Presenting a Genuinely and Radically Word-Based Christian Theology Contra Theologies of Speculation and Negation

Most of what dominates conservative evangelical Reformed theology these days is rooted in the speculative tradition, or what, more medievally is known as the via negativa (‘negative way’). Katherine Sonderegger, as a contemporary thinker, typifies it this way. Here she writes:

Note what I said here! Our reading of the priestly-prophetic visio Dei is not principally Trinitarian in character. We are not hearing and seeking out in this witness of ancient Israel a sign and foretaste of Triune Persons. It is not the Father, say, that we see breaking through the cloud and smoke to descend upon Moses and upon the people Israel. Nor do we look for an intimation of the Son in these royal Appearances in the temple. We do not bring forward first and principally the Holy Spirit as personal disclosure in Dame Wisdom or in the maternal brooding over the dark sea at creation’s dawn. The forward press of so much modern theology—the drive to subsume the doctrine of God within the Trinity and the Triune Persons—does not, I believe, properly attest the Unicity of the God of Israel. The Deity and Nature of God is personal: the One God is a Person; we can dare to put it this way. Monotheism is no shame word! At once God is Nature and Person, and the witness of ancient Israel to its Lord is to an Object inalienably Subject, a Subject lowered and handed over to be Object. This oscillation in Israel’s and therefore our religious life before God—now our experience of the I AM—is the gracious condescension of the Lord God to usward, for these are not two, not distinct or segmented, but One, One Mystery, One God.[1]

There is an ancient pedigree to this approach, one laid down by none other than Peter Lombard in the structuring of his Sentences; we might even call this the salvation-history approach. But inherent to this, as illustrated by Sonderegger, is a need to decentralize the threeness of God over-against the oneness; just because this is the ‘order’ we ostensibly receive in the linear unfolding of the Old Testament disclosure. So, in this sense, in the tradition Sonderegger forays forth for us, we could say she is following the contours of Scripture; but we could also say that she is doing so in an abstract way. Her approach can be characterized as ‘abstract’ at the point that she does not principially ground her ‘Word-based’ theologizing in the Christian understanding of the Logos of God. Contrariwise, what we see the New Testament authors doing, the Gospel of John comes quickly to mind, is a retroactive or recapitulatory reading of the Old Testament wherein the Word of God, who is the Christ, seemingly breaks in and all over the Old Testament and sees Christ as the revelation of God all along. In other words, in light of Christ, we come to recognize, by the Spirit, that the Old Testament was a witness to Jesus the Messiah all along. If this is the case, the so called ‘unicity’ of God is never an abstract oneness, but one that is inextricably understood in the multiplicity of the Triune Life of God as revealed in the Son, who is Jesus Christ.

In contrast to Sonderegger, and the tradition she typifies—which is often considered The Tradition of the Church when it comes to theological endeavor in the Western iteration—I want to suggest that we follow the New Testament authors, and understand that our theological entrée must be grounded in the Word of God alone. What I want to introduce us to is not without controversy though. But, I think we can constructively appropriate ways of thinking from contexts that might not end up correlating with the way we end up recasting them vis-à-vis their original context. Here, Eberhard Jüngel, through the telling of David Congdon, helps typify the sort of Word-based theology I think is more principially grounded in the concrete reality of God for us in Christ. Read with me for a moment, and then we will attempt to provide the constructive appropriation I am referring to. Congdon writes:

Jüngel begins by summarizing the way Bultmann differentiates the object of theology from the fides qua creditur of liberal theology, the fides quae creditur of Protestant orthodoxy, and the unknowable God of mysticism. Each of these approaches in theology either loses the divine object of theology altogether or speaks of God in abstraction from God’s “saving deed” (Heilstat) in Christ. If it is not to be mere speculation, theology can be the science of God only as the science of God’s word, the kerygma, the fides quae creditur. But the kerygma is the concrete event in which God’s saving action takes place: it is the eschatological word of God’s justifying judgment in Christ. One can only speak about this event by participating in it and existing as the object of this divine judgment. That is why “theology is the science of God, in that it is the science of faith, and vice versa.” Or as Luther famously put it in his Large Catechism, “these two things belong together, faith and God.” Theology, according to Bultmann, is a particular understanding of God that arises from the event of faith in the word of God. It is a task “enjoined to faith from faith and for faith,” and thus it does not derive from any general account of science or any human capacity for revelation. The encounter with Christ in the kerygma is the sole basis for theological speech and must occur ever anew. According to Jüngel, “the kerygma that faith accepts thus elicits along with faith a cognition [Erkennen], which is a knowledge [Wissen] that is never separable from the event of the kerygma and from the event of faith, but remains related to the Lord who encounters us in the kerygma.” Put more succinctly: “the truth of faith is the event of truth.”[2]

Sounds “existentialist,” right? The emphasis is indeed on encounter, but not an encounter generated by the “I” instead one that comes from the “Thou,” from God in Christ. Some might be concerned that Bultmann’s breath is too close to this to be of value for the conservative evangelical theology. But we can avoid going all the way with Bultmann, and instead critically appropriate the good in the bad.[3] And what we are really being presented with, through Congdon, is Jüngel’s Word-based basis for doing theology that is shaped by the concrete kataphatic reality of God in Christ.

