Reading Scripture as Participatory, Transformative, and as Encounter–with John Webster

When we read Scripture as Christians it isn’t a matter of simply finding all of the neat little literary nuances, or distilling all of its inner-logical reality for all its worth; in other words, for the Christian reading Scripture is not an intellectual exercise alone. To read Scripture for the Christian, first and foremost it is a participative event wherein we are encountering the viva vox Dei (living voice of God); an event from moment to moment that is transforming us from ‘glory to glory’. John Webster says it this way,

… the reader is to be envisaged as within the hermeneutical situation as we have been attempting to portray it, not as transcending it or making it merely an object of will. The reader is an actor within a larger web of event and activities, supreme among which is God’s act in which God speaks God’s Word through the text of the Bible to the people of God, as he instructs them and teaches them in the way they should go. As a participant in this historical process, the reader is spoken to in the text. This speaking, and the hearing which it promotes, occurs as part of the drama which encloses human life in its totality, including human acts of reading and understanding: the drama of sin and its overcoming. Reading the Bible is an event in this history. It is therefore moral and spiritual and not merely cognitive or representational activity. Readers read, of course: figure things out as best they can, construe the text and its genre, try to discern its intentions whether professed or implied, place it historically and culturally — all this is what happens when the Bible is read also. But as this happens, there also happens the history of salvation; each reading act is also bound up within the dynamic of idolatry, repentance and resolute turning from sin which takes place when God’s Word addresses humanity. And it is this dynamic which is definitive of the Christian reader of the Bible.[1]

All too often, I think, reading Scripture becomes a casualty of academia. Indeed, even as Webster notes, the academic intellective has its place, and done from the right motives can be fruitful; but the terminus of reading Scripture for the Christian, I would contend, should be to know God and Him crucified. Reading Scripture, because it brings us into direct contact with God in Christ by the Spirit, ought to have the impact of making us look more like its author and less like the words that shape the profane world we inhabit in this time in-between.

[1] John Webster, “Hermeneutics in Modern Theology: Some Doctrinal Reflections,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 336.

 

Colin Gunton on the Eschatological Freedom of the Spirit

. . . A distinctive feature of the New Testament characterisations of the Spirit’s action is their thoroughgoing eschatological emphasis. In Paul, the Spirit is the presence now, by anticipation, of that which belongs to the age to come: hence he is the arrabon (down-payment, 2 Cor. 1.22), aparke (first fruits, Rom. 8.23). Similarly, in Acts, the Pentecost event is portrayed as the pentecostfulfillment of Joel’s eschatological promise. Again, the Spirit performs the divine actions of the end time in the here and now: judgment (John 16:8, cf. Luke 3.16); redemption (Rom. 8); love, prophecy, truth (1 Cor. 12–14). Important here is the link Paul makes between the Spirit and freedom: liberation, as some contemporary theologies seem to forget, is an essentially eschatological concept; it is only won—or rather, given—proleptically, by the Spirit. ‘Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’ (2 Cor. 3.17). The Spirit of God in his freedom to create in the here and now the conditions of redemption of all things promised for the end. He is the freedom of the Father to create through the Son, to incarnate the Son in the flesh, to raise the mortal body to immortality. He is the freedom of God to choose Israel and the Church, and to enable both of them to be, from time to time, particularisations of the community of the end time. – Colin E. Gunton, Theology Through The Theologians, 119-20.

Is the Reformed Faith a Thomistic Faith or a Biblical Faith?

The Reformed faith is a Biblical faith, an exegetical faith; as such it remains an open endeavor per the confessional norms provided for by Scripture. Richard Muller writes, “… the theologians of the Reformation neither produced a monolithic system nor set up their own theological systems as norms apart from the exegesis of Scripture, ….”[1] It doesn’t seem as if those who claim to be
thomasstampReformed today appreciate this. Instead what seems to have obtained in the Reformed world, in general, is that a certain reading of Scripture, from a certain commitment to a form of the Reformed faith gets conflated with the idea that theirs is the sole representative of the Reformed faith; both contemporaneously and historically. As if they are simply just reading the Bible for all its worth, but it really isn’t that simple.

