The Shepherd’s Voice: Nein! Natural Theology

Why do I reject natural theology? Why is this such a big deal for me you might wonder. Because I don’t think this is your normal theological locus; I think it is in a class all its own. Theological ontology-epistemology are the bases upon which God-talk can occur to begin with. How we understand these bases will say much about how we understand the God we portend to speak of and more importantly after (if that’s the order we end up following). So why I do reject the idea that human beings can come to a knowledge of God outside of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ?

John Webster, even as he is imbibing the spirit of classical Reformed theology, helps to elucidate why someone like me would reject natural theology. As an aside: it’s not just “Barthians” who reject natural theology, it is Bavinckians, and many of the Post Reformed orthodox themselves (see Muller, PRRD). As Webster identifies there are two prongs that inhibit a natural knowledge of God: 1) God’s ineffability, and 2) our fallen and finite capacities. He writes:

A third principle requires a little more extensive explanation. A Christian doctrine of creation is doubly inhibited: by the ineffability of its object, and by the limits of fallen intelligence. The doctrine is chiefly concerned, no so much with causal explanation of what is as with contemplation of the fact that what is might not have been and yet is, and of the infinite bliss of God who lies on the other side of that ‘might not have been’. The doctrine’s core, in other words, is not cosmology but theology proper — God’s ‘invisible nature’ (Rom. 1.20), which, even when manifest in the visibilia of created reality, exceeds comprehensive intelligence (a point obscured when teaching about creation is annexed by natural theology). Knowledge of the creator and of creation is creaturely knowledge; in knowing the creator and his act, and ourselves as creatures, we do not transcend our creaturely condition, but repeat it: ‘no point of contemplation can be found outside Himself’, Hilary reminds his readers. More particularly, in this matter, creaturely knowledge is directed to an agent wholly surpassing us, to an act from whose occurrence we were absent: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ (Job 38.4). Moreover — as God’s question to Job discloses — what restricts us is not simply the finiteness of created intelligence but its fallenness and ‘futility’ (Rom. 1.21), its darkening of counsel by words without wisdom (Job 38.2). Knowledge of the creator and of ourselves as creatures is a casualty of the fall: we will not honour the creator (Rom. 1.21), we will not acknowledge ourselves to be his creatures. Fallen intelligence tends away from God, in the forgetfulness and impatience (Ps. 106.13). To know its creator, reason must be healed by repentance and the suffering of divine instruction, by which love of God is made to grow. The rule which governs teaching about the Trinity, and therefore about creation as one of its extensions, is: love alone restores knowledge. Love, furthermore, is the end of theological contemplation of the creator and his work. The goal of the redeemed mind’s exercise in this matter is ‘that [God] may himself be sought, and himself be loved.’ Or, as a later Augustinian put it, the task of trinitarian theology is ‘to manifest what is expressly revealed in the Scripture concerning God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; so as that we may duly believe in him, yield obedience unto him, enjoy communion with him, walk in his love and fear, and so come at length to be blessed with him for evermore.[1]

On the latter locus I am reminded of the Petrine wisdom:

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.[2]

God —> Knowledge of God —> Through Participation —> Leading to Moral and Noetic Transformation in Faith as Knowledge —> To Orthopraxis —> Grounded in the Love of God in Christ. Sum: All of this movement is grounded in God’s choice to be God for us in Jesus Christ. From this springs the only possibility wherein genuine knowledge of God can obtain. None of this would occur without the reality that God is Love.

These represent some of the realities why I reject a theologia naturalis or natural theology as a preamble to a genuine knowledge of God. For one thing it is unnecessary to posit a natural theology—at least for the Christian—because by definitional reality Christians are already Christians by being those in encounter with the living Word as by the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12.3). It’s a redundancy for those who already know the voice of God (his sheep cf. Jn 10) to attempt a look elsewhere for a foundational knowledge of God. True, philosophy and its lexicon is undeniably present in the history and development of theologics; but the grammar that has reified the various philosophies is a heavenly sui generis one that has no parallel, and needs none when the Christian knows the voice of their Shepherd. This is why I think Barth’s analogia fidei/relationis (faith-relation) de jure is the better way to go when attempting to be a theologian of the cross.


[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury-T&T Clark, 2015), 83-4.

[2] II Peter 1.3-9, NIV.

Posted in Analogia Entis, Analogia Fidei, Analogy of Being, Analogy of Faith, John Webster | 1 Comment

Papalism in the Local Church: Church Discipline and the ‘Free’ Church

I’ve been thinking lately, and for along time, off and on, about the local church and a theory of ecclesial authority. I’m thinking from my own context of Free low evangelical churches in North America (my background is Conservative Baptist and then even Calvary Chapel for a formative period of my Christian life). My thoughts interlace with theories of church government, and how those inner-structures (self-referentially definitive) might provide greater or lesser contexts of authority in the lives of the parishioners of those various churches. In particular what I’m thinking about is the role that church discipline plays (or doesn’t) given a congregationalist church government (like a Baptist church operates from). What brought this home for me, most recently, was a tweet from a pastor I follow of a Conservative Baptist church; it has to do with church membership and discipline. He tweeted:

Church leaders, make sure you include a clause in your constitution or by-laws that will allow the church to reject a membership resignation in cases of church discipline. You don’t want to be held hostage by your policies so that you’re not able to obey Christ’s commands.

