In Response to Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Critique of evangelical Calvinism: No We Don’t Hold to the Physical Theory of Atonement

Kevin J. Vanhoozer (KJV) has offered a chapter length critique of the evangelical Calvinism that Myk Habets and I present in our book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church. I’ve responded a bit to it in the past, and here I will again. KJV’s primary critique is that we uncritically ontologize salvation, whereas say the Apostle Paul and John Calvin do not. Vanhoozer writes, “3. As to the crucial concept “being in Christ” – the font from which all spiritual blessings flow (Eph. 1:3) – Evangelical Calvinism
kingjamesonlyontologizes what for Paul (and Calvin) is ultimately a personal union wrought by the Holy Spirit, the giver of life (and faith).”[1]
He unpacks this further by saying,

According to Calvin (and Paul), the Holy Spirit is the bond that unites us to Christ by as it were “breathing” faith into the elect: “he unites him-self to us by the Spirit alone.” Evangelical Calvinism’s language of incarnational union conflicts with that of the New Testament at precisely this point: one is “in Christ” not by virtue of the first creation through the Logos, nor by virtue of the sheer humanity of Christ, but rather by virtue of sharing in the new creation through Spirit-enabled faith….[2]

This obviously is a problem in the mind of Vanhoozer, but I don’t think it accurately understands our position; or at least my position. Along these same lines, Vanhoozer writes more:

“By the Spirit”: Salvation as (ontic) union with Christ

Despite what some might take to be the logic of their position, Evangelical Calvinists universally deny universalism. They also universally deny particularism: “If Christ died only for some then he would not be the Savior of the world but rather an instrument in the hands of the Father for the salvation of a chosen few.” The question, then, is how all people can be both “in” Christ in one sense (ontologically) and not in another (salvifically). John Colwell’s reminder about the way Barth handles this problem may help Evangelical Calvinists too: Barth “clearly prohibits too simplistic a relationship between the ontological definition of man as elect in Jesus Christ and the actual election of individual men.”120 He does so by distinguishing one’s objective (ontological) election in Christ from its subjective (ontic, existential) realization. On this view, the Spirit’s role is limited to opening our eyes, minds, and hearts to what is already objectively the case in Christ.[3]

Do you see the problem that Vanhoozer is highlighting and critiquing? He thinks that we, as evangelical Calvinists, maintain that Christ objectively and substitutionarily represents all of humanity by simple virtue of just being; of just becoming human in the incarnation. But this flattens things out prematurely in my view. If what Vanhoozer is saying was accurate, then he might be onto something, but things are more fluid for us in evangelical Calvinism; we are a project on the way.

What I personally maintain is that Jesus in the incarnation surely is the ontic ground of what it means to be human coram Deo, and thus his history (as Barth develops) is human history simpliciter; but I don’t see this penetration, by God in Christ, into humanity as a strong-arm move—like what we see in the patristic physical theory of the atonement. The physical theory as described by John Anthony McGuckin is,

… The Logos descended to earth in order to teach the paths for souls to ascend once more on high. His death was an exemplary one. In patristic writing this does not mean “merely” or only exemplarist, for Origen certainly combines his pedagogical theory with sacrificial views and notions of transactional redemption. After the fourth century the Alexandrian theory witnessed in Athanasius, and later brought to a pitch by Cyril of Alexandria and the Byzantine theologians, begins to dominate Eastern patristic thought. This has been called the “physical theory” of atonement, whereby the entrance of the divine Word into the fabric and condition of the flesh so radically constitutes the humanity of the race that the mortal is rendered immortal. The image of Christ’s fleshly body (his finger or spittle, for example) becoming a divine medium of grace and power (healing the blind man or calling Lazarus back to life) is taken as a paradigm for what has happened to the humanity of all people after the transfiguration of Jesus’ own humanity. Irenaeus described it in terms of: “Out of his great love, he became what we are, so that we might become what he is” (Adversus haereses 5 praef.). And Athanasius repeated it more succinctly: “He [the Logos] became human that humans might become God” (De incarnation 54). After the fourth century the theory of deification (theopoiesis) dominated the Byzantine religious imagination….[4]

While patristic theology is deeply informing and attendant to what we are about in evangelical Calvinism, we do not uncritically appropriate some of these apparent implications or aspects of patristic theology. Because this is important to get a handle on, particularly in light of Vanhoozer’s misreading of us, let’s look at how Myk Habets responds to the ‘physical theory’ charge as he distinguishes Thomas Torrance’s conception of this (and thus the evangelical Calvinist’s) from the patristic:

Beyond a physical theory of redemption. Given Torrance’s stress on incarnational redemption it will pay us to return to the mistaken charge that Torrance presents a physical theory of redemption. Like Athanasius, Torrance understands the uniting of the divine Logos and human nature in the one person of the Son (hypostatic union) to divinise human nature. If this same process were applied to men and women generally, it would amount to a ‘physical theory’ of redemption. However, according to the way in which Torrance adopts patristic theology, the physical theory, mistakenly first put forward by Irenaeus,  is not what is in mind.

According to the physical theory of theosis human nature is immortalised (aphtharsia) and thus divinised by the fact of the ultimate contact that the incarnation establishes between it and the divine nature of the Word. This would make human beings indistinguishable from God and deification would be automatic. At the very least a strict adherence to a physical theory of the atonement postulates deification by contact. In place of a physical theory whereby ‘deification’ or theosis occurs automatically or naturally within human persons, Torrance presents an ontological theory of incarnational redemption, as we have seen. This ontological atonement, mediation, or redemption forms the first stage of theosis proper in Torrance’s theology, characterised by the theopoiesis of Christ’s own human nature. As Torrance articulates it:

[Christ] had come, Son of God incarnate as Son of man, in order to get to grips with the powers of darkness and defeat them, but he had been sent to do that not through the manipulation of social, political or economic power-structures, but by striking beneath them all into the ontological depths of Israel’s existence where man, and Israel representing all mankind, had become estranged from God, and there within those ontological depths of human being to forge a bond of union and communion between man and God in himself which can never be undone.

At the cross God meets, suffers, and triumphs over the enmity entrenched in human existence once and for all in Jesus Christ. Ontological atonement has been achieved in the incarnate life and death of the Son of God, confirmed in the resurrection from the empty tomb, and in the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost.

The human life of Christ contains redemptive value in the sense that it completes the efficacy of the incarnation. For full redemption and reconciliation to occur the incarnate Logos assumed our natural – fallen – human condition in order to divinise the human life in its various stages. That is to say ‘he lived it personally’. This does not imply that Torrance’s conception of the matter has any form of mechanical theosis for men and women, the physical theory simpliciter. There are processes or stages to be followed by which human beings in general may be ‘deified’, including the sacraments and the Christian life. This will be considered later in the study. Before that, Torrance constructs the basis for theosis to occur; it must first of all be a reality in the life of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. The work of theosis is supremely the work of Christ (and the Holy Spirit), to whom the initiative goes completely.[5]

What Myk, and Torrance, rightly develop is a differentiation between Christ’s humanity as his (enhypostatic) humanity, while at the same time maintaining that what Christ has done as archetypal humanity in his assumed humanity pro nobis (for us) is accomplish, de jure, salvation and reconciliation with God all the way down. For evangelical Calvinists Jesus Christ in his unio personalis is who he is in relation to God by nature; and yet his assumption of humanity is an expression of God’s grace for us. Even though our humanity is what is, before God, and even though we embrace our full humanity in Christ, it is only by grace, it is not by nature. In other words, we do not conflate nature and person, as Vanhoozer claims we do, but instead we see Jesus’s humanity as the objective ground of what it means for all humanity to be truly human before God. In other words, contrary to what Vanhoozer writes, along with Paul and Calvin, we do affirm the need for personal faith for someone to fully participate in the humanity of God in Christ (e.g. it is not automatic in the incarnation), and thus experience the full benefits of reconciliation and salvation with God in Christ. It is just that evangelical Calvinists believe that all that is required for humans to be “saved” or ‘justified’ has already happened fully in Christ (which is not discordant from Calvin’s duplex gratia and unio cum Christo theology).

