The Exegetical Barth

For many people, especially for those who have never actually read him for themselves, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth can seem to be something of a pariah due to many places in his dogmatics where he appears to depart from traditional Protestant, Reformed, evangelical, or even orthodox theology. Putting aside the question of the merit of these sentiments, it is ironic that Barth would be criticized in this way, particularly by those who claim Scripture as their highest authority, given Barth’s explicitly and frequently affirmed commitment to say nothing of God except that which he himself has revealed in his Word. There may be legitimate criticisms to be made of Barth (and I believe there are), but we cannot simply write him off as an eccentric thinker or a logic-chopper who formulated his theology apart from or contrary to the biblical witness. Indeed, it was precisely his relentless commitment to the supreme authority of the Word of God in Holy Scripture that led him to diverge from tradition where, from his perspective, tradition diverged from the Word.

Consider, for instance, Barth’s famous revision of the Reformed doctrine of election which he summarized as follows:

The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God in His free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself. He therefore takes upon Himself the rejection of man with all its consequences, and elects man to participation in His own glory.[1]

At first glance, this way of stating the doctrine of election might seem, at least to some, a far cry from the biblical text. It is important to keep in mind, however, how Barth himself characterized the process by which he arrived at this view in his introductory comments to Church Dogmatics II/2:

To think of the contents of this volume gives me much pleasure, but even greater anxiety. The work has this peculiarity, that in it I have had to leave the framework of theological tradition to a far greater extent than in the first part on the doctrine of God. I would have preferred to follow Calvin’s doctrine of predestination much more closely, instead of carlBarth2009departing from it so radically. I would have preferred, too, to keep to the beaten tracks when considering the basis of ethics. But I could not and cannot do so. As I let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters, as I meditated upon what I seemed to hear, I was driven irresistibly to reconstruction. And now I cannot but be anxious to see whether I shall be alone in this work, or whether there will be others who will find enlightenment in the basis and scope suggested. It is because of the rather critical nature of the case that I have had to introduce into this half-volume such long expositions of some Old and New Testament passages. For the rest, I have grounds for thinking that to some my meaning will be clearer in these passages than in the main body of the text.[2]

These are revealing words indeed. It is fascinating to note that Barth “would have preferred to follow Calvin’s doctrine of predestination”. It certainly would have been much easier, and safer, to do so. Yet Barth, in good Protestant fashion, was determined to “let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters”. In the end, it was Scripture, and Scripture alone (sola Scriptura!) that drove him “irresistibly to reconstruction”. For this reason, Barth anticipated that the arguments for his reconstruction would be clearer and more convincing in the extensive sections of biblical exegesis (inserted into the text as excurses) than in his explanation of the doctrine itself. After examining Barth’s view, we may still disagree with him, but we cannot fault him for betraying the fundamental principle, so central to the Protestant and evangelical tradition, of the supreme authority of Holy Scripture.

This is how Adam Neder puts it in his contribution to the book Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism:

…while fully conversant with and significantly indebted to the vast resources of the church’s reflection on the person and work of Christ, Barth regarded himself primarily accountable to Holy Scripture, not church dogma, and thus asked his Christology be judged, above all, by its faithfulness to the New Testament presentation of the living Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, one regularly finds Barth justifying Christological innovation with the argument that the New Testament depiction of Christ requires it (or something like it) and that the older categories are inadequate to bear witness to this or that aspect of his existence. In other words, and quite simply, Barth understood himself to be free to do evangelical theology – free, as he put it, to begin again at the beginning. And this approach, it seems to me, is one that evangelicals have every reason to regard with sympathy rather than suspicion.[3]

Although Neder’s specific focus here is on Christology (something that in Barth is in no way disconnected from his doctrine of election), his fundamental point still applies. As much respect as Barth had for church tradition, he “regarded himself primarily accountable to Holy Scripture”. As Neder rightly points out, this commitment lies at the very heart of what constitutes a truly evangelical theology, one that unswervingly aims to submit all thought and speech about God to what God says of himself in Scripture. Sharing this common ground, I believe that we as evangelicals should consider Barth primarily as an ally rather than as an enemy, even though we may at times strongly disagree with him. If nothing else, reading Barth seriously forces us to examine whether it is actually Scripture to which we are submitted or some other concept of God derived from another source. For this, we can thank God for the gift that Karl Barth was and continues to be to the church.

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[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics II/2 (London; New York: T&T Clark), p.94.

[2] Ibid., p.x.

[3] Neder, A. 2011. ‘History in Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. pp.149-150.

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Horton vs. Barth on Law vs. Grace

In a critical essay of Karl Barth’s Christology, Michael Horton writes the following:

It seems to me that the main reason that Barth resists talk of “before” and “after” in [redemptive history] is that this would open up a space for the God-world relationship that is logically prior to grace. As we have seen, it is a basic 410vuZc5y-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_presupposition of Barth’s revised supralapsarianism that law cannot come before gospel. This follows from the correlative assimilations of creation to redemption, and nature to grace. Even at the expense of calling into question a state of original integrity, law cannot precede gospel. Rather, the law is in the gospel, God’s holiness is in his grace, his wrath is in his love…

There can be no law prior to or apart from gospel because there is nothing prior to or apart from gospel. There is no “law of nature” alongside God’s “word of grace.”…”This priority of the law to the gospel which comes to such clear expression in Question 9 of the Heidelberg Catechism,” says Berkouwer, “is wholly wanting in Barth’s view of the law. . . . There is therefore also no room in Barth’s conception for the view that man was placed under the law of the good Creator before the fall into sin and unrighteousness” (The Triumph of Grace, p.257).[1]

The essence of Horton’s critique here, following Berkouwer, is one that goes back to Cornelius Van Til. Succinctly stated, it is that “in [Barth’s] dogmatics there is no real historical transition from wrath to grace.”[2] Given the evident persistence of this particular accusation, I would like to dedicate this post to providing a response. I can in no way provide an exhaustive rebuttal in a blog post, so I simply intend to make a single point that, in my opinion, constitutes a substantial rejoinder, not because it makes Barth immune to critique but because it undermines the foundation upon which Horton’s (and Van Til’s) critique is based.

To begin, it is important to understand the underlying theological commitments of that fund this critique. As one author demonstrates in an earlier essay in the same volume, the objections of Van Til were formulated within the confessional stance of the Dutch Reformed tradition.[3] In other words, such critiques are only possible if one presupposes the type of federal-covenantal theology characteristic of those theologians. This point should not be overlooked by many non-Reformed evangelicals who cite Van Til as their David against Barth’s Goliath, for they cannot coherently reiterate the bulk of Van Til’s critique without adopting his federal approach.

This, however, is a fairly minor point in that it does nothing to mitigate the force of what Van Til and Horton argue concerning Barth’s alleged conflation of law/wrath and gospel/grace. So to offer a more substantial response, I would like to quote a passage from Peter Leithart’s excellent work on Athanasius in which he compares the theology of the great patristic defender of orthodoxy with the federal framework upon which Horton’s criticism of Barth hangs. Leithart writes:

Michael Horton projects a particular version of the law-gospel distinction back into Eden, and this produces a Reformed version of the nature/grace dichotomy [found in Roman Catholic theology]. According to Horton, Adam was not a recipient of grace at his creation. God’s creation of Adam was an expression of “divine goodness,” but Horton refuses to call it “divine grace.” Horton criticizes other Reformed theologians for suggesting that “grace is fundamental to any divine-human relationship,” arguing that grace cannot “retain its force as divine clemency toward those who deserve condemnation” if the Adamic covenant is described as gracious. Adam was created under law, not under grace. Law is “natural” and human beings are “simply ‘wired’ for it.” Grace, however, is not natural and comes onto the stage only after Adam’s sin. It is not surprising that Horton claims that “Adam is created in a state of integrity with the ability to render God complete obedience,” by which he could earn what Horton describes as his “right” to receive the tree of life. Defending the proposition that the Adamic arrangements are rightly described as “covenantal,” Horton says,

Every covenant in Scripture is constituted by a series of formulae, most notably, oaths taken by both parties with stipulations and sanctions (blessings and curses). These elements appear to be present, albeit implicitly, in the creation narrative. Adam is created in a state of integrity with the ability to render God complete obedience, thus qualifying as a suitable human partner. Further, God commands such complete obedience, and he promises, upon that condition, the right (not the gift) to eat from the Tree of Life. While creation itself is a gift, the entrance into God’s Sabbath rest was held out as the promise for loyal obedience in the period of testing.

Lest anyone think that Adam’s obedience was itself a gift of God, Horton insists that Adam’s ability to obey comes from himself alone: “Created for obedience, he was entirely capable of maintaining himself in a state of integrity”; “Adam … was in a state of rectitude, perfectly capable of acceding to the divine mandate.” Adam was not created with free access to life but had all he needed to earn this access, working from his own natural capacities, apparently without any reliance on God’s continuing assistance. His obedience was not the obedience of faith but the obedience of nature. For Horton, we might say that humanity begins Pelagian and falls into Augustinianism.

Among the ironies here is the fact that Horton is a strongly anti—Roman Catholic Protestant who formulates his views of the Adamic order in order to protect the gratuity of grace, against, so he thinks, a Catholic subversion of grace. Yet in the very act of maintaining an anti-Catholic view of the covenant, Horton offers a view of Adamic nature that separates nature and grace in a way that the Catholic Church has only recently questioned. In fact, Horton goes much further than many Catholics, for whom creation is a gift of grace and for whom a state of natura pura is hypothetical rather than actual. Horton’s Adam existed in an actual state of pure nature, running on his own fuel and earning his access to the tree of life. Horton considers any deviation from this formulation a betrayal of the Reformation.[4]

The problem that Leithart identifies here is not insignificant, and it is one that runs rampant in Reformed federalism and even among other evangelicals who adopt a classic Calvinist soteriology. Briefly stated, Horton and other federal theologians prioritize the law over the gospel in God’s dealings with the world. That is to say, the primary way in which God relates to creation, and in particular to humanity, is law-based rather than grace-based. This can be seen from Horton’s belief that the creation of human beings established a “period of testing” in which favor with God and the acquisition of eternal life were contingent upon humanity’s ability to perfectly fulfill the legal conditions of this ‘covenant of works’.