In principle I can appreciate the desire to have a responsible framework for discipline in place, but it always leaves me rather empty when people who are self-proclaimed (for all intents and purposes) leaders elevate themselves—even from within the inner-structure of their institutions—to a capacity that leaves me wondering where that capacity comes from. In other words so often it seems as if the standards that many of these pastors are holding people accountable to have more to do with the accretion of evangelical sub-cultural pietisms and “values” rather than to the reality of the Gospel itself. This is why I’m usually left with this ad hoc feeling when I read statements like the one we see in the tweet I’ve referenced.

I am a Free church proponent (and I’ll have to do a post getting into what “Free church” even means), and this is why I’m probably so leery of what counts as the bases for church discipline (which honestly, in the main, I don’t think discipline of any kind is carried out in most of these churches to begin with); I don’t think pastors-teachers in the local church have an inherent authority bestowed upon them in ordination or because of the office they hold. I think the only authority a pastor has in the local church, and in the church catholic, is one that is derivative and grounded in the authority that all Christians have; an authority to hold each other accountable to the reality of the Gospel and God’s holiness itself (to me this is an implication of the Priesthood of All Believers).

The feeling I often walk away with, particularly in Baptist churches (or congregational) that are caught up in a movement like Mark Dever’s 9Marks, or even as we get into more classically Reformed confessional churches, is almost this sort of ecclesial-heavy understanding of the church; its leaders almost taking on a vicaresque sense, such as we find in the Roman Catholic church. I do recognize the Bible speaks about pastors being responsible for the people under their care, but the basis upon which that care (authority) is framed, I believe, is only as a proper understanding of the Gospel itself is held to by both the leadership and laity the same. And yet this presents a dilemma: given the reality of so called pervasive interpretive pluralism, how people understand the Gospel and its entailments (in regard to holiness etc) is diverse; as such it makes it difficult, to say the least, to discern when a church is acting within the entailments of the Gospel and the authority it allows others to have for others.

One other thing, as I already alluded to above, is the way these so called Free churches, as local churches, are operating. They are operating as if they have an inherent capacity to be authorities over others in the name of Christ when they themselves, as pastors, are simply ministers of the Gospel (alongside peers) often elevated to even that office by a voluntary movement they have made on their own initiative to be a pastor. In other words, many pastors have risen to where they have not because they even meet the biblical qualifications for what it means to be a pastor, instead they have risen in their rank primarily because of their personalities and ability to speak (gift of gab).

I’m out of time, I have more to pontificate on, but I’ll leave it here for now.  

Posted in Ecclesial, Ecclesiology | 1 Comment

The Instrumentality of Holy Scripture for Hugh Binning: The Intersection of Ink and Paper/Flesh and Blood

Hugh Binning (1627–1653) a Scottish theologian who died at the tender age of 26 produced such an output of theological work you’d think he’d lived well into his senior years. I am currently (and slowly) reading through his Works (which by the way are public domain and therefore available for free electronically via kindle), and I’m just upon his doctrine of Scripture. His Works are lectures which have a sermonic feel which come with a depth of spiritual learnedness that only a mind and heart infatuated with the love of Christ could generate.

What I want to highlight is the way he connects the res or reality of Scripture to its writtenness and symbols (signum). If you read Binning you will see that he holds to a traditional Reformed understanding on a doctrine of inspiration, but that like Calvin he places an emphasis upon Scripture’s instrumentality (think of Calvin’s metaphor ‘spectacles’). Here he writes with a piety of language that we are wont to find in the modern tongue; with an economy of language that drips with the didacticism of Paul’s letters; and a heart clearly enflamed with a love of Christ and the Triune life.

I wish that souls would read the scriptures as profitable scriptures with the intention to profit. If you do not read with such a purpose, you read not the scriptures of God, the become another book unto you. But what are they profitable for? For doctrine, and a divine doctrine, a doctrine of life and happiness. It is the great promise of the new covenant, “You shall be all taught of God.” The scriptures can make a man learned and wise, learned to salvation, it is foolishness to the world, “but the world through wisdom know not God.” Alas! what then do they know? Is there any besides God? And is there any knowledge besides the knowledge of God? You have a poor petty wisdom among you to gather riches and manage your business. Others have a poor imaginary wisdom that they call learning, and generally people think, to pray to God is but a paper-skill, a little book-craft, they think the knowledge of God is nothing else but to learn to read the Bible. Alas! mistake not, it is another thing to know God. The doctrine of Jesus Christ written on the heart is a deep profound learning and the poor, simple, rudest people, may by the Spirit’s teaching become wiser than their ancients, than their ministers. O, it is excellent point of learning, to know how to be saved. What is it, I pray you to know the course of the heavens,—to number the orbs, and the stars in them—to measure their circumference,—to reckon their motions,—and yet not to know him that sits on the circle of them, and not know how to inhabit and dwell there? If you would seek unto God, and seek eyes opened to behold the mystery of the word, you would become wiser than your pastors, you would learn from the Spirit to pray better, you would find the way to heaven better than they can teach you, or walk in it.[1]

For Binning there is a greater point to Holy Scripture, it points beyond itself to its reality in God in Jesus Christ. That said he does not want people to move beyond focus on the written Word, instead he wants them to read it as if the viva vox Dei (living voice of God) is present, winsomely inviting them into a knowledge of and encounter with the living Christ that befuddles them where they stand.

This intention of Binning’s is no different than what we find in Luther, Calvin, or Barth. The goal of Scripture for all of them is to mediate us to the Mediator, as the Mediator mediates himself to us in the mediate by the Spirit’s blissful breath of fire and call for constant mortification and recantation before a Holy God of Triune love and white-hot holiness. Ultimately, for Binning, Scripture is the place where the wisdom of God becomes translucent for us in the face of Jesus Christ; a place outwith the Christian is as good as dead afloat in a world breaming with human witting that likes to masquerade as genuine light.

