A Riddle of Love and Election

Something occurred to me last night when I was reading Herman Bavinck on the infra/supralapsarian debate in classical Calvinism. (‘Twas a pretty good read, by the way. Bavinck¬†is probably the best that¬†classical, federal Reformed theology has to offer.) A strange dilemma seems to appear in the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional, individual election.¬†Specifically, the relation between love and election is confusing.

Generally speaking, in classical Calvinism it’s said that God loves all, but God has a special love for the elect. Not all agree, of course, with some denying God’s love for the reprobate and (I imagine, since if you can think it someone else has already?) some affirming God’s equal love for all people. But¬†my question is directed to the majority report.

So, does election precede special love or does special love precede election?

If election precedes special love, then we’re left with the question of God’s differentiation between the elect and reprobate. If, logically prior to election, God’s love for all is equal, then why do limits develop on His mercy to the people who He makes to be the elect alone? It’s also a worthwhile question what the character is of this¬†supraeclectic¬†love. Prior to God’s election, is this “love” to be understood as having a saving character or less than a saving character? This¬†affects how the decree of election is understood.

On the other hand, if special love precedes election, and by definition election is¬†God’s choosing, then God chooses the elect because He already favored them. But¬†in that case, then God did not choose who He especially loved to begin with.¬†So why did He love them especially if He had not yet chosen them?

Basically, if special love precedes election then God’s¬†differentiating love seems unchosen and intrinsic to God’s relation to men, and it seems weird and arbitrary that God would naturally love some people more than others without choosing specifically to do so. But if election precedes special love, then it is unclear why or how God would¬†give mercy to some and reject some whom He all loves equally.

Anyone have a suggestion how this is to be resolved in a classical Calvinist framework?

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.

Evangelical Calvinism: I Suggest Four New Solas

One of the primary¬†goals of Evangelical Calvinism is to further reform the¬†Reformed tradition. As I mentioned the other day, the Reformation will never be truly over, and EC focuses on what¬†work still needs to be done.¬†And if we’re going to try to keep¬†reforming the Reformation, we might find it useful to extend the iconic Five Solas, the defining marks of Protestant theology.¬†Here, then,¬†is my proposal for four additional, Evangelical Calvinist solas.

Sola Incarnatio: The Incarnation Alone

The Incarnation alone is the meeting point between God and man, the only possible connection between the Creator and His human creatures. Jesus of Nazareth isn’t just¬†in fact the only way to God, but He is¬†in principle the only way to God. No other way could exist¬†for God and man to have a relationship. There can only be communion between God and man because of the hypostatic union between God and man in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. This all is meant to apply¬†even to sinless man. Had Adam never sinned, his destiny would still have been found only in Jesus taking on flesh. Had man never chosen death, his life would still¬†only be fulfilled by coming of Life Himself in human nature. Why? Because God is above, we are below, God is¬†Creator, we are creature, God is infinite, we are finite, God is transcendent, and we are dust. There is an infinite qualitative¬†difference between God and man, a gap that could only be bridged by¬†God’s omnipotent power in becoming one of us.

Sola Apocalypsi: By Revelation Alone

God can be known by revelation alone, His personal self-revelation. The idea of general revelation is a mixed bag: surely the whole creation testifies to its Creator, but among fallen, fleshly men this means little or nothing. There are no ears to hear. If we are to find God at all, if we are to reliably know anything true and certain about Him, we need to be directly confronted by His personal Word. This happens in Christ, the Old Testament preparations which were bound up with His Coming, and the Apostolic witness to Him in the New Testament, by the Spirit.

Sola apocalypsi means that we can’t trust things like natural theology, general revelation, or philosophical arguments to know anything about God except in¬†retrospect. We can see light in these ways through Christ, but apart from Christ it is all darkness.¬†

Solius Benevolentia: Of Goodwill Alone

All¬†things, particularly all men, have been created by God of goodwill alone. There is no malice, no darkness, and no deviousness in God’s plans for His creation. This is meant specifically in contrast to the doctrine that many people have been created not¬†out of God’s kindness¬†per se, but instead were created specifically for God’s wrath or (in a more positive framing) to glorify God by highlighting His justice in punishing their sins. God’s eternal¬†design and desire for no man is doom. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.

