God is God, the Basis of Theology: Taking Away Lament and Polemic as Places to Do Theology From {According to John Webster}

I want to offer a quick quote from the late John Webster on how two loci, according to Webster, ought to function (or not) in the practice of systematic theology; I think this has application for living the Christian life in general (which would make sense since for the Christian to live the Christian life is engaging in theology from moment to moment conscious or subconscious). In the context Webster is speaking to the domain or ‘sphere’ wherein theology ought to have voice; he believes it ought to have a public character, indeed as it is the discipline of self-criticizing what it means to live in and from the Gospel. In other words, if theology is the necessary corollary of living in and from the Gospel, and if the Gospel itself is God’s demonstration of love that he is for the whole world and not against it, then theology itself will have a public character to it; insofar as the universal application can be derived from its particular scandalization in and from the God-man, Jesus Christ.

The two loci that Webster lifts up for some constructive criticism, as that has to do with the ‘doing of theology’ are: Lament and Polemic. You’ll notice that Webster sees a healthy place for both of these in theological discourse, but what he warns against is an unhealthy absolutization of either; he warns of their corrosive nature if not held in the proper valence.

A critique of this conception of systematic theology would most properly be undertaken, not in prolegomena, but in the course of material dogmatic exposition, and cannot be pursued at this point. But it worth remarking that the contrariety of the conception of systematic theology explored in what follows ought not to be allowed to generate an enduring posture of lament for a lost dogmatic culture. Lament is fitting on some occasions, but as a permanent attitude it can do damage, breeding intellectual vices such as vanity or pessimism, inhibiting a clear-sighted  view of the situation and drawing theology away from its contemplative vocation. Likewise, polemic arrests and coarsens the mind when allowed to become habitual. What should hold lament and polemic in check is a gospel-derived awareness of the necessary pathos which attends theological work, the roots of which lie in the fact that the world is at enmity with the church and is reluctant to learn about the divine wisdom with which the saints have been entrusted. Yet even a due sense of pathos ought not to overwhelm the tranquil pursuit of theology, made possible and fruitful, not by the capacities of its practitioners or the opportunities afforded by its cultural settings, but by the infinite power of divine goodness shedding  abroad the knowledge of itself. That movement, in its boundless depth and its capacity to overcome the mind’s estrangement from its creator, constitutes the principles of systematic theology.[1]

For Webster theology, by way of order (taxis) has a soteriological location; but prior to that locus is God. If so, in the complex of a holy God confronting an unholy world, and an unholy world attempting to confront a holy God, a theological-valence will occur wherein the giver of life himself succeeds in communicating himself to such a world such that the world can finally come to hear him as he invades its sinful and putrid state recreating space for it to hear his Word just as it is confronted by it (or Him!). Within this setting Webster is calling for sobriety when we might want to tend towards lamenting the apparent loss that the in-roads of theological discourse might be having in the world (i.e. from a pragmatic point of view), or by doubling down into a posture of attack and polemic against an unbelieving world; both postures that are resultants of a desperation that in the light of God, and who he is by way of being and capacity, and who he has become for us in Jesus Christ, should not be. Can there be moments of lament, and moments of polemic when occasions call for such? Yes. But these should not be allowed to become our existential warp and woof as we live our lives in and from the theological grist of God’s reality for us in Christ.

What I take away from this most is that God is God and we are not. We should not lament nor polemicize when God does not require such in his economy of overcoming and reversing the way things might appear to us. So theology, if God is God and we are not, ought to be done from a posture of ‘walking by faith not sight.’ We ought to trust, as Christians, that God is not challenged by the puny sub-capacious ways of this world; God does not need us, we need him, whether we are able or willing to recognize this or not. I fear that the church, particularly certain sectors, and the sub-cultures they foster and construct, live in just the opposite direction of this. If we do theology as if God is God, then it will take on a proper orientation and character. The questions asked will be of the right order and not produced by an inconsolable lament about how things should be, but aren’t; or a by a militant polemic to forcibly make things the way we think they should be, but aren’t. Because God is God theology has an order and reality to it that is not contingent upon us, but instead one that makes us contingent upon it; the reality.

 

[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T&T Clark International, 2012), 135.

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Posted in John Webster, Systematic Theology

A Word on Sanctification from the Apostolic Deposit and the Early Protestants in Response to The Revoice Conference 2018

Writing on themes of God’s holiness, repentance, sanctification, and living a mortified and vivified life before God is getting less and less popular; even among many ‘conservative’ Christians. This post will fit into that ‘unpopular’ category, as I want to at least broach an emergent issue that I think is just gaining steam. Before we get into the issue I want to spend a minute sketching what mortification or sanctification before God entails; at least the way I understand that. The issue we will apply this sketch to has to do with the ostensible in-roads that the LGBTQ community is gaining into what normally might be thought of as ‘conservative evangelicalism.’ Bear in mind, this is a blog post, so I will run out of space quickly, but hopefully I will be able to communicate something of my intention in the short space we do have.

Before we get ahead of ourselves let’s read along with the Apostle Paul with reference to a passage of Scripture that touches on our theme; i.e. the theme of mortificatio-sanctificatio-transformatio (just add an ‘n’):

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. 10 For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. 11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, 13 and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. 14 For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. –Romans 6.8-14

This seems rather straightforward for someone who may have been a Christian for any amount of time. There is a call, by Paul, for the Christian to live a life of participation in the righteousness of God in Christ. We are to ‘present’ ourselves a certain way; we are to be present before God (coram Deo) as if our lives are as Christ’s. St. Peter in stride with Paul wrote the following in regard to the ground of our life in Christ:

Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries.In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign youbut they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God. –I Peter 4.1-6

These types of motifs on mortification and vivification—the life lived in an active submission and obedience to God in such a way that we are constantly living in a posture of repentance and worship with the dialectical result of being enlivened in and from the life of Christ over and over again in this process of participation—can be enumerated many times over as we read through the Apostolic Deposit (the New Testament). The point I want to drive home, a point that many of us want to run away from or soften, is that God takes his holiness, and his people’s holiness seriously; indeed, this is what he invaded our humanity to accomplish: ‘he became us that we might become him’ (paraphrase of Irenaeus), that we might participate in the kind of set-apart life that he experiences in himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I think from Scripture the case is easily made that sanctification in Christ by the Spirit is a reality that God places a premium on for his covenant people in his covenant man, Jesus Christ. Taking their cue from Scripture the early Protestants held that sanctification involved various aspects in the Christian’s life; Richard Muller defines that for them this way:

sanctificatio.: Sanctificatio, therefore, begins with conversion (q.v.), or conversion, and continues throughout the life of the believer. The mortification and vivification that belong to conversio also belong to sanctificatio as the basic form of Christian life, dying to the world and living the new life in Christ. Since it is the continuation of regeneration or conversion, sanctification is sometimes called conversio continuata (q.v.).

