Rediscovering the Scandalous God: Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross (The Heidelberg Disputation of 1518)

Although we think of Luther’s famous 95 theses as sparking the Reformation in 1517, it would perhaps be more accurate to accord this honor to the theses that he prepared for the disputation in Heidelberg in 1518. It was at this event that Luther laid the foundation and set the trajectory for his later reforming work. In the scheme of things, the 95 theses penned in Wittenberg took aim at a fairly narrow set of issues, whereas the theses composed for Heidelberg set forth, in seminal form, Luther’s comprehensive vision for csm_luther_in_heidelberg_6ffae26474the church reformed under the authority of the Word of God. This comprehensive vision can be summed up in Luther’s own phrase theologia crucis — theology of the cross — in contrast to the theologia gloriae — the theology of glory — that he vociferously opposed in medieval scholasticism. It was here, not in the matter of indulgences, but between the theologies of cross and glory, that Luther drew his main line of battle. Stated simply, if we do not understand the theology of the cross, we cannot understand Luther. Speaking personally, I find this aspect of Luther’s teaching to be the most significant, most compelling, and most encouraging of everything that he ever said or wrote.

What is the theologia crucis? Entire books deal exclusively with this subject, so a mere blog post can hardly serve to do it justice. However, I think it is possible to get an adequate, if only cursory, sense of what Luther meant simply by sampling a few of the Heidelberg theses. Beginning with thesis 19, Luther argued:

19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1:20].

This is apparent in the example of those who were “theologians” and still were called fools by the Apostle in Romans 1[:22]. Furthermore, the invisible things of God are virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth. The recognition of all these things does not make one worthy or wise.

20. One deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

The “back” and visible things of God are placed in opposition to the invisible, namely, human nature, weakness, foolishness. The Apostle in 1 Corinthians 1[:25] calls them the weakness and folly of God. Because humans misused the knowledge of God through works, God wished again to be recognized in suffering—to condemn wisdom concerning invisible things by means of wisdom concerning visible things, so that those who did not honor God as manifested in the Divine works should honor God hidden in suffering. As the Apostle says in 1 Corinthians 1[:21], “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does one no good to recognize God in Divine glory and majesty, unless one recognizes God in the humility and shame of the cross. Thus God destroys the wisdom of the wise, as Isaiah [45:15] says, “Truly, thou art a God who hides yourself.”

So, also, in John 14[:8], where Philip spoke according to the theology of glory: “Show us the Father.” Christ forthwith set aside his flighty thought about seeking God elsewhere and led him to himself, saying, “Philip, he who has seen me has seen the Father” [John 14:9]. For this reason, true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ. It is also stated in John 10[14:6]: “No one comes to the Father, but by me.” “I am the door” [John 10:9], and so forth.

21. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glow to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” [Phil. 3:18], for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said. Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are destroyed and the old Adam, who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for human beings not to be puffed up by their good works unless they have first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until they know that they are worthless and that their works are not theirs, but God’s.

22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by humans is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.

This has already been said. Because humans do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on. Therefore they become increasingly blinded and hardened by such love, for desire cannot be satisfied by the acquisition of those things which it desires. Just as the love of money grows in proportion to the increase of the money itself, so the dropsy of the soul becomes thirstier the more it drinks, as the poet says: “The more water they drink, the more they thirst for it.” The same thought is expressed in Ecclesiastes 1[:8]: “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” This holds true of all desires.

Thus also the desire for knowledge is not satisfied by the acquisition of wisdom but is stimulated that much more. Likewise the desire for glory is not satisfied by the acquisition of glory, nor is the desire to rule satisfied by power and authority, nor is the desire for praise satisfied by praise, and so on, as Christ shows in John 4[:13], where he says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again.”

The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it. In other words, he who wishes to become wise does not seek wisdom by progressing toward it but becomes a fool by retrogressing into seeking folly. Likewise he who wishes to have much power, honor, pleasure, satisfaction in all things must flee rather than seek power, honor, pleasure, and satisfaction in all things. This is the wisdom which is folly to the world.

