Chesterton on Progress

Lately I’ve been on a reading binge of G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. I have too much to say on the treasures I’ve found in them to possibly remember to blog about it all. That’s a shame. On the bright side, there’s still lots of good stuff to mention.

One of my favorite paragraphs I’ve come across (maybe, it’s hard to narrow down favorites from such writers) is one in which Chesterton discusses the notion of progress, specifically in relation to the modern world. Everyone likes to talk about progress, though the fever was undoubtedly higher in his day. We still have progressives in politics (of many kinds: economic progressives, cultural progressives, environmental progressives, etc.), and we probably have far more now in theology. In fact, these so-called “progressive” theologians are my chief targets here, whereas Chesterton was more concerned with a political temperament. But much of what he had to say is relevant to either.

A chief characteristic of progressive Christianity is questioning. They like to ask questions regarding what the Bible says about homosexuality, what the Bible says about gender, what the Bible says about salvation, and of course just how seriously we need to take what the Bible says at all. The framing assumption is that we must ask these questions afresh because the classical answers are, we now see, in some way broken, obsolete, or unrealistic. For many of these issues, a sufficient Chestertonian response might be that the classical answers have not been tried and found wanting; they have been found difficult and left untried. But I disgress. My point here isn’t about whether the progressive’s questioning process will lead us to better answers than the traditional ones or not. My point, or rather Chesterton’s, is that you can’t really call yourself “progressive” in such a state of uncertainty. If you are stuck in questioning phase, you can’t genuinely say whether you’ve been making progress towards anything or not, since you don’t know where you’re going. And in Chesterton’s day, it didn’t matter how efficiently and skillfully you could run the the government. If you don’t know where you’re running it to, you can’t say that “progress” is underway. I’ll let Chesterton himself elaborate and leave it at that. The quote is from his excellent, excellent book What’s Wrong with the World:

As enunciated today, “progress” is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative. We meet every ideal of religion, patriotism, beauty, or brute pleasure with the alternative ideal of progress—that is to say, we meet every proposal of getting something that we know about, with an alternative proposal of getting a great deal more of nobody knows what. Progress, properly understood, has, indeed, a most dignified and legitimate meaning. But as used in opposition to precise moral ideals, it is ludicrous. So far from it being the truth that the ideal of progress is to be set against that of ethical or religious finality, the reverse is the truth. Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible—at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word “progress” than we. In the Catholic twelfth century, in the philosophic eighteenth century, the direction may have been a good or a bad one, men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree. Whether the future excellence lies in more law or less law, in more liberty or less liberty; whether property will be finally concentrated or finally cut up; whether sexual passion will reach its sanest in an almost virgin intellectualism or in a full animal freedom; whether we should love everybody with Tolstoy, or spare nobody with Nietzsche;—these are the things about which we are actually fighting most. It is not merely true that the age which has settled least what is progress is this “progressive” age. It is, moreover, true that the people who have settled least what is progress are the most “progressive” people in it. The ordinary mass, the men who have never troubled about progress, might be trusted perhaps to progress. The particular individuals who talk about progress would certainly fly to the four winds of heaven when the pistol-shot started the race. I do not, therefore, say that the word “progress” is unmeaning; I say it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine, and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common. Progress is not an illegitimate word, but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us. It is a sacred word, a word which could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the ages of faith.

Lewis on Animal Eternity

I recently read C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, which I had avoided for some time under the impression that it was simply a stock presentation of a free will apologetic. I’m not a proper Calvinist, as most of you know, but I’m still far too Reformed to be interested in such an argument. But my recent Lewis binge taught me to expect something different, and behold, what I found was delightful.

A great deal of interesting reason is present in The Problem of Pain, but one of the more intriguing sections is in Lewis’ final chapter, on animal pain. He mentions how most arguments which justify human pain do not work on animals, and in the process of exploring alternatives suggests that perhaps, maybe, if we may speculate, they’re made this such a recompense as animal immortality. This is not necessarily to say that animals are inherently immortal. They may well need a resurrection to live forever. (Of course, many Christians think the same of humans.)

