The Atonement Debate (Zahnd and Brown): Some Historical Background and an Alternative to the Whole Thing

The International House of Prayer-University just hosted a debate between Brian Zahnd and Michael Brown, the debate was on differing views of the atonement. Zahnd essentially christcenteredargued against the so called Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA, hereafter) theory, while Brown argued for it. Maybe you weren’t aware that there were differing views out there on this, or maybe instead you are well versed in this area, and were pounding your fist one way or the other as you watched this debate.

Zahnd’s basic premise is that PSA represents divine child abuse; that the Father sent the Son to die for our sins, that he tortured him on a cross, and once he got every last ounce of his wrath out of him, as he beat on his Son, at this point God was able to love the elect. Brown argued, from a biblical theological approach, that to the contrary, PSA represents the most biblical view of the atonement, and fits well with the Day of Atonement motif (cf. Lev. 16), as well as New Testament passages where Jesus is called the ‘Lamb of God’ (Jn. 1.29), or the ‘Passover’ (I Cor. 5.7). Without getting into further detail, throughout the rest of this post I will take this debate as a jumping off point, and get further into the history of the development of PSA theology, and then offer the evangelical Calvinist (not Zahnd’s, but evangelical Calvinism’s) alternative to PSA, which by the way, does not fully disavow the penal substitutionary atonement model, it just doesn’t see it as the central frame for an atonement theory.

To begin with let me provide a little history on how the PSA developed in early Protestant Reformed theology. Jan Rohls does an excellent job of developing the history of PSA theology by weaving many of the Reformed confessions and catechisms together that in fact made it central to the scholastically Reformed church. As Rohls comments on the French, Belgic, and Geneva Confession[s], and how these confessions engage with the earlier Apostles’ Creed on the theme of atonement he writes of what we call PSA theology today:

All other events of Jesus’ life are placed in functional relation to his death. With regard to the content of Christian preaching the Synodical Declaration of Berne states that “the beginning must be made with Christ’s death and resurrection” (M 37, 7). But that raises the question, “If one must begin and end with Christ’s death and resurrection, what is the purpose of the evangelists, who describe his birth and his life?” (M 37, 38–40). According to the Geneva Catechism, the Apostle’s Creed immediately proceeds to Christ’s suffering, so that the question arises, “Why do you go immediately from His birth to His death, passing over the whole history of His life?” (T 13). The Catechism’s answer to this question is revealing: “Because nothing is said here about what belongs properly to the substance of our redemption” (ibid.). The event that constitutes the essence of redemption is Jesus’ suffering and death, insofar as they are penalties that Christ takes upon himself for us in a substitutionary way. “He dies to suffer the punishment due to us, and thus to deliver us from it” (T 14). His substitution for us lies not just in the fact that he died for us. To highlight the penal character of the death that we have earned as sinners, he was condemned to death. “Because we were guilty before the judgment of God as evil-doers, in order to represent us in person He was pleased to appear before the tribunal of an earthly judge, and to be condemned by his mouth, that we might be acquitted before the throne of the celestial Judge” (ibid.).[1]

As I listened to the first half of the aforementioned debate I did not hear any of this background context provided, which is troubling. It is troubling because in order to offer a fair critique (Zahnd), or at least a relatively thick one, the development of PSA theology needs to be given its proper layering and reasoning. As becomes apparent through Rohls’ development, what we see is that the ‘penal character’ of the atonement comes from a particular background; what Rohls’ did not develop in the section that I quoted is that the background for PSA is what Reformed theology calls Covenant or Federal Theology, in particular the Covenant of Works. Because of space constraints, I am not going to be able to develop that either; suffice it to say there is much more to the background of PSA than Zahnd alluded to. If he had delved into that a little more further his own critique of divine child abuse would have been weakened somewhat, primarily because of the covenantal nature that PSA is couched in.

Unfortunately, this post is going to run too long if I attempt to provide the evangelical Calvinist alternative to PSA and classical Covenantal theology, I will have to make this a two part post and offer that next time or so. Let me conclude this way; the evangelical Calvinist critique of PSA, in particular has more to do with its broader covenantal framework, with election, the extent of the atonement, and most pointedly with the efficacious nature, or lack thereof, of penal substitutionary atonement. Evangelical Calvinism’s basic critique goes something like this: to frame the substitution as a juridical thing, a forensic thing, a legal thing does not deal with the depth dimension, the problem that needs to really be dealt with. The penalty view deals with the symptoms and consequences of sin, it does not deal with the cause and source of sin which is the heart. So as an alternative, evangelical Calvinism riffs off of TF Torrance’s ontological theory of the atonement that finds rootage in Patristic theology.

In my view the debate that happened did not really deal with the source issues, nor with a source alternative like the ontological theory of the atonement offers. More to come. Actually if you click here you can read the evangelical Calvinist alternative.

