The Evangelical Calvinist

"The world was made so that Christ might be born."-David Fergusson

Archive for the ‘Thomas Aquinas’ Category

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.

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Written by Bobby Grow

March 28, 2018 at 8:45 pm

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:

APPENDIX TO Q. 4, ART. 3

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.

 

 

Written by Bobby Grow

March 4, 2018 at 5:37 pm

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.

A Sketch of Thomas Aquinas’s and Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Creation, Salvation, and Human Freedom: How They Contrast and Its Impact on Just About Everything

I think something that is not talked about much, in regard to Barth’s theology, is how counter it is to mediaeval conceptions of salvation and grace relative to a grace/nature binary. In other words in the major strand of Western conception of salvation/grace we get
something as definitive as Thomas Aquinas’s axiom: ‘nature is perfected by grace.’ So we have this kind of symmetry between the two with a telos (or linear purposiveness) tied into nature by God’s grace coming along, as it were, and completing or bringing nature to where it inherently has been designed to be. In this scheme we have what some have called a ‘pure nature’ (naturum purum); what is implicit in this scheme is that at the fall nature only sublimated into a sub situation relative to its inherent trajectory before God—in other words, nature did not fully self-destruct into demise and utter death through and through; a spark of its inherent determinancy remained hither. It simply needed help-along by way of God adding to it his created grace wherein nature, and the stewards of said nature, human beings, could habituate in this added grace in their lives thus bringing nature to where it had always intended to be at an inherent level (as originally designed by God).

But for Barth this is not how nature/creation is conceived of to begin with. There is no nature/grace symmetry; for Barth it is ‘grace all the way down’ (to use a Torrancism). In other words, the condition for creation itself is grounded in God’s first Word of grace realized in his elected life in Christ to be for us and with us. Grace is the precondition of creation for Barth such that nature has no inherent determinancy or ‘purity’ in itself. We might note something like this, from Barth, as a counter to the Aquinisian axiom we shared above: ‘creation is the external basis of the covenant’ and ‘covenant is the internal basis of creation.’ What this gets at in our discussion is how for Barth, contra Aquinas&co., creation/nature itself is inherently tied into God’s gracious choice to be for us in Christ; Aquinas’s view has nature tied to grace in a kind of complementing sense whereas Barth sees creation/nature as always already a reality that is thoroughly suffused and conditioned by and from God’s life through and through.

I bring all of this up to lead us to a quote from George Hunsinger on Barth’s theology in regard to salvation, human cooperation in that salvation (and not), and human agency/freedom. Maybe you will see how my rough sketches on Aquinas juxtaposed with Barth fits into what Hunsinger is getting at in regard to how distinct Barth is from the trad on this most crucial point. At length, Hunsinger writes this per Barth:

Human Cooperation Does Not Effect Salvation

Barth does not deny that human freedom “cooperates” with divine grace. He denies that this cooperation in any way effects salvation. Although grace makes human freedom possible as a mode of acting (modus agendi), that freedom is always a gift. It is always imparted to faith in the mode of receiving salvation (modus recipiendi), partaking of it (modus participandi), and bearing witness to it (modus testificandi), never in the mode of effecting it (modus efficiendi). As imparted by the Spirit’s miraculous operation, human freedom is always the consequence of salvation, never its cause, and therefore in its correspondence to grace always eucharistic (modus gratandi et laudandi). These distinctions apply both objectively and subjectively, that is, not only to salvation as it has taken place extra nos, but also as it occurs in nobis. Since to be a sinner means to be incapacitated, grace means capacitating the incapacitated despite their incapacitation. Sinners capacitated by grace remain helpless in themselves. Grace does not perfect and exceed human nature in its sorry plight so much as it contradicts and overrules it.

What happens is this: in nobis, in our heart, in the very center of our existence, a contradiction is lodged against our unfaithfulness. It is a contradiction that we cannot dodge, but have to validate. In confronting it we cannot cling to our unfaithfulness, for through it our unfaithfulness is not only forbidden but canceled and rendered impossible. Because Jesus Christ intervenes pro nobis and thus in nobis, unfaithfulness to God has been rendered basically an impossible possibility. It is a possibility disallowed and thus no longer to be realized . . . , one we recognize as eliminated and taken away by the omnipotent contradiction God lodges within us. [Karl Barth, “Extra Nos-Pro Nobis-In Nobis,” Thomist 50 (1986): 497-511, on p. 510.]

In this miraculous and mysterious way, by grace alone — that is, through a continual contradiction of nature by grace resulting in a provisional “conjunction of opposites” (coniunctio oppositorum) — the blind see, the lame walk, and the dead are raised to life (cf. Matt. 11:4).[1]

Do you see the type of discontinuity and asymmetry that is present in Barth’s understanding of a doctrine of creation/nature, and how that implicates the way Barth conceives of what happens in the salvific reality? In the Thomist account grace attends to nature in such a way that nature is prolongated to new heights, but heights pregnant within nature itself. In the Barthian account creation had no such inherence, nature was always already extrinsically conditioned by and for God’s life of grace in Christ. For Barth nature does not simply subsist as inchoate reality waiting to be completed in accord with its own independent ends (i.e. already built-in through secondary causation etc), but instead it has always had this type of apocalyptic eschatological hue to it such that the first creation while anticipative of things to come, heightened and intensified by the fall of Adam and Eve (and thus humanity), was conditioned to be contradicted and recreated in accord with its gracious and given purpose determined by an immediate corollary between its given reality and the reality given to it, always and already, in God’s choice to be for us. In other  words, in the Barthian account, to state it brusquely: creation is and always has been a predicate of God’s gracious and Triune life (insofar as he chose this to be the case). Contrariwise, in the Thomist account we could say that: grace is understood as a predicate of nature insofar as grace is seen as a supplement to expand nature to new heights; that nature came to be, as it were, fitted for grace and grace for nature. In the Barthian account nature has always been inclusiastically situated in and from God’s life of grace both protologically and eschatologically. If this is so, the Barthian account, we can see how Barth could and would draw such a brightly colored line between his own understanding of the nature of salvation versus something like we find in the Thomas Aquinas frame. For Barth first creation and second creation were always and only conditioned by God’s primal choice to be the Yes of creation from the beginning and end in Christ.

