Pierre Maury, “An Election without Christology,” and The Evangelical Calvinist Way Explained

John Calvin calls the reality of the absolute decree in regard to predestination a “labyrinth;” others in the tradition have equally voiced concern about election as if it is a secret thing bound up in the hidden will of God in eternity. Not to get too overstated, many of these same folks, mostly Calvin, offered relief to the terror that God’s predestination could cause if it wasn’t chained close enough to Jesus; indeed Calvin, even though operating under the Augustinian way began to turn this discussion Christward. If nothing else Calvin provided some of the trajectory and grammar required to develop a better more fully aware Christological account of election. People like John McLeod Campbell, Thomas Torrance, and Pierre Maury were only too ready to pick up the baton and do the kind of developmental work that us Evangelical Calvinists are also keen in developing for the church of God in Jesus Christ. As an example of someone who not only identifies this lacuna in the works of Augustine, Calvin, et al. Pierre Maury, a French theologian of no ill-repute, has this to say:

An Election without Christology

How has it been possible to develop a doctrine full of what Pascal called “false windows”—those windows painted on the facades of some old houses in order to achieve an apparent symmetry? This is what we now need to look into.

We shall see here again the weakness, which we have noted several times, of a doctrine of election that is independent—I mean unconnected to Christology, or rather one that sees in the redemptive Person of Christ nothing but the executor of a purpose formed without him in the darkness of the mystery of God.

If St Augustine, St Thomas, Calvin, Luther, and Pascal had seen more clearly that God has no other thought, no other will, no other action than Jesus Christ, that he dwells in Christ in the fullness of the Godhead, if they had, like St John of the Cross, repeated the famous sentence, “God never speaks any word but one, and that is his Son,” doubtless they would have given us a description of “the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:1) by the decision of God, a description that would not make us tremble, but would fill our troubled hearts with peace. And if they had known more clearly that to be elected is to be elected in Christ, and that this election of which we are the object is as freely sovereign, and as independent of any merit on our part, as the absolute decree whose power they venerated, but could not praise, because it was utterly hidden from them, doubtless they would not have caused so many misunderstandings, nor such anxiety in the consciences it was their intention to reassure, and in the long run such ignorance—relative at least—of the love of God and of his Son.[1]

If you sense antecedents, or if you hear echoes of Karl Barth here, or Thomas Torrance, it is because, as I noted in another post, Pierre Maury served, according to Barth, as a decisive impetus to Barth’s own Christologically concentrated understanding of election. This particular essay of Maury’s, “Predestination,” was written after Barth had developed his own understanding in CD II/2; but these thoughts are original to Maury, per his own unique movement towards an development of a Christologically conditioned doctrine of election. Even here in the essay we can see his reference back to St John of the Cross; and this is something I want to alert all of us to. In the history of interpretation prior to Barth or modern developments we have antecedent theologies wherein a doctrine of election that is Christologically steeped is latent. The proof of that is what we see right here in Maury’s essay, or in the work of Thomas Torrance with his constant reference back to Athanasius.

The Evangelical Calvinist Way

My desire as a young (43yrs) and impassioned theologian is to offer an alternative account of evangelical theology to the church catholic. As a North American, whatever I write will be tinted by that location, but hopefully because what I write is so rooted in the transcendent but scandalous particularity of God in Christ, the reach it has will be greater than my own particularity and have some capacity to edify the church catholic.

As Evangelical Calvinists we see a real lacuna in what evangelical Christians are being offered in regard to the type of theology they are being fed through the collaborative work of movements like The Gospel Coalition. I remain very unsatisfied with what is being offered, theologically, by TGC, and so because of that, and because I know I’m not alone, I want to offer alternative ways into Reformed theology that are present in the history of interpretation; Maury being a good example of this alternative way. I want to continue to offer an alternative to the Covenantal theology that the Young, Restless, and Reformed are feeding their churches Sunday in, Sunday out. I believe there is a better way; it’s not a way, as even Maury illustrates, that leaves behind what the past has offered. No, on the contrary, it is attempting to be more creative, more industrious in the resourccement process; looking for thinkers scattered throughout the tapestry of the history of Reformed theology (and beyond) who can be brought to bear, and help us develop an ‘always reforming’ theology that is given regulative and normative reality in and from Jesus Christ; let him alone be the regula fidei (rule of faith)!

In many ways this venture is a lonely one; it is prone to be misunderstood; or to be associated with other movements of theological development that evangelicals are suspicious of. This way seems reckless to the mainstream of evangelical and mainline theologies, because it seems to not care so much about fitting into usual modes of theological and ecclesial being; people fear that the Evangelical Calvinist mode is a wayward one. The way I see all of this, what we are attempting to do with Evangelical Calvinism, is just what I’ve been noting above; we want to follow a Christ conditioned approach that actually works against many of the more church-centered and soteriologically driven (in abstraction) bases for doing the theological work of the church. We aren’t as concerned with the period of church history we resource, instead it’s more about what we resource relative to the truth of it all; i.e. the truth and implications required by the Gospel reality itself. Here is part of what I wrote in the co-written section of our newest Evangelical Calvinist Vol2 book:

In Scholasticism Reformed: Essays in Honor of Willem J. van Asselt, Martijn Bac and Theo Pleizier offer a chapter entitled “Teaching Reformed Scholasticism in the Contemporary Classroom.” Bac and Pleizer outline how scholasticism should be taught today in theological classrooms and they develop how scholastics of the past retrieved authoritative voices for their own material and theological purposes. More than simply reconstructing the history of ideas and theological development, proper scholastic method was concerned to engage the concepts of prior voices from the tradition by appropriating themes and motifs that fit broader theological concerns, and all in order to forward the cause of theological truth. In other words, the greater concern was to organically move within the trajectory and mood set out by the past in order to constructively engage the present and future by developing the ideas of these past voices by placing them within the burgeoning and developing movement of Reformed theology. What Bac and Pleizer highlight is that the scholastic mode of retrieval is very much like Evangelical Calvinism’s method; which ironically runs counter to the typical critique of Evangelical Calvinism as illustrated by Muller. Here is what Bac and Pleizer write in regard to the scholastic method, and what was called “reverential exposition”:

Reformed theologians did not read their sources of Scripture and tradition in a historical sense, i.e., as part of an ongoing tradition, but rather as ‘authorities’ of truth. Until the breakdown of scholasticism and the historical revolution, sources were not quoted in a historical way, be they the Bible, Aristotle, Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas. A quotation did not indicate a correct historical understanding of what its original author had meant, but was read systematically as bearer of truth. From this it follows that contradictions among authorities were solved logically rather than hermeneutically.[2]

There is a real irony to what we’re doing; as I argued further in our book, and you get a sense of above, what we are attempting to do is work within the spirit of the Reformed faith—even more pointedly, the scholasticism Reformed faith. This is ironic because it is folks like TGC and other movements popular in the Reformed evangelical world who see themselves as being faithful to resourcing the Protestant theology of the 16th and 17th centuries; and yet they aren’t really operating in that spirit at all. What is currently underway in the evangelical world (and I’ll keep picking on The Gospel Coalition) is not just a resourcing project (which is the real “scholastic and Reformed” way), but instead a repristination project; a project that is simply seeking to replicate the theology of the past, as they perceive it, driven not by any kind of intentional hermeneutic other than one of piety.

Piety isn’t bad, but it’s not enough; and it’s not thick enough to provide a real hermeneutic and intention from whence to resource from. This is what I am hoping to get across; Evangelical Calvinism as a “resource movement,” as a movement that genuinely does work from the ‘always reforming’ spirit of the Reformed scholastic past, has a center. The center isn’t a piety derived from an individualistically grounded conception of election and the church, instead we are resourcing with the goal of developing theology that is intensively grounded in and from Jesus Christ; radically so.

