God and the Absolute

A paragraph from a paper I’m writing on Van Til’s “God and the Absolute”.

God and the Absolute


Traditionally, Pragmatism and Idealism are seen to be opponents to one another. Pragmatism on the one hand necessitated a radical epistemological relativism, in which the knowing subject determines right and wrong. Subjective cognition is creatively constructive[1]. The Idealist on the other hand holds to a set of abstract Ideals which are to govern human behavior. It would seem, at least on a surface level that Pragmatism and Idealism are in irreconcilable opposition to one another. But is it the case that “Idealism and Christianity have found an alliance against all forms of Pragmatism”[2]? Formal similarities notwithstanding, Christianity Idealism and Pragmatism are at war with one another. With Pragmatism and Idealism having formed a “secret alliance against Theism.”[3] It is noteworthy, that for Van Til there are two fundamental categories for human thought: Christian and non-Christian. Or to put it more pointedly (as Van Til saw fit to do at times), the most basic difference can be conceived of along the lines of covenant keeping and covenant breaking, between believing and apostate thought[4]. With these distinctions in mind, it is impossible for Idealism and Pragmatism to give quarter to Christianity. “Theism serves God; Pragmatism serves gods.”[5]

[1] Throughout this paper I will draw the readers attention to Van Til’s distinction between “creative construction” and “receptive reconstruction” with regards to epistemology.

[2] Cornelius Van Til, 7

[3] Ibid. 7

[4] “Self-conscious covenantal reaction on the part of man presupposes identification of the facts of history and nature as clearly and directly carrying the will of God….Man [in the Garden] was to deal covenantally with every fact of history. Apostate man actively suppresses the knowledge of God, and so suppresses the knowledge of his creatureliness (Rom. 1:18ff.). He fails to yield to God the covenantal obedience his self-knowledge requires.

[5] Ibid.


Christ and the Divine Perfections

The divinity of the love of God consists and confirms itself in the fact that in Himself and in all His works God is gracious, merciful and patient, and at the same time holy, righteous, and wise. (Barth, CD 2/1, 351)




For Barth, all our knowledge of God and His love is bound up in the knowledge of Jesus Christ as He is attested to in Scripture. “[T]he love of God is the first word.” (CD 2/1, 351) All of God’s perfections must be viewed through the lens of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. This means, among other things, that God’s divinity must be conceived of along Christological lines and not simply along the lines of His incommunicable attributes. But that is not to subordinate or diminish the divinity of God’s freedom, rather, God’s love and freedom are both divine only to the extent that they exist conterminously. For Barth, there is no priority of love over freedom or vice versa. Rather, there is an order intrinsic to God’s divine life such that “He is the first of all the One who loves and then as such the One who is free.” (Ibid. 351)[1]


This move of Barth’s results in the inability to extract God’s love from His freedom or vice versa: “God’s being consists in His being as the One who loves in freedom.” (Ibid. 352) This order, “love” in “freedom” is essentially asymmetrical, it is the “order” of the operations of God’s intrinsic being. To say it another way, the sea of God’s being is only navigable dialectically. That is, when one considers the divine love one considers it exclusively with reference to God’s freedom in Christ. That way, “even if indirectly [emphasis mine], we are beginning also with the divine freedom.” (Ibid. 351)


The fact that God is loving means He is “gracious, merciful, and patient” in all of His works, and because God always loves in freedom, He is also always “Holy, righteous, and wise.” That God always loves in freedom means that all of his works are simultaneously gracious and holy, merciful and righteous, patient and wise.


This is what God’s love looks like, for Barth, if it is understood Christologically (with exclusive reference to the love of God in Christ). This also stands as Barth’s attempt to explain how God’s love for us (expressed in Jesus Christ) could be determinative of God’s own being, and on what basis God is free to actualize His love for us in Jesus Christ? How do we understand the “One Who loves in freedom”? Barth’s answer is predictably: Jesus Christ.

[1] Barth quickly heads off the objection that this observation could allow one to evaluate God’s love or freedom independently of one another. The love and freedom of God do not exist statically apart from His will to love in freedom in Christ.

A Touch of Thielicke

A Touch of Thielicke

“These characteristics of the name enable us to understand why the name of God stands representatively for His personality and why in some dimensions of its meaning the word ‘person’ can be used to describe God. When God indicates His name, He shows that He is not to be located in a nexus of being as though there were something all embracing in which He could be integrated or something higher and general under which He could be subsumed. He makes Himself known as the unique One who has no other gods beside him. He also makes Himself known as the One who wills to be Immanuel, who demands obedience and wills to be involved. In short, He binds Himself to man in address and answer, in the interchange of person and person.” (Helmut Thielicke, The Evangelical Faith: Vol. 2 the Doctrine of God and Christ [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977] 109)

Thielicke, in a remarkable passage, comments that God’s revelation of Himself in Exodus 3:14 is void of the self-definition those of the Reformed camp have traditionally understood it to contain. The “I will be who I will be” (Ibid. 109) is instead supposedly a definition of pure freedom and openness to fill up the content of His name with His act. For Thielicke, the giving of God’s name was not so much an act of self disclosure, but the utter transcendence of “the resultant ideas of Him.” It is the refusal of God to be possessed by man, to be contained in human categories. He explains, “The true God shatters these attempts to master Him, whether by refusing his name or by transcending the resultant ideas of Him.” (Ibid. 240)

While I’m happy to affirm much of what Thielicke says in the first paragraph, namely his refusal to lump God into a univocal plane of being, it seems that the narrative section contained within Exodus 3 is not the story of God’s desire to remain utterly inaccessible to man. It is the story of a God who sees, hears, and acts on behalf of an enslaved people. What we read in Exodus 3 is the beginning of God’s gift of Himself[1] to Israel even as He claims Israel as His own “treasured possession” (Deut. 6:7).

Calvin commenting on Exodus 6:7 notes, “But the future tense shews [“I will take you to be my people”] that the benefit was not to be merely temporal, when God with a stretched out arm shall bring the people out of Egypt, but that this should only be the beginning of eternal protection.”

While I would always wish to maintain the utter mystery of God’s being to man, I would also like to emphasize God’s sovereignty over His revelation and thus His ability to give in the content of His revelation a true and accurate account of His own being. The name of God and the act of God (His revelation in the unburning bush) function, in this context, to interpret one another.



