Balthasar and Protestantism

January 25, 2016

Hans Urs von Balthasar

“One does not pray to the kerygma.”

— Hans Urs von Balthasar


For quite some time, I have slowly adopted a rather Balthasarian frame of mind. To the extent that I am critical of Barth’s lingering dialectical quirks, the seeds were planted by reading Balthasar. I am fully aware that this puts me well on the margins among the younger generation of students of Barth, who like their Barth to be as dialectical and radical and actualist as possible.

But this post is not about Barth. It’s about Balthasar. From what I have observed over the years, it seems that many people — both Catholic and Protestant — perceive Balthasar to be rather favorable toward Protestantism or, as some Thomists have complained, too influenced by Protestant theology, especially Barth’s. Alongside this perception is the assumption that Balthasar, as a representative figure of la nouvelle théologie, must not be much influenced by medieval scholasticism and Latin theology in general, given the movement’s recovery of the early fathers and especially the Greek fathers.

This is all wrong or, at least, highly misleading with partial truths. In fact, Balthasar was very critical of Protestant theology, and Thomas Aquinas is a frequent guest in his writings. Yes, Balthasar was a student of Barth’s theology, but he was also a profound student of many theologians: Irenaeus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, Augustine, Anselm, BonaventureDante, John of the Cross, Pascal, Hamann, and more. We cannot say that Balthasar is a “Barthian Catholic.” His mind was too wide and too perspicacious and too universal for such a narrow designation, based upon one (albeit important) influence in his theology. If there was ever a theologian who deserved the title of simply “Catholic” (=universal), it is Balthasar.

Moreover, to say that Balthasar was a Barthian is to forget his criticisms of Barth and Protestant theology as a whole — especially the dialectical movement, which Balthasar sees as embodying and extending, logically and radically, the basic errors of Protestantism. This is, at least, how I interpret him, but it is difficult to get a straightforward account of Protestantism from Balthasar. This is because, not least of all, his criticisms are spread across his many writings and often appear in unexpected places. His prose is, often enough, terribly impenetrable, so that’s another problem.

Let us look at Balthasar’s Explorations in Theology, the third volume in particular. The chapter is called, “Two Modes of Faith.”

“Two Modes of Faith”

If you want an introduction — albeit a very dense and difficult introduction — to Balthasar’s basic criticism of Protestant theology, especially its development into the modern period, then this essay is a good place to start. The “two modes of faith” are those of Martin Luther and Ignatius of Loyola. To briefly summarize, the two modes are similar insofar as both are intensely concerned to ground one’s existence in Christ and the Cross, but they quickly move “in contrary directions,” since for Luther, “everything lies in the Word that promises me salvation and that I allow in faith to be true in me.” Whereas for Ignatius, “everything lies in the call that introduces me into the following of Jesus’ way (of the Cross)” (Explorations in Theology, III, 89).

As a result, the historical person of Christ is central for Ignatius, whereas in Lutheran theology, and beginning in Luther himself, the word and the person start to separate. It is the message, the kerygma received in faith, that is absolute. The pro me of the word is alone decisive. This finally culminates in the dialectical and existential Lutheran theologians of the 20th century (Herrmann, Gogarten, Bultmann, et al.), where the kerygma and faith are alone absolute.

Here is Balthasar’s account, with footnotes in brackets:

In Luther, the pro me (the origin for today) becomes so exclusively important that, in an extreme case, the origin “in itself” could disappear. Kierkegaard’s fine perception has noticed this:

“In one sermon, Luther rages most vehemently against the faith that holds to the person rather than holding to the Word; the true faith holds to the Word, irrespective of who the person is. This is fine in the relationship between man and man. But for the rest, Christianity is abolished by this theory.” [Tagebücher (Haecker), 4th ed. (1953), 436]

With Althaus: “Not even the earthly person of Jesus…[is] the ultimate ground of faith, but (as Luther says), ‘The Word by itself must suffice for the heart.'” [Die Theologie Martin Luthers (1962), 53. Luther, WA 10, I I, 130, 14] In his harsh but indispensable book on Luther (Das Ich im Glauben bei Martin Luther [Styria, 1966]), Paul Hacker has shown the threatening danger of this one-sidedness as it runs through Luther’s chief works. On the one hand, one leaps over the centuries with a single jump in Bultmann: “The Christ kata sarka is of no interest to us; I do not know, nor do I wish to know, how things stood in Jesus’ heart” [Glauben und Verstehen, I (1933), 101]; on the other hand, if the event of Word and faith is the primordial event, then love must take the second place, must indeed take the place of the “works”, and once again Kierkegaard says about this:

“The conclusion of Luther’s sermon on 1 Corinthians 13, where he shows that faith is higher than love, is sophistic. Luther wishes always to explain love in fact only as love of one’s neighbor, as if it were not also a duty to love God. In fact, Luther has set faith in the place of love of God and has then called love the love of neighbor.” [Tagebücher (February 9, 1849), 359]

(Explorations in Theology, III, 89-90)

Balthasar then makes the contrast with Ignatius, for whom love directed toward the person of Christ is decisive and involves such concrete acts of obedience as “leaving all and following” (ibid., 91). Moreover, this mode of faith does greater justice to the whole witness of both testaments than “the sharp dialectic that Luther unfolds from the slender basis of the Letters to the Galatians and to the Romans” (ibid.).

