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 Only Point of Contact: Karl Barth on the Possibility of Knowing the Word of God

Following yesterday’s post on why Jesus Christ in the gospel is the only apologetic for the truth of the Word of God, I thought that the following section from Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1 was a fitting supplement to what was said concerning our inability to use “natural” theology or knowledge of God (i.e. appealing to a supposed innate or observable notion of God in the natural realm) as a precursor or preparation for the preaching of the gospel. Barth states:

If this is how it stands with faith, then one may say of the knowability of the Word of God given in the event of faith that it is not a possibility which man for his part brings to real knowledge, nor is it a possibility which in real knowledge accrues to man from some source as an enrichment of his existence. But as faith has its absolute and unconditional beginning in God’s Word independently of the inborn or acquired characteristics and possibilities of man, and as it, as faith, never in any respect lives from or by anything other than the Word, so it is in every respect with the knowability of the Word of God into which we are now enquiring. We cannot establish it if, as it were, we turn our backs on God’s Word and contemplate ourselves, finding in ourselves an openness, a positive or at least a negative point of contact for God’s Word. We can establish it only as we stand fast in faith and its knowledge, i.e., 202779_53393_5944as we turn away from ourselves and turn our eyes or rather our ears to the Word of God. As we hear it, we have the possibility of hearing it.

Hence we do not affirm our own possibility but its reality, which we cannot do except as we stand fast. In its reality we also have our own possibility, not to contemplate it, but only to use it. Contemplating it, we no longer hear, and we thus lose the reality and with it our own possibility that we want to contemplate. As the possibility which comes to us in the Word’s reality it is our possibility, just as faith is our possibility as that which comes to us. It is really ours, the possibility of the entire creaturely and sinful man; yet not in such a way that contemplating this man one can discover it or read it off somewhere in him or on him; only in such a way that this creaturely, sinful man waits for the Word that comes to him and therewith for his faith, so that he believes already, he who, contemplating himself, will continually have to say that he cannot believe.[1]

Barth’s assertion that fallen human beings have no intrinsic possibility of knowing God and his Word may strike many people as exaggerated or extreme, if not offensive. It certainly stands in direct contradiction with Roman Catholic theology that takes as axiomatic the maxim of Thomas Aquinas that “grace does not destroy but perfects nature”. It is natural for us to think that we can know God, however imperfectly, through our own natural capacities, and that perhaps all we need is some form of correction or supplementation (i.e. special revelation) to elevate and perfect what we already know.

Barth, however, contends that the exact opposite is true: as sinful human beings, all that we think we know of God on the basis of our own abilities and possibilities is utterly false because it proceeds from a mind that is utterly twisted and perverted by sin. The only possibility that we have for knowing God must be given to us by the Word of God itself when it encounters us in its grace and power. We resist this idea, of course, because it means that we must admit we are not in control, an illusion that since the fall has driven the human quest for autonomy from God. We must humble ourselves enough to admit, however, that there is no natural “point of contact” at which the Word of God can meet us halfway, as it were, and pick up where our own possibilities for knowing God leave off. No, the Word of God must descend into the black pit of our ignorance and alienation, giving us ears to hear, eyes to see, and a heart and mind to understand.

As difficult a teaching as this is for us to accept, is this not what Paul demands in Ephesians 2:4-5 that we recognize ourselves as dead in our sins and alive only because God has resurrected us in Christ? Do the dead have any inherent capability or possibility of raising themselves up to newness of life? As in Ezekiel 37, must not the Word of God command them to live and, in that very act, create in them new life so that they can do so?

Barth pinpoints the crux of the matter when he says:

God’s Word is no longer grace, and grace itself is no longer grace, if we ascribe to man a predisposition towards this Word, a possibility of knowledge regarding it that is intrinsically and independently native to him.[2]

Indeed. If grace is grace, then the possibility of knowing God does not reside within us but only in the Word that is spoken to us. Thus we must confess, together with the apostle Paul, that it is only “by the grace of God that I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).


[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics I/1 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), pp.236-237.

[2] Ibid., p.194.

Renewing the Image: Why Jesus Christ is the Only True Apologetic (Reformission Monday)

Continuing on in my series exploring missional theology with T.F. Torrance, I would like, in this post, to consider one of the practical implications of what I have discussed thus far in terms of a Christological missiology. A Christological missiology is simply an understanding and practice of mission and evangelism whose methodology is shaped exclusively by the inner logic of Christ himself as he is proclaimed in his gospel. In short, the message determines the method. Now this can seem to be a fairly heady or abstract trial-of-the-apostle-paul-nikolai-k-bodarevskiconcept, so I would like to flesh it out a bit more by suggesting one concrete way in which Christology impacts missiology. Once again, we turn to Torrance to get us started:

At this point we must recall Calvin’s conception of the imago dei discussed earlier. Properly speaking, that image can be seen only in Christ. He is the imago dei in essence, but we who believe may have it by communication or by imputation or by spiritual generation. In some sense there remains traces in fallen man, but the image is really invisible in him, and only begins to shine forth in the Christian. But wherever the imago dei is to be found it is the reflex of God’s glory through response to His grace. That is the way in which it was designed to shine forth in man. Strictly speaking, therefore, the imago dei exists only in faith and will be revealed at the advent of Christ when He comes in His full glory.