Maybe you also noticed as you read Congdon’s development, the priority that is given to God confronting us, and giving us capacity that we did not have prior to the justification and reconcilation He brings for us in Christ. This, in itself levels a resounding no to the sort of theological method that Sonderegger, and her tradition, gives us. It says no to the inherent analogy of being and natural theology that allows the theologian to speculate about God in the first place; even if that speculation is said to be driven by the salvation-history unfolded in the Old Testament disclosure. For a genuinely Word-based theology there is no space for speculation about who God is, or what God is just because God’s revelation for us is given without remainder in Christ; and our knowledge of God in this frame is fully contingent upon this ‘without-remainder’ givenness for us in the face of God in Christ.

To summarize: Sonderegger, and the tradition she typifies, is committed to a speculative mode for doing theology; a mode that presupposes upon an inherent capacity within the human agent to discern or discover God simply by reflecting on the ‘nature’ of things as they are disclosed in the fabric of the created order. It is this mode of theologizing that necessarily starts with an emphasis on the oneness or monadic quiddity or whatness of God precisely because it starts by speculating about the singular power that might have been able to ‘cause’ what the thinker is discovering via the negative of the negating process they are enthralled by. Contrariwise, the Word-based tradition that Jüngel can help us understand is one that is based necessarily upon the premise that ‘reconciliation is revelation.’ What comes with this axiom is the notion that human agents have no capacity in themselves to discover God no matter how hard they try. In this Word-based approach, the theologian is fully dependent upon God encountering them, rather than vice-versa. Herein, in the encounter, the theologian becomes capacious to know God, but only as God is made known to them, without remainder, in the face of Christ.

I commend the Word-based approach to you; even if we might have to do some constructive work in order to keep it genuinely in line with orthodox premises. The fear of existential theology is unfounded just as it is possible to critically appropriate themes from existentialism, as it developed in the modern period and retext them under the pressures presented by the encounter of God Hisself. The fear of existential theology is unfounded just as the object of our theology is in fact also the Subject of theology; in other words, just as theology is grounded in the personal and Triune givenness of God for us in the person of the Son, Jesus Christ. This, I contend, is the better way forward for doing a genuinely Christian and evangelical theology. A theology that elides speculation about God from our own resources, and instead trusts the God revealed to have the capacity to explain Himself to us as both One and Three, Three in One in the tremendous mystery of the God who is for us, with us, and not against us.


[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), Loc. 6577, 6584 Kindle.

[2] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 472-73.

[3] The bad being Bultmann’s understanding of the bodily resurrection of Christ and its untetheredness from historical concrete reality. We can follow Barth’s understanding of resurrection while at the same time appropriating some of Jüngel’s Bultmannian-like approach to grounding theological approach in the concrete reality of the Word of God in Christ. Here is Barth’s understanding of resurrection, just for point of reference:

The Easter story is not for nothing the story whose most illuminating moment according to the account of Mark’s Gospel consists in the inconceivable fact of an empty sepulcher, a fact which (in producing atrembling and astonishment) lays hold of the three woman disciples and reduces them to complete silence for they told no one of it, for they were afraid (Mk. 16.8). Everything else related by this story can be heard and believed in the very literalness in which it stands, but can really only be believed, because it drops out of all categories and so out of all conceivability. It cannot be sufficiently observed that in the most artless possible way all the New Testament Easter narratives fail to supply the very thing most eagerly expected in the interests of clearness, namely an account of the resurrection itself. CD I/2 §14, 115


Anonymous Christians and Knowing God

Karl Rahner’s idea of ‘anonymous Christians’ is quite the concept, but it is one that flows organically from his conception of knowledge of God as that is related to moments of existential transcendental experiences that human beings have qua human being. As Paul Molnar explains, this is why, for Rahner, all people, whether they know it or not, are anonymously Christian; because as they look inward and have a sense, a non-conceptual sense of the Divine, they are in fact experiencing or encountering the living God present to each person’s experience as that is extrapolated outward to a transcendental point of contact. Molnar writes this as he is contrasting Karl Barth’s Christ focused aapologetic knowledge of God with Molnar’s transcendental existential:

