Barth and Luther, Quasi-Occamist/Thomist Theologians: How To Do Genuinely Protestant Theology Under the Pressure of the Gospel

I thought it would be instructive to review some of Michael Allen Gillespie’s description of Nominalism, and then compare and constructively contrast that with Barth’s actualism. When you read Gillespie’s treatment of nominalism—at least the part I’m going to share—some of it will sound strikingly similar to Barth’s own anti-natural theological impulses; with an emphasis on Divine Revelation to boot. Gillespie writes:

Most nominalists were convinced that human beings could know little about God and his intentions beyond what he reveals to them in Scripture. Natural theology, for example, can proved God’s existence, infinity, and supremacy, according to Ockham, but it cannot even demonstrate that there is only one God. Such a radical rejection of scholastic theology clearly grew out of a deep distrust not merely of Aristotle and his Islamic interpreters but of philosophic reason itself. In this sense, Ockham’s thought strengthened the role of revelation in Christian life.

Ockham also rejected the scholastic understanding of nature. Scholasticism imagined nature to be teleological, a realm in which divine purposes were repeatedly realized. Particular entities became what they already potentially were in attaining their special end. They thus saw motion as directed toward the good. The nominalist rejection of universals was thus a rejection not merely of formal but also of final causes. If there were no universals, there could be no universal ends to be actualized. Nature, thus, does not direct human beings to the good. Or to put the matter more positively, nominalism opens up the possibility of a radically new understanding of human freedom.

The fact that human beings have no defined natural ends does not mean that they have no moral duties. The moral law continues to set limits on human action. However, the nominalists believe that this law is known only by revelation. Moreover, there is no natural or soteriological motive to obey the moral law. God is no man’s debtor and does not respond to man. Therefore, he does not save or damn them because of what they do or don’t do. There is no utilitarian motive to act morally; the only reason for moral action is gratitude. For nominalism, human beings owe their existence solely and simply to God. He has already given them the gift of life, and for this humans should be grateful. To some few he will give a second good, eternal life, but he is neither just nor unjust in his choice since his giving is solely an act of grace. To complain about one’s fate would be irrational because no one deserves existence, let alone eternal existence.[1]

Clearly not a one-for-one correspondence between Ockham and Barth, but there is some similarity between their respective emphases on Divine Revelation as the only point of contact creatures have for a knowledge of God in negation of a natural theological way. One more point of correspondence between the two, respectively, would be the emphasis upon Divine Sovereignty, and God’s relation to the world through covenant rather than through a series of graded conceptions of causality leading to a certain understanding of teleology for the created order.

Yet, Ockham ends up positing a Potentia-God wherein God has two-powers, 1) his absolute, and 2) his ordained. Here there is a rupture placed between the way God may act (according to his absolute) power in his inner and eternal life, versus how he chooses to act (according to his ordained power) in his ad extra or economic life in temporal-salvific reality. For Ockham, because of this strain between the two modes of God there is no guarantee that the God we see in ordained and created reality corresponds to who God actually is in his eternal life; as such we lose any sort of realist connection between what another dualist (Kant) might identify as phenomenological reality vis-à-vis noumenal actuality. Barth doesn’t have this problem.

As George Hunsinger notes in regard to Barth’s actualism and particularism:

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

“Particularism” is a motif which designates both a noetic procedure and an ontic state of affairs. The noetic procedure is the rule that says, “Let every concept used in dogmatic theology be defined on the basis of a particular event called Jesus Christ.” No generalities derived from elsewhere are to applied without further ado to this particular. Instead one must so proceed from this particular event that all general conceptions are carefully and critically redefined on its basis before being used in theology. The reason for this procedure is found in the accompanying state of affairs. This particular event requires special conceptualization, precisely because it is regarded as unique in kind.[2]

Here we see, per Hunsinger’s treatment of parts of Barth, that there is nothing left ad hoc or potential about the God-world relation. Instead, for Barth Divine reality is known as God makes himself known in the scandalous event of God become man in the elected humanity of Jesus Christ. Herein, for Barth, there is no ‘God behind the back of Jesus’—as there is for Ockham—but instead just the opposite; for Barth God is fully and actually made known without remainder through the Christ event as that becomes actualized over and again, afresh and anew through the miracle of the Evangel. While Barth retains a quasi-Occamist emphasis upon God’s relation to the world through covenant alone, he also has a quasi-Thomistic realism present insofar as God’s being-in-becoming, or the universal-in-the-particular can come to be known by the human agent as the human comes to participate in or becomes ‘a partaker of the Divine nature.’

I think that if the lineaments in my brief sketch hold up to any sort of scrutiny what we ought to realize is that Barth was genuinely engaged in what has come to be called ‘constructive theology.’ As Kenneth Oakes points out in his book Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy, Barth was less stressed about fitting into this or that theological category, and more concerned with allowing the pressure of the Gospel itself to determine the shape of his theological articulation; even if that meant cross-breading various strands of the theological textus receptus as that presented itself to him in the Great Tradition and the Reformed scholastics he had knowledge of. This helps explain, at least for me, why Barth’s theology always tended to reify or reformulate what previously counted as classical theology. He was less concerned about meeting the expectations set out by the Church, and more concerned with meeting the categorical and conceptual expectations set out by the Gospel. He was a Free theologian, who thought under the freedom he believed Christ gave him as one set free, indeed, by the Son of Man: ‘for who He sets free will be freed indeed.’

I think Barth’s theology, like Luther’s, represents some of, if not the best of Protestant theologizing; precisely because they both were slavishly driven to their theological conclusions by following the Gospel itself. They did theology that was in protest to the magisterial norms that the scholastics felt compelled to follow previous. And this is why I am a hearty proponent of both of these theologians: as you work through their respective theologies you will be able to discern reference to the via antiqua and the via moderna, both; and of course other special elements as those were made uniquely available to them per the respective periods of history they inhabited. In the end, Barth and Luther, both, I maintain, were affected by the pieces of various theological (and philosophical) traditions,  which is illustrated in the way they wrote theology such that they operated at almost naïve levels insofar that the conceptual grammars they deployed were second-fiddle to what actually mattered to them: which was bearing witness to Jesus Christ through the proclamation of the written and preached Word.

 

[1] Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 24.

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

Advertisements

Jesus is Not a Tradition: Relational Theology as Counter to the God of Theo-Logic Chopping

Jesus is not a tradition. This is important to understand for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that realizing this can help us in the way we end up doing theology; it can help the way we engage with and read Holy Scripture. This is an important thing to understand about my own approach to theological work; I’m in this ‘game’ for one reason: that is, to know Jesus Christ and Him crucified, and the Triune God He brings me into participation with. This is why I’m only ultimately interested in doing the sort of constructive theology that sees Jesus as the centrum of all theological endeavor. The rest of this post will be another autobiographical one wherein I explain a bit further what motivates me to do theology at all; I will also take a look at Scripture as an application and case study of how focusing on a relational God in Christ shapes my approach to Scripture differently than other approaches might offer its respective practitioners.