If this is the case, how can we use the imago dei apart from faith to raise us up to a knowledge of God? And how can we use it independently of God’s grace and revelation in order to prepare us for that revelation, if it is only a reflex of God’s glorious grace? The very way to put out the light of God intended to exhibit God clearly to our minds is to appropriate as our own in this way what has been given to us from heaven. Therefore, on Calvin’s view, any attempt to build up a knowledge of God upon the examination of the imago dei in man himself would simply be a huge petitio principiiWithin faith we know that “whatever God bestows upon us by Him belongs of right to Him in the highest degree; yea, He Himself is the living image of God, according to which we must be renewed, upon which depends our participation in the invaluable blessings here spoken of”. This means that we may use the imago dei as an analogy within faith, but only within faith, for “faith imports a knowledge of the Truth which excludes and shuts out whatever comes from men.”…”There is no other way in which God is known but in the face of Jesus Christ, who is the bright and lively image of Him…. It is not every kind of knowledge which is described here, but that knowledge which forms us anew into the image of God from faith to faith.

Moreover, Calvin says, whatever may be left of the image of God in natural man is destroyed by the restoration of the image of God in us when we believe in Christ. That means that the image of God in which has been inverted by sin must be re-inverted. Because it is grace which strips a man of his perverted Adamic image, it is only stripped in the moment of the restoration of the true image of Christ. In other words, we are restored to the true image of God only through conformity to the death and resurrection of Christ. “Nothing is more opposed to spiritual wisdom than the wisdom of the flesh; nothing is more at variance with the grace of God than man’s natural ability, and so as to other things. Hence the only foundation of Christ’s Kingdom is the abasement of men…. We must give up our understanding, and renounce the wisdom of the flesh, and thus present our minds empty to Christ, that He may fill them.”

Inasmuch, therefore, as only by the grace of God in Christ, and not by nature, is the imago dei restored, so our knowledge of God which is bound up with this imago dei is gained by grace alone, and not by nature. And inasmuch as to put on the new man after the image of God in Christ we must put off the old man after the perverted image of Adam, so in order to know God in Christ, we must put away all preconceived notions, and all natural knowledge preceding from man independently of faith in Jesus Christ.[1]

As should be obvious, Torrance is writing about John Calvin’s view of humanity, a doctrine that centers around the biblical affirmation that God created human beings in his image (imago dei) to be his image-bearers in creation. For Calvin (and arguably for Torrance as well), this concept of humanity as the imago dei goes to the heart of what it means to be human and has an irreducibly relation dimension. Human beings do not exist as autonomous creatures but derive their very life and significance from being rightly related to their Creator whose image they were made to reflect as a mirror. This means that the imago dei is not, strictly speaking, some innate quality that human beings possess, for they only bear God’s image to the extent that they live in trusting and obedience response to the Word of God that created them. That is to say, the only “point of contact”, so to speak, between God and humanity is the Word.

If this was true prior to the fall, how much more so after! The New Testament speaks of Christ as the true imago dei in whose image we are destined to be conformed. We do not yet know what we will be, for our minds and all the ideas that they have are thoroughly corrupted by sin. Thus, it is only by looking at Christ that we can see what true humanness really is. For those who are in Christ, their true being is hidden with him in God, and thus they now possess the imago dei only in the sense that they have it by faith in what has not yet appeared (Col. 3:3-4), of which the Holy Spirit is given as pledge and guarantee.

So what does this have to do with mission? The fact that only Christ is the true imago dei and that all else has been wholly depraved and twisted by sin means that there is no residual image or knowledge of God in fallen humanity to which we can appeal when communicating the gospel. Technically speaking, there is a sense in which the imago dei remains in fallen humanity, yet whatever does remain has only been perverted into its opposite. It is not as though humanity simply lost something super-added and now has become neutral; no, sin drives humanity’s image-bearing in a diametrically opposed direction. For this reason, any appeal to a supposed “natural” knowledge of God still residing in sinful human beings as a foundation upon which to build a Christian knowledge of God is doomed to failure. Sinful humanity will simply take any such appeal and twist it beyond recognition, ending up in a worse state than before. This would mean that apologetics, traditionally conceived, has little to no value in communicating the gospel to those who minds are blinded by the god of this world.

Since Jesus alone is the imago dei breaking in through the veil of sinful humanity, only he is the true apologetic of the gospel. It is not as though a message other than that concerning Jesus Christ (e.g. logical arguments for the existence of God) can pave the way for the gospel. The gospel never comes to ears that are in some sense ready for it; rather it breaks in with a fresh power that itself creates the ability to hear. We cannot make people more “receptive” to the gospel outside of Christ, for it is the gospel that carries with it its own receptivity-making power. Those with an ear to hear have it only because the power of God in the gospel has given it to them.