23. The law brings the wrath of God, kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ [Rom. 4:15].

Thus Galatians 3[:18] states, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law”; and: “For all who rely on works of the law are under the curse” [Gal. 3:10]; and Romans 4:[15]: “For the law brings wrath”; and Romans 7[:10]: “The very commandment which promised life proved to be the death of me”; Romans 2[:12]: “All who have sinned without the law will also perish without law.” Therefore, those who boast that they are wise and learned in the law boast in their confusion, their damnation, the wrath of God, in death. As Romans 2[:23] puts it: “You who boast in the law.”

24. Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross a person misuses the best in the worst manner.

Indeed the law is holy [Rom. 7:12], every gift of God good [1 Tim. 4:4], and everything that is created exceedingly good, as in Genesis 1[:31]. But, as stated above, the one who has not been brought low, reduced to nothing through the cross and suffering, takes credit for works and wisdom and does not give credit to God. Such a person thus misuses and defiles the gifts of God.

Those, however, who have been emptied [Cf. Phil. 2:7] through suffering no longer do works but know that God works and does all things in them. For this reason, whether they do works or not, it is all the same to them. They neither boast if they do good works, nor are they disturbed if God does not do good works through them. They know that it is sufficient if they suffer and are brought low by the cross in order to be annihilated all the more. Christ says this in John 3[:7], “You must be born anew.” To be born anew, one must consequently first die and then be raised up with the Son of Man. To die, I say, means to feel death at hand.[1]

Luther certainly gives us much to chew on and digest here. The theology of the cross is not a theology about the cross (which can often be hijacked and turned into another form of a theology of glory!) but rather a theology through the cross, i.e. formulated from the perspective of Christ crucified as the locus of God’s saving power and revelation. For this reason, it is better, as indicated in the theses themselves, to speak rather of a theologian of the cross, for the theology of the cross simply indicates the point of view that we are forced to assume in relation to all reality on the basis of the scandal and folly of the gospel. The perspective of the cross stains things with the martin-luther-and-frederick-iii-of-saxony-kneeling-before-christ-on-the-cross-german-schoolcrimson color of blood and molds them into a cruciform shape. For this kind of theologian, the cross is more than a religious symbol or mere instrument of salvation, it is the lens through which the entire world is reinterpreted.

Thus, whereas the theologian of glory (i.e. everyone who is not a theologian of the cross!) looks for God in the likeliest places — i.e. where power, glory, and success are visibly seen — the theologian of the cross knows that God actually manifests himself in the unlikeliest and least expected places: in weakness, shame, and defeat. The theologian of glory measures according to standards of strength, greatness, and tangible results, whereas the theologian of the cross is attuned to the ignominy, smallness, and folly with which God reveals and redeems. This is, after all, is precisely what Paul argued in 1 Corinthians 1:20-29:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

There are so many practical implications of this that it would be impossible to enumerate them all. Let me just suggest a couple. First, a theologian of glory can always be found prefacing statements with things like: “…but it doesn’t make sense that…”, “it seems logical that…”, “it’s unthinkable that God would…”, “surely if God had intended that, then…”, etc. To this the theologian of the cross will respond: “Yes, that does make more sense, and it does seem logical that God would act in such and such a way, but Christ crucified has put an end to all that makes logical sense to the worldly wise, and we can only seek to know the ways and works of God in the folly and scandal of the cross.” To use a biblical example, a theologian of glory stands at Golgotha and snides: “he who saved others could not save himself.” The theologian of the cross, on the other hand, looks at Christ crucified and marvels: “truly this is the Son of God!”

Second, a theologian of glory will become easily discouraged when effort is rewarded with failure, when faithfulness is rewarded with fruitlessness, when good is rewarded with suffering. A theologian of the cross, however, will remain unflappable and unmoved even when assailed by the fiercest doubts, even when experiencing the costliest losses, even when consigned to shame or anonymity. This, not because of an innate inner strength, but because the cross has taught its theologians to expect such outcomes. If the supreme display of the power and wisdom of God was the weakness and foolishness of Christ crucified, then we should not be surprised to find his power and wisdom displayed in our own lives in the exact same way.

Luther’s theology of the cross is a salutary reminder that whereas we are usually looking for God to come as a conquering king, we will only find him as a crucified carpenter. When this scandalous truth becomes the focal point through which we view all reality, then (and only then) we will begin to think, reason, pray, work, minister, and live as true followers of Christ.