A couple pages later, Balthasar continues with his account of Protestant, namely Lutheran, theology. This is a long excerpt. It was impossible for me to break it down and provide snippets without making it incoherent. Here it is:

A short look at the dramatic history of Protestant theology between Luther and Bultmann teaches us much, because it shows how Luther’s option, the outcome of his development away from the Catholic Church, works itself out and comes to dominate through the centuries. At first, the word of Scripture and the person of Christ remain closely bound together, even when Lutheran orthodoxy intensifies the significance of the word with its doctrine of verbal inspiration, while pietism takes a relationship of personal immediacy to the person. But when the Enlightenment refers polemically back to the historical Jesus against the dogmatic word of the Church, Jesus is de-dogmatized and is an inspired religious personality with whom (in the univocal character of the Pneuma) one can stand in a charismatic relationship (Lessing). Schleiermacher can indeed make dogmatics become the expression and function of the “pious consciousness” with the historical Jesus as the Analogatum princeps; but the dogmatic “word” that is arrived at in this way can just as well be dissolved again with Hegel by the historical dubiousness (“unhappy consciousness”) and elevated, as “open religion”, to be the objective expression of the intellect’s self-understanding. But theology reflects again and again on the incomparability of the historical event of Jesus; for Ritschl, it is the original sense of value that grasps the absolute significance, not of the being of Christ, but of his work as “benefit” for us. [Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung 3, 2d ed. (1883), 358ff.] For his pupil W. Hermann (the teacher of Karl Barth and of Bultmann), Jesus is through his mysterious inner life, his obvious unique sinlessness, the incarnate categorical imperative, in whom God comes near in a manner we can never equal, let alone surpass, and everything else in the Bible is at best relative to the event of my being encountered and overwhelmed by the revelatory quality of the person of Jesus. The dissociation adopted from Kant, Lotze and Ritschl between the (philosophical) ontological evaluation and the (existential) experience of value does indeed cast the strongest light in Herrmann on the overwhelming uniqueness of this person, but it does this radically within the horizon of the Lutheran pro me. When Herrmann, who was a vigorous foe of Catholicism, comes close to contact with the genuinely Catholic position, he nevertheless swerves aside (as a Kantian) at the last moment: it is not ultimately what Jesus was, but how he has an effect on me, that remains decisive. All one needs to do now to arrive at the Bultmannian position is to replace speculative agnosticism by historical-critical agnosticism; thus Bultmann’s position is not in the least absolutely dependent on the latter foundation. But Herrmann’s controversy with Martin Kähler is also significant: while Herrmann’s interest was with what was absolutely impressive in Jesus, no matter how the biblical mediation might be constituted, Kähler correctly resists the pseudo-objective project of the liberal history that brackets off faith in order to get back at an historical Jesus-in-himself behind the Scripture’s testimonies of faith; not, like Bultmann, because we can know nothing about him, but because we find what is absolutely impressive in his person precisely in the corpus of the testimonies of faith and nowhere else. It is here that “the personality that has become ripe for history lives”; its effectiveness is also its reality.

…”the reality with which faith deals is never any other than the reality of the word, and in no case whatsoever is it what is called an ‘objective’, ‘factual’ reality” (Gogarten). [Der historische Jesus und der kerygmatishe Christus, ed. H. Ristow and K. Matthiae (1960), 248]

Balthasar then closes this section of the essay with this response:

If Jesus is thus only in the word addressed to me, as the absolutum of the appeal (into which the Cross and the Resurrection have been absorbed), then I, as one encountered and affected by the word, am oriented to the word with the absolutum of my decision of faith. The evangelical event takes place in the convergence of these two absoluta. But since it is not possible for two absoluta to exist, they must ultimately coincide. But this means the abolition of the fundamental act of the biblical person, prayer. One does not pray to the kerygma. At best, one allows its innermost substance to coincide with one’s own innermost substance. And thus “faith” has also gone beyond fiducia and has arrived again in a most remarkable manner at the point from which it had turned away in horror; at “holding” propositions “to be true”, i.e., at an actualized Torah. [Thus also Althaus, criticizing Bultmann, Der historische Jesus und der kerygmatishe Christus, ed. H. Ristow and K. Matthiae (1960), 247]

That is a fascinating criticism. Balthasar is saying that this Protestant word-theology inevitably de-personalizes the faith-response in regard to its object, thereby collapsing into the pathos of the ego. That seems just about right, from my vantage point. I am sure that others, especially from within the dialectical camp, will have vigorous objections to Balthasar on all of this.


Image: Hans Urs von Balthasar (source)

Gerhard von Rad

November 18, 2015

Gerhard von Rad -

“Gerhard von Rad was a theologian who was entirely consumed by his subject matter. If one allowed him to lead the thought process, he was able to impart to his readers and listeners that he was in pursuit of something mysterious and wonderful. In an unobtrusive way, his speaking and writing contained elements of the prophetic voice, almost like a medium able to transfer insights from another world to modern individuals. God as the mystery of the written Word: this was his central concern. In his exegesis of OT texts, he intentionally and successfully pointed to and illuminated the importance of the God of the Bible.”

— Manfred Oeming, University of Heidelberg, Professor of Old Testament Theology

(“Gerhard von Rad as a Theologian of the Church,” Interpretation 62:3 [July 2008], 235)


From 1934 to 1945, Gerhard von Rad was a professor at the University of Jena, where the rector was Dr. Karl Astel. Who was Astel? He was a medical specialist in eugenics and a high ranking officer in Hitler’s SS. This was von Rad’s boss, to some extent. How does a young scholar of the Old Testament, like von Rad, establish himself in such a setting? He could follow the trends and demands of the time — relegate the OT to a primitive era with an antiquated conception of God, unsophisticated, legalistic, and mercifully surpassed by the Christian (i.e., Pauline-German-Protestant) dispensation of Jesus Christ and his Church.