[1] Hugh Binning, The Works of the Rev. Hugh Binning (A Public Domain Book), Loc 1519, 1526, 1533 Kindle Version [emphasis mine].

Posted in Doctrine of Scripture, Hugh Binning, Ontology Of Scripture | 1 Comment

The Scripture Principle: The Word’s Reality and its Generation of Passion

Karl Barth was a theologian who understood the most important thing about theology; he understood that if the theologian is going to speak about God, that he or she will only be able to do that after God has spoken (Deus dixit). As a Reformed theologian, and thus as a theologian of the Word, Barth knew that the primary witness, the primary means by which the theologian, the pastor might speak about God was as he encountered the living God in the Apostolic Deposit of Holy Scripture. This is something that many of Barth’s detractors don’t appreciate about him; they don’t make themselves aware of the reality that Barth was fully committed to the ‘Scripture principle’ of the Reformed churches.

In the following these things become apparent as Barth waxes eloquent about the centrum that Scripture just is in the process of proclamation and bearing witness to God from God.

We might illustrate this impression by an example that is very dear to me, namely, by the strange process that led especially to the formation of the Reformed churches in the 16th century. I call them strange because the most positive impulse accompanying the many negative and from a Christian standpoint very dubious things that were also at work was to us the amazingly passionate rediscovery, acknowledgment, and assertion of the ancient canonical literature, because in a way that was acute, sudden, and revolutionary the Bible again became the marching orders and direction to preach, because it was understood as the cannon not merely in the critical sense but also in the imperative sense. In this field the ancient book — and much more distinctly than in the Lutheran reformation, the book itself — the whole Bible and not just a specific truth in the Bible as in the case of Luther, commanded with an almost uncanny dynamic a new attention, respect, and obedience. To a degree and with an intensity that are almost intolerable to us today, people had to speak again about God in the light of this historical datum as though it could be done and had never been attempted before. Read some of the sermons of Calvin with this in mind. How this man is grasped and stilled and claimed — not too quickly must one suppose by his experience of conversion, or by the thought of predestination, or by Christ, or even, as is commonly said, by passion for God’s glory —  no, but in the first instance simply by the authority of the biblical books, which year by year he never tired of expounding systematically down to the very last verse! How this man, moving always along the uncrossable wall of this authority, copying down what he finds copied there, as if the living words of God were heard there (as he himself says in the Institutes), becomes himself wholly voice and speech and persuasion, and can never exhaust or empty himself, as though nothing were more self-evident than this torrential talk about God in spite of all the objections which might be urged against it, and which he himself knew well enough! Why was this? In the first instance we can find no other reason than this: Because he heard Moses, Jeremiah, and Paul speak about God, because he heard there the trumpet that summoned him to battle. In something of the same way 1400 years earlier, in the historically obscure early period when the old book as not yet old, the oral and written witness of the same prophets and apostles affected the people of the second generation and brought about the rise of the early church, that is, the rise of Christian preaching.[1]

Barth believed Scripture, the preached Word was the whence from which the Christian could speak God. May we imitate Barth as he imitated Christ.

As an aside: I often get this sense that us Christians think we own the Word of God, and as such we feel the burden to make it relevant to the church and the world. But this is not our prerogative; God has called us to stand on the rooftops and proclaim the living Word of God as if our lives and the lives around us depended upon it. As Moses says in Deuteronomy ‘the word is not a vain thing, it is our very life’ (my paraphrase). I’ve noticed a slippage in my own posture lately. I used to be much bolder about evangelizing the Word to anyone and everyone around; on the streets, in the market-places, and backwaters of wherever I find myself in this fleeting world. I’m reminded as I write this post about the Word, that the Word of God, its reality in the Gospel, is indeed the very power of God. I don’t need to apologize for it or shrink back as I’m confronted with the words of others throughout the days; I need to submit to God resist the Devil and do what I was put on this earth to do: bear witness to the risen God in Jesus Christ! I need to press into the Word and allow it to press me back and out towards a world and a church that needs to live in the sober realization that would lead the Apostle Paul to yell this “let God be true and everyman a liar!” I need to allow the passion of the Christ, the passion that underwrites the very writ that Scripture is, the passion of Christ that looks out on an unbelieving world and an unbelieving church and causes him to weep, to cut me. This is the reality of the Word that I need to let compel me into a life lived from Christ’s searing holiness which leads to a serious com-passion for others. When I come to recognize my own deep need for the living God, as he sanctifies me in this recognition, and meets me with his purifying eyes, I come to have a burden for others; as my burden has been shouldered by Christ. All of this and more comes from the realization that Barth had about the Word; it comes from the staggering realization that the written Word is powerful and earth-shattering precisely at the point that it brings its readers and students into encounter with its living reality in the risen Christ.

[1] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 54-5.

