The Apostles’ Creed and the Election of Jesus Christ: Karl Barth on the Christ-Conditioned Nature of Divine Providence

To begin this post, I would simply like to quote a section from Christopher Green’s book Doxological Theology in which he examines Karl Barth’s formulation of the doctrine of divine providence in strict accordance with the inner theo-logic of the Apostles’ Creed (after which I will conclude with a few comments of my own):

It is germane to Barth’s doctrine of providence that he should argue that the first article of the creed must be read in the light of the second, and so he states this criterion for his doctrine in a number of key places in III/3…

In the second article of the creed one finds the true meaning of the first, that God the Father of Jesus Christ is the “Almighty.” This correction of the creed is the “climax of the whole doctrine of creation.” For Barth, the previous generations that recited the creed in full should have, so to speak, “known better” than to accept a philosophical barthversion of simplicity, as the second article puts Christ’s face on the first. This makes the God of providence, that is, the God of the first article, identifiable as noncapricious. Barth consistently argues in 1949 that, despite the creed, the God of Western theology on the whole is unfortunately a philosophical monad, “the absolute, the general, the digit 1.” In this volume, he states that the most common cause for this dogmatic distortion is confusion between divine unity and simplicity. The default Western position on simplicity, he says, is grounded in an analogia entis which contrasts God with the world by identifying him as a philosophically “simple” being. Barth often raises this complaint about the Western view, which is implicit in his critique of J. P. Sartre, whose concept of man, he says, is a displaced version of the generic god of the West:

It is as man that man assumes the functions of deity, and in spite of the strangeness of his form is clotted with the attributes of at least the conventional Western conception of God, existing of and by and for himself, constituting his own beginning and end as absolute actuality without potentiality, unique, omnipotent, and certainly omniscient […] All that is lacking is the slightest trace of the biblical concept of God. [CD III/3, pp.342-343]

It is the Apostles’ Creed that points to God’s election in Jesus Christ in its summary of the whole of Scripture, safeguarding the God of providence as the triune God. According to Barth, the doctrine is commonly obscured when God’s power as “Father” is abstracted from his revealed work in Christ. Thus, the God who reveals himself in an undivided way is slighted, severing the One who is the Son from his constitutive relation with the Father. Against this, Barth states at the beginning and end of his writing the Church Dogmatics that “the theological rule with respect to the Trinity [… is] opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa.” For Barth, his commitment to the unity of the triune God means an approach to divine providence will not be grounded in a metaphysical concept of the simple. Rather, he apprehends the work appropriated to the second person of the Trinity (i.e., election, reconciliation) as a context for understanding the variegated unity of the triune Subject who acts providentially. It is not hard to see, then, why Barth chides his opponents in III/3 for not “deducing” providence from the doctrine of the Trinity. As Barth sees it, his predecessors lost the programmatic role that should be played by the triunity of God because they failed to understand the doctrine of predestination in the context of the person and work of Christ. This is the purpose of the second article of the creed, which should have been sufficient for pointing to the centrality of Christ, and consequently, to the triunity of God. It is in the second article that the hidden God becomes manifest.[1]

What I find immensely helpful about this is the way in which Barth, via Green, uncovers the fundamental “theo-logic” (i.e. the unique logic that accords with the way of God’s self-revelation in Christ) that underlies the various affirmations of the Apostles’ (and one could say the same of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan) Creed. This underlying theo-logic is signalled in the very first words of the Creed that recognize God as “Father” before identifying him as “Creator”. This is highly significant in that it gives a distinctly trinitarian and christological shape to the Creed’s reading of Scripture. The Creed interprets the “God” who “in the beginning…created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) not as, in Green’s words, a “philosophical monad” but rather as God already existing as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. On this basis, Barth rightly discerns that a proper understanding of the Creed, and through it a proper interpretation of the biblical witness, is that the first article – that affirms God as Creator and Sustainer of creation – must be read strictly in accordance with the second article concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ. Another way of saying this would be that the Creed affirms the trinitarian election of Jesus Christ – the divine determination to not be the Father of the Son and the Son of the Father through the Spirit apart from enlarging that communion to include, through the incarnation of the Son, human creatures in the overflow of the triune life, love, and light – as the beginning of all the ways and works of God.

Thus, if we are to remain (apart from compelling reasons not to do so) faithful to the universal consent of the early church, set forth in the Creed, regarding the essential content of the Christian faith, we must learn, as Barth did, a rigorously Christ-centered hermeneutic that does justice to the election of Christ as the ground, means, and goal of all that Scripture teaches. In relation to the doctrine of providence, this means that we do not merely have a God as Creator who rules over creation and governs it according to his will, but a triune God who relates to his creation and exercises his providence over it primarily as loving and gracious Father who orders all things by his Spirit towards their intended summation in Christ (Eph. 1:10). To know this is to rest secure, as question 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism states:

That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence, is my God and Father because of Christ the Son. I trust God so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends upon me in this sad world. God is able to do this because he is almighty God and desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.


[1] Green, C.C., 2011. Doxological Theology: Karl Barth on Divine Providence, Evil, and the Angels J. Webster, I. A. McFarland, & I. Davidson, eds., London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.36-38.


Karl Barth’s “Radical Revision of Revelation”

In the preface to the first volume of his Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth famously quipped:

I can see no third alternative between that exploitation of the analogia entis which is legitimate only on the basis of Roman Catholicism…and a Protestant theology which draws from its own source, which stands on its own feet, and which is finally liberated from this secular misery. Hence I have had no option but to say No at this point. I barthcrispregard the analogia entis as the invention of Antichrist, and I believe that because of it it is impossible ever to become a Roman Catholic.[1]

As a refresher, the analogia entis, or ‘analogy of being’, to which Barth so vehemently objected is the idea, epitomized by Thomas Aquinas, that although highly dissimilar, there exists an analogical relationship between God and creation such that human beings can come to know the former in a limited but true way by contemplating and reasoning inferentially from the latter. For example, human beings know that they change in ways that are either for the better or for the worse. God, on the other hand, if he is to be a perfect being (implied by the fact that he is God), he must not be subject to change like creatures, i.e. he must be immutable. Why? Because if he could either become better or worse, then he would not be perfect! This is what is commonly called ‘natural theology’ because it is a knowledge of God that derives from the natural order through the use of human reason. And it is precisely this that Barth rejected as inimical to the Christian faith insofar as it fails to account for the devastating effects of sin on human reason and refuses to submit exclusively to God’s self-revelation in Christ. That is why Barth accused the analogia entis as “the invention of Antichrist”: it sets itself in the place of Christ as an alternative way of gaining knowledge of and access to God.

