Deus ex Machina: Substance versus Relational Ontologies:: In Response to Swain

I want to briefly respond to Scott Swain, President and James Woodrow Hassell Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando. He recently tweeted the following:

PSA (with tears): If you are reading someone using the labels “substance ontology” and “relational ontology,” you may not be reading a very helpful discussion of “ontology.” 10:56 AM · Jan 23, 2020 @scottrswain[1]

I’m not exactly sure of the context Scott had in mind (he does refer us to PSA, but that is still rather broad), but let me interject from my perspective in regard to the language he is referring to.

I often will refer to the language of ‘substance’ metaphysics in contrast to what Thomas F. Torrance calls ‘onto-relationality,’ with reference to his understanding of the inner triune life of God. Torrance’s language is attempting to identify the subject-in-being constituting reality inherent to the processions and persons of the triune life of God (aka: perichoresis); the emphasis is upon God’s personal relationality in Himself. This is in contrast to what we get with theologies that rely upon Aristotle, for example, wherein the focus of discussion is not on personalist or relational foci vis-à-vis God, but instead it orbits around categories like ‘qualities’ ‘quantities’ and even ‘substance’ as a crude concept for thinking what ‘pure being’ entails for the philosophers and theologians of antiquity.

In order to illustrate what I am referring to in regard to the ‘quality’ or ‘substance’ nature of God’s acts, and in particular, His acts toward humanity in the soteriological dynamic, let me refer us to Richard Muller’s definition of the Latin, gratia, and how that was understood among the scholastics Reformed of the 16th and 17th century Protestant theologians (many of them). This fits well in response to Swain, because Swain is unabashedly Thomist when it comes to his own sense of Protestant theological theology:

gratia….(3) Gratia operans, or operating grace, is the effective grace of conversion, according to which the Spirit regenerates the will, illuminates the mind, and imparts faith. Operating grace is, therefore, the grace of justification insofar as it creates in man the means, or medium, faith, through which we are justified by grace…. (4)Gratia cooperans, or cooperating grace, is the continuing grace of the Spirit, also termed gratia inhabitans, indwelling grace, which cooperates with and reinforces the regenerate will and intellect in sanctification. Gratia cooperans is the ground of all works and, insofar as it is a new capacity in the believer for the good, it can be called the habitus gratiae, or disposition of grace. Finally, some of the scholastics make a distinction between gratia cooperans and (5) gratia conservans, or conserving, preserving grace, according to which the Spirit enables the believer to persevere in faith. This latter distinction arises most probably out of the distinction between sanctificatio (q.v.) and perseverantia (q.v.) in the scholastic ordo salutis (q.v.), or order of salvation….[2]

Even though ‘the Spirit’ is referenced, if you read closely, what you will recognize is that the Spirit isn’t the bond between the believer and the Lord. For folks like Swain, Muller et al., the Spirit ‘enables’[3] the elect person to trust God in Christ. Enablement language is simply swum past without a second thought by folks like Swain, as if this has no correspondence with thinking of God’s grace in terms of a quality rather than personally. But ‘enablement’ language requires that we think of God’s grace, and His relation to the elect person, in terms of an abstract quality or ‘substance’ or ‘created grace’ by which said person has been given the capacity to ‘cooperate’ with God in the covenantal transaction of salvation that Swain and other Federal theologians thinks is the case. In Muller’s definition above we get words like ‘disposition’ ‘capacity’ ‘enable’ just because grace has been thought in abstraction from the inner-triune and personal life of God rather than directly from it.

I just wanted to quickly respond to the idea that Swain was attempting marginalize. If people use ‘substance ontology’ or ‘relational ontology’ maybe, just maybe they are thinking from an alternative theological lexicon that is rightfully attempting to counter the majority report of the theologians of retrieval in the 21st century. To assert, though, that people who use such language are misguided, as Swain does, is misguided itself. But the critique seems to escape, Swain and his compadres. Richard Muller, as you read the body of his work, more than substantiates (pun intended) what Swain attempts to mitigate in regard to the conceptual reality symbolized by the language of ‘substance’ versus ‘relational.’ These things need more attention yet. I’m afraid that the stream Swain et al. swim in is becoming so strong, because it’s where they are swimming, that they are unable to appreciate the critique of their own ‘substance’ tradition; they simply take their stream as the ‘catholic’ stream for which there are no legitimate alternatives (other than Socinian types). But I still have never seen Swain et al actually come to terms with the critique they assert is misguided. He and they seem to operate within a Deus ex machina when it comes to conceiving of theological paradigms.

[1] Scott Swain, @scottrswain, accessed 01-24-20.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastics Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 129-30.

[3] H/t my mentor and former professor, Ron Frost, who turned me onto this critique through his own PhD work on Richard Sibbes, the scholastics Reformed, and the role that Aristotle and Thomas have played in the development of Western Catholic and Protestant theologies.

Theology on The Way to Damascus: Revealed Theology is Personal / Natural Theology is Impersonal

I take the following from the Apostle Paul to be the methodological sine qua non of how Christian theology ought to be done:

11 For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. 12 For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. Galatians 1:11-12

Surprisingly, many (even most) Christian theologians these days, at least on the conservative side, reject this sort of ‘apocalyptic’ understanding of God’s Self-revelation, and the theologizing that can be achieved from this vista. Most theologians interested in the so called ‘theology of retrieval’ believe that we must slavishly repristinate, even if in ‘constructive’ dress, classical theism; particularly of the mediaeval and Thomist sort. As such, they reject the sort of Pauline existential model that Paul himself declares about his encounter with the living God in Christ; and instead they opt for the pedigree of school theology that definitionally works from the via negativa or negative way of discursively thinking God from what finitude is not.

