Thursday, January 30, 2014

You Can’t Have Jesus Without Faith

You can’t simply do historical analysis of the New Testament and expect to come to right conclusions about Jesus. And yet this is where so much of ‘Evangelical’ scholarship (and Christian scholarship in general) resides. You can’t use analogies that start with yourself and work your way to Jesus from there, and expect to find the genuine Jesus; you’ll just end up finding the Jesus who looks oh so much like yourself–the Jesus molded in your own image. So the irony of what I just asserted is that I am saying that you can’t ‘solely’ rely on historical Jesus studies and expect to find the true Jesus, and at the same time I am asserting that we must avoid somehow importing our own historical culturally situatedness back onto the face of Jesus. So what’s the answer to this dilemma? What gets us beyond this impasse of dualism between studying Jesus through historical empiricism and isolated subjectivism? I mean isn’t Christianity a religion based in history? Yes. But history by itself does not have the proper traction or orientation to provide humanity–embedded within history–with the proper epistemological antennae needed to penetrate the depths which gives history its right relation to the one who gave us history to begin with. Am I speaking too cryptically for you yet?

Here Thomas Torrance speaks somewhat less cryptically about how we ought to dogmatically consider the relation between history and revelation through the optic of Faith:

All this means that any christological approach that starts from the man Jesus, from the historical Jesus, and tries to pass over to God, and so to link human nature to God, is utterly impossible. In fact it is essentially a wrong act: for it runs directly counter to God’s act of grace which has joined God to humanity in Christ. All Attempts to understand Jesus Christ by starting off with the historical Jesus utterly fail; they are unable to pass over from man to God and moreover to pass man to God in such a way as not to leave man behind all together, and in so doing they deny the humanity of Jesus. Thus though Ebionite christologies all seek to go from the historical Jesus to God, they can make that movement only by denying the humanity of Jesus, that is by cutting off their starting point, and so they reveal themselves as illusion, and the possibility of going from man to God is revealed as likewise illusory.

No, it is quite clear that unless we are to falsify the facts from the very start, we must face with utter and candid honesty the New Testament presentation of Christ to us, not as a purely historical figure, nor as a purely transcendental theophany, but as God and man. Only if we start from that duality in which God himself has already joined God and man, can we think God and humanity together, can we pass from man to God and from God to man, and all the time be strictly scientific in allowing ourselves to be determined by the nature of the object. [Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation,edited by Robert Walker, 10]

So Torrance’s premise is that what has happened in the incarnation is totally unique, and has only been made accessible through the purview of faith. Not blind faith, but faith that takes it shape as it is given to us through the revelation of God himself in and through the vicarious humanity of Christ for us; the humanity that grounds all of humanity as the image of God (Colossians 1:15)–so faith is the eyes to see and the ears to hear with that Jesus so often challenges his audiences to employ.

What does this tell us about historical Jesus studies that seek to tell us the truth about Jesus, but then fail to do so through the mode of faith? It tells me that these approaches are trying to find a public square, a common ground through which to substantiate and situate Jesus in such a way that he has respectability amongst the world. Once this respectability has been established, and Jesus rightly reconstructed, then we can attend to the issues of faith (so there is an implicit competition, then, in this scenario, between the Jesus of Faith and History). To be clear, none of this is to reject the usage of historical tools, but it is to call attention to the need that these tools have; the need is to provide for them a prior Christian dogmatic order that will allow those tools to not chisel a Jesus into something he is not (e.g. first a man, then God added on). He is God first, who becomes man; and this is such a unique event that it in itself can only be its own analogy.

There is more to say about the TF Torrance quote above; especially about the affirmation of creation and humanity that is provided for it through the incarnation of Christ. Maybe another time, or in the comments.

Living the Covenant Triangle

Below is the Covenant Triangle. (If you’re unfamiliar with the Covenant Triangle, see this by Mike Breen). Every story, every teaching, every book of scripture is written through the lens of relationship (Covenant) and responsibility (Kingdom). Below is a teaching tool that summarizes the reality of Covenant from scripture:

Some questions I use personally to align myself  rightly in the Covenant Triangle:
  1. Do I measure my closeness to God by how little I’m sinning? Or by my trust that, to the extent the Father loves Jesus, the Father loves me?
  2. Do I understand my primary identity as “saved sinner” or “saint who sins”?
  3. When I talk to God do I spend more time rehearsing my failures or enjoying His presence?
  4. What sort of preaching/teaching do I connect with? Am I drawn to pastors who are “tough on sin” and “let me have it” or those who encourage me to trust what God says about my identity in Jesus? Does their teaching reverse the flow of Father -> Identity -> Obedience?
  5. When I sit under this teaching/preaching do I get caught up in the Cycle of Religious Enslavement? Or does this teaching set me free to enjoy the ‘easy yoke’ of Jesus and live out of who God says I am?
  6. Do I believe that one day, with much effort and striving, I will eventually please God? Or do I believe that he is already pleased with me?
  7. Where is my focus: on overcoming sin or giving and receiving love from God and others? What do I measure? What do I count?
  8. When I engage in spiritual disciplines am I trusting them to fix me? Or – do I experience a spaciousness and opening up of my heart in them to receive grace?
  9. Do I believe that God has yet to change me? Do I still believe that my heart is desperately wicked and untrustworthy? Or do I believe that I, in fact, have been given a new heart by God and he is in the process of maturing (not changing) me?
  10. When I read commands in scripture do I internalize them as: “you ought…you must…you should…why can’t you…when will you…” or as “You may…you are able…you can…this is who you are now”?
 (Adapted from “The Cure” by John Lynch, Bruce McNicol, and Bill Thrall, p. 47-48)

6 Bad Reasons to "Go to Church"

David Fitch presents good and bad reasons for participating in the life of a local church community.