Conclusion

I submit to you the Pierre Maury example of the type of theology we are attempting to resource for the church of God in Jesus Christ. It’s a more catholic way because it thinks from Christ, the Lord of the church, rather than simply from a particular expression or instantiation of the church that we find present in the local theology of the Protestant Reformed orthodox theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries. We aren’t attempting to promote a certain piety in the church, we are seeking God in Christ first and realizing that all these things [including a healthy piety] will be added unto us from there; as we seek Christ in regulative ways, first.

All of this sounds audacious; I know! But it is the way I am committed to, and a way that I believe an evangelical Christian would rather follow. We aren’t just a receiving faith, we are a speaking faith; and we believe that God in Christ continues to speak to his church afresh and anew today. It is this reality that we work from.

 

[1] Pierre Maury, “Predestination,” in Simon Hattrell, ed., Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a “Decisive Impetus” to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), loc 2115, 2123, 2130.

[2] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Introduction: On Dogmatics and Devotion in the Christian Life,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene,OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017), 8.

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Responding to Paul Tripp’s Sweeping Generalization against Christian Theologians and Academics: The Theology of the Cross as Antidote

[Qualification: My response in this post has more to do with the sentiment that the Tripp quote ostensibly communicates; it is a sentiment that I know many of us have experienced in our own ecclesial settings. The quote from Tripp is contextless for me, so maybe he qualifies or develops it in such a way that it eludes my critique; I hope that is the case. So read my comments more in the direction of targeting the sentiment of the Tripp quote (and how it was used from where I lifted it) rather than Tripp himself; even though I do tend to attach things to Tripp, in my post, that would make it seem like I have an absolute context I’m working with in regard to the quote, I don’t.]

I wanted to quickly respond to a quote from Paul Tripp I just came across on Facebook; shared by someone I know. It has to do with what he perceives to be the false-faith of evangelical academics (I wonder what he would think of non-evangelical albeit Christian academic circles?). Tripp writes:

True biblical faith is always something we live. If our faith does not reshape our lives, it is not true faith. I’m afraid that is what faith looks like in evangelical academic circles. But real faith radically rearranges our lives. Three examples of how real faith in God transforms the way we live 1. Faith redirects and recaptures the worship of our hearts. (Cain) 2. Faith produces in us hearts of obedience.  (Enoch) 3. Faith causes us to submit to the calling of God. (Noah)True, living, biblical faith causes us to submit all three of these shaping influences to God.[1]

There are at least a few ways into engaging with what Tripp writes: 1) His critique can apply equally across the board with all Christians (not just academics); 2) his critique helps to create a culture, within the church, of an us versus them (i.e. the laity/pastors versus the academics among them); 3) his critique, theologically, is grounded on soteriological (i.e. having to do with salvation) assumptions that flow from an experimental predestinarian approach. I will address the first two in this post, and leave the third way of critique for another post; or maybe I’ll never get into that one at all (even though I have multitudes of posts here on the blog in a variety of ways and developments).

All Christians& “Us versus Them”

The reality is, is that all Christian people struggle with walking faithfully with God in Christ; not just Christian academics. That’s what God’s grace is all about; the reality that no matter what our personal dispositions and personalities lead us to, in our fallen bodies, that his grace (in Christ) enters into our lives and redeems them from the inside out. The struggle for people disposed towards intellectual ventures is that they will struggle with not boasting in knowledge; indeed many folks will fall prey to such boasting for a season of time, if not their whole life. Nevertheless, God’s mercy and grace prevails, not just for folks oriented in this way (an “intellectualist” direction), but for any Christian; and any disposition. For some people the struggle is more relationally oriented; in other words, many Christian people will assert that what genuine Christian faith looks like has everything (in an exclusive way) to do with establishing good nuclear family life, and having good Christian “fellowship” all of the time. But when such things are elevated what happens is that the experience, the “good” itself begins to push God out of the center and elevates the good of family life and human relationships above God; or at least it names such thing as “God” (Focus on the Family and James Dobson comes to mind). My point is, is that all people, no matter what predisposition they have (they might be good at business, at real estate, etc.), all Christian people, I should say, have their own temptations, and their own struggles. And some times, as noted, some of those struggles are with things that are actually “good”, just as intellectual endeavor can be; the problem arises when that good is taken captive by our own sinful hearts and turned into an idol rather than a means or instrument for bearing witness to the reality of God in Jesus Christ.

So Paul Tripp is wrong to single out evangelical academics in his discussion; he ought to discuss, in a responsible manner, the dangers present not only for academics, but for anyone who is a Christian. The battle is real, and the “enemy” will attempt to take us out no matter what our place is in this life; no matter what our career is; no matter what our family and relational life is. It’s not Christian academia that is inherently evil; it’s that it is inhabited by sinful (but redeemed) people; just as every other sphere in the Christian world is.

Concluding Remarks

My concern with comments like Tripp’s are that the laity, when they hear this, are led to believe that any Christian academic they come across forthwith (say in their church context or elsewhere) will be profiled and labeled with Tripp’s sweeping generalization in regard to evangelical Christian academics (in the theological sphere; I’m imagining that’s Tripp’s target in this). This will have multiples of negative consequences for the local church. I.e. it will keep Christian theologians from wanting to attend churches where the culture of the church is antagonistic towards Christian scholars; it will keep these churches from benefiting from the gifts and knowledge God has given such individuals precisely for the purposes of edifying the local church; it will keep people who are predisposed this way, either from cultivating who they are as God’s children, or it will completely push them away from the church allowing them to reenergize their intellectual predispositions maybe (and most negatively) for tearing down the church (there are plenty of atheist academics out there with precisely this background).

Because of all of this, and more, I think Tripp’s comments are very dangerous, and at the least sloppy; but in fact both. A teacher in the church (who himself has a doctorate) should not be disparaging whole groups of Christians in the church just to make oneself look more noble than they (i.e. like you have escaped the lures and dangers of being a Christian academic in a nobler way than the others you are referring to).

Is the danger that Tripp notes a real one? Yes. Martin Luther, the original Protestant Reformer called such a danger a theology of glory; his antidote was what he called a theology of the cross. I know plenty of Christian academics and theologians who have chosen to go the way of cross; of course, yes, I know (or know of) plenty of others who have chosen the way of glory; and I know others who are struggling somewhere in between on that continuum. But we shouldn’t engage in sweeping generalizations, as Tripp has, just to elevate our own status as a teacher in the church that belongs to Jesus. Hopefully you can see why I’m so concerned; enough to write a post about Tripp’s remarks. I know the sub-culture he’s speaking into, and it only reinforces the wherewithal of said sub-culture; a sub-culture that could use the rigor and thought provided for by genuine theologians of the cross, who love Jesus, and express that, in their own way, as deep thinking and researching Christian people—people I would contend that Jesus wants to gift the church with.

 

[1] Paul Tripp, source unknown. Accessed from friend’s Facebook status, 10-05-2017.

How Karl Barth Ensnared me With His Doctrine of Election and The Pierre Maury French Connection: With Some Response to William B. Evans

Let me just say one more thing about Barth. William B. Evans over at his blog, The Ecclesial Calvinist, has picked up on what started online as a result of my posts (presumably) on Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum. Evans is a Reformed theologian, and has written some helpful stuff, in particular, on union with Christ. I’ve had some spotty correspondence with him, here and there over the years; the first correspondence was some comments he made at my blog with reference to Karl Barth. I don’t remember exactly what the post was about, but he was respectfully telling me how he had early in his theological studies career been attracted to Barth; but then he realized Barth wasn’t for him, that Barth was just a “cool”-kid phase. In his comments he was trying to persuade me to move on, as I recall, and go onto bigger and more orthodox things. In his most recent post, at his blog, this one, he somewhat rehashes what I just communicated about his approach to Barth, and why he indeed moved away from him. He isn’t using the revelation[s] from the Tietz essay as a bludgeon to beat Barth around the ears with, but he is rightfully disturbed by it all.