I’ve shared my life story more than once through my blogging, so I won’t redress that now. But I wanted to at least note that as someone who came to a lively relationship with Jesus Christ as just a wee child (when I was 3), that having a personal and intimate relationship with the voice that awakened me (literally from sleep at about 2am) so many years ago is still my aim today. The voice that spoke to my heart, and the relational God I encountered that early morning so long ago has never changed. So, I think, that the way I do theology ought to be framed most actively by this reality; by the reality that God is a relational God who awakens young children from their sleep to call them to Himself. I’ve had many other experiences since then where this voice has shown up very acutely; whether that be through years of heavy doubts, anxiety/depression, or whether that be during the time that I was diagnosed with an incurable and statistically terminal cancer. The voice, the encounter has always been the same reassuring voice of the Living God who I met when a young boy.

The point of sharing the above is that I find it very strange to attempt to do so called ‘school theology,’ or academic theology. When the LORD got a hold of me in a serious and heavy way, through years of doubt and anxiety, it was during this season that Bible reading became my mainstay (I’m about to finish my 40th read through, probably tonight). Bible reading has only reinforced that the voice I encountered in my bed when a child is the same voice that I encounter when I read Holy Scripture. As such, I become heavily suspicious of theologies that don’t start from the fact that Deus dixit, that God has spoken and continues to speak. Some people, when thinking about the history of theological development would probably place the sort of theology I am most prone towards into the category of ‘existential theology’; maybe of the sort that we get with Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth (and maybe most sinisterly with Rudolf Bultmann —although I reject most of Bultmann), Thomas Torrance, and maybe even Martin Luther. But I’m not so sure about that in particular ways. Whatever category I’m placed into, I know that the focus will always be Christ concentrated (in intensive ways), and the fact that God is a relational God by His very nature; that He speaks to His sheep in a way that His sheep are able to hear His voice and recognize it.

This is all very loaded commentary on my theological development and trajectory. I won’t have time to fully unpack it all, but my blog should help to attest to the way this sort of theologizing has taken shape in written form. But I did start out with the assertion that Jesus is not a tradition, and I want to unpack what I mean by that. In school theology, of its various assortments, it is quite popular to engage in analytical or scholastic locus theo-logic chopping wherein the theologizing itself does not come with the sort of relational character that I have been describing thus far. Instead, the God referred to under these conditions bares almost no resemblance to the personal God I’ve come to know through years of encounter with Him; be that through reading Scripture, Prayer, or Fellowshipping with the Saints. This is why I am off-put by so much of the classical theistic theologizing that is so dominant in and among the conservative Reformed types of Christians (at whatever level). In my view, if the God being referred to while ‘doing theology’ can’t just as easily be prayed to and worshipped in an intimate and relational way while doing the theology, then this God doesn’t have much correlation with the God I’ve come to know in the smiling face of Jesus Christ.

Some might push pack: ‘well that’s all fine and good, Bobby, there is a place for what you’re referring to (like in your devotional and quiet times), but it isn’t what school theology is about.’ ‘Us academic or analytical theologians are interested in working out the technical implications of the great classical theistic theologies of the Church in order to fortify our understanding of the God we are praying to and worshipping.’ They might want to press that ‘there is a place for both.’ But that disjunction makes absolutely no sense to me. If we are doing Christian theology then we are doing lively theology of the sort that is intimate and in dialogical (prayerful) relationship with the viva vox Dei (the living voice of God); there is no meaningful sense wherein academic theology can be done in one moment, and then relational theology in another moment. Either the living God is in our faces in real activity, personal parousia (presence) or He isn’t. And if He is it is with this God that the Christian theologian has to do. We have to do with a God first and foremost who speaks and confronts us, rather than one who sits there, statically like a philosophical monad, and allows us to pick Him apart.

Ultimately, I do not think theology is worth much time unless it is interacting with the lively and revealed voice of God in Jesus Christ. In my view theologies that attempt to elide this aren’t really engaged in theology at all, instead they are engaged in philosophical reflection wherein the ‘theologian’s’ fertile imagination is allowed to supply the chains of reasoning wherein God is ostensibly known. If we must posit God’s voice, and what it entails categorically, prior to moment by moment encounter with Him, then for my money we aren’t doing Christian theology. And so, when I say Jesus isn’t a tradition, I mean to say that Jesus isn’t a ‘principle’ who makes our theological ratiocinations work; instead He is a person who encounters and confronts and negates us moment by moment afresh and anew. If we think this about the theological reality this will impact the way we approach Scripture. We won’t ground it in the idea that the Church or the churches Tradition[s] have any sort of regulative value for how we understand what Scripture is or what it is actively saying. Instead we will understand that Holy Scripture is Holy precisely because it is the place where God actively speaks to us, in a living way, through His Son. It will dispossess Scripture from being enslaved to our ecclesial traditions, and instead understand it as the possession of the living God who instrumentally uses it to speak His unfading voice to us, His sheep.

I think it is important to understand that what I am saying here doesn’t mean that the theologizing of the ancient church doesn’t mean anything. Instead, I am describing a particular way to be as a Christian disciple or theologian. I am describing a posture or way to appropriate and engage with theologies that might even engage in the sort of theologizing that I ultimately cannot follow. I am suggesting that there is a disposition that is the most fitting for the theologian, one that is grounded in lively and loving relationship with God in Jesus Christ. But I am saying because of this disposition certain forms of theologizing become antithetical to knowing God who is Triune Love. But even in the stammerings of those theologies there are things communicated that can still have informative value for the lover of Christ; even if the philosophical husk of those theologies aren’t ultimately life-giving or corollary with the posture I am noting in my post.

More must and should be said, but this will suffice for now.

The Natural Theology of The Great Tradition and the Protestant Capitulation to Its Catholic Roots

Did you know that much of the Great (Christian) Tradition is committed to a way of doing theology that is committed to speculation as its primary mode for thinking and articulating God? Did you know that this mode is currently being recovered by most conservative evangelical theologians today? Did you know that metaphysics of the classical philosophical sort is the way the Tradition has sought to do its theology? Did you know that the Protestant Scripture principle was a serious source for undercutting the so-called ancient way (via antiqua) of the Great Tradition; that the Scripture principle majored on a theology of the Word that theretofore hadn’t been fully appreciated? Did you know that present within this sort of ‘Turn to the Word’ there was a fetus waiting to be birthed such that a radical Turn to the Word might come to maturation wherein Jesus Christ, rather than the speculative wit, might become the regulative way for doing genuine Protestant theology? Unfortunately, this conception was still born in the nurseries of scholastic midwifery with the result of returning the Protestant trajectory back to the via antiqua rather than into the bright light of baby Jesus’s face. The effect is that Protestantism is currently in a stage of becoming shaped more by the Latin-Catholic ancestry, and the tradition and commentary building of that sort, rather than by a genuinely formed theology of the Word whose rule of faith is Jesus Christ. So, a radical theology of the Word is being abandoned for a regnant theology of the Church whose regulative principle isn’t ultimately Jesus Christ, but the magisters of the Great Tradition. The Tradition itself becomes authoritative even if it is asserted that it is subordinate to Scripture. It is very hard to see how that is the case in any meaningful sense; particularly when the reality of Holy Scripture is none other than Jesus Christ and the Triune God who He alone has Self-revealed.

