“A New Light Falls on God”: H.R. Mackintosh on the Wonder and Power of God’s Self-Limitation in the Incarnation

The following reflection is excerpted from H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 466-468.

Take the central thought of the Gospel, which has captured and subdued the Christian soul, and let us ask whether it has received full justice at the hands of ecclesiastical Christology. God in Christ, we believe, came down to the plane of suffering men that He might lift them up. Descending into poverty, shame, and weakness, the Lord was stripped of all credit, despoiled of every right, humbled to the very depths of social and historical ignominy, that in this self-abasement of God there might be found the redemption of man.

So that the Gospel tells of Divine sacrifice, with the cross as its unspeakable consummationthe Saviour’s lot was one of poverty, suffering, and humiliation, until the
triumphant death and resurrection which wrought 
deliverance and called mankind aac6e069f1f609350645cdecf18ab202--church-architecture-architecture-detailsfrom its grave. Hearts have thrilled to this message that Christ came from such a height and to such a depth! He took our human frailty to be His own. So dear were human souls to God, that He travelled far and stooped low that He might thus touch and raise the needy.

Now this is an unheard-of truth, casting an amazing light on God, and revolutionising the world’s faint notions of what it means for Him to be Father; but traditional Christology, on the whole, has found it too much to believe. Its persistent obscuration of Jesus’ real manhood proves that after all it shrank from the thought of a true “kinsman Redeemer”—one of ourselves in flesh and spirit…. He became poor—there a new light falls on God, who for us became subject to pain; but one may well feel that the light is not enhanced but rather diminished if with tradition we have to add that nevertheless He all the time remained rich. For in so far as He remained rich—in the same sense of riches—and gave up nothing to be near us, need of a Divine Helper to bear our load would be still unsatisfied. What we require is the never-failing sympathy which takes shape in action, “entering,” as it has been put, “into conditions that are foreign to it in order to prove its quality.”

Jesus’ life then becomes a study in the power, not the weakness, of limitations, while yet the higher Divine content transfigures the limits that confine it. And it is just this sympathy without reserve which appears when the fact of Christ becomes for us a transparent medium through which the very grace of God is shining. God, we now know, is love; but it was necessary that He should live beside us, in the form of one finite spirit, in order that His love and its sacrifice might be known to men and win back their love.

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A More Subduing Gospel: H.R. Mackintosh on the Evangelical Significance of Christ’s Pre-existence

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[The following is excerpted from H.R. Mackingtosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 460-462.]

It will not be seriously questioned that the chief glory of the Christian religion is its characteristic conception of the Divine love. God’s love in Christ is triumphantly set forth as something infinite and measureless. But is it really so, apart from Christ’s eternity? Is it the fact, His eternity once denied, that we cannot imagine a vaster exhibition of Divine mercy to the world? If in Christ we have something less than “God’s presence and His very self,” because He grows on the soil of human nature, as simply human, it is surely clear that the scale on which the love of the Eternal has been made manifest is now gravely altered. We have somehow to abridge our once glorious vision of self-sacrifice as the inmost core and focus of the Divine life.

It is not that God cannot be known as Love apart from His incarnation in Christ. To say so would be false. But it is not false to say that apart from the gift of Christ out of an eternal being, God’s love would not be displayed so amazingly, in a form and magnitude which inspire, awe, and overwhelm the soul. A Christ who is eternal, and a Christ of whom we cannot tell whether He is eternal or not, are positively and profoundly different, and the types of faith they respectively call forth will differ correspondingly both in spiritual horizon and in moral inspiration.

Our sense of Christ’s self-abnegation, His lowliness, His grace, His utter passion of sacrifice—is perceptibly expanded or reduced according as we do or do not hold that He who bore these things had entered by Divine volition into the situation of which they form a part. Something which is irreplaceable drops away when His eternity has been cancelled. The Gospel can never be the same again, and the loss is borne not by speculative dogmatic but by personal religion. Especially the preacher has parted with a certain leverage of moral appeal no more to be regained. It is harder now to persuade men that God loves us better than He loves Himself….

We cannot know the pre-temporal as we do the earthly life of Christ, or even as we do (in a real sense) His life of exalted glory. The stage in His career at which we meet with Him is after Bethlehem, not before it; we meet with Him supremely in His recorded words and actions; and he who has not found God in the record of these three sinless years can have no stake of a vital or intelligible kind in the question whether they stand out against an infinite and eternal background. But indeed the Church has clung to faith in Christ’s pre-existence … as the only means open to human thought of affirming the priceless truth that He is not the perfect Saint merely, offered by humanity to God, but the beloved Son sent forth by the Father, cast in grace upon “this bank and shoal of time,” that in love He might give Himself for us all. It scarcely admits of doubt which of the two views will inspire the more subduing Gospel.

