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.

To Speak of Nothing: Examining Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Evil

[This¬†is an essay I submitted last semester for my apologetics class, in which I had to do a research paper on an apologetic topic. I chose the problem of evil and decided to look at Barth’s view. However, I did this paper before reading Darren M. Kennedy’s dissertation of Barth’s doctrine of providence, which is relevant for a few¬†issues.]

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Exploring Nothing
    1. Das Nichtige in Light of Theological History
    2. Concluding Summary of the Doctrine
  3. Worth Nothing? Criticism of Barth’s Doctrine
  4. Nothing Good for Something: Insights from Barth’s View
  5. Conclusion

Introduction

Evil is evil. This tautological statement might sound obvious and pointless but in fact, possesses much gravity. In the work of Christian theology, or more specifically in the work of defending the Christian faith through apologetics, many have undertaken the task of explaining how and why a good God with sufficient power to destroy evil can permit evil to exist and do as many horrors as the human race witnesses each day. Unfortunately, for many of these answers, evil is not truly evil. Instead, evil is part of a greater good, whether that good is free will, the glory of God, or something else. Karl Barth, however, offered in his Church Dogmatics his own answer (or non-answer) about evil, one in which evil is authentically evil. He named evil das Nichtige, and this doctrine has much to offer Christian theodical thought today. This doctrine is topic of my essay. Specifically, I would like to argue that Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige arises from a long history of Biblical, catholic thinking on evil, and though there are certainly notable weaknesses, the doctrine must be commended for being truly prophetic against evil, bound and determined by the Word, and characteristically Christocentric. My goal will be to show that Barth may not have the last word on the problem of evil, but his contribution will be valuable when fully understood.

To assess Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige, first I will summarize the definition and explanation of the doctrine given in Church Dogmatics. Once they are presented clearly, I will compare and contrast Barth’s doctrine with various other views throughout Christian history to provide illumination and context. I will then work from this gathered clarity to address the weaknesses of das Nichtige, particularly charges of fantasy, tension with Providence, mythologizing, and dualism. They will be set against the doctrine’s strengths, and these last considerations will provide me sufficient material to perform a final analysis of the relevance and practical benefits which the Church might mine from Barth on this enduringly important issue. With this route prepared, then, the man himself may be allowed to speak. What exactly is Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige, and what does the term even mean?

Exploring Nothing

‚ÄúThere is in world-occurrence an element, indeed an entire sinister system of elements, which is not‚Ķpreserved, accompanied, nor ruled by the almighty action of God like creaturely occurrence.‚ÄĚ1This shocking statement is how Barth introduced his doctrine of das Nichtige. The term itself comes from the German title of this chapter of the Church Dogmatics. Das Nichtige means in English ‚Äúthe Nothingness,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúthe Null,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúthe Negative,‚ÄĚ or something else along those lines. The intention is to signify an absolute void, something which is not some thing but nothing(ness). Barth referred to evil in this way because he saw evil as fundamentally lacking in positive reality, but instead ‚Äúexisting‚ÄĚ in antithesis to that which God wills to exist. For Barth, evil does not possess legitimate ontic ground. Evil belongs properly neither to the realm of Creator nor the realm of creature. Mark Lindsay summarized Barth‚Äôs unique ontology of evil this way: ‚ÄúProperly speaking, we cannot talk of Nothingness as something which ‚Äėis‚Äô. In strictly ontological terms, ‚Äėonly God and His creature really and properly are.‚Äô This cannot be taken to imply that Nothingness does not exist.‚ÄĚ2 This paradox is essential to the doctrine of das Nichtige. Evil can only be categorized (if at all) as an ‚Äúalien factor‚ÄĚ in the world which seeks to corrupt and undo the creation, to drag the world back into the pure nothing from which God created.

For Barth, God willed and created for a good purpose of election, but das Nichtige can only be seen as that which God did not will or elect at all. Das Nichtige stands in opposition to both nature and grace, and thus is entirely unnatural and anti-grace. This anti-gracious character of das Nichtige, its non-willed ‚Äúexistence‚ÄĚ under God‚Äôs opposition, is precisely what characterizes evil as evil, precisely why God must vehemently abhor and ruthlessly assault the whole system. For Barth, none of this is technically apologetics, either, or a systematic theological account of evil, but merely a dogmatic acknowledgment that true theodicy is basically impossible. In fact, Barth preferred to move past this question of evil‚Äôs nature (or lack thereof) to its solution in Christ, who suffered both the fullness of Nothingness and God‚Äôs wrath against Nothingness, surviving and doing away with both in His triumphant resurrection, thus finally and entirely eliminating even the not-existence which das Nichtige has, leaving only an echo or deceptive memory. What Barth distinctively means by all of this will be made clearer as historical development is traced and as other doctrines of evil in this tradition are juxtaposed with his view.

Das Nichtige in Light of Theological History

To anyone familiar with Augustine‚Äôs doctrine of evil, one of the earliest known views, Barth‚Äôs view may sound similar. This is somewhat justified and somewhat mistaken. Augustine‚Äôs well-known take on evil was privatio boni, the absence of good. His famous analogy was that of darkness to light. For Augustine, evil is not something in itself but merely the result of good not being there. Thus only good can be considered the creation of God, while evil is not. This is clearly similar to das Nichtige, but there are differences which bear noting. For Barth, evil has something of a rebellious malevolence. Without having true being, evil nonetheless is hostile to God and His creatures. On the other hand, Barth emphatically denies any reality or natural propriety whatsoever to evil‚Äôs ‚Äúnon-nature,‚ÄĚ whereas Augustine‚Äôs view could be seen to allow a certain degree of ‚Äúnaturalness‚ÄĚ to evil akin to way darkness is the nature state of the world without light. Both of them agree, however, that evil has no efficient cause.3

Barth considered the Reformed tradition his own home, and so traditional views of Reformed theology are also good for comparing his doctrine of evil. The classic Reformed position is that God sovereignly controls and ordains all things without exception, including evil. So says the Westminster Confession of Faith:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.4

This view appears quite clearly incompatible with Barth’s. The doctrine of das Nichtige absolutely refuses any notion that evil properly belongs to the will of God, whereas most Reformed thinkers have affirmed that God intentionally decrees every last occurrence, evil or otherwise. Representatives like Calvin would occasionally use the language of permission, but even this was rare and qualified. Yet for Barth and das Nichtige, the language of permission was essential and robust. Nonetheless, these drastically different views share the idea that evil has come into being alongside God’s act of sovereign election, even if the mechanism and divine intention are different for each.