Posted in Barth, Devotion, Doctrine of Scripture | 3 Comments

Afterword: Knowing The Shepherd’s Voice Contra The Hireling’s Natural Theological Voice

I wanted to give a brief afterword regarding my last post. I often write against and about natural theology, the so-called analogy of being (analogia entis), and now what we have called a ‘theology of correlation.’ But I rarely explain what is at stake, at least for my marbles. The reason I have come to detest (not too strong of a word) natural theology in the main is because I believe it allows humans to treat God as something they possess. In other words, my conception of natural theology entails that the theological starting point for the natural theologian is somewhere engrained in an inherent human capacity; whether that be something we are born with (and that was not lost at the Fall), or whether that be a created (quality of) grace that the elect of God have received—the latter being something that remains to be actuated by the elect’s push to habituate in activities becoming one of the elect of God. No matter how one arrives at being a natural theologian and working from a theologia naturalis the specter remains the same; the theologian and his or her wit necessarily precedes God. For one thing this places a primacy on creation that I think is untenable; for another thing it displaces the capacity for God to speak his Word mediated through his chosen Self-mediation in Jesus Christ. If the human voice—an abstract human voice, one not grounded in the human voice of the Christ—is allowed to speak about God prior to God speaking of himself then as a foundation the human voice will always be the mediating voice as it concerns God’s who and what. This is why I repudiate natural theology; it forecloses on the holy ground that belongs to God and the dominion of his life alone. If the human voice (abstract from Christ’s vicarious humanity) is the basis upon which the Christian is allowed to know God from, then that human voice[s] will always need to be present as the foundation upon which God talk can proceed. We can extrapolate out from a singular human voice that speaks of God, to a corporate body, and finally to the Church (and attending tradition); either way, whether singular or multiple, if this voice is allowed to precede God’s voice, then distinguishing God’s voice from the human’s voice will nigh be impossible. This is why I reject natural theology; it makes God a possession of the church; it wipes any space for God’s voice to actually confront not only the world, but his church. How are we to know if we are hearing God’s voice and recognize the character of his vocality if we have allowed the sheep to become the Shepherd; if we have sublimated God’s voice by the Church’s voice? This is why I reject natural theology; I am a sheep, and I know my Shepherd’s voice; it is a voice sui generis, and natural theology offers a voice I don’t recognize as my Shepherd’s; it sounds like a hireling’s voice, a voice this sheep cannot follow.

Posted in Natural Theology | 1 Comment

Theology of Correlation and Analogy of Being: An Evangelical Calvinist Repudiate

Christian theology is as prismatic as the rainbow; there are a variety of ways in based upon multitudinous theories of best methodologies. As an Evangelical Calvinist I have adopted a certain mode for theological endeavor and reflection; a mode that claims to be based, in principal, upon Revelation rather than philosophical discovery and correlation. Bruce McCormack in his book Orthodox and Modern surveys Hans Frei’s five typologies for what he considers to be encompassing of the ways a person can potentially do theology. In the following I want to quote, at length, the way McCormack sketches Frei’s type on theology of correlation. As you will find out, as I follow with my own commentary, I see this type of theologizing as problematic since its basis, in principle, is not to start with Revelation, but instead with some sort of transcendent universally available sense of the Divine (so philosophy in a classical sense).

In the following McCormack, as you will see, engages with Frei as Frei engages with David Tracy’s theology of correlation.

Before turning to the remaining three types, it is worth pointing out the extent to which extremes meet in this typology. However true it may be that type 1 holds optimistically to the existence of theoretical foundations for all knowledge claims while type 5 adamantly denies such a possibility on principle, both wind up with a nonreferential, wholly performative understanding of the meaningfulness of theological language. And thus Frei’s spectrum becomes, as he himself suspected, “like a snake curled in on itself.” To clarify why this should be so, I would suggest that it has everything to do with an insistence on the nonreferential character of theological language. It is only where theological language is understood to be referential, where (in other words) the “reality” described by Christian theologians and philosophers is thought to overlap, that the problem of the relation of external description to internal description can arise at all. As we shall see, it is the latter question and the range of answers given to it which will differentiate types 2, 3, and 4.

The early David Tracy of Blessed Rage for Order is the figure who gives definition to Frei’s second type. For Tracy, like Kaufman, there are “stable, general, and fields-encompassing criteria for meaning (internal conceptual coherence), meaningfulness (language that discloses actual experience), and truth (transcendental or metaphysical explication of the condition of possibility of common human experience).” So type 2 is like type 1 to the extent that both are strictly foundationalist. But a difference arises—on the formal level, at any rate—at the point at which Tracy wants to take Christianity seriously as a concrete religion. Theology does not involve simply the adjustment of theological language to general criteria; Tracy believes that it also entails an “explication of the Christian religion or the Christian ‘fact,’ which has a real specificity of its own and in its integrity has to be correlated to common human experience, the other source of theological reflection, for their mutual compatibility.”

In practice, however, the desire to honor the integrity of the historical givenness of Christian faith (and its object, Jesus of Nazareth) is undermined by Tracy’s procedure. His goal is to “correlate” (i.e., to show the thorough compatibility of) the religious symbols which arise from two sources: “common human experience,” on the one hand, and classical Christian texts (Scripture and tradition), on the other. The first group of symbols he seeks to articulate (or “thematize”) through a phenomenological analysis of an allegedly religious dimension of secular experience. The focus here is, above all, the “basic confidence” which Tracy believes to be an ineradicable feature of all human existence (the confidence that life is worth living). For Tracy, the survival of basic confidence in the midst of certain “limit situations” (i.e., the wholly negative experiences of guilt, anxiety, etc.) demonstrates its ineradicability and raises the question of its ground. He concludes that “basic confidence” has implied within it the cognitive claim that “God” is the ground of that confidence; that is, the only adequate symbolization of that ground is theistic. Tracy then turns to his second source and finds there a “limit language” which is disclosive not only of the very situation which was just thematized through phenomenological analysis but also of a Referent which holds forth the promise that life is indeed meaningful when lived in total commitment to the gracious God of Jesus the Christ.