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[1] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 22-4.

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Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Bruce McCormack on Limited Atonement vs. Universal Salvation

Typically when we encounter passages in Scripture that seem to stand in tension, we instinctively try to find a way to alleviate that tension. Nowhere is this more evident than in relation to the tension we feel between the texts of Scripture that seem to indicate the universal extent of God’s saving will and those that assert the sobering reality of the eternal damnation of all who, for whatever reason, die without placing their faith in Christ through the preaching of the gospel. Usually attempts to resolve this difficulty end up affirming a version of limited atonement (Christ died ultimately to save the elect alone) or universal possibility (Christ died to save all but not all will freely believe) or universalism (Christ died for all and so all will be saved).

While they are all logically coherent, it seems to me that each of these positions, in one way or another, downplays certain texts at the expense of others. To all of us who wrestle with these issues, Bruce McCormack offers some wise words of counsel in an essay he contributed to the book Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Although McCormack does not offer us a tidy solution, he does encourage us to stay rigorously faithful to the whole range of biblical teaching, giving equal weight to all of its parts. He writes:

Conspicuous by its absence from Paul’s theology is any mention of “hell.” One might well think that the talk of the wrath and fury, tribulation and distress which awaits those who do evil in Rom. 2:8-9 is equivalent to “hell” but Paul never uses that word. The concept of “hell” does play a sizable role in the teaching of Jesus and in the Book of Revelation, of course. Taken by itself, this difference between Jesus and Paul would not be a problem. The two views could easily be harmonized simply by regarding what Jesus has to say as a 410vuZc5y-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_further expansion upon what Paul knows to say. The problem, however, is that Paul is committed to a universal atonement [e.g. 1 Tim. 2:3-6] – as well as the understanding that faith in Jesus Christ is effected in human beings by God’s grace alone. And the combination of these two elements creates a difficulty of no small proportions. For if grace is irresistible, if faith is God’s to give as He wills and Christ died for all, then, logically, God’s will ought to be to give the gift to all and universal salvation should be the result. Alternatively, we could take up our starting point in the “two-group” eschatologies of Jesus and the Seer and look back through the lens provided by the Pauline understanding of the relation of grace and faith and the only logical option would be to affirm a limited atonement. Universal salvation on the one side and limited atonement on the other; those are the only two logical possibilities which arise on the soil of the Pauline understanding of faith as a sovereign work of God. And because Jesus’ teaching on hell, especially, was taken to be the fixed pole, Reformed theology in its orthodox expressions always concluded to a limited atonement. The net effect of that decision was, of course, that Paul’s commitment to a universal atonement had to be negotiated out of existence.

I would suggest that there is a better way of dealing with this, the most profound and important of the tensions found in the New Testament. I am certainly conservative enough in my understanding of biblical inspiration to believe that if something appears in the New Testament, it is there because God wanted it there. So if a tension exists, there must be a reason for it. And if I had to guess, I would say that the reason has to do with the fact that those awakened to faith in Jesus Christ in this world are still sinners. If God told us the answer to the problem in advance of the eschaton, we would harm ourselves on one side or the other. If He were to tell us that a universal salvation will be the final outcome, we would very likely become lax, antinomian even. The sense of urgency that is pervasive in Paul’s Christian existentialism would be lost. If, on the other hand, God told us that limited atonement is the true resolution of the tension, we would very likely despair of our salvation. How could anyone be certain that the atoning death of Christ was really intended for him or her? And so I would venture to guess that the tension I have described is divinely intended – in order to protect us from ourselves.