[1] “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” (Ex. 6:7)

Epistemological Discontinuity in the theology of Bavinck and Van Til: implications for constructive dogmatics

Bavinck, Van Til, and Constructive Dogmatics

The history of Western philosophy has consisted of a give and take between the opposing philosophical schools of empiricism and rationalism. For the Christian, these two schools represent two sides of the same unbelieving coin. That is, both schools are wrong and will lead to absolute monism, while each takes a different route on their way to the same basic error. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) in the “Prolegomena” volume of his “Reformed Dogmatics”[1] seeks to avoid both extremes by appealing to a form of “common sense realism” that he believes is consistent with the Reformed theology exposited in his own Dogmatic. Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), on the other hand, argues that Bavinck’s moderate realism reveals a fundamentally different theological interpretation of human rationality. For Van Til, all the facts of the universe have their existence and their knowability because they are created and thus interpreted by God,[2] therefore our knowledge of all things is derivative and covenantal in nature. Van Til effectively does away with an epistemological false dilemma wherein one is forced to choose between grievous and moderate error.

The Nature of the Case


In the Prolegomena volume of Bavinck’s “Reformed Dogmatics” (RD), Bavinck sets up a theoretical framework for his realism in contrast to rationalism (Plato, Neo-Platonism, and Descartes), subjective rationalism (Kant and Hegel), and Empiricism (Locke, Hume, Comte, and Mill). These two schools, Empiricism and Rationalism (or Phenomenalism and Idealism), have maintained opposing trajectories throughout the history of Western philosophy.[3]

Bavinck casts his own epistemology in opposition to the two heads of apostate thought, Rationalism and Empiricism, by laying out his doctrine of the “principium essendi and cognoscendi”[4] respectively. For Bavinck, the “principium essendi” (PE), the foundational principle which makes all existence and knowledge possible, is the Triune God. Our finite existence is enabled only by the existence of the infinite being of God, therefore our existence is derivative or “ectypal.” It is an analogy or interpretation (via creation) by God of His own being. Similarly, all our knowledge of God and the created order is founded upon God’s own perfect and exhaustive self-knowledge of Himself and all that He has created. His knowledge is not founded upon observation and investigation as is the case with our knowledge; rather, His knowledge is immediate, exhaustive, and simultaneous. In other words, God knows all things not as a creature, but as the Creator. There is therefore no mediating cognitive act by which God comes to know something He once did not know. His knowledge is exhaustive in that it penetrates to the very essence of every created thing so that there is no shadow or uninterpreted aspect of Creation that has escaped the gaze of God[5]. Finally, His knowledge is simultaneous in that He has complete and total access to all His knowledge simultaneously, that is, His being and knowledge are coterminous.

The principium cognoscendi has two subdivisions: 1. the principium congnoscendi externum (PCE) and 2. the principium cognoscendi internum (PCI). The PCE is simply God’s own self-revelation towards His creatures in His word. The Scriptures testify to the Holy character of God and His moral will for all His creatures. Bavinck explains, “The object of God’s self-revelation, accordingly, is to introduce his knowledge into the human consciousness and through it again to set the stage for the glorification of God himself.”[6] While the PCE is the external means by which the revelation of God is introduced to the “human consciousness,” the PCI is the means by which this knowledge penetrates to the very heart of man, illuminating him and enabling him to cry out to God for mercy. The PCI is the Holy Spirit which makes the Word efficacious and thus changes the heart and mind of the creature to transition from wrath to grace.

Throughout its history, Western thought has tended in one of two directions: rationalism or empiricism. Each of these two schools has a very specific, and diametrically opposed, view of the relationship between the subject and object of knowledge. In Greek philosophy, the epistemological gamut consisted of “δόξα” and “ἐπιστήμη.” For the early Rationalists sense perception, properly speaking, offers us no true and unchanging knowledge as one’s perceptions of reality are inherently unreliable and even prone to error. Their reasons are simply that the objects of sense perception are often in a state of flux (Parmenides), therefore our perception of the external world fails to get at the object as it really is (i.e. of its true and abiding essence). Sense perception cannot take us any farther than “δόξα,”; that is, it can only tell us that something is but not why it is. Thinking is the means by which we obtain “ἐπιστήμη” or true knowledge, it is therefore acquired and not received.

Descartes, in his search for a fixed epistemological starting point, concluded with his famous maxim “cogito ergo sum.” In other words, I can think therefore I can rationally infer that I exist. He reasons inferentially from thought to being. In this sense, Descartes goes farther than his Greek forebears in that he more consistently applies the principle of the autonomous human intellect.[7] Spinoza will advance Descartes’ line of reasoning and conclude that logical necessity and the coherence of propositions are the standard of truth. Kant will attempt to correct Descartes and Spinoza by making a significant adjustment, namely by positing the human mind as the source of the forms of perception,[8] but not the content of knowledge itself. In short, Rationalism in all of its forms involves a shift towards the autonomous knowing subject. Bavinck remarks, “In whatever different forms this rationalism manifested itself, it was always marked by the same basic idea, namely that the origin of knowledge is to be found in the subject.”[9]

On the opposite side of the epistemological spectrum is Empiricism, the belief that sense perception is the exclusive source of true knowledge. The Empiricist, according to Bavinck, “brings with [him] nothing but the faculty of perception.”[10] By perception, the Empiricist narrowly refers to sense perception; only sense data is allowable within this paradigm. Any notion of “a priori” or “innate ideas” must be jettisoned: “From the temple of truth, which he aspires to construct in his mind, he must remove all idols.”[11]

The Empiricist insists that the human mind must be a tabula rasa, a void wherein presuppositions do not and cannot exist. Similarly, we can have no access to super-sensibles (noumena) which of course makes theology and metaphysics impossible. The telos of sensibles is therefore utterly mysterious and unknowable. Thus we are reduced to describing sensible reality, but left totally incapable of speaking to the “why” of our perceptions. The trajectory of Empiricism is materialism, the paradigm necessarily leads (if worked out consistently) to atheistic materialism.

There are several prima facie problems with Empiricism: 1. The materialism demanded by Empiricism is incapable of accounting for the consciousness of the knowing subject. 2. The knowing subject is always active in the act of knowing and never passive. 3. The Empirical method rests on a priori conditions (i.e. causality) that are not Empirically verifiable.[12] Empiricism can only analyze sensible phenomena, it cannot synthesize those observations into a coherent system whereby we may determine not only the “thatness” of a phenomena, but also the “why” of phenomena. Empiricism simply cannot answer the real questions that plague us. For example, why something instead of nothing? It cannot arrive at moral judgements or issue moral imperatives. It simply cannot satisfy the most basic existential questions posed by humans.

Their differences notwithstanding, Rationalism and Empiricism are far from enemies.

Bavincks Realism

According to Bavinck, “The starting point of the theory of knowledge ought to be daily ordinary experience, the universal and natural certainty of human beings concerning the objectivity and truth of their knowledge.”[13] For Bavinck Realism, in contrast to Rationalism and Empiricism, does not destroy the cognitive faculty, but rather explains it. Realism begins with the natural certainty of the subject that there exists an external objective world. This is a truth arrived at via sense experience not abstract logical deduction. Perception always precedes knowledge, therefore the real world of sensibles is given to us in the representation itself. Our perceptions grant us an accurate portrait of the object as it actually is in itself. Of this truth we have a “natural certainty”[14]

In contrast the Empiricism, knowledge is not built solely upon the foundation of sense experience so that we can only have a “mediate certainty”[15], rather, it is built upon universal and unprovable presuppositions (principia), thus making our certainty “immediate” (i.e. unmediated, a priori).