This does not mean that we should not take care in the way we share the gospel, making sure that the words and concepts that we use to convey it are in a language and idiom comprehensible to those we are trying to reach. Nor does it mean that apologetics has no valid function. Moreover, it is undeniable that preparation for the gospel can occur by means of the Holy Spirit who operates in inextricable conjunction with the ascended Christ who sits at the right hand of the Father. However, we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that anything other than “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) will give sight to the blind, give hearing to the deaf, and give life to the dead. The preaching of the cross is a folly and a scandal and can only be spiritually discerned (1 Cor 1-2). And yet, it is precisely this preaching that determines “to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified” that by the Spirit carries its own power to create in its hearers the ability to see, hear, and live again.

In conclusion, we could say that this missiological principle — only Jesus is the true apologetic of the gospel — is a necessary implication of the incarnation. When the Word became flesh as dwelt among us as the true imago dei, he destroyed all pretensions to the validity of any other “natural” knowledge of either God or humanity. Since Christ and Christ alone is the Word of God to humanity and humanity’s response to God, only he is the one in whom a reconciling knowledge of God has any validity and power to save.


[1] T.F. Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001), pp.151-153. Although Torrance deals primarily with Calvin’s views, it is undeniable that he is sympathetic toward if not in full agreement with the great Reformer. Even if Torrance’s position on the validity of natural theology as a soft apologetic is hotly debated, it should be clear to everyone that he adamantly eschewed traditional natural theology and its use as a hard apologetic (i.e. using natural theology as a preambula fidei), and so the fundamental point still stands.


How Not to Read the Bible: Modalist Edition

In this edition of “How Not to Read the Bible” (a series in which so far I have only written one article), I look at one of the fundamental interpretative errors that leads to the heresy of modalism, the notion that God is not Triune (three persons in one being) but rather a single divine monad who simply manifests himself in three different ways throughout history as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not unlike an actor who puts on different masks to play different roles in the same play. Another illustration of modalism is the oft-used analogy of water as a single substance that can exist in three different states (solid, liquid, vapor). As with all heresies, modalism stems from certain non-biblical suppositions that distort interpretation when Scripture is read. If we would avoid reading Scripture like a wear-your-modalism1modalist (and it is possible to do so inadvertently even when we don’t think we are!), then we must understand what these suppositions are so that we can be on our guard against them.

To this end, Karl Barth can give us much help. In what follows, it is important to remember that when Barth speaks of the Trinitarian persons as God’s “modes of being”, he is doing so in distinction to the modalist’s way of speaking of God’s modes. What Barth wants to emphasize with this phrase is not that the Father, Son, and Spirit are simply variant ways in which the one (in the sense of monadic) God makes himself known, but rather three modes in which the one God exists in the fullness of his being in each member of the Trinity (as opposed to a more contemporary idea of “person” in which each person in a three-member group represents only one-third of the whole). That is, Barth wants to stress, against the possible misuse of the word “person”, that Father, Son, and Spirit are not parts of God, but each one is God in his absolute totality of being. With that clarification in place, let’s turn to Barth:

The doctrine of the Trinity means on the other side, as the rejection of Modalism, the express declaration that the three moments are not alien to God’s being as God. The position is not that we have to seek the true God beyond these three moments in a higher being in which He is not Father, Son and Spirit. The revelation of God and therefore His being as Father, Son and Spirit is not an economy which is foreign to His essence and which is bounded as it were above and within, so that we have to ask about the hidden Fourth if we are really to ask about God.

On the contrary, when we ask about God, we can only ask about the One who reveals Himself. The One who according to the witness of Scripture is and speaks and acts as Father, Son and Spirit, in self-veiling, self-unveiling and self-imparting, in holiness, mercy and love, this and no other is God. For man community with God means strictly and exclusively communion with the One who reveals Himself and who is subject, and indeed indissolubly subject, in His revelation. The indissolubility of His being as subject is guaranteed by the knowledge of the ultimate reality of the three modes of being in the essence of God above and behind which there is nothing higher. Totally excluded here is all communion that means evading His revelation or transcending the reality in which He shows and gives Himself. God is precisely the One He is in showing and giving Himself. If we hasten past the One who according to the biblical witness addresses us in threefold approach as a Thou we can only rush into the void.

