Old Debate, New Day: Calvinism — My Comment

I want to “briefly” weigh in on a recent debate that just happened and was moderated by my friend, editor of Christianity Today, Mark Galli. The debate was on calvinist debatethat old perennial thing that just will not go away; i.e. classical Calvinism versus classical or I would say, revised (evangelical) Arminianism. In order to gain a full appreciation for my comments below it would be best for you to watch both presentations, and videos linked below (although as I write this I have not watched the second proposition or video yet).

Link 1, Link 2 (ht:/T.C. Moore)

I want to keep this as brief as I can, without being reductionistic (which will be difficult). The participants in the debate are four guys; two taking the affirmative for the classical Calvinist position on Unconditional election (the idea that God before creation elected some people to be saved and other people to be eternally reprobated or damned in hell experiencing God’s justice and wrath in themselves), and two taking the non-affirmative position against the classical Calvinist position on Unconditional election (just as a reminder Unconditional election is the “U” in the Five Points of Calvinism: the TULIP).

Let me cut to the chase for sake of time and space: the classical Calvinist position is that God eternally predestined some individuals to be eternally ‘saved’ (the elect), and in the classical conception of a double predestinarian version of this, God also eternally chose the mass of humanity (most of) to be eternally damned (the reprobate). In this scheme, then, the only way someone can come to Christ is if God chooses that for someone (apart from their choosing of him). Conversely, in contrast to this, the non-Calvinist position being affirmed by the non-Calvinist debaters are arguing that the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ will not allow us to conclude that God chose only a few elect individuals to be eternally saved; they argue that God’s love at the cross reveals that God died for all of humanity (thus providing the way for all of humanity to come to God in Christ), and that all of humanity has the deliberative capacity and choice to be either for Christ or against him. And so this leaves us at impasse, at a debate.

This debate in many ways is unnecessary. It traffics in a binary that is ultimately not a binary at all, other than a shift in referent. If you listen to the debate you will notice that the only real obvious difference is between an emphasis upon referent, as I just noted; but the conception of God being engaged with is quite similar. Although on the non-Calvinist side we do hear of a non-decretal (or a non-decreeing God, which is laudable), God, and that God is only understood, that Scripture is only understood through God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. This is where it gets a little mossy for me, on the non-Calvinist side; Brian Zhand in particular is arguing from straight Karl Barth[ian] themes. What would have been fruitful though, at least in my view, would have been if he had explicitly provided the alternative understanding of election and reprobation that Karl Barth advocated for, and indeed imaginatively explicated through his magisterial works and writing. In other words, what would have made this debate more about a genuinely theological and material difference instead of one about shifting referent (i.e. a debate on free-will or God’s sovereignty), would have been if Zhand cashed in on, and pressed Barth’s Christ-concentrated conception of double election.

If I was in this debate, as an evangelical Calvinist, that is exactly how I would have proceeded. I would have cleared the ground, introduced my hermeneutical approach (dialectical versus analytical, analogy of faith versus an analogy of being [which is what the Calvinists are arguing from]), and proceeded to show how Christ in his vicarious humanity is both the electing God (predestination), and the elected human[ity], and in his election to be human for us, he took our reprobation, thus by his poverty for us making us rich (II Cor. 8.9)–in classical theology this is called the mirifica commutatio, ‘the wonderful exchange.’ This is the hermeneutic, the lens, that Zhand, while right there, was skirting around (at least in the first proposition, I have not watched the second one yet).

Secondly, I would have pressed the power that hermeneutics and theological exegesis has upon our exegetical and theological conclusions. Daniel Montgomery, on the Calvinist side, made the claim of being a ‘biblicist,’ and Zhand rightfully pressed back on this; but not enough (although there were time constraints). This is a key, in order for meaningful discussion in this sphere to happen, we must must be open about our theological commitments, and understand that these commitments actually inform and even determine the way that we interpret Scripture. Zhand was hitting on this, but I think he could have done better, even in the time he had.

In closing let me quote how we as Evangelical Calvinists conceive of double election, and unconditional election; like the classic Calvinists we work through these categories, we just do so in Christ conditioned/concentrated ways. This is from one of our theses that Myk and I cowrote for our Evangelical Calvinist book:

Thesis Four

God is primarily covenantal and not contractual in his dealings with humanity.

At the heart of any theology is Theology Proper—an Evangelical Calvinist doctrine of God emphasizes the triune God of grace: the covenantal God versus any sort of contractual god as may be found in, for instance, certain forms of Roman Catholicism, Federal Calvinism, and classic Arminianism.[1]

God’s Covenant with humanity is grounded in the freedom of his Triune life which remains constant despite the twists and turns presented by human proclivities for rebellion. This resists the impulse for creating two or three “covenant’s” (per Thesis 3), which would suggest a dualism in the Godhead and thus in his interaction with humanity. It is covenant theology cast in this light that an Evangelical Calvinism adopts and from which it seeks to understand the triune God of grace as being covenantal.

