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It strikes me as completely petitio principii (circular) to simply presume that the Great Tradition of the Church just is caused by God’s design. It is a total adjunct of natural theology to maintain that we, even collectively, can simply scan the contours of ecclesial history and identify what counts as orthodox, and what doesn’t; and then use what we count as orthodox to relegate anything we deem outside of ‘orthodoxy’ as heretical or heterodox. I write and think as a Protestant, a Free Church Protestant (FCP). Even if I wasn’t an FCP, just being a mere Protestant ought to fortify the thinker from simply affirming something as orthodox because ‘the Church’ says so. But this is what we continue to get as the mantra from evangelical and Reformed (and Lutheran) theologians. I’m sorry, but I can’t get over this.

I’m a “Bible believing Christian,” who sees value in the doctrinal contours presented by the church catholic. Along with Barth I even see a Chalcedonian pattern that ought to be paradigmatically followed in the ordering of our theological inklings. But it is a pattern that I see; it isn’t an absolute frame whereby I adjudge this ‘in’ and that ‘out,’ per se. There, of course, is a standard for determining what is in and what is out, but it isn’t ultimately Church tradition; for the Protestant it is Holy Scripture—but not Holy Scripture that is sublated by the Church’s tradition. The Protestant, like myself, is committed to what the Reformed refer to as the Protestant ‘Scripture principle.’ Yet, even those committed to this, or sola Scriptura, often qualify it to the point that in order to ensure they are understood to be ‘catholic,’ that they end up hijacking Scripture’s authority and embassy by using the categories presented by The Great Tradition as their biblical exegetical lenses. The result is that we are really given a reading of Scripture whose esse (being) is the Church’s magisterium and the tradition that that is.

As an alternative, and what I take to be a genuinely Protestant doctrine of authority, for those committed de jure to the Scripture principle, I believe we ought to see Scripture’s esse, or reality grounded in Christ alone (solus Christus). If we don’t intentionally, and RADICALLY, make this move then all we are left with is what we see unfolding currently in so much of the theological environs of ‘conservative’ Protestant existence today. As an illustration, just go onto conservative theological social media (Twitter and Facebook come to mind), and see how many of the folks there are committed to some form of Thomism. Thomism has become the Tridentine Church’s (post-Trent) mode for doing all things theological. And yet we can equally say that this mode has been just as entrenched, ever since the 16th and 17th centuries of Post Reformation Reformed orthodox development, for the Protestant churches. This is what being ‘recovered’ currently. But I would argue that this whole movement, particularly as that was given impetus in the 16th and 17th centuries, belies the very intent of the Lutherian and Calvinian (et al) Reformation to begin with. Luther in particular, even while constructively deploying certain Aristotelian categories, completely rejected the Thomist or Aristotelian theology of his day. Some point out that Luther only rejected what he understood of Aristotle and Thomas in order to marginalize my point, but the reality remains that Luther fundamentally saw the Pure Being theology of the Church at odds with the Faith of Christ as presented on the pages of the NT. And yet people continuously ignore this fact, and rush headlong into the Catholic faith; even as Protestants. They aren’t reforming anything, they are only submitting to the power of the river Tiber and drowning in its Thomist eddies and Papal undercurrents.

More importantly, what I am really at a loss over is what I was mentioning at the beginning of this post. In order to take advantage of some of the important doctrinal patterns that have developed over the centuries doesn’t mean that the person attempting to take this advantage must swallow the whole ball of wax! A person can constructively skiff these patterns as they see those emerging from the reality of Christ revealed or not. A person does not have to be a Thomist or Scotist (or even a Palamite) in order to find helpful conceptual theological matter that might be present in even some of those patterns. But it seems to me that people are conflating catholicity with identification with this sort of Church Tradition; that one must be Aristotelian or ‘speculative’ or of the negative way in order to be a catholic thinker. And yet all of this seems oh so AD HOC! Protestants, or what I take to be genuinely Protestant, don’t read God’s face off of the developments of natural history; even if that takes place in the Church. Protestant’s know their Shepherd’s voice because their Shepherd is their life; their Shepherd is their brother and Savior, Jesus Christ. As such the Protestant knows that they have a direct and unmediated line between themselves and God, who is their Father by the adoption of Grace. Protestants don’t have a speculative relationship in regard to knowing Who their God is, they know Him concretely and relationally in and through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is their mediator, and through participation and union with Him the Protestant comes to have a theological slab illumined for them that does not require the sort of speculative meandering that Tridentine theology requires.

I submit that in order to be genuinely Protestant in theological orientation, the Christian must forgo commitment to the sort of speculative theology that is being recovered by so many today in the Protestant churches (as part of a long line with Protestantism). I submit that in order to be Protestant one must be radically committed to Holy Scripture’s authority and her reality in Jesus Christ. I submit that in order to be Protestant the Christian’s whole frame of reference must be shaped by the regula fidei, who I, in a reified sense, take to be Jesus Christ directly (not mediately through the Church). I submit that in order to be Protestant the disciple must repudiate all forms of natural theology, and rely solely on the apocalyptic and in-breaking of God’s life in the risen Christ as that comes to be known by the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit as attested by Holy Scripture. To be genuinely Protestant, as a theological thinker, I submit that we must operate as confessional agents who reject all forms of apology as the basis for the theological task. To be a genuine Protestant thinker I submit that we have no other tradition but Christ, who in fact turns out to not be a tradition at all; but a person! If you attempted to place what I’m saying in the history of Christian ideas it would be in the spirit of the via moderna, but I won’t explain that now.

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There is an ancient way, even a via antiqua for doing theology in the history of the Church. This fact is undeniable, and is something to praise the Lord for. But this doesn’t mean that this ancient way is the absolute and Divinely sanctioned way for doing theology. Some refer to ‘the Great Tradition of the Church’ (particularly in the West), and/or the Consensus Patrum of the Church (mostly in the East). What is being referred to are the identifiable doctrinal contours of the Church that are said to coalesce the orthodox among all traditions that make up the historic Church catholic (whether that be Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant). The Church catholic and the Great Tradition or Consensus Patrum are often thought together, such that anything that falls out of these ‘ancient’ ways are thought, at best, to be heterodox; if  not heretical. But for the Protestant the criterion for determining ‘catholicity’ is not ultimately the councils, confessions, and creeds that make up the Great Tradition of the Church; instead, for the Protestant it is the Word of God, and a robust theology of the Word by which we come to conclude whether a doctrine is catholic (universal) or not.

With the above noted, I want to get into what has become a pet-theological-project of mine. That is engaging with the issue of knowledge of God. This locus implicates how we think of the Great Tradition of the Church, and what theological method was used, by and large, to arrive at its various theological conclusions. But what I have in mind doesn’t undercut, per se, the intent of the Great Tradition; rather, it reifies it through a radical or robust theology of the Word. By now I am sure you know what I am referring to, or rather who: Karl Barth’s theological alternative to what has come to be called the analogia entis (analogy of being), particularly among the Thomist Roman Catholics, but also as that has been imbibed by contemporary Protestant Reformed theologians, which is known as the analogia fidei. Barth’s analogy of faith seeks to definitively pronounce the only way a genuine knowledge of God can obtain. He argues against Catholic forms of the ‘entis,’ by forcefully pointing out how the analogia entis, in his mind (and mine), ends up projecting creaturely modes of intellection onto transcendent and Divine reality. David Congdon writes of Barth’s critique thusly: “Barth means that metaphysics is a projection of the phenomenal onto the divine, and thus a confusion of immanence and transcendence.”[1] Barth sees a common bond between the ancient way, as developed in the scholastic theologies of both the Catholics and the Protestants, and what eventually flowered into what came to be known as ‘Liberal theology,’ most notably associated with Friedrich Schleiermacher and the tradition he spawned. Barth sees an anthropological starting point among all theological parties herein, and as such seeks to despoil this hallowed ground by offering an alternative way towards knowing God that is principially grounded in God’s explicit Self-revelation (Deus revelatus) of Himself in the special face of Jesus Christ. Barth’s analogy of faith is decidedly grounded in a patently revealed theology, rather than in the speculative theology of the ancient way currently being retrieved by many Protestant Reformed theologians in the Western Church.