The phrase “go to church” is a “no-no” in missional circles. Some twentysomething chastises me every time I let that phrase slip from my mouth at our church.

Church is not a place we go. It is a way of life we live as being God’s people in the world participating in His Mission.

Acknowledging that, why get up and go on Sunday to the gathering of His people? I must admit to often awakening Sunday morning and experiencing the inertia of getting going to the Sunday morning gathering. And I am a pastor! Why go to such a gathering?

To combat this inertia, I think we can get into some bad habits for “going to church.” If we got rid of these habits, we might actually be able to see the gathering as a more natural part of the rhythms of our life with God in His Mission.

Here are six bad reasons to “go to church.”

Don’t go to church …

1. Out of Duty/Obligation

Spiritual disciplines are good if they are openings for God to work and shape our lives into His life and Mission. Too often, however, disciplines become duties, devoid of the life to which they were meant to connect us. Don’t go to church out of duty or obligation. It should be a regular spiritual discipline that shapes us into His life and Mission.

2. If This is What It Means to be a Christian

If you think being a Christian is what happens in this hour-and-a-half, stop going to church and ask what it means to follow Christ when you don’t go. This is where we gather to encounter the living God corporately, respond to Him, be shaped by His vision and His work, and then be sent out to continue this life into the world.

3. To Get Your Needs Met

If you think some problem in your life will be solved or some need met by “going to church,” don’t go! Because more than likely you’ll be disappointed. Sometimes needs, physical and otherwise, get met at the cross (or around the prayer bench) in instantaneous fashion, but most often there’s some suffering that needs to walked through in the death and resurrection of Christ. Most of our needs are ministered to over time as we submit them regularly to Christ and what He is doing.

4. To Feel Good, Get Inspired 

I recognize a lot of times I come away feeling inspired and good after the gathering.

But I try to check myself on this. For if I get addicted to a certain “feeling good” worship experience or some inspiration from the sermon, my relationship with God starts to look like an addiction to a feeling that has become narcissistic. It stunts the growth of my character into God and what He is doing. Maybe I’m too uptight on this?

5. To Perform

Occasionally I will notice I’m going off to the gathering to perform. I’m going to go preach, or teach, or guide the children’s ministry.

I feel like other people can get into this rut too. I’m going to sing, play guitar, be cool, whatever (BTW, I haven’t played the guitar in 20 years). We’re getting a buzz from performing. Something subtle occurs and it’s about my self-accolades. I feel better about myself after doing something for God.

I suggest, if this is happening, don’t go to the gathering. Shrink back. All our service in the gifts and to the world should be out of our life with God. It should be an offering unto Him out of the gifts He keeps giving.

Of course, we need affirmation in order to recognize what God is doing and calling us to. But that’s a different dynamic. After I preach a sermon, I discipline myself to leave that sermon in God’s hands. I offered it to Him. If and when I receive feedback, it is for the furtherance of His work in my life and the community.

6. To Get Something from the Expert

If we go to church to get something on the Christian life from the expert in a sermon or something, I think we miss the point. The so-called expert is most likely gifted to proclaim. He/she has been recognized for God’s work in this regard in his/her life.

But the real formation happens in the response and the working out of that proclamation among a people. The expert, on his own, often disappoints or worse starts acting like he/she is the only one who knows Scripture which breeds distrust of any authority in the community. The thought process of getting something from an expert defeats God’s work in community and should be discouraged. Don’t “go to church” if this is the way you think it works.

Over against these reasons not to “go to church,” I still believe the church gathering is just a part—albeit an important part—of the rhythm of Mission.

For it is at the gathering, we come as broken people in order to submit ourselves to what He is doing to be shaped for Mission. Here we are led into His presence, the reading of Scripture, the liturgies of submission, affirmation of truth and confession, the proclamation of the Gospel and the feasting on His forgiveness and new life at the meal, in praise and thanksgiving and finally into the sending out into Mission.

Can you think of any more

How The Christian Doctrine of creatio ex nihilo or ‘Creation Out of Nothing’ Makes Bill Nye a Saint, and Ken Ham a Heretic

By Bobby Grow  

In light of the forthcoming debate between Bill Nye – The Science Guy and Ken Ham – The Creation Science Guy – which will take place at Ham’s Creation Science Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio on February 4th; I thought it would be interesting to consider how the Christian orthodox teaching of creatio ex nihilo (‘creation out of nothing’), which serves prominent for T. F. Torrance’s approach to things, might impact how we as Christians might think about the relationship of Christian theology and the empirical or so called ‘hard’ sciences that engage in observational science. It might in fact be surprising to some, how  ’creation out of nothing’ might in fact favor the methodology advocated by Bill Nye, more so than it does Ken Ham.

Creation out of nothing (CON) was a teaching of the Christian church that developed quite early on in the 2nd century in particular. In fact it was a doctrine that was utilized as an apologetic, actually, against the dualistic heresies making there way into the church early on; primarily the blossoming Gnosticism. And yet in affirming CON, what ends up happening is that God and creation come to have an independence of their own; albeit God’s is a non-contingent independence, while creation’s is contingent independence – but an integrity and independence for both entities, nontheless. Thus, it might be contended, that if God and the creation are not given enough distinction, and we begin to tie God’s existence into the creation too closely, or too transcendentally, that we end up losing a God-world distinction, and He becomes one and mixed with His creation (pantheism), instead of its sustainer, and Lord; or he becomes aloof, and so distant from creation, that creation itself is no longer understood to be a good given by God, but a bad and something to escape from (Gnositicism).