The Protestant scholastics further distinguish between sanctification broadly and strictly defined. (1) Sanctificatio late dicta, or sanctification loosely considered, indicates the entire gracious work of the Spirit in the believer; (2) sanctificatio stricte dicta, or sanctification strictly defined, refers directly to the problem of the corrupted imago Dei and the old Adam in believers and is defined as the negative renovation (renovatio negativa) according to which believers daily die to sin and set aside the old Adam; (3) sanctificatio strictissime dicta, or sanctification most strictly considered, is the actual renewal of the imago Dei or positive renovation (renovatio positiva) of the Christian according to which the believer is actually made holy and, by the grace of the Spirit, cooperates willingly in the renewal of life and willingly does good works (bona opera). The Protestant orthodox, Lutheran and Reformed, are unanimous in their teaching that perfect or total sanctification does not occur in this life.[1]

As Evangelical Calvinists we will want to place a concentrated emphasis upon all of these aspects being grounded in Jesus Christ for us; as would John Calvin in his duplex gratia (‘double grace’) understanding of justification and sanctification. What I want to highlight in particular is what falls under Muller’s second definition, with special emphasis upon the ‘negative renovation’. This aspect most closely aligns with daily mortification of the self before God; i.e. what the Apostle Paul refers to in the passage above. This has seemingly fallen out of favor with many Christians.

Application–Revoice Conference

The Revoice Conference is described on their website as this:

Supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.

And:

New Community

Gather together with other gender and sexual minorities and those who love them and experience a new kind of gospel community.[2]

Without getting deep into the details the premise is: that to be an LGBTQ Christian can actually be a reality; that it is a viable expression of what it means to be human before God. Further, this position argues that such dispositions, and thus identities can be ‘morally neutral’ and thus not acted upon (except to act upon identifying as one of the identities that LGBTQ covers). So the premise of the whole movement is that Christians can be gay, transgendered, or any other one of the expressions that they are representing, and that this is a legitimate theological-anthropological category before God; so much so that they use the language of ‘sexual minority’ (which connects them to racial minorities in the cultural and activist lexicon as well). The Revoice conference is sponsored by the PCA (Presbyterian Church of America), and has contributors from The Gospel Coalition as speakers and presenters (Wesley Hill and Matthew Lee Anderson) at the conference. The idea promoted, based on the prior assumption that the identity of LGBTQ is viable before God, is that people with such proclivities can remain celibate in their sexual identities and not act out upon their various sexual orientations; thus keeping them in good stead and purity before God—which is where the morally neutral premise comes in. It goes so far, the “friendship” aspect, that they believe homosexual couples can covenant as ‘friends’ and remain celibate, thus honoring the biblical strictures.

But the question arises, based upon our sketch of Christian sanctification above: is being homosexual so on and so forth really a viable and categorical identity that should be legitimized and recognized before God? What makes homosexuality any different than any other sin? The Apostle Paul provides the following list, with an important qualification in regard to ‘sanctification’:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. –I Corinthians 6.9-11

This is a common passage referred to by folks like me voicing concerns in this area; and the response to this, or the ‘work-around’ is that the term translated ‘homosexual’ isn’t really referring to homosexuality, as we think of it, and has nothing to do with sexual orientation, since ‘sexual orientation’ is a modern societal construct that the Apostle Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit could not have had in mind in his Second Temple Judaic context. On the one hand the Revoice folks might agree with the way I refer to this; as a reference to a reality, a sin forbidden by God. On the other hand I think they wouldn’t  agree with my appropriation of it in the sense that it is a passage that flattens out the idea that being LGBTQ, before God, represents a viable identity category; one that should be celebrated or accepted as a real designation for a purported “people group.” My point in appealing to this is indeed to recognize that for the Apostle Paul homosexuality is just one of many sins that a Christian is to resist and has been rescued from in and through the new humanity, the new creation and identity that Christ has won for us in his vicarious humanity.

Homosexuality is not an identity; there is no such thing as a ‘sexual minority’ before God. Homosexuality so on and so forth is a sin to be resisted not a people group to identify with, and yet this is what Revoice, and that mind is endorsing. They believe homosexuality, simply because of its “isness” in society is indeed a people group, a sexual minority that ought to be celebrated; albeit in chastened and celibate ways. But what makes this sin or this impulse any different than people who have impulses to be involved in pornography or adultery (etc.)? Should we identify new people groups, and establish a minority status for each of these sinful impulses as well? Do some Christian people have same-sex attractions? Yes. Do all Christian people have sinful impulses in all sorts of lurid directions? Yes. What’s the response to that? To resist by standing in the new creation and humanity of Jesus Christ; to stand in the power of the resurrection that the Holy Spirit brings us into union with in Christ (unio cum Christo); and to celebrate our identity in his identity for us before the Father.

Part of the Christian’s vocation in this life is to constantly be in the battle, constantly be militant against the principalities and powers that rule this evil age. This has personal, systemic/societal, and cosmic aspects; in each instance the marching orders are the same. We are to be “daily die[ing] to sin and set[ing] aside the old Adam,” which includes renouncing any other identity than the one we have in Jesus Christ and allowing that to be the witness to the world that a new age has invaded this world and made the crooked straight (the ‘crooked’ being all of us).

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 270.

[2] Revoice Conference Website.

Posted in American Evangelicalism, Ethics, Salvation | 7 Comments

Grace is Not a Phase: Knowledge of God as the Basis for Knowledge of the Justified Self

I have often thought this, and maybe you have too. John Calvin identifies, famously, in his Institute, this, in regard to knowledge of God and knowledge of self, in light of knowledge of God:

Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain. Here, again, the infinitude of good which resides in God becomes more apparent from our poverty. In particular, the miserable ruin into which the revolt of the first man has plunged us, compels us to turn our eyes upwards; not only that while hungry and famishing we may thence ask what we want, but being aroused by fear may learn humility. For as there exists in man something like a world of misery, and ever since we were stript of the divine attire our naked shame discloses an immense series of disgraceful properties every man, being stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness, in this way necessarily obtains at least some knowledge of God. Thus, our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, reminds us, (see Calvin on John 4: 10,) that in the Lord, and none but He, dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness. We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves. For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, so long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is contented with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.

Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self

On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also – He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced. For, since we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself. And since nothing appears within us or around us that is not tainted with very great impurity, so long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled delights us as if it were most pure just as an eye, to which nothing but black had been previously presented, deems an object of a whitish, or even of a brownish hue, to be perfectly white. Nay, the bodily sense may furnish a still stronger illustration of the extent to which we are deluded in estimating the powers of the mind. If, at mid-day, we either look down to the ground, or on the surrounding objects which lie open to our view, we think ourselves endued with a very strong and piercing eyesight; but when we look up to the sun, and gaze at it unveiled, the sight which did excellently well for the earth is instantly so dazzled and confounded by the refulgence, as to oblige us to confess that our acuteness in discerning terrestrial objects is mere dimness when applied to the sun. Thus too, it happens in estimating our spiritual qualities. So long as we do not look beyond the earth, we are quite pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue; we address ourselves in the most flattering terms, and seem only less than demigods. But should we once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and reflect what kind of Being he is, and how absolute the perfection of that righteousness, and wisdom, and virtue, to which, as a standard, we are bound to be conformed, what formerly delighted us by its false show of righteousness will become polluted with the greatest iniquity; what strangely imposed upon us under the name of wisdom will disgust by its extreme folly; and what presented the appearance of virtuous energy will be condemned as the most miserable impotence. So far are those qualities in us, which seem most perfect, from corresponding to the divine purity.[1]

These are such important and profound thoughts; and ones that have relevance for us currently. I am just finishing up Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink’s Christian Dogmatics (approx. 800 pp.). In their section on justification/salvation, and in particular, in their constructive proposal, in their sub-section on participation, they imbibe some of the aspects noted by Calvin, in regard to knowledge of God, and apply them to what it means to be ‘sanctified’ or ‘transformed’ (a term they prefer to sanctification) before the living God. What they highlight is something that I have come to realize over time in my walk with Jesus Christ as well. While genuine transformation can and does take place (mortificatio/vivificatio), there is also the further realization that we never arrive; and thus, I’d inject, why the Apostle Paul in Romans 6—8 uses the language of continuously ‘reckoning ourselves dead to sin.’ The whole point of our ‘old man’ or the ‘flesh’ needing to be put to death is that therein nothing good dwells, and never will. The reality is that we continue to live in these fallen bodies with all of its old wretched desires, and so we needs be reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to the living Christ. It is within this tenor that Kooi and Brink write:

Thus we can understand why Christian dogmatics often has little enthusiasm about trying to describe our progress in becoming transformed into the image of Christ. All our “glittering images” (à la Susan Howatch) can easily blow up in our faces. We must indeed be very circumspect in translating this transformation directly into moral categories. For instance, it is wrong to suppose that believers gradually acquire a nobler character so as to need less and less forgiveness, justification, and communion with Christ. For the transformation they experience is primarily a matter of growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). His grace will never be a phase that we have left behind but will remain the source to which we constantly return and draw upon ever more purposefully. For growing in Christ also implies at least some increase in self-knowledge. When we become aware that we see but little improvement in the passions and imaginations at the bottom of our heart, that nasty tendencies such as jealousy, hedonism, and superficiality seem to be more resilient than we thought, we can become more modest and realistic. If we acknowledge these things in ourselves rather than denying them, we will more consciously deal with them—for instance, by making a greater effort, based on our participation in Christ, to focus on what pleases God and is good for others. This pattern is what the gospel refers to as denying oneself; not disparaging feelings of always having to be submissive to others, but the conscious choice, at different moments in life, to go the way of Christ and to be there for others (Matt 16:24 and pars.).[2]

Walking with Christ can be a discouraging thing; particularly when false expectations are injected into a young believer’s life early on. It is important to realize, I think, what Kooi and Brink alert us to; i.e. that we will never arrive until beatific vision happens, and thus we are at the constant behest of God. I do believe there can certainly be maturation or ‘transformation’ (cf. II Cor. 3.18) in the believer’s life; and that there indeed should be over a life lived. But the reality will always remain, and this is indeed sobering, that the impulses and orientations for the various expressions of sin that we are disposed to personally will always lay just below the surface; albeit in the grave of Jesus Christ. We clearly have been freed from the power of sin in our lives, but with the sober realization that that aspect of our old self hasn’t been repaired, but instead put to death; and so we must continuously reckon that to be so as we participate in the death and life of Jesus Christ by his resurrection power applied to our lives moment by moment afresh and anew by the Holy Spirit. This walk is a daily exercise; a battle even.

[1] John Calvin, Institute.

[2] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 690.

Posted in Cornelius van der Kooi, Gijsbert van den Brink, John Calvin, Salvation | 1 Comment

Miscellanies on How the Order of a Doctrine of Election Affects the Pyromaniacs and The Gospel Coalition

The Gospel is Kingdom initiating, Kingdom grounding; indeed it could be said that the Gospel is the disruptive orientation of the original creation’s ultimate purpose as that is realized in the re-creation of God in Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead. As David Fergusson has written, “the world was made so that Christ might be born;” this adage captures well the inherent value or the inner reality that the creation itself has. It is one born only in and from God’s reality to graciously be for the world and to do so in himself, in the Son, by the Spirit and thus to pretend as if the Triune reality is not the ground and grammar of ALL of reality—inclusive of morality—is to reduce the Gospel to a pietist individualism that only has to do with me and my salvation/me and my eternal destiny. While personal salvation, its appropriation, is very important, it is grounded more objectively and universally in the reality of redemption that God in Christ has proffered for all of creation, with Jesus being its crowning reality and jewel. In other words, the cosmic reality of salvation, grounded in the humanity and divinity (an/enhypostasis) of the eternal Logos become flesh, Jesus Christ, encompasses all aspects of created reality. It is not simply a matter of sufficiency but of efficacy; in other words, in the Kingdom, in the recreation there is not a delimitation of that to particular parts (i.e. classic election/reprobation) of the creation; no, the Kingdom of God in Christ (which is given reality in the Gospel which is embodied and lived in the Christ) is a macrocosmic reality (Rom. 8.18ff) that indeed disruptively impacts individuals who are willing, by the Holy Spirit’s wooing, to participate in this new created reality in and through the priestly-vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. This is why when people like Phil Johnson want to attempt to reduce the Gospel reality to its more individualistic provenance they end up critiquing work like The Gospel Coalition is engaging in as it sees the whole of reality implicated by the Kingdom Gospel; he fails to recognize that the Gospel is about a broader work and doctrine of creation/recreation than it simply being about ‘fire-insurance’ for an elect group of people elevated over and against the rest of creation (what TF Torrance identifies as ‘The Latin Heresy’ or an inherent dualism that comes to pass when we start denominating parts of creation from the mass of the creation). In this vein note what Johnson recently wrote in critique of The Gospel Coalition and its engagement with popular culture:

The “gospel-centered” movement that many of us were so enthusiastic for just one decade ago has gone with the drift. The Gospel Coalition has for some time now shown a pattern of embracing whatever new moral issue or political cause is currently popular in Western culture by arguing that this, too, is a legitimate “gospel issue.” They are by no means alone in this. Everything from the latest Marvel movie to gun control legislation has been deemed a “gospel issue” by some savvy evangelical writer at one or more of the most heavily trafficked evangelical websites. But if everything is supposedly a gospel issue, the expression “gospel-centered” is rendered meaningless.