I contend, and have for years, that Barth’s so called ‘analogy of faith’ or ‘analogy of relation’ is much more in line with the Pauline way of thinking and doing theology versus what has become the common mode for doing theology “classically” (which has become code and synonymous with doing theology “catholically”). I think this is so just for the reason that Paul presupposes upon in his Galatia correspondence; that is, that because Jesus Christ is so utterly unique, and without analogy, that his knowledge of the true and living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob came not with philosophical buttress, but only through a mind-independent revelation of God Himself. For Paul, to know God, is something not discovered but ‘received’ through a revelation that comes without contingency upon humanity’s ability to conjure an image of godness from their own powers of observation and inference. Douglas Campbell agrees as he writes:

Without affirming the absolute oneness of Jesus with God—his complete unity—we lose our grip on where God has chosen to be revealed fully and completely: namely, in Jesus. If Jesus is not God “all the way down,” then we are still lost in our own world with all its fantasies and illusions; we have no direct contact with God. We are hemmed in by our limited creaturely existence, now further corrupted by sin, and we do not know what God is really like. We are reduced, the theologians would say, to analogies, which means to inevitable and largely uncontrolled gaps in our understanding of what God is really like. God is like a sunset, but in what sense? Is he warm? or glowing? or fading? Clearly, none of this is quite right. God is like a mother, but in what exact sense again? Does he wear my mother’s distinctive clothes or directly biologically breast-feed us or speak in a southern drawl about picking us up from soccer? Again, clearly none of this is directly applicable [sic], although we sense that something insightful is going on. But if we want to press on these claims and be really precise, we don’t know quite how to do so. This limitation arises because we are trying to understand a transcendent being who is fundamentally different from us, as creator to our createdness, by way of limited, emphatically nontranscendent things that this being has made, which are by the nature of the case different from him. There is a gap here that we just can’t bridge unless God has graciously bridged it from his side of the divide and become one of us and lived among us. What a gift! So we should really avoid mitigating or avoiding this gift or watering if down in any way, which means to avoid adding other potential candidates alongside in any sort of equality. God is definitively known only in Jesus. This is where God is present with us fully, and nowhere else—not in a book, a tradition, a piece of land, a building, or even in a particular people (unless, that is, he has taken up residence in one of them fully). We worship and pray to none of these things; we worship and pray to Jesus because Jesus is God, and so we know God fully and completely only as we know Jesus.[1]

If you have read Karl Barth or Thomas Torrance at any length (even my blog for awhile) what Campbell just iterated will be very familiar to you. I think though that Campbell elevates an important aspect of revealed theology (versus natural theology) in the sense that he emphasizes how important it is to realize what understanding Jesus as God ought to do to our understanding of what ‘doing’ theology entails. In other words, it is precisely because of the uniqueness of the hidden God (Deus absconditus) made revealed in Christ (Deus revelatus) that the human condition is FULLY reliant upon this God revealing Himself to us. Any other theological models, particularly ones that portend of classical pedigree, need to be willing to be corrected by the fact that unless God reveals Himself personally, then all the theologian is left with are non-personal ways for thinking God. This is the point that is so often lost on those who are slavishly committed to natural theology. They don’t seem capable, or at least willing to consider that if God’s revelation is discoverable in nature that such revelation, in abstraction from God’s triune Self-revelation in Christ, will necessarily give a hue of God that ends up being ‘natural’ and impersonal. But this flies in the face of the God that the Apostle Paul encountered on the way to Damascus. Maranatha

[1] Douglas A. Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 15-16.

Being ‘Lived-Out’ Rather than ‘Conference Christians’: Engaging with Douglas Campbell’s Apostle Paul

Is there a place for all the theological and pastoral conferences that happen annually? Sure, at some level I think they are healthy insofar as they bring people together for networking and fellowshipping purposes. But when that becomes the reduction of what the Christian life is, particularly for ‘professional’ Christians, there might be something wrong. I think this has become the case with much of what’s going on in evangelical Christianity. We might think of The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, Shepherd’s Conference, and a host of many others (inclusive of all the academic conferences). It is in these places that many find their Christian identity. Some of the ‘elite’ in these settings are elevated to rock-star status, with autographs and book signings as the hallmark. Indeed, some of these folks are on a conference tour almost year-round; to the point that if they are pastors, they pretty much become guest speakers in their home churches.

I just picked up Douglas Campbell’s new tome: Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love. I am just starting to dig in, and in the introduction he speaks to what we were just thinking about. He is starting to detail the way he thinks the Apostle Paul would operate, and how he would think of what characterizes much of Christianity in America today. He writes:

I sometimes wonder what Paul would make of the conferences at which scores of highly learned people sit around and debate for hours tiny semantic nuances preserved in his writings. I expect he might be patient with this exercise for a while, but then at some point I’m pretty sure that he would jump up—possibly wielding a whip—and shout: “For goodness sake! Haven’t you read what my writings actually say? You’re not meant to be sitting around debating them. You are meant to be out there doing what they tell you to do—meeting people and fostering Christian communities in service to our Lord. Get off your backsides and get moving!” Doubtless this challenge would be accompanied by the sounds of tables being overturned and piles of pristine books crashing to the floor.

There is such a thing as a scholar-activist, and I venture to suggest that scholars of Paul should by and large be scholar-activists. If we are not, then we are royally missing the point, and I suspect that our interpretations of Paul will suffer as well. . . .[1]

I remember being a fresh student at Multnomah Bible College, just off the streets of living out the faith in the workplace and elsewhere. By time I had arrived I’d read through the whole Bible four times, and the NT tens of times; having memorized three books of the NT as well. I was in the midst of spiritual warfare, and relying on Scripture not as an academic piece of literature to be debated, but the living Word of God burning as fire in my bones. I remember towards the end of my first semester we had a schoolwide barbeque on a beautiful Spring Pacific Northwest day. I’d learned that there was a group of guys (fellow students ahead of me by a year or two) who were really well versed in Scripture, and even learned. So, that day I thought I would at least go and stand by them, and attempt to participate in their discussion about the biblical text. What I quickly learned, sadly, was that the text, for them (at that point at least) was more about its critical and academic content more than it was the living bread by which a Christian might find daily sustenance and life. This discouraged, saddened, and angered me all at once.

I share this anecdote not to declare myself ‘holier than thou,’ but to illustrate how Holy Scripture can become one thing to this group of people, and something solely different to another. If we extrapolate out from my anecdote, I think we might recognize how my co-students’ attitude back then is indeed what Campbell is taking aim at now. This sort of attitude about Scripture, in general, and Paul’s epistles, in particular, is exactly the attitude that Scripture, and the Lord of Scripture desires to contradict. We do indeed, as Campbell rightly notes, see in certain heady circles that Scripture is only ‘talked about,’ as if the act itself is effectual in itself. Indeed, we do need to have understanding of Scripture, but at some point, it is time to act it out in the faith of Christ. We are called to be ‘living sacrifices’ by the Apostle, ‘smoked out like burnt offerings’ in the way we live before God. Conference Christianity does not foster this sort of ‘drink offering’ faith; instead it cultivates a posture of sitting back and talking in theoretical and abstract terms about what the Bible might be saying here or there. This is neither Pauline nor Dominical Christianity, as such I think Campbell is right about what Paul might have thought about the sort of conference Christianity we see dominating much of the Christian landscape in America. May we not be ‘conference Christians,’ but instead ‘lived-out Christians.’