Modalism finally entails a denial of God. Our God and only our God, namely, the God who makes Himself ours in His revelation, is God. The relativising of this God which takes place in the doctrine of a real God beyond the revealed God implies a relativising, i.e., a denying, of the one true God. Here, too, there is no Thou, no Lord. Here, too, man clearly wants to get behind God, namely, behind God as He really shows and gives Himself, and therefore behind what He is, for the two are one and the same. Here, too, we have an objectifying of God. Here, too, the divine subjectivity is sucked up into the human subjectivity which enquires about a God that does not exist. Here too, but this time by way of mysticism, man finally finds himself alone with himself in his own world. This possibility, which in its root and crown is the same as the first, is what the Church wanted to guard against when it rejected Sabellianism and every form of Modalism.[1]

What Barth helps us to glimpse here is the “theo-logic” upon which the modalist position depends. Modalism does not merely consist in affirming something like “God is one divine being who only manifests himself in three different ways, like water does as solid, liquid, and vapor”. Modalism gains a foothold when it is assumed that there is “a real God beyond the revealed God”. In other words, at the heart of modalism lies the belief that above and beyond the one who God reveals himself to be, throughout Scripture and ultimately in Jesus Christ as Father, Son, and Spirit, there exists a different God, a fourth entity, the divine monad whose Triune manifestations are merely masks of his essence. Fundamentally, modalism stems from the notion that, as T.F. Torrance put it, there is a dark, inscrutable, and inaccessible God hidden behind the back of Jesus Christ, some other God than the One whom we see and hear and know in him. But such thinking is sinful rebellion, for it refuses to submit to actual way that God himself has taken in revealing himself to us and instead insists that there must be some other God that we, through our own human capacities, are able to discover. Such is the error of natural theology, and such is the reason why Barth so vehemently opposed it.

Thus, if we would not read the Bible like a modalist, then we must stringently adhere to God’s self-revelation in Christ and through the Spirit. We must not be seduced by false pretensions that, whether through natural theology or human philosophies, we can or must “ascend into heaven ” to find a God above and beyond the One whom Christ himself made known by descending down to us (Rom. 10:6). No, the word that reveals God without distortion or remainder is near us, in our mouths and in our hearts, the word of the gospel that Scripture proclaims, and that word is Christ (Rom. 10:8, 17). To not read Scripture like a modalist is to know that in Christ “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”, and that in him and him alone “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). The God who by the Spirit we see reflected in the face of Jesus Christ is God as he is and always has been eternally in himself. There is no God hidden behind the back of Christ. Therefore, it is only by interpreting Scripture in strict accordance with the way that God’s revelation has taken in the person and work of Jesus Christ that we can avoid reading the Bible like a modalist.


[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.382.

We Have the Mind of Christ: T.F. Torrance on the Relation between Faith and Reason

In a recent post I enlisted the assistance of T.F. Torrance in order to navigate the difficult tension between the universal and particular aspects of the biblical witness to Christ’s work and human salvation. In this post, I would like to call upon Torrance once again to help make sense of another oft-disputed relationship, namely, between faith and reason. The solutions to this perceived tension are varied, ranging from a strict disjunction (as in Tertullian’s “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”) to a harmonious synthesis (as in torrance-bigPope John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio). Frequently, the attempt is made to neither separate nor conflate the two but rather to give each its own proper place and hold them together in a delicate balance. This latter approach is well exemplified in the work of the Protestant orthodox theologians, as Richard Muller helpfully explains:

Reformed orthodox theologians were not philosophical determinists interested in creating a deterministic system of Christian doctrine. At the same level, we can also declare categorically that philosophical rationalism, which understands human reason as the fundamental principle of knowledge…was not determinative of the formulation of the norms and principia of Reformed orthodox theology, even among those Reformed who were open to Cartesian philosophy. The definitions of theology and the theological task that we have encountered in the Reformed prolegomena, the hermeneutical criteria found in the doctrine of Scripture, and the actual working-out of formulation in the doctrine of God, all evidence an attempt to balance revelation and reason, exegetical foundations and philosophical usages, leaving philosophy in an ancillary role.[1]

Whatever each of these views may have to commend for it, I personally find them all deficient for two reasons. First, they attempt to resolve the faith-reason tension without primary reference to the One who is reason (i.e. the Logos) embodied and who reveals in himself what faith truly is – Jesus Christ. Second, because of this failure to think out the faith-reason relation from a center in Christ (who reconciles and unites all things in himself), all of the aforementioned approaches are left with an inherent dualism between the two that must then be overcome through some sort of logical or metaphysical bridge.

By contrast, I find Torrance’s own account of the faith-reason relation to be more compelling and christo-logically coherent. Torrance’s nephew Robert Walker explains:

For Torrance, faith may be defined as what happens to our reason when it encounters the nature and reality of God. It encounters a personal reality it has not met before, which it cannot fit into its predefined categories, which far outstrips its powers of comprehension but which makes itself intelligible in terms of its own unique reality. Reason must either reject such a reality or recognise it and learn to reshape its whole way of perception in accordance with the nature of this new reality. If it does the latter, reason becomes faith. It becomes in Torrance’s language the mode of apprehension appropriate to the eternal God. Faith may be defined as the obedience of reason to the nature and reality of God. It is the appropriate response to the Person-Word-event it encounters in Christ, the Son and Word of the Father become man for us in historical event.

