Missio What?: The Theological Confusion Over a Critical Concept in Missiology

One of the most critical concepts in contemporary missiology is that of the missio Dei, the mission of God. Its importance is underscored by John Flett who writes:

Early in the twentieth century, many legitimate criticisms were being issued against the missionary enterprise. World War I and the loss of the claimed spiritual authority of Western civilization, the maturation of the so-called “younger” churches, the West’s own encounter with secularism and pluralism, the fierce reactions to colonialism, the growth of indigenous nationalist movements and related resistance of the non-Christian religions to Christian expansion – all challenged the right of cross-cultural cultural missions to exist. Against these criticisms, missio Dei supplied a theological redoubt for the missionary act by placing it within the maxresdefaultTrinitarian being of God. This established a critical distance between “mission” and every contingent human form.

Following David Bosch’s now standard treatment, “mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God.” The Father sent his Son and Spirit into the world, and this act reveals his “sending” being. He remains active today in reconciling the world to himself and sends his community to participate in this mission…. The concept allowed theorists to acknowledge the legitimate charges laid against mission, while supplying an inviolate justification for the task itself. For Bosch, the importance of this “decisive shift,” as illustrated by its being “embraced by virtually all Christian persuasions,” cannot be doubted.[2]

In other words, missio Dei is a critical component in our missiological thinking because it provides a firm biblical and theological foundation for the missionary endeavor. In an ever-increasingly relativistic and pluralistic world, it is crucial that the Christian message be undergirded by the conviction that its exclusive claims are not the product of Western colonialism or ecclesiastical pride but flow from the redemptive plan and activity of God himself. The church must be on mission, because God is on mission.

Flett continues, however, by noting a serious flaw in how missio Dei is often interpreted and worked out in practice:

However, such exuberance is just one side of the story. Commentators describe the concept as, at once, “pivotal” and “confused.” Reference to the doctrine of the Trinity establishes a requisite formal framework, but “God’s mission” fails to draw on this doctrine for its material substance. The resulting vacuity renders missio Dei an elastic concept capable of accommodating an ever-expanding range of meanings. For Wolfgang Gunther, missio Dei functions as a “container term, which is filled differently depending upon each individual author.”… Wilhelm Richebacher illustrates the problem when he observes that missio Dei is used by some to “justify the Christocentric definition of all the mission of the church as distinct from religious propaganda, and by others to do just the opposite, i.e., to propound a deity that bears witness to itself in other religions and thereby counters the absolute claims of Christianity.”…

When compared with the phenomenological underpinnings of missions that were normative at the dawn of the twentieth century, missio Dei is, in truth, pivotal. Without any link to a specific act, however, “mission” soon expanded to encompass the entire horizon of divine and human history. Following Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder, missio Dei is “the very mission of God in creation, redemption and continual sanctification.” Every act of God, since God is by nature missionary, is properly described as mission.

Mission, when it did not reduce to a vague involvement within the sociopolitical sphere, very soon became a distilled image of the church’s general direction within history, with the effect, for Hoedemaker, of providing “theological legitimation to the ecumenical emphasis on the church.” Mission was reduced to the being of the church in her mundane operation of word and sacrament, and via an ever-increasing assortment of other practices internal to the church herself. Anything the church did could now be classified as mission. With this, as Stephen Neill famously said, “If everything is mission, nothing is mission.”…

The Copernican turn of missio Dei is not something from which the Christian community can depart. Any other conception of the ground, motive, and goal of mission apart from missio Dei‘s Trinitarian location risks investing authority in historical accident and human capacity. Both the decisive force and fatal flaw of missio Dei rests in its relationship to the doctrine of the Trinity. As propounded to date, the concept is deficiently Trinitarian, and the wide range of its contemporary problems is a direct result of this single lack. Reference to the Trinity distanced mission from every particular human act, but, as now a divine attribute, uncertainty arose over the practical transition from divine being to the human missionary act. Missio Dei‘s vacuity emerges at this precise point….

Missio Dei provides a Trinitarian illusion behind which all manner of non-Trinitarian mediations operate with sanctioned impunity. The Trinitarian formula is pure preamble. This explains plains how a wide variety of seemingly incongruous positions can all lay claim to the name missio Dei.[2]

According to Flett, the reason why missio Dei is incapable of properly grounding Christian mission is due to its inherent lack of a Trinitarian ground and grammar, as T.F. Torrance would put it. God is inherently Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is who he is by his very nature. When, therefore, we fail to develop our understanding of his redemptive mission with his Trinitarian nature, (i.e. when we separate his act from his being), we will be unable to properly discern how God personally and directly carries out his mission via the church in the world. God redemptively relates to the world as Father, Son, and Spirit, and thus a failure to connect the latter to the former will leave us with a gap which can only be bridged by human activity. If the Triune God is reduced to a simple transcendent monad, then he effectively becomes walled off from creation, and thus his mission effectively becomes dependent in some way on the church. The problem arises, then, that the church becomes sovereign in determining the meaning and methods of its mission rather than subjecting itself to and participating in the mission of God, the very thing that missio Dei was meant to guarantee!

There is a great need, therefore, to develop a fully Trinitarian missio Dei — or perhaps a missio Trinitatis — in order to make missio Dei theology clear and effective. This is simply another way of saying that we need to develop a kataphysic or scientific missiology, one that strictly submits and conforms to the object of its inquiry, namely, the mission of the God who in Christ and by the Spirit has reconciled the world to himself.


[1] John G. Flett, The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community (Grand Rapids, Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2010), Kindle Locations 131-195. For references to sources referenced in the text, see Flett.

[2] Ibid.


A Stratified Knowledge of Mission?: Constructing a Scientific Missiology with T.F. Torrance

One of the most well-known and thoroughly studied of T.F. Torrance’s contributions to theological thought is his commendation of a “scientific” approach to the knowledge of God, i.e. that the theological method ought to be determined by the nature of God as he has revealed himself to us. For Torrance, this comports a “stratified” concept of the knowledge that we acquire in our theological work. In other words, the knowledge of God that we apprehend becomes progressively greater (or higher, as the metaphor suggests) as we penetrate ever further into the depths of God’s self-revelation. Torrance explains:

Image by Steve Thomason, deepintheburbs.com

[T]he unfolding of the doctrine of the Trinity takes place as it moves from its implicit biblical form to an explicit theological form. We found that doctrinal formulation involves here, as in all areas of scientific knowledge, a stratified structure of several coordinated levels of understanding in which the conceptual content and structure of basic knowledge becomes progressively disclosed to inquiry.

