The Patristic Calvinists versus the Medieval Calvinists: Engaging with Athanasius’s Theology of Theosis in Conversation with Barth’s and Torrance’s Themes

I write about the same themes over and over again; someone even griped about that about me on FaceBook (I don’t think he thought I could see his gripe). But there’s a reason; I’ve been taken aback by the theology I have been confronted with in the writings of Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Augustine, et al. I’ve been surprised by the depth and richness available in the history of ecclesial ideas; surprised in the sense that what so often is presented to evangelicals at the popular and mainstream levels barely scratches the surfaces. I’ve been surprised by finding out that the Christian theological world is not comprised of nor defined by the usual binaries (i.e. Calvinism versus Arminianism etc.) that are so often presented to the evangelical Christian world in North America and the West as if these are the absolute parameters wherein Christians can think and still be considered orthodox. So yes, I do write a lot about the same themes because I don’t think the themes I write about have been emphasized enough; at least not for the evangelicals.

With the above noted, this post will be in reference to Athanasius’s theology of deification or theosis; a doctrine us Evangelical Calvinists are very interested in and informed by. I am just finishing up Thomas Weinandy’s fine work on Athanasius’s theology, and so we will hear from his treatment of Athanasius’s theology in regard to this particular locus. What is striking about Weinandy’s account here is, if you didn’t know he was describing Athanasius’s theology you would think he was referring to either Barth or Torrance’s understanding of election and salvation in general. So when Torrance says he’s not a Barthian, but instead an Athanasian, when you read the following from Weinandy you might understand why. It’s not that Torrance was not a joyful student of Barth, it’s just that Torrance understood that much of what he found in Barth was first presented by Athanasius. Here is how Weinandy details Athanasius’ understanding of deification (at some considerable length):

Thus, the Son became man precisely that humankind might be ‘perfected in him and restored, as it was made at the beginning – with yet greater grace. For, on rising from the dead we shall no longer fear death, but in Christ shall reign forever in the heavens.’ As Jesus took on incorruptibility in his resurrection, so ‘it is clear that the resurrection of all of us will take place; and since his body remained without corruption, there can be no doubt regarding our incorruption’.

Athanasius equally understands Jesus’ resurrection, again following Philippians, as his perfecting ‘exaltation’. The Son is exalted not as God, ‘but the exaltation is of the manhood’, for he humbled himself in assuming humankind’s humanity even unto death on the cross. The Son’s humanity was raised up and exalted because it was not external to him, but his own. For Athanasius, the exaltation of the Son’s humanity was none other than that it was fully deified and so made perfect. Moreover, since all Christians die in him, so now the share in his exaltation. ‘He himself should be exalted, for he is the highest, but that he may become righteousness for us, and we may be exalted in him.’ As the second Adam then, the exalted and so deified incarnate Son becomes the paradigm in whom all human beings can come to share in his perfected risen humanity. Where the ‘first man’ brought death to humankind’s humanity, the Son ‘quickened it with the blood of his own body’.

In a similar fashion, Athanasius perceives that, in being exalted and so perfectly hallowed, the incarnate Son becomes ‘Lord’, ‘in order to hallow all by the Spirit’. In being made fully holy in the Spirit, Athanasius argues that we can rightly be called ‘gods’, not in the sense that we are equal to the Son by nature, but because we have become beneficiaries of his grace. Human beings are, therefore, ‘sons and gods’ because they ‘were adopted and deified through the Word’. Since the Son is himself God who became man, humankind can be deified by being united to his glorious humanity, ‘for because of our relationship to his body, we too have become God’s temple, and in consequence are made God’s sons’.

For Athanasius, the perfecting and so hallowing of Jesus through his glorious exaltation as a risen man is summed up in his notion of deification. Moreover, as Jesus is deified so those who are united to him are perfected and so hallowed by being united to him and so deified as well. Deification is not then the changing of our human nature into something other than it is, that is, into another kind of being. Rather, deification for Athanasius is the making of humankind into what it was meant to be from the very beginning, that is, the perfect image of the Word who is the perfect image of the Father. Moreover, this deification is only effected by being taken into the very divine life of the Trinity. Thus, as the Son is the Son of the Father because he is begotten of the Father and so is ontologically one with the Father, so Christians imitate this divine oneness by being taken up into it. Commenting on Jesus’ prayer, that Christians would be one with him as he is with the Father (see Jn. 17:21), Athanasius perceives that it is through being united to Jesus’ ‘body’ that we become one body with him and so are united to the Father himself. This ‘uniting’ is the work of the Holy Spirit. ‘The Son is in the Father, as his proper Word and Radiance; but we, apart from the Spirit, are strange and distant from God, yet by the participation of the Spirit we are knit into the Godhead.’ Thus the goal of creation is now achieved, that is, human beings have communion with the Father through his eternal Word.

For since the Word is in the Father, and the Spirit is given from the Word, he wills that we should receive the Spirit, that when we receive it, thus having the Spirit of the Word which is in the Father, we too may be found, on account of the Spirit, to become one in the Word, and through him in the Father. [Contra Arianos, 3.25]

Divinization then, for Athanasius, is the sharing fully in the life of the Trinity and it is this sharing in the divine life that thoroughly transforms the believer into the adopted likeness of the Son.[1]  

If you have read here regularly for any amount of time the themes of deification/theosis note in Athanasius’ theology will be or should be recognizable to you. As we have looked into the idea of Jesus being the image of God, and humanity being first created and recreated in the resurrection as the images of the image in Christ, again, what we just covered should be familiar to you. Or maybe as we think back to Barth’s or Torrance’s understanding of election, Athanasius’s theology, as told by Weinandy, should be familiar to you.