In particular, Lewis is only really concerned about animals which may be said to possess some sort of consciousness. Animals without consciousness, he argues, certainly “have pain” but do not truly experience it, and thus it is morally irrelevant. But in the higher animals, they seem to have a true experience of suffering, one which, because of their amoral natures, cannot be redeemed or justified by spiritual formation or anything similar. By most accounts, they do not even receive recompense in another life.

These standard accounts are the target of Lewis’ alternative speculation. Animal pain must have some divine justification, and while God has not seen fit to give us any more than a glimpse into His plans for the animal kingdom, it may be worth considering some possible answer. Thus Lewis argues animal immortality as an option.

His proposal makes use of the word “in,” which he regards as so Biblically enigmatic. Men are lost in Adam and saved in Christ, a reality into which Lewis suspects is deeper and richer than we could imagine. So he takes the “in” concept and hypothetically extends it to the higher animals. We are raised by being in Christ; might animals be raised in us?

Lewis here seems to invoke something of a relational ontology. He points out that the higher animals always seem to be highest, in abilities and personalities, in relation to humans. A wild dog may simply act like a clever beast, but a well-trained dog can become almost like a child. Dolphins are impressive in the sea, but reach more glory in more complexity in the company of trainers. (Anyone who denies this latter point either has never been to a dolphin show or is ideologically blinded.)

Thus Lewis suggests that these animals, while naturally conscious in some way, may attain a more full level of individuality and personality in their human relations which elevates their status. They become “in us” something which can indeed be raised on the last day, and by participation in the human household find a place in the divine restoration which pertains first to men.

Whether this account is correct or not is, of course, highly debatable. It’s also difficult to argue simply because of the paucity of biblical/theological evidence one way or the other. But regardless it is very intriguing, and I think it’s worth thinking over for, if nothing else, the very realistic way it pushes us to consider the relationship between animals and humans. If men are to animals in some respect as God is to men, is animal resurrection so far-fetched? Or are animal personality and consciousness really all that difficult to hold?

Wondering about Biblical Anthropology and African Kings

Here’s a post to get you all pondering the real meaning of Genesis.

I recently ran back across two odd little websites I had found a couple years ago, namely Just Genesis and Biblical Anthropology. The two blogs are run by Alice C. Linsley, an Orthodox Christian anthropologist. She is essentially on a one-woman project to correct bad interpretations of Genesis by studying the book from the perspective of anthropological study. She makes use of genetics, archaeology, studies in ancient mythology, and other such things to understood Genesis in a way which, she claims, is far more faithful to the text, the culture, and reality itself than the common approaches.

That said, Linsley has no interest in being a revisionist or progressive or liberal or whatever else. Her goal, as far as I can honestly ascertain, is simply to understand the Bible as God gave it. For example, in a welcome post to new readers of Just Genesis, she says:

People often say “I read the Bible, but I don’t understand it.” It is important to pray for wisdom before reading the Bible, seeking the Spirit’s guidance to understand and not misrepresent Scripture. People who insist on using Bible verses as ammunition in disagreements are not under the Spirit’s guidance. They are attempting to co-opt Scripture to serve their agenda.

Understanding the Bible requires looking at the material with fresh eyes. If you are attempting to force the material into a pre-conceived idea, you will never see the big picture. Outdated and erroneous interpretations are set aside when fresh eyes investigate the Scriptures. Biblical Anthropology is simply another tool to help us better understand God’s plan for humanity as it is revealed in the Bible. Biblical Anthropology does not rely on a single discipline, but rather seeks to understand by looking at how Biblical data aligns with findings in multiple sciences, including linguistics, DNA studies, anthropology, archaeology, and climate studies.