In the modern era, there is certainly worth in comparing Barth‚Äôs doctrine with C. S. Lewis, despite the lack of any obvious connection. C. S. Lewis, as is well-known, relied heavily on the notion of free will. For Lewis, human freedom demanded the actual possibility of evil alongside that of good, for ‚Äúall that is given to a creature with free will must be two-edged, not by the nature of the giver or of the gift, but by the nature of the recipient.‚ÄĚ5 This kind of philosophical reasoning is hardly a part of Barth‚Äôs style, but he also used a kind of free will argument relocated, focused on maintaining the integrity of the Creator/creature distinction.6 In this case, the mysterious power of das Nichtige manifests itself by taking advantage of the space separating human will from divine will. So both of them seem to bind up the possibility of evil to the creation of the good, though this for Lewis is a symmetrical relationship, whereas Barth views the two as strongly asymmetrical, with evil more of an impossible possibility taking advantage of the real space of possibility generated by creaturely independence.

For a final comparison, this one both ancient and modern, das Nichtige may be compared to an Eastern Orthodox doctrine of sin. In an interview with The Christian Century, David Bentley Hart sketched a doctrine of evil which seems to parallel Barth‚Äôs at several points which representing historic Orthodoxy. The Orthodox view has historical roots similar to Augustine‚Äôs and Hart affirmed that evil is ‚Äúa privation of the good: a purely parasitic and shadowy reality, a contamination or disease or absence, but not a real thing in itself.‚ÄĚ7 This clearly echoes the kind of obscure, reserved language for evil‚Äôs ontology which Barth used. Hart also vehemently denied that, in Orthodoxy, there is any necessity or divine purpose behind the origins of evil. God can use and work past evil, but He fundamentally did not will or deliberately plan for evil to play a role in His purpose of divine-human communion. This strongly favors Barth‚Äôs contradiction to classic Reformed thought on evil (though which Hart detests as blasphemous). Thus, perhaps surprisingly, Barth‚Äôs post-Reformed, post-liberal account of evil is actually profoundly close to the ancient view of Orthodox theology, which seems a positive sign.

Concluding Summary of the Doctrine

With Barth’s doctrine of evil clarified by comparison to other historic attempts, the results are a doctrine of mystery and absolute affirmation of the goodness of both God and God’s creatures. Evil for Barth is not so much an apologetic issue which can be solved, but a disruption of theological thought which can only be described in awkward, negative terminology. Das Nichtige is not-being, but more than not-being functions as something of an anti-being, seeking to corrupt and de-create what God has willed, and is anti-grace, devoid of God’s grace and seeking to erase all its benefits. God has not chosen to create, ordain, or design any evil substances or mere happenings apart from evil’s prior historical appearance as opposition to His creative design. This is a fiercer doctrine of evil than Augustine’s privatio, a more uncompromising doctrine of God’s goodness vis-à-vis evil than most Reformed views, a more equivocal doctrine of human evil than Lewis’, and a surprising friend to Orthodoxy’s approach. With this fuller picture in place, Barth’s weaknesses on evil can be brought out with precision.

Worth Nothing? Criticism of Barth’s Doctrine

The first criticism which many have raised against the doctrine of das Nichtige is that an account of evil as both fundamentally characterized by not-being and truly and utterly defeated in Christ seems patently false, a form of denial about the clear reality of the visible world. Given that Barth specifically wrote during the time of Nazism and was well aware of the deep, inestimable darkness of the Holocaust, some like Lindsay have suggested that Barth’s doctrine, which takes no explicit account of such events, is necessarily an anemic account of evil.8 Is Nothingness a strong enough concept to explain the atrocities of the Second World War? Can Jesus’ once-for-all complete annihilation of das Nichtige really be considered realistic in light of the Auschwitz? Of course, there are potential responses to this, but the objection is understandable. This also seems to tie in with Barth’s unequivocal rejection of natural theology and general revelation; the Holocaust is not Christ, and so was never suitable material for doing theological work.

A second objection which might be raised against the doctrine of das Nichtige involves providence: if God truly does not will, cause, determine, or ordain evil, then how can His providence be authentically and robustly active over the dark forces of the world? This objection is stronger from Calvinists who might assert that such a doctrine completely dismantles God’s absolute sovereignty. While this second form of the objection is not especially compelling given the many weaknesses in a theory of divine determinism, the basic question stands and begs answering. This is compounded by the way in Scripture that God often overruled and guided evil, sending disaster this way and that, and even hardening people’s hearts. While there probably are possible ways to answer, not least from more carefully studying Barth’s account itself, that work remains to be done.

More serious an objection is the questionable, mythological or speculative nature of das Nichtige as an attempted account of evil. At one point Barth implied that the divine conflict against das Nichtige goes back in a certain sense (more in a logical than chronological sense, to be sure) behind the time of creation itself, with God’s act of creation being directed against the void which would have there be nothing else but Nothingness.9 In addition, the ontology of evil, the non-existing existence of das Nichtige as that which God rejected and did not create, seems simply outlandish. Certainly, this whole picture is a bit strange and calls to mind many of the pagan myths of a deity triumphing over a lesser deity in order to create the world mankind now inhabits.  This is odd for Barth more than others, given his resistance to all human projection and speculation. Any attempt to make das Nichtige into a workable Christian account of evil would have to address why and how such a bizarre account could be justified. This, again, can likely be done, and later a possible way will be suggested.

A final objection, and quite possibly the most serious of them all, is the way that Barth’s view of das Nichtige seems to construct an uncomfortable and questionable partial dualism in the heart of Christian theology. If indeed the struggle with das Nichtige goes back to the beginning of the act of creation itself, and if evil’s paradoxical existence of not-being ultimately traces back to God’s election of creation and covenant as the rejected alternative of desolation and anti-grace, then one has to ask whether some principle indeed made evil inevitable and necessary after all. Has Barth bound even God’s creative power to some higher principle which requires evil, even if the dualism is asymmetrical (and thus partial) due to Christ’s final and decisive eradication of das Nichtige? Lindsay addressed the problem in this way:

Hick raises a similar point when he queries why God, in the positive act of creation had, in logical necessity, also to create the ‚Äúthird factor‚ÄĚ of Nothingness. Why can we not conceive of a God who is able to create a good universe ‚Äúthat is not accompanied by the threatening shadow of rejected evil?‚ÄĚ Why must God choose good and reject evil, as though these realities were existences ‚Äúwhich already [stood] in some way before Him‚Ķ?‚ÄĚ10

This is perhaps the most difficult and problematic question for the whole doctrine, and unless a remedy can be proposed, the Church may one day simply need to plunder Barth’s view for its benefits and move on to something else. So just what are these benefits?