Bavinck seems to borrow from Thomas Aquinas a sort of modified understanding of the “tabula rasa” in which the human mind is necessarily bound to a human body, and therefore to the physical sensible realm. The human mind and the human body do not operate independently of one another, rather they operate congruously. For Thomas the intellect exists initially as potentiality until it is actualized by sense experience. Sense experience then sets in motion (actualizes) the human mind so that it immediately begins to work “in its own way and according to its own nature.”[16] The mind then naturally begins to synthesize (organize) sense perception according to “basic concepts and principles”[17].

According to Bavinck the mind operates “by means of perception that is immediate [a priori], automatic, involuntary, and without any strain, previous effort, or exercise of reasoning power (sine ratiocinatione).”[18] At the moment the intellect is activated, it operates according to Laws of thought which are embedded in the act of thought itself. Through the act of thought, the Laws of thought come to expression[19]. These processes occur apart from conscious reflection.

So the intellect has a unique nature by which it is constrained to operate[20], and also interprets the external object according to how the object actually exists. It does not conform the world to the intellect (Rationalism), nor does it conform the intellect to the world (empiricism). Therefore, Bavinck believed, Realism is the only epistemological system that actually does explanatory justice to the cognitive faculty.

Following from the previous thought, Bavinck concludes that all knowledge must begin with sense perception[21]. All of the senses have a unique nature, according to Bavinck, which dictates how it perceives phenomena. Our perceptions are therefore always composite[22]. We are not passively written upon by the world of experience, but neither do we merely see the reflection of the objects as they are. Our perceptions are formed and molded according to our senses, “[b]ut every perceptual image is formed in the consciousness itself from factors that are brought from the object to the mind by the different senses.”[23] The question remains however, how are these external objects and our perceptions of these objects related? In other words, how does the external object relate to the internal image/form which is the perception of the object, relate? Bavinck explains, “The mind that sees the object is the same mind that forms the representation. Both of these acts are psychic acts. There is therefore no reason to doubt that in the representations we have a faithful, ideal reproduction of the objects outside ourselves.”[24] Bavinck is arguing that because the acts of seeing and representing are both mental acts, we can confidently conclude they’re faithfully reproduced.

The problem now becomes, how do we get from perceptibles to “universals”[25] given that universals are the proper object of science? Bavinck notes, “Scientific knowledge is not produced by the senses but by the intellect.”[26] Bavinck, following Augustine, argues that it is only because of the Divine light that we’re capable of seeing truth and possessing true knowledge. We do not see truth via the light of our own natural reason nor do we discern truth by being a part of the Divine Light itself, rather, it is the Logos “who causes this light to arise in us and constantly maintains it. And so, when the truth discloses itself to our mind by the rays of that light, we owe it to God and not to human beings, who are merely the instrument.”[27]

In short, God is the Principium Essendi, all facts of created reality find their origin in the “Mind” of God as “archetypes,”. Through creation we receive the copy, the ectype which is the created world in its totality. The world is the true “embodiment of the thoughts of God”[28] though His thoughts are not identical with the created order[29].

Van Tils Theological Epistemology


In his exposition of what constitutes a “Christian epistemology,” Van Til asks two questions regarding the subject and object of knowledge namely, “whether they can have (a) their existence and (b) their meaning independent of the existence of God.”[30] These questions guide and inform Van Til as he inquires into the nature of a truly (i.e. consistently) Christian epistemology.

We can only posit an “object” of knowledge because God has created the universe ex nihilo. The created order is therefore derivative and dependent on God for its meaning and interpretation. Van Til notes, “[w]e see clearly that the existence and meaning of every fact in this universe must in the last analysis be related to the self-conscious and eternally self-subsistent God of the Scriptures.”[31] Whether or not this insight is seen “clearly” as Van Til suggests is debatable, but the substance of his point carries significant weight.

Van Til is suggesting that as we know facts we relate them to laws, the particulars to the universals. This is not to suggest that the universe (our experience of the universe) is correlative to God as the Universal. That is why Van Til insists on the equal ultimacy of the unity and plurality within the self-contained (i.e. a se) ontological Trinity[32]. In other words, in theology, the universals and particulars are not ultimate. Van Til explains, “If we are to have coherence in our experience, there must be a correspondence of our experience to the eternally coherent experience of God. Human knowledge ultimately rests upon the internal coherence within the Godhead; our knowledge rests upon the ontological Trinity as its presupposition.”[33]

Additionally, the human intellect, according to Van Til, cannot function properly unless it is in right standing before God. In other words, our interpretation of our environment is derivative and subordinate to God as the ultimate Interpreter of all reality. So if our interpretation is derivative it can be judged along the lines of its correspondence to God’s own interpretation. Man who exists in a state of alienation from God will not reason properly, but that is not to say that he is not capable of right reason. Rather, Van Til is drawing our attention to the fact that all knowledge has an ethical dimension. He rightly understands that man’s intellect has two fundamental aspects: one is man’s intellect is created, and second it is depraved. The first is metaphysical (ontological) the second is ethical.

All our knowledge, according to Van Til, is founded upon God’s self knowledge. He notes that God’s being and His knowledge are coterminous, that is, God’s knowledge of Himself is coextensive with His eternal being. The perichoretic nature of the Trinity means God knows Himself exhaustively and knows all things simultaneously. In other words, what He knows and how He knows are quantitatively and qualitatively different from what and how we know as creaturely analogues. Under this understanding, one need not and cannot fully comprehend any fact. Rather, one can know that something is even if our intellects cannot exhaust it, “[a]s Christians, then, we believe that human knowledge of the world and of God is (a) not exhaustive and yet (b) true. We are created in God’s image, and therefore our knowledge cannot be exhaustive; we are created in Gods image, and therefore our knowledge is true.”[34]

Following from the above observation, Van Til makes the controversial point that modern theologians are content to note that the natural man does not know God truly, while simultaneously affirming that man knows other facts of the universe truly. This approach fails to recognize that the human mind is a “unit” so that if the natural man does not know God truly, he does not know any fact of the universe truly. Van Til explains, “All knowledge is interrelated. The created world is expressive of the nature of God. If one knows ‘nature’ truly, one also knows nature’s God truly. Then, too the mind of man is a unity. It cannot know one thing truly without knowing all things truly.”[35]

This is not to say that the natural man doesn’t know anything, on the contrary, he knows many things very well. Van Til is merely highlighting what Paul expressly indicates in Romans 1:19ff “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:19-20 ESV)