In this federal scheme, the subsequent introduction of the ‘covenant of grace’ (fulfilled by Christ and proclaimed in the gospel) to remedy the situation created by Adam’s transgression (resulting in condemnation and wrath) does nothing to change this fundamentally law-based relationship, for the covenant of grace comes in merely to supplement humanity’s consequent inability to fulfill the original legal requirements that remain forever binding. Grace, in this view, becomes subservient to law in that it is introduced only after the fall and hypothetically would not have been had humanity not fallen into sin. After the fall, human beings can return to God’s favor and gain the original promise of eternal life only if they (or, as the gospel proclaims, One who does so on their behalf), perfectly fulfill all of the covenant’s stipulations. Thus, whether pre-fall or post-fall and even into eternity, humanity’s relationship with God always, ultimately, and fundamentally depends on law-keeping. As Richard Muller summarizes:

The elements of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works that I have described here indicate the result of a process of doctrinal development in the Reformed tradition. As such, the language of the doctrine is certainly different from the language of the Reformers and even from that of earlier successors to the original Reformers such as Ursinus and Olevian or, indeed, in a slightly later time, William Perkins. Yet, the fundamental points of the doctrine, that the work of redemption must be understood both in terms of law and of grace, that human beings were created in and for fellowship with God under terms both of promise and of law, that Adam’s fall was a transgression of God’s law, that human inability after the Fall in no way removes the standard or the demands of the law, and that the gift of salvation through Christ’s satisfaction for sin both sets believers free from the law’s condemnation and upholds the laws demands, remain virtually identical.[5]

In light of this, I would suggest that the critique of Horton (following that of Van Til), can be turned on its head. We could say that in the federal scheme represented by Horton there is no real historical transition from law to grace inasmuch as the foundation of all of God’s dealings with humanity consistently remains the covenant of works that the law expresses. Again, an appeal to the covenant of grace here will not help, because in the federal scheme, the covenant of grace is purely contingent in that it intends to meet a need that hypothetically could have never even existed. It is, for all intents and purposes, a mere stopgap until the most basic relationship between God and humanity based on law can be rectified. Even with the institution of the covenant of grace, humanity can receive the hope of salvation only on condition of faith in Christ’s vicarious fulfillment of the eternally binding covenant of works. Therefore, beginning with the pre-temporal pactum salutis and extending into all eternity, humanity can only be loved by God if his legal demands have been satisfied.

For this reason, I think that it is warranted to redirect Horton’s critique back to him. Whereas he objects to Barth for his absorption of law and wrath into gospel and grace, I (and Barth would probably agree) object to his absorption of gospel and grace into law and wrath. If Horton insists on being a consistent federal theologian, then the two-edged nature of this problem seems unavoidable. I would suggest, therefore, that it is disingenuous for Horton (or any other federal theologian for that matter) to launch this particular attack against Barth inasmuch as it is precisely what he himself does. In terms of this particular dispute, I would have to side with Barth, because I believe that Scripture, and especially God’s self-revelation in Christ culminating in the cross and resurrection, clearly accords primacy to grace and gospel rather than law. Although addressing a period after the fall, Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:17-19a:

This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made.

I think that what Paul articulates here regarding the relationship of God’s covenant with Abraham to the subsequent covenant enacted at Sinai is indicative of the overall nature of God’s dealings with humanity. This is not an unwarranted move even in federal theology that views the Abrahamic promise as reflective of the covenant of grace and the Mosaic law as recapitulating the covenant of works. Thus, as in redemptive history after the fall, so also in creational history prior to the fall: it is the promise of grace that precedes law and which cannot be annulled or modified by a law added later because of transgressions. In this sense, Horton has it completely backwards: grace does not follow law on condition of obedience; rather law follows grace as a temporary economy until the fulfillment of grace’s promise.

Although I would not follow Barth on every point, I would argue that he rightly discerned from Scripture that the foundational reality that defines God’s relationship to humanity throughout all time is not one of law and judgment but of grace and love. Barth understood that the God-world relation is ultimately given shape not by an impersonal contract of legal stipulations but by the overflow of infinite love that inheres in God’s own eternal intratrinitarian life. This is not to dispense with the law or God’s judgment upon sin; rather it is to maintain, along with Paul, that the law can never be said to displace grace but only serves grace until the fulfilment and consummation of the promise of grace in Christ.

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Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring the critique of federal theology in this post.

[1] Horton, M.S., 2011. ‘Covenant, Election, and Incarnation: Evaluating Karl Barth’s Actualist Christology’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. pp.142-143.

[2] Ibid., p.144.

[3] Harinck, G. 2011. ‘”How Can an Elephant Understand a Whale and Vice Versa?”: The Dutch Origins of Cornelius Van Til’s Appraisal of Karl Barth’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

[4] Leithart, P.J., 2011. Athanasius H. Boersma & M. Levering, eds., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. pp.100-101. Horton’s statements cited by Leithart come from his book God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).

[5] Muller, R.A., 2003. After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, pp.188-189.

An Appeal for “Theological Existence Today” After the Election

Although I have only followed the presidential campaigns to a small degree and have written about them even less, I am aware of how much time and energy many American evangelicals have devoted to this election, taking active stands on behalf of one candidate or the other in the name of religious liberty, social morality, etc. Not that there is anything wrong with this per se, yet I think it is a cause for concern if, as I suspect has occurred in certain quarters, American evangelicals have expended more effort on advocating for or against a particular candidate than on fulfilling their true calling relative to the kingdom of God. Now that the election_1 is over and Donald Trump has emerged victorious, it is just as critical, now as before, that the church remind itself of what that calling truly is, namely, to bear witness in the world to the Word of God, to Jesus Christ the King of kings and Lord of lords before whom every knee will bow and whose name every tongue will confess.

In light of this, I find the following exhortation both timely and convicting in this particular moment. It was written by Karl Barth in 1933 to German Christians who were struggling with what to do in the face of the growing Nazi threat in their country. Barth was distressed over the way in which the pressing political and social issues had seemed to take a priority in the thinking of the German church over confidence in and allegiance to the Word of God. What is fascinating, at least to me, is that to which Barth called his fellow Christians: although rightly admonishing them not to align themselves with the National Socialist movement, he did not so much urge them to oppose the movement directly as he pleaded with them, especially with preachers, teachers, and theologians, to fulfill their charge to faithfully proclaim the Word of God which alone had the power to triumph, and which indeed had already triumphed, over their adversaries. Thus wrote Barth:

The one thing that must not happen to us who are theological professors, is our abandoning our job through becoming zealous for some cause we think to be good. Our existence as theologians is our life within the Church, and, of course, as appointed preachers and teachers within the Church. There are some things about which there is unanimity within the Church. One is, that there is no more urgent demand in the whole world than that which the Word of God makes, viz. that the Word be preached and heard. At all costs this demand has to be discharged by the world and the Church itself, cost what it may. Another thing there is agreement about is, that the Word of God clears out of the way everything that might oppose, so that it will triumph over us and all other opponents, for the reason that it has triumphed already, once for all, over us and on our behalf, and over all its other opponents…

And, particularly as preachers and teachers of the Church, we are at one in fear but also in joy, that we are called to serve the Word of God within the Church and in the world by our preaching and our teaching. We agree, too, that with the fulfilment of our calling we not only see ourselves stand or fall, but we see everything that is important to us in this world, however precious or great it be, standing or falling. So that to us no concern can be more pressing, no hope more moving than the concern and hope of our ministry. No friend can be dearer than one who helps us in this ministry, no foe more hateful than he that wants to hinder us in this ministry.

We are agreed about this too, that alongside of this first business, as the meaning of our labour and our rest, our diligence and relaxation, our love and our scorn, we brook no second as a rival. But we regard every second or third thing that may and should incite us as included and taken up in this first concern, and condemned or blessed thereby. On these things we agree or we are not preachers and teachers of the Church. And this is what is meant by what we term our “Theological existence,” viz. that in the midst of our life in other aspects, as, say, men, fathers and sons, as Germans, as citizens, thinkers, as having hearts ever in unrest, etc., the Word of God may be what it simply is, and only can be to us, and taxes our powers, particularly as preachers and teachers, to the full as the Word alone can and must do.