Von Rad refused to do so. Instead, he used his remarkable acumen to subvert the given scholarly paradigm. Far from being an embarrassment to the Church, the Hebrew Bible gave testimony to the Father of Jesus Christ. In particular, von Rad looked at the book of Deuteronomy as especially significant for the Israelite conception of Yahweh, their gracious Sovereign. As Bernard Levinson writes:

As is well known, von Rad argues that Deuteronomy is not law but rather a series of sermons by traveling Levites preaching a renewed message of redemption. He maintained that Deuteronomy’s law code is not a dead text but live instruction, not demands for obedience to incomprehensible requirements, but spiritual exhortations to remember God’s grace.

[“Reading the Bible in Nazi Germany,” Interpretation 62:3, 240]

Von Rad accepts the critical consensus, originating with his Jena predecessor, Wilhelm M. L. de Wette, that Deuteronomy is the reformist legislation discovered by King Josiah in the 7th century BC. As such, it is a recasting of the law of Moses and is given the narrative setting of Moses on the plains of Moad, instructing Israel in anticipation of receiving the promised land of Canaan. Needless to say, von Rad believes the historicity of the text to belong to Israel as such, in both its past and contemporaneous appropriation, precluding our ability to excavate the former from the latter.

Some scholars have criticized von Rad for making the credo of Israel into a proto-Christian credo, as if the latter were the sole validation for the former. In a sense, that is true. As a Christian, I would say that this is unavoidable, given the hermeneutical method of both Jesus and his apostles. But there is a good and a bad way to go about doing this, and it impresses me that von Rad has discerned the good way. Von Rad is unabashedly committed to the Christian belief that Israel’s faith is substantively the faith of Christ and his followers, but he is also thoroughly committed to the exegesis of Israel’s faith proper, without willy-nilly incorporating explicit Christian categories into the text. This would not wholly satisfy a Jewish exegete, nor should it — but it is at the very least a path of integrity for the Christian and one that necessarily disavows any Antisemitism.

In the introductory chapter to his commentary on Genesis, von Rad closes with one of his most pronounced statements on his Christian belief in the Old Testament:

We receive the Old Testament from the hands of Jesus Christ, and therefore all exegesis of the Old Testament depends on whom one thinks Jesus Christ to be. If one sees in him the bringer of a new religion, then one will consistently examine the chief figures of the patriarchal narrative for their inward religious disposition and by, say drawing religious “pictures from life” will bring into the foreground what comes close to Christianity or even corresponds with it. But this “pious” view is unsatisfactory because the principal subject of the account in the Genesis stories is not the religious characteristics of the patriarchs at all. Any mention of them is almost an aside. Often the details have to be drawn from the reader’s imagination. The real subject of the account is everywhere a quite definite act of Yahweh, into which the patriarchs are drawn, often with quite perplexing results. So the first interest of the reader must be in what circumstances and in what way Yahweh’s guidance is given, and what consequences result from it. …The patriarchal narratives include experiences which Israel had of a God who revealed himself and at the same time on occasions hid himself more deeply. In this very respect we can see a continuity between the Old Testament and the New. In the patriarchal narratives, which know so well how God can conceal himself, we see a revelation of God which precedes his manifestation in Jesus Christ. What we are told here of the trials of a God who hides himself and whose promise is delayed, and yet of his comfort and support, can readily be read into God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ.

[Genesis: A Commentary, Revised Edition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), 43]

You can scarcely find a finer statement than that. I am aware that many evangelicals will be put-off by von Rad’s historical-criticism, even though he is rather moderate by today’s standards — even comfortable to locate the Jawhist core in the Monarchy. He is well-worth your time. While he is not for the beginner, he is excellent for the intermediate-to-advanced student.


Image: Gerhard von Rad (source)

St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome

St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome

Systematic theology is the stock-in-trade of the Reformed tradition. But, believe it or not, other Christians have done it too, often with impressive results. Last week, I provided a guide to the Reformed dogmatic works that I admire the most. Now I will do the same for some other traditions. I will limit myself to theologians from the last two centuries.

As you will see, I am biased toward Roman Catholic theology. In fact, I find myself recommending Catholic theologians far more often than I do Protestant theologians, especially when I am discoursing with fellow Protestants.


The Christian Religion In Its Doctrinal Expression, E. Y. (Edgar Young) Mullins. Originally published in 1917, this is the masterpiece of the great Southern Baptist leader. Mullins was the president of the Baptist World Alliance, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and professor of theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville. He led the campaign that revitalized the SBC and gave it a renewed missionary zeal, both domestic and foreign. This resulted in the explosive growth of the SBC in the 20th century. As if those accomplishments were not enough, he was also an impressive theologian. He anticipates the work of Emil Brunner in significant ways, though Mullins was more conservative. However, he has recently been criticized, by some SBC leaders, as being too influenced by German theology. Judge for yourself. I admire him. As an alternative to Amazon, you can purchase from the publisher or read online.

Note: Mullins is sometimes classified as a Reformed theologian, and there is a good case for doing so — especially if we include moderate Calvinism and neo-orthodox expressions.