This may seem like a polemic especially against classical Calvinism, but it is not unique to Calvinism. It also applies to the theology of election (actually, for him it was more about providence) in Thomas Aquinas and Augustine.¬†As Evangelical Calvinists, we deny that God’s will for any man terminates in their eternal destruction, regardless of who¬†says otherwise.

Sola Vita: Life Alone

Closely related to the last suggested¬†sola, we affirm that life alone is the end to which God has predestined all people. There is only one singular destiny God has created for His creation, and that is¬†eternal life¬†by the glory of God. No one is predetermined apart from their actual rejection of God to anything else.¬†As Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is living man.” Thus this follows from the traditional¬†soli¬†Deo gloria. God’s glory is the end of all things, and He has sovereignly chosen to manifest His glory precisely in giving His eternal, imperishable life to human creatures.

This destiny, of course, has been proved in Jesus Christ, the archetypal human and new Adam. In raising Jesus from the dead, God has displayed before the world His singular plan for the world. The resurrection and restoration¬†of all things,¬†but particularly humanity, is His design. Anyone who is damned and lost (and there will be many such people) are not¬†so because of God’s¬†will but their own.

The Loving God of Wrath and Covenant

God’s wrath is of love. This is not something we normally think about, to be sure, but according to the Scriptures God’s wrath is in fact a function of His love, something He exhibits out of love. This is something which struck me a couple weeks ago when I read this text for a Sunday school lesson:

Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. They abandoned the LORD, and worshiped Baal and the Astartes. So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them to bring misfortune, as the LORD had warned them and sworn to them; and they were in great distress. Then the LORD raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them.

Judges 2:11-16

The story here is this: Israel was delivered by the free grace of God from Egypt and given the Torah as covenant charter, a document establishing the covenant relationship between God and Israel. The Torah stipulated certain curses if Israel failed to obey, most importantly including devastation at the hands of foreign nations. They obeyed (mostly-ish) for a time under the strong leadership of Moses and then Joshua. But finally Joshua died, and idolatry flooded the nation in very little time. So God was under obligation by the terms of the covenant He entered to punish Israel for their unfaithfulness.

Thus we arrive at this text. In response to Israel’s breaking of the covenant, God responded with the curses of the covenant. They worshipped Baals and Astartes, breaking the first two commandments. So God let their enemies plunder the land, gave them failure in their military endeavors, and put them under wicked, oppressive rulers. When we simply skim some verses about this kind of judgment, we are likely to miss just how strong it is. Imagine for a moment the scene of raiders charging through a peaceful village, killing and burning and stealing. Moms search for their children in rubble, families are suddenly decimated, and hard-working people find their homes and livelihoods reduced to rubble. We speak here of horrendous suffering.

Does the word ‚Äúlove‚ÄĚ come to mind in this picture? Do you see love here? Yet Scripture tells us that it is indeed present here. It‚Äôs in fact God‚Äôs original motivation. For these penalties were imposed by the Torah, which itself was a gift of love by which God made up His covenant with Israel. God chose Israel and made a covenant with them out of love, and yet He included these curses in His covenant. The curses are part of, as it were, the marriage contract between God and Israel.

This covenantal form of love is the context for God’s wrath. His wrath operates for the covenant partner. By sending afflictions on Israel for their unfaithfulness, God calls them to return to Him and find the life which He has to offer. If there is no life except from God, then for Israel to pursue anyone or anything else is to run from life. Therefore it is by love that God is angered by Israel’s unfaithfulness and idolatry. As one analogy, nothing will make you more angry with your child than seeing them engage consistently and unrepentantly in self-destructive behavior. Israel degraded herself by idol worship, which aroused the fury of her Husband who loved her and sought her best.

