Note on Believing in God

What kind of thing is belief in God (not to be confused with faith)? Is it the same kind of thing as any other belief? I don’t think so. Believing in God can’t be the same as belief in, say, a 10th planet beyond Pluto. They are different kinds of belief – one concerns an object in space and time, one concerns the uncreated. That is, to me, what makes it so different. If God is uncreated, then things like experience, belief, and knowledge that we have of Him are going to of a different order altogether.

Note on Strengthening Faith

When someone says something in regards to, say, a fact of science, that ‘it strengthened their faith’, what exactly does that mean? That acquiring this particular piece of empirical knowledge somehow increased either the quality or quantity of their faith? How would this work? I see statements like that often, but I’m not sure what is really meant by them. One believes in God – does learning X mean that now they really believe in God? Or that if there was any doubt, now there isn’t? But suppose X hadn’t been found out. Would said faith be weaker than if X had? I doubt that very much – I have a hard time imagining a devout Christian would have their faith shaken by not coming across a certain fact – if they did, then that would serve simply to show the folly of basing one’s faith in God upon a particular empirical fact.

Or suppose that the opposite of X, Y, had been found out. Would that have weakened said faith? I doubt that, because I don’t think what is meant by ‘strengthening faith’ is that X actually increases the quality of one’s spiritual confidence in God, or corrects a deficiency or weakness in said faith, but rather that X simply affirms what is already believed. I know my wife is a lovely person, but when she makes a nice dinner or cleans up the kitchen, I don’t say, ‘wow, that really strengthened my belief that she’s a nice person.’ I already know she’s a nice person – dinner simply serves to confirm what I already know. A poor analogy that’s best not pressed too far, but it serves the point.

Anyway, my point is that I don’t think most folks who say that X strengthens their faith actually mean that. From a theological perspective, God strengthens my faith – not any particular empirical or metaphysical fact. I think it was Newman who said, ‘I believe in design because I believe in God, not in God because I believe in design.

Divine Simplicity: East, West, and Barth

Divine simplicity is the idea that God is not composed of any metaphysical parts – He is one. This is based on the Shema – ‘hear, or Israel, the Lord our God is one.’ There are two main ways of thinking about this that have dominated: the Latin tradition and the Eastern tradition – Barth’s is different from both of these.

The Latin tradition holds that God is absolutely simple in His essence – His existence is His essence, which is His power, which is His goodness, etc. God is utterly one. While we may distinguish between God’s attributes, there is no real distinction in God Himself. God is one in His simplicity.

The Eastern tradition takes a different route. God’s essence is supremely unknowable – we know God through his energies, or workings in creation. The energy/essence distinction avoids simplicity because the energies are distinct from the essence, but don’t think of this as a kind of kantian mediator, or thing-in-the-middle; God’s energies are really God, so in knowing God’s energies (such as His grace, love, mercy), we really do know God. Nothing can be said about the essence, since it is the absolute ontological chasm between God and humanity

Barth takes a decidedly different approach, known as actualism. Instead of taking the Eastern way, which he regarded as a product of subjective apophatic mysticism (he was quite wrong about the apophatic tradition, but that’s for another time), and the Western way, which he saw as abstract metaphysics, he begins with God. God as He is. As He reveals Himself. Barth refuses any kind of speculation and begins his discussion by asserting that God is the Living god, to be known on His own terms.

For Barth, the issue isn’t so much of existence and essence (though he uses that language) so much as act and being. God’s being, who He is, is what He is in His works. God’s being is in His act. His act is revelation – His self-revealing. God is who He is in His act of revelation. So, instead of God’s existence being His essence, His being is His act, and His act is revelation. God’s being is revelation, ergo, God is revelation.

So, in a nutshell, Barth basically affirms the medieval and Latin tradition of existence being essence – he simply gets in a very different way. Whereas the Latins arrive by means of metaphysics (what Barth would call speculation) Barth arrives by means of the self-revealing of the Living God. This shouldn’t be new territory for those familiar with Barth – he was famous for his rejection of metaphysics, natural theology, and speculative metaphysics about God and the nature of God. Torrance would do a good job of mellowing out Barth’s thought and giving a place to natural theology and metaphyics.

These are more or less the two dominant positions, as well as Barth’s – questions, comments, criticisms welcome.

Note on Apologetics II

I’ve been thinking about apologetics and its role in theology for a little while now. It has a long and distinguished history – from the early church onwards. But what exactly is it?

The basic definition is ‘a reasoned defense’ of something. The word ‘apologia’ was more of a legal term in New Testament times, used to denote the defense one would give of oneself at court. In more modern terms, specifically in Christian terms, it basically means giving the reasons for your Christian belief. This typically involves evidence from history, philosophy, science, etc etc. There are lots of different approaches, though, some which eschew the use of evidence.

NT examples of apologetics: most famously, Paul’s address to the Athenians on Mars Hill. Early church example: Justin Martyr and his use of the concept of ‘logos’ (which was used in the Gospel of John, but really fleshed out by Justin). Modern examples: William Lane Craig.

