Preserving theological values

It was suggested that I was too subjective in theology and disagreed with everybody.  Obviously, such a claim is false.  I think I know why people say it, though.  I don’t walk lock-step with any one man.  God expects us to be big boys and big girls.   John said that we have an anointing from the Holy Spirit and don’t need to be overly dependent on teachers.  I had originally invited anchorites to point out my disagreements with the Confession. That invitation is still open.   In the following is a list of theological “values.”  Values are what are important to our identity as Christians standing in the Reformed catholic tradition.  They must be preserved.   That does not mean, however, that the philosophical presuppositions and currency of the 5th or 16th century are on the same level of Scripture.  Nor does this mean shying away from actual difficulties in a position.

Unfortunately, when anyone in a Reformed setting tries this, it often looks like he is attacking the Reformed faith.  I intend no such attack.  Whatever weaknesses I might perceive in the Reformed tradition, I don’t see any better alternatives. I write this as someone who is happily in the Reformed tradition, loves the best of the Reformed tradition, and will gladly defend that tradition from perceived defective views.  Now, on to the values…

  • Election:  My questions about election are different than most.  I fully affirm, contra all forms of semi-Pelagianism, that God doesn’t need our permission to be God.   I do believe God chooses who will be saved.  However, there are some problems the way it is usually set up.  If the identity of the Logos is fully-formed in eternal generation before the Pactum Salutis where the Father elects to save those into the Logos, then it’s hard to see how Nestorianism of some sort doesn’t follow.  Better yet, however, is to see Jesus of Nazareth as the subject and object of election, and election as the event that distinguished God’s modes of being (hyparchos tropos).  In any case, election must be affirmed as to allow the “offense of God’s actuality” (a phrase attributed to Robert W. Jenson).
  • Assurance: Assurance represents a problem.  How do I know that I am really assured?  The problem is not that I with my fallible human knowledge can know infallibly.  The real problem is that I exist in time yet God has promised that he will be God to me and that nothing can take me out of Jesus’s hands.   To attack assurance on these grounds is simply to preach a doctrine straight from hell.  That’s not to say that all tensions are gone, though.   But that’s the key issue:  tensions.  Instead of viewing assurance in a metaphysical construct where I find myself against a metaphysical doctrine of election to which I do not often hear a response, I suggest, following Michael Horton’s project, to see assurance in an eschatological context.  On a practical level, we can’t form our doctrine of assurance in such a way that ignores the most basic of Christian categories:  simple faith and trust.  Do you believe that Jesus did what he said he did?  Do you trust that he cut a covenant which we see in the bread and the wine?
  • Justification:  I fully agree with WSC 33.  Any deviation from that is fraught with huge problems.   This is where I part company with N.T. Wright.   Wright’s conclusions are bad.  His historical framework and questions are quite good, and quite frankly, won’t go away.  Further, and many critics of the Reformed faith don’t realize this, but Wright fully affirms the forensic, extra-nos aspect of justification against attempts to read it as theosis or transformation.
  • Sola Scriptura:  It’s fairly obvious that few know what this phrase really means, and that most certainly includes the Young, Restless, and Reformed crowd.  It does not mean “The Bible Alone.”  It does not mean the bible is our only authority.  It means that the Bible is the norm that norms our norms.  If you don’t know what that phrase means, you need to go read some more.  The Bible is the norm–let’s call it Holy Scripture, actually–that creates and legitimizes subordinate norms.  This not only means we may look to the Church and history, but that we must look.   It protects us from silly positions like “The Bible is way too subjective, but for some reason, dozens of canons from councils, dozens of statements from fathers in different cultural milieus, those are objective.”  As I tell people at Orthodox Bridge, I will gladly look to the church for advice and for theological grammar.  It simply doesn’t follow, however, that the church suddenly has ipso facto infallible authority in everything over my soul.

    On a more important note, and here is where my formulation is different, it is better to see Holy Scripture as the witness to God’s narrative:  God’s actions in (ultimately) raising the Israelite from the dead.  I prefer to see Holy Scripture in ultimately narratival terms as opposed to what I call “The Divine Database Model.”  The latter is too platonic and plays into the hands of traditionalists who can then start asking difficult questions about the canon.   My position, however, does an end-run around that by anchoring back into the Hebrew narrative, to which the New Testament documents witness, for the Hebrew canon was largely fixed prior to the existence of the Church (yes, I am aware of Stephen’s hinting of an OT church in Acts 7.  I don’t think it is warranted to read too much into that one phrase).