Barth, of course, has been roundly criticized for this, not least by Protestant historian Richard Muller who rises in defense of the analogia entis and its implications for theology. He writes:

Barth polemicizes against any and all attempts to reach God via the analogia entis: he declares categorically, “We possess no analogy on the basis of which the nature and being of God as the Lord can be accessible” [CD II/1, pp.75-76]…Barth believes, in short, that he has saved the God of revelation from association with the god of reason—that, by pressing the issue of divine transcendence in a denial of the analogia entis, he has preserved the God of Christian revelation from a form of logical or philosophical entrapment in the phenomenal order…

[Yet] the analogia entis does not rest on a rational approach to the natural order that is utterly divorced from “revelation.”…Revelation, the making manifest of something that we could not otherwise know, takes place in and through nature as well as in Scripture—indeed, as far as the scholastic theologians were concerned, the great dividing line between the modes of knowing God lies not between so-called “natural” and so-called “supernatural” revelation, but between revelation and the other modes of knowing God, vision (as given to the blessed in patria) and union (as given to Jesus of Nazareth in hypostatic union with the Word). Barth’s radical separation of the analogia entis from revelation, thus, indicates that Barth himself has radically revised the concept of revelation.[2]

As is clear from this last statement, Muller castigates Barth for radically revising the concept of revelation in virtue of his rejection of the analogia entis. Indeed, it would appear that Muller’s charge has merit in that, when compared with many theologians of the past, Barth’s position seems extreme in its limiting of revelation to that which comes through Jesus Christ as opposed to the ‘general revelation’ available through creation.

I agree to a certain extent with Muller’s assessment, but I would demur that Barth’s “radical separation of the analogia entis from revelation” is truly as radical as Muller would have us believe, at least from a biblical perspective. It is certainly radical if, like Muller, we define revelation as “the making manifest of something that we could otherwise know”. But this is precisely where the problem resides. It is important to notice that in Muller’s definition, the purpose of revelation is epistemological, that is, it aims to inform our minds of things about God that we did not know before. Now if our idea of revelation is this and only this, then it is understandable why Barth’s rejection of the analogia entis and natural theology would seem exaggerated and overblown.

Barth, however, was operating with a different definition altogether, a definition that radically alters the picture. It is not that Barth denied that revelation has an epistemological component, rather he denied that revelation can be reduced to its epistemological component. For Barth, revelation is fundamentally soteriological, that is, it aims not merely to supply information about God but to effect reconciliation with God. In this sense, Muller is correct in his assertion that Barth’s understanding of revelation radically diverges from his own (and that of Thomas Aquinas, Roman Catholicism, Protestant scholasticism, etc.). But, I believe, Muller is incorrect to insinuate that Barth’s view is contrary the biblical witness or orthodox Christianity. Why? It is for a very simple reason: in Scripture, knowledge is relational. True knowledge of someone or something is not abstract or theoretical; it necessarily involves a right relationship between the knower and that which is known.

Consider, for example, 2 Corinthians 5:18-20:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Notice that for Paul, God’s act of reconciliation in Christ necessarily entails the revelation of that act to the world, the making known of which actually effects that reconciliation between God and sinful humanity. Similarly in Romans 1:16-17, it is because the gospel reveals the righteousness of God that Paul can claim that it is also the power of God to save. Paul could, of course, offer personal testimony to this fact, for when God “revealed his Son” to Paul on the road to Damascus, it was not merely to give him new information; rather, it was to save him from his rebellion and employ him in the service of the gospel.

Moreover, Jesus himself declared in his high priestly prayer in John 17:1b-3:

Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

It does not seem that this could be clearer. To know God, according to Jesus, and to know him truly, is to have eternal life. This is not a mere knowledge about God, a knowledge inferred through the use of human reason, for this knowledge is identical with eternal life and thus involves a restored relationship with God in Christ! It is this understanding of knowledge, and thus revelation, that leads Paul to exclaim in Romans 10:1-2: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [Israel according to the flesh] is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge”. Again, we can clearly see that for Paul, as for Jesus, knowledge of God is that which brings salvation. Whatever other ‘knowledge’ of God there may be outside of the reconciliation effected in Christ cannot, therefore, be rightly called knowledge of God.

This is why, for Barth, revelation is reconciliation. Revelation is not simply the means by which God supplies us with information about himself; it is the means by which he reconciles us to himself. If so, then how could we ever consider knowledge derived through the analogia entis – based as it is on corrupt human reason – to be true knowledge of God? How could we ever consider natural theology, which even pagans have, to be limited yet reliable since it leaves those who possess it in emnity with God? If revelation is irreducibly soteriological and relational, how could we ever think that we are able to extract if from nature through our own capabilities? Such a notion can only pave the road of self-justification, the perverse creaturely attempt to live autonomously from the Creator. Such a notion can only stem from the insidious belief that we are capable, through our own efforts, of gaining access to God without having to submit to Christ as the only Way, Truth, and Life and as the sole mediator between God and man. And as Barth insisted, such a notion has no place in a truly Protestant theology that, over against the Roman Catholic view, underscores again and again the great Reformation truths of sola Scripturasolus Christus, and sola gratia.

This is why, contra Muller et al, I stand with Barth in his ‘radical revision of revelation’ against the analogia entis and natural theology. In my view, the biblical teaching that revelation is reconciliation requires it inasmuch as it requires us “to take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).


[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.xiii.

[2] Muller, R.A., 1992. ‘The Dogmatic Function of St. Thomas’ “Proofs”: A Protestant Appreciation’ in Fides et Historia 24, pp.26-27.

