But that Sounds like Arminianism; that Sounds Like Universalism: Barth’s Relational-Universalism Funded by His Actualism

George Hunsinger offers six helpful motifs in order to grasp the way that Karl Barth maneuvers in his theological developments. One of those, and significantly, is Barth’s so-called actualism. In this post we will see what that entails for Barth, according to Hunsinger; and then see an example of that from Barth, in his Church Dogmatics, as that pertains to human agency in salvation vis-à-vis a doctrine of Christ conditioned election. In other words, the question of “freewill” in salvation will be viewed from the vantage point of Barth’s unique framing of these things through his particular deployment of an actualistic understanding of being in becoming in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

Hunsinger writes the following in regard to Barth’s actualism:

“Actualism” is the motif which governs Barth’s complex conception of being and time. Being is always an event and often an act (always an act whenever an agent capable of decision is concerned). The relationship between divine being and human being is one of the most vexed topics in Barth interpretation, and one on which the essay at hand hopes to shed some light. For now let it simply be said, however cryptically, that the possibility for the human creature to act faithfully in relation to the divine creator is thought to rest entirely in the divine act, and therefore continually befalls the human creature as a miracle to be sought ever anew.1

Fittingly the aforementioned broaches both the divine and human sides of the soteriological complex. That is, humanity’s relationship to God, in a God-world / Creator-creature combine, is given its full measure by way of up-pointing the fact that without the Creator unilaterally becoming what humanity was always already intended to be vis-à-vis God, that the possibility for humanity to elevate to such altitudes would always remain the great impossibility. Thus, God’s intervention, His invasion into our lives, His disruption into the fallen, His irruption of our self-possessed selves is required; typically, when God does something so sui generis, so apocalyptic, so unexpected and against the grain of natural observation, we come to call this: miracle! As such, Barth’s actualism entails the idea that God has already decisively acted for us, by becoming us, that the impossible possibility might become possible, and actual, in His humanity for us. This is the unilateral nature of Barth’s motif of actualism as that pervades his total theological project.

In my current reading of the CD I came across a clear example of how Barth’s actualism informs his understanding of human agency in salvation. This evinces a clairvoyant picture of how an actualized humanity, in Christ’s humanity, funds the way that Barth thinks about the possibility for humans simpliciter to say Yes (or No) to what is in fact the reality of humanity before God. That is, humanity is determined by the humanity of God in Jesus Christ. Here Barth writes about people who hear the Word of God proclaimed to them, about them, as that it shaped by the measure of what humanity actually is. The question is whether or not individual people will submit to their new humanity in Christ, or for some inscrutable reason (for such is the love of the darkness) continue to reject the Yes of God for them in Jesus Christ. So Barth,

The promise says to those who hear or read it; Thou mayest not hear or read at this point something said about another. Thou art not in the audience, but in the centre of the stage. This is meant for thee. Thou art “this” individual. Thou art isolated from God, and therefore a godless man. Thou art threatened. And yet thou standest indeed under a wholly new determination. It was for thee that Jesus Christ Himself bore the divine rejection in its real and terrible consequences. Thou art the one who has been spared from enduring it. And it is for thee that Jesus Christ is the elect man of God and arrayed in the divine glory. Eternal life and fellowship with God await thee. Jesus Christ died and rose for thee. It is thou art elect with Him and through Him. And now that all this has been said to thee, it is the event of what thou for thy part shalt say and do (or not say, and not do) which decides whether the ancient curse will again be laid on thee with what is said, or the eternal blessing will come on thee in utter newness. In and with that which thou dost now say or do (or not say and not do), thou must and shalt give answer to that which has been said to thee, and either way (persisting in thy ungodliness or turning thy back upon it, for thy salvation or thy destruction) confirm its truth.2

Some might say this sounds like Arminianism redivivus. But this would miss the reality of Barth’s functional actualism. What Barth is saying is that salvation has been exhaustively realized without remainder in Jesus Christ. As such, salvation isn’t something waiting for your approval or mine, it isn’t something with potency waiting to be actualized. For Barth, salvation has already been fully actualized in God’s Yes for humanity in Jesus Christ’s Yes and election to become human for us. Some will say this sounds like universalism. It is, but because of God’s freedom, it isn’t a fatalistic universalism; instead, it is a universalism that is circumscribed by the life of God in Christ, which necessarily entails that what He does has universal consequences. But this is different than a deterministic or decretal universalism in the sense that by way of ‘actualism’ the question under consideration isn’t an abstract humanity, but one that has always already been in relation to its Father, the Creator. So, it is a relational-universalism conditioned by the Son’s primal and cosmic relationship to the Father by the Spirit. In this sense, the logic of Barth’s actualism as applied to salvation is universalistic. In the sense that the Son-Father/ -by Holy Spirit relationship is all that there actually is. Grasp this, and you’re on your way. Pax Vobiscum 

 

1 George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 16-18.

2 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §35 The Doctrine of God: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 111. 

 

 

Leithart and Torrance on the Primordiality of the Virgin Conception as New Humanity

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

   “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). -Matthew 1:21-23

Peter Leithart offers some important insight on the significance of the Virgin Birth of the Messiah, Jesus. It has nothing to do with sinlessness, per se; and everything to do with something deeper than that: with what it means to be genuinely human before God. This impacts our sinful statuses, indeed, but the frame, exegetically understood, isn’t about sinlessness; the frame goes to an antecedent reality, and what it means to be genuinely human before God. This is the significance of the incarnation of God in the womb of Mary: it is only the sort of work that the Creator God, who is Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit, can accomplish.