Scottish theologian, David Fergusson, makes my brief points above more compelling and crisp; so let’s read what he has to communicate:
In their polemics against gnosticism, both Irenaeus and Tertullian reinforce and extend the doctrine of creation out of nothing. It is required not only to contest the assumption about the eternity of matter, but also to maintain the strict ontological distinction between the one God and all created reality. The cosmos does not represent a series of ontological gradations emanating from the divine outwards. There is one God, and everything else exists through the power of the Word of God. Since the Word of God is to be regarded as of the divine essence, it cannot be an intermediate deity that links the one true God with lower levels of reality. On both sides, therefore, the God–world distinction requires the doctrine of creation out of nothing. Neither is the world divine, nor is God divisible and composite like creaturely beings. So we must think of the world as the good creation of the one God from out of nothing. In this respect, ‘nothing’ simply denotes ‘not something’. ‘Nothing’ is not some shadowy substance suspended between being and non-being. Instead, it refers to what does not exist. In other words, the cosmos is not formed from eternal matter, nor does it emanate from the divine being. One implication of this sharp ontological distinction between creator and creation is that it belongs not to theology but to natural science to discover how the world works. This is a corollary of the Christian refusal to divinize the world, albeit one that has not always been recognized. [David Fergusson, "Creation," in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (UK: Oxford University Press, 2010), edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance, 80.]

If the implication that Fergusson teases out from the doctrine of creation out of nothing is viable; this debate between Dye and Ham would appear to place Dye (who I think is an atheist) on the Christian side of things, ironically, and Ham on the heretical side of things, since he would be guilty of collapsing God’s life into his creation, and as such tying God into creation in a way that His life becomes contingent upon creation’s existence. And this, Ham’s approach, would be exactly backwards from what he actually hopes to argue for; i.e. the necessity of God’s existence as attested to by creation.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

And There Was Not a Needy Person Among Them:

John Stackhouse
“Not a Needy Person among Them”
January 29, 2014

Acts 4:34: “There was not a needy person among them.”
No one was crushed under medical bills he couldn’t pay.
No one missed a job interview because she couldn’t find a babysitter.
No one had to forfeit education because he lacked funding.
No one turned to junk food or drugs or porn out of sheer loneliness.
No one kept repeating bad choices because psychotherapy was too expensive.
No one remained in foster care because no one else would adopt.
No one was estranged from God because he had been taught terrible theology.
No one kept quiet all the time, all the time no matter what, for lack of self-respect nurtured in an affirming community.
No one failed to realize her potential on the job because of a stupid or self-absorbed manager.
No one suffered chronic illness alone without anyone else knowing or caring.
No need was left unmet.
There was not a needy person among them.
Acts 4:32: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”
Acts 4:32 and 4:34 are the verses on either side of the verse about preaching the resurrection, which is the focus of the previous post.
I’m thinking the concepts are related.
And I wonder what churches would look like who composed together a list of “Needs That Should Never Remain Unmet,” then covenanted together to meet those needs in their community, and then cooperated together to meet them. Not “an iPad in every backpack”-type of “need,” but true needs: those matters that, if left unmet, cripple and kill us.
What would church look like then?

Reading Revelation According to the Four-fold Pattern of Worship

Problem 1 in reading Revelation:  its strange and bizarre imagery that most of us have learned to misinterpret to our loss and frustration, ultimately leading to our giving up on the book as a resource for faith.

Problem 2 in reading Revelation:  no one has figured out the structure of the book.  Since what something means is integrally tied to how it is written and put together, this is a serious difficulty.

Problems 1 and 2 are related.  Confusion and perplexity wrapped in opacity results.  For some, wisdom is to avoid these visions.  For others, they become happy hunting grounds for every manner of exotic, gnostic, and idiosyncratic readings based on ideological premises drawn from outside the text.

I have a suggestion.  Born from the failure to date to develop a consensus about the structure of Revelation, my proposal is to look for a structure or pattern for reading it from the experience of the Christian tradition.  A widely-shared historical pattern of understanding and experiencing Christian existence to at least anchor our understanding of this book in something other than individual idiosyncracies or ideologies drawn from outside the text.  In short, the intractability of discerning a structure or pattern to Revelation in its historical setting drives me to look at our end of the process for one.

I propose we engage and interpret Revelation according to the historical fourfold pattern of worship used through much of the church throughout its history. This pattern is:

1.    Preparing to worship

  1. Celebrating the Word along with a response
  2. Celebrating the Lord’s Table along with a response

4.    The dismissal

This is a desperate and, to a degree, fanciful strategy, I grant you.  But if it enables us to engage and experience Revelation as a vital resource for faithfulness, it is perhaps worth the effort to try experiencing it within the movements and dynamics of Christian worship.  You will have to make that decision for yourself.

Play along with me, if you will, and imagine reading or hearing the book of Revelation unfolding like this.  I will lay it out in the form of an Order of Worship for The Lord’s Day.