The fact of the matter is is that there are prior commitments, by all Christian readers of Scripture (Reformed or not), prior theological commitments imported into our reading of Scripture; commitments that help us arrive at our exegetical conclusions. Within the pale of the Reformed faith it is no different; what is different is that for many in the Reformed faith there is an uncritical (sometimes it is critical though, as we will see) adoption of a certain metaphysic as if this metaphysic is self-same with the Bible itself. But why should any critical thinking person accept this? Why is one metaphysic, one theo-logic, more sacrosanct, more holy than the others? Answering these questions is challenging, but we need to at least identify that these are questions. I don’t see many in the Reformed world acknowledging this; instead I see a triumphalism about their version of the Reformed faith, and in this triumphalism all others who take a different approach to the Reformed faith are considered heterodox, or even heretical (think of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance to an extent).

I have highlighted, over and over again, the metaphysic and “system” that the Reformed faith is by and large shaped by in large swaths of its quarters (but not all); in the history and contemporaneously. The metaphysic, the hermeneutic is what is called Thomism; i.e. the synthesis of Aristotelian categories with Christian theology through the work of the angelic doctor, Thomas Aquinas. It is this synthesis that funds so much of the shape of the Reformed faith, but most of its adherents simply believe that what they believe is the Bible alone as they shout sola Scriptura from the rooftops.

Richard Muller, one of the premiere ecclesiastical historians of the late medieval, post reformation reformed orthodox period substantiates my points about Thomism this way as he sketches the developments that took place during the scholastic Reformed period (you will notice that Arminius is part of his discussion):

Finally, we must address the question of the intellectual tendency of Protestant scholasticism, particularly the tendency of Arminius’ theology. Why did Protestant scholasticism take on a decidedly Thomistic character—why, specifically, did Arminius’ theology lean toward Thomism rather than toward Scotism and nominalism, despite the clear impact of a more Scotistic or nominalistic perspective on Reformed epistemology and on the definitions of theology found in the Reformed theological prolegomena? In the first place, the relationship of the earlier codifiers of Reformed theology was quite different and considerably more pronounced than the relationship of members of the same generations of Reformers to either Scotism or nominalism. Of the early codifiers of Reformed theology, only Musculus was trained in Scotist and nominalist theology. As Ganoczy has shown, the Scotist tendencies in Calvin’s thought relate not to early training in Paris but to later reading and they hardly indicate an immersion in Scotist theology. By way of contrast,  Bucer, Vermigli, and Zanchi were all trained as Thomists and, in the case of the latter two thinkers, elements of Thomism were integrated into full-scale theological systems. The Thomistic model, particularly as developed by Zanchi, was highly influential in Reformed circles—as is witnessed by the parallel interest in Aquinas by other writers of Zanchi’s generation like Lambert Daneau. In addition, contemporaries of Arminius instrumental in the development of early Protestant orthodoxy—thinkers like Arminius’ predecessor at Leiden, the Basel theologian Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf, and the great Lutheran dogmatician Johannes Gerhard—all drew heavily on the scholastic tradition, in particular on the work of Thomas Aquinas.

In the second place, the revival of Aristotelianism and of scholasticism in Roman Catholic circles in the sixteenth century had, as its intellectual centerpiece, a revival of Thomism. Not only was there a flowering of interest in Aquinas’ thought as witnessed by the many fine editions and commentaries on Thomas’ works printed in the sixteenth century, there was also a notable shift of emphasis in the study of Aquinas. Whereas medieval Thomism, due to the reliance of medieval theological study on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, had focused on Aquinas’ commentary on the Sentences, the sixteenth century, because of the work of Thomas de Vio, Cardinal Cajetan, and others found the greater Aquinas, the mature Aquinas of the Summa theologiae. Although many other scholastics received attention in the sixteenth century—many scholastic systems and treatises appeared in print—none were given the close analytical attention that Thomas received. Not only were the Summa theologiae and the Summa contra gentiles printed in five editions, they were also the subject of numerous commentaries. Here again, the work of Cajetan must be noted. In addition, this interest went beyond the bounds of the Dominican order: the Jesuit order, at the insistence of its founder Ignatius of Loyola, looked to Thomas Aquinas as its primary theological guide. This revival of Thomism represented a marked shift from the theological and philosophical tendencies of the fifteenth century. As Oberman has argued, the Thomism of the later Middle Ages was hardly the force that it eventually came to be. Not only was it the “young Thomas” of the sentence commentary who “determined the profile of the total Thomas,” it was also a highly “metaphysical Thomas” who was taught by the late medieval Dominicans rather than the careful interpreter of Scripture and the fathers. In this context, Franciscan theology, particularly the theology of Scotus appeared as powerful and attractive alternative, which worked its way into some of the theology of the early Reformation. The rising tide of Thomism in the sixteenth century, presenting as it did the Thomas of the Summa, offered the world a more strictly Augustinian doctrine of grace than that found in the commentary on the Sentences and, in addition, a Thomas more adept at scriptural and patristic argumentation.[2]