[1] Jan Rohls, Reformed Confessions: Theology from Zurich to Barmen. Columbia Series In Reformed Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 94-5.

Posted in Atonement, Critiquing Classic Calvinism, Evangelical Calvinism, Evangelical Calvinism Book, Salvation, Soteriology | Leave a comment

Turning to Ourselves Instead of God: The Evangelicals and Herman Bavinck

Victoria Osteen’s recent faux pas (well some think it was a faux pas, I do) about God being happy when we are happy is a helpful illustrator of what I want to address in this mini-albrechtritschlessay. For many North American evangelical Christians God has become our buddy in the sky, the God who snuggles up with us in our quiet times away from the hustle and bustle of everyday real life. For many evangelicals, God is more at our whim, he is meant to meet our psychological needs, and intended (by us) to make us feel normal in an otherwise abnormal world. For many an evangelical God is at our behest, and becomes who we make him to be rather than the other way around.

Theologian, J. Todd Billings, after sociologist, Christian Smith has labeled this type of movement, and evangelical making of God as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD, hereafter). Here is how Smith defines the lineaments of MTD:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.[1]

My guess is that this sounds very familiar to you, in fact it might hit closer to him than you would like to admit. Truth be told, this inclination has been around for centuries, but it is modern man and woman who have been plagued with this style of pedestrian religion, in the name of Christ, probably more than any other age. We are conditioned by an understanding of God that suits us, that is fits well with being an American, or living with the relative creature comforts the Western world has to offer us. But there is a history behind this.

Herman Bavinck, a Dutch Reformed theologian who lived and wrote during the latter half of the 19th century (in Amsterdam) gets into the theological history that has led to what Christian Smith and Todd Billings have labeled as moralistic therapeutic deism. Bavinck was working in the period just after much of the theology behind MTD was being developed by certain German theologians like Fredrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Hermann, et al. What he has written on the topic sounds eerily close to what we have now come to call MTD. Here Bavinck is commenting on how some of the theologians of his day were articulating this early form of what has now more popularly been labeled as moralistic therapeutic deism:

Revelation, he says [he is referring to one of these theologians, i.e. Ritschl], is not an external thing, but “man receives the revelation, which is the ground of his religion, because the depths of his own being are opened to him.” Religion is a new life, and rests upon an experience of the power of moral good, as Jesus has shown us. To trust in that power is to believe, to live, to be saved. And because religion is thus “the complete quickening of a man, there is no general religion, the same for every one, but there are only individuals in religion.” So we see that from the standpoint of religious psychology there is no longer a place for metaphysics, theology, or dogmatics, nor even for an “ethics of the religious personality.” For every standard fails here; there is no single law or rule; the individual  man is the measure of all things, also of religion; God does not say how he will be served, but man decides how he will serve him.[2]

I think Bavinck’s insight, from the late 19th century is penetrating and pertinent to our own 21st century context as North American evangelicals in particular. What becomes difficult for us, as evangelicals, to identify this type of self-serving religion in our midst, in our personal lives is that we have no real critical space to distinguish between this type of moralistic religion and the real Christian religion that we claim to inhabit; because we have conflated the two. As I have written elsewhere in regard to this very issue, and drawing off of Swiss theologian Karl Barth and his critique of the 20th century German Christianity that he was a part of during World War I and II: “It is this absolutized ‘Conservative Self’ that presumes that what it means to be moral, and Christian is to ask, simply, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ This perfectly illustrates Barth’s critique of the German Liberal Protestant. For them, as for us, to be Christian, was to be nationalist, exceptional, and normal.” And so we end up worshipping a projection of God that looks more like ourselves, our better morally good self, than the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

I know this little essay has probably come off like something that makes you feel like you have been beaten around the head, but isn’t that what we need sometimes? I think the most dangerous thing about living the way we do, as moralistic therapeutic Deists who have absolutized ourselves, and adopted a morally good Gospel (as Bavinck described it) is that we really have no space to actually hear from God. We have no capacity to see that God is truly Lord who contradicts us at our every step, but who at the same time graciously nurtures us even as he rebukes us in our sinful mode of being. There is hope, just not in ourselves.



[1] Christian Smith, Soul Searching, 162-63 cited by J. Todd Billings in Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church, 22.

[2] Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, loc. 2853, 2862 kindle.