Nein! to the Metaphysical God: Torrance on Van Til on Barth

In the last couple of posts (here and here), I have been considering the metaphysical and broader philosophical underpinnings of much Protestant and Reformed theology. As illustrative of this, I have engaged somewhat with the most vehement critic and opponent of Karl Barth, Cornelius Van Til. In my last post, I suggested that upon close examination, it is ironically Barth, rather than Van Til, who appears far more Protestant and Reformed, contrary to what would no doubt be the latter’s strenuous objections. To extend this argument a bit further, I would like to quote a section from T.F. abb_086-3Torrance’s incisive review of The New Modernism, Van Til’s first work against Barth (and, in this case, Emil Brunner as well). Torrance observes the following:

The two major criticisms that Dr. Van Til directs against the theology of Barth and Brunner are that it is activistic and anti-metaphysical. But surely these are criticisms that may be directed more truly and with greater force against the theology of John Calvin, and with greater force still against the Bible itself! Nowhere does the Bible make as its presupposition a metaphysic of being, but always in answer to the question “Who is God?” give [sic] the activistic answer: “I am the Lord thy God that brought thee out of the land of Egypt . . .” etc. And the same is true of the New Testament. The God of the Christian faith is the God who has come to us in Christ, and who has redeemed us in the death of His Son. The Reality of God, as Barth says, is always the reality of the God who acts in love and holiness. And there can be no doubt that John Calvin reacted against the scholastic tradition of a metaphysical doctrine of God and returned to this God of the Bible. There is nothing that John Calvin fumes against more than a metaphysical doctrine of God. It seems perfectly clear that the Calvinism with which Dr. Van Til operates is not the Calvinism of John Calvin himself, but a spurious Calvinism amalgamated with the same Aristotelian logic that cursed the theology of the Middle Ages, and of the seventeenth century – only Dr. Van Til’s Calvinism is not so logical. But this immediately throws new light upon men like Barth and Brunner, for we see in their revolt against what Dr. Van Til calls “orthodoxy” a serious effort to cut adrift from the dead god of the metaphysicians, and to get back to the living God of the Bible. However much we may criticise them, that is surely their great merit.[1]

Whatever may be the necessary tweaks to be made to this critique ‘after-Muller’, so to speak, I think that Torrance is absolutely correct in his contention that Calvin, and Luther before him, initiated a trajectory for the Reformation by attempting to escape from the metaphysical quagmire of medieval theology and plant themselves firmly onto the solid ground of God’s self-revelation in his Word. Whether Calvin and Luther were always consistent in this effort is beside the point. The path laid out by Calvin was clear:

But God also designates himself by another special mark to distinguish himself more precisely from idols. For he so proclaims himself the sole God as to offer himself to be contemplated clearly in three persons. Unless we grasp these, only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God.[2]

As Calvin famously said, the human heart is an idol factory, and unless we derive our knowledge of God solely from his Word, we will always conceive a god of our own making and in our own image. It seems to me that in attacking Barth’s anti-metaphysicalism in the name of ‘orthodoxy’, Van Til was profoundly mistaken, not only about the primal Protestant impulse to an exclusively Word-governed doctrine of God, but also about the God of Scripture who, as Torrance rightly notes, does not self-identify with metaphysical or philosophical concepts and terminology but only on the basis of who he has revealed himself to be in his mighty, saving acts, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Until that is firmly settled in our minds, I’m afraid that people like Van Til will continue, in the name of ‘orthodoxy’, to criticize and oppose not only truly Protestant theologians like Barth, but also those who chasten and discipline their minds to know God in strict accordance with the manner in which he has revealed and communicated himself in his Word.


[1] Torrance, T.F., 1947. ‘Review of The New Modernism‘ in The Evangelical Quarterly 19, p.148.

[2] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. I.xiii.2.

Pagan Riches for God’s Temple?: Clark, Van Til, and Muller on Aristotle’s Influence on Protestant/Reformed Orthodoxy

One of the things that I have mentioned in the past here on Reformissio (and about which I have learned much from Bobby Grow) is the influence of Aristotle on Protestant, and specifically Reformed orthodox theology. Recently I interacted with a dyed-in-the-wool classic Calvinist on this point, but I was staunchly opposed and subsequently banned from the Facebook group he runs. According to this individual, Reformed orthodox theology – such as that set forth by the Westminster Standards – is, pure and simple, what the Bible teaches in an unadulterated form. The problem is that what this person, and a number of aristotle-faceothers like him deny in knee-jerk-reaction-like form is simply a point of historical fact, as evidenced by R. Scott Clark who posted the following quote from Cornelius Van Til (who we will remember as the fiercest critic of Karl Barth) over at the Heidelblog:

It should be carefully noted that our criticism of this procedure does not imply that we hold it to be wrong for the Christian church to make formal use of the categories of thought discovered by Aristotle or any other thinker. On the contrary, we believe that in the Providence of God, Aristotle was raised up of God so that he might serve the church of God by laying at its feet the measures of his brilliant intellect. When Solomon built the temple of God he was instructed to make use of the peculiar skill and the peculiar gifts of the pagan nation that was his neighbor. But this was something quite different than to build together with pagan nations. The Samaritans wanted to help the Jews construct the city and the temple. Hence they were rejected by the true Jews. The Phoenicians merely wanted to bring their treasures to Solomon and let him construct the way he saw fit. Hence they were gladly received by Solomon.

Van Til, and Clark who quotes him approvingly, are not alone in acknowledging the critical role that Aristotelian thought has played in shaping Reformed orthodox theology. Reformed historian extraordinaire Richard Muller likewise notes that “much of the orthodox theology of the time had developed” along “the more or less Christian Aristotelian or modified Thomistic trajectory”[1] on account of “the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic world-view it presupposed”.[2] He goes on to illustrate this by offering the following account of the development of Reformed scholasticism’s doctrine of God:

The decade following 1590 was as crucial for the development of the scholastic Protestant doctrine of God as it was for the development of theological prolegomena—and for much the same reason. The rise of prolegomena, as evidenced by Junius’ magisterial treatise De vera theologia, signaled an interest among Protestants in the clear and precise definition of theology and in the identification of specifically Protestant theology as a legitimate scientia in the classic Aristotelian sense, in and for its study in the universities. Directly related to this development was the beginning of a Protestant interest in prolegomena, the enunciation of principia, and specifically in some of the preliminary questions of the nature of the discipline itself—notably as found in an earlier form in the older scholasticism and, indeed, in the tradition of Christian Aristotelianism. By way of example, we now see discussion of theology as a scientia or study of first principles and of the conclusions that can be drawn from them. We also see the establishment of a Protestant, indeed a Reformed, discussion of metaphysics, as evidenced by the appearance of the first Protestant textbooks on the subject. Indeed, the Protestant theologians and philosophers of this generation viewed Aristotelian metaphysics as a crucial source for definitions and arguments needed in the construction and defense of their theological systems.[3]

Elsewhere Muller makes the significant observation that so great was the dependency of Protestant orthodox theology on Aristotelian philosophy that the loss of the latter (as occurred during the inbreaking of Cartesian thought) necessarily implied a drastic change in the former:

It should also be clear that the shift in philosophical perspective that took place in the latter half of the seventeenth century, as the older Aristotelianism gave way before various forms of rationalism was a shift that was recognized at the time as having a massive impact on thinker2Christian theology. As Verbeek has noted, Voetius recognized that the Cartesian view of reason and its abilities “would imply a complete revision of theological method.” We also have the significant testimony of the English writer, Simon Patrick, that “philosophy and divinity are so interwoven by the schoolmen, that it cannot be safe to separate them; new philosophy will bring in new divinity.” Of course, as the Cartesian inclinations of a fair number of the Reformed thinkers of the era demonstrate, there is no immediate correlation between alteration of philosophical perspective and heterodoxy or, indeed, the loss of scholastic method. Nonetheless, the decline of Protestant orthodoxy and the decline of the traditional Christian Aristotelianism (one might also add, the decline of traditional, so-called, “precritical” exegesis) occurred in the same era and for many of the same reasons and that, with the alteration of philosophical perspective at the close of the seventeenth century, there was also a fundamental alteration of theology and of the exegesis that underlay its formulations.[4]

According to Clark, Van Til, and Muller, the fact that Protestant and Reformed orthodox theology was highly dependent on Aristotelian metaphysics, philosophy, and language should be fairly uncontroversial. Apart from those who will nevertheless continue in their denials, I’ve heard another kind of reaction to all of this: “So what?” This is not a skeleton in the Reformed closet that Clark, Van Til, and Muller are trying to hide; quite the contrary! For Van Til, the riches of pagan Aristotle are crucial for building the temple of God! So what’s the problem?

Let me quote Muller one more time as he highlights one substantial difference between the Reformed orthodox and the Reformers themselves:

Whereas there is considerable explicit agreement between the Reformed orthodox perspectives on religion and natural theology and the views of the Reformers on those subjects, when it comes to the use of philosophy in theology there is a certain degree of discontinuity. Some distinction, of course, must be made between declarations made in polemic and the actual use of philosophical concepts. The Reformers, typically, had little good to say about philosophy, particularly about the pagan philosophy of antiquity and the philosophical speculations of the later medieval scholastics. Aristotle in particular was the target of polemic, inasmuch as the philosophical development of the later Middle Ages could be traced to the varied appropriations of Aristotelian philosophy by the medieval doctors. Still, the Reformers themselves did not remove all philosophical issues from their theology or fail to use traditional understandings of such basic categories as substance and attributes, cause and effect, relation, or disposition.

The Protestant orthodox, by way of contrast, faced issues similar to those confronted by the medieval scholastics in their work of system building. Luther and Calvin had argued pointedly against the use of philosophical concepts—particularly Aristotelian concepts—in the construction of theology and had consistently ruled out, if not the implicit acceptance of a largely Christian Aristotelian worldview, at least the explicit use of philosophical models. Both Luther and Calvin were reluctant to develop metaphysical discussions of the divine essence and attributes—though neither disputed the truth of the traditional attribution to God of omnipresence, omniscience, eternity, infinity, simplicity, and so forth. This perspective on metaphysical discussion and the related avoidance of the language of essence marks a major difference between the theology of these two Reformers and that of the Protestant orthodox. Much of that difference relates to the problem of the use of philosophy in theology.[5]

This is a significant and telling admission on the part of Muller. As key figures in the Reformation, both Luther and Calvin strongly opposed the very integration of Aristotelian philosophy into theology that the later Protestant orthodox advocated, because they believed that it had no place in, nor could it ever produce, a truly Christian theology that needed to ground itself ultimately in God’s own self-revelation in Christ. While it is of course true that neither Luther nor Calvin were themselves wholly unaffected by the philosophical currents of their day, it is important to realize what they were at least attempting to do, even if they were not thoroughly consistent in their doing of it. Now I realize that someone will object at this point, claiming that I fail to see Muller’s overarching point relative to the fundamental continuity between the Reformers and the orthodox despite whatever discontinuity there may be. Having read much of Muller’s work, I am very familiar with his thesis. I am just not convinced, based on what he himself says, that the discontinuity in this particular area is as insignificant as Muller would have us believe. Since this post is already somewhat long, I will just simply say – in view of a arts-graphics-2008_1183027apotential follow-up post to this one – that I am far more persuaded by Ron Frost’s contention that expunging Aristotelian philosophy from its corrupting infiltration into the medieval church was one of the driving ambitions of Luther in his reforming efforts:

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed—measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles—a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther—who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week—chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[6]

As I (following Bobby Grow before me who referred me to Frost) have suggested many times here on Reformissio, the Evangelical Calvinism that I am promoting is nothing less than the attempt to return to these primal reforming impulses and resuscitate the “stillborn” Reformation. I simply do not agree with Clark, Van Til, and Muller that Aristotle provides pagan riches with which to construct the temple of God. If it is true, as the church fathers like Irenaeus taught, that God can be known only through God, then it is simply folly to think that he can be known through a man, however brilliant, like Aristotle.


[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 3: the divine essence and attributes, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.122.

[2] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.p.139.

[3] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 3: the divine essence and attributes, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.107, emphasis added.

[4] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.120, emphasis added. In-text citations from Verbeek, “Descartes and the Problem of Atheism,” p. 222. and Simon Patrick, A Brief Account of the New Sect of Latitude Men (London, 1662), cited by B. C. Southgate, “Forgotten and Lost: Some Reactions to Autonomous Science in the Seventeenth Century,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, 50 (1989), p. 253

[5] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.360-361, emphasis added.

[6] Frost, R.N., 1997. ‘Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?’. Trinity Journal 18NS, p.225, emphasis added.

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.


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.

Thomas Aquinas on Divine Causality

This is my second post on the importance of understanding the influence of Thomas Aquinas on our interpretation of Scripture and way of doing theology. In my first post
(which you can access here), I sketched the view of God espoused by Aquinas that is frequently called ‘classical theism’, and I offered some thoughts on how it is actually a very non-Christian understanding of God due to its partial grounding in natural theology and Greek thomas_aquinas_03fmphilosophy rather than in God’s self-revelation in Christ as attested by Scripture. In this post, I intend to delve a bit deeper into this topic by explaining, through Aquinas’ own words, how classical theism tends to entail a particular view of divine causality that undergirds many of the historical and contemporary debates over issues like predestination, the extent of the atonement, the efficacy of grace, and God’s sovereignty vs. human freedom. As with my first post on Aquinas, this one will be considerably longer than normal, but it is necessarily so due to the nature and complexity of the topic. I will quote from the beginning sections of Aquinas’magnum opus the Summa Theologica (taken from the book Aquinas on Nature and Grace: Selections from the Summa Theologica, Westminster John Knox Press, 1954) where he expounds the first part of his doctrine of God, and then I will intersperse some comments of my own to highlight the important points and to clarify their relevance to us in the present day. So much for introduction; here we go:

Summa Theologica, Question 2, Article 3

God’s existence can be proved in five ways. The first and clearest proof is the argument from motion. It is certain, and in accordance with sense experience, that some things in this world are moved. Now everything that is moved is moved by something else, since nothing is moved unless it is potentially that to which it is moved, whereas that which moves is actual. To move is nothing other than to bring something from potentiality to actuality, and a thing can be brought from potentiality to actuality only by something which is actual. Thus a fire, which is actually hot, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, so moving and altering it. Now it is impossible for the same thing to be both actual and potential in the same respect, although it may be so in different respects. What is actually hot cannot at the same time be potentially hot, although it is potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that, in the same respect and in the same way, anything should be both mover and moved, or that it should move itself. Whatever is moved must therefore be moved by something else. If, then, that by which it is moved is itself moved, this also must be moved by something else, and this in turn by something else again. But this cannot go on for ever, since there would then be no first mover, and consequently no other mover, because secondary movers cannot move unless moved by a first mover, as a staff cannot move unless it is moved by the hand. We are therefore bound to arrive at a first mover which is not moved by anything, and all men understand that this is God.

The second way is from the nature of an efficient cause. We find that there is a sequence of efficient causes in sensible things. But we do not find that anything is the efficient cause of itself. Nor is this possible, for the thing would then be prior to itself, which is impossible. But neither can the sequence of efficient causes be infinite, for in every sequence the first efficient cause is the cause of an intermediate cause, and an intermediate cause is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate causes be many, or only. Now if a cause is removed, its effect is removed. Hence if there were no first efficient cause, there would be no ultimate cause, and no intermediate cause. But if the regress of efficient causes were infinite, there would be no first efficient cause. There would consequently be no ultimate effect, and no intermediate causes. But this is plainly false. We are therefore bound to suppose that there is a first efficient cause. And all men call this God.

Comments: Here we see the first two of Aquinas’ famous proofs of the existence of God. Notice how Aquinas begins his discussion on the knowledge of God in the Summa: after demonstrating that the existence of God can be demonstrated from his effects, Aquinas conceives God first and foremost in an Aristotelian manner as the unmoved Mover to which all other created actualities owe their origin. By reasoning from the motion in the universe that is perceptible by the human senses, Aquinas believes that it is possible to think in reverse along the causal chain that connects moving objects to their antecedent movers ultimately to the Being who, in order to preempt the absurdity of an infinite regress, must be the unmoved originator of all motion. The second proof is similar, except that this time Aquinas argues explicitly in term of cause and effect, once again using categories of causality proposed by Aristotle. As with his first proof, Aquinas understands all effects that can be perceived by human sense to be embedded within a “sequence of efficient causes” which can be logically backtraced to an uncaused Cause ultimately responsible for the entire sequence. This uncaused Cause is that which Aquinas denotes as God. Very well, let’s return to Aquinas:

Summa Theologica, Question 4, Article 2-3

First, any perfection which occurs in an effect must occur in its efficient cause, either in the same mode if the agent be univocal, as in the case of a man who begets a man, or in a more eminent way if the agent be equivocal, as in the case of the sun which contains the likenesses of the things generated by its power. For it is plain that an effect virtually pre-exists in its active cause. But whereas a thing pre-exists in a less perfect way in the potentiality of its material cause, since matter as such is imperfect, it pre-exists in its active cause in a more perfect way, not in a less perfect way, since an agent, as such, is perfect. Now God is the first efficient cause of all things. The perfections of all things must therefore pre-exist in God in a more eminent way…

Our natural knowledge begins from sense. It can therefore extend so far as it can be led by sensible things. But our intellect cannot in this way attain insight into the divine essence. Sensible things are indeed effects of God, but they are not proportionate to the power of their cause, and for this reason the whole power of God cannot be known from them. Neither, consequently, can his essence be seen. But since effects depend on their cause sensible things can lead us to know that God exists, and to know what is bound to be attributable to him as the first cause of all things, and as transcending all his effects.

Comments: These quotations taken from Aquinas’ discussion of the perfection of God build on what he previously argued in his proofs of God’s existence. Here Aquinas takes a step further, contending that while it is necessary to make certain qualifications, it is possible to affirm that the effects of God’s causal activity in some sense pre-exist in God. In other words, while Aquinas is careful to say that the phenomena that human beings can perceive with their senses “are not proportionate to the power of their cause” and therefore cannot be simply projected back onto God, nevertheless the sequences of causes and effects existing throughout creation (with causes being variously understood and related to their effects in both necessary and continent ways) are so inextricably linked together that it is possible to know, by a process of logical reasoning that proceeds from observable effects back along these sequences to their causal origin, “that God exists” and also “what is bound to be attributable to him as the first cause of all things.” Let’s call this type of thinking ‘logico-causal’, and let’s keep it mind as we jump ahead in the Summa to Aquinas’ discussion of the love of God:

Summa Theologica, Question 20, Articles 1-2

Accordingly, in so far as love, joy, and delight signify actions of the sensitive appetite, they are passion. But in so far as they signify actions of the intellectual appetite, they are not passions. Now they signify the latter when referred to God. That is why the philosopher says: “God rejoices by one, simple operation” (7 Ethics, text ult.). God also loves in the same manner, without passion. On the second point: we must pay attention to the material element in the passions of the sensitive appetite, namely to the bodily change, and also to the formal aspect of an appetite. The material element in anger is the increase of blood around the heart, or something of the kind, while formally it is the desire for revenge. Further, the formal aspect of some passions involves a certain imperfection. Desire, for example, involves an unattained good. Sadness involves an evil which is endured, as does anger also, since it presupposes sadness. Other passions, however, such as love and joy, involve no imperfection. Now none of these can be attributed to God in respect of their material element, as we argued above. Nor can we attribute to God any passion which even formally involves imperfection, except in the metaphorical manner permissible in view o fat likeness borne by an effect…But those which do not involve imperfection, such as love and joy, are rightly attributed to God, yet as without passion, as we have said. On the third point: an act of love is always directed to two things. It is directed to two things. It is directed to the good which one wills for someone, and also to the person for whom one wills it. To love someone is in fact to will good for him…

Now we proved in Q.19, Art. 4, that God is the cause of all things. A thing must therefore be, and be good, to the extent which God wills. It follows that God wills some good to each thing that is. Now to love is just to will good for something. Clearly, then, God loves all things that are. But God does not love as we love. Our will is not the cause of the goodness in things,  but is moved by their goodness as its object. Consequently, the love by which we will good for anyone is not the cause of his goodness…God’s love, on the other hand, creates and infuses the goodness in things.

