Sunday, December 31, 2006

Work that Network!

Theo-Bloggers are notorious not only for self-righteous rantings (which I have avoided so far, I think…) but also for networking amongst themselves (which I try to do in a modest fashion). An exceptional blog has lately come to my attention, and I have been so impressed by its quality that I feel as though I must pass word along to any of you, gentle readers, who have not yet found its hallowed halls.

The site in question is Per caritatem, run by Cynthia Nielsen, a PhD student in philosophy and adjunct philosophy instructor somewhere in Texas. What has impressed me is her treatment of Calvin, first in relation to St. Thomas (part I; part II), but also a very fine post on Calvin’s hermeneutics (which was posted last August, but which I have only lately discovered). Do take a peek at these wonderful resources, and pay attention to whatever else Cynthia may send our way.

Cynthia, I have now returned the favor and added you to my blog roll. I’m very pleased to have met you.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Choice Quotations: John Calvin on “Sacraments in a Wider Sense”

As anyone who has been to this blog before knows, I love John Calvin. This deep appreciation for Calvin has developed out of my study of sacramental theology and is founded upon my conviction that Calvin is the apex of sacramental theology, an apex which has not been surpassed (although, he may need revising and clarifying with reference to a few non-material points). In any case, I was reading through Institutes 4.14 and coming once again upon the below material it struck me as particularly relevant to thinking about the relation between grace and nature, as well as the relation between theology and science.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559 edition, Battles / McNeill), 4.14.18


The term “sacrament,” as we have previously discussed its nature so far, embraces generally all those signs which God has ever enjoined upon men to render them more certain and confident of the truth of his promises. He sometimes willed to present these in natural things, at other times set them forth in miracles.

Here are some examples of the first kind. One is when he gave Adam and Eve the tree of life as a guarantee of immortality, that they might assure themselves of it as long as they should eat of its fruit. Another, we he set the rainbow for Noah and his descendants, as a token that he would not destroy the earth with a flood. These, Adam and Noah regarded as sacraments. Not that the tree provided them with an immortality which it could not give to itself; nor that the rainbow (which is but a reflection of the sun’s rays upon the clouds opposite) could be effective in holding back the waters; but because they had a mark engraved upon them by God’s Word, so that they were proofs and seals of his covenants. And indeed the tree was previously a tree, the rainbow a rainbow. When they were inscribed by God’s Word a new form was put upon them, so that they began to be what previously they were not. That no one may think these things said in vain, the rainbow even today is a witness to us of that covenant which the Lord made with Noah. As often as we look upon it, we read this promise of God in it, that the earth will never be destroyed by a flood. Therefore, if any philosopher, to mock the simplicity of our faith, contends that such a variety of colors naturally arises from rays reflected upon a cloud opposite, let us admit it, and laugh at his stupidity in failing to recognize God as the lord and governor of nature, who according to his will uses all the elements to serve his glory. If he had imprinted such reminders upon the sun, stars, earth, stones they would all be sacraments for us. Why are crude and coined silver not of the same value, though they are absolutely the same metal? The one is merely in the natural state; stamped with an official mark, it becomes a coin and receives a new valuation. And cannot God mark with his Word the things he created, that what were previously bare elements may become sacraments?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Get Yourself A Christmas Present

The stream of comments in response to my post on Theology and the Knowledge of God has slowed and, although David has promised a lengthy comment soon, I figured that it would be alright to put up another little post in the holiday spirit (especially since I don’t plan to post until after the new year). So, I thought I would use all the authority and respect that I have collected since this blog launched a few months ago, to recommend to you all that you go and buy yourself a Christmas present.

Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise For Young Theologians.

Amazon lists this book for $8, but you can get used copies for under $4, so you have no excuse for not picking one up. Use that money your grandma Silvia or auntie Cecelia gave you for Christmas. This book will profit you more than the amount of beer, wine or liqueur that these few dollars will bring you.

This book is a spiritual exercise for those who study theology, and specifically for those just starting out in that study. I have read it a few times, and it continues to do me good. It will be especially valuable to those seminary students in the midst of field education, for it will make clear what lies behind some of the tension that they might experience when trying to figure out how it is that the rubber of their theological studies is to meet the road of pastoral ministry. Thielicke reminds us of our all too common approach to theological knowledge as power, and therefore as a tool to help us “win” in discussions with those to whom we should be ministering in love. He also reminds us that just because we can wax poetic about the union of the divine and human natures in Christ, breadth and depth of theological knowledge does not equal breadth and depth of faith and spirituality. We have to grow into our knowledge, much like a farm boy must grow into his new breeches (his example, not mine!).

