Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015.

I’ve had my review copy of Molnar’s latest book, graciously sent by IVP Academic, for most of the summer. Planning a vacation and other matters got in the way, but I finally finished. It is a dense, technical work of over 400 pages, entirely pertaining to a high-level, intramural debate within systematic theology today, namely among students of Karl Barth’s theology. In other words, this is not for beginners or for those generally curious about Barth and Torrance. It is an important debate, however, to which every student must give attention — with ramifications that extend beyond the fluid borders of Barth scholarship.

The dispute, as I know that many of my readers are familiar, is over Bruce McCormack’s interpretation of Barth’s theology. For McCormack, the key to Barth’s doctrine of God is how — in McCormack’s reading — the divine election precedes ontology, the ontology for both God and man. God’s being is determined in the act of electing man in Jesus Christ. As a primordial act, this should not be understood as a temporal sequence (election and then ontology) but as a singular act where “being” and “act” are bound-up with one another. There is no other God than this God who elects himself to be this God. Here are a few quotes, among many others, that Molnar cites from McCormack:

The act in which God determines himself essentially is election. If then this act is primordial, then election is primordial. There is no triunity in God apart from election, for the two occur in one and the same event. (Trinitarian Theology After Karl Barth, eds. Habets and Tolliday, 114; Molnar, 190)

There is no longer any room left here for an abstract doctrine of the Trinity. There is a triune being of God — only in the covenant of grace. (Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology, ed. Michael Dempsey, 128; Molnar, 192-193)

God’s being is grounded in an Urentscheidung (i.e., a ‘primordial decision’) in which he gives to himself his own being as God. (Mapping Modern Theology, eds. Kapic and McCormack, 14; Molnar, 194)

God has elected to be God in the covenant of grace and to be God in no other way. This is not a decision for mere role-play; it is a decision with ontological significance. It is a free act in which God assigned to himself the being God would have for all eternity. (Orthodox and Modern, 216; Molnar, 290)

…God gives both to himself and to humanity his and their essential being and does so with respect to one and the same figure, Jesus of Nazareth. (Orthodox and Modern, 228; Molnar, 311).

“There is a triune being of God — only in the covenant of grace.” “There is no triunity in God apart from election.” These and similar expressions are the focus of contention. If it is true that God is only triune — that is, who God is in his very being — in the covenant of grace, then the covenant of grace is necessary for who God is, which is to say, necessary for God. McCormack sees this as Barth’s most significant contribution to theology and is the basis upon which theology today should move forward. For McCormack, this is the consistent and thoroughgoing application of Barth’s rejection of natural theology and classical metaphysics, and Barth only fully discovered the decisive move (election determines ontology) in his volume on election (CD II.2) and illustrated in the doctrine of reconciliation (IV.1), as with Barth’s treatment of the logos asarkos, most famously, even though McCormack does not see Barth as always consistently applying this revolutionary insight.

Molnar disputes all of this. There is no change in Barth’s doctrine of God in II.2. Rather, Barth’s pointed insistence in II.1 resonates throughout the subsequent volumes:

God is who He is in His works. He is the same even in Himself, even before and after and over His works, and without them. They are bound to Him, but He is not bound to them. They are nothing without Him. But He is who He is without them. He is not, therefore, who He is only in His works. (CD II.1, 260; Molnar, 308; also cited by Alan Torrance, The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster, 90, n.28)

God is not bound to his works. He is God without his works. And later in his dogmatics, Barth writes of God becoming man, “God did not owe it to man. He did not owe it even to the man Jesus. He did not owe it either in His eternal counsel or in its execution. He did not owe it even to himself to an inner dialectic of His Godhead” (IV.2, 41; Molnar, 306). “Its occurrence cannot, therefore, be perceived or understood or deduced from any ontology which embraces Himself and the world, Himself and man, or from any higher standpoint whatever [than his ‘gracious good-pleasure’]” (Ibid.). This is one example of where Molnar attends to Barth in disputation with McCormack. It is beyond the scope of a blog review to lay-out all the merits and demerits of McCormack’s work on Barth. Suffice it to say that I found Molnar to be persuasive on these critical matters.