In brief, we do not hold to the physical theory of the atonement as Vanhoozer mistakenly presumes about us. He seems to think, as we’ve been noting, that by virtue of the eternal Logos becoming human, that we believe that justification/salvation is both objectively and subjectively accomplished—so the physical theory—for all of humanity ipso facto; which is why Vanhoozer is so baffled by the fact that we reject universalism.


I was going to explain how we can hold what we hold, and at the same time not affirm universalism. If we reject the physical theory—which hopefully this post has laid to rest—then how do we think it possible for only some people to affirm their election in Jesus Christ, and not all? What place do we have in our theology for the person and work of the Holy Spirit in transitioning us from our unbelieving states into believing states; and how does what has already happened in Jesus’s humanity work its way into ours? Since this post has run too long already, I will answer this question in the next post (so a mini-series). Stay tuned.


[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism),” in Benjamin E. Reynolds, Brian Lugioyo, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer eds., Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars (Germany: Mohr Siebeck).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] John McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 38-39.

[5] Myk Habets, Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2009), 57-58.

Evangelical Calvinism, Reforming the Reformation with Christ

Evangelical Calvinism is a Reformed iteration within Protestant orthodox theology. As such we respect the reformed confessions, catechisms, and creeds; particularly the Scots Confession and Heidelberg Catechism. That said, unlike what counts as Reformed theology today—a repristination of the 16th and 17th centuries, from a certain angle—evangelical Calvinists, such as myself and Myk Habets, are not bound by the reformed confessions as if they are regulative towards interpreting Scripture and/or doing constructive theology. We work from what Karl Barth calls the ‘spirit’ studiteof the Reformed faith, rather than the ‘letter’; we take the reformed semper reformanda (always reforming) to heart, and attempt to continue on, from within the Reformed faith, in our growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.

In our volume one book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (2012), Myk Habets and I wrote in the introduction, this:

Others appeal to the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith and lift this up as the subordinate standard of doctrine to which the whole church must subscribe in detail. Now it is true that it is a subordinate standard of doctrine for Presbyterians in many countries, but it is not a universal document intended for all. Although this Confession is much broader it too is a historical document located within a specific context and, when shorn of this context, it too fails to represent Reformed faith in any comprehensive or definitive fashion. Westminster was largely the result of English Puritans and hardly represents the breadth and depth of the Reformed faith or theology at the time or since. A further attempt to define the Reformed faith is by means of the five solas of the Reformation-sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus/ solo Christo, and soli Deo gloria. This has more merit, given that the five solas are abiding marks of Reformed theology. These are, we suggest, as least integral to the sine qua non of Reformed doctrine.

Writing in the context of the earliest Reformed theologians, Richard Muller argues for a series of theological issues and conclusions that may be identified as essentially Reformed, notably, the priority of Scripture over tradition as the sole, absolute norm for theology, the unity of the message of Scripture and the covenant of God, sacramentology (specifically that there are two sacraments and both are viewed as signs and seals of grace), a Chalcedonian Christology which affirms the integrity of two natures in the one person of Christ, and an understanding of salvation by grace alone, with a corresponding emphasis upon God’s gracious election to eternal salvation. Evangelical Calvinism remains true to the sine qua non of the Reformed faith and then feels the freedom to explore the adiaphora within their traditional commitments.[1]

But what exactly does this mean? For example, do we really affirm things the way they might appear prima facie? Do we really affirm an emphasis ‘upon God’s gracious election to eternal salvation’? Yes, we do, but of course not in the way that classical Calvinism does; as so many of you already know. We see Jesus Christ, de jure/de facto, as both the elect and reprobate in his humanity for us, pro nobis (cf. II Cor. 5.21; 8.9). Along with Barth we take the grammar of Reformed orthodoxy, and reify it in Christ; i.e. we see Jesus as the concrete reality of election, reprobation, the sacraments, the unity of Scripture, the covenant of God (ad extra), so on and so forth. This is no surprise to anyone who has been reading here for any amount of time, but I think what is important to communicate at this point is the catholic intention of evangelical Calvinism.

Classical Calvinism, or Reformed theology, for the most part, finds its roots in the Western church, and/or Roman Catholic theology; as such it is deeply cemented in the Thomistic reading of Augustine’s theology, and the trajectory that provides for. Evangelical Calvinism, contrariwise, is truly an ad fontes reforming of Reformed theology movement. We think (or at least I do) that Reformed theology, or what is commonly called Post Reformation Reformed Orthodoxy, has become as static and received, and has become bounded to its own layered commentary-tradition, that in many ways, both formally and materially, makes it look very similar to the mediaeval Roman Catholic theology and church that it originally sought to Reform. We believe that, early on, this slippage back to Roman mode happened to Reformed theology; as such as an evangelical Calvinist it is my belief that the reformation needs to come to Reformed theology itself—evangelical Calvinism seeks to be that in some ways.

Along with our reformed brothers and sisters, like I noted, we do affirm the value of the Reformed confessions, and we see even more value in the five solas; but we think that in order for the Reformed faith to be truly catholic it must genuinely see Jesus Christ as the center. When I say center, I mean Reformed theology’s frame ought to see Jesus Christ as the ontic ground of everything. Meaning that the dualism, which has been fostered by the Thomist-Augustinian frame (not the Bible), needs to be repudiated in favor of seeing Jesus Christ as truly prime and teleological over all created reality. We believe, as evangelical Calvinists (Myk and I), that the primacy of Jesus Christ, as a doctrine, needs to be the resourceful fount that reifies and contextualizes all of Reformed theology.

In closing, David Fergusson, as he reflects on the Hellenistic wisdom tradition, and its evangelization and reification in Christ, offers a helpful insight on what I think should take hold in the reforming process of Reformed theology if it is truly going to be a Christ-centered and church catholic movement:

The notion of ‘wisdom’ provides further evidence of the integration of creation and salvation in the Old Testament. As the creative agency of God, wisdom is celebrated in the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and some of the deutero-canonical works. In some places, such as Proverbs 8, wisdom is personified as a divine agent. The divine wisdom by which the world is created is also apparent in the regularity of nature, the divine law, and human affairs. This notion of ‘wisdom’ is later fused with the Greek concept of ‘Logos’ and becomes vital for expressing the linking of creation and Christology in the New Testament. In the prologue to John’s Gospel the Word (Logos) of God is the one by whom and through whom the world is created. This Word which is made present to Israel becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ. In this cosmic Christology, the significance of Jesus is understood with respect to the origin and purpose of the created order. Already in Paul’s writing and elsewhere in the New Testament epistles, we find similar cosmic themes (e.g. 1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:15-20, Heb. 1:1-4). By describing creation as Christ-centred, these passages offer two related trajectories of thought. First, the origin and final purpose of the cosmos is disclosed with the coming of Christ into the world and his resurrection from the dead. Second, the significance of Christ is maximally understood reference to his creative and redeeming power throughout the created universe. Writers at different periods in the history of the church would later use this cosmic Christology to describe the appearance of the incarnate Christ as the crowning moment of history. No longer understood merely as an emergency measure to counteract the effects of sin and evil, the incarnation was the fulfillment of an eternal purpose. The world was made so that Christ might be born. This is captured in Karl Barth’s dictum that creation is ‘the external basis of the covenant’ (Barth 1958: 94).[2]

Do I personally think that those who today self-identify as the heirs of Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy are going to heed the call of evangelical Calvinists to continue on in the process of always reforming per the reality of Holy Scripture? Probably not; at least not in the way we as evangelical Calvinists think that should happen. But we press on, and for those with eyes to see and ears to hear: come and join us! Pax Christi

[1] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 10.

[2] David Fergusson, Chapter 4: Creation, 76-7 in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance.

House Keeping: I am no longer on FaceBook

Just a heads up for any of you who are friends with me on FaceBook. I just deactivated my account, and I am not sure, if ever, when I will return. I think I first started a FaceBook account in and around 2007, but I let it lay dormant until about 2008; even when I decided to start using my account my only intention was to use it for funneling my blog posts through, which I did. I made over a thousand contacts on FB, and have quite a bit of networking contacts as a result. Even so, in the final analysis, at least for the time being, I am exhausted by FB. Not that I don’t enjoy seeing what’s going on in other people’s lives, and not that I don’t enjoy sharing things with others; but honestly I feel like sometimes people have too much access into my life, almost in unhealthy ways. Beyond that, the real reason is because I spend way too much unproductive time just scanning FB; I can do more productive things with my life, including blogging. To me blogging is the better out-let, there’s enough space here to express meaningful thoughts, and the pace of things is slower and more controlled. I am sure some of my contacts on FB will probably think I unfriended them or blocked them or something, but of course that’s not the case. I only deactivated my account, I did not delete it; so when I feel like it I can reactivate it, and get right back at it again—although my intention is not to do that for awhile.