This is an enormously important point because it is false apologetics that separates the thinking of those who, like Karl Rahner, believe that they can and must begin their thinking about God with our self-transcending experiences. It is exactly for this reason that Rahner believes “we cannot begin with Jesus Christ as the absolute and final datum, but we must begin further back than that.” He thus chooses to begin with “a knowledge of God which is not mediated completely by an encounter with Jesus Christ.” He begins with our transcendental experience, which he claims mediates an “unthematic and anonymous . . . knowledge of God,” which, as seen in chapter one, both Barth and Torrance rightly rejected because such knowledge amounts only to a symbolic description of ourselves in place of the triune God. He thus claims that knowledge of God is always present unthematically to anyone reflecting on themselves, so that all talk about God “always only points to this transcendental experience as such, an experience in which he whom we call ‘God’ encounters man in silence . . . as the absolute and the incomprehensible, as the term of his transcendence.” This term of transcendence Rahner eventually calls a holy mystery because he believes that whenever this experience of transcendence is an experience of love, its term is the God of Christian revelation. It is just this thinking that leads to Rahner’s idea of “Searching Christology,” which, as seen above in chapter one, essentially refers to the fact that anyone who truly loves another, for instance, is already an “anonymous Christian” in that search. In that sense Rahner believer their activity and thinking is in line with what traditional Christology teaches. This approach to Christology presumes that we must find a basis for belief in Christ in a transcendental anthropology. This led Rahner to embrace the idea that we have an obedential potency for revelation and that our lives are marked by a “supernatural existential,” as seen in chapter one. Finally, it led him to the idea that self-acceptance is the same as accepting Christ and God himself. In this context I think one can see rather clearly that the crucial difference between Barth and Rahner is that Barth’s thinking begins and ends with the Holy Spirit as the awakening power of faith—not faith in ourselves (our transcendental dynamisms)—but in the Word of truth, namely, Jesus Christ. And that of course rules out the idea of anonymous Christianity as the projection of an idea that is at variance with what is actually revealed by Jesus himself as the Word incarnate and through his Holy Spirit as the risen and ascended Lord here and now. It also rules out any notion that we have any “potency” or capacity for the revelation of God; that we have an existential on the basis of which we can rely on ourselves in our experience of grace to speak accurately about God; and that we can look to anyone or anything other than Jesus Christ himself to know who God is and what he has done and does for us as the reconciler and redeemer.[1]

What this insight from Molnar helps us to see, beyond Rahner’s logic towards his ‘anonymous Christian,’ is how interrelated things are theologically. We see how theological anthropology is couched in a doctrine of creation, which itself is cradled in a doctrine of God; we see how all of these converge into a discussion about how creatures can have a knowledge of God.

For Rahner the ground of knowledge of God is not the Word of God, and not even the church (which is interesting given Rahner’s Catholic status), but instead it is the shared bond and the experience therein that human beings ostensibly share as they contemplate the deeper things of life. For Barth and Torrance, as Molnar ably develops in his book, if knowledge of God is detached from the concrete given of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ, then we will look elsewhere—if we look at all—for constructing a theory of knowledge of God.

It would not be a reach, I would contend, to extrapolate out from Rahner’s more ‘modern’ Schleiermacherean like turn to the subject theologizing, and ask if other, even more ‘classically’ construed theologies engage in the same type of abstract reasoning when it comes to developing a framework wherein a theory of knowledge of God is developed; I most immediately think of Thomas Aquinas’s analogia entis (‘analogy of being’). Is there a basis, a built in-capacity, or even God-given capacity (post-salvation/conversion) within humanity wherein they can establish a holy ground to think the living God from? It isn’t just Rahner who works things out this way, I would contend that any type of ‘analogy of being’ theologizing equally ends up positing a theological-anthropology vis-à-vis their doctrine of creation that leaves room for an abstractive knowledge of God wherein the human being can habituate in a process of discursive reasoning and reach a point of contact with God that itself is untethered from God’s concrete given in Jesus Christ, the living Word of God. This is not to suggest that Thomists, for example, might arrive at an unthematic non-conceptual knowledge of God, like Rahner’s position leads to, but it is my attempt to draw a point of convergence, thematically, between the types of theological-anthropology that both Thomists and Rahnerians might affirm in regard to the belief that an abstract notion of God can be connived of apart from God’s immediate yet mediate Self-explication of Himself for us in the eternal huios, Jesus Christ.

Are there anonymous Christians? Nein.


[1] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downer Groves, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 102-04.

Opining on Thomas’s Analogia Entis and At Least One Reason Why I Reject It

I am currently reading Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, at least part of it; and I’ve come across a passage where Thomas is asking the question: ‘is there a natural knowledge of God?’ This question is related to what is called the analogia entis (‘analogy of being’), and is a primary means by which Aquinas, following the ‘Philosopher’, Aristotle, develops his theological ontology and subsequent epistemology. I will share, in brief, what this passage says, and then comment on the other side of it:


12, Art. 12. (Whether, in this life, God can be known through natural reason.)

Our natural knowledge begins from sense. It can therefore extend so far as it can be led by sensible things. But our intellect cannot in this way attain insight into the divine essence. Sensible things are indeed effects of God, but they are not proportionate to the power of their cause, and for this reason the whole power of God cannot be known from them. Neither, consequently, can his essence be seen. But since effects depend on their cause, sensible things can lead us to know that God exists, and to know what is bound to be attributable to him as the first cause of all things, and as transcending all his effects. In this way we know that God is related to creatures as the cause of them all; that he differs from creatures, since he is none of the things caused by him; and that creatures are separated from God because God transcends them, not because of any defect in God.

This way of analogical knowledge of God presupposes something about the human intellect and rationality in the Fall; it presupposes that a certain spark has remained, that there is something inherent within the human animal that yet allows it to discursively work its way to a limited, yet analogical knowledge of the true and living God. We see the role of what is often referred to as the via negativa or the negating process that occurs within this mode of knowledge towards God as well. I.e. “In this way we know that God is related to creatures as the cause of them all; that he differs from creatures, since he is none of the things caused by him; …” For the life of me I have no idea how a thorough going dyed in the wool Reformed theologian or Christian can affirm something like this; but hey, what do I know? In other words, how can someone claim that post-lapse there remains this capacity within humanity to not only desire to have knowledge of God, but an actual ability to posit things about the real and living God that are corollary with and analogical of the real and living God.