I introduce you to Evans, and his post, because he has this way of characterizing folks who are attracted to Barth’s theology; it’s the same sentiment he communicated to me so many years ago. He writes:

I’ll also admit that I went through a phase in seminary when I thought Barth was “cool.” He is fun to read, especially as he interacts with so much of the Christian tradition.  But I found it necessary to move on, in large measure because I was finding his soteriology and ecclesiology to be less than helpful (more on this below).  Many of my graduate school professors had gone through (sometimes passionate) Barthian phases before moving leftward to other forms of theology.  One thing I had in common with my mostly liberal professors was distaste for Barth, though for somewhat different reasons.

The current preoccupation with Barth seems to be to some extent a “younger evangelical” phenomenon. Reasons are not terribly difficult to discern—fatigue with the older generation’s framing of issues, a desire for more interpretive “wiggle room” on certain matters, a concern to do greater justice to the humanity of Scripture, and so forth. In various ways Barth seems to some to provide a “third way” that avoids the pitfalls of both fundamentalism and liberalism.[1]

I’m not sure I fit into the “younger evangelical” crowd (I’m 43) that Evans references (probably), but I don’t fully agree with his characterization. I mean in some ways his characterization does fit some folks at a certain level I’d imagine, but my sole attraction to Karl Barth’s theology had to do not just with a “third way” or a via media, but with a brand-new way of thinking about election/reprobation and the doctrine of predestination. Without this type of reformulation in Barth’s theology I probably never would have been attracted to him. Does this fit into Evans’ characterization of “wiggle room?” Not for me. What Barth offered was a way to think about election/reprobation that was fully grounded in Jesus Christ; so that both election and reprobation were dual realities that could be singularly located in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ—i.e. he elected humanity for himself, and in his election of humanity he assumed our reprobate (fallen) status—giving us his elect status as sons and daughters of God by participating in his resurrected/recreated humanity by grace (something he had/has by nature).

It was this that hooked me to Barth’s theology (what you’ll find fully articulated in his CD II/2). But now, of course, I’ve been struggling to reconcile Barth’s theology with his chosen lifestyle (i.e. choosing to live a life with his “concubine,” Charlotte von Kirschbaum). For me this means that, as I’ve noted, I’ll be stepping back from Barth’s theology in direct ways (at least for the foreseeable future). But that does not mean there aren’t indirect ways to engage with his theology, and it is these ways that I have already been engaging with for longer than I have been with Barth’s theology; i.e. in other words, the way into Barth’s theology for me has always already been through his best English speaking student’s work, Thomas Torrance.

So I will continue to work with many of the “Barthian” categories, particularly revolving around the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ as that is a related doctrine to Barth’s reformulation of the classical understanding and grammar of election/reprobation and/or double predestination. Interestingly, in this vein, I just picked up a book (which I’ve been wanting to read for quite awhile—since it came out in 2016) entitled: Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a “Decisive Impetus” to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election. Pierre Maury was a Frenchman, and friend of Barth’s, who presented a paper in 1936 entitled Election and Faith at the Geneva Calvinist Congress. Here is what Barth wrote of this, as he later read the text of that address:

As long ago as 1936 Pierre Maury had delivered an address entitled “Election and Faith” on the occasion of the Geneva Calvinist Congress; that address, which appeared in the same year in the review Foi et Vie, was published in German in 1940 in the Theologische Studien series. Most of those present at the Calvinist Congress were neither prepared, nor apt to receive in their hearts, nor even just simply to register in their brains, what Pierre Maury was saying to them then. There were but few who had any idea of the implications of his thesis in the course of the years that followed, when preoccupations of a political nature loomed so large that they scarcely left time or energy for theological reflection of this sort. But I remember one person who read the text of that address with the greatest attention: myself! It so happened that in the autumn of the same year, 1936, I had to give a course of lectures on the subject of predestination (in Hungary). Pierre Maury and I had of course often spoken of this problem; nevertheless, his 1936 address at once made a profound impression on me. And when a few years later I had occasion to return to the subject in a wider context, I did not merely refer to Pierre Maury’s pamphlet, but stressed that it ought to be considered as one of the best contributions made towards the understanding of the problem. That is why, as I said at the time (CD II/2, 154f), Pierre Maury must be ranked with the rare theologians of the past who, because of the Christological basis of their doctrine, seem to me to have remained here on solid ground (such were Athanasius, Augustine, John Knox, and Johannes Coccejus). One can certainly say that it was he who contributed decisively to giving my thoughts on this point their fundamental orientation. Before I read his study, I had met no one who had dealt with the question so freshly and boldly.[2]

For me, it is good to come across resources like this, and realize that even prior to Barth reformulation of double predestination had already started to take place; Pierre Maury being a prime example of this type of work. Yes, Athanasius, and even Calvin (who Maury is glossing in much of his paper) offered the type of bedrock one would need to proceed as Maury and then as Barth did; and so it is exciting for me to think about pressing further into the antecedents of Barth’s theology itself (which of course Calvin and Athanasius et al. are prime suspects in such an endeavor and are people I’ve spent quite a bit of time with already).

Anyway, I just wanted to register what attracted me to Barth in the first place; it was a particular doctrinal locus. For an evangelical, such as myself, the only alternatives, grammatically offered, was the usual classical Calvinist and Arminian binary of how to navigate election and reprobation. I was never satisfied with that. So Barth and Torrance offered a way out of that whole penumbra by offering, in my view, an illumined way of thinking about a doctrine of election through the sunshine of God in Jesus Christ. Without this offering Barth would have never been on my radar to begin with; but with it, his theological reformulation, as it intensively settled on Jesus Christ, gave me great joy to involve myself in the theological endeavor.

 

[1] William B. Evans, Why I Still Don’t Much Care for Karl Barth, accessed 10-03-2017.

[2] Karl Barth, Basel, February 1957 in Simon Hattrell, ed., Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a “Decisive Impetus” to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), loc 765, 772 kindle.

What Does Holiness Have to Do With Theological Reflection and Epistemology?

The author to the Hebrews writes this: “14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” We might want to read this as a purely eschatological reality, but even in the context it is clear that it is a present admonition. It is an eschatological reality, of course, as that breaks in on us from the eschaton of God’s Triune life; but its experienced reality is one that comes through walking in a submitted and repentant life of obedience and faith in God in Christ. In other words, and this is something I once argued back in a talk I once gave in the past, if we want to genuinely behold God in Christ, holiness is required. The Good News, of course, is that this has been provided for in Jesus Christ; as we participate in and from his life for us which is seated at the right hand of the Father, we indeed behold God; we experience tastes of beatific vision now. This, I think, is a basic aspect for accomplishing the theological task for all Christians; that we think God from the holiness that his life provides for us. This is where a genuine theological epistemology is grounded for the Christian, mediated for us in and through the set-apart life and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ for us. But without living in a submitted life, one of ongoing repentance before God (a theme so important for TF Torrance’s theology i.e. repentant thinking), this truly hampers (or potentially negates) the work of the theologian; both personally and collectively for the church.

There are geniuses among us; it’s possible to construct genius sounding theological constructs, and to produce materially rich sounding theological grammars. But one must ask: At what point is genius doing the work, and at what point is actual engagement with the holy living God taking place? This is a question I will be contemplating for years to come. Is it possible to be living in constant unrepentant sin, and at the same time be thinking with and from the holy Triune-life of God?

The following is a post I wrote some years ago, but it touches on the issue of holiness and Christian theological reflection. I thought I would share it again as a kind of kick off for me in regard to contemplating the relationship of holiness to theological reflection and epistemology.