Nothing Good for Something: Insights from Barth’s View

Despite the various weaknesses of Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige, there are several commendable features from which the Church catholic may greatly benefit. The first of these worth mentioning is the way das Nichtige can serve Bible reading. While at first glance this doctrine hardly seems much relevant to any specific statements in the Scriptures, there are a few places where its relevance appears. One of the more interesting applications is in the Old Testament passages which depict creation in terms of mythological conquest.11 Barth knew that the mythological-sounding language he used was not at all univocal, but such descriptions do correspond with something that Scripture says about God’s supremacy in creating and preserving the world. What if the Biblical reader thought of Rahab as das Nichtige? That may not be identical to the original intent but ironically may very well give the modern reader a similar impression to what the ancient reader heard.

Another strength of Barth’s doctrine is its prophetic character with respect to the absolute nature of evil as evil and not good. In too many other Christian accounts of evil, evil truly cannot but be part of the good, either the necessary possibility which makes free will and human love real or the darker half of God’s plan of self-glorification. The doctrine of das Nichtige neither requires not permits such a concept of evil’s existence as inherently justified by its role as means to any end. Instead, being neither proper to the good God nor His good creatures, evil is fully wicked, unjustified, and unacceptable, allowed to truly be evil without merely being the balance to the Force. Das Nichtige is not truly a theodicy, for as McDowell explained, Barth knew that any such project had to in some sense or way trivialize evil and offer cover for its sources and activities.12 Thus following Barth on this point gives the Church solid ground to call out evil in an entirely uncompromised and uncompromising way.

In response to the charge above that das Nichtige represents a theology of denial and insufficiency by claiming evil is truly a dead void post-Calvary, there is, in fact, the entirely reasonable defense that Barth may be simply following Luther in submitting to a theology of the Word and of faith. Never mind what the world may appear to be; what God has declared alone matters. The reality men think they perceive is not ultimate, but only the reality which God has spoken by His omnipotent Word. Barth would certainly agree with Luther when he said, ‚ÄúHe who believes God, recognizes Him as true and faithful, and himself as a liar; for he mistrusts his own thinking as false, and trusts the Word of God as being true, though it absolutely contradicts his own reasoning,‚ÄĚ13 and so ought the Church today. In the face of the whatever reality appears to contradict the Gospel of Christ, the Gospel must be allowed to take precedence and declare the truth. If therefore, Barth is right to say that Christ declares Himself the absolute and unqualified victor over das Nichtige, consigning the beast entirely to the empty past, the Church ought to learn to have faith in the Word and not doubt.

Finally, though, the most important strength of Barth’s doctrine is the way Christ stands central. The das Nichtige was exposed and climactically annihilated on the Cross in the flesh of Jesus. Jesus survived, along with His divine-human union, but das Nichtige has been banished forevermore, stripped of even its old quasi-reality. All that remains is but an echo of a shell of a memory, but the risen Christ stands triumphant. From the beginning to the end, in ways also unexplored here due to space constraints, Barth’s doctrine of evil is viewed through the lens of Christology, and even if the exact results are less than perfect, the focus and methodology must be commended. If Jesus really is the true center and subject of all the world and God’s activity in the world, then there is no excuse for even attempting to describe an account of evil which makes sense without reference to Him. Barth successfully avoided that error and knew nothing about evil except Christ crucified. If nothing else is worth following in Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige, this theme is.

Conclusion

What, then, is the result of all this? Is the doctrine of das Nichtige of benefit? By all means, it is! Nothingness is definitely a productive angle for approaching the problem of evil, one which had precedent and support in the thought of the Church catholic well before Barth ever wrote a word. Augustine and the Orthodox are especially close to this view, but similarities may even be found in the Reformed tradition and C. S. Lewis. In all of these cases, Barth’s catholicity and uniqueness shine through his flawed but fundamentally helpful account of evil, an account which, like all of Barth’s theology, found a compass in the person of Jesus Christ. Any doctrine which exalts and serves Christ in this way deserves at least a seat at the discussion table. Indeed, this doctrine can serve Christ, and a few reasons on why and how are in order.

There are a few possible useful implications of Barth‚Äôs doctrine of evil. In Christian preaching, the preacher is freed to call out evil and unqualified evil without equivocating or fearing the question, ‚ÄúWhy would a good God allow evil, and what if He uses evil?‚ÄĚ No conflicts of conscience, questions about God‚Äôs purposes and character, are necessary since evil is assigned a role of pure and complete opposition to divine willing and creating. Those wrestling with the problem of evil, both within the Church and without Her, may be pointed not towards philosophers and constructed systems but to Christ and Him crucified. Regardless of how and why evil came to be in actual metaphysical detail, the minister may proclaim that God has used His omnipotent power to mortify the phenomenon. This can also be an impetus to evangelism, the Church thus energized to take on the world, the flesh, and the Devil with its witness, knowing the forces to have already been destroyed in Christ. Hope may be allowed full reign, even in the darkest of times, and the Gospel can be proclaimed in force to all people: Jesus is Lord, over and against the evil forces, even das Nichtige, which He has vanquished.

Bibliography

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Vol. 3.3, The Doctrine of Creation. Edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Translated by G. W. Bromiley, G. T. Thomson, and Harold Knight. London: T&T Clark, 2009.

Hart, David Bentley. ‚ÄúWhere Was God? An Interview with David Bentley Hart.‚Ä̬†The Christian Century, January 10, 2006. Accessed November 18, 2016. http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2006-01/where-was-god.

Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2001. PDF.

Lindsay, Mark R. ‚Äú‚ÄėNothingness‚Äô Revisited: Karl Barth‚Äôs Doctrine of Radical Evil in the Wake of the Holocaust.‚Ä̬†Colloquium¬†34, no. 1 (May 1, 2002): 3-19. Accessed November 18, 2016. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials [EBSCO].

Luther, Martin, and John Theodore Mueller. Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1954.

McDowell, John C. ‚ÄúMuch Ado about Nothing: Karl Barth‚Äôs Being Unable to Do Nothing about Nothingness.‚Ä̬†International Journal of Systematic Theology¬†4, no. 3 (November 2002): 319. Accessed November 18, 2016. Academic Search Premier [EBSCO].

Vorster, Nicolaas. ‚ÄúThe Augustinian Type of Theodicy: Is It Outdated?‚Ä̬†Journal of Reformed Theology¬†5, no. 1 (2011): 26-48. Accessed November 18, 2016. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials [EBSCO].

The Westminster Confession of Faith. Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics. Accessed November 18, 2016. http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html.