To-day we can lose our existence as theologians and teachers, which consists in our attachment to God’s Word and plying our calling particularly to the ministry of the Word…For the mighty temptation of this age, which appears in every shape possible, is that we no longer appreciate the intensity and exclusiveness of the demand which the Divine Word makes as such when looking at the force of other demands: so that in our anxiety in face of existing dangers we no longer put our whole trust in the authority of God’s Word, but we think we ought to come to its aid with all sorts of contrivances, and we thus throw quite aside our confidence in the Word’s power to triumph. That is to say, we think ourselves capable of facing, solving and moulding definite problems better from some other source than that from and by means of God’s Word. By doing this we show that we do not esteem God to be a working factor in anything as Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer. That our hearts are thus divided between God’s Word and all other sorts of things which, avowedly or tacitly, we invest with Divine glory. By so doing we demonstrate that our hearts are not in contact with God’s Word. And this means that under the stormy assault of “principalities, powers, and rulers of this world’s darkness,” we seek for God elsewhere than in His Word, and seek His Word somewhere else than in Jesus Christ, and seek Jesus Christ elsewhere than in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. And so we become as those who do not seek for God at all.[1]

As it was for German Christians in the 1930s, so also is this a salutary reminder for the American church that today, after the election, may likewise be tempted to become (or continue being!) zealous for some cause – political, social, or otherwise – that it thinks is good and thereby abandon its primary task of proclaiming the Word of God. Indeed, as Barth avers, the “mighty temptation of this age” is to “no longer appreciate the intensity and exclusiveness of the demand which the Divine Word makes”. Woe to us if we exchange confidence in the “Word’s power to triumph” for trust in (or, for some, despair because of) the fact that Donald Trump is the newly elected president of the United States. Trump, like all other world leaders before and after, and indeed like every human being who has ever lived, is like the grass that fades and the flowers that wither in contrast to the “word of our God [that] will stand forever” (Is. 40:8). It is true that we must pray for Trump and for the leaders that will surround him during his presidency. But we must not put in him our trust which must rest solely in the Word of God. To find ourselves opposite the Word, whether by concious choice or simple neglect, is to succumb to “the stormy assault of ‘principalities, powers, and rulers of this world’s darkness'”. May our hearts not be divided, but may we give ourselves wholly, utterly, and completely to the Word and its assured victory over the kingdoms of this world. We must demand of ourselves, as Barth stressed, a “theological existence” both today and in the days to come.

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[1] Barth, K., 2011. Theological Existence To-Day! (A Plea for Theological Freedom), Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock. pp.11-16.

The Weakness of God that Trumps the Power of Politics

The unsettling drama that has played out on the stage of American politics during this last presidential campaign has rightly, in my view, been called ‘historic’, though of course in a very negative sense. Although candidates typically resort to personal attacks and mud-slinging, what has occurred during this election season seems to have reached new levels of ugliness and violence. Yes, even violence, as illustrated by a recent arson attack on a church in Mississippi. When was the last time that people were reticent to affix political bumper stickers to their car or place signs in their yard for fear of having their tires slashed or their house vandalized? Unfortunately, some professing Christians have been at the forefront of the vitriol, voicing their support for one candidate or the Crucifixion from the Isenheim Altarpiece, detail of Christ's right hand, c.1512-16 (oil on panel)other, not so much because they actually support said candidate, but because they essentially view the other as evil incarnate that will no doubt bring an end to American society as we know it.

What troubles me deeply (apart from the abysmal choice of candidates) is the way in which it seems that, regardless of whom is elected, many American Christians have either fallen into despondency (as though the current situation offers little hope for the future of the country) or have ardently advocated for a candidate that, had there been any number of other feasible options, would have advocated just as ardently against that same candidate. It is truly a marvel to see Christians throwing in their lot with a candidate who displays the very characteristics and tendencies that in the past would have motivated them to vote against that very person!

Although the problems with this are manifold, I would like to spotlight one in particular that is insightfully elucidated by James Davison Hunter in his book To Change the World. Hunter offers the following assessment (which I think is spot on) of what drives much of American politics:

[C]ontemporary political culture in America is marked by a ressentiment manifested by a narrative of injury and, in turn, a discourse of negation toward all those they perceive to be to blame. Though each expresses this ressentiment differently, in different degrees and to different ends, it is present in all of these factions. It is especially prominent, of course, among Christian conservatives, which may be why they have been so effective over the years in mobilizing their rank and file to political action. Ressentiment is also centrally present among Christian progressives and it is clearly a major source of their new solidarity and the motive behind their recent assertiveness in Democratic party politics. Both the Right and the Left ground their positions in biblical authority and they both appeal to democratic ideals and practices to justify their actions. But the ressentiment that marks the way they operate makes it clear that a crucial part of what motivates them is a will to dominate.[1]

What is this ressentiment of which Davison speaks? He explains further:

What adds pathos to our situation is the presence of what Nietzsche called “ressentiment.” His definition of this French word included what we in the English-speaking world mean by resentment, but it also involves a combination of anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge as the motive of political action. Ressentiment is, then, a form of political psychology…Ressentiment is grounded in a narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged. The root of this is the sense of entitlement a group holds. The entitlement may be to greater respect, greater influence, or perhaps a better lot in life and it may draw from the past or the present; it may be privilege once enjoyed or the belief that present virtue now warrants it. In the end, these benefits have been withheld or taken away or there is a perceived threat that they will be taken away by those now in positions of power. The sense of injury is the key…

Cultivating the fear of further injury becomes a strategy for generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing the group to action. It is often useful at such times to exaggerate or magnify the threat. The injury or threat thereof is so central to the identity and dynamics of the group that to give it up is to give up a critical part of whom they understand themselves to be. Thus, instead of letting go, the sense of injury continues to get deeper. In this logic, it is only natural that wrongs need to be righted. And so it is, then, that the injury— real or perceived— leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on those whom they see as responsible. The adversary has to be shown for who they are, exposed for their corruption, and put in their place. Ressentiment, then, is expressed as a discourse of negation; the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable.[2]

If this is not an accurate description of this presidential election, then I don’t know what is. The “narrative of injury” is precisely the tale that has been spun in varying and contradictory forms, depending on which candidate one listens to. Not only that, but the ressentiment – that vicious cocktail of resentment, anger, rage, and the subsequent will to dominate – that this narrative induces is not merely an inadvertent byproduct of these narratives, but it is the whole goal! As Hunter underscores, ressentiment is a tremendously strong factor in motivating people to vote for a certain candidate, not because said candidate really has anything better to offer, but because he or she is believed to be the lesser of two evils.

The tragedy, in my view, is that many American Christians have been duped by this narrative of injury, and as a result their choice to vote for one or the other of the two primary candidates is driven fundamentally by this sense of ressentiment which, as Hunter describes, terminates in the will to dominate. That is to say, the decision of many Christians regarding whom to vote for is, I think, largely motivated by the urge to deprive one candidate of power and, in his or her place, to elect the other who presumably will use that power in a way more amenable to their own views. Ultimately, it is a choice fueled by the desire for control, “the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable”.

That question that this raises in my mind is this: how is this even remotely coherent with the gospel of Jesus Christ who explicitly eschewed the will to dominate and instead humbled himself to death on a cross, even praying for the forgiveness (not the the-crucifixion-detail-matthias_grunewald2condemnation!) of the very enemies who had put him there! As Paul so eloquently stated in 1 Corinthians 1, this is a wisdom that is foolishness in the eyes of the world. It is a power that appears only as weakness. Yet it is precisely this foolish weakness – the preaching of the cross – with which God puts to shame the wise and humbles the strong. How then could someone who claims to believe this gospel and follow Christ crucified vote for reasons of ressentiment, for fear of losing comfort and security, as though our Christian hope depends not on who sits on heaven’s throne but on who sits in the oval office? This is not to say that Christians shouldn’t vote; but the fact that Christians support candidates that are inimical to the kingdom of God and its righteousness does beg the question: have we become so beholden to the power structures of this world that we have lost sight of where the true power to change the world comes from, namely the power of God paradoxically manifested in weakness, suffering, and crucifixion?

In the conclusion to his study of Paul’s ministry in 2 Corinthians, Timothy Savage writes something that I find very pertinent to all of this:

[T]he Corinthians were evaluating Paul according to the self-exalting standards of their secular environment. They wanted him to be proud and assertive, to boast of his personal exploits, to employ powerful speech, to draw comfort from financial security [sound like any political candidate we know?] – in a word, to embody the self-regarding aspirations of their culture. By making these demands on Paul they demonstrated that they were assimilating their idea of a minister of Christ to the egocentric norms of their society. Not surprisingly, they were dismayed by Paul’s humility – or, as they put it, his ‘weakness’ – and it caused them to wonder whether he was really a minister of the exalted Christ…

[I]n responding to his critics Paul felt that he had little choice but to turn their logic on its head. It was precisely his ‘weakness’ which not only affirmed his position as a minister of Christ but also ensured that his labours would be accompanied by divine power…Contrary to the accusations of his critics, he regarded his ministry as exceedingly glorious…[Yet] for all its alleged brightness, the apostle’s glory was not accessible to the naked eye. According to Paul, it was a paradoxical glory – a heavenly light which appeared in a terrestrial being named Jesus, an unearthly beauty manifested in the ugliness of an execution. It was thus the ‘strange’ and ‘alien’ glory anticipated by…Isaiah, a light revealed in the darkness of death, a splendour manifested in the most appalling object of antiquity – a cross. The ancients had no category for such a paradoxical glory. They looked for glory in great displays of human power – imposing oratory, a large and loose wallet, a domineering personality. Even Paul himself, before his conversion and while still influenced by the assumptions of his age, refused to believe that glory, and especially the glory of heaven, could be found in the curse of crucifixion.

It was only when God shone his light in Paul’s heart that the apostle accepted by faith what his eyes had failed to see: the glory of God in the face of a crucified man…In [this] revelation which he received from God, he had discovered something very different – that it was precisely in the radical self-abnegation of the crucified Messiah that the power of God had come to its mightiest expression. It was in human weakness that God had chosen to manifest his illimitable power. The implication for Paul was clear. Insofar as he was conformed to the humility of Christ he, too, became a fitting vessel for the expression of divine power. The power of God was thus manifested in Paul in the same way in which it was expressed in Jesus: in cross-shaped humility…Hence the apostle guides us to the paradoxical…conclusion that it is only in cruciform sufferings like his that the Lord can perform his powerful work, introducing glory into an age of darkness, salvation into a world of despair, a new age within the old and life and power to more and more people.[3]

My intention in this post is not to tell anyone how they should vote, or even if they should vote. My sole purpose is simply to remind us all that the way of Jesus is not the way of ressentiment that leads to the pursuit of power but the way of the love that leads to the cross. It is not the desire to gain the upper-hand over one’s enemies but the willingness to lay one’s life down to serve them. It is not in the power of the world, but only in the weakness of the cross that the true power of the kingdom of God is made manifest. As Christians, our primary aim should be to seek this kindgom and its righteousness, not the kingdom of man and its self-serving interests.