Concluding Remarks

Without a doubt the Reformed faith is a faith deeply marked by a high theology of the Word; it is a “Biblical faith.” Nevertheless, as Muller so clearly delineates for us, it isn’t all that simple. Even during the post reformed orthodox period (i.e. 16th and 17th centuries) there was a hodgepodge of metaphysics bandied about in order to help work out what might be called the ‘inner-logic’ of Holy Scripture. But as Muller makes clear, Thomism rued the day; an Aristotelian-Augustinianism provided much of the bed rock and theological bases from which Scripture was exegeted. It is this form of the Reformed faith that for some reason has become absolute for so many today (I would say for various reasons).

I think that what this should illustrate, at the least, is that the triumphalism of many in the Reformed faith should be squelched; it should be turned down a bit. You are not purist Bible interpreters, anymore than us evangelical Calvinists are after Barth. You chide Reformed people who follow after Barth for not being truly Reformed, but on what basis? Is it because we do not simply want to repristinate the post reformed orthodox past and assert loudly THAT THIS IS WHAT THE BIBLE MEANS in its disclosure? The fact that you all are committed to an Aristotelian faith, by and large, should at least make you more humble when approaching others in the Reformed faith (like evangelical Calvinists) who believe that we have found, if not a better way, at least an alternative way to read the Bible in the same type of confessional ‘always Reforming’ mode per the dictates of Scripture that you all believe you are doing. Unless you want to claim that Thomism (Scotism, et al.) are univocal, self-same with the teaching of Holy Scripture, it would be an error to look down your noses at those who repudiate that metaphysic for something else; something that we (as evangelical Calvinists) believe is more proximate with the ‘dynamic’ and ‘dialectical’ nature of Scripture’s teaching.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991), 33.

[2] Ibid., 34-6.

What’s the Difference Between Evangelical Calvinism and Classical Calvinism?: A Response After Barth

I often get asked what distinguishes evangelical Calvinism from classical Calvinism; I think that one of the more instructive ways to illustrate this is to compare John Calvin with Karl Barth. It is the disparity between their respective hermeneutic that makes clear where the point of departure is at between EC and CC. For EC, following Barth at this juncture, the distinction is that we see barthstampthings from a personalist rather than impersonalist perspective; in other words when we think about salvation we start immediately with Jesus Christ. Contrariwise CC’s, when they think about salvation start with decrees, and work mediately from there to Christ. This distinction is rife in the theologies of Calvin and Barth; as David Gibson notes, “…Calvin’s theology allows us to speak of Christ and the decree, but Barth’s theology to say that Christ is the decree….”[1] Evangelical Calvinists think after Barth here, and depart from Calvin at this point. Gibson writes further as he comments on Calvin and Barth:

First, the patient work of a thick description will reveal why both of their respective doctrines of election may be described as christocentric. This establishes a similarity between both theologians. But secondly, precisely in this description of their christocentric doctrines of election, we will see a conceptual distinction emerging. Calvin’s doctrine of election is best described as christocentric in the soteriological sense: although in his theology election is connected to Christology in the realm of the inscrutable divine decree, the weight of his treatment falls on the nexus of ideas associated with the preaching of the gospel, the Spirit’s call and the response of faith in the Mediator. By having more to say about election’s connection to Christ in this temporal realm of faith and obedience, Calvin’s doctrine of election is an example of his soteriological christocentrism. By contrast, we will see that the opposite is true of Barth. The connection of election to Christology is not primarily to be found in something that God does (issue a decree) but rather, in the person of Jesus Christ, election describes who God is (turned toward us in his self determination). Barth’s understanding of Christology and election locates his christocentrism principially: it is the ‘ground and content’ of the doctrine of election, with this particular understanding itself having a determining influence on the divine being and intra-trinitarian life. Here Christology operates as a methodological rule which is more pervasive and radical than in the thinking of Calvin. Thirdly, the contrasts which emerge between a soteriological–principial christocentrism help to show that the difference between Calvin and Barth in the area of Christology and election is fundamentally explained by their contrasting understandings of how election is related to the doctrine of the Trinity.[2]

calvinpostageBarth, and evangelical Calvinists after him, cannot conceive of God’s election but personally and ontically in Christ; thus the focus is personal, grounded in the personal and loving life of God as Triune. Calvin thinks from a voluntarist position where God’s will is given expression in an abstract decree. In other words, the decree is not something necessarily related to who God is; instead it arises from an abyss in God where there is no access (Deus absconditus)—God in this scheme arbitrarily chooses some and rejects others, and this based upon a remote and absolute decree. This is why Barth and Torrance charged this Calvinian and classically Reformed view with the idea that ‘there is a God behind the back of Jesus’. The God behind the back of Jesus is the abyss (inner-life of God) from whence the decrees are generated. But the God revealed (Deus revelatus) in Christ, for the evangelical Calvinist, after Barth, is the same God who antecedently co-exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (i.e. the ontological is the immanent Trinity). There is no distinct decree from Christ for the evangelical Calvinist; Christ is the ‘decree’ (to stick with that language).

The difference is personal rather than impersonal between the evangelical Calvinist and classical Calvinist.

 

 

[1] David Gibson, Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth (London/NY: T&T Clark, 2009), 30.

[2] Ibid., 30-1.

Evangelical Calvinism: The History that Allows for Appropriation of Calvin[ian]

For many years here at The Evangelical Calvinist I’ve tried to carve out historical space for what we are doing as evangelical Calvinists. Not that the work we are doing (me and Myk et al) is purely of a historical nature, indeed, we are largely a constructive retrieving mood within the Reformed faith, but what we do fits within a mood of the historic stream of Reformed theology. That said, this youngcalvin‘work’, in my mind, has changed a bit; I used to be quite idealist about who I was going to reach, and even challenge, within the walls of the Reformed faith. And it was this idealism that drove me to write posts where I was attempting to attach what evangelical Calvinism was about into an eddy within the Reformed tributary of the Protestant faith.

I still believe that we do have historical precedent and location in the history of Reformed theology and ideas, but I don’t feel as burdened to challenge my classically Reformed cousins the way I used to. My blog has been around long enough, our first Evangelical Calvinism book (we have a second volume currently at the publishers) has been out and about since 2012; indeed our book has actually been engaged by various Reformed thinkers (i.e. Kevin Vanhoozer, Scott Swain, et al.). The novelty it once had, if it ever did, at least in my mind, has worn off; Reformed people who have been exposed to EC at whatever level have basically cornered and pigeon-holed us as Barthians (or they’ve “converted”). In that sense these thinkers, I perceive, have placed us tidily into the Barthian category, and thus feel, ultimately, that they don’t really need to deal with our ideas. My sense is that these thinkers basically believe that any critique of Barth by their classically Reformed brethren applies to us; as such we are marginalized in their minds, and don’t need to be dealt with any further.  That said, the guys who have engaged with us (those I just mentioned), have actually engaged us on more materially theological grounds; which is nice.

So I say all of the above to lead into a post that is going to sound like one of my old ones; when I was naïve and idealist. All I want to accomplish with this is to once again point up the fact that evangelical Calvinism as a mood of theological engagement within the Reformed faith has the room it needs to retrieve and constructively engage with the Reformed fathers just as much as any other contemporary Reformed thinker does.