The debate over Barth’s “actualistic ontology,” as some like to say, does not begin until the third chapter, and Molnar covers a great deal more than my quotations above would indicate. The first chapter covers the pneumatological basis of Barth’s epistemology. In this chapter, Molnar uses Karl Rahner extensively by way of contrast with Barth. Rahner, unlike Barth, “attempts to validate knowledge of faith from the experience of self-transcendence” (22). However, “Any attempt to know God that seeks some form of direct knowledge of God (a knowledge without the mediation of his incarnate Word), in Barth’s view, always would mean the inability to distinguish God from us; and that would mean our inability to speak objectively and truly about God at all” (23). Rather boldly, Rahner claims that “the hope that a person’s history of freedom will be conclusive in nature…already includes what we mean by the hope of ‘resurrection'” (Theological Investigations 17:16; Molnar, 54) and “knowledge of man’s resurrection given with his transcendentally necessary hope is a statement of philosophical anthropology even before any real revelation in the Word” (TI 9:41; Molnar, 55-56). As a result, man is innately disposed toward God, in Rahner’s theology, not opposed to God, as we find in Barth. Molnar then shifts to a consideration of Tillich and Bultmann’s non-conceptual knowledge of God, which bears similarities to Rahner.

In the second chapter, Molnar continues discussing how the Holy Spirit yields knowledge of God. Now, John Courtney Murray and Wolfhart Pannenberg are his interlocutors, making contrasts with Barth and Torrance. The remainder of the book, chapters three to eight, pertains directly to the debate with McCormack. The third chapter notably includes some interesting discussion of other theologians who have appropriated aspects of McCormack’s theology: Benjamin Myers, Kevin Hector, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Dafydd Jones.

The seventh chapter is significant because it marks the one area of disagreement with Barth’s trinitarian theology. Favoring T. F. Torrance’s account, Molnar criticizes Barth for subordinating the Son to the Father in the immanent Trinity. For Barth, this is the basis for the subordination of the Son (for our salvation) in the economic Trinity. This chapter was previously published last year in the Scottish Journal of Theology, which is where I first read it. I am still undecided on precisely where I land in this debate about subordination in the Trinity, and you can read my previous posts on this topic here and here. I will need to postpone this particular discussion until another day.

In the final chapter, Molnar ties together the epistemological considerations in the first two chapters with the metaphysical considerations in the subsequent chapters. All together, this chapter serves as a nice summary presentation of Barth and Torrance’s theological program. It also serves as a nice testimony to the theological vision that inspires Professor Molnar.

This is an excellent book. I recommend it highly. This review is, obviously, not sufficient to demonstrate the depth of analysis involved. Let me quote from Ian Torrance’s blurb on the back cover: “The best studies of Karl Barth have moved well beyond mere exegesis of his text and now probe the fundamental assumptions on which exegetical perspectives have been based.” And D. Stephen Long, author of my favorite Barth book from last year, writes, “Few Protestant, let alone Catholic, interpreters of Karl Barth read him with as much skill and conviction as does Paul Molnar.”


Disclosure: I received this book from IVP Academic for purposes of review without any obligation to endorse the product.


This is a rather technical theological discussion. You are forewarned.

In a post from last year, “Barth chastises the early Barth,” I briefly discuss an excerpt from Church Dogmatics II.1 where Barth criticizes the exegesis of Romans 8:24 in his Romans commentary. In this commentary, he claims that “Hope that is visible is not hope. Direct communication from God is not communication from God” (p. 314 in the English translation of the Römerbrief). Barth recognizes, in the CD, that this earlier account did not do justice to the biblical material and was too influenced by his reaction to liberal optimism on the convergence of God and creation in the here and now.

In a very similar vein, Barth discusses “God’s Time and Our Time” in the opening section of § 14 (“The Time of Revelation”) in CD I.2. According to Holy Scripture, God’s revelation “enters time.” The full sentence is important, because Barth is clearly thinking of inadequacies in his Romans commentary: “[Revelation] does not remain transcendent over time, it does not merely meet it at a point, but it enters time; nay, it assumes time; nay, it creates time for itself.” The claim about God’s transcendence, merely meeting creation “at a point,” recalls Barth’s image of a circle and a tangent, in the Römerbrief, as a description of God’s act in the world. Barth is not satisfied with this.

