Monday, November 27, 2006

What Am I Reading? Thomas F. Torrance

Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church, (T&T Clark, 1995).

My opinion of this book changed with each passing chapter, registering everything from distrust, to boredom (because of repetition), to interest over some before unseen technicality, to euphoria over a particularly helpful formulation. In other words, reading this book was typical of my experience in reading TFT in general. I greatly appreciate his work and have learned a lot from and through him, but sometimes he weighs on me, and sometimes I wonder whether a better historical account of the early development of Christian doctrine might be found elsewhere. But, all in all, reading Torrance has once again expanded my horizons and has further cemented into my mind some important reflexes. One of these that it is fitting to mention is the importance of thinking in terms of relations, particularly in terms of the distinction between internal and external relations. As TFT elucidates, paying attention to internal relations between the Father, Son and Spirit was important in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. But, it had not occurred to me to think through the doctrine of the Church in similar terms (although I’m kicking myself for not having thought of that because I really should have). Also, TFT’s discussion of the atonement was helpful in many ways, especially in its attention to the connection between resurrection and incarnation, as well as in its emphasis on the substitutionary and vicarious character of Christ’s life and death.

This volume is the product of TFT’s Warfield Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1981 and is arranged according to the form of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. There are 8 chapters: (1) Faith and Godliness (2) Access to the Father (3) The Almighty Creator (4) God of God, Light of Light (5) The Incarnate Savior (6) The Eternal Spirit (7) The One Church (8) The Triunity of God.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Thanksgiving Meditation

Princeton Theological Seminary holds an enormous book sale (used, and sometimes even new) each Spring. The books are gathered from a wide variety of sources, and there are always gems among the gravel. The sale starts out at something like $5 for hardbound volumes and $3 for paperback, but that price goes down until, on the last day, you can fill a box with books and walk away for merely $5. Of course, by the time the last day rolls around, there usually isn’t much left. But, this past year I was able to pick up – on the last day of the sale – a little gem entitled Eucharistic Liturgies: Studies in American Pastoral Liturgy (Newman Press, 1969). For what it is worth, it was edited at various levels by three Jesuits. I thought it fitting, it being the eve of Thanksgiving here in the United States, to offer an except from one of these Eucharistic liturgies, specifically the “Canon for a Day of Thanksgiving.” The poetically aware formatting of the volume has given way to simply paragraph form. Enjoy!

Blessed are you, God, our Father, for the gift of Christ, your Son. It is through Christ that we, as a nation, learn to offer fitting thanks to you. For Christ has taught us that in the midst of a world torn and shaken by war, thanks is given to you when we hold our brother’s hand in peace. He has likewise taught us that there is no material success nor joy in achievement which can compare to the praise given to you when one man reaches out to help his fellow man. He taught us, finally, that deeper than all human security is the bond of faith which unites us and the power of love which sets us free.

This we have learned from Christ, our brother. And now we recall how he himself gave thanks on the night before he died. On that night, he took bread into his hands; he lifted his eyes to you, God, his almighty Father; he thanked you, and broke the bread, and gave it to his friends, with the words: “Take and eat, this is my body which is to be broken for you.” Thus he also took the cup, said a prayer of thanks over it and said: “Take and drink, this is the cup of my blood of the new and everlasting covenant, which will be shed for you and for all unto the forgiveness of sins. Each time you do these things you will be commemorating me.”

Now, whenever we eat this bread and drink from this cup, we recall what Christ was really like in those days when he walked the earth. We recall that in the complexity of the times, and even at the risk of suffering and death, he asked very much of very ordinary people, as he gave very much of himself. He never placed security above faith, or laws above love, but neither did he free his disciples from the doubts and risks which following him involved. So, in love, in faith, in doubt, in risk, a community of Christ’s followers arose. And so, today, all who share this meal – black men and white men, the wealthy and the poor, old men who have visions, and young men you dream dreams, the violent and the meek, the suffering, the rejected, the self-righteous, the proud – we are, all of us, the Christian community, the new people of God. Christ does not apologize for our faults or explain to us the mystery of our calling; he bids us seek guidance from the Holy Spirit, and always and at all times, truly to love one another.

Mindful of our vocation, then, God our Father, we ask you to send over us the Holy Spirit, without whom our thanks to you would be in vain. Help us, through the same Spirit, to be creative, since this is how we become like you; open our ears that we may hear people cry; open our hearts, that we may thank you for the beauty of creation by helping the poor and the rejected of this earth discover their share of that beautiful gift; they, too, are children of the Father, born to love in the Spirit, destined to be free with the freedom of the sons of God.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 1.10-12

Note: This was published back in September and somehow managed to get itself erased, probably during the process of switching over to "beta" functionality. So, here it is again.


1 Peter 1.10-12

(10) Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, (11) trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. (12) It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.



Calvin’s material in relation to this passage can be subsumed under the heading of “The Prophets.” There are numerous sub-headings: (1) Antiquity, (2) Calvin’s 5 propositions, (3) Patience and Speculation, (4) Sufferings.


As a man of the Renaissance, Calvin had great respect for all things that were really, really old. Indeed, the measure of something’s antiquity was for Calvin, as for all humanists of the time, a measure of its dependability and veracity. Thus, it is not surprising that when he sees reference to the prophets in this text he uses it as a chance to assert the antiquity of the Gospel. Making this move is Calvin’s second move in this text, and his second to last. His first move is to note the value of salvation, and the last is similar – discussing the value of the gospel as shown by the relation of angels to these matters. To Calvin, Peter “proves the certainty of the gospel, because it contains nothing but what had been long ago testified by the Spirit of God.”