Matthew’s point is different. He says nothing about Jesus’ sinlessness here. The emphasis is on Jesus as the Deliverer from sin, not on Jesus’ own freedom from sin. This episode is framed as part of a creation story. Like 1:1, verse 18 uses the word “genesis” (γένεσις, translated “birth”). In this creation context, the references to the Holy Spirit (vv. 18, 20) allude back to Genesis 1:2. Mary is the “earth” over which the heavenly Spirit hovers to form a new creation. Joseph rising from sleep to take his wife reminds us of Adam in the garden (Genesis 2:18-25), taking Mary as his wife just as Adam took the newly created Eve as his wife.

This virgin birth is thus a sign of God’s new initiative, of God’s new creation, which begins with the creation of the new Man, Jesus. Our salvation does not come—it cannot come—from inside humanity. We are not capable of saving ourselves. God has to come in from the outside if we are going to be saved. We cannot repair the damage of sin or construct a new creation by our own initiative, by our own reproduction, by our own expertise or power. The virgin birth passes a judgment on all human efforts at self-salvation, all our prideful pretense that we can put the world right through political or technological or educational means. If the world is going to be put to right, God must enter the world from the outside, because everything that comes from within humanity is corrupted and weak.

We can also note Isaiah’s and Matthew’s use of the name Immanuel, “God with us.” The virgin birth means that Jesus is God with us, God in human flesh, God who has taken on human nature to be with His people and to save us. The virgin birth thus tells us something about the nature of Christ. It is not as if Joesph and Mary had a son who later became the Son of God. It is not as if there as a pre-existing human being who was later infused with Godness. Rather, the virgin conception and birth shows that Jesus only exists as the humanity of the Son of God. There is not even a single moment when the humanity of Jesus exists by itself. It is always, from the moment of conception, the humanity of the Son of God. It is God’s humanity. And this means that Jesus really is God-with-us, God near us, God entered into human nature, into human history, in the fullest possible sense. There is no distance between God and Jesus, not ever for a single second. Donald Macleod has written, “God was involved in a peculiarly direct and intimate way in the creation of his humanity. To deny the virgin birth and introduce instead human sexual activity is to distance God unacceptably from the production of the Holy One.” To touch the humanity of Jesus is to touch the humanity of God. To see and hear Jesus is to see and hear God in human flesh. Because of the Virgin Conception and Birth, Jesus truly is, in the most direct way possible, both God and with us.1

T.F. Torrance fills out the richness that Leithart has identified for us, and in concert with that; but with an application of the analogy of the virgin birth to the possibility for ‘saving faith,’ Torrance writes,

By that we are guided to think and given to understand something of our own salvation and recreation. As in the annunciation of the word to Mary, Christ the Word himself became flesh, so in the enunciation of the gospel, we surrender in like manner to Christ the Word now made flesh, and there takes place in us the birth of Jesus, or rather, we are in a remarkable way given to share through grace in his birth and to share in the new creation in him. That is the Christian message – the Christmas message. It is not of our self-will or free-will that we are saved and born anew from above. ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.’ Here there is a ‘become’ dependent on the ‘become’ of ‘the Word become flesh’, grounded in it and derivative from it. What happened once and for all, in utter uniqueness in Jesus Christ, happens in every instance of rebirth into Christ, when Christ enters into our hearts and recreates us. Just as he was born from above of the Holy Spirit, so we are born from above of the Holy Spirit through sharing in his birth. Just as in the birth of Jesus there was no preceding action on our part, or human co-operation, such as the co-operation between a human father and a human mother, just as there was no prior human activity there, so in our salvation and in our knowledge of God there is no a priori, no human presupposition, no Pelagian, semi-Pelagian or synergistic activity.2

Thematically, both Torrance and Leithart see the primordiality of the virgin birth as the event sui generis; of the sort that only an otherworldly reality, extra nos, could conceive. In order for salvation to actualistically obtain for all of humanity, the particular humanity of God graciously invaded the crust of the broken human body and offered His primal life, the Bread of Life for the world, in the humble womb of a backwater country-girl named, Mary. By this move of God, this ‘hovering,’ humanity came to be humanity once again, the moment the Spirit conceived the humanity of the Son out of the ‘seed of the woman.’ He inspired this ‘seed,’ the woman’s seed, the day that He took woman from the rib of the first Adam, in preparation for the parousia of the second and Greater Adam for whom the world was created. It is from the miracle, the protological first, and the eschatological second, that the Spirit of God brought reconciliation between God and humanity, as that elected reality was given actual/temporal flesh in the Virgin Conception. Magnificant 

 

1 Peter J. Leithart, Matthew Through New Eyes: Volume One: Jesus as Israel (Louisiana, Monroe: Athanasius Press, 2017), loc. 801, 810, 817 kindle.

2 Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 100-02.

 

Augustine and TF Torrance in Deified Rapprochement?

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. -II Peter 1.3-4

The above passage is the locus classicus for many a Patristic theologian, in regard to articulating a doctrine of theosis vis-à-vis salvation. But typically, this articulation is only reserved for theologians of the ‘Eastern’ persuasion; the Westerners are often left out. Indeed, the primary Latin theologian, the progenitor of all that is holy in the West, St. Augustine himself, is painted as someone who suffered from this lacuna of theosis in his soteriological oeuvre. But as, David Vincent Meconi has iterated: “… Augustine far outpaces any other Latin patristic writer in his use of the technical term deificare and its cognates.”1 Meconi writes further,

Augustine was unique among the Church Fathers in arguing that the human person was the only creature brought into the world incompletely. Whereas the other days of creation receive an “and it was good,” Augustine’s very careful reading of Scripture alerted him to the fact that God does not stamp the sixth day with its own exclusive declaration, “esset bonum,” but instead on the sixth day God overlooks all things together and declares that all things together (cuncta) are very good (cf. Gen 1:31). As such, the day on which humans are created is still incomplete, pointing to something beyond itself. Adam is thus presented as “foreshadowing another something still to come” (Gn. litt. 3.24; CSEL 28.92). This is how Augustine accounts for the divine dynamism inherent in the human soul; although created naturally good, the imago Dei still longs to be like God, and in Adam’s very humanity, how that will be accomplished is foreshadowed.