Yet unlike some of us, unlike the frustrated parents or jealous husbands we know, God’s wrath is never uncontrolled or unpredictable. God will never be overwhelmed with passion or so frustrated that He loses control. He does not fly off the handle. Instead, His anger is specifically limited and controlled. He set the terms of His wrath in the Torah, giving detailed rules and guidelines for how He would respond to Israel’s sins. In God’s covenant of love, He limits and directs His fury. And His fury comes from no place but His covenant of love.

Therefore God is love. And even His wrath serves that love, and is specially controlled and limited for our sake. The idea of a wrathful God ought not scare us or make us uncomfortable at all unless we are also uncomfortable with a loving God. ‚ÄúFor the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child‚ÄĚ (Heb. 15:6).

Love Is War

I was reading 1 Corinthians 13 the other day and learned something which I did not know. Apparently, all (or most?) of the descriptions of love are verbs in the Greek. Phrases rendered like “Love is kind” could be rendered ultra-literally as “Love kinds” or more dynamically as “Love acts kindly.” Love is active throughout the passage.

Moreover, the actions ascribed to love in this passage are entirely contrary to the flesh, our natural way of living based on our merely animal aspects. We act in one way by default, by instinct, and that way is entirely opposed to the way of love. They cannot abide one another. They are antithetical at their very core. There is one way of acting characterized by love and another way of acting characterized by the self-being of the flesh, and one cannot act in both ways with creating inner conflict.

This brings me to another thought, namely the way that Christianity is often portrayed as a soft, feminine religion with no room for toughness,¬†conflict, strenuous self-discipline, or heroic efforts. It seems unmanly by any of the traditional traits associated with masculinity. Christianity often appears to be an issue of “love, not war.”

But what I would like to point out here is that, in a very important way, love is war. It is strenuous conflict, the fight against natural instincts of self-service in order to do what is right for God and others. It involves determined efforts to kill the old man. We fight and struggle against not humans, but spiritual forces and powers and the corruptions in nature.

This is a Biblical theme. Paul speaks in Romans 9 to us about killing sin, putting it to violent death in our bodies because we have been hung on a bloody cross to die with Christ. We direct strenuous energy and training into fighting the war of love, which means following our Captain Jesus to fight the way He fought, not against humans but against sin, self-love, and the effects of death and Hell. Jesus fought by resisting all of His natural impulses to save or avenge Himself and instead suffering nobly to complete the mission of God. This is our call as well, and it is a hard one which requires an almost military discipline, or even more than that.

Acts is also portrayed as a conquest narrative. It has numerous parallels with Joshua, showing¬†Canaan and then the world being conquered by the preaching of the Gospel through Christ’s elite warriors. These¬†warriors suffer just as other warriors do, more literally than in most of these other parallels as they¬†experienced flogging, beating, and all kinds of torture or harsh conditions.

This is all specific to love, not just a conception of Christianity in general. We do and must do all of these things for  the sake of love, love for God and for people. It is love which must be the force here, and yet it is also through these fights and struggles that we actually love. There is circularity here: love compels us to fight the war that enables us to love.

I also do not say this merely to point out¬†an interesting idea in thinking about love. I’m pointing this out because this realization has two possible benefits.¬†On the one hand, it is a reminder to men that Christianity is serious conflict, that it is not simply sitting around singing mushy songs and feeling fluttery feelings about God and others. Rather, it is¬†a fight.¬†In¬†Christianity we are called to act like heroes who love by taking down sin and self-centeredness like Liam Neeson takes down Eastern European criminals in order to serve the ones we love. We are like the troops who lay down their lives to protect their families and honor their king.

On the other hand, I say this to remind us that love is effort, serious effort in which we will have to suffer. Like in war, we must discipline ourselves and be consciously vigilant against all threats. Love and our loved ones are located in a battle zone, and we must behave in a way that makes sense in such high stakes. It takes diligence, self-control, attention, and obedience to orders if we want our love, our mission to put God and others first, to succeed.

Onward, then, Christian soldiers. Let us march on to the war that is love.

Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in God

Once upon a time, the Twelve Apostles (including Matthias) came together under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to write the Apostles’ Creed as the core of Christian belief. At least, so the story goes. While historically it’s probably not true, it cannot be denied that the substance of the Apostles’ Creed goes way back. It was the first of the three ecumenical creeds accepted by all Christianity (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox). It summarizes in very brief form the message of the Gospel as found in the New Testament.

So, given its importance, I’m going to so a series on the articles of the Apostles’ Creed. This first post will be on, naturally, the first article, of God the Father Almighty.

The Creed states as follows:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

It sounds simple enough. What do we learn from this?

First, we begin with “I believe.” The content of the Creed, the Gospel of the Triune God who has acted in and as Jesus Christ, is taken by faith. We do not now see Jesus. We do not have any way to verify with our own reasoning or arguments that Jesus truly was and did everything we believe about Him. There are reasons to believe, but not proof, and our mental hands are not forced by any logical necessity. We accept the content of the Creed by faith, the act of submitting our minds to God’s revealing His Son to us by His Spirit through His Word. We confess first that our attempts at proof and verification are, if not worthless, certainly inadequate, and so we have no other grounds that trust in the self-revealing God and His Word communicated in Scripture and the preaching of the Gospel.

Next, we see that God is first defined as “Father.” Unlike many confessions and works of theology or dogmatics, which initially identify God through creation, the Creed begins with His identity as Father. We know God as Father first because we know Him truly¬†through the Son. As Athanasius once remarked, “It is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.”¬†God is the Father of the Son before and apart from creation, and because He creates and recreates us by and in His Son, He makes Himself to be our Father as well. Because God’s being Father¬†is ultimately first, and His position as Creator second, we know that God’s first and foremost intentions and regard for us are of fatherly love. Before God is anything else to us, He is the¬†loving Father.

We also see that this Father is “almighty.” Note that this¬†almightiness is connected, not to His role as Creator, but to His being the Father. This is essential for us to know: that God is not first merely all-powerful creator deity but that He is all-powerful precisely as our loving Father. In this we know that God’s almighty powers, such as omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, are not against us or even simply neutral toward us, but rather act for us.¬†God is the Almighty, the one who alone holds all power and knowledge and wisdom and immortality, and this almighty God is our Father. In this we can be assured of God’s gracious intention in His rule over all things. Whatever happens to us happens under the care of our almighty Father.

At this point the Creed adds that God is Creator, that He made the heavens and the earth. Only after we know that God is first and foremost Father, and that as Father He has almighty power, is it safe to consider that He is the Creator. Creation is an act of the loving Father out of His almightiness. We exist by His will alone. This puts a claim on us all. If He is Creator, than we depend on Him for every breath, and again this is a dependence in our Father. But we must therefore obey Him. Even our ability to disobey Him is something that exists by His creative power, and thus we are necessarily at His mercy in all we do. In this case it behooves us to live rightly before Him. And we can be assured, since the Creator is Father, that all He demands of us is truly good and that the world is so ordered under His creative will that obeying Him truly does bring us benefit.

Finally, we note that God is the Creator of both heaven and earth. It should strike us that both the earthly and the heavenly realms are creations. Heaven and earth are twin realities created by God, and both had a beginning. Heaven has not always existed, and is not God’s eternal home. Heaven is rather the invisible and spiritual side of the created order where God makes His throne from which to rule the earth. In heaven God’s fatherly will truly does reign and all things are ordered as they should be, and so heaven is the model and destiny of earth. We pray through Christ for the Father who created heaven and earth to make earth more like heaven until the day when the two will be united into one, just as the God of heaven and man of the earth have united in Christ Jesus.

As one final note, we see that all things whatsoever are included in heaven and earth, so that there is nothing outside of God which was not created by God. And since this Creator is Father, we know that everything which exists can only exist in relation to His fatherly care. Nothing could exist apart from the creative will of the God we know as Father. Therefore nothing exists except for our benefit as children. We also know that, as children, we are set to inherit all created things. For if the Son is the heir of the Father, and the Father has created all things, and we have been made sons in the Son, then we are the rightful heirs of creation. In the meantime we may use and enjoy all that is our Father’s in gratitude, and in the end all things belong to us, and we belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

Abraham’s Choice

Kill the miracle child. That was God’s demand to Abraham. An old man was told to take his young son, whom he had never thought would be conceived and waited patiently for years to see be born, plunge a knife into him, and burn his body. All of this for a God who had already made him leave behind his homeland and family on faith. Why? Why another test, and one of such horror?