Men say that the conception of eternity mingling thus with time is too vast for truth; with the apostles we may answer that its vastness is its evidence, since the God made known in Jesus gives only gifts so great that none greater can be conceived. To part with the glory and wonder of this faith is in a grave measure to part with the native joy of the Christian religion, and to remove the scene of sacrifice from heaven to earth will inevitably stimulate the less worthy impulse felt at some time by all to preach about man instead of God.

The Measure of Jesus’ Humanity is the Measure of God’s Love: H.R. Mackintosh on the Significance of Christ’s True Manhood

Why is the full and complete humanity of the Son of God incarnate so vital to the Christian faith? H.R. Mackintosh helpfully responds in summary form:

The true manhood of Jesus is of cardinal significance in four ways.

(1) It guarantees a veritable incarnation. If the manhood of Christ is unreal, at any remotest point, God has not quite stooped to unity with man. He has not come so low as we require; there has been reservation and refusal; some part of our burden, after all, has been left untouched. ” The unassumed is the unhealed.” In that case, no matter from what height Christ came, He has not reached to us, but has stopped short…. But it has not been so. The centre of the catholic faith is that God in Christ came the whole way: “forasmuch as the children were sharers in flesh and blood, He also in like manner partook of the same.” He drew near in person, that we might clasp Him as a kinsman in our arms, and feel the Infinite One to be our own. This has touched men most, breaking the world’s hard heart. The measure of Jesus’ humanity
is the measure of God’s love. As it has been put, “love is not in full possession until it can fully display itself”; and as Christ passed from depth to depth, entering one 13386518-Rome-Italy-30-March-2012-Replica-of-the-famous-Vitruvian-Man-drawing-created-by-Leonardo-da-Vinci-Stock-Photochamber after another of human experience, and submitting at length to death itself, He gave a proof of Divine love than which nothing greater can be conceived….

(2) It provides an essential basis of atonement. All true Christian ideas in regard to atonement may be viewed as aspects of Jesus’ self-identification with the sinful. If then He who lived and died for men had Himself been man only in seeming, or in part, no expiation were after all made in our name; for only He can act with God for man who speaks from man’s side. It is as Christ became our fellow, moving in a true manhood through obedience, conflict, and death, that He entered into our condition fully and availed in our behalf to receive from God’s hand the suffering in which is expressed the Divine judgment upon sin. Jesus’ manhood is the corner-stone of reconciliation.

(3) It secures the reality of a perfect example. Jesus is our pattern in faith and prayer; but it cannot be too clearly understood that no act can be exemplary which is not first of all dutiful. The human Christ prayed, not in order that He might furnish a model to His disciples, but because to Him prayer was an inward need and duty. So profound and unmanning was His fear in Gethsemane that like the children of men He took refuge under God’s shadow, and was heard for His reverent trust. In our temptations it is everything to know that He also was tempted. And here that sinless manhood, which has seemed at times to remove Him from us, and to make sympathy impossible, reveals itself as the nerve and spring of His redemptive power. It is not, one may surmise, to those who themselves once fell in drunkenness or lust that frail men and women instinctively look for aid and hope; it is rather to those who, although schooled in fellow-feeling by temptation, have kept their virtue pure. So Jesus’ victory constitutes Him the source of victory for men; in Him, if we may put it so, Divine grace is humanised, and made available for sinners….

(4) It points to our eternal destiny. It is because Jesus the Man has risen from the grave and passed to a transcendent life with God that we too may triumph in prospect over death. As St. Paul has expressed it, with his most delicate precision in the use of our Lord’s names, “if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus shall God bring with Him.” For the resurrection of Jesus, our human Surety and Comrade, is a test case; and as such it has fixed a principle, revealing as it does how the Father’s love and power will deal with all believers. Thus once more the central significance of Christ’s true humanity is manifest. On its integrity and perfect wholeness rest for us the unspeakable consolations of faith in a blessed immortality.

from The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 404-406.

On Loving Christ with Both Heart and Mind: H.R. Mackintosh on Being a “Christologian”

It seems to be more uncommon than not to encounter Christians who major on loving Christ either with the heart or with the mind, but not necessarily with both. What do I mean? When I think about many of the Christians whom I have known in my life (including myself!), most tend to either one side or the other. On the one hand, there are those who claim to “love Jesus” but who manifest little interest in deep biblical study or profound theological thinking. On the other hand, there are those who possess an astonishing amount of biblical knowledge or who hold advanced degrees in theology and yet evidence little genuine love for the person of Christ himself. Then there are those who, in reaction to one of these extremes, swing toward the other. In my experience, it is mind-and-heartrare to meet a Christian who has both a warm, experiential affection for Christ and a profound passion for plumbing the depths of his Word. My friends, this should not be.

