The Pure and Utter Centrality of the Homoousion in the Theology of Thomas Torrance: God Become Man and What That Means for Us

The homoousion is the key piece of language the council of Chalcedon borrowed from the Greeks in order to put it in the service of grammarizing a way towards speaking of the reality of the eternal Son, Jesus Christ, as being exactly consubtantial with the Father (and Holy Spirit) in nature as Theos (God). It was also used dually to speak of the reality of the eternal Son as being consubstantial in nature with humanity; which resulted in the further language of hypostatic union. That’s my very rough entrée into introducing you all to the homoousion. The reason, in particular why I’m bringing this up is because I want to highlight something very important in regard to what serves as a touchstone for T.F. Torrance’s theological realism and hermeneutic; he places central weight upon the homoousion as the basis upon which humanity has touch with God and God with humanity—so not only is there an epistemological component to it, but antecedently and as a prius there is ontological import, for TFT, in emphasizing the significance for a truly Christ conditioned/centered reality. Whether that has to do with hermeneutics, a doctrine of creation/re-creation, the eschaton, or what have you.

I want you, the reader, to see how this works in Torrance’s theology, and in so doing I want you to see what stands behind my own approach to all things theological; it is in echo of Torrance. I want you, the reader to understand how important the homoousion is for my and Myk Habet’s understanding of what Evangelical Calvinism entails, and is, indeed, entailed by. Here is what Torrance writes about the homoousion, in brief:

As the epitomised expression of this truth, the homoousion is the ontological and epistemological linchpin of Christian theology. It gives expression to the truth with which everything hangs together, and without which everything ultimately falls apart. The decisive point for Christian theology, and not least for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, lies here, where we move from one level to another: from the basic evangelical and doxological level to the theological level, and from that level to the high theological level of the ontological relations in God.[1] In that movement a radical shift in the basic fabric of theological thought takes place along with a reconstruction in the foundations of our prior knowledge. This is evident not least in the fact that in formulating the homoousion of Christ in connection with both his creative and redemptive activity, Nicene theology laid the axe to the epistemological dualism latent in Greek philosophy and religion that threatened the very heart of the Gospel; and as such it gave powerful expression to the indissoluble connection in Act and Being between the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity, between οἰκονομία and θεολογία, which secured the Church in its belief that in the Lord Jesus Christ and his Gospel they had to do directly with the ultimate Presence and downright Reality of God himself. Jesus Christ does for us and to us, and what the Holy Spirit does in us, is what God himself does for us, to us and in us.[2]

There are many things that could be noted in regard to the various high points evinced in this one paragraph from Torrance. But let me just highlight a couple: 1) We see how Torrance believes (and I’m with’m) the Hellenic language of homoousion was taken and ‘reminted’ (that’s his language from just prior to this paragraph) under the pressure and reality of the Revelation of God in Christ. He believes that the way the early church was able to appropriate this language was in a way that re-texted said language to the point that it became a brand new, even “Christianized” grammar that was made fitting for the church’s edification precisely because of the power of God in Christ as the coordinating reality of all things; even language. 2) The homoousion for Torrance, as we already noted, has both ontological and epistemological import for us because it shows how the Godward movement towards us is in intimate, even perichoretic relation to the humanity he assumed, and how the Humanward is in intimate relation with Godself which is the ground of the singular person, Jesus Christ. It is as this hypostatic union inhered in Jesus by the creative power of the Holy Spirit that the bridge between God and humanity/humanity and God was accomplished. It is this reality, the personalizing personal reality of God in Christ, that as we participate in and from it, from Him, that we now have access to the holy of holies of God’s life; we have both the ontic (being) and epistemic (knowing) capacities necessary to actually have access to God’s life (Eph. 1.18-9)—the Holy Trinity, mysterium Trinitatis!

 

[1] Torrance has what he calls a stratified knowledge of God, that’s what he’s referring to here in regard to the ‘levels’. I’ve hyperlinked to a brief quote from Ben Myers who gives a nice summary of what this is all about in Torrance’s theology.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 95.

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George Hunsinger Clarifies the Doctrine of Vicarious Humanity in TF Torrance’s Theology

Here is something I originally posted at another blog way back in December 2008. At this point I was still in the process of just cutting my teeth on Torrance’s theology, and grasping better how central the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ (and the homoousion) was in his theology. I had already been reading TFT at this point for around two years, but I found this blog comment christcenteredfrom George Hunsinger very clarifying; I am sharing it because maybe it will be the same for you. You will note at the end of this post that I offer a bit of critique of classical Calvinism; I wasn’t even the evangelical Calvinist at this point yet, but it was in the making 🙂 .

The following are some thoughts presented by Professor George Hunsinger (Princeton Theological Seminary) over at Ben’s site Faith and Theology. He is discussing T. F. Torrance’s understanding of the mediation of Christ, and how this relates to the incarnation, at an ontological level. He is highlighting how the incarnation (assumptio), for Torrance, is ‘mediation’ where fallen humanity, united with Him, finds ‘healing’ through Christ’s acts of obedience to the Father; in this sense, Christ vicariously achieves regeneration ‘for us’, and prior to us, through which we, by His faith, find life super-abundant. Here is Prof. Hunsinger’s initial statement, and then his further elaboration, per a commenter’s request:

Torrance’s idea about “ontological healing” was an attempt to re-think the doctrine of sanctification. It attempted to place it within the frame of Christ’s incarnational mediation, in which our Lord “took this conflict into his own being” and “took part in it from both sides,” including therefore from the human side. Like Barth, only more so, Torrance explained both our justification and our sanctification by means of Christ’s obedient humanity. For sanctification this meant that regeneration took place in Christ before it took place in us. For Torrance there was one sanctification common to Christ and the church, and it was ours only by virtue of our participation in him (unio mystica).