Ultimately, Abraham chose to continue in steadfast faith, hoping perhaps desperately for even a resurrection. He seemed willing to believe that the God who brought new life out of his own all-but-dead body could also bring new life out of the ashes of his son’s. This took deep faith and surely serious internal conflict. Such a choice for God few seem truly able to make.

I find it bothersome, then, that there are people even in the Church saying that Abraham didn’t really have to make that choice, or even shouldn’t have made it. Rachel Held Evans, for example,¬†made this argument a¬†couple years ago. According¬†to such arguments it would have been okay or even right for Abraham to defy what he heard as the command of God (or was it?) out of love for his son. Love is the essence of Christian morality, right? Killing a child isn’t love, and why’s a supposedly good God commanding this, anyway?

Now put that thought in hold for a moment to consider a somewhat related argument about martyrdom. Some in the Church argue that it’s not ultimately important what you say or believe about God so long as you live a life of Christ-like love. In this case, there’s no reason to confess Jesus even on pain of death. Instead, you should just trample His name under your feet when threatened and use the life you escape with to show Christ’s love to others through mercy and self-sacrifice, though perhaps without mentioning Him.

To put these two arguments in a room together, then, imagine a situation in which you are on trial for professing Christ in a hostile environment and you are told to deny Christ or your children will be killed. By the logic of both of these arguments above, you should deny Jesus and save your kids. That’s the only way you can honor the essence of Christianity, which is to love others. To follow the examples of the martyrs or Abraham would be at best a mistake.

But what if both of these arguments are wrong? They seem to share the assumption that other people are the soul of Christianity, but what if they aren’t? What if God’s love and purpose for us expressed in Christ and His Resurrection are the center? What if everything else, including love for others, hangs upon this reality?

If Christ and His Resurrection are truly central, then both of the arguments fail. If Christ is at the center, and He is the love of God, and there is no other love of God than the person of Jesus, then to deny Him is to deny the love of God. To deny the love of God is then to deny the very ground on which any love for others firmly stands, for apart from God’s electing love for man, man is nothing. If the Resurrection is truly God’s loving ¬†purpose for us in Christ, then death cannot be regarded as a final evil, but only as a temporary one forced to serve the victory of God in His love toward us. Death ushers in eternal glory rather than being a true obstacle to the welfare of man in Christ.

By this logic, the logic of grace, we would find ourselves once again called to make Abraham’s choice. Do we truly believe in Jesus Christ as the end-all, be-all? Do we trust the promise of God to raise His people from death into the glory of their Lord? Will we doubt that those who lose their lives in Christ will find them in Him? Or are we skeptical of God’s promise to crown His martyrs with His Son?

The idea, of course, of sacrificing our children, or any loved ones, to remain faithful to the God of love is still as confusing and horrifying as ever, to be sure. We may be tempted to ask how a good God could ever expect such a thing out of us. How is there love in this? But as always, we must be pointed to Christ. God may someday ask our sons of us, but He has already given up His Son for us. In doing so He has also revealed in advance what happens to sacrificed sons: resurrection and eternal glory and power. If we can make Abraham’s choice, then we will receive our children back to us in greater form than we gave them up, and we will still have Christ as well. In the resurrection, martyrs and their parents find, to speak colloquially, that they can have their cake and eat it, too. Indeed, when we understand love from a center in God’s love in Christ rather than in ourselves, we find that this was the way to truly love our family all along.

None of this changes the awful terror of any such prospect. Would I be able to give up my children in faith that God would raise them from the dead? As someone planning to spend considerable time on the mission field, I have no guarantee that this question will always be hypothetical. Will I be ready? Will my faith be that deep? I hardly know from the comfort of my air-conditioned home full of food at a Christian educational institution. May God have mercy on myself and my family if the situation ever does arise. But in the meantime, I believe, and pray the Lord to help my unbelief, that for both me and my household to live is Christ and to die is gain.