Congdon offers an excellent summary of what Barth’s doctrine on analogy of faith entails, and how it is intended to dagger the analogy of being, and natural theology more broadly, with the blade of a theological frame that starts in Christ rather than in an abstract humanity and knowledge of God therefrom.

By the time he reached his mature dogmatics, however, Barth had crystallized his criticism as a protest against what he described as the analogia entis, or thinking about God in abstracto. The metaphysical concept of God is abstract in that it describes God in terms derived from general categories and having general validity, that is, in terms not derived from the particular event of God’s self-communication. Speaking about God in abstracto (according to the analogia entis) occurs whenever creation functions effectively as the norm for theological speech. This occurs principally in the employment of what Barth elsewhere identifies as the Dionysian via triplex, which attempts to derive conceptual categories for God from those that pertain to the world, whether through causal derivation, negation, or infinite elevation.[2]

In footnotes Congdon elaborates further on what Barth’s critique is getting at, and what its reference entail in regard to historical antecedents.

Barth explicitly equates the terms in abstracto and analogia entis when he says that to speak of God in abstracto is to claim that “God is knowable—knowable even without God’s revelation,” which means that one “acknowledges an analogy between God and humanity and therefore one point at which God is knowable even without God’s revelation: the analogy of being [Analogie des Seienden], namely, the analogia entis, the idea of being, in which God and humanity are in all cases comprehended together” (KD 2.1:88–89/81). In this context Barth has Roman Catholic theology in view. The subsequent part-volume on the doctrine of election levels the same charge of in abstracto God-talk against Protestant orthodoxy’s concept of the decretum absolutum. The common ground is the attempt to speak about the creator by first looking to the creature. See KD 2.2:46–53/44-50.[3]

Further:

The via triplex bases knowledge of God on any of the following three ways: (1) via causalitatis (way of causality), in which one begins with a creaturely reality and then posits a supernatural cause (God as first cause); (2) via negationis or via remotionis (way of negation or remotion), in which one begins with a human attribute and then negates it (God as infinite or impassible); and (3) via eminentiae (way of transcendence), whereby one begins with a human attribute and then raises it to the level of infinite perfection (God as omnipotent or omniscient). See Barth’s discussion of this in KD 2.1:389-91/346-48.[4]

Congdon expands further, as he more broadly places Barth’s critique into a critique of theologia naturalis or natural theology:

Barth’s comprehensive concept for the above is “natural theology” (theologia naturalis), a term he applies to both liberalism and scholasticism. In one fine-print passage he connects the two genetically by arguing that it was the very methodology of Protestant orthodoxy that led to the rise of modern liberalism, precisely because, as the “scientific consciousness after the Renaissance” demanded, the true object of theology (i.e., God) was “moved from a transcendence [Jenseits] that was genuinely opposite from the place of humanity into the sphere of humanity itself.” The loss of a genuinely transcendent god is manifest not only in orthodoxy’s talk of God ad intra above and without God’s economic actions ad extra but equally in liberalism’s talk of God in terms of human experience. From Barth’s perspective both modes of theology are determined by a general anthropological starting point and are for that reason inappropriate forms of analogous God-talk.[5]

Understand the significance of this, and you will understand my whole theological mode! This cannot be overstated enough; I find the analogy of being and natural theology to be the most fundamental point of departure we might find when thinking about what defines good theology from bad theology. This is not to say that theology done under the pressure of the analogy of being hasn’t generated any good theology, but it is to say, for my money, that as a theological prolegomena or way for doing good theology it does not provide one.

As a Protestant Christian it is exceedingly hard for me to understand how what Barth is after isn’t simply the intuitive approach. I do not understand these sorts of artificial divides that people present between theologies done under certain periods of time; as if the more ancient just is the Great Tradition in static and absolute terms, and the more modern, insofar that it might demur from the ancient, is heterodox or heretical. The theologian is interested in translating the kerygma in such a way that the pressures it works from are not determined by period-conditioned realities, per se, but rather by the weight of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. And yet, most simply respond to critiques like Barth’s by superficially slumping back into a supposed ancient way, and never actually offer rejoinders to Barth; other than asserting, ‘oh, haha, you must be a Barthian,’ or some such nonsense. And this is why I remain ultimately dissatisfied with the theology that is mostly being done by evangelicals today. There is this attitude, which is just noted, but then there is also a posture of just ‘receiving’ a static body of tradition that has no dynamism or life to it by definition. And the only life it does have is based in the speculation of their masters, and their own wits, which really only gets them as far as their collectively bounded frontal lobes. We can construct conceptions of God all day long; we can tie those to a supposed established hierarchy of theological and intellectual development without end; but if those conceptions are not ultimately and principally based in God’s own Self-revealed knowledge of Himself; then all we end up with is an idol no different than Aaron’s Golden-Calf.

The Deus ex Machina of evangelical Protestantism will continue, and it will blithely continue on without so much of an acknowledgement of a ‘Barthian tradition.’ But it will do so to its own eternal loss. Not in the sense that justification before God is not present, but in the sense that sanctification and discipleship will be severely quenched; to the point that spiritual growth will be stunted by devotion to a conception of God that falls short by not adhering to a Self-given notion of the living God. This is why I take this so seriously. It is not merely an academic exercise to consider these things, but one that impinges on our daily Christian lives. If we get God wrong we get everything following wrong. Our knowledge of God is to be a growing and lively thing, not one settled down in a static body of knowledge that requires constant apology and assertion in order maintain its viability. Barth’s tradition, I’d argue, offers a way towards a knowledge of God that is not ultimately contingent upon Barth’s period, but instead the lively reality of the risen Christ who is present in all the centuries and millennia time immemorial. Solus Christus

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 2015), 621 n. 128.

[2] Ibid., 622.

[3] Ibid., n. 130.

[4] Ibid., n. 131.

[5] Ibid., 623.

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These will just be some introductory comments On Being a Broken Christian. Where to start, really? But I wanted to simply address an underlying problem, as I see it, attending the evangelical churches in the main. Most commonly the doctrine of perfectionism is associated with Wesleyan or Methodist Perfectionism. R.C. Sproul[1] writes of perfectionism:

An ancient heresy of the distinction between two types of Christians, carnal and Spirit-filled, is the heresy of perfectionism. Perfectionism teaches that there is a class of Christians who achieve moral perfection in this life. To be sure, credit is given to the Holy Spirit as the agent who brings total victory over sin to the Christian. But there is a kind of elitism in perfectionism, a feeling that those who have achieved perfection are somehow greater than other Christians. The “perfect” ones do not officially—take credit for their state, but smugness and pride have a way of creeping in.[2]

This points up a particular and absolute form of ‘perfectionism.’ What I am hoping to engage with is a broader species of this seriously deleterious form of thinking on the Christian life. I see perfectionism as a logical conclusion to what I am really after, which is a focus on performance based Christianity. Going forward I plan on writing further on these themes in more detail. But what I want to at least identify for us here is the hope I find in Scripture in regard to broken people; broken Christians.

The locus classicus passage that comes to mind is Jesus’s story of the self-righteous Pharisee and the self-effacing and repentant Publican. Jesus details it for us this way:

And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (KJV)

The Pharisee, in the New Testament, is the classic type-caste of what a performance based Christianity might look like. As Jesus says elsewhere, ‘they are whitewashed tombs with dead man’s bones inside.’ This is what I think has become pervasive in so many evangelical churches, to the point that I can hardly stomach attending. It is the whole structure of this sort of Christianity that parallels what Jesus condemns. And it is true, people are well-meaning in these structures; but at the end of the day, good intentions are not able to bear the weight of God’s holiness. One problem I see associated with this style of what some have called ‘moralistic therapeutic deist’ Christianity, is that there is this prevalence to think that the Christian must have it all together prior to being able to ‘do ministry.’ But this kicks against Christ’s life itself. Jesus was despised, and ugly by superficial worldly standards. Jesus was constantly broken and broke, wandering around from this quarter of Israel to the other seeking somewhere to lay His head.