And so, it is not surprising that Barth immediately provides the following excursus:

I should like at this stage to utter an express warning against certain passages and contexts in my commentary on Romans, where play was made and even work occasionally done with the idea of a revelation permanently transcending time, merely bounding time and determining it from without. Then, in face of the prevailing historism and psychologism which had ceased to be aware at all of any revelation other than an inner mundane one within common time, the book had a definite, antiseptic task and significance. Readers of it to-day will not fail to appreciate that in it Jn 1:14 does not have justice done to it. [Church Dogmatics I.2, p. 50]

You can easily see the similarities between this passage and the one in II.1. Now, let’s turn to Richard Burnett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Erskine Theological Seminary and Visiting Professor of Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte. In Barth’s second edition of the Romans commentary, he introduces the terms, “unhistorical” (das Unhistorische) and “primal history” (Urgeschichte), to describe God’s revelation. In his book, Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis, Burnett discusses Barth’s usage of these terms in Romans II. Here is part of Burnett’s analysis:

Barth uses both of these terms throughout Rom II to make clear that revelation is neither a part nor a predicate of history, nor does it pass over into history, even in the event of revelation itself. For even in the Incarnation, when God entered into history, He was never a part of history, in the sense of being an ‘object’ of historical investigation. This never meant for Barth that God had not acted in human history, only that historians qua historians could not know this as an act of God apart from revelation. In this sense, revelation was and always remained for Barth “unhistorisch.” But that he had identified revelation itself in Rom II as“das Unhistorische” suggested to many that he did not believe that God had acted in history at all, that revelation could not encounter history in any way. Barth soon after recognized the danger he had risked in Rom II and later admitted that “readers of it today will not appreciate that in it Jn. 1:14 does not have justice done to it.” [Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis, pp. 104-105]

In the footnote, Burnett provides the whole of the passage from CD I.2 that I provide above. Of course, questions still abound. There is the question of how the Incarnation, the earthly-historical life of Jesus, and the Resurrection are not objects of “historical investigation.” What does this mean? If it means, as Burnett interprets it, that God’s presence and acts in history are not known as “of God” apart from revelation itself, then I am happy with that. And this is how I interpret the mature Barth.

But if it means that God’s act or revelation in history is so “unhistorical” that the historical is untouched and unable to receive God’s Word, then that is a problem. Paradoxically enough, the historical as a closed contingent phenomena thereby takes precedence and limits (or conditions) theological claims. The miracle, in this scheme, is the “miracle” of faith. We are left with existential miracles, not historical miracles. That’s not a good thing.

An androgynous Adam?

September 3, 2014


It is sometimes heard, within feminist and liberationist circles, that the original creation of אָדָם‎ (Adam) was androgynous, not differentiated into the gender binary of male and female. אָדָם‎ only becomes male and female in Gen 2:21-23, which is interpreted as the splitting of the original אָדָם‎ into two distinct and gendered beings (with צְלָעֹת translated as “side” and understood conceptually as “half”). Phyllis Trible is best known for popularizing this view.

This androgynous reading of Adam as merely a neuter “earthling” has come under criticism and not just from the usual suspects (evangelicals like me). Jerome Gellman, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, has a hard-hitting article in Theology & Sexuality 12:3 (2006), “Gender and Sexuality in the Garden of Eden,” which takes this feminist reading to task for trying, in his opinion, to smooth over the obvious misogyny of the text. So, basically, he argues that Trible’s reading is not only bad exegesis, but it is also a disservice to feminism. And Robert Kawashima, NYU and now University of Florida, has an article in Vetus Testamentum 56:1 (2006), “A Revisionist Reading Revisited: On the Creation of Adam and then Eve,” wherein he takes the feminists to task for their faulty reader-oriented epistemology.

What might a dogmatician have to say? As someone who is concerned about the gnosticism that underwrites our current gender theorizing, I highly appreciate Emil Brunner’s rejection of this androgynous reading of אָדָם‎ in the second volume of his Dogmatics. Brunner is discussing the imago Dei, using the familiar Brunnerian lense of relationality within differentiation. He notes a “special satisfaction” that Barth uses an analogia relationis in CD III.1 (citing p. 219 in the German KD).

Below is the relevant excerpt, namely the second paragraph and following. This is among my favorite material in Brunner’s works:

Hence from the outset man has not been created as an isolated being, but as a “twofold” being; and not simply as two human beings, but as two beings who necessarily belong to one another, who have been created for this purpose, and whose whole nature is ordered in this direction, that is, as two beings who cannot be, apart from each other. In the older version of the Creation story (J) this is explicitly stated: “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). The Creation of Man is not finished until the partner is there. In the later version (Gen. 1) the twofold Creation is presupposed from the outset, and follows immediately on the definition of man as made in the Image of God. Because God is Love, because in God’s very Nature there is community, man must be able to love: thus “man” has to be created as a pair of human beings. He cannot realize his nature without the “Other”; his destiny is fellowship in love.