Posted in 'Liberal Theology', American Evangelicalism, Cultural Christianity, Herman Bavinck, J. Todd Billings | 4 Comments

Karl Barth and NT Wright on Philippians 2.5-11, ‘The Emptying’

Here is the pericope under consideration by both Karl Barth and N.T. Wright, respectively:

kenosis5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. ~Philippians 2:5-11

Here is how Barth comments on the reality of this passage:

Positively his self-emptying refers to the fact that, without detracting from his being in the form of God, he was able and willing to assume the form of a servant and go about in the likeness of a human being, so that the creature could know him only as a creature, and he alone could know himself as God. In other words, he was ready to accept a position in which he could not be known in the world as God, but his divine glory was concealed from the world. This was his self-emptying…. His deity becomes completely invisible to all other eyes but his own. What distinguishes him from the creature disappears from everyone’s sight but his own with his assumption of the human form of a servant with its natural end in death, and above all with his death as that of a criminal on the cross…. He can so empty himself that, without detracting from his form as God, he can take the form of a servant, concealing his form of life as God, and going about in the likeness of a human being…. It all takes place in his freedom and therefore not in self-contradiction or with any alteration or diminution of his divine being…. This means that so far from being contrary to the nature of God, it is of his essence to possess the freedom to be capable of this self-offering and self-concealment, and beyond this to make use of this freedom, and therefore really to effect this self-offering and to give himself up to this self-humiliation. In this above all he is concealed as God. Yet it is here above all that he is really and truly God. Thus it is above all that he must and will also be revealed in his deity by the power of God. [Karl Barth, CD II/1, 516-17 cited by George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 86-7, Nook version.]

And then N. T. Wright on the same passage and reality:

Let’s clear one misunderstanding out of the way in case it still confuses anybody. In verse 7 Paul says that Jesus ‘emptied himself’. People have sometimes thought that this means that Jesus, having been divine up to that point, somehow stopped being divine when he became human, and then went back to being divine again. This is, in fact, completely un-true to what Paul has in mind. The point of verse 6 is that Jesus was indeed already equal with God; somehow Paul is saying that Jesus already existed even before he became a human being (verse 7). But the decision to become human, and to go all the way along the road of obedience, obedience to the divine plan of salvation, yes, all the way was not a decision to stop being divine. It was a decision about what it really meant to be divine. [N. T. Wright, Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 84, Nook version.]

Critical Reflection

Both Barth and Wright affirm the traditional (and dare I say contextual) sense of this text; that is, that the ground of Jesus’ person, the ground of his humanity is Godself. As Barth elaborates further on the implications of this, one of those has to do with the way this is perceived by those of us creatures who are confronted by this God who became human; for Barth–according to Hunsinger–what has happened in Christ is not an ontic (at the level of his ‘being’ the Son of the Father, eternally) change, but instead, because of this veiling and/or limiting of himself in human form, there is a noetic challenge that occurs. When we, as humans, encounter Jesus, we might superficially perceive that Jesus is simply another human, and might fail to recognize the reality, that far greater than simply being human (which he is fully), he is Godself, Light of light. And yet God in his own self-determined freedom, and gracious outlook, is willing to be mis-taken by the many (the ‘broad road’) if only to be recognized by the few (those who ‘have eyes to see and ears to hear’).

For Everyone Reflection

The way this most dignified reality impacts me is to wonder, radically, at who this great God of our’s is. I often struggle (most recently) with trying to bring together the pictures of the warrior God we so often come across in the Old Testament, with the Shepherd God we encounter in the New Testament. One thing that viewing God from this self-sacrificing angle does is to orient God in such a way that even his more bodacious activity is able to be calibrated and grounded by his ultimate passion for his creation exemplified most clearly by the fact the he himself entered the very judgment that he inflicts and enacts on the nations, and by entering takes upon himself the depth of anxiety and desperation that it seems is a self-inflicted one, but one that he is compelled to by his being of love and holiness (so mystery).

The more basic, and yet profound reality that is revealed by Jesus is that our lives ought to be dominated by the same kind of self-less, self-given, putting others first attitude as Christ’s. The good news is that even though this is terribly impossible left to ourselves, that because of Jesus’ penetration of our dead hearts, he has saved us from the inside/out, providing his life and his heart as the foundation of our’s (see I Cor. 3:11 and II Cor. 3), and genuinely providing us with the means, by the Holy Spirit (where there is Liberty, see II Corinthians 3:17), to seriously put others before ourselves; in the same posture toward God, that Jesus had/has (a posture of ‘not holding onto ourselves’ but being able to truly spend ourselves, and as Paul ‘pour our lives out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and faith of others’).


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Why evangelicals Shouldn’t Fear Karl Barth

I am putting two posts from the past into one. This has come up again in my life, and I want to attempt to explain why as an evangelical Christian I think reading Karl Barth fits better with the aims of evangelical theology in general, than not. Typically evangelicals demonize Barth to the point that he becomes nothing more than a raving Neorthodox, Bible denying liberal. Which is complete nonsense. Here are those posts.