I know this doesn’t bother most, not in the evangelical world. Indeed, one of my best brothers, my best friends is committed to this recovery effort. I fully understand the motivation and impulse that pushes brothers and sisters to engage in this sort of theological excavation project; I just think it ultimately falls short in a fundamental way when it comes to the attempt to think God according to the Evangel. The whole project is in fact representative of a basic commitment to natural theology; it is an enthymemic commitment in most cases. In other words, there is an attendant presumption to this excavation project that what ‘just is’ in the Great Tradition has been providentially supervened, in a causal sense, by God Himself. These folks presume that because of the staying-power of certain ideational and theological institutions, that this in itself guarantees a sort of Divine imprimatur upon the Trad. Further, the presumption fortified even more forcefully by the idea that the logoi or ratio of God is so interwoven into the fabric of the created order, and attendant to that, an irresistible and natural capacity to discover this ratio, that these theologians thrush full force ahead under the notion that nature itself is effulgent to declare who God is. They presume that God’s attributes, His predicates of Deity, are latent within the shadows of God’s eternal form as that is shown forth in His power to create and govern a universe of unspeakable depth and source. This is the natural theology that attends the recovery effort of the current crop of theologians; at least certain theologians, in the quadrants I’m referring to.

Yet this natural theology is not supported by Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ. Scripture teaches that no one seeks after God; that Jesus alone Self-exegetes God for us; that Jesus alone is the point and reality of Scripture; that the Logos of God is personal not substantial, and definitely not accidental. Speculation is not the spectacles God has provided for in knowing Him. God has instead stooped into our dusty frames, taken us to the soil of earth, and recreated us anew in the resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ’s humanity. It is only by this analogy of relation, by this analogy of faith, through the adoption of Grace, that we have the capacity by the Spirit to taste and see that God is; and in this tasting to come to know Who God is (not simply that He is). Herein a genuine Quarens Fides Intellectum (Faith Seeking Understanding) comes into form, that is as we are participatio Christi (participating in Christ). There is no assurance that the Great Tradition is ultimately proximate to Who God is; that assurance of Eternal Life only comes in the dearly Son of God in whom the Father is pleased. The Great Tradition might supply an archive for imaginative ways to think God under certain periodic pressures, but they are not authoritative ways, per se. The only authoritative imprimatur of God, for knowing God, is given in the One who has become flesh in the womb of Mary, and resurrected in the arms of the Father by the recreative power of the Spirit.

The Biblical Doctrine of Election: And Some “Flowery” Engagement

I want to share some quotes from Karl Barth and Tom Greggs. All of these quotes either come from the body or footnotes of my personal chapter for our latest Evangelical Calvinism book (2017). I was prompted to this as I continue to listen to Leighton Flowers. This post, though, will not engage with Flowers directly, but insofar as I offer up an alternative version of Reformed ‘election’ and ‘reprobation’ that he is not targeting, I think he ought to take notice. When Jesus is understood as the genuine center of all theological thought a whole new world opens up in regard to the theological and thus biblical horizons possible for Christian edification. I agree with Flowers that classical Calvinism gives us a rubbish understanding of Holy Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ; I just think contra Flowers that there is a much better and theological way to understand the implications of the Incarnation of God in Christ and how that gets cashed out in the way we ultimately understand who God is. Let’s hear from Barth and Greggs on the doctrine of election, and then close with some further reflection.

Karl Barth writes,

This all rests on the fact that from the very first He participates in the divine election; that that election is also His election; that it is He Himself who posits this beginning of all things; that it is He Himself who executes the decision which issues in the establishment of the covenant between God and man; that He too, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is the electing God. If this is not the case, then in respect of the election, in respect of this primal and basic decision of God, we shall have to pass by Jesus Christ, asking of God the Father, or perhaps of the Holy Spirit, how there can be any disclosure of this decision at all. For where can it ever be disclosed to us except where it is executed? The result will be, of course, that we shall be driven to speculating about a decretum absolutum instead of grasping and affirming in God’s electing the manifest grace of God. And that means that we shall not know into whose hands we are committing ourselves when we believe in the divine predestination. So much depends upon our acknowledgement of the Son, of the Son of God, as the Subject of this predestination, because it is only in the Son that it is revealed to us as the predestination of God, and therefore of the Father and the Holy Spirit, because it is only as we believe in the Son that we can also believe in the Father and the Holy Spirit, and therefore in the one divine election.[1]

And Tom Greggs offers commentary on the sort of sentiment we just witnessed in Barth’s reformulation of election, as a Christ concentrated conception:

There is no room for a prior decision of God to create, or elect and condemn before the decision to elect Jesus Christ (no decretum absolutum); instead, Jesus Christ is Himself the ultimate decretum absolutum.[2]

Further:

Election’s nature is . . . Gospel. The dialectic evident in Romans remains and can be seen between electing God and elected human in its most extreme form in terms of election and rejection. Humanity continues to need to be rescued by God in its rejection of Him. What is new is that this dialectic is now considered in a wholly Christological way which brings together the Yes and No of God in the simultaneity of the elected and rejected Christ. It is He who demonstrates salvation as its originator and archetype. It is, therefore, in the humanity of the elected Christ that one needs to consider the destiny of human nature.[3]

Maybe you can infer how I would use these quotes in the chapter I wrote on assurance of salvation. But the most important point I want to highlight, currently, is that in the Barthian reformulation of election the focus is no longer on individual/abstract people scurrying around on the earth, but instead upon the ground of all humanity as that is realized in the archetypal and elect humanity of Jesus Christ. There is a universalizing underneath in the doctrine of election in Barth’s theology, with the result that our focus is not on ourselves, as if we have some sort of inherent value or worth in se; but instead the realization is always present that we find our life and being in extra nos or outside of us, only as that extra enters into us by the gift of God in the grace who is the Christ.

The shift that happens, juxtaposed with a classical double predestinarian view, is that election first and foremost is about a doctrine of God; but a doctrine of God that can never be thought of apart from or abstracted out of His choice to not be God without us. In other words, in this reified doctrine our knowledge of God and selves is contingent always already upon God’s choice to be with us and for us in Christ. This transforms the way we think humanity, for one thing. In other words, we are unable to think about what genuine humanity is without first thinking about humanity in union with God in the Son’s union with us in the vicarious humanity of Christ.