We moved from the ground level of evangelical or biblical knowledge of God as he is revealed to us in the saving activity of his incarnate Son, to a distinctly theological level in an attempt to grasp and give intelligible expression to the unbroken relation in Being and Act between Christ and the Holy Spirit to God the Father, which belongs to the very heart of the Gospel message of God’s redeeming love. This involved a decisive movement of thought, under the guidance of the key insight of the Nicene Creed expressed in the homoousion, from a preconceptual to a conceptual level of understanding which Christian faith takes under the compelling claims of God’s self-revelation and self-communication in the incarnation.

We then moved to a higher theological level devoted to a deepening and refining of the theological concepts and relations operating at the second level, this time with particular help from the notion of perichoresis, in terms of which the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as one Being, three Persons comes to its fullest formulation, yet in such a way that it serves understanding and appreciation of the saving and redemptive message of the Gospel upon which the whole Christian faith is grounded.

In this stratified structure of different epistemological levels, we noted that each level is open to consistent and deeper understanding in the light of the theological concepts and relations operating at the next level, and that the top level, and indeed the whole coordinated structure with it, while open-ended and incomplete in itself, points indefinitely beyond itself to the ineffable, transcendent Mystery of the Holy Trinity. Thus each level serves deeper and fuller understanding of the ground level of evangelical experience and cognition and relates the Trinity to God’s redemptive mission in Christ and in the Holy Spirit, inspiring worship and calling forth from us wonder, thanksgiving, adoration and praise.[1]

My purpose in this post is not to detail what Torrance means by the three levels of knowledge through which we pass in our apprehension of God, even though I realize that the above discussion may be a bit difficult to understand for some. I am more interested in exploring how this concept — which Torrance typically utilizes in relation to the knowledge of God as Trinity — might provide a structure upon which a scientific missiology (i.e. a missiology exclusively derived from the gospel message of God’s saving mission) can be constructed. In other words, does our theology of mission begin with our own experience in encountering and participating in the mission of the church, which we then articulate in terms of the missio Dei, which we ultimately discover is connected to the inner transcendent life of the Triune God himself?

This is not something that Torrance (to my knowledge) ever attempted, yet I think that the potential for using this stratified approach to theological knowledge in the field of missiology is there. In my reading of Torrance, even when he does not specifically say so, he seems to operate within these epistemological levels in virtually every theological task that he undertakes. So in this post I am simply posing the question: is it possible that Torrance’s view of Christian mission — which in turn drove his life’s work as a whole — can be helpfully elucidated in terms of the stratified epistemology with which he expounded the doctrine of the Trinity? It seems to me that the final sentence of the above quote would indicate this possibility.

In future “Reformission Monday” posts, I hope to explore this in further detail.


[1] T.F. Torrance, The Christian doctrine of God, one being three persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 113.

“In Loving Communion With Our Misery”: H.R. Mackintosh on the Cross as the Passion of God in Christ

[T]he Christian is intuitively aware that the vicarious love revealed in Jesus’ cross is the love of God. It is He that in Christ gives us “rest by His sorrow and life by His death.” It is He that stands beside us and receives our trespass, in its awful gravity for His mind and ours, upon Himself. Unless this were so, unless the passion to which we lift our eyes at Calvary were a Divine passion, through which we have sight of a grief that troubles even the Eternal Blessedness, it would simply mean nothing for religion. It could not affect the relation of man to God.

On the other hand, just because as we confront Jesus, living and dying, we become conscious of the Divine sacrifice poured forth in Him, we are irresistibly impelled to form one view of His person rather than another. Something of the pathos and sublimity of that word stirs and subdues the mind: “He that spared not His own Son, but delivered 81cb1a3420eb29a1756667775004c438Him up for us all.” Narrow and poor as human terms are, we must needs employ them to formulate the certainty of faith that in the sufferings of Christ for our sake God suffered; that for us the Father hid His face from the Son, withdrew His hand, permitted the desolation, left Him to His foes. The impression we receive at the cross is unintelligible save as in Jesus we behold very God “in loving communion with our misery.”

Again, the condemnation of sin visible in the life and death of Jesus is a condemnation uttered by God Himself. Not by a divinely commissioned prophet only, or other inspired deputy, but by God. We have a living sense of this as we are face to face with Jesus. There looks on us from His eyes the holiness with which evil cannot dwell. Never was sin so exposed, and, by exposure, reprobated, doomed, and sentenced as by our Lord’s demeanour. In His dealings with the sinful, and with the consequences of sin, this Man is one with God; and what awes the beholder in the cross is not the meeting of sin and a good man, but the meeting of sin with the Eternal. If as true man Christ felt the horror and curse of moral evil, He also in unity with God felt and judged its guilt.

And if, in spite of that judgment and condemnation, He goes to death for sinners, He thereby exemplifies in a supreme measure the moral truth that only He can forgive sin who expiates it. This judgment, then, of which Jesus is the personal manifestation, is a Divine judgment; at the same time, it is pronounced through the medium of perfect manhood. It comes from the lips of one who Himself had battled with temptation and had conquered in the power of God. Once more, the atonement raises great Christological questions by forcing us to ask how the obedience of Jesus avails for us, the guilty. It has always been a baffling problem: How can the suffering of one person benefit, or savingly embrace and comprehend, any other?…

[I]f Jesus Christ were one more human individual merely, as separate from men as we are from our fellows, the difficulty just noted would be insoluble, alike in logic and in morality. But if with St. Paul and St. John we decline to conceive Christ as one isolated person, and the Christian as another, then the representative act of sacrifice on His part is quite another thing, and the death that He died for all may have the significance which the death of all would itself have. Union, between Christ and men, that is, just because it is a union, has two sides. His self-identification with us implies consequences both for Him and us. As the representative or central person—none the less truly individual, as we shall see —He stands in a momentous kinship to men; and this universality of relation forms one vital condition of His power to make atonement.