Theology is a practice in knowing God with all that we are. While this can only remain a provisional, as the old school would say ectypal endeavor it is something we have been called to as Christians set apart unto God in Jesus Christ. But it is also important to remember that theology is not something that we have initiated, that seminaries and post-doctoral programs have invented. God is the one who initiates true theology; He in himself is the true Theologian as Augustine has said: “God alone is a theologian, and we are truly his disciples.” And so genuine Christian theology starts from God, and our knowledge is contingent upon His graciousness to invite us unto His banqueting table and participate in the meal of holy fellowship that He alone can freely provide for, which He has in His Son, Jesus Christ, God with us.

What viewing theology like this does is that it orients things properly; it takes the keys away from the rationalist who believes that their mind is prior to God’s Self-revelation and action, and it places theological reflection, again, in the domain of God’s holy Word for us, provided for in the election and Incarnation of God (Deus incarnatus), in Jesus Christ. We by nature have unholy thoughts; we by nature are removed from God; we by nature cannot recognize that God has spoken (Deus dixit); we by nature would not approach God even if we could, and if we could we couldn’t because to approach God is to come before Him on holy ground. Moses presented himself before God at the burning bush, only because God condescended and presented Himself, first, to Moses; and in this presentation He initiated the invite to Moses, to come before Him. Modern theological thinking tends to forget this. With the continuing influences of Cartesianism (cogito ergo sum ‘I think therefore I am’), Lockeanism, Kantianism, Schleiermacherianism, etc. we tend to forget that we cannot approach God unless He invites us. The good news is that He has invited us to know Him, to speak with Him, to love and cherish Him, but only on His terms; and His terms or term, is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the holy ground upon which and through whom we have access to God. It is through the broken body of Jesus Christ that the veil between the holy of holies and the outer part of the temple has been torn through. As such, all of our arrogant unholy pretentions about how we conceive of God are contradicted by how God has invited us to think of Him through His personal Self-revelation and exegesis in His Son, Immanuel, Jesus Christ. We come to Him on His predetermined terms not our terms; if we want to come on our terms and name those terms “Jesus Christ” or the “Holy Trinity” we will unfortunately only be worshipping our own self-projections of who we think God is based upon our own self-generated machinations. John Webster clarifies further:

Once again, therefore, we find ourselves running up against the contradictory character of theology as an exercise of holy reason. One of the grand myths of modernity has been that the operations of reason are a sphere from which God’s presence can be banished, where the mind is, as it were, safe from divine intrusion. To that myth, Christian theology is a standing rebuke. As holy reason at work, Christian theology can never escape from the sober realization that we talk in the terrifying presence of God from whom we cannot flee (Ps. 139.7). In Christian theology, the matter of our discourse is not someone absent, someone whom we have managed to exclude from our own intellectual self-presence. When we begin to talk theologically about the holiness of God, we soon enough discover that the tables have been reversed; it is no longer we who summon God before our minds to make him a matter for clever discourse, but the opposite: the holy God shows himself and summons us before him to give account of our thinking. That summons – and not any constellation of cultural, intellectual or political conditions – is the determinative context of holy reason. There are other contexts, of course, other determinations and constraints in the intellectual work of theology: theology is human work in human history. But those determinations and constraints are all subordinate to, and relativized by, the governing claim of the holy God, a claim which is of all things most fearful but also of all things most full of promise.[1]

Christian theology is an enterprise initiated and ingressed by God. When we attempt to talk about God, we must first recognize the fact that ‘God has spoken’ (Deus dixit) first, and that He continues to speak everyday in the same way that He has always freely chosen to speak for us, to us, and with us through Jesus Christ. We are always on holy ground when we speak of God, who alone is wise, immortal, invisible who alone dwells in unapproachable light. I fear that we forget this very often. I fear that we have gotten too comfortable talking about God and the things of God as if He hasn’t first invited us to speak of Him and with Him on His terms. I fear we have domesticated God to the point that when we speak of God we might not really be speaking of Him at all, but instead from a place, a divine spark, as it were, in our minds that we believe has access to God based upon some other terms than those He has given for us through Jesus Christ. It is a holy endeavor to speak of God, but only as we speak from within the domain He has provided for that to happen from does this holiness truly pervade anything we might think we have to say of Him. If the ground and grammar of our theological discourse is not from God in Christ in a principial way, then it is a fearful thing.

[1] John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), Loc. 157, 162, 167 Kindle.

My Final Post, Ever, on Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum

Photo copyright of the Karl Barth-Archiv in Basel, Switzerland

Okay, this will be my last post in regard to Karl Barth’s and Charlotte von Kirschbaum’s relationship. I’ve heard enough from people I respect, don’t respect, and folks in between. In case you’re wondering what I’m referring to, it’s the content of this post (which weirdly went “viral”). I am going to approach this from a few different angles; I will talk about my approach to blogging; then about the reality of the lifelong affair between Barth and Kirschbaum; then I will discuss what I believe the Bible teaches about teachers, and how that applies to Barth, or not; and then I will offer a conclusion.

Transparency in Blogging

If you have followed me at all through my theo-blogging career (circa 2005) you will know that I use my blog, often, to simply think out loud; in very transparent ways. This means that when I put things on my blog they are usually ideas and thoughts that are on the way and in processing form; my post on Barth/CvK is no different. As I have already noted in my last short post, my first post was simply written from a raw and surprised perspective. So this fits my mode of blogging; I’m transparent to a fault I think. In other words, I think I open myself up to people who I shouldn’t,  much too often; people who don’t know me, and don’t care to really know me (and honestly that’s a vice versa situation in many cases). If you did know me, though, you’d understand how impacting Barth’s theology, at a material level, has been upon me; particularly over the last twelve years. So I wrote my first post from within, not without a relationship to Barth; a relationship that depended at some level on an element of me trusting him. This should help to explain the surprise component.

What transparency brings: it brings people into your life who you never would normally allow to speak with you in a serious way; and this is a flaw that I will remedy going forward (it’s one reason I’ve implemented moderate on blog comments). On this particular occasion I’ve received all kind of response (as you can imagine); mostly on Twitter and Facebook. The responses range from: you’re a legalist, you’re naïve, “if I followed his ‘logic’ I’d have to quit reading all theologians,” thank you for standing up on this issue, I agree with you, you need to take this slow, and then this gem in my comments here at the blog (it’s too good, I’ve got to share it):

“only thing this proves, is that you have been very foolish, 1. for wasting your precious time reading/studying/devoting yourself to the life/teachings of this false teacher, 2. for consigning to “rumour” what has been known about this apostate all along, and 3. for being “sick” about all this; so, go puke your guts out in disgust at your “hero”; perhaps this will be a “first step” for you, to get your head out from the sand, and start truly studying…” (signed lovingly) -James Roy

I realized, actually, when I posted my first post that I was indeed opening myself up to the variety of responses I received. The sense of anonymity built into online engagement (even if you use your real  name) works against its value; I realized that once again in this situation.

Barth and Kirschbaum

I already summarized the Christiane Tietz essay on Barth’s and Kirschbaum’s in my first post (what caused all of this). But some of the push back I have received wanted me to show where Tietz ever said that the nature of Barth’s and Kirschbaum’s affair was intimate and sexual in nature; she doesn’t explicitly say that. As Tietz recounts Barth’s mother calls it an “adulterous” relationship, and just the reality that they love each other and took trips to a cabin for months at a time together is very suggestive. Someone I know on Twitter recounts hearing this from one of his professors at Princeton about Barth and CvK:

“When I was at PTSEM, Migliore recalled that during KBs visit to the US with CvK he requested only 1 bedroom. So it was not really hidden”

Tietz never explicitly says that Barth and Kirschbaum had sex, but the intimation is there. I can’t explicitly say that their relationship was sexual either; all I can say is that by way of appearance it doesn’t look good.