As I said in a Tweet earlier today, we must not abandon the focused simplicity of Luke 24:46-47 in favor of a social gospel that encompasses a large complex of racial, economic, and political issues. Every denomination, every educational institution, and every church that has ever made that error has seen a quick demise. I for one don’t intend to watch in silence while the current generation repeats that mistake.[1]

In response to this I have read others on Twitter raise the question of sufficiency; in other words, is Scripture itself sufficient in responding to race or human sexuality questions, or in Scripture’s overt silence on these things are we able and responsible to turn to other resources—latent within God’s good creation (i.e. common grace)—to seek responses to the ills that the fallen world presents us with in an attempt to ultimately point people to the ultimate sufficiency of the living God as that is provided for in Jesus Christ? So the response seems to be: not all things are intensively or directly related to the narrower message of the Gospel, instead they are related but only in an extensive or indirect matter which allows for and even calls for Christian thinkers to respond to questions not explicitly spoken to in Scripture in such a way that honors the general reality of the Gospel; and within that space has freedom to address issues that might not otherwise seem to have to do with the Gospel in any meaningful sense, but in fact are Gospel issues insofar as they are indirectly impacted by the ultimate reality of it (in other words: natural law, or a natural ethic is going to be appealed to—something that in this line of thinking does not undercut the sufficiency of Scripture to speak to what it intends to speak to, but in fact works in a complementary way to Scripture with the a priori recognition that all of creation belongs to God and is within the realm of his Providential care, governance, and sustenance).

There is a certain irony to these views (Johnson’s and Twitter’s). Both of these approaches share a similar doctrine of creation, theologically/soteriologically. They both share a particular view on the sufficiency of the Gospel and Scripture, but apply that differently (because of broader hermeneutical differences). They denominate parts of creation out from the greater mass of creation, believing that one part is the elect of God while the rest is damned. Johnson focuses on the elect part of creation, but dispensationally neglecting the whole of creation, while the other side also focuses on the elect part of creation, but they see that as the seed that ultimately cashes out in the new creation; they place election into a cosmic understanding of salvation and Providence while Johnson places election into an individualistic and pietist understanding of salvation wherein what ultimately matters is not this creation simpliciter, but the legal salvation of an elect people from an eternal hell. The irony is that they share some overlapping soteriological assumptions, in regard to election, but where that doctrine is placed in their respective theologies cashes out differently in the way that they see the Gospel itself implicating the whole of creation. The Twitter-view works from a cosmic doctrine of salvation, while the Johnson view works from a pietistic, individualist understanding of salvation that is discontinuous from creation as a cosmic reality. The difference in the end is that the Twitter view is Covenantal while the Johnson view is Dispensational. The Twitter view reflects a historic confessionally Reformed perspective, while the Johnson view reflects his Calvinist-lite perspective which is the reduction of Reformed theology to the so called five-points.

Just take this post for what it’s worth. I was going to totally go in another direction and refer us to Oliver O’Dononvan and Philip Ziegler (and apocalyptic theology), but the above is what came out instead. It’s just me thinking out loud. But I think there might be something to my theoretical meanderings. And I only think this is a worthwhile exercise because I think it illustrates a substantial theological polarity that is present within the so called Reformed world. I’ll want to return to how I opened this post up, and get into the relationship of the Gospel and the Kingdom within an Apocalyptic Theology and how I think that informs discussions like these.

[1] Phil Johnson, The Root of the Matter, accessed 05-28-2018.

Posted in American Evangelicalism, Critiquing Classic Calvinism, Cultural Christianity, Phil Johnson, Pyromaniacs, Soteriology | 11 Comments

Phil Johnson, of the Pyromaniacs, is Out of Blogging Retirement: In Good Form

When I started blogging back in 2005, Phil Johnson did too; the Phil Johnson of what became the Pyromaniacs. For all intents and purposes I was genuinely a troll at his blog, but that was when most people on blogs were trolls; that was the time before trolls even knew there was such a thing. My intentions were anything but being trollish. I used to challenge them, and their readers, to at least admit that they had a theological superstructure informing the way they read the Bible and arrive at their exegetical conclusions. I used to inform that that Thomism and classical theism was their informing theology; and I did this ad infinitum. After many years I finally quit engaging with them at all, but that took me some time to get to. In the mean time Phil Johnson retired his Pyromaniacs blog, and it has been such for the last six years plus. I’ve also moved on during that time, writing most of my blog posts with the intention of, at the very least, offering some positive thought on some theological loci that I am covering through my various theological readings. Anyway, Phil just came out of retirement; he believes, in the fullness of time, that the evangelical world, inclusive of The Gospel Coalition, is sliding headlong into progressive immoralism of all sorts (in some ways I don’t disagree with him in a general sense—although I do disagree with him in regard to TGC).

Since Phil has made a come-back, and given my history with his blog, out of nostalgia, I started making some comments on his first real post; surprisingly I found myself defending TGC. Apparently Phil believes that I’m just attempting to use his blog as a grand-standing event for myself, and so wrote the following comment to me (this is the most pertinent part that I wanted to highlight):

(This final thought applies to you in particular because of my long track record with your style of commenting. But it’s not for you alone; this is for all the propagandists on the evangelical fringe who seem think my return to blogging was a signal for them to come swarming out out [sic] from under the dumpster, or wherever):

The comments on my blog are as open as possible in order to provide a forum for conservative evangelicals to discuss whatever topic is raised in the post. Theological renegades who want to use my blog-comments as a soapbox in order to advance their own neo-orthodox agenda (or any other post-evangelical schema) will find themselves unceremoniously blocked from commenting further. Last warning.[1]

For the more soft-skinned this might make their feelings get hurt; for me, it gave me warm-fuzzies. It reminded me of the good old Pyromaniacs troll days, and brought back some fun memories. But it also reminded me why I’m glad those are just memories, and ones that I’ve moved beyond.

In regard to Phil’s view of me: He thinks I’m a propagandist; go look at his blog and tell me who fits that better. He thinks I’m ‘evangelical-fringe’; most conservative evangelicals I know who know about the Pyromaniacs think they’re not for serious (I’m being nice). He thinks I’m neo-orthodox; Barth wasn’t, I’m not. He seems to think I’m post-evangelical; only if MacArthur represents evangelicalism. He thinks I’m a theological-renegade; the Pharisees thought Jesus was one too. He thinks I came ‘swarming out from under the dumpster’; the Apostle Paul said he ‘is considered the scum of the earth.’

I mean I feel in pretty good company.

[1] Source.