In short, I think it was a mistake for the Westminster Assembly to seek to resolve this question on the side of limited atonement in advance of the return of Christ in glory – just as I think that it would be a mistake for any church today to teach universalism. Again, these are simply the logical possibilities that arise on the soil of the Reformed understanding of the relation of grace and faith. As such, they constitute the walls within which we are to live in this world. All of us will tilt more to one side than the other. And if individual theologians wish to conclude to one or the other – for the sake of exploring implications and relationships among the various Christian doctrines, they should be allowed to do so. That belongs to their unique calling. But churches need to be responsible for all the faithful. And for that reason, I would say, neither limited atonement nor universalism should ever be made church dogma.[1]

As I mentioned before, McCormack does not offer any simple solutions or clean ways of reducing certain tensions in the full scope of biblical teaching, especially those in relation to human salvation. But he does offer sage advice, namely, that however difficult or uncomfortable, we must allow Scripture to dictate to us how we should think, reason, theologize, preach, and evangelize, even when we cannot understand how all of the pieces fit together. Indeed, we see in a glass darkly, and we must walk by faith rather than by sight. Therefore, let God’s Word be God’s Word, and may we bow all of our logic and systematic categories in humble submission to it.

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[1] McCormack, B.L., 2011. ‘So That He May Be Merciful to All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.239-241.

“To Be or Not To Be (In Christ)?”: That is Kevin Vanhoozer’s Question to Evangelical Calvinism

Unlike many detractors of Evangelical Calvinism, one of the most thoughtful and respectful critics is Kevin Vanhoozer. Responding to a recent blog post written by Bobby Grow, Vanhoozer stated that Evangelical Calvinism is “a serious attempt to reform the Reformed tradition, an attempt that merits serious attention.” Despite whatever disagreements I may have with him, I am highly appreciative of the spirit with which Vanhoozer seriously engages with us Evangelical Calvinists inasmuch as he recognizes that we ourselves are engaged in a serious task. It was this recognition that led Vanhoozer to lend serious attention to Evangelical Calvinism in an essay that is perhaps (at least in my mind) one of the most significant and careful critiques to date.

As mentioned above, Bobby Grow has already written a few responses (1, 2, 3, and 4)to Vanhoozer’s essay, and he has done a fantastic job in doing so. What I hope to do in my own response here is not say anything particularly new but rather support Bobby’s argument from a slightly different angle. In Bobby’s first response (written back in 2014), vanhoozer_kevinhe addressed the question raised by Vanhoozer regarding ontology vs. soteriology as it pertains to human election and union with Christ. Indeed, the first half of Vanhoozer’s essay highlights this issue as

…our primary question: Are the elect “in Christ” simply by virtue of being human (ontology) or because they have somehow become beneficiaries of his life and work (soteriology)?[1]

Vanhoozer reiterates this as the central focus of his critique when he further writes:

My intent in what follows is to examine the suggestion, put forward by Evangelical Calvinists, that all human beings are elect in Christ. Does this insistence collapse “being in general” (ontology) into “being in Christ” and, if so, does “being in Christ” connote salvation (soteriology)? T. F. Torrance draws a fascinating ontological implication from Jesus’ incarnation: “human beings have no being apart from Christ.” [Torrance, School of Faith, p.cxiii.] The key question, then, is this: if the incarnation is the “setting-forth” of the eternally purposed union of God and man in Jesus Christ – the historical projection of divine election into creaturely existence – this is every human being a “being in Christ”, and, if so, does it follow that all are saved?[2]

Vanhoozer follows these questions with a comparison of “Perspectives Old and New” on what it means to be “chosen in Christ” (Eph. 1:4), the old (i.e. Classical Calvinist) view represented by Calvin himself and the new (i.e. Evangelical Calvinist) view represented by Karl Barth, T.F. Torrance, and Myk Habets. He concludes this section by saying:

The differences between Classical and Evangelical Calvinism here come into sharp contrast. First, as concerns election: Classical Calvinists associate being chosen in Christ with the Spirit’s uniting people to Christ through faith, whereas Evangelical Calvinists associate being chosen in Christ with the Son’s assumption of humanity in the Incarnation. Second, as concerns union with Christ: Classical Calvinists tend to follow Pauline usage, for whom “in Christ” serves as referring to the Spirit’s incorporation of saints into Christ (and hence the life of the triune God) through faith (i.e. a covenantal union of persons), whereas Evangelical Calvinists tend to follow a distinctly non-Pauline usage, viewing being “in Christ” as a necessary implication of the incarnation (i.e., an ontological union of natures, our humanity with Christ’s).[3]