I am currently reading Richard Muller’s book God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy. In this book, as a matter of course, Muller sketches the history of the post Reformation Reformed orthodox period, of which Arminius was a contemporary. What I want to share has nothing to do with Arminius, and everything to do with a distinction between the magisterial Reformers (including John Calvin as a late bloomer among that crowd), and those who would follow later in their wake: the Post Reformed orthodox theologians. I am not going to be pressing the so called Calvin against the Calvinist thesis, instead my observation is going to be more minimal than that.

So there was this ‘space’ between the magisterial Reformers and those who lay claim to their theology later (i.e. the Post Reformed orthodox). Muller comments on this space:

A few paragraphs must suffice on the nature and character of Protestant scholasticism and its relation to the teaching of the Reformers. It is very clear that Protestant theology at the beginning of the sixteenth century was different from Protestant theology at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and that the difference can be identified in part by the adoption of scholastic method by the Protestant theologians of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The method itself, however, does not account for all of the differences—inasmuch as they relate to the thematic development of ideas as well as to patterns of exposition. Specifically, Protestant theology at the end of the sixteenth century had become a confessional orthodoxy more strictly defined in its doctrinal boundaries than the theology of the early Reformers but, at the same time, broader and more diverse in its use of the materials of the Christian tradition, particularly the materials provided by the medieval doctors.[1]

Muller writes further:

The development of this Protestant scholasticism, like the related development of Protestant theological system, took several generations. Second- and third-generation Protestant codifiers produced works that were more systematic than the works of the first Reformers both in their organization and in their coverage of theological topics. Several of these third-generation writers, notably Ursinus, Daneau, and Zanchi, adopted fully scholastic methods of quaestio and disputatio and, in the cases of Daneau and Zanchi, drew explicitly on the more remote scholastics of the Middle Ages, like Aquinas, in the attempt to claim that part of the tradition for Protestantism. By the time of Arminius, the theological style is that of a fourth or fifth generation and the scholastic method together with aspects of the thought of the medieval teachers had become an integral part of the theology of the Protestant universities. The contrast between the style and method of these thinkers and the style and method of the Reformers is obvious, indeed striking.[2]

The Post Reformed orthodox thinkers, who basically were the English Puritans (with Scots, Dutch, French, Italian, etc.), have every right to continue  in what they perceived as the heritage left to them by the early Reformers (inclusive of John Calvin), but as Muller notes: the Reformer’s method and aspects of their theology, consequently, were different from what developed in the flowering of Reformed theology in the hands of the scholastics Reformed.

What we as evangelical Calvinists are doing, in many respects, is going back directly to one of these early Reformers (who were according to Muller, different than the scholastically Reformed), in particular, John Calvin. Muller as the historian of this period, par excellence, notes that there is this type of space even historically; us evangelical Calvinists are taking that reality in a certain way and engaging with Calvinian themes that we believe are very fruitful for the continuing flowering of the Reformed faith for the church catholic and Reformed. It is just that we believe instead of following the ‘orthodox’ in absolute ways, there are better ways to develop Calvinian themes; ways, of course, that take into consideration the way Reformed theology did indeed develop, particularly in the theologies of Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth (remembering that they both were part of a broader Reformed faith themselves).

We are interested in semper Reformanda (always reforming) per Holy Scripture and its reality in Christ. This is what we consider to be the best that the Reformed faith has to offer, and so we hope to continue to develop Reformed themes and theology in ways that we believe Scripture and its reality dictates. We agree with Muller that there is a distinction between the early Reformers’ theology and the way it developed later among the Post Reformed Orthodox; and so we feel free within that space to constructively appropriate the rich themes say someone like Calvin left for the picking.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991), 31-2.

[2] Ibid., 32-3.

The Christian Bodily Hope as Commentary and Critique on Current Politics

What this current season of political carnival has worked into me is a sense of loss, of hopelessness. But this sense isn’t discordant with what I’ve already felt for a long time in regard to human government and institutions; indeed, this loss is associated with the human condition in general. This condition noted by the Apostle Paul in his own struggle when he asks: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”[1] Humanity lives in a ‘fallen’ state, whether it recognizes it or not; that is God’s conclusion about humanity, and His ‘judgment’ is given in the
hillaryincarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ; the judgment, that indeed humanity is in a situation, left to itself: where there is no hope!