Calvin’s 5 Propositions

These propositions have to do with the relation of the OT prophets to the gospel of Christ. I’ll simply reproduce them for our mutual edification:

“Let the first be this, - that the Prophets who foretold of the grace which Christ exhibited at his coming, diligently inquired as to the time when full revelation was to be made. The second is, - that the Spirit of Christ predicted by them of the future condition of Christ’s kingdom, such as it is now, and such as it is expected yet to be, even that it is destined that Christ and his whole body should, through various sufferings, enter into glory. The third is, - that the prophets ministered to us more abundantly than to their own age, and that this was revealed to them from above; for in Christ only is the full exhibition of those things of which God then presented but an obscure image. The fourth is, - that in the Gospel is contained a clear confirmation of prophetic doctrine, but also a much fuller and plainer explanation; for the salvation which he formerly proclaimed as it were at a distance by the prophets, he now reveals openly to us, and as it were before our eyes. The last proposition is, - that it hence appears evident how wonderful is the glory of that salvation promised to us in the Gospel, because even angels, though they enjoy God’s presence in heaven, yet burn with the desire of seeing it.”
By way of quick comment, I think that it is worth noting how diametrically opposed the 3rd and 4th propositions are to the precepts of modern academic Old Testament studies. Not only should the prophets be interpreted within their own context, but also within the context of the Gospel and New Testament which provides the fullness of what was previously given – at least, this is what Calvin suggests to us.

Patience and Speculation

Building on this discussion of the Prophets, Calvin goes on to discuss patience in relation to the knowledge of God. The prophets investigated and inquired about the future of God’s promises, indeed, they yearned both to know and to see these things. But, at the end of the day, they restrained themselves and proclaimed only that which had as yet been revealed to them. “Thus they have taught us by their example a sobriety in learning, for they did not go beyond what the Spirit taught them.” This instinct to turn away from speculating beyond what has been given to us in revelation is a recurrent theme for Calvin (I likely mentioned this and the following already at some point). It often pops up in his discussion of providence and predestination when he reminds his interlocutors of this point. I sometimes wonder if he might have forgotten it a few times himself when considering these matters.


We have seen before that Calvin is not slow to talk about the Christian’s life of suffering. In addition we have seen some of the ways in which he elaborates on this theme. Here, he introduces the notion that suffering may be endured because suffering must precede glory, a notion that he derives from Jesus’ example. Also, because glories are annexed to sufferings for Christians, suffering should not be seen as evil. Besides, we know that “we are not afflicted by chance.”

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Eberhard Jüngel on Karl Barth

Some of you know that I have been spending the vast majority of my time over the last month attempting to read through Eberhard Jüngel's article "Karl Barths Lehre Von Der Taufe: Ein Hinweis Auf Ihre Probleme." This article only appears in German, so it was necessary that I read it in German. And, oh, what an experience it has been. I must say, however, that I have seen my ability to read theological German develop significantly through this project (I went into it having studied German for reading knowledge over the course of 6 weeks this past summer...). Below are some quotations taken from the closing paragraphs of this article, translated by yours truly. I usually don't go in for Jüngel, but I thought that these were interesting sentiments. The page citations are to Jüngel’s Barth-Studien.

“Barth’s doctrine of baptism will be disputed more than its dogmatic premises. And, its practical consequences will be fought more than itself.” (285)
“The doctrine of baptism is also in this negative sense not an appendix to the Church Dogmatics, but rather, in a more certain way, the rehearsal of an example.” (286-7)
“Whoever wants infant baptism should not nourish himself for the pulpit from Barth’s doctrine of predestination…One or the other [infant or believer’s baptism] – one must decide for oneself. And, precisely this constraint to decide does our churches good.” (287)
“This treatise was written for the objectively inclined opponent. However, I confess gladly that it was also written against the many comfortable spirits that have long since identified Barth as Neo-orthodox or as a revelational positivist; or credited Barth as a church father or as a…guardian of the status quo.” (288)
Barth’s theology is “centered around God himself, but God himself for men. Because of that there can be for this dogmatics no mix of divine and human being or act. Just as God through acts of divine being proves that he is himself, so should humans through acts of human being prove to be human. That humans can do so is owed to God himself. That humans should do so is commanded by God. That humans do so corresponds to God himself. But, in this way, the man himself is himself.” (Ibid)
“Barth’s theology is speech of the God speaking with people and therefore at the same time speech by people speaking with God.” (Ibid)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Human Freedom and the God-Time Relation

Dear Friends,

There has developed in the past few days a rousing discussion in the comments section of my most recent post, which was itself a response to a comment left in another post. This debate has ranged widely, but has centered upon a few distinct notions, namely, (1) human freedom and (2) the relation between God and time. It seemed to me that the best way to respond would not be to post a series of refutations and clarifications on things already said; rather, I decided to make a positive statement concerning these two points. I sincerely hope that it will be helpful.