The Evangelical Faith, Helmut Thielicke. I have not read as much Thielicke as I would like. But whenever I have dipped into The Evangelical Faith or his sermons, I have been impressed and edified. But thanks to the behemoth dominance of Barth over the century, Thielicke is not resourced today as much as he should. Hopefully, that will be corrected. His instincts are orthodox and moderate conservative, and with all of the intellectual integrity you expect from a German theologian. In contrast to Barth, Thielicke gave space to a chastened natural anthropology.

A System of Christian Doctrine, Isaak A. Dorner. Dorner’s influence was eclipsed by Albrecht Ritschl and the Ritschlians in the late 19th century. This is a shame, because Dorner is the superior dogmatician. Unfortunately, we now live in a time when the (often exasperating) technical skill of advanced German theology is too much for the average student of theology today. The mainline Protestant churches have largely abandoned systematic theology, unless it can serve their social constructivist ends. Evangelicals will find Dorner either too difficult or too suspicious, especially as a German with some Schleiermacher influence. As a result of all of this, I do not see a Dorner renaissance anytime soon, but he surely deserves it.

Systematic Theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg died last year. As Fred Sanders wrote for CT, he left “a strange legacy.” At Aberdeen, I read most of volume two. Since then, I have not returned to his works, though I probably should — especially now that I am very critical of Barth’s early dialectical approach to history. It is this criticism upon which Pannenberg launched his distinguished career. For many in my neck of the woods (theologically-speaking), Pannenberg is criticized for being too Hegelian and too process oriented — more so for Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, which is often compared to Pannenberg’s.

Roman Catholic

The Glory of the Lord (seven volumes), Theo-Drama (five volumes), Theo-Logic (three volumes), and Epilogue, Hans Urs von Balthasar. This is the sixteen-volume summa of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the most important Catholic theologian of the twentieth century. It is hard to describe what Bathasar is doing here. It is not a traditional dogmatics — so it is not, like Barth’s CD, organized by the standard loci. Rather, Balthasar’s “trilogy” is organized by the three “transcendentals,” often associated with Plato: Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. Significantly, this was also the organizing method for Kant’s “trilogy,” except that Balthasar intentionally reversed Kant’s order, which began with Truth. Moreover, Balthasar gave greater weight, at least in terms of size, to Beauty, then Goodness, and then least of all, Truth or Logic. Balthasar’s “trilogy” is a combination of philosophy, dogmatics, exegesis, literary criticism, and much else — basically everything that is “catholic” (=universal). Balthasar is the Catholic par excellence.

Symbolism, Johann Adam Möhler. This is a Catholic rebuttal of Protestantism, focusing on soteriology but much more extensive (as any good systematic work is). Möhler is one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 19th century, ranked alongside Newman, though Möhler is more of the technical, systematic theologian. Both had a very strong influence on the Nouvelle Théologie of the 20th century. Möhler taught at Tübingen and Munich. I read Symbolism about 10 years ago, though I was not capable then of fully grasping it. I need to revisit it, as with many books I have read.

An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, John Henry Newman. Without this book or something much like it, Vatican II is inconceivable. In terms of influence, Newman was the most important Catholic theologian since St. Thomas Aquinas. As a man of the 19th century, Newman knew that doctrine did not “fall from the sky,” so to speak. Rather, it “came to be” through historical processes. Far from being an assault upon Catholic doctrine, Newman made this the greatest explanatory apologetic of Catholic theological development. Every “living” thing must adapt or develop according to its essential governing principles or life-source. As a result, Rome’s perceived novelties and orthodox intransigence are harmonized and given a coherence for the faithful Catholic — to this day.

Foundations of Christian Faith, Karl Rahner. Rahner remains an elusive figure for me. As a good Barthian (and Balthasarian), I obviously cannot agree with his doctrine of the knowledge of God — as transcendental openness to being. This is an attractive option, especially in the face of religious pluralism today, but it is theologically problematic, to say the least. However, Rahner is also a rather (it seems to me) orthodox Roman Catholic, who often defers to the tradition and uses his full intellectual heft to give it a rational explication. This is true, for example, for the recent Marian dogmas. And, as far as I know, Rahner never went as far as Hans Küng in rejecting the dogmatic authority of the Petrine office. Foundations of Christian Faith is the closest thing to a summary of Rahner’s theology, but most of his work was published in the massive multi-volume series, Theological Investigations.

The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy and The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, Etienne Gilson. These are just two of Gilson’s many works. Technically, Gilson was a historical theologian, not a dogmatic theologian, but the importance of his work for dogmatic theology is too significant to not include here. Gilson advocated for the legitimacy of a uniquely “Christian philosophy,” especially as it emerged in the medieval period. As a result, Aquinas should not be casually dismissed or lumped with the Enlightenment philosophers and theologians, who worked with different presuppositions. I am not expert enough in Gilson (or Thomas) to know whether this holds, but it cannot be ignored.


What about other traditions? 

If you would like to advocate for a particular Methodist or Pentecostal theologian, be my guest — so long as it is a systematic theologian. As I look over at my bookshelves, I do not have a single Methodist or Pentecostal systematic theology.

The Anglicans do have systematic theologians, though they have typically been Reformed, at least broadly speaking — as with Richard Hooker under Queen Elizabeth and John Webster today.

Eastern Orthodoxy?! Yes, I am grossly ignorant of Orthodoxy’s contributions to contemporary ST, though I have been told that ST is a “Western” thing. Anyway, I have heard good things about Dumitru Staniloae’s multi-volume Orthodox Dogmatic Theology.