It is surely the false step in many theories of atonement that they first abstract the Christian from Christ—severing them as two mutually impervious personalities—and then find it hard, naturally, to put them back into such a oneness that what Christ did and is fundamentally modifies our relation to God…. Not only so; it is precisely as we recognise the true Godhead of Christ that we are able to repel successfully one of the gravest moral difficulties which the doctrine of atonement has created. This is the difficulty men feel when they point to the impossible ideas of “an enraged Father, a victimised Son, the unrighteous punishment of the innocent, the unrighteous reward of the guilty.” As against certain forms of theory we need not question the justice of the charge. But it is at least obvious that the mistake of suggesting a kind of antagonism between the Father and the Son attaches more naturally to a view of Christ which denies, than to one which asserts, His deity. If Christ were but one more good man, there might be reason in the argument that redeeming love originated in man, not in God, and that by the urgency and passion of His sacrifice Christ had induced an otherwise implacable God to show mercy. But this antagonism we cannot suspect if we are sure that in Christ God Himself has bowed down to bless us. If the required atonement has been provided by God, out of His own life, it is meaningless to speak any more of His implacability.

H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 330-333.

Every Thought Captive: Why All Theology Must Conform to Christ (with reference to T.F. Torrance)

As expressed in John 1 and Hebrews 1, Jesus Christ is the ultimate and definitive revelation of God because he himself is the Word to which the prophets and apostles, like John the Baptist, were merely witnesses. Thus, when it comes to interpreting Scripture and formulating theology, we cannot start with an approach that we have developed or adopted from sources or philosophies external to this witness. Rather we must allow the form of our interpretive and theological method (and not just the material content!) to be shaped and determined by Christ who must be the Alpha and the Omega of all our thought and speech about God.

I would argue that this approach to Scripture and theology is necessitated by what we read in John 1:14, 18:

“In the Beginning” by Makoto Fujimura

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth…. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

In this passage, the apostle John makes clear that the form of God’s definitive self-revelation is inextricably bound up with its content, because “the Word became flesh” was both the message and the medium. Jesus Christ, the Word enfleshed, did not simply reveal God; he himself was also the God whom he revealed. It would be impossible, therefore, to separate what Christ revealed from the way in which he revealed it, for both were bound up with his incarnate person. Additionally, we must remember that Jesus Christ was not merely the Word of God to humanity, but — precisely as that Word become flesh — he was also humanity receiving and responding to God in perfect faith and obedience. It is in Christ alone that we discover not only the perfect revelation of God, but also the perfect apprehension of that revelation by a human mind, heart, and soul.

As a result, those who seek to apprehend this revelation (interpretation) and then to say what needs to be said on its basis (theology) can do so faithfully only insofar as they refuse to separate what God has joined together: both the message and the means of making it known. Only a methodology that respects this union of form and content by adapting itself to the nature of Jesus Christ will yield the true knowledge of God that both reveals and reconciles. Is this not what Paul meant when he stressed the necessity of taking every thought captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5)?

To conclude, here is an eloquent statement of this by “Christo-logian” par excellence Thomas F. Torrance [Theology in Reconstruction (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1996), pp.129-130]:

Christian knowledge of God arises out of the self-revelation of God in and through Jesus Christ, for in him the Word of God has become man in the midst of man’s estrangement from God, committing himself to human understanding and creating communion between man and God. Biblical and dogmatic theology is the careful unfolding and orderly articulation of this knowledge within the sphere of communion with God, i.e. the sphere of reconciliation into which we are drawn by the activity of his Word, and of the obedience of faith in which all our thinking and speaking is brought into conformity to the self-communication of his Word. The way which God has taken in Jesus Christ to reveal himself and to reconcile us to himself is the way which we have to make our own in all true understanding and thinking and speaking of him.

Theology, therefore, involves a knowledge which is determined and controlled in its content by what is given in Jesus Christ, and operates with a mode of rational activity which corresponds to the nature of the object of this knowledge is Jesus Christ. It is the incarnation of the Word which proscribes to dogmatic theology both its matter and its method, so that whether in its activity as a whole or in the formulation of a doctrine in any part, it is the Christological pattern that will be made to appear. That does not mean that all theology can be reduced to Christology, but because there is t-f-torrance-sketchonly one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus, in the orderly presentation of the doctrines of the Christian faith, every doctrine will be expressed in its inner coherence with Christology at its centre, and in its correspondence to the objective reality of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ who is true God and true Man…

We cannot divine between the so-called form and content, between the human word of revelation and revelation itself, any more than we can divide asunder the human and the divine natures which are united in the one Person of Jesus Christ. The inconfuse, immutabiliter, indivise, inseparabiliter of Chalcedonian Christology apply equally to our understanding of revelation. Revelation is not only act from the side of God but also from the side of man, in the form of the Humanity of Christ which is of the very substance of revelation. The divine form and the human form of revelation must neither be confounded nor be separated. The incarnation means that now revelation is determined and shaped by the Humanity of Christ, that we know of no revelation of the Word of God except that which is given through Christ and in the form of Christ. Jesus Christ is the Truth, Truth as God is Truth, and that same Truth in the form of Man, Truth answering itself, Truth assuming its own true form from the side of man and from within man.

The Cross Alone: Martin Luther’s Sixth Sola of the Reformation (The Heidelberg Disputation, 1518)

Recently I have written about the theologia crucis — the theology of the cross — that constituted in many ways Martin Luther’s most important discovery, a discovery that gave rise to his entire vision for church reform. Although Luther is perhaps remembered more for his doctrine of justification by faith alone or for his courageous stand at the Diet of Worms, it is arguable that his understanding of theologia crucis, based largely on Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, was a far more significant development in that it funded his entire theological project. Luther publicly put forward the theology of the cross — something that he contrasted with the theology of glory that characterized the theological method of much medieval scholasticism — at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. So what exactly was Luther’s cross-and-bible-1302668theology of the cross, and why was it so significant? The editors of Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings [Third edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 14, 24-25.], W.R. Russell and T.F. Lull, explain the background as follows:

In April 1518, the German Augustinian order held its General Chapter meeting in the southwestern German city of Heidelberg. By this time (six months after the publication of The Ninety-Five Theses), Luther was under a great cloud of controversy. When his superiors asked him to present his ideas to the Brothers, he used the form of a modified disputation; he wrote these theses, not for a debate he would chair in professorial style, but rather as a way to present his theology.