Comments: As Aquinas begins his discussion on the love of God, we notice how he careful he is to define the divine love in a way that coheres with his earlier conception of God as the unmoved Mover. In order for God to truly be the cause of all motion, he himself must be unmoved by anything outside of himself. If God were able to moved by something outside of himself, then he would not be the first mover of all things. Rather, something else would be the first mover, and thus that thing would logically be God. Moreover, being moved involves change, but for Aquinas change can only be for the better or for the worse. Thus, if God could experience change, then he would not be a perfect being. Therefore, God must be entirely self-moved, and this must mean in turn that he is impassible, for as the unmoved Mover he cannot be subject to the influence of passions that respond to external stimuli or evidence some kind of lack of perfection. Thus, Aquinas reasons that God cannot be subject to desire, for this would imply that God has a longing for something that he has not yet attained; but since this would be an imperfection in God, it is therefore impossible.

The upshot of this is that Aquinas believes that God does indeed love, but he does so “without passion.” If we are puzzled as to what this could mean, Aquinas explains that in contrast to human love that is compelled by the goodness of the object loved, God’s love operates in reverse. God is not moved to love that which is inherently good, for this would violate his impassibility. Rather, God’s love is itself the cause of goodness in things. In this sense, God’s love becomes an operation of the divine will whereby he decides to bestow goodness on the object of his love. It is in this way that Aquinas believes God can love without passion: his love is properly understood as the self-movement of his will to impart goodness to things outside of himself. This notion, combined with Aquinas’ understanding of divine causality, means that the goodness observable in created things is the effect of God’s willing those things to be good. If you are still with me, we just have one more step to make that will tie all of these concepts together. Here is Aquinas one last time:

Summa Theologica, Question 20, Articles 3-4

[S]ince to love is to will good for something, there are two ways in which one thing may be loved more or less than another. First, the act of the will may be more or less intense. God does not love some things more than others in this sense, because he loves all things by the same simple act of will, which is always of the same degree. Secondly, the good which is willed for something may be more or less. We are said to love one thing more than another when we will a greater good for it, even if the will is not more intense. Now we are bound to say that God loves some things more than others in this latter sense. For we said in the preceding article that his love is the cause of the goodness in things, and hence one thing would not be better than another, if God did not love one thing more than another…

We said that in Arts. 2 and 3 that for God to love something more just means that he wills a greater good for it, and also that God’s will is the cause of the goodness in things. It is therefore because God wills a greater good for them that some things are better. It follows that God has a greater love for things which are better.

Comments: This is the point at which we see all of the lines of Aquinas’ reasoning converge. In these articles, Aquinas wants to prove that while God loves all things in one sense, he loves some things more than others. How does Aquinas demonstrate this? If we have followed his thought up until this point, it should not be difficult to understand. Following his Aristotelian methodology of reasoning from sense data, Aquinas begins from what appears to be a self-evident fact that some things (to be a bit more specific, let’s focus on human beings) are better than others. There are some people that are more good than other people. What is to account for this? Combining his definition of divine love based on God’s impassibility with his view of all effects being embedded in logico-causal sequences originating ultimately in God, Aquinas is able to assert that some people are better than others because God loves them more, that is to say, he has willed to create and infuse more goodness in them. For Aquinas, it is evident that God loves some people more than others, not because he is moved to love them due to their inherent superior goodness, but rather because their superior goodness is ultimately the effect of God’s prior willing to bestow on them a greater good. Stated somewhat crudely, it is possible to discern the objects of God’s greater love (the cause) by the fact that they evince a greater goodness (the effect).

Conclusion: I would like to suggest that this kind of logico-causal reasoning employed by Aquinas (rooted largely in Aristotelian metaphysics) serves as the overarching framework within which many historic and contemporary debates concerning God’s sovereignty vis-à-vis human freedom take place. Yet it is precisely this framework that often remains hidden, for the defenders of the various positions just assume that they are reading Scripture at face value when their reading is actually indebted to a Aristotelian/Thomist view of causality.

Let’s take for example the classic Calvinist vs. Arminian disagreement over the extent of the atonement. While on the surface they seem diametrically opposed to each other, on a deeper level they are funded by the same Aristotelian, logico-causal metaphysics that we see similarly articulated by Aquinas. Classic Calvinists want to limit in some sense the full efficacy of the atonement to a limited number of human beings unconditionally elected before creation by God. Arminians, on the other hand, want to extend the possibility of the atonement’s efficacy to all humanity without qualification, making its efficacy conditional on personal faith. For all their differences, however, both positions hold in common a logico-causal framework. Classic Calvinists feel the need to limit the full efficacy of the atonement to the elect because they believe that if Christ died not only sufficiently but also efficiently for all humanity with the intention of saving them all, then this would logically and causally entail a universal salvation (remember the God of Aquinas cannot have unfulfilled desires!). Arminians would generally begin with this very same presupposition, evidenced by the fact that they tend to speak of the atonement in terms of creating the possibility of a salvation that only becomes efficacious on the condition of faith. Since Arminians want to affirm the universal extent of Christ’s work, they feel the need to speak only of the possibility that the atonement provides for humans to either accept or reject it (for once again, an absolutely efficient atonement for all would logically and causally entail universal salvation).

At the risk of overgeneralization, it could be said that whereas classic Calvinists limit the atonement’s universal extent for the sake of preserving its full efficacy, Arminians limit the atonement’s full efficacy for the sake of preserving its universal extent. What neither position seems able to do is affirm both the full efficacy and the universal extent of the atonement. Why not? Because both operate with a fundamentally logico-causal framework that, in a way reminiscent of Aquinas, reads the ultimate effect (the actual number of people finally saved) as logically indicative of the efficient cause (the extent, efficacy, and intention of the atonement). Since typically neither position wants to fall prey to universalism, neither position can affirm an atonement that is fully and universally efficacious by divine intent. Just as Aquinas believed it possible, by reasoning through logico-causal sequences, to identify the objects to which God wills to bestow greater good (the cause) on the basis of the superior goodness that they actually manifest (the effect), so also both classic Calvinists and Arminians think that the atonement cannot be both fully efficacious and universal in extent and intent (the cause) because only a limited number of people will ultimately be saved (the effect). In other words, both Calvinists and Arminians assume a sequence of logico-causal relations according to which the cause (in this case the extent/efficacy/intent of the atonement) can be determined by reasoning in reverse from the final effect (the fact that a limited number of people will actually be saved).