And let us all remember that no matter who will soon sit in the oval office, it will still be the same Lord – the Lamb that was slain – who is seated on heaven’s throne.

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[1] Hunter, James Davison (2010). To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (pp. 168-169). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid., pp.107-108.

[3] Savage, T.B. 1996. Power Through Weakness: Paul’s Understanding of the Christian ministry in 2 Corinthians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.187-189.

What is Dialectical Theology in Evangelical Calvinism and Why is it Important?

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Image courtesy of David Hayward

One of the distinguishing marks of Evangelical Calvinism as articulated by Myk Habets and Bobby Grow in Vol. 1 of the same title is that its theological approach can be described as ‘dialectical’ and ‘dialogical’ rather than primarily ‘philosophical’ or ‘analytical.’ For anyone interested in learning about or engaging with Evangelical Calvinism, it is absolutely crucial to understand its dialectical/dialogical aspects lest, as often happens, it is dismissed as incoherent or objections are raised that simply do not follow from its premises. From my own (somewhat limited) experience interacting with people about EC, it seems to me that apart from a biblical hermeneutic and theological methodology that is principially christocentric (i.e. EC attempts to think out everything in strict accordance with how God has revealed himself in Christ), the dialectical/dialogical way of thinking constitutes one of, if not the, primary stumbling block that causes people, especially those schooled in theologies or traditions that favor logically-precise systems, to come to the conclusion that EC is unsatisfactory or incomprehensible.

What I want to do in this post, therefore, is explain, by way of T.F. Torrance and Bruce McCormack, why Evangelical Calvinists follow (not uncritically) the dialectical approach of Karl Barth. It is not because we appreciate Barth (though we do) or because we think a dialectical approach is pragmatically useful (which in many situations it isn’t). Primarily, EC adopts a dialectical/dialogical approach to theology because it is that which seems to be pressed upon us by the nature of the truth into which we are inquiring. T.F. Torrance helpfully explains what this means:

Dialectical thinking indicates the basic reversal that takes place in our thinking as we are confronted by God: we know God or rather are known by God. It is God who speaks, man who hears, and therefore man may only speak of God in obedience to what he hears from God…In Revelation God gives himself to us as the object of our faith and knowledge, but because he remains God and Lord, he does not give himself into our hands, as it were; he does not resign himself to our mastery or our control as if he were a dead object. He remains the living Lord, unqualified in his freedom, whom we can only know in accordance with his acts upon us, by following his movement of grace, and by renouncing on our part any attempt to master him by adapting him to our own schemes of thought or structures of existence; that is, whom we can know only by knowing him out of himself as an objective reality…standing over against us, as the divine Partner and Lord of our knowing of him…

Theological thinking, then, is inescapably dialectical because it must be a thinking by man not from a centre in himself but from a centre in God, and yet never seeks to usurp God’s own standpoint. It is dialogical thinking in which man remains man but in which he meets God, listens to him, answers him, and speaks of him in such a way that at every point he gives God the glory. Because it is dialogical it can only be fragmented on his side, for it does not carry its co-ordinating principle in itself, but derives it from beyond itself in God’s Word…

Dialectical theology stands for the fact that toward the Truth itself all our statements must remain essentially open, in humble acknowledgement of the fact that it is not in our competence to capture the Truth or to enclose it in our formulations, in frank admission that our thinking and speaking of God have their finite boundaries over which they cannot transgress.

In this sense, dialectical thinking is a correlate of justification by grace alone, in its epistemological reference. That is to say, it is a form of thinking which acknowledges that the only legitimate justification or demonstration of Christian truth is that which is in accordance with its nature, as truth and grace of God, and that to seek justification of it on any other ground is to falsify knowing at its very basis. Dialectical thinking is therefore thinking which combines statement and inquiry, for it makes statements not from a vantage point above the truth where it is the master but from a point below it where it never leaves its position of humble inquiry. Hence in dialectical thinking we let our knowledge, our statements, or our theological formulations be called into question by the very God toward whom they point or are directed in inquiry, for he alone is the Truth. Hence theological doctrines or formulations essentially contingent; they do not claim to have the truth in themselves for by their very nature they point beyond themselves to the Truth in God. Dialectical thinking, therefore, as Barth employed it, is to be considered as a form of combining statement and inquiry with the intention of letting the Truth declare itself to us, and therefore it indulges in a deliberate abstention from final judgments lest by breaking off or foreclosing the inquiry we should block our vision of the truth or be tempted to image that we have caught it in the net of our formulations.[1]

What Torrance says here is extremely important. Rather than imposing a framework (logical, philosophical, analytical) on Scripture and forcing it to conform its witness to the Truth which is God himself accordingly, a dialectical/dialogical approach endeavors not only to question the text to exegete its meaning but, first and foremost, to allow the text to question the approach itself and prescribe its own inner logic and coherency. It never views theological statements or systems as complete, as though we could every capture the fullness of who God is in human language, but rather constantly seeks to repentantly submit itself to change and development under the scrutiny of the Word. For this reason, it seeks to offer a faithful response to the Word, not by conforming the Word to its own patterns of thought, but by adapting its patterns of thought to the authority and majesty of the Word. Dialectical theology, in other words, is the approach we must take when we realize that God is God and we are not.

Addressing the age-old debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, Bruce McCormack provides a helpful example of what this looks like in practice:

There is a tension, I want to suggest, that runs through the very heart of the New Testament witness, between those passages that bear witness to the saving intentions of God in setting forth a Mediator and the passages that bear witness to the Final Judgment at the end of time. The first are characterized by a universalism of divine intent; Christ died for all. The second are often (though not exclusively) characterized by particularism, a separation in the Final Judgment of the sheep from the goats (Matt. 25:31-46). Faced with this tension, evangelical exegetes have typically sought to remove it through one of two strategies. “Calvinist” exegesis has taken the eschatological passages as a clear and definite starting point for thought and treated the atonement passages as obscure and requiring careful explanation if they are to be harmonized with the eschatological passages. “Arminian” exegesis, too, has taken the eschatological passages as a clear and definite starting point but regarded the universality of God’s saving intentions as witnessed to in the atonement passages as equally so. So their strategy for harmonizing rests in the introduction of a third factor between God’s intentions and the final outcome – viz. a human will, which God allows to trump His will to save. God wants to save all but cannot because He places too high a priority on human freedom to be willing to impose faith irresistibly. Though these strategies differ, they share two things in common: (1) both presuppose that faith in Jesus Christ is an absolutely necessary condition which must be met if any individual is to be numbered among the eschatologically saved and (2) both presuppose that elimination of the tension is necessary if the New Testament is to retain its authoritative status in Christian theology.

In relation to these two presuppositions of traditional evangelical exegesis, I would like to say that I agree with the first but disagree with the second. I think there are good and sufficient reasons not to eliminate the tension but to allow it to stand…And because I think that to be the case, I also think that both traditional Calvinist and traditional Arminian exegesis misfire – and misfire fire at precisely the same point. Both treat the propositions found in Scripture as standing in a strictly logical relationship to one another, so that any tension that might exist among them must finally be regarded as a contradiction – which would obviously threaten biblical authority. My own view is that the tension I have identified is not rightly understood as a contradiction. Rather, it is a function of the tension between history and eschatology, between time and eternity, between certitudes and mysteries, between what may be said with great definiteness and what must finally be left open-ended and unresolved.[2]

McCormack helps us to see how a dialectical approach to biblical interpretation and theology may just open new vistas in our understanding. Rather than presuppose, as McCormack observes vis-à-vis Calvinist and Arminian exegesis, that the authority of Scripture rests finally on our ability to eliminate any tensions we find, a dialectical approach acknowledges that Scripture speaks as it does for a divinely determined reason, and thus it is to our peril if we try to fit its teaching into a particular logic or system by sanding down its rough edges. It just may be, however, that we could break through some longstanding theological stalemates were we to allow the Word to reveal its own inner rationality, centred on God’s self-revelation in Christ and by the Spirit, and thereby permit it, and not us, to determine the logical forms to which our thinking about its teaching should adhere.

This is how we as Evangelical Calvinists are attempting, however imperfectly, to speak about all the ways and works of God as attested in Scripture. If there is difficulty in understanding us, I would suggest that part of the problem (apart from our own shortcomings!) may stem from a failure to understand the dialectical and dialogical way in which we operate. Until this is clearly grasped, we will likely just end up talking past each other.

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1962. Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1920-1931. London: SCM Press, pp.80, 82-83, 87-88.

[2] McCormack, B.L., 2011. ‘So That He May Be Merciful to All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.229-230.