H.R. Mackintosh provides a wonderful little reflection on how to be a true “Christologian” which he defines as one who combines both heart and mind, both experience and thought, both devotion and doctrine, both deep feeling and deep understanding. For Mackintosh, in fact, it is impossible to truly love Christ with either heart or mind if both are not fully engaged. While Mackintosh focuses here on the temptation to remain content with simply “loving Jesus” without seeking to apprehend an ever greater theological understanding of his person and work, his comments could certainly be applied to the opposite temptation as well. Mackintosh writes:

Further, it will scarcely be denied that the task of thus interpreting Christ afresh is a vital part of our religious service. He is to be loved with the heart, but also with the mind. It is all but impossible for a thoughtful man to adore Jesus Christ, finding in Him blessedness and eternal life, and not be conscious of a powerful desire to reach coherent views of His person. What we already know of Him has led us to faith and worship; may not (he will ask) a deepened knowledge, if it be attainable, add a yet profounder significance to our confession of His name? Is it not unworthy that in an age when men are prepared to spend time and power lavishly in the investigation of the properties of matter, and each new step towards the conquest of nature is saluted with a proud and eager gratitude, Christian thinkers should flag in the effort to reach lucidity and truth of judgment as to the person of our Lord?

Why should we turn from these problems so easily with the sad confession: Ignoramus et ignorabimus? Such words—though they are often taken so—are no proof of a peculiar susceptibility to the overwhelming power of Christ—the mind being as it were dumb before Him; they suggest, rather, that the very soul of the Gospel—Immanuel, God with us—has so far left us unimpressed….

Still more urgently it needs to be freshly scrutinised from the point of view of the Christologian proper, whose part it is to formulate, if that be possible, all that Christ is to the fully surrendered mind; not permitting the poor average of faith to set itself up as criterion, but asking insistently who Christ must be if He is indeed the Mediator, the Advocate with the Father, the person who has availed as a propitiation for the sins of the whole world. We have to catch on our minds, not the lowest form of belief compatible with a profession of Christianity, but something of the incredible wonder of the Jesus who ransomed us with His blood….

If we are conscious of the spiritual supremacy of Christ—His unique position in religious history, His unique significance for each soul—we have no choice but to ask what conceptions of His person are guaranteed by this impression. Once these conceptions have been gained, they take their place as among the truest and most adequate of which the human mind is capable. If Christian experience counts for anything, then it counts here. It is in touch with reality; the being which our mind apprehends in Jesus is real being. A right doctrine of His person, therefore, is not dealing with ideas which are only counters—useful metaphorical expressions ultimately unredeemable by fact. It is dealing with ideas necessitated by Jesus’ witness to Himself and the confirmation of that witness furnished by the story of the Church. [H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 300-302, 304-305]

As I have been deeply challenged by these words to be a more fully integrated lover of and thinker after Jesus Christ — a “Christologian” in short — so I hope you will be as well.

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!

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[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.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 21: Irresistible Grace (The Logic of Hell)

In this final post on reforming Calvinism’s doctrine of irresistible grace, I arrive at a burning question—perhaps the burning question—that constitutes for many the deal-breaker when it comes to an evangelical reworking of Reformed soteriology. With its emphasis on the “one-for-all” dynamic of Christ’s person and work (i.e. in Christ all people are represented in his election, incarnation, and atonement), it seems to imply, if not downright demand, the heresy of final universal salvation. Is this indeed the ultimate defeater of the revised form of Calvinism that I have been advocating throughout this series?

I can think of no better response to this question than the one that T.F. Torrance gives in his introduction the Reformed confessions and catechisms in The School of Faith (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1996, pp.cxiii-cxvi). Torrance writes (and I quote at length):

If Christ had not come, if the Incarnation had not taken place, and things between man and God had been and are allowed to take their course as a result of man’s estrangement from God and God’s judgement upon man, man would disappear into nothing. It belongs to the nature of sin that it is alienation from God, and therefore that it is alienation from the source of all being in the Creator. There is nothing that the rebel or the sinner wants less than to be laid hold of by God in spite of his sin and be restrained from his sinful movement away from God, but that is precisely what happened in the Incarnation. The Incarnation means that God refused to hold back his love, and His loving affirmation of His creation, that He refused to let man go the way of his sin, from alienation to alienation, and so ultimately into non-being. The Incarnation means that God Himself condescended to enter into our alienated human existence, to lay hold of it, to bind it in union with Himself; and the consummation of the Incarnation in the death and resurrection means that the Son of God died for all men, and so once and for all constituted men as men upon whom God had poured out His life and love, so that men are for ever laid hold of by God and affirmed in their being as His creatures. They can no more escape from His love and sink into non-being than they can constitute themselves men for whom Christ has not died. How can God go back upon the death of His dear Son? How can God undo the Incarnation crucified5and go back upon Himself? How can God who is Love go back upon the pouring out of His love once and for all and so cease to be Himself?