Wikisource Contributors. ‚ÄúNicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume II/City of God/Book XII/Chapter 6.‚ÄĚ In¬†Wikisource. 2010. Accessed November 18, 2016. https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Nicene_and_Post-Nicene_Fathers:_Series_I/Volume_II/City_of_God/Book_XII/Chapter_6&oldid=2228839.


1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3, §50, 289.

2 Mark R. Lindsay, ‚Äú‚ÄėNothingness‚Äô Revisited: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Radical Evil in the Wake of the Holocaust,‚ÄĚ Colloquium 34, no. 1 (May 1, 2002): pg. 7, accessed November 18, 2016, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials [EBSCO].

3 Wikisource Contributors, “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume II/City of God/Book XII/Chapter 6,” in¬†Wikisource¬†(2010), accessed November 18, 2016, https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Nicene_and_Post-Nicene_Fathers:_Series_I/Volume_II/City_of_God/Book_XII/Chapter_6&oldid=2228839.

4 The Westminster Confession of Faith (Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics), ch. III, sec. 1, accessed November 18, 2016, http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html.

5 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2001), PDF, pg. 60.

6 Nicolaas Vorster, “The Augustinian Type of Theodicy: Is It Outdated?,”¬†Journal of Reformed Theology¬†5, no. 1 (2011): pg. 37, accessed November 18, 2016, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials [EBSCO].

7 David Bentley Hart, “Where Was God? An Interview with David Bentley Hart,”¬†The Christian Century, January 10, 2006, accessed November 18, 2016, http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2006-01/where-was-god.

8 Lindsay, ‚Äú‚ÄėNothingness‚Äô Revisited,‚ÄĚ 16.

9 Barth, CD III/3, §50, 290.

10 Lindsay, ‚Äú‚ÄėNothingness‚Äô Revisited,‚ÄĚ 13.

11 E.g. Job 26:12.

12 John C. McDowell, “Much Ado about Nothing: Karl Barth‚Äôs Being Unable to Do Nothing about Nothingness,”¬†International Journal of Systematic Theology¬†4, no. 3 (November 2002): pg. 324, accessed November 18, 2016, Academic Search Premier [EBSCO].

13 Martin Luther and John Theodore Mueller, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1954), pg. 87.

What Caleb Believes, If You’re Interested

For my two theology classes this semester, I had to write a 10-12 page paper in each detailing what I believe about a mostly comprehensive set of doctrines. Naturally, I was a little to elaborate and ended to with 33 pages between the two of them, but it was a very enjoyable and clarifying experience.

So, for the fun of anyone here, I’m posting the combined credo here. It will briefly summarize the basics of my beliefs on almost everything. Enjoy, and feel free to critique it or ask questions. It’s attached as a PDF.

I Believe: A Credo

Caleb’s Rules of Theological Debate

The title says it all. Here they are in no particular order with no particular rhyme or reason (all of tweetable length).

  1. No matter what the topic, there is a Christian way of thinking. When we forget this, or more commonly never learn it to begin with, we mess up politics, theology, and so many other things.
  2. Listen to your neighbor’s argument as you would have your neighbor listen to yours.
  3. In all debate and discussion, give your interlocutor the benefit of the doubt.
  4. Before attacking any argument or view, try sincerely to defend it to yourself.
  5. The mind of Christ is not divided. We must always be ready to learn from each other.
  6. Attack positions and arguments as needed, but not the people who use them.
  7. Except to ask a question, don’t respond to an argument you do not fully understand.
  8. If a statement can be interpreted non-heretically: innocent until proven guilty.
  9. Use the label “heresy” sparingly, and avoid it whenever possible.
  10. Even heretics can have great insights: don’t assume everything they say is bad.
  11. Even the best teachers are fallible: don’t assume everything they say is okay.
  12. Just because something’s not heretical doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal.
  13. Just because someone believes something heretical doesn’t mean they are damned.
  14. Experience and education affect your perspective on evidence…
  15. …But experience and education do not magically alter the soundness of an argument.
  16. Just because you haven’t heard of a view doesn’t mean it’s crazy.
  17. Just because a view seems obvious doesn’t mean it’s right.
  18. Analogies, including in Scripture, can’t be stretched beyond their relevant intent.
  19. The apparent “plain meaning” of a Bible verse is not always the right one…
  20. …But the opposite of the “plain meaning” of Scripture is even less likely.
  21. Someone is not wrong just because they quote someone you dislike.
  22. Godliness and good theology don’t always correlate. Devotion outperforms doctrine.
  23. Every doctrinal position affects other doctrinal positions more than you think.
  24. Inconsistency is not heresy, and heresy is not inconsistency.
  25. Just something looks inconsistent to you doesn’t mean it actually is inconsistent.
  26. Many charges of inconsistency come from a small rational imagination.
  27. Generally, you can’t rule out theological positions on some a priori basis.
  28. Sarcasm is only worth using if it makes an important point in the argument.
  29. If I have all the arguments and all the truth, but do not have love, I have nothing.
  30. Charging your debate opponents with improper motives is bad form and bad love.
  31. Treat debate opponents like Jesus. He might be more on their side than you think.
  32. No doctrine should still make sense if you subtract Jesus.
  33. Avoid as much as possible saying “God couldn’t/wouldn’t do X.”
  34. Not everything that looks like a slippery slope is one.
  35. Never debate in such a way that you couldn’t go off together for ice cream later.
  36. If you form opinions about your interlocutor during a debate, keep them to yourself.
  37. Don’t change the subject with questions hanging.

Through the EC Book: A Declaration about Union with Christ

I recently started the first volume of Evangelical Calvinism, the big book of essays meant to explain and present the basic mood and mode of this growing development in Reformed theology which goes by that name. It is something of an EC inaugural announcement, showing the basics of what an Evangelical Calvinist approach to the Reformed tradition can look like.

Needless to say, I’m excited. Last night I read the prologue, which was actually just a copy of a declaration by the Presbyterian Church (USA) about union with Christ. It makes for a lovely¬†introduction to how Evangelical Calvinism views theology as a whole, which really is all about union with Christ. Because I love it so much, and because it does a great job¬†indicating the basic mood and direction of EC theology, I’m going to quote it in full (the original can be found here):

Union In Christ: A Declaration

With the witness of Scripture and the Church through the ages we declare:

I.

Jesus Christ is the gracious mission of God to the world and for the world.
He is Emmanuel and Savior,
One with the Father,
God incarnate as Mary’s son,
Lord of all,
The truly human one.

His coming transforms everything.