1. Human Freedom

There are three kinds of freedom: (a) philosophical freedom (b) conditional freedom (c) theological freedom. These will be discussed in sequence.

a. Philosophical Freedom

Philosophical freedom is that freedom which human persons possess that establishes their phenomenological ability to, when faced with a choice between A and B, chose A and not B, or vice versa. This freedom means that human persons as acting agents are not fatalistically determined. There is a reservoir of spontaneity in the human will that remains a function of the human person’s will. In no case will I have “have to” (in the sense of necessity) choose A and not B, for no matter what the consequences, it is still my choice. I may be shot if I chose A and not B, but it is still my decision in that I weigh the consequences and make a choice. All of this is to say that coercion is not necessity. I may be coerced into a particular decision, that is, forced by an external condition to finally choose that which I would not have chosen in the absence of that external condition. But this is not necessity.

I would argue that humans posses this freedom.

b. Conditional Freedom

Shane did a fine job of laying out this position. If I may reformulate his work, this freedom means that just because God (or anyone else) knows certainly about a spatial-temporal condition of my being, does not mean that this condition is necessary. This is an important thing to get a hold of. That I know with certainty that someone is sitting in a chair means that it is necessarily true that this person is sitting in a chair at the moment that this knowledge applies to. But, the manner in which this person comes to sit in the chair is totally up to them. I simply know that it is the case. Thus, just because God knows with certainty what will be does not mean that this is determined without our input. It is not that God wills that every moment be disposed a certain way and therefore it is so and therefore he knows it. Rather, his will and our will operate in a relation of concursus, each conditioning the other, and concluding non-coercively in a future disposition.

God knows things in the future with certainty because he is privy to the entirety of the knowledge of the concursus of his and our wills that are involved in disposing the future. Thus, we have a part in the disposition of the world, and even in God’s certain foreknowledge. This does not have to take place only in time, but can take place in eternity. The future is certain, but even in pre-temporal eternity God’s foreknowledge of the temporal future is condition by our philosophical freedom.

It should be noted that conditional freedom is an elaboration on philosophical freedom. They are complimentary, not mutually exclusive.

c. Theological Freedom and Human Being

Theological freedom operates on a level other than philosophical freedom (and conditional freedom as a subset of philosophical freedom). Theological freedom has to do with a value judgment. It is concerned with the value differential between possibilities A and B, and not with whether or not there is philosophical freedom in choosing between A and B. It also deals with the freedom that comes with a state of salvation. We will discuss it under three further sub-points: (i) obedience, (ii) disobedience, and (iii) “for” not “from.”

i. Obedience

The telos of human being is obedience to God. We were created to be covenant partners with God, to live in a relationship of obedience with him, and to live lives of free correspondence to his will. This correspondence is to be “free” in the sense that it is a willed activity. It is not an unthinking or animal expression of nature. There is philosophical freedom here. Clearly, humanity could chose to sin because all persons throughout time have sinned. But, sin is not what we were created for. It exists only as something that we should reject in obedience to God. Thus, given choice A or B between obedience or sin, we should choose obedience and not sin as an expression of the freedom to be covenant partners with God, for which we were created. Thus, although we posses philosophical freedom to choose between A and B, there is a positive value attached to one choice and a negative value attached to the other.

ii. Disobedience

Disobedience, as has already been suggested, is the negative side of the telos of human being. It is what we were created to be against. And, while we retain the philosophical freedom to choose for disobedience, there is a negative value attached to that choice. It is this negative value that breaks our relationship with God and gives rise to the need for reconciliation. Traditionally, this notion has been expressed by understanding sin as the “privation” of God’s good creation, following Augustine.

iii. Theological Freedom “For” not “From”

The theological freedom that was in some degree experienced before the Fall is eschatological re-established and exceeded in the wake of Christ’s work of reconciliation. It is re-established in so far as through the power of the Spirit certain people are awakened to the love of God and not desire to obey God out of love and not simply out of fear. It is exceeded because it points to a future condition where there will be no further possibility of choosing disobedience (though philosophical freedom will remain – there is more than one way to obey).

Thinking about theological freedom from this vantage point helps us to understand true freedom, in the sense of being free to be truly human, is freedom “for” God, not freedom “from” obedience. It is freedom “from” the necessity to sin (for we cannot obey God out of love without his awakening us), but not “for” the possibility of sinning. Though the philosophical freedom to choose sin remains for the moment, it is not the expression of the true freedom. The expression of true, theological freedom is obedience.

2. God and Time

The question of how God relates to time has come up in multiple of the comments posted. It is a vital question, and simplistic answers abound on both the right and the left. To get at a solid way of thinking about this relation we must begin with thinking about (a) the knowledge of God, and conclude with thinking about (b) how God relates in time.

a. Knowledge of God

How is it that we know about God? Protestants take it for granted (and thus I will here do so) that our knowledge of God comes from God’s activity of revealing himself to us. We do not attain to knowledge of God through the exercise of any human possibilities because God is not to be found within the realm of spatial-temporal existence, i.e. the realm of human possibility. This is true also in light of the incarnation. While we are capable of coming to some knowledge of the human existence of Jesus of Nazareth on the basis of human possibility, this knowledge is not revelatory in itself because it has to do only with Jesus’ human nature, which is purely human, and not his divine nature. That divine nature remains hidden behind the human nature.