Let me close with a quote that I’ve shared before in regard to Barth’s understanding of history relative to resurrection and what that implies relative to all the realities we have just been sketching through:

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

What is key in this quote is the emphasis placed on the ‘primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.’ Creation/nature for Barth is not a linear thing, it is apocalyptic; as such it is always open, contingent upon God’s own freedom, to be re-ordered and recreated in such a way that it corresponds to who he has chosen to be in Christ for us. In other words, nature for Barth, in an order of consideration does not precede God, and thus determine how it ought to be completed by God’s grace; no, for Barth, God’s choice has always been the Predicator of the predicated and Christ conditioned reality that we identify as ‘nature.’ Human freedom in salvation, in this Barthian scheme, then, can only be construed by thinking it from the conditions of this type of Christic reality in regard to creation; i.e. through its suffuse predication by what it means to be ‘free’ before God as participants in that life, and in that type of freedom, the freedom that the Son has shared with the Father by the Holy Spirit in the Ultimacy and Intimacy of their Divine life. In Barth’s scheme we shouldn’t think of nature being conflated with some sort of created grace from God, by which the elect might cooperate with God in attaining the perfection for which their created natures have always been regnant; nein, we ought to understand that God’s grace is personal and oriented always already encountering us over again afresh and anew in the face of Jesus Christ. We live from the freedom of God’s life in Christ, and this is what it means to be human; to live from the resurrected and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. Nature isn’t being perfected by grace in this scheme, it instead is realizing what it has always already meant to be creatures created in the image of the image of God (who is Christ cf. Col. 1.15).

I left many threads, once again, dangling. But hopefully you’re at least getting a sense a feeling of where things are going here at The Evangelical Calvinist. And maybe you will better understand why I am so resistant to classical theologies, Protestant and Roman Catholic, that work from the Thomist (neo or not) categories of ‘nature perfected by grace’.

[1] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 165-66.

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

Written by Bobby Grow

November 24, 2017 at 5:53 pm

Christian Aristotelianism: Understanding the Reformed and evangelical Intellectual and Theological History

I originally wrote this post on September 5th, 2010, I thought I’d share it again. It’s relevance hasn’t gone away in these last seven years, and remains unchanged for many folks either just cutting their teeth on Reformed theology, and/or for those who are flamingly Reformed and have been for years. Aristotle’s place in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox (or simply classical Calvinist) heritage will always be unchallenged and unshaken; anyone who has spent any time at all studying the history of Reformed theology will know this. But in my experience many people don’t know aristotle1this, many ostensibly Reformed people; they just think that what they are getting in Reformed theology is the meaty stuff, the purely “biblical” stuff. Yet, many have not done the self-critical, or just plain old critical work required in order to really know what they have gotten themselves into. These folk think they are working in a tradition known for its sola Scriptura – and indeed they are – but they remain unaware that historically sola Scriptura does not mean just pure Bible alone; no the Reformers were much more sophisticated and honest than that. They understood the role that philosophy, substance metaphysics, so on and so forth will need to play in order to unpack the inner-logic, the theo-logic resident and underneath the text of the occasional writings that make up Holy Writ. Of course, my contention is that Aristotle need not play any role in un-packing the theo-logic and reality of Holy Scripture; but that’s not to say that there is no place for the retextualization of philosophical language under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is to say, though, that Aristotle, particularly as we have received him in and from the medieval tradition, in my view, has done irreparable damage to how millions of Christians across the globe conceive of God today. But developing that is fodder for another post (that I’ve already written many times over here at the blog). Let’s stay focused though.

The following is to alert Reformed people, and other interested Christians to the role that Aristotle’s philosophy has played, is playing, and always will play in the center of the most dominant strand of Reformed theology today; the theology of the so called Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians. In case you didn’t know, these theologians are those who followed on the heels of the magisterial Reformers (i.e. Luther, Calvin, et al.) in the later 16th and then into the 17th century. Aristotle was present prior to the 16th and 17th centuries by way, primarily of Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis of Christian theology with Aristotelian philosophy. Unfortunately the Reformation really never shook itself loose of this impact; it did for awhile say in Luther and Calvin, but then in the Post Reformation period this mantle and way was picked up once again. This long quote from historian, Richard Muller is intended to alert you all to this, if you’re unaware.

Trajectories in Aristotelianism and Rationalism. Although the early orthodox era (from roughly 1565 to 1640) is also the era during which the new science was being set forth by Kepler, Galileo, and Bacon, and the new rationalism was being initially expounded by Descartes and Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the rise of modern science and modern rationalism did not profoundly affect Protestant orthodox theology until the latter half of the seventeenth century. For the most part, early orthodox Protestant theologians doubted the new cosmology and rejected rationalist philosophy, resting content with the late Renaissance revisions of Christian Aristotelianism at the hands of Roman Catholic philosophers like Zabarella and Sua´rez and of Protestant thinkers like Ramus and Burgersdijk. The new cosmology had to wait until the latter part of the seventeenth century for Isaac Newton’s physical and mathematical discoveries to make any sense at all and seventeenth-century rationalism, particularly in the deductive model presented by Descartes, has never proved entirely congenial to traditional theology and was never incorporated either universally or without intense debate into Reformed orthodox thought.

Just as the Ptolemaic universe remained the basis of the Western worldview until the end of the seventeenth century and continued to affect literary and philosophical forms of expression well into the eighteenth, so did Christianized Aristotelianism remain the dominant philosophical perspective throughout the era of orthodoxy. Here too, as in the area of theological system, important developments took place in the context of the Protestant universities in the late sixteenth century. Where Melanchthon, Vermigli, and others of their generation had tended to content themselves with the teaching of rhetoric, logic, ethics, and physics without giving particular attention to the potential impact of these disciplines on theology, in the second half of the century, the philosophical disciplines began to have a marked effect on Protestant theology. Aristotelian physics served the doctrine of creation in the works of Hyperius, Daneau and Zanchi; aquinas2Agricolan and Ramist logic began to clarify the structure of theological systems, and metaphysics re-entered the Protestant classroom in the writings of Schegk, Martinius, Keckermann, Alsted, and Timpler.