Posted in Blogspotting

How and Why I Still Read Karl Barth

I continue to read Karl Barth; you might wonder why (or you might not). After I wrote those series of posts—that created a firestorm directed at me—the posts that spoke to Barth’s relationship with Charlotte Von Kirschbaum for most of Barth’s married life, you might have thought that after that I would finally give up on Barth; I intimated I might in my first post in that series. In case you’re wondering what I am referring to just go back and read those posts (which I’ve hyperlinked above), and you’ll be filled in. In summary, Barth and Charlotte held what I would call (cause I don’t think you can call it anything else) an adulterous relationship right in Barth’s own house alongside his wife and kids. This became the “accepted” new normal for Barth’s wife, Nelly, and she apparently grew to accept Charlotte as part of the family. So Barth lived in this relationship in unrepentance most of his married life; you can see why this caused me consternation.

I have essentially devoted most of my theological readings to Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance since 2006 (although I’ve read more widely than just them), and endearingly thought of Barth as ‘Uncle Karl.’ Once I really found out the details of Barth’s relationship with Charlotte this caused some real heart-ache, and I mean to the point that I felt physically sick. It might be like finding out a family member was something other than you’d come to know them as over a period of a sustained amount of time; an earth-shattering type of event. This revelation, as I internalized it, was deeply personal; I don’t think some could appreciate that, others could. And so I’ve been sitting with this ever since then, and allowing the Lord to do his work; allowing the Lord to provide his perspective, and I believe he has.

One issue I had to think through was the relationship between someone’s personal holiness (as participants in God’s in Christ), and how that impacted the way they know God. Did Barth’s unrepentant sin negate the possibility for him to accurately know God; or is it possible for someone to live in an actively sinful lifestyle and even in the midst of that have a sensitivity to who God is in Christ, and within that sensitivity still be able to theologize in such a way that a genuine knowledge of God can be articulated for the edification of the church? My conclusion (using something of the principle of ex opere operato from the Donatist controversy; loosely appropriated) is that someone, like Barth, could have the capacity by the Spirit to speak about God, and speak to God in such a way that an accurate (albeit proximate) knowledge of God could be had. I think that what Barth had going for him, that many other theologians don’t, is that his theological methodology was intensively Christ concentrated; I believe that his deep focus on Christ in all things, all the way down, despite his overtly sinful relationship with Charlotte gave him an edge up on other theologians who were more speculative and less christocentric in the intensive way that Barth was. As a result the objective reality of Barth’s focus, Jesus Christ, was still able to break through in ways, even in the midst of Barth’s unrepentant (had to be rationalized) sin that he was able to bear witness to the Lamb of God in ways that went beyond the breaking point of Barth’s own lifestyle.

As I have continuously reflected on this over the last many months (more than half a year at least), and as I have surveyed the theologians I know of in the history of the church (premodern or modern), I know of no one else (except his student TF Torrance) who offered the church such a resiliently Christ concentrated theology. Has my elevation of Barth waned somewhat, in personal ways? Yes. Have I come to some sort of dénouement in regard to the deleterious impact Barth’s relationship with Charlotte must have had on Nelly and the kids (even if that impact only had sub-conscious consequences)? No. So this remains a real and ongoing issue, but what continues to stand out about Barth’s theology is that he spoke and wrote of someone who transcended his own bad choice when it came to his relationship with Charlotte. This is what makes it too difficult to simply write Barth’s theology off; his theological witness of Christ, despite his unrepentant sin, far outpaced Barth’s own ability to apply the implications of his witness to Christ to his own life in certain and significant (glaring) ways.

Do I sin continuously? Yes. Do I have sins that I seemingly live with, in personally systemic ways? Yes, I think I do. Do I live in an unrepentant adulterous relationship with that adulterated woman in my house alongside my kids and wife (I’d be a dead man if I tried because my wife would scratch my eyes out)? No. So there is a very complex picture painted here. We are all sinners, indeed. We all live with sins in our lives in an ongoing basis even if we’re unaware of some or many of those. Yet, this does not get Barth off the hook, per se. He clearly lived in the sort of sin that God said disqualifies people from being teachers in his church; but the reality is that Barth still taught. And Barth produced a mammoth amount of theological material that continues to this day to be gifting to the church. What makes this whole thing even thicker is that it is probable that Charlotte, as Barth’s ‘secretary’, contributed heavily to the development and writing of his Church Dogmatics; and she did other things like translation work so on and so forth for Barth. So Charlotte’s impress is all over some of Barth’s most significant productions. Even knowing all of this I have concluded that Barth’s work, at a theological level, remains seminal for much of my own thinking. In some ways this creates dissonance for me, and for the reasons enumerated thusly. But I have to say, I have never read a theologian who brings such freshness to the Gospel greater than Barth does; he brings an excitement, a joy and zeal that is lacking in almost everyone else I have read. His formal and material constructions, whether that be from his Trinitarian actualism (and analogy of faith/relation) or his Christ conditioned doctrine of election are magnificently imaginative, and I think Gospel-catching and articulating in such ways that I cannot fathom finding other versions of such formations and materializations as rich as his (in principle).

So I will continue to read Barth with some trepidation and prayerfulness before God. I think you might be able to tell that even as I write this I’m still struggling with this; I don’t anticipate that struggle to ever go away. I pray to the Lord that my reading of Barth’s theology will be of the sober type, of the sort wherein compromise or accommodation to any sort of unholiness will be quickly recognized and repented of. The thing is, as you read Barth and this is the irony, you don’t get any sort of impression of unfaithfulness to God, or some sense of pervasive rationalization about sin; instead you get just the opposite, with a focus on the risen Christ, and the Triune God made known for us therein. I know some people think, probably, that I’m still a moralist for having these types of thoughts and issues; but at the end of the day I know that above all else, and everyone else, I stand before a Holy God, and so at the very least I must wrestle with such things. Pax Vobiscum

Posted in Barth | 3 Comments

A Note on the Christian Conception of the Relationship Between Church and State: A Christopolitical Dispatch

Theo-politics have been somewhat of an uninterrogated reality for me. As a conservative evangelical, growing up, I sloppily and haphazardly went the way of the Republican party as “the lesser of two-evils” in our representative government in North America. As time has progressed, and I have developed more (at least I like to think that) I have become what might be called unenthralled and agnostic when it comes to politics, but the reality is that this just cannot be. As a Christian politics is always a present reality; the fact that Jesus is Lord (kyrios) is in itself a call to action, and to be engaged in such a way that requires that I be intentionally thoughtful about theopolitical action. The theo attached to the political is of upmost and adjectival significance for me; it might be better, just for sake of clarity and specificity to call this concern christopolitical. So this has caused me a bit of anguish—although the realities of daily life often keep me preoccupied such that I have less time to critically contemplate such verities with the type of acuity that I’d like—as a result I keep seeking ways to think about my relation to the state as a member of Christ’s church (catholic).