This twofold character of man in the Creation Story is in contrast to the world-wide myth of androgyny. The latter is necessarily connected with rational thinking, for which the ultimate and supreme truth is Unity, just as the fact of the two sexes is necessarily connected with the God who wills community. Either community or unity is the final supreme truth. The God of the Biblical revelation is the God of community; the God of rational philosophy is the God of unity. It is no accident that Plato’s Symposium accepts the myth of androgyny. Androgyny belongs to the thought of Platonism, and sexual polarity to Christian thought. [fn., It is therefore no accident that the gnostic thinker, Berdyaev, accepts the androgynous principle, and conceives the fact of the two sexes as the result of the Fall. Die Philosophie der Freiheit des Geistes, p. 238]

Androgyny is the ontological basis of narcisissm. Within the sphere of speculative thought love is always, in the last resort, self-love, because the final end sought is unity. Within the sphere of Biblical thought love is never narcissism or self-love, because love is always self-communication, the will to community. Agape presupposes the “I” and the “Thou” over against each other; narcissism, androgyny, presupposes thought which aims at unity; it presupposes the elimination of anything opposite; it presupposes the identity of object and subject. …

Sexual polarity, however, as such, is not itself the “I” and the “Thou.” It is only a picture of the purpose of Creation, and the natural basis of the true “I” and “Thou.” Sexual polarity is therefore not intended for eternity [Matt. 22:30] whereas the “I” and the “Thou,” the communion and the fellowship of the Kingdom of God, is certainly intended for eternity. Hence sexual polarity is not itself the Imago Dei; it is, as it were, a secondary Imago, a reflection of the Divine purpose, and at the same time the natural basis of true community. …

[The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, trans. Olive Wyon, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1952, pp. 64-65]

The point about narcissism is especially astute.


Image: “Eve” by Irina from Romania

Saving Karl Barth

I have been reading D. Stephen Long’s new release, Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation. It is such a joy to read this book. So far — in the first two chapters — Long has given us a careful narrative overview of Balthasar’s journey into reading and presenting Barth, his struggles with suspicious fellow Catholics (and suspicious Protestants), and the precise distinctions involved in his analysis and appropriation of Barth, while remaining faithful to Vatican I’s duplex ordo: “Balthasar’s preoccupation, interpretation, and presentation of Barth’s work is much too broad, dynamic, and changing to be encapsulated in any single formula such as ‘from dialectic to analogy'” (37). The first half of the second chapter is a fascinating look at Balthasar’s early work on Barth, works not yet translated into English, leading up to his 1951 monograph on Barth. In the third chapter, he will look at the collapse of Balthasar’s interpretation of Barth among many Catholic and Protestant interpreters today, which includes Long’s evaluation and rejection of Bruce McCormack’s interpretation of Barth. The remaining chapters engage Balthasar and Barth through three dogmatic loci: the doctrine of God (ch. 4), ethics (ch. 5), and the church (ch. 6).

In this post, I will provide just one excerpt that should be of interest to those curious about the book (which should be everybody). Long is analyzing Balthasar’s 1944 essay, “Analogie und Dialektik”:

[Balthasar] did not dismiss dialectic but distinguished dialectic as method from dialectic as ontological contradiction. The latter was particularly found in Romans 2, which was a “demonic attempt to think contradiction through all the way to the end.” Once Barth thought it through, without “short-circuiting” or “evasion,” then it inevitably led to the “horizon of analogy” because dialectic as ontological contradiction is a dead end — literally. All it can do is deny and destroy creation; it is one more instance of German apocalypse. For this reason, dialectic alone cannot express well the basic form of Christianity, the incarnation. What Balthasar and Barth shared in common, a commitment to the incarnation as the form of theology, is also what caused their deepest disagreements. For Balthasar, Barth was never merely a dialectical thinker because he was always a Christocentric theologian. Even in the early period, analogy was tacitly necessary. The issue between Catholicism and Barth, and thus between Catholicism and Protestantism, did not really take the form of analogy versus dialectic. That was misleading. Both agreed, given the incarnation, “analogy” is the necessary form Christian theology must take. The real difference was whether the analogy is of being (entis) or of faith (fidei). This difference mattered. Balthasar named it “the last essential difference” between Catholicism and Protestantism. It had a “deadly seriousness” and was something much more than “idle theological bickering.”