Though Frei himself does not put it this way, I think it would be fair to say that his principal problem with Tracy’s “theology of correlation” is that no true correlation can ever arise on the foundations laid by him. Christian self-description (the language of Scripture and tradition) has been thoroughly subsumed into the religious symbols attained through phenomenological analysis of “religious dimensions” of human being and existence. And this can happen only because the results of the philosophical analysis are made to be the interpretive key for unlocking the meaning of the New Testament. So Frei is not in the least surprised that Tracy has found in the New Testament precisely what he was looking for; his procedure has guaranteed the outcome in advance. External description and Christian self-description turn out to be one and the same, identical in content. A correlation of tow overlapping but distinguishable descriptions is rendered unnecessary. What is most decisive in defining Frei’s type 2 is the fact that the subsumption of Christian self-description into external description has been made possible by a universally valid integrative theory (which in Tracy’s case is ultimately grounded in a general philosophical anthropology).[1]

What McCormack is describing, in important ways, has a different context from the one I will apply it to; but the principle is present. My application of this recognition of a ‘theology of correlation,’ rather than to someone like Tracy, will be more fitting to my own theological context as an evangelical, Reformed Christian in North America.

The context I often am enmeshed in is indeed the evangelical Reformed context; as such, my theological interlocutors (even if they don’t realize they’re mine) operate in and from a ‘pre-critical’ or premodern ‘theology of correlation’; at least that’s my premise. My interlocutors primarily are drawing off the reappropriation of Thomas’s theology, as that has been mediated in the various Thomisms that are available; particularly as that has been given formation in the 16th and 17th century developments of Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy. This mode of theologizing operates with an inchoate form of ‘theology of correlation.’ They might not think of it that way, they might project what Tracy, for example, has developed from a philosophical anthropology onto the ‘mind of the church’. Nevertheless, the point remains that whether in premodern or modern forms, whether called an analogia entis (analogy of being) or ‘theology of correlation,’ the premises are overlapping and convergent. In other words, both modes of theological endeavor work off the prius that there are catholic or universally available latents or logois of knowledge of God that can be penetrated by appeal to a natural [law] human experience of the divine left in the vestiges and corners of transcendental human apperception.

I don’t see evangelical theologians, particularly of the Reformed type, wrestling very much with these questions. Instead I seem them rushing headlong into the Trad of the church as if this just is the mind of God for the elect. The Evangelical Calvinist repudiates these types of correlations.


[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008), 119-20 [emphasis mine].

Posted in Analogia Entis, Analogy of Being, Bruce McCormack, Prolegomena | 2 Comments

Do Not Be Anxious to Be PreModern in Theology

Derek Rishmawy just reposted a link (on FB) to a blog post he wrote back in 2017 Do Not Be Anxious to Be Modern in Theology. Since this issue is one I constantly contemplate and attempt to mediate in my own self-understanding as a young theologian; and since I’m often at logger-heads with the way I see many young evangelical theologians taking (in regard to their approach when it comes to the theological history they see as normative); Derek’s post piqued my interest enough to make a comment. In order for the following (which is just me sharing the comment I made in response to Derek’s post at his blog) to make sense, you will have to first go and read Derek’s post.

Okay, you’re back? Good! Now go ahead and read my reply to Derek, and it should make more sense. If not let me know in the comments. Here’s my reply:

Some of us, who enjoy modern theology, don’t follow the ‘logic’ you note (through Long et al). I do know some, personally, who I could quote (from personal messages they’ve sent me) that would indeed help to illustrate your depiction of the ‘millennial turn’. Nonetheless, the way I look at these things is not linearly, but ‘apocalyptically’; as if God’s living voice can, has, and does break in upon the church in various ways and expressions—but always through the Son (Heb 1.3). What I see happening among many in the evangelical world is actually the inverse; i.e. a privileging of the pre-modern as the prism by which the modern is retrieved (if it is). So this sort of longitudinal ‘cutting off’ can work in both directions. I say let the earth be ‘flat’ and God be allowed to round it as he will; irregardless of whatever period his voice may be speaking to us in. That said, and also, it is an exceedingly difficult task for the theologian to become fluent in the various dialects through which God speaks to his church. The dialect of the premodern may well be simply an issue of dialect that needs translation; as that occurs we might come to realize there is substantial convergence between the modern and premodern dialect on whatever loci being considered (which wouldn’t be in disagreement with some of what you’ve offered, Derek). But my concern, again, continues to be the ‘direction of retrieval.’ It seems as if many conservative evangelical theologians (so called) simply start with the premodern/critical developments as normative and use that as the scalpel by which good modern developments might be exculpated as helpful additions to the normative trad. But I see that mode as foreclosing on the ‘freshness of the Word’ that you refer to in your post; thus potentially quenching the viva vox Dei simply because it might expand the normative trad beyond its perceptual breaking point. I actually see these things as products of material theological production more than simply matters of prolegomena or pre-Dogmatic reflection. In other words, I see privileging the Western trad (or Eastern as the case may be) as necessarily elevating the form of theologizing one is a priori committed to doing prior to a pre-critical reflection upon what that might entail at a sourced level. In other words, what Long, Leithart et al seem to be doing (by way of smuggling) is presupposing upon an ecclesiocentric mode of theologizing (rather than radically christocentric) thus already disallowing the sort of ‘freshness’ that a robust theology of the Word has the capacity to bring semper reformanda. In other words, this whole meditation seems to presuppose upon a certain ‘natural’ (i.e. ecclesial) conception of the theological task without asking the prior question of whether or not such a task does not necessarily collapse the voice of the Christ into the voice of the Church. If this conflation of voices is allowed to exist I wonder, as a Protestant, if I were to sign onto this approach, how my theory of authority ultimately differs from the Roman Catholic theory vis-a-vis a theory of the church.