Already in this early document, Luther develops some characteristic theological themes as he expands his understanding of sin, grace, and free will. And in doing so, he offers his distinctive proposal for reform of the church—a reform centered in the “theology of the cross” (theologia crucis). Moreover, the Reformer moves beyond the mere content of theological propositions to offer a cross-centered method of theologizing.

Thus, for example, Luther argued in theses 25-28:

25. He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.

For the righteousness of God is not acquired by means of acts frequently repeated, as Aristotle taught, but it is imparted by faith, for “He who through faith is righteous shall live” (Rom. 1[:17]), and “A person believes with the heart and so is justified” (Rom. 10[:10]). Therefore I wish to have the words “without work” understood in the following manner: Not that the righteous person does nothing, but that one’s works do not make him or her righteous, rather that one’s righteousness creates works. For grace and faith are infused without our works. After they have been imparted the works follow. Thus Romans 3[:20] states, “No human being will be justified in God’s sight by works of the law,” and, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3[:28]). In other words, works contribute nothing to justification. Therefore, a person knows that works done by such faith are not one’s own but God’s. For this reason one does not seek to become justified or glorified through them, but seeks God. One’s justification by faith in Christ is sufficient. Christ is such a person’s wisdom, righteousness, etc., as 1 Corinthians 1[:30] has it, that we may be Christ’s action and instrument.

26. The law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.

The first part is clear from what has been stated by the Apostle and his interpreter, St. Augustine, in many places. And it has been stated often enough above that the law works wrath and keeps all humans under the curse. The second part is clear from the same sources, for faith justifies. “And the law (says St. Augustine) commands what faith obtains.” For through faith Christ is in us, indeed, one with us. Christ is just and has fulfilled all the commands of God, wherefore we also fulfill everything through him since he was made ours through faith.

27. Actually one should call the work of Christ an acting work and our work an accomplished work, and thus an accomplished work pleasing to God by the grace of the acting work.

Because Christ lives in us through faith so he arouses us to do good works through that living faith in his work, for the works which Christ does are the fulfillment of the commands of God given to us through faith. If we look at them we are moved to imitate them. For this reason the Apostle says, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” [Eph. 5:1]. Thus deeds of mercy are aroused by the works through which Christ has saved us, as St. Gregory says: “Every act of Christ is instruction for us, indeed, a stimulant.” If Christ’s action is in us it lives through faith, for it is exceedingly attractive according to the verse, “Draw me after you, let us make haste” [Song of Sol. 1:4] toward the fragrance “of your anointing oils” [Song of Sol. 1:3], that is, “your works.”

28. The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. Human love comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.

The second part is clear and is accepted by all philosophers and theologians, for the object of love is its cause, assuming, according to Aristotle, that all power of the soul is passive and material and active only in receiving something. Thus it is also demonstrated that Aristotle’s philosophy is contrary to theology since in all things it seeks those things which are its own and receives rather than gives something good. The first part is clear because the love of God which lives in a person loves sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong. Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive. For this reason human love avoids sinners and evil persons. Thus Christ says: “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” [Matt. 9:13]. This is the love of the cross, born of the cross, which turns in the direction where it does not find good which it may enjoy, but where it may confer good upon the bad and needy person. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” [Acts 20:35], says the Apostle. Hence Psalm 41[:1] states, “Blessed is he who considers the poor,” for the intellect cannot by nature comprehend an object which does not exist, that is the poor and needy person, but only a thing which does exist, that is the true and good. Therefore it judges according to appearances, is a respecter of persons, and judges according to that which can be seen, etc.

Russell and Lull helpfully summarize for us what all this means:

Luther had come to think that the main problem with the Scholastic theological tradition was its commitment to philosophical rationalism. Thinkers such as Thomas criticism-ml-hx-pg_1Aquinas unblinkingly followed the rationalistic trajectories of their first principles. Therefore, their opening theological moves tended to dominate the systems they developed.

For example, because the Scholastics believed they could prove the existence of God with philosophical reason, Luther thought they moved too smoothly from what could be known in nature to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Though Thomas himself was clear that reason could not explain the “saving mysteries,” much of the energy of subsequent Scholastic theology went into these foundational questions.

The Reformer thought the Scholastic project obscured what Paul had taught: the cross of Christ is not a concept compatible with conventional philosophy. To reason, the cross is foolishness and offense. The meaning of Christ’s death cannot be explained—that is, without obscuring its scandalous character. Therefore, writes Luther, the true theologian does not build a rational system, based on visible and evident things (following Aristotle). Rather, the paradox of the cross teaches that the ways of God are hidden (deus absconditus), even in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Here Luther provides not only theological and philosophical theses; he also elaborates each thesis as he connects the issues at stake with the Scriptures and various theologians.

Here we see Luther’s radically grace-centered theology, as he sets the righteousness of God not only against philosophical claims of “wisdom,” but also against all the best moral achievement of humanity. Thus, the Reformer appeals to the strong voice of St. Augustine, especially in his controversy with Pelagius, which apparently had become muted even in the Augustinian order.

Here we see the connection between Luther’s theologia crucis and justification by faith alone. Justification by faith alone is offensive to human reason that wants to assert its own wisdom and power instead of being utterly at the mercy of God’s sovereign grace. Thus, before we can understand justification by faith alone, our wisdom and power must be crucified so that we can submit to the “foolishness” and “weakness” of the gospel.

In short, a theology of glory is to be found wherever it is assumed that human beings can reach God through their own wisdom and power (even with the help of grace); the theology of the cross, on the other hand, is to be found only where it is believed, on the basis of the Word of God, that the gospel has nullified all human wisdom and power with the foolishness and weakness of God. To truly know God, we must become fools according to human wisdom; we must be crucified to human power. To truly know God, we must never form any thought or conception of him outside of his self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The theology of the cross understands that the power of human wisdom need not simply be “elevated” or “perfected” by revelation (according to Thomas Aquinas’s famous dictum), but rather contradicted and demolished in order to be wholly reconstructed and set on an entirely new basis. In sum, the theology of the cross teaches that in order to know God, we must be crucified with Christ in order to be resurrected to a new way of knowing in him.

Perhaps to the traditional five Solas of the Reformation we should add a sixth: sola crux, the cross alone.

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.


[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.