Following Paul, Van Til makes a distinction between the manner in which men possess knowledge. First, man possesses an objective knowledge of God. This knowledge is impressed upon him by God who has implanted it on his heart and stamped it on his mind. All men everywhere know themselves as creatures of God. Van Til explains, “This is objective revelation to him [the sensus divinitatis]. Even to the extent that this revelation is in man, in his own constitution, and as such may be called ‘subjective,’ it is nonetheless objective to him as an ethically responsible creature, and he is bound to react as an ethical person to this objective revelation.”[36] In other words, this knowledge is implanted on man and is sufficient to make him culpable for his rejection of God. Second, while man possesses knowledge about God via God’s implanting of that knowledge on his heart and mind, man’s fallen nature dictates that he will always suppress and distort this knowledge. The natural man begins with the “monistic” assumption of his own ultimacy[37] and works out his epistemology from the standpoint of apostasy. Because man has begun with an anti-theistic starting point, he will misinterpret all things, even those things that are plain to him. Van Til notes, “To the extent that he works according to this monistic assumption, he misinterprets all things, flowers no less than God.”[38] All men interpret themselves and their environment according to the covenant to which they belong. Men will all ultimately faithfully serve either God or Satan with their thought and action. Man will either embrace the sensus divinitatis or he will seek to suppress it at all costs. In each case, every fact is related back to this self-knowledge.

Van Tils Critique of Bavincks Realism


It is worth noting that Van Til and Bavinck were not enemies. One could even go so far as to say that without Bavinck we would not have a Van Til. As is so often the case, Van Til has sought to advance Bavinck’s theology by working it out in as consistent a fashion as possible. Therefore, Van Til will often express gratitude for Bavinck while simultaneously critiquing, in this instance his epistemology, for failing to be consistent with his own stated presuppositions[39].

Van Til critiques Bavinck’s “moderate realism” for his failure to ground it in the self-revelation of God in Scripture[40] which is by Bavinck’s own affirmation of the Scripture as the sole Principium of theology. This failure of Bavinck’s to consistently apply his doctrine of the principia cognoscendi resulted in the mere avoidance of the extremes of two unbelieving approaches. His epistemology represents a sort of via media between two unbelieving polarities. The problem is, a moderately believing epistemology is still a moderately unbelieving epistemology. Van Til remarks, “The net result of Bavinck’s investigation is a moderate realism that seeks on the one hand to avoid the extremes of idealism. It is not a specifically Christian position based upon the presupposition of the existence of the God of Scripture that we have before us in the moderate realism of Bavinck.”[41] In other words, it is not enough to simply be balanced or moderate, one must always and everywhere seek to reason self-consciously as a creature of God in right standing before Him.

Foundational to Bavinck’s epistemology is the notion of “certainty”. His moderate realism assumes that all men have a sort of “common sense” ability to know with certainty that certain Laws are in fact universal. For example, Bavinck would argue contra Hume that the necessary connection that obtains between cause and effect amounts to “common sense”. That is, these notions are universally accessible to man as a priori principles that cannot be rationally questioned as they form the basis of our questioning.

Van Til, however, wishes to correct Bavinck’s notion of certainty by appealing to Bavinck’s own theology. If the Logos is truly the principium of all knowledge, that pre-commitment must be made explicit. Van Til notes, “No non-Christian epistemology has ever offered the Creator Logos as the source of certainty of human knowledge.”[42] What should be the foundation of a Christian epistemology, namely the doctrine of Creation, never appears in pagan thought. The a priori principles of Greek philosophy are not founded upon the Being of the Triune God, they are founded “upon nowhere in particular.”[43] The a priori principles of Greek philosophy would necessarily be impersonal and eternally correlative to God. Of course that is an unacceptable conclusion for the Christian. Van Til argues, “Accordingly, he [Bavinck] tells us at one moment that our certainty lies in the Logos of creation, but then forgets about this Logos in the course of his argumentation and makes certainty exist merely in the face that there are a priori principles regardless of the foundation of these principles.”[44]

One of the most commendable aspects of Bavinck’s epistemology is his stated desire to ground all knowledge in the Being of the Triune God. He comments, “God is the light of reason in which, by which, and through which all things that shine so as to be intelligible, shine.”[45] For Bavinck, the fact of creation is what makes the universe intelligible. We see here how heavily Van Til was influenced by Bavinck as he himself affirms the centrality of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo for a Christian epistemology. The universe, and all it contains, is intelligible simply because it has been created by God to be understood by man. Man has been specially outfitted by God to interpret his environment self-consciously as a creature of God. The a priori principles we take for granted when thinking and acting, are not eternally self-existent impersonal laws, rather they are grounded in the Triune Being of God.

While Bavinck would affirm all of the above, he unfortunately fails to work out a sufficiently biblical doctrine of analogy. Bavinck takes up with Thomas and seems to suggest that he and Thomas are in fundamental agreement. Thomas’ analogia entis involves a degree of participation wherein the creature’s knowledge participates in God’s knowledge. Plato had a similar doctrine of participation wherein the a priori principles of knowledge are grounded upon man himself as he participates in the divine being. Van Til comments, “For Plato, the human soul was really a part of the divine being, and because of that fact, he thought of the a priori principles of knowledge as being directly found in the human mind…Thomas uses the idea of analogy, but has not with any adequacy escaped the Greek participation idea.”[46]

In contrast to Thomas and Bavinck, Van Til suggests that we must construct a consistently biblical doctrine of “analogy” that is properly shaped[47] by the Creator-creature distinction. An understanding that recognizes man’s utter unwillingness to see himself as a creature of the living God[48]. For Van Til, the main problem of humanity is not metaphysical, we are not merely participating in a lower order of being on the same univocal plane of being as God, rather, our problem is ethical in nature. Man steadfastly refuses to allow God to speak to his condition, to interpret his own heart and environment. Bavinck’s view seems to tacitly reflect a low view of sin and a high view of the human intellect. A point that goes against the current Bavinck’s anthropology. Van Til exhorts the reader, “He [Bavinck] should have begun boldly by setting off the consistent Christian position over against Greek speculation and over against the half-Christian, half-Greek speculation of Thomas.”[49]


The Reformed epistemology should always be built upon a Reformed systematic theology grounded in Scripture and the Confessions of the Reformation. What we witness in Bavinck’s epistemology is a significant disconnect between theology and practice. Unfortunately Bavinck was unable in his lifetime to consistently work out his theology to the same degree as some of his successors. As is often the case, it takes a monumental work like “The Reformed Dogmatics” many years to be appropriated and its strengths and weaknesses identified. A proper evaluation should have in view the overall advancement of Reformed orthodoxy through the clarification and application of doctrine to the current state of the Church[50].