The moral of the story: Unless there is a way to set the Calvinist/Arminian debate on a completely new foundation, this historic impasse will probably never be resolved. Defenders on each side will continue to read Scripture as though the biblical witness clearly and decisively favors their own position, all the while unaware that they are all in reality reading Scripture through an Aristotelian/Thomist lens that leads them to understand Scripture in a logico-causal fashion. The seemingly insurmountable differences between Calvinism and Arminianism on the atonement can, in one sense, simply be reduced to the divergent ways in which each position construes the outworking of these logico-causal relations.

(Special thanks to Bobby Grow for helping me to make the connection between Thomas and classic Calvinism/Arminianism)

The God of Classical Theism vs. the Triune God of Scripture

As a follow-up to my last post about Thomas Aquinas and his formulation of classical theism as a synthesis between Aristotelian philosophy and natural theology, I would like to provide an extensive quote from T.F. Torrance in which he contrasts this view with the
trinitarian God of Scripture. Far from being an example of inconsequential hair-splitting, torranceyoungdistinguishing between these two views is of supreme importance. If we really grasp what Torrance is saying here, we will begin to understand how crucial these differences truly are not only for how we think of God but also for how we think of everything else. It is, in short, the difference between the Triune God who made us in his image and the god which we make in our own image. Here is Torrance:

 [O]wing to the reconciliation which God has worked out in Jesus Christ he has established an intimate two-way relation between himself and us and us and himself, making himself accessible to us and giving us entry into the inner fellowship of God’s Life by allowing us to share in God’s own eternal Spirit. That amounts to the greatest revolution in our knowledge of God. It is precisely when we grasp this that we see the enormous significance of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. For Judaism or for Greek Philosophy, and indeed for every religion apart from Christianity, God remains ultimate knowable, the nameless, the incomprehensible One, who cannot be known in himself or conceived in his inner life. Hence the statements they make about God, as many modern philosophers would have it, are non-cognitive, involving at best only borderline conceptions of God.

Christianity stands for something very different: the fact that in Jesus Christ God has communicated to us his Word and has imparted to us his Spirit, so that we may really know him as he is in himself, and not just in his external relations toward us or in some merely negative way [e.g. natural theology/classical theism]. The Word and the Spirit are not transient creaturely media through which God has revealed to us something about himself; for they are not external to God but are internal to his transcendent Being. Through his Word and his Spirit God has communicated himself to us in his own eternal and indivisible Reality as God the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. That is why we believe that what God is toward us in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, he is in himself, antecedently and eternally in himself; and that what he imparts to us through the Spirit who sheds the love of God into our hearts, he is in himself, antecedently and eternally in himself. It is thus that through Jesus Christ God has given himself to us and through the Holy Spirit he lifts us up into communion with himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in a two-way movement of propitiation in which he draws near to us in such a way as to draw us near to himself within the circle of his knowing of himself.

Think of the immense revolution this means for our understanding of God. It means that God is not some remote, unknowable Deity, a prisoner in his aloofness or shut up in his solitariness, but on the contrary the God who will not be without us whom he has created for fellowship with himself, the God who is free to go outside of himself, to share in the life of his creatures and enable them to share in his own eternal Life and Love. It means that God is not limited by our feeble capacities or incapacities, but that in his grace and outgoing love he freely and joyously condescends to enter into fellowship with us, to communicate himself to us, and to be received and be known by us. Moreover, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity means that God does not surrender his transcendence in condescending to be one with us in Jesus Christ, but it does mean that more we are allowed to know God in himself in this way the more wonderful we know him to be, a God who infinitely exceeds all our thoughts and words about him, but who in spite of that reveals himself tenderly and intimately to us through his Son and his Spirit.

It also means that God is not some immutable, impassible deity who cannot be touched with our human feelings, pains and hurts, but on the contrary is the kind of God who acts and interacts with us in this world, for in his own eternal Being he is the ever living, loving and acting God. It is this living, loving, and acting God who comes to us in Jesus Christ and unites us to himself by his one Spirit, interacting with us in creation and history, and in our human and physical existence in space and time: it is there that we understand why Christians believe the God and Father of Jesus Christ to be a God of providence who cares for each of his children and for every created being, who listens to our petitions and answers our prayers.

Again the doctrine of the Holy Trinity means that by his very nature as a Communion of Love in himself, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, dwelling in the plenitude of divine Love, God is the kind of God who as a fullness of personal being in himself creates personal reciprocity between us and himself and creates a community of personal reciprocity in love, which is what we speak of as the Church living in the Communion of the Spirit.

It is certainly true that the enormous importance of the doctrine of the Trinity and its revolutionary implications have tended to be lost from sight, to be treated as rather irrelevant, or only of peripheral significance for Christian faith and living. This is evident, for example, in the strange paucity of Trinitarian hymns in our modern repertoire of praise. But the reason for this is that people have worked for so long in the West with a notion of God who is somehow detached from this world, exalted inaccessibly above it, remote from our creaturely cries and prayers. And so in Western theology it has become the tradition to separate the doctrine of the one God from the doctrine of the Triune God: thus giving expression to a deistic disjunction between God and the world, far removed from what God has revealed of himself in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures or in the New Testament.

T.F. Torrance, Trinitarian Perspectives: Toward Doctrinal Agreement. T&T Clark, 1994, pp.1-4

Who was Thomas Aquinas and why should you care?

Prefatory note: This post will be a little longer than normal, but it contains important material that will serve as a reference point for future entries. Special thanks to Bobby Grow for the Vanhoozer quote.

Most Christians have at some point probably heard the name Thomas Aquinas. This is
especially true in western Christianity (i.e. Roman Catholicism and Protestantism) in which this thirteenth-century Dominican monk looms Thomas-Aquinas-Black-largeparticularly large. However, what many of these Christians (at least among Protestants) probably do not realize is the extent to which Aquinas’ influence extends, not only over their own church but also over the entire sphere of their lives, from politics to ethics, from national law to private morality, from just war theory to marriage and family. The purpose of this post is not to get entangled in all of these details (for an accessible introduction read Aquinas for Armchair Theologians by Timothy Renick) but rather to uncover the impact that Aquinas still has on our understanding of God but that for many Christians remains hidden and unknown. It is an understanding of God often called “classical theism,” and it functions as the interpretive lens through which we tend to read the Bible and construct our theology. Due to its pervasive influence, we typically are not aware of how much it is coloring our way of interpreting Scripture. Rather, like a fish that does not realize that it is wet because it has always been surrounded by water, we swim blissfully ignorant in the sea of classical theism without recognizing where it came from, why it may be problematic, and whether there are any other alternatives.