Image: St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. Photograph is mine.

Isaak August Dorner - Portrait Collection Berlin university teachers, Historical Collections of the University Library

I have been reading a lot of Isaak Dorner lately. In my estimation, he is easily the greatest dogmatic theologian between Schleiermacher and Barth. Most interestingly for me, Dorner not only anticipates Barth but provides significant doctrinal formulations that Barth would borrow, especially for the doctrine of God in CD II.1. I have been reading Dorner’s third essay on divine immutability, and I frequently thought I was reading Barth.

Dorner reworks immutability in a way that is strikingly similar to Barth, in order to account for God’s “livingness,” both a se and in relation to the world. Claude Welch translates Lebendigkeit as “livingness” in the volume, God and Incarnation in Mid-Nineteenth Century German Theology, but Robert R. Williams translates it as “vitality” in the Fortress Press edition, which otherwise follows Welch’s translation. I prefer “livingness,” even if it makes for awkward English.

Although his expertise is spread across the whole range of theological loci, Dorner specialized in the doctrine of Christ, through the release of the multi-volume, Entwicklungsgeschichte der Lehre von der Person Christi, published in English as The History of the Doctrine of the Person of Christ. He would later write a multi-volume systematic theology. As is well-known, the nineteenth century was the century of Christ’s humanity, for good or ill. Theologians worked diligently to account for the humanity of Christ, in dialogue with the philosophical and historical interests of the day. One such theologian was Gottfried Thomasius, who used the κένωσις (self-emptying) of Jesus Christ as the basis for reconstructing how the divine and human relate in the person of Christ. Dorner opposed Thomasius. Since Dorner is very difficult to read, it is not easy to find a snippet for blogging purposes, but here is a nice summary by Dorner of his objection to Kenotic Christology:

The point must be this, that instead of God’s reducing himself to mere potence for the sake of the world and his being changed into it, it is rather the actual divine perfection itself and nothing less (and indeed as perennially and immovably affirming itself) which is to be apprehended as the potence for the world. The whole historical life of God in the world takes place, not at the expense of the eternal perfection of God himself, but precisely by virtue of this permanent perfection. Only so does his eternal freedom also remain in its place vis-à-vis the never absolutely closed natural order.

… How could it be supposed to be true and worthy of God that Christianity should have conquered the heathen religions and philosophies by a piece of the doctrine that is at home in the pantheistic schools and religions, by the doctrine of a God who is potential, growing and only gradually working up to self-consciousness or to spiritual actuality in general? If this were the foundation of the chief objective Christian truth, then heathenism, in the myths of the God who sacrifices himself on behalf of the world, would contain more prophecy of Christ than the Old Testament; to them especially the idea is not foreign, that God has thus given and sacrificed himself on behalf of the world. Against such ideas, the Old Testament sets with utter seriousness the inviolable majesty and holiness of God, which is not even violated in love.

[Isaak August Dorner, “The Dogmatic Concept of the Immutability of God,” in God and Incarnation in Mid-Nineteenth Century German Theology (Oxford University Press, 1965), 144-145]

There you have it, Dorner against Thomasius in a nutshell. Though Dorner is not addressing Thomasius here but, rather, Hegelian impulses more generally in theology. You can also see, in the second paragraph, how Dorner is rebuking proto process theologies, even though Dorner is sometimes reckoned as a forebear of process theology because of his “dynamic” account of God’s interaction with the world (through our prayers for example). Throughout his creative proposals for rethinking immutability, Dorner never falters in upholding the aseity and perfection of God. Thomists would not be satisfied, I am sure.

By the way, there is not a single, uniform account of Kenotic Christology. From what I’ve read, Thomasius moderates his position later in his career. And then we have later generations who would offer their own accounts, as in P. T. Forsyth’s The Person and Place of Christ (1909), which may or may not be as susceptible to Dorner’s criticism.


Image: Isaak August Dorner – Portrait Collection of Berlin university teachers, Historical Collections of the University Library

God’s aseity

August 20, 2014

Frederiks Kirke, Copenhagen

Frederiks Kirke in Copenhagen. The inscribed Danish text is John 17:3.


I tend to value those theologians who have a notable capacity for descriptive analysis, with a healthy measure of an imaginative semantic range, which bespeaks a healthy imagination itself.

That’s a turgid way of saying that I am not inclined toward overly analytic theology. Even where formal accuracy is achieved, the material richness is impoverished and thereby the “accuracy” has only a relative value, namely for those who have already assumed the truth.

This capacity for descriptive analysis is especially important in matters pertaining to the doctrine of God proper and especially all matters pertaining to God’s aseity, that is, his perfection as the One whose being derives from himself. This is metaphysics, and metaphysics requires eloquence — notwithstanding Paul’s self-approbation in 1 Cor 1:17.

You can consider the above musings as a preface to the following brief excerpts from Hans Martensen. Yes, Martensen again. This is part of his description of God as The Eternal:

As the Being who has life in Himself (John 5:26), in whom is contained all fulness (πλήρωμα), God is The Eternal. In the eternal God are all the possibilities of existence, all the sources of the entire creation. The eternal is the one who is, the I AM, who is a se, the unalterable and unchangeable. But His unchangeableness is not a dead unchangeableness; for it is to produce Himself with infinite fruitfulness out of Himself. His eternity, therefore, is not an eternity like that of the “eternal Hills;” it is not a crystal eternity, like that of the “eternal stars;” but a living eternity, blooming with neverwithering youth. But His self-production, His Becoming [Werden], is not the fragmentary growth or production we witness in time. Created life has time outside of itself, because it has its fulness outside of itself. The Eternal lives in the inner, true time, in a present of undivided powers and fulness, in the rhythmic cycle of perfection. The life He lives is unchangeably the same, and yet He never ceases to live His life as something new, because He has in Himself an inexhaustible fountain of renovation and of youth. For this reason the Church magnifies the “Ancient of Days,” as the “incorruptible” (ἄφθαρτος) and eternal King, who alone hath immortality (1 Timothy 1:17; 6:16; Psalm 90:2.)