So, what’s so interesting about the way that Linsley reads Genesis? I won’t go into too much detail, but here are a few of her more notable claims:

  • The Hebrews of Genesis were actually the same as the Horites, a red-skinned, ruler-priestly clan who first originated in Saharan Africa, not Mesopotamia. In fact, much of Genesis 1-11 takes place in Africa, not Mesopotamia.
  • The genealogies of Genesis 4-5 are not simple birth genealogies, but Horite king lists, and this can be demonstrated on solid anthropological grounds.
  • Cain and Seth were Horite kings who married daughters of Enoch, another important African king.
  • Adam is therefore either a literary archetype for the father of the human race or perhaps a literal ancestor of the Horites.
  • Noah was an African king, and the Flood which affected his entire kingdom (colloquially the “whole world”) probably came from the Nile.

But perhaps the most interesting part of her project is the connection of Israel’s Messianic hope with the Egyptian religion of the Horites. According to Linsley, the protoevangelium in Genesis 3:15 actually was originally understood as a kind of Messianic promise (contrary to the conclusions of many modern scholars). This hope was developed and carried on by the Horites (read: Hebrews), who in the early days worshipped God by the Egyptian name Ra and his Son by the name Horus. They anticipated a day when Horus would come and save them, perhaps by his death. (This amounts to an inversion of many secular Horus/Jesus theories: many accuse the Jesus story of robbing from old myths like of Horus, but Linsley basically argues that the Horus myth was the development of a divine promise which Jesus actually fulfilled.)

Honestly, I’m neither an anthropologist, nor an Old Testament scholar, nor a student of Ancient Near East history and culture (or, if Linsley is right, Nilo-Sarahic). So I have no clear way to judge the plausibility of her claims, and I do have to wonder why no one else has picked up on this if it’s actually true. Nonetheless, if there happens to be any truth to what she says, it would be massively important to interpreting Genesis. This makes me very curious, and I wish I could find someone scholarly enough to check on what she says. If anyone has leads on that, let me know. In the meantime, poke around and see what you think about Alice Linsley’s work.

Returning Richly from Exile (Summer’s Here)

Well, after a two-month partially unintentional hiatus, I’m back. I had a great deal of work and writing to do for school these past many weeks, and combined with my other responsibilities I’ve had almost no time for blogging. Fortunately, I’ve now submitted the last of my papers for the semester, and I’m free to blog again.

At this particular moment, I don’t have any fresh things to post, but I will shortly. A number of ideas have been percolating since I last wrote, and most of them I imagine will find expression sson enough. In the meantime, I have retooled my Essays page on the top of the blog. It now includes PDFs of all my essays, except the informal ones, and is a faster load for finding things. Of particular note are the new batch of papers I’ve written for the semester. I’ll let you look at them on your own, but I’ll highlight my paper on regeneration for my Reformation theology class, as I think it turned out the best. Check out the other essays, too, though, to see if any pique your interest.

On another note, this is not truly my first post since I finished my papers. My real first post is on my other blog, Being in Christ, and is dedicated to a friend of mine who has received some fairly awful medical news. I mention it because she needs all the prayers she can have, and I imagine that perhaps someone else is struggling with similar terrors. So consider checking that out, too.

Do You Renounce the Devil and All of His Works?

Responses from theologians:

St. Athanasius
The Son of God became a Devil-renouncing man that I might renounce the Devil as a son of God.
Augustine of Hippo
God grant me to renounce the Devil, but not yet.
Thomas Aquinas
I answer that I do indeed renounce the Devil and all of his works, just as Augustine says, “God grant me to renounce the Devil.”
Martin Luther
Yes, especially his whore the pope!
John Calvin
I shall do as God has willed me to do by His all-wise, omnipotent predestination.
Albert Schweitzer
The Devil did not bother me as a master for long because I am too worthless a slave.
Rudolf Bultmann
Is the Devil anything more than a mythological husk?
Søren Kierkegaard
The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.
C. S. Lewis
Karl Barth
In encounter with the God who makes Himself known as Jesus Christ, when He spoke His Word to me, I found myself freed for faith in Him. I am therefore compelled corem Deo to renounce the Devil and all his works.
T. F. Torrance
Jesus Christ has already renounced the Devil and all of his works for me, in His vicarious, obedient human life in unbroken union with the Father in the power of the Spirit.
N. T. Wright
I renounce “the Satan” and all of his works, although much of the Church, especially in the West, has for centuries done so without understanding what “the Satan” meant to first-century Jews like Jesus.
Peter Leithart
[Insert some creative, piercing insight into Devil-renunciation practices that involves sociology, anthropology, history, politics, and sacramental theology.]
John Piper
I renounce the Devil and all of his works for the glory of God, because of the supremacy of Christ, for He is the only thing that satisfies!
Peter Enns
Yeah, Jesus believed in the Devil, but should we?
Gregory Boyd
Hold on, I’m keeping God in suspense about what I will freely choose.
Roger Olson
Yes, I renounce the Calvinist God and all of his works.
Al Gore
I invented the Devil! (Oh, wait, he’s not a theologian.)
John MacArthur
I dunno, that sounds awfully Charismatic. Is this a trap?
Rob Bell
How can I renounce someone who might (I hope that doesn’t sound too dogmatic) one day be redeemed?
Rachel Held Evans
Would Jesus really be the kind of bigot who renounces people?
Chris Tomlin
You’re a bad, bad Devil. It’s who you are; it’s who you are; it’s who you are. And I renounce all your works. It’s what I do; it’s what I do; it’s what I do.
David Platt
That’s not radical enough. We must declare war on the Devil and all his works, give our everything to see him defeated no matter what the cost.
Jerry Falwell, Jr.
That depends what he has to offer politically.
James White
I renounce the Devil and all his works, which include Arminianism, Catholicism, the Federal Vision, and the New Perspective on Paul, among many other things which I expose masterfully on my show The Dividing Line.
Tim Keller
I realize that in our modern culture a lot of people have given up on belief in the Devil, but honestly, as I look at Scripture, I just think that’s terribly wrong. So, yes, I have to say I renounce the Devil and all of his works.
Andy Stanley
I mean, yeah, I renounce the Devil and everything, but how important is that, really? A lot of people can’t believe in a Devil these days, and I get that, so why not focus on Jesus and the Resurrection?
Francis Chan
Of course I renounce the Devil and all of his works! With a God who loves me with such a radical, crazy love, how could I even think about not returning it by renouncing the Devil? Now if you’ll excuse me, I think renouncing the Devil’s works means I need to finish renouncing and giving away my last few possessions.
Pope Francis
Who am I to judge?

Options on the Intermediate State

I have crusaded here before against the conflation of life-after-death with life-after-life-after-death (to use N. T. Wright’s terminology), of the “heaven” we go to upon death with the “heaven” which is really the new creation earth united with God’s presence in the future. And my theological focus has mostly been on the latter of these, the resurrection and the restoration of the cosmos in the age to come. Nonetheless, the real question about what happens immediately after death is still at least somewhat important, and some of what I’ve been reading recently has gotten me thinking about it.

This subject, the state of human beings between death and resurrection, is of course better known as the intermediate state. The usual focus is on believers. What precisely do we, as Christians, experience postmortem? In this post, I just feel like outlining some of the basic theological options, along with their strengths and weaknesses. I am still quite unsure what I think about this, but I’ll mention what I’m thinking these a’days.

On to the options. I’ve titled them myself; not all of them have set names.

Sensory heaven
The average pew-dweller, due to the common kind of preaching which does conflate the intermediate state with the new creation, often imagines that after we die we get to experience a fully sensory world, tangible and visible and tactile, paved with gold and filled with mansions. This, however common, is terribly mistaken with no biblical evidence whatsoever. The descriptions it makes use of come from Revelation 21-22, which describe the future new earth, not anything which is a present reality. Moreover, it ignores the fact that our physical bodies are literally in the ground, not transported to another physical realm, after death, and the fact that senses are all strictly physical phenomena, not something you experience spiritually.
Spiritual bliss
For those who realize that there is no biblical reason to think we will be able to experience a sensory reality of heaven after death, there is a next step of simply affirming a kind of spiritual bliss. What this actually is like, we cannot imagine now. We only know that it is a different quality of existence and consciousness than what we experience now, but it is bliss in the presence of God in Christ. This tends to draw strength from texts like 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 and Philippians 1:21-23. In this view, we will experience the glory of God in Christ in some way without body or sense until we are reunited with our bodies in the resurrection.