This is precisely where Van Til serves the Church so powerfully. As theological partners, Van Til and Bavinck are a powerhouse of Reformed theology, and so they should be seen as partners and not as opponents. The same should be said of the various Reformed theologians of the Post-Reformation period as well. They serve us best when we sit under them as students and then converse with them as brothers seeking to advance the same Dogma and to glorify the same Triune God. The exchange between Van Til and Bavinck should not be seen as a tiff between friends, but as real progress. Therefore, we should not simply imitate Van Til by following him in his conclusions, but we should strive to emulate how he interacted with those who went before him. We would advance not only in doctrine, but also in piety as we learn to appreciate and humbly interact with the theologians of our past.

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics vol. 1: Prolegomena ed. John Bolt trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003)

[2] In his “Introduction to Systematic Theology” Van Til remarks, “From the Christian point of view, every fact of the space-time universe is created by God and is what it is by virtue of its place in the plan of God. It is therefore God’s revelation of his plan that comes to partial expression in every fact of ‘nature’ and history.” ([2] Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology 2nd edition: ed. William Edgar [Philipsburg: P&R, 2007] 38). For Van Til, the facts of the universe are created facts that have their prior existence in the mind of God. These facts cannot exist in the created order exactly as they appear in the mind of God or, they would be God. Rather, the created order and all the facts it contains are analogues of the facts that exist in the mind of God. In other words, via creation, God interprets the facts of the universe as they first appear in His mind so that there is no univocism between God’s thoughts and the created order, nor is there an identity in the manner in which God knows the facts of the universe. Man’s knowledge is analogical with respect to God’s knowledge, that is, man’s knowledge images or reflects God’s knowledge on a created level so that our knowledge truly corresponds to God’s knowledge but is in no way identical in form or content.

[3] Bavinck candidly remarks, “At all times there have been two basic schools of thought that were diametrically opposed to each other in this respect [regarding the logical relationship between the subject and object of knowledge]: rationalism and empiricism.” Ibid. 214

[4] “Principia” being the latinized version of the Greek “ἀρχή”, and it refers to the most basic cause and foundation of reality and the means by which we have knowledge of them. Generally speaking, the principia are divided into three categories: 1. being 2. existence and 3. knowledge. Theologians make use of three principia, namely, the principium essendi (God), the principium congnoscendi externum (Scripture) and internum (the Holy Spirit).

[5] God knows not only the very essence of all things, but how all things are necessarily connected. One could say that all the facts of the world are perfectly systematized in the “mind” of God.

[6] Ibid. 213

[7] Bavinck’s explanation embodies what I mean by the “principle of the autonomous intellect”: “The world of sense perception is at most the occasion for, not the source of, our knowledge; the human mind is able to produce all knowledge from within itself, with its own means, by means of thought [emphasis mine].” Ibid. 215

[8] That is, the categories through which percepts must travel to be intelligible to the human mind.

[9] Ibid. 215

[10] Ibid. 219

[11] Bavinck’s imagery is apt for a couple of reasons: first, empiricism is the worship of the autonomous intellect. This is perhaps more so the case with Empiricism than with Rationalism which still has room for an Absolute (for Hegel Geist). For the Empiricist, the only absolute is the autonomous human intellect. Second, Empiricism demands the destruction of any metaphysic. The human mind becomes legislative of reality en toto.

[12] This is perhaps the most devastating critique of hard Empiricism. Hume’s own argument for an exclusively Empirical notion of knowledge seems to have overlooked this point as he would continue to make statements that themselves were not Empirically verifiable.

[13] Bavinck, 223

[14] Ibid. 224

[15] “Mediate certainty” indicates refers to a certainty founded upon the mediation of a scientific methodology. “Immediate certainty” therefore refers to a certainty founded upon certain a prior presuppositions.

[16] Bavinck, 225

[17] Ibid. 225

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. 226

[21] Ibid.

[22] Made up of sensory impressions.

[23] Bavinck, 227

[24] Ibid. 228

[25] “Universals are the supposed referents of general terms like ‘red’, ‘table’, and ‘tree’, understood as entities distinct from any of the particular things describable by those terms.” The Oxford Guide: Philosophy, ed. Ted Honderich (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) 933

[26] Bavinck, 229

[27] Ibid. 232

[28] Ibid. 233

[29] Van Til will advance Bavinck by articulating God’s act of creation as interpretation. That is, Van Til will argue that God’s act of creation, whereby He calls into existence thoughts in His own mind which did not previously exist outside of Himself, is an act of interpretation. In other words, Creation is God’s interpretation of His own thoughts on a created level. Therefore there is a real analogical relationship between creation and God’s thoughts so that we can have true knowledge about God and His invisible attributes, but our knowledge is quantitatively and qualitatively different from God’s knowledge.

[30] Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology 2nd edition ed. William Edgar (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2007) 57

[31] Ibid. 58

[32] Ibid. 59

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid. 61

[35] Ibid. 64

[36] Ibid. 65

[37] Ibid.

[38] Van Til continues “Fortunately the natural man is never fully consistent while in this life. As the Christian sins against his will, so the natural man ‘sins against’ his own essentially Satanic principle. As the Christian has the incubus of the ‘old man’ weighing him down and therefore keeping him from realizing the ‘life of Christ’ within him, so the natural man has the incubus of his ‘old man’ weighing him down and therefore keeping him from realizing the life of Satan within him.” Ibid.

[39] This is one area in which Van Til’s Christian piety shows forth powerfully: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” (Prov. 27:6 ESV)

[40] Bavinck, 94-95

[41] Van Til, 95

[42] Ibid. 95

[43] Ibid. 96

[44] Ibid. 96 This is Van Til at his best. He is clearly not parting ways with Bavinck, rather, he has apparently more consistently appropriated Bavinck’s theology better than Bavinck! Thus Van Til is not suggesting a Copernican Revolution, but a revised trajectory. One of greater and greater consistency with a Reformed doctrine of God and Scripture.

[45] Bavinck, 232

[46] Ibid. 97

[47] Or perhaps more accurately, limited by the Creator-creature distinction.

[48] Ibid. 98

[49] Ibid. 98

[50] This is not to say that Theology should be a faddish study nor that the Church should be carried about by theological trends. I simply mean, that the Church will most often have to answer old questions with old answers, the answers handed down to us by our fathers in the faith. In other situations the Church may be forced to answer challenges that are unique to our socio-cultural situation. The truth does not change, but the application may take a different shape due to the fact that we’re speaking to a different cultural context than those who’ve gone before us. In other words, the appropriation of old theology for current theological controversies and moral issues should in some manner be formally updated to be intelligible to audiences today.

Sneak Peek Week: Anthony Thiselton’s Systematic Theology

Should be interesting.


It’s Sneak Peek Week on EerdWord, when we’re sharing excerpts from four of the coming season’s most exciting new releases.