The Lord’s Day                                                                                                                           Isle of Patmos                                                                                                                      Mid-90’s AD


(Epistolary Introduction 1:1-4a)









SERMON        “Surviving in the Belly of the Beast”

“Seven Seals” (6:1-8:1)                                                                       “Seven Trumpets” (8:2-11:19)                                                                            “Visions of the Vocation and Destiny of God’s People” (12:1-14:20)                        “Seven Bowls” (15:1-16:21)                                                                           ”Visions of the Fall of Babylon” (17:1-19:10)                                                 “Visions of Final Judgment” (19:11-20:15)                                                          “Visions of Consummation”(21:1-22:5)





CHARGE (22:18)

BENEDICTION (22:19-21)


          Benefits of reading Revelation in this odd way include:

1.    It keeps us focused on our lives as followers of Jesus and the self-involving nature of that vocation (as opposed to calendarizing speculation)

2.    Worship is the ultimate goal of our lives

3.    Casting the visions as Jesus’ sermon reminds us that the goal of Revelation is obedient faithfulness and these visions must be heard as addressing a message at least potentially fully understandable in that first century context rather than that 2000 years later

4.    If my speculation about 22:17 serving as an “Invitation to Communion” is plausible, it highlights the Word-Table structure of Christian worship.

What do you think?  What other benefits of this way of reading have I missed?  Could this be a helpful way to engage Revelation?

a religion of immanence
Jan 29                                                                                   

Walter Brueggemann remarks that what we see in our western culture is a religion of immanence, always a feature of a civil and static religion. The other two features are the economics of affluence and the politics of oppression.

He finds these features in the transition of Israel from a theocracy to a monarchy, and in particular in the transition from David’s rule to Solomon’s, where God and the temple become a part of the royal landscape, in which the sovereignty of God is fully subordinated to the purpose of the king. From this point forward God is “on call” and access to him is controlled by the royal court. Brueggemann sees this as the final and deadly state of affairs after a long slide downward from the radical Mosaic vision of freedom and justice.

The social purpose of a really transcendent God is “to have a court of appeal against the highest courts and orders of society around us…” A second implication is the rebirth of hope for the future. Royal reality overpowers the dimension of hope and the place of imagination. When a nation (or a church) establishes a comfortable and static rule, the last thing they want is people with new ideas to shake things up. And in terms of the economics of affluence, you don’t want people delaying gratification in favor of some future hope, you want them seeking pleasure in the eternal now.

The result of all that pleasure is that “in place of passion comes satiation.” Brueggemann argues that one of the reasons we lose passion is precisely due to our success at achieving comfort and security.
He states that, “Passion as the capacity and readiness to care and suffer, to die and to feel, is the enemy of imperial reality.”

We are in the same royal tradition, which Brueggemann summarizes in three points:: * Economics of affluence in which we are so well off that our pain is not noticed * Politics of oppression in which the cries of the marginal are not heard or are dismissed as the noises of kooks or traitors * Religion of immanence and accessibility in which God is so present that his abrasiveness and absence are not noticed but are reduced to psychology How bizarre that the founder of our movement was crucified because he was a threat to the establishment, and then his movement itself became the means that anchored and protected that same establishment! From a theology of public presence - See more at:

Aquinas on Virtue #1 (Introduction)

In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas offers a closely reasoned and orderly Treatise on the Virtues. Aquinas drew heavily from the philosopher Aristotle, but also imported theological considerations that moved beyond the ancient Greek philosopher.

Aristotle was concerned with (among other things) what has been referred to as the function argument, that is, virtue refers to the ability of something to function well. The virtue of the horse is running, the virtue of the knife is cutting. When the matter of function is applied to the human person, one asks what characteristics allow a person to live well. This not only refers to the qualities necessary for an individual in the performance of his or her job, but also to one's station in life as a husband or wife, etc. Aquinas utilizes St. Augustine's definition of virtue as a habit "by which we live righteously, of which no one can make bad use, which God works in us, without us" (Augustine, On Free Will).

Thomas' concerns are two-fold: First, he considers the qualities necessary that define the good, that is the virtuous life, and second, the good assumes a particular end or a purpose for human life. What is that end? What is that purpose? Aquinas argues that there is an ultimate end, a ratio bonitatis, which can only be achieved by an ultimate goodness. Aquinas is well aware of the fact that human beings have competing and conflicting understanding of what constitutes goodness, but taking his cue from Aristotle that virtue is what benefits the polis, Aquinas reasons that not all accounts of goodness are created equal. Thus one must not only work through what the good is, one must also delineate the virtues or habits that contribute to the good, which has as its end eudaimonia (often translated "happiness," but better rendered as "flourishing").

Aquinas divides the virtues into three categories: intellectual, moral, and theological.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Defending Barth and Torrance from the Charge of Incoherence: Contra Robert Letham and Others

Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance are both, and often accused of being incoherent in their material theological positions and conclusions. Robert Letham most recently has made this charge against Thomas Torrance in particular (and it might as well have been against Karl Barth as well). Letham writes against Torrance:

… It is simply incoherent for Torrance to say what he says about the definitive justification and reconciliation for all people and yet to deny universal salvation. Moreover, if it is possible for people to reject Christ and what he has done, it cannot be definitive and effective for them and cannot have been complete in Christ’s person. It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by the assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis.[1]

