I recently came across the Plough Publishing House, the publisher of Johann and Christoph Blumhardt’s few translated works. Their website generously offers these works for free to download, many in both pdf and Kindle format (and epub).

For those with an interest in 20th century dialectical theology, both Emil Brunner and Karl Barth cite the Blumhardts as major influences on their own thinking, especially their critique of institutional religion and the centrality of the personal event of the Word which extends into a protest against political forms of oppression. Here is Emil Brunner in his “Intellectual Autobiography” (The Theology of Emil Brunner, ed. Charles Kegley, 1962):

[My father] was a schoolteacher who understood his work as a calling and a service to God. From my mother, who stood at his side in this service, I learned to pray. Using an old picture Bible, she introduced me to biblical history and thereby laid the foundation on which my theology was later to be built. Through her influence, my father, descended from a family of nonbelievers, came into contact with Christoph Blumhardt. Through Blumhardt and his two important pupils, Hermann Kutter and Leonhard Ragaz, our family was drawn into the Religious Socialist Movement. [p. 4]

There was a time when the currently reigning agnostic humanism and the materialism, which was identified with Darwinism, occasioned doubts in me. The critical idealism of F. A. Lange, Geschichte des Materialismus (History of Materialism) strengthened me against these temptations, but in a very different way the biblical realism and prophetism of my teachers Kutter and the one even greater than he who stood in back of him, Christoph Blumhardt, kept my faith alive. [p. 6]

His Römerbrief (Epistle to the Romans), written in 1918, I hailed as a forceful confirmation of my own thoughts. If I am not mistaken, I was the first one, who in reviewing this book (in the Kirchenblatt für die Reformierte Schweiz), emphatically pointed to its epoch-making character. My enthusiasm was all the more understandable because Barth, as well as our mutual friend Eduard Thurneysen, came from that circle in the center of which Hermann Kutter and Christoph Blumhardt had been. [p. 8]

Click to enlarge. "We shall attain the excellence of virtue with the grace of God and the effort of our will." I saw this in one of the rooms of the Vatican Palace.


From what I understand, the criticism of the Catholic (Thomistic) doctrine of created grace is that it cedes too much to the nature and power of man in the process of sanctification. It also tends to reduce the role of the Holy Spirit once the habits of virtue/charity have been created. The Easterners are especially not happy about the second point, whereas us Protestants are especially not happy about the first point. I’m far from being an expert on the topic, so I’m far from any willingness to pronounce a firm judgment, one way or the other. I do like Henri de Lubac’s presentation of the doctrine, which surely mitigates some of the problems or at least points in that direction. The following is from A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace (Ignatius Press, 1984):

The supernatural, one might say, is that divine element which man’s effort cannot reach (no self-divinization!) but which unites itself to man, “elevating” him as our classical theology used to put it, and as Vatican II still says (Lumen Gentium, 2), penetrating him in order to divinize him, and thus becoming as it were an attribute of the “new man” described by St. Paul. While it remains forever “un-naturalizable,” it profoundly penetrates the depths of man’s being. In short, it is what the old Scholastics and especially St. Thomas Aquinas called (using a word borrowed from Aristotle which has often been completely misunderstood) an accident, or call it a habitus, or “created grace”: these are all different ways of saying (even if one thinks they need various correctives or precisions) that man becomes in truth a sharer in the divine nature (divinae consortes naturae; 2 Pet 1:4). We do not need to conceive of it as a sort of entity separated from its Source, something like cooled lava — which man would appropriate to himself. On the contrary, we wish to affirm by these words that the influx of God’s Spirit does not remain external to man; that without any commingling of natures it really leaves its mark on our nature and becomes in us a principle of life. This Scholastic notion of created grace, so often belittled today, does express the incontrovertible fact that “it is we, ourselves, and our creaturely being, which the active presence in us of the Spirit makes divine, without for that reason absorbing us and annihilating us in God” (Louis Bouyer, Le Père invisible, Paris: 1976, 288).