That is the decisive, final thing about the whole Incarnation including the death of Christ, that it affects all men, indeed the whole of creation, for the whole of creation is now put on a new basis with God, the basis of a Love that does not withhold itself but only overflows in pure unending Love. That is why creation still continues in being, and that is why man still exists, for God has not given him up, but on the contrary poured out His love upon him unreservedly once and for ever, decidedly and finally affirming man as His child, eternally confirming the creation as His own handiwork. God does not say Yes, and No, for all that He has done is Yes and Amen in Christ. That applies to every man, whether he will or no. He owes his very being to Christ and belongs to Christ, and in that he belongs to Christ he has his being only from Him and in relation to Him.

All this is not to say that a man may not suffer damnation, for he may in spite of all reject Christ and refuse God’s grace. How that is possible, we simply cannot understand; that a sinner face to face with the infinite love of God should yet rebel against it and choose to take his own way, isolating himself from that love—that is the bottomless mystery of evil before which we can only stand aghast, the surd which we cannot rationalise, the enigma of Judas. But it happens. Just as it is by the very breath God gives us that we sin against Him, so it is by the very being that a man is given in and through Christ that he may yet turn his back upon Christ and deny Him, and so shatter himself against the love of God that will not let him go just because it does not cease to love. But this does mean that if a man irrevocably chooses the way of his sinful self-will and suffers damnation, he does not and cannot go into non-being, disappearing into annihilation, for the Incarnation and death of Christ cannot be undone. The sinner cannot undo the fact that Christ has gathered him into a relation of being with Him, and has once and for all laid hold of him in His life and death and resurrection.

This may be stated in another way. The sinner cannot isolate himself from God by escaping into an area where God’s love does not love and where he can be left to himself. Even in hell he cannot be left to himself for there he is still apprehended by the fact that God loves, that His love negates all that is not love just by being love, that His love refuses to allow the sinner to escape being loved and therefore resists the sinner’s will to isolate himself from that love. His being in hell is not the result of God’s decision to damn him, but the result of his own decision to choose himself against the love of God and therefore of the negative decision of God’s love to oppose his refusal of God’s love just by being Love. This negative decision of God’s love is the wrath of the Lamb, that is to say, the once and for all fact that Christ has died for the sins of the world, the finalising of the love in an eternally decisive deed, which just because it cannot be undone stands irresolutely opposed to all that is not love, or that resists it. Just because the love of God has once and for all drawn all men into the circle of its own loving, it has thereby rejected all that rejects God’s love. It does not reject by ceasing to love but precisely by continuing to love and therein rejecting all that rejects love. Therefore the sinner in hell cannot escape the fact that he is loved, cannot escape into being left to himself, and therefore even in choosing himself so as for ever to be himself, he cannot escape from himself as one loved, so that he is for ever imprisoned in his own refusal of being loved and indeed that is the very hell of it.

Words and thoughts fail us when we try to think like this. We can only stammer for we hardly know what we say, but must we not ask what is the relation of Christ of those who ultimately refuse Him? And since we cannot think it out to the end, if only because the end, the eschaton, is still to come, must we not yet say, that ultimate refusal of Christ cannot undo the fact that the sinner was made brother to Christ by His Incarnation, and bought with the blood of Christ, and in that He died for him and even rose again for him, must we not also say that when he stands before God at the final judgement it is what Christ has done for him that raises him to judgement? Such implications may baffle us until we clap our hands upon our mouth, but whichever way we turn we are still faced with the inescapable fact that the Incarnation and the Cross involve the being of all men, so that they have their humanity only from Him.