The Father Loves Baby Steps

As Christians, we will always, until our resurrection and glorification, still be growing up.¬†We have been born again, and after every birth one remains an infant for quite some time. The thing about the new birth is that, being a reality of the Holy Spirit acting upon¬†our minds and hearts, it doesn’t always lead to the same obvious, consistent growth that our¬†first, bodily births do.¬†It’s mixed and splotchy and inconsistent, not because of any fault on God’s part but because of our sinful absurdity.¬†

Despite our ridiculousness, our heavenly Father is good, loving, and patient with us. We have been adopted by grace alone, regardless of the sins which beset us, and because we stand by this grace in Jesus Christ, we are perpetually accepted before God. This means that He stands ready and waiting to encourage and accept our every move along His way, while simultaneously ready and waiting to forgive all our stops and tantrums along the way when we stop and confess them to Him.

This¬†fact of grace has¬†been something encouraging to me as of late while doing my personal evangelism class at BCF. I know quite well that I am¬†sinfully and woefully inadequate when it comes to sharing my faith with other people (primarily because I am sinfully and woefully inadequate¬†when it comes to conversing with other people). I have made little progress,¬†but I have made some. I was able to share my testimony recently. It wasn’t very hard in the particular case, though I¬†had expected it to be more difficult. This was nothing, especially in comparison to other, more mature Christians, or in comparison to Christ Himself.

Despite my slow and crawling progress, God is gracious. Having adopted me for Himself, He is not cruel to and ready to punish me, but a happy Father who loves His new son. He accepts and rejoiced over my baby steps without for a moment compromising His demands for perfect obedience. He is a kind Father, and He loves me more even than I love my own son.

So remember this in all your faltering obedience. Never deny and forget that you are still a sinner and imperfect and even rebellious, but likewise never forget that God loves your baby steps towards Him.

A Taste of Karl Barth as His Best

Karl Barth (pronounced “Bart”)¬†was, without question, one of the most interesting theologians of the 20th century. Certainly he wrote more than many of the rest¬†combined.¬†Originally trained in German liberal theology and higher criticism, he eventually reacted¬†and made a sharp break back towards orthodox¬†Christianity, reasserting the transcendent reality of God over and against the liberals who saw everything as being about human experience and personal “faith.” He didn’t come all the way back to what we modern evangelicals believe (e.g. he never came back to question the results of higher criticism much, resulting in a unique but nonetheless problematic doctrine of Scripture), but he made several excellent contributions even so.

For Barth, Jesus held a powerful place at the center of all theology. Nothing could be taken for granted if it was not robustly controlled and shaped by the reality of Jesus Himself, which led him to significantly revise certain doctrines he inherited from the Reformers he drew from if he did not see them as Christocentric enough, the most notable example being predestination/election. This tendency also led him to reject the idea of natural theology, that we can learn anything useful about God from the study of anything other than His personal, direct revelation (e.g. creation) unless that revelation was first accepted.

Anyway, I think Barth was¬†at his best in two places in particular:¬†his understanding of the relationship between God and man, and his commitment to¬†restrict all revelation first to and through Jesus. Alas, today I only have time to focus on the first of these. I’ll give a bit of explanation and then let Barth speak for himself.

Unlike the liberal theologians he turned against, Barth was committed to the belief that there was a real God outside of and above us, fully free and sovereign, not dependent upon the world.¬†His opponents did not think this way.¬†For them, there might be a real god, or perhaps “god” is just a way of talking about the human experience of faith. If there was a¬†real god,¬†he certainly wasn’t the utterly free, distinct, holy being Barth (and Scripture!) spoke¬†of. Barth strongly opposed this conception and insisted that, in essence, God is God. Yet he also combined this belief with the firm insistence that, using that absolute creative freedom, God had chosen to be love, and to create and enter into covenant relationship with mankind for Himself. In Barth’s view, God is God, yet He has freely chosen not to be God in any other way except as the loving God of man, and has created man to be nothing other than God’s own. God commits and binds Himself to man for all eternity, swearing off any option to be God by Himself alone, our of sheer grace and sheer freedom. Yet, despite His condescension to forever be man’s God, He remains the free sovereign, worthy of all glory and superior to us in every way.

