*After you read the post below come back and read this one which dovetails and elaborates further in an even thicker theological way.
Freedom, a concept that has assailed philosophers, theologians, and just everyday people in its various contexts of understanding and engagement. In this post I want to riff on that concept as we receive it in the dominical teaching of Jesus and the Apostolic teaching of Paul (remember this is a blog post, and thus is off the top and reflective in nature).
31 So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?”
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. 38 I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.”
39 They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus *said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. 40 But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. 41 You are doing the deeds of your father.” They said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father: God.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. 43 Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me.46 Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me?47 He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.”
A few observations:
1) This is one reason I am Reformed, theologically. Jesus’ teaching and thought is underwritten by a strong commitment to what some have called total depravity, and he believes it extent and reach is so deep that it blinds even religious people so deeply that it aligns them with the disobedience and revelry of the devil to the point that this alignment becomes conflated with doing the work of God (so the Pharisees and all religious people, including all of us).
2) For these religious zealots they couldn’t understand how Jesus could assert that they were enslaved; after all they were the religious elite, the theological supermen, and they had the Torah, the Law of Yahweh, which historically they believed in and of itself made them righteous over against those who did not have Torah (the Gentiles) who were the sinners enslaved by their passions and desires.
3) But Jesus understood something that the religious establishment of his day did not; he understood that what God was looking at was the heart, and the need for it to be circumcised, the need for it to replaced with his soft heart of flesh (cf. Ez. 36:24ff; II Cor. 3:1ff). He understood that they were just as enslaved as the Gentile sinners among them, and that they were enslaved to the devil as much as anyone else.
This is the riff part I mentioned in my opening. Jesus thinks of ‘freedom’ not in the sense of deliberative libertarian free agency (which underwrites so much of what it means to be a person in our individualistic Western contexts); Jesus thinks of freedom as for God, as for his Father. There is only one conception of freedom when we come to Jesus, it really has nothing to do with the frequent conversations we encounter in regard to free-will. There is no such thing as “free-will” except in God’s life of freedom; he is the only free-will around. In order for us to be truly free, we need to find that freedom by being in union with and participating in God’s triune life through Christ. This is what Jesus understood (and what the Apostle Paul understood in Romans 6, which we’ll have to address later); he wasn’t really all that concerned about establishing a place for human beings in an individualistic sense, as if they could be “human” in abstraction or annexed from the life of God. Indeed, Jesus’ life itself bears witness to this fact; in order to be truly human, according to Jesus, means that God and humanity are hypostatically united; it means that humanity is living in right relationship with God by grace. This is where and how the Pharisees could be ‘free indeed’ and it is how we too can be free; free for God, since he alone is freedom in himself, and he has graciously and freely chosen to be with us and not against us, in Christ. Amen.
 NASB, John 8.31-47.
Life is a strange and wonderful thing. But most things that occupy us moment from moment day to day in the grand scheme of things aren’t things that really matter; I mean they do, but when confronted with the real reality of our own mortality so many of the things that seem so pressing to us in the moment simply melt away and the real things that matter rise to the fore. I experienced this when I was diagnosed with my typically (and statistically) incurable cancer (DSRCT) back in late 2009.
I was just thinking about all of this tonight; life (as James says) is indeed but a vapor. If this is the case, if the world as we know it, as Paul says, is passing away then how we ought to live as Peter ponders? When I thought I was going to die (from my cancer) everything changed. I went into a strange world unbeknownst to me prior; it was a world full of anxiety (so overwhelmingly so that it went beyond a feeling of anxiety … if that makes sense), fear (I didn’t want to die, especially not the death of the type of cancer I had), darkness (there was major spiritual warfare that happened, an oppression that filled my atmosphere, at points). But, of course, there was much ministry and grace from God in Christ by the Holy Spirit that was always present; he ministered in miraculous ways (one of those ways being realized now … I am alive and still cancer free after 5 years).
But I wasn’t really intending on writing about my cancer, even if it is relevant to what I want to say, and it is. I was just thinking though about perspective. We get so lost in our daily circumstances, and in the drama of everyday life (whether that be at work, school, play, etc.), and what is really important (Jesus) get’s lost; the great hope we have as Christians gets squashed by our most immediate pursuits (which usually involves some sort of self-promotion). And yet there will be that moment for you and I alike where all of the drama of our daily lives (the stuff that seems so important, so pressing right now) will be confronted with what really matters; life itself, and life itself in Christ.