And a little later, Martensen correlates the various attributes of God, very well stated:
Considered in relation to the universe the communication of the Divine life is goodness; considered in relation to personality, it is Love. All creatures participate in the goodness of God; but personal creatures alone can be constituted partakers of His love. God is love (1 John 4:16). He neither can nor will be without His kingdom— the kingdom which is constituted by “I and Thou,” in which not merely Divine powers and gifts, but the Divine personality itself dwells in the soul and the soul in it. All the Divine attributes are combined in love, as in their centre and vital principle. Wisdom is its intelligence; might its productivity; the entire natural creation and the entire revelation of righteousness in history are means by which it attains its teleological aims. When the fulness of the time came love revealed its true nature to the object beloved, and prepared itself in Christ a Church for eternity. And as Christ in His gospel made known to our race the inmost thoughts of His wisdom —” if He had had a better gospel, He would have given it us “—so does He make those who believe partakers of His own divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). This unity is more than a moral union; it is one of essence; it is more than the mystical unity of pantheism, for it is one of holiness. Viewed in relation to sin eternal love is compassionate grace; viewed in relation to the education of sinful man, it is longsuffering; viewed in relation to its promises and the hope which it awakens in the hearts of men, it is faithfulness (1 Peter 4:19: “As unto a faithful Creator.”)

[p. 99]


I had to put aside Hans Martensen, due to other obligations. But I am now continuing with his Christian Dogmatics, which has been a joy.

Given the time period (mid 19th century), it is expected that he would treat, early in the volume, the controversies surrounding the supernatural in the doctrine of revelation. He affirms the orthodox position, but he wants to articulate it with greater sensitivity to the doctrine of creation. In my estimation, he does a fine job. The supernatural and miraculous is an anticipation of the new creation, completing and fulfilling nature in a perfect freedom given from above. This involves new “potencies” and “forces” that are discontinuous with nature as we generally experience it and observe it, and it is therefore genuinely miraculous, as in the miracles of Christ.

In the context, he is targeting Spinoza’s monism, which rejects any distinction between the divine and the natural, collapsing the former into the latter. Martensen sees this as the template for the naturalism of his own day, as popularized by David Strauss whom he also targets.

Martensen is arguing for a continuity within discontinuity, between the natural and the supernatural. The telos of creation is manifested through the miraculous, but the natural as such does not lend itself to the new creation bestowed by Christ and the Spirit. Nature is susceptible to the supernatural, capable of being molded by the supernatural, but it does not generate the supernatural. There is a real movement from God to us, from the beyond to the here. But this does not overthrow creation; rather, God is bringing creation to its proper end — the kingdom of God. The “lower forces” of nature, as we experience them now, are temporal and temporary. They give a provisional measure of freedom, but God is enacting genuine freedom in the new creation, inaugurated by Christ.

So long as nature is understood as fixed and eternal — or worse, commensurate with divinity itself — then the miraculous is impossible. It would be incoherent. The miraculous would have to be subjectivized, as in existential freedom (Tillich’s “miracle” of faith), which is the sort of thing that Martensen is wanting to avoid. At least, that is how I read him.

I have also provided an excerpt, later in the book, where he treats the bodily resurrection of Christ in similar terms. Herein, he also faults both Hegel and Schleiermacher.


Here we come to the opposing principles of Supernaturalism on the one side, and Naturalism and Rationalism on the other. If a distinction is to be made between naturalism and rationalism—they being in fact only two sides of one and the same thing, each necessarily leading to the other—the former is referable primarily to the objective, the latter to the subjective, side of existence. Both reject miracles; but naturalism directs its opposition chiefly against the miracle of incarnation, because it recognises no higher laws than those of nature; rationalism directs its main attacks against the miracle of inspiration, because it denies that there is any other and higher source of knowledge than reason. But, although there will always be men who affirm that the notions of nature and revelation, of reason and revelation (the latter taken in the positive, Christian sense of the word), are notions that exclude each other, yet within the Christian Church itself this can never be conceded.

