The Trinity

This is a first attempt at describing the doctrine of the Trinity with an infographic.The Trinity.png


Karl Barth’s ‘Dogmatics in Outline’

Karl Barth is considered one of the giants of 20th century theology, indeed some go so far as to say that he is as groundbreaking as an Augustine or Aquinas. And similarly to Augustine and Aquinas, given the volume and depth of his work, he is often thought of as rather inaccessible. His Church Dogmatics take up whole library shelves that would likely take days, if not weeks and months to read in full and years to properly grasp.

As such, the fact that he left us a number of lectures focussing on some of the key aspects of the Apostle’s creed in order to briefly summarise his theological vision is particularly helpful. Upon reading the first chapter ‘The Task’ Barth begins by outlining exactly what Christian theology is. Theology, or at least Christian theology, is the ongoing task of the Church. God is its object and the church is its subject. Theology takes place within the community of faith.

So far, so good. But what I found particularly interesting were the following chapters on faith itself. Barth has a rather peculiar definition of faith as a kind of recognition. Faith is an acknowledgement of a salvation that has already taken place. He describes faith as an illumination of the reason. No doubt faith is a kind of illumination but, having been brought up within a broadly Arminian church, that faith has no real substantive function in the ordo salutis struck me as rather odd.

Barth’s view of faith stems from his doctrine of justification. In Christ’s work on the cross all of humanity is justified in the sight of God and united to Christ. The humanity of Christ isn’t simply the particular humanity of Jesus, it is also a kind of universal humanity. As such, when Christ procures justification for us on the cross he does so in such a way that it makes faith unnecessary for salvation. Faith can therefore only be considered as a kind of recognition, a realization of something that has already happened. Not only that, justification has been procured for all men on the cross in virtue of the universal character of Christ’s humanity. In this way Barth might be described as a universalist in reverse. Whereas the common universalist anticipates a future time at which all people will eventually put their faith in Christ, Barth argues that faith is a recognition of salvation that has already taken place for all humanity in the Christ-event.

Initially I thought this was a rather novel idea, another eccentric Barthianism. But while reading another book, J. V. Fesko’s Beyond Calvin, I found that such a view of justification having been achieved prior to a decision of faith was not uncommon only two hundred years before. The most notable proponent of the idea being Tobias Crisp. Crisp strongly connected justification and a doctrine of election in a way that wasn’t too dissimilar from Barth. The key motivating factor of such a doctrine of justification seems to be a particular approach to the Reformation principle of sola gratia (though of course, such a principle was long in use prior to the Reformation). If faith plays any role at all in bringing about justification, even if only in an instrumental or passive sense (i.e. Calvin) then it endangers salvation by grace.

However, what troubles me about the idea of union with Christ prior to faith, particularly Barth’s universalist account of it, are the ontological consequences of such a union. If we are all united to Christ in virtue of his incarnation, and are thus justified with him by his cross and raised to new life in virtue of his resurrection, how is that there are still human beings who hate God? The New Testament seems to imply that union with Christ brings about an entirely new way of being. St Paul talks about being made new and Jesus speaks of being born again. Union with Christ is supposed to bring about radical change in a person. The good news isn’t simply that we’re made right with God, but that God is changing us in a very real way to bear the likeness of the Son. Surely, by uniting all humanity to Christ on the cross in virtue of his universal humanity we minimalize the ontological implications of his saving activity. Union with Christ isn’t powerful enough to bring about faith in all human beings. This seems like a travesty to me. The power of such a union is found precisely in its ability to transform a human being, not simply with regard to their destination, but in the here and now, on the journey.

As yet I have only reached chapter 3 of DIO. It offers some interesting food for thought and has caused me to reflect on the nature of union with Christ. I highly recommend it for theological reflection. I’m just not convinced that Barth’s initial remarks about faith are in the first place true, and in the second place good news.

God’s Wrath?