When you think you are most probably going to die (like I did) everything narrows. The hopes that motivated and drove you (all in the future) get cut off, and your future becomes limited to one day at a time. When you lose horizontal hope in the things and pursuits of this world and this life, the future becomes a vertical affair; you begin to look to the heavens for your future, for your hope. You begin to cast your vision on God in Christ, and trust him each day to be your future for that day; when you have the sentence of death upon you you no longer (as a Christian) trust in yourself but in the One you know raises the dead.
I’ve been getting overwhelmed by my most immediate circumstances, and I sense that the enemy has been trying to rob me of the real reality and hope that I have in Jesus Christ. Perspective from the center of God’s life in Christ is so important to participate and live in and from; it is hard to overstate this! I need to be less like Israel (remember them in Exodus etc.), and more like Jesus (as I live from him). I need to remember the perspective that came from my cancer diagnosis, or at least that that diagnosis did as it caused me to throw myself on God’s mercy. I don’t want to forget; I don’t want to let other people (like at work or elsewhere) impose their un-belief or un-perspective upon me (and this is a constant battle: to live in a world that is structured by unbelief and self-worship). We are all going to have that day of perspective, let’s live that way.
Theological theology, a phrase that theologian John Webster recently entitled an essay he wrote for the Journal of Analytic Theology. The phrase in and of itself is pregnant; it sounds pretty academic, and indeed the way Webster develops it is pretty academic, but it is still highly practical and pertinent for the body life and growth of the church of Jesus Christ.
Instead of elaborating on what exactly Webster developed in this essay of his I want to simply riff on his phrase Theological theology. Embedded in Webster’s intent, I think, is the point of emphasizing what in fact drives theology; or what is theology’s proper object? He argues that in order for theology to be truly theological that what serves ultimately determinative must be theology’s primal object: God. This seems simple and straightforward enough; I think most theologians would affirm this one way or the other.
Here’s my riff and application of this: If theology’s genuine endeavor is an attempt to know God and make him known for the people of God in various contexts (socio-cultural, demographical, etc.) then it behooves the Christian to finally get beyond the theologians that they learn from and ultimately look to Jesus. If this is the case I would contend that the best theologians among us (trained or untrained) are those who offer ways towards thinking about God that genuinely start with and after God. This seems like a good and helpful principle for being able to engage broadly with multiple theologians across various traditions of theological engagement. The Principle: When trying to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ (or be a Christian theologian) it is best to engage with the teachings of various theologians from the regulating idea that Jesus is the center and not my favorite pet theologian.
What am I really getting at? Increasingly I am becoming disillusioned with the idea that I have to be identified with this camp or that tradition or that particular theologian in a lock-step way. For example: it is no secret that Karl Barth, Thomas F. Torrance, and John Calvin have been significant shapers of the way that I think theologically; as such (especially because of my online forays) I think that I have become tied to these theologians in absolute types of ways. Meaning that I simply affirm everything that these particular guys have written. The idea being that just because I am highly sympathetic and impacted by them that I have so bought into their “systems” of thought that I must simply parrot every idea and every thought they ever articulated.
But this really isn’t the case. I appreciate Barth and Torrance in particular because they among any other theologian I have ever encountered offer a prolegomena or theological method that fits with the ‘principle’ I mentioned above. It is this that I have adopted from them in rather stringent ways; the idea that Jesus is the ‘key’ the ‘regulator’ and ‘center’ of all theological endeavor. But this doesn’t then mean that I can’t constructively learn from various other theologians, theologians who I might not agree with or who might be in the cross-hairs of Barth and Torrance for example.
At the end of the day Christian theology is much bigger than any one thinker or trajectory of thought (inclusive of Barth or Torrance). Even if particular theologians have tapped into a trajectory that I think better gets at the center of doing theology theologically and Christianly better than other approaches, this should not be taken in a reductionistic type of way. Jesus is bigger than Barth (shocking, I’m sure!), Jesus is bigger than Torrance, Calvin, the Pope, Mother Theresa or anyone else. If Jesus is the Great Teacher of his church, then we need to be able to learn from various quarters within his catholic body.
I am struggling to say what I want to say at this point, but hopefully you catch my drift.