Balthasar may have always heard analogy in Barth’s dialectic, but he also heard “identity” even in the “contradiction” of Romans 2, albeit “horribly distorted.” In other words, these stages were not progressive advances. They were failed attempts to express adequately the Christian form. As he had argued in the 1939 essay “Karl Barth and Catholicism,” so he argues here: Barth’s early work collapsed creaturely being into guilty and sinful being. Thus he lacked an adequate concept of nature. His anthropology did not take the form of the fall of a nature, but the nature of falleness. This left nothing for creatures to do but be negated. This was how dialectic as contradiction collapsed back into identity. If creation can only be negated, then it contributed nothing in the soteriological drama. God will be the lone actor. Balthasar acknowledged this is not what Barth sought to affirm, but it was the logical consequence of dialectic as contradiction if it were consistently carried through.

[Saving Karl Barth, pp. 53-54. Long is translating and quoting from “Analogie und Dialektik,” Divus Thomas 22 (1944), pp. 171-174.]

Long continues to explain precisely what this means, focusing on Balthasar’s distinction between “analogy of being” and “pure nature” (the latter is the real error, a late medieval and Baroque perversion of the former, according to Balthasar). As you can see, Long is able to distill and communicate clearly this rather complex material, which should make the volume accessible even for those students who are fairly new to these debates.

Barth reading - retouched

For those who have read widely in the Church Dogmatics, you know that Barth will occasionally refer to his earlier work, prior to the CD, in order to partially chastise his former self. One such occasion is during his discussion of God’s eternity, located near the end of II.1. I will first set-up the discussion. In God, there is “a readiness of eternity for time” because God is the “prototype and foreordination of time” in his very being (611-612, 618). This “readiness of eternity for time” is Barth’s way of expressing that: creaturely time is wholly contingent upon eternity for its being as time, but God’s time-in-eternity is not dependent on creation for its reality in God’s own life. This readiness “does not compel Him to actualize it” (618).

The “concrete form” of this readiness is then expressed through the categories of pre-temporality, supra-temporality, and post-temporality. In relation to creation, God “precedes its beginning, He accompanies its duration, and He exists after its end” (619). In an excursus, Barth deals with the way in which different periods of Protestant history have prioritized one or an other of these three. The Reformers were too one-sided in their emphasis on pre-temporality, therefore making human life “a kind of appendix” (632). In reaction to this, the modernists made the “far more dangerous” move of emphasizing supra-temporality (God’s present accompaniment), which was duly followed by the late 19th / early 20th century reaction through emphasizing post-temporality (apocalyptic readings of Jesus and Paul).

It is in this last group that Barth recognizes his early work, as a reaction to liberal optimism. As he explains, “In the attempt to free ourselves both from these early forms of one-sidedness, especially from that of pietistic and Liberal Neo-Protestantism, and also from the unsatisfactory corrections with which our predecessors had tried to overcome them, we took the surest possible way to make ourselves guilty of a new one-sidedness and therefore to evoke a relatively justifiable but, in view of the total truth, equally misleading reaction…” (634). Barth then continues with an example, which I love because it perfectly captures what I disliked about his Romans commentary:

Expounding Rom. 8:24, I even dared to say at that time: “Hope that is visible is not hope. Direct communication from God is not communication from God. A Christianity that is not wholly and utterly and irreducibly eschatology has absolutely nothing to do with Christ. A spirit that is not at every moment in time new life from the dead is in any case not the Holy Spirit. ‘For that which is seen is temporal’ (2 Cor. 4:18). What is not hope is a log, a block, a chain, heavy and angular, like the word ‘reality.’ It imprisons rather than sets free. It is not grace, but judgment and destruction. It is fate, not divine fulfilment. It is not God, but a reflection of man unredeemed. It is this even if it is an ever so stately edifice of social progress or an ever so respectable bubble of Christian redeemedness. Redemption is that which cannot be seen, the inaccessible, the impossible, which confronts us as hope. Can we wish to be anything other and better than men of hope, or anything additional?” Well roared, lion! There is nothing absolutely false in these bold words. I still think that I was right ten times over against those who then passed judgment on them and resisted them. Those who can still hear what was said then by both the religious and worldlings, and especially by religious worldlings, and especially the most up-to-date among them, cannot but admit that it was necessary to speak in this way. The sentences I then uttered were not hazardous (in the sense of precarious) on account of their content. They were hazardous because to be legitimate exposition of the Bible they needed others no less sharp and direct to compensate and therefore genuinely to substantiate their total claim. But these were lacking. If we claim to have too perfect an understanding of the Gospel, we at once lose our understanding. In our exposition we cannot claim to be wholly right over against others, or we are at once in the wrong. At that time we had not sufficiently considered the pre-temporality of the Reformers or the supra-temporality of God which Neo-Protestants of all shades had put in such a distorted way at the centre. Hence we had not seen the biblical conception of eternity in its fulness. [634-635]

“Well roared, lion!” You gotta love that. He then recognizes that these early writings were why Bultmann and Tillich could once think of him as a comrade. Of course, Barth is not entirely disowning these early apocalyptic and existential notes, just their capacity to distort the truth of God’s prior and present relationship to creation.