This desire of a copy to be like its paradigmatic archetype was something Augustine had worked out very early on. In his Solilooquia (386–87) he famously admits to wanting to know nothing more than “God and the soul,” and the two meet in his subsequent discussion on the imago Dei where Augustine cleverly depicts himself [A] talking to reason personified [R]:

R: Does it not seem to you that your image in a mirror wants, in a way, to be you and is false because it is not?

A: That certainly seems so.

R: Do not all pictures and replicas of that kind and all artists’ works of that type strive to be that in whose likeness they are made?

A: I am completely convinced that they do

(sol. 2.9.17; Paffenroth 2000, 72-73; cf. c. Acad. 3.17.39).

This move is essential to understand. Deifying union with God for Augustine is not the abolishing of human nature but its only true fulfillment. The heart is inquietum outside the divine life for which it has been created. Sin depersonalizes and destroys. Growing in likeness with God restores the otherwise fragmented self. “I shudder inasmuch as I am unlike him, yet I am afire with longing because I am like him” . . . . The doctrine of the imago Dei allows Augustine to explain deification as the consummation of all human impulse and agency, the copy’s full share in its model, the final rest for which every human person is created.2

I wanted to point this up because, often, TF Torrance, my homeboy and teacher, is known for his critique of Augustine’s theology, in general, which he identifies with what he calls the Latin Heresy. This heresy, for Torrance, is simply the idea that Augustine suffered too much from his commitment to neo-Platonism, and the inherent dualism (between the eternal and the temporal / the spiritual-material) therein. But in relief, Meconi might help provide a constructive point of rapprochement between Torrance and Augustine; at least when it comes to thinking soteriologically about a God-human relation.

 

1 David Vincent Meconi, S.J., “Augustine’s doctrine of deification,” in David Vincent Meconi, S.J. and Eleonore Stump eds., The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 208.

2 Ibid., 212-13.

Ecce Homo, Jesus is the Man! He was First Human for Us that We Might Be Human in Him

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the lawof the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. —Psalm 1.1-2

I once read a biblical exegete, H. A. Ironside, ironically, identify ‘the man’ in Psalm 1 to be none other than, Jesus Christ. This interpretive tradition goes way back into theological history. Some might think this is just Barth, or Torrance, or maybe some Germans in the modern period, like Emil Brunner or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who emphasized the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; the Son of Man; the Son of David. But we see these emphases found in Calvin, Luther, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, and Nicene theology in general. Here is a succinct statement on this interpretive tradition provided by a German, and teacher of mine, named, Helmut Thielicke:

This character of the imago Dei as an alienum, something alien, is supremely brought out by the fact that as a proprium, as a true ontic possession, an attribute in the strict sense, it is ascribed solely and exclusively to Jesus Christ. It is is ascribed to him as a proprium, not merely in the sense that in him alone it has remained intact, but above all in the sense that it is present in him. In the absolute sense Jesus Christ is the only man. More precisely, he is the only man who fulfills humanity; he does not possess humanity merely in the negative mode, as an unrealized possibility. We can say this, of course, only if we at once add the safeguard that “humanity” cannot here be understood as an a priori concept expressing a knowledge of man enjoyed prior to and apart from Jesus Christ. If it were so understood, then Jesus Christ would be understood as merely fulfilling, or having to fulfill, an idea of humanity deriving from our own sovereignly creative consciousness. Our thinking must take the very opposite course. We must first learn from Christ and perceive in him—ecce homo!—what man is. We must first learn from his divine likeness wherein the divine likeness of man consists. For man’s divine likeness is fulfilled only in Christ, in our participating in his divine likeness.1

This changes everything! There is no humanity prior to Christ’s humanity. There is no imago Dei outwith the Deus Incarnandus, the eternal Son, to be incarnate for us. He was not created in our image, but we His! When you encounter theologies that attempt to think of an abstract humanity, as we find in classical Calvinisms and Arminianisms, as that is provided for by their respective doctrines of election and reprobation, you ought to run. Jesus, the elect of God for us, the Anointed One, He is the Man, Christ Jesus, the mediator between God and humanity in his hypostatic unioned person. This is in fact, the Word of the Lord; in flesh and blood.

Niceno-Predestination: God’s Pre-destination for us in Jesus Christ

If Christians knew Nicene theology, they could avoid the oft combatant atmosphere that typifies much of Western (and especially popular) theological discourse. When it comes to the locus of predestination / election-reprobation the divisiveness amplifies to an all-out battle cry. Because Christians, in the main, don’t realize that they can (and ought to) think all things from the grammar developed at the Niceno-Constantinopolitano-Chalcedony ecumenical Church councils, namely, the homoousios, the idea that the Son enfleshed in Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully human in His singular person, they devolve into an abstract and discursive mode of theological (or atheological) reasoning. When this mode of ‘theological reasoning’ is applied to the question of predestination we end up with a bi-polar malaise that results in something like the “Calvinists V the Arminians.” In other words, when people come to think that their only alternative for thinking about the complex of predestination is to defer to the philosophers, said thinkers end up thinking abstractly about God’s election (or not) of particular individual people. This is partly because the philosophers’ intellectual ambit is limited by their flatlander experience of the cosmos; that is, the philosopher, no matter how genius, can never gain the God-view vista required for accessing a reality that is purely grounded in Deus revelatus (God revealed). And so, the Christians operating out of this intellectual impoverishment end up thinking about an absolutely heavenly reality, grounded in God’s inner-triune-life, from non-heavenly categories. As such they don’t think of humanity from God’s pre-destined and elect humanity for them in Jesus Christ.