Thesis Five

Election is christologically conditioned.

This follows on as a corollary from the thesis above. Christ’s work is perfect and requires no supplement, such as the faith of an individual. In forms of Classical Calvinism the subjective elements of salvation have tended to dominate its theology so that an experimental predestination (syllogismus practicus) developed and faith was separated from assurance in an unhealthy manner as Christ was separated from his work. The resultant crises of faith and assurance threw believers back onto themselves and their own works for assurance, rather than onto Christ our perfect mediator and redeemer. Christ has been sanctified, and in his sanctification he has sanctified the elect in him. Believers find their subjective sanctification in Christ’s objective work, and not the other way round. This reflects the duplex gratia Calvin made so much about and yet contemporary Reformed theology has tended to separate—through union with Christ flows the twin benefits of justification and sanctification.[2]

Thomas F. Torrance is instructive as he comments on Scottish Calvinist, John Craig’s approach to articulating what a christologically conditioned doctrine of election looks like; with a carnal and spiritual union providing its orientation:

Craig regarded election as bound up more with adoption into Christ, with union with him, and with the communion of the Spirit, than with an eternal decree. The union of people with Christ exists only within the communion of the redeemed and in the union they conjointly have with Christ the Head of the Church. . . . Union with Christ and faith are correlative, for it is through faith that we enter into union with Christ, and yet it is upon this corporate union with Christ that faith and our participation in the saving benefits or ‘graces’ of Christ rest. John Craig held that there was a twofold union which he spoke of as a “carnal union” and a “spiritual union.” By “carnal union” he referred to Christ’s union with us and our union with Christ which took place in his birth of the Spirit and in his human life through which took place in his birth of the Spirit and in his human life through which he sanctifies us. The foundation of our union with Christ, then, is that which Christ has made with us when in his Incarnation he became bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh; but through the mighty power of the Spirit all who have faith in Christ are made flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. It is only through this union, through ingrafting into Christ by faith and through communion with him in his Body and Blood, that we may share in all Christ’s benefits—outside of this union and communion there is no salvation, for Christ himself is the ground of salvation. . . . [3][4]

Thus election is grounded in a personal union with Christ through his “carnal union” with humanity in the Incarnation, and our “spiritual union” with him through his vicarious faith for us by the Holy Spirit. Christ, in this framework, is known to be the one who elects our humanity for himself; by so doing he takes our reprobation, wherein the “Great Exchange” inheres: “by his poverty we are made rich.”

I wish I could comment more, but this will have to do for now.

 

[1] Historical antecedents to such an approach in which a doctrine of God correctly shaped their doctrines of Christology and soteriology would include, amongst others, Richard St Victor and John Duns Scotus. For both, Theology Proper was robustly Trinitarian, thus relational, personal, and pastoral.

[2] See further in Johnson, chapter 9.

[3] Torrance, Scottish Theology, 52–3.

[4] See further in Habets, chapter 7.

 

Why I Think Evangelical Calvinism has been a bit of a Still Birth

In 2012, Myk Habets and I had our first edited book on Evangelical Calvinism published entitled Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing PICKWICK_TemplateReformation of the Church, and with this publishing I was excited with anticipation! I was excited to see what might happen as a result of our introducing of this rather constructive expression of Scottish Calvinism to the masses; I think my excitement was probably a bit naïve as I look back now. Let me explain what I mean.

When the book was conceived [back in 2009] (first by Myk and then by me as he asked me to collaborate with him) the Young, Restless and Reformed were going strong, humming right along. By time our book came out, the neo-Calvinist movement was still going strong, and by all accounts, in certain sectors continues to represent a massive influence among the larger evangelical church. Of course what is always attendant with a resurgence of conservative Calvinism is also a resurgence of evangelical Arminianism, and so this debate (largely spawned by Roger Olson, Arminian par excellence) has been (in certain sectors) front and center. It is an old debate, going all the way back to Arminius’ teaching, and the Council of Dordt that was convened to counter the Arminian teaching on, in particular, predestination and the extent of the atonement. It was this context that I thought Evangelical Calvinism might breathe a breath of fresh of air into, but I was wrong.

