logic and applies them to certain isolated aspects of the more “concrete” position. At the same time, the charge may well have implicated itself, wittingly or unwittingly, in one of the rejected couterpositions.

Without Separation or Division: Against Independent Human Autonomy

No independent human autonomy, Barth argues, may be posited in relation to God. The idea of an independent human autonomy posits the kind of illicit “determinism” that Barth finds to be characteristic of Pelagian barthand semi-Pelagian positions counter to his own. The actuality of human autonomy or freedom or self-determination (and so on) is, it is important to see, not in question. What is in question is the condition for the possibility of human autonomy, freedom, and self-determination. The Pelagian position finds this condition to be entirely inherent in human nature as created by divine grace, whereas the semi-Pelagian position finds it to be only partially inherent in human nature. The Pelagian sees no need, whereas the semi-Pelagian sees some need, for the special operation of divine grace, if the human creature is to act freely in fellowship with God (I/1, 199-200; II/1, 562-63). Neither position survives Barth’s coherentist form of testing, for neither is seen to do justice either to the radicality of sin or to the finitude of the creature. The same basic inadequacy can be restated with reference to other doctrinal beliefs, and these are actually thought to be the more fundamental. Christologically, the counterpositions fail to do justice to the cross of Christ (as it discloses the radicality of sin) and to the necessity of the mediation of Christ (as it overcomes not only sin, but the finitude of the creature, by exalting the creature to eternal life). Theologically, moreover, the counterpositions fail to do justice to the divine righteousness (as it discloses the radicality of sin) and to the divine majesty (as it discloses the essence of creaturely finitude).

In discussing the question of double agency, it is most often the radicality of sin and the majesty of God to which coherentist appeal adverts (although the other beliefs do not cease to be presupposed, of course, and are sometimes invoked). The radicality of sin, as already documented on more than one occasion, is regarded as meaning that we have “completely lost the capacity for God” (I/1, 238). The majesty of God, on the other hand, is characteristically conceived in terms of the “conditioned” and the “unconditioned.” “The creature which conditions God is no longer God’s creature, and the God who is conditioned by the creature is no longer God” (II/1, 580). Or again: “Grace would not be grace if it were not free, but were conditioned by a reciprocal achievement on the part of the one to whom it is addressed” (I/1, 45). Or again: “Grace cannot be called forth or constrained by any claim or merit, by any existing or future condition, on the part of the creature…. Both in its being and in its operation its necessity is in itself” (II/2, 19). That God’s grace is absolutely free in relation to the creature, ant that the creature can in no way condition God, is as axiomatic in Barth’s theology as he believes it to be axiomatic in scripture. Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism both fail, because they posit a creature who by nature conditions God, and a God who by nature can be and is conditioned by the creature. What is worse, these counterpositions do so even in the face of the radicality of sin. They are therefore judged to be incoherent from the standpoint of doctrinal testing. “What takes place in the covenant of grace takes place wholly for the human creature. A creatura mediatrix gratiarum or even corredemptrix is a self-contradiction” (I/1, 45).

torranceyoungBarth’s position over against these counterpositions may be briefly restated. The actuality of human freedom is affirmed (and by no means denied). But the condition for its possibility in relation to God is found not at all in human nature itself, but entirely in divine grace. In the event of human fellowship autonomy is not at all independent. It is entirely subsequent to and dependent on grace. The missing capacity for freedom in fellowship with God is given and received as a gift–“not as a supernatural quality, but as a capacity which is actual only as it is used, which is not in any sense magical, but absolutely free and natural in its exercise” (III/1, 128). In and through him it is called by grace “out of nothingness into being, out of death into life.” The event of grace on which the capacity for freedom completely depends is thereby a miracle and a mystery. But in and with this complete dependence, it is “real in the way in which creation generally can be in its relationship to the Creator.” Human freedom in all its reality is “encompassed,” “established,” “delimited,” and “determined” by divine grace (II/1, 128). The “mystery of human autonomy” is clearly not “an autonomous mystery” (II/2, 194). It is rather included within “the one divine mystery.” It is, that is to say, included within “the mystery of grace,” within “the mystery of God’s triumphant affirmation and love.” Only in this sense (but certainly in this sense) is it included within “the mystery of God’s omnipotence.” The reality of human freedom takes place, therefore, not as “the second point in an ellipse” (the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian counterpositions), but as “the circumference around one central point of which it is the repetition and confirmation” (II/2, 194). Divine grace and human freedom stand, in other words, in a conceptually asymmetrical relationship rather than in one of conceptual interdependence.