His Lordship casts down every idolatrous claim to authority.
His incarnation discloses the only path to God.
His life shows what it means to be human.
His atoning death reveals the depth of God’s love for sinners.
His bodily resurrection shatters the powers of sin and death.

II.

The Holy Spirit joins us to Jesus Christ by grace alone, uniting our life with his through the ministry of the Church.

In the proclamation of the Word, the Spirit calls us to repentance, builds up and renews our life in Christ, strengthens our faith, empowers our service, gladdens our hearts, and transforms our lives more fully into the image of Christ.

We turn away from forms of church life that ignore the need for repentance, that discount the transforming power of the Gospel, or that fail to pray, hope and strive for a life that is pleasing to God.

In Baptism and conversion the Spirit engrafts us into Christ, establishing the Church’s unity and binding us to one another in him.

We turn away from forms of church life that seek unity in theological pluralism, relativism or syncretism.

In the Lord’s Supper the Spirit nurtures and nourishes our participation in Christ and our communion with one another in him.

We turn away from forms of church life that allow human divisions of race, gender, nationality, or economic class to mar the Eucharistic fellowship, as though in Christ there were still walls of separation dividing the human family.

III.

Engrafted into Jesus Christ we participate through faith in his relationship with the Father.

By our union with Christ we participate in his righteousness before God, even as he becomes the bearer of our sin.

We turn away from any claim to stand before God apart from Christ’s own righteous obedience, manifest in his life and sacrifice for our sake on the cross.

By our union with Christ we participate in his knowledge of the Father, given to us as the gift of faith through the unique and authoritative witness of the Old and New Testaments.

We turn away from forms of church life that discount the authority of Scripture or claim knowledge of God that is contrary to the full testimony of Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Spirit working in and through the community of faith across time.

By our union with Christ we participate in his love of the Father, manifest in his obedience “even unto death on the cross.”

We turn away from any supposed love of God that is manifest apart from a continual longing for and striving after that loving obedience which Christ offers to God on our behalf.

IV.

Though obscured by our sin, our union with Christ causes his life to shine forth in our lives. This transformation of our lives into the image of Christ is a work of the Holy Spirit begun in this life as a sign and promise of its completion in the life to come.

By our union with Christ our lives participate in the holiness of the One who fulfilled the Law of God on our behalf.

We turn away from forms of church life that ignore Christ’s call to a life of holiness, or that seek to pit Law and Gospel against one another as if both were not expressions of the one Word of God.

By our union with Christ we participate in his obedience. In these times of moral and sexual confusion we affirm the consistent teaching of Scripture that calls us to chastity outside of marriage and faithfulness within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.

We turn away from forms of church life that fail to pray for and strive after a rightly ordered sexuality as the gracious gift of a loving God, offered to us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We also turn away from forms of church life that fail to forgive and restore those who repent of sexual and other sins.

V.

As the body of Christ the Church has her life in Christ.

By our union with Christ the Church binds together believers in every time and place.

We turn away from forms of church life that identify the true Church only with particular styles of worship, polity, or institutional structure. We also turn away from forms of church life that ignore the witness of those who have gone before us.

By our union with Christ the Church is called out into particular communities of worship and mission.

We turn away from forms of church life that see the work of the local congregation as sufficient unto itself, as if it were not a local representation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church called together by the power of the Spirit in every age and time until our Lord returns.

By our union with Christ our lives participate in God’s mission to the world:
to uphold the value of every human life,
to make disciples of all peoples,
to establish Christ’s justice and peace in all creation,
and to secure that visible oneness in Christ that is the
promised inheritance of every believer.

We turn away from forms of church life that fail to bear witness in word and deed to Christ’s compassion and peace, and the Gospel of salvation.

By our union with Christ the Church participates in Christ’s resurrected life and awaits in hope the future that God has prepared for her. Even so come quickly, Lord Jesus!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Project Credo: Trinity

This semester I am taking two introductory classes on Christian doctrine, both of which require me to write a 10-12 page credo, simply expressing what I believe about every topic covered in class. I started work on one of these recently, and for fun I thought I’d share¬†my section on the Trinity. (Yes, I will be posting the full credos as PDFs when I’m finished.)

The Trinity

There is only one God, one true divine being with one single essence or ousia. He is a single Subject, indivisible, who cannot be broken apart. Yet it belongs to the one divine essence to subsist in three distinct Persons, revealed as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each Person is fully and entirely God, possessing the fullness of the one divine nature in unity with the other Persons. God thus exists as a unity-in-trinity, or a trinity-in-unity, in which the single divine ousia exists in a trifold mode of three hypostases. The Persons are each distinguished not by any divine attributes of which one person has more or less, for they are all entirely equal and divine, but by their relations to each other. The Father is the Father precisely because He is Father of the Son, for example. Apart from these internal relational distinctions, there is no possible essential or eternal difference to draw between the Persons of the Trinity. They are each essentially equal in power, glory, wisdom, authority, and love. They share one will, intelligence, and emotional life. There is no hierarchy, supremacy, or subordination of any kind within the immanent/ontological Trinity. The Father is an unqualified equal to the Son who is an unqualified equal to the Spirit who is an unqualified equal to the Father. Each has the fullness of the one divine nature, the one divine nature which itself constitutes them as relations of one God. The divine nature both constitutes the relations of the Triune Persons and is constituted by their relations. In these relations, the Father eternally begets the Son, and the Father and the Son eternally spirate the Spirit, but in these cases the generation neither compromises the aseity of each member nor defines some kind of ontological contingency. Neither should the begetting of the Son of the procession of the Spirit be seen as Persons originating from the unoriginate Person of the Father, but rather the Persons come from the being of the Father, the one ousia which each Person fully shares. 

In history, God has expressed Himself in a unique Triune economy, and the way the Trinity is expressed in redemptive history is called the economic Trinity. In the economic Trinity, as a general pattern, the Father sends and initiates, the Son obeys and accomplishes, and the Spirit implements and consummates. In this economy the Father clearly takes the ultimate authority, this likely because of the correspondence with His eternal begetting of the Son and spiration of the Spirit. The Son is, in a certain sense, the fulfillment of God’s economy, as throughout the Old Testament and finally in the Incarnation He was (and remains) the personal, distinct, tangible appearance of God within creation. Throughout the whole of redemption, the Spirit acts as the agent of divine power, the one who accomplishes the supernatural divine will within natural space and time. These role distinctions are consistent and ultimate in human relationship to God, but they are not themselves internal to the divine being, though they in an imperfect and finite way reflect the internal Triune relations of God. They call forth a response for human faith and practice which seeks to worship the Father through the mediation of the Son by faithful union in the Spirit, and to do the will of the Father on the ground of the work of the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Protestant Reformation: The Day After

Two days ago was Reformation Day (and Halloween, of course, but that’s¬†less interesting), and I never did get around to writing anything or throwing in my token of celebration. So I’m taking up a different topic on this later day: the aftermath of the Reformation. I want to offer a few thoughts on the¬†way the Reformation has turned out and what lies ahead. Specifically, I want to highlight some of what I see as the good, the bad, and the hopeful.