The Blood of God: Understanding the Atonement as a Work of the Trinity (A Reflection for Good Friday)

On this Good Friday, I would like to offer a reflection from Adam Johnson on the way in which we must understand the atonement accomplished in the crucifixion of Jesus as not merely a work of the Son, or of the Son over against the Father and the Spirit, but as a work of the Trinity as a whole. Sometimes we can fall into the trap of thinking that Christ was merely passive in bearing the wrath of the Father while the Father was the active one, pouring out his wrath on Christ. As we will see below, it is this kind of thinking that gives rise to such crass caricatures of the atonement as some kind of “divine child abuse”. The problem stems from an understanding of the atonement that stretches the doctrine of appropriations beyond its breaking point and runs roughshod over the important theological principle that opera ad extra sunt indivisa, that the persons of the Trinity are always, as in their divine essence, undivided in all of their works. I know this may sound overly esoteric, but its vital importance is underscored by Johnson when he writes (with reference to Karl Barth):

[W]e find the doctrine of God’s triunity energizing Barth’s account of the doctrine of reconciliation. For instance, the doctrine of appropriations enables Barth to attribute acts or qualities to specific persons of the Trinity, such as the wrath of the Father that is poured out upon the Son. Scripture permits, even forces, Barth to make such differentiations, speaking ‘in terms of [them] … with great seriousness, i.e., in such a way that we are in no position to remove them without exegetical wresting’ (CD I/1, 372). Along these lines, Barth writes that Jesus was obedient in choosing ‘to suffer the wrath of God in His own body and the fire of His love in His own soul’ (CD IV/1, 95), and affirms with the Heidelberg Catechism that ‘during the whole time of His life on earth Jesus … bore the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race’ (CD IV/1, 165). Even more boldly, he specifies that ‘God’ in such cases refers to the Father: the Son of God made flesh ‘stands under the wrath and judgment of God … He concedes that the Father is right in trinity-cruifixionthe will and action which leads Him to the cross’ and ‘the suffering of children chastised by their Father’ he there experienced (CD IV/1, 175).

The doctrine of appropriations never stands on its own, though: we must dialectically relate any conclusions made on these grounds to the rule opera ad extra sunt indivisa, such that we do not conclude that the Father’s wrath of itself distinguishes the Father from the Son. Such a conclusion collapses into tritheism (and a non-Trinitarian understanding of the divine perfections), ultimately undermining the possibility of both revelation and atonement. To the contrary, Barth affirms the oneness of God’s acts and perfections. Just after the passage last quoted, Barth writes:

In Him God has entered in, breaking into that circulus vitiosus of the human plight, making His own not only the guilt of man but also his rejection and condemnation, giving Himself to bear the divinely righteous consequences of human sin, not merely affirming the divine sentence on man, but allowing it to be fulfilled on Himself. (CD IV/1, 175)

He thus demonstrates the necessary dialectical tension between the doctrine and rule we have been examining, affirming the work of Christ simply as a work of the one God. And nowhere is Barth’s commitment to the outworking of this dialectic more evident than in his account of Christ’s passion in the life of God, his modified affirmation of Patripassianism, the consideration of which brings us to our governing interest in the relationship between the doctrines of the Trinity and atonement.

This event of God’s giving of Himself in which the ‘divine sentence on man’ is ‘fulfilled on Himself’ is a Trinitarian event in which the sentence and judgement of the Father is fulfilled on the incarnate Son: in Jesus’ suffering and death. The imminent danger is that we too rigidly distinguish the Father and Son in this event, breaking apart the unity of God’s being. Eschewing this danger, Barth writes:

It is not at all the case that God has no part in the suffering of Jesus Christ even in His mode of being as the Father. No, there is a particular veri in the teaching of the early Patripassians. This is that primarily it is God the Father who suffers in the offering and sending of His Son, in His abasement … [He suffers] in the humiliation of His Son with a depth with which it never was or will be suffered by any man—apart from the One who is His Son … The fatherly fellow-suffering of God is the mystery, the basis, of the humiliation of His Son. (CD IV/2, 357; KD, 399)

Elsewhere, he adds:

With the eternal Son the eternal Father has also to bear what falls on the Son … In Jesus Christ God Himself, the God who is the one true God, the Father with the Son in the unity of the Spirit, has suffered what it befell this man to suffer to the bitter end … It is of this fellow-suffering of God Himself borne on earth and also in heaven to the greater glory of God and the supreme salvation of man; it is of the God who has not evaded, and on the very grounds of His deity could not evade, this suffering with and for the world, that the crucified man Jesus Christ speaks … He speaks … [of] the peace the price of which He Himself willed to pay and did pay in the person of this man, and therefore in the person of His own Son, and therefore in His fatherly heart. (CD IV/3.1, 414–15; KD, 478)

While Barth does not mention the ‘rule’ or ‘doctrine’ with which we are here concerned, they lie just below the surface, manifest in the dialectic of God Himself on the one hand and the incarnate Son and the Father on the other. The doctrine of appropriations affirms that we can and must distinguish between the Father and the incarnate Son, such that only the Son is incarnate and suffers death and abandonment of the Father. On the other hand, the rule opera ad extra sunt indivisa demands that we step back, dwelling on the fact that Christ’s passion is the work of the one God, such that ‘the death of Jesus Christ in God-abandonment, precisely as a human experience, is understood by him to be an event in God’s own life’, the life of the one God. This explains why, as Berthold Klappert notes, Barth is more inclined to speak of the suffering of God (theopaschitisch) than the New Testament emphasis on the suffering of Christ (hyiopaschitisch), interpreting the prevailing New Testament witness in light of the theopaschite statement in 2 Cor. 5:19. For this reason Barth refers to the ‘fellow-suffering of God Himself’ and subsequently distinguishes that suffering according to the various ‘ways of God’s being’, such that the Father, in fact, suffers with the Son in his ‘fatherly heart’ precisely by giving him up to this suffering.