I am going to do a series of posts on Karl Barth’s theology, with the particular aim of dispelling the Evangelical myths that kept me from him for so long. I am going to appeal to R. Michael Allen’s helpful recently released book, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader; and in particular I will be using some of Allen’s end notes on Barth’s theology that he provides in his book at the end of chapter 2. Let’s get started.

barthI was just talking with my mom today on the phone, and somehow we ended up talking about theology; actually the way that happened was that we were talking about the turn I have made personally from the theology I was trained in at Multnomah. So I was attempting to explain to my mom why or how my approach, in general, starts at a different spot than most of my former professors at Multnomah University start from. My basic premise, in explanation to my mom, was that I don’t feel the burden in doing apologetics (i.e. defending the inerrancy of scripture, arguing for the existence of God, etc.) before I can do Biblical exegesis, Homiletics, Evangelism, Christian Dogmatics, etc. I was explaining to my mom that Karl Barth & co. has proved a great resource for me in moving forward into a way of thinking and living theologically that is actually more Evangelical than the premises from which Evangelicalism finds its orientation (i.e. philosophical foundationalism, propositionalism, etc.). Allen’s comment’s on Barth, in this direction, help to provide further insight into what I was (and am) getting at:

[3] The subject matter of dogmatics is given to God’s people: ‘Hence [dogmatics] does not have to begin by finding or inventing the standard by which it measures. It sees and recognizes that this is given  with the Church’ (I/1.12). Dogmatics is an activity of ‘the hearing church’ (I/2.797), a key theme in Reformed dogmatics that highlights the eccentric shape of Christian theology. Theology is by faith, not by sight, because it is governed by God’s speech, not our own immanent refelction, aspiration, or experience. Of course, dogmatics does involve reflection and real intellectual work, but this follows the prior work of God and (if done faithfully) never puts the cart before the horse. The hopeful confidence of those who do work in dogmatics is not grounded in or sustained by an optimistic assessment of their capacities, but by the promises of God to speak sovereignly, majestically, eloquently (see I/2.867). [R. Michael Allen, Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader, 37 (Nook version).]

Thus, God’s Word (scripture) is not contingent or dependent upon my establishing it as Scripture; through my philosophically attuned eruditeness and argumentation; God does not exist because I have proven that he does through the Kalam cosmological argument, or the moral argument. Instead, this is inverted to its rightful orientation; there is an order of being/order of knowing, wherein, logically and chronologically God precedes his creation as the one who graciously created. He is Lord, and we are not. Once I think that I have to sustain his Word as his Word, then I have just displaced his Lordness, and undercut his capacity to contradict my thought constructs and words. I have taken his Word (scripture) captive by making its veracity contingent upon my giveness (being) instead of God’s; this is a burden and idolatry too great to bear!

As Allen highlights, genuine Christian theology for Barth & co. is genuinely Christian because it simply presumes upon the reality and giveness of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. And it is through God’s primary giveness that the categories and emphases for how we do theology, ministry, preaching-teaching, evangelism, etc. take their shape.

As I explained this to my mom (who like me has grown up her whole life under Fundy/Evangelical emphases) she almost could not believe how anyone could not accept this; it seemed self-evident to her as I explained this to her, and the alternative theory of revelation that Barth & co. provides. My guess is that there are many American Evangelicals out there who are just waiting to have this kind of aha moment. So hopefully these posts will serve to fill this lacunae for any Evangelical who might happen upon this post[s]; and who is willing to thoughtfully engage in material consideration, and not give way to the usual caricatures and demonization that keeps most Evangelicals away from Barth & co. (which would include away from Evangelical Calvinism, so called, as well).

Part Two

I am continuing this shortish series of mine on why Evangelicals shouldn’t be afraid to engage with, at least, Karl Barth. In my first post in this series I explained how I grew up in an Evangelical tradition (and still inhabit it in barthderspiegelways—I consider myself an Evangelical, at least sociologically, if not doctrinally, in some ways), and how that tradition made Karl Barth off-limits; how that tradition made Barth sound as if he was an evil ‘Liberal’ theologian, worse yet, a Neo-Orthodox theologian (which I had know clue at that point what that even was … other than it sounded scary and Neo!). Well, this series of posts, as the title highlights, is my weary attempt to demystify that pipe smoking Swiss theologian Karl Barth, in ways that illustrate (at least) why an Evangelical Christian should not fear this Swiss-man.

This post in particular briefly touches on Barth’s view of Scripture [I am using some end notes provided by R. Michael Allen from his Reader on Karl Barth's theology to make this series go 'round]. As an Evangelical I was taught that Karl Barth, if in no other area, was most dangerous when it came to his view of Scripture; that he was an evil INERRANCY denier! It is true that Barth (and Thomas Torrance for that matter) did not endorse a Fundamentalist view of biblical inerrancy, but that said; he also was not militantly seeking to destroy people’s faith either—in this regard. Instead, Karl Barth wanted to provide a theory of revelation (and an ontology of scripture) that took it away from the manipulation and assumed lordliness of man (whether this evinced itself in rationalist/positivistic liberal theology, or rationalist/positivistic Fundamentalist theology)—and this point actually overlaps largely with my first post hereBarth engaged in a process of demolition which sought to level the foundation and cornerstones upon which the Fundamentalists and Liberals had built there theories (or lack thereof) of revelation and scripture. He sought to reobjectify God’s Word as truly God’s Word in Jesus Christ for us, and then subordinated the words of scripture the Lordliness of Jesus Christ as his last and final word (the alpha and omega) which gave orientation to the written Word of scripture. By doing this Barth intended to provide a grammar that disallowed man’s own subjectivism to be the ground and orientation upon which scripture found its reality; Barth’s concern here was that if scripture became contingent upon man saying that scripture was scripture, that scripture could no longer function in the way God had intended it. And that way was to be the ordained place wherein we encounter God’s final Word to us in Jesus Christ; giving way to Christ and the Spirit, and their usage of scripture to contradict the idolatry of our human hearts (including the idolatry of biblical scholarship and their criterion and methodologies which they constructed to prop scripture up as scripture in whatever relative form that might take). Here is how R. Michael Allen summarizes this:

[I]t is important to remember that Barth believes all things and persons (including God) have their ‘being in becoming’, though they do so in very different ways. The Bible has its being in becoming by God’s free decision to make it his Word again and again. Barth’s point is not to render its nature  as Word dependent on the subjective experience of the reader, but the renewal of God’s objective decision to speak through it. Barth has been misunderstood frequently by friend and foe alike. For helpful analysis of this point, see Bruce L. McCormack, ‘The Being of Holy Scripture is in Becoming: Karl Barth in Conversation with American Evangelical Criticism’, in Evangelicals and Scripture: Tradition, Authority, and Hermeneutics (ed. Vincent Bacote, Laura Miguélez, and Dennis Ockholm; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), pp. 55-75. [Allen, p. 38]

In case you are missing what is being communicated here; for Barth Scripture and Revelation are something that becomes over and over again, it is an event that happens. By presenting a theory of revelation in this way Barth could take scripture away from us as if it is some sort of static and absolute given (God’s revelation all by itself … annexed from God’s living voice in Christ) that we possess like a bag of chips; and give it back (so to speak) to God’s free, self-determined ongoing voice that is presented to us anew and afresh through the Holy Spirit’s breath which he breathes through the lips of Jesus for us (see Jn. 14–16). Allen writes of Barth in this vein: “[B]arth’s concern about the doctrine of inspiration ‘freezing’ this relationship of the written word and the willed revelation of God impels his talk of the Bible’s ‘becoming the Word of God’.” (p. 38)  So, Allen continues, “[T]he primacy of Jesus as the Word of God – that is, of God electing to be for us and with us in personal form – undergirds the graciousness of all human knowledge of God. The actuality of the written Word and the proclaimed Word flows from the incarnate Word and the very depths of the free Lord’s eternal decision to be with us and not without us…. (p. 38)

Why you shouldn’t be afraid of Karl Barth on scripture in plain language

Because when he was at a theological conference in the States somebody asked him why he believes in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; he answered ‘Because Jesus loves me this I know, because the Bible tells me so.’ And he was serious. How can you be afraid of a theologian who gives a response like this? But more, Barth is way less concerned with destroying the idiosyncractic and Americanly inspired doctrine of inerrancy, and more concerned with ensuring that we have a view of scripture that allows God to have the key to scripture instead of us. Barth wants to give us a theory of revelation, or just a view of scripture, that genuinely has Jesus at its center, and that sees him as the canon of scripture instead of the church or the academy. Barth wants to provide a view of scripture that makes sure that we aren’t able to make God into our image, but that our self projected images are contradicted by his image revealed in Jesus Christ (Col. 1.15).

For Barth, Scripture is living and active, because its reality is seated at the right hand of God (Heb. 4.12; 7.25 etc.). He clearly rejects inerrancy in its American form (but so does the rest of the Christian world), but he does not reject the inerrant Word of God who is Jesus Christ, and he sees Scripture as Scripture because it has been and is ever anew inspired and illuminated by the Spirit’s breath as we are introduced over and over again through its human words to its reality in Jesus Christ.


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Vanishing the Golden Age of non-Traditioned Bible Reading: A significant difference between two traditions, the Reformed and Radically Reformed (the Anabaptists)

Tradition and Theological reflection (from various Traditions) is inevitable, it is an aspect of being creatures, and being located somewhere, historically. Throughout the rest of this short article I will reflect, along with Stephen Holmes, (Baptist theologian, par excellence) upon the inevitability of tradition in regard to interpreting Scripture and doing theology as Christian persons; and then further, I will apply this reflection on the 220px-Cardinal_Giovanni_de'_Mediciinevitability of tradition making and thinking as Christians (in particular, it is actually the reality for all human beings, Christian or not) to an ecclesiological divide between Reformed thinkers and Anabaptist thinkers (again, tracking along with Stephen Holmes).