This view is common among people who have dispensed with the first, erroneous notion. Nonetheless, there are some criticisms which have been leveled at it. For one, it may be unclear what human conscious experience could even be without our bodies, which include our brains. All of our emotions, thinking, and consciousness have always been massively physiological, involving brain and hormone and the like. What kind of “consciousness” would we have separated from our brains? Also, there are biblical statements which seem to imply a lack of consiousness in the intermediate state, particularly in Ecclesiastes (and some of the Psalms). It is questionable to what extent the rather unspecific statements in 2 Corinthians 5 and Philippians 1 might overcome these themes. As a final note, this view is often accused of importing the idea of the immortality of the soul from paganism, with the assertion that the Judeo-Christian tradition originally understood men as entirely mortal in flesh unless raised to glory.

Soul sleep
The soul sleep view is common in some circles, though definitely a minority view. Perhaps its most well-known proponent was Martin Luther. In soul sleep, the intermediate state is unconscious. You die, and the next thing you experience is the resurrection, however many years may separate the two events. This view takes very seriously the rather shadowy statements about the afterlife in the Old Testament especially, taking advantage of the ambiguity in the New Testament statements which might imply consciousness in the intermediate state. That much of the Bible reflects a view something along these lines is almost a consensus in the higher world of scholarship.

Perhaps the largest problem the soul sleep view faces is the near unanimity of Christian tradition. Soul sleep has always, with a few exceptions, been on the fringes of Christian theology. While we have little data on the views of the very first Christians outside the sparse information in the New Testament, the earliest references we do have are from Eusebius, who argued against a group as unorthodox for teaching a form of soul sleep. The Catholic Church has declared it heretical, as have some smaller groups. None of this, however, can mean all too much for adherents to sola Scriptura.

Total obliteration/Christian mortalism
Often soul sleep and Christian mortalism are classed or defined together, but I decided they would make more sense to separate them distinctly. In soul sleep, human souls are still supposed to be alive in some sense. They may not strictly conscious, but they are still truly alive and existing. What may go by Christian mortalism can go much further. I speak of total obliteration of the human person. Body, soul, spirit, identity, whatever else go into the grave together and lose everything until the final resurrection, which raises the whole person. Most of what has been said about soul sleep also applies to this kind of mortalism, with a few key differences.

At the biblical level, Christian mortalism has a harder time handling texts like 2 Corinthians 5 and Philippians 1. There are plausible solutions to them, but what is questionable about that is nonetheless questionable. On the other hand, Christian mortalism does have the upper hand in the “immortal soul is pagan” argument, as only this view completely repudiates the idea. For Christian mortalists, humanity is entirely mortal apart from God’s resurrection power. Again, a great deal of modern biblical scholarship sees a view like this as quite plausible in light of the historical-linguistic-cultural-contextual evidence in Scripture.

I’m really not sure what to add to this, only that I find the correct view here difficult to discern. Parts of me are attracted to all of them, except obviously the first. What do people here think? I’m ready to play critic or Devil’s advocate to any of them if you comment.