Karl Barth summarizes what I take to be the theo-logical outcome of taking Nicene theology to its reductive conclusion with reference to a doctrine of predestination:

The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom. It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ because He is both the electing God and the elected man in One. It is part of the doctrine of God because originally God’s election of man is a predestination not merely of man but of Himself. Its function is to bear basic testimony to eternal, free and unchanging grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God.1

For Barth, and for the implications of Nicene theology, when we think of predestination, the referent isn’t you and me, at a first order level; the referent is God’s life for us, as He freely elects our humanity for Himself in the Son. In this sense, a doctrine of predestination is radically re-oriented, such that the battle of “who is elect,” as if individual people were under consideration, is taken off the table; full stop. This is not to say that individual people aren’t entailed by God’s pre-destinating of Himself to be for us (pro nobis); indeed, it is to say, alternatively, that all of humanity has been invited to the ‘banqueting table of God.’ It is to say that all of humanity has a concrete place in the Kingdom of God in Christ just because God’s Kingdom is grounded in its lively center in Jesus Christ; who just so happens to be garbed with our humanity. The question remains open though, will a person repent and say yes from Christ’s Yes and amen for them, or not? In other words, a Nicene informed doctrine of predestination says that all of humanity is already elected for God, because God has already elected Himself for them in Jesus Christ.

The ‘classical’ retort to this, the one funded by a heavy-handed philosophical account, attended by its usual Aristotelian theory of causation and substance, might be that the Nicene account I am describing results in an undercut of God’s sovereignty; and thus, a notion of Divine double-jeopardy is injected into the mix. They might say this because they operate with what Barth calls the decretum absolutum (absolute decree) logic of what Thomas Torrance calls logico-causal necessitarian determinism. This is the idea that God has baked certain necessary features of causation, such as His primary and then secondary causation into the created order, which requires that certain outcomes obtain one way or the other per God’s unrevealed and arbitrary decree. On this account, this is all to make sure that God remains Sovereign, which entails His eternality, impassibility, immutability, and other characteristics.

When such thinking encounters my type of thinking on predestination it simply cannot countenance the idea that an individual human agent might have the means to “thwart” God’s predetermined predestination of all things. But of course, if this theory of causation is rejected from the get-go, as it should be, then that sort of dilemma never obtains. I clearly reject the decretum absolutum logic, and instead think from the filial-logic that funds the orthodox theology developed in the Nicene advancements.

Conclusion

A doctrine of Predestination ought to be thought from the consubstantial natures (both Divine and human) of the Theoanthropos Godman, Jesus Christ. If this is done predestination will not be thought of from an abstract center in ourselves, but instead from the concrete center of God’s free life for us in Jesus Christ. Pre-destination’s referent will be understood to be God, at a first order level, and our relationship to Him, as human beings, will only be thought from within the tremendum of the gracious movement of God for us, and us for God, as that is actualized in the One Man, Jesus Christ. This is the genuinely Christian confessional understanding of a doctrine of predestination. If you check it against Holy Scripture, as you always should—especially as good Protestant Christians—you will find that not only does the Christological and Trinitarian grammar, developed in the Nicene theology, coheres with the Scriptural witness, but that when that is applied to our current doctrine of predestination (and any other doctrine worth its Christian salt), that in corollary fashion, it also coheres with the biblical categories.

At the end: Jesus is God’s predestination for the world. This is the revelational doctrine of pre-destination. If this is accepted the typical theatrics that surrounds this doctrine dissipate into the inferno of God’s white-hot love for the world. We can get back to focusing on Jesus rather than ourselves this way. Oh, what a thought!

 

1 Barth, CD II/2:1. 

A Reflection on Galatians 6:14-16: The World Crucified to Me, and I to the World

14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16 And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. –Galatians 6:14-16

This has got to be one of my favorite passages of Holy Scripture. The idea of the world being crucified to me, and I to the world could not underscore the Primacy of Jesus Christ more! The amount of concrete hope this gives me is unsurpassable. When I look at the world, like the Psalmist, there is nothing of this world [system] that I desire. To know that the very ground of my life is rooted in the new creation of God’s vicarious humanity for me in Jesus Christ gives me hope inexpressible. To know that this ‘Israel of God,’ Jesus Christ, is the ground of all reality, and that His life, ever anew and afresh, breaks into the surly bonds of this dying creation is more hopeful than anything this world has to offer. And that’s precisely the point: this world has nothing to offer me except pain, suffering, and death. It is only the new creation, the new humanity of God for us in Christ wherein this old world under an unwanted futility springs to life. It is as the hope of tomorrow disrupts the anguish of today, that today comes to be in-spired by its full redemption in the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This primal reality, that is the resurrected and ascended humanity of the Theanthropos, Jesus Christ, gives this weary soul a hope and power to live life from that is unsearchable in its wonder.