Maybe you, like me, grow weary of people claiming to be Biblicists. What these people mean, like Daniel Montgomery recently claimed to be in the Chicago-Calvinist-non-Calvinist debate, is that they are simply following the Bible without appeal to any type of tradition, or school of thought within the history of Christian ideas (like maybe appealing to Calvin or Barth, et. al.). But as we all should know, if we are going to be humble enough and self-critical enough, tradition is inescapable reality. In fact to even claim to have the capacity to get back to the purest form of Scripture, unmediated and unencumbered by the layers of tradition is itself a tradition that has developed in the history of Christian ideas. To drive this point home further let’s here from Stephen Holmes on this very reality:

To attempt to do theology without noticing the tradition, then, is to deny, or at least to attempt to escape from, our historical locatedness. It is worth stressing initially that this locatedness is unavoidable: it cannot be escaped from. If we imagine trying to ignore all who have gone before, and coming to the testimony of the apostles in an unmediated form, we simply cannot do it, as will be clear if we begin to imagine what would be involved in the attempt. We might first claim to listen only to the Bible – but the Bible we have, if it is a translation, is shaped by a tradition of Bible translation, and by its translator(s). Should we attempt to avoid this problem by recourse to the original languages, then we would have to learn those languages from somebody, and so would be inducted into a tradition of translating certain words and grammatical constructions in one way and not another, and we would almost certainly have recourse to the lexicons an other aids, which are themselves deposits of the accumulated knowledge of earlier scholars. Further, the standard editions of the Greek New Testament bear witness on nearly every page to the textual criticism that has come up with this text, and not another, and so we cannot even find a text of Scripture that has not been ‘handed on’ to us by those who came before. If we push this imagined quest to the last extreme, we might picture a person who has somehow learnt koine Greek only by studying original texts, and who has even examined every extant manuscript of the New Testament and developed her own canons for textual criticism: on these bases she might claim to have unmediated access to the Scriptures. Still, however, the claim must be false: apart from the archaeological and bibliographic work that has produced the manuscripts she has used, if she speaks English, German or French, or several other languages, her native tongue even has been decisively affected by earlier theological controversies and biblical translations. There is no escape from the mediation of our faith by the tradition.[1]

Far from registering as a negative, tradition can be understood as a gift from God for his church; and this is exactly what Holmes goes on and argues throughout the rest of his short little book.

The point I want to underscore for all of us is that no one can claim an unmediated access to God or to God’s Word in Holy Scripture. As all Protestants should know, we come from a Tradition in the history of the Christian church, indeed, called Protestantism. Part and parcel with our Protestantism, in its history, is reliance upon a Christian Humanist move called ad fontes, or back to the sources. Within the early Protestant movement there were two dominant streams initiated, that continue to stay with us and inform us to this day; i.e. the ‘Reformed way’ (and I include Lutheranism within this way, for this particular point), and/or the ‘Radical Reformed way’ (which would be the Anabaptist mode of thinking amongst us). The Reformed way, and what it understood to be a return to the ‘sources’ was to learn the biblical languages and read the Bible in its original tongue, but is also meant a return to the Church Fathers (Patristic theology) as an ‘authoritative’ way to read and engage with Scripture. For the Anabaptist or Radically Reformed, their ‘back to the sources’ was to jump the ditch all the way back to Scripture alone, an attempt to disentangle itself from any tradition wherein Church and State were intertwined and thus perverted, in their eyes. Holmes, again, has this to say in regard to this kind of split between the Reformed and Radically Reformed:

Calvin, although committed to the principle of sola scriptura, none the less thought it important to stand within the tradition of the Church. It is not just that Calvin owes much (indeed, more than is often recognized) to the immediately preceding theological tradition, although he does; the relevant point is that both in the Institutes and in other places he devotes considerable energy to demonstrating that the positions the Reformers are urging against the Roman Catholic Church are in fact more faithful to the Christian tradition than the Roman alternatives, and, even where disagrees with the recent tradition, he is mindful of the need to specify those disagreements with some exactness, and to defend precisely those points with particular energy. This is no doubt in part due to the polemical nature of his work, but a comparison of that work with his Anabaptist opponents reveals a radically different temper: whereas they were prepared to merely insist on what they believed to be right from Scripture. Calvin felt the need to be in dialogue with earlier theologians. Whilst some, at least, of the Anabaptists explicitly denied having any respect for the teaching of any human authority, it mattered to Calvin that his thought was in continuity with the Christian tradition; he respected the tradition of the Church as something to be taken seriously, even when violently disagreeing with it.[2]


For the Anabaptists, the history of the Church was a narrative solely of decline; the New Testament was God’s gift to his people, but all that had come afterwards was a losing and falling away from this point. The process of tradition, the handing on of the faith, was a wholly negative process from which true Christians would only seek to escape. Calvin, by contrast, not only saw the patristic period as a largely successful attempt to hold on to and to explore ‘the faith once for all delivered’ (the ecumenical creeds, for example, were useful summaries of the heart of biblical faith, and so to be welcomed and affirmed), but also saw even the recent failures of tradition as important, as part of the context in which the work of recovery had to be done. To make the point with a slogan, the Anabaptists sought to refound the Church, whereas Calvin [and the Reformed] sought to reform it.[3]

We are in a position now to better see how tradition has had a riddled history and application within our own history as Protestant Christians (or as Christians in general). And we can see, I believe, how these disparate threads of tradition-engagement continue to impinge upon us today; particularly as Anabaptism has become entrenched among the younger generations among us.