The fact that the two candidates we have before us, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, as a  fact is rather horrifying. But at the end of the day they seem to be types of a logical conclusion to the human condition, and so their arrival at just this time seems fitting relative to the extent to which the human condition has “flourished” in itself. A “flourishing” of humanity that is fitting with its own self-determined self-possessed path of homo incurvatus in se or narcissism; a path where liars are free to be liars, and larceny gets to run unabated. I know we all like to blame the elites for all of this, but in reality we are all at fault; the human condition, the fallen one, has so cultivated a society[s] such that it gives blossom to what we see in the “elites” of our world—something like self-expressions of our inner-selves projected outward and personified in the so called establishment.

Has the picture I’ve been painting caused enough despair yet? It has for me. Despair to the point that I can no longer handle looking inward; I can no longer sustain any hope in human institutions or personages who embody those institutions of self-aggrandizement and self-glorification. My eyes look elsewhere for hope; my hope is eschatological. It is the hope of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the Christian hope of Second Advent; that Jesus, as He promised, is coming again (the parousia). I don’t hear enough Christians speaking about this in North America, but you would think that would be all we were looking to these days. It is what Jesus Himself comforted and reproved the many churches in Ephesus with through his letter to them found in the book of Revelation. Unfortunately things like Left Behind, and Dispensational theology have made many Christians reticent to even speak of eschatological hope when it comes to facing real life crises; such as we face in this current political season. But this shouldn’t be the case, Christians should boldly hope as Jesus wants us to and look to the heavens from whence, as the King James says, ‘our redemption draws nigh’.

To my encouragement this morning as I was doing some reading I came across something very edifying and hope-filled, especially in light of our two options (Donald and Hillary) as reminders of the human condition. I was reading an essay by Richard Bauckham called The future of Jesus Christ. As Bauckham usually does[2], especially when it comes to things eschatological, he provides prescient words for the weary Christian soul; he writes of the genuine hope that we have for the future, and how that hope breaks in on us trumpcurrently afresh and anew, and how that ought to offer us, as Christians, hope eternal and perspective for the moment that allows us to fulfill our vocation as witnesses for Jesus Christ. Here is Bauckham in extenso:

A powerful Jewish objection to the Christian identification of Jesus as the Messiah is that, when the Messiah comes, the world will be freed from evil, suffering and death. As Walter Molberly puts it, in chapter 12 above: ‘The heart of the Jewish critique is simple: if Jesus is the redeemer, why is the world still unredeemed?’ One form of Christian response, and unfortunate one, has been to ‘spiritualise’ redemption in a way that is alien to the Jewish religious tradition. Salvation is reduced to what Christian believers experience as forgiveness of sins, personal justification before God, and virtuous living, with spiritual immortality in heaven after death. But the Christian tradition at its most authentic has realised that the promise of God made in the bodily resurrection of Christ is holistic and all-encompassing: for whole person, body and soul, for all the networks of relationship in human society that are integral to being human, and for the rest of creation also, from which humans in their bodiliness are not to be detached. In other words, it is God’s creative renewal of his whole creation. Here and now such salvation is experienced in fragmentary and partial anticipations of the new creation, and these are only properly appreciated as anticipations of the fullness of new creation to come. But even these anticipations are not limited to a ‘spiritual’ sphere artificially distinguished from the embodiment and sociality of human being in this world. Significantly, what has most kept the holistic understanding of salvation alive in the church, when tempted by Platonic and Cartesian dualisms to reduce it, have been the resurrection of Jesus in its inescapable bodiliness and the hope of his coming to raise the dead and to judge, which makes all individual salvation provisional, incomplete until the final redemption of all things. Hope for the future coming of the crucified and risen Christ has continually served to counter Christian tendencies to pietism and quitetism, spiritualization and privitisation, because it has opened the church to the world and the future, to the universal scope of God’s purposes in Jesus the Messiah.