The Good

  • Yay for the abolishment of indulgence sales! Many Catholics took Luther’s critiques to heart. Indulgences still exist, but as more of a formal relic than they did, and they are no longer sold for money and don’t exploit the poor. And of course this whole nonsense has never been a part of the Protestant churches which sprung from the Reformation. By¬†Biblical standards, this was clearly one of¬†the worst and most reprehensible problems with the medieval Catholic church.
  • Yay for the rejection of advanced Mariology! I’m not going to say that the official Catholic dogma technically transgresses into idolatry, but in¬†any case I think the fixation on Mary in Catholic theology goes far beyond what is Biblically warranted. The accumulations of doctrines like her immaculate conception and assumption are painful for me to even contemplate. Mary was certainly a good example and should be remembered as such, and she was certainly blessed with a very unique role in redemptive history, but¬†I’m happy that Protestantism is not concerned with¬†thoughts of how Mary could stay a virgin forever, be taken body and soul to heaven, and be preserved from sin¬†through the entirety of her life.
  • Yay for the rejection of independent, created grace and human righteousness! While I disagree with many of my Protestant brethren on the precise way that Catholicism went wrong on these issues and the exact way¬†of a Biblical response, the Catholic system, especially in its medieval days, did have serious problems. We depend on Christ alone¬†at every step. Grace is not created into us in some way of generated habits of righteousness. We do not have any hold over God’s grace; it is not an object which can be put in us and¬†which we can then manipulate for better or worse by our wills. The union we share with Christ, by which we are righteous, is personal and alien and Spirit-ually¬†connected at every moment by nature.
  • Yay for the rejection of papal and magisterial authority!¬†Whatever role Scripture ought rightly to play in relation to tradition, reason, and experience, the idea that any infallible doctrinal authority might be placed in the hands of a vicar of Christ of a single body of scholars is simply foreign to the Kingdom of God in Christ. In addition to the formal problem of¬†whether such authority is legitimate, much of¬†the doctrine they have propagated from that authority is¬†problematic.
  • Yay for the collapse of church/state unity! While the original Reformers continued to unite church and state,¬†it was nonetheless the overall movements begun with the Reformation which eventually toppled this destructive practice. We now (particularly in Baptist circles) strongly resist the idea the Church should make such use of the powers of this age,¬†and even the Catholic Church has come to understand this.

The Bad

  • Boo for the divisions¬†in Christ’s body! While I am glad for the Reformation, and I don’t think we can or should pursue institutional unity between Catholic and Protestant churches at this point in history, I hate the way so many people on each side (especially ours) condemn those on the other. We have serious disagreements¬†that make full unity impossible, but it is to our shame if we refuse to at least be united in love, good works, and our witness to the world and so divide Christ’s Body. (Because, as I have written on multiple occasions before, I don’t believe Catholics are heretics.)
  • Boo for the reintroduction of created grace in Protestant theology! After the Reformers rejected so forcefully the idea that God actually creates an independently operating grace in the believer which he can use and manage on his own, modern theologies of regeneration tend to reproduce precisely this error.
  • Boo for replacement of magisterium with confessions!¬†Confessions are important, even vital, to establishing certain doctrinal standards and maintaining boundaries of unity. But they are not infallible, and there is not one single confession from the Reformation or any other context which has no errors, no shortcomings, or no room for reformulation (maybe reformation!) as the Church marches on. Yet in many circles, primarily Reformed ones,¬†the classic confessions (particularly the Westminster Confession) are treated as absolutely authoritative. Sure, the people who do this admit¬†they are subservient to Scripture, but they act¬†naively as though any confession repeats univocally the truth of God revealed through Scripture, and thus they create a¬†de facto replacement for the Holy Tradition¬†which so repels them from Catholicism.

The Hopeful

  • So much work has been done on the topic of justification in the past century (or centuries) that I truly believe a unified doctrine could be worked out, given sufficient effort, in the next century.¬†That will depend on willingness and cooperation, but I believe the theological and exegetical work necessary to do this has already been¬†accomplished. A unified doctrine of justification accepted by Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox is a goal visible on the horizon of¬†the Church’s future, if we just reach out and take it.
  • Despite the many advances since the Reformation, it is not truly over. Much work still needs to be done, both in places where the Reformation never really took root (like Italy and many South American regions) and in places where people are as Reformed as can be.¬†Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi Dei: “the church is Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” The Reformation will, in a certain sense, never be finished even if we one day reach some glorious reunification of a purified Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox Church. Until Christ comes, we will always need to reevaluate, criticize, destroy, rebuild,¬†repackage, rediscover, and¬†relearn how to respond, both theologically and practically, to the truth of the Word of God spoken by the Spirit. Fortunately, I see great evidence that this work is ongoing and will be quite fruitful.
  • In the near future, I¬†have hope we may see more interdenominational cooperation between conservative Christians of all traditions as the West becomes increasingly hostile in culture and law to orthodox Christian values and ways of life. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics, and Orthodox will all need to work together to do the work of the Kingdom and sustain our Christian witness¬†in the coming dark ages, and I am convinced that many, if not all, will rise to the challenge and make the Church appear more¬†united that it has in a long time.

The Humility of God

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Matthew 11:29

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who,

though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death‚ÄĒeven death on a cross.

Philippians 2:3-8

“God is humble.” Have you ever in your life heard or thought of such a thing? Is it even true? Some people might initially balk at the suggestion, instead insisting that God‚Äôs final and ultimate purpose is glorifying Himself and that this is entirely opposite of humility. Yet it is not clear that this is Biblically accurate. For if we know anything about God, according to Scripture, we know that He is revealed most fully and perfectly in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And, as I just quoted, Jesus calls Himself ‚Äúhumble.‚ÄĚ Paul uses the mind of Jesus as the prime example of humility. So there are only two possibilities: either humility is a trait of Jesus unique to His humanity, or humility is in fact a trait of God.