Today’s excerpt comes from the preface to Anthony C. Thiselton’s one-volume Systematic Theology, which will be released in November but is available for preorder now.

(Read through to the end to preview the table of contents.)

* * *

Systematic Theology Systematic Theology

I am grateful for the invitation from the publishers to write a systematic the­ology that would be “affordable” for students and ministers, as well as others, and would easily fit into a single volume. Financial resources especially for students and ministers are seldom plentiful, and there is a firm limit to what we can reasonably ask of them.

In addition to this, the best systematic theology to date is probably that of Wolfhart Pannenberg, but it is a three-volume work, and often requires rigorous, demanding, and detailed reading. John Webster’s projected sys­tematic…

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Bavinck on Time and Eternity

“Now these two, God and the world, eternity and time, are related in such a way that the world is sustained in all its parts by God’s omnipresent power, and time in all its moments is pervaded by the eternal being of our God. Eternity and time are not two lines, the shorter of which for a time runs parallel to the infinitely extended one; the truth is that eternity is the immutable center that sends out its rays to the entire circumference of time [emphasis mine]. To the limited eye of the creature it successively unfolds its infinite content in the breadth of space and the length of time, so that creature might understand something of the unsearchable greatness of God. But for all that, eternity and time remain distinct. All we wish to confess is that God’s eternal willing can and does, without ceasing to be eternal, produce effects in time, just as his eternal thought can have temporal objects as its content.” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation vol. 2 [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004] 429)

Will the real Bullies Please Stand Up?

Will the real Bullies Please Stand Up?

I’ve been incredibly reticent about weighing in on this issue, but the rhetoric floating around certain social media outlets has made it impossible for me to remain silent. I want to preface everything I’m about to say with a simple proviso: real hate is sin. It is a grievous sin that likely indicates an unregenerate heart (i.e. you’re not saved). So understand why I find the allegation of “hatred” to be particularly heinous given that I’m working within the framework of a self-consciously biblical worldview.

One of the most unfortunate aspects of the entire discussion surrounding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana is the incredibly loose use of certain words. Is “discrimination” inherently wicked? Can “hate” be reduced down to a vocal disagreement with an individual’s sexual practices? Does “tolerance” mean the holder of the opposing view must remain silent in all further discourse? Or does “tolerance” actually presuppose an opposing viewpoint that one must tolerate? The modus operandi of the opponents of the RFRA seems to be fairly simple: develop a small, highly emotive vocabulary, equivocate when necessary, and above all, bar anyone from the conversation that you deem “hateful,” “intolerant,” or “discriminatory,” all the while engaging in the same behaviors that you decry from social media outlets (the pulpits of secularism). But what happens when you become the very thing you hate so much? And no, I don’t mean a white conservative Christian, I mean an intellectual and ethical imperialist.

“I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife.” (“Take me to Church” Hozier) Who exactly is this supposed to describe again? By legislating “tolerance” you lose the right to pen self-righteous poetry! Who’s holding the knife here? Whose businesses are being threatened? Who is being crucified by the “tolerant”? When was the last time a homosexual was criticized for hateful behavior towards a “breeder”? Please kindly point out to me which of my hands is holding a knife and please share with me the identity of my last victim.

I keep finding myself referring to the controversy over RFRA as a “discussion.” The problem is, discussion is impossible when those deemed “hateful” or “discriminatory” are steadfastly barred from the conversation. So what we’re dealing with isn’t a “discussion,” it’s an echo chamber. Assertions are trotted out as arguments, everyone doles out a hearty “Amen!” and that’s it. No critical engagement and no opposing voice. In short, no discussion. And I’M myopic. The level of the rhetoric makes it impossible to have any meaningful discussion, and it obfuscates the real issues.

Now what is even more juicy is the fact that the great opponents of the modern pandemic we call “bullying” are in fact the biggest bullies on the block. Internet shaming and smear campaigns are perfectly acceptable, unless you’re in high-school, they’ll kick you out for shenanigans like that. The same individuals who adamantly (and rightly) decry censorship in literature and film are more than happy to censor those they find intolerant or “hateful.” So in other words, censorship is evil; if you disagree, I will censor you.

Frank Bruni recently penned a fairly trendy critique (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/05/opinion/sunday/frank-bruni-same-sex-sinners.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Ffrank-bruni) of certain sects of Protestant and Catholic Christianity that still stubbornly hold to “ossified” beliefs about homosexuality and marriage. He comments, “So our debate about religious freedom should include a conversation about freeing religions and religious people from prejudices that they needn’t cling to and can indeed jettison, much as they’ve jettisoned other aspects of their faith’s history, rightly bowing to the enlightenments of modernity.” Now if THAT isn’t Huxleian. I would like to remind Bruni there have always been revisionist streaks within Christianity. But before I’m accused of interpreting Bruni uncharitably, consider how he quotes Mitchell Gold : “Gold told me that church leaders must be made ‘to take homosexuality off the sin list.’ His commandment is worthy — and warranted.” See the shift in tone? We should be trusted to “jettison” certain aspects of our faith, and if we don’t, we “must be made” to.

So the issue isn’t with discrimination per se, it’s with who has the right to discriminate, and what gives one the right to discriminate? One of the ironic aspects of this entire controversy is that neither side is against discrimination. We all believe that we are morally obligated to discriminate against certain sets of beliefs. But what about “hatred”? Well, if I disagree with you, and I act upon that disagreement, I am hateful. I am not hateful towards a belief, I am hateful towards YOU the individual. Similarly, if I disagree with homosexuality and I refuse to take part (whether directly or indirectly) in a ceremony celebrating a homosexual union, I am branded “hateful.” It’s alleged that I am dehumanizing homosexuals by not acknowledging their sexual practices as morally acceptable. You no longer have complex human beings defined by a whole host of relationships and attributes, you are defined by your sexuality. Again, I’M dehumanizing?

Finally, social media has forever changed how we communicate. That’s a truism hardly worth stating. The good that has come from social media is surely astronomical and wide reaching, but it is not without its ills. Social media has profoundly impacted not only how we communicate, but more importantly how we think. We think in soundbites, tweets, and memes. We don’t have time for lengthy arguments void of any humor. We want satire. Coherence and correspondence have been replaced by timing and delivery. If it isn’t funny it can’t be true.

The attitude I just described is nowhere more evident than when opponents to RFRA react to critiques of their rhetoric. The critiques are largely shrugged off and the assertions repeated at a higher pitch. A worldview that is unconcerned with inner inconsistencies or external critiques is a worldview that is not interested in dialogue in the least. It is interested in forcing its ideas. In other words, you will be tolerant or else.