What seriously bothers me about such claims is that people like Robert Letham, Roger Olson (who thinks us Evangelical Calvinists are incoherent for the same kinds of reasons), et al. totally fail to appreciate and take Barth and Torrance on their stated terms. It is not as if Barth or Torrance have not provided extended treatments of their terms and prolegomena and approach to things, theological; they have! And so for the rest of this post (and it will turn out to be a long post because of this, but I want to have this available online for whenever I hear that Barth and Torrance are incoherent) I will be quoting George Hunsinger at length on Karl Barth; and Hunsinger will be explaining why Barth (and think Torrance as well, for his own related reasons) is not in fact incoherent while those who are making the claim of incoherence in fact are the ones who are incoherent relative to the particular categories of Scripture and God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ. So here we go:

Testing for Incoherence Within the Framework of the Chalcedonian Pattern

The coherentist mode of testing, as it emerged in the survey of rationalism, also plays a decisive role in Barth’s justification of his position on double agency. Directly and indirectly, therefore, it serves to justify his reliance on the conceptions of miracle and mystery in that position. On the exegetical or hermeneutical premise that the terms of the Chalcedonian pattern are rooted in the biblical testimony regarding how divine and human agency are related, the mode of doctrinal testing proceeds as follows. The Chalcedonian pattern is used to specify counterpositions that would be doctrinally incoherent (and also incoherent with scripture). “Without separation or division” means that no independent human autonomy can be posited in relation to God. “Without confusion or change” means that not divine determinism or monism can be posited in relation to humanity. Finally, “complete in deity and complete in humanity” means that no symmetrical relationship can be posited between divine and human actions (or better, none that is not asymmetrical). It also means that the two cannot be posited as ultimately identical. Taken together, these considerations mean that, if the foregoing conditions are to be met, no nonmiraculous and nonmysterious conception is possible. The charge of incoherence (as previously defined) thereby reveals itself to be abstract, in the sense that it does not adequately take all the necessary factors into account. It does not work inductively from the subject matter (as attested by scripture)–as the motif of particularism would prescribe. Instead, it starts from general considerations such as formal logic and applies them to certain isolated aspects of the more “concrete” position. At the same time, the charge may well have implicated itself, wittingly or unwittingly, in one of the rejected couterpositions.

Without Separation or Division: Against Independent Human Autonomy

No independent human autonomy, Barth argues, may be posited in relation to God. The idea of an independent human autonomy posits the kind of illicit “determinism” that Barth finds to be characteristic of Pelagian and semi-Pelagian positions counter to his own. The actuality of human autonomy or freedom or self-determination (and so on) is, it is important to see, not in question. What is in question is the condition for the possibility of human autonomy, freedom, and self-determination. The Pelagian position finds this condition to be entirely inherent in human nature as created by divine grace, whereas the semi-Pelagian position finds it to be only partially inherent in human nature. The Pelagian sees no need, whereas the semi-Pelagian sees some need, for the special operation of divine grace, if the human creature is to act freely in fellowship with God (I/1, 199-200; II/1, 562-63). Neither position survives Barth’s coherentist form of testing, for neither is seen to do justice either to the radicality of sin or to the finitude of the creature. The same basic inadequacy can be restated with reference to other doctrinal beliefs, and these are actually thought to be the more fundamental. Christologically, the counterpositions fail to do justice to the cross of Christ (as it discloses the radicality of sin) and to the necessity of the mediation of Christ (as it overcomes not only sin, but the finitude of the creature, by exalting the creature to eternal life). Theologically, moreover, the counterpositions fail to do justice to the divine righteousness (as it discloses the radicality of sin) and to the divine majesty (as it discloses the essence of creaturely finitude).

In discussing the question of double agency, it is most often the radicality of sin and the majesty of God to which coherentist appeal adverts (although the other beliefs do not cease to be presupposed, of course, and are sometimes invoked). The radicality of sin, as already documented on more than one occasion, is regarded as meaning that we have “completely lost the capacity for God” (I/1, 238). The majesty of God, on the other hand, is characteristically conceived in terms of the “conditioned” and the “unconditioned.” “The creature which conditions God is no longer God’s creature, and the God who is conditioned by the creature is no longer God” (II/1, 580). Or again: “Grace would not be grace if it were not free, but were conditioned by a reciprocal achievement on the part of the one to whom it is addressed” (I/1, 45). Or again: “Grace cannot be called forth or constrained by any claim or merit, by any existing or future condition, on the part of the creature…. Both in its being and in its operation its necessity is in itself” (II/2, 19). That God’s grace is absolutely free in relation to the creature, ant that the creature can in no way condition God, is as axiomatic in Barth’s theology as he believes it to be axiomatic in scripture. Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism both fail, because they posit a creature who by nature conditions God, and a God who by nature can be and is conditioned by the creature. What is worse, these counterpositions do so even in the face of the radicality of sin. They are therefore judged to be incoherent from the standpoint of doctrinal testing. “What takes place in the covenant of grace takes place wholly for the human creature. A creatura mediatrix gratiarum or even corredemptrix is a self-contradiction” (I/1, 45).