What this reinforces for me, other than that rich theological material that we can find in Athanasius’s thought, is that Evangelical Calvinism represents a distinct mode of Reformed theology. Surely it is not foreign to the aims nor many of the trajectories set forth in the Protestant Reformation (particularly as we think about Calvin, Luther, Knox and some other magisterial reformers, and some Scottish ones), indeed, what Evangelical Calvinism is seeking to do is to operate in the ‘spirit’ of Calvinist/Reformed theology by working in a type of ad fontes (back to the sources) mood. What this means though, is that just like the original Protestant Reformers, ensconced in their own time and circumstance, we will be looking back through the centuries from a modern, even postmodern vista. With that noted, I think Evangelical Calvinism in many ways could be said to be a Patristic Calvinism, as far as the Athanasian and Irenean type of categories we want to use; whereas classical Calvinists, I would like to suggest should probably be called Medieval Calvinists, given their proclivity to appeal to Aristotelian theories of causation and metaphysics. In this sense Evangelical Calvinists are more prone to thinking of salvation in terms of ontology and personalist Trinitarian understandings in regard to a God-world relation; whereas classical Calvinists are more prone to thinking in terms of declarational/forensic and decretral categories in a God-world relation.

We have covered a lot; we have looked at Athanasius’s theology of deification, and then used that as an occasion to draw further points of departure between Evangelical Calvinists and so called classical Calvinists. Hopefully you can see that; and hopefully you have benefited from the sharing of Weinandy’ treatment of Athanasius’s theology as I have.

[1] Thomas G. Weindandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 98-100.

Apostolic Succession, Theories of Ecclesial Authority, and Biblical Exegesis: Miscellanies

As I noted on my FaceBook wall I am planning on writing a mini-exegetical paper on the doctrine of Apostolic Succession, as held to by both Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox in their own respective and distinct ways (i.e. please don’t think I’m assuming that RC and EO are just different sides of the same coin, I’m not. But they do share a similar view of Apostolic Succession in regard to their theory of the church and theory of authority). My exegetical paper will be an analysis of the locus classicus texts found in both Matthew 16 and 18. I will argue how and why 16 should be read in tandem with 18, and if read in this way, paying attention to the Greek grammar, the idea of Apostolic Succession is severely undercut; at least in the Dominical teaching of Jesus Christ. But my ultimate conclusion will remain chastened to the reality that Apostolic Succession and its attendant theory of the church is more complex than simply defeating it through an exegetical analysis of some Matthean texts.

The above noted, in this post I simply want to share something from Matthew Levering’s book Engaging the Doctrine of Redemption. In his introductory remarks he offers a quote from a Catholic scholar named O’Collins (of course that’s his name!); O’Collins is delineating how he sees tradition, church, and scripture working together as an organic whole. I thought something like this would be good to share particularly in light of my forthcoming paper on Apostolic Succession. Levering writes:

Regarding Tradition, O’Collins first shows that its practical necessity has been ecumenically accepted, and so the question now is how to distinguish authoritative Tradition. With respect to the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, he points out that “if the community’s tradition, along with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, led to the formation of the Scriptures, one would expect tradition to remain active in interpreting and applying the Scriptures.”⁵⁵ The Bible in this sense cannot be separated from the Church, even though, as Dei Verbum affirms, the Church’s magisterium serves the scriptural word of God rather than the other way around. The Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church includes working through the bishops (including uniquely—the bishop of Rome), rather than simply working through “individual believers reading the Scriptures, preachers expounding the Scriptures, and ministers using the Scriptures in administering the sacraments.”⁵⁶ It is the Holy Spirit that enables the Church to hand on Tradition—that is, to hand on the entirety of what has been revealed in Jesus Christ. O’Collins discusses eight elements that guide the Church and individual believers in discerning the true content of this Tradition: the magisterium, the Vincentian canon, the “sensus fidei,” continuity with the apostolic Church, the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, apostolicity, Scripture, and the risen Lord. He remarks that the Church of each generation inevitably hands on Tradition in a somewhat different form from that in which it had been received, although “an essential continuity is maintained.”[1]

This thickens things a bit, at least in regard to how I might be writing my mini-exegetical paper on Matthew 16 and 18. At the least it illustrates how my exegesis of Matthew 16 and 18 will not be the silver bullet in undercutting a doctrine of Apostolic Succession; my goal is not that triumphant. Really what I’m hoping to accomplish with my paper is to simply have something I can refer to, online, when I encounter people who appeal to that as proof positive for Apostolic Succession.

In regard to what I just shared from Levering and O’collins, it might be somewhat difficult to overcome the theologic being articulated if someone like Karl Barth hadn’t come along. Yes, the whole Post Reformed orthodox period of development has many direct responses to all of these claims and theologic provided for by Levering/O’Collins, with particular reference to the Scripture principle (which Barth himself appeals to in his book The Theology of the Reformed Confessions and in his CD etc.) and Sola Scriptura, but honestly I really don’t think Post Reformed orthodox theology (think of the work of Richard Muller and his Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics) has the actual ecclesiological chops to move away from the pressure provided by the theologic of Levering/O’Collins. In other words, I think any theology that appeals to natural theology will have a hard time escaping the ecclesiocentric approach to things that Rome is funded by; the Westminster Reformed types have the same ecclesiocentrism present in their theology. It is Barth, and really, modernity itself that supplies the type of theological escape route that one needs to be able to critically move away from the type of ecclesiocentrism that we find in both Rome and Post Reformed orthodoxy (with its heavy reliance upon its Confessional magisterium etc.).