A Review of “Dominus Mortis: Martin Luther on the Incorruptibility of God in Christ” Part 1

Dominus Mortis: Martin Luther on the Incorruptibility of God in Christ[1]

Solidarity and the Son: Martin Luther and the Impassibility of Christ

Over the past 50 years, a particular interpretation of Luther’s Christology has gained a great deal of influence. Adherents to this theory, known as the “Divergence Thesis”[2] (DT), argue for a radically novel vision of the mode of God’s involvement in human history. Luther is cast as bringing about a complete departure from classical Christology, in favor of a radical solidarity of God with man in Christ.

Luther’s allegedly passibilist leanings have caused him to be branded as a sort of “proto-Hegelian” laying the requisite foundation from which modern theologians will construct a dogma of divine immanence that does justice to the perceived need for a suffering God (see Moltman “The Crucified God”). But is this a legitimate reading of Luther? David J. Luy seems to think not, and supports his disagreement through meticulous deconstruction of the central theses of the Divergence Reception (DR) reading of Luther’s Christology.

Luy helpfully situates Luther in the context of Medieval scholastic theology not to demonstrate the Reformer’s rejection of scholastic Christology, but to demonstrate Luther’s abiding indebtedness to it. He offers a meticulous exposition of the key Christological disputations that gave clear shape to Luther’s Christology, and to demonstrate his commitment to the classical communicatio idiomatum, and the notion of “suppositional carrying”[3].
Luy has structured his work according to a three part argument[4] that unfolds across 5 chapters culminating in a programmatic way forward in light of the refutation of the DT and a reappropriation of Luther’s Christology. Luy explains, “The question that will ultimately emerge is whether Luther’s rendering of divine immanence can still possess ongoing significance once he is shown no longer to reject the doctrine of divine impassibility.”[5]

Stage 1 of the argument amounts to a detailed exposition of the DT and its overarching conceptual framework and survey of the exegesis of the DR. Stage 2 occupies the majority of the work (Chapters 2-4) as Luy critically analyzes the central claims of the DT, and provides an alternate interpretation. Stage 3 (Chapter 5) seeks to redirect “contemporary appropriations of Luther’s theological significance”[6]. In other words, Luy wishes to adjust the perceived trajectory of Luther’s Christology away from a radically immanentistic (some would say Hegelian) reading, and towards a reading that reflects Luther’s acceptance and use of the classical communicatio idiomatum. In the following chapters Luy masterfully demonstrates the DR flawed reading of Luther, and powerfully argues that impassibility does not equal static/unmoved/removed.

The Divergent Thesis is built on three main propositions allegedly derived from Luther’s Christological writings[7]:

  1. A reconceptualization of the metaphysics of the Hypostatic Union
    • Luther rejected the Medieval doctrine of suppositional carrying with regards to the hypostatic union[8]
    • Luther sought a unitary explanation of the Person of Christ in order to posit a mutual exchange of predicates between the human and divine natures of Christ.
  1. A soterio-logic that relies on a suffering God
  2. A modification of God’s involvement in history

Taken together these 3 tiers represent a radical departure from the traditional understanding of Divine Immanence and its entailments. Luy explains, “The main point here is that the interpretation of Luther’s Christology and soteriology outlined in tiers one and two has made his thought appear congenial, in the eyes of a number of scholars and theologians, to a rejection of classical metaphysics (also not a homogenous concept!) in favor of an understanding of God and history in which there is more openness to a relationship of mutual conditioning between them.”[9] I can imagine many saying to themselves “So what?” Why exactly does it matter if Luther denied the doctrine of impassibility, and instead affirmed a God who actually suffers with and for His people? If anything it seems that this reading of Luther’s theology would be welcome! It is extremely unlikely that any argument simply pointing out the novelty of a doctrine would find safe quarter in modern evangelicalism. Isn’t it a good thing that Luther broke from Medieval Scholasticism? Well, yes and no, but in this case: definitely no. Luy spends chapters 2-4 arguing against any theological novelty in Luther’s Christology, and helpfully points out the moorings such a shift would have in his theology and how it would affect the trajectory of constructive dogmatics, particularly in the area of Divine immanence[10] as Luy notes, “Interpretations make way for narratives of significance, and narratives of significance often encourage retrospective interpretations of figures on the plane they established.”[11]

For his part, Luy’s central thesis[12] corresponds to the 3 tiers of the DT:

  1. Luther does not reject the medieval theory of “suppositional carrying”
  2. Luther holds to a classical understanding of the communicatio idiomatum, and nowhere affirms a bi-directional exchange of attributes.
  3. Luther’s soteriology presupposes the impassibility of Jesus’ divine nature.
  4. Luther has been misunderstood by modern passibilists who have used Luther’s Christology as precedent for their own theories of radical divine immanence and the historicization of the ontology of God’s being.

So for Luy, Luther is far from the innovator he is often cast to be by modern passibilist theologians. In fact, Luther, on this issue, has both feet firmly planted in the tradition of Medieval scholasticism. This interpretation of Luther’s Christology severely abrogates the use of his writings in the works of modern passibilist theologians looking to establish a respectable pedigree (or at least precedent) for their own Christology. If Luy is correct, the direction of modern Luther scholarship will need to be revised and redirected, which is precisely what Luy aims to accomplish.

Majority Report: a Survey of the Divergent Thesis and its Operative Logic

 According to Luy, there are two basic assumptions behind the DT that necessarily propels the theory. First, Luther allegedly rejects “suppositional carrying” due to the distance it implies between the divinity and humanity of Jesus. He replaces it with a “unitary, explanatory mechanism, which seeks to deliver a more intimate rendering of the relation between divinity and humanity.”[13]. Second, and this is the most critical point: Luther allegedly posits a mutual exchange of predicates between the natures of Jesus so that He actually co-suffers and ultimately dies both according to His humanity and divinity[14]. In other words, our salvation depends on the ability of God to suffer with and for us[15]. It was this commitment to divine suffering that allegedly drove Luther to reject the idea of suppositional carrying, and the classical communicatio idiomatum.

Luther’s first step, is to redefine what exactly a “person” is. Broadly speaking, the DR argues that Luther replaced the old medieval notion of person with a new dynamic concept of personhood that allowed for the mutual exchange of predicates between the two natures of Christ. The DR, like the medieval schoolmen, were not monolithic, but they all generally agree that Luther’s Christology (as they understand it) required an adjustment to the notion of person to allow for the co-suffering of the divinity of Christ.

The DR argues that Luther’s new conception of personhood and nature is thoroughly dynamic and totally motivated by soteriological concerns. Luther had to replace the dusty old Greek conception of God with a new dynamic and passionate account that leaves ample room for the mutual ontological conditioning between God and man that must be enacted upon God’s involvement in history. According to the DR, Luther doesn’t begin with philosophical speculation, he begins with the reality of the Incarnation, specifically God’s nearness to us in Christ, and then subordinates all theological data accordingly[16]. Therefore for Luther, “nature” must be conceived of along the lines of participation in the “salvation event”[17].