Image: This is my own retouching of a photo of Barth reading. I removed a significant amount of “noise” in the image (dust and cracks) and slightly brightened it.

richard hooker

Jason Wallace (Samford University) has written a nice historical overview of the “worldview” concept within evangelical Christianity:

Whose Worldview? Part 1 (Part 2) (Part 3)

His thesis is that “its usage presents interesting challenges for those who find older Protestant expressions of Christianity more appealing than either theological liberalism or evangelicalism. Specifically, worldview theology promotes the careless, and repeated, evangelical and liberal Protestant pattern of replacing confessions and ecclesiastical office with political and cultural ideology.” And the theological move that legitimated this shift:

Where earlier Protestantism struggled primarily, but not exclusively, with sin and redemption as an ontological category, that is, as a question of human nature and being, the new Calvinism focused more on sin and redemption as an epistemological problem, that is, a question of right and wrong kinds of knowing.

Wallace will further signal that he is comfortable with the older orthodoxy’s use of natural law, as the antidote to worldview Idealism. While I will disagree with the integrity of natural law for our theology (especially when an entire anthropology is constructed without reference to Christ), there is an undeniable advantage to the older natural law tradition versus the worldview apologetics of today. The older orthodoxy at least knew its limits. Nature has an intelligibility that can be discovered and theorized upon without the epistemological need for dubious “trinitarian” foundations (Van Til) or a “regenerate” mind. Even if a Christian knows that this intelligibility is because Christ is “through whom and for whom all things were made” (Col 1.16), this does not somehow enshroud nature as such, making it intelligible only to the pure of heart.

So, the older orthodoxy could respect the insights and learning of those pursuing knowledge other than theology. Thus, these theologians were not compelled to transpose this secular knowledge onto their dogmatic grid, in order to make it “coherent” upon the right “presuppositions.” They would find that rather odd. As do I.

Interestingly, even a “Barthian” like myself (albeit a decisively non-existential, non-apocalyptic Barthian) and the older dogmatics have a common foe today: worldview!

Christianity did indeed challenge the presuppositions about nature that handicapped its investigation within pagan societies. If nature participates in the eternal divine (gradations), then nature is something to be overcome spiritually. Nature is demythologized by the church, especially as the creation does not emerge from God but from nothing (creatio ex nihilo). Thus, nature could come into its own, so to speak, as anticipated by Aristotle et al. Yet, the church did not arrogate to itself a privileged epistemology for the study of nature (minus the Galileo affair). Somehow that never occurred to them as a methodological axiom, until our worldview apologists of today have fixed all of that! Or not. The church’s insight into this truth (about nature) did not create this truth, as if the metaphysics depended upon the epistemology. More to the point, the metaphysical “preconditions” of nature are not the same for God’s self-revelation, which is to say that rocks and God are not the same. The latter is being-in-event and personal.

There is an obvious attraction to worldview thinking. It has the allure of comprehensive explanatory power (in all fields of knowledge!), while only doing the basic work of knowing your theological ABC’s and some apologetic maneuvers. Apparently, that is irresistible to whole swaths of our evangelical landscape. As a Protestant who is in agreement with most evangelical emphases, I find this rather disconcerting. But apologetics will come and go, while the glory of the Lord endures forever!


Image: Richard Hooker statue at Exeter Cathedral. Hooker could write about “redeemed reason” without the implications of Idealist philosophy.

A win for sense experience!

February 5, 2014

Magic Realism Illusions by Rob Gonsalves - Einstein

Against my better judgment, I decided to watch part of the Nye/Ham debate last night. For the uninitiated, Ken Ham is an influential leader within the Young Earth Creationism (YEC) movement, for decades now. Science and history are selectively determined according to one’s prior commitments, not the objectivities of nature itself. Ham’s YEC is eerily similar to traditional Mormon apologetics and historiography. His opponent, Bill Nye, is the beloved “Science Guy” from our childhood, teaching untold numbers of kids about the excitement and adventure of exploring our world. Nye is not a religious man, but he manages to uphold the intelligibility of creation better than his YEC adversaries.