If you’re not friends with me on FB then this doesn’t affect you, but if you are now you know what happened. Expect more blog posts than I’ve been producing as of late. With the vacuum created by not being on FB, my blogging will once again be my primary online out-let for all things theological. I still do have a Twitter account open, but I’m not a fan of Twitter, really.

One more thing, if you’re friends with me on FB, and someone else asks you if you know what happened to me, could you let them know? And tell them to come visit me here.🙂

Hypostatic Grace: A Response of Sorts to Tom McCall and Substance Metaphysics

Substance metaphysics has been a topic of engagement here at The Evangelical Calvinist as long as its existence as a blog; indeed, it is a metaphysic that I have characterized as oppositional and anti-thetical to the aims of what I believe a genuinely Christian theology should offer—particularly when we talk about God. But what in fact is substance metaphysics? Tom McCall[1] in his recently published book An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology pushes back against those of us who “maybe” haphazardly (as he might think) throw the language of substance metaphysics
holyspiritgracearound too casually. For the remainder of this post we will engage with McCall’s push back on the language of substance metaphysics, and then I will offer an example for how I have thought of substance metaphysics based upon its intellectual past in church history.

McCall writes of substance metaphysics,

analytic theology is sometimes criticized and rejected for its reliance on “substance metaphysics.” Unfortunately, exactly what critical theologians have in their crosshairs when they talk about substance metaphysics is often unclear and not closely defined. But very often the complaint is closely tied to a rejection of doctrines associated with “classical theism”; immutability, impassibility, timelessness and other doctrines are taken to be untenable, and, since they are tied to substance metaphysics, so much the worse for substance metaphysics. William P. Alston deftly analyzes this complaint, and he argues that substance metaphysics are really beside the point. What he says about substance metaphysics in discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity applies more broadly: “once we get straight as to what is and is not necessarily included in the metaphysics of substance, we will see that most twentieth-century objections to the use of substance metaphysics … are based on features of such formulations that are not required by substance metaphysics as such.” Perhaps there is something inherently wrong the use of substance metaphysics in theology, and maybe this counts against analytic theology. But before such a judgment can be made, we need more than the all-too-common generalizations and assertions. For before we can conclude that analytic theology is fatally flawed due to a dependence on substance metaphysics, we need to know exactly what is meant by substance metaphysics, we need to be shown just what is wrong (either philosophically or theologically) with substance metaphysics and we need to see that analytic theology really is (or must be) committed to this kind of metaphysics. Without the kind of careful analysis and rigorous argumentation, it is hard to see anything here that might count as a forceful objection to analytic theology.[2]

McCall is being careful, even suggestive at points, in pushing back at those who are critical of substance metaphysics in particular, and analytic theology in general; but, he believes the case, or at least the clarification is yet to be made in regard to what in fact substance metaphysics entails, and what in fact is the problem.

I am someone who has been critical of substance metaphysics, as I mentioned to start this post, and I remain critical. One thing that I am not sure about, particularly in light of McCall’s invitation for further clarification from critical theologians on what substance metaphysics entails, is what in fact McCall et al. analytic theologians believes substance metaphysics entails. So I think the burden of clarification actually goes back more towards the analytical theologian rather than the critical theologian, in regard to what they mean, respectively, when they refer to substance metaphysics. The reason I say this, is because there really is no shortage of what substance metaphysics means in the history of ideas in the mind of the church; e.g. someone like Thomas F. Torrance offers critique of substance metaphysics in his critique of the Latin heresy, among other things.

But my first exposure to substance metaphysics, and a critique of it, came not from Thomas Torrance, but instead by way of historical theology; in particular, through a critique made by my former professor and mentor in seminary, Ron Frost. His was a critique of a Thomist classical theism, but beyond that even, of the impact that Stoicism has had upon the development of Western theology in general. We will have to leave the point of Stoicism to the side for now; but what I would like to offer is some of the flavoring of the type of substance metaphysics that not only Frost finds objectionable, but so do I. The window into this will not be how substance metaphysics impacts an understanding of God, in particular, but instead how substance metaphysics impacts the way God relates to the world in salvation.

Ron Frost’s main way of developing his critique was to look at Thomas Aquinas’s appropriation of Aristotelian metaphysics and synthesis of that with Christian theology. We will jump into Frost’s development of this, mid-stream, as he is beginning his critique of Aquinas’s version of Aristotelian substance metaphysics, and how that impacts the way Thomas conceives of grace and a theological anthropology within a soteriological frame. Frost writes (en extenso):

Aquinas assimilated Aristotle’s ethical assumptions but struggled to formulate them in terms suited to Augustinianism. Luther believed that he failed in the effort. Oberman points to the main target of Luther’s criticism: Aquinas and most medieval theologians assumed that a gap exists between the presence of grace or love in a soul—the iustitia Christi—and a demand for full righteousness when that soul is examined on judgment day—the iustitia Dei. According to Aquinas Christians move from one status to the other over their lifetime by supplying a faith formed by love—fides caritate formata. Love in this arrangement is a responsibility or obligation to be met rather than the reciprocal of response to God’s love. The soul must continue to grow in love through ongoing choices.

Aquinas, then, presumed love to be a function of the will—a self-generated event—and as an act of the will it carries a moral benefit. By Aristotelian standards it is a good and therefore meritorious: the one who loves is good for having made a good choice. As reconfigured by Aquinas love is a mitigated good because all who choose to love supply that love as a capacity of the will that God himself first supplied as an infused grace. God nevertheless crowns such grace-enabled efforts with merit.

Luther dismissed such reasoning. He insisted instead that new believer possesses both the iustitia Christi and the iustitia Dei by faith—so there is no need for a human effort to progress from one status to the other over time. Luther based this on the legal principle of shared marital ownership of goods, a principle made applicable to believers by marriage to Christ.

Luther’s basis for salvation differed from the Thomistic portrayal of grace as a quality infused in the soul and the difference was [sic] critical feature for the Protestant reformer. Oberman’s discussion also sheds more light on Aquinas’ perception of love. He treated love as a human effort able to achieve greater spiritual benefits. In the Summa Theologiae, addressing the new law (lex nova), Aquinas portrayed faith working through love—fide per dilectionem operante—as a property of grace. The grace is delivered through the effective power of the sacraments and by an instinct of inward grace. The benefit of the new law, as against the old, is its relative freedom (lex liberatatis) from specific demands.

When Aquinas placed this in the Aristotelian moral framework to either do well or badly in the act of choosing—with an associated merit—he adopted the philosopher’s premise that a soul requires freedom in order to be a true moral agent. Aquinas anchored this point by citing Aristotle directly: “the free man is one who is his own cause”. In sum Aquinas thought he needed and found the volitional space for free choices, as enabled by grace, to accomplish good. Yet all this was only a limited autonomy—limited because it exists only by divine permission within the realm of God’s greater will. And also because the soul relies on the Spirit for the enabling grace needed to produce a decision of love.

This was a crucial point in building his version of salvation. God creates grace but the grace is a separate entity from God. This was a hypostatic version of grace: something brought into being by God. The alternative portrayal of grace was to see it as God’s love being expressed to a soul by the presence of the Spirit himself. In his favor Aquinas knew that for ages grace had been treated as a distinct entity in the Eucharist—with the elements graciously transformed into Christ’s body and blood. This set up a free-standing grace: “Since therefore the grace of the Holy Spirit is a kind of interior disposition infused into us which inclines us to act rightly, it makes us do freely whatever is in accordance with grace, and avoid whatever is contrary to it.” The shorthand designation for this dispositional grace was a “habit”—or habitus.