 

[1] Matthew Levering, Engaging the Doctrine of Redemption: Mediating the Gospel through Church and Scripture, 26 Scribd.

Level I and Level II orthodoxy: Reflections on Ecumenicism and “Catholicity Building”

*A post I originally wrote in 2008; I wasn’t an Evangelical Calvinist at this point, only seminally (and unconsciously). But I still think there are some good points here, particularly with reference to the quote I provide from my former undergrad professor Dr. Rex Koivisto. I would rewrite much of my own comments here, but again, I still think there is an important point to be made by Koivisto in regard to what he calls “level I orthodoxy” and “level II orthodoxy.” By the way the language of “catholicity building” comes from Koivisto as he had us do what he called “catholicity builders” as part of his ecclesiology class. We had to visit various churches, outside of our personal tradition, in order to get a sense of Christianity’s presence outside of our small perspective. I visited a Roman Catholic church, Greek Orthodox, and one more; can’t remember what that was. 

There is constant debate and schism over secondary issues within the Church of Jesus Christ, especially amongst those of us who might be identified as Evangelical Christians.  The problem comes in when secondary issues are elevated to main or primary issues, as if, for example, Calvinism or Arminianism are actually the gospel themselves–when clearly they are not!

I am going to quote at length, Dr. Rex Koivisto (one of my wise profs while attending Multnomah Bible College), he wrote a book entitled One Lord, One Faith (an excellent resource that I would advise all to pick up). In his work he provides some excellent clarification on how we should think about the essentials of Christianity (esp. in regards to salvific issues) vs. secondary issues; he provides a catchy distinction between the two that all Christians (who are interested in catholicity) should take heed to. Anyway lets hear from Koivisto:

The objective content of the Gospel message. One cannot doubt that the New Testament attests to the centrality of the Gospel message as the minimal “gate” through which one passes from death to life. Paul is not ashamed of this message, because it is God’s power for the salvation of all people (Rom. 1:16-17). It is the message he passed on to the Corinthians “as of first importance” (I Cor. 15:1-8). Yet the full content of the Gospel message is not contained in any one verse or group of verses in the New Testament. The reason, of course, is that the New Testament literature was not written as evangelistic material, but as instructional material for those already converted. Nevertheless, allusions to the Gospel are plentiful enough (in, for example, the evangelistic messages in the Book of Acts and in direct references to the Gospel in the Pauline epistles) to make a reconstruction of its core details relatively easy. Collecting these into one convenient statement, one could say that the Gospel message is simply this:

God sent His Son into the world to die as an atonement for sin, and God raised Him from the dead, so that anyone who places faith in Him receives the free gift of salvation.

Each of these statements has several levels of presuppositions and implications, which would be developed in many ways by the church in succeeding centuries. I will refer to the fuller implications that are not worked out within the New Testament itself as a “level II orthodoxy,” or a “sustaining orthodoxy” to be discussed later in this chapter. But there are also some clear presuppositions and implications of the Gospel message that are demonstrable from the New Testament itself. That is, its writers meant certain things by terminology they employed in communicating the Gospel; and they understood the Gospel to have certain important implications. It is the Gospel and its presuppositions and implications, as understood by the New Testament writers, that serves as the “level I orthodoxy,” or core orthodoxy around which the church catholic centers itself.In contrast to the term sustaining or level II orthodoxy of subsequent centuries, level I orthodoxy (core orthodoxy) we will call “saving orthodoxy.” The reason for this latter terminology is due to the pragmatic elements connected with the nature of the Gospel: it saves people. Level II, or sustaining orthodoxy, is the subsequent reflection on the saving orthodoxy of the Gospel that enables us to understand how and why it saves people, but the Gospel can save without an understanding of these elements. But an incorrect explanation of the how and why can lead to serious error and distortion of the saving message of the Gospel. Both dimensions are therefore important, but the pragmatic tilt must be given to level I, or saving orthodoxy as outlined in the brief statement, along with its New Testament presuppositions and implications.[1]

A lot to take away here! Let me highlight a few important implications of what I see Koivisto’s thoughts leading to: first he underscores the fact that the scriptures are the seed-bed and provision that has authority in defining what features of the Gospel are important for the appropriation of salvation. Second, he makes an significant observation regarding the purpose and audience of the New Testament; viz. he points out that the New Testament was written to people already “saved” which should bring perspective to many texts that we place as primarily focusing on “how” the appropriation of salvation takes place–when in fact these texts might have a different orientation all together (i.e. discussing issues of sanctification rather than justification). Third, Koivisto provides a healthy dichotomy between what he calls “Level I orthodoxy” and “Level II orthodoxy;” the former being the simple message of salvation necessary for the appropriation of eternal life, the latter being reflection by the church (i.e. tradition) on the “how” and the “why” of salvation (or other doctrine). Level I orthodoxy is what is primary and unites all Christians (i.e. simple trust in the free offer of salvation in Christ) throughout the centuries in Christ. Level II orthodoxy reflects paradigms like Augustinianism, Pelagianism, Calvinism, Lutheranism, Nominalism, Thomism, etc.; these are all interesting points of discussion relative to the Gospel, but they are not the Gospel. And this is the significance of Koivisto’s point, we should not elevate “sustaining or Level II orthodoxy” to that of Level I–when we do the result is clear (just scan through the blogosphere or churches throughout America and the world), schism arises, and fellowship amongst all those who hold to Level I orthodoxy (or saving orthodoxy) is broken.