Torrance maintained that the Incarnate Son’s assumptio carnis involved the assumption of our human nature, not in a neutral sense but in the sense of our fallenness, our “flesh.” In other words, Christ made “the status, constitution and situation” of the fallen human race his own.

Torrance interpreted Rom. 8:3 to mean that Christ “condemned sin in the flesh” by bearing God’s judgment on sin, for our sakes and in our place, in his own humanity.

However, Christ’s human obedience meant not only that he submitted to God’s judgment in our place, but that he also brought about the regeneration (“ontological healing”) of the very humanity he had assumed, again for our sakes and in our place. Christ was, in this sense, the “firstborn” of the new creation.

The regeneration of the faithful was then understood to take place through their participatio Christi, that is, through their union and communion with Christ. Those who entered into union with Christ by grace through faith were given a share in his regenerate or sanctified humanity. What had been perfected in him was imparted by the Spirit to them, and this spiritual impartation was understood to occur through mystical union with Christ.

He joins himself to us, and us to himself, by means of his body and blood.

Regeneration was therefore vicarious first, and then a matter of union with Christ. It was a matter of internal rather than external relations. Christ and the church were one mystical body. Christ’s giving of himself to the church meant, among other things, his imparting to the faithful of the regeneration he had accomplished for them in the flesh. For them it was a matter of participation, not merely of repetition or imitation. [Quote taken from: here — see both the body of the post, and subsequently, the comment section for full context]

I find this very helpful, and clarifying, I hope you do as well! The emphasis in this framework is on Christ’s ‘assumption of us’, prior to our reception of Him, by faith. This framing identifies the stress Torrance placed on the need for ‘ontological healing’ to occur on our behalf, through Christ’s vicarious mediation, in order for us to ‘participate’ in His life, through ‘Spirit-enlivened-union’ with Him. This goes beyond the typical and classical (Calvinist) framing of mediation as an ‘act’ of juridical (‘law-based’) duty on the part of Christ for us—this goes to the crux of humanity’s problem, and deals with the heart of the matter—our ‘inner-sin’ problem expressed in ‘outer-behavioral-patterns’ (it is an inner to outer movement, instead of, say a ‘Thomistic’, outter to inner movement). Be edified! And thank you Prof. Hunsinger for sharing these thoughts!

‘Vicariousness’ in TFT’s Theology illustrated by the Eucharist and Reported by Molnar: Against Dualistic Thinking in Salvation

Here’s a post that I bet none of you have seen; it is from another blog of mine, probably around nine years old.

The following is going to be a long quote from Paul Molnar (the Roman Catholic😉 on Torrance’s theology. I want to quote this for those of you, especially, who are more prone towards a “classically” conceived Calvinism; or even a Roman Catholic perspective. In this piece I hope that you will get a feel for Torrance’s insistence upon a thoroughly Christ-centered, Spirit-centered approach that holyeucharisthe believes we must take if we are going to ground all of life and reality in life — viz. that we must “ground” all of life in Christ’s life (God’s life), or else we will fall into an array of theological problems. Let’s begin this quote:

What can be learned from Torrance’s emphasis on Christ’s high priestly mediation and his rejection of dualistic epistemology and ontology in understanding the Eucharist in a Trinitarian way? First, God gives himself to us in Jesus Christ; the Gift is identical with the Giver. If our understanding of God’s relation with the world is ‘damaged’ because of a dualistic perspective, then we will assume that God has not actually given himself within created time and space ‘but only something of himself through a created mediation’. A dualistic perspective actually divides the Gift from the Giver. The Catholic tendency focuses on the Gift in its concern for real presence, thought of ‘as inhering in the Eucharist as such’. The Protestant tendency focuses on ourselves as receivers over against the Giver. Torrance insists, against both of these tendencies, that because the Gift is identical with the Giver, God is immediately present in his own being and life through Jesus Christ; this self-giving ‘takes place in the Holy Spirit who is not just an emanation from God but the immediate presence and activity of God in his own divine Being, the Spirit of the Father and the Son . . . this is a real presence of Christ to us’.

Second, with respect to the Eucharistic sacrifice, the Offerer is identical with the Offering: what ‘the Incarnate Son offers to the Father on our behalf is his own human life which he took from us and assumed into unity with his divine life, his self-offering through the eternal Spirit of the Father’. Because the historical offering of his body on the cross is inherently one with himself as the Offerer, it is a once-and-for-all event which remains eternally valid. Understood dualistically, the Offerer and Offering are not finally one; ‘neither is his offering once and for all nor is it completely and sufficiently vicarious’. He becomes only a created intermediary and the offering is seen as a merely human offering so that no real mediation between God and creatures has taken place. Torrance insists that if Christ’s human priesthood is seen within a Nestorian or Apollinarian framework ‘then it becomes only a representative and no longer a vicarious priesthood, for it is no longer unique but only an exemplary form of our own’; thus it is no longer uniquely substitutionary.