[1] Douglas A. Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 4-5.

The Myth of the ‘Functional’ or ‘Stable’ Christian Family

There is a myth of functionality in regard to the nuclear family in the pietist evangelical context. This myth has been fostered and cultivated by people like James Dobson and his ‘ministry’ Focus on the Family. Surely, aiming at perfection or completion as the Apostle Paul admonishes in the Corinthian correspondence is always the aim; but to elevate that aim to some mythological status as if some have arrived while others haven’t is a fallacious reality. And yet in evangelical contexts, particularly ecclesial contexts that are shaped by the experiential such as we find in Pentecostalism/Charismatic, this sort of ‘perfectionist’ framework has taken root among many. There seems to be a psychology present, among such adherents, that those with “more faith” can have greater and more direct access to God than others can in the body of Christ. As such, when such proponents (of this way of thinking) meet ad hoc external criteria—i.e. in regard to what counts as ‘functional’ family, or maybe a better word would be ‘stable’—these people believe they have arrived at a first class level of Christianity and spirituality while those who don’t apparently meet such standards, these are relegated to second class level Christians (maybe best suited for the steerage sections of the Church).

If you think this sort of thinking is artificial among Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians, in particular, think again. I attended Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa (and their Bible College) for many years. There is the belief among such Christians that if someone hasn’t been ‘baptized in the Holy Spirit’ (or more crudely iterated: ‘received the second blessing’) that these ‘Christians’ are not able to function in the power of the Holy Spirit; thus they can, at best, only live a dysfunctional and unstable Christian life. It is not a stretch to extrapolate out from this theology of the Holy Spirit (and the attendant theological anthropology), and apply it in a variety of ways. In this post we are applying this sort of theology to a ‘perfectionistic’ understanding of the Christian family.

Further, and you may have noticed, at a soteriological level, what this sort of “functional” understanding of the Christian family works from in these contexts is a works-based or performance-based understanding of the Christian life. Again, coupling together the concept of first class level over against second class level Christians with the idea of a stable and functioning Christian family, there is an ad hoc or overly radicalized external standard that is elevated up as the marker by which someone can determine whether or not they have achieved a Spirit-powered functional family that makes such families greater than other Christian families who have apparently failed to meet said standard. But the point of this is that in order to achieve this sort of ‘functional/stable’ Christian family status, said family must appear a certain way; it must meet certain standards of ‘perfection’ that have been asserted as the standard that any healthy family must attain if said family can be said to be a functional and stable Christian family. If we reduced this way of thinking to purely soteriological terms we would identify this as a works-righteousness conception of salvation.

If we were to reduce this discussion down to its bare theological-bones something I wrote previously with reference to Barth’s critique of the Liberal Christian in his German context could perfectly apply here. I once wrote: “For Barth, for the Liberal Protestant, because of the collapse of the Christian self into the self as the moral self there no longer remained space for Christ to break in and speak a fresh word of holiness over and against the established norms of what the Liberal Protestant had come to already think of what counted as such. In other words, Barth was against a What Would Jesus Do? society.” This really captures perfectly what I am getting at in regard to the elevation of the ‘functional’ Christian family as a ‘given’ standard for what counts as achieving a level of righteousness before God that is simply a given fact among those who adhere to such simplistic thinking. When Christians presume that their particular practice of Christianity has achieved a standard of holiness that others have not, and out of that such Christians build a praxis that elevates themselves over against others, these Christians are no longer practicing a Christianity that can hear the voice of the living Lord, Jesus Christ. They have substituted their standards, their works, their particular church-enculturated givens as one in the same with the Word of the Lord; and anyone who does not rise to these artificial standards, again, are considered suspect, dysfunctional, and unstable—possibly not even ‘saved.’

I am not saying that genuine abuse cannot and does not happen in many Christian families. But I am saying: that in general most Christians, genuine Christians, are struggling through various life circumstances that are hard and unstable. The ground of a healthy Christian family is not what we can achieve, or how ‘stable’ we might appear by meeting ad hoc external standards (i.e. standards that God in Christ never prescribed, per se). The ground of a healthy, functional, stable Christian family is the grace of God in Jesus Christ. If this is the basis for all of reality, then it is the basis, or the standard of how a Christian family will operate. God’s grace is not something that ‘perfects nature,’ but instead is a reality that breaks in moment by moment into the lives of God’s people and reorients whatever the harsh circumstances of life brings, and turns them towards God. In other words, God’s grace breaks in and elevates, and reverses circumstances, that might appear to break us, and produce broken people, and allows for continued fellowship with God to be present even in the broken and dysfunctional circumstances. As such, ‘functional’ or ‘stable’ Christian families that come to think of themselves this way are often, and typically based upon a conception of God’s grace that is not grace at all, but works. If works and self-performance become the standard of salvation, and as a subsequent, Christian families, there will always be an attitude of superiority of such proponents over against those who are simply attempting to slog through this life as based upon the grace of God in Christ alone.

On Being a Genuine Lover of Jesus

John Calvin has been referred to by Charles Partee as a ‘confessional theologian,’ meaning that Calvin’s style of theologizing would fit the cadence of Scripture’s narratival flow and offering rather than the systematic’s or analytic’s theological syllogisms and deductions. In his final section of the French version of his Institutes (1541) we can get a sense of how Calvin himself was self-conscious of his disposition as a theological thinker; one for the Church. Even as we are noticing that, what I really want to highlight is the material point Calvin is emphasizing in regard to the reality (or not) of the Christian life.