So why apologetics? To give a reason, or a reasoned defense, for the hope within. Often, however, (at least this is what I’ve noticed) apologetics means defending, in an almost military fashion, the Christian faith or aspects of it. It’s seen as necessary to establish the rationality (whatever that may mean) of the faith.

Things that come to mind: I don’t really see the Christian faith some something that needs to be defended in this manner. The Gospel is a proclamation – how does one defend a proclamation? Does one need to? Does, for example, the resurrection of Jesus need to be established as ‘rational’? (It should be noted that I do in fact think that the Gospel is rational, but in the classical metaphysical sense of the word – like how David Bentley Hart argues in ‘The Experience of God’). The Gospel is a proclamation of the ruler-ship of Jesus. When a king conquers another king, he doesn’t send out messengers to establish the rationality of his kingship to his new subjects, though his kingship is no doubt ‘rational’.

Now this isn’t to say that the Christian picture of the world doesn’t have things like good argument in its favour – it certainly does. But these arguments can’t function as foundational-istic data upon which one bases their belief in the Christian message. The truth of the Christian message isn’t a matter of the discovery of data by infallible method.

What this does mean, though, is that a lot of pop-apologetics isn’t really doing anything helpful. One thinks of the many books in which the Resurrection is ‘proved’ – things like the trustworthiness of the documents, eyewitness accounts, etc, typically come into play. This does little good. Apologetics which seek to ‘prove’ the ‘rationality’ of various tenets of Christianity (resurrection, ascension, etc) are misguided not because these events aren’t ‘rational’ (in a very deep sense, they are) but because it seeks to establish the rationality of faith based on these events conforming to a certain kind of ‘rationality’ so as to serve reasons to believe – the reason for the hope within. The reason for the hope within the Christian is not the demonstration of the ‘rationality’ of particular events in the narrative of Scripture but the crucified and risen Messiah.

Barth on God’s Love

‘God’s loving is an end in itself. All the purposes that are willed and achieved in Him are contained and explained in this end, and therefore in this loving itself and as such. For this loving is itself the blessing that it communicates to the loved, and it is its own ground as against the loved. Certainly in loving us God wills His own glory and our salvation. But He does not love us because He wills this. He wills it for the sake of His love. God loves in realising these purposes. But God loves because He loves; because this act is His being, His essence, and His nature. He loves without and before realising these purposes. He loves to eternity. Even in realising them, He loves because He loves. And the point of this realisation is not grounded in itself, but in His love as such, in the love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And as we believe in God, and return to His love, it is not be understood from itself, but only from His loving as such.’ (Karl Barth, ‘Church Dogmatics’ 2.1, p. 279)

Barth Rant

A post in a Facebook group:

‘Barth was a prisoner of his early limited 20th century modern Western thinking…at worst, he had a somewhat unorthodox view of the gospel as a result of of philosophical European upbringing.’

This irritates me greatly. There is a vast difference between being a prisoner of X, and thinking that X is a legitimate thing with which and against which one can work. Barth did the latter – he was a modern, who realized that the church couldn’t simply go back to before the modern era had begun, and couldn’t continue to say the same things in the same way as it always had.

This, to me, is a huge problem. The idea that orthodox theology is purely about retrieval, purely about going back to the past. I find it quite ludicrous, honestly. I just got back from a run so maybe it’s the adrenaline, but this is just ridiculous to suppose that anything new or modern, or anyone who takes something new and modern seriously, is a prisoner of modernity.

God always has something new to teach us – and just as often as not, this involves not a retrieval but a move forward, often into the unknown. To suppose that the faith once and for all delivered means that there is never anything new to learn or never a new way of saying an old truth or (God forbid) a whole new truth to learn seems to me to be a bad case of head-in-sand syndrome.

This does not mean that the church sacrifices old truth for the sake of relevance – but the church must be prepared to receive new things from God, and to not freeze what God has given into all that God will ever give.

Nature, Grace and Predestination in the 9th Century

A preliminary to any discussion of predestination in the 9th century has to be the concepts of nature and grace. As I mentioned in a previous post, the distinction between nature and grace basically ran like this (the references here will all come from Pelikans’s ‘The Growth of Medieval Theology’):

Augustine: nature = supported by grace, after the fall, grace is taken away. Nature without grace can only do evil.
Pelagius = nature is grace – righteousness is part of the original nature of man. Grace is immutable in the person.

It was the Augustinian viewpoint that dominated the medieval tradition – free will, for example, was seen to only be free in any meaningful sense if it was supported by grace. Bear this in mind as the background and underlying presuppositions of this entire debate, even though it’s not directly referenced.

Now, generally, there are two main ways of thinking about predestination: either God picks by means of decree some to be saved, or God picks based on His foreknowledge of what people would freely do. A key point in Augustine, who was basically the ender of disputes in the medieval period, was this, that God acted…

‘…for the damnation of those whom he had justly predestined to punishment and for the salvation of those whom he had kindly predestined to grace.’ (p. 81

The latter originated with a guy named Hincmar, who turns out to be another guy named Gottschalks arch enemy. Hincmar said that God foreknew that…

‘…some, through the freedom of the will assisted by grace, would be good…’ (86)

…and these were the people he predestined to salvation. This is single predestination. God predestines based on foreknowledge who goes to heaven, passing over the reprobate.