This brings us to the Publican. This was the character that Jesus found ennobling. It is the Christian who recognizes their broken state; not just intellectually, but in current and ongoing daily life circumstances. These are the people Jesus thinks characterize His Kingdom come. People who have thorns in the flesh; people who are poor and destitute; people who are beaten for His names sake; people who live in a constant battle with drug, sex, gambling, power, and other addictions. These are the people Jesus came to seek and save. It is in our weaknesses that God’s strength in the resurrected Christ is made ‘perfect.’ Jesus, in His humanity, understood that He ec-statically received His life as gift from the Father by the creativity and anointing of the Holy Spirit. It is when we are in like state as Christ, in a humiliated status that we are most prone to look elsewhere for a ground of life other than ourselves. We may well have brought the humbling circumstances of life by our own stupid choices, but in God’s Grace in Christ He wants to meet us right there and manifest His Life and Strength for us.

Jesus offered, and continues to offer an upside down version of the current world system. His Kingdom is one that is populated by the broken and vagrant among us; those who are sick and dying in need of a Savior. Jesus is uninterested in a performance based Christianity that attempts to place a veneer of white teeth and bronzed skin in the forefront. Jesus confronts and contradicts that; He contravenes and interdicts that by the incarnation itself. The Incarnation of God reflects the character God exalts. It is a character that does not think robbery of God is something to be grasped. It is a character that is not self-concerned, but instead is self-given. And among us sinners, it is a character that even in the midst of our stupid and un-contrite life choices, God is happy to meet us there; over and over again; seventy times seven. God has not called us to live a life of small-talk and happy-faces. He has called us to Himself from right where we are in our unaccomplished and filthy unvarnished statuses. It is here His strength is made perfect; not by might, nor by power, but by His Spirit.

This is just an off-the-cuff post that I will follow up with others in days to come.

[1] I only refer to Sproul because he was one of the first that came up on a Google search. I actually think that the form of Calvinism that Sproul was a proponent of helps to foster, ironically, a form of perfectionism that plagues so much of Western Christendom. But that will have to be saved for another post.

[2] R.C. Sproul, “The Heresy of Perfectionism,” accessed 07-11-2019.

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10 As it is written:“There is no one righteous, not even one;11there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.”14“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;16 ruin and misery mark their ways,17 and the way of peace they do not know.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” –Romans 3.10-18

There is a pervasive belief in the churches that the reality noted by the Apostle Paul (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) isn’t quite as drastic as it sounds. But if you read it in the Greek, you’ll understand the translation is just the same. In other words, there is no waffle-room on what is communicated here. It is straightforward and unambiguous. But we don’t like to think of ourselves this way. We like to maintain the pedestrian idea that people, in the main, are generally ‘good,’ it’s just that there are some rotten apples out there. We aren’t good in any way, though. Jesus said in Mark that ‘God alone is good’; we aren’t God; therefore we are not good. If human beings are born outside of a right relationship with God, who alone is Holy, then we are in the state that Paul describes. We don’t even have the capacity in ourselves to seek after God. If it wasn’t for God’s free choice to seek after, and find us in the humanity of Jesus Christ we’d die in our sins with no remedy; and God would still be just.

It is important to think about the depth of our sinful status from the only source that genuinely provides knowledge of God and self; from Jesus Christ. As such, we are not in a position to actually know what God alone knows about us. We are reliant on what He chooses to reveal to us in Christ. This holds true for ascertaining the depth of our sinful state. We can infer from what it took for God to reach into our hearts, and redeem us, just how deep our desperately evil and wicked hearts run. When it takes the Triune God, the God who spoke the heavens and the earth into existence, the God who continuously holds the cosmos together by the Word of His Power, to assume human flesh and die on the cross; we know that we are dealing with something more pernicious than we can even begin to fathom. The depth of our sin is as deep as God become flesh and shedding His own blood on a Roman cross for us. This should cause us to shudder, not rationalize; or to lull ourselves into a fantasy that we aren’t really that bad—“I mean look at Joe-Bob, now he’s bad!” We will only understand the depth of our sin insofar as we look at Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. If we attempt to compare ourselves against others or if we lazily come to think that our experience of sin isn’t all that bad; we will most surely fool ourselves into a sin of idolatry that denudes the cross of Jesus Christ of its actual power in our lives. We need to come to appreciate just how sinful we are, and this doesn’t come from the Law, but, ironically it comes from the Gospel. This is what I am arguing; that the Gospel, that God’s Word of Grace for us in Jesus Christ reveals to us just how reprobate and depraved we actually are in ourselves.

I could get us into some historical discussion by referring to Augustine and Pelagius; or Luther and the Papacy; or Calvin and Pighius; or Barth and Schleiermacher. But I want to keep this as straightforward as possible. What I am hoping to press home is just how wicked we actually are. The Church has seemingly fallen into the devil’s trap of compromising on just how radical the Gospel message is. I write all of this based on a scientific study I have been conducting over the last 45 years. I’ve come to see patterns of sin in my heart, patterns of activity that assure me that I am really and ravenously sinful. I have a rippling impulse that runs through my veins that compels me to sin. Thank God I have the Spirit of Christ who, over against this impulse, has recreated me in the new and singular humanity of Jesus Christ; such that I can engage in warfare with the sinful orientation I continue to live with (simul justus et peccator). Because of God’s choice to assume my depraved humanity, I have now become a slave of righteousness and co-heir with Jesus Christ; and have been given the Spirit by whom I cry out ‘Abba Father.’ But even with all of this I continue to have this strong urge to sin; and I often do sin.

There is more going on than just me though. We are in a battle, as the Apostle Paul also says: “. . . our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” This devilish reality, the reality of satan seeks to manipulate our fallen and remaining natures to thwart the work of God in our lives; the work of God in the world and cosmos. But even though he desires to sift us like wheat, the Son has prayed for us; we have this great and enduring hope. Even so, if we are not vigilant in recognizing our foes we will fall prey to a lackadaisical attitude that leads us to think that we aren’t really all that bad. We must remain vigilant and prayerful before the Father; asking Him to keep us close to Him. It is only in this ‘closeness,’ again, that the darkness of our fallen souls can remain open to the overwhelming Light of Christ. Indeed, being vigilant requires the resurrection energy of Jesus Christ. Without that our sinful selves will simply reassert themselves and attempt to thwart the work of God in our lives; in the world.

I am not sure I am really getting across the sense of urgency I am hoping to with this. As Calvin has said ‘our hearts are like idol factories’ (my paraphrase); apart from union and participation with the humanity of Jesus Christ we are doomed to a failed life even as Christians. It is possible to fail grievously as Christians, and insofar as we are not in the fight, so to speak, we most definitely will be swallowed up by this world and culture. This culture has collapsed what it perceives as divinity into itself (Gen 3). It seductively invites us to its banqueting table. Based upon the status of the churches, particularly in North America and the Western world, it seems all too clear to me that, by and large, the churches have not been vigilant. I am not naively attempting to pretend that the Church will attain perfection on this side of beatific vision. But I am urging us onto the love and good works of aiming for the perfection and holiness that God has called us to in the revelation of Jesus Christ. We are in a battle; we are called soldiers for Christ for a reason. The ancient church understood the Church on earth as ‘the Church Militant’ (juxtaposed with the Church Triumphant in eternity) because they knew that the personal devil would like nothing more but to snuff out the Holy Work of God on the face of the redeemed creation. They knew that God considers humans as His ‘very good work,’ and that satan would like nothing better but to wreck this for God. So, they understood that this necessarily entails a spiritual warfare of the sort that will cost us our very lives as we fight for what lasts rather than what is burned up (i.e. satan’s fate).

Our primary tool for engaging in this battle is the ‘sword of the Spirit,’ or the Word of God. We see Jesus in Matthew 4, as he recapitulates Israel’s wandering wilderness experience, defeating the devil by using Holy Scripture with its contextual force. If Jesus used Scripture to destroy the inklings of the evil one, how much more ought we see our need to do so! This requires a prayerful approach to the Word of God; one that will make Scripture memorable and powerful insofar as we come to see its instrumental power as that finds its ultimate reality in Jesus Christ. If we read Scripture prayerfully (i.e. dialogically), and understand it within that sort of filial relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we will be positioned in such a way that Scripture simply becomes a weapon of preemption more of reaction. In other words, if Scripture becomes so internalized in our lives that it becomes the genuine love language we come to communicate with God through, we will have the weapons of our warfare at hand moment by moment. Indeed, these weapons will be so indwelt with the Power of God, that the enemy won’t have a chance at toppling the work that God has begun in us in Christ; we will truly be working out our salvation with fear and trembling at the feet of God’s Holy Word. Let’s be Bible reading zealots for the Kingdom of Christ. Herein the power of God will know no boundaries; indeed He will abound as a well spring unto eternal life in our daily lives. The gates of hell will not prevail, not because of us but because of God’s Word, Jesus Christ. We can participate in His Word as Christians, or not. If we don’t joyfully participate we will continuously experience defeat and be vanquished in our daily lives; saved, but as by fire. There is victory coming, the parousia of God is ever at hand, constantly in-breaking into our lives and this broader world; but can we see it, can we ‘feel’ it? If we are to see and experience God’s Power and work in our lives and the world, we must be attuned to Him. This tuning into God’s life for the world, for us, comes as we indwell Holy Scripture; you see Holy Scripture has its very reality and being in Jesus Christ. This is the holy ground God has provided for us to meet and sup with Him over and again. Will there actually be faith on earth when He comes again though? I don’t know.