But it is more complex than this isn’t it? There is always a desire to make power moves among all of us, whether Reformed or Radically Reformed. We either hold to a tradition that sees churchly tradition as bad or good, or somewhere in between.[4]

However, the point remains, no matter how we see tradition, or where we want to insert ourselves within a particular stream of tradition, whether that be back into a perceived golden age of Gospel purity (i.e. prior to Constantine and the so called ecumenical creeds, etc.), or back into an age where we believe Gospel purity received a proper theological grammar (starting back in the Patristic age, in particular with the so called ecumenical creeds and pronouncements), we all think traditionally; and thus we are relativized, and we have no real authority but to appeal to the Lord of history himself, he alone is where all tradition breaks off, finally, in a person (but he himself developed tradition, like in the Old Testament, in order to insert himself into it, redeem it and us and all of created reality in the process).

I would only admonish all of us to recognize the reality: We have no unmediated access to Scripture, we only have a traditioned path, own it!


[1] Stephen R. Holmes, Listening To The Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology (USA: Baker Academic, 2002), 6.

[2] Ibid., 14-5.

[3] Ibid., 16-7.

[4] N.T. Wright comes to mind. He is interesting to me, he represents himself somewhat in Anabaptist mode, moving us back beyond and past the ecumenical creeds of Patristic theology, back to the Bible (as it were). And yet he does so as an Anglican and thus Reformed thinker, who thinks from quite pronounced Reformed, even Covenantal themes, themes which developed in the post-Reformed orthodox era of the Protestant church (in the 16th and 17th centuries to be precise). Which illustrates the complexity of all of this.

Posted in Biblical Interpretation, Biblical Studies, Bibliology, Doctrine Of Creation, Stephen Holmes | 2 Comments

The Five Points of Calvinism Restated for Evangelical Calvinism in a Christ Concentrated Key

I have done this before, but let me reframe the so called 5 Points of Calvinism within an Evangelical Calvinist way of thinking of things:

  1. otal Depravity – He who knew no sin became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. II Corinthians 5.21
  2. crucifiednconditional Election – By his poverty we have become rich. II Corinthians 8.9
  3. imited Atonement – We have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer us who lives, but Christ who lives in us, and the life which we now live in the flesh, we live by the faith of the Son of God who loves us and give himself for us. Galatians 2.20
  4. rresistible Grace – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God …. and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1.1;14
  5. erseverance of the Saint – Therefore He is able also to save [i]forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. Hebrews 7.25

What needs to be underscored is how a doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ grounds and conditions this redressing of the so called 5 Points of Calvinism. At every turn the humanity of Christ for us is the referent in regard to this great salvation that we participate in by the vicarious faith of the Son of God. It is He, as our mediator, between God and man (humanity), that blazed the holy trail for us; we simply echo his yes to the Father for us, out of his yes for us by the Holy Spirit. If you are wondering what the vicarious humanity of Christ is all about, then check out this list that Christian Kettler has put together in his published PhD dissertation on the topic:

1. Christology includes the “double movement” of the way of God to humanity and the way of humanity to God, contra Docetism and Ebionitism. The “Creator Son,” “the Word of God,” is identical with Jesus of Nazareth (Athanasius). Thus, the radical significance of Christology is “the coming of God himself into the universe he created.”

2. God coming as a human being, not just in a human being removes all possibility of a “deistic disjunction” between God and creation. The possibility of the interaction of the living God with space and time is opened up.

3. The vicarious humanity of Christ is the heartbeat of salvation history. From the circumcision of Abraham to the Incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, the interaction of the humanity of Christ with creaturely form provides a basis for the knowledge of God and the reconciliation of humanity within the structures of space and time.

4. However, the reality of the humanity of Christ, as the reality of the “Creator Son,” “the Word made flesh,” is not limited to the structures of space and time. This is what is expressed in the Reformed doctrine of the so-called extra Calvinisticum, the significance of the vicarious humanity of the risen and exalted Christ.

5. The reality of the vicarious humanity of Christ stresses the inability of fallen humanity to know and respond to God. The Lutheran emphasis on finitum capax infinitipaved the way for the nineteenth century doctrine of the religious capacity of the human spirit.

6. This integration of the divine and creaturely provides the basis for the mediatorial ministry of Christ.

7. The divine Logos in human flesh, as the vicarious humanity of Christ, communicates the very life of God in humanity (Campbell). Salvation is based on the communication of this life (Irenaeus, Athanasius). In this way, Christology is dynamically related to soteriology. In effect, Christ becomes the “very matter and substance of salvation.”