Gottschalk based his double predestination heavily on his idea of God’s impassibility:

‘”I believe and confess that God, omnipotent and unchangeable, has foreknown and predestined”: so Gottschalk opened a confession of his faith. The conclusion of another statement of faith was an apostrophe extolling the transcendence of God beyond time and beyond change. If God had not foreordained the damnation of the devils and the wicked, they could not be damned; for “if he does something which he has not done by predestination, he will simply have to change,” which was blasphemous.’ (p. 85)

An area of dispute was the distinction between God’s foreknowledge and predestination – did the one impose necessity on the other? Did it even make sense to talk of ‘fore’ knowledge in God? This was an area of intense discussion – but for the sake of brevity I’ll pass over it, noting the two obvious answers: either (a) it did impose necessity, or (b) it didn’t, for one reason or another.

To breeze through a pretty lengthy and subtle debate: both sides believed that they were teaching the correct doctrine, and each believed the other to be a heretic. Both were able to find support in Augustine, and both had patristic support as well as contemporary followers. The most pertinent for modern discussions is the emergence of this viewpoint:

‘This statement of Paul’s, (that God desired all men to be saved), the predestinarians had to admit, was “extremely perplexing and  much discussed in the writings of the holy fathers and explained in many different ways”. Therefore its interpretation was “not to be settled precipitately, but very cautiously”. They rehearsed Augustine’s various attempts to circumvent the text’s affirmation of the universal salvific will of God. From the use of the identical word ‘desires’ in 1 Timothy 2:4. “who desires all to be saved”, and in Romans 9:18, “He has mercy upon whoever he desires,” Gottschalk strove to demonstrate that “truly God has not in way desired to save with eternal salvation those whom, as Scripture testifies, he hardens.” The “all men” in the text must mean “all men who are saved” rather than “all men” in general.’ (p. 90)

This viewpoint opened up all kinds of other questions: how effective was the death of Christ in securing redemption? We have as responses some now classic answers: on the one side, God could be accused of injustice if his son died for only for some and not others. On the other side, the blood of Christ would be seen as being wasted if it was shed for those who were not saved. Both of these were developed in intricate detail by their supporters.

To sum up: the contemporary debate, usually had between Calvinists and Arminians, over the scope of redemption, predestination and God’s foreknowledge, can be seen reaching all the way back to the 9th century – and, oddly enough, it seems that the answers have basically remained the same ever since.

As a postscript: the real issue here is the idea of externalism in regards to salvation, which Barth/Torrance subjected to pretty withering criticism in their writings.

T.F. Torrance on Reconciliation

‘…Christ was one the one hand so with God that what he did, God did, for he was none other than God himself acting thus in our humanity. And therefore there is no other God for us than this God, and no action toward us than this action in which he stood in our place and acted on our behalf. On the other hand, he was so one with us that when he died we died, for he did not die for himself but for us, and he did not die alone, but we died in him as those whom he had bound to himself inseparably by his incarnation. Therefore when he rose again we rose in him and with him, and when he presented himself before the face of the Father, he presented us also before God, so that we are already accepted of God in him once and for all.

‘Because of what Christ has done, God has nothing more to say to us in respect of our sin and guilt, for they are put away. It is Christ that died: God cannot and will not go back upon the death of his dear son, for there is perfect oneness between the Son and Father and he accepts his sacrifice on our behalf as full satisfaction for our sin and guilt, a satisfaction which he accepts because it was offered by himself and borne by himself. satisfaction means that God has fulfilled the will of his love in taking our judgment on himself and bearing it in our stead. All that is summed up in the expression that ‘through the blood of Christ we have peace with God’. (Rom. 5:19; Col.1:20)

(T.F. Torrance, ‘Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ,’ p. 152, 155)

David Bentley Hart on Knowing God

‘As the source, ground and end of being and consciousness, God can be known as God only insofar as the mind rises from beings to being, and withdraws from the objects of consciousness toward the wellspring of consciousness itself, and learns to see nature not as a closed system of material forces but in light of those ultimate ends that open the mind and being each to the other. All the great faiths recognize numerous vehicles of grace, various proper dispositions of the soul before God, differing degrees of spiritual advancement, and so forth; but clearly teach that there is no approach to the knowledge of God that does not involve turning the mind and will toward the perception of God in all things and all things in God. This is the path of prayer –  contemplative prayer, that is, as distinct from somple prayers of supplication and thanksgiving – which is a specific discipline of though, desire and action, one that frees the mind from habitual prejudices and appetites, and allows it to dwell in the gratuity and glory of all things. As an old monk on Mount Athos told me, contemplative prayer is the art of seeing reality as it truly is; and, if one has not yet acquired the ability to see God in all things, one should not imagine that one will be able to see God in himself.’ (David Bently Hart, ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, p. 321)