Although Walker does not use this specific phrase to describe Torrance’s view, I think that what he expresses could be restated as a “relation of conversion” between faith and reason. Put differently, faith is “converted reason”, the form of human thinking that obtains only through union with the “mind of Christ”, as Paul says in 1 Cor. 2:16. It is not that faith is opposed to reason, or that faith is the elevation of reason, or that faith must be counterbalanced with reason, but that faith is reason that has personally encountered Christ and has been converted by the power of his Spirit such that it becomes obedient in all things to God. As Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:16-17: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” In other words, to be in Christ through faith entails a whole new epistemology; we no longer know according to the flesh but in conformity to the new creation that is in Christ. This is not faith in tension, in synthesis, or in balance with reason, but faith as reason redeemed and made new in Christ!

I think that Torrance’s view of faith as “obedient reason” offers a salutary solution to the typical faith-reason debates and provides a unitive, christo-logical way of reformulating the entire issue in non-dualistic terms.


[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 4: the triunity of God, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. pp.391-392. Emphasis mine.

[2] Walker, R., 2008. Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, p.xliii.

The Evangelical Calvin: Natural Theology Edition

The following excerpt is taken from John Calvin’s Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010, pp.62-64

Now, in describing the world as a mirror in which we ought to behold God, I would not be understood to assert, either that our eyes are sufficiently clear-sighted to discern what the fabric of heaven and earth represents, or that the knowledge to be hence attained is sufficient for salvation. And whereas the Lord invites us to himself by the means of created things, with no other effect than that of thereby rendering us inexcusable, he has added (as was necessary) a new remedy, or at least by a new aid, he has assisted the ignorance of our mind. For by the Scripture as our guide and teacher, he not only makes 20110615-johncalvinthose things plain which would otherwise escape our notice, but almost compels us to behold them; as if he had assisted our dull sight with spectacles. On this point, (as we have already observed,) Moses insists. For if the mute instruction of the heaven and the earth were sufficient, the teaching of Moses would have been superfluous.

This herald therefore approaches, who excites our attention, in order that we may perceive ourselves to be placed in this scene, for the purpose of beholding the glory of God; not indeed to observe them as mere witnesses, but to enjoy all the riches which are here exhibited, as the Lord has ordained and subjected them to our use. And he not only declares generally that God is the architect of the world, but through the whole chain of the history he shows how admirable is His power, His wisdom, His goodness, and especially His tender solicitude for the human race. Besides, since the eternal Word of God is the lively and express image of Himself, he recalls us to this point. And thus, the assertion of the Apostle is verified, that through no other means than faith can it be understood that the worlds were made by the word of God, (Heb. 11:3.) For faith properly proceeds from this, that we being taught by the ministry of Moses, do not now wander in foolish and trifling speculations, but contemplate the true and only God in his genuine image.

It may, however, be objected, that this seems at variance with what Paul declares: “After that, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom knew not God, it seemed right to God, through the foolishness of preaching, to save them who believe,” (1 Cor. 1:21.) For he thus intimates, that God is sought in vain under the guidance of visible things; and that nothing remains for us but to betake ourselves immediately to Christ; and that we must not therefore commence with the elements of this world, but with the Gospel, which sets Christ alone before us with his cross, and holds us to this one point.

I answer, It is in vain for any to reason as philosophers on the workmanship of the world, except those who, having been first humbled by the preaching of the Gospel, have learned to submit the whole of their intellectual wisdom (as Paul expresses it) to the foolishness of the cross, (1 Cor. 1:21.) Nothing shall we find, I say, above or below, which can raise us up to God, until Christ shall have instructed us in his own school. Yet this cannot be done, unless we, having emerged out of the lowest depths, are borne up above all heavens, in the chariot of his cross, that there by faith we may apprehend those things which the eye has never seen, the ear never heard, and which far surpass our hearts and minds. For the earth, with its supply of fruits for our daily nourishment, is not there set before us; but Christ offers himself to us unto life eternal. Nor does heaven, by the shining of the sun and stars, enlighten our bodily eyes, but the same Christ, the Light of the World and the Sun of Righteousness, shines into our souls; neither does the air stretch out its empty space for us to breathe in, but the Spirit of God himself quickens us and causes us to live. There, in short, the invisible kingdom of Christ fills all things, and his spiritual grace is diffused through all.

Yet this does not prevent us from applying our senses to the consideration of heaven and earth, that we may thence seek confirmation in the true knowledge of God. For Christ is that image in which God presents to our view, not only his heart, but also his hands and his feet. I give the name of his heart to that secret love with which he embraces us in Christ: by his hands and feet I understand those works of his which are displayed before our eyes. As soon as ever we depart from Christ, there is nothing, be it ever so gross or insignificant in itself, respecting which we are not necessarily deceived.