This development of Christian Aristotelianism in the Protestant universities not only parallels the development of Protestant scholasticism but bears witness to a similar phenomenon. The gradual production of philosophical tradition was set aside followed by a sudden return to philosophy. Instead, it indicates a transition from medieval textbooks, like the Summulae logicales of Peter of Spain and the De dialectia inventione of Rudolf Agricola, to textbooks written by Protestants for Protestants, like Melanchthon’s De rhetorica libri tres (1519), Institutiones rhetoricae (1521), his commentaries on Aristotles’Politics and Ethics (1536) and the De Anima (1540), Seton’s Dialectica (1545), Ramus’ Dialectica (1543) and the spate of works based upon it, or somewhat eclectic but also more traditional manuals like Sanderson’s Logicae artis compendium (1615) and Burgersdijk’s Institutiones logicae (1626) or is Idea philosophiae naturalis (1622). The absence of Protestant works from the era of the early Reformation points toward a use of established textbooks prior to the development of new ones under the pressure not only of Protestant theology but also of humanism and of changes and developments in the philosophical disciplines themselves. The publication of Protestant works in these areas parallels the rise and flowering of Protestant academies, gymnasia, and universities. Schmitt summarizes the situation neatly:

. . . Latin Aristotelianism stretching from the twelfth to the seventeenth century had a degree of unity and organic development that cannot be easily dismissed. . . . the differences distinguishing the Catholic, Lutheran,  or Calvinist varieties, are far outweighed by a unifying concern for the same philosophical and scientific problems and an invocation of the same sources of inspiration by which to solve them.

Furthermore, the continuity must be understood in terms of the subsequent trajectories and modifications of late medieval schools of thought — Thomism, Scotism, nominalism, the varieties of via antiqua and via moderna — and the ways in which these schools of thought were received and mediated by the various trajectories of theology and philosophy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. For if the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist theologians shared a common Christian Aristotelian foundation, they differed, even  among themselves, over the nuances of the model and over which of the late medieval trajectories was most suitable a vehicle for their theological formulation.

The continuity of Christian Aristotelianism and scholastic method from the medieval into the early modern period together with the relationship of these two phenomena to Protestant orthodoxy pinpoint one further issue to be considered in the study of orthodox or scholastic Protestantism. It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers (as in the case of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” thesis). It is also an error to discuss Protestant orthodoxy without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages, through the Reformation, into post-Reformation Protestantism. Whereas the Reformation is surely the formative event for Protestantism, it is also true that the Reformation, which took place during the first half of the sixteenth century, is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed, as it were by the five-hundred year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism. In accord, moreover, with the older scholastic models as well as with the assumptions of the Reformers concerning the biblical norm of theology, The Reformed scholastics uniformly maintained the priority of revelation over reason and insisted on the ancillary status of philosophy. In approaching the continuities and discontinuities of Protestant scholasticism with the Middle Ages and the Reformation, the chief task is to assess the Protestant adjustment of traditional scholastic categories in the light of the Reformation and the patterns according to which it mediated that tradition, both positively and negatively, to future generations of Protestants. This approach is not only more adequate to the understanding of Protestant orthodoxy, but is also the framework for a clearer understanding of the meaning of the Reformation itself.[1]

Points of Implication

  1. Muller’s thesis is somewhat acceptable — given the expansive nature he sets for the accounting of the various streams represented by the “Reformed tradition.”
  2. petervermigliChristian Aristotelianism is the framework wherein Protestant theology took shape in the main.
  3. Muller admits to both a conceptual and methodological Aristotelianism within the period known as the “post-Reformation.”
  4. Muller holds that the continuity which he argues for between all periods of the “Reformation” is grounded in late Medievalism — thus construing the magesterial (early and “high”) Protestant Reformation as a hick-up in comparison to the tsunami that swept through from the 12th into the 17th century.
  5. For Muller, it seems, the only real difference between Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist Aristotelians is a matter of emphasis and theological order. In other words, for Muller Christian Aristotelianism is the best philosophical framework commensurate with articulating Christian dogma.

Popular Implications

  1. There is a “popular” ground-swell towards returning the church back to our Protestant heritage — this move works under the assumption that our “past” is a “strictly biblical one.” What is never presented is what we are looking at here, and that is the history and conceptual frame from whence “most of the Protestant” heritage has taken shape (at least in the “Reformed” heritage). People naively assume that the categories that the “Reformed” provide them with are actually Gospel truth (i.e. not associate with a school of interpretation).
  2. These are in fact, typically, the categories that ALL “Evangelical” Christians think through when they approach Scripture (this is the vacuum from whence they/we typically think).
  3. If people fail to realize the affect Aristotle has had upon the way they understand God, they will fail to understand the true nature of God, and thus their daily walk with Jesus is going to be severely skewed.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. One,  71-73.

 

A Better More ‘evangelical’ and Reformed Way When it Comes to God: Repudiating Aristotelian Metaphysics and its Theology

I wanted to highlight something very important from Torrance’s book Divine and Contingent Order; something so important that I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that what I am going to share from him is as fundamental to understanding Torrance’s theology as is anything from him. The fact that Torrance dedicates this book to his long time Greek Orthodox compatriot Georges Florovsky should say something; that is, that this book, per classic Torrance, is going to take us back to the patristic past, and constructively, through retrieval, bring us into some modern and aristotle1contemporary discussion–in the case of this book it will have mostly to do with issues surrounding science, with obvious overlap with theology.

The following quote from this book brings me back to what I have probably become known for best (at least in my past iteration as a blogger) in the theo-blogosphere, that is my rather contentious relationship with what I have called classical Calvinist (and Arminian) theology (but I wouldn’t want to limit my contentiousness to just the Calvinists and Arminians, I believe in offering equal opportunity of contention for other expressions and certain kinds of classical, mostly Aristotelian inspired, medieval theologies). And so this quote is intended to once again–for I fear that people have become lax in regard to the current takeover of North American evangelical theology by tributaries of resource that are flowing directly from the Aristotelian stream of deterministic logico-causality present and funding evangelical movements like The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, et. al. etc.–re-register that Bobby Grow is still watching 😉 , and I haven’t grown lax in my disdain for the mechanical God of classical Calvinism, in particular, even if I understand that many Calvinists have a deep piety and love for God. So consider my vigor, in this regard, to be motivated, in part, by a desire to align said Calvinist piety and love of God, with a ground and grammar for articulating God and dogma in a way that is correlative and consistent with who the Calvinists and Arminians want to love as God.