One of the theological movements that I’ve been tracking over the past few years is called ‘analytic theology’. It takes the tools of analytic philosophy and asks how they can inform and enlighten theological thinking. One book that I found particularly helpful within this strand of theological thinking, is Thomas McCall’s Forsaken. McCall clarifies and draws out some of the underlying presuppositions of contemporary strands of recent atonement theory and attempts to understand the cross within a traditional doctrine of God. One way in which McCall reconciles God’s wrath and God’s love is with recourse to the doctrine of divine simplicity. Christians believe in a God who is a unity, God’s characteristics exist in perfect harmony with each other. In the traditional doctrine of God, God cannot be cut up into individual parts. Everything in God is essential to God. This includes God’s love and God’s wrath. With a commitment to divine unity via the doctrine of simplicity, McCall demonstrates that rather than love and wrath being in contest, wrath actually features as an aspect of God’s love.

This kind of constructive analytic theology demonstrates the systematic fruit of bringing contemporary theological debate into dialogue with traditional doctrine.

Theological Principles

Every so often, while studying theology, the student comes across certain rules, principles or phrases. For the most part these rules are taken as axiomatic, and usually for good reason. What can also happen, however, is semantic drift (Fred Sanders offers an entertaining summary of this idea here: Semantic drift is a term that refers to the change in meaning that certain words and phrases can undergo over the passage of time. Semantic drift can happen for all kinds of reasons, but sometimes important theological insights are lost over time as a result.

One theological project that I’ve been considering for some time has been to catalogue and investigate common theological principles, their original meanings and significance as well as the ways in which they have developed. Perhaps a good example would be the Reformation solas: sola gratia (grace alone), sola fidei (faith alone), sola Christi (Christ alone), sola scriptura (scripture alone) and soli Deo gloria (to the glory of God alone). In addition to these we could include the idea of ‘inseparable operation’ the way in which the three persons of the Trinity act inseparably. Another would be the idea that ‘What is not assumed is not redeemed’ with regard to Christ’s taking on human nature. A more recent slogan is found in the renaissance of trinitarian theology with Rahner’s Rule, ‘The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and vice versa’.  Another would be that claim that ‘only God can reveal God’.

These principles strike me as interesting starting points for a theological investigation. Not only in terms of the reasons for and validity of those principles, but the nature of such principles as principles for Christian theology. In other words, what do these theological proverbs tell us about the nature of theological principles in general, their function and usefulness? What do they tell us about the structure of Christian belief?

We might sum these questions up in terms of two metaphors for systematic theology. The first of these is with regard to a map. Maps locate and contextualize geographical information. Theological principles have a similar purpose. They locate, contextualize and enable connections between different doctrines. A systematic theologian is a kind of cartographer who draws connections and connects locations in virtue of certain principles.


A second metaphor might be found with reference to a lego structure. As children, my brother and I would spend lots of time playing with lego and creating all kinds of different things. We would give each other bricks and then proceed to use those bricks in the formulation of a structure.  Theological principles indicate ways in which the bricks (theological data) might best be put together.

I think these kinds of principles offer an interesting starting point for this blog, as well as the traditional loci of systematic theology (Trinity, Christology, Soteriology, etc). Over the next few months I hope to take some of these principles and map them visually. So I better get drawing!

Biblical Map

Theology Illustrated

Blogs, they’re tricky things. You have to keep them maintained, spend time writing and upload regularly. It takes time and effort. But blogging is worth it (i’m preaching to myself here). It’s good discipline to write and continually reflect on things, especially theology. Socrates is supposed to have said that, “the unexamined life isn’t worth living”. It’s the same with faith as far as I can see. “The unexamined faith isn’t worth believing.” Faith seeks understanding.

I’ve called this blog (for the moment) Theology Illustrated. I’ve been inspired by organizations like The Bible Project (picture below) and books like Visual Theology and Picturing Scripture. It seems to me that one of the best ways to reflect on faith and theology is through visual media. And so, while being, for the most part, a blog of written reflections, I also hope to include some visual explanations of key Christian doctrines as well as topics I’ve been working on in my studies.

Bible Prject Book