Anyway, I was going to write a blog post in response, but apparently I just made it a comment instead.

Okay, so there’s more to say, but what I offered in reply to Derek was off the top and represents some of the issues I have with his non-anxiety about being modern (or not). I will say though, it’s pretty hard to not at least be modern as a people who indwells the 21st century. I mean, yes, we certainly can pretend that the various theological developments of the modern period were corrosive and corrupt (mostly) to the ‘orthodox past’—and I don’t see Derek fully wanting to do that, at least I don’t think—but that notwithstanding, what doesn’t change is that we are still intellectual inheritors of our own located conditioning whether we like it or not. This is not to say that we cannot critically become aware of the voices and ideas that have conditioned us, but even so, even after we distanciate, we remain inhabitants of our times and places with all of the intellectual baggage or prizes in tow.


Posted in Modern Theology

The Naked Gospel: Primitivism, Protestant Orthodox Theology, and Solo Scriptura

I am often critical of what I have called solo scriptura or what has been called more formally, nuda scriptura. This is a sort of sola scriptura run amuck—some would say taken to its logical conclusion—an approach that believes all tradition making is wrong-headed (except of course for its tradition in regard to Scripture’s ability to speak independent of other interpretive traditions), and thus appeal to Scripture all by itself should be the mode of the theologian’s method. Indeed, there is a fine line between historic sola scriptura and nuda scriptura; in principle we might see them as univocal, but in function the former leaves place for the tradition of the church whereas the latter wants to negate that through “critical” or “deconfessionalized” means that are not reliant upon the church’s doctors or its reception of the tradition itself. This sort of naturalizing of the text of Scripture, and its meaning, started becoming prominent in Protestant theology late in the 17th century; it’s a mode that continues into the present in a blossomed form (maybe even gone-to-seed form) as we continue to see as the dominant form that funds what is currently called biblical studies. Richard Muller, once again, helps to identify how this unfolded in the 17th century in a writing called The Naked Gospel. He writes:

Theological debate was intensified early in 1690 by the anonymous publication of The Naked Gospel by Arthur Bury. The work was not, strictly speaking, either Socinian or directly supportive of the Socinian doctrinal program, but it offered such a blistering attack on the Christian tradition, whether of the later fathers or of the orthodoxy of the late seventeenth century, that it was easily associated with some of the arguments of the Socinians. Specifically, Bury argued that “scholastic” thinking, particularly the use of logic and metaphysics, had created a grand and confusing edifice of “new doctrines” not found in the gospel. It was the task of his book to criticize the rational or “natural” religion of the church in his time and propose a return to the original, simple, “naked” gospel of Christ and the apostles. Bury attacks the ecumenical councils, particularly Nicaea, blaming them for creating a false and highly rationalized christology instead of more simply and directly the high “dignity” and “divinity” of Christ’s person and his divine sonship in the office of mediator. As for the doctrine of the Trinity, Bury indicates that it is ultimately confusing, inasmuch as the identification of three divine “persons” in no way indicates three Gods and the language of the traditional doctrine, therefore, has not good analogy to typical usage. Bury was suspended from the university.[1]

In some ways Bury’s approach might sound what I have been proposing here at The Evangelical Calvinist over the years. There might seem to be a radical biblicism funding the Evangelical Calvinist mood such that people of more trad or conservative sensibilities become concerned or immediately critical.

What we have had described for us by Muller, in regard to The Naked Gospel, might make certain readers think of the 19th century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher’s approach to doing theology. Schleiermacher, ironically, was someone who actually started to reign in much of radical biblicism that we see inchoately in someone like Bury, and which had gone to seed by time Schleiermacher. Nevertheless, as E.J. Hutchinson notes with reference to Schleiermacher’s mode, there is a perception that Schleiermacher was still operating in a way that sought to undercut what had developed previously in the traditionary models of theological doctrinism. That Schleiermacher wanted to reformulate all Christian Dogma under the pressures provided for by a clean (Enlightened) reading of Holy Writ. Hutchinson writes:

Aside from the fact that this view is paradoxical—if “fresh treatment” is adesideratum as such, how can anything ever be “finally settled”?—there is a more basic point that should be highlighted with respect to the idea of “reformation.” On Schleiermacher’s reading, “reformation” entails that all dogmatic loci be revised and overhauled from their very foundations. According to the gloss of a recent commentator, Schleiermacher believed that the Protestants of the sixteenth century “too uncritically took over earlier views without testing them against the Protestant spirit.” Schleiermacher is explicit in the work’s final section that his placement of the doctrine of the Trinity is due to just such a desire for total overhaul. The assumption lurking behind this viewpoint—and it is an assumption—is that there was a unifying drive broader than and undergirding particular theological revisions, that it ought to be generalizable to all doctrinal topics, and that if it has not been so generalized, it is due to a lapse on the part of the Reformers in carrying their Grundsatz all the way through. Thus Schüssler Fiorenza can gloss Schleiermacher’s stance as follows: “The traditional doctrinal formulations [about the Trinity] fail to express [the] reformation impulse.”[2]

Bury and Schleiermacher, while separated by passage of time, might be convergent in ethos and outlook in regard to sensibility and a desire to present a Naked Gospel.