Three Kinds of Bibliology

You really can’t study Karl Barth in evangelical circles without hearing some (often quite strong) objections to his bibliology. This, of course, is perfectly understandable, as inerrancy makes for an important discussion. Nonetheless, I often think Barth is overly criticized on this point, and in large part my reason for this involves my understanding that, whatever Barth’s views on the nature of inspiration and revelation, he took Scripture extremely seriously and worked hard to conform his thinking to it. In contrast to more liberal or skeptical theologians, Barth declared, “Once and for all, theology has…its position beneath that of the biblical scriptures…[T]he biblical witnesses are better informed than are the theologians. For this reason theology must agree to let them look over its shoulder and correct its notebooks.”1

Reflecting on this led me to think that we would do best to understand bibliology as having three distinct aspects, which have different levels of importance and practical impact. I think it may be helpful, when assessing and debating views on Scripture, to have these distinctions in mind. My proposed bibliological distinctions are as follows:

Confessional Bibliology
By confessional bibliology, I mean the descriptions which people are willing to employ regarding Scripture, i.e. what people confess about the Bible. Confessional bibliology is the sphere in which we simply use individual words to say what we believe about Scripture, something primarily visible in confessional documents. A “high” confessional bibliology may use terms like “inerrancy,” “infallibility,” and “verbally inspired.” A “low” confessional bibliology may shy away from such terms, except perhaps “infallibility,” in favor of less specific language such as “authoritative” or “inspired.”
Technical Bibliology
By technical bibliology, I mean the precise way in which people explain their views on what Scripture is and how it was inspired. Most “views of inspiration” would be included under this heading, such as verbal plenary, dynamic, existential, etc. On this level we describe what “God-breathed” means, how God used men in writing Scripture, what the role is of the Holy Spirit, and even broader questions such as divine providence and the nature of God’s revelation.
Practical Bibliology
By practical bibliology, I mean the way we actually use Scripture. How do we handle it? Do we treat it with submission and reverence, or do we twist it for our own ends? This includes certain questions of hermeneutics, the relation to tradition, and how we can be self-conscious and self-critical about the presuppositions and worldview we bring to the Bible. A high practical bibliology robustly allows Scripture and its inner logic to change our thinking and doctrine. A low practical bibliology makes the Bible into a servant of our preexisting convictions and outside norms.

So, a few thoughts on these categories. First, having a “high” bibliology in one of these areas does not guarantee a correspondingly high bibliology in all of them. One might have a high confessional bibliology, for example, willing to call Scripture “entirely without error,” while essentially taking this away by fine print details with a low technical bibliology. On the other hand, it is easy enough for someone to have a low practical bibliology, treating Scripture like a prop for their own ideas and agendas, even though they have the highest of confessional and technical bibliologies (e.g. independent fundamentalists who act like the whole point of the Bible is anti-communism, anti-feminism, and anti-rock music). Sometimes we might even see conflict between the priorities of these types of bibliology. For instance, often conservative apologists will twist a text in an impossible way (exercising a low practical bibliology) in order to defend it from a charge of error (to defend a high confessional bibliology). It would be better in these cases to proclaim a lack of knowledge and let the text speak for itself.

And then there are people like Barth. Barth had a mixed confessional bibliology, calling Scripture the “Word of God” while nonetheless insisting that this identification is indirect. In a sense, you might say Barth had a medium-high confessional bibliology and a very difficult to rank technical bibliology. But where he shines is in his practical bibliology. Despite all of the qualifications Barth made about the humanity of Scripture, its role as witness to revelation rather than actual revelation, and his indirect identification of it with God’s Word, he submitted to it. He sought to understand the prophets and the apostles as best as he could, to see Christ in the pages of their writings, and to submit his thinking and living to Christ at every point. One may disagree with much of his exegesis, but one cannot deny that he read Scripture with reverence and an eye to knowing and obeying the Word of God who is Jesus.

This framework, I suggest, offers a way to be more precise and more charitable when enaging with people who view Scripture differently than we do. Likewise, it lets us see how people may be understood as faithful to the Bible even when they don’t necessarily believe in the same kind of inspiration, or confess quite the same adject ives, that we do. And if anyone has any comments or suggestions about these categories, I’m interested to hear them.

Karl Barth on Providence and Heaven

For my last (rather delayed) post on Karl Barth’s doctrine of providence according to Darren Kennedy, I want to briefly address the way that heaven and, interestingly, the angels function in the whole structure. According to Kennedy, heaven and the angels are actually quite important to Barth’s providence. Why this would be the case might not be obvious at all to us, but once he explains it, the coherence is evident.