At this point, Vanhoozer moves to a more explicit critique of Evangelical Calvinism based on these two key distinctions. While his specific points merit consideration and response (which I hope to offer in a future post), I want to stop here in order to address the fundamental dichotomy that Vanhoozer sets up as the basis for the rest of his critique, namely ontology vs. soteriology. It is true that Vanhoozer also mentions other dichotomies, such as Pauline vs. non-Pauline language and a union of persons vs. a union of natures. The latter distinction is a significant point and requires a separate response. The former issue, however, can be somewhat simply addressed by saying two things. First, although Vanhoozer restricts the scope of his essay to Paul and specifically to Eph. 1:4 (being of course free to do so), Evangelical Calvinism derives from a much more dogmatic approach that would incorporate the writings of not only a single biblical author but the entire canonical witness. That is not to say that EC is not interested in the exegesis of Pauline writings in the manner according to which Vanhoozer’s essay proceeds. Yet it seems, at least to me, somewhat reductive and methodological deficient to engage with EC on these grounds when EC is driven largely by a dialectical/dialogical/theo-logical approach to Scripture that operates at what Torrance called the “depth dimension” of Scripture.

Thus, how is it possible to evaluate Vanhoozer’s charge that EC surrenders territory to ontology that properly belongs to soteriology? I think that a helpful way to do so is to adhere closely to the dogmatic order prescribed by the EC methodology and begin, not with abstract categories of “ontology” and “soteriology”, but rather with the Trinitarian and Christological revelation that defines what these terms means and how they interrelate. As is usually acknowledged, the standard concepts and grammar for articulating an orthodox (i.e. biblically faithful) view of the Trinity and Jesus Christ was provided by the pro-Nicene and Chalcedonian fathers who were forced to do so in the face of serious heresies such as Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism. Thus, for example, we see Gregory of Nyssa opposing the Arian views of Eunomius of Cyzicus by maintaining a strict correlation between God’s being and act. Patristic scholar Michel Barnes explains:

Eunomius’ alternative to Nicene and semi-Nicene doctrines of the Son’s generation was to teach that the Son was created; his description of the Son’s nature stressed both his created status (he is not the true God) and His role as Creator (he is God for us). By contrast, Gregory’s argument for the unity of the Trinity turns precisely upon his understanding that a productive capacity is natural to God. Thus Gregory argues that the common power of creation shown in the two Persons is evidence of their common nature…For Gregory the transcendence of God includes the capacity to produce; indeed Gregory’s conception of this capacity as a power means not only that this capacity exists as a natural capacity in God, but because this capacity is the power of the divine nature, God’s kind of existence is the kind that (re)produces. Gregory’s fundamental insight, and his argument against Eunomius, is that the divine nature, inso­far as it is the divine nature, is productive.[4]

The counter-assault that Gregory of Nyssa launched against Eunomius in defense of the full divinity of the Son (homoousion with the Father) was that the power of divine acts is inextricably related, and indicative of, the divine nature. In order to deny the full divinity of the Son while attributing to him divine power, it was necessary to separate God’s being cf83ceaccf81cf89cf83ceb700671.jpgfrom his act (or, specifically, the being of the Father from the act of the Son). Gregory’s response was to insist that not only can God’s being not be separated from his act, but also that God’s being is of such a nature that it is intrinsically active and thus manifests itself in the acts generative of the history of the universe.

It was critical, however, for the pro-Nicene fathers not merely to insist on the strict correlation between God’s being as Father and God’s act in the Son simpliciter, for at issue in the Arian error was the denial of the Son’s full divinity on account of his undeniably human existence in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus it was necessary, as exemplified by Athanasius, to make this same connection between God in himself and God revealed in history, or better stated, between the transcendent being of God dwelling from all eternity in unapproachable light and the being and act of the incarnate Son revealed in history. As another patristic scholar John Behr states:

Equally important is the manner in which God is the Father of his Son, Jesus Christ: is the existence of the Son the result of a volitional act of God, such that God could have chosen to be otherwise, or doe the revelation of God in Jesus Christ express what God in fact is? The affirmation, made by the Council of Nicaea and developed by Athanasius, that God is eternally the Father of his Son, means that in God there is a completely identity between nature and will; God does not first exist by himself, only subsequently to beget the Son. This identity of divine nature and activity, and the claim that the Son is fully divine as the Father, means, moreover, that the divinity of God is fully revealed in Christ, so that “he who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14.9). That “in him the whole fullness of divinity dwells bodily” (Col 2.9) means that there is no surplus of divinity beyond this revelation, awaiting discovery through other means. The divine nature is not a passive object for human thought attempting to comprehend what God “really is” in himself, for God has revealed himself as he is.[5]