We take first into consideration the issue between Supernaturalism and Naturalism. Here the decision of the question depends upon how the system of law and forces which we call nature, is conceived—whether it be conceived as a system in itself, finally and eternally fixed, or as a system that is passing through a teleological development, a continued creation. In the latter case new potencies, new laws and forces must be conceivable as entering into operation; the preceding stages in the creation preparing the way for them, and prefiguring them, though not the source from which they can be derived. This is the Christian view of nature. In terming itself the new, the second creation, Christianity by no means calls itself a disturbance of nature, but rather the completion of the work of creation; the revelation of Christ and the kingdom of Christ it pronounces the last potency of the work of creation; which power, whether regarded as completing or as redeeming the world, must be conceivable as teleological; operating so as to change and limit the lower forces, in so far as these are in their essential nature not eternal and organically complete, but only temporal and temporary. Hence the point of unity between the natural and the supernatural lies in the teleological design of nature to subserve the kingdom of God, and its consequent susceptibility to, its capacity of being moulded by, the supernatural, creative activity. Nature does not contradict the notion of a creation; and it is in miracles that the dependence of nature on a free Creator becomes perfectly evident. But, while nature does not contradict the notion of a creation, the assumption of a creation is quite as little inconsistent with the notion of nature. For, although the new creation in Christ does do away with the laws of this nature, yet it by no means destroys the notion of nature itself. For the very notion of nature implies, not that it is a hindering restraint to freedom, but rather that it is the organ of freedom. And as the miraculous element in the life of Christ reveals the unity of spirit and of nature, so the revelation of Christ at once anticipates and predicts a new nature, a new heaven, and a new earth, in which a new system of laws will appear; a system which will exhibit the harmony of the laws of nature and of freedom,—a state for which the whole structure of the present creation, with its unappeased strife between spirit and nature, is only a teleological transition period.

[Christian Dogmatics, pp. 19-20]

And here is how Martensen treats the bodily resurrection of Christ, related to the above discourse:

The denial of the miracle of the resurrection is not, therefore, the bare denial of a single historical fact, it is a denial of the entire prophetic aspect of the world which Christianity presents; which finds in the resurrection its beginning in fact. A view of the world which makes the present order of things perpetual, and which considers the eternal to be only a continual present, naturally allows no room for the resurrection of Christ, which is an interruption of the order of this world by the higher order of creation still future; and which is a witness to the reality of a future life; yea, it is even that future life itself in the actual present; the beginning of “the last things,” concerning which the Apostles witness that we who live after the resurrection of the Lord live “in these last times” (1 Peter i.20), and that it now remains for the risen Savior again to manifest Himself to judge both the quick and the death. This, the Christian view of the world, overthrows the mythical interpretation of the resurrection advocated now-a-days, and the biblical criticism resting thereupon. As Hegel omitted this Christian escatology, it was natural that those who followed in the steps of his philosophy would go on to deny the resurrection as something which had no foundation in fact. And when Schleiermacher, though reverence for apostolic testimony prevented his denying the fact of the resurrection, yet could attribute to it no doctrinal significance, nor draw any inference from it; this in like manner arose from the well-known uncertainty and indistinctness of his teaching in relation to future and final realities.

[pp. 319-320]

Hans Lassen Martensen som ung. Litografi efter maleri af D. Monies

“A mind starved by doubt has never been able to produce a dogmatic system.”

— Hans Martensen


Hans Martensen (1808-1884) was a Lutheran theologian and a professor at Copenhagen prior to his appointment as bishop of Zealand in the Church of Denmark.

I was given a copy of his Christian Dogmatics, which has proven fascinating reading. Martensen is not an easy figure to categorize. He was influenced by Schleiermacher, Schelling, and Hegel, but he was also shaped by the Lutheran mystic, Jakob Böhme, which resulted in a volume dedicated to expounding Böhme’s theology. If we were to consider the “subjective” versus “objective” orientations in (respectively) Schleiermacher and Hegel’s theologies, Martensen gravitated more toward the latter, while pushing against what he perceived in both to be a problematic pantheism, which fails to account for the personal God of divine revelation. Mortensen is committed to the church and setting forth the church’s doctrine.

I have glanced ahead at some of his doctrinal treatments, and there is much to like and much to question — but I will reserve greater judgment until I have read the whole book. He is a gifted writer and mercifully clear for a continental theologian steeped in the aforementioned names.

For readers of this blog, I think you will enjoy Martensen’s definition of dogmatic theology:

A confessing and witnessing church cannot be conceived to exist without a definite sum of doctrines or dogmas. A dogma is not a δόξα, not a subjective, human opinion, not an indefinite, vague notion; nor is it a mere truth of reason, whose universal validity can be made clear with mathematical or logical certainty: it is a truth of faith, derived from the authority of the word and revelation of God; — a positive truth, therefore, positive not merely by virtue of the positiveness with which it is laid down, but also by virtue of the authority with which it is sealed. …

Dogmatics is not only a science of faith, but also a knowledge grounded in, and drawn from faith. It is not a mere historical exhibition of what has been, or now is, true for others, without being true for the author; nor is it a philosophical knowledge of Christian truth, obtained from a stand-point outside of faith and the church. For even supposing — what yet we by no means concede — that a scientific insight into Christian truth is possible, without Christian faith, yet such philosophizing about Christianity, even though its conclusions were ever so favourable to the church, could not be called dogmatics. Theology stands within the pale of Christianity; and only the dogmatic theologian can be esteemed the organ of his science, who is also the organ of his church — which is not the case with the mere philosopher, whose only aim is to promote the cause of pure science. This desire to attain an intelligent faith, of which dogmatics is the product; this intellectual love of Christian truth, which should be found especially in the teachers of the church, is inseparable from a personal experience of Christian truth.