The Biblical Conflict

For me, this is what caused the most conflict; i.e. the biblical standards. I take the bible as an authoritative and normative reality in my life, and read it in that way. When I read of the details of Barth’s and Kirschbaum’s relationship, as this was all substantiated for me (beyond rumor), I immediately tried to think about how this would work for anyone of us today; anyone of us who happens to be a pastor or teacher of theology for the church of Jesus Christ. Here’s one example, and the primary example of what the Bible considers the standard for an overseer (and I see this as applicable to any teacher in the church of Jesus Christ):

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full  respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap. –I Timothy 3:1-7

So this represents a standard; it’s not something any one person will be perfect in achieving, but it provides a character and aim that the pastor/teacher is to meet. Barth’s lifestyle violated some key aspects of this (obviously the aspect of being “faithful to his wife”). I’ve been told that I am a legalist because I’m trying to see how Barth fits into this scriptural paradigm.

There are other passages we could refer to, but I’m sure most of you know what those are, and what the conflict is here. And here’s the reality: Barth didn’t meet a very important aspect of the qualifications for what it means to be a teacher/preacher in the church. His infidelity in marriage (whether it was sexual or not) should have disqualified him for a time; but apparently there was nobody to hold him to account in this way. So he continued in his teaching role, and produced the mammoth bulk of theological literature that we know him for today. This is the conflict for me.

Some have said that we’re all sinners. Yes we are. But that misses some of the point that the biblical conflict produces. This response, to me, makes it sound like these folks aren’t committed to the biblical standards set out for teachers/preachers in the church; it sounds like they are willing to soften or minimize what all of that entails from an orthodox perspective. The fact that we are all sinners doesn’t change the fact that there are still requirements to be met in order to hold a teaching office in the church; requirements that involve morality so on and so forth. They aren’t requirements that mean the person will be perfect; but they do ask, at the very least, that someone’s life is characterized by the characteristics that the Apostle Paul, et al. envisioned for what it meant to be a teacher/overseer in the church. And of course there is more to all of that than simply fidelity in marriage, or the entanglements that surround sexual or male/female relationships. But in this instance the issue revolves around fidelity in marriage.

But we have two separate things going on here, and this is how I’m trying to navigate the conflict. On the one hand we don’t want to simply soften or forfeit the biblical teaching of what it requires for a person to hold a teaching or pastoral office in the church; on the other hand we have Barth who wasn’t held accountable to that in his life, and so we ended up with a body of theological teaching anyway, that in itself can have an objective ex opere operato value to it insofar as it really does bear witness to Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

Barth is a sinner as we all are. Barth should have been held accountable for his actions and chosen lifestyle, and yet wasn’t. He did not actually meet the biblical standards for what it means to be a teacher/pastor in the church of Jesus Christ. Yet he produced a body of theological material that is rather revolutionary in regard to how it engages with the tradition of the church. I believe, as noted, that it can be critically interacted with at an ex opere operato level (meaning that the material reality of what he produced can potentially stand in an objective way insofar as what he communicated correlates and actually does bear witness to the Gospel reality of God in Jesus Christ; see Philippians 1[1]).

Going forward: I will still engage with Barth, to one degree or another; I will just be more realistic about the engagement and under no illusion that the way he chose to live his life met with the standards of what it meant or means to be a teacher/preacher in the body of Christ. I recognize we are all sinners, and then many of our theological heroes and teachers are deeply flawed individuals; as deeply as we all are. I think for me this was just the wakeup call that I needed in regard to keeping things in perspective; particularly with reference to one of my heroes, Karl Barth.

I think we need to try and think about all of this at multiple levels, even dialectically, and try not to lose sight that there still are standards for what it means to be a leader/teacher/pastor in the body of Christ. We all fail, and God’s graciousness is there to pick the repentant heart up. But I don’t think we want to too quickly gloss over things simply because all people are sinners. We should be realistic about the realities, and take things, as we learn of them, on a case by case basis. This is how I am approaching Barth going forward; I still think his teaching on election, natural theology, and his theological method in general are revolutionary in regard to the theological landscape. And I can’t imagine that I’d ever really give any of that up. The reality is, is that there is a whole After Barth tradition that has developed, and my favorite teacher in that tradition (and yet I will say he is his own man) is Thomas Torrance. Torrance is who ever really brought me to Barth, and Torrance remains my go to guy in so many ways (bearing in mind that TFT was not perfect either, but again this all needs to be thought of with care and important distinctions). Yet, within this new critical mode for me, in regard to Barth, I cannot deny that Barth’s teaching can be engaged with, as I’ve already noted ex opere operato).

What this whole situation does, is that it invites for further exploration in regard to how, as the church, we believe the teacher and the teaching relate. Is there a relationship between someone’s character and what they teach? Is there something to the idea proffered by the author to the Hebrews ‘that without holiness no one will see God’ (we know Augustine thought so)? These are questions worth exploring in and of themselves; and they are questions I will be pondering in the days to come.

P.S.

It might appear that I have come to some sort of resolution. I think if I have come to any resolution it is that the body of Christ is an absolute mess, including all of her teachers, leadership, laity, all across the board (which of course I’ve known my whole life, this is just a new reiteration of that); and through the centuries into the present. The only thing that makes any of this worthwhile is Jesus Christ; otherwise we might as well go eat, drink, and be merry.

And let me leave with this barb: I realize we all have opinions, reactions, and responses to all types of things; and that the online climate allows us to say things we normally wouldn’t in person; just bear that in mind (and I will too).

 

[1]15 Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: 16 The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; 17 but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel.18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice.” Philippians 1:15-18 I.e. the one proclaiming the Gospel does not need to be perfect, God can still objectively use the proclamation of the Gospel, no matter who it comes from, in an edifying an positive way relative to the Kingdom. This is indeed, good news for all of us.

A Comment in Regard to My Last Post on Barth and Kirschbaum

Photo copyright of the Karl Barth-Archiv in Basel, Switzerland

I affirm ex opere operato when it comes to theological speech. Let’s not rush to conclusions just because of some things I intimated or said in my last post. Here’s what I said in a comment in my last post. I plan on writing one more on the topic of Barth and Kirschbaum. But I’ll let the comment I made hopefully clarify somethings. With the speed of social media people have said things about me, and where what I’m saying leads that is unfounded. Anyway, here’s that comment of clarification and where I currently stand relative to my last post. And then I’ll write a fuller one in the days to come (and then I’ll let this die, at least for me).

Thank you for the comments. I will be writing one more post on this in the days to come; not sure when exactly, I’m going to process a bit more and allow the shock and surprise of the details to sink in and wear off a bit first. I can say, here, that I have always advocated for the idea of ex opere operatowhen it comes to theological speech; and that includes Barth. So my post here was me thinking out-loud, albeit about an emotive and evocative topic. I’m sure that Barth’s insights will still end up playing a profound role in my theological development, personally, but there are some things I still must work through in my relationship to him. If any of you have followed my blog, then you will know that I have been a very vocal proponent of Barth online for years and years. So to me this is not some sort of abstract thing; I see Barth as family, as weird as that might sound, and so what I’ve found out about him is only magnified that much more precisely because I love Barth and don’t hate him.

So, roll with me a bit, and realize that what’s going on here, for me, is a process of thinking this through; and doing so in a way where blogging is integral to that process. Don’t take anything I’m saying in my first post here as ultimate and absolute, take it with the realization that when I wrote that I was in total shock and surprise.