However, though the divine nature remains hidden behind the human nature within the hypostatic union, the divine nature is revealed to us through the human nature. There is in this case a dialectic of veiling and unveiling. On the basis of human possibility, there is only veiling. Yet, on the basis of divine possibility through the working Jesus through his Holy Spirit, there are also events of unveiling. In this unveiling, we see (on the basis of the work of the Holy Spirit) the ways in which the divine nature lies behind the human nature within the hypostatic union. Thus, God is revealed to us in the incarnation, not on the basis of human possibility even within the hypostatic union, but on the basis of divine possibility. Nonetheless, God is revealed truly.

Because God is revealed truly within spatial-temporal existence in the incarnation, God is known in time. We may also say that God is only known in time, because those who know God are found only in time. The danger here is thinking that, just because Jesus is bound by time in his mode of human existence, God is bound by time. However, to think in this way is to be insufficiently Trinitarian. The 2nd mode of existence in the Trinity, the eternal Son, the Logos, Jesus Christ, exists in time and has made all that has to do with human existence part of his existence, and therefore part of the existence of the Trinity as a whole. But, the 1st and 3rd modes of existence in the Trinity have no direct relation to spatial-temporal existence, even though the Holy Spirit does operate in spatial-temporal existence. Thus, though Jesus is bound to time, the Trinity is not. It is also helpful to remember in this regard that Jesus speaks in Scripture about his mission to reveal the Father (not to mention Jesus’ affirmation of the truth and value of the provisional revelation found in the Old Testament), that is, to make known in conditions of spatial-temporal existence that which transcends spatial-temporal existence, namely the Holy Trinity. In this way it is not true that, since our knowledge of God comes through Jesus Christ, God is bound to time or even that our knowledge of God is bound to time.

b. How God Relates to Time

We will now delve more deeply into this relation between God and time than we have yet done. This will be done through discussing three further points: (i) Creation, (ii) Pan-en-theism, and (iii) Karl Barth.

i. Creation

As TF Torrance points out with great clarity in Divine and Contingent Order, the notion of creatio ex nihilo is absolutely central to the Christian doctrine of Creation. The lynchpin of this conception is its rejection of a Platonic understanding of creation as emanation. In the Platonic conception (and I beg my philosopher friend to be kind), creation is a natural process of emanation whereby instantiations of things flow into existence out of the eternal forms. This relation is necessary, in that it is natural for this to take place. There is no volition in the fact that it takes place.

Creatio ex nihilo rejects this necessity. God created volitionally. He did not have to do so; rather, he chose to do so. It is not a natural process, but a function of divine power being exercised by divine will. This means that creation is contingent in two senses (again, based on TFT): first, it could have not happened; second, it is dependent upon God. This is a two-fold affirmation of God’s transcendence and freedom from necessity imposed upon him by the world. God did not have to create but did so out of a free act of will. Creation thus has no independent existence, but is dependent upon God (even if God grants it a certain “contingent,” that is, dependent, freedom). The inverse of this claim is that God is not dependent upon creation.

ii. Pan-en-theism and Process Theology

Pan-en-theism is the belief that all is in God. The imagery is that the entirety of creation is somehow “within” God or is somehow “part” of God. This is the result of binding God to time, whether you do so on the basis of a volitional act or on the basis of necessity makes no difference. Once you say in any sense that God ultimately needs creation to “be” or to “become” God in the most complete sense of the term, then – I would argue – you are a pan-en-theist.

Pan-en-theism is the metaphysic of choice for process theologians precisely because it binds God and the world together in a symbiotic relation. Creation is a part of God and therefore necessary to God in some sense, and vice versa. God is dependent upon creation and creation is dependent upon God. Why doesn’t this work? It fails in that it removes the possibility for salvation because it makes God in some sense finally dependent upon the work of human beings, and because it removes God’s resources for triumph over sin (his transcendence) from the picture. There is some aspect of the work of defeating sin that we have to do if sin is to be defeated. But, you might argue, this is a false distinction since we are all just metaphysically part of God anyway. In which case I can only reply that to follow this line of argument through is to find oneself with an even more mechanistic, deterministic and fatalistic view of things than you will find anywhere (excepting perhaps in Zwingli).

Now, you can try to get some of the same benefits with a kenotic notion. There are two ways to do this: actual divestment or willed non-use. That God actually divests himself of his divine attributes is silly on two counts: first, God ceases to be God, which also means, second, that God undergoes ontological change. Willed non-use is far subtler in that it argues that God does not actually divest himself but decides not to use his transcendent divine attributes. As nice as this may sound, it ultimately leads nowhere. Just because God freely enters into dependence upon creation and binds himself to not exercising his transcendence, then we still have a major downside. God is not in a position to save because he has bound himself to not use those attributes that can overcome the corruption that humanity has brought into the world.

There are numerous variations on all this, but the basic notion fails. To bind God to creation in a symbiotic relation is no solution. God must be transcendent in some respect in order for sin to be overcome, which means that God must exist in ultimate freedom, which means that God created ex nihilo and without necessity, which means that creation is contingent in the two-fold sense discussed above. We might sum up by saying that neither God’s being nor God’s attributes are contingent upon creation.

iii. Karl Barth’s Position on the Relation Between Time and Eternity

George Hunsinger has done some excellent work on Barth’s understanding of time and eternity in a chapter entitled “Mysterium Trinitatis: Karl Barth’s Conception of Eternity” found in his volume entitled Disruptive Grace. I highly recommend it as he will give a much more careful and thoroughgoing account of many thinks that I can only gesture towards here.