I will want to agree with Calvin even though it might seem like what he writes militates against certain things I have written over the past many years. When we read along with Calvin you should notice how he emphasizes what being a genuine Christian entails. Some might associate what he is writing with something like John MacArthur’s ‘Lordship salvation,’ but I don’t think those sorts of idiosyncratic trappings (JMac’s) need to attend this discussion. What Calvin is pressing is what I take to be Gospel 101 stuff; that is: that a genuine Christian, one who professes Christ, will seek to live a life of obedience to their Lord, as named. In other words, and Barth agrees with this, the Gospel itself demands obedience to God in Jesus Christ. Not a legalistic obedience, but one birthed as akin to the relationality that we see in a son to his father, or of a daughter to her mother. An obedience that is shaped by a devotio Christi (devotion to Christ), such that one’s passion for Christ, one’s love for Christ compels them unto love and good works (cf. II Cor 5.14). It isn’t that this must be understood as PROVING one’s salvation, but instead we can think of this obedience as the organic flow of the life blood that comes from Immanuel’s veins into ours. When rebellion is present in the professing Christian’s life, as the characteristic, rather than obedience, then it is right to wonder whether or not the professor is an actual possessor of eternal life or not. Surely, it is possible to live in seasons of rebellion towards God, even for the Christian, indeed God is mercifully longsuffering with us all. But the Christian will ultimately be sensitive to the wooing of the Father, and repent; and then repent again, and again.

Calvin writes:

Let those who think that it is only the philosophers who have well and duly discussed moral teaching show me in their books a tradition as good as that which I have just recounted! When they want with all their power to exhort someone to virtue, they adduce nothing else but that we should live as is appropriate for our nature. Scripture leads us to a much better fountain of exhortation when it not only commands us to relate all our life to God who is its author but, after having warned us that we have degenerated from the true origin of our creation, it adds that Christ, reconciling us to God His Father, is given to us as an example of innocence; His image ought to be represented in our life (Rom. 6). Could anything more emphatic or efficacious be said? Particularly, what more could one ask? For if God adopts us as His children on condition that the image of Christ may appear in our life, if we do not devote ourselves to righteousness and holiness we not only abandon our Creator with a very negligent disloyalty, but we also renounce Him as our Savior.[1]


Here I must address those who, although they have nothing of Christ except the name, nevertheless want to be considered Christians. But how boldly they glory in having His holy name! — since the only person who has any acquaintance with Him is the one who has rightly learned from the word of the gospel. Now St. Paul denies that a person has received right acquaintance and knowledge unless “he has learned to strip off the old person who is depraved with disordered desires, in order to put on Christ” (Eph. 4 [22, 24]). So it is clear that such people falsely claim the knowledge of Christ and greatly insult Him, whatever lovely babble they may have on their lips. For the gospel is not a teaching of the tongue but of life, and it ought not to be grasped only by understanding and in memory like the other disciplines, but it should possess the entire soul and have its seat in the depth of the heart; otherwise it has not been properly accepted. Therefore, either let them cease to boast of being what they are not, to the disgrace of God, or let them show themselves Christ’s disciples.[2]

Some might say this sounds like a latent reference to the so-called practical syllogism, and others as a reference to the latterly developed doctrine of perseverance of the saints; but I don’t think this has to be framed those ways at all.

If someone names the name of Christ, then His life ought to be present at some level in theirs; as theirs. If someone says they love Jesus, but then consciously turn around and rebel against Him[3] as the Word of God, then their love, at best, is suspect, and at worst is absent completely. With much of American evangelicalism clutched in the grasp of moralistic therapeutic deism, or in the image of a different Jesus who looks more like the desires of the professors than the One who came in the womb of Mary, it is likely that many so-called Christians have been duped and deluded into thinking they are something they are not. This is a concerning matter to me, and one that hits close to home. May God have mercy on us all!

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 282-83.

[2] Ibid., 683-84.

[3] When I say ‘rebel’ I mean that the ‘Christian’s’ life becomes characterized by this rebellion. How long this characterization must be present in order to be suspect about someone’s eternal destiny and present relationship with Christ is not up to us to determine; that is Christ’s determination. Nevertheless, we are bound to call each other unto love and good works, and challenge our brothers and sisters to keep pressing into the holiness of Christ, as we see the day approaching. I am not the judge, nor are you, of someone’s eternal destiny; but we are to bear witness to ourselves and others of what the Life of Christ looks like; this is the call we have, to the rebellious and obedient among us.

The Logic of God’s Grace, Triune Love: In Defense of Torrance’s and Barth’s Critique of Westminster Calvinism

Someone on Facebook took issue with my post on Torrance’s critique of Westminster Calvinism, or more pointedly: Federal theology. He believes that Torrance fully mischaracterizes and misunderstands Covenant theology and its implications; he wrote in comment to the post on the FB thread:

Not sure what to think of this. Of course, this isn’t outside of your modus operandi, so on the one hand, I should just nod my head, saying, “classic Bobby Grow.” And, at the same time, I recognize that your blog posts are, at base, a paraphrase rather than developed presentation of your thought. But, on the other hand, I question Torrance’s accuracy regarding his reading of the Westminsterian tradition and thus his reading of the classic theism of which Westminster is only a species. Consequently, I question the strength of your judgment in following him.

Would you be willing to offer us a blog post or two (I’m sure you have some in your archives that you could publish as well) that would directly engage with the Westminster Standards? Again, I recognize that your posts are distillations and summaries, but it may help the sympathetic reader (or otherwise) to see the strength and substance of your argument.

My blog itself (and when I say “blog” I am referring to my blog in toto, not blog posts that populate the blog) is a living testimony to what I think about Westminster theology. In fact, I have a whole category dedicated to critiquing Federal Calvinism which I have endearingly entitled: critiquing classic Calvinism. But in an effort to reiterate such things once more, let me do that throughout the rest of this post.

The issue, the way I see it, can be reduced simply to a doctrine of God, and how God relates to the world in the so-called God/world relation. It ought to be made clear upfront that Torrance’s critique of classical theism, in general, and Westminster Calvinism, in particular, is not unique to him, or the After Barth tradition within which he broadly works (I say broadly because in many ways TFT is his own man, particularly when it comes to critiquing classical theism of a certain mechanical sort). My initial openness to Torrance (and Barth) was because of my formal education and background in historical theology. My now former professor, and mentor (who I would still consider as such), Ron Frost, turned me onto a critique of Federal theology, and its God, not from engaging with the theologies of Barth or Torrance, but through reference to Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Sibbes, John Cotton et al. Again, the theme that grounds the critique of Covenant theology, whether that be in the aforementioned theologians, or presently in Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance is the same. The theme that they all have in common in critique of Federal theology’s supporting doctrine of God is that the God underwriting Westminster Calvinism is a God who relates to the world mechanically; that is their God, in their understanding, relates to the world through decrees, and thus mechanically rather than relationally. This was the critique Frost turned me onto, and is the one that both Barth and Torrance make of “classical theism” in their own respective ways.