One immediate consequence of this is that the way we think people is no longer from a class structure, or from the psychological vantage point that God loves some and not others (as the classical notion of election/reprobation leaves us with). As such, we are genuinely free to look out at others and recognize a humanity, in full, that God loves; a humanity, no matter how wretched (maybe as we think of ourselves) that is valuable precisely at the point that Jesus is the Yes and not the No for them and us. This is not to suggest that a blind eye is given to the sub-humanity that people continue to live in—because we love the darkness rather than the light—but it is to alert us to the fact, in the Barthian reification, that all people have inherent value, just because God first loved us that we might love Him. It is to recognize that even if people choose to reject the election freely offered to them in Christ, that because that election is not contingent upon their choice, but God’s, they live in suspension from the imago Dei who is the imago Christi (cf. Col. 1.15), and as such continue to have inherent value, and even capacity to say yes to God in correspondence to Jesus’s Yes for them. Here, we can agree with the evangelist that ‘God so loved the world, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.’

With the above noted I think we ought to repent and understand the doctrine of election from Barth’s lights (if we haven’t already). You’ll notice a heavy emphasis on the conciliar nature of Barth’s theologizing. In other words, he isn’t resisting the ecumenical councils of the Church; nein, he is taking them with all seriousness, particularly the Nicene-Constantinopolitan-Chalcedon councils with their respective focuses on Theology Proper and Christology. Herein, for Barth, is the gateway for understanding all things theological. Folks who don’t accept this sort of prolegomenological foray of Barth’s, the one that slavishly restricts its knowledge of God to God’s Self-revelation in Christ, will of course find Barth’s conclusions on election, and everything else, amiss. But I wonder how it is possible to not follow Barth, just at a material level (which of course cannot be separated from the formal). Barth, I think, is following the Evangelist par excellence, John. John, in his Gospel, is the one who has made clear that Christ thought of Himself as the center of the whole cosmos, which includes the canon of Scripture. John is the one who has told is that Jesus alone dwells in the bosom of the Father and has come to exegete Him for us. You can’t get more biblical than this pathway. I think Barth has found something that is central to the reality of the Gospel, as that it is funded most acutely by the Gospel of John.

But I digress, a bit. I commend to you, once again, Barth’s reformulated doctrine of election. No matter what alternative someone commits themselves to, in regard to a doctrine of election, they are all dripping in deep theological commitments. I know Leighton Flowers like to present his approach as a prima facie or ‘straightforward’ “just the text man” sort of way. But the reality is that even Flowers’ approach is just as much a species of theological exegesis as anyone else’s. This is why I am so focused on making sure that we are aware of this, and as a result we seek to work from the best Christian Dogmatic as possible. Barth, in my view, offers the best theological exegetical approach when it comes to a doctrine of election. And if you understand how interlinked this doctrine is with all of Barth’s theological project, you’ll understand why appreciation of him won’t just stop with election; it can’t.

 

[1] Barth, CD II/2:110.

[2] Greggs, Barth, Origen, and Universal Salvation, 25.

 

A Mini-Sketch of Pelagius and His Teaching in Continued Response to Leighton Flowers and His Soteriological ‘Traditionalism’

I continue to listen to Leighton Flower’s podcasts on the way home from and to work. As he acknowledges, he is not an “academic,” per se, but a popularizer of various academic themes within the sphere he is associated. Nonetheless, he is constantly engaging with so called “academic theology,” and has various guests on his podcasts who are. The one that stands out most to me, thus far, is his interview of Augustine scholar, Ken Wilson. What was most striking to me about this interview is that both Wilson and Flowers attempt to invert the usual and historic understanding of Pelagius and Augustine; they denigrate Augustine as the heretic and elevate Pelagius as the champion of how we ought to understand ‘freewill’ vis-à-vis salvific appropriation. This is rather striking, for obvious reasons, but also concerning because this message is being advocated for among the popular; a group of folks who don’t have critical resource (or time) to see if what Wilson and Flowers are proposing be so. In an effort to provide some sort of online counter I wanted to provide a small sketch of Pelagius, and the implications of his teaching. My contention, along with the church catholic’s, is that when Pelagius’s teachings are placed up against the Scriptural teaching, particularly the New Testament’s teaching (cf. Rom 3 etc), that it flounders just at the point Wilson, Flowers et al claim that it achieves the proper balance for how we ought to understand humanity’s capacity to choose God rather than self. There is a reason ‘no one seeks after God,’ it is because we ‘love the darkness rather than the light’ (cf. Jn 3.17ff). Pelagius’s teaching operates out of a notion of ‘pure nature’ that is funded by the idea that creation itself has an absolute and ontological orientation of its own, such that it remains impermeable to anything other than its own self-determination; ironically, we might identify this orientation, of the self-determined self, as the definition of a Genesis 3 understanding of sin. This is why Pelagius’s teaching has rightly been identified as heretical; i.e. because his teaching on the nature of humanity is grounded, narrativally, in an understanding of humanity that finds its antecedents in the very conception of humanity’s ability ‘to choose’ that God unilaterally came to put to death in the cross and humanity of Jesus Christ.

With the above noted, here is a short sketch on Pelagius and his theology that I offered a couple of years ago here at the blog.

We often hear of Pelagianism, or of Pelagius himself. We know it is a heresy which Augustine in the 5th century combated; but we don’t often hear exactly what Pelagianism entails. I thought in an effort to remedy this type of lacuna, at least for those who don’t know, that I would share something from JND Kelly on Pelagius, and in brief, what the main aspect of his troubling teaching entails.

Kelly writes:

Pelagius was primarily a moralist, concerned for right conduct and shocked by what he considered demoralizingly pessimistic views of what could be expected of human nature. The assumption that man could not help sinning seemed to him an insult to his Creator. Augustine’s prayer, ‘Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt’ (da quod iubes et iube quod vis), particularly distressed him, for it seemed to suggest that men were puppets wholly determined by the movements of divine grace. In reaction to this the keystone of his whole system is the idea of unconditional free will and responsibility. In creating man God did not subject him, like other creatures, to the law of nature, but gave him the unique privilege of being able to accomplish the divine will by his own choice. He set life and death before him, bidding him choose life (Deut. 30, 19), but leaving the final decision to his free will. Thus it depends on the man himself whether he acts rightly or wrongly: the possibility of freely choosing the good entails the possibility of choosing evil. There are, he argues, three features in action—the power (posse), the will (velle), and the realization (esse). The first of these comes exclusively from God, but the other two belong to us; hence, according as we act, we merit praise or blame. It would be wrong to infer, however, that he regarded this autonomy as somehow withdrawing man from the purview of God’s sovereignty. Whatever his followers may have said, Pelagius himself made no such claim. On the contrary, along with his belief in free will he has the conception of a divine law proclaiming to men what they ought to do and setting the prospect of supernatural rewards and pains before them. If a man enjoys the freedom of choice, it is by the express bounty of his Creator, and he ought to use it for the ends which He prescribes.[1]

Augustine famously opposed this with his development not only of sin as privatio (privation), but also concupiscence (self-love). But beyond that, if you have ever wondered about Pelagius, or more pointedly about his teaching which has become known as Pelagianism, then this should at least give you a good start. If you want to see what Kelly says further about Pelagius I recommend you pick up his excellent book where he covers this, among other important developments in the early period of the church.