You ask me why I reject the analogia entis, particularly in the Thomist form, this is why. Now, there is a reason why Thomas must maintain, at an essentialist level, why human being must retain an intellectual capacity that allows them to have knowledge of God; but I don’t see how his premise jives in any way with a biblical mode of understanding. Romans 3 says there is no one who knows God, nor seeks after him; this is a rather basic notion we see in Holy Script. In other words, from a biblical perspective, when humanity fell at the Fall they were so impacted that their very ontology as human being was corrupted to the point that reasoning capacity or desire to reason towards a knowledge of God was rendered defunct and absent. That Thomist analogia entis cannot accept this because of its need to maintain a theological anthropology wherein the intellect, at some level, remains intact (I’ve written about this aspect of Thomist anthropology elsewhere) is problematic indeed.



Nature, Grace and Knowledge of God: Does Michael Allen Really Understand the Thomist’s and Thomas Aquinas’s Position on Created Grace?

Let’s keep on theme. This has been an important thing for me for quite a few years now, and I’m realizing once again that it remains such. It has to do with the theme we’ve been touching on in the last many posts I’ve been writing; i.e. how can a human being have real knowledge of God? This essentially gets underneath that now proverbial question of ‘what hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ Is there something, some moral quality, some created grace, some inherent bent in humanity’s teleology that equips and allows them to know God; or want to know God? There have been many attempts by various theologians over the centuries to engage this question, but I want to start with Holy Scripture; and then think from there. It’s not that those who arrive and different conclusions than me haven’t worked from Scripture, all that that variety illustrates is the impact that certain a priori theological commitments have upon the exegetical practice.

To start, let’s take a look at Romans 3:9-18:

What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. 10 As it is written:“There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” 14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery mark their ways, 17 and the way of peace they do not know.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

I take this, particularly the portion I have emboldened, to be definitive of the state of the human heart coram Deo (‘before God’); and I’m not alone. Most Reformed theologians would want to affirm the traditional doctrine of total depravity although maybe not total inability, but because these same theologians also have, what I would contend is a competing (with Scripture) metaphysic underwriting their approach to Scripture, they at some point have to soften the “way” the Romans passage sounds at a prima facie level. Most Reformed theologians follow in the Thomist tradition; the Thomist tradition, also known as the Thomist Intellectualist tradition sees the human intellect as the definitive component of what makes a human being a human being at an essential level. So they must posit that when the fall of Genesis 3 took place that the intellect, at some level, remained untouched[1]; viz. that it maintained some level of operative power even in its capacity to posit, at the most, God (again we can see how something like this would coalesce with a subsequent [but also prior in a basic way] appeal to the philosophers in order to supply such Reformed theologians with the categories they find useful in their theological endeavors). Such Reformed thinkers have their point of contact precisely at this point; i.e. their point of contact between God and humanity. Yes, they would also recognize that the intellect, while still operative, even if living under the dregs of the fall, and because of such dregs, requires the supplement of grace to enter into the [elect] individual and ‘escalate’ or elevate the intellect to a regenerate status resulting in the person’s ability to fully access God (at least in the ways God has generously decided to accommodate that in ectypal fashion). So the mainstay of classical Calvinist or Reformed theologians really don’t affirm that people are fully or even functionally disabled (as the Romans passage would intimate), instead they must, at some level (and there are various ways to nuance that among such theologians) keep, as a live option, the operation of the intellect such that people, in general, have a capacity towards knowledge of God. Sure, it might not ultimately terminate in a true and saving knowledge of God, but nevertheless that moral ‘point of contact’ and hook remains active in fallen humanity (i.e. a proclivity or at least an ability to seek after God).

I wanted to share the full quote from Allen because it helps illustrate the various ways all of this has unfolded in and among both Roman Catholic and Reformed theologians alike. He notes the differences and even the internecine differences among Catholics and the classically Reformed alike; but what stands out, and this is what I’ll share from Allen simply to illustrate the reality, is their shared point of convergence when it comes to working from the Thomist tradition. Yes, this can take numerable directions, from Henri de Lubac, to Thomas Aquinas, to Herman Bavinck, to Kathryn Tanner; but the point is, they all at some level, one way or the other want to affirm and work from the Thomist intellectualist tradition (e.g. remember how I described, a bit, the theological anthropological component that funds this tradition i.e. ‘the intellect’). Allen writes:

How then does the new life relate to the character of created nature or, more specifically, how does the regenerated being of the saints relate to their given nature as sons of Adam and daughters of Eve? Here we enter debates regarding nature and grace, matters which have marked controversies both in the classical era and also into recent decades. Indeed, twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology debated the relationship of nature and grace at length, pointing to even deeper disputes within the tradition. We do well to attend to these conversations, as they suggest realities present in the medieval and early modern context in which the Reformed tradition was shaped decisively. They also present a conversation wherein the heritage of Reformed thought has been altered or misperceived by much more recent developments. Before turning to specifically Reformed approaches, then, we do well to note the broader trends in Roman Catholicism and to find their roots in a shared Thomist heritage, at which point we are in a position to ask about specific concerns flowing out of the Protestant Reformation.[2]