In the years following the publication of our book it really hasn’t received much engagement. Roger Olson engaged with it a couple of times on his blog, but he really didn’t understand the significance of the alternative that we were offering to the classical Calvinist model, as well as to his evangelical Arminian model. And then there were a few flash in the pan book reviews offered by a doctoral student at Wheaton, and another short book review at Scot McKnight’s blog, but other than that, nothing (although as I understand that there might be some further engagement of the book coming from a rather prominent theologian)!

I think my anticipation and excitement was a very personal thing, I have come to realize now. I have been taken back by Thomas F. Torrance’s articulation of Calvinist themes, and Karl Barth’s recasting of double predestination over against the classical categories offered by Arminianism and classical Calvinism. Apparently though, Evangelical Calvinism, as Myk and I have offered it is too intellectually charged, or too context laden, only able to be appreciated by a small niche of people who understand the history of ideas that gave formation to Covenant theology. Indeed, Evangelical Calvinism actually traffics in this realm more than in the popular neo-Calvinist understanding of Calvinism; we work in a very Covenantal schema, albeit grounded in a certain dogmatic ordering of things (God’s life of grace as Covenant, then creation, then the fall, etc.). And even as I am describing it, can’t you see why maybe even you (the reader) haven’t really tracked with Evangelical Calvinism? It is for a certain type of person, a person who has a context in Reformed theology, and understands, at least to an extent the formation of Reformed theology. And then against this backdrop Evangelical Calvinism might appear as a fresh offering, but not without this context. My guess is that most folks, even the Young, Restless, and Reformed types don’t really have a background in the history of ideas that finally gave emergence to some of the soteriological categories that they understand today as Calvinism (and usually without understanding the Covenant theology behind what they believe).

I actually don’t think Evangelical Calvinism is a still birth, but I do think it has fallen on deaf ears for most primarily because folks lack the proper theological context to appreciate what it is in fact offering. Although, what I don’t want to understate at this point is what I believe is still very exciting and fresh about Evangelical Calvinism. In fact the core of Evangelical Calvinism, doctrinally, still is alive and well; it will be being showcased once more, but even more explicitly and centrally in the second volume of our book, which we are under contract to write and edit currently, and that will probably be available sometime in 2016. I think the second go around of our work on Evangelical Calvinism might resonate with the masses more, I surely hope so. The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ will be the primary feature of that book, and it will be applied to various pastoral themes. Stay tuned. In the meantime you ought to pick up our first book, you won’t be disappointed!

Not to Be ‘Liked’ But to Love the World

Do we want to be liked so much by the world, our peers, that we are willing to not love them? That is a question I am currently wrestling with. As I engage the world in a new context, through new employment, I am confronted with this reality all over again. We are created as social creatures, in the image of a God who is a community of persons in the Triune life. I think it is quite natural to want to be accepted, to have the opportunity for socialization among our peers; whether that be in our families, at church, at school, or work. But Christians have a different perspective about social engagement, it is never an end in itself, at whatever level. Our calling is to be set apart even as we are the most worldly people on earth; most worldly in the sense that Christ became one of us, and all of us in the Incarnation. So not only do we have the challenge of being in the world, and not of the world (in one sense), we have the challenge of being lights in the world, and for the world, in a way that always keeps the love of God in Christ as the frame of reference through which we engage others; whether that engagement be at the level of home/family life, or whether that be among our non-believing peers who hate Jesus by their lifestyle, if not their words.

After I had cancer, and made it through what should have been a terminal cancer (statistically), it only reaffirmed what the Lord had already been working in my life for many years prior; that I am not my own, that I have been bought with a price, the price being the precious and imperishable blood of Jesus Christ. And in this possessing of my life, on his part, I have been impressed over and again that whether I live or die, I am the Lord’s, and it is for him and from him and his resurrected life that I have the resource and perspective to press on as one ‘sent out’ as I participate in the sent out life of God in Jesus Christ through his heavenly priestly session that he lives in for those who not only have but who will inherit his life eternal. I have come to realize, even though the shadows of this world system impinge upon the clarity of my realization, that I am only here for a short time, and in this short time I can only be an ambassador for Christ, I can only do good for him and from him in this particular moment, if indeed I redeem the time now; since today is the day of salvation!

If I am going to live with a perspective that is outside of myself, that is alien to my own ‘down to earth’ perspective, that flows from Immanuel’s veins, I will be more concerned with loving others, and losing myself, that I might find myself with Christ as I serve others through proclaiming the Gospel in and through every inch of my body and tongue. I will not be concerned with being liked by others, even if that happens, I will be more concerned about other’s well-being in Christ; since I realize, by faith, even if they don’t that they have been given an abundant life that the enemy continually is seeking to rob, kill and destroy. I will understand that the things of this world grow faintly dim in the light of Christ’s glory and grace; and at the same time realize that the things of this world are the very things that Christ came to redeem. My mission then, in Christ, is to tell the world what has happened to it; to invite it to a repentant life, and to begin to enjoy the abundant life that God in Christ desires for all, for the many.