Thielicke wrote this book for theological students, and it is intent on showing them that they should approach the people in the pews with humility. Because this is his focus, the people in the pews tend to get off easy. I know that much of my frustration with the church is that the church (especially in the United States) has turned its back on theology (even though to do so arises from certain theological commitments). Your average churchgoer is not particularly interested in what homoousios, or hypostasis, or decretum absolutum mean. This is a shame. However, I believe that this is ultimately the fault of academic theology. During the ascendancy of liberalism, and before the neo-orthodox revolt, academic theology found that the people in the pews were not interested in their demythologization, historical Jesus research, or [insert theological claim here]. As a consequence, a gulf developed between church and seminary.

(Aside: Princeton Theological Seminary was able, somehow, to stay relatively close to the church throughout this period and that is why PTS continues going strong while seminaries such as Union have found funding hard to come by, etc. Hopefully, PTS will continue in this pathway, although certain developments afoot at PTS these days suggest that it will not necessarily do so.)

Over the course of this period, the church turned its back on the academy, and the academy turned its back on the church. Among church members, a suspicion of academic theology has become a much-cherished reflex. This creates problems when those who study academic theology figure out that they need to serve the church with their study, and seek to help the church grow in theological sophistication. These people, for all their good intentions and in spite of their relative orthodoxy (often more orthodox than the congregations in question!), are given the cold shoulder. It can easily become for these students of theology, like myself, an increasingly uphill struggle to remain interested in trying to help the church through theological study.

But, none of that is meant to detract from the value of Thielicke’s book. That is simply my augmentation of this already superb little volume. So, get yourself a Christmas present. Snuggle up with this little volume next to a fire and with a cup of hot chocolate, egg nog, single-malt scotch, or - in the spirit of Thielicke's Lutheranism - a stein of your favorite micro-brew. Read it early, and read it often.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Theology and the Knowledge of God

This post is a response to the arguments of my philosopher friend, which can be read – along with my preliminary responses - here and here. What precisely is this post intended to secure?
  1. I will argue that theology is a science

  2. I will argue that, insofar as theology is a science, theology deals with knowledge of God

  3. I will argue that insofar as theology deals with knowledge of God, that knowledge of God is ‘certain.’

Theology is a Science

Theology is a science. This aspect of the theological task is particularly well described by T.F. Torrance. All empirical (experimentally based) sciences have a subject matter. Here, the term “subject matter” is to be sharply distinguished from the more Aristotelian term “object.” Whereas the latter implies a discreet item which is to be directly observed either through the senses of through the faculties of reason, the former implies a more or less unknown identity or cluster of identities. What is the ultimate difference? While Aristotelian science seeks to describe an object, to distinguish it from other objects, and thereby to arrive at knowledge of an object’s essence, empirical sciences seek to learn from its subject matter. Rather than applying a method to its subject matter that is more or less universal, empirical science develops method based upon the unique needs of the subject matter. Thus, the subject matter is the “subject” of this inquiry, yielding up its secrets to those who would accept it on its own terms.

In this sense, theology is empirical science par excellence. For, rather than assuming this student’s position before a subject matter, theology assumes this position before the sovereign Lord of cross and creation. The radically subservient place of theology before her Lord is emphasized by the fact that the possibility for theology is an entirely divine possibility. God, in that he is not accessible by means of the data gathering function of the human senses or of human reason (no matter what claims reason makes – more later), is only known through his self-revelation. This self-revelation occurs paradigmatically through the person and work of Jesus Christ, both then and now, and now precisely because then. We need not get into the details here. Suffice it to say that God has revealed himself in a way that truly corresponds to himself, and thus he has offered himself to theological study.