Karl Barth’s understands time as three-fold. Time exists as past, present and future. Because God became incarnate, he has experienced these three forms of temporality. We must then understand how God relates to these three forms of temporality. Barth’s solution is to understand eternity in light of the same structure. God has, within his own being, an experience analogous to these three forms of temporality. Thus, eternity has its own past, present and future. The eternal past, present and future grounds and envelops the temporal past, present and future. This is a clear analogy to how creation relates to God; just as God’s being grounds and envelops the being of creation, so God’s three-fold eternity grounds and envelops three-fold temporality.

One benefit of this view is found in the spatial metaphor. God is said to ground and enclose the created reality. There is a sense, then, that the created reality occupies “space.” However, that “space” is brought into being and is hedged in on all sides by God. Thus, this “space” does not exist independently or outside the limits given to it by God. Yet, at the same time, it is “space.” In this way, created reality, and created time, have a “space” within which to exercise freedom. But this “space” is brought into being and is hedged in on all sides by God. That God gives us this “space” is a tribute to his patience. God gives time to the creature, and especially to his human covenant partner. This time is given for obedience or, after the Fall, repentance and renewed movement towards obedience. The human being, whether in the past, present or future, is always within the hand of the Father.

This tri-fold form shows up again when Barth discusses providence and concursus. Again, God has established for creation a field of operation. This field of operation is intended for cooperation with God. God is described as relating to our cooperation through preceding, accompanying and following. God precedes our act in that he creates time and space for us to act. God accompanies our act in that he provides us with power to accomplish our act. God follows our act in that he determines what the meaning of our act will finally be and puts it to use as time moves on toward its consummation. But, lest we think that this ties God’s action too greatly to spatial-temporal existence, let us not forget that eternity has three forms. God’s preceding might be located in the eternal form of the past, God’s accompanying might be located in the eternal form of the present, and God’s following might be located in the eternal form of the future. Thus, God acts in these ways eternally, but not in an eternity that is simply the negation of time, but in an eternity that establishes time, makes a place for time, and consummates time.

I know that I have opened many cans of worms in this post. But, 3000 words, while impressive for a blog post, are entirely inadequate for this subject matter. This is a sketch of the directions in which I would move in dealing with these questions. Many other theological loci are waved at in passing and deserve better treatment, but this will have to wait for future elaboration. I hope that this offering will stimulate your thinking.

Selected Bibliography
  • T.F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order
  • .
  • Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, volumes 1.1, 2.1, 3.3, et al
  • .
  • George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace
  • .

Monday, November 13, 2006

Comments Brought to Light

The other day a gentleman named Ron left a comment on my post about TF Torrance’s Divine and Contingent Order. This post was provocative, dealing with open thesis and TFT’s possible relationship to it. I wanted to bring his comment and my response out into the open, not because I think that I do a good job of dealing with the TFT question, but because I am pleased with some other points that I made in relation to providence and God’s foreknowledge. Below is Ron’s comment, followed by my response. I ask my dear philosopher friend to be kind with my discussion of causality as, of course, any generalization of the tradition, even if implicit, is going to fall short.

Well, is Torrance one of the first open theist? His cosmology and ontological relationships between Creator and creation sure look like he knew that God knows what might or might not be instead of what will or will not be. Not a trick question. I am an open theist and loved the book. What do you think? Peace Ron Sirkel


Thank you for your thought-provoking comment! I must admit that I never stopped to think about where TFT might fall in relation to the question of open theism. I do not have Divine and Contingent Order sitting in front of me at the moment, but let me take a stab at this nonetheless.

In trying to think about where you would get this impression of God knowing what “what might or might not be instead of what will or will not be,” the only thing that I can come up with off the top of my head is TFT’s discussion of created contingency. That is, God could either have created or not created and remained God. In that sense, God definitely knew what could have been in each case. Of course, he then chose one case, and that would narrow things down a bit. If you have specific passages in TFT that you would like to interact with, by all means bring them up in comments.

With reference to God’s knowledge of the future in general, I just want to make a comment that I think would be keeping with TFT on the topic, although I don’t have any particular passages to point to at the moment. Necessity is a predicate of events, not of persons. The fact that God, as a person, is certain of what will happen does not mean at the same time that his knowledge is making it necessary that it happens. What confuses this distinction is thinking of God’s relationship with the world in terms of causation, such that God causes this or that to happen by being the first link in a causal chain. I think that we are right to reject this view. God is certainly at work in the world, but not as a mechanical cause, but as a person. Furthermore, by looking to Christ, we see how it is that God personally interacts with the world – in the mode of Word and Spirit. This is a far cry from a notion of a casual chain carried out in an almost Newtonian sense of mechanical necessity.

The sum of the immediately above is that God can know the future with certainty without that knowledge necessitating the future, even though the future is in some sense necessitated by the trajectory of spatial-temporal existence, and – some of us might say – by the will of God. But, with this move in place, the will of God is not a deterministic thing, but something that is able – because God works personally in the mode of Word and Spirit and not mechanistically as in causal chains – to take into account the contingent freedom of the human person and other aspects of creation. That is to say that, even though God knows the future with certainty, and even though God has shaped the trajectory of history in the past, present and future according to his good purposes, this does not exclude human freedom within the realm of created human possibility. Human freedom of this sort is included in God’s plan as a necessary part of it.