For St. Thomas, as Fr. Louis Bouyer explains,

the soul…will find its completeness and go beyond itself in God. Disagreeing with Peter Lombard, in fact, he would not admit that grace is purely and simply the gift of the Holy Spirit, of the Third Person of the Trinity as it is in itself…. He realized that if such were indeed the case, man would certainly be the temple of the Spirit, but not God’s living temple, vivified by the presence of its Guest who assimilates our life to his divine life. The uncreated grace of the gift of the Spirit, according to him, has its prolongation in the soul itself in created grace, i.e., a divine quality that assimilates the soul to God and makes it share in his own life. (Introduction à la vie spirituelle, Paris: Desclée, 1960, 154-55)

Grace is supernatural in the fundamental sense that it is superior to any created or creatable nature, but it is in no sense a “supernature.” It is, so to speak, a new “accident,” “hidden in and penetrating the substance of the soul and rendering it, as a soul, capable of living God’s own life, his divine life” (Ibid).

[A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace, pp. 41-42, 45-46]


March 16, 2011

I really like this quote from Geerhardus Vos:

Whatever may be charged against the intellectualism of the period when orthodoxy reigned supreme, it can claim credit at least for having been broad minded and well balanced in its appreciation of the infinite complexity and richness of the life of God. The music of that theology may not always please modern ears, because it seems lacking in sweetness; but it ranged over a wider scale and made better harmonies than the popular strains of today.

Justin Taylor has the rest of the quote and the citation.

I’m attempting to make my way through Thomas Torrance’s Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge, a ridiculously complex account of the history of science and philosophy. I’m exhausted after each three page burst of reading. Of course, I eventually skipped toward the end, to his essay on Barth. Torrance provides a very lucid telling of why Barth considered any natural knowledge of God as “invalid,” “illegitimate,” and proper to sinful and rebellious man. As I understand it, the benign spirits at Westminster Philly believe that Barth constructed his critique on the philosophical impossibility, a la Kant, of natural theology, instead of on a properly dogmatic impossibility. Thus, philosophy determines the limits in which theology can operate. These same benign spirits claim that Bruce McCormack has validated this thesis, but I’ll let the current generation of Princetonians debate that one.

Here is a snippet from Torrance’s essay:

Whatever may have been his earlier views, when he was doubtless affected by the Kantian critique of the possibility of the knowledge of God within the limits of the natural reason, Barth quickly left them behind to take up a very different position on the ground of actual knowledge of God based on his Word. Here as he looked out from within the perspective of Christian theology upon natural theology he did not reject the existence of natural knowledge or commit himself to any metaphysical refutation of it, but found himself trying to understand it as something that is ‘impossible’ and that nevertheless ‘exists’, i.e. something that exists in opposition to the actual knowledge of God mediated through his Word, and which must therefore be called in question by it as illegitimate and invalid in so far as it claims to be knowledge of God as he really is. Natural theology is not a phenomenon that can simply be brushed aside, for it has a strange vitality in virtue of which it persists in the history of human thought. Barth explains this vitality as that of the natural man, for natural theology as such arises out of man’s natural existence and is part of the whole movement in which he develops his own autonomy and seeks a naturalistic explanation for himself within the universe. It must therefore be taken seriously and be respected as the natural man’s ‘only hope and consolation in life and death’ which it would be unkind to take away from him in his natural state. Nor is it something that can or should be combated on its own ground, for as soon as one attempts to do that one has thereby conceded the ground on which it rests, namely the autonomous existence of estranged and sinful man. That is to say, the claim to a natural knowledge of God, as Barth understands it, cannot be separated out from a whole movement of man in which he seeks to justify himself over against the grace of God, and which can only develop into a natural theology that is antithetical to knowledge of God as he really is in his acts of revelation and grace.

“Natural Theology in the Thought of Karl Barth,” Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge (Wipf & Stock 1998), pp. 289-290. Originally published in Religious Studies, vol. 6, 1970.