I think all Christians, whether classical Calvinist, classical Arminian, Evangelical Calvinist, Barthian, Lutheran, or what have you share common ground in their opposition towards Pelagianism. Sometimes it requires heresy in order for orthodoxy to be sharpened and articulated in such a way that it provides a fruitful way forward for the church. In this case what Augustine offered against Pelagius served as the basis for what many Christians, even today, think of Pelagianism, and more importantly, how Christians conceive of grace (of course we’ve had other developments since Augustine and Pelagius as well).

For my two cents, I think when attempting to offer an alternative model to classical Calvinism and Arminianism it is best to avoid associating your alternative, even grounding some of its key themes, in the theology of a known and worldwide heretic. This approach may work well when presented to folks who don’t have critical access to the history of ideas and their development, but that’s really as far as it will go; other than idiosyncratic appropriation in and among a small number of a scholarly caste of people. It is true that credentials, one way or the other, do not establish the veracity of ideas, but ultimately that is not my appeal here. My appeal to the “theologians” in the church catholic is to note that Pelagius is a known heretic precisely because his teaching correlates with what Scripture identifies as something we need to be saved from (i.e. ourselves and our enslavement to only and always freely choose us rather than God).

[1] JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 356-57.

Naming ‘Inerrancy’ for the Inglorious Doctrine that It Is: Pushing Johnny Mac into Encoutner with a Christian Dogmatic

Inerrancy, a word I was and am very familiar with as an evangelical. A word I don’t often refer to in my posts here, although I have before, but I wanted to address it now. I just watched a short video with John MacArthur speaking on inerrancy. In this video JMac makes the claim that the only reason someone would deny inerrancy is because they want to get out of being accountable to some teaching they don’t like therein. But is this true; is this the only reason someone would deny inerrancy? Is it possible to reject inerrancy for a doctrine of Scripture that is more positive definitionally? In other words, JMac’s claim presupposes, a priori, that inerrancy is the only doctrine of Scripture that has the doctrinal capacity to maintain that what we get in Scripture is the viva vox Dei (living voice of God). But is this really the case?

Click Here to Watch the Short Clip from JMac (and then click back)

Like I said, I am an evangelical, historically, and adjectivally understood vis-à-vis the Gospel; but does this necessarily commit me to affirming the same sort of understanding of inerrancy that JMac assumes ‘just is’ the only evangelically faithful way to approach Scripture? As a Reformed Protestant Christian, I am thoroughly, one hundred percently committed to the ‘Scripture Principle,’ sola scriptura, and the fact that when Scripture is read (silently or audibly) that I am hearing the voice of the living God without remainder. But this doesn’t mean I must affirm JMac’s doctrine of inerrancy in order to ensure that this is the case.

Inerrancy, even as a term, is a negative word; and it is symbolizing a negative concept. In other words, inerrancy, as JMac in particular is deploying it, comes loaded with a reactionary that developed in and around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries; the time that the Fundamentalists reacted to the invasion of German Higher Criticism into the seminaries (we might think of what happened at Princeton Theological Seminary,  and Machen’s departure). Was this reaction warranted? I think so. But the problem with reactions is that they rarely if ever are constructive, and thus fail to yield long term productive results. I think this is the case with JMac’s ‘inerrancy.’ This doctrine as it developed under the pressures of higher criticism allowed higher criticism to determine the categories and emphases that inerrancy would operate under as it reacted to said higher criticism. As a result, as evangelicals, we inherited an approach to Scripture that was slavishly concerned with ‘answering’ every “error” that the higher critic ostensibly found in the Bible. We built whole hermeneutical constructs out of this reaction (think of Henry Morris and the sort of young earth creationism he spawned). And this is the point: if we allow, as JMac has and does, this reactionary form of inerrancy to determine the way we approach Holy Scripture, and its exegesis, we will also be inheriting a hermeneutic that is shaped not by the confession that Jesus is Lord, but instead by the higher critics, the history of religionists, and the positivists; in short the naturalists will get to determine the categories and emphases and the questions that the inerrantists feel they must answer in their Bible studies.

So, this is one problem with JMac’s claim. Another problem is that when we follow JMac’s view of inerrancy we aren’t developing a doctrine of Scripture, or bibliology, from genuinely Christian and confessional norms; instead we are doing so under the impetus of naturalistic philosophical categories that then views the Bible in abstraction and as the epistemic source for how we are to think God in Christ. But Holy Scripture isn’t, or shouldn’t be ordered this way in a Christian Dogmatic. Scripture comes to us in this order: 1) Triune God, 2) The election of humanity in the Son (Covenant of Grace), 3) Creation, Incarnation (God’s Self-revelation), 4) The Apostolic Deposit of Christian Scripture (e.g. the New Testament re-interpretation of salvation history [i.e. Old Testament] in light of its fulfillment in Christ). There is a positive ordering or taxis to Scripture that has a long line of antecedents that come prior to it, theologically, before we ever get to talking about Scripture. If you’ll notice, in a Christian Dogmatic approach to the Bible what we start with is not Scripture, so the epistemological frame is not us approaching God, but God approaching us unilaterally in Christ; viz. as Christian’s we are those who have already said that ‘Jesus is Lord’ by the Spirit, and so we come to Scripture as children of God and see Scripture refracted within that always already relationship that God has forever established for us in His Son, Jesus Christ.

If what I have been sketching above, particularly as we think of a doctrine of Scripture, Dogmatically, if this is the case—rather than JMac’s construal—then his claim is false. Questions of inerrancy, or errancy, and other such like Dogmatic shibboleths never make it to the radar. This impacts the way we read Scripture, just as inerrancy comes with its own hermeneutic. If the Triune Life of God is the Ground and Grammar of all reality, if His eternal life is the effulgent soil within which Holy Scripture receives its nutrients, then we will read Scripture, necessarily under His Lordship, and know that as His sheep we are hearing His voice without remainder. This might seem like an apologetically naïve way to approach and thus read Scripture, but we aren’t approaching Scripture from the pagan’s or the critic’s ground, we are approaching it as the Son of Man did; we are approaching it as if it already is God’s voice to and for us—without having to establish that point prior to being able to hear it as such. In other words, if we follow JMac’s understanding of inerrancy, Holy Scripture will only be as good as God’s Word insofar as we can answer its critics. But why would we grant its critics that sort of gravitas? We already know by definition that they hate God, and are anti-Christ; and so, their criticisms aren’t really critical, instead they are spawned by their father the devil (no matter how critical and irreligious they claim to be).

This is why I reject inerrancy as a valuable concept for a doctrine of Scripture. It isn’t because I think Scripture is not God’s Word through and through. It is because I think inerrancy is an inept and inglorious way to think Scripture to begin with. Scripture isn’t Holy because we argued it into that position, it is Holy because it is circumscribed in and from the domain of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. I don’t doubt that JMac would want to agree with many of my sentiments. If so, he should quit defending an inadequate and limp-wristed way for thinking Scripture.