Engaging the doctrine of God (review)

The underlying theme in this book is how to appropriate the teaching that God is impassible in light of the many Biblical narratives that seem to suggest otherwise, alongside numerous theological reflections.  The contributor fall among the spectrum of those advocating a classical substance-metaphysics (Paul Helm) and those who are quite critical of substance-metaphysics (Bruce McCormack).   Others, such as Oliver Crisp, offer penetrating critiques of several Christian thinkers on the doctrine of the Trinity.  This review will not cover every essay, but will focus on the more notable ones.

Paul Helm (“John Calvin and the Hiddenness of God”) seeks to defend the reading of the extra-Calvinisticum and a contention of classical metaphysics that “God” stands behind, if only logically, the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.   Of interest, though not the central point of the article, is Helm’s fine summary of the “extra calvinisticum.”  Helm is specifically challenging Barth’s reading of Calvin and thus proposes two theses (68):

Is the second person logically prior to the decree to become incarnate?  Helm, pace Calvin, says yes.
Does this necessarily infer a hidden “God behind God”?  Helm answers no.

As an aside, and I don’t think it fundamentally changes his argument, I think Helm is either guilty of ambiguity or the editor overlooked a typo.  On p.68 Helm affirms, as would I, that the Logos is asarkos at the decree.  Yet on the next page he says that Calvin and Barth “held that there was no time when the Logos was asarkos.”   Nevertheless, I get the gist of his argument.
Helm then gives a helpful summary of what the extra-Calvinisticum entails. He develops this as a foil against Barth, yet Barth never fully rejected the “extra.”  He simply says it is very badly phrased, which it is.


I don’t want to seem like I am nit-picking, and I cannot help but note a certain irony:  Barthian scholars like McCormack and Jenson are accused of being soft on divine simplicity, yet I can’t help but think that their readings of Barth best preserve it.   If God is simple, and there is not multiplicity of ideas in the mind of God, since this kind of discursive reasoning implies division (diastasis, to use the Origenist term), then every other idea, and hence an idea to act x, y, and z, must inhere in that one initial idea/act.   The importance of this will be seen later.


Helm’s reading of Calvin rightly wants to preserve the freedom of God against some external force necessitating God.  Hence, Helm argues, “So the Logos Asarkos was free not to become incarnate.  [U] Any additional choice that the Logos was free to make[/U]…is of secondary importance” (emphasis mine 72).  The problem here, as noted above, is that the doctrine of divine simplicity precludes any real talk of the Logos reasoning discursively in pre-temporal eternity.  If by this Helm means by this “logical priority” (which he indeed states on p.68) then he can avoid the difficulty posed by simplicity.  However, terms like “any additional choice” are time-sensitive and seem to suggest otherwise than his argument.  Barth’s model of election as the event of the Trinity’s modes of being, whatever legitimate difficulties it may have, is much closer to preserving simplicity.

Helm rebuts Barth’s charge that this view of God leads to speculation, and quotes Calvin for support (73).  Surely, anyone who has read Calvin knows he is blessedly free from speculation.  For myself, I think Barth is using the wrong term–speculation–and Helm is not seeing the real difficulty.   Per Barth’s reading of Calvin, which I am not necessarily endorsing at the moment, the Logos asarkos already has a fully-formed identity before the decision to save the world.  To be fair, McCormack, whose essay Helm is reviewing, further expanded these ideas in [I]Orthodox and Modern[/I].  This is tied in with Barth’s claim that Jesus is both the Object and Subject of election.    Helm says this is simply “incoherent” (79).  How can an object of an act be present as the subject of that same act?  It is a fair question and probably the best raised against Barth’s program.  Helm notes, “The act of electing is the act of someone; it cannot be the act of no one which, upon its occurrence, constitutes a someone.” By way of response one can ask if the Trinity is incoherent, for how can the Son be present in the eternal generation of the Son?  For Helm would agree that the Son, in the eternal generation, doesn’t come from a state of non-being to a state of being, yet is present in the Father’s very giving of being.

Helm ends his essay with different challenges to Barthians.  Overall, this is a fine essay, even if I have some critical reservations.  I think Helm filled in several lacunae that were missing from his John Calvin’s Ideas.  His discussion of the extra-Calvinisticum was quite lucid.  My only concerns are that he didn’t realize that Barth actually held to the Calvinist line over the Lutherans on this point.   Other good questions he has raised have already been answered by McCormack and Eberhard Jungel.

“The Actuality of God:  Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism” by Bruce McCormack.

McCormack gives us a very interesting critique of open-theism:  open-theism is simply parasitic on the very classical metaphysics it seeks to overcome.   True, it can find texts that posit a “moved God,” so to speak, but its opponents can do likewise to the contrary.  McCormack notes that open theists simply had no way of winning this debate:  they engaged in very little Christology and shared the same metaphysical presuppositions as their opponents.