This directs us to rely on ourselves ‘to effect our own “Pelagian” mediation with God by being our own priests and by offering to him our own sacrifices’. Even if this is done ‘for Christ’s sake’ and motivated by him, since it is not done ‘with him and in him we have no access through him into the immediate presence of God’. If, however, ‘Jesus Christ is himself both Priest and Victim, Offerer and Offering’ who has effected atoning reconciliation and so for ever ‘unites God and man in his one Person and as such coinheres with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the eternal Trinity, then, we participate in his self-consecration and self-offering to the Father and thus appear with him and in him and through him before the Majesty of God in worship, praise and adoration with no other sacrifice than the sacrifice of Christ Jesus our Mediator and High Priest’.

When the Church worships, praises and adores the Father through Jesus Christ, it is the self-offering and self-consecration of Jesus Christ ‘in our nature ascending to the Father from the Church in which he dwells through the Spirit;’ ‘it is Christ himself who worships, praises and adores the Father in and through his members’ shaping their prayers and conforming them in their communion in his body and blood.

T. F. Torrance’s achievement here is immense. By focusing on ‘God as Man’ rather than upon God in Man’, Torrance embraces a high Christology which concentrates on the humanity of the incarnate Son of God and a view of Eucharistic worship and life ‘in which the primacy is given to the priestly mediation of Jesus Christ’:

It is in fact the eternal life of the incarnate Son in us that ascends to the Father in our worship and prayer through, with and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. While they are our worship and prayer, in as much as we freely and fully participate in the Sonship of Christ and in the whole course of his filial obedience to the Father, they are derived from and rooted in a source beyond themselves, in the economic condescension and ascension of the Son of God. The movement of worship and prayer . . . is essentially correlative to the movement of the divine love and grace, from the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit.

This leads to a more unified soteirology which views incarnation and atonement as a single continuous movement of God’s redeeming love which accentuates Jesus Christ’s ‘God-manward and his man-Godward activity’. Focusing on Jesus’ vicarious humanity emphasizes that Christ has put himself in our place, experiencing our aliented human condition and healing it. Eucharistic anamnesis is no mere recollection of what Christ has done for us once for all, but a memorial which ‘according to his command’ and ‘through the Spirit is filled with the presence of Christ in the indivisible unity of all his vicarious work and his glorified Person’. . . .[1]

The vicarious point is a very important one for TFT, and his “Evangelical Calvinism.” I hope that you’ve found this quote from Molnar enlightening (I realize Molnar is controversial for some, nevertheless I find his thoughts here spot on, relative to highlighting TFT’s ‘theology of vicariousness’).

[1] Paul Metzger, ed., Paul Molnar, Trinitarian Soundings in Systematic Theology, 184-86.

 

The Father-Son Relation: Rowan Williams on the Irenaean Theology of Participation, and TF Torrance’s Homoousion

Rowan Williams in his chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Jesus entitled A History of Faith in Jesus offers historical insight to the rapid doxological posture the early church took towards Jesus as God become man. As Williams details this he highlights this particular development in the theology of Irenaeus, and how Irenaeus provided for what Karl Barth, later, might call an analogia relationis. This is a beautiful way, a doxological and participatory way to conceive of what God in Christ has done for us in the mediatorial vicarious humanity of the eternal Logos, Jesus irenaeusChrist. It is this relation that Thomas Torrance swoons about so much and as corollary so do we as evangelical Calvinists. Williams writes of this development in Irenaeus’ theology this way:

Some of the language of early Alexandrian theology in particular similarly emphasises the role of Jesus as the visible manifestation of the invisible God, the mediator, not so much  of salvation or forgiveness as of true perception of the divine nature. The earlier theologian to stress this theme, however, is not an Alexandrian, but an émigré from Asia Minor, Irenaeus, who became bishop of Lyons in France; and fro him Jesus’ role as revealer immediately connects with a further and more profound set of considerations. Jesus reveals because of his own relation to the Father; because his face is wholly turned to the Father, it reflects his glory. For us to know and recognise that glory, we must be brought into that relation – a fundamental theme of Paul and John in the New Testament (Rom 8, John 17, among much else), which Irenaeus develops extensively, Jesus is an example, not only in the sense of being a model of behavior we ought to imitate (again a New Testament theme, as in Matt 11.29; 1 Cor 11.1), but as a paradigm of relation to God as Father. Our attention or devotion to him is a kind of tracing the contour of his life so as to see its conformity to the Father’s character and purpose; we are to pick up the essential clues as to how to recognise what it is to be a child of the heavenly Father by looking single-mindedly at him (cf. Heb 12.2). Being in the Spirit is not only or even primarily a gift of prophetic alignment with the ultimate judgement of Jesus, but entails the gift of sharing Jesus’ relation with the Father, beginning to love God as parent with the same confidence as Jesus shows.[1]

As I reflect upon this it conjures up for me the way T.F. Torrance presses into his constructive appropriation of the Athanasian themed, patrological focused homoousion, that developed post-Irenaeus. The idea that Jesus, the eternal Son, is consubstantial or one nature (ousia) with the Father [and the Holy Spirit]. Note Torrance:

. . . Hilary of Poitiers argued that it was the primary purpose of the Son to enable us to know the one true God as Father. This was the theme to which he gave considerable theological reflection in view of the Nicene homoousion and what it implied for our two-fold belief in God the Father Almighty and in God the Son of the Father. ‘All who have God for their Father through faith have him for Father through the same faith whereby we confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ Again: ‘The very centre of saving faith is the belief not merely in God but in God as Father; nor merely in Christ, but in Christ as the Son of God; in him, not as a creature, but as God the Creator born of God.’ ‘The work which the Lord came to do was not to enable you to know him as the Father of the Son who addresses you . . . The end and aim of this revelation of the Son is that you should know the Father . . . Remember that the revelation is not of the Father manifested as God, but of God manifested as the Father’.[2]

It is this theme of participation in Christ, who is homoousios or consubstantial with the Father that was so important for Irenaeus, Nicene and Chalcedonian theology, as well as for people like Torrance who made that particular doctrine a touchstone for his theological-hermeneutic. It is the idea of ‘relation’ with God as Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit that I believe is so important for what it means to know God in proper standing as His children. It is a matter of being rightly related through Christ; if we understand what that means, we will understand God to be our loving Father, and as Williams writes we will begin “to love God as parent with the same confidence as Jesus shows.”

As of late we have seen a lot of energy expended over the so called eternal functional subordination debate; the debate that is attempting to clarify what in fact the inner-life (ad intra) of God’s life looks like. I would contend that if that debate was shaped more by the dialogical, participationist mood that we have been highlighting in this post, and less by the analytical mode and tone it has taken, that the “debate” itself may never have happened to begin with. It is surely important to attempt to apprehend the mystery of God’s ineffable Triune life, and it is surely important to follow the pattern of God’s inner-life as revealed in Jesus Christ (which I believe the pro-Nicene theology has done), but when we press the edges of that apprehension too far we end up saying more than we are capable of saying; we lose sense of the fact that God will share His glory with no one. That said, there are “orthodox” contours of thought articulated by the church catholic that indeed set the boundaries and thus grammar by which Christians have a certain rule to follow when attempting to speak meaningfully about God as Triune. But we would do well to remember that just as the early church did, this all must be prayerfully held within a sense of deep awe and worship of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; co-equal, co-eternal, with no subordination whatsoever in the inner-life (ad intra).

Apart from my digression on EFS, what I really wanted to emphasize through this post is how central and important the ‘analogy of relation’ is for evangelical Calvinism; how important it should be for all Christians, even if they don’t identify as evangelical Calvinists (God forbid it!). If you really contemplate the implications of all of this all you can do is worship.

 

[1] Rowan Williams, “A History of Faith in Jesus,” edited by Markus Bockmuehl, The Cambridge Companion to Jesus (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 221-22.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 139.

Barth’s Doctrine of Double Predestination as an Encouragement

The doctrine of predestination (involving election/reprobation) can be a source of much consternation for many people; especially if people believe that the only alternatives can be found in the poles of classical Calvinism or Arminianism. But of course here at the evangelical Calvinist we have found what we think is a better way; a way that may deploy the same nomenclature as what
barthglasseswe find in the classical language, but within a recasted or reified frame of reference — a Christologically concentrated reference.

In Shao Kai Tseng’s new book Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology: Origins and Development 1920–1953 Tseng argues that Barth is “basically infralapsarian.” This claim is quite controversial, particularly because Barth saw himself as a “purified supralapsarian.” These are heady discussions, and ones that have significant import for how one construes their respective doctrine of God, but for our purposes we will avoid getting into the nitty gritty of that in this post and, instead, focus on a description (by Tseng) of Barth’s reformulated doctrine of election—which if you have read my blog for any amount of time at all you will recognize that we have covered this ground over and over again—nevertheless, I think Tseng offers a good reiteration and description of Barth’s doctrine of election/reprobation and how Barth grounds that in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

Tseng writes of Barth’s doctrine of election:

From 1936 (Gottes Gnadenwahl) onward, Barth would describe Christ as vicariously reprobated for the sin of all humankind, so that all humankind, partaking of Christ, may be elected in him, therefore by and with him as he is electing God and elected human. The vicarious reprobation Christ suffered, of which Christ is both the subject and the object, is for Barth God’s eternal, a priori (zum Vornherein) negation of humanity’s sin, and this negation of negation is sublated in God’s gracious election-in-Christ, which presupposes and in a sense preserves the rationality of divine reprobation as manifested in Golgotha. Barth’s understanding of election as the Christocentric Aufhebung of fallen humanity history (the historical aspect of election-in-Christ is especially emphasized in CD IV/1) and divine reprobation is basically in line with infralapsarianism: double predestination deals with the element of sin, and the human race elected in and with Christ is homo lapsus. Again, as a caveat, this basically infralapsarian orientation must not be understood in simple, but in a dialectical manner: Christ as the proper obiectum praedestinationis who took on the sin of all humankind is without sin in himself.

For Barth, God’s No is not the “caprice of a tyrant” arbitrarily deciding from all eternity to send the reprobate to hell forever (to set the record straight, I do not think Barth is entirely fair to historic Reformed orthodoxy when he thinks of it in these terms). Rather, with his basically infralapsarian formulation of election-in-Christ, Barth portrays reprobation as a gracious word of God against the sin that assails God’s covenant partner, a No in Christ negatively posited in order to be sublated for the sake of the Yes, which is God’s gracious election of all humankind in Christo.[1]

As you can see, Tseng is shaping things up towards further developing his thesis that Barth was a “basic infralapsarian,” and honestly I think I am going to still prefer Barth’s self-designation of a “purified supralapsarian.” That’s a technical discussion which we will have to have in another post.