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I read academic theology mostly because it is the medium that keeps me closest to God; other than a voracious commitment to reading large quantities of Holy Scripture. So, it hits me strange when I hear people claim, in my low Free church location, that academic theology is dry, arid, and doesn’t really hit home with the real needs of the people in the churches. This is strange to me, as I think to myself in that moment, because I’ve always figured that I am one of the many; I am one of “the people” in the Church. Because of this, and when confronted with this sentiment, it makes me wonder why if academic theology (so called) can have the benefit it does for me, why it can’t have a similar benefit for every Christian? I am not special; I am a justified sinner like the rest of us. I am prone to wander, as that ole’ time hymn so rightly lyricizes for us. What helps me be less prone is to constantly WORK at staying ‘in step with the Spirit.’ I take it that because Jesus has raised up teachers for His Church’s edification (cf. Eph 4), that these teachers and teachings are gifts to the Church; and gifts with the goal of building us up rather than tearing us down. As the case may be, and it may, academic theology, at least for me, typically contains a rigor and order that this world system just can’t muster; as such it has the capacity to feed my soul and form my spirit that orders its way to and from the eternal and Triune Life of the Living God. I live in a chaotic world, and I feel that pressure every day. It is only as I feed my soul with well ordered thinking, an order that comes directly from paying close attention to the in-breaking and apocalyptic reality of the Gospel, that I find solace and peace of heart.

But even greater than the aforementioned, the sort of theology that I find most life-giving is indeed the sort that is grounded fulsomely in the Gospel reality itself. Meaning, that the best theology is of the sort, in my view, that is grounded in the concrete and historical Yes of God for us in Jesus Christ. Herein is the wisdom of God. You see, I don’t live in some sort of Gnostic-Holy Land, where I find my source of life and energy by ruminating on abstract and speculative ideas. Nein! I am a flesh and blood human being who is simul justus et peccator, and I fail at life moment by moment. As such I need God’s wisdom to confront me afresh and anew every moment of every day; outwith this confrontation, and joyful encounter, I simply fall off into a woeful mire of despair and depression. And when I fall off into this land of wane and woe, it is on this plane that I engage in my most egregious sins before God. So, good theology for me, is a theology that meets me in the existential day to day and elevates me out of the muck of the mundane and energizes me with new creation life of enchantment with and praise of the mysterium Trinitatis (mysterious Trinity). It as I get lost in this sort of theological life that I start to sense the power and freedom that the Son of God said He has placed me into (cf. Jn 8.32).

This is good theology. Theology that meets each of us in our most dire moments, often what we’ve come to consider as the mundane of day to day. Good theology gets down into the blood and dirt of our lives and recreates it anew and afresh in and through the risen humanity of Jesus Christ. But in this recreation we are like Israel, a newborn baby wrapped-up in the bloody afterbirth of our sinful inception; it requires God to pick us up, wash us off, and declare what is new and holy about us in Christ. It is in this ongoing process—mortification and vivification—that we actually feel the growing pains of this new birth as we are constantly being given over to both the life and death of Christ in us that our mortal bodies might be enlivened with the life of God in Christ with us. But herein is the daily struggle. Prior to this we had no experience of this, we had no ‘struggle.’ We may have had a secular struggle that we ourselves had constructed based upon conditions and pressures that this world system has set forth; ones based upon self-projected and incurved ends. But prior to the new birth in Christ we had never experienced this battle between the ‘flesh’ and the Spirit of Christ in us. Herein good theology is that which comes to us and succors us unto the womb of God wherein He is explained to us over and again by His Self-explanation for us in the dearly beloved Son, sweet Jesus.

But if we are not WORKING at this relationship with God, if we are not availing ourselves of the teachers He has provided for the upbuilding of His Church; then we genuinely will live in a mundane world denuded of any sort of ultimate significance other than what we existentially attempt to construct ourselves (which at the end of the day is idolatry). This is what continues to plague the evangelical churches, in my opinion. People have become too satisfied with a church culture that is based upon cultural platitudes baptized as ‘good theology.’ As such, people do not have the critical apparatus to actually recognize the holy from the profane; how can they? If the holy has been conflated with the profane precisely because people aren’t putting in the WORK, then this sort of confrontation with God cannot actually occur. This is the hard truth of the Christian life. We are called to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ. Instead the majority of pastors out there have been inculcated into a church culture ‘out there’ that has sold its soul for a pottage of entrepreneurship and upward mobility. If the church’s primary theologian is caught up with visions of doing ‘real ministry’ that have no basis in the theologian putting in the WORK, then how in the world are the people in the churches supposed to ever be discipled in the ways of Good Theology?

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When Protestants say they affirm the ‘authority of Holy Scripture,’ they are doing nothing more, or less, than being good stalwart Protestants. The Protestant Reformation at the end of the day was an authority protest; and the Reformers believed that all authority reposes not in the Catholic church (or any church), but in Holy Scripture instead. They took the paper of Scripture to be the instrumental medium between God and humanity rather than the Church simpliciter. Some have claimed, including Heiko Oberman, that Protestants ended up having a ‘paper pope’ rather than a pope with an address (my paraphrase). Be that as it may, the Protestant ‘Scripture Principle’ is at the center of what it means to be a Protestant Christian; the Christian in this frame looks to Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura) as their authority coram Deo (before God), rather than a magisteria of cardinals under papal regency. But this begs a certain and significant question; one not lost on Catholic critics of Protestants, viz.: whose interpretation of Scripture is the Protestant going to follow; or: if there is a multiplicity of interpretations of Protestants then given such diversity how is the Protestant to know whose interpretation is most proximate to the reality versus the others? Yet, I don’t really think this gets the Catholic off the hook so much; they suffer from the same sort of ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism’ that they claim the Protestants do. It is just that the Catholics have identified their papal oversight to be Roman, whereas Protestant oversight has the potential to simply posit multiple ‘popes’ based upon the interpretation of Scripture they deem most faithful to the Gospel reality. So, maybe the papalists have a certain sort of rightful critique of Protestantism, but it is a double-edged sword; and all it really does is help identify a ‘problem’ that all Christian people (and people in general) have. All Christian people, in particular, have a hermeneutical problem; viz. we all our subjects spatially located under conceptual pressures framed by whatever period of history we find ourselves embedded within. In other words, we are sinful creatures who live in and from sinful epistemic realities that serve as a real challenge for ever arriving at an ultimate capacity to know with absolute certainty what is the reality and what instead might just be our own self-projections onto reality.

If the above is the case: Paper and Papal both suffer under the same hermeneutical and epistemic problems that all creatures do. True, Christians have the Spirit of God, and of course this is the point of departure, ecclesiologically between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics have institutionalized and collapsed the measure of the Spirit into the Catholic Church and magisteria itself; whereas, Protestants have institutionalized and collapsed the shedding abroad of the Spirit into the collective of elect peoples wherever they might show up. Either way, in on a positive note, what becomes manifest is that Christians, no matter what tradition, are reliant upon the Spirit of God if they have any hope of actually being able to claim that they have a concrete knowledge of God and self. Without an extra nos (outside of us) experience of the Holy the Christian remains a hopeless beggar without the possibility of receiving Apostolic ‘silver and gold.’ But, and note the adversative force of this ‘but,’ we do have the Spirit; and by God’s Grace in Christ, we do have the capacity to know God and ourselves. We are not limited by our locatedness, because God is not so limited. God in Christ has broken into the spatial realities of our world, culturally situated as they are, and continue to be, and Deus dixit (‘God has spoken’); and He continues to speak!