Here is how Kevin Vanhoozer helpfully explains the genesis of classical theism and culminating in Thomas Aquinas:

“Evangelical theologians live in the house that Thomas built.” While this is too simplistic, it is true that most evangelical theologians embrace some form of classical theism of which Thomas Aquinas was the leading medieval exponent. Classical theism began when Christian apologists of the second century somewhat necessarily used then dominant concepts of Greek philosophy to commend the faith, and the Scriptures, to the cultured despisers of religion. Theists define God as being of infinite perfection: all-holy, all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere present.

Classical theism refers to what has long been presumed as a synthesis worked out in the ancient and medieval church between biblical Christianity and Greek philosophy, and in particular between “God” and Aristotle’s notion of the “Unmoved Mover” (or Uncaused Cause). The Unmoved Mover is a perfect being: self-sufficient, eternal, and pure actuality (actus purus). From the latter — that God has no unrealized potential — Aristotle deduced that the Unmoved Mover must be immutable, because any change would be either for better or worse, and a perfect being is already as good as it can, and will for ever, be. God must not therefore have a body, because all bodies can be moved, so God is not material but immaterial. So: God sets the world into motion yet nothing moves God.

Thomas Aquians did not appropriate Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover wholesale. He realized that philosophy (a.k.a. “natural theology”) takes us only so far. Reason yields knowledge concerning the world of nature and, by extension, its Creator, but only revelation gives knowledge of the realm of grace and hence of the Son and Spirit. Nevertheless, by employing Aristotelian categories (e.g. substance, form, essence) and by conceding some knowledge of God to reason alone, the die of classical theism was arguably cast.

The first part of Aquinas’s Summa discusses the “one God (de Deo Uno) and treats themes accessible to natural reason — doctrines that would be held in common by Christians, Jews, and Arabs alike. Here we find discussions of God’s existence, unity, nature, and attributes. Aquinas treats the “three persons” (de Deo Trino) second, when he turns to the truths of revelation. He consequently presents the divine attributes before he even begins referring to the Incarnation and passion of the Son; in brief, he has been read as thinking about God apart from the gospel. [1]

Notice this critical final paragraph: Aquinas had largely thought out his notion of God in conjunction with Aristotelian philosophy and prior to his consideration of Jesus Christ as God’s definitive self-revelation. As a consequence, his view of God, at least as initially developed in the Summa, was one that could easily be affirmed by all monotheistic faiths and even some forms of pagan philosophy! In short, his initial framing of the doctrine of God was decidedly not Christian. If we ask why he did this, we must consider his particular view of nature and grace that reinforced his confidence in natural human reason to arrive at a knowledge of God:

The attitude of Thomas is best understood in its historical contrast to that of Augustine. Although Aquinas sought at every turn to harmonize his teaching as far as possible with Augustine’s…the difference between them was fundamental. His predecessor never seems to have freed himself entirely from the Manichaean conviction of cosmic evil. His mystical doctrine of the fall extended the effects of a cosmic evil will to nature itself, so that all nature is corrupt, not only human nature. Reason in man remains, but is helpless since it cannot operate apart from the will, which has lost its freedom through sin. There is consequently a sharp division between the realm of nature and the realm of grace, such as renders it impossible to explain how man can be regenerated through grace without apparently destroying the continuity of his own endeavour, and equally impossible to maintain that he can attain any knowledge of God or of divine things through knowledge of the created world…

The teaching of Aquinas contrasts with that of Augustine on every point which we have mentioned, representing a kindlier view both of man and of nature. The will is free, and the natural desire for the good persists despite sin. Aquinas is more definite than Augustine that reason itself is impaired by sin. But he holds that it can be used, and that we must follow our reason as far as it will take us. Grace and revelation are aids which do not negate reason. Here as everywhere nature itself demands supernature for its completion, and the provision of divine grace meets the striving of human nature in its search for the ultimate good, this quest being itself due to the gracious moving of God. In so far as they are, created things are good, and in so far as they are and are good, they reflect the being of God is their first cause. The natural knowledge of God is therefore possible through the knowledge of creatures. Not only so, but there is no human knowledge of God which does not depend on the knowledge of creatures…

As the first active principle and first efficient cause of all things, God is not only perfect in himself, but contains within himself the perfections of all things, in a more eminent way. It is this that makes possible the celebrated analogia entis, whereby the divine nature is known by analogy from existing things…It is a fundamental principle of Aquinas that every agent acts to the producing of its own likeness. Every creature must accordingly resemble God at least in the inadequate way in which an effect can resemble its cause…Names which are derived from creatures may therefore be applied to God analogously…The application of them must, however, respect the principle of “negative knowledge,” which is observed by most thinkers of the millennium following Plotinus when speaking of the transcendent. Plotinus had maintained that anything whatever could be truly denied of the divine being, and also that whatever we affirm, we must forthwith affirm the opposite (Enneads V). Aquinas maintains that we can know of God’s essence only what it is not, not what it is, but that this is properly knowledge of God. [2]

I want to conclude this post with the following observations. I think that most Christians are unaware as to how deeply their view of God has been shaped primarily by kind of classical theism espoused by Aquinas. When we begin, as for instance the Westminster Confession does, by defining God on the basis of his essence and attributes that we derive by reasoning from what God must be in contrast with his creation (i.e. a negative knowledge of God based on analogies in creation such as aseity, simplicity, immutability, impassibility, omniscience, omnipotence, etc.), we are adopting a doctrine of God that does not so much derive from God’s own self-revelation in Christ but from a synthesis worked out long ago in conjunction with the speculations of Greek philosophy such as Aristotle and Plotinus. Whereas Aquinas was comfortable with this approach because of his confidence in the ability of natural human reason to attain a limited but nevertheless true knowledge of God, I want to declare a loud Barthian “No!” because of my allegiance to a more Augustinian (not Manichaean but biblical!) understanding of the radical effects of sin on all human knowing, a condition that can only be overcome by the disruptive and recreative grace of God in Christ. The problem, however, is that many Christians who simply assume that classical theism is the biblical view of God do not realize how little of it actually coheres with how God has revealed himself in Christ as attested by Scripture. It is my hope that while this post may not clarify everything in this regard, it will at least cause us to stop for a moment and reflect on whether our own reading of Scripture is not significantly influenced by the conception of God articulated by Aquinas.


[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘The triune God of the Gospel’, in The Cambridge Companion To Evangelical Theology, edited by Timothy Larsen and Daniel J. Treier, pp. 19-20

[2] A.M. Fairweather, ‘General Introduction’ to Aquinas on Nature and Grace: Selections from the Summa Theologica, pp. 21-22, 28