It has also been a corrective to absolutising the status quo in state or society: either the transformation of Christianity into a civil religion uncritically allied to a political regime or form of society, or the church’s own pretensions to be the kingdom of God virtually already realised on earth. In such contexts the Christ who reigns now on the divine throne has been envisaged as the heavenly sanction for the rule of his political or ecclesiastical deputies on earth. Resistance to ideological christology of this kind can come from the hope of the Christ who is still to come in his kingdom. The expectation of the parousia relativises all the powers of the present world, exposing their imperfections and partialities. This is why it has often been more enthusiastically embraced by the wretched and the dispossessed than by the powerful and the affluent. It embodies the hope that the world will be different, contradicting every complacent or resigned acceptance of the way things are. It offers an eschatological provisio and a utopian excess that keep us from pronouncing a premature end to history, as a tradition of Enlightenment thought from Hegel and Comte to Francis Fukuyama has encouraged people to do and as totalitarian politics is often minded to do in justification for repressing dissent. Thus the Jewish messianic critique of Christian messianism is a necessary one whenever the church’s faith in the Christ who is still to come falters.[3]

maranatha.

[1] NRSV, Romans 7.24.

[2] See Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation; and Climax of Prophecy: Studies in the Book of Revelation.

[3] Richard Bauckham, “The Future of Jesus Christ,” in The Cambridge Companion To Jesus, ed. Markus Bockmuehl (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 268-69.

Mysterium Trinitatis: George Hunsinger on Barth’s Trinitarian Dialecticism, and the Deus Incarnandus

Here is one more post from another old blog of mine from back in 2008. This one is also engaging with George Hunsinger, but this time with reference to uncle Karl rather than Torrance. The way I run with the quote from Hunsinger is interesting to me as I look at it again. You will also notice reference to Halden Doerge’s blog, Inhabitatio Dei, which no longer exists (although I trinitylogohave found a cached version of his blog, but I could not find the blog post I referenced in this post). Anyway, maybe you’ll find this post interesting. I actually think the quote could be applied to the ongoing eternal functional subordination (EFS) debate currently underway among the evangelicals and Reformed.

This post was prompted by this one, McCabe on the Trinity, over at Inhabitatio Dei. The following is George Hunsinger articulating Barth’s view on the Trinity. He is discussing how Barth dealt
with oneness/threeness, being/becoming, in the life of God’s eternal ousia.

God’s life takes a particular form. It resides, says Barth, in the “process of generation” whereby God “posits himself as the living and loving God” (II/1, pp. 305, 302). That is, God’s life is the process by which he posits himself as the Holy Trinity. His life is a life of free distinction and communion in the perichoresis of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the freedom of his eternal love, “God lives as he who is” (II/1, p. 307). God is the One who lives in the perichoresis of the three hypostases, “in their being with each other and for each other and in each other, in their succession one to another” (II/1, p. 297). Therefore, God’s being, Barth concludes, does not exclude but includes becoming. If it is possible to speak of “an eternal self-realization” in God (II/1, p. 306), it can only be in the sense of a perpetual movement from perfection to perfection. The unity of the triune God, Barth states, is “the unity of a being one which is always also a becoming one” (I/1, p. 369). It is a unity always becoming one because it is perpetually positing itself as three. With respect to the Trinity Barth writes: “What is real in God must constantly become real precisely because it is real in God (not after the manner of created being). But this becoming (because it is this becoming) rules out every need of this being for completion. Indeed, this becoming simply confirms the perfection of this being” (I/1, p. 427). God’s life in and for himself, his inner life in love and freedom, his being in the process of becoming, his one ousia in thee hypostases in the process of perichoresis, is a perfect work (opus perfectum) that occurs in perpetual operation (in operatione perpetuus) (I/1, p. 427). In the dynamism of his one eternal life, God, who is his own basis, his own goal, and his own way from the one to the other, continually becomes who he is.[1]

With the above in mind, apply this being/becoming in the life of God to the incarnation of Christ; what does this imply? It implies that in the very ousia or being of God, the Son is always and already becoming deus incarnandus (God in the flesh Jn 1:14). In other words, what Jesus becomes in ‘historic time’, in the man from Nazareth, His “being” has always been in supra-time. Does this then necessarily mean that Jesus has always had hair, bones, and skin? No! It only means that Who Jesus is, has always been oriented toward assuming hair, bones, and skin. Maybe an analogy would be helpful, John 1:18 says: No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. . . . , to use the language of ‘bosom’ and take it to its breaking point: Jesus, just like a fetus in its mother’s womb, is truly and completely all that He will be, constituently, in His “being”, what He “becomes” in the man from Nazareth. Sorry that was crude.