This is certainly a dense offering from Torrance, one that alone warrants a book-length treatment to expound all of its underpinnings, nuances, and implications. Nevertheless, I only want to add a couple of comments in conclusion. First, Torrance helps us to see that far from leading to universalism, the universal scope of the incarnation and the atonement is actually the only way to make sense of the stark reality of an eternal hell. Most other explanations either seem to make God out to be cruel and unjust, or they elevate God’s justice to the point of stripping him of his other essential perfections such as mercy, grace, compassion, and love. Torrance’s account, on the other hand, provides a compelling logic for hell’s reality and eternality. It is precisely because God has bound himself to all humanity in virtue of his loving assumption of that humanity in the incarnation of his Son that none can simply slip into non-existence (or be annihilated). The Word became flesh so that this could never happen! Therefore, God could no more permit the dissolution or effect the annihilation of anyone than he could, as Torrance says, undo the incarnation itself. What is more, the atonement that Christ carried out in his state of incarnation (thus implying its universal scope) demonstrates the infinite measure of the love of the God who pledged his very self in death for the sake of humanity. Those who reject this omnipotent love can only, as Torrance states, “shatter themselves” against the love that will not let them go. In rejecting the love of God in Christ, they find themselves on the shadow side of the cross where they are rejected by the love that opposes all that is opposed to it.

Second, Torrance dislodges the mystery of damnation from some mysterious, hidden pretemporal decree and relocates it to its proper place: in the mystery of sin. This is “the enigma of Judas”, an incomprehensible rejection of the love of God that was first displayed in the choice of Adam and Eve to rebel in Eden. There is no satisfying way to explain how or why Adam and Eve rebelled, and likewise there is no satisfying way to explain how or why anyone else would, or will forever, reject the love of God in Christ. Sin is by nature irrational, and thus it is by definition impossible to find a rationale for it. If we could rationally explain sin, then we would empty sin of the very thing that makes it what it is. We can only, as Torrance cautions, “stand aghast” and “clap our hands upon our mouth”. While this will certainly not satisfy those who press for tidy logical systems, it is the only answer that can be given when we peer into the bottomless pit of evil, of what Paul calls in 2 Thessalonians 2 the “mystery of iniquity”. What we must not do is strip the incarnation and the atonement from its full range and power in the attempt to rationalize that which is ultimately irrational.

All this to say, the question of universalism should not stand in the way of reforming Calvinism!

The Wrath of God’s Holy Love (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 15)

Revelation 15:1-4

Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished. And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.103-4. Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation)

pageimage-521579-4492847-revelation_graphicnovel_30worship

After the third interlude comes the last series of seven plagues, called this time the seven vials of wrath…Only when we take [these three series of calamities] together can we see in proper dimension the unfolding of world events as the fierce attempt of pride to gain the mastery over the world, an attempt which shatters itself upon the wrath of God’s holy love. When the seven seals were broken, we found ourselves looking at the course of history, and at first it was difficult to say whether the events were of God or of the devil, but more and more there appeared the contours of planned evil in it all. When the seven trumpets blew, we discovered that behind the outward fashion of history and all its parade of evil powers, the real forces were quite different, the power of the Cross, the Word of God, the prayers of the saints, and the prayers of God’s people. Now we see that, shot through them all, are the judgments of God upon the defiant pride of godlessness. From this angle the history of the world is seen to be the history of God’s judgment upon it.

In order to make that quite clear we are given in the short fifteenth chapter a vision which places us in the right perspective to see the outpouring of divine wrath. It is as though St. John would say: Only from the angle of triumphant thankfulness can we look upon destructive judgment. There is indeed no judgment of divine wrath that is purely destructive in its intention, but lest we should think so, we must get God’s angle of vision, see the wrath from His side, and learn that throughout all is the purpose of love and redemption. That may be difficult for us to do as long as we are earth bound and can only look out with fear and terror upon the judgments that shatter the earth. But this vision is given in order to teach us that while our view is distorted by proximity to the terrible things, that view is the true one which the redeemed have who look down upon it all and burst into thankfulness and praise.

The significant fact here is the sea of glass mingle with fire…: of glass, because the judgments of God are crystal clear and they pierce down to the dark depths of iniquity and nothing is hidden from its searching light: mingled with fire, for our God is a consuming fire in the passion of His holy love, and at last all the sin of humanity that has gone to the making of the anarchy and wickedness that have covered the earth will perish for ever in the heat of the burning. But this is the fire that consumes and yet does not consume away, for ti is the fire of holy love that burns the dross and refines the silver. At last we shall have again the vision of a crystal sea perfectly reflecting in its unsullied transparence the pure love of the heavenly Father.

The Triumph of the Gospel (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 14)

Revelation 14:6-7, 14-16

Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”…Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. And another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to him who sat on the cloud, “Put in your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.” So he who sat on the cloud swung his sickle across the earth, and the earth was reaped.