The notion of habitus, a key to Aristotle’s anthropology and psychology, is examined more closely in later chapters. Here it is useful to be alerted to its significance: habitus is the principle meeting point of nature and grace and grace in Aquinas’ spirituality, the gift of grace that supernaturally enhances nature to bear the duties of faith (aliquid inditum homini quasi natura superadditum per gratiae donum). Thus Aquinas’ view of grace combined an anthropocentric responsibility with theocentric enablement: a cooperative model of faith.

Love, here, must be part of the will in order to be crowned with merit, rather than an affection. If, by contrast, love is an affective response—something God stirs in the soul—it would be non-meritorious to the person who loves. But this is not the case for Aquinas: his theology turned on a disaffected version of love. With love seen as a choice, even though enabled by a God-given habitus, his premise that salvation comes through a faith formed by love set up a progressive model of justification.

Cornelius Ernst rightly identified this cooperative model as semi-Pelagian. Aquinas held, with Pelagius, that human culpability requires that moral decisions be made freely. But, like Augustine, and against Pelagius, he held that original sin destroys any human ability to choose well. Restoration comes only by God’s grace. This led to the conundrum that morality requires free will, but original sin precludes it. Semi-Pelagians offered a solution: God provides an assisting grace that enables but does not compel the will to choose the good. Culpability is then based on the failure to apply God’s gracious enablement.[3]

Personally, I don’t think what I just shared directly answers McCall’s question; but indirectly, and for my purposes I think it does. Like I intimated earlier, I am not exactly sure what McCall has in mind in his own quote, and when he refers to Alston; knowing that would help promote further and more fruitful discussion. But from my perspective, what I just shared illustrates what I have always meant by substance metaphysics. Even though what I shared is an application of this metaphysic within the realm of salvation and anthropology, it can be extrapolated back to God’s being in his inner life (in se), at which point we start thinking of God as pure being (which McCall, in his book, does address at some length). Or we might think of God as a monad, and then, as Aquinas did, attempt to evangelize this concept of God with Christian categories such as Trinity, Persons, Relations; we may attempt to personalize the monad, but the monad in itself, definitionally, remains impersonal and a thing.

Ron Frost got me started on my thinking in regard to the problem of substance metaphysics, but guys like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and their actualism—being in becoming—have taken things deeper in regard to thinking of God, salvation, so on and so forth in terms that are fully personalized rather than in terms that are impersonalized and qualitized. This is what I think substance metaphysics does to Christian theology; I think it de-emphasizes and depersonalizes what is presented and revealed as fully personal in the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. I have written much more on this theme, and used both Barth and Torrance to help un-pack this further, elsewhere (here on the blog).

As far as providing the type of response that I believe McCall is asking for, this might be problematic; particularly because of the disparate nature between the analytical approach to theology versus the non-analytical. That’s not to say that a cogent and clear definition of substance metaphysics cannot be supplied, I’m just not sure, though, that whatever that might look like, that it will actually meet the standards that McCall, Alston, et al. are looking for. I think there are other pressures involved in trying to understand what in fact critical theologians mean by substance metaphysics, and I’m hopeful that my little post illustrates how that might be.


While we have covered something that is quite academic and technical in nature, it isn’t that for me. What we have looked at, very briefly in this post, has consequences for very important and fundamental things; particularly towards how we think of God, and His relation to us, His creation, and salvation. All of this has impact towards Christian spirituality, whether we realize that or not. If we approach  God as a substance, at a first order level, then that will impact the way we conceive of God, and thus how we engage His world.

[1] Someone I consider a friend, and someone I like. He, in fact, personally sent his book on Analytic Theology, the one we are engaging with in this particular post.

[2] Thomas H. McCall, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (DownersGrove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 31-2.

[3] RN Frost, Richard Sibbes: God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, Washington: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 74-7.

A Different Way: A Calvinism where God is Love rather than Law

God is love. For evangelical Calvinists such as myself and Myk Habets this is determinative for how theology ought to be done, and the shape which Christian spirituality should have—the shape of love, Triune love. One of the theses Myk and I wrote for our Evangelical Calvinism book (vol. 1) states in part:

jesusloveThe primacy of God’s triune life is grounded in love, for “God is love.”

Hugh Binning (1627-1653), a young Scottish theologian, spoke of the primacy of God’s life as the ground of salvation. Speaking of the primacy of God’s love as the foundation of salvation he wrote:

Our salvation is not the business of Christ alone but the whole Godhead is interested in it deeply, so deeply, that you cannot say, who loves it most, or likes it most. The Father is the very fountain of it, his love is the spring of all—“God so loved the world that he hath sent his Son.” Christ hath not purchased that eternal love to us, but it is rather the gift of eternal love . . . Whoever thou be that wouldst flee to God for mercy, do it in confidence. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are ready to welcome thee, all of one mind to shut out none, to cast out none. But to speak properly, it is but one love, one will, one council, and purpose in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, for these Three are One, and not only agree in One, they are One, and what one loves and purposes, all love and purpose.[1]

This is the character of evangelical Calvinism, and we believe it is in contrast to what I have termed classical Calvinism (other terms might be: TULIP Calvinism, Federal/Covenantal theology, Westminster Calvinism, Bezan Calvinism, neo-Puritanism, Lordship salvation, so on and so forth). In a general way classical Calvinism’s character is an outflow of its conception of God, just as ours is (or any theology’s is). The classical Calvinist conception of God starts with a God, I would contend, that is Law based, instead of Love based. This conception subsequently leads to a different understanding of salvation, and a God-world relation than what we will find in an evangelical Calvinist conception.

I was set on the evangelical Calvinist trajectory, contrary to popular belief, not through Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance; but instead, through some Puritans (like Richard Sibbes), John Calvin, Martin Luther, and other historical theological characters. My historical theology and ethics professor in seminary, Dr. Ron Frost, set me, by and large, on the trajectory I find myself today. In his own PhD dissertation he develops the kind of distinction I have just noted relative to the God of love that we find in evangelical Calvinism versus the God of law we find funding classical Calvinism. I will share two quotes from Frost; one highlighting how Calvin fit into a love based conception of God, and the other highlighting the flowering of classical Calvinist thought in the theology of English Puritan William Perkins. You will notice that in Calvin’s approach love of God, and affections are front center; and you will conversely notice how duty, cooperation, and law of God are most prominent in Perkins’ theology. Both of these vignettes can serve as windows for us and illustrative of what distinguishes an evangelical Calvinist ethos  from a classical Calvinist ethos, respectively.

Here is Frost on Calvin:

 Calvin’s rejection of habitusCalvin also rejected the notion of grace-as-a-created-quality, insisting instead that grace is always relational. He was sharply critical of the scholastic discussions of grace, charging in the Institutes (1559) that by it the “schools” have “plunged into a sort of Pelagianism”. In book three of the Institutes,Calvin developed his own doctrine of grace. His view that faith is relational and a matter of the heart—a personal certainty of God’s gracious benevolence—is implicit if not explicit throughout the exposition. The Spirit is the “bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself”. He cited Rom. 5:5, the verse so important to Augustine’s affective theology, that the Spirit pours God’s love into the believer’s heart. He readily associated this with the affective language of moderate mystics: as the Spirit is “persistently boiling away and burning up  our vicious and inordinate desires, he enflames our hearts with the love of God and with zealous devotion.”

In defining faith Calvin derided the medieval-scholastic notion of formed and unformed faith as an attempt “to invent” a “cold quality of faith.” He was similarly critical of the moralistic tendencies inherent in the Thomistic model: “Hence we may judge how dangerous is the scholastic dogma that we can discern the grace of God toward us only by moral conjecture …” Against such ideas, faith actually “consists in assurance rather than in comprehension”. Even Phil. 2:12-13, with its explicit synergism (“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure”), was seen to portray a believer’s appropriate humility as a counterpart to his or her assurance of God’s goodness. He attacked “certain half-papists” who represent Christ as “standing afar off” as an object of faith “and not rather dwelling in us”. The work of justification is, he insisted, a gaze in which the believers are led “to turn aside from the contemplation of our own works and look solely upon God’s mercy and Christ’s perfection.”[2]

We quickly run into some pretty technical stuff in this quote, but what ought to stand out for our purposes is the relational and love ground we see in Calvin’s theology; a ground that is critical of the law based and impersonal ground we are confronted with in classical Calvinism, and it’s Thomistic/Aristotelian understanding.