With this in mind let me lift up a rather definitive and “summarizing” quote from Barth that helps to, once again, illustrate for us just how decisive a doctrine of God is towards determining all subsequent theological lines of reflection. Here we have Barth offering a critique of Calvin’s doctrine of election (in this instance Calvin’s doctrine of election ought to be understood as typical of classical Calvinism’s understanding in general), and the decretal God funding such doctrine:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[1]

Compare Barth’s critique of Calvin’s doctrine of election with what would come latterly (relative to Calvin) in the Westminster Confession of Faith’s chapter three Of God’s Eternal Decree

Of God’s Eternal Decree

    1. God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
    2. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.
    3. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.
    4. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.
    5. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace.
    6. As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.
    7. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy, as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice.
    8. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in his Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel.[2]

While Barth refers us to Calvin he might as well have been referring us to chapter three of the Westminster Confession of Faith; in fact, he may well have been anachronistically overlaying some of that onto Calvin’s theology. For our purposes I am hopeful (because of both time and space constraints) that the contrast and the basis of critique that Torrance himself (insofar as he imbibes Barth’s) is grounded in a doctrine of God.

For those who adhere to the tradition codified in the WCF it is what Richard Muller calls the Christian Aristotelian tradition that stands glaringly at the forefront. In other words, there is no attempt to hide the fact that those present at Westminster (and Dordt for that matter) were simply re-iterating Thomas Aquinas’ synthesis of Aristotle’s categories of the Infinite or Pure Being with Christian theology. In other words, for the WCF it isn’t Jesus Christ, as the Son of the Father, who is the ground or basis of election; for the WCF it is the absolutum decretum or absolute decree that God has chosen, post-lapsarian, to relate gratuitously to a small elect group of people. And his choice to relate to these elect people will be actualized by Christ for them; by Christ meeting the legal requirements that were set out by the so-called covenant of works. Richard Muller writes (at excessive length):

Given these relationships between law and grace, the two covenants, and the problems of sin and salvation, it should not be surprising that a central issue addressed in the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works was the issue of federal headship and, therefore, the parallels between the first and the second Adam, the federal heads of the covenants of works and of grace. It is at this point that the soteriological ground of the doctrine of the covenant of works is most clearly presented, particularly in terms of its relationship to the doctrine of Christ’s mediatorial headship and work of satisfaction.

Adam, in the covenant of works, “stood as the head of mankind [caput totius generis humani],” in his person “representing” the entire human race. By the same token, as indicated by the Apostle in Romans 5:11-15, Christ as the antitype of Adam stands as the representative of humanity in the covenant of grace and the “surety” of fulfillment or substitute for mankind before the law of God, in effect, in fulfillment of the demands of the violated covenant of works. After all, the violation of the covenant of works abrogated the law as a covenant, not as the ultimate “rule of life.” It is both the permanence of the divine promise of fellowship and the stability of the divine law as the standard of holiness and righteousness and, therefore, as the basis for fellowship with the holy and righteous God, that relates the covenants to one another: “the law declares, that there is no admission for any to eternal life, but on the account of a perfect and absolutely complete righteousness; [and] also, that every sinner shall undergo the penalty of death, the dominion of which is eternal” unless the penalty of sin is paid and “the dominion of death … abolished.”

Drawing on the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, Witsius argues the equivalency of the promises of the two covenants. Paul, he notes, “distinguishes the rightness of the law from the evangelical” while at the same time indicating that “life” is promised under both covenants. Concerning legal righteousness, Paul writes “that the man which doth these things shall live by them” (Rom. 10:5) and concerning evangelical righteousness, “the just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17). Even so,

On both sides, the promise of life is the same, proposed in the very same words. For the apostle does not hint by the least expression, that one kind of life is promised by gospel, another by the law…. But the apostle places the whole difference, not in the thing promised by the law to the man that worketh, which he now receives by faith in Christ. But to what man thus working was it promised? to the sinner only? Was it not to man in his innocency? Was it not then when it might truly be said, If you continue to do well, you shall be the heir of that life upon that condition. Which could be said to none but to upright Adam. Was it not then, when the promise was actually made? For after the entrance of sin, there is not so much a promise, as a denunciation of wrath, and an intimation of a curse, proposing that as the condition for obtaining life, which is now impossible. I therefore conclude, that to Adam, in the covenant of works, was promised the same eternal life, to be obtained by the righteousness which is the law, of which believers are made partakers through Christ.

The identical point is made by Brakel with reference to the same texts.

Arguably, both theologians here manifest the central reason for the doctrine of a covenant of works and its fundamental relationship to the doctrines of justification by grace through faith and Christ’s satisfaction for sin: the issue is not to hammer home a legalistic view of life and salvation but precisely the opposite, while at the same time upholding the stability of divine law. There can be no salvation by works, but only by a means that excludes works—in short, through faith in Christ. Nonetheless, the law is not void. Indeed, the law remains the representation of divine goodness, holiness, and righteousness placed in the heart and mind of Adam even as he was created in the image of God. Given the fact of sin, such a law can no longer hold forth its original promise of fellowship with God, but it remains the condition of fellowship just as it remains the temporal indication of the goodness, holiness, and righteousness of God. The covenant of works takes on for the fallen Adam the function of the second or pedagogical use of the law—precisely the function of the Mosaic law understood as the legal covenant or covenant of works: “The Lord willed,” Brakel writes, that Adam “would now turn away from the broken covenant of works, and, being lost in himself, would put all hope in the seed of the woman, which was promised to him immediately thereafter.”