We note in the last emboldened clause just what I was referring to previously; that Allen fully affirms the reliance for the classically Reformed (including himself) upon the Thomist heritage, and all that attends to that. Like I highlighted earlier, there are multiform ways to flesh out said heritage; nevertheless, in categorical ways, certain features remain basic and fundamental for the Thomistically inspired theologian. This is where I found Allen’s coverage rather lacking; he prefers to gloss over the theological anthropological point that I was noting earlier, and which I only alluded to in my prologue, in regard to grace. Remember I noted that some theologians, the Thomist ones, see some source of contact built into even fallen humanity’s bent or capacity for some knowledge of God (even if that remains fleeting among the reprobate). Thomists, and Thomas Aquinas himself, actually posits a concept of created grace (which I’ve written on before, more than once here at the blog), this is an addition and quality that God (to state it crudely) implants into the accidents of elect humanity which allows them, through moral effort and habituation (habitus) activate and allows them to move beyond the fleeting knowledge that all human beings have, in regard to capacity for knowledge of God, and takes them to the next level. Allen glosses this component—in regard to created grace as a thing or quality or stuff—and simply transubstantiates such thinking from a created stuff/quality to the personal work of the Holy Spirit; he writes:

Grace’s gift does not merely heal sin’s harm by returning one to Eden. Grace also moves us forward such that there is escalation from Eden. Grace is not a stuff or substance, of course, but the personal presence and action of God. Specifically, grace is the life-giving work of Christ by his Holy Spirit. We do well to remember the way in which Thomas Aquinas spoke of this effective presence: “The Holy Spirit makes those to whom he is sent like the one whose Spirit he is.” The Spirit, then, conforms the Christian into the image of the invisible God, to the form of Jesus Christ, for the Spirit is none other than the “Spirit of Christ” (e.g., Rom 8:9; Phil 1:19; 1 Pet 1:11).[3]

I mean who am I to question a genuine theologian, I’m just a blogger, but this makes me seriously wonder whether or not Michael Allen actually understands Thomas Aquinas’s superstructure; particularly when it comes to Thomas’s appropriation of Aristotle’s habitus theology and substance metaphysic. Aquinas writes all over his Summa about grace being a created quality, and refers to it as medicine (which fits well with the kind of intellectualist sin/grace-ailment/medicine symmetry that would be funding Thomas’s theology). Note, as an example of many of instances from Thomas:

Now this nature is disordered, however, man falls short even of the goodness natural to him, and cannot wholly achieve it by his own natural abilities. Particular good actions he can still perform in virtue of his nature (building houses, planting vineyards and the like); but he falls short of the total goodness suited to his nature. He is like a sick man able to make certain movements by himself, but unable to move like a man in perfect health until he has had medicine to heal him.[4]

This will have to suffice to illustrate how I’m not sure, exactly, Allen is really reading Aquinas right in this regard. You can go read Thomas for yourself to see if I’m misrepresenting Aquinas on this, or if Allen is.[5]

I digress somewhat; but I wanted to note what I think is a misreading in the analysis of Allen in regard to Thomas’s theology. Further, in this process, I’m hoping you can see how this issue, relative to knowledge of God, gets fleshed out in the ways that it does for the classically Calvinist in particular (at least by way of providing some exposure). But furthermore, let me also just note, that because of this kind of Thomist commitment by many of these guys and gals, I think they end up misrepresenting what Scripture asserts about the noetic impact of the fall on humanity’s capacity to have a point of contact and/or capacity for knowledge of God as an inherent capacity in the created nature (even if that’s in the accidents rather than essential as we have been  highlighting). We can see how they must go the direction they do; and we can start to see how their a priori commitment to Aristotle’s categories mediated through Thomas pressures them into this extra-biblical direction.

The tradition Karl Barth et al. offers does not work from the grace/nature combine that most classical theologies work from; particularly as we’ve noticed that in the Thomist frame. Barth’s offering sees all reality funded by God’s grace and then miracle alone; his doctrine of creation is funded by the covenant of grace, which for Barth works from his doctrine of election and God’s choice to be for us in Christ. For Barth the inner reality of creation is God’s covenant life of grace, consequently leading to the idea that creation itself is the external expression of that life as grounded and conditioned by the humanity of God in Jesus Christ.

That’s enough.


[1] The Thomist needs the intellect to remain untouched in some way because without that in the fall, if the intellect along with the will and affections (in a tripartite faculty psychology) fell, the human being would no longer be, at a constituent level, a human being; they’d be some sort of monster or zombie. For the Thomist the affections are what not only led to the fall (i.e. the lust of the flesh etc.), but were what actually fell in toto (in totality); the intellect, for the Thomist, was affected by this in some significant ways, but not in the same way that the affections/will were impacted. It is interesting, the Thomists, because they are working, in basic ways, from anthropological categories (i.e. the faculty psychology) that many theologians of today have abandoned for non-reductive physicalism etc.; so we can see a pretty stark repristination project being engaged in by such theologians in our 21st century.

[2] Michael Allen, Sanctification (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2017), 213 kindle edition. [emboldening mine]

[3] Ibid., 215 kindle edition.

[4] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Concise Translation, 16.