The features of this argument may also be stated in terms of the various motifs. The reality of fellowship is in question by way of the problem of double agency (personalism). The mode of testing for incoherence takes place in terms of the remaining web of doctrinal beliefs (rationalism). The bestowal, by grace, of freedom for fellowship with God is described as a miraculous event (actualism). This event also takes place in such a way that divine omnipotence and human freedom coexist in mutual love and freedom as the mystery of God with humanity and of humanity with God (particularism). Furthermore, the miracle and the mystery of the event are said to be dependent upon and mediated through the saving person and work of Jesus Christ (objectivism). The counterpositions (Pelgianism and semi-Pelagianism) are shown to be incoherent at essential points with the presupposed web of doctrinal beliefs (especially “the radicality of sin” and “the majesty of God”), whereas the position in question is shown in fact to be coherent with it in the mode of miracle and mystery (rationalism, actualism, particularism). Since the web of presupposed beliefs is taken to be in accord with scripture, it follows (granted the assumption) that the challenged position is also in accord with scripture, and that the proposed counterpositions are not (although this could and would need to be argued also on independent exegetical grounds) (realism). Thus all six motifs are in force in one way or another in the mode of testing for the possible coherence or incoherence of the challenged belief.[2]


[1] Robert Letham, The Triune God, Incarnation, and Definite Atonement in edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 454. When Letham writes of Torrance: ‘…It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by the assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis….’ What he is referring to is this in Torrance’s writings:

 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. (Atonement, 187-88)

 And this:

 (i) Christ’s death for all is an inescapable reality. We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity — that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact — nothing can undo it. That means that God has taken the great positive decision for man, the decision of love translated into fact. But because the work and the person of Christ are one, that finished work is identical with the self-giving of God to all humanity which he extends to everyone in the living Christ. God does not withhold himself from any one, but he gives himself to all whether they will or not — even if they will not have him, he gives himself to them, for he has once and for all given himself, and therefore the giving of himself in the cross when opposed by the will of man inevitably opposes that will of man and is its judgement. As we saw, it is the positive will of God in loving humanity that becomes humanity’s judgement when they refuse it. (Thomas F. Torrance,Atonement, 188-89)

What Letham, as others, fails to appreciate is the very point that Hunsinger (above and below) highlights about Barth’s approach; primarily having to do with the ‘radicality of sin’, and thinking from the grammar and mystery of the Incarnation itself. Torrance, as Letham asserts, is not merely making an ‘assertion,’ but in fact has his assertion squarely grounded within Christian, historical, and constructive theological proposals that are both robust and cogent within a coherent framework of thought. Hunsinger, I believe, defeats Letham’s (and other’s) charge of incoherence against Torrance, and by relation Karl Barth; and for the very reasons that Hunsinger registers in his clarification and defense of Karl Barth. The irony is that Barth and Torrance, if understood through classical patterns of Christian theological engagement are seen to be the coherent ones while those who are critiquing them are the ones who end up being incoherent by engaging abstract patterns of thought that are foreign to the mysterious Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It is not that mystery is being appealed to in abstraction by either Barth or Torrance, instead the parameters of thought for both of them is chastened and cordoned off by the mystery of God en sarkos (‘in the flesh’); and any Christian intelligibility must be thought from within this center, and not a center of our own active intellectual making.

[2] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 195-98 nook version.