In seminary I took a class called Church and Culture; this class was taught by Paul Metzger, and in it we worked through Karl Barth’s concepts on the relationship between the sacred and secular—we spent our time working through Metzger’s PhD dissertation on the subject helping him get it ready for publication. It was in this class that I really began to see a critical way to think theopolitics, but that remained an inchoate reality for me; nevertheless the frame was set for thinking such things through the analogy of the incarnation and the Chalcedonian pattern which the hypostatic union provided the component concepts towards. Not too long ago I read Barth’s book Against the Stream, which represent some post-second world war talks and lectures he gave, as I recall, in Hungary and Poland. In these published lectures I gained an even better grasp for what I was introduced to in Metzger’s class; in regard to how to think of the relationship between the state/church in a Christic frame. Most recently (like tonight) I have continued to read through Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink’s Christian Dogmatics, and have come to the section where they are sketching the various approaches that have developed in the history of ecclesial interpretation in regard to how Christians have thought the relation of church/state together. Here I want to share two of the four frames that I find most attractive (and leave the other two frames to the side since they are less attractive to me). What you will find is that Barth’s approach juxtaposed with a sort of Reformized Anabaptist tradition is what comes to the fore in my own proclivities relative to thinking state/church, and ‘kingdom theology’ together (and apart in some ways). Here is what Kooi and Brink have to offer us:

The church as a Christ-confessing church for all people. After the Second World War the Dutch Reformed Church promoted the ideal of a Christ-confessing church for all people; in this way it tried to connect distance from and commitment to public affairs. The model followed Barth’s proposal that the church, by its proclamation, should fulfill a public role for the common good. This “theology of the apostolate” has also been referred to as proclamation-theocracy: the church does not directly interfere in the government and does not attempt t usurp its powers but rather, on the basis of the Bible, holds up a prophetical-critical mirror before those who govern. The ideals of the World Council of Churches and other efforts to have the church assume a prophetic role in the world also belong in this category. The supporters of this view were optimistic about its possibilities, but in the Netherlands their attempt failed because the forces of secularization were stronger than expected.[1]

They continue with the fourth frame, which is that much more amenable with an Apocalyptic theological frame that I am oriented from (see Philip Ziegler’s new book Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology); but also with an Anabaptist tenor in the flux of this frame of understanding.

The church as a counterculture or contrast community. A recent and popular image for the church’s role in the public domain proposes that it be a “contrast community” (Yoder, Hauerwas; but also  more and more theologians from mainline Protestant churches feel attracted to  this model; e.g., see Bruijne 2012). That is, the church is not primarily an association with some good ideas; its vitality is found by living under a new life order, namely, that of the kingdom. This kingdom produces its own politics, a structure of practices in which people bless each other, wish each other well, forgive each other, and reject all forms of violence. It only bears witness of the heavenly kingdom but is itself a witness through its praxis. This praxis, in fact, answers the question of how the church may speak.

This position strongly emphasizes the difference between the church and the world; it may indeed be called Anabaptist to the extent that the orders of heavenly and earthly citizenship are kept far apart. Practically, it leaves the political order to its own devices. But it can also take a more Reformed or Catholic shape through a new appreciation of the Augustinian doctrine of the two kingdoms—by recognizing, in other words, that in real life the two realms cannot be totally separated. They are intertwined here below and will be separated by God only in the eschaton. (see Matt 13:29-30). In this world Christians must live with this tension. When they try to escape and eliminate that tension (as in the Anabaptist view), they withdraw from the ongoing course of history, in which God ordains that his church live. A real continuity connects the fallen world and redemption, and the work of the Holy Spirit is not confined to the domains of the church and believer; it seeks to have an impact upon the world. What we noted in chapter 8 about a responsible doctrine of sin is relevant at this point. It enables us to take a realistic view of the world and to implement damage control from the perspective of God’s new reality. This attitude differs from that of older Protestant positions in consciously leaving behind the quest for relevance, and with it the majority strategy that for many centuries burdened and plagued the church in the public domain.[2]

Between these two frames, particularly the latter paragraph in the latter frame emerges a semblance of my own approach to the relationship between the state/church-secular/sacred. I alluded to Ziegler’s work in his book Militant Grace, the themes he identifies and develops therein also provide the sort of theological depth that I like to appeal to in order to thicken what these sketches only present in introductory form. What’s at center for me in all of this, from a theological perspective (what other perspective is there for the Christian?), is that the doctrine of the primacy of Jesus Christ orients all considerations about Everything. In other words, this whole discussion takes place, for me, between the two poles of protology and eschatology, original creation and disruptive recreation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There still yet remains agnosticisms in regard to how all of this gets applied in daily life, and in my own perceptual encounter with the complexities foisted upon us by the travail and groaning that this old creation, and the human governments therein present; but this ought to let you in on how I intend to approach this world, in its highly charged christopolitical context, for the glory of God in the name of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 636-37.

[2] Ibid. 637-38.

Posted in Apocalyptics, Barth, Christology, Cornelius van der Kooi, Gijsbert van den Brink, Paul Metzger, Philip Ziegler, Providence, Theopolitical | 1 Comment

What is Love? The Triune Reality versus Culturally Constructed Conceptions of Divine Love

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.[1]

God is He who in His Son Jesus Christ loves all His children, in His children all men, and in men His whole creation. God’s being is His loving. He is all that He is as the One who loves. All His perfections are the perfections of His love. Since our knowledge of God is grounded in His revelation in Jesus Christ and remains bound up with it, we cannot begin elsewhere—if we are now to consider and state in detail and in order who and what God is—than with the consideration of His love.[2]

Our salvation is not the business of Christ alone but the whole Godhead is interested in it deeply, so deeply, that you cannot say, who loves it most, or likes it most. The Father is the very fountain of it, his love is the spring of all—“God so loved the world that he hath sent his Son.” Christ hath not purchased that eternal love to us, but it is rather the gift of eternal love . . . Whoever thou be that wouldst flee to God for mercy, do it in confidence. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are ready to welcome thee, all of one mind to shut out none, to cast out none. But to speak properly, it is but one love, one will, one council, and purpose in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, for these Three are One, and not only agree in One, they are One, and what one loves and purposes, all love and purpose.[3]

This is a brief post about God’s love, and God as love. In light of the Royal Wedding and Bishop Michael Curry’s homily on love, I thought it would be apropos to dovetail with that. Beyond that, I have become concerned with how love is being appealed to by mostly younger Christians (and I mean generationally) within the broader evangelical Christian complex. I am already out of time for this post, so let me bring it to a close.