With the aforementioned considered, what I think this bespeaks is a need for humility while engaging in the theological task. There needs to be a recognition that we are at the sole mercy of the living God to speak to us where we are. We can, at a very basic level, come to the realization that the incarnation of God in Christ shows us that God is not limited by the heavens; instead the soil of this earth has become resplendent with God’s glory in the shed blood of the Lamb slain before the earth’s very foundations. God is able to speak under variant pressures, and transpose us from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of the Son of Love afresh and anew. God is stable, we are not; and so we look to His perduring voice, and understand that in His wisdom He has made His voice available to us even under the pressures set forth by our 21st century context and conceptuality. In other words, God is able to speak in the 1st century just as clearly as he is able to in the 21st. What becomes of issue then is a matter of ‘translation.’ God doesn’t change; His reality is everlasting and eternal; and yet even with that as the case, He is happy to speak to us in a language we understand. This was an insight that Luther understood well; with his emphasis on the vernacular for the common people, in regard to the translation of Scripture, this, in principle remains an important reality for the doing of theology today. We have a 21st century Anglophone vernacular in North America that the Gospel is able to penetrate from above (outside of us), and ‘commandeer’ its language for purposes of communicating the transcendent tongue of the heavenly Gospel in the glossilia of the peoples of the nations all throughout the global world.

Because I reject the ‘genetic fallacy,’ I am not afraid to share things from people I largely disagree with; that is, when they provide important insight that can stand independent, in certain pretextual ways, from their larger theological or what have you projects. In this instance I am thinking of Bultmann and Kasemann. They both offer some important insight on the reality of translation as the premise of Christian theology.

The translation of the New Testament demands scientific work. Not only because every translation produced is imperfect and needs to be revised critically in accordance with the original text, but above all because even the most accurate translation needs to be translated again in the next generation. For language is alive and has its own history. Conceptualities change, and scientific research on the New Testament has the task of communicating the text in the language and conceptuality of each particular present.[1]

And Ernst Käsemann:

Bultmann was entirely right to pose this catchword that so terrified and infuriated his opponents. There must be demythologizing. . . . Without question God does not intend that we wander around as living mummies of the ancient world, everywhere presupposing and utilizing for ourselves the technology of our time, but spiritually and religiously setting ourselves back 1,900 years. Faith must be lived today, and this means it must think today and given an account of itself. The dry bones of the past remain ghosts if there are no living witnesses facing the present to take up their message.[2]

Without committing myself fully to either Bultmann or Käsemann, and recognizing that they have proverbially swung the pendulum to another extreme, what they uppoint for us is helpful. It recognizes, at the least, that we are time conditioned creatures that need to hear the Gospel afresh and anew. It recognizes how translation is indeed present in the theological task, precisely because of our locatedness on the historical spectrum. What they fail to recognize, and this is deleterious to their broader projects, respectively, is that it’s possible to excavate from the past in order to help in the translation and inculturating project of the present. They are too committed to evolutionary advance, in linear fashion, ironically, thus failing to grasp that God’s voice can and has been deposited for the fulgent present. In other words, they place so much emphasis on the existential moment as decisive, that they seem to get lost in Lessing historical ditch, consequently disallowing for the possibility to realize that our present is part of a continuum that keeps on giving. They seem to forget that the linguistic dialects that we traffic in presently have a historical prius that furnishes the present with its own linguistic living room; indeed manufactured from the conceptual matter of the past.

All of the above noted to simply state: theology is not a static thing. We have extremes on all sides; whether that be a desire to slave ourselves to the schoolmen of the scholastic past, or to cohabitate with the ‘modern’ Teutonics of the present. No matter, theology is the task of translating the Gospel into language and conceptual apparatuses that most proximate the Gospel’s transcendent and immanent reality in the incarnation of God. Theology that fails at this task isn’t a theology worth its name.

Catholics and Protestants, not to mention the Orthodox all have to deal with this same hermeneutical problem and eventual task. We cannot simply fall back into the safety of our confessional towers; we are called to go outside the city walls with Christ, and give our lives daily as living sacrifices well pleasing to the living God whom we serve. Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, “Theologie als Wissenschaft,” ZTK 81, no. 4 (1984): 447-69, at 459-60 cited by David W. Congdon, The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 2015), 566.

[2] Ernst Käsemann, In der Nachfolge des gekreuzigten Nazareners: Aufsätze and Vorträge aus dem Nachlass, ed. Rudolf Landau and Wolfgang Kraus (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), 97-98 cited by David W. Congdon, The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 2015), 569.

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A small point towards a defense of so called modern and other theological developments: It continues to be a seemingly popular belief among evangelical theologians to maintain the idea that the modern (i.e. post-Enlightenment) theological turn needs to be corrected to the point of abandonment. That modern theology took a turn for the worse when the Divine was collapsed into the creature; when the absolute power of God in eternity was disjoined from the ordained power of God in history; when the subject became Lord rather than the Lord being Lord. These are some of the major premises many believe thrust Christian theology into a ruinous trajectory of doing anthropology as theology, and that our only hope is to turn back to the pure being theology of the scholastic schoolmen (i.e. via antiqua). Note John Webster as he speaks to this issue in the context of theology of retrieval:

‘Retrieval’, then, is a mode of theology, an attitude of mind and a way of approaching theological tasks which is present with greater or lesser prominence in a range of different thinkers, not all of them self-consciously ‘conservative’ or ‘orthodox’. Although here we concentrate upon strong versions of this approach, it can be found in less stringent forms and in combination with other styles of theological work. A rough set of resemblances between different examples of this kind of theology would include the following: these theologies are ‘objectivist’ or ‘realist’ insofar as they consider Christian faith and theology to be a response to a self-bestowing divine reality which precedes and overcomes the limited reach of rational intention; their material accounts of this divine reality are heavily indebted to the trinitarian, incarnational, and soteriological teaching of the classical Christianity of the ecumenical councils; they consider that the governing norms of theological inquiry are established by the object by which theology is brought into being (the source of theology is thus its norm); accordingly, they do not accord final weight to external criteria or to the methods and procedures which enjoy prestige outside theology; their accounts of the location, audience, and ends of Christian doctrine are generally governed by the relation of theology to the community of faith as its primary sphere; and in their judgements about the historical setting of systematic theology they tend to deploy a theological (rather than socio-cultural) understanding of tradition which outbids the view that modernity has imposed a new and inescapable set of conditions on theological work. For such theologies, immersion in the texts and habits of thought of earlier (especially pre-modern) theology opens up a wide view of the object of Christian theological reflection, setting before its contemporary practitioners descriptions of the faith unharnessed by current anxieties, and enabling a certain liberty in relation to the present. With this in mind, we begin by considering the study of history as a diagnostic to identify what are taken to be misdirections in modern theology, and then the deployment of history as a resource to overcome them.[1]

As much as I like Webster, I don’t agree with him here; particularly the emboldened aspect. Do I think there are serious problems with the premises that fund “much” of modern theology? Yes. But I also don’t think they are any more sinister than premises that have percolated throughout the history of ideas and theological development for centuries. In other words, every period of theological ideational development will have pros and cons. To suggest that the whole of a period is simply a dung-heap that needs to be abandoned and corrected to the point that we simply start-over is really only a bad case of chronological snobbery. Unfortunately, Webster’s sentiment has been internalized by a whole generation of up and coming and have come theologians.

I seek to work from different grounds as a theologian; grounds that constructively look for God in Christ in whatever sector and period of the Church that can be fruitfully gleaned. David Steinmetz, as he segues into a sketch of Nikolaus von Amsdorf’s person and theology writes this:

The role of a religious conservative is rarely a popular one, especially when this conservatism is combined with an intolerance of all theological innovation. There is something pinched and one-sided about the mentality that holds that a decisive theological breakthrough has taken place in the past but denies (or is at least distrustful of) the possibility of new and original insights in the present. That the church has been led into truth in the past does not exclude the possibility of the discovery of new truth in the present, even if the new insight is only a deepened participation in the meaning of the old.[2]

Steinmetz’s point is well taken, or it should be! And yet so many ‘conservatives’ of our day, which is where Webster ended up going in his latter theological ministry, take the notion that he finally did to heart. Some, like Webster, spend so much time in the modern ambit that they grow weary of it. But maybe this weariness, rather than resulting in an abandonment project, ought to simply be the source for a time of reprieve and perspective building. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water and essentially saying that the modern needs to be fully abandoned or, at best, corrected; maybe the theologian, as Steinmetz notes, ought to be open to the idea that new and even innovative insights can be gained by modern thinkers in and for the Church just as much as the premodern thinkers were able to gain.