To begin, it should be helpful to define classical metaphysics.  This these types of thinking “are all ways of thinking which would treat the ontological otherness of God as something that can be defined and established by humans without respect for the incarnate life of God and, therefore, as something complete in itself apart from and prior to all acts of God” (McCormack 201).  And Pinnock is very clear:  God doesn’t change in his essence (Pinnock 119).

The question for both sides to answer, and this is the brilliance of McCormack’s essay, is “Does the Logos undergo change?”  Answering this question is actually quite difficult.   No Christian tradition–even Open theism–is willing to say that the divine nature suffers (though I grant Moltmann and his disciples spoke this way).  This is also tied in with a discussion of claims about “God in himself.”  As McCormack notes, “Classical theologians wanted to say that God would have been the same in himself without his works–a claim that would make sense only if it could be known what God is in himself.  On the other hand, they wanted to say that what God is is essentially unknowable” (McCormack 203-204).  This problem found itself at the heart of the Christological controversies, to which we now turn.

For the fathers working in the Chalcedonian tradition, two values had to be preserved:  divine impassibility and divinization soteriology.  On one hand, God cannot suffer (even Arius agreed with this claim!), so the divine and human natures had to be kept far apart.  The clearest expression of this is found in John of Damascus, who, to borrow McCormack’s nice phrase, used the mind as a mediating principle between the two natures (219).  This is why Lutheran and Orthodox analogies of “fire and iron” fall short:   the fire never becomes “iron-ish.”

McCormack’s conclusion on this reading, which I think accurate, is that this commitment to impassibility inevitably drove even the more Cyrillene theologians to a Nestorian tendency.  Cyril, for example, might want to say that “God dies,” but even he won’t ascribe pathoi and suffering to the divine nature.  All of this reduces back to a classical ontology.  McCormack notes:  “To the extent that human predicates can be ascribed to the Person of the union without ascribing them at the same time to the divine nature, the person is being treated as something that can be abstracted from the divine nature and stand “between” the natures, mediating between them” (220 n.84).

Making it worse for the ancient tradition was its commitment to theosis.  In this model the Logos “instrumentalizes” the human nature and infuses it with life.  The problem, though, on this reading was that the communication goes only one way:  the divine is not humanized.

The above essay was perhaps not immediately relevant to McCormack’s larger argument; however, it does show that the problems open theists faced were there all along.  Even more, it shows that open theism’s project could not have gotten off of the ground without the very system it seeks to undermine.

Other essays:  D.A. Carson’s essay on the wrath of God is a helpful summary of key texts on the wrath of God.  He notes that for whatever problems critics of penal substitution may have, they all collapse on the fact that they really haven’t interacted with the idea of God’s wrath.  John Webster has a nice essay showing how the necessary doctrine of God’s aseity has been warped in recent years.  Instead of it being doxological in focus, it is defended–ironically!–by an appeal to contingent reality.  Donald MacLeod ends on a pastoral note, summing up the themes of the conference.

Event and God’s Identity

If we posit a God beyond the God revealed, then we are left with the worst form of nominalism (I know, I just said the n-word) and skepticism.  This is one of the reasons I reject Palamism.  There is no such thing as a God-in-itself.  Ousias do not have interiorieties.

McCormack writes,

“For Barth, the triunity of God consists in the fact that God is one Subject in three modes of being. One Subject! To say then that ‘Jesus Christ is the electing God’ is to say, ‘God determined to be God in a second mode of being.’ It lies close to hand to recognize that it is precisely the primal decision of God in election which constitutes the event in which God differentiates himself into three modes of being. Election thus has a certain logical priority even over the triunity of God. [Quoting Eberhard Jüngel:] ‘Jesus Christ is the electing God. In that here one of the three modes of being is determined to be the God who elects, we have to understand God’s primal decision as an event in the being of God which differentiates the modes of God’s being.’ So the event in which God constitutes himself as triune is identical with the event in which he chooses to be God for the human race. Thus the ‘gap’ between ‘the eternal Son’ and ‘Jesus Christ’ is overcome, the distinction between them eliminated…. There is no ‘eternal Son’ if by that is meant a mode of being in God which is not identical with Jesus Christ” (pp. 218-19).

As Ben Meyers summarizes,

The event in which God chooses to be “God for us” is identical with the event in which God “gives himself his own being.” And this event of election is not located in any timeless eternity. God’s eternal decision coincides with the temporal event in which this decision reaches its goal. This coincidence – this event of utter singularity – is God’s being. Time, then, “is not alien to the innermost being of God” (p. 222). The time of Jesus Christ is the time of God’s decision – it is the primal time, the time of God’s eternal movement into history. There is no still-more-primal divine being which lurks behind this movement into history; God’s being is this movement, this effectual decision.

Barth and the End of Classical Metaphysics

McCormack, Bruce.  Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth.  Baker.