None of this reality is contingent upon what I have done for God; it is purely dependent upon what He has unilaterally done for me, for us in Jesus Christ. Again, this is the hope; that is that this old world has already been put to rights; that this world of old has been put to death and raised anew in the re-created humanity of Jesus Christ. This is the hope, the reality that this world could never imagine; and even if it could start to it would never have the power to make it real. At base, it is this primal event in Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection that puts the world on notice that the only place where real human life happens is in its death, burial, and resurrection in Jesus Christ. It requires eyes of faith to see this; for the Christian walks by the faith of Christ, not the sight of the heart that is darkened beyond feeling. I live my life by this faith; its touchstone is the smiling face of Jesus Christ shining through this broken vessel that I typically know as my body. ‘For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ’ (I Corinthians 3:11). The Christian life is purely about God’s work for us, and none of our works for Him; this is God’s grace, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God’s work for us, just as He is God’s eternal Logos who freely elected our humanity for Himself that we might come to participate in His Divine Life of Triune intimacy. This is what the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world comes to: that is, the indestructible life of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah; the eternal Son of the Father in the bond of Holy Love breathed over by the koinonial refreshment of the Spirit. This is my inhabitatio Dei. To God Alone be the Glory 

Holy Communion: Remembering that Human Life is in Christ’s Blood

The late, John Webster, wasn’t just a Christian theologian par excellence; he was also a pastor. The following comes from part of a sermon he gave on Maundy Thursday. A major thrust of his sermon was to remind the parishioners that Holy Communion is not something that re-enacts or re-presents the death of Jesus Christ; indeed, as Webster presses, the Eucharist is a memorial event wherein we, as the Church, remember the already finished work (in the perfect tense: my insight) that Jesus alone accomplished once and for all in the givenness of His life for the world. As Webster presses this point, and rightfully so, he offers a beautiful description of what, in the history has been called: the mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’). Here Webster is underscoring the idea that what God in Christ has done, has been done; indeed, what has been done God alone could accomplish on our behalf. I found Webster’s rendition of the ‘wonderful exchange’ edifying, and so I want to share it with you now. 

What was done there and then? What is it about the Lord’s death that the Eucharist proclaims or testifies? Isaiah, whose Servant Song provides the bass line of our thoughts this Holy Week, tells us that the wounding and bruising and chastising of the Servant is “for our transgressions” (53:5). The cross of Jesus, celebrated in Holy Communion, is the climactic event in which God acts to win the world back from the darkness and misery of sin. In some way, the death of this one changes the entire course of human history; it intercepts and breaks the whole course of human wickedness; henceforth, because of what this man does and suffers, nothing can be the same. Why not? Because in this little scrap of an event one Friday afternoon, this unremarkable bit of human evil, God takes our place. He enters without reserve into the reality of our situation—into our situation, that is, as those who have damned ourselves, who have cut ourselves off from life and put ourselves into hell, all because we made up the lie that we can be human without God. 

But God does not leave us in the hell we have made for ourselves. In the person of Jesus his Son and Servant, he comes to us; he takes on his own back the full weight of our alienation and estrangement; he freely submits to the whole curse of our sin. He takes our sin upon him, and in so doing he takes it away, fully, finally, and conclusively. And of all that—of that miracle of grace on Good Friday—this evening is a memorial, the memorial of that his precious death. 

That was what was done. It was done not by us, but by God himself in the person of his Servant and Son. And it was done by God alone. Because reconciliation is thus God’s work, God’s exclusive work, then this sacrament in which we remember the cross of Christ is also God’s work. Here, in this assembly at this table, God is at work. And God’s work here is to present to us, to make present to us, what took place on Good Friday. We don’t make Good Friday real by re-enacting it, or by thinking and feeling about it. God in this sacrament declares to us what Good Friday made true: that he is our reconciler; that sin is finished business; that we can repent because God has forgiven; that the promise acted out in the death of Jesus stands for all time and for each human person. In this memorial, God turns us backward; but he also makes present to us the limitless power of what the Son of God suffered. The God who was at work there and then is at work here and now, proclaiming to us his promise of cleansing, acceptance and peace.1 

The Apostle Paul describes the ‘wonderful exchange’ this way: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (II Cor. 8.9). Webster brings out so many rich insights in his telling of what in fact unfolded in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The following clause, in particular stands out to me: “as those who have damned ourselves, who have cut ourselves off from life and put ourselves into hell, all because we made up the lie that we can be human without God.” This is the depth dimension of the Evangel. What it genuinely means to be human is to be human before (in and from) God. To declare that ‘we’ can be human devoid of God, devoid of a coram Deo life, is indeed: Hell!  

Holy Communion is to remind us, moment by moment, that we are not our own; and that if we persist, indeed, perdure in the lie that we can be our “own man or woman,” that we will only dissolve into an abyss of hell. But Christ has entered into that deep abyss, and by the life which is in His blood, we can truly experience what it means to be human before God; indeed, to be human is to be in union and fellowship with God. This is who Jesus is for us, and what the Eucharist is to continuously remind us of until it is finally consummated in the eschaton as that finally comes in the Eschatos of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. Maranatha  

1 John Webster, Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), 61-2, Kindle Edition.

An Ontological-Relational Framing of the Bondage of the Will: The Vicarious Humanity of Christ as Antidote

I am not a classical Calvinist; by now most of you know what I mean when I say that. I am not a classical Arminian; indeed, I’m not Arminian at all. I am Athanasian Reformed (aka Evangelical Calvinist). I affirm something like total depravity; I prefer to call that homo incurvatus in se, like Martin Luther did. Either way, I believe all of humanity, at the fall, was plunged into a rupture with the triune God, such that humanity lost all capacity to be for or with God in any way. In other words, as some refer to this more popularly, in regard to salvific matters, I am a proponent of ‘total inability.’ This means that I reject the (‘Pelagian’) notion that humanity retains an abstract (from God) freewill that would allow humans, apart from a radical in-breaking of God’s Grace in Christ, to be for God and not fundamentally against Him. I maintain that all of humanity, along with Adam and Eve in the garden, fell into a ruptured relationship with the triune God, such that postlapsarian humanity inhabits a status that keeps them incurved upon themselves, motivated by a saucer of competing affections that never allows them to see God as anyone but themselves. One manifestation of this, among others, is that such humans will construct rationalist citadels of anthropological heft wherein their reason, incurved upon itself as it were, becomes the standard for all that is real (think cogito ergo sum, or tabula rasa). 