Travel in the theological circles that I do, and all of modern theology is essentially junked; except for careful and incidental quotes here and there of Barth or some other like figure. This is to the Church’s and theologian’s loss. When we cut ourselves off from the modern we cut the ground right out from under us and fail to recognize that this is an impossible task to begin with. Surely we can constructively retrieve and listen to the past for the present, but this need not entail a full on abandonment of what we can’t abandon to begin with: i.e. our own modern locatedness and epistemic formation. Why not admit that all theology the 21st century thinker engages in is by necessity, Modern? Why not, if this is the case, attempt to critically engage with the categories we have been given and understand that those can be cross-pollinated by the past; thus allowing new vistas and innovations to open up for the Christian imagination and doctrinal development, that outwith will and cannot happen? Why not abandon the “fear” of the present, and recognize that we are part of an ideational lineage that does not ultimately allow for it to be cast off? When we admit this, we are more free to hear the voice of the living God whether that be spoken anew and afresh for us in the 21st century, or from the 16th century. But this pervasive bias, by evangelicals, against anything ‘modern’ is a fools-errand of thought that needs to be repented of and abandoned itself.

[1] John Webster, “Theologies of Retrieval,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology,edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (Oxford/NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 584-85.

[2] David C. Steinmetz, Reformers In The Wings: From Geiler von Kayserberg to Theodore Beza, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 70.

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This is The Evangelical Calvinist blog, as such you’re probably expecting posts on Calvinism. I used to post much more in this area, and still do at points—this will be one of those points. In this post we will engage with a doctrine of human agency in salvation. Since this is the Evangelical Calvinist we will work through a lengthy passage from TF Torrance, and deal with the way he treats this topic. I am happy to own what he communicates in this area as my own. Fair warning: it will leave the classical Calvinist and Arminian rather frustrated. TFT rebuffs the mechanical theory of causation we get from Aristotle as that is imbued into Westminster Calvinism. In Torrance we get a filial approach to these issues, one that is grounded in relational and Triune Grace that thinks in terms of personal relationships rather than in the logico-causal and necessitarian ways that other classical theisms typically work in and from.

Torrance, and Evangelical Calvinists following, receive critique over the very issue this post will seek to redress. We are accused of being either, Universalists or incoherent in our soteriological understanding. The critique is solely based in the fact that we don’t answer the question about human agency in salvation in the ways that our opponents would like us to. They, in petitio principii terms, simply presume that their causal framework for understanding how God works in the world just is and must be the way that God indeed, works in the world. Torrance had a way of undercutting their Aristotelian universe, and theory of causation therein; he did that by appealing to a ‘modern’ development by referring to the work of Albert Einstein, John Clerk Maxwell, and others. He uses, for example, Einstein’s theory of relativity to undermine the sort of stable and static and mechanical universe that Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Newton gave us in their respective theories of the cosmos. But I digress, yet I do so to make the point that Torrance, and us Evangelical Calvinists, work from different premises in regard to a God/world relation; which for us, presents us with a way to articulate the inner-grammar of the Gospel in differing ways from our counterparts in the other iterations of classical theism.

The aforementioned noted, all to get us into this lengthy, but important passage from the very Scottish, TF Torrance. After we read through this pericope from Torrance, I will follow up by further contrasting our respective view on this issue with what we get in classical Calvinism and Arminianism. Torrance writes:

(v) The virgin birth the pattern of grace, the model of faith

That brings us to the point that in the virgin birth we are given at the very beginning Christ’s life a revelatory sign, a semeion, which tells us what the divine act of grace is. Grace takes a form in the birth of Jesus which we may take as a pattern or norm for all our understanding of grace. Here God takes the initiative and approaches Mary through the word of his angelic messenger – the word proclaimed to Mary is the word of election or grace: she is chosen and told God’s choice. She has nothing to do in this matter except what is done in her under the operation of the Spirit. What Mary does is simply to receive the word, to believe, which she does not in her own strength but in the strength given her by the Lord, and she is blessed because of that, not because of her virginity. John of Damascus remarked that Mary conceived through the ear: she heard the Word and the Word spoken by the Spirit in her ear begot himself in her and through her, and so the Word which Mary heard and received and obeyed became flesh of her flesh. That is the normative pattern for the believer in his or her attitude toward the Word announced in the gospel, which tells men and women of the divine act of grace and decision taken already on their behalf in Christ. Mary’s attitude is beautifully expressed in the words: ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ It is an act of glad and thankful and humble submission and surrender to the will of God. And within her there takes place the incomprehensible act of God, the birth of the Son of God in human form.

By that we are guided to think and given to understand something of our own salvation and recreation. As in the annunciation of the word to Mary, Christ the Word himself became flesh, so in the enunciation of the gospel, we surrender in like manner to Christ the Word now made flesh, and there takes place in us the birth of Jesus, or rather, we are in a remarkable way given to share through grace in his birth and to share in the new creation in him. That is the Christian message – the Christmas message. It is not of our self-will or free-will that we are saved and born anew from above. ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.’ Here there is a ‘become’ dependent on the ‘become’ of ‘the Word become flesh’, grounded in it and derivative from it. What happened once and for all, in utter uniqueness in Jesus Christ, happens in every instance of rebirth into Christ, when Christ enters into our hearts and recreates us. Just as he was born from above of the Holy Spirit, so we are born from above of the Holy Spirit through sharing in his birth. Just as in the birth of Jesus there was no preceding action on our part, or human co-operation, such as the co-operation between a human father and a human mother, just as there was no prior human activity there, so in our salvation and in our knowledge of God there is no a priori, no human presupposition, no Pelagian, semi-Pelagian or synergistic activity.

It is from first to last salvation by grace alone – even our faith is not of ourselves for it is a gift of God – salvation for humanity, among men and women and within them, but a salvation grounded on an immediate act of God himself, and not on both God and man. We are saved by faith, but faith is the empty vessel (as Calvin called it) that receives Christ, faith so to speak is the empty womb through which Christ comes to dwell in our hearts. Faith as our reception of Christ, our capacity for Christ is itself a gift of grace. It is not a creation out of nothing, however, but a creation out of man, out of the human sphere of our choices and decisions, capacities and possibilities, a creation out of our fallen humanity but a creation of God – and therefore faith is something that is far beyond all human possibilities and capacities. It is grounded beyond itself in the act of God. In faith we are opened from above and given to receive what we ourselves are incapable of receiving in and by ourselves. Faith is not therefore the product of our human capacities or insights or abilities. The relation between faith and the Christ received by faith is the Holy Spirit: conceptus de Spiritu Sancto. Just as Jesus was conceived by the Spirit so we cannot say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. It is by the operation of the Spirit that we receive the Word of God which is ingrafted into our souls, and, as it were, conceive the truth in our hearts and minds. We do not bring Christ in by our own power, by our own decision or choice, nor do we make Christ real to ourselves or in ourselves. How could we do that? That is entirely the work of the Holy Spirit – our part in being addressed by the Word is to hear the gracious decision that God has already taken, hear the word of the gospel that God has set his love and favour upon us, although we do not in the least deserve it. Although we have done nothing and can do nothing to bring it about, yet when he works in us what he has been pleased to do, it is ours to work it out in obedient living faith.[1]

Plenty there to sufficiently understand Torrance’s offering as ‘Calvinist,’ but in such a way that the ground is fertilized from a variant foment as that is sourced from a doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ and a corollary doctrine of Christ condition election. We see how Torrance uses the analogy of the Virgin Birth to do work that we might not normally think it to do. It presents us with a picture of God’s unilateral work of salvation as that is graciously imparted into the life of Mary from above. It is God’s choice, in Christ, according to Torrance that serves as the ground that we ought to think about how human agency is operative in the salvific process. In other words, for Torrance, the choice for salvation has already been made, whether we believe it or not, in God’s election to be for us and with us in the Grace of Christ. For Torrance, if God works this way, over our heads as it were, then we have no place to presume that we have any ground in ourselves to make a choice for Him that He hasn’t ‘already taken’ for us in the Yes of Jesus Christ for us.