I am supposed to be writing a chapter in our forthcoming Evangelical Calvinism book (Volume 2) on the doctrine of assurance of salvation; and I am, it is just a very slow process. The rest of this post will engage with this ‘doctrine’ embedded as it is in a discussion about Calvin’s understanding of election and reprobation vis-à-vis Barth’s.
Stephen R. Holmes (or Steve Holmes as I know him on Facebook) has written a little book entitled Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology. One of the chapters in his book is entitled: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Reprobation. As he himself notes this particular chapter is less about Barth’s doctrine (although it is), and more about developing a history for a Reformed understanding of election/reprobation and how that relates latterly to a doctrine of assurance of salvation (or not). As Holmes develops his material he focuses in on, as I noted above, on John Calvin and his doctrine of election. Holmes concludes, in summary, that Calvin’s doctrine of election (as, in general, that of all of the prominent voices in Post-Reformed orthodoxy) ultimately fails in providing assurance of salvation because Calvin does not really have a robust place for reprobation in his theology; with the result that reprobation remains ‘Christless,’ that it does indeed remain in the dark recesses of God’s remote will as it were. Beyond this, what Holmes sees as problematic, especially in providing the kind of assurance of salvation that Calvin wanted to provide for his parishioners, was that Calvin had an idea of ‘temporary faith’ (the idea that people could look like they have a genuine effectual saving faith, but in the final analysis it only ‘appeared’ that way, in the end they really weren’t one of the elect of Christ) in his broader doctrine of salvation. When coupled with a doctrine of reprobation that remains in the darkness of God’s remote or secret will, it becomes apparent why Holmes believes Calvin’s doctrine[s] here fail.
An Aside: I think that most of what we are discussing in this post is pretty much lost on most people in the church of Jesus Christ today. The irony, though, is that the grammar of salvation that people appeal to on a daily basis (particularly evangelicals in North America and in the rest of the Western world) finds its context and meaning in the type of “abstract” discussion we are engaging with in this post. I really have hardly any hope that the people that I would like to read this most will ever read or consider such things. So I guess this means I am just writing this for you, dear reader. And if not you, and even if for you, I write this as an act of worship unto God (if I don’t do that, then I feel as if writing and contemplating such things in such a small corner of the vast ocean of the internet would almost seem meaningless … hopefully the elect angels might read this).
So Steve Holmes has written this (and he has written more, and what he has written does actually end up being much more on the classical side of Calvin rather than the neo-classical side of Barth) in regard to Calvin’s flawed doctrine of election and reprobation as opposed to Barth’s more robust offering.
Barth’s great concern in treating the doctrine of election is that it should be gospel – good news. He begins with the programmatic assertion ‘The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or hear it is the best …’ Given this, a rapid way to an idea, at least, of what separated Barth from the Reformed tradition might be attained by asking what prevented previous Reformed accounts from fulfilling this laudable aim. Why, for instance, did Calvin’s presentation of election, certainly intended to offer assurance of salvation to worried believers, not succeed?
Well, the point at which Calvin appears to engage in special pleading in his attempt to give assurance to believers is when speaks of ‘temporary faith’ (III.24.7-9). Those with this ‘temporary faith’, according to Calvin, ‘never cleaved to Christ with the heartfelt trust in which the certainty of election has, I say, been established for us’. They may indeed ‘have signs of a call that are similar to those of the elect’, but lack ‘the sure establishment of election’ (III.24.7). Such phrases achieve the very opposite of their intention, however, suggesting that there is something that masquerades as true faith, but is not. How can any believer know whether he or she feels a ‘sure establishment’ or whether it is merely ‘signs of a call similar to those of the elect’? The invitation for years of morbid introspection by later believers is surely here–at this point, with these phrases in my ears, that I cannot be sure of my own salvation. There is no assurance, and so the doctrine fails to be gospel, instead informing me that there is a way of being, indistinguishable (to those living it at least) from Christian being, which is nonetheless supremely dangerous. The weakness in Calvin’s account of predestination, I suggest, is that the doctrine of reprobation is detached. Christless and hidden in the unsearchable purposes of God. As such it bears no comparison with the doctrine of election, but remains something less than a Christian doctrine. There is, in Calvin’s account, a fundamental difference between election and reprobation. Contra Barth, Calvin’s failure is not that he teaches a symmetrical double decree (Barth speaks of ‘the classical doctrine with its opposing categories of “elect” and “reprobate”’), but that he has almost no room for the doctrine of reprobation in his account.