Christianity from the Culturally Infused

There are so many perceptions of what Christianity represents, and folks out there, in the “world” often attempt to understand what Christianity is, as a religion, from whatever their personal encounters with it has been. In newsweekfact today, I had an experience like this, an experience with a new co-worker who is realizing that I am different; different not because I am a weirdo, per se (although my wife thinks I am), but because I don’t run with the crowd, and I have a certain morality that is at odds with the one adopted by so many in the world (like hedonism). And so this represents one example of how a person “out there” might perceive Christianity; i.e. by reducing it to a certain moralistic position that he has built up based upon his own past experiences with Christianity.

Beyond these kinds of somewhat simplistic perceptions of Christianity as a religion, there have been more sophisticated constructions, or deconstructions of Christianity based upon certain types of criteria that Christianity’s critics have developed based upon their commitments to naturalism, or a certain kind of Kantian dualism, expressed, even still, through positivism. It is this kind of approach to understanding what Christianity is that I want to engage with throughout the remainder of this post; and yet as I engage with this (maybe somewhat outdated approach to Christianity, although I don’t really think it is), what should emerge is how in fact people’s perceptions of Christianity, even simplistic ones, have developed from a certain understanding of what ‘faith’ and ‘pietism’ entails.

Herman Bavinck, a Dutch Reformed (and I mean a genuine Dutchman) theologian from the late 19th century has this to say about some of the critics of his day, in regard to developing critiques of Christianity, as well as demonstrating just how Christianity has come to be understood (especially in North America) as a privatized-subjectivized thing. Here Bavinck writes how “experience” was understood among the critics that he himself is criticizing:

But in this way the word “experience” is made to play an ambiguous role. When used in religion and theology, it has a wholly different significance from that which it bears in empirical science. In the latter what is meant is, that, by consistent application of the empirical method, personal interest in the inquiry is to be excluded as much as possible, and that the phenomena are observed and explained in their purity and impartially; empiricism even calls to its help the experimental proof. But when men speak of experience in religion, they mean it to be understood, on the other hand, that religion is, or at any rate must become, a personal matter through and through. Religion is, according to this interpretation, no doctrine, no precept, no history, no worship, in a word, not a belief on authority, nor a consent to truth, but arises from within, when the heart is touched and a personal fellowship established between God and our soul….[1]

It is really easy to see how what Bavinck is describing above has played out in North American evangelical Christianity; how a piety and in-ward individualistic religion has developed that no longer has the capacity to contradict and shape it by the Word of God. Christianity for so many has become whatever the particular North American evangelical wants it to be for them; if that means a legalistic Christianity, then so be it!; if that means an antinomian loosely lived Christianity, so be it; etc.

I wonder, honestly, if North American evangelical Christianity has the theological resource to repent of such sordid inwardness and self-centeredness, and come back to her first love?! My friend at work has every right to read Christianity the way that he does; it has been modeled for him, in spades, all over our American society.

The critics of Bavinck’s day helped to develop the intellectual space for pietistic Christianity to develop; unfortunately, so many Christians (myself included, at points) have helped to concretize this space into a foundational cornerstone of what it means to be a Christian. And not just for the Christian who lives this way (i.e. a personalized Christianity), but for those who we live with, day in, day out; we have the extra burden at points, of educating folks about such things.
[1] Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, loc 2786 kindle.

Rambling About my Blogging and Theological Slump

I have almost lost all motivation for blogging, it isn’t what it used to be when I started back in 2005 (wow! over 9 years ago now)! Life has gone on, things have been changing in my life, and my time is almost totally used up for other things at the moment (primarily training with the railroad, which is ongoing for another 4 months, at least!). But it is more than that, in some ways my urge to even read theology is almost totally dried up for some reason as well. I think the primary reason for that, at the moment (I don’t see this is a forever reality), is that I have no personal outlet. I have no one to disciple (which I have been doing in the past in informal and formal ways with various guys etc), I am not around anyone who is really interested in fellowshipping around the truths of Scripture and theological reality. I have attempted to do stuff at a couple of different churches we have attended over the years, as far as teaching etc., and it just has never gotten off the ground; even if I was approached to do so more than once at one particular church. I don’t really no what it is, but nothing has ever opened up for me at church. Part of my problem, that way, is that we have largely been affiliated with denominations that are low church, anti-intellectual (and use this for lack of better term), and who don’t place a high premium on theological education for church people and/or discipleship and Christian education. But really, I have been deeply motivated in the past to read and think theologically because of the community of God, the church, and my connection with them; and with folks within that community who are thinker types, or just types who are on fire for Jesus and can’t get enough insight on him, and who can’t get enough of their questions answered.