So, what do angels and heaven have to do with providence? Recall that in my last post on this I mentioned that Barth rejects the idea of miracles which violate natural order, but he understands the natural order in a broad way that allows for many things to take place which we might not be inclined to consider natural. This is where heaven and the angels come in. For Barth (and, basically, N. T. Wright of all people), the term “heaven” does not refer to the uncreated presence of God, but to the second sphere of creation, the other side from earth which is hidden from our perception. The angels belong to this created heavenly sphere, and thus strictly speaking are a part of natural creation. They are not properly supernatural, but simply belong to a different created habitat, the habitat of heaven rather than earth.

In his first brief explanation, Kennedy explains:

If God does not disrupt the causal nexus, how can one account for the specific ‘miracles’ in Scripture? Barth’s answer does not envision a violation of the causal nexus, but an expansion of it to include heaven. This explanation will help to clarify Barth’s interpretation of heaven and angels in III.3. While fully a part of the creation, heaven remains imperceptible to humanity. Nevertheless, as part of the cosmos, heavenly creatures can act and reveal in the earthly realm. Thus God directs angels—whose nature is to obey perfectly—to behave in ways that seem to disrupt creation, but violate no ontic laws of creation.1

So for Barth, then, there is nothing about miracles which necessarily violates the natural causal order. He does not overrule, bypass, undo, or contradict the “laws” by which He governs creation (since, after all, in double-agency they are His own doing, and He cannot contradict Himself). Instead, heaven and the angels are part of the natural, created world, and God from His presence in heaven sends the angels to do His will in ways which affect earthly realities. A blind man, for example, may receive sight not by earthly physical processes but by angelic action, which is nonetheless “natural” in the sense that angels are a part of the created order.

Thus Kennedy argues that the realm of heaven and the angels serve as a so-called “causal joint” in Barth’s theology of providence, the point where God’s action enters into the created world. Many theologians have traditionally had a very difficult time identifying this point, explaining how and where God’s providential action is effective in the natural world. Barth by no means overcomes the mystery altogether, which would be speculative and presumptuous, but he does point to this answer grounded in biblical stories and teachings.

To understand this better, we should see how Barth sees the difficulty in the relationship of the Wholly Other God to the created world. In his understanding, God only is able to act in our world through a particular created “midpoint,” the realm of heaven which He has made to dwell in and to unite with earth. Kennedy cites this from him:

Without this special place of God, and the distance therewith posited between Himself and man in his own place, there could obviously be no genuine intercourse between them. There could be no dialogue, but only a monologue on the part of God (or perhaps of man). There could be no drama, but either God or man could only live in isolation with no relationships to others or significance for them. If this is not the case; if the theme of Christian witness is neither the life of an isolated God nor isolated man, but the history enacted between them of isolation, estrangement, reconciliation and fellowship; and if this history is really enacted in our world, then this means that God as well as man has a distinctive sphere in this real world of ours.2

This is rather similar to N. T. Wright’s view, at least at the descriptive level, of heaven as “the control room for earth..the CEO’s office, the place from which instuctions are given.”3 Kennedy does not specify whether Barth thought God acts on the world through heaven only by the angels or also by other means, but in any case the point is a mediating realm between God and man’s world.

There are oddities to this account, though. For Barth, only God and humans are truly personal beings. Angels, although superficially similar to persons, are actually not. They have no free will (of any kind), and they are used by God similarly to simple tools. On this account, he also denies that demons are fallen angels, instead incorporating them into his doctrine of Nothingness (on which I have written here). If angels have no personal agency, then they cannot have sinned unless God caused them to do so, which of course is absurd. Thus demons are placed into their own category.

This last issue is odd, and I think compromises this apsect of Barth’s providential project on Biblical grounds. Could it be reworked without it? Perhaps. In any case, it is thought-provoking, and I think as a whole Barth’s doctrine of providence seems superior to the traditional Reformed formulations.