This difference, this asymmetry, is ‘a very amiable fault’; it gives insight into Calvin the pastor, whose heart and mind were full of the glories of God’s gift of salvation in Christ–so different from the caricature often painted. Calvin’s doctrine fails not because of a double decree, because the ‘No’ is equal to the ‘Yes’, but because the ‘No’ does not really enter his thinking. It is a logical result of the ‘Yes’, and necessary for the ‘Yes’ truly to be ‘Yes’, but, whereas election is bound up in his theology, it is the very fact that he is seemingly not interested in reprobation, that he has not brought it within the Trinitarian scope of his system, that makes it such a weak point. That is to say, Calvin’s doctrine fails to be gospel, is not ‘of all words … the best’, because he gives no doctrinal content to his account of reprobation and hence has no meaningful symmetry between the two decrees.
For Holmes Calvin’s doctrine of reprobation fails because he really doesn’t have a ‘positive’ one at all in his theology. As a result (as noted) when coupled with a conception of ‘temporary faith’ it becomes clear why folks submitted to this theology (especially as it blossomed in Puritan theologies), within ecclesiopolitical contexts where ‘normal public life’ and ‘special private religious life’ were one and the same, why folks struggled desperately with assurance of salvation. They might have wondered (and did): “Am I one of the elect or reprobate?” “Do I have a temporary faith, or real ‘effectual’ saving faith; do I just appear to be one of the elect of Christ, or do I fall into the abyss of reprobation?” These seem to be honest indicators of how Calvin’s theology of reprobation and assurance failed. Barth didn’t have this problem (we will have to leave this for another day).
All of this begs the question though: If a properly conceived doctrine of election/reprobation can be presented (and I think it can be as evinced in the theology of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance), do we even end up with a theological category known as “assurance of salvation” (as a corollary of ‘reprobation’)? I would say the answer to this question is No! Assurance of salvation only becomes a psychological category and fall-out for folks if the premises that funded Calvin’s thought (for example) on the subject of predestination are taken seriously and to its logical conclusion (as evinced in later Federal theology and experimental predestinarianism, so called). In other words, and ironically, I believe that ‘assurance of salvation’ as a doctrine should be a non-doctrine, and that any angst associated with it (insofar as it points weary souls back to themselves rather than to Christ alone) ought to be thrown into the abyss where it (as a teaching) ought to experience eternal conscious torment.
 Stephen R. Holmes, Listening To The Past: The Place Of Tradition In Theology (UK/Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster Press/Baker Academic, 2002), 129-30.
24 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. ~Hebrews 10:24-25
I am increasingly impressed by the reality that to know God, to know God in Jesus Christ means that we do this in community, in church. If God’s Self-knowledge, if his Self-existence is shaped not in singularity but multiplicity, in Trinity, then it would follow that as those recreated in the image of God in and through the vicarious humanity of Christ that our knowledge of God, as we participate in his multiplied life, will in kind be the shape through which we come to know him among the community of saints, in multiplicity among the people of God.
What becomes difficult, for someone like me (and maybe like you) is that this community is hard to come by, at the moment. The reality of my work schedule often keeps me from even attending church on Sundays, let alone being involved in the body life of the local church; and this is troubling to me. Yes, I read the bible habitually; I read theology habitually; I attempt to share Christ with co-workers and others as opportunity presents itself; but I am missing the kind of community and koinonia (fellowship) that I believe is so vital to a vigorous life in and for Christ. Yes, I share life with my family, and we share Christian community right here (I don’t want to underestimate the value of this built in community that God has provided for in the so called nuclear family). But there is something unique and special about communing together in the body of Christ (the church) proper.
The reality is, is that the kingdom of Christ is not cultivated in isolation, but together, together with other people who have the Spirit in them (Romans 8); with Christians. God’s grace remains sufficient, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and so in these wilderness times we press on looking forward to the upward call in Christ Jesus and are always abounding in the work of Lord, not losing heart, but finding sufficiency in the life of Christ shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Maybe the Lord places us in isolated moments sometimes in order to teach us how important the body of Christ actually is; maybe he creates a thirst for his righteousness among his people in the wilderness, so to speak. But I am sure that lack of Christian fellowship should never be a normative thing; not at least if you want to know God in Christ in a full and rich way.