And now the most interesting bit:

…speculation which treats the truthfulness of Christianity as something problematical, which looks for certainty respecting it in the results of its own investigations, cannot be called dogmatical speculation. For dogmatics assumes at the outset the absolute truth of Christianity, independently of all speculation. The δος που στω [place upon which to stand], so often expressed by an inquiring philosophy, is for dogmatic theology answered at once; the theologian does not make the truth depend on his investigation, but only seeks to gain by his thought a firmer grasp of the truth which he already accepts as absolutely certain, and at which he first arrived in quite another way than that of speculation. …The theologian confesses himself to be a Realist, that he thinks, not for the sake of thinking, but for the sake of truth; he confesses, to use Lessing’s pertinent simile, that the divine revelation holds the same relation to his investigations as does the answer of an arithmetical problem, given at the outset, to the problem itself. Dogmatics, therefore, does not make doubt its starting-point, as philosophy is often required to do; it is not developed out of the void of skepticism, but out of the fullness of faith; it does not make its appearance in order by its arguments to prop up a tottering faith, to serve as a crutch for it, as if, in its old age, it had become frail and staggering. It springs out of the perennial, juvenile vigour of faith, out of the capacity of faith to unfold from its own depths a wealth of treasures of wisdom and of knowledge, to build up a kingdom of acknowledged truths, by which it illumines itself as well as the surrounding world. Dogmatics serves, therefore, not to rescue faith in the time of its exigency, but to glorify it — in gloriam fidei, in gloriam dei. A mind starved by doubt has never been able to produce a dogmatic system.

[Christian Dogmatics, pp. 1-4]

I like it. This is an especially beautiful way to express the theological task: “It springs out of the perennial, juvenile vigour of faith, out of the capacity of faith to unfold from its own depths a wealth of treasures of wisdom and of knowledge, to build up a kingdom of acknowledged truths, by which it illumines itself as well as the surrounding world.”

Kiekegaard was not a fan.


Image: A young Hans Lassen Martensen. Lithograph after painting by D. Monies. (source)

Is Christ offensive?

August 26, 2013

Crucifixion by Jan Brueghel the Elder

Yes, but we cannot stop there.

Kierkegaard was fond of our Lord’s pronouncement in Mt 11.6 and Lk 7.23 that blessed is the one who is not offended [μὴ σκανδαλισθῇ] at him. Fred Denbeaux (d. 1995), Presbyterian minister and longtime professor at Wellesley, has a nice summation of Kierkegaard on this point:

What is the offense of faith? It can take many forms. We would welcome a God of light, but he comes to us crucified. We would welcome a God with whom we could be happy, and instead we are confronted with him whom we have slain. We are offended because we can never come before God neutrally but always in guilt. We are offended because the Christ who comes does not come in the form that we expect. We would be happier if he came as a god of war, so that we could join our sword to his in the battle against unrighteousness (always conveniently with the enemy and never with ourselves.) But the Christ does not come with a sword, and he asks us to put our sword away; so we are offended.

Therefore, Christ is always the occasion of either offense or faith. He is the one either before whom we stumble and fall on our knees or else from whom we turn in defensive pride. He is our Saviour, but we shall never know him as such if we become offended, because it is from ourselves that he saves us.

(Ten Makers of Modern Protestant Thought, ed. George L. Hunt, NY: Association Press, p. 55)

Amen. There is more to Kierkegaard than this, as every Kierkegaard scholar is more than anxious to remind us! But this prominent theme is why Kierkegaard is such a necessary stage through which every theology student should pass. I hesitate to say, “stage,” as if we should ever forget this offense — we should not. Yet, Christ is the light that overcomes darkness (Jn 1.5).

Creation is offended at Christ in its rebellion against God — in its desire to secure some other foundation than the love of God in his promises. Yet, this eternal love and these promises of blessing are the true foundation, the original foundation — the light. Thus, faith in Christ is not merely repentance at the offense and a casting aside of the former self; faith in Christ is an embrace of the true creation that was pronounced “good,” including the self made new in him.

This transition from nein to ja is what Barth belabors at numerous points in his Church Dogmatics, as in the doctrine of justification (especially § 61.2, CD IV.1). It requires extensive belaboring because the nein remains a truth of mankind in his opposition to God and God’s opposition to this “impossibility.” Thus, a facile ja that negates the law or wrath has nothing to do with God’s righteousness. The opposition to God is an “impossibility,” in Barth’s terminology, because it is not a possibility of creation. It comes from elsewhere. If there were ever an inscrutable mystery, it is the “non-existence” of evil.

I understand the perplexity at Barth’s designation of evil as das Nichtige, which is nevertheless not das Nichts [nothingness is not nothing]. Evil “exists” in some shadow, false reality, not the reality of God’s creation. While perplexing, this allows Barth to affirm creation with a seriousness that exults in joy, not remaining in a quandary of dialectical tension. Of course, this is framed according to his christology, not some immanent principle discernible within creation. As I see it, Barth fulfills Kierkegaard’s aim at bypassing the dialectical impasse of Idealism — not through faith as such, but through Christ.

This accounts for the pronounced optimism in Barth and his dislike for tragedy. Christ offends, indeed, but there is more. We were created for him.


I have finally finished the “19th century German theology” page, which I had announced two years ago! The page link will be on the top of the blog:

It did not take two years — I just forgot about it until now. I have expanded the number of titles, and I will add more as I come across new discoveries. Where multiple editions are available, I have selected the best quality scan.

What is my justification for providing this resource? Modernity happened, like it or not. Even if your affinities are closer aligned with Protestant scholasticism of the 17th century, your theology will be impoverished by ignoring the intervening development of theology. These works are stimulating, rigorous, fascinating, profound, and — believe it or not — often faithful to our Lord. They are not monolithic, as different schools emerged and contended with each other, and the result is one of the high points in the history of theology. I am aligned with Barth in his criticisms of this period, but there would be no Barth if it were not for this theology. In fact, Barth’s carefully nuanced reading of Schleiermacher — ardent rejection and loving affection — is a model for us all.