Torrance on Created Grace in Roman and Protestant Theology

As a follow-up to my last two posts (here and here) critiquing the traditional understanding of ‘irresistible grace’, I would like to quote (at length) T.F. Torrance as he comes to similar conclusions regarding Protestantism’s tendency, despite the best insights of the Reformation, to lapse back into medieval notions of ‘created grace’ from which it sought to escape:

[T]he mediaeval doctrine of grace had another side to it which was mystical; grace is the divine, supernatural mystery inexplicably at work through the Church and its sacramental ordinances, sanctifying, transforming and elevating nature for its participation in the divine. With the recasting of the Augustinian tradition in realist Aristotelian terms, this grace came to be regarded from a more ontological point of torrance_2-1view. No longer was it merely the ‘inward grace’ mediated by an outward sign, but a divine power at work in human being transforming and changing it invisibly and visibly, grace actualizing itself within the physical as well as the spiritual, metaphysically heightening and exalting creaturely existence. Grace was regarded as acting within the recipient in much the same way as the divine power in transubstantiating the bread and the wine in the Mass into the realities of the Body and Blood of Christ. The operation of grace is a divine causation, and there follows from it a divine effect in the creature. It is almost like a supernatural potency that is infused into human beings, enlightening their minds, strengthening their wills, and conferring upon them beyond any natural state a divine quality which more and more transmutes the sinner into a saint, a being of earth into a being of heaven. This is the notion of grace inhering in the soul of man and lifting him up to vision of God, grace affecting even his physical being and at last transforming and translating him into the heavenly and eternal realm. It is in fact the notion of created grace, grace actualizing itself in the creature and elevating it to supernatural existence, ontological grace at work in man’s very being and raising him to a higher ontological order…

In place of the conception of the sacramental universe and the rational synthesis which it involved in its realist interpretation, Reformed theology set the biblical conception of the covenant of grace…that provides the frame of promise and fulfilment within which theology as historical dialogue with God is understood…This dialogical theology had the effect of giving the knowing subject full place over against the object, God speaking personally and historically. Man is here posited by God as his partner in the covenant and in conversation, so that personal relations are established and maintained within the covenant of grace…This had the effect of restoring to theology its intensely personal character, and therefore of restoring to the understanding of grace the sense of living relationship with the Persons of the Holy Trinity…

However, this very fact has laid Protestant theology open to a constant snare. Just because the human partner is given his full place by God as knowing subject over against God as his proper object, he is always being tempted to assume the major role in the theological conversation, to convert theological statements into statements of human concern, and to lapse into anthropology or subjectivism. This personalism can make a show for itself by opposing the opposite tendency in Roman theology toward objectivism, but it involves the fatal weakness of being unable to distinguish the objective reality of grace from man’s own subjective states. This in turn leads to a humanizing and then a secularizing of grace, and so we have in a different form the old notion of created grace all over again with its attendant notions of co-operation and co-redemption. It must indeed be admitted that there is scarcely anything which Protestantism opposes in Romanism for which it does not have its own erroneous counterpart. That does not allow us, however, to shut our eyes to the fact that the notion of grace as an impersonal res or potentia is to be rejected, as it surely is today by all responsible theologians in the Roman Church.[1]

In another essay, Torrance relates this tendency to revert to ‘created grace’ to the issue of sanctification which can sometimes be used in Reformed theology as a measuring stick or test whereby one may gain assurance of one’s election:

At the Reformation justification by the grace of Christ alone was seen to set aside all natural goodness, and all works-righteousness; but this applies to all goodness, Christian goodness as well, that is, to ‘sanctification’ as it came to be called…All that we do is unworthy so that we must fall down before you and unfeignedly confess that we are unprofitable servants – and it is precisely justification by the free grace of Christ alone that shows us that all we are and have done even as believers is called in question. Justification by grace alone remains the sole ground of the Christian life; we never advance beyond it, as if justification were only the beginning of a new self-righteousness [i.e. created grace, infused disposition], the beginning of a life of sanctification which is what we do in response to justification. Of course we are summoned to live out day by day what we already are in Christ through his self-consecration or sanctification, but sanctification is not what we do in addition to what God has done in justification. And yet that is the tendency of the Westminster Catechisms, where we have a return to the Roman notion of infused sanctification that has to be worked out through strict obedience to legal principles…But the Scots Confession laid the axe to the root of any such movement when it insisted that we have to spoil ourselves even of our own regeneration and sanctification as well as justification. What it ‘axed’ so radically was the notion of ‘co-redemption’ which in our day has again become so rampant, not only in the Roman Church, but in Liberal and Evangelical Protestantism, e.g., the emphasis upon existential decision as the means whereby we ‘make real’ for ourselves the kerygma of the New Testament, which means that in the last resort our salvation depends upon our own personal or existential decision. That is the exact antithesis of the Reformed doctrine of election, which rests salvation upon the prior and objective decision of God in Christ.[2]

As Torrance ably points out in these essays, the fundamental insights of Protestant theology – that saving grace is personal (rather than created) and objective (rather than infused) – have all too often tended to be overlooked or lost in the churches born of the Reformation. This is why the Reformed church must be ever and always reforming itself according to the Word of God, ensuring that it does not substitute the objective presence and action of God himself with its own subjective qualities or decisions.

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.179-182.

[2] Ibid., pp.161-162.

The Trinity of Assurance: the Father, the Spirit, and Pete?

Last week on Desiring God’s podcast Ask Pastor John, John Piper responded to a question regarding assurance of salvation (the audio transcript is available here). Someone named Pete had asked the following question:

I understand the Bible to teach that a true Christian is one who perseveres to the end, and in the sad circumstances where someone professes faith but then falls away, they were never a true Christian. For myself, I fully believe that I have been saved by Christ, and I see the fruit of this in my life. However, as a long-time pastor, I am sure you know of people who would also have been convinced that they were truly born again, would have appeared to bear fruit in their lives, but later showed that they were not truly saved by abandoning the faith. So if my salvation is only truly and finally evidenced by my perseverance, how much weight can I attach to God’s promises?

Piper began his reply by acknowledging the significance of Pete’s question. How do we know that the biblical promises (of which Piper lists a few) apply directly and personally to us if they apply only to the elect?  To answer this, Piper directed Pete to two biblical texts in particular – 2 Peter 1:10 and Romans 8:13-16 – and then made the following comments:

So, the bottom-line answer to Pete’s question about being assured or being confirmed that we are among the elect, we are among the called, is that the Holy Spirit testifies, bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God…What witnesses do in a courtroom is give evidences. And two of them are mentioned here. What the Holy
Spirit is doing in us, creating the evidence and the testimony is number one…If the Holy Spirit is john-piperleading Pete into warfare with his sin so that he hates sin and looks to the Spirit to fight sin, this is the testimony of the Spirit that he belongs to God.

And the second evidence of the Spirit’s testimony is that he is crying from the heart, “Abba! Father!” …The point is when this cry — Daddy, Father — arises from a heart with the authentic, humble need of a helpless child, craving and desperately in need of a Father’s wisdom and a Father’s care and a Father’s provision and a Father’s rescue, a ready heart, ready to submit like a trusting child, that is the work of the Holy Spirit. No human being feels those affections for, “Abba! Father!” except the Spirit-wrought…

So, in the end, assurance that we belong to God, we are his child, we are in the promises, we are among the elect is a gift of God. It is a miracle. But as with other miracles in the Christian life, we don’t lie around on our sofa waiting for a bolt of lightning called assurance. We do what Peter says. We confirm our calling and election. This is war. There are reasons. There are seasons of doubt, reasons for doubt, seasons for doubt in the Christian life. That is why Peter said what he said when he said: Fight for it. Don’t coast. Confirm your calling and election.

Apart from the legitimacy of Piper’s interpretation of these two passages (from which I demur, but that’s a different post), there are two massive problems that immediately jump out to me here. First, it is startling to note that Piper nowhere (even in the unedited transcript) makes reference to Christ in his comments on the biblical texts or in his answer. Even on a cursory reading, the absence of Christ leaves, from my perspective, a gaping hole. Piper speaks of the Father as the object of our assurance and of the Holy Spirit as the agent in producing the evidence of assurance. But who is the third member of this Trinitarian work of assurance? Evidently, according to Piper, it is Pete himself (and all of us to whom Piper would presumably give the same reply). In other words, Piper has constructed a soteriological equation in which the divine, objective work of election and calling is carried out by the Father and the Spirit but, on the human, subjective side, the necessary work of appropriating and confirming that election and calling through faith and righteous living (and, since this is Piper, good affections) rests squarely on the shoulders of Pete.

The problem, in my view, is that this wholly neglects the One who not only accomplishes salvation from the divine side (in concert with the Father and the Spirit) but who also accomplishes the perfect reception and confirmation of that salvation through his own vicarious believing, working, and persevering for us: Jesus Christ. This is the second major problem with Piper’s answer. In neglecting Christ, Piper fails to see that assurance of salvation is not grounded in the quality of our faith, good works, and holy affections but rather in the quality of Christ’s faith, good works, and holy affections. This is indeed what is meant by the book of Hebrews’ (2:10-18) insistence that Jesus is our faithful (or faith-full) high priest who represents us before the Father as the perfect worshipper and believer. It is also what is meant by Paul when he exclaims: “It is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me! For the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith/faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me!” (Gal. 2:20)

This is why we Evangelical Calvinists, in line with Calvin himself, emphasize that assurance of salvation is of the very essence of faith. Indeed, in one sense we could say that for Evangelical Calvinists, the question of assurance does not even exist, because we look to Christ and Christ alone, not only as the Giver of salvation (with the Father and the Spirit) but also as the vicarious Receiver of salvation. As Athanasius so beautifully put it, Christ came not only to minister the things of God to us but also to minister the things of us to God. Christ is the Word of God to man, and he is also the Man who vicariously hears and fulfills that Word in our flesh and thus in our place and on our behalf.

This is the message that T.F. Torrance so earnestly sought to communicate, especially to self-designated ‘evangelicals’ whose teaching of the gospel – in relation to conversion all the way through final glorification – was (and is) extremely unevangelical. As Piper would have it in this podcast, it is apparently Pete’s human effort that replaces the efforts of Christ in living by the Spirit through the Father. This, however, is not good news. Torrance explains:

There is a kind of subtle Pelagianism in preaching and teaching which has the effect of throwing people back in the last resort on their own act of faith, so that in the last analysis responsibility for their salvation rests upon themselves, rather than on Christ. In far too much preaching of Christ the ultimate responsibility is taken off the shoulders of the Lamb of God and put on the shoulders of the poor sinner, and he knows well in his heart that he cannot cope with it…

Hidden deep down beneath all that there is a failure to take the New Testament teaching about the power of the cross of Christ and his substitutionary role seriously, a reluctance to allow it to apply to the whole of their being and to all their human activity before God, even to their believing and praying and worshipping. We need to learn and learn again and again that salvation by grace alone is so radical that we have to rely upon Christ Jesus entirely in everything, and that it is only when we rely on him alone that we are really free to believe: “Not I but Christ” yet “Christ in me.” Because he came as man to take our place, in and through his humanity is radically transformed, and we become truly human and really free to believe, love, and serve him That is the wonderful message of the cross and resurrection.[1]

If ever there was a reason for becoming an Evangelical Calvinist, this is it. I would love to sit down with Pete and help him to realize that he is not, nor could ever be, the final member in the Triune God’s work of assurance. I would love to tell him that it is Christ’s vicarious humanity that surrounds him, enfolds him, uplifts him, and preserves him. This is not to downplay the importance of Pete’s faith; rather it is to direct him solely to the One who is the author and perfector of his faith (Heb. 12:2)! I would love to appropriate Paul’s words and assure him: “Pete, it is no longer you who live and persevere but Christ who lives and perseveres in you. And the life that you now live in the flesh, you live by the faith and the faithfulness of the Son of God who love you and gave himself for you!”