Anyway, I am just venting right now, and being real. I can never really imagine a time when I won’t be theological in my orientation, it is how the Lord has wired me for sure (I’m just a Christian really)! And even when I don’t feel like reading theology, per se, I always do, because I know that even in these slumps  I need to keep pushing forward and growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ; and I need to be prepared for whenever the Lord might want to use me next (even if that means primarily at his coming, I don’t know).

Images of the Image of the Imago Dei, The Vicarious Humanity

I love thinking about this reality, it is life-changing! Check out the following, something I posted quite awhile ago, originally.

Here is a good quote from Greek Orthodox theologian Khaled Anatolios on the vicarious humanity of Christ and Incarnation:

A helpful way to synthesize the argument of Against the Greeks—On the Incarnation and to integrate it with Athanasius’s later and more explicitly polemical work is to focus on the trintarian-christological-athanasiusanthropological nexus that forms the guiding motif of the work: only the One who is true Image can renew humanity’s being according to the image (kat’ eikona). The trinitarian ground of this nexus is the immediate relation (though we do not find the later technical vocabulary of “relation” in this treatise) whereby the Son is the Image of the Father. The soteriological consequence of this immediacy is that the Son is uniquely able to grant direct and immediate access to the Father. The statement that humanity was created according to the Image is simultaneously anthropological and christological: to be created according to the Image is to be granted a participation in the one who is the true and full Image of the Father. When humanity lost its stability, which depended on remaining in the state of being according to the Image, the incarnate Word repaired the image of God in humanity by reuniting it with his own divine imaging of the Father. Jesus Christ is therefore both eternal divine Image and restored human image. The saving union of divine and human image in Christ is characterized by immediacy. One foundational principle of Athanasius’s theological vision is this stress on the continuity of immediate connections between God and humanity and a corresponding abhorrence of obstacles and opaque mediations. As perfect Image, the Son is immediately united to the Father and transparently reflects knowledge of the Father; anything short of this immediate and transparent relation would deconstruct our immediate connection with the Father through the Son from the divine side. Through his incarnation, the Son repairs our human participation in his imaging of the Father from within the human constitution; anything short of a full incarnation would leave humans disconnected from both Father and Son. Thus, incarnation and the full divinity of the Son are both integral to the immediacy of our contact with the Father. Far from indicating inferior divinity, the human life and death of Jesus Christ extend the efficacy of is divine imaging of the Father in the face of humanity’s loss of the state of being according to the image. It is a wonderful display of the loving-kindness that belongs to the divine nature as such, the philanthrōpia that is equally shared by Father and Son. [Khaled Anatolios,Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine,(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011), 107-8.]

So we are images of the Image in the Son as we participate from His life for us. He is the Image of God, and the recreated image of the image that was originally created in the garden in Adam and Eve. So Christ was the human image of God whom Adam and Eve reflected as the image of the image first. It is only as this image is recreated and restored through the ‘firstborn status’ of the Son (Col. 1.15ff) that salvation and reconciliation is realized for us in Christ. This fits well with Thomas Torrance’s understanding of Theosis, and his ontological theory of the atonement; and something that is central to what Myk Habets and I consider to be the grist of evangelical Calvinist soteriology.

 

Talking About God on Facebook from ‘The Faith of God’ instead of ‘The Faith of Man and Woman’

Recently I’ve been having some encounters with a former classmate of facebook-iconmine from my last two years of high school, apparently he no longer believes in the existence of God, and for that matter the existence of Jesus Christ. We’ve been having these encounters on Facebook (where else?!), and it has involved a bit of rough-and-tumble exchange about the points I just mentioned above (God’s existence in general, and Jesus’ in particular). What these encounters have illustrated for me personally is that my knee-jerk responses, in default mode are to refer back to evidentiary arguments (historical as well as philosophical) for the existence of God. It is this mode of engagement, and this style of apologetics and evangelism I  became very used to from my past, which involved training in philosophical apologetics as well as doing so from the analytical, even classical tradition (at least classical in one prominent stream of things). Indeed, many of my responses to my former classmate might even fit into the kind of ‘faith’ that B.B. Warfield helped to shape back in early 20th century North America Christian Fundamentalism; note what he communicates about the faith he was so committed to:

It is the distinction of Christianity that it has come into the world clothed with the mission to reason its way to its dominion. Other religions may appeal to the sword, or seek some other way to propagate themselves. Christianity makes its appeal to right reason, and stands out among all religions, therefore, as distinctively “the Apologetic religion.” It is solely by reasoning that it has come thus far on its way to its kingship. And it is solely by reasoning that it will put all its enemies under its feet.[1]

But you know what? In reality I am really not an advocate of such an approach. I do still believe there is value to historical work in Jesus studies, and even value in employing philosophical tools for helping to provide precision in articulation of the Christian faith. And yet, what I have become an advocate for is more of a fideistic approach, an approach where Christ is the key, and his reality as the second person of the Trinity is presumed upon (without the burden to prove it to unbelievers) without argument; presumed upon to fund the categories, the ‘revealed’ categories by which we know the Christian God. Here is Thomas F. Torrance commenting on what I see as the boundary for how we approach talk about God, in general; in this quote Torrance is summarizing how Karl Barth understood the boundaries and order of theological engagement and talk:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[2]

The Impact

So how should the above, and my approval of what Torrance and Barth are talking impact the way I approach apologetical, theological, and evangelistic talk in general? I think that, one way evangelistic talk is impacted by my commitment to a ‘revelational’ approach requires explanation, and definition about what I mean by ‘faith’, and ‘revelation’ in contrast to what most people mean by faith and revelation. I think my engagement with my friend should have involved less posturing in regard to the power that historical evidence has, and more emphasis upon who God has revealed himself to be in Jesus Christ; and then allow the force and power of that within the narrative of God’s own revealed life to shape my responses.

Sometimes it is better to reframe questions instead of attempting to answer questions on their terms, especially when those questions are not being informed by the categories provided for by the Self revelation of God in Jesus Christ. So I am still learning, eh! Aren’t we all?

 

 

[1] George Marsden citing B.B. Warfield, Fundamentalism And American Culture, 115.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

What is Federal or Covenant Theology?

The following is a post I wrote just over two years ago, buried at another blog of mine, so it should be fresh for all the readers here. I think it is important for people to understand what Federal or Covenant theology is, because it impacts almost all North American evangelical theology to one extent or another. Even many dispensationalists imbibe many of the themes (as far as salvation history etc) of Covenant theology, and maybe to the surprise of some, one of the most prominent biblical theologians of our day–N.T. Wright–follows the covenantal scheme or trajectory of Covenant theology in pretty robust ways. Anyway, I thought I would repost this for anyone interested in engaging with this issue once again. 

Heinrich_Bullinger

Heinrich Bullinger

It is something that T.F. Torrance rejected, and it is something that I have written about elsewhere, here. It is also something I often critique in various ways here (in various ways, to one degree or another). So to add to my online interactions with the venerable (for some) Federal Theology of strains of classic Calvinism, let me provide another definition by Dewey D. Wallace, Jr. from his book Shapers of English Calvinism 1660-1714. He writes of Federal Theology:

[A] second development in English Calvinist thought, also international in its scope, was the rising importance of federal theology. Federal theology built upon the covenant theology of the Reformers, especially that of Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor of at Zurich, and also of Calvin. For Bullinger, God had made one covenant with humanity, the covenant of grace, known by anticipation in the times of the Old Testament and by remembrance after the coming of Christ. For Calvin too there was but one covenant, that of Grace, but he stressed its testamentary character whereas Bullinger spoke of it as more conditional, although for both the covenant was the means in a history of salvation by which God unfolded his purposes. At the end of the sixteenth century, the Heidelberg Reformed theologians Zacharias Ursinus, Caspar Olevianus, and Franciscus Junius shaped the idea of a covenant of works distinct from and preceding the covenant of grace. Important English Calvinists, beginning with Dudley Fenner and including many later Puritans, adopted this double covenant federal theology with its covenant of works made with Adam, the federal head of humanity, to be followed, after the fall of Adam, with the covenant of grace, which was anticipated in Moses and fulfilled in Christ, the federal head of redeemed humanity. This federal theology was not only a pedagogically useful and biblically warranted scheme for organizing theology but also “a useful vehicle of the gospel message,” closely related to the flowering of Calvinist piety. [Dewey D. Wallace, Jr., Shapers of English Calvinism 1660-1714: Variety, Persistence, and Transformation,(New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 16-7]

So more of a sketch here rather than a definition.

Myk Habets and I, as Evangelical Calvinists, affirm one covenant of grace as I have posted one of our Theses from our soon to be released book, here. In light of my belief in one covenant of grace (notice Dewey underscores Calvin’s belief in ‘one covenant’ of grace too, I obviously think expanding this covenantal framework into a so called ‘bi-lateral’ or ‘two-winged’ understanding constitutes a deleterious move, but one that is natural to how classic Calvinists conceive of their doctrine of God. Without getting too deep into the weeds on this, and especially the respective doctrine of God behind Federal Theology; the biggest problem I see with this double covenant schema, propounded by Federal theology, is its placement of creation over against Creator. There is a dualist wedge placed between humanity, for example, and Creator; such that the unity of Christ’s person in the incarnation becomes disjointed—I digress.