Let me challenge you, as I speak to myself as well, affirm the distinction Koivisto brings to light; do not give into the temptation to elevate “your” particular “Level II orthodoxy” to the same altitude that “Level I orthodoxy” has. To often I see people castigating one side or the other, as if they “aren’t brothers and sisters” in the Lord; when all along both opposing camps affirm “Saving Orthodoxy” (Level I). How we work out Level II has some important implications as well, but on the sliding scale of soteriological significance, it does not and should not have the pre-eminence that Level I has relative to fellowship amongst ourselves as Christians.

Addendum:

To be clear, I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t debate or dialogue vigorously around Level II orthodoxy issues; but the attitude that should shape such discussion should be motivated by grace for one another. I believe denominations are a reflection of the reality of Level II orthodoxy, and I think this is actually healthy–all I’m calling for is that we don’t become arrogant and think MY interpretive tradition is the same as the Gospel. Level II orthodoxy will indeed distinguish but it should not divide!!

 

[1] Dr. Rex Koivisto, One Lord, One Faith,  196-97.

 

‘The Eternally Fruitful Father’: How Creation and Salvation only Make Sense if God is Father of the Son in Athanasius’s Theology by Weinandy

Thomas Torrance picks up on the Athanasian idea that God has always already been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but that becoming Creator was something new for God. As we dig further into Athanasius’s theology itself, as told by Thomas Weinandy, what we see behind this is how this notion took place within Athanasius’s defense of the homoousion language Contra Arionos relative to both a doctrine of creation and how soteriology is understood within that frame; a Christologically induced frame grounded in the intra-Trinitarian life of God. Honestly the way Weinandy unfolds all of this is one of the most profound things I have ever come across in regard to answering the question of why God would create in the first place; in other words, how does creation itself flow organically from the who God is in his inner and eternal life (in se)?

As Weinandy details it is precisely because God is Father of the Son, and Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit (that:  by the Holy Spirit is my addition) that creation makes sense; i.e. there is place for the other in God by nature (or ‘being’ ousia). In other words the fact that God is, by nature, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit allows for the type of space to conceive of a God who could create ‘others’ if he wanted to; i.e. he’s a God, eternally so as revealed in Christ (the Son), who is relational—i.e. his oneness (De Deo uno) is given shape by his threeness (De Deo trino), and vice versa. A God who is Pure Being, or monadic, like the God of Islam or the Modalists, or of Arius, would never create, not for any theo-logical reasons anyway.[1]

Let’s get to it, here’s how Weinandy unfolds all of this in Athanasius’s theology (the quote is lengthy):

The central soteriological issue in Athanasius’ Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione was creation. Athanasius continues to stress within his anti-Arian and pro-Nicene writing that is only because the Son is truly divine  that the Father creates through his so that creation always possesses an intimate and immediate relationship with the Father through the Son. Employing Irenaeus’ famous analogy, Athanasius states that the Son is ‘the hand’ though [sic] which the Father brings into being all that is. This is again the theological basis upon which Athanasius founds the Father’s love for humankind and the Son’s innate responsibility, in the light of sin, for humankind’s subsequent redemption. ‘It is fitting that redemption should take place through none other than him who is Lord by nature, lest, though created by the Son, we should name another Lord.’ Thus, unlike Arianism, there is no need for an intermediate cosmological third party that bridges the ontological gap between the Father and creation, for the Son, through whom the Father creates, unites in an unmediated manner, in that he too, is God, the whole creation to the Father.

Moreover, in response to the Arian claim that the Son is a creature, Athanasius innovatively asks a veryinsightful and new question. How can God be ‘Creator’ if he is not first ‘Father’? ‘If the divine essence is not fruitful in itself but barren, as they hold, as a light that does not lighten or a dry fountain’, how is it that it can give being and life to others? For Athanasius, only if God is eternally the fruitful Father who, by the very nature of who he is, eternally begets his Son, is it possible for the Father, by his will, to create through his Son. ‘If then that which comes first, which is according to nature, did not exist, as they would have it in their folly, how could that which is second come to be, which is according to will? For the Word is first, and then the creation.’ However, since the Father has created, this manifests that he is inherently fruitful by nature and so he is first of all Father of the Son. ‘If he, by willing them to be, frames things that are external to him and before were not, and thus becomes their maker, much more will he first be Father of an offspring from his proper essence.’ If creation is the foundation of all soteriology, then, for Athanasius, its requisite is found only within the fruitful creativity of the Father begetting the Son.

This is a marvelous insight. If God was simply a singular existing being – a monad, something after the manner of Aristotle’s ‘self-thinking thought’, then God could never conceive of anything other than himself. Being simply One, it would be metaphysically impossible for him to conceive of two, or of three, or of an infinite multitude, for One is all there is. Actually, God would not even conceive of himself as One because ‘One’ itself implies a further numerical sequence of others. We only know what ‘one’ means because we equally know what ‘two’ means, without ‘two’, ‘one’ not only has no meaning, it is also, literally, inconceivable. God would just be and nothing more could be conceived, imagined, or said. As Athanasius rightly perceives, only if God is, by his very nature, the Father begetting the Son, could that God conceive of bringing into existence other beings that are not God.[2]

Much richness to consider.

One way to reflect on this, at least one way that I’d like to, is to note the theological taxis or ‘order’ present in all of this. It all starts with the Triune God as the ground and grammar of everything else; which is given shape by a Christological conditioning in regard to who we know God to be as Father of the Son, and as such we only have the capacity to know God as the Creator in this way first; i.e. as Father of the Son and Son of the Father. It is this basis upon which creation can be conceived of theo-logically, as the Father is understood to be, coinherently, as eternally fruitful; since that’s what Fatherhood entails, i.e. in having a Son. From this creation gains its telos or ‘purpose’, it is a Christologically oriented trajectory. And from within this frame we can finally have a discussion about everything else—like salvation, a doctrine of Scripture, so on and so forth—since everything else as far as we’re concerned requires created reality given the fact that we’re creatures coram Deo (‘before God’).