Bruce McCormack suggests that the best model for understanding Karl Barth’s theology is Realdialektik–God is indirectly identical with the medium of his self-revelation.  It is dialectical in the sense that it posits both a veiling and unveiling of God. God is unveiled in Jesus’s flesh, but since it is in Jesus’s flesh, God is in a sense veiled (McCormack 145).   This is another way of using Luther’s Deus absconditus.  Interestingly, this dialectic solves the postmodern problem of “Presence-Absence.”

What is Classical Metaphysics?

Barth’s project is in many ways an attempt to overcome the limitations of classical metaphysics.  Among other things, classical metaphysics (and it doesn’t matter whether you have in mind Eastern and Western models) saw the essence of God as an abstract something behind all of God’s acts and relations (140).  This view is particularly susceptible to Heidegger’s critique of “Being.”  It is also susceptible, particularly in its Cappadocian form, to Tillich’s critique:

The Cappadocian “Solution” and Further Problem

According to the Cappadocians, the Father is both the ground of divinity and a particular hypostasis of that divinity.  Taken together, we can now speak of a quaternity.  Secondly, the distinctions between the relations are empty of content.  What do the words “unbegotten,” “begotten,” and “proceeding” mean when any analogy between the divine essence and created reality is ruled illegitimate, as the Cappadocians insist (Tillich 77-78)?  The Augustinian-Thomist tradition at least tried to move this forward, even if its solution was equally unsatisfactory.

Further, with regard to the Person of Christ, essentialism connotes an abstracted human nature which is acted upon (McCormack 206).  Further, in essentialist forms of metaphysics the idea of a person is that which is complete in itself apart from its actions and relations (211).  A wedge is now driven between essence and existence.  Christologically, this means that nothing which happens in and through the human nature affects the person of the union, for the PErson is already complete anterior to these actions and relations.

Election and the Trinity

Barth navigates beyond this impasse with his now famous actualism.  Rather than first positing a Trinity and then positing a decision to elect, which necessarily creates a metaphysical “gap” in the Trinity, Barth posits Jesus of Nazareth not only as the object of election (which is common to every dogmatics scheme), but also the subject of election.  How can this be?  How can someone be both the elector and the elected?

For Barth the Trinity is One Subject in Three Simultaneous Modes of being (218).  To say that Jesus Christ is the electing God is to say that God determined to be God in a second (not being used in a temporal sense) mode of being…this lies close to the decision that [Election] constitutes an event in which God differentiates himself into three modes of being (218).  Election is the event which differentiates God’s modes of being…So the event in which God is triune is identical with the event in which He chooses to be God for the human race” (ibid.)

Participation, not Theosis

Barth’s actualist ontology allows him to affirm the juridicalism within the Scriptures (which is markedly absent from many Eastern treatises) and the language of participating in the divine but without recourse to the theosis views so dependent on classical metaphysics.

Barth is historically-oriented, not metaphysically.  The divine does not metaphysically indwell the human so as to heal the potential loss of being.  Rather, the exaltation occurs in the history of Jesus Christ.  “The link which joins the human and divine is not an abstract concept of being, but history” (230).

For Barth, God’s ontology is the act of determining to enter human history (238).  God’s essence and human essence can be placed in motion–they can be actualized in history.

Exaltation, not indwelling

The terms describing Jesus’s history are agreement, service, obedience–they speak of the man Jesus standing before God, not being indwelt.

Reworking the Categories

If Barth’s criticisms of classical ontology hold, then a humble reworking of some categories is in order.  Instead of hypostasis, Barth uses the term “identification.”  The identification in question is an act of love.  Jesus is God, but God as self-differentiation.

This may seem obscure, but it bears great promise.  Both East and West have struggled with defining “person.”  A good Eastern theologian will not even define it, since, as John Behr notes, you cannot give a common definition to something which is by definition not-common.  Eastern Orthodox like to say how “personal” their theology is, yet ask them to define “person.”   The West actually does define it, but the problems aren’t entirely gone.  If person = relation, then how come the relations between the persons are not themselves persons, and ad infinitum all the way back to Gnosticism?  Given these huge problems, we should not so quickly dismiss Barth’s proposal.

Ecclesial Election

Ephesians 1:4,

Just as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world

“in Him” = the Person of Christ, including his “body.”  His body cannot be separated from the church.   Therefore, election is in the context of the church.

Further biblical thoughts,

In the OT, election is almost always corporate (in fact, I think it is always corporate, but I am not 100% sure).  If one acknowledges the corporate force of election in the OT, which is not debatable, one has to ask why the bible suddenly shifts to personal unconditional election in the New Testament.  Are the Baptists right after all?  But if one assumes a corporate reading throughout, this problem does not exist.