Calvin the Existentialist

A quote from Calvin’s Institutes:

Innumerable are the evils that beset human life; innumerable, too, the deaths that threaten it. We need not go beyond ourselves: since our body is the receptacle of a thousand diseases—in fact holds within itself and fosters the causes of diseases—a man cannot go about unburdened by many forms of his own destruction, and without drawing out a life enveloped, as it were, with death. For what else would you call it, when he neither freezes nor sweats without danger? Now, wherever you turn, all things around you not only are hardly to be trusted but almost openly menace, and seem to threaten immediate death. Embark upon a ship, you are one step away from death. Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs. If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend’s, harm awaits. All the fierce animals you see are armed for your destruction. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden. Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse upon you. Your field, since it is exposed to hail, frost, drought, and other calamities, threatens you with barrenness, and hence, famine. I pass over poisonings, ambushes, robberies, open violence, which in part besiege us at home, in part dog us abroad. Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable, since but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck?

John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.17.10

The Backward Hermeneutic of Limited Atonement

Honestly, as much as I strenuously oppose the doctrine of limited atonement on logical and theological grounds, my most confident and compelling reasons are simply Biblical. I don’t think Scripture supports the doctrine in any way, shape, or form, but in fact entirely and completely contradicts it. I think T. F. Torrance was altogether correct in his response to a student prompting the doctrine:

That Christ did not die for all is the worst possible argument for those who claim to believe in verbal inspiration!

And this quote gets at the big problem I have with the way people use Scripture to support limited atonement. It requires a terrible, backward, inverted hermeneutic that does serious violence to the text. Specifically, this is the problem: the doctrine of limited atonement requires that we use human inferences from non-explicit texts to overturn or limit the meaning of explicit, clear texts.

Simple example: Hebrews 2:9, 1 John 2:2, 2 Corinthians 5:5, 19, 1 Timothy 4:10 are all very, very explicit about Christ dying for all men. I mean, in realistic terms, there is no way that the Spirit could have been more clear if He wanted to say that Christ died for all. These verses add up to the strongest possible terms save the rather extreme possibility, “Now beware those who will one day try to tell you that Jesus died only for the elect, because He actually died for every single human who ever lived.”

Nonetheless, apologists for limited atonement always feel the need to find convoluted ways to explain away the explicit meaning of these passages because of its overly rationalized readings of texts like John 6, John 10, or Ephesians 5. They draw out inferences from these texts which are at best tenuous, often don’t even logically follow, and in most cases try to force the atonement into a rigorous system of merely human logic. These inferences go something along the lines of “Jesus died for Christians, therefore Jesus did not die for anyone else,” something which (of course) does not necessarily follow. Other times they will make more complex inferences based on the nature of the atonement, pressing the legal metaphors of Scripture way beyond their bounds to create a double-jeopardy scenario for anyone who denies limited atonement. This again tries to overly rationalize God’s revelation in human limits, and in particular often fails to grasp the analogical and metaphorical nature of New Testament descriptions of the atonement, which in itself is a holy and transcendent mystery.

These human rationalizations and inferences, then, are permitted and in fact forced to overrule and twist the plain meaning of the other atonement texts, the ones which explain very straightforwardly that Jesus has died fully and truly for all people everywhere. This is a backward hermeneutical method. It is the opposite of how we rightly ought to understand Scripture. The clear and explicit testimony about Christ’s death for all men should lead us to hold back on our human inferences from other texts, not the other way around.

In this case, the classical Calvinists fall prey to the same trap they frequently find in others. The hermeneutic behind limited atonement is in principle no more legitimate or less legitimate than that of an Arminian who, applying human reason to the doctrine of God’s justice or love, rules out the possibility that the favorite Calvinist proof-texts could mean unconditional election or irresistible grace.

Basic moral of the story: don’t use human inferences from less explicit texts to block the explicit statements of others. So no limited atonement.