In this sense, then, as with the very trinitarian life of God, historic time remains distinct from “super-time” (eternity) insofar as “being” is distinct from “becoming.” In other words the who (ousia) determines the what (hypostases), while at the same time the who and the what are held together in an inseparable informing tension of perichoresis. I think this helps us avoid, when thinking about the inter-relationship between super-time and historic-time, falling into a process notion of God’s being; which does not have a doctrine of perichoresis holding these two concepts of time in tension. Which results in the inversion of what Hunsinger describes above, i.e. that historic-time and super-time become indistinguishable, in essence allowing historic time to be determinative of super-time.

I think Barth, according to Hunsinger, is right to give precedence to God’s ousia, while at the same time not subordinating His hypostases which is upheld by a strong doctrine of perichoresis. I wonder if McCabe (the article linked above) has a doctrine of perichoresis in his thinking on this? I also wonder if Barth spoke of perichoresis as prominently and explicitly as Hunsinger attributes to him?

Sorry, my reflections above are a bit crude and organic, but hey I am thinking out-loud here:-) .

The way I applied this to the incarnation is interesting; I don’t think I would do the same today if I were to attempt to reflect once again on this quote from Hunsinger. I think today what stands out about the quote from Hunsinger is how it illustrates how Barth’s Trinitarian dialecticism looks and works as a theological program; how it reveals the way Barth attempted to re-work and work within the categories of the tradition; how Barth attempted to engage with what indeed is the mysterium Trinitatis.

[1] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, 192-93.

 

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 Quicksilver Nature of the Church: Torrance’s Commentary on Barth’s der Römerbrief

T.F. Torrance’s commentary on Barth’s der Römerbrief is sublime and sobering all at once. The American evangelical, the American mainliner, the Christian in general should take heed to the words written by Torrance in this brief surmising of TF. What stands out, to me, is the implicit order and informing theology underwriting Torrance’s observations about the nature of the church; it is that the church is not prior to Christ, but after. In other words, it is precisely at the point that the church fails to recognize that Jesus is Lord that the church functions as if it is Lord squelching the possibility for genuinely hearing from the true Lord of His church.

This is where the diastasis comes in in Barth’s diacritical doctrine of the Church. The Church cannot fulfill its function in the hands of God except by being broken, in repentance and suffering and dissolution in the hands of God, but then it is made to point beyond itself and finds its essential life in witness and mission. The tragedy of the Church is that it clutches itself and nurses itself, and regards itself as the prolongation of grace, as the extension of religious experience, and so makes itself into an ex-essential denial of grace and the supernatural kingdom of God. But that is the way that has been taken by neo-Protestantism which has attempted to construct a religion out of the Gospel, and so to set it as one human possibility in the midst of others — but that is precisely to fall from grace. “The Church which sings its triumphs and trams and popularizes and modernizes itself, in order to minister to and satisfy every need except the one; the Church which, in spite of many exposures, is still satisfied with itself, and, like Quicksilver, still seeks and finds its own level; such a Church can never succeed, be it never so zealous, never so active in ridding itself of its failings and blemishes. With or without its offenses, it can never be the Church of God, because it is ignorant of the meaning of repentance.”[1]

This is challenging; not challenging in the sense that I think it only applies to others “out there,” but challenging in the sense that it applies to me “in here.”

Of note, theologically, as I alluded to earlier, for Barth and Torrance, there is a radically christo-concentrated focus that funds their thinking (which we all know by now). In this instance we see how it informs TFT’s reading of Barth, but more pointedly how that applies to the church of Jesus Christ at large.

 

[1] [Romerbrief, 370]. Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910 — 1931, 91.