In light of that you might think that I must, then, rely on some notion, in an ordo salutis (order of salvation), of God’s ‘regenerating grace’ (ie grace as a quality) entering into the ‘elects’’ heart in order for that particular person to come to have capacity to finally see[k] God for who He really is in Christ. But I don’t endorse the model of substance metaphysics that funds that sort of theory of anthrosalvation. Instead, as you also know of me by now, I think from the largely After Barth tradition. Within this tradition we have figures such as Thomas Torrance, Dietrich Bonhoeffer et al. For Barth and Torrance, in particular, they are both in-formed by Athanasian categories, in particular, and Patristic, in general; among other (modern) influences. Even so, they operate from a complex when it comes to the particular issue of thinking about the so-called Bondage of the Will; they both affirm it, but from within an ontological/filial frame. For them the issue of rupture between God and humanity isn’t primarily juridical, instead it’s a relational matter. For them, in the fall, humanity’s being has lost its human being in the sense that it has been spliced out of God’s image (imago Dei) in Christ (cf. Col. 1.15). Because of this plunge into ‘sub-humanity,’ humans no longer have the capacity to be free for God; since God alone is genuinely free. You see, for the tradition I think from (which is the biblical one), human being only has being and orientation, insofar as it is in right relationship with the triune God. Outwith this relationship the ‘abstract human’ has no capacity to operate with any notion of primal freedom; of the sort that God alone possesses. In order for that seemingly impossible possibility to become a possibility, for my tradition (which is the biblical one), it requires that God does something for us; viz. that He ‘disrupts’ the state of affairs an abstract humanity finds itself in, and from this act, humanity comes to have an objective ground to be towards God once again. Albeit, in the resurrection of Christ, this ground is now greater than the soil the first Adam provided for; in the resurrection of Christ humanity now has the fertile soil it requires to grow towards God from in and through the second and greater Adam’s vicarious humanity for the world.  

Jens Zimmerman offers insight on how the aforementioned lineaments operate in the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: 

These differences notwithstanding, Bonhoeffer still shares with Heidegger the basic hermeneutic axiom that human knowledge consists in the interpretation of a reality in which one already moves, lives, and has one’s being. For Bonhoeffer as a Christian theologian, this reality is of course determined by Christ alone. Knowledge of one’s participation in this Christ-reality comes only by God’s grace as one is drawn into communion with the Trinity. Bonhoeffer’s solution to the mind-world dichotomy is thus very similar to Heidegger’s, albeit based on a specifically Christian ontology. Already in Act and Being, he develops the fundamentally hermeneutic concept that faith is not cognitive assent to doctrine, but ‘a mode of being’ (DBWE 2: 118). Believing in God is not merely a mental act but involves being drawn into a reality that is ‘prior to the act of faith’ (DBWE 2: 117). This ‘being-in-Christ’ is characterized by an intentionality directed purely to Christ (a fides directa or actus directus), so that the self is transformed by this reality. For Bonhoeffer ‘everything hinges on faith’s knowing itself not as somehow conditioning or even creating this being, but precisely as conditioned and created by it’ (DBWE 2: 118). Human reflection on this reality is a necessary, secondary interpretation of this existential reality. This kind of secondary reflection is called theology, ‘which is not existential knowledge’, but rather an interpretation of the church’s experience of God as crystallized and sedimented in tradition over time through preaching, creeds, and dogma. In this way, theology acts as the ‘preserving and ordering memory [Gedächtnis]’ of the living, ‘spoken word of Christ in the church’ (DBW 2: 131, …). Preaching draws on this memory of Christ’s presence and also shapes it at the same time. 

Participating in this Christ-reality does not constitute some Hinterland or parallel universe allowing the Christian to escape from the world. Bonhoeffer states: 

Like all of creation, the world has been created through Christ and has its existence only in Christ (John 1:10; Col. 1:16). To speak of the world without speaking of Christ is pure abstraction. The world stands in relationship to Christ whether the world knows it or not. (DBWE 6: 68) 

Bonhoeffer is well known for his insistence that the Christian’s participation in the Christ-reality does not negate the world but rather founds proper human responsibility for the world. On account of God’s becoming human, God and humanity, and therefore God and world, must be thought together. Bonhoeffer avers that ‘where the worldly establishes itself as an autonomous sector, this denies the fact of the world’s being accepted in Christ, the grounding of the reality of the world in revelational reality, and thereby the validity of the gospel for the whole world’ (DBWE 6: 60). For Bonhoeffer, the incarnation itself—God’s transcendent truth entering into human history and temporality—sets the hermeneutical pattern for Christian knowledge, wherein the sacred is known only in the profane, the revelational in the rational, and the supernatural only in the natural (DBWE 6: 59). [1] 

Maybe this is your first encounter with this sort of salvific conniving, but hopefully not your last. This is why as Athanasian Reformed types we say there is an historia salutis rather than an ordo salutisThe focus on salvation in this frame is on the pre-history (ad intra) and history (ad extra) of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. We see His life as the Via by which all of humanity comes to have an objective ground as the pre-condition from whence they come to have the Spirit generated capacity to say Yes to God; that is from Christ’s Yes and Amened life for them in the resurrection humanity that ascended and is now seated at the Right Hand of the Father. This might raise some ‘causal’ questions for the Aristotelian-minded among us, that is in regard to how this avoids ‘universalism’ implications, and we have response for that. I have already addressed that more than once elsewhere here on the blog, and in our books. But to be sure, as an Evangelical Calvinist, I affirm humanity’s need for newly-created ground that we might come to genuinely think God from prior to our acknowledgement of God. As has been pressed throughout this post: I maintain, along with the biblical tradition I think from, that it is only in and from the elect and primordial humanity of Jesus Christ that humanity is raised up with His archetypal humanity, and it is from here, from this sacred space of liminal humanity for all, that sub-humanity can rise from the ashes of its desolate life and breathe from the lungs of Christ’s Yes for them coram Deo. 