Karl Barth, Romans 1, and the Validity of Natural Theology

In a recent post, I responded to Richard Muller’s criticism that Karl Barth’s rejection of natural theology as a valid way of obtaining knowledge of God constituted an erroneous and damaging revision of the concept of revelation. I argued, not simply from Barth but, more importantly, on the basis of Scripture, that revelation is reconciliation and that no division should be made between a knowledge of God that leads to salvation and a knowledge of God that does not.

Those who disagree usually make immediate reference to Romans 1:18-32 which, in their minds, deals a fatal blow to Barth’s position. Often, they think that this text is such an obvious defeater that it requires no explanation. Barth, however, was not so naive as to have formed his view in ignorance of this particular passage. In fact, he engages with it at some length in Church Dogmatics I/2, and I find his interpretation extremely illuminating. He writes:

The witness which the apostle declares to the heathen in and with the preaching of Christ, which he therefore awakens in them and makes valid against them, is here emphasised to be their knowledge of God the Creator. The invisible and unapproachable being of God, His everlasting power and divinity, are apprehended and seen in His works from the creation of the world (Rom. 1:20). It is from a knowledge of God, a knowledge of Him on the basis of revelation, that men always karl_barth5start when revelation comes to them in Christ (Rom. 1:19). That is why they can be accused of a “holding of the truth,” a corruptio optimi (Rom. 1:18). We must bear in mind that the very words which are so often regarded as an opening or a summons to every possible kind of natural theology are in reality a constituent part of the apostolic kerygma, whatever contemporary philosophemes may be woven into them.

To bring out the real meaning of the revelation of the righteousness of God in Christ (Rom. 1:17, 3:21), Paul reminds us in Rom. 1:18–3:20 that the same revelation is a revelation of the wrath of God, i.e., that as we are told of the grace which has come to us, we have to perceive and believe our own abandonment to judgment. Grace and judgment are for both Gentile and Jew, both Jew and Gentile, Rom. 1:16, 2:9, and for both Jew and Gentile in the very best that they can do, their worship of God. It is a Christian statement presupposing revelation when in relation to the Jews Paul says that a knowledge of sin comes by the Law (Rom. 3:20). Similarly, it is presupposing the event which took place between God and man in Christ that he says that the knowledge which the Gentiles have of God from the works of creation is the instrument to make them inexcusable and therefore to bring them like the Jews under the judgment and therefore under the grace of God. Here, too, there is no difference. Because Christ was born and died and rose again, there is no such thing as an abstract, self-enclosed and static heathendom. And because Paul has to preach this Christ, he can claim the heathen on the ground that they, too, belong to God and know about God, that God is actually revealed to them, that He has made Himself known to them in the works of creation as God—His eternal power and divinity, which are none other than that of Jesus Christ. Therefore he can tell them that because of their knowledge they are inexcusable before God, if they have “imprisoned” the truth with their ungodliness and unrighteousness.

We cannot isolate what Paul says about the heathen in Rom. 1:19–20 from the context of the apostle’s preaching, from the incarnation of the Word. We cannot understand it as an abstract statement about the heathen as such, or about a revelation which the heathen possess as such. Paul does not know either Jews or Gentiles in themselves and as such, but only as they are placed by the cross of Christ under the promise, but also under the commandment of God. The witness of the hope of Israel, the prophetic revelation, is fulfilled in Christ. By smiting its Messiah on the cross Israel founders on that revelation. It has now become a revelation to both Jews and Gentiles. It now concerns the Gentiles. Therefore the Gentiles have to bow just as emphatically as the Jews to the claim and demand of revelation. Like the Jews, they are addressed on this basis: that from the creation of the world (ἀπὸ κτίσεως κόσμου, Rom. 1:20, i.e., in and with their own existence and that of the whole world)—not of themselves, but by virtue of the divine revelation—men know God, and therefore know that they are indebted to Him. The status of the Gentiles, like that of the Jews, is objectively quite different after the death and the resurrection of Christ. By Christ the Gentiles as well as the Jews are placed under the heavens which declare the glory of God, and the firmament which telleth His handiwork (Ps. 19:2). They are therefore to be claimed as [those who know God] (Rom. 1:21); but only to the extent that, like the Jews, they have not remained such (οὐκ ἐδοκίμασαν τὸν θεὸν ἔχειν ἐν ἐπιγνώσει Rom. 1:28).

It is, therefore, not the case that Paul was in a position to appeal to the Gentiles’ possession of a knowledge of the invisible nature of God as manifested from creation. He could not link up pedagogically with this knowledge. In his proclamation of Jesus Christ he could not let it appear even momentarily that he was speaking of things which were already familiar by virtue of that “primal revelation.” At bottom the Gentiles did not achieve even in the slightest the knowledge of Ps. 19. That is, they did not give God praise and thanks as God (Rom. 1:21). As the sequel shows, this does not mean only a quantitative falling away of their service towards Him nor an imperfection of their relationship to Him. It means rather that the [worship and thanksgiving] which they owe God are not there at all. They have been ousted by another mind and thought and activity which at its root (in negation of the fact that God is revealed to man from the creation) does not have God as its object. “Their thoughts became vain and their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom. 1:21). “They professed (themselves and others) to be wise, and in this they became fools” (Rom. 1:22). And the result was sheer catastrophe: “They changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of the image of corruptible man, yea of flying and fourfooted beasts and creeping things” (Rom. 1:23). In this idolatry “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, they worshipped and served the creature instead of the Creator, who is blessed to eternity. Amen” (Rom. 1:25). And in due course the exchange had terrible consequences in the indescribable moral confusion of the human race.