[5] See also a paper I wrote many years ago on grace and nature in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Bear in mind I was very dilettante at this point, in my writing and theologically; but the paper itself will help to illustrate further my point in regard to Allen’s apparent mishandling of Aquinas’s theology on a rather salient front in regard to what Allen is attempting to glean relative to Aquinas’s theology qua Reformed theology simplicter: NATURE AND GRACE IN THE THEOLOGY OF THOMAS AQUINAS.

Germans, Decrees, and “A God Behind the Back of Jesus”

This was the topic of my only offering to Christianity Today (2013); the issue of God’s so called transcendence and immanence, relative to the creaturely order. My article was a contribution to their Global Gospel Project, and in it I attempt to popularly introduce a rather technical conception, that in the history is known as God’s ‘power’ theology—i.e. potentia absoluta/potentia ordinata (his absolute and ordained power). This theology is often attributed to nominalist thinking, or even to William of Ockham, but no matter, what it does, whatever its historical antecedents, at a conceptual level is drive a wedge between who God is in eternity in his ‘inner-life’ (in se), and who he has revealed himself to be economically in salvation history (ad extra). Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance have pithily glossed this as their being ‘a God behind the back of Jesus’; they are quite right to do so.

I am currently reading David Congdon’s big Bultmann book (not because he and I are friends anymore, but because I should just probably read it), and in it, as he is developing the distinctions between Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, he offers a sketch (via footnote) of how Eberhard Jüngel critiques a doctoral student of Barth’s, Helmut Gollwitzer, and how Gollwitzer (as news to me) operates with the kind of dualism between God’s revealed will, and antecedent being that we see in the potentia theology we just noted. Let’s see how Congdon recounts Jüngel’s treatment of Gollwitzer, and then reflect upon what this kind of thinking might do for those of us who want to think, along with Jesus Christ, that ‘when we see him [Jesus] we see the Father.’ Congdon offers:

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

I wrote the following in my Christianity Today article:

If God’s revelation in Christ does not truly represent God’s eternal nature, then sending Christ could have been an arbitrary gesture. God might well have reached out to humanity in a very different manner—or not reached out to humanity at all. And at any point in the future, he might act in an infinite number of unpredictable ways. If God’s activity in revealed time doesn’t reflect his eternal nature, we cannot be sure of Jesus’ words to doubting Thomas: “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7).[2]

Gollwitzer presents the same dilemma that so many prior to him had. It is a similar dilemma that we get from classical Reformed and Arminian theology; one that has God mediating himself through a mechanism of absolute decrees, and through primary and secondary causation. In this scheme you can never quite be sure if you are dealing with the God revealed through his decrees, or the actual decreeing God (unless of course we want to collapse God into his decrees, but I surely don’t want to do that); similar to Gollwitzer, in this way, there is a God behind the back of Jesus for such presentations.


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

[2] Bobby Grow, “God Behind the Veil: His ways are hidden from ordinary eyes, but not from the eyes of faith,” Christianity Today (May 2013): 42.

The Theologians of the Fourfold Word in Conversation with the Theologian of the Threefold Word: The Post Reformed Orthodox and Barth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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.

‘Revelation’ is Personal: With Reference to Congdon

barthexegeteThe following quote will be an example of how Karl Barth’s understanding of ‘revelation’ works within his own theoretical schematization of things. Bruce McCormack has also developed this in one of his chapters in his book Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth. The following quote comes from one of McCormack’s former PhD students, David Congdon (from David’s
own published PhD dissertation on Bultmann). Let’s read the quote, then I will close by reflecting on what Congdon has to say.

Jüngel’s central thesis is that, contrary to appearances, Barth’s deployment of the doctrine of the Trinity at the opening of his Kirchliche Dogmatik is not an evasion of hermeneutics but rather a profound engagement with the hermeneutical problem. Barth’s trinitarian theology is, in fact, a form of hermeneutical theology. This is true in two closely related respects. First, “revelation is the self-interpretation [Selbstinterpretation] of this God,” according to Barth. God’s self-revelation in the economic Trinity is an interpretation of the immanent Trinity, and thus it is neither an addition to nor a direct presence of the eternal being of God. God’s being ad extra in the economy of grace corresponds to God’s being ad intra. The event of revelation is therefore the “self-unveiling” (Selbstenthüllung) of the eternal being of God, but it is an unveiling in and through a veil. Or as Barth says elsewhere: “the Deus revelatus is the Deus absconditus.” God is hidden in God’s revelation and not apart from it. That is to say, there is no divine being-in-itself that remains hidden from or alien to the self-giving of God in history, but neither is the self- giving of God one that grants unmediated access to the divine nature. Jüngel glosses this by simply stating that “revelation is that occurrence in which the being of God comes to speech.” Put in hermeneutical terms, “if revelation is the self-interpretation of God, then in it there occurs the fact that God interprets Godself as the one whom God is.”[1]

The context I take this from, in Congdon’s book, is a discussion Congdon is having on the relationship between Barth and Bultmann and their respective projects. He is noting how, as Jüngel underscores, Barth’s and Bultmann’s projects are more complementing rather than disparate. But I simply wanted to lift the quote out of that context in order to give insight into what can sometimes be a source of consternation for many who end up critiquing Barth.