In Contrast to evangelical Calvinists and John Calvin himself (according to Frost), William Perkins typifies the classical Calvinist feeling and theology. Again, here is Frost, this time on William Perkins:

Perkins’ moralistic assumptions. The Old Testament moral law was fully engaged with Perkins’ supralapsarian theology. Obedience to the law served to display God’s glory among the elect and God’s glory is the goal to which every aspect of the supralapsarian model moves. In Perkins’ view, a person’s ability to achieve God’s glory through obedience requires that the moral quality of every action should be well defined. To this end Perkins offered a taxonomy of sins in his Treatise of the Vocations or Calling of Men that looked to the Mosaic Decalogue. A closer examination of the law as part of Perkins’ theology of God awaits chapter two but some initial comments will introduce Perkins’ place among English theologians who elevated the law.

Perkins’ emphasis on the law was part of a broader movement among the Puritans. Jerald C. Brauer proposed four categories of Purtians: nomists, evangelicals, rationalists, and mystics. His attention was drawn to the smallest of the categories, the mystics, given his interest in Francis Rous. Nevertheless his recognition of the two major groups, nomists and evangelicals, displays the same division among Puritans noted by Schuldiner, Knight and the present study. Brauer, in fact, identifies Sibbes as the Puritan who epitomized the evangelicals. Nomists, according to Brauer, “held the fundamental belief that the divine intention is to recreate obedient creatures who can now, through grace, fulfill the intent of God, namely, obedience.” Brauer’s nomists include Thomas Cartwright, John Field, Walter Travers, John Penry, John Udall, John Greenwood, William Pryn, and Samuel Rutherford. Perkins, overlooked in the list, must be included on the basis of the criteria that Brauer identifies. It was, in fact, Perkins’ written expositions of Federal theology that did the most to promote the importance of obedience to the law for sanctification among Puritans in his era.[3]

Again, there are many threads left dangling in the quote, but what’s important for our purposes is to notice the ethos of law based, and duty driven spirituality present in Perkins’ theology (according to Frost).

What should stand out, hopefully, are some distinct trajectories available within the Reformed tradition. Evangelical Calvinism, as Myk Habets and I have presented it, is a resource project; as such we seek to resource theology, primarily from within the Reformed tradition (with roots in Patristic and catholic theology), that flows from the hermeneutic provided for by the reality that God is indeed love. This is contrariwise to what we find currently in the resource work of classical Calvinists of today. They are starting with a conception of God wherein God’s law is primary, not love; as such the way they read and retrieve the history will follow accordingly. Furthermore, then, the type of Christian spirituality that this latter type of retrieving will lead to, if taken beyond the academy, will lead to a Christianity that is shaped by an ethic of duty, and decision(intellect)-based spirituality. Evangelical Calvinists offer a different way.


[1] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theses on a Theme,” in editors Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 428-30.

[2] RN Frost, Richard Sibbes: God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, Washington: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 165-66.

[3] RN Frost, Richard Sibbes. God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, WA: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 47-8.

Thomas Torrance’s Scottish Theology as evangelical Calvinism: Jonathan Fraser of Brea versus Westminster

Here is a post I originally wrote in 2008; this was just before I started the original Evangelical Calvinist blog at blogger, which has since migrated over here to the WordPress location. I think what you will see in this post, early as it was in my thinking, is the continuity in themes that remain to this day in evangelical Calvinism. The post itself is a result of my reading of T.F. Torrance’s book on Scottish theology, and his focus, in particular, on the theology of Jonathan Fraser of Brea. While I would, and do say some of this stuff differently nowadays, in gist, I would say that most of what is torrancethomascovered in this post still remains the stuff of evangelical Calvinism; at least my style of it. It is this book that the language of evangelical Calvinist comes from; Torrance uses it to describe the theology of the Scots he is covering in contrast to the Federal or Westminster Calvinism he is countering in this book. For me, evangelical Calvinism took shape because of this book by T.F. Torrance; while many of the themes and motifs were already present in my own development, prior to reading this book, T.F. Torrance brought all of those together as he articulates what he does here.

I have been reading a book by T. F. Torrance called Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell, and it has been quite elucidating. How many of you realized that Scotland, and many of her theologians offered a Reformation trajectory much different from that offered, later on, by what we today know as “Reformed doctrine” articulated at Dort and in the Westminster Catechisms? In other words one of the touchstones that we have inherited as “Reformed Dogma” is the TULIP and its emphasis upon God’s decrees and logico/causal relationships (like William Perkins’ Golden Chaine represents). I.e. the emphasis upon God as the unmoved mover who has decreed all of salvation history in time and space; one of these decrees being that God elected some in eternity past, and subsequently died for only these “special” people (e.g. limited atonement). Without going into too much detail, this abstract notion of God’s nature as the divine despot who decrees all of reality in a syllogistic style was challenged by some of Scotland’s “Evangelical” “Reformed” theologians. One of these theologians was named Jonathan Fraser of Brea (1638-1698), Torrance describes Fraser’s thought on the topic of “assurance of salvation” and the “extent of the atonement” as he summarizes one of Fraser’s books:

His great book, Justifying Faith, has two main parts. 1) The main part is devoted to the ground of faith in which it is shown that it is not faith itself that justifies us but Christ in whom we have faith. The ultimate grounds of believing are ‘the Attributes of God, his Power, and Faith, Fulness and Wisdom’, but ‘the immediate grounds of believing are the gracious promises in the Gospel: But my Belief of the Truth of the Promises is founded on Christ’s Faith, Fulness, the Bottom and Pillar of all Divine Faith [“Justifying Faith 2”, p. 3]. Of particular significance here is the correlation of our faith with the faith of God and the faith of Christ—human faith derives from, rests on, and is undergirded by divine faithfulness. Great stress was laid from the outset, by Fraser, on ‘Christ’s all Sufficiency’, in that ‘He is able to save them to the uttermost, that come unto God by him [“Justifying Faith,” p. 11]’. (2) The second and longer part of Fraser’s work is called an ‘Appendix’ devoted to the object of Christ’s death. In it he shows that Christ died for all people, and not for a limited number as it was claimed in the so-called ‘covenant of redemption’ made between the Son and the Father. He rejected the distinction between a covenant of grace and a covenant of redemption [“Justifying Faith”, p. 170]—the former, as he said again and again, is absolute in its nature and universal in its extent. Throughout his book Fraser differed at crucial points sharply with Samuel Rutherford and James Durham, as also with William Twisse the Prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly, not to mention the puritan divine John Owen. But reference is made to several others like William Fenner in connection with their support for the biblical teaching that Christ died for all men. This had to do sometimes with a subtle form of Pelagianism in their understanding of faith. “It is an Error oftentimes in our Faith, that it is not built purely and only on the Grace of Christ, but we seek secretly other Props, and so to set some other thing on Christ’s room, and this is as it is derogatory to Christ, and evidence of Distrust in him [“Justifying Faith”, p. 295]’.[1]

Here we have an example of what a Reformed theologian looked like, who thought outside the constraints imposed upon scripture by Westminster. Interestingly, many today would not consider this kind of thinking “Reformed,” but this would be circular wouldn’t it? Since one would have to assume that Westminster is the ‘historic’ standard of what being Reformed actually entails, in order to deny that people like Brea and many others also represented the variegated mainstream of the burgeoning “Reformed Tradition”—I digress.

Let me highlight a few points that Brea offers in opposition to Westminster Calvinism—that is if they aren’t apparent enough—1) notice the emphasis that Brea places on Christ as the “objective” basis of salvation. This gets into issues of ontology, union with Christ, and faith as an immediate reciprocating response” from Christ and to Christ as humanity is brought into union with Him through the incarnation. 2) This leads to the  far reaching extent of the atonement, in line with scripture (I think), Brea holds to a universal atonement (objectively), thus Christ can be called the Savior of all men; and the offer of salvation genuinely made to all people.

This is all contrary to the salvation framework provided by Westminster. For Westminster assurance came from reflecting upon ‘my good works’ (Perseverance of the saints), and then reflexively (after looking at my ‘behavior’) by faith I can find assurance that I am one of those elect for whom Christ died. This is the kind of theology that Brea was writhing against, this is what he calls “Pelagianism,” since in this construct, methodologically, man is driven to self before he gets to Christ; in other words, the decree gets in the way of Christ. Not only that, but we also end up with a rather “Nestorian” outlook, relative to election, since the incarnation was not representative of all humanity but only for the “elect”—which is problematic.