In step with the above then, let me get to this quote from Thomas Torrance. In this quote Torrance is sketching the impact that Aristotelian and then Newtonian categories have had upon God and the subsequent development of theology that followed, in particular, and for our purposes, in the post Reformed orthodox era of Calvinist and Arminian theology. And given the fact that much of this theology is being repristinated and resurrected by the neo-Calvinists/Puritans et. al., again, it will only be apropos to visit its informing background through the lens that Torrance provides for that. Torrance writes (at length),

It was in terms of these basic ideas that classical Christian theology of the fourth and fifth centuries set out to reconstruct the foundations of ancient philosophy and science upon which the pagan picture of God and the cosmos rested.  Today we can see that they were masterful ideas which lay deep in the development of Western science, and with which we are more than ever concerned in the new science of our own day and its underlying concept of a unifying order. But what became of these ideas in thought subsequent to the Nicene and immediately post-Nicene era? For a short period they bore remarkable fruit in the physics of space and time, and of light and motion, that arose in Alexandria in the fifth and sixth centuries and which, like the theology out of which it grew, was thoroughly anti-dualist in its basic orientation. Before long, however, these ideas became swamped in the massive upsurge of dualist cosmologies and epistemologies which took somewhat different forms in the Augustinian West and Byzantine East. The idea that the created universe is rational because its Creator and Preserver is rational remained, and was to see considerable development, especially in Western medieval theology and philosophy, which thus has contributed immensely to our scientific understanding of the universe. Unfortunately, however, the doctrine of God behind it all suffered not a little modification in terms of his inertial motion which was to have considerable effect upon classical Newtonian physics. Here the conception of the impassibility and immutability of God (i.e. that God is not subject to suffering or change), which has patristic sources, became allied to the Aristotelian notion of the Unmoved Mover. Although the idea of the creation of the universe out of nothing remained, that became difficult to maintain when the universe itself came to be construed more and more in terms of Aristotle’s four causes in which the effect was understood as following inexorably from its antecedent and defining cause, for to regard the Creator as the First Cause from which the universe took its rise appears to imply ‘the eternity of the world’ if only the mind of God who knows himself as its First Cause. Mediaeval theology on evangelical grounds had to reject the notion of ‘the eternity of the world’ but it remained trapped, for the most part at least, in notions of impassibility and immutability of God which had as their counterpart a notion of the world which, given its original momentum by the First Cause, constituted a system of necessary and causal relations in which it was very difficult to find room for any genuine contingence. Contingence could only be thought of in so far as there was an element of necessity in it, so that contingence could be thought of only by being thought away. The inertial relation of an immutable God to the world he has made thus gave rise to a rather static conception of the world and its immanent structures. Looked at in this way it seems that the groundwork for the Newtonian system of the world was already to found in mediaeval thought.[1]

Does this, at all, sound familiar to you? Have you been exposed to this kind of over-determined world in what you have been taught at church or elsewhere? What do we lose if we affirm the kind of mechanical world that Torrance just described? We lose intimate relationship with God in Christ for one thing. We also have potential for losing compassion for others; we might conclude that the plight of some people, or a whole group or nation of people are ‘just’ determined to be where they are in their own lived lives, no matter how miserable. We might not overtly or consciously think all of this, but it surely would be informing the way we view ourselves and other selves in relation to God in the world.

Let me just leave off by suggesting that what Torrance describes above, about a mechanical-world is the world you get when you embrace classical Calvinism, Arminianism, etc. (philosophically, theologically, ethically, etc.). And let me suggest that there is a better way forward that is more consistent with the idea that God is love, and that he serves (or should) as the ground and grammar of everything.

Conclusion

I know that for many evangelical theologians the tide keeps pushing on, and for them what counts as the most resourceful fount for constructive Reformed and evangelical theology is the theology produced in the 16th and 17th centuries, or what we might call Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy (as Richard Muller does). I am not so naïve to think that this trend won’t continue, but I want to offer you all an off-ramp through alerting you to what Torrance is getting at in regard to the metaphysics present in the current evangelical and Reformed trend as it comes to doing theology for the church. If you’re okay (I’m not!) with offering the church a conception of God where things (like people’s lives) are determined by a God who relates to the world through abstract decrees (in order to keep God as a philosophical Unmoved Mover), then yes, continue on in your resourcing of classical Reformed theology (at least what is considered that by the mainline of evangelical and Reformed theologians); but if you want to offer a conception of God as lively, dynamic, and triune who relates personally and mediately through his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ, then repudiate this trendy move, and start engaging with God on the terms that Torrance is interested in introducing us to.

You see, what Torrance is onto isn’t really something new, he is simply looking further back than the evangelicals and Reformed; he is looking back to some of the Patristic theologians (i.e. what he calls the Athanasian-Cyrilian axis) who do indeed come up against these Hellenic patterns of thinking, but who resist the temptation of sublimating God to those patterns, and instead allow the patterns of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ to re-text the ‘Greek-grammar’ in such a way that the correlation is no longer to the god of the philosophers, but instead to the Christian God revealed in Jesus Christ.

I have given up on trying to convince the Young, Restless, and Reformed, but I haven’t given up on you. For me, personally, what’s really at stake isn’t trying to preserve a certain tradition, per se, the picture is much bigger than that. We are talking about reality itself here, and the implications that come along with that. Like I recently noted elsewhere: “Just remember who we have been “saved” to: Not to a denomination, or a tradition, or a sub-culture, but to the triune God in Christ.” As such we shouldn’t be as worried about who we identify with sub-culturally (like what tradition or denomination we think gives us place and identity in the broader body of Christ), but who we are identified by as we participate in and from the triune life of God in Jesus Christ. I think a lot of theology, unfortunately, has a lot to do with identity-church-politics; once we feel like we’ve been given purpose by that (even if it takes us time to find that) it becomes exceedingly hard to move away from that even if confronted with compelling information about how things are and how they’ve come to be in the history of ideas.

I just want to invite you to re-think where you’re at theologically, and think about what Torrance (and I) have been talking about in this post. Maybe you’ll come to the conclusion, like I have, that there is a better more evangelical way than what we’ve been offered thus far.

P.S. It isn’t just Torrance who makes this critique about the metaphysics funding Aristotelian formed classical theologies; there are others, and they aren’t even “Barthians.”

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 5-6.

[2] Picture credit: Wendell B. Johnson .