One of the reasons why the pro-Nicene theologians like Athanasius insisted on the absolute identity between who God is in himself and who he reveals himself to be in Jesus Christ was because the Arians, by positing an ontological disjunction between God and Jesus Christ, effectively reduced the latter to a mere instrument of human salvation. As Khaled Anatolios observes:

…the [Arian] model that locates the “for us” at the origin of the divinity of Christ is that it tended to subvert the notion of Christ’s lordship, since, even in his divinity, Christ was conceived as merely a means to the end of human flourishing.[6]

In other words, Athanasius discerned that if ontology (i.e. who God is in himself) was severed from soteriology (i.e. what God does in Christ in revelation and reconciliation), then Christ will be inevitably instrumentalized, thus reducing the fullness of who he is to only what he accomplishes. Thus, far from falsely conflating or confusing God’s being with his act and thus ontology with soteriology, it is precisely by holding the two together in an indivisible, differentiated union (i.e. the Chalcedonian pattern) that secures the former from being lost to the latter. If that were to happen, the soteriology would be ultimately deprived of any meaning, because it would be divorced from the only One in and with whom participation and communion constitute salvation. Thus, rather than separating ontology from soteriology in a dichotomizing way, the Trinitarian and Christological grammar of the pro-Nicene and Chalcedonian tradition would require that we hold them together in an indissoluble union.

Since Vanhoozer appeals to Calvin to make his case regarding the ontology/soteriology distinction, it may be helpful, prior to drawing this post to a conclusion, to note how scholar Julie Canlis characterizes a resistance in Calvin, similar to that of the pro-Nicene theologians, to a division between Christ’s person (ontology) and his work (soteriology) and thus a reduction of Christ to the level of a mere means-to-end. She writes:

From such restrictive interpretations, it is a short step to “union with Christ” as latent natural theology, where communal life with God is enclosed in a utilitarian process by which we receive the benefits of christ. Ceasing to reflect God’s koinōnia-reality, union becomes the response to a prior human need for the commodities of salvation. It is Dietrich Bonhoeffer who reminds us that Calvin’s emphasis on the benefits of Christ can go one of two ways. He cites Melanchthon’s famous maxim…”to know Christ is to know his benefits”…and notes that “theology has often apostolized here.” [Bonhoeffer, Christology, p.48] For whether or not Melanchthon’s maxim already indicates the modern predisposition toward a functional christology, it certainly opens up the possibility for a split between the being and meaning of Christ. The danger here is that the beneficia Christi can be used to bolster a functional soteriology in which an anthropocentric obsession with the meaning and work of Christ is all that matters. march-8-ter-071.jpgThe Spirit is then incorporated into this transaction between God and humanity, as simply the one who is the bridge that links us to the things of Christ rather than as the one to bring us into Christ and the koinōnia that he has inaugurated in his person…

When it is discussed within this context, adoption – not surprisingly – becomes flattened into a legal transaction between two individuals…This notion of adoption is representative of that functional trend in christology that would use Christ for its own ends – to gain salvation, legal adoption, or the benefits of Christ. Here the primary “benefit” of Christ – that is, adoption – has been radically severed from Christ’s own person as Son and has been used by humanity to achieve a goal beyond him. Christ is thus made an instrument of a process rather than the person in whom adoption is found. Correspondingly, the benefits of Christ often become detachable from the person of Christ, to be transferred to us by the Spirit without fundamentally bringing us into the Spirit’s new domain…Calvin himself exposes this contemporary tendency toward a functional Christology when he observes that “they sought in Christ something else than Christ himself.” [Comm. John 6:26].[7]

Although Vanhoozer’s question regarding what it means to be “in Christ” no doubt would still remain, at minimum we can see that Calvin eschewed any sense in which the soteriological work of Christ swallowed up the ontology of his person. This, I would argue, is in fundamental agreement with the theo-logic championed by the pro-Nicene fathers against the Arians.