Paul says nothing at all about the heathen maintaining a remnant of the “natural” knowledge of God in spite of this defection. On the contrary, he says unreservedly that the wrath of God has been revealed against this defection: “they which do such things are worthy of death” (Rom. 1:32). Just as revelation had always contradicted heathen religion in the sphere of Israel and on the soil of Palestine, so now, when Jesus Christ has died for all, it contradicts it “publicly,” in its own heathen area, in an apostolic letter which remarkably enough is addressed to the Christians in Rome. There is no such thing now as an undisputed heathendom, a heathendom which is relatively possible, which can be excused. Now that revelation has come and its light has fallen on heathendom, heathen religion is shown to be the very opposite of revelation: a false religion of unbelief.[1]

Although Barth offers his interpretation of Romans 1 in his typically dense style, his overall understanding seems clear. First, he does not deny that creation declares the glory of God (as per Ps. 19), yet he believes, with Paul, that humanity is too blind and deaf in sin to see and hear it. Whatever natural conception of God the Gentiles might have, they transmute into idolatry. Thus, this passage can neither be used to validate the knowledge of God available through natural theology (for this is completely contrary to Paul’s argument!) nor to justify its use by believers (for this is completely beside the point of Paul’s argument which addresses unregenerate humanity).

Second, Barth pays careful attention to the context of Paul’s overall argument. Romans 1:18ff is connected to what precedes with the word “for” (gar in Greek). That is to say, Romans 1:18ff is inextricably linked to what Paul has said previously regarding the gospel that reveals the saving righteousness of God in Christ. The analysis that Paul provides in the latter half of Romans 1 is thus not some timeless truth regarding the human condition; it is rather the divine judgment and verdict pronouned on the non-Jewish world on the basis of the universal lordship of Christ who “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead”. Paul’s understanding of the plight of all non-Jewish peoples is therefore irreducibly eschatological, that is, it too has only been fully revealed in the revelation of the gospel of Christ: “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed…For the wrath of God is revealed against all…” (Rom. 1:17-18). In other words, for Paul, the “natural” knowledge of God in creation that results in humanity’s inexcusability is itself the result of the revelation of Jesus Christ. If we listen attentively to what Paul is actually saying, we will discover that natural theology is not something that stands prior to or independently from the knowledge of God in Christ revealed in the gospel: natural theology is only revealed as it is and for what it is – a corrupt and damning knowledge – in the revelation of the gospel.

Thus it seems that rather than being a defeater of Barth’s rejection of natural theology, Romans 1 would seem rather to fully support it!


[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.306-307.

Karl Barth’s “Radical Revision of Revelation”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Crossing the Tiber in a Boat Called ‘Analogy of Being’

In recent posts I have suggested that rather than carry forward the trajectory initiated by the Reformation, the Protestant ‘orthodox’ who came later actually reversed direction in many ways, one of which was their return to the synthesis of faith and reason (and the corresponding analogia entis, i.e. ‘analogy of being’) which allowed for the integration of ‘Christian Aristotelianism’ in their theological systems. One of the key sources from which I have drawn in making this argument (although he would no doubt disagree with some of my conclusions!) is the brilliant historian Richard Muller whose knowledge of the medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation periods is unparalleled. Recently I came across an article of Muller’s that, even more than anything else of his that I have read, drives this point home with unmistakable clarity. In fact, the title of the article in many ways says it all: ‘The Dogmatic Function of St. Thomas’ “Proofs”: A Protestant Appreciation’. Here st-thomas-aqhow Muller expresses (without missing the opportunity to take a jab at Barth) his appreciation for Thomas Aquinas and, as a result, the analogia entis and the synthesis of faith and reason that post-Reformation Protestant theology inherited from medieval Catholicism:

We now have a clear picture of the intellectual road traveled by Thomas in his approach, via the proofs to the doctrine of God. As Gilson has pointed out on many occasions, Thomas recognized two distinct but complementary orders of knowing, faith and reason. Faith provides us with truth inaccessible to reason but nonetheless not unreasonable. Reason serves the elaboration and argumentative defense of the faith. In order for this alliance to occur, faith and reason must be shown to have the same goal and to be capable of cooperation in seeking it. Thus Thomas first sets forth (q. 1) the basis of theology in faith and then poses the problem of the alliance with reason (q. 1, a. 8). Then, second Thomas presents the grounds for the use of reason in theology by way of the proofs (q. 2). He has now shown that both faith and reason point toward the God who is the proper object of sacra doctrina. He has also prepared the way for the presentation of a doctrine of God and, indeed, of a whole theological system, that is at once biblical and rational. The two initial questions of the Summa, therefore, the discussion of “the nature and domain of sacred doctrine” and the discussion of rational knowledge of God, together constitute a demonstration of the possibility of theological discourse…