8. The work of the vicarious humanity of Christ is based on the twin moments in salvation of substitution/representation and incorporation. Christ not only takes our place, and becomes our representative, thereby creating a new humanity (substitution/representation), but also incorporates us into this new humanity (incorporation). Our actions become his actions. Our life becomes his life, the life of God.

9. The “correlation and correspondence” produced by the vicarious humanity of Christ provides an “inner determination” of life. There is a “reciprocity” of being which creates “wholeness” and “integrity” and presents a “contradiction” to the forces of darkness. [Christian D. Kettler, The Vicarious Humanity of Christ, 127-28]

In this key of things, theologically, Jesus in his vicarious humanity became us, he became totally depraved (but remained without sin through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit) for us; he in his vicarious humanity graciously and freely chose our reprobate humanity, and thus his vicarious humanity can be understood to be unconditionally elect; it is he in his vicarious humanity that the atonement is limited to, for there is no other real humanity but his alone for us; it is his choice to be for us, in his vicarious humanity that is irresistible, given the fact that he made this choice over our heads (as it were) without our approval or not, and he invaded our humanity with his making all things right in his resurrected and ascended humanity for us; and it is he who as our high priest, mediates for us through his priestly an intercessory work at the right hand of the Father that ensures for us that we truly are his for all eternity, and thus his humanity in the Incarnation and resurrection will always persevere for us before the Father, and it is through his humanity that we live and move and have our being, now and not yet.

I hope you can see better now how evangelical Calvinism’s redressing of the so called 5 points of Calvinism offers an exciting and edifying way forward that is genuinely Christ concentrated, Christ conditioned, such that all things start from his life for us to the glory of the Father.

Posted in Evangelical Calvinism, Salvation, Soteriology, Vicarious, Vicarious Humanity | 4 Comments

Old Debate, New Day: Calvinism — Was Calvin a Calvinist?

The debate on Calvinism that just happened in Chicago last week continues to be the source of some discussion online, so I thought I would say at least one more thing.

During the debate the non- Calvinist side, particularly Brian Zahand continuously made the charge that John Calvin was the founder of Calvinism. The reality is though, that Calvin did not found Calvinism, while he was an important teacher within the then burgeoning Reformed ground swell, he himself never founded Calvinism. Instead, Calvinism developed post-Calvin, particularly among the scholastic post Reformed orthodox theologians (like Vermigli, Ursinus, Olevieanus, even Beza, and then of course culminating later at the Westminster Assembly).

In order to discuss this continuity/discontinuity between Calvin and the Calvinists, let me refer to a post I wrote about 5 years ago. In this post there is a quote from Richard Muller that helps to develop my points further.

Sharing this post of mine from the past will also illustrate how I think Calvin’s relationship to Calvinism actually helps to provide more instances of Calvinism that go beyond what most people think of Calvinism today.

Primarily I simply want to drive home the point that Calvin was not the founder of Calvinism, which runs counter to what Brian Zahand continuously appealed to throughout his debate with the Calvinists. Here’s that post:

Here Muller confirms what I have been asserting all the while; that he sees an organic thread between Calvin and the “orthodox, Calvinists.” He says:

In the early years of the Reformation emphasis on the faith of the individual and stress on a new found sense of Christus pro me placed atonement at the center of theological concern. Even so, the work of Christ as mediator occupies the center of Calvin’s thought. The following essay will argue in similar terms that Protestant orthodoxy did not depart from this emphasis, that it developed a doctrinal structure more formal in definition and more scholastic in method but nevertheless concerned to maintain a doctrinal continuity with the soteriological emphasis and christological center of the theology of Calvin and his contemporaries. In this development, orthodoxy completed the transition (already evident in the work of Calvin) from piety and the preaching of reform to the system of Reformed doctrine. New structures, like the threefold office and the two states of Christ were integrated into systems of doctrine as formal principles, indeed, as new doctrinal contexts elicited from scripture, in terms of which dogmas received from the traditions — the Chalcedonian christological definition, for example — would be understood and, to a certain extent, reinterpreted. In this context also, the doctrine of the atonement, because it manifested the gracious will of God, moved into close relation with the doctrine of election. (Richard Muller, “Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology From Calvin to Perkins, 10)

Like I said, a “seamless whole.” Muller represents, as one of the “Reformed’s” best scholars (and let me just say, he is exceedingly brilliant, an amazing scholar), the atttitude that I’ve been trying to engage here. That is, what Muller calls “orthodoxy” is the only “live” option for what it means to consistently and coherently appropriate the thought of Calvin — thus the exclusive claim (by Federal theology) to the name “Calvinist.” It is this thesis that becomes the a priori force that shapes the sectarianism that is now evinced by Calvinists, today. That is, if someone says that there are other, even historic, ways to appropriate Calvin (much more in line with his Evangelicalism); these folks are considered heterodox.

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