Conclusion

What I have tried to do in this post is blunt much of the force of the critique that Vanhoozer mounts against Evangelical Calvinism in the second half of his essay by undercutting the primary dichotomy – ontology vs. soteriology – that he posits in the first half. By looking back to the theological grammar provided by the pro-Nicene and Chalcedonian fathers, it is clear that an orthodox understanding of the Trinity and Jesus Christ militates against any attempt to sunder ontology from soteriology inasmuch as such an attempt would implicitly sunder Christ’s person from his saving work, God’s being in himself from his acts in revelation and reconciliation in history, and, ultimately, God’s being and act in his own inner Triune relations. Far from confusing ontology and soteriology, it is only by holding them together in an indivisible, differentiated union (à la Chalcedon) that ontology is not emptied of meaning and, consequently, soteriology is deprived of its power.

Thus, to respond to the aforementioned distinctions that Vanhoozer draws between Classical and Evangelical Calvinism, it can be said:

1) While “Classical Calvinists associate being chosen in Christ with the Spirit’s uniting people to Christ through faith,” Evangelical Calvinists do not, by contrast, “associate being chosen in Christ” only “with the Son’s assumption of humanity in the Incarnation” in the sense that a ‘carnal’ union with Christ (that which obtains on the basis of the incarnation) fully displaces a ‘spiritual’ union with Christ effected by the Spirit. Indeed, both senses are implicated in EC’s understanding of the twofold nature of union with Christ, as even attested by Calvin in his famous letter to Vermigli. (The question regarding the possibility of the realization of the former without the latter requires a different post).

2) While “Classical Calvinists tend to follow Pauline usage, for whom ‘in Christ’ serves as referring to the Spirit’s incorporation of saints into Christ (and hence the life of the triune God) through faith (i.e. a covenantal union of persons),” Evangelical Calvinists do not only “follow a distinctly non-Pauline usage, viewing being ‘in Christ’ as a necessary implication of the incarnation (i.e., an ontological union of natures, our humanity with Christ’s)” in the sense that they run roughshod over the Pauline writings. Rather, as I noted earlier, EC follows the path laid by the biblical text down into the “dimension of depth” that constitutes Scripture’s inner rationality and constitutive theo-logic. As Karl Barth remarked, the task of dogmatics consists in the church’s responsibility not to repeat the words of Scripture but to say what it needs to say on the basis of the words of Scripture.

This is why, on the one hand, much of what Vanhoozer argues in his essay by way of reference to specific texts can be easily affirmed by Evangelical Calvinists. The question, for EC, is not simply what do these texts say, but what is the fundamental theo-logic that gave rise to these texts in their unique historical circumstances. Thus, I think there is a way (as Barth himself exemplified in his careful delineation of the election of Christ as primary, the election of the community as secondary, and the election of the individual as tertiary) to approach passages such as Eph. 1:4 as textured witnesses to who God is and what he has done in Christ. That is to say, there may be deeper levels (the “depth dimension”) at which phrases like “in Christ” may operate, unfolding themselves through what Torrance has called a “stratified” approach to knowledge, that do not open themselves to refutation on the basis of simply proof-texting.

All this to say, I do not think that Vanhoozer offers a successful critique on the basis of a disjunction between ontology and soteriology. This certainly gains traction if the presuppositions of Classical Calvinism are maintained. However, Evangelical Calvinism not only proceeds differently, it also starts differently, looking to God’s self-revelation in Christ and by the Spirit as determinative of how we even begin to understand what ontology and soteriology involve and how they interrelate.

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[1] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2014.’The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism)’ in Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p.182.

[2] Ibid., p.184.

[3] Ibid., p.191.

[4] Barnes, M.R., 1998. ‘Eunomius of Cyzicus and Gregory of Nyssa: Two Traditions of Transcendent Causality’ in Vigiliae Christianae 52(1), pp.86-87.

[5] Behr, J., The Formation of Christian Theology Vol. 2: The Nicene Faith. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, p.17.

[6] Anatolios, K., 2011. Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p.94.

[7] Canlis, J., 201o. Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.155-157.