Now, I’m still a young theologian, although I have been studying these things full time for the equivalent of 6.5 years, and I don’t expect that what I have expressed above will be some kind of final form of my thoughts on the subject. But, I do think that they represent a way forward, and a way forward that I am interested in pursuing further.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Choice Quotations: George Hunsinger on Karl Barth on Scripture

George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (Oxford:OUP, 1991).

The biblical narratives, as Barth understood them, functioned as “witnesses.” Their imaginative, legendary form – far from being damaging (as literalists feared and historical critics readily assumed) – was actually intrinsic to their theological content. The form was appropriate to the subject matter, because the subject matter was beyond ordinary depiction. Events like the creation, incarnation, and the resurrection were, by virtue of their legendary narration, aptly and profoundly depicted for what they actually were claimed to be: events real though inconceivable and inconceivable though real. The work of divine inspiration in the formation of the narratives was not precluded by the work of human imagination, nor did the inventiveness involved in the work of human imagination necessarily preclude divine inspiration. Human imagination, disciplined by the mystery of the subject matter (in and with the history of the transmission of the traditions), was construed as the source from which the narratives were proximately produced. The narratives did not refer to historical “facts” as conceived by modernity, nor did they merely express emotive “experiences.” They bore “good enough” witness to the living divine subject, by whom revelatory events had been enacted, for whom their scriptural depictions functioned as identifying descriptions, through whom the depictions themselves had been shaped, and by whose grace they served as a means of personal address to those who received them in the present. The narratives were thus understood to have been created for kerygmatic purposes, the divine self-witness taking place through the medium of a disciplined and imaginative human narrational response. The authoritative and referential aspect of the narratives was not so much the literal details as the underlying patters and structures (although the details were the carriers of the patterns and thus could not be dispensed with). The mode of reference, furthermore, was once again conceived to be analogical. The narrative patterns stood, both historically and theologically, in analogical relation to their subject matter, regardless of the results or the limits of modern critical methods. At once historically grounded, humanly imagined, and divinely inspired, the narratives bore appropriate analogical witness to the kerygmatic presence of the risen Christ and the living God.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

An Evangelical Call and Response

Back in September of this year, Christianity Today published a piece called “A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future”. This “call” was a passionate plea to evangelicals to move into their future from out of a grounding in ancient Christianity. When I read this call, I had a few images of “Canterbury Trail” evangelicals sitting in the corner of a dark pub and drawing up this document. But, to be honest, it was like water off a duck’s back. Why? Because, although I am evangelical by progeny, I am a Reformed theologian who is deeply committed to the Protestant Reformation as well as to the broader Christian tradition. This is not even to mention the time that I have spent reading such early fathers as Augustine, Athanasius, Gregory Nanzianzen, Tertullian, Irenaeus, etc. I told you that to tell you this; I thought that the document was interesting, I took note of its existence, and then I moved on.

More recently, I’ve found a collection of reflections on this “Call”, published by Touchstone Magazine called “Back and Forth to the Future.” Although the reflections in this collection are not of consistent quality, those offered by D.G. Hart and David Mills are quite salutary. The others are perceptive as well, and I agree with most of their criticism although the positive side implied by the way they put their criticisms is not generally an option that I would like to countenance.

I commend both to your attention, especially in light of the current discussion of evangelical identity in the theoblogosphere, spearheaded by Halden over at Inhabitatia Dei (read his pilot post for the series).

Sunday, November 05, 2006

“The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience” by Ron Sider

A strange thing happened to me about a week ago. I went out to get my mail and found a package inside my mailbox. “Interesting,” I thought. “I’m not expecting anything. What could this be?” Opening the package, I found what I can only describe as a promotional packet and a copy of the book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why are Christians living just like the rest of the world? by Ron Sider (Baker, 2005). I haven’t really pinned down why on earth this package would be sent to me. But, being one who does not despise free books, I threw out the packet and took the enclosed copy of the book back up to my apartment with me. The book sat off to the side on my desk all through reading week, until I decided that I had to do something with it. So, I have decided to write up something of a review to share with you all.

Note to Baker Books: If you are reading this, please send me more free books and I will be happy to post little reviews of them. But, try to send me stuff from your Baker Academic section instead of this Christian living stuff. Sound like a plan?

A Brief Sketch of the Book:

Introduction: A couple pages, of similar theme and content to the first chapter, to kick off the volume by relating a story or two and lamenting the moral morass (I couldn’t resist the alliteration!) within American evangelicalism.

Chapter 1 - “The Depth of the Scandal”: Employment of a number of surveys and studies, the majority of which seem to be connected to George Barna in some way, proving that “evangelicals” do not live morally superior lives to those of the remainder of the population of the United States. In fact, sometimes evangelicals are worse! Throughout this chapter I couldn’t help but think that if we stopped defining “evangelical” according to Barna’s rather vacuous requirements, perhaps the numbers would be better. For the record, I’m not a big Barna fan and citing him does not impress, compel, or otherwise bother me at all. So, if you and I are one day engaged in a debate, don’t waste your time using Barna against me.

Chapter 2 – “The Biblical Vision”: The flow of this chapter resembles the path of a stone skipping across the surface of a calm lake, touching down here and there but possessing far more horizontal motion (breadth) than vertical motion (depth). Sider takes us briefly to most of the books in the NT in an effort to impress upon us the notion that as Christians it is important how we live.