Evangelical Calvinists, following after Barth et al., I believe, are seen as compatriots of the Bury/Schleiermacher feeling. There is a fear that we have imbibed the wrong spirit because we have seemingly chained ourselves to an anti-orthodoxing move that began in the very presence and development of 16th and 17th century Protestant orthodox theology. If this is the perception of Evangelical Calvinism, particularly of those entrenched in classical Calvinism or Reformed theology, then Evangelical Calvinism will always be understood, at least in those quarters, as a marginal or fringe movement that need not be engaged with, or instead, if engaged with, segregated into the mood of Bury et al. and as something that needs to be repented of. But Evangelical Calvinism is more polymorphous than that; we are, for the most part, very traditional and conservative (way more than Bury or Schleiermacher).

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Four. The Triunity of God(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 123.

[2] E.J. Hutchinson, “Melanchthon’s Unintended Reformation? The Case of the Missing Doctrine of God,” in Bradford LittleJohn ed., God of our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Institute, 2018), Loc 571, 581, 593, 603 kindle version.

Posted in Modern Theology, Richard Muller, Salvation | 1 Comment

Why Evangelicals, the Classically Reformed, and the Post-Reformed orthodox Are Suspicious of After Barth Thinkers

If you don’t find yourself in agreement with mainstream evangelical reformed theology you might find yourself placed into a role that plays like the antitriniarian biblicists of 17th and 18th century Western Europeans. In other words, and this helps explain a lot for me personally, any reluctance to be a flaming post reformed orthodox thinker finding your theological marching orders from 16th and 17th century developments ostensibly places you into a mold that, at best, is on the fringes of Protestant orthodoxy, and at worst makes you a far-gone heretic (such as the antitrinitarians just noted). Richard Muller explains the matrix:

Not to be underestimated here is the impact of patristic scholarship in the seventeenth century. If the Reformation altered the balance of Scripture and tradition by declaring that, although tradition stood as a subordinate norm identifying probabilities, it still could err (as demonstrated by the experience of the later Middle Ages), the antitrinitarian debate of the late seventeenth century altered the balance once more. The antitrinitarians claimed a biblical foundation that was radically antitraditionary—to the point that writers like Nye and Smalbroke argued the biblical rectitude of views expressed by early heretics like the Ebionites and Nazarenes.

The last decades of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century saw such a vast alteration of the exegetical and philosophical framework of explanation that the attempts at trinitarian discussion of a whole generation of writers failed to produce a statement of doctrine that was at the same time philosophically contemporary and theologically orthodox. In addition, these English Socinians claimed to be truly Protestant and fundamentally biblicistic, true heirs of the Reformation—noting that the Reformation proclaimed the correct biblical standard but did not go far enough in rooting out the problematic elements of the tradition (among which the doctrine of the Trinity held a place of prominence).[1]

Muller, and many following him, believes that the 18th century is the period where Reformed orthodoxy took a turn for the worse and began a turn to heterodoxy. His development above helps us to see the premises that funded this deleterious turn, in Muller’s eyes. It is a radical-biblicism uncoupled from any norms found in the ecumenical church councils (particularly Nicaea-Constantinople and Chalcedon) that Muller sees as the culprit. We have these contours already present, as Muller notes, in the late 17th century which we see climaxing in the English Enlightenment and the rationalism produced therein (Muller sees Christian Wolff as a key player in this polluting time).

What does this mean for Modern theology vis-à-vis Protestant orthodox theology in the period prior? By and large it means anyone thinking from the former period needs to be approached with some serious suspicion; that such thinkers might well be closer to the antitrinitarians than they are the orthodox. This is why anyone associated with Karl Barth, not just incidentally, but in more overt terms, is typically written off as a “Barthian.” Such people are immediately, by the purported “orthodox” folks (the folks involved in the project of repristinating [oh, constructively of course] the 16th and 17th century orthodox developments), placed into the antitriniarian if not full-fledged Socinian type-set.

Sure, there are multitudinous examples of modern theologians, theological biblicists, who indeed fit Muller’s description of antitraditionary to the core. But it is, for one thing, a sweeping generalization to place people into that same location merely because they happen to believe that particular modern theologians (such as Barth and T Torrance) have some very valuable things to say; often in critique of many of the 16th and 17th century moves. This is unfortunate, to say the least.

I think there is a slippery-slope fear that many of these “conservatives” have. And to be frank, yes, I can think of examples of people I know who went whole-hog into modern theology and indeed fit into this sort of ‘biblicist’ mode; who have bit-the-bullet so hard that they are now denying basic and traditional Christian teaching around the bodily resurrection of Christ, or belief in an “after-life.” But this is  not the necessary conclusion that comes by finding value in modern theologies. I affirm all of the trad teachings of historic Christianity, and yet think very closely alongside of folks like Barth et al.


[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Four. The Triunity of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 121.