(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.95-96, 99-100. Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation)

Once again the apocalyptic vision is directed downward, not this time to be fascinated by the hypnotic eyes of the serpent, but to watch the Gospel at work … The Gospel is indeed the Gospel of love and comfort and all grace, because it is the Holy Creator who has in Jesus Christ in order to let the whole of human evil go over Him. It is in the preaching of the Gospel that the same God of Righteousness and Truth confronts men. This intervention in meekness and suffering is a violent and masterful force in history. It is indeed God’s almighty power, and so the Gospel is still the secret of what happens in the painting_example_chris_koelle2world. This Gospel of pure grace, which deals with men solely on the basis of the death of Christ, cuts away the ground from beneath our feet and passes a total judgment upon the world for which Christ died. Because it is the Gospel of universal forgiveness, it bears at its heart a divine judgment which is the crucial fact that determines all history, so that every crisis in human affairs falls under its action and reflects its meaning.

If the modern Church has lost the note of anguished constraint under the love of Christ, the note of desperate urgency in the evangelization of the world, it is because she has tended to detach the love of Christ from the Cross. But in the New Testament and in the faith of the early catholic Church, the Gospel of Christ crucified was brought right into the center of life and preaching so that the smouldering fires of divine judgment, the resistance of love against all that is not of love, gave to the Church’s love a stringent and irresistible constraint. It also injected elements of desperate urgency and decisiveness into all her relations with the world. The smouldering fire of divine judgment, the irresistible will of holy love against all that is unholy and unloving, is what St. Paul called the “terror of the Lord,” or what St. John calls the “wrath of the Lamb.” That is why it is impossible for the Church at any time to come to easy terms with the contemporary order, for the God of love is in her midst and by the preaching of the cross He smites the image of human empire and intervenes with mercy and truth in every form of human existence and action, economic, social, political, national, international. That is why the world is thrown into such ferment, because the Incarnation is God’s attack upon the inhumanity of man, because the Gospel of love and freedom is God’s assault upon the forms and orders of the world fashioned to serve human selfishness and greed and pride…

It is a terrifying spectacle, as it appears from the side of the angels. There is an angelic counterpart to all that happens on the earth. The Church preaches the Gospel and bears witness to Jesus Christ, but behind the human action it is a supernatural power that gives it all increase and brings it to its great fruition in the Kingdom of God. And men make war and work devastations upon the face of the earth. They unlock the mighty powers of nature and let them rage over the earth in their fury and wrath, but behind all that there is a supernatural hand thrusting in the sickle of judgment, for it is a matter of life and death, of the kingdoms of this world, and the Kingdom of God and His Christ. It is thus that the Apocalypse teaches us to look behind the outward facade of earthly events in Church and nation, in peace and war, in age after age. We see ripening throughout them all the moment of harvest when at last God will utterly divide the right from the wrong, the truth from the falsehood, the wheat from the tares, when all evil and unrighteousness, all suffering and death, and all that is imperfect and corruptible shall utterly pass away, and the perfect and the holy and all that serves the love of God shall endure.

God Was In Christ: Karl Barth on the Significance of God’s Being in his Act of Reconciliation

While explaining, in a recent post, why T.F. Torrance considered the traditional Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement to involve an implicit heretical Christology (Nestorianism, to be precise), I touched on the critical importance of Scripture’s affirmation that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). This was to make the point that when we realize that in Christ incarnate and crucified we have to do with the act of a single divine Subject, we can no longer think of his humanity solely in terms of its historical particularity and individuality (i.e. Jesus of Nazareth), but we must also give due weight to the universal solidarity into which he entered with all human beings when he assumed the flesh that they all share. Only by ignoring this latter dimension of the doctrine of the hypostatic union (i.e. the concept of anhypostasis which is necessary to keep Nestorianism from rearing its heretical head) can the atonement be conceived as fully availing only for a select group of human beings.

A related implication of 2 Cor. 5:19 – which is the topic of this post – is the relation of God’s being to his acts, especially in the work of atonement. Like his student T.F. Torrance, the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth never tired of emphasizing the inestimable significance of God’s being in his act and his act in his being. Now this is a phrase whose meaning, for some readers less familiar with Barth, might initially seem opaque. What exactly does it mean to affirm the union, or better the total coinherence, of God’s being and act, at least with what pertains to the atonement? This is precisely one of the questions that Adam Johnson masterfully answers in his book entitled God’s Being in Reconciliation. Although Johnson 6dfff7d7f66ee75c9ce7f1ec48d0a7f6takes the entire length of the book to make his argument, he offers the following summary at the end of his introduction which seems to well capture Barth’s basic contention:

Barth’s exposition of God’s being in act is a theological exercise designed to prepare us for contemplating God’s history with us by first dwelling on the more general fact that God is a living God. That is to say, God reveals himself by means of his act, by means of repeating his own proper (immanent) triune life in his (economic) saving fellowship with us. The event of God’s activity and fellowship with us is not foreign or accidental to his own proper being, but is rather a repetition or overflowing of the life he enjoys within himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the fullness of the divine perfections. The life that God shares with us, however, is not equally manifest in all of God’s acts because God has elected that the history of his relationship with us (and therefore the fulfilment of the repetition of his being as self-determined by his election) have a centre: namely, Jesus Christ. The person and work of Jesus Christ, and particularly his death and resurrection, form the concentrated point at which God brings his own living essence to bear upon our sinful condition so as to restore us to fellowship with himself in fulfilment of his covenantal purposes.