Let’s leave off there. But it is quite astounding, really, to see how thinking things from a Trinitarian ground, and one that is Christological conditioned, as Athanasius originally did, provides such rich and fertile soil to think about everything else that is subsequent; i.e. meaning all else that we might want to call “theology.”

 

[1] This insight comes directly from Thomas G. Weinandy.

[2] Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Hampshire/Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 79-80.

Chasing the God feeling: How Correct Praise is Orthodoxy, and How Orthodoxy is right Worship

We all want to experience God, at least I do! But since we live in a fallen world experiencing God the right way requires sweat; it requires work. Most people, most Christians I’d venture to say, don’t want to put in the work; they want others to do it for them. They want to be able to go to church, sit down, stand up, raise their hands (if they aren’t Presbyterians or Baptists anyway) and “experience” the warm and fuzzy God feeling. Most Christians don’t want to spend the hard time thinking about, and reading about what the Triunity of God is about; how it developed in the history of the church; or understand how it might shape the very fabric of their identity as coheirs with Christ. But this is all wrong.

If we want to worship God rightly, if we really want to experience and encounter the real and living God we’re going to have to put some time in. If we want more than just chasing after a rush or some feelings once or twice a week, then we’re going to have study. I know, I’m sorry I used the 5-letter word. Now, I realize that most people who read theoblogs aren’t of the type who don’t study and read theology; but I needed to get this off my chest. Dutch theologians Kooi and Brink drive all of this home very well when they write this:

The Greek from which we get the commonly used terms “orthodox” and “orthodoxy” shows us that, strictly speaking, they refer not to correct doctrine but to correct praise. In their origin they refer to the appropriate words and thought patterns for praising God and praying to him, whether by individual believers or in the assemblies of the Christian community. Dogmatics, especially the doctrine of God, is to be regarded as an aid in our worship. Correct doctrine is not a formal system of propositions to which we must give assent but is embedded in our worship. The core of the matter is that we worship the true God, not some kind of idol (honor to whom honor is due!), and that we worship the true God in the right way. The right kind of worship thus demands a right kind of doctrine, an “orthodox” discourse that does justice to the one who is worthy of our praise. It is because of this doxology that we must carefully define our doctrine of God.[1]

This is deeply profound; I love how they tie the lexical reality of “orthodoxy” into the theological reality of doxology and right worship.

Maybe if more Christians understood this, evangelicalism in North America, and elsewhere, wouldn’t currently be imploding. Maybe if leadership and people in the churches took this to heart people who have been in the evangelical church for 30, 40, 50 years would be further along in their knowledge of God than they were on day 1 or 2; or even year 1 or year 5; or whatever. If Christians really want to have a worship service, if they really want to encounter God in some deep and astounding ways then maybe they should crack open a good theology book; and then keep opening them till they have beatific vision one day.

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 129.

Assurance of Salvation in Christ

My personal chapter for our newly released (May, 2017) Evangelical Calvinism book, volume 2, is entitled: “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith”: Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the “Faith of Christ”. In it I offer a constructive critique of Calvin’s doctrine of election/reprobation and what that does to his understanding of assurance of salvation. We are generally and favorably disposed to Calvin’s idea that assurance of salvation is of the essence of faith, but I personally believe Calvin’s particular theological framework, when it comes to his double predestination and other issues, does not really support his belief about assurance. So I sought to not only constructively critique him, but also to correct him through Barth’s and Torrance’s categories with reference to this particular locus. At the end of the chapter I offered four summarizing and concluding points in regard to what we have seen in Calvin’s understanding—i.e. what he offered that was highly positive towards assurance of salvation—but then also how Barth and Torrance come along and help Calvin along theologically. The following are two of the four summarizing points that I offered in that concluding section:

3 As we moved from Calvin to Barth and Torrance what we have are the theological resources required for a robust doctrine of assurance. With Barth and Torrance we certainly have Calvin’s emphases on union with Christ and grace, as Christ is understood as the objective (and subjective) ground of salvation. But moving beyond this we have Calvin’s weaknesses corrected when it comes to a doctrine of election. Because Barth and Torrance see Jesus as both elect and reprobate simultaneously in his vicarious humanity for all of humanity, there is absolutely no space for anxiety in the life of the seeker of assurance. Since, for Barth and Torrance, there is no such thing as “temporary faith,” since faith, from their perspective, is the “faith of Christ” (pistis Christou) for all of humanity, there is no room for the elect to attempt to prove that they have a genuine saving faith, since the only saving faith is Christ’s “for us and our salvation.” Further, since there is no hidden or secret decree where the reprobate can be relegated, since God’s choice is on full display in Jesus Christ— with “no decree behind the back of Jesus”—the seeker of assurance does not have to wonder whether or not God is for them or not; the fact and act of the incarnation itself already says explicitly that God is for the elect and not against them.