Chapter 3 – “Cheap Grace vs. the Whole Gospel”: Citing Bonhoeffer in what I am not sure is a fitting attempt to link Sider’s argument with the German’s, this chapter has the most potential of any of the chapters in this volume. The first portion argues that the Gospel and Salvation do not have to do simply with our relation to God, but also with our relation to each other. In the second half of the chapter, Sider hashes this out in connection with two themes. Under the heading of “Persons,” Sider reminds us that people on not simply souls, but unions of soul and flesh who are meant to live in community. With reference to “Sin,” he laments that neither evangelicals nor mainliners talk much about sin anymore, and advocates attention to both personal and systemic sin. Also, we should remember that sin is also a personal force – the Devil, and that this personal force has other personal forces working for him – demons.

Chapter 4 – “Conforming to Culture or Being the Church”: All I will say about this chapter right now is that, although it is the most important chapter of the book in that it is the culmination of the argument, it is well intentioned but poorly executed. Below I will engage with a few particulars from this chapter that I think should be addressed.

Chapter 5 – “Rays of Hope”: A few pages meant to keep us from being too depressed by the current statistics and to encourage us to move forward to address this moral problem. In particular, Sider notes survey data that suggests that those who meet the criteria for holding to a “biblical worldview” are much more moral than the general population, even though there are few who hold such a position.

Issues in Chapter 4 – “Conforming to Culture or Being the Church”

At it’s most fundamental level, Sider argues that evangelicals have succumb to what I will call the “big 3” of cultural influences: (1) relativism, (2) materialism, and (3) individualism. He attempts to provide a short intellectual history of modernity, and such figures as Kant, Marx, Freud, and Darwin take it on the chin in passing. Postmodernism (not that I believe it exists) comes off pretty badly as well. Putting relativism in the hot seat, Sider offers the anecdote below, which I have provided in full:

The pastor of an Evangelical Covenant congregation shared with me a few years ago one of the most striking illustrations of how society’s relativism is invading the minds of evangelical youth. For the previous six years, at the end of a multiweek catechetical class preparing his teenagers for church membership, my friend had conducted a fascinating experiment. (90)

First, he placed a jar of marbles in front of the class. “How many marbles are in the jar?” he asked. The youngsters responded with different guesses: 150, 143, 177, and so on. He responded, “Well, I counted them and there are exactly 157 marbles in the jar. Now, which of your answers was closest to being right?” And they agreed it was the answer closest to 157. “Of course,” he concluded, “the quantity of marbles is a matter of fact, not personal opinion.”

Then he asked what their favorite songs were. As different persons named different songs, he wrote them on the blackboard. He then asked, “Which is the right song?” As expected, everyone said this was an unfair question because each person’s preference was right for him- or herself. “Exactly,” he concluded, “the right song has to do with a person’s musical tastes. It is a matter of personal opinion, not fact.”

He concluded the experiment by talking about the deity of Jesus Christ and his resurrection on the third day, reminding them that some people doubt both. He then said to them, “Now, are the deity of Jesus Christ and his resurrection matters of fact, or are they matters of personal opinion?” Are they like the question about the number of marbles or like the question of which music you prefer?” Sadly, he told me, every youngster for six years said the deity and resurrection of Christ are like the question about music – mere matters of personal opinion.

Now, I would like to start out by saying that I am very impressed with the “youngsters” in question in this story. They were perfectly correct to see that how once views Jesus’ deity and resurrection are NOT matters of fact. Why? Let’s break this down a little. The question about the number of marbles in the jar is clearly a question of fact (these “youngsters” at least still believe in objective empirical truth at some level). Why is it a question of fact? Because, if they doubted the pastor’s assertion that there were 157 marbles in the jar, they could have taken the marbles out of the jar and counted them. They could have done this multiple times and verified their conclusions through repetition. What we have here is the bedrock of the empirical scientific method: sensory data that can be reproduced. Now, if we look at the question of Jesus’ deity and resurrection, do we have a simply case? Absolutely not. Why? Because no one but Jesus will ever be God incarnate, and Jesus isn’t here to ask about it. Second, the resurrection was a miraculous occurrence that we cannot repeat. Thus, because we have no sensory data that can be reproduced, there is, on the basis of the empirical scientific method, no possible way to conclude that Jesus’ deity and resurrection are “fact.” They cannot even be hypotheses that require further testing. So, if these things cannot be matters of fact, what can they be? A subset of matters of personal opinion, that is, matters of faith. Like I said, I’m proud of these “youngsters.” They didn’t deny the reality of these things, they just knew better than to afford them an empirical status that they did not deserve. One of these days more people are going to figure out that Christians live by faith, and not by empirically reproducible facts, or by trying to argue that matters of faith should be considered matters of fact. But, enough said.