One of the bigger pastoral and soteriological problems I see with Federal Theology, and its dualistic conception of salvation, is that a bridge outside of the unitary person of Christ is needed to bridge the gap between a sinful humanity and a holy Creator. It is this bridge that then shapes how Jesus must act in his saving act (or the conditions of the Covenant of Works), and thus the person of Jesus as the God-Man is decoupled; the Man part trying to meet the conditions of uniting sinful humanity to God, thus impinging on the shape of the God part in Jesus. With the consequence being that the Divine Person, Jesus Christ becomes subservient to his creation, all in the name of bridging the gap between part of humanity (the elect) and God. Matt Frost, a Barthian-Lutheran theologian and friend, provided a critique of this kind of stuff in a recent comment that I think is apropos for my own critique; Frost writes:

[...] I find classical Calvinism lacking in its doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ because it becomes an extension of the division of God from creation, up into the godhead. If the vicarious humanity of Christ is a perpetual intercessory appeasement of the Father, we have a broken doctrine of God. There is only part of God in Christ, and part of God to be appeased by him. The vicariousness becomes Jesus doing our actions for us, and correctly, in order to please God. “Our great high priest.” The whole cultic mechanism of appeasement elevated into the heavens and done for us. [see the full comment here]

Federal Theology introduces a division of God from creation, as Matt puts it, so that Jesus in seeking and saving the lost actually ends up losing his identity as the eternal Logos because he is no longer the Word over creation, but the Word subservient and under creation.

Practical Takeaway

Federal Theology is a historically situated scheme of thinking, but, unfortunately, there are some today who seek to repristinate or redress this schema for contemporary Christianity (I have friends who have been taken captive, to one degree or the other). I am only left to wonder why? Why do people today seek to re-present this scheme of theology when we have moved in constructive ways (and even through constructive retrieval) into constructive Trinitarian theology. Theology that emphasizes God’s unity in his diversity, and theology that emphasizes God’s loving and gracious way amongst us. Why would we want to go back to a theological construct that has obvious and fundamental flaws relative to how it thinks about God, and then how God must relate to his creation? I think a lot of this simply has to do with cultural forces, and lack of exposure to sound Trinitarian theology (the kind that EC tries to imbibe); more than it does with blatant disregard for thinking according to said Trinitarian theology. Which continues to provide impetus for me to write about such things online. amen.

Reformed Theology Rocks!

Reformed theology rocks, for a variety of reasons. I am currently reading Jan Rohls book Reformed Confessions: Theology from Zurich to Barmen. Columbia Series In Reformed Theology, which is a resource I briefly referenced in a chapter I wrote for our edited book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church. As I have been reading this book I have been getting encouraged again about why Reformed theology is such a boon for the weary theological soul.

Primarily the thing that has attracted me most to Reformed theology over the years is of a dogmatic interest; i.e. the Sovereign reality of who the Triune God is, and the primacy of grace serve to shape the Reformed theological trajectory in ways that other theological approaches do not, in my view. Truly, there are different ways to emphasize this reality within the Reformed approach[es], and we as evangelical Calvinists have our own unique way of emphasizing who God is for us in Christ, but in the main there is a common thread that unites all instances of Reformed theology; that common theme, again, is an emphasis upon who God is, and the primacy of grace in a God-world/Creator-creature relation.

For example there is something very comforting that arises from the words found in the Heidelberg Catechism, in regard to who God is, and what our relation to him is. When you are reading the Heidelberg Catechism you will immediately be confronted with question 1 that says this:

Question 1.

What is thy only comfort in life and death?

Answer.

That I with body and soul, both in life and death, (a) am not my own, (b) but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; (c) who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, (d) and delivered me from all the power of the devil; (e) and so preserves me (f) that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; (g) yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, (h) and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, (i) and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him. (j) (a) Rom.14:7,8. (b) 1 Cor.6:19. (c) 1 Cor.3:23; Tit.2:14. (d) 1Pet.1:18,19; 1 John 1:7; 1 John 2:2,12. (e) Heb.2:14; 1 John 3:8; John 8:34-36. (f) John 6:39; John 10:28; 2 Thess.3:3; 1 Pet.1:5. (g) Matt.10:29-31; Luke 21:18. (h) Rom.8:28. (i) 2 Cor.1:20-22; 2 Cor.5:5; Eph.1:13,14; Rom.8:16. (j) Rom.8:14; 1 John 3:3.