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

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Image courtesy of David Hayward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall impressions

I’ll begin by using a couple of analogies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specific points of contention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

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

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

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

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

How Karl Barth Might Respond to Richard Muller

Richard Muller critiques Karl Barth (full article here):

As I peruse the Church Dogmatics, I have the consistent experience of excessive verbiage and of ideas that refuse to achieve closure. It is inter­esting and sometimes even instructive to watch a bril­liant mind play with concepts and subject them to intense scrutiny from every conceivable angle. But ‘Barth’s dialectical method, which assumes the impos­IMG_1827sibility of stating divine truth in human words and therefore continually negates and restates its own im­possible formulations, could easily and more instruc­tively have simply stated the problem of formulation between two poles of theological statement—and then passed on to another issue, finally providing the reader with a finished dogmatics in no more than three or four volumes, with no loss of content…

Barth frequently uses his overarching christological principle as a heuristic key to unlocking texts that have, in and of themselves, no clear relation to the person and work of Christ. The result is an incredibly arbitrary and dogmatic exegesis, justified only by the vague conten­tion that it is both “christological” and “theological.”

Karl Barth responds to Richard Muller:

…so far as the confrontation and relationship of God and man, of divine acts and human reactions spoken of in Holy Scripture attest God’s revelation to us, they cannot betoken for theology the kind of object which it can calmly docket along with other objects. On the contrary, if theology is really to correspond to the witness of Holy Scripture, they must give theology its essential forms and they must also determine its methods, for without these it could not be theology. That is to say, unless it takes
account of these, theology could not even perceive its object, not to speak of classifying it with ease or excitement. The very definite KB1Editorder of being which Holy Scripture makes manifest, when in its witness to God’s revelation it confronts and relates God and man, divine facts and human attitudes, enforces an order of knowing corresponding to it. It does not enforce faith. It does not even exclude unbelief. But where it finds faith, it does enforce a basically obedient thought and language. And where it finds faith, it excludes free thought, i.e., thinking which openly or secretly hurries ahead of the previously given object, acts critically toward it by way of selection and distinction, patronising it with its applause or reproach. Correspondingly, it excludes sovereign language, which in the last resort appeals against itself to man’s responsibility. It excludes an arbitrary theology. If there is anything sure in biblical exegesis it is this, that where according to the Bible God’s revelation to man was an event, there is none of that anticipatory thinking or that sovereign language, none of that a priori theology. The prophets and apostles thought and spoke merely as hearers, as hearers of a God who is bound only to His own law and in no sense to any presupposition of man…

The method prescribed for us by Holy Scripture not only assumes that the entelechy of man’s I-ness is not divine in nature but, on the contrary, is in contradiction to the divine nature. It also assumes that God is in no way bound to man, that His revelation is thus an act of His freedom, contradicting man’s contradiction. That is why the language of the prophets and apostles about God’s revelation is not a free, selective and decisive treatment of well-found convictions, but—which is something different—witness. That is, it is an answer to what is spoken to them, and an account of what is heard by them. That is why their order of knowing corresponds to the order of being in which God is the Lord but in which man is God’s creature and servant. That is why their thought and language follow the fact of God’s revelation, freely created and provided by Him. That is also why their interpretation of it is a following after, in which any revolt of man on the ground of any categories of understanding which he brings along with him is out of the question. That is why their conception of what is possible with God is guided absolutely by their conception of what God has really willed and done, and not vice versa.

If the aim of theology is to understand the revelation attested in the Bible, theology as distinguished from all philosophical and historical science of religion will have to adhere to this method quite rigidly…As the approach to the doctrine of the Trinity is affected by the realisation that in order to perceive God’s revelation at all we must follow the order of being in Holy Scripture and first ask about God as the Subject of revelation, so the approach to Christology is affected by the realisation that first we have to put the question of fact, and then the question of interpretation. Or (because interpretation is involved in the question of fact, and nothing but fact is involved in the question of interpretation) we must first understand the reality of Jesus Christ as such, and then by reading from the tablet of this reality, understand the possibility involved in it, the freedom of God, established and maintained in it, to reveal Himself in precisely this reality and not otherwise, and so the unique possibility which we have to respect as divine necessity.

Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics I/2: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.5-8.