____________________________________________

[1] Jens Zimmerman, “Bonhoeffer and Contemporary Philosophy,” in Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler eds., The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 439-40. 

 

Human Freedom vis-à-vis God: With Reference to the Theanthropology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. –John 8:32, 36

15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”  18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. –Romans 8:15, 18-25

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by[f] him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. –Colossians 1:15-20

I wish I had the time and space to do a proper exegesis of the above passages, but for now they will simply have to hover in the background; I’ll leave it to the reader to discern how they might relate to the rest of what I write in this post.

Freewill has been a matter of deep consternation in the history of the church; not to mention in the history of the Philosophy departments on the university campuses. Whether it be the infamous Augustine/Pelagius binary (the historical particularities notwithstanding); Luther/Erasmus; Calvin/Pighius; Dort/Remonstrants; so on and so forth. While this locus has occupied the minds of many, and still does, I want to argue that it is not a genuinely biblical theological point of doctrinal consideration. In order to aid my argument, I will appeal to a reading of Bonhoeffer’s anthropology (or Theanthropology) which will point up how a genuine doctrine of human freedom vis-à-vis human agency actually functions theologically in the biblical text. Following, I will reflect further on Bonhoeffer’s anthropology, per the report of his reader, and also make a note on how theological ideation, in general, is what’s at stake in these discussions more than is getting personal biographies of past theologians completely right (even though this has its own relative significance). Here is Rachel Muers on Bonhoeffer and freedom:

Freedom is one of the key terms Bonhoeffer uses to specify what it means to be human. In discussing Genesis 1:26 he specifically locates the image of God in human freedom: ‘To say that in humankind God creates the image of God on earth means that humankind is like the Creator in that it is free’ (DBWE 3: 62). At several points—and in terms that we shall discuss later because of the problems they raise for contemporary theological anthropology—he contrasts freedom with necessity as the distinctive mark of human life over against non-human animal life (see DBWE 6: 196).

In the context I have outlined, however, in which the human person is given his or her ‘boundary’ by the other, and this very boundary is what makes the person, just what does human freedom actually mean? Clearly it cannot mean the freedom of unlimited self-assertion or self-creation. In fat, for Bonhoeffer, the attempt to exercise that kind of freedom, to be ‘like God’, to live without limits, is at the heart of sinful existence (DBWE 3: 116). Moreover, and linked to this, in Bonhoeffer’s account freedom is not a built-in human capacity at all. There is nothing about me, taken in isolation, that makes me free: not my rationality, not my will, not even my ‘thrownness’ into the world.

For Bonhoeffer, the freedom proper to humanity is freedom in relationship, both to God and to the neighbour in community. As creaturely freedom, it is received before it is possessed or exerted; it is ‘freedom for’ or ‘freedom in relation to’ another, rather than ‘freedom to’ do something. Insofar as it is ‘freedom from’ anything, it is freedom from the endless circle of the ‘heart turned in on itself’—Luther’s cor curvuum in se (see DBWE 2: 46)—the attempt to secure one’s own existence and meaning, perhaps the prisoner’s ‘lonely question’, to which the sinful human being, excluded from community, is condemned. Again, Creation and Fall makes it clear that this freedom—precisely as freedom-in-relation, freedom-towards-the-other and freedom-for-God—is creaturely freedom and not only redeemed freedom. It is the freedom for which humanity is made, but this is not a freedom to which people ‘reading from the middle’ have access apart from redemption in Christ.

The Imago Dei—i.e. that in humanity which reflects God—is thus given in the relationship of humanity to God that begins as a relationship of God to humanity, the free act of the creator. A key point to note here, of course, is that God’s own freedom, seen in creation and redemption, is freedom-for and freedom-in relation. Humanity images God in receiving freedom-for-God and freedom-for-the-other; and as God calls humanity into relationship and humanity responds, God’s own way of being free is present within creation. In a telling and undeveloped aside, Bonhoeffer suggests that this is the meaning of the patristic texts on the ‘indwelling of the Trinity in Adam’ (DBWE 3: 64): God’s own ‘freedom-in-relation’, God’s triune being, is imaged in human life not just because the human being in some way resembles God, but because human life receives and reflects the freedom that God has.[1]

I submit the above to you as the biblical way to think human freedom vis-à-vis God’s freedom. The problem typical discussions have, in regard to freewill, is that they ALWAYS go beyond Scripture and its reality in Christ; and instead they start having a philosophical discussion that has no ‘point of contact’ with the ‘Scriptural witness.’ Philosophical discussions about human agency and freewill, by definition, think humanity in an abstract manner; or we might want to say in a ‘purely profane’ manner. In other words, to think human freewill in abstraction from humanity’s groundedness in God’s image for humanity in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, is not to think from God’s Self-revelation to humanity about humanity, but to think humanity from an independent humanity (from God’s for us) and then, post-factum project that onto a discussion about Godness. This mode, or hermeneutic, is to attempt to speak for God, instead of to think of God Deus dixit, after ‘God has spoken’ Himself for us in His Word for us (pro nobis), in Jesus Christ.