It might be surmised that Brea was a universalist (that all humanity will be saved), but he was not. Instead he believed that all humanity who believed would be saved on the basis of Christ’s universal salvation—being a direct corollary of the incarnation (and its universal extent and representation). A Westminster Calvinist would say, but wait, if Christ died for all, then all will be saved. But Fraser would respond that that is only true if you are straightjacketed by the rigid logico-causal system that has shaped the articulation and thought process of Westminster/Federal Calvinism. In other words, Fraser’s Calvinism (and he was a Calvinist) had “scriptural evangelical tension” in it—something that Westminster Calvinism just can’t live with.

I am happy to say that I am Reformed in the “Evangelical way” represented by Fraser. In fact I think Fraser, and others, are the kind of fellows that Karl Barth picked up on in his thinking on soteriology. If not, the similarity is quite shocking.

[1] T. F. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 184-85.


The Covenant of Works, The Covenant of Grace; What Are They? The evangelical Calvinists Respond

As evangelical Calvinists we stand within an alternative stream from classical Calvinism, or Federal/Covenantal theology; the type of Calvinism that stands as orthodoxy for Calvinists today in most parts of North America and the Western world in general. The blurb on the back of our book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church makes this distinction clear when it states:

In this exciting volume new and emerging voices join senior Reformed scholars in presenting a coherent and impassioned articulation of Calvinism for today’s world. Evangelical Calvinism represents a mood within current Reformed theology. The various contributors are in different ways articulating that mood, of which their very diversity is a significant element. In attempting to outline features of an Evangelical Calvinism a number of the contributors compare and contrast this approach with that of the Federal Calvinism that is currently dominant in North American Reformed theology, challenging the assumption that Federal Calvinism is the only possible expression of orthodox Reformed theology. This book does not, however, represent the arrival of a “new-Calvinism” or even a “neo-Calvinism,” if by those terms are meant a novel reading of the Reformed faith. An Evangelical Calvinism highlights a Calvinistic tradition that has developed particularly within Scotland, but is not unique to the Scots. The editors have picked up the baton passed on by John Calvin, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and others, in order to offer the family of Reformed theologies a reinvigorated theological and spiritual ethos. This volume promises to set the agenda for Reformed-Calvinist discussion for some time to come.

A question rarely, if ever addressed online in the theological blogosphere, and other online social media outlets, is a description of what Covenant theology actually entails. Many, if acquainted at all with Reformed theology, have heard of the Covenant of Works, Covenant of Grace, and Covenant of Redemption (pactum salutis); but I’m not really sure how many of these same people actually understand what that framework entails—maybe they do, and just don’t talk about it much.

In an effort to highlight the lineaments of Federal theology I thought it might be instructive to hear how Lyle Bierma describes it in one of its seminal formulator’s theology, Caspar Olevianus. So we will hear from Bierma on Olevianus, and then we will offer a word of rejoinder to this theology from Thomas Torrance’s theology summarized for us by Paul Molnar; and then further, a word contra Federal theology from Karl Barth as described by Rinse Reeling Brouwer. Here is Bierma:

When did God make such a pledge? [Referring to the ‘Covenant of Grace’] We will be looking at this question in some detail in Chapter IV, but it should be mentioned here that for Olevianus this covenant of grace or gospel of forgiveness and life was proclaimed to the Old Testament fathers from the beginning; to Adam after the fall (“The seed of the woman shall crush [Satan’s] head”); to Abraham and his descendents (“In your seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed”); to the remnant of Israel in Jeremiah 31 (“I will put my laws in their minds . . . and will remember their sins no more”); and still to hearers of the Word today. To be sure, this oath or testament was not confirmed until the suffering and death of Christ. Christ was still the only way to Seligkeit, since it was only through His sacrifices that the blessing promised to Abraham could be applied to us and the forgiveness and renewal promised through Jeremiah made possible. Nevertheless, even before ratification it was still a covenant — a declaration of God’s will awaiting its final fulfillment.

In some contexts, however, Olevianus understands the covenant of grace in a broader sense than as God’s unilateral promise of reconciliation ratified in Jesus Christ. He employs some of the same terms as before — Bund, Gnadenbund, foedus, foedus gratiae, and foedus gratuitum — but this time to mean a bilateral commitment between God and believers. The covenant so understood is more than a promise of reconciliation; it is the  realization of that promise — reconciliation itself — through a mutual coming to terms. Not only does God bind Himself to us in a pledge that He will be our Father; we also bind ourselves to Him in a pledge of acceptance of His paternal beneficence. Not only does God promise that He will blot out all memory of our sins; we in turn promise that we will walk uprightly before Him. The covenant in this sense includes both God’s promissio and our repromissio.

This semantical shift from a unilateral to a bilateral promise is most clearly seen in two passages in Olevanius’s writings where he compares the covenant of grace to a human Bund. In Vester Grundt, as we have seen, he portrays the covenant strictly as a divine pledge. While we were yet sinners, God bound Himself to us with an oath and a promise that through His Son He would repair the broken relationship. It was expected, of course, that we accept the Son (whether promised or already sent) in faith, but Olevianus here does not treat this response as part of the covenant. The emphasis is on what God would do because of what we could not do.

In a similar passage in the Expositio, however, Olevianus not only identifies the covenant with reconciliation itself but describes it as a mutual agreement (mutuus assensus) between the estranged parties. Here God binds Himself not to us “who were yet sinners” but to us “who repent and believe,” to us who in turn are bound to Him in faith and worship. This “covenant of grace or union between God and us” is not established at just one point in history; it is ratified personally with each believer. Christ the Bridegroom enters into “covenant or fellowship” with the Church His Bride by the ministry of the Word and sacraments and through the Holy Spirit seals the promises of reconciliation in the hearts of the faithful. But this is also a covenant into which we enter, a “covenant of faith.” As full partners in the arrangement we become not merely God’s children but His Bundgesnossen, His confoederati.

When he discusses the covenant of grace in this broader sense, i.e., as a bilateral commitment between God and us, Olevianus does not hesitate t use the term conditio [conditional]. We see already in the establishment of the covenant with Abraham that the covenant of grace has not one but two parts: not merely God’s promissio [promise] to be the God of Abraham and his seed, but that promise on the condition (qua conditione) of Abraham’s (and our) repromissio [repromising] to walk before Him and be perfect. Simply put, God’s covenantal blessings are contingent upon our faith and obedience. It is to those who repent, believe, and are baptized that He reconciles Himself and binds Himself in covenant.[1]

What we see in Olevianus’s theology, according to Bierma, is a schema of salvation that is contingent upon the elect’s doing their part, as it were. In other words, what binds salvation together in the Federal scheme is not only the act of God, but the act of the elect; an act that is ensured to be acted upon by the absolute decree (absolutum decretum). The ground of salvation involves, then, God’s act and humanity’s response; the objective (or de jure) side is God’s, the subjective (or de facto) side is the elect’s—a quid pro quo framework for understanding salvation. What this inevitability leads to, especially when getting into issues of assurance of salvation, is for the elect to turn inward to themselves as the subjective side of salvation is contingent upon their ‘faith and obedience.’