For some reason some people (on Twitter and FB) have jumped to the conclusion that if they follow the logic of what I’ve said in my post then nobody could read any theologian; because every theologian is a complex person. But I am sure I addressed that in my original post. What I am trying to do is sit with this realization about Barth, personally. This is not an abstract thing for me, as I’ve noted; he’s not just some theologian “out there” for me. If people can’t accept that about me then they aren’t honestly engaging with me; and I will have to reject that.

Anyway, thanks again for the comments, and just know where I’m at with all of this. And realize this is a personal blog of someone who has been a serious proponent and even defender of Karl Barth over many years. In the end I’m sure I’ll still be able to learn from him, it’s just that my approach to Barth will be that much more realistic.

Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum: My Response

Photo copyright of the Karl Barth-Archiv in Basel, Switzerland

I just read a disturbing, I mean for me personally, earth-shatteringly disturbing essay by Christiane Tietz about Karl Barth entitled: Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum. As most of us know, who have spent any amount of time with Barth’s theology, his “secretary”, Kirschbaum was rumored to be more than a secretary; that she was a mistress. But this, at least for me, was always in the rumor mill, and I’d never seen any substantial or decisive confirmation of this; until now.

Tietz’s essay works through some letters sent back and forth between Barth and Kirschbaum; they are letters that Barth’s own elderly children, not too long ago, felt compelled to share with the public. What they reveal is that Kirschbaum and Barth loved each other; more than that, they were lovers; more than that, Barth brought her to live in his own home with his wife and five kids. Barth was not willing to give Kirschbaum up, and it almost (it should’ve, in my opinion, and would’ve in any kind of normal situation) came to divorce between Barth and his wife Nelly; but for some reason (I’d guess for the kids), Nelly stayed with Barth in this intolerable situation. Tietz’s essay offers much more disturbing detail than I have only quipped at here, but even what I’ve noted should be enough to cause alarm.

What impact does this have on me personally? I mean we’ve moved from rumors to fact and reality. As I read Tietz’s essay I actually had a physical response; my head was literally spinning, and I felt sick to my stomach. I’ve been a very vocal proponent for Barth’s theology, online, for many years now, and this news leaves me feeling disillusioned (that’s really an understatement). As I process this news, this substantiation of rumor (about the love relationship between Barth and Kirschbaum), part of that processing includes the idea that indeed, we are all sinners. And this is true, of course; every theologian any of us will ever read are deeply flawed complex people who need the grace of God in their lives every moment of every day. But the situation with Barth is different. Initially he and Kirschbaum knew their relationship was wrong, but that didn’t ultimately matter to either of them. Instead they learned to rationalize their situation, and even used theological and biblical concepts to do that; to the point that Barth and Kirschbaum felt comfortable and motivated enough to move Kirschbaum into his house with his wife and five children. This is not right. Beyond that, Kirschbaum actually was Barth’s secretary/researcher/academic assistant,  and so as I read his Church Dogmatics, or many of his other writings, what is now in the back of my head is the idea that all of these writings were written in the context of his relationship with Kirschbaum; indeed it was fostered and given impetus by his relationship with her, as he bounced and worked his ideas off of Kirschbaum in his study and elsewhere.

What this means for me is that I am going to have to step back from Barth for the time being. I’m going to have to process all of this further, and maybe this will be the moment where I have to move clean away from Barth for good. I can’t help but think of the Apostle Paul’s warning of “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” When I look at Barth’s life there is no love here, there is rebellion towards God’s call to fidelity and the marriage bed. There is no love here towards his wife, Nelly, or his five children; there is only self-love where he put himself and Kirschbaum before his own wife and kids. His two kids’ response to this situation (the children who shared these letters) was that it was an “unreasonable situation” (so they understate). This means something to me. Like I noted, none of us are perfect, and we are in ongoing battles with ongoing personal struggles and sin. But what Barth did, how he chose to live his whole life, was to simply give into the battle; he didn’t ultimately fight it, he willingly and intentionally succumbed to it; and he went so far as to rationalize it all by appealing to a theology of suffering and other theological categories (that actually are warped in the context of his and Kirschbaum’s usage). Here are two small quotes (these aren’t the actual letters [to Kirschbaum], but Barth’s reflection on his situation [in letter form to some others; i.e. other than Kirschbaum]):

The way I am, I never could and still cannot deny either the reality of my marriage or the reality of my love. It is true that I am married, that I am a father and a grandfather. It is also true that I love. And it is true, that these two facts don’t match. This is why we after some hesitation at the beginning decided not to solve the problem with a separation on one or the other side.[1]

And something he wrote to a pastor he knew, back in 1947:

It is precisely the fact which is the greatest earthly blessing given to me in my life which at the same time is the strongest judgement against my earthly life. Thus I stand before the eyes of God, without being able to escape from him in one or the other way [. . .] It might be possible that it is from here that an element of experience can be found in my theology, or, to put it in a better way, an element of lived life. I have been forbidden in a very concrete manner to become the legalist that under different circumstances I might have become.[2]

So I am really sad, at the moment. I know some people will be mad at me for writing this, but I feel burdened by this right now. My response here is genuine (I’m not just trying to write some sort of provocative blog post for hits or something). I endearingly, in the past, would call, with others, Karl Barth: Uncle Karl. But this news, for me, has changed that perspective. As of right now I can no longer in good conscience promote Barth’s theology. As close as I can get will be mediated through Thomas Torrance. Sad.

See This: An Index to the Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum Posts: And Some Closing Thoughts on the Whole Ordeal

[1] Karl Barth, ‘‘Vorwort,’’ xxii n. 3, letter of 1947 cited by Christiane Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” Theology Today 2017 Vol. 74(2), 109.

[2] Karl Barth, BW. Kirschbaum I, ‘‘Vorwort,’’ xxf. n. 1 cited by Christiane Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” Theology Today 2017 Vol. 74(2), 111.

Ruminating on an Argument Against Annihilationism

Ground Clearing

I recently came across a group of people I’ve never given a second thought to prior to coming across them. I never gave this group a second thought because I found the position it is a proponent for so odious and incredible that I didn’t think it warranted any time or energy engaging with and refuting. But I have since changed my mind. Not because I’ve come to think that the position is any more credible than I had previously thought it was, but because I’ve realized how many people this view is coming to pollute; among evangelical Christians. The position I’m referring to is popularly known as annihilationism, or among its adherents: conditional immortality and/or evangelical conditionalism. Here is how they succinctly describe their position:

Conditionalism is the view that life or existence is the Creator’s provisional gift to all, which will ultimately either be granted forever on the basis of righteousness (by grace, through faith), or revoked forever on the basis of unrighteousness.

Evangelical conditionalists believe that the saved in Christ will receive glory, honor and immortality, being raised with an incorruptible body to inherit eternal life (Romans 2:7). The unsaved will be raised in shame and dishonor, to face God and receive the just condemnation for their sins. When the penalty is carried out, they will be permanently excluded from eternal life by means of a final death (loss of being; destruction of the whole person; Matthew 10:28).[1]

So according to this particular iteration of conditionalists, as their label portends, they believe that people are born with a potential status; i.e. either a person will be finally granted immortality by receiving the gift of salvation offered by Jesus Christ; or they will die in their sins, and be left in their mortal state—meaning that, according to the conditionalist, at the Great White Throne Judgment they will be “annihilated,” their lives will be eternally extinguished from existence (what many people believe happens to animals when they die).

I had said, in another blog post (that I have subsequently taken down), that I am going to write an actual paper (with real research) on this issue; and I still intend to. But writing such papers take time and research, and my blog posts take me (typically), on average, about an hour to write and publish. Until I am able to finish that paper, I will of course!, keep putting up blog posts; and this post, as you can already tell from what I’ve been saying thus far, is going to engage with what I consider to be the erroneous view known as annihilationism.