This, I suspect, would be truly reassuring for Pete, and I hope it is for you as well.

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.35, 37.

How to Preach the Gospel Evangelically

One of the hallmarks of Evangelical Calvinism is that it relentlessly seeks to think and speak about God exclusively in an evangelical way. This does not mean that it derives its thinking and speaking from popular evangelicalism. Rather, it means that it endeavours to repentantly conform all thought and speech about God to how he has revealed himself in torranceportraitthe evangel, that is, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Although this holds true for every aspect of our faith and practice, it is especially important for determining the way in which we preach, teach, and share the gospel both in the church and in the world.

In his excellent book The Mediation of Christ, Evangelical Calvinist par excellence T.F. Torrance provides us with the following example of what preaching the gospel evangelically looks like in practice. Although Torrance’s exposition of the gospel in this
book will already be very familiar to many readers as it has often been reproduced in various places, I thought that it would be helpful for people to read it in its original context. The reason for this is that Torrance draws a clear contrast between an evangelical as opposed to an unevangelical way of presenting the gospel. As Torrance notes, it is sadly the latter rather than the former which can often be heard from the pulpits of ostensibly ‘evangelical’ churches. By seeing this contrast, the power of Torrance’s ‘evangelized evangelism’ lands with greater force:

There is, then, an evangelical way to preach the Gospel and an unevangelical way to preach it. The Gospel is preached in an unevangelical way, as happens so often in modern evangelism, when the preacher announces: This is what Jesus Christ has done for you, but you will not be saved unless you make your own personal decision for Christ as your Saviour. Or: Jesus Christ loved you and gave his life for you on the Cross, but you will be saved only if you give your heart to him. In that event what is actually coming across to people is not a Gospel of unconditional grace but some other Gospel of conditional grace which belies the essential nature and content of the Gospel as it is in Jesus. It was that subtle legalist twist to the Gosspel which worried St Paul so much in his Epistle to the Galatians, a distortion of the truth which can easily take a ‘gentile’ as well as a ‘Jewish’ form. To preach the Gospel in that conditional or legalist way has the effect of telling poor sinners that in the last resort the responsibility for their salvation is taken off the shoulders of the Lamb of God and placed upon them – but in that case they feel that they will never be saved. They know perfectly well in their own hearts that if the chain that binds them to God in Jesus Christ has as even on of its links their own feeble act of decision, then the whole chain is as weak as that, its weakest link. They are aware that the very self who is being called upon to make such a momentous decision requires to be saved, so that the preaching of the Gospel would not really be good news unless it announced that in his unconditional love and grace Jesus Christ had put that human self, that ego of their, on an entirely different basis by being replaced at that crucial point by Jesus Christ himself.

How, then, is the Gospel to be preached in a genuinely evangelical way? Surely in such a way that full and central place is given to the vicarious humanity of Jesus as the all-sufficient human response to the saving love of God which he has freely and unconditionally provided for us. We preach and teach the Gospel evangelically, then, in such a way as this: God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very Being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour. From beginning to end what Jesus Christ has done for you he has done not only as God but as man. He has acted in your place in the whole range of your human life and activity, including your personal decisions, and your responses to God’s love, and even your acts of faith. He has believed for you, fulfilled your human response to God, even made your personal decision for you, so that he acknowledges you before God as one who has already responded to God in him, who has already believed in God through him, and whose personal decision is already implicated in Christ’s self-offering to the Father, in all of which he has been fully and completely accepted by the Father, so that in Jesus Christ you are already accepted in him. Therefore, renounce yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus as your Lord and Saviour.

To preach the Gospel of the unconditional grace of God in this way is to set before people the astonishingly good news of what God has freely provided for us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus. To repent and believe in Jesus Christ and commit myself to him on that basis means that I do not need to look over my shoulder all the time to see whether I have really given myself personally to him, whether I really believe and trust him, whether my faith is at all adequate, for in faith it is not upon my faith, my believing or my personal commitment that I rely, but solely upon what Jesus Christ has done for me, in my place and on my behalf, and what he is and always will be as he stands in for me before the face of the Father. That means that I am completely liberated from all ulterior motives in believing or following Jesus Christ, for on the ground of his vicarious human response for me, I am free for spontaneous joyful response and worship and service as I could not otherwise be.[1]

So the question that this puts to all of us is this: do we believe, espouse, preach, teach, and share the gospel in a truly evangelical way – in strict accordance with the grace of God secured for us in Jesus Christ alone – or in an unevangelical way – throwing ourselves and our hearers back upon our own capabilities and resources as the ultimate determining factor in salvation?

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1992. The Mediation of Christ. Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, pp.93-95.

Christ the Center (If Only That Were True)

Anyone with a basic knowledge of T.F. Torrance will find the themes in the following excerpt from the preface to his book Theology in Reconstruction to be familiar territory. In my opinion however, Torrance waxes particularly eloquent here as he distills the importance of a scientific, and thus principially christocentric, approach to theological inquiry. After hearing from Torrance, I will explain my reason for quoting this section:

I have struggled to develop modes of inquiry and exposition that are appropriate to the nature and logic of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. [The essays in this volume] have been written under the conviction that we must allow the divine realities to declare themselves to us, and so allow the basic forms of theological truth t-f-torrance-1946to come to view and impose themselves on our understanding. Theology is the positive science in which we think only in accordance with the nature of the given.

Perhaps the most difficult part of theology is the struggle we have with ourselves, with the habits of mind which we have formed uncritically or have acquired in some other field of knowledge and then seek with an arbitrary self-will to impose upon the subject-matter. We have to remind ourselves unceasingly that in our knowing of God, God always comes first, that in a genuine theology we do not think out of a centre in ourselves but out of a centre in God and his activity in grace toward us…[W]e must beware of subjecting knowledge of God to an alien frame-work by adapting it to the patterns of thought which we rightly develop in our investigation of the world of nature and its contingent existence. Rather must we let our understanding be raised up to what is above so that, human though it is and must remain, it may yet suffer adaption under the impact of God’s self-revelation and acquire new habits of though appropriate to God himself.

Theology of this kind is possible only because God has already condescended to come to us, and has indeed laid hold of our humanity, dwelt in it and adapted it to himself. In Jesus Christ he has translated his divine Word into human form and lifted up our human mind to understand himself. Hence in theological inquiry we are driven back upon Jesus Christ as the proper ground for communion and speech with God. Because he is both the Word of God become Man and Man responding to that Word in utter faithfulness and truth, he is the Way that leads to the Father. It is in him and from him that we derive the basic forms of theological thinking that are appropriate both to divine revelation and human understanding.

We live in an era of sharp theological conflict and yet of genuine advance. ‘Theological solipsism’ (to borrow an apt expression from my brother, J.B. Torrance) is rampant, breeding disagreement – hence the need is all the greater for a rigorous and disciplined inquiry that will not let us think in the way we want to think but only in the way we have to think if we are to do justice to the ‘object’ we are investigating. On the other hand, when we actually engage in a critical and scientific approach to the basic forms of theological thinking and are ready for positive reconstruction in accordance with them, unity and logical simplicity re-emerge, theological disagreements begin to fall away, and a steady advance in coherent understanding takes place in continuity with the whole history of Christian thought.[1]

As I mentioned above, Torrance is particularly eloquent in explaining the essence of his theological method here, and so I don’t think it requires any comment or clarification. What I would like to do – the reason for which I decided to post this today – is press this quote into the service of reinforcing my response to James Cassidy’s article on Van Til’s critique of Barth, specifically with what pertains to Bruce McCormack’s astute observation that the dispute between Barth and Van Til (and those who, like Cassidy, follow suit) is “rooted finally in the fact that Barth’s doctrine of God is Christologically controlled while Van Til’s doctrine of God controls his Christology”.[2] What McCormack means to say is that Van Til began with an a priori notion of God that he believed he could derive from “the natural order” and “the flow of history”.[3] This, of course, is the approach of natural karl-barththeology that, like Thomas Aquinas, begins with the sense data collected through observation of the material world and historical processes and then reasons from that data by negation to arrive at a concept of God. For this reason, natural theology yields essentially what amounts to a mere amplification of created reality and human nature (i.e. we are finite, God must be infinite; we are dependent, God must be self-sufficient, etc.).

As Torrance points out, however, this kind of thinking is fundamentally flawed in that it presumes to be capable of acquiring true knowledge of God prior to and apart from humble submission to the actual way in which God has revealed himself in himself, that is, in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit. It tends to distort true knowledge of who God is in himself by formulating a concept of God determined largely by that which is not God. The disaster that can ensue, and as McCormack contends does ensue in the case of Van Til, is that this natural-theological view of God (which stems from nothing less than human arrogance and rebellion in the presence of the God who speaks) often becomes the Procrustean bed upon which God’s actual self-revelation in Christ is clamped down such that, in effect, human beings usurp the exclusive right and authority of God to determine the form and content of revelation. We end up with a God made in our image rather than a God who conforms us to his image in Christ. The tragedy, of course, is that when such a anthropologized God is held to be the true God, then given the determinative nature of a doctrine of God to theology as a whole, theologians who seek to expound their theology in strict obedient accordance with God’s self-revelation in Christ, such as Barth and Torrance, are accused of being heretics.