Thomas F. Torrance, patron saint of evangelical Calvinists like me, rightly objects to this type of juridical and transactional and/or bilateral understanding of salvation. Paul Molnar, TF Torrance scholar par excellence, describes Torrance’s rejection of Federal theology this way and for these reasons:

Torrance’s objections to aspects of the “Westminster theology” should be seen together with his objection to “Federal Theology”. His main objection to Federal theology is to the ideas that Christ died only for the elect and not for the whole human race and that salvation is conditional on our observance of the law. The ultimate difficulty here that one could “trace the ultimate ground of belief back to eternal divine decrees behind the back of the Incarnation of God’s beloved Son, as in a federal concept of pre-destination, [and this] tended to foster a hidden Nestorian Torrance between the divine and human natures in the on Person of Jesus Christ, and thus even to provide ground for a dangerous form of Arian and Socinian heresy in which the atoning work of Christ regarded as an organ of God’s activity was separated from the intrinsic nature and character of God as Love” (Scottish Theology, p. 133). This then allowed people to read back into “God’s saving purpose” the idea that “in the end some people will not actually be saved”, thus limiting the scope of God’s grace (p. 134). And Torrance believed they reached their conclusions precisely because they allowed the law rather than the Gospel to shape their thinking about our covenant relations with God fulfilled in Christ’s atonement. Torrance noted that the framework of Westminster theology “derived from seventeenth-century federal theology formulated in sharp contrast to the highly rationalised conception of a sacramental universe of Roman theology, but combined with a similar way of thinking in terms of primary and secondary causes (reached through various stages of grace leading to union with Christ), which reversed the teaching of Calvin that it is through union with Christ first that we participate in all his benefits” (Scottish Theology, p. 128). This gave the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “a very legalistic and constitutional character in which theological statements were formalised at times with ‘almost frigidly logical definiton’” (pp. 128-9). Torrance’s main objection to the federal view of the covenant was that it allowed its theology to be dictated on grounds other than the grace of God attested in Scripture and was then allowed to dictate in a legalistic way God’s actions in his Word and Spirit, thus undermining ultimately the freedom of grace and the assurance of salvation that could only be had by seeing that our regenerated lives were hidden with Christ in God. Torrance thought of the Federal theologians as embracing a kind of “biblical nominalism” because “biblical sentences tend to be adduced out of their context and to be interpreted arbitrarily and singly in detachment from the spiritual ground and theological intention and content” (p. 129). Most importantly, they tended to give biblical statements, understood in this way, priority over “fundamental doctrines of the Gospel” with the result that “Westminster theology treats biblical statements as definitive propositions from which deductions are to be made, so that in their expression doctrines thus logically derived are given a categorical or canonical character” (p. 129). For Torrance, these statements should have been treated, as in theScots Confession, in an “open-structured” way, “pointing away from themselves to divine truth which by its nature cannot be contained in finite forms of speech and thought, although it may be mediated through them” (pp. 129-30). Among other things, Torrance believed that the Westminster approach led them to weaken the importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity because their concept of God fored without reference to who God is in revelation led them ultimately to a different God than the God of classical Nicene theology (p. 131). For Barth’s assessment of Federal theology, which is quite similar to Torrance’s in a number of ways, see CD IV/1, pp. 54-66.[2]

And here is how Brouwer describes Barth’s feeling on Federal theology, with particular reference to another founder of Federal theology, Johannes Cocceius. Brouwer writes of Barth:

Barth writes ‘For the rest you shall enjoy Heppe’ s Locus xiii only with caution. He has left too much room for the leaven of federal theology. It was not good, when the foedus naturae was also called a foedus operum’. In Barth’ s eyes, the notion of a relationship between God and Adam as two contractual partners in which man promises to fulfil the law and God promises him life eternal in return, is a Pelagian one that should not even be applied to the homo paradisiacus. Therefore,

one has to speak of the foedus naturae in such a way that one has nothing to be ashamed of when one speaks of the foedus gratiae later on, and, conversely, that one does not have to go to the historians of religion, but rather in such a way that one can say the same things in a more detailed and powerful way in the new context of the foedus gratiae, which is determined by the contrast between sin and grace. For there is re vera only one covenant, as there is only one God. The fact that Cocceius and his followers could not and would not say this is where we should not follow them – not in the older form, and even less in the modern form.

 In this way paragraph ends as it began: the demarcation of sound theology from federal theology in its Cocceian shape is as sharp as it was before. Nevertheless, the attentive reader will notice that the category of the covenant itself is ‘rescued’ for Barth’ s own dogmatic thinking.[3]

For Barth, as for Torrance, as for me, the problem with Federal theology is that it assumes upon various wills of God at work at various levels determined by the absolute decree. The primary theological problem with this, as the stuff we read from Torrance highlights, is that it ruptures the person and work of God in Christ from Christ; i.e. it sees Jesus, the eternal Logos, as merely an instrument, not necessarily related to the Father, who carries out the will of God on behalf of the elect in fulfilling the conditions of the covenant of works ratifying the covenant of grace. Yet, even in this establishment of the Federal framework, salvation is still not accomplished for the elect; it is contingent upon the faith and obedience of those who will receive salvation, which finally brings to completion the loop of salvation in the Federal schema.

These are serious issues, that require sober reflection; more so than we will be able to do in a little blog post. At the very least I am hopeful that what we have sketched from various angles will be sufficient to underscore what’s at stake in these types of depth theological issues, and how indeed theology, like Federal theology offers, can impact someone’s Christian spirituality if in fact said theology is grasped and internalized; i.e. it is understood beyond academic reflection, and understood existentially as it impacts the psychology and well being of human beings coram Deo.


[1] Lyle D. Bierma, German Calvinism in the Confessional Age: The Covenant Theology of Caspar Olevianus, 64-68.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity,  181-2 fn. 165.

[3] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 112-13.

New Creation in Christ: The Resurrection of Christ and Its Implications for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of God

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is as primal, and more so, than original creation itself. It is such because original creation (i.e. Genesis 1–2) was always intended for greater things, in Christ. We can see creation’s original telos or purpose foreshadowed in something as narratively specious as God walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day; well we might see that as a foreshadowing. The point is that creation, in the Bible always pointed beyond itself; it always had something grander about it that gave it its orientation. What we see eventuating in the resurrection of Jesus is jesuscreatorwhere creation finds its proper ground, and orientation. If this is so, everything in creation starts there; including how we as creatures in the creation think of God. If original creation was a product of God’s grace the first time around, then how much more is re-creation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ formed and shaped by God’s grace in Christ?

It is this reality that I find so compelling about the truth and reality of the resurrection. The resurrection is not something that Christian apologists are charged with proving; the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the act of God’s re-creation of the world. It is God breaking into His own creation and radically setting the world on a fresh rotation that truly orbits around the Son, Jesus Christ. I am hopeful that many of you can appreciate how radical all of this is towards everything; towards how we think of God; where we go to think of God; how this then impacts a theological ontology and epistemology; how it impacts Christian spirituality so on and so forth.

To this end—i.e. attempting to elucidate how significant the resurrection of Jesus Christ is for us today, and for our daily lives as participants in His triune life—I want to share something from Dawson on Karl Barth’s thinking relative to history and faith. As we read what Dawson articulates on Barth’s theology here, I want to lead in with something offered up by John Webster; Webster speaks to how a proper theological order ought to impact the way we think God and thus do theology—Webster’s point resonates with what we will hear about Barth’s theology insofar as Barth’s theology starts precisely where Webster says theology ought to start, with God revealed in Jesus Christ. What I hope is impressed upon the Christian reader is the idea that we do not prop up God by way of apologetical or philosophical activity; instead, we are given our reality by God’s act upon us, by His voice to us which rings most profoundly in His re-creative act in the re-creation of all things in Jesus Christ (Romans 8).

John Webster writes this of how proper Christian thought ought to run, particularly in regard to doing theology (which I want to say all Christians to one degree or another are engaged in whether they are conscious of that or not):

 . . . prolegomena to systematic theology are an extension and application of the content of Christian dogmatics (Trinity, creation, fall, reconciliation, regeneration, and the rest), not a “predogmatic” inquiry into its possibility. “[D]ogmatics does not wait for an introduction.” The fact that in its prolegomena systematic theology invokes doctrine means that this preliminary stage of the argument does not bear responsibility for establishing the possibility of true human speech about God, or for demonstrating how infinite divine truth can take finite form in human knowing. Prolegomena are, rather, the contemplative exercise of tracing what is the case, and explicating how and why it is so.[1]

In other words, God confronts us with His voice, with His life; He is prior to us in every way, just as the Creator logically precedes His creation—or as the case may be, His re-creation.

With this framework in place let’s now hear from Robert Dale Dawson on how Barth thinks this out from the fundamental and primal basis of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is this that I find so compelling towards everything.

. . . The question of faith and history is one which assumes that the death of Jesus Christ is a contingent truth of history and by definition not a universal truth of reason. Barth objects to this conceptuality and rejects it on the grounds that it is inappropriate to the reality of the death of Jesus Christ as an act of God. The death of Jesus Christ cannot be understood for the reality it is except that it is understood as the reality of the whole of humanity in him, immediately and directly embracing all of history. To pose the question of faith and history is to deny that what has come to us definitively and finally in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is our judgment, end and death which we have no capacity to transcend. Barth is indefatigable in his opposition to the separation of the question of the absolute comprehensiveness of the being and act of Jesus Christ from the question of the relation of faith to its historical referent.