The covenant of works, then, was not violated and made void from the human side by the sin of Adam and Eve, rendering the promises of the covenant inaccessible to their posterity—but it was also, Witsius argues, abrogated from the divine side in the sense that God has clearly willed not to renew or recast the covenant of works for the sake of offering to fallen humanity a promise of life grounded in its own personal righteousness. In other words, God will not now, in the context of human sinfulness “prescribe a condition of obedience less perfect than that which he stipulated” in the original covenant of works. Nontheless, so far as the promise of eternal life is concerned, all of mankind remains subject to its “penal sanction”: thus, sin does not render void nor the divine abrogation of the covenant of works remove “the unchangeable truth” of God’s “immutable and indispensable justice.” Even so, Calvin had argued the “perpetual validity” of the law and had insisted that “the law has been divinely handed down to us to teach us perfect righteousness; there no other righteousness is taught than that which conforms to the requirements of God’s will.”

The divine abrogation of the covenant of works, then, does not abolish the promise of God or the condition of holiness and righteousness required for the fulfillment of the promise. And it is precisely because of this coordinate stability of promise and law that the covenant of grace becomes effective in Christ alone. When the Apostle Paul writes, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law,” he indicates both that “the covenant of grace does not abrogate, but supposes the abrogation of the covenant of works” and that

the covenant of grace is not [itself] the abolition, but rather the confirmation of the covenant of works, inasmuch as the Mediator has fulfilled all the conditions of that covenant, so that all believers may be justified and saved according to the covenant of works, to which satisfaction was made by the Mediator…. The very law of the covenant, which formerly gave up the human sinner to sin, when his condition is once changed by union with Christ the surety, does now, without any abolition, abrogation, or any other change whatever, absolve the man from the guilt and dominion of sin, and bestow on him that sanctification and glorification, which are gradually brought to perfection, which he shall obtain at the resurrection of the dead.

The stability of the law, guaranteed in the divine maintenance of the terms of the covenant of works, points not to a legalistic view of salvation but to the fullness of Christ’s work of sanctification and to the totally unmerited character of the salvation provided by grace through faith to believers. “Recognize,” writes Brakel, that “the Lord Jesus placed Himself under” the “same law Adam had … and thereby He merited redemption and adoption as children for the elect.”

The ultimate relationship of the covenant of works to the covenant of grace and, equally so, of Adam to Christ as the old and new federal heads of the humanity, is established and outlined by Witsius, Brakel, and virtually all of the major Reformed covenant theologians of the seventeenth century in their discussion of the “covenant of redemption” or pactum salutis between God the Father and God the Son. Here, also, as in the case of the covenant of works, we encounter a doctrinal construct, elicited according to the terms of the older Reformed hermeneutic, from the collation and exegetical analysis of a series of biblical passages. The doctrine itself probably originated with Cocceius, but its roots are most probably to be found in the earlier Reformed mediation on the trinitarian nature of the divine decrees. While not attempting to offer a discussion of the entire doctrine of the covenant of redemption, we can note here its function with respect to the two other covenants. In the first place, it is the eternal foundation of the covenant of grace, according to which Christ is established, in the depths of the Trinity, as the Redeemer, the new federal head of humanity, and the surety and sponsor of humanity in covenant: in short, the covenant of redemption is an “agreement between God and his elect. The covenant of grace thus also “presupposes” the covenant of redemption and “is founded upon it.”

In the second place, the covenant of redemption established the eternal remedy for the problem of sin and ensured the full manifestation and exercise of the divine righteousness and justice both in the covenant of works and beyond its abrogation. As Brakel comments, “The fact that God from eternity foreknew the fall, decreeing that He would permit it to occur, is not only confirmed by the doctrines of His omniscience and decrees, but also from the fact that God from eternity ordained a Redeemer for man, to deliver him from sin: the Lord Jesus Christ whom Peter calls the Lamb, “who was foreknown [voorgekend] before the foundation of the world. By the covenant of redemption, the Son binds himself to the work of salvation and, therefore, to the fulfillment of the condition of fellowship with God for the sake of God’s covenant people. Thus the promises, the conditions, and the penalties for failure to fulfill the conditions remain—but the conditions are met and the penalties satisfied in Christ. As eternally guaranteed by the covenant of redemption, “conditions are offered, to which eternal salvation is annexed; conditions not to be performed again by us, which might throw the mind into despondence; but by him, who would not part with his life, before he had truly said, “It is finished.”

After excoriating Thomas F. Torrance, Rolson, and Poole for naïvely deconstructing this kind (the above aforementioned by Muller) of classical Covenant theology through a ‘Barthian’ misunderstanding and caricature (of classical Covenant theology, as described by Muller above); Muller concludes thusly:

[…] The purported legalism of the continuing covenant of works as presented in the demands of the law is nothing less than permanence of the original divine intention to ground the fellowship in the nature of God and in the imago Dei. Witsius and Brakel recognized in their debate with seventeenth-century Arminian and Socinian adversaries that as long as covenant refers to a relationship between God and human beings, law must belong to covenant as much as promise. They also understood—as we should perhaps recognize in the theological presuppositions of the contemporary critics of the doctrine—that the denial of the covenant of works, the attempt to deny the legal element of covenant in general (and, today, the attempt to pit the Reformers against their successors), represent not only an alternative view of the original relationship between God and human beings but also an alternative theory of Christ’s atonement and a theology that, at best, is less than traditionally Reformed.

The elements of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works that I have described here indicate the result of a process of doctrinal development in the Reformed tradition. As such, the language of the doctrine is certainly different from the language of the Reformers and even from that of earlier successors to the original Reformers such as Ursinus and Olevian or, indeed, in a slightly later time, William Perkins. Yet, the fundamental points of the doctrine, that the work of redemption must be understood both in terms of law and of grace, that human beings were created in and for fellowship with God under terms both of promise and of law, that Adam’s fall was a transgression of God’s law, that human inability after the Fall in no way removes the standard or the demands of the law, and that the gift of salvation through Christ’s satisfaction for sin both sets believers free from the law’s condemnation and upholds the laws demands, remain virtually identical. The free gift of grace in the one covenant respects the stability of law in the other, while the presence of law under different uses in both covenants echoes both the immutability of the divine nature and the constancy of the divine promises.[3]

I wanted to share this whole section from Muller because I want to be clear that my assertions are in line with what the foremost scholar of such things articulates himself.