 

No God Behind the Back of Jesus: God is Love not an UnMoved Mover

I don’t know about you, but as a North American evangelical, growing up, I was taught and given the impression, theologically, that God is somewhat performance driven; i.e. that he is concerned with me keeping his law in order for me to maintain fellowship with him (a quid pro quo type of relationship). Don’t get me wrong, it was never quite this explicit, in fact just the opposite might have been what was on the surface; i.e. that ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.’ But underneath the pietism that the Sunday school song captures remained a God who was shaped goodshepherdby his relation to me and the world by us (humanity) keeping a rigid performance shaped spirituality. Even if I was told that God was love, and even if those telling me that he is love were genuine, there still, even at a tacit level, remained a detachment or rupture between what they were saying and the theology they, and then I had available to fall back on; in other words there was a fissure between the pietism, and the actual theology behind said pietism. If I am not being cryptic enough what I am referring to is the classically Reformed theology that funded, ostensibly, the piety I lived under as a child and young adult; bearing in mind that my background was just a basic baptistic “biblicist” Free church mode of being.

An antidote to all of this came for me in seminary, particularly through my professor, Ron Frost’s instruction; he introduced me to Trinitarian theology (at that time it was presented to me through Colin Gunton’s work). Since, then, of course, as many of you know, Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth have become my teachers in regard to informing the way I think about God as Triune love and what that means for my development as a Christian person. I thought I would share a lengthy quote from Thomas Torrance that illustrates the type of teaching I’ve been sitting under for the last eleven years. Here Torrance explicates what it means for God to be love:

… Just as we can never go behind God’s saving and revealing acts in Jesus Christ and in the mission of his Spirit, so we can never think or speak of him truly apart from his revealing and saving acts behind the back of Jesus Christ, for there is no other God.

It is of course because God actively loves us, and actually loves us so much that he has given us his only Son to be the Saviour of the world, that he reveals himself to us as the Loving One, and as he whose Love belongs to his innermost Being as God. If he were not Love in his innermost Being, his love toward us in Christ and the Holy Spirit would be ontologically groundless. God is who he is as he who loves us with his very Being, he whose loving is as inexhaustible as his infinite Being for his Love is his Being in ceaseless triune movement and activity. It is precisely as this living, loving, and acting God that he has come to us in Jesus Christ and unites us to himself by his one Spirit, interacting with us in creation and history, and in our human and physical existence in time and space, all in order to be our God and to have us for his people.

It is thus that we understand why Christians believe the God and Father of Jesus Christ to be the one and only God and Saviour of the world. He is not different in himself from what he is in the activity of his saving and redeeming love in the singularity of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the God who is loving and saving us has once for all given his very Self to us in his Son and in his Spirit, and who in giving himself freely and unreservedly to us gives us with him all things. It is in the Cross of Christ that the utterly astonishing nature of the Love that God is has been fully disclosed, for in refusing to spare his own Son whom he delivered up for us all, God has revealed that he loves us more than he loves himself. And so it is in the Cross of Jesus Christ above all that God has both exhibited the very Nature of his Being as Love and has irrevocably committed his Being to relationship with us in unconditional Love. In Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit we know no other God, and believe that there is no other God for us than this God, who freely seeks and creates fellowship with us, utterly undeserving sinners though we are.[1]

There are no decrees, no artificial covenants (of works/redemption/grace), or stipulations in regard to how we can relate to a God like this, or who we are relating to. It is all contingent upon who he is in his triune life, and how that shapes his uncomplicated but ineffable relationship to us through his election and free choice to not be God without us, but with us, Immanuel. This is the God, the One revealed and explicated in Jesus Christ, that the piety I grew up with has been in search of; it is not the God, in my evangelical Calvinist view, who we get through Aristotelian, Thomistic, and scholastic decrees and covenants—the God who hides behind the back of a pretty soft face of Jesus.

It is unfortunate to see a whole new crop of young evangelical theologians drinking deeply from the well of scholasticism Reformed theology, and the God provided for in that schema. It is not the God simply revealed in Jesus Christ, and thought of from there. Instead the God of the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox, the God evangelical theologians are pressing into currently, is a God conceived of through philosophical speculation and appeal to the analogia entis; a God conceived of in abstraction, and then fitted to the God revealed in Christ.

If we cannot simply look at Jesus as the fullest explication and exegesis of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit then I would highly suggest that we not talk too much about any other conception of God. This is a serious matter, which I realize the other “side” would agree to. Unfortunately for some vested reason they can’t seem to accept the fact that the classical theism they have embraced unnecessarily layers a conception of God with the dregs of philosophical projection that muddles the face of God in Jesus Christ to un-recognition. Yes, you might end up with a sense of apophatic transcendence, in regard to the philosophically conceived God, but that sense of transcendence, so conceived, really, ironically, is more of a psychological sense of ‘feeling’ God which is generated by the self, more than a real sense of God’s transcendence as that is given in his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ unmitigated. Torrance speaks of this unmitigated God, I wish the evangelicals would swarm towards his approach to things rather than to what they have been now for these past many years.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 4-5.

Harnack’s Hellenization Thesis, Heretics, and Evangelizing Metaphysics: Robert Jenson, Thomas Torrance, and Thomas Aquinas

In this post I will write off the top, for the most part, at least when referring to Thomas Torrance, and will offer some suggestions about how I think Torrance operated in his constructive methodology of retrieving patristic theology, and how that may have informed his critique of later theologians like Thomas Aquinas.

Evangelizing Metaphysics and Orthodoxy

An important reality to grasp in regard to the development of Christian Dogma and theology through the centuries, particularly in the first four centuries of the church, is the idea of what Robert Jenson calls the evangelization of metaphysics. As Jenson writes against Harnack’s Hellenization thesis that the early church was overcome by appeal to classical Greek philosophical categories in aquinas1.jpgits articulation of the implications of the Gospel, Jenson argues that this was not the case at all (as reported by Peter Leithart)! Instead, as Jenson develops the early church took Hellenic philosophical categories and repurposed them, or reified them in such a way (a non-correlationist way) that they were essentially gutted of their former meaning and given new meaning under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; the lexical realities were still present (i.e. at the level of the words used), but within their new context driven by God’s revelation in the economy of His life, they lost any resemblance (i.e. the words) to what they used to mean within the classical philosophical context, and became resurrected words within a new grammar given reality by the logic of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Here is how Peter Leithar frames this as he quotes Robert Jenson:

Harnack’s hellenization thesis has been subjected to searching criticism, and an alternative account of the interaction of Christianity with Greco-Roman civilization has been offered. Writing not as a historian of dogma but as one of Harnack’s dreaded “dogmaticians,” Robert Jenson describes the relation of the gospel to philosophy during the first four centuries as an “evangelization of metaphysics.” Far from being conformed to Hellenistic categories and forms, the church in the persons of her theologians employed Greek concepts and terms to express something that Greek philosophy could never have envisioned. For Jenson, the central issue concerns time. Greek metaphysics and religion, he argues, were an elaborate effort to escape the corrosive effects of time.