This analogy bothers the classical Calvinist, and even the Arminian in significant ways. It doesn’t address the issue of particularity and the individual in salvation under the terms that they would prefer. They do not think about election through the prism of the cosmic Christ; instead they think of individually elect people whom God arbitrarily chose in abstraction from Christ, and under the absolute decree of election. In this scenario, they believe they have found a key for unlocking the ‘problem’ that Torrance seemingly slips right past. They believe they have a way of positing how someone might come to Christ, while also maintaining the effectual means by which that is accomplished. They believe that God has not only ordained the ends of election, but also the means. The means, they posit, is a created grace given to the elect through which the elect will say yes to God and confirm His choice for them. Torrance, clearly, does not think from these terms; he thinks from the mystery of the Incarnation and its inherence in the Virgin Birth of Mary. This troubles classical Calvinists greatly!

Interestingly, I haven’t ever lost any sleep from this apparent conundrum. I don’t see it as a dilemma whatsoever. We know why and even how people come to faith in Christ; it is through the faith of Christ, and God’s choice to present that to all of humanity through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. Evangelical Calvinists, following TFT, aren’t much different than Calvin here. Calvin held to an asymmetry between the doctrines of reprobation and election. He believed election was a revealed reality come in the mirror of Christ, but he also believed that reprobation remained a secret in the hidden will of God. This presented some problems for Calvin’s overall theological presentation (which I’ve written about here), but on analogy, Torrance can follow the same distinction. He can say: ‘sure, I can tell you, like any good Calvinist, that people say yes to God because God first chose to say yes to them.’ But Torrance can also say: ‘under these conditions we are at a loss for understanding why people continue to say no to God in Christ; all we can do is recognize the inscrutable mystery of sin and evil operative in the world. We know it’s a reality, but we don’t understand how or even why it is.’ This is not a satisfactory response for the classical Calvinist, or the classical Arminian following (you realize Arminianism is not much different than Calvinism, right?).

But I will only respond with the realization that when we read the Apostle Paul or the dominical teaching itself, ‘freedom for God’ is always already associated with the ‘in Christ’ or union with Christ loci; such that to have this discussion at all leads us into the positive affirmation that to be human, and thus free, in God’s economy is to be in Christ. Torrance believes that this freedom, or to be human before God, is fully available for all of humanity as that is grounded in the archetypal humanity of Jesus Christ. He believes, as we just read, that Christ is the new creation of God, and that in order to spiritually experience this reality we must be in active union with Christ. All of humanity, by virtue of Christ’s humanity for them, has the capacity to say yes from His Yes for them. This is, I would contend, the Pauline teaching; one that focuses on the positive of what God has accomplished for the world through His gracious choice to be for humanity rather than against it; to take our no as His No, and give us His Yes, and allow it to be ours by the grace of the Spirit.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 100-02.

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You don’t have to love, you don’t even have to like him; but I think David Congdon offers some valuable insights, particularly with reference to issues surrounding theological prolegomena and hermeneutics. His insights are penetrating, for my money, because he isn’t working from within but without the evangelical theological mainstream; and yet he is aware of the subculture that world is characterized by. I have my own and serious qualms with Congdon’s theological conclusions, but to constructively engage with him in spotty fashion does not commit the thinker to arrive at the place he has, respectively. With these ground clearing caveats in place, let’s engage with Congdon’s poignant critique of what he calls ‘the antihermeneutical turn.’

Hermeneutics or prolegomena (theological method) represent a very significant part of what I am about; if you hadn’t noticed. For many years as an evangelical I never realized that people weren’t just reading the Bible, as it is, straight off the page. In other words, it wasn’t until about seminary (a little prior in my later years of Bible College) that I realized the power that ‘interpretive tradition’ has for everyone! Once this sort of ‘Kantian’ lightning bolt hit me, I came to be a big believer in discerning how one’s prior theological system contributes to their biblical exegetical conclusions. In fact, one day in Reformation Theology class, when this realization hit me with passion, I raised my hand and pressed my professor on this very problem; viz. the hermeneutical problem. He simply, and at that point, wisely said: ‘that’s a good question.’ If we all have informing theologies shaping the way we read Holy Scripture, then who’s to say that my reading is more biblically faithful than that person’s? This represents the nub of the hermeneutical problem. There are differing ways to engage with it. Typically, at least among many Protestants, it is either to disengage with the problem; or if one is more disposed toward the more academic bent, it has become popular in those circles to simply refer to the rule of faith (regula fide) of the ‘Great Tradition’ of the Church to serve as regulative for how one reads Scripture. In fact, I have a Protestant friend who is just going to publication with an essay that, as I recall, premises in this very vein.

Congdon identifies the genealogy of the antihermeneutical problem in a lengthy footnote taken from his big tome on Bultmann. I want to share what he communicates therein, and then engage further with what I take some of the implications of his genealogy (and critique) to be. He writes:

The history of this “turn” is closely connected with the legacy of Bultmann. In the 1970s the academic fascination with Bultmann’s theology came crashing to a halt. There are two equally valid explanations for this. On the theological “left” Bultmann was superseded by theologies (represented especially by those of Jürgen Moltmann and Dorothee Sölle) that relocated the hermeneutical problem within sociopolitical praxis. On the theological “right” Bultmann was superseded by two interconnected movements, what we might call ecumenical ecclesiocentrism and antihermeneutical postliberalism. The ecclesiocentric revolution was initiated by the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) and gave rise to what has become known as communio ecclesiology. Even many of those who rejected this specific ecclesiology nevertheless embraced the ecumenical insight that there is a common ecclesial-doctrinal substance beneath its contemporary permutations, namely, the shared Nicene orthodox faith. For our purposes the key aspects of this movement have been (a) the identification of the church qua corporate body as the primary and authoritative reader of scripture and (b) the identification of the church’s orthodox tradition as the criterion for the reading of Scripture.

Ecumenical ecclesiocentrism, in all its various forms, is closely related to the second movement that contributed even more significantly to the overthrow of the Marburg school’s dominance in the theological academy. What I have called antihermeneutical postliberalism names the turn away from the hermeneutical problem to the plain text of the Bible. Many of the leaders in postliberalism, such as Robert Jenson and George Lindbeck, were also leaders in the ecumenical movement. As with the ecclesiocentric turn, the antihermeneutical turn is notable for the way it came to be embraced by North American evangelicals. While evangelicals had their own concerns, they were nevertheless involved in the surge of interest in biblical interpretation and authority that was taking place more generally; in response to postliberalism many evangelicals (e.g., Roger Olson and Kevin Vanhoozer) developed their own postconservative alternative. The following are some key dates: in 1970, Brevard Childs published Biblical Theology in Crisis; in 1974, Hans Frei’s Eclipse of Biblical Narrative appeared; in 1975, David Kelsey’s The Use of Scripture in Recent Theology; in 1976, Carl F. Henry’s six-volume God, Revelation and Authority; also in 1976, Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible; in 1978, the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy”; and in 1980, David Steinmetz’s seminal article, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis.” These early developments continue today in the form of so-called “theological interpretation of scripture,” which has become a joint movement of both mainline postliberals and evangelical postconservatives. The cumulative effect of this intense interest in scripture has been, at least in many circles, the overthrow of critical hermeneutical inquiry—the Sachkritik approach advocated by Bultmann—in the theological academy. This is what I mean by “antihermeneutical.” To be sure, many postliberals and evangelicals show a profound grasp of the hermeneutical problem, but they respond to this problem by neutralizing it via recourse to the church and its tradition. Today many of those who were once enthralled with historical-critical methods are advocating the use of the regula fidei as the norm for exegesis. Whether these developments are to be welcomed is another matter entirely.[1]

What resonates greatly with me are the folks David lists as being formative for the evangelical surging into the antihermeneutical problem. In other words, in my evangelical training, almost every single person he lists, whether postliberal or conservative, figured greatly in my education. Towards the end of that in my undergrad days, I began to discern and sense some of the problems associated with the way these teachers were seemingly attempting to gloss over the hermeneutical problem; mostly by deferring it.