According to Barth, as long as the Church properly balances the doctrine of appropriations and the rule opera ad extra, it has the right and responsibility to use provisional and temporary distinctions and appropriations (such as ‘the wrath of the Father’) in its theological discourse. This conclusion has a double edge in relation to current discussions. First, it forces critiques of the doctrine of the atonement based on a putatively fatal distinction between the Father and Son (typically referred to as a form of divine child abuse) to a greater depth of analysis, such that they must examine the arguments not only for appropriations (which, as we have seen, are one-sided even when warranted), but also for the balancing presence of the rule opera ad extra sunt indivisa. Likewise, this conclusion demands that proponents of traditional forms of the atonement be wary of concluding or giving unnecessary grounds for others to conclude that such appropriations finally and absolutely distinguish the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.[1]

Now some of this might seem like theological hair-splitting, but I am convinced that it is absolutely essential. At stake is nothing less than the certainty that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19) and that the God redeemed his church “with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Statements like these can sound shocking, and they should. God on the cross? God’s own blood? How could such a thing be possible? And yet it is the heart of the Christian gospel: had God not been in Christ in the fullness of his Trinitarian being reconciling the world to himself, then Good Friday would ultimately have no meaning for us. Countless people were crucified on Roman crosses; so what would make the execution of one more Jew from Nazareth any different? Or, even if Jesus were the Son of God in the flesh but in a manner separate from the Father, then how could we ever know that what he did on the cross opens a window into the very heart of the Father’s infinite love? Apart from implying a heretical tritheism, inserting a wedge between the Son and the Father in the atonement makes it seem as though the latter was merely inflicting wrath on the former and only gave approval of that sacrifice after seeing Christ’s perfect obedience.

But surely this is not good news; this tells us of a wrathful God hidden and obscured behind the back of the crucified Son. Certainly there is a pouring out of wrath, but as Johnson emphasizes, it is a pouring out of wrath that falls within the trinitarian life of God himself. That is to say, the pouring out of divine wrath on the cross was, in fact, the greatest manifestation of the divine love, for it involved nothing less than God himself taking upon our lost and damned condition and extinguishing the flames of judgment against our sin.The cross is not the Father against the Son, but the Father with the Son (and the Spirit!) against sin. Surely this could never be called “divine child abuse”! It can only be called what it is: the incomprehensible and boundless love of God for us sinners, so vast and deep that it will stop at nothing, not even at death, to rescue and reconcile us. This indeed ample reason to rejoice this Good Friday!


[1] Adam J. Johnson, God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth (London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp.80-83.

Undivided in Being and Act: Karl Barth on the Inseparable Operations of the Trinity

As a prelude to what I plan to post for Good Friday, I would like to offer Karl Barth’s summary of what St. Augustine called the orthodox faith of the catholic [universal] church, namely, that as the being of the Triune God is indivisible, so are his works indivisible. Just as we cannot conceive of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as separate beings or Gods unto themselves, but only as one God with one being, so also we cannot conceive of the works that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit accomplish as being separate acts unto each person. Thus, for example, we cannot say that only the Father was the Creator, or that only the Son is the Savior, or that only the Spirit is the Sanctifier, for in all the works of creation, salvation, and sanctification, each person of the Trinity is fully united with the others in act just as they are in being.

Barth explains this somewhat technical but highly important concept as follows:

Just as Scripture is to be read in context as the witness to God’s revelation, just as, e.g., Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost can only say together what they have to say, so we must say that all God’s work, as we are to grasp it on the basis of His revelation, is one act which occurs simultaneously and in concert in all His three modes of being. From creation by way of revelation and reconciliation to the coming redemption it is always true that He who acts here is the Father and the Son and the Spirit. And it is true of all the perfections that are to be declared in relation to this work of God that they are as much the perfections of the Father as of the Son and the Spirit. [By appropriation] thisTrinity-shield-cross-diagram-from-oxford act or this attribute must now be given prominence in relation to this or that mode of being in order that this can be described as such. But only [by appropriation] may this happen, and in no case, therefore, to the forgetting or denying of God’s presence in all His modes of being, in His total being and act even over against us….

From the eternity of the relation of the Father and the Son, in which that of the relation of both to the Holy Spirit is also contained, it necessarily follows first that not only God the Father is to be claimed as the Creator and as our Father, and that God the Father is not only to be claimed as the Creator and as our Father. We have said above that the use of the name Father for this relation and act of God ad extra is a derived and improper use. Revelation in so far as it is the revelation of God the Creator and our Father, and in so far as this its content is not to be separated from its form as revelation in Jesus, leads us to the knowledge of God as the eternal Father. But in this very knowledge we cannot separate the Father from the Son and from the Holy Ghost. In this knowledge, then, there necessarily becomes plain to us the purely relative significance of the way of isolation on which we have reached this knowledge. It implies an “appropriation” (cf. § 9, 3) when by isolation we regard specifically God the Father as the Creator and as our Father and when we regard God the Father specifically as the Creator and as our Father. The triunity does not mean that three parts of God operate alongside one another in three different functions. [The external works of the Trinity are undivided], as also the essence of God is a single and undivided essence…

Thus not only the subject of the first article of the Creed is the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, but with Him, in the order and sense pertaining to each, the subjects of the second and third articles too. And again the subject of the first article is not only the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, but also, again in the appropriate order and sense, the subject of reconciliation like the subject of the second article and the subject of redemption like that of the third article. Not the Father alone, then, is God the Creator, but also the Son and the Spirit with Him. And the Father is not only God the Creator, but with the Son and the Spirit He is also God the Reconciler and God the Redeemer. The very knowledge of the intratrinitarian particularity of the name of Father is thus a guarantee of the unity of God which would be endangered by regard for the particularity of God’s revelation as the Creator and our Father if this were not guided by this apparently—but only apparently—very speculative intratrinitarian insight. Because God is the eternal Father as the Father of the Son, and with Him the origin of the Spirit, therefore the God who acts in reconciliation and redemption, and who reveals Himself as the Reconciler and Redeemer, cannot be a second and third God or a second and third part of God; He is and remains God [one and indivisible] in His work as in His essence.[1]

Barth notes here that while it is possible and legitimate, on the basis of Scripture, to attribute (i.e. appropriate) certain acts to one specific person of the Trinity, it must be kept in mind that this way of speaking should not be thought to imply that the other two persons are uninvolved in that work. Any appropriation of the divine works to one person of the Trinity is a means by which Scripture stoops to human understanding in order to helps us comprehend the incomprehensible, so in no way should it be hardened into a clear-cut division. “For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19). Thus, the Father, Son, and Spirit are indivisibly united in their works just as they are in their essence.