This is why it seems that there seems to be, at least right now, little hope for real dialogue with people like James Cassidy who follow Van Til. Darren Sumner (who blogs at Out of Bounds and is a Barth scholar in his own right) added this comment to my response to Cassidy:

I find Van Til’s critique so difficult to engage in any depth because his reading of Barth is flawed in such fundamental ways. It is as if the disputants in these conversations are reading entirely different sources — thus common ground is nearly impossible to secure in order to then make any headway in evaluating Barth’s ideas. Yet Van Til’s followers refuse to be corrected with respect to their presuppositions.

The result? Barth’s followers will either end up stating the same correctives again and again, or (as Barth himself did) stop responding. That, it seems, is where we are at now: each new generation of VTians learn to repeat the same tired reading and the new Barthians learn the refrain, while the older scholars have opted to stop engaging. Rinse and repeat.

I agree with Darren’s assessment. Until Van-Tilians like Cassidy are willing to humbly subject their underlying natural-theological conception of God in repentant submission to Jesus Christ as the only “way, truth, and life” who determines the form and content of all true Christian faith and practice, it seems that they will continue to pass by the glory and beauty of the Christ, and the God revealed in him, that Barth glimpsed and sought to expound like the proverbial ship in the night. To the ironies I pointed out in my response to Cassidy I can add another: if Cassidy indeed follows Van Til in forcing Christology to fit the theological framework established (at least in part) by natural theology, and if, as Torrance says, “in a genuine theology we do not think out of a centre in ourselves but out of a centre in God and his activity in grace toward us” in Christ, then it would seem that contrary to the name of the podcast in which he participates (for an example, click here), Christ is not actually the center. If only he was…

So for the time being, it seems that, in Torrance’s words, these “sharp theological conflicts” will continue, unless Cassidy and company are willing to engage in a “rigorous and disciplined inquiry that will not let us think in the way we want to think but only in the way we have to think if we are to do justice to the ‘object’ we are investigating” – the ‘object’ in this case being, of course, the One who ever and always remains ‘subject’ in all our knowledge of him. Whatever legitimate critiques there are to be made of Barth, this is decidedly not one of them – that he relentlessly endeavoured to repentantly submit all human thought and speech about God to the absolute majesty and incontestable authority of the actual way in which God has chosen to definitively reveal himself once and for all in the person of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. Whether Barth was fully successful in this regard can be debated; nevertheless I am convinced that he provides us with an outstanding example of what obedient theology should look like.

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, pp.9-10.

[2] McCormack, B.L., 2011.’Afterword: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Barth’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p.380.

[3] Ibid.

Cassidy & Van Til vs. Karl Barth (Or What Happens When Evangelicals Rehabilitate Defeated Critiques, Ancient Heresies, and Natural Theology)

Yesterday, James Cassidy posted an article on the Reformation21 blog in which he seeks to rehabilitate and defend Cornelius Van Til’s (in)famous critique of Karl Barth. That Cassidy would write such an article given his association with Westminster Seminary is unsurprising, to say the least, and in reading it one gets the sense that he is simply parroting objections that, in my view, have been definitively defeated by many scholars. Granted, he only posted the first part of the article. Yet I was able to track down a more extensive version of what I assume will be subsequent part(s) of his article given that the two follow the same path. Indeed, the Reformation21 post appears to be simply a condensed version of Cassidy’s longer essay.

As someone who is highly appreciative though not uncritical of Barth, I would like to respond to Cassidy’s article in a couple of ways. First, I’ll begin by offering some of my overall impressions after reading both the shorter and the longer versions of it, and then I’ll respond to a few of the main points that Cassidy raises, pace Van Til, against Barth.

Overall impressions

I’ll begin by using a couple of analogies.

First, Cassidy’s article reminds me of the story I heard (whether it’s true or not is irrelevant) about Japanese soldiers who, long after the surrender of Japan that marked the end of World War II, continued to hold defensive positions in some of the more remote s200_james-cassidyislands in the Pacific. The reason? They were entirely unaware that their side had lost and were convinced that their cause still had a fighting chance.

Second, Cassidy’s article reminds me of a person who, after initially trying to communicate with someone else who does not speak his or her language, simply repeats the same words over again, just louder and more slowly. As an expat living in a foreign country myself, I’ve seen this occur many times, and it is quite humorous. I’m always amused by the fact that people think they will make themselves understood if they just keep saying the same things over and over, only with greater force and enunciation.

The correspondence that I intend with these analogies should not be that difficult to ascertain. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to respond to Cassidy, because his rehearsal of Van Til’s critique just seems tired and worn. It does strike me as similar to the story of the Japanese soldiers, for Cassidy writes as though Van Til’s critique, despite having been thoroughly dismantled by many scholars, still has substance.

Thus, it also seems to me that Cassidy is also a bit like the foreigner repeating the same words in a louder voice. Indeed, his entire article strikes me as a complete non sequitur. How so? The expectation he creates in his introduction is not fulfilled in the argument that follows. In his introduction, he references a number of the aforementioned critics of Van Til, and then proceeds to indicate, by way of a question, that he intends to show that Van Til really did not “misfire so badly in his critique”. This introduction creates the expectation (at least it did in my mind) that Cassidy plans on critically engaging with the critics of Van Til in order to vindicate the latter over against the former. This, however, is decidedly not what Cassidy does. Rather, Cassidy simply distills certain salient points of Van Til’s critique and sets them forth as though that were proof enough. In other words, to make the argument that his introduction requires, Cassidy should have engaged directly and extensively with the critics of Van Til, for in this instance they are the ones (not Barth) who are calling Van Til into question. Thus, for someone like me who finds contemporary critiques of Van Til compelling, simply reiterating Van Til’s own critique – perhaps with a bit more volume and emphasis – gains no traction whatsoever.

It is true that in the longer version of this article, Cassidy attempts to directly engage with Barth in which the latter is supposedly given the opportunity to speak for himself. Yet one cannot help but get the impression that it is not actually Barth himself but Van Til’s Barth who speaks. In other words, the reading of Barth that Cassidy offers based on a few cherry-picked sections (Cassidy only looks at CD III/1, pp.45-75; III/2, pp.133-157; I/2, pp. 47-63, 163-168, hardly enough to adequately grasp the scope of Barth’s theology) appears to presuppose Van Til’s interpretation as an a priori hermeneutical lens. No doubt Cassidy would claim that he is indeed just listening to Barth on his own terms. In the longer essay, he concludes by saying as much when he pleads, “let Barth be Barth”. However, I can’t help but think that Cassidy did not arrive at his understanding of Barth prior to engaging with Van Til. Van Til’s presence is felt too strongly, and therefore I am unconvinced that Cassidy has given Barth is true voice. Not only that, but as mentioned in the parenthesis above, Cassidy fails to heed, at least in this essay, T.F. Torrance’s warning that “Barth is not a theologian one can criticise until one has really listened to him and grasped his work as a whole”.[1] While I can appreciate the attractiveness of setting up a straw man as one’s opponent (for it is so much easier to win that way), it doesn’t really make for a convincing argument.

These impressions are not meant to be a scholarly rebuttal; they are, after all, just impressions. Yet they should carry some weight in the sense that Cassidy, I would suppose, intends his article to be persuasive. However, as someone who is highly appreciative though not uncritical of Barth, I find that it is Cassidy’s own argument that misfires. If Cassidy would hope to persuade someone like me (who is not a knee-jerk defender of Barth), then he utterly fails. The only outcome that I can envision is that Cassidy will receive a series of virtual high-fives and pats on the back (or real ones in the halls of WTS) from those who already agree with him. I don’t imagine that he would convince anyone else, except perhaps for those who are naive or who don’t know any better because they haven’t extensively read Barth for themselves.

Specific points of contention

Now I’d like to offer a few less impressionistic and more substantial critiques of Cassidy’s article. I don’t plan on writing a point-by-point response, far less an exhaustive critique, but rather I intend to approach Cassidy’s argument on more of a macro level.

First, regarding Kant. I find it highly ironic that Cassidy calls upon Bruce McCormack to corroborate his assertion that “Barth’s thought is in fundamental continuity with basic Kantian ontology”. The reason this is so ironic (and Cassidy should know better) is that it not only fails to mention that McCormack charges Van Til with misunderstanding Kant (thus making his critique something of a non-starter), but it also ignores the broader assessment that McCormack makes regarding Barth’s relationship to Kant, especially where McCormack challenges Van Til’s reading head-on. For example, McCormack writes:

Van Til was also right to insist that Barth was indebted to Kant for helping him to articulate the structural features of his doctrine of revelation in the early years of his dialectical phase. His conception of the Realdialektik of veiling and unveiling was first teased out with considerable help from Kant’s phenomenal-noumenal distinction. But, as I have argued previously, Barth did not need Kant any longer once he discovered the ancient anhypostatic-enhypostatic Christology in the spring of 1924 and began to absorb the lessons of the traditionally Reformed understanding of the indirect relation of the two natures in Christ to each other (as mediated through the “person of the union”). The old Reformed theologians rejected the “divinization” of the human nature of Christ through its union with the divine Logos that was taught by the Lutherans – and in doing so established the material ontological conditions Barth needed to explain why it is that the Subject of revelation (viz. God the Logos) remains hidden to view precisely in revealing Himself. So after 1924, the claim that revelation is indirect was no longer a Kantian claim; it was a distinctively Reformed claim.[2]

What McCormack does here, rightly in my view, is to position Barth within the Reformed tradition vis-à-vis Lutheranism in working out his dialectic of revelation (veiling/unveiling) as a necessary corollary of an orthodox Christology that refuses to conflate the two natures of Christ into a monophysite unity. Regardless of Kant’s early influence, Barth’s theology cannot be reduced, particularly in its mature form, to Kantianism. Rather, as McCormack avers, Barth’s mature theology exhibits more ‘fundamental continuity’ with the classic Reformed position in this regard than Van Til and Cassidy want to allow.