Seeing the Depth of My Sin Through the Depth of God’s Love Pro Me in Christ: The Apostle Paul, Webster and Barth

I don’t know about you, but I grow weary of sin. I (we) face an ongoing battle every breath that we take. Whether it be perverse thoughts, dark deep secrets that plague the conscience, actions that result in destruction for you and all those related to you, systemic evil that permeates the very fabric of society (this is probably most insidious since we are conditioned by it in ways that give it a normalcy and thus societal and then personal acceptance); the Apostle can relate,

23But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? Romans 7:23, 24

We battle on. But how do we know what we battle; how do we gauge the target, how do we even know that there is a target to hit? How do we realize that evil isn’t some just mysterious lurking principle ‘out there’ that ultimately is outside of me, and not something that actually implicates my very being to its deepest depths—even when I engage in the evil ‘out there’ occasionally or situationally? How do I know, even if I can index concrete and ongoing instantiations of evil ‘out there, that the evil is indeed me? And that this all encompassing wickedness and deprivation consumes my inner self, which organically shapes my outer self—since really ourselves (body/soul) are integrated wholes. In other words, I am sin to the depths, and the reason there is sin, evil, wickedness ‘out there’; it is mostly because it has a context ‘in here’, in me. But how can I say such things, how can I ground such assertions beyond some sort of psychological intuition? We know that we are blind when the impression of light intensifies our darkness; when Jesus acts the way he does, and did, we know we are indeed blind. We come to the realization that for all our good, for all our posturing toward ourselves; that the next to the last word is that we live in a state of No, or blindness to the fact that what we see the Apostle Paul giving voice to can only come when faced with the depth of our problem as we participate in the life of Christ. The One who took our No, our blindness, and indeed our sin unto himself ‘by becoming sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him’ (II Cor. 5:21). As Calvin so perceptively knew, we only truly have knowledge of ourselves (and our abysmal state), when we first have knowledge of God through Christ, God the Redeemer.

It is this that John Webster masterfully elucidates as he engages Karl Barth’s vision of a Christologically conditioned knowledge of sin in its most depth dimension. Let me quote Webster, who is commenting on Barth’s Church Dogmatics & Ethics, and the moral anthropology embedded therein:

Barth’s Christological determination of sin is not so much an attempt to dislocate ‘theological’ from ’empirical’ reality, as an argument born of a sense that human persons are characteristically self-deceived. Human life is a sphere in which fantasy operates, in which human persons are not able to see themselves as they truly are. The ‘man of sin’

thinks he sits on a high throne, but in reality he sits only on a child’s stool, cracking his little whip, pointing with frightful seriousness his little finger, while all the time nothing happens that really matters. He can only play the judge. He is only a dilettante, a blunderer, in his attempt to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, acting as though he really had the capacity to do it. He can only pretend to himself and others that he has the capacity and that there is any real significance in his judging. (CD IV/1, p. 446.)

This theme of concealment surfaces frequently in paragraph 60 (and elsewhere). Believing ourselves to see clearly, even allowing ourselves to suppose our sight to be sharper than that of our fellows, we are blind to the reality of our own selves. Barth acutely perceives that moral earnestness frequently rests upon clouded vision and lack of self-awareness and self-distrust. And so, once again, we return to the Christological basis for the treatment of human sin: ‘Compared with Him we stand there in all our corruption … The untruth in which we are men is disclosed … We are forced to see and know ourselves in the loathsomeness in which we find ourselves exposed and known.’

Human sinfulness, then, entails an ability to disentangle ourselves from our acts in such a way that they are no longer really ours. As Barth puts it in a passage in Church Dogmatics IV/2, we allow ourselves to believe that:

The sinful act is regrettable but external, incidental and isolated failure and defect; a misfortune, comparable to one of the passing sicknesses in which a healthy organism remains healthy and to which it shows itself to be more than equal. On this view, the individual — I myself — cannot really be affected by the evil action. I do not have any direct part in its loathsome and offensive character. In the last resort it has taken place in my absence. I myself am elsewhere and aloof from it. And from this neutral place which is my real home, I can survey and evaluate the evil that has happened to me in its involvement with other less evil and perhaps even good motives and elements; in its not absolutely harmful but to some extent positive effects; in its relationship to my other much less doubtful and perhaps even praiseworthy achievements; and especially in my relationship to what I see other men do or not do (a comparison in which I may not come out too badly); in short, in a relativity in which I am not really affected at bottom. I may acknowledge and regret that I have sinned, but I do not need to confess that I am a sinner.  (CD IV/2, p. 394)

These clarifications of the forms of human self-deception (which are by no means intended to underrate the ambiguity of the moral situation) are an important background to Barth’s treatment of original sin. His objection to some formulations of that doctrine is, at heart, that they are deficient in their account of positive evil. And his refusal of an independent locus peccati, his rejection of anything other than a Christologically determined account of sin, is directed by precisely the same concern. Far from averting attention from evil as fact, Christology is intended to furnish a means of clarifying our vision and dissolving our illusions about our own moral integrity.[1]

The Apostle Paul concurs with this kind of assessment about the deleterious effects of sin upon a life that knows that it only knows its true state of affairs because of the One who finally has given the last word  to our No-being by his Yes to the Father for us—viz. a Yes that is given concrete form through his death, burial, and most importantly resurrection-ascension. The Apostle Paul, with his eyes wide open, as we noted earlier, gives a final sigh of relief when he writes:

 25I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin. Romans 7:25

The Apostle knew, that he knew sin, not ultimately because of the Law; but ultimately, because of Christ who penetrated deeper than the Law could on its own—viz. into the cavernous depths of the human soul which left to itself continues to look at evil and wickedness as if its ‘out there’, while all along failing to realize that they’ve never even seen sin and evil and wickedness in its most grotesque form; that’s because they’ve never presumed that maybe, just maybe the most insidious form of evil, in the end, dwells where they can’t peer, where they dare not, in themselves.

 

[1] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 69-70.

*A repost.

Contra Mundum: A Riposte to Leighton Flowers’ ‘Provisionism’, the Classical Calvinists and Arminians, and the Rest of the ‘Latins’: Human Agency in Salvation

In the predominately Calvinist world many Christian people, especially conservatives, inhabit online, this post might not have much interface with you. Indeed, what we will be considering might be more demographically relevant than it is conceptually. My guess is that Millennial and younger generations will not really see this as very pertinent to their Christianity. I mean most, Millennial and under, have simply been given a theological entrée, that if they are theologically astute and ‘serious,’ if they are conservative and evangelical, has been flavored with TULIP petals and Dutch chocolates; not to mention Latin cigars and German beer. But be that as it may, I wanted to touch on something I just said I would; I want to engage further with the ‘traditionalism,’ or what Leighton Flowers calls ‘Provisionism,’ when it comes to things salvific. You see, what Leighton is re-iterating for his Southern Baptist tribespeople, and anyone else who will listen, is something I grew up with myself (as a Conservative Baptist pastor’s kid); only we called it “Biblicism.” Let me offer something of a sketch of Flowers’ offering, at least one part of it, the part that has to do with his view of human agency in the appropriation of salvation; and then after I will offer the Evangelical Calvinist alternative.