Although it may not be immediately apparent, this doctrine of “inseparable operations” has massive implications for the rest of theology, not least for the atonement and election. Without going into great detail, suffice it to say that we must theologize according to following rule: the person and work of Jesus Christ in history corresponds completely and without remainder to the being and will of God in eternity. We cannot, therefore, attribute to God’s eternal design some intention that is not fully manifested in Christ, particularly in his death and resurrection. Thus, the doctrine of inseparable operations establishes an indivisible link between atonement and election, as it also interweaves together all other aspects of Christian theology. Interpreting Scripture and doing theology in terms of this key doctrine is what thinking theo-logically is all about.

So tomorrow: what does inseparable operations mean for our understanding of the atonement?


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), pp.374-375, 394-395.

Christ As Savior Before Creator: H.R. Mackintosh on the Significance of the Post-Resurrection Perspective of the Apostolic Witness

As I work my way through Scottish theologian H.R. Mackintosh’s magisterial work on The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ, I continue to be illuminated and blessed by the riches that he was able to mine from the depths of the biblical witness. In the excerpt that I would like to share in this post, Mackintosh offers a brief but powerful reflection on the significance of the post-resurrection perspective that we find in the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ. In this specific instance, Mackintosh exposits the beautiful hymn of Colossians 1:15-20. Let’s look first at the passage in consideration and then listen to Mackintosh’s comments:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

In this picture of Christ…the apostle moves onward from historical to cosmic modes of interpretation. We may single out the three main statements: first, Christ is the organ of creation, absolute in function and eternal in existence; secondly, in Him all things are held together, cohering in that unity and solidarity which make a cosmos; thirdly, as all things took rise in Him, so they move on to Him as final goal. The aorist tense is used to affirm that Christ created all things, for the writer is thinking of the pre-existent One; but the fact that he lapses into perfects and presents is a suggestive hint that he contemplates this pre-existence through the medium, so to speak, of the st-paul-conversionexalted Life. Or to put it otherwise, Christ is conceived as creator of the world qua the Person in whom the universe was in due time to find its organic centre in virtue of His work of reconciliation; He was the initial cause of all things, as being destined to be their final end. His function as Creator is proleptically conditioned by His achievement as Saviour.

The apostle’s mind, here as everywhere, starts from the risen Lord… It is interesting to compare an earlier form of the same idea. This is in 1 Co 8:6: “To us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we unto Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we through Him.” Christ is the agent in creation, yet He is here designated not as Son, but by the title usually applied to the risen Saviour. As in Colossians, the ideas of creation and redemption are united—redemption being the present fact from which thought begins, and in the light of which alone creation can be interpreted. The Son before all time is visible through Christ’s historic work in grace…In the Colossian passage, therefore, we can discern also this inferential counter-movement of thought redemption is a fruit of, and has its basis in, Christ’s place and work in nature.[1]

Mackintosh packs so much substance in so few words that it would take far more than a mere blog post to explain it while doing it justice! I think that we can grasp the essence of his argument, however, if we take careful note of the first sentence of the second paragraph: “The apostle’s mind, here as everywhere, starts from the risen Lord”. This is, in other words, the post-resurrection perspective of Jesus Christ that is evident throughout all of Paul’s writings (and arguably the New Testament as well). That is to say, the apostles did not begin their preaching and teaching about Christ by identifying him as a mere man (as he may have appeared to many people prior to his resurrection) or by expounding his pre-existent, un-incarnate state as the second person of the Trinity. Rather, their perspective throughout their witness is, as exemplified by Paul in Colossians 1, of Jesus as the exalted God-man, forever clothed in our humanity yet inextricably bound up with the identity of the one God of Israel. It is from the point of view of Jesus resurrected and ascended to the right hand of the Father on high that the apostles articulated the meaning of the person and work of Christ.

While this observation may seem a bit obvious from a casual reading of this passage, it carries with it, as Mackintosh understood, a host of astonishing implications. The person of whom Paul speaks here as the one through and for whom all things were created is not simply the Son of God simpliciter, but Jesus Christ, the very same who was crucified, risen, and is coming again! This is stunning. It seems that Paul was not able to think of Christ as merely the pre-existent Son of God in abstraction from his incarnate humanity any more than he was able to think of Christ as a mere historical figure in abstraction from his pre-existent divine being. In other words, for Paul, the one through whom and for whom all things came into being was the God-man Jesus Christ!

Now this is not to deny the incarnation as a particular event both in history and in the life of God himself; rather it is to emphasize that God brought creation into being through the his Son for the purpose of providing a theater, as it were, in which to enact the glorious drama of incarnation, atonement, and redemption. As Mackintosh puts it, Christ’s “function as Creator is proleptically conditioned by His achievement as Saviour”. This does not mean, of course, that Christ’s achievement as Saviour actually occurred prior to creation; rather it was in view of his redemptive achievement that he exercised his function as Creator. Simply stated, the Son of God was our Savior before he was our Creator. It was in view of the saving history of Christ’s incarnate life that the history of the universe was given its beginning.

Mackintosh’s student T.F. Torrance often referred to this foundational insight in his own theological work. In one of his later publications on the Trinity, Torrance echoed his esteemed teacher’s interpretation of Colossians 1 in a particularly eloquent way:

In virtue of his intrinsic and eternal Fatherhood God always had the power to create, and did actually create because he was and is the Father of the Son. Expressed otherwise, since God is Father in himself, as Father of the Son, he is essentially generative or fruitful in his own Being, and it is because he is inherently productive as Father that God could and did freely become Creator or Source of all being beyond himself. Creation arises, then, out of the Father’s eternal love of the Son, and is activated through the free ungrudging movement of that Fatherly love in sheer grace which continues to flow freely and unceasingly toward what God has brought into being in complete differentiation from himself.