An Aside on Historical Biography and the Popular

I just watched an interview with Dr. Ali Bonner via vlog done by host, Warren McGrew. Bonner recently released her book The Myth of Pelagianism. It was an informative interview, and the history discussed is important and very interesting. But I am afraid that McGrew, and those of like-mind, become too enamored with the biographical history itself rather than the theological ideation under consideration. Whether or not Pelagius, for example, would affirm what has come to be known as Pelagianism, and he probably would, is beside the point. The issue is whether or not what this doctrine, which has come to be known as Pelagianism, if it actually has correspondence to something like what we just discussed with reference to Bonhoeffer’s understanding of human freedom. McGrew, Leighton Flowers&company do not seem to grasp this, and continue to suppose that simply because Pelagius’ thinking might have been considered the ‘orthodox’ teaching at one point, that this does not mean it should have been per the Scriptural realities. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. There must be greater depth, a broader perspective deployed if these folks want to avoid the errors of the Socinians et al. Soli Deo Gloria


[1] Rachel Muers, “Anthropology,” in Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler eds., The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 202-03.

The Vicarious Prayer of Christ as the Inner Reality of the Atonement: TFT’s Homoousios

The homoousios reigns supreme in Thomas Torrance’s theology. The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ is sui generis in his theology, in regard to the way he deploys it throughout every loci considered. It is TFT’s hermeneutical key, and is what has drawn me to him like unto no other theologian (not even Barth). In the passage I am going to share from him we see him applying this doctrine to a theology of prayer and intercession vis-à-vis the reconciliation that obtains through Christ’s vicarious life for us. Here we see what a doctrine of vicarious prayer looks like in the theology of Torrance. For me, personally, there is great spiritual depth available in what Torrance explicates in this regard; a doxological component that is the sign of any healthy theology. He writes:

Christ’s human prayer is the innermost heart of his atoning obedience to the Father and of his conversion of humanity to God

All through there was an utterly unbroken life of fellowship in unsullied confidence and trust in the Father, and unrelenting prayer, in which he not only repelled the assaults of darkness but so presented himself before the Father in worship in adoration that he made and perfected the positive self offering of man to God. It is here in Jesus Christ, in this worshipping and praying obedience of the creature to the heavenly Father, that all creation is turned and brought back to God the creator and Father almighty. That is the great palingennesia, the great conversion of humanity to God, which receives its ultimate and eternal answer in the divine satisfaction and good pleasure when God the Father raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and for ever affirmed the reconciliation and restored fellowship effected in the obedient life and death of his Son, thus placing it eternally beyond all the assaults of evil and all possibility of undoing. Thus the covenant will of God for fellowship with man was translated into eternal actuality.

Now if Christ’s human prayer is an essential part of his atoning obedience offered to the Father, then it is not only the prayer of the victim but of the priest made on our behalf. Just by being what it was, his own life of petition and clinging dependence upon the Father was a life of intercession to God for us. In his steadfast obedience and life of prayer, Jesus penetrated into our life and recreated the bond between man and God, and therefore also between human beings. It is on that ground, of the recreated bond that he prays for us, intercedes for us, and acts as our mediator, high priest and intercessor, our substitute and representative before God, praying, and offering himself in prayer, standing in for us as our advocate, and pledging us in himself before God — and so he opens up through his flesh a new way to prayer and worship of God.

Or to put it the other way round, as Calvin does so frequently: Christ in his intercession joined to the shedding of his blood prayers that our sins might be pardoned. In and through his passion he bore our word in our name before the Father and prayed for us in our unclean life. Therefore he also puts his own prayer in our unclean mouth that there, on the ground of his obedience and prayer, we may pray with him, ‘Our Father who art in heaven’. As a sign of the recreated bond of the covenant between man and God, and as a sign of the special redemptive form that the covenant will of God took in Israel, Jesus formed round him, as one body with himself, the disciples as the twelve pillars of the new covenant, and it was into their mouths that he put this prayer, ‘Our Father which art in heaven’, teaching them to pray in his name.

Jesus draws us into his own prayer

Then at last, as the prayer life of Jesus pressed towards its climax in Gethsemane he gathered the twelve disciples together at the last supper and formally and solemnly established with them the new covenant in his body and blood. At that supper he interceded for the disciples and for us who would believe on him through their word, and we are allowed to overhear his prayer in John 17. In that prayer, added to his vicarious passion set forth in the supper, he presented himself before the face of the Father and presented us to the Father as included in himself who had come just for this purpose to stand in our place. Then he went forth to Gethsemane and to the cross, where in high priestly intercession and sacrificed he fulfilled in deed and in death the prayer of his whole incarnate life, the prayer of obedience, ‘Not my will, but thine be done,’ and so was obedient unto the death of the cross. Therefore it is that when we in his name celebrate the supper, we also are given to have in our mouth his own prayer, and to pray in echo of his prayer in life and death and eternal intercession, ‘Our Father who art in heaven’, and in that prayer we engage in the fellowship of the new covenant as sons and daughters of the heavenly Father. It is on the ground of this fulfilled covenant from within our alienated will, on the ground of the reconciliation it achieved, that Christ’s victory becomes ours, his payment does away with our debt, his life enables us to be well pleasing to the Father. But it is also on the ground of this bond recreated in him that we are given to share in his prayer of covenant obedience and share in the new covenant inaugurated and established in himself. It is in the name of Jesus, that is, it is in this prayer which Jesus lived out, in sacrifice and petition to the Father, that we are allowed to pray, and so engage in the fulfilled reality and all the fruits of the new covenant as God’s dear children. That is what we do when pray ‘in the name of Jesus’, but it is above all in the heart of the Lord’s supper that we that when we pray ‘Our Father who art in heaven’.[1]

This stuff preaches too well to be the theology of the schoolmen. Oh well.


[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 119-21.