When Sider comes to individualism, he has another illustration that I find to be slightly off. Here is what he writes:

Individualism creeps into the best of our contemporary Christian songs. I deeply love and regularly feel a surge of genuine religious emotion as I sing “As the Deer Panteth for the Waters.” It is a simply wonderful song about the fact that God must be the absolute center of our lives. But one of the lines says, “You alone are my strength and shield, to you alone doth my spirit yield.” Oops. Should I not listen carefully and indeed yield to other mature brothers and sisters in the body of Christ? Am I supposed to listen only to what I hear Christ saying and not submit to other Christians? Fewer and fewer evangelicals today do not submit to others. If our local church does not meet our needs and offer what feels good to us, we simply move on to another congregation. (93)

Now, let me start by saying that I am very sympathetic to what Sider is arguing for here. There is way too seeking of self-fulfillment in churches today. So, I’m willing to overlook Sider’s use of the phrase “genuine religious emotion” as well as his use of the word “fact,” which seems to be one of his favorite terms. However, I will not overlook the contrast that he sets up between listening to Christ and submitting to other Christians. I am sure that Sider would agree with what I am about to say, but the above illustration muddies the waters. It is not a proper understanding of Christian freedom (see Calvin’s discussion in Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.19). We must distinguish between two kinds of “yield”-ing. On the one hand, our “Spirit” or conscience can yield (as the song mentions), and other the other hand, our physical actions can yield. In no circumstances are our consciences bound to yield to any authority other that Christ’s. This is the whole point of the Reformation: the Church cannot place requirements upon Christians that have to be fulfilled in order to be saved. There are no moral requirements that other human beings can place upon the Christian conscience. Only God’s requirements matter. This is the freedom of a Christian. On the other hand, we ought to be aware of our neighbors and do what we can to keep them from sinning. This can take two forms. First, if there are people who are trying to bind your conscience, we are to use our Christian freedom to demonstrate that they cannot in fact do this. Thus, if people are being legalistic, we are free to flout their presumed authority. Second, if there are people who are struggling with recognizing their own Christian freedom, we are to abstain from the use of our freedom when in their company. Thus, if it has not quite gotten through to someone that you do not need to cut your hair a certain way in order to be saved, we should lovingly lead them into a better understanding instead of trying to shock them into it. The interesting thing here is that it finally comes down to personal responsibility on the part of a Christian, and this is what Sider is going for. He just isn’t flexing the theological muscle necessary to get it in its proper form. So, I repeat, our Spirit’s yield to no one but Christ, but we should live responsibly with our brothers and sisters.

Last, I want to address the issue of church discipline. This is one of the major themes in Sider’s argument. He wants to return to church discipline, which he understands as calling for increased accountability as well as more corporate disciplinary action. There are a couple of practical points that I want to make. First, Sider does mention that members should expect the exercise of church discipline (cf. 116), but he stops there. From a legal standpoint, I think that it is a good idea to have written into the church constitution or bylaws or whatever, that members of the church are subject to church discipline. It should also state what forms of church discipline the church reserves the right to employ. Also, when people become new members, these things need to be explained to them. All of this will go a long way in protecting the church from defamation lawsuits. Second, Sider shows his low-church sentimentality when discussing accountability. He argues implicitly that while parachurch organizations need to have external accountability, local congregations should have internal accountability. I think that this is simply special pleading. Why should local congregations not also have external accountability? This is one of the things that denominations are important and good for. Each local congregation is not and should not be left on its own to keep itself accountable, either morally or theologically. This, in my opinion, is something that non-denominational evangelical churches should take far more seriously.

I hope that this has been helpful. It was interesting for me to read this book and write this kind of review. There is much more that could have been said, but I am very sympathetic to Sider’s cause in this volume and so determined that I would be charitable. I think that this book would be very handy for adult education classes in local congregations if employed by those who know how to be on the lookout for the kind of things that I pointed out above. That said, if I needed to teach adult laypeople about these issues, I would reach for this volume.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Rules of Reading Week

Here at Princeton Theological Seminary, we have a “reading week” instead of a Fall or Spring break. Classes are suspended for a week with the assumption that students will catch up on their course reading, get a start on their term papers, etc. Of course, it is entirely up to the student as to the best location for getting this work done, be it the sunny beaches of Florida, the comforting environs of “home” (wherever that may be), the powdery slopes of Aspen, etc. Because of my wife’s work schedule, and because I kind of like to spend a week reading and watching a movie of two, I never go anywhere on reading weeks. So, I thought that I would compose a set of rules to help those who, like me, prefer to stick it out in Princeton. Incidentally, some of these rules are best intended for men, although they do have interesting cross-gender implications. Enjoy!
  1. Thou shalt not shave unless you absolutely have to. There is nothing like a few days’ growth to make you feel relaxed.

  2. Thou shalt make a “to-do” list of no less that 10 items, and thou shalt spend the first days of reading week accomplishing those items that require the least intellectual engagement.

  3. Thou shalt chose a few quality movies to watch. I recommend the Godfather trilogy, the Lord of the Rings extended editions, the Indiana Jones trilogy, Star Wars episodes 4-6 (yes, the originals), and anything else with Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, or Harrison Ford.

  4. Thou shalt complete the assigned reading for the week of classes following reading week. There is nothing like lightening the future load so that you can continue relaxing a bit after reading week. Also, this reading is generally less strenuous than working on term papers, etc, so doing it has its own laid back quality.

  5. Thou shalt look ahead on your syllabi so that you know when you next assignments are due. I’m not saying you have to start on them, but know where they are and when they are coming.

  6. Thou shalt browse I usually try not to state the obvious, but I thought I should include it.

  7. Thou shalt complete most, but not all, of the items on your “to-do” list. Leave a few on there to haunt you as reading week ends. This will ensure that you will actually do something in the following week, and it will make you feel like you didn’t work too hard during reading week.

That’s my list. I know it is a bit late to help with this reading week, but perhaps it will help you in the future. Feel free to post some comments if there is anything I forgot to put up here.