Barth’s position over against these counterpositions may be briefly restated. The actuality of human freedom is affirmed (and by no means denied). But the condition for its possibility in relation to God is found not at all in human nature itself, but entirely in divine grace. In the event of human fellowship autonomy is not at all independent. It is entirely subsequent to and dependent on grace. The missing capacity for freedom in fellowship with God is given and received as a gift–“not as a supernatural quality, but as a capacity which is actual only as it is used, which is not in any sense magical, but absolutely free and natural in its exercise” (III/1, 128). In and through him it is called by grace “out of nothingness into being, out of death into life.” The event of grace on which the capacity for freedom completely depends is thereby a miracle and a mystery. But in and with this complete dependence, it is “real in the way in which creation generally can be in its relationship to the Creator.” Human freedom in all its reality is “encompassed,” “established,” “delimited,” and “determined” by divine grace (II/1, 128). The “mystery of human autonomy” is clearly not “an autonomous mystery” (II/2, 194). It is rather included within “the one divine mystery.” It is, that is to say, included within “the mystery of grace,” within “the mystery of God’s triumphant affirmation and love.” Only in this sense (but certainly in this sense) is it included within “the mystery of God’s omnipotence.” The reality of human freedom takes place, therefore, not as “the second point in an ellipse” (the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian counterpositions), but as “the circumference around one central point of which it is the repetition and confirmation” (II/2, 194). Divine grace and human freedom stand, in other words, in a conceptually asymmetrical relationship rather than in one of conceptual interdependence.

The features of this argument may also be stated in terms of the various motifs. The reality of fellowship is in question by way of the problem of double agency (personalism). The mode of testing for incoherence takes place in terms of the remaining web of doctrinal beliefs (rationalism). The bestowal, by grace, of freedom for fellowship with God is described as a miraculous event (actualism). This event also takes place in such a way that divine omnipotence and human freedom coexist in mutual love and freedom as the mystery of God with humanity and of humanity with God (particularism). Furthermore, the miracle and the mystery of the event are said to be dependent upon and mediated through the saving person and work of Jesus Christ (objectivism). The counterpositions (Pelgianism and semi-Pelagianism) are shown to be incoherent at essential points with the presupposed web of doctrinal beliefs (especially “the radicality of sin” and “the majesty of God”), whereas the position in question is shown in fact to be coherent with it in the mode of miracle and mystery (rationalism, actualism, particularism). Since the web of presupposed beliefs is taken to be in accord with scripture, it follows (granted the assumption) that the challenged position is also in accord with scripture, and that the proposed counterpositions are not (although this could and would need to be argued also on independent exegetical grounds) (realism). Thus all six motifs are in force in one way or another in the mode of testing for the possible coherence or incoherence of the challenged belief.[2]


[1] Robert Letham, The Triune God, Incarnation, and Definite Atonement in edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 454. When Letham writes of Torrance: ‘…It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by the assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis….’ What he is referring to is this in Torrance’s writings:

 The rationalism of both universalism and limited atonement. Here we see that man’s proud reason insists in pushing through its own partial insight into the death of the cross to its logical conclusion, and so the great mystery of the atonement is subjected to the rationalism of human thought. That is just as true of the universalist as it is of those who hold limited atonement for in both cases they have not yet bowed their reason before the cross of Christ. (Atonement, 187-88)

 And this:

 (i) Christ’s death for all is an inescapable reality. We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity — that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact — nothing can undo it. That means that God has taken the great positive decision for man, the decision of love translated into fact. But because the work and the person of Christ are one, that finished work is identical with the self-giving of God to all humanity which he extends to everyone in the living Christ. God does not withhold himself from any one, but he gives himself to all whether they will or not — even if they will not have him, he gives himself to them, for he has once and for all given himself, and therefore the giving of himself in the cross when opposed by the will of man inevitably opposes that will of man and is its judgement. As we saw, it is the positive will of God in loving humanity that becomes humanity’s judgement when they refuse it. (Thomas F. Torrance,Atonement, 188-89)

What Letham, as others, fails to appreciate is the very point that Hunsinger (above and below) highlights about Barth’s approach; primarily having to do with the ‘radicality of sin’, and thinking from the grammar and mystery of the Incarnation itself. Torrance, as Letham asserts, is not merely making an ‘assertion,’ but in fact has his assertion squarely grounded within Christian, historical, and constructive theological proposals that are both robust and cogent within a coherent framework of thought. Hunsinger, I believe, defeats Letham’s (and other’s) charge of incoherence against Torrance, and by relation Karl Barth; and for the very reasons that Hunsinger registers in his clarification and defense of Karl Barth. The irony is that Barth and Torrance, if understood through classical patterns of Christian theological engagement are seen to be the coherent ones while those who are critiquing them are the ones who end up being incoherent by engaging abstract patterns of thought that are foreign to the mysterious Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It is not that mystery is being appealed to in abstraction by either Barth or Torrance, instead the parameters of thought for both of them is chastened and cordoned off by the mystery of God en sarkos (‘in the flesh’); and any Christian intelligibility must be thought from within this center, and not a center of our own active intellectual making.

[2] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 195-98 nook version. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

America’s Biggest Crises are Rooted in the Fact that the Economy is Rigged for the Wealthiest

A paradigm shift is taking place. It is coming from the awareness that all of our crises are connected to an economy rigged for the wealthiest. The symptoms of big finance capitalism create the poverty, low wages, economic insecurity and environmental destruction so a handful can profit. While these facts have been hidden by political leaders and corporate mass media, now people are seeing them and understand the task we have before us.

The Radical Dr. King

This past Monday, we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. History books and the new Memorial in DC commemorate Dr. King for his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech and his work for civil rights. Most people have been led to celebrate this limited version of Dr. King’s life. In fact, there has been an attempt to erase the last 5 years of his life, a time when he espoused a deeper political analysis, dared to question capitalism and militarism; and broke with the status quo groups.

Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report tells us that Dr. King did not “break with the legacy of grass roots organizing and direct action” as some of his Lieutenants did when they entered business and the Democratic Party. He understood that direct action “meant bringing a social institution or the society itself locally to a halt, to make the system scream, just like its victims screamed, to bring contradictions to a head, so that everyone could see what the real problem was, that is, to confront authority.”

Some reclaimed the celebration of this Dr. King. In Portland, day laborers and people without housing marched on Dr. King’s birthday to honor his radical legacy. In Washington State, peace activists honored Dr. King’s day through direct action by protesting a naval base that deploys the Trident nuclear submarine. Kellogg’s workers in Birmingham, AL remembered Dr. King and are still fighting for their rights. They’ve been locked out since October.

Dr. King would have turned 85 on January 15 if he had not been assassinated. In a wrongful death suit brought by King’s family the jury found the murder was a conspiracy involving the Memphis police as well as federal agencies.  He was assassinated in part because he was a powerful leader who threatened the power structure.  The Poor People’s Campaign he was organizing when he died would have brought waves of thousands of people to Washington, DC in the longest lasting occupation the city had ever seen to highlight poverty and economic injustice. Using the Stratfor system, King would have been classified as a “radical” and when marginalization doesn’t work to stop radicals, elimination is the next step.

What was radical about Dr. King is that he called for independent politics and he made the connections between racism, poverty and militarism. He was calling not just for a few concessions and improvements, but for change of the whole system.  In his 1967 speech at Riverside Baptist Church, Dr. King said, “But one day, we must ask the question of whether an edifice which produces beggars must not be restructured and refurbished.” The work the social justice movement is doing today is the unfinished work of Dr. King’s last campaign.

What Is The Edifice That Creates Beggars?

This is the question that people are asking. As we wrote in “Our Tasks for 2014,” during this phase of the social movement, deep political education is essential. Activists must understand that ‘their issue’ is a symptom of a fundamental disease, a system that creates these crises. Without changing the system, the crises cannot be resolved. Through reforms, some may be reduced and perhaps delayed such as the current health care law is doing for the ongoing health care crisis. But some will continue to worsen such as climate change and the growing wealth divide.

Professor C. J. Polychroniou calls the current system “Predatory Capitalism.” We have passed the era of industrial capitalism and have entered finance capitalism based on expansion of the neoliberal economic model globally. This is fundamental to understand because it is this model that is driving all of our crises.

Neoliberal economics is not related to liberalism in ideological terms, but liberalism in terms of a freeing of the market from any regulation and a freeing up of our resources to be used by private corporations for profit. In this model, government actively serves the financial elite, as Polychroniou describes: “Policies that increase the upward flows of income and the availability of public property for private exploitation rest at the core of the global neoliberal project, where predatory capitalism reigns supreme. So does privatizing profits and socializing losses.”

It is predatory capitalism that drives the race to the bottom in worker rights and wages and that drives the dismantling of our public institutions and privatization of education, transportation, health care, the postal service, prisons and more. Predatory capitalism sells our resources to the highest bidder without regard for destruction of the planet, displacement of families or poisoning of communities.

The United States is in the Driver’s Seat

The United States, through trade policy, is a lead driver of the neoliberal march across the planet. We have written frequently about the Trans-Pacific Partnership because it will destroy sovereignty, placing governments, even down to the local level, at the service of transnational corporations.  Leaked Wikileaks documents from the TPP reveal that the US is the most extreme nation advocating for corporate power and neoliberal economies.
This week, the EU announced that it will delay negotiation of a key section, the Investor State Dispute Settlement, of the Atlantic version of the TPP known as TAFTA. They are concerned that giving corporations the power to sue governments for loss of expected profits will undermine their laws to protect the health of people and the planet and are seeking greater public input. Contrast that with a case that is going forward in Mora County, NM in which Shell Oil is suing a community over its fracking ban. If Shell is able to sue a community for loss of expected profits, that community would never be able to afford that and would have to change its law; and other communities will be afraid to enact laws in the public interest or to protect the planet.

Momentum is building to stop the TPP. Organizations from across the spectrum and across the continent are working together to stop the President from being given authority to Fast Track the TPP through Congress and to unite in a day of action. Visit to join the Ten Days of Action to Stop Fast Track which culminates in a day of protest on January 31.

Systems to Control the Masses

Predatory capitalism is directly linked to the growing national security state and militarism. As poverty and suffering increase, so does resistance by the people and those in power fear mass revolt. As corporations require access to resources around the world, the military is necessary to secure them. And it also happens that the national security and military industrial complexes profit greatly by finding new markets for their weapons and security products.

Spying on people in the US and around the world continues to become more sophisticated. The New York Times reports that the NSA can retrieve data stored in computers or USB cards using radio waves even when the computer is turned off.  In Kiev this week, the government used cell phone technology to locate people and send them a text message warning them that they were considered to be part of a mass protest, which has now been deemed illegal.
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The overreach of the state is starting to backfire. Recently, an independent federal review board concluded that the collection of cell phone calls by the NSA is illegal and must be stopped. Obama’s ownreview board called for an overhaul of the NSA, but last week the President announced only minimal reforms that protect the surveillance program. Instead of announcing real changes, he worked toreassure the public that spying is perfectly normal and acceptable. Chris Hedges interpreted his speech for us describing how faux reforms were designed to mollify Americans while “as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies, along with our courts, continue to eviscerate those rights.”  And theElectronic Frontier Foundation decoded the proposed reforms, giving Obama a 3.5 out of a possible score of 12 for what is considered the bare minimum of necessary overhaul.
The expansion of the security state is a boon for the corporations that produce scanners and other technology. In order to profit and grow, they must find new markets. Perhaps this is behind the announcement that all entrances to Major League Baseball stadiums will be equipped with metal detectors in 2015. We wonder what is next.