It was the great single dogma of late Mediterranean antiquity’s religion and irreligion, that no story can be “really” true of God, that deity equals “impassibility.” It is not merely that the gospel tells a story about the object of worship; every religion of antiquity did that. The gospel identifies God as “He who brought Israel from Egypt and our Lord Jesus from the dead.” Therefore the gospel cannot rescind from its story at any depth whatsoever of experience, mystical penetration or theologia. Developed trinitarian liturgy and theology appeared as the church maintained the gospel’s identification of God in the very teeth of what everybody knew to be of course and obviously true of God, and in every nook of practice or theory where uncircumcised theological self-evidency lurked.[1]

I would like to suggest that Thomas Torrance in a principled way has attempted to do this same thing. Torrance works within the classical tradition, particularly as articulated by Athanasius; and he uses the grammar of the patristics like ousia (being) and hypostases (persons) inherited from his reading and understanding of the Niceno-Constantinopolitano creeds and what he calls the Athanasian-Cyrilian axis. Torrance uses the patristic concepts of De Deo Uno&De Deo Trino when he develops his doctrine of God and Trinitarian theology, but he uses them under advisement. In other words unlike, say the early medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, Torrance doesn’t simply appeal to God’s ‘ousia’ and ‘hypostases’ in a philosophical way; he doesn’t refer to God’s impassibility or immutability, or the omnis of God without reifying them or concretizing said concepts under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation simpliciter.

I would like to suggest that what Torrance did was to take what the early church did, and apply it to theological categories that had developed in the history of the church over the centuries in a way that he believed had lapsed back into purely Greek philosophical ways of understanding and “grammarizing” God. In a sense, and alongside Jenson’s thinking, Torrance believed the Harnackian thesis that the early church Hellenized the Gospel, it’s just that Torrance believed that (just like Jenson does) Harnack’s thesis only applies to the heretics of the early church, particularly with reference to Arius and his later disciple Eunomius; this is where Torrance’s Athanasian-Cyrilian axis is important. Torrance believed it was possible to evangelize metaphysics, and he believes that’s what happened in the Nicene and Constantinopolitan church councils, and later at Chalcedon.

Summary

In summary, Torrance believed that there has always been this kind of thread present within the development of dogma and church doctrine. In other words, he believed that there was always a heretical thread (a Hellenic thread) and an orthodox thread (and maybe a heterodox thread somewhere in between in this complex) at play within the walls of the church. So if we come up against someone like Thomas Aquinas, I believe Torrance would think that Aquinas veers toward, at least, a heterodox thread, and overly-Hellenizing thesis in his development of a doctrine of God. That because Aquinas so relied upon Aristotle’s categories (so Thomist classical theism), he indeed began to think God in a way that did not adequately work from an evangelized metaphysic, which resulted in presenting a God who was more of a mechanical-monad, a singularity, rather than a God who is by definition Triune, dynamic and relational. Torrance might look at Aquinas’ doctrine of God and see the classical concepts of ousia and hypostases at play, and Torrance might even find Aquinas’ emphasis upon God’s ‘being’ commendable (versus voluntarist emphases like those found in Scotism etc.), but Torrance would look at the whole picture presented by Aquinas and relegate his material conclusions in regard to God as overly-Hellenic. At this point Torrance would feel free to emphasize God’s antecedent-being (in se) as determinative for all else (like Aquinas) and in line with what has been called unity-of-being theology (like what is found in Athanasius’ theology), but then he would take said emphasis from Aquinas and other overly-Hellenized theologians and ‘evangelize’ it under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. And he would scold Aquinas just as Athanasius scolded the Arians by saying that it is better to “signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.”[2] Clearly, Torrance would not place Aquinas into the same category as Arius (i.e. heretic), but he might just well think of Aquinas as heterodox on this front, precisely because, for Torrance, Aquinas failed at being a good “evangelist.”

[1] Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius: Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality (Michigan: Baker Publishing, 2011), 57 Scribd version.

[2] Athanasius cited by Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian Of The Trinity (Ashgate Publishing Limited, England, 2009), 73.

Written by Bobby Grow

December 11, 2016 at 12:57 am

The ‘Young Marburg’ Barth against Charles Ryrie, Thomas Aquinas, and the Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

The first time I attended Bible College was just after I graduated high school in 1992; I attended a small Conservative Baptist Bible College in Phoenix, Arizona, at that time called Southwestern College (it is now called Arizona Christian University). I was a bible and theology major, as such I had an introduction to Systematic Theology class; it was taught by an old school theology standingthomasaquinasprofessor, meaning he was of the very conservative, almost fundamentalist type (and he was also an old guy). The text he had us use for our primary theology text was Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth. When the title says ‘Basic’, it indeed is very basic theology, almost completely cut off from any of the confessional riches available in the Protestant past. But what is typical of Ryrie’s theology relative to other “evangelically” oriented theology texts is his appeal to philosophical proofs for the existence of God in the prolegomena of the text itself.

For Ryrie’s part, the first proof for God’s existence he appeals to is the cosmological argument; he explains it this way:

General revelation comes to mankind in several ways.

1.Through Creation

1.Statement. Simply stated this line of evidence (the cosmological argument for the existence of God) points out that the universe around us is an effect which connotes an adequate cause.

2.Presupposition. This line of evidence depends on three presuppositions: (a) every effect has a cause; (b) the effect caused depends on the cause for its existence; and (c) nature cannot originate itself.

 3.Development. If something now exists (the cosmos) then either it came from nothing or it came from something which must be eternal. The something eternal in the second option could either be the cosmos itself which would have to be eternal, or chance as an eternal principle, or God the eternal Being.

To say that the cosmos came from nothing means it was self-created. This is a logical contradiction, because for something to be self-created it must exist and not exist at the same time in the same way. Furthermore, self-creation has never been scientifically demonstrated and observed.[1]

Ryrie goes on and elaborates this further, but this represents a good representation of his line of thought. Clearly there are more sophisticated presentations of this argument, starting with Thomas Aquinas himself, and even by contemporary thinkers like William Lane Craig. But the basic tenets of the argument are presented by Ryrie, and are probably what most young bible college students, seminarians, and pastors have been exposed to in their training.