This is a truth which we have come to grasp only through the incarnation of his Love in Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son whom he did not spare but delivered him up for us all. The utterly astonishing truth revealed in the fact that God did not spare his beloved Son but freely gave him up for us on the Cross is that ‘God loves us better than he loves himself, and that, with the gift of his dear Son in atoning sacrifice for our sin, God the Father will continue freely to give us all things. This is why it may be said, not only that our understanding of creation is proleptically conditioned by redemption, but that the actual creation of the universe in the outward movement of the Father’s love was proleptically conditioned by the incarnation of that love within it in order to redeem the creation and to reconcile all things, things visible and invisible alike, to himself. This is another way of expressing what the New Testament Scriptures refer to as the divine act of ‘predestination’ before the foundation of the world, but of course an act of predestination in which we may not and cannot rightly interpret that ‘pre’ in terms of the kind of temporal priority, or indeed causal and logical priority, with which we have to do in the universe of created space and time.[2]

This certainly provides much food for thought. The implications of this are far-reaching, as Torrance illustrates when he mentions the doctrine of predestination (i.e. the impossibility of dividing the scope of creation from the scope of redemption), but I must stop here. May God continue to grant us, as he did to these faithful servants, an ever-deepening understanding of and passionate love for our great God as he revealed himself in Jesus Christ!


[1] H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp.70-1.

[2] T.F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1996), pp.209-10.

It’s All About Jesus! John Calvin on the Purpose and Meaning of Scripture

Writing the preface to the Genevan Bible of 1550, John Calvin set out to provide the reader with a sure guide for mining the riches out of the depths of the Word of God. What is this sure guide? Calvin almost waxes poetical when he states:

Now, since you have heard that the Gospel presents to you JESUS CHRIST, in whom all the Promises and Gifts of GOD are accomplished; and declares to you that He was sent from the FATHER, came down to Earth, Conversed with men, Completed all that was necessary for our Salvation; as it had been Predicted in the Law and the Prophets: it ought to be very certain and clear to you, that the Treasures of Paradise are open to you, and the Riches of GOD spread before you, and the Life Eternal revealed to you. “For this is Life Eternal, to known one “only True GOD; and Him whom He sent, JESUS “CHRIST,” in whom he has fixed the Beginning, the Middle, and the End of our Salvation.

This is Isaac, the well-beloved Son of his Father, who was offered in Sacrifice, and yet for all that did not succumb to the power of Death. This is the Good Shepherd, Jacob, taking such great care of the Sheep of which he has the charge. This is the Good and Pitying Brother, Joseph, who in his glory was not ashamed to recognise his Brothers, contemptible and object as they were. This is the Great Priest and Bishop Melchiseder, who has made an eternal sacrifice, once for all men. This is the Sovereign Law-giver Moses, writing his law, by his Spirit, on the tables of our hearts. This is the Faithful Captain and Guide Joshua, to conduct us to the promised land. This is the Noble and Victorious King David, subduing under his hand every rebellious power. This is the Magnificent and Triumphant King Solomon, governing his people in peace and 130816-004-e1c66273prosperity. This is the Strong and Mighty Samson, who, by his death, overwhelmed all his enemies. And even every Good which can be Imagined or Desired is found in one alone, JESUS CHRIST.

For He Humbled Himself, to Exalt us; He made Himself a Servant, to set us Free; He became Poor, to Enrich us; He was Sold, to Buy us back; a Captive, to Deliver us; Condemned, to procure our Pardon; He was made a Curse, that we might be Blessed; the Oblation for sins, for our Justification; His face was marred, to re-beautify ours; He Died, that we might have Life. In such sort that, by Him, Hardness is softened; Wrath appeased; Darkness made light; Iniquity turned into Righteousness; Weakness is made Strength; Despair is consoled; Sin is resisted; Shame is despised; Fear is emboldened; Debt is paid; Labour is lightened; Sorrow turned into joy; Misfortune into blessing; Difficulties are made easy; Disorder made order; Division into union; Ignominy is ennobled; Rebellion subjected; Threat is threatened; Ambush is ambushed; Assault assailed; Striving is overpowered; War is warred against; Vengeance is avenged on; Torment tormented; Damnation damned; Destruction destroyed; Hell burned up; Death is killed; Mortality changed to Immortality.

In short, Pity has swallowed up all misery; and Goodness, all wretchedness. For all those things, which used to be the arms with which the Devil combated us, and the Sting of Death, are, to draw us forward, turned into instruments from which we can derive profit. So that we can boast with the Apostle, saying, “O Hell! “where is thy Victory? O Death! where is thy “Sting?” And thence it comes, that by such a spirit as CHRIST promised His Elect, We no longer live, but CHRIST lives in us; and we are, by the Spirit, seated in heavenly places, until the world shall be no longer a world to us, in that we have our conversation in Him: but we are content, whatever may be our Country, Place, Condition, Clothes, Food, and other like things: and are comforted in Tribulation; in Sorrow, are joyful; under Abuse, glorified; in Poverty, abounding; in Nakedness made warm; patient of Evil; in Death, living.

This is the whole of what we should seek in the Scriptures: to be well acquainted with JESUS CHRIST, and the Infinite Riches which are comprised in Him; and which are, by Him, offered to us from GOD His Father. For if the Law and the Prophets be most carefully searched, there is not to be found in them one word which does not refer and lead to Him. And in fact, since all the treasures of Wisdom and Knowledge are hid in Him, it is not well to have any other end or object; unless we wish, as with deliberate intention, to turn ourselves away from the light of Truth, to go astray into the thick darkness of Falsehood.

Moreover, St. Paul, in another passage, rightly says, “That he did not account it of any value to Know all “things, if he did not Know CHRIST and Him “Crucified.” For however much to the carnal mind that Knowledge may seem a common and contemptible thing; nevertheless, the acquiring of it is sufficient to occupy us all our life. And we shall not have lost our time, though we employ all our Study, and apply all our Understanding to profit by it. What more could we ask, for the Spiritual Teaching of our souls, than to known GOD; to be transformed into Him; to have His Glorious Image impressed upon us; and to be partakers of His Righteousness? to be heirs of His Kingdom? to possess it fully to the end? Now, it is thus, that from the commencement He gave Himself to our contemplation; and now more clearly gives Himself in the Person of His CHRIST. It is not then allowable that we turn ourselves away and wander here and there, however little it may be; but our understanding must be altogether stayed at this point, to learn in the Scriptures to know only JESUS CHRIST, in order to be, by Him, conducted straight to the FATHER, who contains within Himself all Perfection.[1]

What, according to John Calvin, is Scripture all about? In a word, Jesus! If we read Scripture without seeing Jesus in all its parts, we have not truly read Scripture.



[1] Calvin, J., 1850. Christ the End of the Law: Being the Preface to the Geneva Bible of 1550, London: William Tegg, & Co. pp.28-33.