The reality is that God is love indeed; that his singular life is shaped by the threeness of self-giveness one for the other, and one in the other. As this is revealed for us in the economy of God’s life of grace and salvation what becomes clear is that this life of love is one that is constrained by a humiliation of self-sacrifice and place for the other more than place for the self (which is where the self gains its definition). But the sacrifice, the self-for-the-other-in-the-other, is also shaped by the otherness of holiness within which God has eternally inhabited as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is from within this ‘inner-reality’ or ‘antecedent-reality’ wherein his grace for us is given gravity; it is this place, this holiness wherein love is given its order and “delimitation.” In other words, while love is by Trinitarian definition, the mode of giving one for the other from the other for the one, within this unique and strangeness (relative to the world’s conception of ‘love’) of God’s life there is an alien reality to love that this world cannot define it can only be given. This militates against the type of ‘love’ that so many Christians these days are appealing to. They use the language of love without giving it definition, without the propitiation of the cross of Christ; without the utter vulnerability and brutality entailed by the type of love that defines God’s life of self-givenness one for the other the other for the one. I would implore Christians to recognize that God’s love cannot be man-handled by us as based upon social and self projections upon what we construct as the Divine. Nein. God’s love is his for us, and his from himself; he has made clear what that entails, inclusive of his justice, holiness, wrath, and judgment in the Son enfleshed. We must start our thinking of God’s love from this inimically Triune reality and allow that to condition the way we think love for God and love for our neighbor. To allow culturally constructed conceptions of love to dominant our thinking and activities will only result in our own demise.

 

[1] I John 4.7-10, NASB.

[2] Barth, CD II/1, 351.

[3] Binning, The Works of Hugh Binning (1735 edn.), as cited in Torrance, Scottish Theology, 78–79.

Posted in American Evangelicalism, Doctrine Of God | 1 Comment

Jesus as an Exemplar Reduced to a Principle of Love: Miscellanies on Christian Social Engagement, Human Sexuality, and Holiness

I have just been having a very messy discussion on Facebook with my daughter’s former youth pastor in regard to homosexuality and how Christians ought to relate to homosexuals. His tact was to write a series of posts on Facebook affirming the homosexual community, showing pictures of his own finger nails painted, and melding the lines between how Christians should be accepting of the gay community. He has since claimed, after I pressed him, that he does believe the lifestyle is ultimately sinful, but then his social media presence on this seems to contradict his assertion (most recently he posted a bunch of pictures of him bar hopping with gay friends from gay bar to gay bar eventuating with him watching a drag-queen show with Rupaul). This he claims is Jesus’ way, and how Jesus showed his love to the world; the implication being that if Jesus had a social media account he would be posting pictures like this, without any explanation other than ‘I’m with my new family’, with the reality being that young people (in his former youth group) would be impressed with this picture of God’s love. I finally challenged this former youth pastor, and predictably received all kinds of erroneous push back; one guy even said ‘people who reject you [former youth pastor] are not even of Christ and can expect to have their flesh eaten by the gorging birds on the last day.’ Apparently, I’m on my way to hell because I’ve challenged the approach of this former youth pastor (who was ultimately fired from his position at the church my daughter attends), and his doubling down in this area.

My final response in that thread underscored the reality that we see plaguing much of North American evangelicalism; the most recent example we have is Andy Stanley. There is a Marcionite-like detachment of Jesus Christ from his Old Testament context; a context that provided for someone like John the Baptist to be the forerunner of the Prophet who Moses said would follow after him (cf. Deut. 13; 18). In another discussion, with reference to the way Jesus is conceived of in secular England, my friend Alex Irving (who lives in the UK) wrote this:

Public life needs to talk about Jesus but doesn’t quite like doing it. So, what we do is to treat Jesus as a moral exemplar rather than a representative. Then there is a clever shift where the emphasis shifts from Jesus to the moral principle being exampled (love, peace, &c.) and Jesus gets abstracted from view.[1]

This typifies, in many ways, the up-and-coming generation of evangelicals; it is an approach to Christ that reduces Jesus to an idea or principle, which then gets abstracted further into social causes and activities that ultimately have nothing to do with the living Christ who is Lord, but instead have everything to do with the way we have projected the Christ to be based upon the ‘spirit of our age’ (Ludwig Feuerbach has helpful critique here).

This I would contend is the spirit this former youth pastor and his uninformed friends work from, and it is a mind-set that I believe needs to be challenged. There is no doubt that homosexuals need to be ministered to with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But the way to do that is by telling them the truth, as we tell ourselves the truth; that Jesus is Lord, and we are not. That we are all sinners every day of our lives and we need to ‘repent’ and change course in line with our participation and union with Jesus Christ (unio cum Christo). Surely this former youth pastor has many compatriots in the greater world out there, but I would contend based upon a sober exegesis of Holy Scripture that he has no basis for what he is engaging in as that is related to heavenly reality grounded in its human reality in Jesus Christ. God loves us, indeed, the incarnation makes this more than clear. The love of God in the Incarnation also constrains us to recognize that the very virtue of his assumption of flesh confronts us in our sins, and then offers a new way of life in his recreated humanity accomplished in the resurrection and the ongoing priestly session he works for us at the Right Hand of the Father. The bottom line is that Jesus is not a community’s principle, but he is Lord; and in the ultimate and the proximate he tells us to ‘repent, for today is the day of salvation.’

 

[1] Alex Irving, Facebook, accessed 05-22-2018.

Posted in Ethics

Living in the ‘Feeling’ and Reality of Freedom from Sin that God Desires For Us In Christ: From Gestation to Resurrection

I really struggled with a false sense of guilt and condemnation for particular sins from my past for years upon years. The enemy of my soul kept me living under ‘a yoke of bondage’ that Jesus said I ‘would be free indeed’ from. The Lord did not leave me as an orphan though, by the Spirit he ministered to me through a sort of rigorous exercise of training me to think rightly about reality as declared in the evangel of His life as borne witness to in Holy Scripture. After many years of anxiety and depression, particularly stemming from living under this false yoke of condemnation the Lord used the reality of creation and recreation to bring the freedom that I so desperately desired. I am sure that I am not alone in this walk, and so I thought I would share a little bit of how this ‘training’ from the Lord looks; at least the way it looks for me.

As I just intimated a doctrine of creation and recreation, along with God’s sovereign providential care of all reality, played the required roles for me to finally see that I truly was and am free (for God and others). As already noted this sort of education from God was motivated by a crisis—we might refer to it as a theology of crisis—a crisis that brought the realization home that I did not have the resources in myself to bring the freedom that God alone could bring.[1] So how does this relate to God being Creator; and not just in an intellectual sense, but how does that reality relate to these real life spiritual issues in a existential felt manner?