Addendum: Kant

Barth, Torrance and myself (not to elevate myself to their stature!) all work after Kant. Thus, though we may quibble with Kant here and there, the basic idea is that Kant has rightly pointed out the bankruptcy of traditional metaphysics. The realm of human possibility only has to do with that which we can experience in our psycho-physical beings, and therefore, is incapable in and of itself of knowledge of God. It is true that Kant led to some messy stuff in theology, like certain negative aspects of Schleiermacherian thought and to more fundamentalist stances, but Barth simply side-stepped this problem by recovering speech about God speaking (Deus dixit) and revealing himself to us. The ditch between us and God cannot be crossed from our side, but it can be crossed from God’s side.

Theology and the Knowledge of God

So far we have argued that theology is an empirical science and that, in a sense, it is the true empirical science, for the subject matter of theology is “subject” in a profound and entirely unique way. We have also briefly noted that the possibility of theology is grounded upon God’s self-revelation in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We next have to inquire about what knowledge of God we gain through this self-revelation.

The answer to that inquiry is that Jesus Christ mediates God’s own self-knowledge to us. This is in contrast to Calvin, who could all too easily speak of our knowledge of God as simply knowledge of God’s disposition toward us and not knowledge of God in himself. However, if God is Triune, and if Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, then in the person and work of Jesus Christ we meet the Triune God in his mode of existence as a human being. Now, this is not to say that this knowledge of God can be read off of the human nature of Jesus. On the contrary, this knowledge of God is hidden by Jesus’ human nature and is only able to be recognized by faith as the Holy Spirit brings us into union with Christ’s person and work. But, to those who have been awakened to the true identity of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit, this knowledge of God is found in Christ.

What is this knowledge of God, God’s own self-knowledge, that is communicated to us by the person and work of Christ as the Spirit awakens us? This is a hard thing to nail down, but we can say that it is at least the affirmation that “Jesus is Lord” (Lord, here, refers to the revealed name of the God of Abraham as attested in the Old Testament) and that we know God as Father through the person and work of Jesus. These are the basic convictions of faith, which are basic not only to God’s being with us, but also – through a robust doctrine of the Trinity – to God’s being with himself. The task of theology is the further elucidation of this notion, on the basis of the Scriptural witness to God’s self-revelation in Christ.

Theology’s Knowledge of God is ‘Certain’

My philosopher friend defines “knowledge” or “certain knowledge” through three conditions. First, one must believe something; second, that thing must actually be true; third, one must believe the thing in question for the right reasons. This ultimately boils down to two factors: first, one must be convinced of something; second, that thing must correspond to reality.

That a human subject holds an opinion about the state of reality is a basic given for knowledge. Knowledge, whatever else might be said of it, must be possessed. Thus, the first portion of my above reworking of the definition of true or certain knowledge is not in question. It is the second section that is contentious, and that contention rests with how one determines that an opinion about the state of reality actually corresponds to that reality. This is precisely where my philosopher friend and I differ.

My philosopher friend would prefer to establish a general method to determine whether an opinion about the state of reality actually corresponds to reality, such as the canons of reason or repeatable and observable sensory data. I, on the other hand and in keeping with the notion of a science advanced above as a mode of inquiry that takes its cues from its subject matter, would argue that the type of evidence sought must be suited to the subject matter. So, the question becomes, what sorts of evidence are fitting with reference to the knowledge of God?

We have said that knowledge of God has its origin in God’s self-revelation, that in this self-revelation God’s own self-knowledge is mediated to us through the person and work of Jesus Christ, and that the basic content of this self-revelation is that Jesus is Lord and that we know God as Father through the person and work of Jesus Christ. We have also said that this knowledge is hidden to us insofar as our human possibility of knowledge is concerned; it must be shown to us through the work of the Spirit. Because this knowledge comes to us from beyond the realm of human possibility, and because it must do so, means that any evidence from within the realm of possibility is not suited to the establishment of this knowledge.

Hebrews 11.1 indicates that it is faith that is the evidence of things that are unseen, and thus outside of the realm of the possibilities of human knowing. It is faith that is suited to demonstrating the correspondence between the knowledge of God and the reality of God. But we must be careful in how we understand faith. Faith is not simply a human emotion, although it includes that. Faith is not part of the realm of human possibility, although it is expressed within us and thus within the realm of human possibility. Faith, in actuality, comes from the realm of divine possibility, as Ephesians 2.9-10 indicates. The other important facet of faith is that it is directed toward an object. It is not simply a human emotion, but a response within the human person that is aroused by the work of the Holy Spirit, and which establishes in the human person the knowledge that Jesus is Lord and that God is our Father on the basis of the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Faith is not independent of this knowledge. If faith does not include this knowledge, then what is under consideration is not faith. In that faith is the evidence of this knowledge, knowledge is certain. This knowledge corresponds to reality and is demonstrated on the basis of the only evidence suitable for an inquiry into this subject matter.