When Barth speaks of ‘revelation’ proper his reference is informed by what Congdon describes above. So revelation proper for Barth is first and bound up in a personal Self-giveness of Godself in the Son, Jesus Christ. In other words, and in brief, revelation for Karl Barth is not what we encounter on paper but in the second Person of the Trinity; so Revelation is ‘Personal’ by definition for Barth.

Can the Bible in this framework and theory of revelation be understood as ‘revelation?’ It can be understood as part of the revelatory event, but Scripture itself can only be thought of as a second part of revelation as it bears witness to and gives way to its reality in Jesus Christ. And in this way the Bible is God’s Bible and not ours; and in this way, then God is able to encounter us as we encounter Him in Jesus Christ through the words of Scripture in a way that allows Him to confront us, and contradict our ways by His. Scripture can do that, as can Proclamation of Scripture as they both give way to their source and reality in Jesus Christ.

The point of what Congdon is highlighting is that Revelation is not something that we can control or grasp; it is something of God’s grace for us (pro nobis) that He gives to us at His direction and determination. I can endorse this concern and desire. And I think understanding Revelation as primarily ‘Personal’ is indeed the way to go when it comes to our thinking here. I also think that this idea, of Barth’s in particular, can constructively be appropriated and developed in a way that fits in quite well with what might be considered a more Traditional (‘pre-critical’) conception of Holy Scripture.

[1] David Congdon, Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 56.

Who Is Jesus Christ for Us Today?: A New Kind of Empericism

I thought this was a good and interesting way to summarize Ben Quash’s essay on Revelation in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology; Quash writes,


[T]he opening up of a ‘third term’ in the confrontation between the recepient(s) and the medium of revelation is something that all good theologies of revelation in the modern period have had to attempt in different ways. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has left us with what is arguably one of the most suggestive and fruitful, with his affirmation of the penultimate (the rational, empirical, social domain) in its intimate closeness-in-distinction to the ultimate. The ultimate opens opens up within the penultimate in the form of a question, as we confront and examine the phenomena of our earthly existence. It is not our own question—it is given to us. And although it is given to us phenomenally (in the penultimate), its answer is not. The questions is “Who Is Jesus Christ for us today?’ (Bonhoeffer 1966: 30: 1971: 279). This question draws us along the way of the cross into dispossessive relationship with one who is the non-circumscribable ultimate of existence. We find him incognito, ‘hidden in empirical history as empirical reality, “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3)’ (Janz 2004: 220). He is the definitive revelation of God by allowing himself to be pushed out of the world onto the cross, in this way showing us the God who is not an agent in competitive relation to other agents in the world—not just one who makes particular differences—but one who makes all the difference, in but not in addition to all the differences that there already are. [Ben Quash, 342.]

I think the most decisive thing Quash notices about ‘Revelation’ and its theory, is this: ‘It is not our own question—it is given to us….’ Christians did not invent the story for their own political purposes (to the contrary); Christians did not schematize the categories by which we approach God, they were given to us. And so we ought to allow what is given, hidden as it is, in the veil of the flesh of the Son of Man, to impede upon us in the gracious way it is given; in the Love of the manger, in the Love of the cross, in the Love of the resurrection, in the love of the new heavens and earth. Jesus Christ for us today is the same as he was for them yesterday, and as he will be for us tomorrow.

Revelation, Christ the Key

I was going to post something from Herman Bavinck, and his Philosophy of Revelation, but instead I am going to post something on St. Efrem the Syrian’s theory of revelation which comes from an essay that Mark christ_creationMourachian wrote for the last installment of Participatio Journal’s offering which was themed off of Thomas F Torrance and Orthodoxy. Mourachian brings Torrance into conversation with St. Efrem, and part of what I am going to share is the result of that conversation. What should stand out about this theory of revelation, from St. Efrem, as reported by Mourachian is how Jesus Christ serves as the key that unlocks all of the riches that are present in God-given creation. Here is Mourachian:

Up to this point, our discussion of Ephrem’s understanding of divine revelation has focused on the manifest things of God, that which he has planted in the midst of creation voicelessly, and that which he has conveyed through the Bible by means of human language. It is necessary, though, to appreciate the correlate to Ephrem’s emphasis on God’s self-manifestation: his stress on God’s hiddenness. In one of his Hymns on Faith Ephrem writes:

Indeed, who is able to comprehend the Lord of natures,

to inquire into His Being and to investigate His Fatherhood,

and to explore His Greatness and to say how It is?