So was humility only a part of Jesus’ earthly life? Was it only a result of His becoming a human being? This seems questionable on multiple grounds. For one, humility is treated in Scripture as a virtue, an element of good character. Yet Jesus’ character in His earthly life was not something that came purely from His human existence, but corresponded in every way to His goodness as the eternal Son. While we can certainly acknowledge that Jesus did say and do things as a human which do not directly correspond to anything in His divine life (I doubt, for example, that using the restroom expressed His divine character, though maybe that’s a limit of my imagination), it seems difficult to suggest that any of the positive traits He applied to Himself or any of the character He expressed can divorced from who He is as God.

Another reason to be skeptical that Jesus’ humility is restricted to His humanity is that Philippians 2 treats it as underlying the Incarnation. When Paul seek to inspire us to humility here, he does not point first to how humble Jesus was on earth, as if He only became humble because He became human. Rather, he starts by pointing out that Jesus’ act of becoming incarnate, His very choice to become human, was already a humble act. The choice to become human is not itself a choice made by Jesus in His human nature, since He did not have one until He chose to have one! Yet He already expressed humility by choosing to become a human being. Therefore humility characterizes Jesus even in eternity as the pure God, the one is entirely and completely the image of the God the Father Almighty and the exact expression of His nature. Since there is no God behind the back of Jesus, we know that God is humble.

This brings us, then, to a couple of questions. The first is one which may be percolating in some minds right now is simply how it can be that God is humble if He in Scripture often seeks to glorify Himself. Many in fact argue that God’s first and most fundamental purpose in absolutely all things is to glorify Himself. While I tend to think this is a bit reductionistic and goes beyond what Scripture actually teaches, it certainly can’t be denied that God in Scripture often does seem to act for His own glory. So how can God seek His own glory and be humble (or love, for that matter, cf. 1 Cor. 13:4-5)? To understand this, I believe we need to see the Trinitarian shape of God’s glory and love. Love does not seek its own, to be sure, but it does always seek its beloved’s. And no one loves the Son more than the Father, or the Father more than the Son. There is no love greater than the love of God in the Holy Spirit. We understand from Scripture that the Son glorifies the Father, the Father glorifies the Son (John 17:1-5), and the Holy Spirit does not speak of Himself but of the Father through and in the Son (John 15:26).

Even this, though, does not fully seem to account for the self-glorification of God. After all, even though God exists in three persons, there is also a sense in which it is right to treat Him as a single, undivided Subject and Actor. So it may still be worth asking just how a humble God glorifies Himself from the perspective even of His oneness. To this end I might suggest an analogy. Imagine a humble, soft-spoken but absolutely excellent doctor. He feels little impulse to brag about his impressive skill or medical successes, even though he certainly would be speaking pure truth if he did. Yet one day he finds a man in a severe medical emergency on the side of the road. The man is proud, confused, and skeptical of the doctor, willing to simply risk it on his own rather than submit to the instructions the doctor provides. So the doctor begins explaining and demonstrating his medical expertise and skill with a flurry of technical terms, deft use of his resources, and stories of great feats he has accomplished in the operating room. He exalts himself and humbles the man, not for any selfish or egotistical purpose but precisely because he is the man’s only hope for life. Without him the man will die, and he must make the man understand.

While I doubt this is a flawless analogy and assume someone could find a fault or two, I think it has some merit. God doesn‚Äôt just glorify Himself because He craves glory from tiny creatures or because He desperately needs the adulation like some kind of megalomaniac, but rather spreads His glory across the world so that all people will see Him and find eternal life in communion with Him. For Psalm 22:26-27 declare, ‚ÄúThose who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him,‚ÄĚ and John 17:3 adds, ‚ÄúThis is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.‚ÄĚ

With all this in mind we can see no real contradiction between God‚Äôs self-glorification and His essential humility. So we can return to the simple words of Christ and accept them as God‚Äôs own self-revelation: ‚ÄúI am humble in heart.‚ÄĚ God is not an egomaniac. He is not a narcissist. He is not an arrogant tyrant running around to make more of Himself than He needs to. He is glorious, but without pretense or a need to exalt in His glory over us. Just as Karl Barth once said, ‚ÄúGod does not need to make any fuss about his glory: God is glorious. He simply needs to show Himself as He is, He simply needs to reveal Himself. That is what He does in man.‚ÄĚ Indeed, He expresses His glory by becoming one of us, and ultimately in humbling Himself all the way to the Cross to give us life. God is most glorified on Calvary, precisely where He is most humble, even humiliated. This is our God, whose ‚ÄúI AM WHO I WILL BE‚ÄĚ climaxes in His most despised and lowly moment in giving His own self for us. This is the God who is love, the God who is Jesus Christ. And rather than actually give you the takeaways, I think they can speak for themselves. I instead suggest that you simply meditate and pray. The glory of this humble, self-giving God should tell you all you need to know.

What God Has Done, Not What He “Would” Do

“God wouldn’t…” This unfortunate phrase appears fairly often in theological debate. Along with this one come on occasion “God couldn’t” or, more rarely, “God shouldn’t.” Yet to me reasoning which starts in this way seems somewhat misguided at best and dangerous at worst. To explain why, I shall first provide some examples of what I dislike.

  • A theistic evolutionist might say, “God wouldn’t create the natural world in a God-of-the-gaps manner.”
  • A young earth creationist might say, “God wouldn’t create life by such a violent and inefficient process as evolution.”
  • A Calvinist might say, “God wouldn’t waste any of Jesus’ blood dying for those who won’t be saved.”
  • An Arminian might say, “God couldn’t save everyone without violating their free will.”
  • A theological progressive might say, “God wouldn’t oppose people of any sex who love each other getting married.”
  • A theological conservative might say, “God wouldn’t [maybe couldn’t] provide us with a Bible anything less than 100% inerrant.”
  • A universalist might say, “God couldn’t send Jesus to die for everyone but everyone not be saved.”
  • An exclusivist might say, “God wouldn’t save those who reject His Son.”

What do these all have in common? They all seem entitled to be overly presumptuous in discussing God. I take it as an absolute axiom that God is utterly, sovereignly free. God is under no obligations outside of Himself, and is not bound to any structures, logics, or rules beyond those to which He freely chooses to bind Himself. If this is the case to, in my opinion, any meaningful extent at all, then what use is a “wouldn’t” or a “couldn’t?”

The fundamental problem with trying to reason out such controls over God’s activity is that of the infinite qualitative distinction between God and humanity. God is above; we are below. God is infinite; we are finite. God created and transcends the natural order; we were created and are radically contingent within the natural order. All of this adds us to that God’s famous declaration in Isaiah: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.”