What I wanted to reiterate though through sharing Tseng’s description of Barth’s election/reprobation was the vicarious nature of what Barth believed God in Christ has done for us (and I believe it too!). Barth is attempting to evangelically alleviate the pressure and anxiety fostered by the classical (Augustinian) discussions surrounding election and reprobation. He is wanting to discard the usual discussion that is grounded in God’s decretum absolutum (absolute decree), relative to determining the elect and reprobate, and instead move that discussion to the personal reality of His own Triune life in Jesus Christ. Barth wants to remove the possibility of thinking about anything and in abstraction from Christ. The cash out of this, if Jesus is both electing God, and elected human, is that there is no decree behind the back of Jesus; in other words, when people want to reflect on whether or not they are elect or reprobate they don’t have to think about such questions through decrees, instead they can look to God directly in the face of Jesus Christ and think from there. They can know that when they see the Son they see the will of the Father; they see His being in act, and can understand that there is only love demonstrated and not potential wrath concealed (for the reprobate).

What I have just described is one implication of Barth’s reformulation of election/reprobation, there are other important aspects of this; primarily what it does to “our” doctrine of God. But we will have to explore that more next time, or some time. We will also have to define, better, what supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism entail (Tseng’s quote implicitly does that a bit for the attentive reader).

[1] Shao Kai Tseng, Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology: Origins and Development 1920–1953 (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2016), 36-7.

The ‘Return of Reason’ through Resurrection: A Parable in Daniel 4:28-37

28 All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon,30 and the king said, “Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?” 31 While the words were still in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven: “O King Nebuchadnezzar, danielprophet1to you it is declared: The kingdom has departed from you! 32 You shall be driven away from human society, and your dwelling shall be with the animals of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like oxen, and seven times shall pass over you, until you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals and gives it to whom he will.”33 Immediately the sentence was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven away from human society, ate grass like oxen, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven, until his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails became like birds’ claws.

34 When that period was over, I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me. I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored the one who lives forever. For his sovereignty is an everlasting sovereignty, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation. 35 All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does what he wills with the host of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. There is no one who can stay his hand or say to him, “What are you doing? 36 At that time my reason returned to me; and my majesty and splendor were restored to me for the glory of my kingdom. My counselors and my lords sought me out, I was re-established over my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are truth, and his ways are justice; and he is able to bring low those who walk in pride. ~Daniel 4:28-37

Daniel, as a true prophet of the living God, his word, or God’s word came true for King Nebuchadnezzar. I see this as something of a parable (not that I don’t see this as a historical event, I do!) for humanity in general. We are all born into this world in the same state, with the same proclivity for an incurved existence as Nebuchadnezzar; it’s just that he had more available to him, as far as material and pleasurable resources. Nevertheless, he did what we do; indulge himself in self-adoration, finally to the point that God said that was enough—God graciously and mercifully humbled him.

It isn’t until God does the same for us, for modern humanity that ‘reason’ returns to us; reason being that orientation where we have right knowledge of God resulting in right knowledge of ourselves (something which Calvin knew something of). Aren’t all humans prone to live like socio-paths, like feathered loons (to one extreme or another) without a right orientation to God; without bowing the knee to God? Sure, we are good at fooling ourselves into thinking we are ‘normal’ sentient human beings who live relatively well ordered lives (at least relative to the Jones’ next door); we are good (well kind of) ordering chaos in such a way that we think we have got things together. But of course the knowledge of God, the knowledge of the cross won’t let us honestly live like that for very long; reason will return, and in this dispensatio it is at the cross where the humiliation and exaltation of God and humanity in Christ have met, where genuine reason and right-mindedness have come.

Personally I went through a season of life (many years ago) where I thought I was losing it, mentally. The only place where I found intellectual and heart solace was in the place where Nebuchadnezzar found it; with the recognition that God alone rules heaven and earth, and it is therein where I found my place as His creature. Reason for humans can only be present when they are rightly oriented to God. That orientation does not come willingly, but only through God’s choice for us in Jesus Christ to put us to death with Him at the cross; and then to raise us with Him as new creations—that’s the reason that radiates God’s Kingdom, the resurrected life of the eternal Son, Jesus Christ. Reason has returned for humanity in Christ, in His resurrection, and now in our participation with His resurrected humanity.

 