Because God’s triune being in the fullness of the divine perfections is concentrated precisely on the fulfilment of his election in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we properly understand that decisive event only in light of the fullness of God’s being or essence acting in that event. It is only as we think of the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday as the being in act of the triune God in the living fullness of the divine perfections that we can grasp the full meaning of this event. Only through the doctrine of the Trinity can we understand Christ’s passion, only by means of sustained integration of the doctrine of the divine perfections with that of reconciliation can we comprehend the meaning and significance of Christ’s work on the cross. Apart from such doctrinal interconnections, without a robust affirmation of God’s being in act precisely at this crucial point, we deprive ourselves of the most vital resources at our disposal to truly appreciate the meaning and significance of Christ’s death and resurrection: the event by which God decisively dealt with our sin and its consequences, reconciling all things to Himself. Apart from the mysteria divinitatis (divine mystery) there can be no proper investigation of the beneficia Christi (benefits of Christ) (CD II/1, 259): the key to the doctrine of the atonement is reading the events of Christ’s passion in light of the doctrine of God.[1]

In Western Christianity (Roman Catholic and Protestant alike), we have the tendency to emphasize the acts of God in salvation in a way that downplays the significance of the being of God in these acts. This is a consequence of what Torrance identified as “the Latin heresy” (but that is a topic for a different post!). Other than affirming that Jesus had to be fully God in order to act as Mediator, we tend to spend little time or energy unpacking the full scope of what this means. Yet for the apostle Paul, like the other writers of the New Testament, the importance of the full divinity of Christ could hardly be overstated. Everything hinged on the fact that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). That is to say, the efficacy of the atonement as an act of reconciliation depended fundamentally on the divine being who accomplished it. Had it not been God who was in Christ – not just in act but also in being – then his death on the cross would have been no different than that of any other common criminal executed by the Romans. Had not God brought the fullness of his own being to bear on the work of atonement, then it would not have constituted an act of reconciliation.

This means, as Johnson underscores, that we cannot but think out the atonement in Trinitarian terms. If God was in Christ in the work of reconciliation, then he was there in the fullness of his Triune being as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is not to say, of course, that it was the person of the Father or the Spirit who hung on the cross in human flesh – that would be the error of modalism or patripassianism. It is to say, however, that we cannot think of the Son’s work of atonement in isolation from his eternal and unbreakable perichoretic (i.e. interpenetrating, coinhering) relationship with the Father and the Spirit.

Thus, we cannot think of the Father as sitting back and uninvolved, as it were, observing Christ as he died for the reconciliation of the world and awaiting the outcome before giving his approval. Although it was not the person of the Father himself on the cross, he was nevertheless (and this is the mystery of the Trinity!) fully present and active, along with the Spirit, in the accomplishment of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Paul is categorical: it was not simply the Son who was in Christ, but God – God in the Triune fullness of his divine being. This undermines any notion that Christ offered a “payment” to the Father, or that he had to “appease” the Father, or that the Father “accepted” the atonement only after Christ had fully “satisfied” his predetermined demands. All of these ideas (rather crassly stated, I know) cannot gain any purchase unless a fundamental separation is assumed to have existed between God the Father and Jesus Christ, for how could the Father await “payment” or “appeasement” or “acceptance” if he was already fully present and active in Christ reconciling the world to himself?

When we ponder the amazing, incomprehensible truth that it was none other than God – God in the fullness of his eternal Triune being – who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, then the only possible response, as Torrance would say, is to clap our hands over our mouths and fall down before him in adoration and thanksgiving, for the more we ponder this mystery, the more we discover how great indeed was the love of God toward us. In the atonement, God did not keep back, as it were, part of himself pending the outcome of his Son’s obedience. Had he done so, then the cross would not have been, as the New Testament repeats over and over, the greatest and most graphic revelation of the love that God had for us while we were yet his enemies and sinners (Rom. 5:8). Had God held himself back in some form or fashion, we might be tempted to doubt whether or not he really, truly, and fully loves us, and will forever love us, as his own beloved children. However, when we understand that, as Torrance beautifully put it, “God loves [us] so utterly and completely that he has…pledged his very Being as God for [our] salvation” in Christ, then no such doubts can remain.[2] In Christ, God has not just given us something external to himself, he has given us his very self, totally, utterly, completely, and unreservedly. In Christ’s atoning sacrifice, God committed the fullness of his eternal Triune being to our reconciliation so utterly and absolutely that he cannot go back on that act without denying himself. What love! What grace! What assurance!