I open this post up like this to actually transition to a critique of approaching theology proper, to approaching God in this way. For the rest of this post we will consider young Karl Barth and his critique of the cosmological argument for the existence of God.

The Marburg Barth

Karl Barth attended Marburg University in Germany under the watchful eye of Wilhelm Herrmann, among other theology and biblical studies professors. Barth graduated from Marburg in 1908, but did not immediately enter pastoral ministry, instead he stayed on in the Marburg area and wrote for Die Christliche Welt. Kenneth Oakes gives us more background information:

Slow to enter pastoral work immediately after his university studies, Barth stayed in Marburg for another year, working as an editorial assistant for Die Christliche Welt, a journal published under the direction of Martin Rade, a friend and colleague of Herrmann. Thus from 1908-9 Barth was allowed to imbibe more deeply the ‘modern school’ and Marburg theology….[2]

During this time, according to Oakes, Barth wrote two pieces that caused some controversy, at least for some.[3] We will consider the second piece, which has to do with Barth’s critique of the cosmological argument, and that whole mode of theologizing. Oakes details this at length for us:

The second and more revealing piece as regards theology and philosophy is a talk Barth wrote against the cosmological proof for the existence of God. In this piece, Barth begins with an explanation of the argument’s formulations in Thomas Aquinas, the defence of the possibility for knowing God in Vatican I, Leo the XIII’s recommendation of Aquinas in the 1879 Aeterna Patris, and the censuring of the agnosticism of modern philosophy and philosophy of religion in the 1907 encyclical Pascendi. He covers the distinction between the natural knowledge of God and the revealed knowledge of God, along with their concomitant disciplines, natural and revealed theology. He then considers the cosmological argument as found within J.A. Becker’s work and Thomas’ five ways. He defends Thomas against the common charge of pantheism, although he thinks Thomas comes close to such a position at times. Nevertheless, Barth is still worried about the status of God’s ‘Persönlichkeit,’ a good Ritschilian concern, in Thomas’s doctrine of God. Barth wonders whether the free and textured identity and agency of God is lost when God is described in abstract and impersonal terms such as the highest thing, the most necessary being, or the first cause.

The cosmological proof has two serious problems. The first is philosophical. Barth brings the full weight of Kant’s critical philosophy onto the proof. Following Kant, he argues that the cosmological proof tacitly depends upon the ontological proof, and that the ontological proof (or at least Anselm’s version of it) fails insofar as the proposition ‘God is’ is deemed to be analytic (the predicate ‘is’ adding nothing to the subject ‘God’). The cosmological proof fails, as the ontological proof on which it relies is specious. The second problem is theological. Barth argues that even if the cosmological proof were true, what it proves would remain quite different from the God of Persönlichkeit:

Such is clear: the way of the syllogism, of the subordination of individual, empirical things underneath universal concepts, absolutely does not reach a final, real, and in this respect transcendent being, but only to the idea of one, to the idea of a being about whom there is nothing to say other than that he is the negation of his not-being on the one hand, and that he is absolutely prior to everything finite on the other; by its construction and the concepts used such a being remains entirely within the world.

By definition, philosophical metaphysics can neither reach the God beyond the cosmos nor his specific ‘personality,’ and in this judgment Kant and the modern theology are in complete agreement.[4]

Remember, this is the young Barth, barely a college graduate, but this type of critique from him in regard to ‘natural theology’ and knowledge of God given foundation through philosophical proofs, would perdure in Barth’s thought and life throughout.

In a very reduced sense Barth is arguing that the philosophers might be able to prove a conception of godness all day and all night, but at the end or beginning of the day all they’ve proven is something they were able to conceive of through their own intellectual prowess; i.e. they haven’t begun to access the holy of holies and touch the feet of the living and true God.

I agree with Barth, in contrast to Ryrie, Aquinas, Craig, et al., and this of course is what makes Barth such a controversial figure for so many evangelical theologians (young and old) to this day. They fundamentally disagree with Barth’s critique of something like the cosmological argument since they base so much of their theological methodology and approach upon the foundations laid by people like Thomas Aquinas and the rest of that tradition which is imbibed deeply by the post-reformation reformed orthodox theologians.

What This Has Meant To Me

As I noted, my seminal introduction to systematic theology started with Charles Ryrie, and a very basic presentation of the cosmological argument or proof as a credible foundation for how I could know with certainty that God exists, and that he exists in a certain way. But this has never satisfied me. Later I went to Multnomah Bible College, this time I was presented with more sophisticated instruction, but at base the way I was taught to think of God from Ryrie remained the way I was taught to think of God by my professors at Multnomah. It wasn’t till I attended seminary, at Multnomah’s seminary, where I was finally introduced to historical theology, and I began to explore, quite deeply, the history of ideas and how they were given formation. It was a breath of fresh air to realize that there was another way, a way that I believed was more faithful to the God I was encountering over and again as I read Holy Scripture.

I was introduced to Barth and Torrance (a bit), in seminary as well. I graduated from seminary in 2003, but it wasn’t until about 2006 that I started reading Barth and Torrance intensely, and I found what I was looking for in their critiques and way of thinking; particularly as that has to do with this very issue. I had already given up on the idea that God could or should be “proven,” but it wasn’t until I hit Barth and Torrance that I really appreciated how to work that out by focusing on revelational theology; by focusing on Christ as the key. Yes, in seminary, in my studies of John Calvin and Martin Luther et al. I was introduced to what is called kataphatic or ‘positive theology,’ and I relied on both Calvin and Luther, deeply, to enable me to move forward into a revealed theology approach.  But what I found in Barth and Torrance were teachers who took that to the next level, and offered a grammar and way to think that filled out what I only latently picked up through Calvin and Luther.

It is refreshing to know that God cannot nor should not be “proven.” If we think he can be the foundations for how we are thinking of God, by definition and method, are not supplied by God in Jesus Christ, but instead by our own trained wits. Our wits will always let us down, but the Word of God will endure forever.

 

[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (USA: Victor Books, 1986), 28-9.

[2] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 28.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4]Ibid., 29-30.