There are many people who opposed the debate for the simple reason that it gives legitimacy to YEC. There is some truth in that. YEC does not care about science and has no impact whatsoever upon scientific dialog today, so why treat it as a legitimate dialog partner? The answer must be practical — purely practical. If we ignore it, the insularity that fosters these cultic manipulative strategies, and credibility from within, will go unabated. This is not to say that Nye actually changed many YEC minds, but every little bit helps. (I surely speak for many other evangelical students on this.) I have some, perhaps small, hope that last night’s debate may have actually opened, however little, the door for some evangelicals — especially college students — who are struggling mightily for their faith, in an unnecessary struggle wherein cultural idols have merged with the gospel.

From the bit I observed of the debate, I was pleasantly surprised by Nye’s cogency and demeanor. YEC apologists have deftly honed their “skills” over decades of mastering misdirection and red herrings, so I was not sure if Nye would be prepared. If Tyler Francke’s review of the debate is accurate, as I have no reason to doubt, then Nye was prepared and handled himself well throughout the debate. This is a win for sense experience! I am not a Thomist, but we all need a little Aristotle.

Tyler’s description of Ham is a nice summary: “His presentation was childish and moralistic….” Ham’s success has little, if anything, to do with his “science.” Rather, he appeals to the moral and cultural values of his audience, manipulating their emotions in the process.


Image: “Einstein” by Rob Gonsalves

I just happened to come across these lectures from Professor John Webster, speaking at Acadia Divinity College:

The lecture title is “God as Creator.” This is a run-through of Webster’s trinitarian theology, focusing on the relation of God’s aseity to his work of creation (his work ad extra). For those unfamiliar with current debates on the Trinity, this would be a good place to witness trinitarian theology in action, from one of our most adept practitioners. However, it may be a bit rough-going for those not acquainted with the terminology or with this sort of sustained categorical analysis.

You can always expect with Webster great spiritual insight, such as when he discusses the “distinct appropriation” of the Holy Spirit:

The Spirit so moves creatures that we come to be animated, to be alive. The life of creatures is the gift of the Spirit. That’s a point of great spiritual loveliness, and yet one which is very hard for us to perceive unless we abandon an intuitive sense that only we ourselves can give life to ourselves. That’s a deeply flawed but deeply ingrained intuition that we have. We imagine that our integrity can only be secure if we place ourselves beyond the reach of divine love. But divine love does the opposite: it frees us from self-responsibility. “God the Father wrought the creature through his Love, the Holy Spirit,” says Aquinas.

(54-minute mark)

The lecture series is entitled, “Creator, Creation, and Creature: God and His World.” Here are the other two lectures:

Lecture Two (“God and Creation”)

Lecture Three (“God and His Creatures”)

For those who are familiar with current debates on the Trinity, you can expect to be stimulated by Webster’s articulation of God’s sufficiency and fullness apart from his creation — as the ontological ground from which grace derives.


Acadia Divinity

Evolution’s weaker claims

February 25, 2013

[UPDATE: I have added an addendum at the end.]

It is refreshing to read a scientist’s perspective on the evolution/creationism debate: An Insider’s View of the Academy (ht: Vincent Torley). The author is James Tour, the Chao Professor of Chemistry at Rice University.

Tour is questioning the scientific academy’s confidence in macro-evolution. To be clear, this is not an apologia for either the Intelligent Design community, much less the Young Earth Creationism folks. He expressly rejects both. Rather, it is an honest assessment of the academy’s willingness to recognize certain weaknesses in the evolutionary theory. Here is a snippet:

Although most scientists leave few stones unturned in their quest to discern mechanisms before wholeheartedly accepting them, when it comes to the often gross extrapolations between observations and conclusions on macroevolution, scientists, it seems to me, permit unhealthy leeway.

…It is not a matter of politics. I simply do not understand, chemically, how macroevolution could have happened. Hence, am I not free to join the ranks of the skeptical and to sign such a statement without reprisals from those that disagree with me? Furthermore, when I, a non-conformist, ask proponents for clarification, they get flustered in public and confessional in private wherein they sheepishly confess that they really don’t understand either. Well, that is all I am saying: I do not understand.

He goes on to offer warnings to his younger colleagues and students who share his concerns about the integrity of the scientific academy on matters pertaining to macro-evolution. This unwillingness to challenge the mechanics of macro-evolution is, it seems to me, a mirror image of the fear and protectionism in certain segments of evangelicalism. There are strengths, to be sure, in the overall evolutionary paradigm, namely the evidence for an old earth. Yet, the mechanics of the evolution itself between species, and especially the emergence of life, is notably weaker. John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, touches upon this in his excellent (and highly accessible) book, Seven Days that Divide the World. With scientists like Tour and Lennox, the dialogue between science and theology can be far healthier than is found, especially at certain seminaries. It will also bolster the credibility (both scientific and theological) of those of us who refuse to be pushed into either the strict Darwinian Evolution camp or the Young Earth camp.