This leads directly to the second point that I would like to raise. All but one of the six critiques that Cassidy registers following Van Til (the other is the one having to do with Kant) relate directly to Barth’s Christology. Each attempt, in one way or another, to separate that which Barth would hold together. First, Cassidy/Van Til want to distinguish cornelius-van-til-e1327351072989between the divinity and humanity that Barth ostensibly intermingles in a Eutychian manner through his exclusive concentration on God as revealed in Christ (a somewhat strange accusation given Barth’s commitment to anhypostasis/enhypostasis). Third (because the second critique is the aforementioned one concerning Kant), they want to re-establish the distinctions between Christ’s two natures, between his humiliation and exaltation, and between his person and work that Barth supposedly blurs, because failure to do so would mean, first, that the incarnation impinges ontologically on God, and second, that the door is opened to a universalizing of grace (this, along with Barth’s supposed denigration of history, become the subject of greater critique in Cassidy’s longer essay). Fourth, they want to distinguish between the Logos asarkos and the Logos ensarkos, for otherwise God would have no being apart from what he is in his acts of revelation and reconciliation and would therefore become dependent on creation. Fifth, they want to distinguish between God in Christ and “God as such”, because only in this way, they contend, can they ensure that God remains “self-contained”. Finally, they want to salvage the notion of the decretum absolutum so as to preserve the distinction between God’s works ad extra versus his works ad intra.

As becomes clear, Cassidy and Van Til are, in good scholastic fashion, primarily concerned with distinctions. Distinctions between God’s being and act, between who he reveals himself to be and who he is himself, between who the Word is in his incarnation in time and who he is in his eternal being before time. While I would agree that some measure of distinction is necessary so as not to fall into some sort of monophysitism or utter incoherence, I would argue that Cassidy and Van Til push these distinctions well past their breaking point. Rather than tiptoe around the problem to which this leads, I’ll just declare it outright: Arianism.

Now, I do not mean that Cassidy and Van Til are explicitly Arian in that they deny the full divinity of Christ. What I mean is that the attacks that they mount against Barth rest on a foundation that Peter Leithart refers to as a ‘backdoor denial’ of orthodox Trinitarianism and Christology. T.F. Torrance explains why:

The conceptual clarification of the relation between what God is economically toward us and what he is ontically in himself is the task with which the Fathers at the Council of Nicaea were mainly concerned…The cardinal issue here was found by the Nicene theologians to be the unbroken relation in being and agency between Jesus Christ and God the Father, to which they gave decisive expression by a carefully defined non-biblical term, όμοούσιος, to speak of his oneness with the Father: ὁμοούσιος τῷ Πατρί. This is the kind of theological term for which Irenaeus had been groping in order to describe the nature of the substantial bridge across the gap between the Creator and the creature, anchored both in God and in man, which is needed to secure for us objective and authentic knowledge of the invisible God and of our salvation in Christ.

The homoousion (to refer to it in this abstract form) was thus identified as the all-important hinge in the centre of the Nicene Creed upon which the whole Confession of Faith, and indeed the whole Christian conception of God and of the salvation of mankind, turns. In the homoousion the Council of Nicaea, and later of Constantinople, unambiguously affirmed the Deity of Christ, thereby identifying him with the unique objective content of God’s saving self-revelation and self-communication to mankind, and affirming the oneness in Being and Act between Christ and the Father upon which the reality and validity of the Gospel of God’s revealing and saving acts in Christ depend—for apart from it the inner core of the Gospel of divine forgiveness and salvation from sin and the essential message of redemption through the Cross of Christ would die away and disappear.

The supreme truth of the Deity of Christ, the only begotten Son of God, true God from true God, one in being and of the same being with the Father, was undoubtedly the great concern that occupied the mind of the bishops and theologians at the Council of Nicaea when the credal formulation it produced, in spite of heated discussion, clearly arose out of a profound evangelical and doxological orientation. It was composed by the Fathers, so to speak, on their knees. Face to face with Jesus Christ their Lord and Saviour they knew that they had to do immediately with God, who had communicated himself to them in Jesus Christ so unreservedly that they knew him to be the very incarnation of God; they not only worshipped God through and with Christ but in Christ, worshipping God face to face in Christ as himself the Face of God the Father turned toward them. Jesus Christ the incarnate Son is the God whom they worshipped and loved in the ontological and soteriological mode of his personal self-communicating in the flesh, so that in their union and communion with Christ they knew themselves to be in union and communion with the eternal God. They knew that if there were no bond in Being and Act between Jesus Christ and God, the bottom would drop out of the Gospel and the Church would simply disappear or degenerate into no more than a social and moral form of human existence.[3]

What Torrance articulates here relative to the pro-Nicene battle against Arianism in the fourth century is the theo-logic inherent in the orthodox claim that Christ is homoousion – of one being/essence – with God the Father. Although not confusing them, the homoousion inextricably binds together the Father and the Son, the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity, God’s being and act, and the incarnate Word with the pre-existent Word. To distinguish between these realities in a way that leaves a being of God hidden behind his act of revelation and reconciliation or a God “as such” hidden behind the God revealed in Christ violates the essential significance of that which the Nicene homoousion was intended to safeguard against the Arians. Indeed, as the scholarship of John Behr, Khaled Anatolios, and Michel Barnes has shown, the kind of distinctions enforced by Cassidy and Van Til are disconcertingly similar to those upon which the various ‘Arian’ theologies were based. Compared with this, a consistently biblical and orthodox christology is that which Barth so ardently endeavored to recover.

According to Cassidy, Van Til’s most basic complaint against Barth was that “God is what he is exclusively in relation to man ‘in Christ.’ Barth’s main principle is ‘the revelation of God in Christ’ to the exclusion of the God who exists from all eternity within himself, independently of his relation to the world”. The question that this raises in my mind, karl_barth_profilehowever, is this: what epistemic access does Van Til have to God such that he can claim to know that who God is in his revelation to humanity is discontinuous with who he is eternally and independently in himself? From what vantage point, if not purely philosophical or speculative, can Van Til observe God as he is hidden in himself so that he can confidently posit a disjunction between that God and the God revealed in Christ? To assert, as Barth and Torrance do (following the pro-Nicene fathers) that who God is in his acts of revelation and reconciliation toward the world is identical with who he is eternally and antecedently in himself does not, as Cassidy and Van Til think, make God dependent on creation. It simply recovers the biblical emphasis that God in his Triune eternal being of self-sufficient, overflowing love is free enough, gracious enough, and powerful enough to reveal to his creatures, without distortion or remainder and within the structures of their creaturely reality, who he is in himself.

In my view, McCormack rightly identifies the crux of the dispute between Barth and Van Til when he states:

These differences are rooted finally in the fact that Barth’s doctrine of God is Christologically controlled while Van Til’s doctrine of God controls his Christology – though this is just the tip of the iceberg. Van Til had a pre-modernist sense of confidence that the rationality that is proper to God’s eternal counsel and plan was somehow embedded in the natural order as well as in the flow of history. Barth regarded such confidence as belonging to a world which no longer existed; hence, his massive assault on natural theology and the need to ground knowledge of God differently than in the past.[4]

For someone like me who takes seriously Christ’s claim to be the exclusive “way, truth, and life” through whom alone we have access to the Father (John 14:6), it is impossible to begin with a general conception of God (or even humanity for that matter) and then force Christ to fit within that conception as upon a Procrustean bed. Rather, we discover who God is, and who we are as his human image-bearers, only insofar as we come to know both realities as revealed in Christ. Any philosophical or speculative approach that claims to know God in a manner detached from the way in which God has actually chosen to reveal himself cannot be anything but arrogance and rebellion, on par with Adam and Eve’s belief that they could act in accordance with the knowledge that they presumed to have gained from another creature rather than that which God had expressly given.

For this reason, the critiques of Cassidy and Van Til do not even get off the ground. We cannot start with a general notion of who or what “God” and “man” are, and then dictate on that basis who or what Christ must be. To do so, as McCormack discerns, is possible only by way of natural theology which depends, in turn, on some notion of the analogia entis. As we may remember, Barth vehemently opposed as the analogia entis as ‘antichrist’ due to its tendency to displace Christ as the exclusive “way, truth, and life” and its obliteration of the absolute Godness of God vis-à-vis his creation (for it posits some measure of ontological similarity between the two). Therefore, it is highly ironic that Van Til’s overarching criticism of Barth – that “God is no longer qualitatively distinct from man” – rests upon the very foundation that it critiques, for without his own version of the analogia entis, Van Til would have no prior conception of a “self-contained God” or “God as such” (in distinction from who God has revealed himself to be in Christ and by the Spirit) from which to launch his attack. In this regard, I agree with McCormack’s remark (given during his Kantzer lectures) that when we begin our knowledge of God with something other than God (i.e. natural theology), then we end up with a concept of God other than who he is. For this reason, I’ll side with Barth over Van Til any day.

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Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Torrance, T.F., 1962. Karl Barth: An Introduction to his Early Theology 1910-1931, SCM Press, p.9.

[2] McCormack, B.L., 2011.’Afterword: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Barth’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.371-372.

[3] Torrance, T.F., 1996. The Christian doctrine of God, one being three persons, Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark. pp.93-94.

[4] McCormack, B.L., 2011.’Afterword: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Barth’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p.380.