4 If there is no such thing as elect and reprobate individuals, if God in Christ gave his life for all of humanity in his own elect humanity, if there is no such thing as temporary faith, if Christ’s faith for us is representative of the only type of saving faith there is; then Christ is all consuming, as such he is God’s assurance of salvation for all of humanity. The moment someone starts to wonder if they are elect, properly understood, the only place that person can look is to Jesus. There is no abstract concept of salvation; Jesus Christ is salvation, and assurance of salvation and any lingering questions associated with that have no space other than to look at Jesus. The moment someone gets caught up in anxious thoughts and behavior associated with assurance, is the moment that person has ceased thinking about salvation in, by, and for Christ. Anxiety about salvation, about whether or not I am elect only comes from a faulty doctrine of election which, as we have seen, is in reality the result of a faulty Christology. We only have salvation with God in Christ because of what Jesus Christ did for us by the grace of God; as such our only hope is to be in union with Christ, and participate in what Calvin called the “double grace” of God’s life for us. It is this reality that quenches any fears about whether or not I am genuinely elect; because it places the total burden of that question on what God has done for us, including having faith for us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.[1]

The primary correction comes from Karl Barth’s reformulation of election/reprobation as he orders that around and from Christ in a genuinely principled way. Indeed, as I argue in my chapter, it is at this pivotal point where Calvin loses the ability to actually offer the type of assurance of salvation that he had hoped for within his own frame of thought and theological-biblical exegesis.

The only way, as I have argued, that someone can genuinely say that ‘assurance of salvation is of the essence of saving faith’ is if it is grounded in Christ all the way down. If we don’t have a doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ at the center of our theological thinking, then we, like Calvin, will stumble when it comes to this issue (among other issues). If Christ is not genuinely the key, in an absolute kind of way, we will be forced to look elsewhere when attempting to construct our theologies and soteriologies; we will be forced to look, potentially anyway, to speculative philosophical approaches, and theories of causation and metaphysics (like Aristotelianism) that will do damage to a faithful Bible reading; and will do damage to people’s spirituality (that is if the theology itself is internalized).

I wouldn’t want you to think that I have totally relegated Calvin’s theology to the garbage heap; God forbid it! Indeed, I offer much praise of Calvin’s offering even in the midst of my critical engagement with him. He has a rich union with Christ theology, along with his double grace theology; both of which are significantly grounded in a thoroughgoing Christocentrism that you will be hard pressed to find among any of Calvin’s contemporaries.

 

[1] Bobby Grow, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith”: Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the “Faith of Christ,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2017), 53-4.

I am an Athanasian: How the Homoousion Saved Christianity by Inimically Implicating the Reality of Salvation

Thomas Torrance is known for his deployment of the homoousion, the grammar developed primarily at the Council of Nicaea in 325ad. It is the attempt to articulate how it is that Jesus, the eternal Logos, and Son of God is eternally consubstantial and of the same ‘substance’ or better ‘being’ (ousia) with the Father [and the Holy Spirit]. It is this idea that Athanasius, particularly after the Council of Nicaea went on to develop and argue for in his engagement with Arius et al. This serves as a key piece for all orthodox Christians because it helps us double down on what is revealed in Jesus Christ about himself as the Savior of the world, and how that is, as he is eternally Son of the Father. This doctrine is significant because it identifies the Trinitarian structure of the Gospel, and demonstrates how it is that the Son must be God, not just man (i.e. against Ebionite Christology and any other adoptionistic thinking), if in fact he would actually have the capacity to ‘save’, to redeem, to reconcile humanity unto God. This doctrine also is significant because it goes both ways, it not only positively notes the Son’s eternal relation to the Father as his one and only begot, but it also does double duty by pressing home the fact that he, the Son, is also fully consubstantial with human being; i.e. that he is fully human. Here the ‘bridge’ is realized between God and humanity, as the Son assumes flesh for himself, and in so doing becomes the Mediator between God and man (cf. I Tim. 2:5-6). It is in this reality, the homoousial reality that the gap between God and humanity, because of not only our finitude, but also our falleness is remedied; and we are brought from our lowly fractured state and elevated to God’s kind of life, not by nature, but by the grace of God who is Jesus Christ. It is because of the homoousial reality that we, as the Petrine theology asserts, are brought into the divine nature as participants through the grace of God’s life in Jesus Christ for us and with us. And it is because of the homoousial reality that any type of dualism between God and humanity is mitigated and brought into unity of both being (ontology) and thought (epistemology) as Jesus mediates God’s life to us, and our lives to God’s triune life in and through his life with the Father by the Holy Spirit. Because of all of this, and more, Thomas Torrance writes this about the importance of the homoousion:

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

As Torrance highlights when we see the Father we see the Son; i.e. the ontological inner life of God (in se) is really made known in the economic outer life of God (ad extra). If it wasn’t, as Athanasius would argue, we are of ‘all men most to be pitied;’ because if true God of true God did not come for us then we would be doomed and left to ourselves in our sins. The gap between the Creator, who has always already been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the creation (humanity) was so great that if God did not stoop down to us in the grace of his life in Christ we would forever be in our sins and creation itself would be lost. This is what Arius’s theology entails; i.e. since his view of the eternal Son [Jesus] is that he is generate, meaning a creature; if this was so all that humanity would be left with in this scheme, soteriologically, is a salvation that remains contingent upon us to ‘work out our salvation’ in such a way that we might find merit before God. Jesus becomes an instrument or exemplar in the Arian way of Christology and soteriology, such that there is no bridge, no Divine mediation between God and humanity; there is no union of God and humanity and humanity and God in Arian theology. Athanasius would go on and show how the homoousion undercuts this faulty way of Arian thinking both theologically and biblically. Thomas Weinandy explicates how this worked out, in Athanasius’s theology, and how the homoousion functioned as key for providing an orthodox understanding of salvation (Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2007), 63-4.):

As Weinandy has demonstrated without the homoousion, in Athanasian and orthodox theology, Christianity may have failed. We might still be in our sins. We must believe the Dominical teaching here when Jesus proclaimed that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Gospel reality (cf. Mt. 18); we must acknowledge God’s providential care in providing people like Athanasius for his church in seminal and early ways. Without such guidance we could only imagine where the church might be today.

Thomas Torrance understands all of this, and this is why he has made the homoousion  key to the whole of his theological program. As he once said of himself: “I’m an Athanasian, if anything” (my paraphrase).