God is Salvation. The Idea of Two Classes of People Rather than One in Christ

I once wrote a post that touched upon what I will further elaborate on in this post; i.e. the idea that the classical/Augustinian concept of election has some very damaging consequences for thinking about humanity/people in general, and for thinking about salvation and a thus a doctrine of God in particular. Most people associate this kind of thinking—election for some to salvation and active (or even passive) reprobation for most to an eternal conscious tormented hell for the many—with John Calvin; but of course that would be too reductionistic. Yes, Calvin did hold to a double braziljesuspredestination, but he was only reflecting the dominate belief of his day inherited from the Augustinian/Latin heritage that shaped the whole of the Western (Roman Catholic and Protestant) church. It is this type of thinking that remains pervasive today, particularly in and among ‘conservative’ evangelical theology (think of the type of theology promoted by the popular Gospel Coalition); which itself is funded by the classical Reformed and/or what is known as Post-Reformed orthodoxy, and its categories (given definitive expression in the Westminster Confession of Faith and its Longer/Shorter catechisms). For some reason it is this expression (conscious or not) that is considered the only orthodox way for rigorously understanding things salvific for evangelicals (at least for many; I obviously generalize here). For some reason there is something sacrosanct about thinking about Divinely determined classes of people; the elect and reprobate; the saved and the damned. And unfortunately, I would contend, when this perspective is adopted it can have a deleterious effect upon those who view the world this way. Even at an unconscious level, when this view is allowed to inform people’s daily lives as the reality, even at a sub-conscious level, we start looking at people, at the massa of humanity with harder tones rather than softer ones; divisive and class oriented even. We begin to use this lens, at an ethical level, to view the world as us and them; using this lens to explain why most of the world seems like it is living like hell because from our perspective (if we hold to this type of determinist perception of reality) most of this world is in fact the damned; that’s just who they are (in their very being without any hope otherwise), and thus that’s just what they do—i.e. live like hell.

But Jesus, and the Gospel operate from a different metaphysic, from a different doctrine of creation, from a different anthropology, from a different soteriology, from a different doctrine of God and election (I would contend). Tom Greggs (University of Aberdeen professor) agrees with me, and gets at this in a much more elegant and precise way than me; he writes (as he explains the motivation for his book, which I’m quoting from here):

The primary motivation for engaging in this research is to understand salvation better. In an age in which fundamentalism is being so loudly articulated, the divisive and binary nature of certain understandings of salvation is being clearly heard. The sense that being a member of a community of faith separates and divides is not only heard in sermons but also in the explosion of bombs directed at causing terror for those unbelievers who await the terrors of hell anyway. It is, after all, only a short step from stating that God wills eternal terror for those opposed to His will and uses that terror in the world among those understood to be against God’s will in order to influence their decision-making in the present. Salvation needs, therefore, to be expressed in a way which does not divide humanity into binary groupings, but which allows for a simultaneous discussion of the salvific plan of God for all humanity as well as those who profess faith. In an age of multiculturalism in which our neighbours are people of many faiths and none, this is of paramount importance.

The division of humanity into saved or damned, elect or reject, awaiting heaven or hell is not only dangerous in its implications for the way in which humanity is seen, but it is also dangerous in terms of its doctrine of God: it presents a doctrine of God in which the will of God is separated from His love, or else is flouted by the sinful choices of humans, or else is cajoled into conditional love (which is no love at all) by the faith of humans. This can lead to an almost modalist approach to the doctrine of God: the second and third persons of the Trinity can seem to come to exist to save humanity from its failings. Moreover, such a view of salvation imprisons God in human constructs of justice and love, creating in God the failings all too evident in humanity (to love only when first we are loved, wrath etc.) instead of allowing the doctrine of God to define these points. God is salvation: it is not simply an action He performs; this action is an act in which one can understand His being. Thus, the contrary is also true: if one fails to understand salvation, one will fail to understand God.[1]

It is true that the Bible itself speaks of ‘those being saved’ and ‘those being destroyed’ (as active realities, see I Corinthians 1.18 etc.), but it does not do so in static or absolute ways; nor does it do so in metaphysical ways. In other words, the conditions for dynamism and change relative to one’s personal orientation to the Gospel remain open for all ‘who will’ (to use the Bible’s language cf. Jn 3.16).

Theologically the Bible’s disclosure is focused upon Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 5.39) in rather intense, and dare I say ‘principial’ ways. If we think from the logic of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, if we think from the hypostatic union and the Chalcedonian pattern of God and humanity unified fully in the eternal Son, Jesus Christ (unio personalis); we will have to re-think the binaries spoken of above, we will have to rethink the Augustinian division of an elect status of people over against an reprobate people. If we allow Jesus Christ, and the reality of his life as Theanthropos (the ‘God-man’) to impose itself upon our thought patterns we will have to think God’s election/reprobation from there; in particular from Christ’s vicarious humanity in-the-stead of and representative of all humanity. If we do this we will not look out at humanity as a great abstract mass, some of whom God has chosen to redeem, and others he has arbitrarily chosen to damn to eternal hell. Instead we will look out on the mass of humanity from the concrete humanity of God in Jesus Christ; we will think universally and globally about humanity from the particularity of God’s humanity given for us in the eternal Son’s choice to be for us and with us as one of us, instead of against us. We will think of all of humanity, not in principle, but in concrete fact from God’s love (cf. Rom 5.8); as if the mass of humanity is God’s humanity (cf. Acts 20.28) taken up in the Son (Phil. 2.5-8; II Cor 5.21)—the Son who the Father said ‘is dearly beloved.’

Theology, like any ideas, has a creeping effect in our lives. It is given expression in manifest, and often unconscious or un-intentional ways. There are examples of how thinking about humanity in two different classes gets expressed; one example can be as extreme as apartheid in South Africa (which was in many ways funded by the importation of Dutch Reformed theology into its civil and governmental life and policies). But more typically it can be expressed more subtly in our daily lives by having less compassion for people than we ought; this ‘less compassion’ though can lead to sinister things like nationalism so on and so forth.