Body of Thought

In an earlier blog post on this issue I had quoted Thomas Torrance, and hinted at how I might go about critiquing the conditional immortality (CI hereafter) position; I was going to tie my argument into the doctrine of imago Dei—oh, and I still am! I shared a link to that post in the Facebook group ReThinking Hell where Peter Grice (one of the primary founders of the “movement” ReThinking Hell), and some others pounced on my tact and what I was going to argue. Peter said I’d need to engage with actual scriptural exegesis in order to offer a persuasive argument for his clan; and another admin in the group offered a weird passive-aggressive sniping comment that he could see, in no way, how an argument from the ‘image of God’ could undercut his and their position on hell and annihilation. This all seemed too weird to me; I mean was the dimmer on in the living room? Isn’t their position fundamentally grounded in a theological-anthropological premise about what humanity is; what bearing that has on a human being’s eternal destiny before God? How could these guys, the luminaries of the group, have such trouble grasping how my critique would not only start by thinking about all of this theologically (God forbid it!), but more pointedly theologically-anthropologically? If I didn’t know any better I’d think that I had shown a light on something they didn’t really want to talk about, or maybe something they feel ill-prepared to respond to; and this is me giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Since this is a blog post let me get to a quote from my Evangelical Calvinist colleague, Myk Habets, that he offers up in his published dissertation on Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance. I’ll share the quote, and then tie it into how I think its material substance, theologically, works directly against the erroneous position known as conditional immortality. Here’s Myk (and he’s discussing Torrance’s theology, in case that wasn’t clear):

If humanity is created to know God and to revel in the joy this knowledge brings (worship), then theosis is the attainment of that knowledge and the joyous communion it creates. The problem with this is, of course, the fact that humanity has fallen. Any discussion of humanity created in the imago Dei must deal with the fact of the Fall and its consequences. For Torrance, the Fall of humanity resulted in total depravity, in Calvinistic fashion. Total depravity does not entail, according to Torrance’s reading of Reformed theology, a thorough ontological break in humanity’s relation with God, but it does mean the essential relation in which true human nature is grounded has been perverted and turned into its opposite, something which only makes sense in a relational-teleological understanding of the imago Dei. Sin is properly of the mind and drags humanity into an active rebellion against God. It is only by the grace of God that human beings still exist at all. The imago Dei is not destroyed by the Fall but ‘continues to hang over man as a destiny which he can realise no longer, and as a judgment upon his actual state of perversity’. As a consequence, Torrance follows Barth and Calvin in maintaining that the imago Dei can now only be found in Jesus Christ, not in the creature properly speaking. He writes, ‘…justification by grace alone declares in no uncertain terms that fallen man is utterly destitute of justitia originalis or imago dei. It must be imputed by free grace’.

There are tensions within Torrance’s anthropology (as in Calvin’s). On the one hand he argues the imago is an inherent rationality within all humans. On the other hand he argues the imago no longer remains in the creature after the Fall as creatures are utterly depraved. The sole existence of the imago Dei is found in Christ and in those in communion with him. For sure this communion is only possible through the incarnate Son and by the Holy Spirit, but the inherent capacity for communion with God is there nonetheless. How do we account for this tension? Our options are, as I see it, twofold: first, Torrance is inconsistent, or second, there is a deeper explanation. It is my conviction that Torrance is so influenced by Calvin’s anthropology that he adopts his ‘perspectival approach’, to use Engel’s words. From the perspective of traditionally conceived explanations of the imago Dei in substantial terms, the imago Dei has been obliterated in fallen creatures. And yet, from a christological perspective the imago is present, incipiently, as all humans have a capacity for God because the incarnation proleptically conditions creation. Outside of a saving relationship with Christ this avails them the condemnation of God. Savingly reconciled to Christ his Imago becomes theirs through the Holy Spirit. In this way Christ alone naturally possess the imago Dei, he shares this realised imago with creatures by grace, and those not in Christ ‘make more out of the imago dei than they ought’  as they ‘continue to sin against the Word and Law of God’.[2]

There is a lot going on here, and Myk is actually developing Torrance’s Reformed doctrine of theosis. Nevertheless, it has purchase in this discussion insofar as the imago Dei is referred to, and the attendant doctrines of creation (protology) and recreation (eschatology) that frame how we think of the image of God from a Christological and subsequent theological-anthropological direction are present.

To me the theo-logic is simple: even in the intricacies of how TFT understands imago Dei, I think it becomes clear, if he is correct (and I obviously think he is, and so would St. Athanasius, and I’d argue the Apostle Paul), that for humanity to be created and recreated in the image of God requires that once created a human being can never fully or objectively go out of existence. What Myk writes here is basically important to what I will want to argue latterly in my paper: “. . . The imago Dei is not destroyed by the Fall but ‘continues to hang over man as a destiny which he can realise no longer, and as a judgment upon his actual state of perversity’. . . .” It is this idea of suspended humanity post-lapse (Fall) that ‘hang[s] over man’ that is singularly important to the argument against any idea of annihilationism or conditional immortality.

To be created in the image of God, even if that image is tarnished or even lost, does not mean, either theologically or biblically, that a person’s humanity is ultimately lost; it just means it might not be being presently realized. It is to presume upon the idea that what it means to be human is a de jure or objective reality that is extra nos (outside of us), and that is grounded both objectively and subjectively in the humanity of Jesus Christ. Because being human is funded and founded upon the archetypal humanity of Christ, and because creation’s purpose has always already been generated by this realization, annihilation of any part of God’s good and very good creation is at diametrical cross-purposes to what God has accomplished in his free choice to be not be God without us, but with us in the elected humanity of Jesus Christ.

So on my view, when a person, at the Final Judgment, is not in Christ in a de facto or subjective (participatory) way, it is this state that ultimately serves as their judgment. In other words, it is not possible, given the purposes of God’s creation and recreation (resurrection) for any part of it to be annihilated—not if the indestructible life of Christ is its telos and ground—but it is possible for parts of that creation to not existentially or subjectively experience the reality for which it was ultimately created. This is what I would call Hell!

Because annihilationists can’t account for a Pauline doctrine of the primacy of Christ relative to creation and recreation, as that is found, in particular in Colossians 1:15ff, then I think their position flounders and indeed is erroneous relative to what it means to be human in and from Christ. I clearly believe Torrance, Athanasius, and the Apostle Paul are at logger-heads with the annihilationist position; and for the reasons I just roughly and quickly outlined. It will be along these lines that I will attempt to make an argument against the CI position in paper form. That is yet forthcoming, I’ll let you know when it actually has come. jusqu’à ce que nous nous revoyions

 

[1] ReThinking Hell, Statement on Evangelical Conditionalism, accessed 09-28-17.

[2] Myk Habets, Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance (UK: Ashgate Publishing Unlimited, 2008), 32-3.

Bad Theology

Bad theology is of the type that will lead its adherent down a path that looks prosperous and hopeful; it will look like a way that promises enlightenment, and a depth understanding of God. It leads its devotee further and further into a way where they think they are learning real things about God; where Jesus’s name is used over and over again; and where the Trinity is seemingly exalted. It will provide for connections with other like-minded individuals, people who have the same desire to know God. It will offer jargon, and altitudes that prior to it the student could have only dreamed of such grammatical and lexical heights. It will keep leading the person onward and forward, all the while making its adherent believe that they are becoming a knowledgeable one; like an elite relative to the rest of the people in the church. But what the adherent hasn’t recognized over years and seasons of time is that the name of Jesus has really just become an impersonal name used as a cipher for a style of theology—all the while keeping its adherent under the spell that they really are using the name of Jesus and thinking of Jesus personally. The child of bad theology hasn’t realized that for all its talk of doxological theology, and the Triunity of God, that these have simply become empty terms used to advance the pedigree of their own name among the other like-minded people they’ve come into contact with because of their shared desire to do Christian theology. Bad theology will never call itself this, of course; it will appear as the lighted way, the way for the genuine Christian thinker against all the darkness that surrounds. But in the end it only, like a serpent, reaches up and bites; and often at this point it’s too late. The adherent is too entrenched, has bought into the idea that the way they’ve been on is the more noble way; that there is nowhere to go back to. So they become trapped, and they become stumbling blocks for other wayfarers making their way from behind them. They have genuine hearts, but bad theology has steered them the wrong way, and yet garbed it in the very beginning in the name of Jesus. The person ensconced in this will believe that where they are at is the way out; that they found it many seasons ago in their own lives, and now they want to pass it onto others. Bad theology is a vicious circle. All hope is not lost though; there is nothing too difficult for the LORD (Jer. 32:17). He can pluck people stuck in this mode of theology, in bad theology, out of these troubled waters and set them on solid unsinking ground once again.