For, behold, in all those respects He is hidden from all,

and unless He wants to make Himself plain to us

there is nothing in Creation that is able to interpret Him.[1]

The core assumption at work here – indeed, everywhere in Ephrem’s theology – is that between the Creator and the creation there yawns a gaping chasm, a “great, boundless gulf” over which no created thing may cross.[2] Any and all knowledge of God is fundamentally dependent upon God’s good pleasure in revealing himself as he sees fit. Note the last two verses in the stanza quoted above: God is altogether hidden, and no created thing can interpret him, unless he wills it do so. He has so willed, and his very act of creating the natural world and taking on human language is sufficient evidence of that claim’s truth. Yet as near as God may draw, through the created means he chooses for his self-revelation, he nevertheless remains infinitely transcendent. He is at once very close and immeasurably far.[3]

Sebastian Brock uses the category of perspective to explain this example of Ephrem’s habit of thinking through polarities.[4] From our perspective, all created things are of revelatory significance, and we understand them as just that, God’s self-revelations in and through his handiwork. But from the perspective of divine reality itself, God has hidden something of himself in created things, pointing “to something that will one day be revealed: what is ‘hidden’ in the symbols of Nature and of Scripture is revealed in Christ at the Incarnation; what lies hidden in the Sacraments will be revealed at the eschaton, in Paradise.”[5] Even when we come to see the symbolic significance of all that God has imprinted of himself in created realities, he yet remains hidden, which fact is all the more apparent in view of the ontological divide between God and creation: nothing finite could ever manifest completely the infinite, inimitable majesty of God as he is in himself.

While Brock’s explanation of the polarity between the hidden and the revealed is helpful, there is one point on which his language is potentially misleading. He speaks of the human perspective as “subjective,” while the divine perspective enjoys objectivity.[6] By “subjective” he means that “every individual will approach God’s hiddenness by way of a different set of galyata, or points of revelation.”[7] That is so because all the instances of God’s self-revelation are differentiated, and that to which they all point in their manifold ways, God himself, is infinitely greater than the sum of revelation’s parts: “the revelation is always partial.”[8] His explanation of what he deems the “subjective” character of the human perspective is certainly true to Ephrem, but his choice of the term “subjective,” in contrast to “objective,” is open to misinterpretation. To the modern ear those terms typically register in ways that are contrary to Ephrem’s thinking and are commonly understood against the background of a dualist framework in which subjectivism is pit against claims to an accessible objective reality—not with reference to subjectivity.

Brock surely does not foist on Ephrem some radical disconnect between knower and known, or between the content of one’s thought and the reality it appears to intend, such as a dualist epistemology would entail. His exposition of Ephrem shows no marks of that kind of crippling of the human capacity for real knowledge. But it bears repeating that, for Ephrem, it is God who implanted in creation reliable indications and symbols of himself, constituting them to function as the faithful mind of the believer understands them to function. In that respect, both the divine and the human perspective are objective: they are grounded in and intend the objective reality that God is, albeit in radically different ways. God makes created symbols to correspond in a contingent, creaturely way to the truth that he himself is in a non-contingent, uncreated way.

It is better to consider the terms “subjective” and “objective,” as applied to Ephrem’s theology, from within the realist framework that Torrance so clearly articulated. In Torrance’s description, realism is:

the orientation in thought that obtains in semantics, science, or theology on the basis of a nondualist or unitary relation between the empirical and theoretical ingredients in the structure of the real world and in our knowledge of it. This is an epistemic orientation of the two-way relation between the subject and object poles of thought and speech, in which ontological primacy and control are naturally accorded to reality over all our conceiving and speaking of it.[9]

It is critical to appreciate how much a realist Ephrem actually is. In no way whatsoever does Ephrem allow for a theory of meaning as subjectively constructed out of whole cloth and totally dependent on the idiosyncrasies and fantasies of the mind unmoored from objective reality. The media through which God reveals himself to us, and the specific content of those manifestations, are objectively determined by God to be what they are and to function as they do. When we exert the effort to engage those media and discern their function and their hidden, divinely bestowed content, that experience yields results that are real yet, as Brock rightly notes, always and necessarily partial – partial in each individual instance and in the aggregate. What that fact implies is that the revelation of God is always and everywhere new, and the particulars of its manifestations are unexpected. As Michael Polanyi avers:

To hold knowledge is indeed always a commitment to indeterminate implications, for human knowledge is but an intimation of reality, and we can never quite tell in what new way reality may yet manifest itself. It is external to us; it is objective; and so its future manifestations can never be completely under our intellectual control.[10]

While we are free to discover the coherence and meaning of divine revelation through created things, we are not free to construct it. In other words, the fundamental structure, manner, and content of divine revelation are not subject to human control and determination: the structure, because the Creator orders all things; the manner, because he reveals himself as he wills; and the content, because the real, ultimate content of his self-revelation is the person of the incarnate Word, who reconciles us with the Father and gives us his Spirit to guide us “into all truth.”[11] [see whole essay from Mark Mourachian herestarting at pg. 94]

[1] HdF 44.7.

[2] HdF 15.5. It should be noted that the chasm is not the result of man’s disobedience and sin; it exists simply by virtue of the Creator-creation distinction.

[3] See HdF 72.23-24.

[4] See his discussion in his Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1992), 27-29.

[5] Ibid., 28-29.

[6] Ibid., 27-28.

[7] Ibid., 27.

[8] Ibid.

[9] T. F. Torrance, Reality and Evangelical Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), 60. See also Torrance’s essay “Theological Realism,” in The Philosophical Frontiers of Christian Theology, ed. Brian Hebblethwaite and Stewart Sutherland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 173.

[10] Michael Polanyi, “Faith and Reason,” Journal of Religion 41 (1961): 244. See also Torrance’s discussion of open concepts (Theological Science, 15), with respect to which “the reality conceived keeps on disclosing itself to us in such a way that it continually overflows all our statements about it.”

[11] John 16:13.