What will make some of this difficult, in regard to presenting Flowers’ views, is that most of them are articulated via podcasts, and interviews he’s done with guests (he has written some books, so maybe someday I’ll read and engage with those as well); so we will have to rely on my recall and ability to accurately re-present (via paraphrase) what was communicated in said podcast. Let me focus on a podcast that Flowers recently did (they are videoed on YouTube as well) with Augustine expert, Ken Wilson. In this podcast the basic thesis was this: It wasn’t until Augustine entered the picture that Christian theology/soteriology received its deterministic shape. Wilson’s argument is that Augustine is at fault for introducing the notion that later Martin Luther would call (in response to Erasmus) The Bondage of the Will. That is, that original sin entered the picture, and as a result all of humanity became guilty and noetically and volitionally impotent to respond to God’s free offer of salvation. The argument went further, per Wilson (with Flowers’ approval): Wilson argues that because Augustine was really more of a rhetorician and apologist, even a popular one, that his teachings, especially his later teachings gained the traction that they did. In the process, as Wilson contends, Pelagius’ ideas on human freedom for or against God were besmirched, and as such Pelagius became a ‘boogeyman’ and the arch-heresiarch of the Church catholic (and Catholic). Wilson, and Flowers following, seek to re-boot Pelagius’ view on human freedom, and apparently his understanding on the ‘naturalized’ will as orthodox; thus, displacing Augustine’s view, and placing it in the heretical bin of history instead.

The claim is also made that prior to Augustine, the Eastern church, and the church in the first three hundred years, in general, operated in the mold of Pelagius’ viewpoint when it came to human free agency. That it was Augustine’s introduction of Manichean-Gnostic-Platonist inspired conceptual matter into Christian teaching that has set the Western church on the trajectory it took ever since his synthesis of such things. I think though, it is very important to note that the early church, pre-Augustine, really did not operate with the notion of libertarian freedom that Wilson, Flowers and others in this community are asserting. For one thing, this would be philosophically anachronistic, but more importantly what we find in folks like Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria is a heavy emphasis on a Christologically based notion of human freedom for and thus from God. In other words, Athanasius offered a view that bases human freedom on the freedom God has offered us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ (see his book On the Incarnation). Cyril of Alexandria, similarly, sees human freedom for God in salvation, grounded in a thick understanding on participation with God through union with Christ; again, emphasizing our participation in and from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ (see Donald Fairbairn’s work on Cyril in particular). Not to mention, John Calvin himself, known as the ‘theologian of the Spirit,’ places weighted emphasis on salvation only being found in Christ alone and our being united to Christ by the Spirit (think of his so called duplex gratia or double grace soteriology, and emphasis on union with Christ unio cum Christo). All of this is in agreement with the Apostle Paul’s teaching and understanding of human freedom for God (see Rom 6–8 and II Cor 8.9). Indeed, Paul’s teaching on the vicarious humanity of Christ, and thus human freedom for God in Christ, is most evident in a passage like Gal 2.20; as we translate that (as we should) with the subjective (V the objective) genitive. If we translate this passage thusly it reads (as the KJV correctly does):

20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (KJV)

ζῶ δὲ οὐκέτι ἐγώ, ζῇ δὲ ἐν ἐμοὶ Χριστός: ὃ δὲ νῦν ζῶ ἐν σαρκί, ν πστει ζ τ το υο το θεο τοῦ ἀγαπήσαντός με καὶ παραδόντος ἑαυτὸν ὑπὲρ ἐμοῦ. (GNT)

I have emboldened the language that serves our purposes; i.e. ‘the faith of the Son of God.’ We don’t trust God from our own resources; there is no ‘created grace’ that we are given to believe from in abstraction from Christ’s priestly and mediatorial trust for us. For the Apostle Paul, and much of the early church (pre-Augustine, and even post-Augustine in spite of Augustine and his Latin theology) freedom for God has a decidedly Christ concentrated grounding to it; such that when freedom is used in the New Testament it always already has reference to what Christ has accomplished for us as our High Priest, and the Greater Adam (think first and second Adam motif cf. Rom 5). In other words, the Wilson/Flowers thesis, in regard to human freedom for or against God in the early Church, and more importantly as found in the New Testament witness isn’t correlative with the actual reality. For the Apostle Paul we never think of humanity apart from Christ’s resurrected humanity, and our union with His humanity by grace (see Rom 6).

Ironically, Wilson, Flowers et al. continue to operate with the same sort of dualistic and abstract conception of humanity that they claim the Calvinists and Augustine himself did (which they do). They are right to find certain problems in Augustine’s understanding of salvation. They are wrong to offer up Pelagius as a shining star for understanding human freedom (he is the heretic that he has been rightly labeled as). And they are wrong to think there is some notion of libertarian free agency that has some sort of free-standing ontological status of its own; a status that can be de-linked and gifted to humanity’s ‘accidents’ as a means by which the mass of humanity can either say yes or no to God by a capacity they have sovereignly been given by God—we might call it, in reminiscence of Pelagius’s understanding: a ‘naturalized grace.’ Next post I will push further into the irony of Wilson’s and Flower’s usage of Augustine’s soteriological or abstract conception of humanity (labelled by TF Torrance as ‘The Latin Heresy’), and how they deploy that just as readily as Augustine did.

P.S. Make sure you click on all the hyper-links I have strewn throughout this post. They will lead you to pertinent posts that help to develop and establish my thesis further.

 

Engaging With Leighton Flowers’ ‘Provisionalism’ Along With Critique of Classical Calvinism

I am going to attempt to write more posts on and in critique of classical Calvinism (once again). But I am planning on writing posts that are aimed at non-specialist Christians, and yet who are thoughtful about such things. In other words, I am going to attempt to write posts that are accessible to a broader cross-section of Protestant Christians. This means that I will be entering the fray—with trembling—of what is currently underway among the more populace audience of Calvinists. But I am not going to limit my posts to addressing Five Point Calvinism; I also will be addressing what Leighton Flowers is promoting as Provisionalism or what he calls Traditionalism. Flowers, as far as I can tell, is gaining quite a following via his YouTube videos, and his podcast which he calls Soteriology 101. He is attempting to offer an alternative to Five Point Calvinism, and Arminianism; an ostensible via media between these two classical poles. It isn’t much different, from what I gather, from Zane Hodges’ Free Grace soteriology which Hodges articulated in his book Absolutely Free; which by the way was a counter proposal to John MacArthur’s Lordship Salvation which he presents in his book: The Gospel According to Jesus (and latterly, The Gospel According to the Apostles). Flowers seems to be latching onto Hodges’ approach, even if he isn’t following him in every step; in other words, if you listen to Flowers he sounds much more Calvinistic than what we get in Hodges. That said the premises in regard to ‘free-will’ and libertarian free agency, with reference to ‘human responsibility’ in the appropriation of salvation, is ostensibly univocal between Hodges and Flowers.