Posted in Barth, Critiquing Classic Calvinism, Reformed Theology, Richard Muller | 1 Comment

The Uncontrollable Lion God of Dialectical Theology Rather than the Deus Ex Machina: Disdaining Natural Theology Because of Jesus

Natural theology continues to be a pariah for me, and I’d imagine always will be! I don’t think I can emphasize how much I disdain natural theology; although this hasn’t always been the case. Before I could disdain it I first had to realize what it was, and how most of my theological predilections were contingent upon it. Natural theology, at base, objectifies God; it seeks to possess God by its identification of him as that is grounded in a stable (or so it is perceived) rendition of him as that is abstracted from some form of ideology or previously formed human construct outwith a first love encounter with him (an encounter with him that is ever afresh and anew spirated by the Holy Spirit upon the breath of God’s Word who is the Christ). Natural theology attempts to objectify God or circumscribe God by epistemic centers that are first arrived at by human machinations rather than after God has spoken (Deus Dixit); after God speaks and confronts us with who he is in the risen Christ mediated to us by the Holy Spirit’s ‘paracletic’ work as we participate in that work through being united to Christ’s vicarious humanity. The problem is, at least according to Scripture, is that God is non-objectifiable. In other words, God cannot be grasped or handled; not by the church, the world, or the angels. If this is so, if we cannot sublimate God by our lowly handles we’ve attached to him; if we cannot handle God by correlating him to the discoverable categories of the philosophers; then what is left? This seems to place God out of reach. Indeed.

John McDowell, to refer to a quote I’ve used in another post with a different focus, helps to illustrate how natural theology produces this sort of abstract voluntaristically driven God who might be conceived of—in a God-world relation—apart from rather than concretely grounded in Jesus Christ. McDowell is discussing Barth’s relationship to his French friend Pierre Maury; Maury had played an important role in setting the trajectory for Barth’s reformulation of a classical doctrine of election and reprobation. I think this helps illustrate a reason why I disdain natural theology:

Consequently, Maury and Barth force the Reformed tradition to ask substantively what is meant by claiming that “God was in Christ” if Revelation is separated from the very Word of God eternally articulated, and God’s being (as will) is hidden behind Christ so that the gracefulness of God expressed in Christ is particularized in the decretum absolutum and is therefore not essential to what is meant by God. Can this two-stage deity make sense of the development of Christian Trinitarianism and therefore the Christological doctrine of the homoousion? Reasoning strongly that it cannot, Maury and Barth locate here the regulation of philosophical abstraction in much of the tradition. Criticizing both the Calvinist and Lutheran versions of the doctrine of predestination, Barth detects in them “traces of a natural theology . . . traces, that is, of a general view of the freedom of God, based on one philosophical system or another.” The appeal to “natural theology” and “one philosophical system or another” is rather imprecise, but the import of the shorthand criticism is nonetheless clear enough. The Gospel has to do with what Barth suggestively delineates in his seventh Gifford Lecture through the phrase “the Revelation of God, the God who deals with man.” This he would articulate as the irreducible “concreteness, the contingency, the historical singularity of the eternal, absolute, divine Word” of God (and, of course, as CD III/2 impresses, of humanity as well). Accordingly, Maury appeals in “Election et Foi” to election as being “about God.”[1]

Natural theology separates God from his Word, and in the Reformed context this separation requires that another mechanism be constructed in order for God to enact relationship with the world; i.e. through the decretum absolutum, or through a determining decretal system that inter-links God’s power and being to the rest of the world all along keeping God untouched by the world or the creatures who inhabit it (all in an attempt to sustain the philosophically developed loci known as simplicity, immutability, impassibility, infinity, etc.). The problem, if not recognizable, is that in this ‘classical’ system of theology proper God is taken captive by a set of conditions and categories that have nothing to do with God encountering us in his Word, Jesus Christ. How could it?! If the God produced by natural theology is necessarily uncoupled from his Word for us, the Son, Jesus Christ then how can we ever really say that we have encountered the living God? This is a serious dilemma. Why would I entrust my eternal well-being to a God that history or tradition has produced; wouldn’t this mean that I am really entrusting myself to the producers of the history and the tradition instead?

Natural theology presumes upon an idea of ‘pure nature,’ but this itself is another presumption about a God-world relation; a presumption, just as the absolute decree that ruptures God from his Word. If we posit that God has constructed a world wherein latent within this world (nature) there are vestiges of who God is waiting to be discovered by even unregenerate minds, isn’t this positing effort itself just more presumption? How am I supposed to know that the God-world relation you are positing is the true God? And if you point me to apologetic efforts, aren’t these efforts themselves grounded in more presumption about history, physical reality, and epistemic centers? Ultimately, even if a natural theology can be devised (and there are some) that assert a non-reliance upon a naturum purum (pure nature) no matter what, what ends up happening is more presumption as a foundation for knowledge of God.

What if instead knowledge of God is purely relationally and personalistically based? What if knowledge of God is solely based upon the risen Christ confronting and encountering us through his written and preached Word as those in derivatively given senses break away and towards, in stratified ways, their reality found in the eternal Logos of God, Jesus Christ? This way forward, as it engages with God’s dealing with his church and the interpretation that has ensued as a result, results in a very complicated and interesting discussion in and of itself. But I want to suggest to you (forcefully) that I think this is the best way for thinking God. Not based upon structures that help us to negotiate a way with God, but instead upon a more concrete and ever present and pressing reality that we are confronted with (ec-statically so) moment by moment as the everlasting God in Christ relentlessly pursues us from his vicarious humanity as that is seated at the right hand of the Father. This approach to God, at least for my marbles, comes to recognize that God is more like a Lion rather than a machine (Deus ex machina); that God is more uncontrollable and ineffable even as we dialectically come to only know him exhaustively as he Self-unveils himself for us in the risen Christ; in the re-conciliatory encounter of the power of God, also known as the Gospel (cf. Rom. 1.16).


[1] John C. McDowell, “Afterword,” in Simon Hattrell, ed., Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a “Decisive Impetus” to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), loc 3769, 3778.

Posted in Barth, John McDowell, Natural Theology | 1 Comment