I want to suggest, along with Congdon, that this antihermeneutical mode has only become that much more acute over the last two decades. There has been a doubling-down by evangelicals, in particular, to abandon the historical-critical method of biblical engagement, for the rule of faith and precritical biblical exegetical method. There typically is very little argument given for this move, except for demonizing the whole modern period of thought; and it is now just assumed that return back to the past is the way forward for the development of evangelical theology and bible reading practices. So, the evangelical response, is to throw themselves in with the high Church, and defer to its authority for arriving at the most faithful exegetical and theological conclusions the Christian can ostensibly arrive at.

This doesn’t sit well with me; indeed, my whole project, my whole blogging career might be my attempt to engage with this problem at some level. With many evangelicals, and others, I have issues with the modern historical-critical reading of Scripture; but I equally have problems with the retrieval movement currently underway in the evangelical sector. The former, in my view, is simply a deferment to the authority of the individual (even collectively), and the latter a deferment to the authority of the “Church.” Neither of these options honestly engage with the ‘problem,’ they simply kick the can back to what they deem as established authorities as those have taken form in the history, one way or the other. But you see how this only reinforces the problem, right? We are deciding who has the authority to tell us what the text means; yet all this then becomes is a self-projecting project of ‘my’ or ‘our’ authority to defer to someone else’s. The loop never has any other beginning but the human agent; even as that is constituted by the institutional Enlightenment or the institutional Church. Indeed, this is what Feuerbach was so critical of: the issue of self-projection and the circular nature that entails.

Congdon’s denouement is a turn into missiological theory, and Bultmann’s contribution to and development of that in his own method. My denouement is to turn to dialogical and dialectical theology, primarily that of Barth’s and Torrance’s. I am not totally sure how to highlight the distinction between my alternative and David’s, other than to say that ecclesial grammar has greater play for me than it does, I think, for Congdon. Congdon is arguing for a greater convergence between Barth and Bultmann than many of the Bultmannians have wanted there to be; and following Congdon’s line, I think there probably is. But in my view, Bultmann still gives too much place to the human agent, and an existentialism devoid of real groundedness in history, than does Barth. Barth still has an ‘existential’ component, particularly as that is grounded in his analogy of faith/relation (see Jüngel), but he still moves and breathes within the contours set out by the Nicene grammar that Bultmann seemingly moves beyond; and Congdon certainly moves beyond.

What is the real conclusion here?: I need to write more on dialogical and dialectical theology in such a way that the distinction I am noting between myself and Congdon gains greater traction with understanding. My approach to biblical studies is grounded in ‘encounter’ that is continuous and ongoing with the living Christ. In this sense, there is an aspect of existentialism present. But I would argue that the “authority” is not from ‘my side’ but in the One who is encountering me as Lord. How this gets turned into a normative hermeneutic that has some sort of salience between me and others, without reducing to an absolute subjectivism, is fodder for another post. But I think there is a way forward that takes Congdon’s points seriously, without committing oneself to a Bultmannian roadmap. More to come.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 2015), 545-46 n. 95.

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John Calvin is an important figure for Protestant theology. If we can move past all the polemics that are associated (usually, wrongly) with his name, and actually engage with his theological offering; what the reader will find is a rich storehouse of theological reflection that is highly Christ concentrated. That’s what I intend to do with this post; I want the reader to be turned onto an aspect of Calvin’s soteriology that has enriched me greatly since the first time I was exposed to it. I am referring to what Calvin calls Double Grace (DUPLEX GRATIA). It is this soteriological frame, that for Calvin, is deeply grounded in a Christological focus; to the point that when reading his development of it, at points, you might mistake him for Karl Barth or Thomas Torrance. In this teaching Calvin thinks both justification and sanctification from nowhere else but the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. For Calvin, in order for salvation to inhere for the person, he/she must be in participation with Christ’s humanity by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. In order for eternal life to obtain for the individual, that person must be in union with Christ (unio cum Christo); since Christ alone has won the salvation of God in the work He accomplished through incarnation and atonement. This conceptuality, by the way, is a locus classicus for what we are attempting to offer with our notion of Evangelical Calvinism.

Here Calvin in his 1541 French edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion explains what he means when referring to ‘double grace.’

It seems to me that I have previously explained carefully enough how it is that there remains to people only one refuge for salvation, which is faith, because by the law they are all cursed. I believe that I have also sufficiently discussed what faith is and what graces of God it communicates to people and what fruit it produces in them. Now the summary was that by faith we receive and possess Jesus Christ as He is presented to us by God’s goodness, and that in participating in Him we have a double grace. The first grace is that when we are reconciled to God by His innocence, instead of having a Judge in heaven to condemn us we have a very merciful Father there. The second grace is that we are sanctified by His Spirit to meditate on and practice holiness and innocence of life. Now as for regeneration, which is the second grace, I have said what seemed to me necessary. Justification was more lightly touched upon, because we had to understand what the good works of the saints are, which is a part of the question we must treat next.[1]

Of significance, per my impression, is the way Calvin thinks of these ‘two graces’ as embodied in Jesus Christ first. So, if we were to think this in terms of an ordo salutis (‘order of salvation’), we might think of it in this way: 1) Justification and Sanctification first obtain in Christ’s life for us, and 2) Justification and Sanctification second obtain for all those, who by faith, are in participation with Christ and His humanity for us. To frame salvation from this accent gives it a decidedly filial feeling, such that other sorts of theories of salvation, the ones that have juridical or forensic frames, are put into relief; or out to pasture where they should be. Not wanting to overread Calvin here, I wouldn’t want to make it sound like Calvin was a crypto-Barthian, but I do think the personalist and even existential conceptions present in Barth’s soteriology can be found in Calvin—to a degree. In order to illustrate this ‘feeling,’ in regard to the filial sort of salvation Calvin is offering, let me share from him further. Here you will notice the sharp emphasis Calvin lays on being in Christ; I take this to be a further development of his duplex gratia as that is given form in Christological repose.

Now in speaking of the righteousness of faith scripture leads us to quite another place; that is, it teaches us to turn our attention away from our works to regard only God’s mercy and the perfect holiness of Christ. For it shows us this order of justification: that from the beginning God receives the sinner by His pure and free goodness, not considering anything in him by which He is moved to mercy except the sinner’s misery, since He sees him completely stripped and empty of good works; and that is why He finds in Himself the reason for doing him good. Then He touches the sinner with a feeling of His goodness so that, distrusting everything he has, he may put the whole sum of his salvation in the mercy which God gives him. That is the feeling of faith, by which a person enters into possession of his salvation: when he recognizes by the teaching of the gospel that he is reconciled to God because, having obtained the remission of his sins, he is justified by means of Christ’s righteousness. Although he is regenerated by God’s Spirit, he does not rest on the good works which he does, but is reassured that his perpetual righteousness consists in Christ’s righteousness alone. When all these things have been examined in detail, what we believe about this matter will be easily explained. They are better digested if we put them in a different order than we have proposed them; but one can scarcely fail to grasp these matters provided that they are recounted in order in such a way that everything is well understood.[2]

What we have in Calvin is a robust, and I’d argue, Pauline development of what an ‘in Christ’ theory of salvation entails. The focus, for Calvin, unlike so much later ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Puritan’ theology, is not primarily on the recipient of salvation, but on the ‘cosmic’ Christ. Let me qualify this: when reading Calvin we can certainly find conceptual matter that sounds like what developed later in ‘Calvinism’ and the sort of ‘practical syllogism’ soteriology that the Puritans (like William Perkins) developed. But, I’d contend, and have here, that Calvin tends to contradict his Christ conditioned superstructural foundation when he presents us with a hidden decree of reprobation and ‘temporary faith.’

In the main Calvin is a richly and profoundly Christ funded theologian who seeks to find Christ in just about every nook and cranny conceivable; particularly when that comes to a doctrine of salvation. He isn’t a Barth or Torrance, come on, he lived in the 16th century; but in an antecedent form, under the theological conceptual pressures he inhabited, he (along with Luther) is as close as we might get to what latterly developed under the Barthian regimen of theological endeavor. I commend Calvin’s double grace soteriology to you; one that is decidedly grounded in the singular person of Jesus Christ.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 318 [emboldening mine].

[2] Ibid., 320-21 [emboldening mine].

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