Given Jesus’ own life (among other realities), this radical disjunction between human expectations and divine actions should be entirely unsurprising. How hard-pressed would one be to imagine a Jew before Christ saying, “God would never become a man?” Or perhaps one did expect that God would come in a human form or something, but might have thought, “When God comes, He will come in glory and power, certainly not in a lowly manger.” Indeed, when Jerusalem was abuzz with the hope that Jesus would take up the Messianic role and set Himself up as God’s king against Rome, did He not instead take the humble role of the suffering servant? Who before this happened would have said anything but, “God could not die!”

The pattern is clear. God has revealed that His normal practice is overturning human expectations, shattering our ideas of what He could or would do. His ways have appeared startling and paradoxical throughout His whole history of dealings with mankind, Israel, His own Son, and the Church. With such a free, sovereign, and surprising God, how could we ever presume to figure out His truths by way of reasoning what He could or would do? This would be akin to predicting what a cunning, master chess player would do when you yourself barely even know the rules of the game.

Instead, I believe we should restrict ourselves to the question of only what God has done, or promised to do. An examples, what if we reframed the earlier example debates this way exclusively?

  • Did God create life by evolutionary, biological means, or by immediate miracle?
  • Has God provided His Son as atonement for all people, or only some?
  • Has God said that homosexuality is sinful, or has He left this open?
  • Did God inspire Scripture in an inerrant way, or in another way?
  • Has God said He will save all or some, and if some who has God said He will save?

None of the answers to these questions are important to this present post (and I can tell you now that you will not be able to use this list to figure out my stances on anything you do not already know). What matters is cutting away the “would” and “could” to focus on what God has actually done. Trying to work the other way, making the arguments I sampled at the beginning of this post, works as an effective red herring, taking our attention away from reality where God has truly done this or that, and instead pulling us into a vain world of hypotheticals and insolent speculation on the divine purposes. If we are to let God simply be God, and do as He wishes, then we should make a rule to assess His deeds a posteriori, not a priori.

On the other hand, I am not issuing a blanket condemnation on all attempts to reason about less clear areas of God’s activity from more clear ones. Obviously that is necessary in some way and to some degree. For example, if someone was arguing that God lied, we would be perfectly justified in responding “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18). Yet if we are to reason in this way, we must do so only on the foundations of what God has already clearly done and said, not inferences from the abstract, provisional, philosophical, and analogical side in our notions of who/what God is. On this latter ground there is simply far too much wiggle room, too many chances to go down a mental wrong turn without enough light to ever tell. Who is, after all, qualified to understand God’s ways anywhere but within the parameters set by God’s ways?

On this note, I shall end with this simply inexhaustible quote from Paul:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor? Or who has ever first given to Him, and has to be repaid? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

Romans 11:33-36

My Stance on the Rapture

I just realized that I haven’t actually written about the Rapture on this blog¬†at all since I began it. Yet the Rapture is a fun and popular¬†debate, and it’s one of the few issues on which Christians can disagree without very many people getting angry or declaring you a heretic (though some still do).

So what do I believe about the Rapture? Before I answer, I’ll¬†quickly survey the popular options. Here they are:

  • Pre-tribulation Rapture:¬†The most common and popular view, mostly popular because of the writers like Tim LeHaye and the¬†Left Behind movies (not counting the Nick Cage one). In this view, immediately before the 7-year tribulation period, Jesus will make something of a partial coming in which He will instantly gather all of His people from around the globe to Himself and¬†take them back to heaven. After this the world will experience severe judgments from God for 7 years¬†until Jesus returns and sets up His millennial kingdom.
  • Post-tribulation Rapture:¬†Probably the second most common view, in post-tribulationalism¬†the Church will have to live through the 7 years of judgment, though protected by God along the way, and after that Jesus will return, take His saints up to heaven, and institute His millennial reign.
  • Mid-tribulation Rapture:¬†In this view (also called¬†pre-wrath), the¬†Rapture takes place halfway through the tribulation, prior to God’s pouring out of His wrath on the world. Mid-trib makes a distinction between the persecutions and sufferings of the first half of the tribulation and the eschatological outpouring of God’s wrath of the second half.

To jump right to it, none of these appeal to me. I don’t think any of them have sufficient Biblical grounding, and I think they all miss the important point of what the Rapture¬†is. That said, I think pre-trib is the least likely of these, and in fact, I would go so far as to say that it has no Biblical evidence whatsoever and is every bit as much a sketchy extra-Biblical tradition as any Catholic innovation (no offense to my papist friends, of course).

So what do I believe about the Rapture? First off, I doubt that Revelation even teaches a distinct 7-year tribulation period. I agree with those who argue that the years, times, and seasons in Revelation are symbolic, and that the sequences of 7 (bowls, wrath, trumpets) are actually different visions which go back and refer to the same thing, much as Pharaoh had two dreams in one night with the same meaning.

This, of course, makes any of the¬†popular views on the Rapture’s timing moot. The terms pre, post, and mid-trib don’t make sense without a specific 7 year tribulation.¬†What does this do to the Rapture itself? In the eschatological timeline I find most convincing,¬†the millennium is a reality for¬†those who have died in Christ¬†now, and it will end when Christ returns. When He returns, He will, as Scripture says, call His people together to meet Him in the air. Exactly what this will look like I do not know (is “in the air” a literal description, even?), but what comes next is the most¬†serious departure from the other Rapture views.

I do not believe that we will be Raptured to heaven. That is where Christ is coming from, and in fact He is bringing heaven with Him to earth. Rather, our Rapture will be the time in which we are transformed by the sight of Him to be like Him, and then we will escort Him to earth. At this time all the dead are raised, the world is judged, and the entire creation will be recreated around Jesus Christ. Then heaven and earth will be one, with Christ ruling at the center.

So, specifically, I take the Rapture to be when we meet Christ in the air to be glorified and raised to resurrection life before escorting Him to His take rule over the kingdom, which now extends over the whole earth. 

Where do I get such an idea? The term¬†parousia, used in the New Testament to refer to Christ’s return, means “appearing” or “presence.”¬†In particular, it was used in the Roman Empire (under which, of course, Israel was ruled and against which Christ was proclaimed as Lord) to refer to the “appearing” of the emperor to a city or colony. When news of his coming came,¬†the citizens of Rome would exit the city to gather around him and give him a royal escort into their city. It is not only possible but quite likely that Paul saw very much the same kind of thing going on when Christ returns for us.

N. T. Wright is the most well-known proponent of this view, so if you want to learn more about it I would recommend that you check out this brief essay he wrote on the topic, and perhaps also check out his excellent book, Surprised by Hope, which covers this and other issues related to heaven, the resurrection, and the new creation.