Ultimately the problem with viewing humanity this way, though, is that it is not coordinate with the Gospel or God’s life revealed in Christ. God is for humanity in all-inclusive ways, even if his way remains exclusive, but only because that is limited to his life in the Son; thus he remains the only way, but he remains the only way for all not some. Ultimately if we think from the Gospel, from Jesus, we will understand that what it means to be human is ontologically grounded in Jesus Christ’s humanity; that his humanity grounds all of humanity. And that because he has united that humanity to his divine life in the Triune life, all of humanity is represented before the Father; which leads to the reality that all of humanity has the opening and invitation to participate in the life that God has given for them in his own life in the Son’s humanity. Our job, as Christians then, is to bear witness as ambassadors to the world of what true humanity looks like (i.e. their humanity too) as it actively participates in and from the Son’s real life humanity for them, for us.

[1] Tom Greggs, Barth, Origen, and Universal Salvation: Restoring Particularity (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 2-3.

Jesus, the Ultimate Question and Questioner for Us: According to Thomas Torrance

As modern and post-modern Christians we are plagued with an impulse, intellectually and socio-culturally, to place the questioner before the object or subject under “question.” In other words in rather Cartesian form we have placed our existence, and thus our rationality and wits before essence, before ‘being’ — as René Descartes was famous for intoning: cogito ergo sum ‘I think therefore I am.’ If we were to reduce modern man and woman to a modus operandi, in regard to a casual, and for some, even an intentional philosophy of life, I can’t think of a better way to frame blackwhitemantegnait than what we find in Cartesianism. The person, in the modern way, is the standard-bearer for creating his or her own reality; once reality is constructed for oneself, then the inquiry process for what life means can begin. But of course this is circular isn’t it? The person serves as the ground of their own reality (even in collectivist and communitarian ways), and once that ground is established, once that context is construed, the modern person can begin the work of establishing their own reasons for being, they can even create a place for God; but of course that ‘place’ is determined to be what it is by the person’s own ‘being’ and not God’s. (sounds like existentialism and idealism in their own ways)

Thomas F. Torrance offers an alternative account for how Christians ought to think about reality in genuinely Christian ways. Contra the ‘modern man’ Torrance identifies the problem as modern people themselves. He would contend that there is no abstract human person, modern or otherwise, but would refer us back to the ancient truth once and for all delivered to the saints in Jesus Christ. He would ask modern persons to look at the cross of Jesus Christ as the indicative of what human beings left to themselves really are; at base. At base, Torrance would contend that persons are contingent beings, who are not only not the Ultimate in their own beings, but that they ecstatically ‘receive’ their being extra nos or from outside of themselves; i.e. that the ground for human ‘being’ is God’s ‘being’ for us in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in His vicarious humanity pro nobis (for us). As such Torrance would ask us to look at the cross of Jesus Christ and call modern and post-modern persons to ponder what God is saying about us through the wisdom of the cross (sofia staurou); that the ground of our ‘beings’ left to themselves in abstraction (i.e. in a ‘Fallen state’) only have one ultimate end: death! Torrance would ask us to repent (metanoia), and understand that God alone has the capacity to serve as the ground of ‘human being’ in the vicarious humanity of His Son, and as such has the capacity to provide the questions – His questions – that are right questions about Him. Torrance would ask us to abandon the Cartesian way, and any other more “sophisticated” ways that terminate upon our abstract selves rather than in God’s concrete self for us in Jesus Christ. Torrance would contend that once we come under the wisdom of the cross that we will finally be in a place to really start doing the work of a Christian disciple; we will be in a place to not only ask the right questions, in echo of God’s questions for us in the Son, but we will be in a place afresh and anew on a daily basis to be interrogated by the wisdom of the cross which reminds us that we are constantly being given over to Christ’s death that His life might also be made manifest in our mortal bodies (II Cor. 4.10). Here’s Torrance in his own words:

That is the way the God of Truth deals with us. He turns to us where we have closed ourselves in him and are imprisoned in our self-will and blindness; he penetrates into our existence and life as one of us in order to open us up from below to the Truth of God and to bring us to acquiesce in the Truth of God. That is Jesus—who stood in our place, the prisoner at the bar interrogated by man and by God, he who plumbed the deepest depth of our questioning of God in order to take it upon himself and receive the counter-questioning of God. Therefore that Man on the Cross, questioned down to the bottom of hell, for our sakes, is the ultimate question that God puts to us.

Unless we recognize that we too are called in question by the Cross, we can neither put our questions to God in truth nor truly hear the answer he provides. Jesus Christ stood in place: that is God’s answer to us. For Jesus stood in our place not to be questioned, but to ask the question in truth as we are unable to, and to give a true and faithful answer to God. He stood in our place and made our ultimate question his own, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ But in taking that question on his lips, he asked it as we cannot, for he altered it from the depths into the cry, ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’

What, then, is the nature of true questioning?

A genuine question is one properly open to the object of inquiry, but a question cannot be open to the object of inquiry if it is foreclosed from behind. Hence to be genuine, a question must allow itself to be called in question; it must be ready for reconstruction in the light of what the inquiry reveals. True questioning involves a backward movement of critical revision of its premises and a forward movement of reformulation of its questions. The further questioning, until real listening becomes possible and judgments are formed under the compulsive power of the objective reality. Genuine questioning is a strenuous form of repentance.