Moral

All Christians are susceptible to this; at a variety of levels. This is why TF Torrance often referred to the idea of repentant thinking. This approach meant that the theologian/Christian-disciple walked in a state of brokenness and submission before the living God. This posture, or attitude is an ongoing reality for the Christian learner, and one where the Christian realizes that they are at the mercy of the Lord (Kyrie eleison) at all times.

Martin Luther chided such theology, in his day, and called it a theology of Glory; the type of theology that lives for the praise of men rather than God. Luther’s alternative fits well with Torrance’s idea of repentant thinking; Luther called his approach a theology of the Cross. His idea was that we simply must walk by faith, and that knowledge of God is revealed as we are constantly being given over to the death of Christ that his life might be made manifest in our mortal bodies (II Cor. 4:10).

I just wanted to offer this up because over the years I have seen too many people I know fall by the way side, and get sucked into Luther’s theology of glory. Like I said, we are susceptible to this; it is way more subtle than even the most perceptive of us might think. So we do well, as Christian thinkers, Christian disciples, and theologians to constantly be on our knees as we seek to grow in the grace and knowledge of the living God in Jesus Christ.

Miscellanies on How I See Myself as a “Conservative” Traditional Christian Thinker

Let me try and nuance a delicate issue. I say ‘delicate’ because if I’m not careful this could come off sounding arrogant. I mean I’m nobody special, I’m just little Bobby Grow (well I’m actually 6’ 3’’), shooting off blog posts from my little corner of the world in the Pacific Northwest; but I still like to stop and think about where I’m at on the continuum of Christian theological identity. So that’s what this post will be about. I will talk, briefly, about where I see myself lining up relative to other Christian thinkers out there, and fortify that a bit with a quote from John Webster on how holiness and theology work together.

Many people, I’m sure, think I’m a liberal simply because I like some of Karl Barth’s theological motifs and themes. Of course, once some of these same people find out that I am even more enamored with Thomas Torrance their perspective on me softens a bit, I think. I grew up as a Conservative Baptist evangelical; attended evangelical institutions of lower and higher learning; and continue to largely inhabit the evangelical sub-culture in North America. So I see myself as a strange brew in some ways. When it comes right down to it though my traditional ways are still very much present. I mean politically my alignment has definitely moved; not towards Democrat from Republican. More like from conservative Republican to agnostic in regard to any political party or agenda; and actually I’m pretty antagonistic towards most political agendas these days, whether that be the “right” or “left.” But this again works against me in some ways; since so much of my sub-culture, i.e. evangelicalism, has conflated itself with the agenda of conservative Republicanism, many of these folks will probably still see me as a liberal. But of course my stance on what “conservatives” think makes them conservative and evangelical are probably right there with them; i.e. I’m against abortion, same-sex marriage (or homosexuality in general—and when I say against, I mean in the way the church and the traditional reading of Scripture has been against this—I’m not against these people, I see them as sinners just like the rest of us); but then I’m more pro-life and at this point, meaning anti-war, and interested in non-violence (as an ethos at least) than many of them.

But the above is just the political stuff. When it comes to theology I’m still quite trad, but conditioned from a more Torrancean and John Websterian direction. When it comes to Scripture I hold to the infallibility of Holy Scripture (meaning I don’t think inerrancy is a good way to frame a doctrine of Scripture — so I believe more about Scripture, and its aims, not less than what inerrancy will allow for). I believe the tradition of the church is something that is very important in regard to developing a biblical hermeneutic (meaning I think we should be all about retrieving the voices of the past in the history of the church in order to resource them for the present to help us approach Scripture in sober and humble ways). I believe in all the basic doctrines covered in the Apostle’s Creed (and other important ecumenical creeds such as Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, et al.). I’m no theological liberal; I just want to clear that up right now. I read Karl Barth as an evangelical Christian (thinking of evangelical in its historic understanding), and not as a social or theological liberal. And I think Thomas Torrance and John Webster offer some of the best ways into the theology of Karl Barth in order to engage with his theology constructively. I’m a reader of and learner from John Calvin, Martin Luther, the Patristic theologians, and a host of other important and orthodox teachers from the past.

Most importantly I believe that the task of theology is one where it should be done from a posture of doxology (worship) and the realization that theology is really a matter of sanctification; i.e. of pressing further and further into the holiness of God’s Triune life. To help me explicate this point, let me refer us to John Webster:

Once again, therefore, we find ourselves running up against the contradictory character of theology as an exercise of holy reason. One of the grand myths of modernity has been that the operations of reason are a sphere from which God’s presence can be banished, where the mind is, as it were, safe from divine intrusion. To that myth, Christian theology is a standing rebuke. As holy reason at work, Christian theology can never escape from the sober realization that we talk in the terrifying presence of God from whom we cannot flee (Ps. 139.7). In Christian theology, the matter of our discourse is not someone absent, someone whom we have managed to exclude from our own intellectual self-presence. When we begin to talk theologically about the holiness of God, we soon enough discover that the tables have been reversed; it is no longer we who summon God before our minds to make him a matter for clever discourse, but the opposite: the holy God shows himself and summons us before him to give account of our thinking. That summons – and not any constellation of cultural, intellectual or political conditions – is the determinative context of holy reason. There are other contexts, of course, other determinations and constraints in the intellectual work of theology: theology is human work in human history. But those determinations and constraints are all subordinate to, and relativized by, the governing claim of the holy God, a claim which is of all things most fearful but also of all things most full of promise.[1]

As usual, Webster articulates what I’m really after here in the cogent and prescient way that he is known for. The reason I still see myself as a traditional, even conservative Christian thinker (and dare I say, theologian) is because I, along with Webster, think that what it means to do theology properly is from the realization that that only happens as the holy God, and his life works on me, as I participate in and from his life through Jesus Christ. At the end of the day I think this is what makes a Christian theologian conservative and even traditional; I think the best of the theologians in the history of the church had this reverent posture before God. It doesn’t mean they were always right, but it does mean that they always deferred to God; that they approached his written Word in ministerial rather than magisterial ways; and they always saw their life under God rather than over God. This is the approach I still strive for, and I think it’s the approach that many liberals and non-traditionalists mock. So be it.

Well, in this rather off the cuff post hopefully I have communicated something that is intelligible. I rambled quite a bit (what else are blog posts good for?), but hopefully you’re catching the drift of my heart. And if you’re not what I would consider a “conservative” or traditional thinker, at least in the ways I think of that, why not give it a try? I think the trad way, when properly understood, meaning Christologically radicalized (there’s the Torrance influence!), is the richest of ways to do and think theology; it’s theology not just for self-edification, but for the edification of the church of Jesus Christ. These are the theologians the church needs; it doesn’t need theologians who point people away from Jesus, but radically to him—and to the Father and Holy Spirit.

[1] John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), Loc. 157, 162, 167 Kindle.