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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid.

 

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

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

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Image by Steve Thomason, deepintheburbs.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No One Knows the Father Except the Son: H.R. Mackintosh on the Radical Exclusivity of Revelation in Christ

In my efforts to better understand the theology of T.F. Torrance, I have turned also to one of his most significant influences: Hugh Ross Mackintosh. Mackintosh, a professor of dogmatics at New College in Edinburgh, played a particularly formative role on the development of the young Torrance’s thought, and the indelible marks that he left there would manifest themselves throughout the rest of Torrance’s life. Reading Mackintosh’s study on The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ, it is15-2 not difficult to find the seeds of Torrance’s distinctively Christological approach to all Christian knowledge. Commenting on Matthew 11:27, a verse that was just as meaningful for Torrance as it was for the early church fathers, Mackintosh wrote:

…the study of our Lord’s filial consciousness must always centre in the great words of Mt 11.27: “All things are delivered unto Me of My Father; and no one knoweth the Son, save the Father; neither doth any know the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son willeth to reveal Him.” These words, the most important for Christology in the New Testament, were apparently spoken on the return of the disciples from their first preaching mission. They are instinct with a high and solemn joy. As commentators have remarked, the whole passage has a Johannine quality which is unique, or all but unique, in the first three Gospels. The words come home to us not so much as the sudden flash of a transient emotion as rather the overflow of an habitual mood of feeling. To question their authenticity is a desperate expedient, and it is difficult to take seriously the insipid suggestion that they are more than half a quotation from the Son of Sirach.

What it is of supreme moment for us to note is “the unqualified correlation of the Father and the Son” these words proclaim. We are brought face to face with a relationship of absolute intimacy and perfect mutual correspondence, which is intransferable by its nature. Not merely is the Father’s being, to its inmost secret, open to the soul of Jesus, without that sense of mystery and inscrutable remoteness of which the greatest prophets had been conscious; not merely is the Son’s knowledge of the Father complete, final, and inaccessible to every other save those to whom the Son is mediator: along with this goes the fact that Jesus’ inmost being is known to the Father, and to none else…

This is not to repudiate Old Testament revelation as worthless; it is to declare that nothing which can be called revelation of the Father is worthy to compare with the knowledge given in and through the Son. The revealing medium has an absolute and exclusive harmony with that which is revealed. All others become children of God by way of debt to Jesus; in His case alone Sonship is the constitutive factor of His being. The life of the Father and the Son is one life, and either can be known only in the other. In these inexhaustible words, accordingly, there is presented something far greater than a new conception; the conception is expressive of a new fact beyond which religion cannot go, for “the sentence as a whole tells us plainly that Jesus is both to God and to man what no other can be.” It was a final intimation of truth which the apostles kept ever after in their heart. Never again could they attempt to realise the Divine Fatherhood but there rose before them the person of the Son, as life and death had revealed Him; in like manner, to possess the Son was literally to possess the Father also.[1]

Mackintosh’s meditation on Matthew 11:27 help us not only to trace the roots of his eminent student’s Christo-intensive approach to all Christian thought and speech (sometimes called a principial Christocentrism) but also to realize why such Christo-intensity should not be viewed as a mere idiosyncrasy of Torrancean (or even Barthian) theology. We are obligated to submit all of our thinking about God to the revelation that has come exclusively in and through Jesus Christ. Unlike the words spoken by the prophets, Christ is himself the Word spoken once and for all to humanity. Christ does not bring revelation about God; he is revelation embodied in human form. He does not merely give us bits of new information about God; he is God whose revelation is his self-giving and reconciling presence among us. As Torrance often said, in Christ the Revelation and the Revealer are absolutely identical. This is, in short, is why the revelation of God in Christ is utterly exclusive: Christ alone can claim to know and reveal the Father on the basis of the fact that he is one in being and essence with the Father such that to know him is to come into an immediate, direct, and personal knowledge of God as he has always been eternally in himself.

But does this in any way negate the revelation that we have in Scripture? Not at all, rather (as Paul might put it) a Christo-intensive approach actually fulfills the purpose of Scripture: to prepare us for (Old Testament) and witness to (New Testament) the revelation of God that comes exclusively in and through Jesus Christ. To seek to know God in any other way, to treat Scripture as though it could be understood apart from Christ, would actually be to nullify for the reason for which God inspired Scripture in the first place. No one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son reveals him; thus we are compelled to know the Father in no other way except in Christ alone.

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[1] H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp.27-28.

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.

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.

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[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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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