At some point, we as the public must draw the line. Concerted action to protest this encroachment through boycotts of places that use them is one effective way to stand up for our rights.

Protesting War, Pipelines and Wealth Inequality

This week, so-called peace talks for Syria are taking place in Switzerland. Ajamu Baraka explains the politics behind the talks. He writes that “it would be more accurate to call a ‘war conference’ rather than a ‘peace conference’ due to U.S. Secretary of State Kerry’s insistence on keeping the scope of the agenda confined to the terms of the Geneva I communique, which calls for a political transition in Syria.”

It is doubtful that real solutions to address the crises in Syria will come from the talks. Relief from the extreme violence and displacement are not part of the conversation. This is all about regime change and as expected, the propaganda is rolling out. Human Rights Watch released a report this week on Syria that lacks all credibility, as described by Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor.

To raise the urgent need for peace and support for the 3 million Syrian refugees, CODEPINK and alliesbrought a delegation of women to Switzerland. They are demanding an immediate ceasefire and that women be included in the talks. They demonstrated outside of the talks on Wednesday.
Also this week, tar sands bitumen started flowing in the Southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. There has been strong opposition to the tar sands and pipeline for years now. It brought together a broad coalition which has used the courts, blockades and protests to try to stop this project, which James Hansen calls ‘Game Over’ for the planet, from proceeding. There was an urgent action at the White House and a protest at a TD Bank, a major financier, in Maine to express solidarity with communities like Manchester, TX that are being poisoned by oil processing and others protested megaloads traveling through Montana to the Alberta tar sands.  A new study was released that also showed increased cancer rates in a community downstream from the tar sands.

And the World Economic Forum is taking place this week at a Swiss resort in Davos. One of the main topics is wealth inequality. Bill Gates, who is attending, doesn’t think wealth inequality is a problem as long as poverty is decreasing, but the majority of Americans , and we suspect the world population, disagree. Oxfam reports that 85 of the richest people have the same wealth as 3.5 billion of the poorest people. And there is no confidence that real solutions to reduce wealth inequality will come out of the meeting of the wealthy at Davos.

Organizers from around the world are calling for a Commission for Truth and Justice in Switzerland. Sign the petition here.  They write, “This is not asking for charity, we are demanding justice and to create the conditions that ensure equal opportunities for all.” Charity is not the solution, though it is likely the only solution that the wealthy can come up with.

Solidarity not Charity

Charity undermines the peoples’ rights to self-determination and allows the status quo to continue. Polychroniou makes the point that “philanthropy serv[es] as a means to disguise the exploitation of the poor and deny the structural problems of the capitalist system.” Further, charity is arbitrary and anti-democratic. Those with the wealth decide who receives and can use their wealth to divide communities against each other and further disempower them.

The people of the world are rejecting this ‘plantation politics’ and are uniting instead. We see this in all of the circles in which we exist. This past weekend in Chicago, activists from across the country and from different areas of advocacy met to organize “Earth Day to May Day – Ten Days to Change Course” actions as part of a Global Climate Convergence. In addition to connecting our struggles and showing that the system is the problem, one of the goals is to reclaim the meaning of these holidays.

This convergence is also in line with the tasks of this moment in history. In joining our efforts and maintaining a position of what is necessary, not what we are told is on the table, we shift the realm of the possible. And as we shift the cultural acceptance of what is possible, those who have operated within the current system will shift as well and more will join the new effort. Why? Because those who stand for justice in all of its forms represent what the majority of people already want.

A task of the day is solidarity. And the new economy that is emerging to replace predatory capitalism is a solidarity economy, which we call economic democracy. In a democratized economy, people have more input into decisions about the economy and more benefit from it as well. This is an economic model that will solve the crises of our era and prevent them from returning.

The new economy is taking shape on a number of different levels from communities that are putting democratic economic institutions in place to students who are recreating their economic curriculum to economists who are working together to define the new economy more concretely.

Completing the Campaign for Economic Justice

The centerpiece of so many of the issues that confront us stem from an economy that works for only the wealthiest.  The poverty of tens of millions, the low-pay of hundreds of millions, and economic insecurity of virtually all but the wealthiest, as well as the destruction of the environment all stem from this rigged economy of predatory capitalism.

While Occupy made “We are the 99%” famous, this wealth divide is not new.  In fact, in a 1956 sermon, Dr. King said:

“The misuse of Capitalism can also lead to tragic exploitation. This has so often happened in your nation. They tell me that one tenth of one percent of the population controls more than forty percent of the wealth. Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are to be a truly Christian nation you must solve this problem.”

Now, the task falls to all of us, we must educate and mobilize people to create a broad national consensus that recognizes the unacceptable injustice of the rigged economy and the need to transform to economic democracy that brings economic fairness and leads to a government that functions with the participation of the people and is not dominated by the ‘rule of money’.  The transformation is before us, it is our task to achieve it.

This article is produced by in conjunction with AlterNet.  It is based on’s weekly newsletter reviewing the activities of the resistance movement.

Kevin Zeese, JD and Margaret Flowers, MD are participants in; they co-direct It’s Our Economy and co-host Clearing the FOG. Their twitters are @KBZeese and MFlowers8.