Soterio-Logic: Only a Suffering Christ can Save

 Luy makes the point that Luther’s passibilism is not some disposable eccentricity of his theology, it actually serves as a sort of lynch pin holding together his very soteriology[18]. It is for that very reason, that the DR claims that Luther’s allegedly novel soteriology requires an entirely new doctrine of God[19], it requires a God capable of suffering according to His divinity, it requires a God who, in Christ, can become god-forsaken on our behalf. Luther’s soterio-logic demands the suffering of God if we’re to have any degree of certainty of His saving solidarity with us, that is, we cannot trust God has truly saved us if we disallow any suffering of the Divinity of Christ.

Luy quotes Marc Lienhard as arguing that Luther’s theology represents a shift towards a latent historicizing of God’s ontology[20]. Luther supposedly moves from the old scholastic definition of “person” to a new dynamic view in which persons are defined by history and not by the possession of a nature as previously postulated[21].

In response Luy raises 3 critical questions[22]: 1. Does Luther reject suppositional carrying? If so, with what does he replace it? 2. Does Luther’s understanding of the communicatio actually predicate suffering of Jesus’ divine nature? 3. Does Luther’s soteriology depend on a Christ that suffers according to His divinity?

A New Metaphysic of the Incarnation?

The DT works on the proposition that Luther rejected suppositional carrying and substituted it with a more dynamic reconceptualization of the hypostatic union, and a necessarily revised doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum so that a bi-directional exchange of predicates could take place within the person of Christ.

What motivated the doctrine of alien suppositional carrying? Basically there were two controlling pre-commitments: 1. there could not be an obvious contradiction. 2. the divine nature could not undergo any ontological change. Luy argues that the doctrine of suppositional carrying exists on a continuum of theological development and represents a true advance in Christology. The problem was, you cannot articulate Chalcedonian Christology in purely Aristotelian terms without running into blatant contradiction or rank heresy. The solution, adjust the doctrine in order to avoid contradiction and maintain fidelity to Chalcedon. The assumption that Scholastic theologians uncritically adopted a metaphysical paradigm for the Incarnation is simply without warrant[23].

One of the most helpful aspects of Luy’s work is his extremely capable exegesis of the primary source literature. Luy goes straight to the sources and ably demonstrates where exactly the DR veers off track in their reading of Luther. One such example is his handling of “Disputation On the Divinity and Humanity of Christ”[24]. The debate centered around the propriety of using the term “Christ is a creature”. Luther’s opponent Schwenckfeld argues that it is not proper, while Luther obviously takes the opposite position. In this disputation Luther seems to argue against suppositional carrying[25], and so it is a favorite proof text of the DR. But as Luy demonstrates, a consideration of the context of the disputation actually cuts against the grain of the DR reading, and indicates that Luther was actually arguing for (ironically) the consideration of the “dogmatic intent” of the writer. He was arguing against the type of wooden literalism that does not take into consideration the known theological intent of the writer. For Luther, the problem is, you cannot always speak with absolute precision in theological matters. Our tools of communication are inherently incapable of doing justice to the Subject of theology, and so we must take into consideration the intent of the writer we are engaging.

[1] David J. Luy, Dominus Mortis: Martin Luther on the Incorruptibility of God in Christ (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)

[2] That Luther’s Christology represents a divergence from the classical understanding of the communicatio idiomatum, and sets the stage for a historicizing ontology of the divine life of God.

[3]The DR claim that Luther jettisoned the notion of “suppositional carrying” in favor of a bidirectional communication of attributes, but Luy ably refutes this claim and offers a helpful overview of the idea of suppositional carrying and its significance for the communication of idioms. [Ibid. 11n4] More will be said about suppositional carrying below. N.B. I will hereafter use “suppositional carrying” in lieu of “alien suppositional carrying” for the sake of brevity.

[4] Ibid. 7

[5] Ibid. 6

[6] Ibid. 7

[7] Ibid. 11-12

[8] Suppositional carrying relies on the Aristotelian notion of “primary” and “secondary” substances. The scholastics used the language of “supposita” to denote the carrying of the secondary substance (naturae) into existence by the primary substance. The problem arises when one attempts to use purely Aristotelian categories in delineating the metaphysics of the Incarnation. Aristotle’s method only accounts for one nature, whereas Chalcedonian Christology posits two natures present in the one Person of Christ. If we’re to affirm, with Aristotle, a one-to-one ratio (i.e. Primary substance/secondary substance or supposita/naturae) we are forced to posit an additional primary substance, and therefore a second person. The Medieval scholastics had a couple solutions to this problem, one was the notion of “alien suppositional carrying”. The idea that the Divine Person, the Second Person of the Trinity (the Divine Suppositum), carries into existence it’s own secondary substance (naturae) along with an additional secondary substance, namely a human nature. Luy explains, “So, in order to sidestep this heretical entailment (Nestorianism), the schoolmen of the late Medieval period insisted upon the subsistence of the human nature of Christ through an extraordinary instance of ‘alien’ suppositional carrying; that is, that the human nature comes to subsist individually exclusively [emphasis mine] in and through the divine supposit of the Word which assumes it into union with itself.” [Luy 12n4]

For a helpful discussion on the Medieval notion of “suppositional carrying” see Luy 64-70

[9] Ibid. 14n8

[10] “Luther’s account of the union of divinity and humanity in Christ, for instance, is proto-Hegelian. Luther describes the incarnation as a dialectical union of opposites. This is, in fact, his only recourse since he has jettisoned the classical distinction between persons and natures, which is intrinsic to Chalcedonian Christology…..What is crucial here is simply that he shares the general scholarly opinion that Luther’s adjustments to Christology carry with them a trajectory that leads forward to German Idealism [emphasis mine].” Ibid. 52

[11] Ibid. 46n100

[12] Ibid. 59

[13] Ibid. 12

[14] Ibid. 13

[15] “According to this appraisal of Luther’s theology, God can only redeem insofar as God truly enters into the human situation and genuinely suffers the defects of sin, corruption, and death in genuine solidarity with God’s covenant creatures.” Ibid. 13-14

[16] Ibid. 48

[17] Ibid. 34

[18] Ibid. 45

[19] Ibid. 42

[20] Ibid. 51

[21] “For Luther, then, the divine persons are simply identified with their economic interactions throughout salvation history.” Ibid. 52

[22] Ibid. 56-58

[23] Luy comments, “But Schwarz’s pejorative presentation of suppositional carrying assumes too much. The contrast only works if we accept the strange premise that medieval theologians accepted a descriptive model altogether incapable of substantively affirming the incarnation. A broader and less agenda-driven account of suppositional carrying creates space for a renovated appraisal of the relation between Luther and his late medieval teachers.” Ibid. 71

[24] The full english text can be found here: http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/luther-divinity.txt

[25] See theses 46-48