This perspective on the dogmatic function of the [Thomas Aquinas’ five] proofs also provides us with a keen critique of the neo-orthodox theological enterprise. The neo-orthodox claim that the self-revelation of God excludes all rational proofs of God’s existence, far from manifesting a problem in traditional theism actually demonstrates a fatal flaw in neo-orthodoxy. It is the capacity for rational discourse that moves theology from mere confession of faith to the systematic elaboration of the articles of faith into a genuine body of doctrine. When the demonstration of the instrumental function of reason is excluded, theology cannot justify its own systematic elaboration: the fideism of Barth’s neo-othodoxy negates the very discourse designed to present neo-orthodox theology as a systematic alternative to earlier forms of Protestant dogmatics.

In other words, the Barthian denial of the analogia entis, with its radical and virtually nominalist contention that there is no analogy between God and the created order, not only rids theology of the magisterial function of reason typical of the rational supernaturalism of the eighteenth century, but also rids theology of the instrumental function of reason that balthasarThomas outlined so carefully in the eighth article of Question 1 and in Question 2 of the Summa—and that the Protestant dogmaticians of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries assumed in their construction of theological system. The analogy of being and the proofs provided Thomas, in the Summa, not with “prior knowledge of something which resembles creation” but with a limited rational knowing set into the context of faith and sacra doctrina of a necessary being—a “something,” if you will, not so much resembling creation as set over and above it, and because of its being set over and above creation, capable of being identified as God. This is not “a prior knowledge” either in the sense of a knowledge prior to the inchoate apprehension of the divine or to the confession of faith in the divine or in the sense of a knowledge upon which faith can be grounded. Rather it is a knowledge arising from our nature and capable of serving faith in an instrumental capacity even as it is being perfected by grace.

By way of conclusion, we may simply recognize that the proofs of God’s existence occupy an important position in dogmatic theology distinct from their function in apologetics because the rational demonstration of the existence of a “something” the name of which is one of the names of God is also the demonstra­tion of the proper function of reason in theological discourse. This demonstration neither replaces nor subverts faith but rather shows us that faith is capable of sustaining itself in argument. Traditional Protestant dogmatics, as written between the Reformation and the Enlightenment, recognized the need to define the relationship of faith and reason, theology and philosophy and occasionally, somewhat grudgingly, admitted that despite its intense polemic against Roman Catholicism it had learned the technique of constructing a synthesis of the ways of knowing from the great medieval doctors. That synthesis is still necessary to the construction of a consistently stated and convincingly argued dogmatic theology. To the extent that Protestant theology has allowed a misunderstanding of the proofs to confuse its view of the function of reason it has also erected a barrier in the way of its own theological development.[1]

In my view, this is a massively revealing statement on the part of Muller. It shows that his ‘Protestant appreciation’ for Aquinas and his dictum that ‘grace perfects nature’, for the analogia entis, and for the medieval synthesis of faith and reason ultimately consists in his recognition that these are not ancillary but essential elements of post-Reformation Protestant dogmatics without which they could not be constructed, “consistently stated”, nor “convincingly argued”. It also brings to light one of the main reasons for which Muller opposes Barth and so-called neo-orthodoxy. As Muller rightly discerns, Barth’s denial of the analogia entis was inimical to the Protestant theological systems of the 16th and 17th centuries. That is to say, without the analogia entis and its corresponding synthesis of faith and reason, Protestant orthodox theology (e.g. the Westminster Standards) would either fall apart or require significant revision.

So this leaves us with a provocative question: if it is true, as Keith Johnson has so convincingly argued, that Barth’s “reasons for his rejection of the analogia entis stand directly in line with the reasons Luther and the Reformers gave for turning away from Roman Catholicism centuries earlier”[2], then what can this mean for the later Protestant reappropriation of the analogia entis except that it constituted a fundamental reversal away from Luther and the Reformers and back to Roman Catholicism? Does not Muller concede as much when he notes that “[t]raditional Protestant dogmatics … occasionally, somewhat grudgingly, admitted that despite its intense polemic against Roman Catholicism it had learned the technique of constructing a synthesis of the ways of knowing from the great medieval doctors”?


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 1992. ‘The Dogmatic Function of St. Thomas’ “Proofs”: A Protestant Appreciation’ in Fides et Historia 24, pp.24, 28-29, emphasis added.

[2] Johnson, K.L., 2010. Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis. London/New York: T&T Clark, p.121.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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