Here are some quotes from his book The Faith of the Church to illustrate my point:

The New Testament¬†knows three kinds of glorification: a glorification of God by man (this Jesus Christ accomplishes), a glorification of man by God, and a glorification of God by God Himself. But the New Testament does not know of any glorification of man by man himself. Man may glorify only God and not himself, whereas God glorifies Himself and glorifies man…Man’s glory is like making a big noise, like trying to show off himself greater than he is. God 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, His creature, in whom He wants to be reflected.

pp. 26-27

We must stress‚ÄĒeven if it seems “dangerous”‚ÄĒthat the glory of God and the glory of man, although different, actually coincide. There is no other glory of God (this is a free decision of His will) than that which comes about in man’s existence. And there is no other glory of man than that which he may¬†and can have in glorifying God. Likewise, God’s beatitude coincides with man’s happiness. Man’s happiness is to make God’s beatitude appear in his life, and God’s beatitude consists in giving Himself to man in the form of human happiness. In this relationship between God’s glory and man’s glory, God’s beatitude and man’s happiness, we must note that God always has precedence: our glory is founded upon His glory; our happiness is founded upon His. God remains ever independent, master and sovereign. Man is only a servant. God gives, man receives…God then is essentially love and grace…God does not exist without this will to encounter us, to make us live and participate in Him. That is His steadfastness.

pg. 31

And finally, a glimpse of the other point I was saying Barth is good about, combined with this one:

Apart from the relation between God and man such as exists in Jesus Christ, all that we said would be equivocal and dangerous and even false. What was said about the relations between divine and beatitude and human happiness, between the glory of God and the glory of man is¬†then an abstract truth: it is the explanation of the basic theses of Christian theology. What we say concerning the relationship of God and man, we say it in Jesus Christ. It is first in Christ that there is a coincidence of divine glory and human glory. It is in him that the encounter between divine beatitude and human happiness takes place. There is no humanity “in relation to God” that was not first realized and prefigured in “Jesus Christ”…In order to fulfill the true humanism, then we must believe in Jesus Christ. There is no humanism without the Gospel.

Glimpses: Joseph and Jesus Say “Fear Not”

[“Glimpses: Seeing Christ before Christ” is an ongoing series consisting of brief¬†reflections on places in the Old Testament that the light of Christ¬†can be seen.]

Today I was reading Genesis 50:15-26 and I noticed¬†something exciting. At the conclusion of the long struggle of Joseph’s story, his brothers come before him in fear, barely hoping on the basis of a made-up fatherly deathbed request to be spared for their sins. But what happens is probably not what they expect. Verses 18-21:

Then his brothers also came to him, bowed down before him, and said, ‚ÄúWe are your slaves!‚ÄĚ
But Joseph said to them, ‚ÄúDon‚Äôt be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result ‚ÄĒ the survival of many people. Therefore don‚Äôt be afraid. I will take care of you and your little ones.‚ÄĚ And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.¬†

It’s a lovely ending showcasing the triumph of mercy, and I realized that this resonates¬†deeply with the New Testament as well. Joseph is often noted to be a type of Christ, and it is hard to find a place that is more poetic than here. This passage could just as well be rewritten about our approach to Jesus. We¬†come to Him, the risen and enthroned Lord of the universe, the Lion of Judah who judges and makes war, realizing that “it was my sin that held Him there” on the Cross. Should we not expect wrath and fury? Yet He responds otherwise:

“Do not be afraid. I am the in the place of God. Though you did¬†evil against Me, God planned it for good to bring about the present result¬†‚ÄĒ the salvation of many people. Therefore don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your little ones.”

Amen. We’re no better than Joseph’s brothers, but the Greater Joseph is even more gracious. So the thought for today: how ought we to live in view of such mercy?