Addendum — Just to be clear, I am not offering this as any sort of proof against macro-evolution or against the viability of a theistic evolutionary framework. Much less would I argue for a “God of the gaps,” which is the danger of offering these sort of questions about macro-evolution. In the spectrum from YEC to Theistic Evolution, I have always leaned heavily toward the latter but not uncritically, and I find the mediating positions to be fascinating (OEC and Progressive Creationism). As a theology student and seminarian, I just want to see a more productive dialogue between evangelicals and the scientific establishment. I’ve criticized the former several times on this blog (e.g., here and here and here); now I am offering a criticism of the latter.

“Without general revelation, special revelation loses its connectedness with the whole cosmic existence and life. …Christianity becomes a sectarian phenomenon and is robbed of its catholicity. In a word, grace is then opposed to nature.”

– Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, I:322

Having worked my way through the chapter on general revelation, it is now clear the extent to which Bavinck does indeed intimate la nouvelle théologie, as I noted earlier. Thus, Bavinck holds to a high view of general revelation as ontologically prior to special revelation, yet epistemologically posterior. Because of the latter — the epistemological priority of special revelation — Bavinck can sound rather Barthian at certain points, but he is really more in-line with Emil Brunner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, the two theologians who did the most to sympathetically engage, appropriate, and yet challenge Barth’s attack on natural theology. Of course, this is all tricky territory, and I am still in the process of fully understanding Barth’s positive doctrine of an analogia fideias a way to bring creation and nature under the determination of Christ, a determination from the foundation of the earth.

There is too much excellent material in this chapter, much more than a few excerpts can satisfy. So, I will just give some of his closing remarks. The distinction, by the way, between ontic and epistemic ordering is my own, as a way to express Bavinck’s claim that “objectively nature is antecedent to grace.” Of course, Barth reverses this relationship.

Against the two-tier (general–>special) epistemology:

Neither is it the intent of general revelation that Christians should draw from it their first knowledge of God, the world, and humanity in order later to augment this knowledge with the knowledge of Christ. …And dogmaticians do not first divest themselves of their Christian faith in order to construct a rational doctrine of God and humanity and in order later to supplement it with the revelation in Christ. [p. 320]

From special revelation to general revelation:

Now special revelation has recognized and valued general revelation, has even taken it over and, as it were, assimilated it. And this is also what the Christian does, as do the theologians. They position themselves in the Christian faith, in special revelation, and from there look out upon nature and history. And now they discover there as well the traces of the God whom they learned to know in Christ as their Father. Precisely as Christians, by faith, they see the revelation of God in nature much better and more clearly than before. The carnal person does not understand God’s speech in nature and history. He or she searches the entire universe without finding God. But Christians, equipped with the spectacles of Scripture, see God in everything and everything in God. [p. 321]

The point of contact:

In that general revelation, moreover, Christians have a firm foundation on which they can meet all non-Christians. They have a common basis with non-Christians. As a result of their Christian faith, they may find themselves in an isolated position; they may not be able to prove their religious convictions to others; still, in general revelation they have a point of contact with all those who bear the name “human.” Just as a classical preparatory education forms a common foundation for all people of learning, so general revelation unites all people despite their religious differences. Subjectively, in the life of believers, the knowledge of God from nature comes after the knowledge derived from Scripture. We are all born in a certain concrete religion. Only the eye of faith sees God in his creation. Here too it is true that only the pure of heart see God. Yet objectively nature is antecedent to grace; general revelation precedes special revelation. Grace presupposes nature. [footnote: “In keeping with this objective order, the dogmatician should consider general revelation before special revelation, and not the reverse, as Kaftan does.”] To deny that natural religion and natural theology are sufficient and have an autonomous existence of their own is not in any way to do an injustice to the fact that from the creation, from nature and history, from the human heart and conscience, there comes divine speech to every human. No one escapes the power of general revelation. [p. 321, emphasis mine]

Echoing St. Thomas:

Nature precedes grace; grace perfects nature. Reason is perfected by faith, faith presupposes nature. [p. 322]

Image: “Point of Contact” by Chicago photographer, Steve Koo.