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

Beating a Dead Horse that Has Nine Lives: Pure Being Theology and its Antidote in [Onto]Relational Theology Proper

I have written on this before, but I thought I would broach, once again, the issue of Pure Being theology as understood within the exegetical tradition of the Protestant Reformed church. Here Kooi and Brink offer an inchoate critique of Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of the tetragrammaton (the ‘I am that I am’ statement) in Exodus 3.14. Their mini-critique is one that I agree with, and then the constructive offering that they provide in the whole of the quote is worthwhile:

In accordance with the special character of the divine name, traditional dogmatics has ascribed the property of life (vita) to God. God is, first of all, the Living One. In actual fact we must say that only God lives in the true sense of the word and that our life is a derived and temporal existence that originates in “the fountain of life” (Ps 36:9; cf. Acts 17:28). In this connection Amandus Polanus remarks that in God vita and vivere—the noun (life) and the verb (to live)—coincide (Heppe, RD 5.10). This combination points to a dynamic quality, the same quality that strikes us in Exod 3. Those who with Aquinas (STh I.13.11) follow the Septuagint and render the divine names as “he who is” (qui est), and on that basis define God as the true being (ipsum esse), do not do full justice to this dynamism and make the image of God too static. It becomes quite clear from the context of Exod 3:14 that God promises Moses his saving presence and involvement. Today many Old Testament scholars see shades of meanings other than “being” and “living” in the stem of this verb but these also contain the same connotations of dynamism and involvement (e.g., Feldmeier and Spieckermann 2011, chaps. 1, 29).[1]

This is actually a common critique of Aquinas’s conception of God, and then as corollary, a critique of the Post Reformed orthodox conception of God; insofar as the Post Reformed orthodox pick up this understanding of God from their respective reception[s] of Aquinas’s doctrine of God—particularly as the idea of ‘being’ in the Aristotelian frame is used to fund the Post Reformed orthodox’s theology proper.

But so what? The reason I keep coming back to this over and over and over again is because I obviously think it is a very important point. Yes, contemporary classically Reformed theologians are clearly aware of this critique; as are neo-Thomist theologians. But they simply claim that this just is not so in Aquinas’s nor the PRo’s theologies. But I disagree with their assertion. My disagreement is based upon the reality that PRo theology must continuously refer to the decretum absolutum and the decretal conception of God in order to have the capacity to talk about God’s relationship to the world. In other words they don’t have the ability to speak of God/world relation, at a first order level, in a dynamic-relational grammar or conceptuality; and this is precisely because they start with a concept of God that is indeed necessarily static (at least ad extra or insofar as God relates to creation in the economy of his triune life).

Again, if this is so, at a practical or orthopraxis level, people will think of God and their relation to him, and his relation to them in like terms. In other words, they will think of God in ways that are not, at a first order level, relational or personal or intimate in orientation. Some people might think this is a good thing; that it helps to honor the integrity of the Creator/creature distinction by levying a buffer, as it were, between God and humanity—i.e. by elevating or emphasizing God’s transcendence over his creation. This might be so, and even necessary, if God was a philosophical monad who simply doted over his creation from the heavenlies. But this is not so, God freely chose, as all Christians recognize, to ‘come down’ to us; he chose to be for us, and he chose to be for us from his inner life as God. He chose to meet us from the inner reality of his life as Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit, as the Son in obedience to the Father elected humanity for himself so it could finally be said of God that he is: Immanuel, ‘God with us.’

The most fiduciary reading of God, as disclosed and borne witness to in the Scriptures themselves, then, would be as Kooi and Brink intone, to understand God in relational and dynamic terms; this would be against, in some important ways, the way Christians in the West, in particular, have come to think of God in the Aristotelian/Thomist frame.

 

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 122-23.

Athanasius’s Salvation as Logos Grounded Christ Conditioned Image of the Image Theology

I have written on this Athanasian Christological and soteriological theme previously, but I thought it would be good to reiterate it; particularly as I am continuing to read through Thomas Weinandy’s book Athanasius: A Theological Introduction. What I am referring to is the idea that the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ is the Pauline imago Dei as referenced in Colossians 1.15; and what happens in the Incarnation, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is that humanity, through the vicarious humanity of Christ, is recreated in and through the archetypal and resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ. In other words, we are recreated in the image of God, who is Christ, which would mean we are now images of the image. As Weinandy explicates (and Athanasius makes clear himself in his book Incarnation), Athanasius sees a direct soteriological linkage between this “re-imaging” of humanity in Christ’s; i.e. that without God entering into humanity, in Christ, humanity would have dissolved into nothingness and the subhumanity into which we were plunged in the ‘Fall.’ So it would take nothing less than the incorruptible God to become corruptible human, and recreate what it means for humans to be created in the image of God, as we are resurrected and recreated in the vicarious humanity of Christ; Christ being the original image of God by nature, and now we, by the faith of Christ inspired by the Holy Spirit, participate in and from his image (as ‘images of the image’) as partakers and participants in the divine nature. Here is how Weinandy masterfully develops this (Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2007), 34-6):

The profundity of this cannot be overstated. While there still remains room for some further development, in regard to Athanasius’s own development, what he does offer, as presented by Weinandy, is Christologically rich and soteriologically satisfying; at least it is to me.