In order to help explain what I’m attempting to detail let me offer a very brief definition of the theological concept creatio ex nihilo (‘creation out of nothing’). Keith Ward offers this definition:

Creatio ex nihilo (Latin for “creation from nothing”) refers to the view that the universe, the whole of space-time, is created by a free act of God out of nothing, and not either out of some preexisting material or out of the divine substance itself. This view was widely, though not universally, accepted in the early Christian Church, and was formally defined as dogma by the fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Creatio ex nihilo is now almost universally accepted by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Indian theism generally holds that the universe is substantially one with God, though it is usually still thought of as a free and unconstrained act of God.[2]

There are many important theological implications we could explore simply based upon this brief definition, but for our purposes I wanted to inject this definition into this discussion to elevate the idea that God is the Creator, and thus all of creation is contingent upon his Word. It was this idea that God started to use in my life, years ago, before I ever had any understanding of ‘creation out of nothing’, that I could have freedom from my past. This concept, before I knew the theological parlance was captured for me in this Bible verse, “3And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high….” (Heb. 1.3). Interesting how even in this verse the concept of being purified from sins and God’s ‘upholding all things by the word of His power’ are connected. It was this connection that God used to bring freedom for me. The lesson took many years, and was full of ‘anfechtung’ (trial-tribulation). The Lord allowed me to existentially feel the weight of what this world might look like without him as the One holding it together. It is very hard for me to verbalize the sense that I experienced, but it was as if I was questioning all of reality; even physical reality. I would look out at the world and based upon the sort of nihilistic logic that had infiltrated my mind (as a Christian!) over the years I would have this excruciating condition of feeling the transitoriness of all of reality. It was living in this reality, accompanied by ‘intellectual doubts’ (not spiritual) about God’s existence, that of course!, threw me into great pits of despondency and despair. But it was also through this that my perception of reality was transferred from one contingent upon my word—and this world system’s word—to God’s Word. It was this process, ironically, that allowed me to finally understand that “If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; 34 who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.” (Rom. 8.31–32) Again, like with the Hebrews passage, we see here in Paul’s theology that a connection is made between freedom from condemnation and the creational reality of God’s Word; except here what is emphasized is not creation in general, but creation in particular as that is particularized in the re-creation of God in Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Once I’d been schooled enough with the reality that ‘reality’ is God’s reality based alone upon his given and sustaining Word; once I could ‘feel’ that weight, not just intellectually, but spiritually-affectively, the resurrection and re-creation therein had the real life impact I personally needed to be ‘free’ and stand fast in the freedom that the Son said I would be free within (Jn. 8.36); his freedom in the re-creation; the resurrection; the new creation; the new humanity that is his for us.

So I had this doctrine of creation out of nothing in place, in a ‘felt’ way; with the emphasis being upon the reality that God alone holds all of reality together. It was within this conceptual frame that the doctrine of re-creation and resurrection came alive for me; in an existential-spiritual-felt and lived sense. This is why Karl Barth’s doctrine of resurrection has resonated with me so deeply. It is tied into the type of ‘primordial’ thinking that creatio ex nihilo operates from—as part and parcel of God’s upholding Word—and then explicates that from within a theology of God’s Word wherein the primacy of Christ’s life is understood as the telos the fulcrum of what created reality is all about. Robert Dale Dawson really helped me to appreciate this sort of connection between creation out of nothing and Barth’s doctrine of re-creation as he wrote this:

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[3]

Threading out the academic technicalities (that are important in their original context), and focusing on the concepts that serve our purposes, what I draw from this is the significance of what Dawson identifies in Barth’s theology as ‘the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.’ Can you see how all of this might provide the sort of apocalyptic freedom we are in need of in order to live the sort of ‘free’ life that God wants us to before him? It does seem rather mechanical and academic; I agree. Let me try to summarize and draw together the themes I’ve been attempting to highlight in order to provide you with a maybe-way forward in your own spiritual walk and life as a Christian.

The Conclusion. It is actually rather basic, but deeply profound; at least for me. What is required is that we ask for eyes of faith to see what God sees in Christ. He will school us in his ways as we seek him first in the Scripture’s reality in Christ. He will work things into our lives that will shorn away the accretions of the ‘worldly-system-wisdom’ with his wisdom; the wisdom of the cross. He will allow you to ‘feel’ the existential weight of his life, and the reality that that upholds, and within this, this apocalyptic reality of his in-breaking life into ours, the reality that the God who could rightly condemn us has broken into the surly contingencies of our sinful lives and become the ‘Judge, judged.’ If the God who holds all reality together by the Word of his power in Jesus Christ invades this world in the Son, takes his just condemnation of our sins (no matter what they are!) upon himself for us, puts that death to death in his death on the cross, and then re-creates all of reality in his resurrection; then there remains no space for condemnation. The One who could condemn me stands in the way and has eliminated the sphere for condemnation insofar that he has re-created a world wherein only his righteousness reigns and dwells in his enfleshed life for us in his Son, Jesus Christ. What I just noted is the key to grasp. There is another world in Christ; a world accessible by the eyes of faith, provided by the eyes of Christ, in his vicarious humanity which we are enlivened into by the Holy Spirit. This is the real reality that Christians live in and from; and it is this reality that I cling to whenever the enemy of my soul wants to bring me into a life of bondage that belongs to the world that he is king over; a world that is dead and no longer real by virtue of the reality of God’s new world re-created and realized in the primacy of Jesus Christ.

I hope this small reflection might help provide some liberation for some of you out there as well. I realize this all might seem pretty academic, but I don’t really see things that way; I’m hoping you’ll see as a result of this post why I don’t see things in terms of the ‘academic.’ I think good theology, whether people think it is “academic” or not can begin to see that at spiritual levels these ideas can have real life impact and consequences, and that God can use them for the good; he did so, and continues to work this way for me. Just recently, as recent as yesterday, the devil tried to bring me back into a sense of false condemnation and guilt, and I found relief in the very ideas I’ve just outlined. The process, in the head, can be somewhat mechanistic, when working through things this way, but, at least for me, it is what is required for to live a life of freedom that God wants me to live in and from his Son, and my Savior, Jesus Christ. Soli Deo Gloria.

 

[1] This might also explain why I have so much resonance with Karl Barth’s theology. Early on Barth was known as a theologian of crisis. Martin Luther’s theology was spawned by deep angst, and his theology is often related to what is known in German as Anfechtung (trial/tribulation). This is why I have found these theologians, among others, as some of my most insightful teachers; they understand that the ‘wisdom of the cross’, that a theologia crucis and a theologia resurrectionis are the key components for knowing God and making him known to others. This is where God meets us; it’s where he knows we must be met if we are going to meet him.

[2] Keith Ward, Creatio Ex Nihilo (Encyclopedia.com), accessed 05-18-2018.

[3] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

Posted in Apocalyptics, Christian Spirituality, Devotion, Doctrine Of Sin, Resurrection, Robert Dale Dawson, Salvation | 3 Comments