This is a perfect example of the kind of riches available for the Christian person who takes advantage of the heritage provided for in the Reformed Christian faith. There is a hope and a warmth in knowing God as Father, and that we are related to him as a result of his love for us in the dearly beloved Son Jesus Christ, and that our relationship to this Father-Son God is assured and guaranteed to us by the person and work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It is this Triune reality that Reformed theology, from a Protestant vantage point, does such a good job of emphasizing.

On a personal note: One reason I find this so encouraging is that this heritage is such a harbinger to my weary soul as I engage with the world who rejects, by and large, thoughtfulness about life, and greater reality such as God represents. It is encouraging to know that I have somewhere to go to quench my thirst, theologically, and in a way that there is a depth dimension provided for in an through the people that God was ministering to centuries ago in his church in the Reformation period.

These are some reasons why I think Reformed theology rocks (there are many other reasons), and why I would like to commend it to you for your consideration, if you have never taken advantage of the deeper theological realities provided for in the Reformed angle of the Christian faith. soli Deo Gloria!

 

 

On Modern Biblical Exegesis

How did we get to where we have gotten theologically exegetically in our current state, whether ‘Liberal’ or ‘evangelical’ in the modern-post/modern period? How has a ‘reasonable faith’ impeded upon a revealed faith such kantthat either we must attempt to jump Lessing’s historical ditch by our own intellectual prowess, or acknowledge thus propping up revealed theology (i.e. what is given in the Bible) by our own rationales?

These are questions I will briefly deal with and sketch in the rest of this kind of abstract (an abstract without an essay).

As Murray Rae describes the impact of Lessing, Schleiermacher, and Kant upon where ‘modern’ exegetical practice is at today the above questions will be addressed, and then I will follow this up with my own reflection upon Rae’s observations.

Lessing’s troubled skepticism about whether the Gospel narratives—concerning events now inaccessible to our experience—could be sufficiently trustworthy to warrant the total submission of one’s life and intellect to the truth proclaimed by Christianity helped to generate among Schleiermacher’s contemporaries, at least in the universities, an impatience with theological claims—about Jesus in particular—that relied solely on the quotation of Scripture and that could not be confirmed by the deliberations of human reason. That mood was also given impetus by Immanuel Kant’s (1724–1804) insistence that we have no direct experience of things as they are in themselves but only of things as they appear to us. The way appearances of things are ordered into a coherent picture of the world depends upon the data of perception but crucially too upon the conceptualizing activity of our own intellects. With respect to theology, Kant contended that we have no direct experience of God, but our experience of moral obligation only makes sense if we postulate the existence of God (along with individual freedom and immortality). The existence of God is, in other words, a condition of the intelligibility of our moral experience.

Kant proceeded to explain that there are two forms of theology, the revealed or biblical theology of the church containing all the historical and symbolic material upon which Christian theology has been constructed, and the rational theology which Kant himself presumed to develop in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793). These two forms of theology are related as two concentric circles: the outer being revealed theology, the inner being rational theology. The rational theologian, Kant argued, must “waive consideration of all experiences,” which is to say, the rational theologian must proceed without reliance upon the historical material of the Bible. There is, in revealed theology, a timeless essence with which the rational theologian is concerned, but it is discoverable in principle without recourse to the historical testimonies that attend Christian theology, as also the theology of other faiths. The essence of all faiths, allegedly, is their moral significance, which is derivable a priori from reason alone.[1]

Present in all proposals, whether Lessing, Schleiermacher, Kant, et. al. there is redolent a kind of dualism between history (linearly conceived), and a subject’s engagement with it vis-à-vis reason; and the more circumspect or reliable or accessible of the two is humanity’s reason. And so beyond the categories supplied by reason there is nothing reliable and thus anything beyond reason remains off limits and inaccessible toward being a ground upon which humanity can build anything stable and flourishing.

As Rae underscores, what this does, in particular with a Kantian accessibility to reality and ‘truth’ is that it subjectivizes it in a way that historical data, for example, no longer has the capacity to duly inform how we ought to conceive of God; instead that is left to our experience and ordering of reality through our own rationales. So God becomes subject to our subject, and Scripture is discarded as a husk that only reflects the kernel of other human being’s attempt to think God. God orbits in our world, we do not orbit in his, in other words.

Actually I made some assertions about ‘Liberals’ and ‘evangelicals’ in my opening statements to this abstract, I am going to leave those dangling in light of what I just presented.

[1] Murray Rae, “Salvation in Community: The Tentative Universalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011),