I am not going to offer a critique of anyone in this post, other than to say that I know Evangelical Calvinism, as we are presenting it in our books and at this blog, offers a genuine alternative that does not traffic in the same sorts of dualistic categories that we get in classical Calvinism, classical Arminianism, Lordship Salvation, Free Grace, or ‘Provisionalism.’ This is the irony of Flowers’ project: he seems to think that he is categorically avoiding the sort of substance metaphysics that his interlocutors fall prey to (according to him), and yet he is just the same making appeal to them; albeit his offering is a re-route or re-application of those categories when we think about a theological-anthropology and how that implicates soteriology. I can only speak in generalities currently, but my aim is to get into some of this with more detail; and then offer the Evangelical Calvinist alternative that Flowers seems to be unaware of (indeed many are still regrettably unaware of what we are presenting with Evangelical Calvinism). Stay tuned.

 

Lombard’s Mediaeval Anthologizing As Corrective For Understanding ‘Begottenness’ and the Eternal Generation of the Son

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” –John 3.16

‘Begotten’ language can be rather confusing to some, particularly as it is situated in what is referred to as the Mysterium Trinitatis, or the mystery of the Trinity. It might sound like the Son was subordinately generated from the Father, and thus send us into a theological tizzy of dilemma and heterodoxy. Indeed, we get this sense in what some evangelical theologians have offered in their view that the Son is eternally in submission to the Father (ESS), or eternally and functionally subordinate to the Father (EFS); this could tie into a notion of begottenness that would fit with the concern that such language generates in regard to thinking the relation between the Father and the Son in subordinationist terms. But historically, this has not been the way the so called Great Tradition of the Church has understood the language of begotten in an origin of relation between the Father and the Son; indeed just the opposite of what we get in subordinationist environs of thought.

I am in the early process of reading through Peter Lombard’s Sentences. The first book has to do with the Triune Life of God, as such, and accordingly, we come upon our issue with reference to the language of begottenness and the Son/Father relation. Let me share from Lombard, as he shares mostly from Gregory, Augustine, and Chrysostom, in regard to the Son’s relation to the Father, and how to be begotten in the Trad has everything to do with the eternal origin of relation that coinheres between the Father and Son (and Holy Spirit), rather than referring us to the lamentable accouterments we are given through proponents of EFS; or other like heretical notions of subordinationism in a doctrine of God. Lombard writes:

Chapter 4 (32)

  1. WHETHER IT OUGHT TO BE SAID ‘THE SON IS FOREVER GENERATED’ OR ‘WAS FOREVER GENERATED.’ Since the Son’s generation from the Father is eternal, and so has neither beginning nor end, it may now be asked whether we ought to say: The Son is forever generated, or was forever generated, or will forever be generated.
  2. Concerning this, Gregory on Job says: “Jesus, Lord and God, insofar as he is the power and wisdom of God, was born of the Father before all time, or better, because he neither began nor ceased to be born, let us more truly say ‘was forever born.’ For we cannot say ‘is forever being born,’ lest he seem to be imperfect. Indeed, in order that he may be known to be both eternal and perfect, let us say both forever and born, seeing that ‘born’ pertains to his perfection and ‘forever’ to his eternity. And yet, even by our use of ‘perfect,’ we depart much from the enunciation of the truth of the matter, because whatever is not made cannot properly be said to be perfected. It is with stammers that we sing out, as best we can, the high things of God; and “the Lord, with words of condescension toward our weakness, says: Be perfect, as your Father is heaven is perfect.
  3. Augustine addresses this question of begetting of the Son in his comments on that phrase of the psalm: Today I have begotten you. He says: “The term today may also designate that day on which Christ was born according to the flesh. But because today indicates the present, and in eternity there is neither something that is past, as if it had ceased to be, nor something that is future, as if it did not yet exist, but only the present, because whatever is eternal always is, that is why today is more divinely applied to the eternal begetting of the wisdom of God.” Note that, by these words, Augustine clearly shows that the begetting of the Son always is; it neither ceased to be, nor is in the future, because it is eternal. That is why he said I have begotten, lest it be thought to be a new thing, in other words, lest it be thought to have had a beginning; he said today lest the begetting be thought to be past.—From these words of the Prophet, as John Chrysostom says, “nothing else is manifested than the fact that the Son is forever generated from the very essence of the Father.”[1]

What we gather from this mediaeval anthologizing from Lombard is that when we hear the language of ‘begotten,’ of the Son, we ought to first recognize that we are pressed up against a mystery indeed; that we are pressed up against the ultimacy of God who by nature defies being read into by social analogies (which is what we get from the ESS proponents). If we follow the ancient writers we will recognize that for the Son to be begotten is to realize that this has been the eternal reality, the very inner-fabric that constitutes the eternally Triune Divine Nature of the Living God. For the Son to be begotten, as our writer’s have identified, is to recognize that the Father has never been the Father without the Son, and the Son has never been the Son without the Father, and the Holy Spirit has not been the Holy Spirit without His bonding relationship in and with the other two.

It is the processions of God’s inner life that is the referent point of begotten language that serves as the antecedent basis for the missions of God life (ad extra) in the economy. But we ought to recognize that this anteriority of God’s life is the definitive reality of the economic reality revealed in salvation history; and as such even while He stoops to interface with us in the flesh and blood of the only begotten Son, this accommodation ought not to be misunderstood as something circumscribable by the social nodes of our own frail and weak understanding. To be begotten, for the Son, does not entail subordination (functional or otherwise) to the Father. Instead, to be begotten, for the Son, represents how the Son is the Son in relation to the Father, but in an equi-distant sense, insofar as the Father could not be the Father without the Son; and the neither the Son nor the Father could dwell in this filial bond of eternal fellowship without the Holy Spirit’s ubiquitous parousia of eternal love-making.

At the end of the day: to be begotten is not subject to the machinations of the feeble Christian. It is not something that has an analogy available for it in the created realm. Instead, for the Son to be eternally begotten of the Father represents an ontological-limiting reality that can only be adored and wondered at in jubilant praise and worship before the living God who sits enthroned under the covering wings of the Cheribum’s ministry. In other words, the language of begotten is sacrosanct reality that remains unassailable to creaturely appropriation. It is a hands off reality that we have been graciously invited into as we participate in and from the humanity of Jesus Christ. As such, it is a mediated reality for us, and gives us a portal into an eternal reality that is not of this world. Here we are to be silent.

 

[1] Peter Lombard, The Sentences: Book 1: The Mystery of the Trinity, trans. by Giulio Silano (Toronto, Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2007), 54-5.