Many of Barth’s critics come up short at this point, because of an inadequate understanding of the grounds of Barth’s refusal to grant interpretive priority to presuppositions and contingent issues which arise from various critical standpoints external to the gospel. Barth comes to terms with the problem as one that is inherent in the gospel and arises out of the gospel, and hence, for Barth, is as such a real and substantive issue.

For Barth, Lessing’s question is understandable in as much as it represents a supreme interest to disguise our relationship to Jesus Christ as one which is ‘purely historical and therefore mediated and indirect’ to be apprehended as a mere recollection. In Barth’s view the question of faith and history is a question which arises from a pervasive human need, that is,

the need to hide ourselves (like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden) from Jesus Christ as He makes Himself present and mediates Himself to us; the need to keep our eyes closed to that about which we ask with such solemn concern, taking ourselves and our ‘honesty’ with such frightful seriousness; the need to safeguard ourselves as far as this movement of flight allows against the directness in which He does in fact confront us, against His presence, and the consequences which it threatens.

It is only in this attempt to elude the real problem that the question of historical distance takes on such importance. The question merely reflects our desperate attempt to flee from the reality which confronts us in the risen Jesus. The only way to explain our fear of this reality, the reality of our death in him, is that this reality is really present in his resurrection, and as such is the occasion of our fear of and flight from it. Hence, for Barth, even our rejection of him has its ground and occasion in Christ’s resurrection presence with us.[2]

Profound and deep thinking. So for Barth the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the new ground for all things; and it thus must be by christological reality, where all Christian thinking must start in every way. For Barth there is an upheaval-ness about the resurrection of Christ; it confronts us where we are, it is not simply a datum of history past. For Barth the resurrection is a present reality just as sure as the world itself is upheld by the Word of God’s power in Jesus Christ; in other words there’s an immediacy about God’s presence to us because His resurrection presence is indeed the reality of the world: past, present, and future.

For Barth all philosophical reflection about God, by Christians or not, is put to death at the cross of Jesus Christ; and all resource for thinking God is only provided for in and from the re-created and mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ. Given our fallen predispositions as humans, Christian or not, we don’t like being told how to think of God; we would rather press back into the dignity of our own collective humanity and dictate to God who He is—but for Barth (and for me) to do this is mythology.

All things are new in Christ.

If any man be in Christ he is a new creation, the old has passed the new has come. II Corinthians 5.17

[1] Webster, “Principles of Systematic Theology,” 57.

[2] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 97-98.

Luther: Humans After the Fall are Philosophers

Martin Luther on the natural state of being human after the Fall; Luther thinks that when it comes to God people in their fallen status can only elevate to the level of philosopher. It is an insight that Feuerbach, in his own way, would develop, but in a more antagonistic way towards religion in general; i.e. the idea that god is simply a human projection.

. . . Since the Fall every man has been a philosopher, for he has taken his experience of the world and his knowledge of reality — which he has succeeded in describing scientifically — as a standard by which to measure God. But the intellect does not suffice to grasp the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; He must be apprehended through the Scriptures. The “God” created by man is a false god of his own making.[1]

In a nutshell it is this reality that evangelical Calvinists press into; i.e. the idea that without God Self-exegeting Himself for us in Jesus Christ (which is exactly what John 1.18 says He does); without being given Christ’s heart in the resurrection (Rom. 6–8; II Cor. 3; Ezek. 36; etc.) all we can do is philosophize and conjure categories about God that we claim to have discovered by reflecting upon nature refracted by our personal and collective experiences as human beings. As evangelical Calvinists we are saying a loud Nein to this, and affirming what Luther holds true about humans after the fall.

[1] Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, 170.


The Theologian For Us. Jesus Christ: The Word “Theology” and its Pagan Origin But Reception by the Protestants

The word theology is a transliteration of the Latin theologia which itself is a transliteration of the Greek. Richard Muller helpfully develops the etymology of how ‘theology,’ the word, came into usage among Christians, and in particular how that took form among the Protestant Reformed Christians during the 16th and 17th centuries. Let me quote Muller at some length on this in two jesusbibleseparate chunks, and then I will close with some final reflection.

The word theologia is of Greek origin, taken over into Latin, and then borrowed or adopted by the fathers of the church from gentile writers. According to Aristotle and Cicero, the poets were to be called “theologians” because they spoke of the gods and of “divine things.” Thus, by adaptation and extension of the classical usage, Lactantius refers in his De ira Dei to those who know and worship God rightly as theologi and to their knowledge as theologia. Early on, moreover, Christians referred to the apostle John as Theologus, “the Theologian,” in titles added to the Apocalypse. Alsted adds to this the fact church fathers, like Nazianzus, were called Theologus because they wrote about and defended the doctrine of the Trinity.[1]

Like so much in the Christian heritage, in the ‘fullness of time’ as it were, us Christians have retexted grammar provided for by the classical Greek thinkers. You could imagine though, that as the Protestant Reformation took place, Christian Humanist movement that it was (i.e. ad fontes ‘back to the sources’ e.g. the Biblical text in its original languages and to the Patristics/Church fathers), the Protestant scholastics almost stumbled over the appropriation of the language theologia or theology; because in their minds it was too closely associated with Hellenistic philosophy, paganism, and what had caused so many of the problems that they were protesting against within the Roman Tridentine Catholic system.

The fact that the term theologia itself is not a biblical but an ancient pagan term cause the Protestant scholastics some brief anxiety. After all, the Reformation was, if nothing else, a profoundly biblical movement, zealous to avoid anything in religion that could not be justified from Scripture and careful, particularly in its first several decades, to formulate its theology upon the text of Scripture and to avoid the use of classical as well as medieval sources. The classic use of the term theologia by Aristotle and Cicero was not easily assimilated by Protestant system either on the basis of the ancient inscription to John as Theologus or on the basis of the usage of the fathers of the church, since pagan “theology” neither had access to supernatural or special revelation nor was capable of a proper use of reason in discerning the truths of natural revelation. What Christians call theology, by way of contrast with the ancient pagan usage,

is a science of divine things … which treateth of God, nor according to human reason, but divine revelation, which showeth not only what God is in himself, but also what he is toward us; nor doth it only discusse of his nature, but also of his will, teaching what God expecteth of us, and what we should expect from God, what we should hope for, and what we should feare. [Du Moulin, Oration in Praise of Divinity, 10-11.]

Some further, preferably biblical, justification of the term was desirable. Turretin resolves the problem by making a distinction between the term theologia and its significance:

The simple terms from which it is composed do occur there, as for example, logos tou theou and logia tou theou, Rom. 3:2; I Pet. 4:10; Hebrews 5:12. Thus it is one thing to be in Scripture according to sound (quoad sonum) and syllables, or formally and in the abstract; and another to be in Scripture according to meaning (quoad sensusm) and according to the thing signified (rem significatam), or materially and in the concrete,; “theology” does not appear in Scripture in the former way, but in the latter. [Turretin, Inst. theol., I.i.2.]

Theologia, then, indicates heavenly doctrine (doctrina coelestis) and has, in addition to the scriptural references to logia tou theou, words of God, a series of scriptural synonyms: “wisdom in a mystery (1 Cor. 2:7), “the form of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13), “knowledge of truth according to piety” (Titus 1:1), and “doctrine” (Titus 1:9). Again, the thing signified by the term is discussed throughout Scripture.[2]

Just as with everything else in the Protestant Reformation words themselves were put to the test by way of the canon of Holy Scripture. The word ‘theology’ passed the test because it signifies something that truly is grounded in the reality found in the text of Scripture as it finds its reality and order of being from Godself. In a denotative or generic sense, just as with its origin, the word theologia and theologi (i.e. theology’s practitioners) can be used very generally with reference to anyone who studies a particular conception of god; however, when Christians use the term we understand that the reference of this word is to the Triune God, and that Jesus Christ himself is truly Theologus pro nobis (The Theologian for us).

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 152.

[2] Ibid., 153.

*repost, a favorite of mine