Concluding Considerations

Theology is the further elucidation of how, on the basis of this knowledge of God by faith, we must think of God. Thus, the specific claims of theology are not matters of certain knowledge. They may be found to be incorrect. However, the knowledge that comes through faith is what grounds theology, and is not a product of theology, and thus is not in question here. Furthermore, theological speech, insofar as it is human language and is an undertaking carried out from within the realm of human possibility, can never correspond exactly to the reality that is God. And yet, because God has revealed himself within the realm of human language, he has made human language to function in a way that it cannot naturally function. Despite having no natural capacity to refer to God, God allows human language to correspond to him analogically.

Selected Bibliography, or, What I reflected upon before writing this.

  • Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.1

  • ______, Evangelical Theology

  • ______, Göttingen Dogmatics

  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1

  • Thomas F. Torrance, “The Problem of Theological Statement Today” in Theology in Reconstruction

Thursday, December 07, 2006


I have been called out. My dear friend and philosophical colleague has thrown down the gauntlet, and I can no longer put off responding at length and with all the theological acumen that I can muster. In a series of two posts (first: “Starting Points”; second: “Religious Epistemology, Or Three Questions God Asks You When You Die”), he has brought to its head a disagreement that has been coalescing, in private and beneath the surface of various blog posts, between the two of us and our other fellow alumnus and colleague.

Well, it is time for an answer. Of course, I use to term “time” rhetorically, for an answer will not come in this post, nor likely in the next few days. But, I am working on an answer, and it will come. Expect the first part, “Theology and the Knowledge of God” to appear before Christmas. The second installment, “Creation, Covenant, and the Knowledge of God” will be along sometime toward the end of January.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Choice Quotations: T.F. Torrance on Divine Impassibility

As a note in passing: I have serious questions about this formulation, but I have not yet forced myself to work carefully through them. In any case, what TFT does do in this section is show how we can speak of Christ's passion as both passion and redemptive within the realm of patristic understanding. It seems to me that this is far more compelling than most of what passes for theopaschitism these days.

T.F. Torrance, Trinitarian Faith (T&T Clark, 1995).
"How are we to understand the passion of the incarnate Son of God, when he offered himself and not just his body in vicarious sacrifice for the sins of mankind? What does the suffering of Christ really mean for what he was and is in his own Person as the one Mediator between God and man? There is (184) certainly a sense in which we must think of God as impassible…for he is not subject to the passions that characterize human and creaturely existence, but that is not to say that he is not afflicted in all the afflictions of his people or that he is untouched by their sufferings. If we think of the atonement as taking place within the incarnate constitution of the Mediator who is God and man in one Person, then, as Athanasius argued against the Arians, we cannot think of the sufferings of Christ as external to the Person of the Logos. It is the very same Person who suffered and who saved us, not just man but the Lord as man; but his divine and his human acts are acts of one and the same Person.

The point is this. In Jesus Christ God himself has penetrated into our passion, our hurt, our violence, our condition under divine judgment, even into our utter dereliction…but in such a profoundly vicarious way that in the very heart of it all, he brought his eternal serenity or [apatheia] to bear redemptively upon our passion. Thus we may say of God in Christ that he both suffered and did not suffer, for through the eternal tranquility of his divine impassibility he took upon himself our passibility and redeemed it. In the nature of the case this is not something about which a logical account can be given, for logically impassibility and passibility exclude one another. Rather is it to be understood dynamically and soteriologically on the ground of what has actually taken place in the vicarious life and passion of God’s incarnate Son. Nor can God be thought of as ‘impassible’ in the Greek or Stoic sense, but on the contrary as God who in his measureless love and compassion has stooped to take upon himself our passion, our hurt and suffering, and to (185) exhaust it in his divine impassibility…in such a way that he masters and transmutes it within the embrace of his own immutable peace and serenity. It is an essential aspect of the atoning exchange in Jesus Christ that through his sharing in our passion…he makes us share in his own imperturbability (186)."