Moreover, behind the questions stands the questioner himself. Every question that is raised has behind it the being of the questioner, and it reacts upon him. Really to ask, we have to put ourselves into our questions. If so, then really to ask, we must allow ourselves to be called into question. The questioner must allow his questions to react critically upon himself, if he is to ask them relentlessly and scientifically.[1]

The modern person cannot go for this, since they are the possessor of their own being; or so they think. As a consequence genuine questions about God and life cannot be asked, only superficial ones can be asked. This all comes back to what the author of Hebrews was so keenly aware of when he wrote: “14 Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” At the very bottom of every modern person there is a fleeting knowledge that at ground ‘death’ is the ultimate for them; but they can’t accept that reality, as such they must continue to assert themselves in the face of that reality, and attempt to hang on to their personal existence, and to existence in general, as the ground of all being, of all reality. Even if said reality is ultimately non-reality, of the sort that can never ask real life questions, because the ground upon which it is situated is sandy-land of its own deluded making.

[1] T.F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965), 122-23.

Coping with the Fear of Death through the Vicarious Humanity of Jesus

Death is scary, or at least the thought and the process of death are scary. It goes against the grain of humanity; the grain of humanity after all is the indestructible life of God in Jesus Christ for us (Deus incarnandus), as He is the imago Dei, the εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ, the image of God whose image humanity simpliciter has been both created and recreated in (i.e. the resurrection). To be ripped lastsupperasunder from that life, His life necessarily creates an existential anxiety and response within human beings who live in that state of separation on a day to day basis. But even for those of us who have acknowledged our election in God in Christ, even for those who have actively said yes to God from the Yes and Amen of God for us in Jesus Christ, we still live in these fallen frail bodies that cry out from the futility that has been inflicted upon them. Even though we know that our lives are grounded in Christ’s life, in His resurrected humanity (cf. Rom. 6; Col. 3; etc.) we still live in bodies that are subject to biological death, aging, sickness, disease, and a host of other unnatural things (if we understand that the natural mode for what it means to be human is determined by Christ’s humanity rather than the fallen humanity we continue to inhabit). And so when we are confronted with our mortality it is scary; it is something that humans as a rule don’t dwell upon from day to day, instead we live as if we might never die (or at least that’s how people tacitly seem to function day to day).

But we are going to die, and are dying every day; the reality of death is inescapable. When I was diagnosed with incurable statistically terminal cancer back in 2009 I was scared! I can remember before that though, for most of my life, I had this inexplicable fear of death (and I have been a Christian from a very young age); it was an oppressive fear I would sometimes get when faced with the thought that I could get cancer or something, and then I did! When that happened, the diagnosis, I went into a deep shock.

One of my particular plagues is that I am a deep thinker, and at points my mind can grab onto an idea and run it deeper than it should, or even really can. This was part of my problem from years past, ever before I was diagnosed with cancer; I would take the concept of my personal mortality, and its reality, and try to make some sense out of it at an existential and subjective level, at a felt level. But my mind, obviously, could never make sense of it; it was like entering into a dark abyss and trying to navigate a course through it. The moment I would finally hit the wall, and admit it, this is where heavy fear would come in; it meant I was up against a reality that I could not control, and my ‘flesh’ could not handle that. But it wasn’t just that, it was the thought of trying to conceive of life apart from what I’ve always known life to be, with full extension into space and time in my embodied physical concrete state. I think this reality is the one that scared me the most about death (and when I think about it it still is scary). It simply is not natural for a human being to die, as such it becomes a totally inscrutable thing to try and conceive of and make sense of; it truly is a labyrinth that humans have not been equipped to grasp or navigate through, it truly is a privatio or privation of what makes sense (which is what humanity has been created for; i.e. life with God).

This particular deep fear of mine, and I would imagine this is not my fear alone, was given some perspective as I walked through the valley of shadow of death with my cancer. Did the ‘fear of death’ completely go away? Absolutely not! I have no desire to die or go through the process of death. But what did happen is that that Lord showed up in some very real and tangible ways; in ways that let me and my family know that the armies of heaven were standing with us, and that the Lord of Hosts Himself was ever present. Not in some sort of abstract ‘up there’ kind of way, but in a concrete way that made clear that death was no match for Him! The reality that He is “the resurrection and the life” and that though I may “die, yet I shall live” became very real.

As I started this post out with, the ground and reality of our lives is the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. There is no separate humanity from His, but we find our humanity as we participate from His for us. We look solely to Him as the source of eternal life that springs up from our navels as living waters which cannot be quenched. This is my hope, and I am glad that I have found it in Jesus Christ! We need this hope in our world today! People are dying all around us, even if they try to live and act like they aren’t; they are. They need the hope of Jesus Christ, and the hope of His resurrection life as the ground and basis of their lives. He alone can enter into the abyss of death, put it to death, and rise again in a glorified body, and has! If we are going to have hope and a way through such darkness we need to be in a participatory relationship with Him by the Holy Spirit. If this is the reality we live in and from, ‘in Christ,’ then all hope is ours and the fear of death can no longer hold us captive; we can live truly free in and from the freedom of God’s indestructible Triune life which is indeed graciously for us in Jesus Christ.

25 Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: 26 And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this? ~John 11.25-26

14 Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;15 And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. ~Hebrews 2.14-15

Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: ~Romans 6.4-5

For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. ~Colossians 3.3-4

For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. ~II Corinthians 5.1