I think what we can also see at work in Athanasius is the Irenean (i.e. Irenaeus) conception of recapitulation; except with Athanasius what we get is a more dogmatically (rather than narratively) construed picture of what the Incarnation implies about Jesus Christ and salvation; understanding that Athanasius’ context was even more directly in combat with some particularly pointed theological and Arian attacks that Irenaeus wasn’t pressed up against in the same way (although he had his own issues with the Gnostics et al.). Nevertheless, what Athanasius offers has some profound implications towards thinking about the role of a doctrine of creation (protology) and a doctrine of recreation (eschatology), and how both of those mutually implicate one another as they find their connective tissue and reality dead center in the person of Jesus Christ.

What we have in Athanasius is, in my view, as principially Christ centered as what we find in the theologies of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, respectively. It makes sense that Thomas Torrance when asked if he would identify as Barthian, would say that, no, he is an Athanasian, if anything. But I think in some important ways we can see Athanasius informing Barth’s theology just as directly as it does Torrance’s; and I think this is rather profound. It explains how and why the Reformed theology of Barth and Torrance (and us Evangelical Calvinists working after Barth and Torrance and Calvin) is so distinctive and in a different key than what we find in what I call classical Calvinism which is much more and almost exclusively Augustinian—and not just pure Augustinian, but mediated through a Thomist frame.

 

St. Athanasius and Thomas Torrance in Collusion on the Assumption of the Fallen Human Nature in Christ

As an evangelical in Bible College and Seminary (I still consider myself, broadly construed, an ‘evangelical’) I held to the impeccability view of Christ’s humanity. In other words, I believed that not only could Christ not sin*, but that the body he assumed in the man, Jesus of Nazareth, was likewise uniquely fitted for him such that he did not enter into the fallen human nature that the rest of humanity is born into in their mother’s womb. But then later, after Seminary (I graduated in 2003), as so many of you know by now, I came across the writings of Thomas Torrance; Torrance, as many of you also know holds to the Athanasian idea that Christ, in the incarnation, assumed a fallen human nature, just like the rest of humanity’s. Along with Nazianzen and Athanasius et al. Torrance maintained that unless Christ fully entered into our real and fallen human nature that real redemption, all the way down, could not take place. Torrance would be concerned, also, that if Christ didn’t enter the fallen human nature, in the assumptio carnis, that all we would be left with would be with something like an instrumentalist conception of the atonement. I.e. We would be left with a forensic understanding of salvation, necessarily so, since the death of Christ wouldn’t penetrate deep enough into the fabric (ontologically) of human nature to recreate it, but instead he would only be the ‘organ’ of God’s salvation to ‘pay the penalty’ of humanity’s sin (in particular the elect’s); a truly juridical and external type of venture.

Here is what Torrance has written in his New College lecture notes:

Now when we listen to the witness of holy scripture here we know we are faced with something we can never fully understand, but it is something that we must seek to understand as far as we can. One thing should be abundantly clear, that if Jesus Christ did not assume our fallen flesh, our fallen humanity, then our fallen humanity is untouched by his work — for ‘the unassumed is the unredeemed’, as Gregory Nazianzen put it. Patristic theology, especially as we see it expounded in the great Athanasius, makes a great deal of the fact that he who knew no sin became sin for us, exchanging his riches for our poverty, his perfection for our imperfection, his incorruption for our corruption, his eternal life for our mortality. Thus Christ took from Mary a corruptible and mortal body in order that he might take our sin, judge and condemn it in the flesh, and so assume our human nature as we have it in the fallen world that he might heal, sanctify and redeem it. In that teaching the Greek fathers were closely following the New Testament. If the Word of God did not really come into our fallen existence, if the Son of God did not actually come where we are, and join himself to us and range himself with us where we are in sin and under judgement, how could it be said that Christ really took our place, took our cause upon himself in order to redeem us?[1]

And here is what theologian Thomas Weinandy has to say about Athanasius’ view on the same loci (Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2007), 33-4):

It is easy to see the connection between the incarnation and salvation, in ontological terms, when we consider it from both Athanasius’ and Torrance’s theo-logic. It happens to be a theo-logic I affirm these days. Indeed, there are many objectors to this (Kevin Chiarot being the foremost) thinking; but it would be wrong-headed to think that there is not some seminal footing for this view from none other than the champion himself of Nicene Christology and Trinitarian theology, the theologian contra mundum, Athanasius.

It should also be kept in mind that this is precisely the point at which departure happens between Evangelical Calvinists and Classical Calvinists. Classical Calvinists frame their understanding of salvation, primarily, within forensic/juridical lenses; this flows well and even from their understanding of the Covenant of Works combined with the God of absolutum decretum (the God who relates to creation through absolute decrees), and a doctrine of unconditional election. Evangelical Calvinists follow Athanasius, Torrance, et al. in adopting this more ontological understanding of salvation wherein the primacy of Christ as the imago Dei is elevated to the point wherein salvation is understood as the realm where humanity is taken up in the assumption of God’s humanity in Christ, and we are recreated in Christ’s resurrected vicarious humanity for us (Romans 6–8); we are taken from living in subhumanity and corruptibility and brought to participate in and from the incorruptibility of God’s life in Christ, the life that is indestructible (Hebrews 6–7). We still see the forensic in the atonement, but we emphasize, with Barth, the idea that God in his election to be for us in Christ becomes the judged Judge in our stead and reconciles and elevates humanity to be partakers of the divine nature (by the grace of his life) in and through the recreated humanity of Jesus Christ who is our mediator.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation (DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 62.

*To be clear, I along with Athanasius and TF Torrance do not believe that Christ ever sinned, but immediately sanctified his humanity, by the power of the Holy Spirit, remaining the spotless Lamb of God who has taken away the sins of the world. Such a sacrifice was required in order for actual salvation to inhere; which is of course why it took God in flesh, the double homoousion of the Son as God, and the Son as human in the singular person of Jesus Christ to accomplish such an impossible possibility.