I hope this post will help you apprehend a bit more, as did Torrance and Barth, how glorious and good is the news that God’s being is in his act, and that his act is in his being. Indeed, the gospel is precisely this: God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.

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[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 J. Webster, I.A. McFarland, & I. Davidson, eds., (London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp.51-52.

[2] T.F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ. (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1992), p.94.

To You is Born a Savior: Martin Luther on the Good News of Great Joy

On Christmas day in the year 1530, Martin Luther preached a powerful sermon in which he reflected on the infinite treasures contained in the “good news of great joy” proclaimed to the shepherds near Bethlehem. As Luther made abundantly clear, it is nothing less than the whole of our faith that is contained in the simple phrase: “To you is born a Savior”:

Therefore this is the chief article, which separates us from all the heathen, that you, O man, may not only learn that Christ, born of the virgin, is the Lord and Savior, but also accept the fact that he is your Lord and Savior, that you may be able to boast in your heart: I hear the Word that sounds from heaven and says: This child who is born of the martin-luther-in-his-study-american-schoolvirgin is not only his mother’s son. I have more than the mother’s estate; he is more mine than Mary’s, for he was born for me, for the angel said, “to you” is born the Savior. Then ought you to say, Amen, I thank thee, dear Lord.

But then reason says: Who knows? I believe that Christ, born of the virgin, is the Lord and Savior and he may perhaps help Peter and Paul, but for me, a sinner, he was not born. But even if you believed that much, it would still not be enough, unless there were added to it the faith that he was born for you…Take yourself in hand, examine yourself and see whether you are a Christian! If you can sing: The Son, who is proclaimed to be a Lord and Savior, is my Savior; and if you can confirm the message of the angel and say yes to it and believe it in your heart, then your heart will be filled with assurance and joy and confidence, and you will not worry much about even the costliest and best that this world has to offer…You see how a person rejoices when he receives a robe or ten guldens. But how many are there who shout and jump for joy when they hear the message of the angel: “To you is born this day the Savior?”…For, if it is true that the child was born of the virgin and is mine, then I have no angry God and I must know and feel that there is nothing but laughter and joy in the heart of the Father and no sadness in my heart…

You can see what our papists and Junkers, who have chosen innumerable saviors, have felt about this faith. Indeed, the papists still want to retain the mass, the invocation of saints, and their invented works by which we are to be saved. This is as much as to say, I do not believe in the Savior and Lord whom Mary bore; and yet they sing the words of the angel, hold their triple masses [at Christmas] and play their organs. They speak the words with their tongues but their heart has another savior…But then what is left of the honor of the child who was born this day, whom the angel calls Lord and Savior, and who wants to keep his name, which is Savior and Christ the Lord. If I set up any savior except this child, no matter whom or what it is or is called, then he is not the Savior. But the text says that he is the Savior. And if this is true—and it is the truth—then let everything else go.[1]

Luther hits on something here which is vitally important if we are not simply to comprehend the birth of Christ as “good news” but also experience it as “great joy”. It is not enough to hear the words “a Savior is born” as a historical occurrence or a generic truth. Rather, we must hear those words as having been spoken to each one of us, personally and individually: “To you [insert your name here!] is born a Savior”. When we begin to truly wrap our minds and our hearts around that fact, we cannot but rejoice! To know, as Luther reminds us, that in Christ we don’t find an angry deity to be placated but a loving Father who has nothing but “laughter and joy” in his heart over us, how can we ourselves not be filled with “assurance and joy and confidence”? How can we not “shout and jump for joy”? Fear and despair and uncertainty are the marks of those who look to other saviors who in the end will prove impotent and futile. Those who have instead heard and embraced the truth that “To you is born a Savior” have no need of the “costliest and best that this world has to offer” but are rather liberated to “let everything else go” for the sake of Christ. What a witness to the world we would be were we to really live like that, sacrifice like that, rejoice like that!

So this Christmas, may we meditate deeply on the “good news” that the angels proclaimed to the shepherds, knowing that their message is intended just as much for us as it was for them. As we meditate on the fact that because of our Savior nothing will ever separate us from the love of our heavenly Father, may we truly experience the “great joy” that nothing can ever destroy.

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[1] Luther, M., 2012. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds., Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. pp.173-175.