Typically a-seity is in reference to God’s self causation as it were. As I was at work (sitting on a locomotive) I had some time to reflect upon this depth reality, and once again it continues to be a great source of worship for me.
It blows my mind to ponder the ineffable nature of God; in a healthy way! It caused me great joy to realize that God is greater than my ability to comprehend; it puts me in my creaturely place. As I reflect upon the reality of God in this way it makes me fear him (in a healthy way). It makes me realize how little I am and how gigantic he is. What ultimately blows my mind (to the point of worship) is when I bring this a-se God into view through the Incarnation (or rather as he does this). This ineffable God has become man for me, and for you; because at his very Triune base he is love (his self-Given reality to be eternally for the other within the relations of the God-head). He came just for me and just for you, not because of who I am or who you are, but because of who He is; and this from a God who is a-se and so big that he ultimately goes beyond our capacity to dig any deeper or think any harder.
And so as I was at work and had a moment I had to just sit there and worship.
When you read Karl Barth what you get is the usual Reformed lexicon, but with a different theological grammar defining it. In other words you will get words like ‘election’ ‘reprobation’ ‘covenant’ ‘extra Calvinisticum’ and a host of other Reformedisms. In this Reformed mode the most prominent, even dominant Reformed concept that Barth recalibrates through his Christ concentrated hermeneutic is his doctrine of election/reprobation. For Barth it is not as if there is some sort of dark shadow side behind the back of Jesus; for Barth God’s ineffable and Triune life is revealed without remainder in Jesus Christ. When this is applied to a doctrine of election in one aspect of this doctrine in part, (in particular as it applies to the usual questions surrounding election/reprobation like questions flowing from articulating the mechanics of God’s salvation for humanity) we see how all things are enclosed in Christ’s vicarious life for all of humanity.
One of Barth’s earliest commentators and critics was Dutch Reformed theologian G.C. Berkouwer (he wrote a book length treatment and critique of Barth’s theology ever before Barth’s Church Dogmatics had been translated into English, and ever before Barth even finished it to the point that we have it now). Berkouwer wrote this really concise description of Barth’s principial Christ-centered doctrine of election:
Therefore Jesus Christ is in the most absolute sense of the word the decision of God, the decision, namely, to become man. What decree can possibly exist outside of this decision? God’s election in Christ is the beginning of all His works. The electing God is not an abstract highest being with all kinds of qualities by reason of which He elects in an absolute decree of which Christ then later becomes the “executor decreti.” Christ Himself is the decretum concretum, the mode of God’s operation. For this reason, the eternal will of God in Christ is not unknown to us, but is made known in the history of God with man. This is the effulgent light of the overcoming love of God. This is the mystery, not of an abstract sovereignty, but of the “victorious affirmation and love of God for men.” This history is the unique Triumph of Grace and as such the Triumph of the Sovereignty of God.”
Why Does This Matter?
I like to ask this question. How does what Barth is saying help me to know God in Jesus Christ better? I think that is a great question! This is what I have found so revolutionary about Barth, Barth doesn’t really provide us with a normal or classical approach to doing theology (although there are precedents of his approach strewn throughout Patristic theology, and other theologians in the so called ‘classical’ tradition); Barth offers us an approach that attempts to think all of God’s reality from an all encompassing supreme Christ, as if all of creation and its purpose (telos) are only known in and from Christ (see Col. 1.15ff). I have never come across another theologian who offers this stringent type of Christological approach to theology (except in Thomas F. Torrance, Barth’s best English speaking student), and leaving Bible College and Seminary I knew that there was one answer to every theological question (in spite of much of theological education), and that answer is Jesus Christ (the same answer I learned of in Sunday School when just a kid). This is the simplicity and profundity of Barth’s theology; Jesus Christ and an intense focus upon Him in ways that radically present us with a method that isn’t really a method at all, instead it is a person (and that is radical when placed against all other theology prior to Barth’s offering).
So why does all of this matter? Because Jesus matters. Because you can never go wrong if you want to interpret Scripture or live ethically (holily) if your ground and condition is Jesus Christ; if he conditions all that you are from His own life for you. If you are looking for a ‘rule of faith’ then look no further than Jesus, that’s what Barth says. And not just as an abstract part of a broader theological endeavor, but instead as the concentrated point of a concrete theological framework revealed in flesh and blood.
 G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph Of Grace In The Theology Of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1956), 103.