Martin Luther’s ‘Real Reason for the Protestant Reformation’, and What Critics of evangelical Calvinism Don’t Get about evangelical Calvinism’s Impetus or Their Own Mode of Theologizing

Martin Luther famously critiqued and rejected Aristotle, and the impact that Aristotelian philosophy had had upon Christian theology in the late medieval period; particularly as mediated through the synthesis of Thomas Aquinas’s theology with Aristotelian philosophy. This was such a fundamental piece for Luther, that it can be said, as Alister McGrath, and my former seminary professor luthermartinand personal mentor, Ron Frost have said, that this rejection and repudiation of Aristotle’s impact on Christian theology led, theologically, to Luther’s “breakthrough” in regard to his understanding of sola fide, and the material principle of the Protestant Reformation theology. The implication of this, if followed, is that theological reasoning is strictly reduced to reliance upon the revelation of God in Christ apprehended by faith.

As McGrath sharpens this further, he underscores why this move for Luther was so important; he underscores why working away from Aristotelian and forensic conceptions of God’s righteousness, and working from the righteousness of God revealed by Christ is so important and so delimiting for a genuinely Christian approach to the theological task. McGrath writes:

For Luther, ratio and its associated concept of iustitia (as used by Aristotle and the jurists) had its proper place in the ordering of civil affairs. Luther’s rejection of ratio relates to his soteriology, particularly to the definition of iustitia Dei, which is of central importance to his theology as a whole. The concept of iustitia which Luther rejected in this context is none other than that of Aristotle’s Ethics, which had been taken up by the medieval canonists and jurists, which had found its way into the soteriology of the via moderna, and which corresponded to a secular, commen-sense understanding of justice in terms of a quid pro quo morality, whose validity was immediately apparent to reason. Julian of Eclanum had insisted that God judged man rationabiliter, which he took to be equivalent to iuste, and had therefore applied to a common-sense concept of iustitia by a process of analogical predication to God. God rewards each man according to his merit, which may be defined in terms of whether he has lived well by the standards set him in the law: non ego, sed ratio concludit. A similar interpretation of iustitia Dei can be derived by direct analogical predication of the Aristotelian understanding of iustitia, linked with the associated interpretation of the relationship between iustitia and lex, to God. The young Luther appears to have adopted precisely such a concept of iustitia in his early attempt to expound the Psalter: indeed it is of particular significance that Luther should choose Psalm 9 (10). 9 to expound the relationship between iustitia and equitas in the divine judgement, as Julian of Eclanum had earlier used exactly the same passage to demonstrate the divine equity in dealing with man according to his merit! It was against this understanding of iustitia, as applied to God (but not applied to civil affairs), that Luther rebelled when he discovered the mira et nova diffinitio iustitiae, with such momentous results for his theology. Luther’s revolt against reason is indeed occasioned by his soteriology — but in a far more specific manner than appears to have been generally realised. Whilst it cannot be proved that Luther appreciated the theological ramifications of everything he read in Book V of the Nichomachean Ethics, it is beyond dispute that he recognised that the concept of iustitia developed therein, applied to God, had appalling theological consequences for sinners: Tota fere Aristotelis Ethica pessima est gratiae inimica. Luther’s joy at his discovery of the new definition of iustitia reflects his realisation that God loves and forgives sinners, and that the iustitia of iustitia Dei is not to be understood qua philosophi et iuriste accipiunt, but qua in scriptura accipitur. Luther’s vitriolic attacks against Aristotle, reason, the jurists, the law, and the Sautheologen of the via moderna reflects his basic conviction that all these employed a concept of iustitia which, when applied to God, destroyed the gospel message of the free forgiveness of sinners. Luther’s ‘evangelical irrationalism’ is closely correlated with his discovery of the righteousness of God: if reason and its allies were unable to comprehend the mystery of the justification of the ungodly, then so much the worse for them. Reason has its role to play in the civil affairs of men, as in so many other spheres — but when faced with the justification of sinners, the central feature of the gospel proclamation, it collapses, unable to comprehend the mystery with which it is confronted. For Luther, the word of the gospel, upon which all theological speculation was ultimately based, was that of a righteous God who justified those worthy of death: if reason was unable to comprehend this fundamental aspect of the gospel, it had forfeited its right to have any say in theology as a whole. In Luther’s opinion, reason was not neutral in this matter: according to reason, God should only justify those whose deeds made them worthy of such a reward: itaque caro est ipsa iustitia, sapientia carnis ac cogitatio rationis, quae per legem vult iustificari. Human wisdom and human concepts of righteousness are inextricably linked — and, as Luther emphasised, both were called into question by the fact that a righteous God could justify sinners. It is clear that this critique of human wisdom, which is ultimately based upon Luther’s deliberations upon the concept of the ‘righteousness of God’, foreshadows the theologia crucis of 1518 in a number of respects. Before moving on to consider the nature of the theology of the cross, however, it may be helpful to summarise our conclusions concerning the nature and the date of Luther’s theological breakthrough.[1]

It is precisely for what McGrath just detailed that Ron Frost in 1997 wrote an essay for the Trinity Journal entitled: ‘Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?’ Frost believes, and I agree with him, that insofar as the following Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology imbibes a ‘Christian Aristotelianism’ it has skipped off the central critique of Luther’s protest movement; which is very ironic indeed. Note Frost’s analysis here:

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed—measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles—a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther—who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week—chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[2]

This is quite profound, to say the least! It is this very premise and insight as developed by Ron Frost, and illustrated by the work of McGrath, that has led me to my form of evangelical Calvinism. It is this fundamental critique and insight that not a single contemporary Reformed thinker or theologian I have come across has grasped whatsoever. I know many who read me seem to think that evangelical Calvinism, my form, is wholly contingent upon Barth and Torrance, but that is way too quick and limited of a conclusion to draw!

It is ironic, indeed, that the most adamant of Reformed voices today simply and uncritically accept the research of someone like Richard Muller who advocate for the Post Reformed orthodox re-appropriation of a ‘Christian Aristotelian’ mode; this is ironic because the very thing that kicked off the Protestant Reformation was in protest to Aristotle’s influence on Christian theology; particularly the impact that played on defining God’s righteousness and how that implicates a variety of things; including how ‘faith’ is conceived. If someone wants to critique evangelical Calvinism, at least my form, then start with engaging with Luther’s critique of ‘Christian Aristotelianism,’ the informing “theology” of what now constitutes most of Reformed theology, proper.

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 139-41.

[2] R.N. Frost, “Aristotle’s “Ethics:” The “Real” Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal (18:2) 1997, p. 224-25.