So, assuming that Torrance is right and Van Til is wrong, and putting that debate aside, the really interesting question becomes whether the Christian can discern any true content in this rebellious natural knowledge of God, or is it all necessarily compromised by the estrangement of the natural mind? Barth, it seems, takes an “all or nothing” position, whereas a sympathetic detractor like Brunner agrees yet while affirming a residual moral component. This moral component needs to be redeemed with true content, but the form remains and acts as a bridge between natural and redeemed man.

Kevin DeYoung’s defense of hell has received a lot of attention, thanks to the controversy surrounding Rob Bell. I’m not interested in that controversy as of yet, since nobody has even read the book, but I do want to make some counter-proposals to DeYoung’s defense of hell. First, a quick note:

I am not a universalist, and I neither deny the existence of hell nor the possibility of people therein. As I see it, if Christ’s atonement necessarily requires the abolition of hell, then a lot of Scripture verses would read differently. The continuing threat of eternal reprobation is presupposed by the Evangelists and Apostles. They did not extend the “triumph of grace” quite so thoroughly as to deny the continuing threat of the demons and reprobation.

Yet, hell is not necessary. At least, it is not necessary for the reasons that DeYoung lists. Hell is necessary to the extent that God deems it necessary, and we really can’t go beyond that. DeYoung goes further and seriously misunderstands the sufficiency and completeness of Christ for knowing God’s wrath and mercy.

DeYoung rightly recognizes that Paul warned about “the judgment to come.” We can safely say that Paul was not working with universalist presuppositions and neither should we. It is clearly a part of both Jesus’ exhortations (most famously in Matt 25) and Paul’s (Acts 24, which DeYoung references). I’m on board with DeYoung on this point but not on the next point:

Second, we need God’s wrath in order to forgive our enemies. The reason we can forgo repaying evil for evil is because we trust the Lord’s promise to repay the wicked. Paul’s logic is sound. “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). The only way to look past our deepest hurts and betrayals is to rest assured that every sin against us has been paid for on the cross and or will be punished in hell. We don’t have to seek vigilante justice, because God will be our just judge.

This is where I lose DeYoung. He states, “The only way to look past our deepest hurts and betrayals is to rest assured that every sin against us has been paid for on the cross and or will be punished in hell.” No, every sin has been paid for on the cross. There is no remainder of sins that require further justification in hell. Christ’s atonement is sufficient for all. The punishment of hell is not for any lack in the atonement of Christ. The law really is abolished and, thereby, not the standard of making things “just.” DeYoung wants a little bit of law operating still, such that the law functions for hell the way that Christ functions for heaven. Yet, Christ functions for both, as the judge of all. Hell is by way of Christ: the denial of personal communion through him to the Father.

…we need God’s wrath in order to understand what mercy means. Divine mercy without divine wrath is meaningless. Only when we know that we were objects of wrath (Eph. 2:3), stood condemned already (John 3:18), and would have faced hell as God’s enemies were it not for undeserved mercy (Rom. 5:10), can we sing from the heart “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!”

Yes, but this wrath is most fully expressed in the abandonment of the Son, forsaken on the cross. We don’t need hell in order to understand what mercy means. Because the Son “became sin,” he became reprobate and cursed. In the Son, we know fully well of the mercy through wrath that won our salvation. The continuing threat of hell is not necessary for us to know this. Hell does indeed reveal this wrath, but it is not necessary in order to grasp it. That’s the distinction that DeYoung is missing. He thinks that because hell reveals God’s wrath, hell is necessary in order to reveal God’s wrath. The problem is that DeYoung fails to fully grasp the completeness of Christ’s work of salvation, so he fails to read these categories (vindication, wrath, mercy) through Christ. Instead, hell provides the filler for these categories, such that hell is necessary for knowing God’s justice, love, and even the joy of heaven (DeYoung’s 6th point). Hell is functioning in a way, for DeYoung, that Christ should function.


It should be noted that DeYoung is excerting from his book, Why We’re Not Emergent, where the focus of the excerpt is wrath and not hell per se. Yet, he thinks this exposition of wrath makes for a good defense of hell. I’m sure that if DeYoung read this post of mine he would object and say that he doesn’t intend to supplement Christ with hell, yet that’s the upshot of his argumentation.