For Barth, Torrance, and others there is no abstract decree standing behind the back of Jesus in the work of redemption; particularly as that is couched in a doctrine of election vis-à-vis doctrine of God. For Barth, contra Westminster theology, God is only known and given to and for us, for all of humanity, in the concrete humanity and history of the Son become flesh and blood. For Barth God first loved us, not based on legal conditions, but because He first loved us in the Son (so we see a radical doctrine of supralapsarianism present in Barth’s and “my” theology), so that we might love Him. ‘In the beginning God created,’ this is the first word of God’s Grace for us (h/t Ray Anderson); thus, all of human reality in a God/world relation is one that is grounded in Grace, not Law, all the way down (h/t TFT).

But as we can see with reference to WCF directly, and Muller’s description of Covenant theology in particular, the ‘Westminsterian’ tradition is grounded in an Aristotelian Pure Being conception of God; as such, God, in this frame will relate to humanity through a mechanical non-relational/non-personalist frame of reconciliation. Indeed, he must relate to us this way if in fact God’s immutability and simplicity, under its Aristotelian terms, is to remain untouched by or non-contingent upon creation. This is the sine qua non of classical Westminster theology; viz. that God’s ‘Pure Being’ remain pure and unfettered by the trivialities of this world order. This is why TF Torrance has argued that God’s relationship to the world, in the Westminsterian frame, isn’t first based upon an ontology of triune love, as the logic of grace and ground of relationship to humanity, but instead upon a mechanism of Law-keeping; Law-keeping of the sort that is in concert with a God who in His inner-life is characterized by brute power and monadic self-preoccupation; a conception of God that conceives of God’s inner-life as made up of a non-relational substance-in-being relationship that emphasizes God’s oneness at the expense of His threeness (and thus relationality).

With God’s oneness, and the need to keep God pure and actually infinite in the heavens, the Westminster theologians concocted a theological framework (based on the work of others as Muller attests) that makes sure that God’s abstract and ‘other’ power remains intact; even at the expense of emphasizing Who God is for us as revealed in the Father-Son relationship in the God-man, Jesus Christ. Thus, for the Westminsterians, God’s love for the elect is contingent upon the Son, in the covenant of grace, meeting the conditions and requirements originally set out in the covenant of works. He could only love the elect after such legal requirements and penalties were met. This is what Torrance’s critique says, and it is not erroneous when we consider what in fact Westminster is built upon. Torrance (and Barth’s) theology counters by saying that God’s love for us is not contingent upon us meeting legal requirements, but simply upon who God is eternally as Father of the Son in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. There is no decree, for Barth, or Torrance, but Christ. And to even use the language of ‘decree’ in such a frame is to do so ironically and for purposes of reifying what in fact God is about as triune love.

There is still much more to be said (and I have said so so much more in that category I referred you to earlier). Remember, this is bloggy and off the top. This is worthy of a polished paper in order to present things in a more coherent manner; but the lineaments of the argument and response (to my interlocutor) should be clear enough as presently presented.


[1] Karl Barth, CD II/2, 111.

[2] Accessed 01-15-2020 [emphasis mine].

[3] Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 185-89.

Death And Life From Christ

This is a repost. I wanted to write something on death and life from a Christian perspective, but then found this one as I was perusing my archives. So, I thought I’d repost this. Every time I sin I’m reminded that I still inhabit death, even as the life of Christ breaks into mine as the ground of mine as that is found in His. As you will immediately see a new friend of mine (at the time of the original posting), Fr. Matt Baker had just died tragically and suddenly. 

Tragically a recent acquaintance of mine, Fr. Matthew Baker, just died as he was driving his vehicle in the weather (in the East Coast of North America) and had an accident; he died, but his six children were spared (please keep his wife and kids in prayer). Death is a reality we all face, even in America. I was once again just recently reminded of my own mortality as I went in for my annual CT scan to make sure that I am still cancer free; free from a cancer (DSRCT) that is typically terminal, incurable, and aggressive (as many of you know, by God’s grace I have remained cancer free, and as I write this, for five years). I also just happen to be reading a book from another theologian friend, J. Todd Billings. Todd was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer (Multiple Myeloma) back in September, 2012; he has since undergone treatment (and continues to receive maintenance levels of chemo), a stem cell transplant, and as a result his cancer has gone into remission.

Death is an ever present reality that each and every person who draws breath on the face of earth must face it. Death is indiscriminate, and transcends racial, ethnic, geo-political, and all regional boundaries; death is an equal opportunity reality that we all must face. But living in the West, particularly in the United States (and/or Europe), we would rather not deal with reality; we would rather pretend, as much as possible that death has no reach into our personal lives and plans. In fact, we are so dedicated to avoiding the reality of death that we have created a whole society dedicated to not dealing with it; as much as possible. Todd Billings, in his recently released book Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ has written this:

The Denial of Death in Western Culture, and Death in the Church

In contrast to God’s story, which includes and envelops death, the currents of consumerist, Western Culture move toward repressing dying and death. To come face-to-face with our mortality would be to encounter our frailty and limitations—showing the absurdity of our attempts to center the world on ourselves. But our consumerist culture would rather deny these limits. Western culture glorifies youth and spends billions of dollars annually to make the appearance of youth last longer and longer. The actual experience of dying and death is isolated to nursing homes, hospices, and the funeral industry, away from children and youth and the rest of the family. This cultural trend was exposed to me with particular potency while working in community development for six months in a rural area of Uganda. In that context, dying and death were thickly woven into everyday life. When I would meet a new family, I would often hear explanations like, “We have seven children, but only four are still living.” Ailing and dying members of the “extended” family were not institutionalized but lived in the same house as children and young people. And death itself was an everyday thing—not a rare incursion. I remember writing about it at the time, saying death was like “enya,” a staple food eaten at least twice a day. We should not romanticize this state of affairs in Uganda—this is not the way things are supposed to be. But we need to recognize that in the West today, we not only have better medical care but we also tend to put our elderly and sick out of sight. Intentionally or not, we isolate ourselves from the real-life dying and death of others, and we have a culture that is often so focused on positive self-esteem and accomplishing one personal “victory” after another that dying and death are pushed to the margins.[1]

In this exact same vein, Arthur C. McGill has written in his amazing little book Death and Life: An American Theology:

The Ethic of Avoidance

As we observe our lives in this country, we cannot help but be struck by the effort Americans make to appear to be full of life. I believe this duty is ingrained deeply in everyone. Only if we can create around us a life apparently without failure, can we convince ourselves that death is indeed outside, is indeed accidental, is indeed the unthinkable enemy. In other words, the belief that death is outside of life is not a fact to be acknowledged; it is a condition to be attained. Consider the American commitment to nice appearances. We often speak of the suburbs in terms of near and flawless appearances. When we look at the lawns and the shrubs and the solid paint of those homes, who can believe the human misery that often goes on within them?… What about the people who do fail in America? And what about those who collapse of life? What about the sick and the aged and the deformed and the mentally retarded? Do they not remind us that the marks of death are always working within the fabric of life? No, because in the United States, deliberately and systematically, with the force of the law itself, we compel all such people to be sequestered where we cannot see them. You’ll find no beggars on the streets of America. You’ll visit few homes where a very aged person is present and where that person’s imminent dying is integrated into the rhythm of family life. As for the insane, they are hidden in such well-landscaped institutions, behind such beautiful lawns and trees, that when we drive by in our shiny automobiles we cannot imagine the suffering that goes on within those walls.[2]

This is heavy and serious stuff, and I think something that we can all recognize as true as those who inhabit (for the most part) the Western existence. It is true, we have not been designed by God to die, but live. But we can only live, if we are united to life itself in Jesus Christ, who is life. Through his death, burial, and resurrection, and our participation in that we can face the reality of death and life as dual realities in Christ for us. We don’t have to pretend like death isn’t happening to us; especially when it is. And when we are faced with tragic things like cancer diagnoses, or car accidents—like the one that just claimed the life of our dear brother, Matt Baker—or other terrible things, we can look to the One who raises the dead, as he raised himself for us. We do have a real and concrete hope for Matthew Baker; if I were to die from a recurrence of my cancer (God forbid it!) I have a real and living hope; if Todd Billings were to die from his cancer (God forbid it!) he has a real and tangible hope—and all of this because of Christ and the hope that his resurrection has provided for all of humanity.

But, as Billings and McGill have underscored for us, we continue to live in a Western society that will try and avoid the reality of death at all costs; this makes sense if for the ‘world’ there is no hope, if they have no hope of resurrection in Christ (personally). Life is a tragedy without a hero who can actually conquer death, and then give that victory to us as we participate in his victory, His life. But we live in a world, by definition, that will reject this even until its own death and destruction. We live in a world that will marginalize the plight of those types of people that most remind us of what we most fear, death; and so we will continue to build societies and buildings that hide what is happening all around us; death.

14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.[3]

[1] J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2015), 105.
[2] Arthur C. McGill, Death and Life: An American Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1987 republished by Wipf and Stock Publishers), 18-19.
[3] NASB. Hebrews 2:14-15.

Barth Fan X: Vignettes on Barth’s Theology from an Anonymous British Evangelical Reformed Baptist Reader of the Blog

The following comes from a reader of the blog. He contacted me recently to give me a word of encouragement, and I gratefully received it (I need words like this every now and then). He would like to remain anonymous because of his stature, and the circles he runs in. It is still damaging to one’s career and person, in certain circles, in the circles my anonymous reader (and now presenter at the blog) inhabits, to openly recognize appreciation, and maybe even some zeal, for the theology of Karl Barth. Like my reader I am still largely Baptist (I grew up the son of a Conservative Baptist pastor), and it is no mistake that Barth resonates with the impulses of many of us Baptists; as our anonymous presenter will make clear in his own experience. So, without further ado, here is Barth Fan X:

I thought that I might very briefly share with you how this particular British Evangelical, indeed this Reformed Baptist, has found himself interacting positively with Barth over the years. You may perhaps find some of it interesting. As you’ll see, Barth has had quite an impact on me. So, briefly, here are just a few areas in which I’ve found Barth helpful and edifying:

The Trinity. Masterful discussion! I especially resonate to his careful, profound, nuanced, and non-Sabellian description of the meaning of hypostasis as “mode of being”.

Providence. I am very struck by Barth’s point that providence doesn’t operate in some bland, flat, non-teleological manner. It always has a Christological telos. And that wholly differentiates a biblical understanding of providence from both a Stoic and Islamic view.

The Incarnation. Barth’s discussion of the Son’s assumption of fallen humanity keyed very nicely into my PhD thesis, which has a significant focus on 19th century Scottish theologian Edward Irving who held a similar view. Barth’s excursus helped me to my current understanding, which may possibly not be quite Barthian, maybe more a synthesis of Irving’s view with a patristic understanding. The Son took from Mary a fallen humanity, and by so taking it, sanctified it. Augustine teaches as much. But Barth played a part in the whole process of my thinking this through.

 The Virgin Birth. Barth’s “The Miracle of Christmas” kind of stunned me by its biblical brilliance, when I read it as a young Christian, and it has ever since provided the guidelines for my thinking on the topic.

The Atonement – “the Judge judged in our place”. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve described the cross in these terms in my preaching. It helps tie together the New Testament theme of eschatological judgment with the Saving Event of the cross. And Barth’s way of viewing Incarnation and Atonement has made me very wary of those (unfortunately popular) ways of presenting the cross as a merciful Son pacifying a mercilessly angry Father, rather than seeing the cross as a properly Trinitarian event.

The Second Coming. I have quite often been somewhat unsettled by a not uncommon Evangelical style of preaching the Second Coming, as a sort of “terror device” to frighten folk into repenting. A little too much evangelism has a tendency towards “ranting and raving” at people, pretty remote from anything like good news. But I agree with Augustine that one simply cannot terrify people into the kingdom – all one can do is terrify them into making a false profession of faith. And Barth has made me think hard about how to preach the Lord’s Coming as an integral element of the GOOD news. Not that I’m an eschatological universalist. I suppose I’m trying, so to speak, to find some wholesome middle ground.

 Apologetics. From Barth I learned that biblically, the ultimate standard and criterion of truth is Christ Himself. Thus one should work outwards from the self-evidencing Christ, not towards Him by lesser standards and criteria, as if Christ had to go cap-in-hand to them to get His “proof”. As Barth says somewhere, you end up having non-Christian reasons for believing in Christ. But there isn’t any “truth” autonomous from Him.

 Preaching. Barth taught me that it isn’t enough to set orthodox truths before people from the pulpit. This by grace can, and hopefully will, become a vehicle for the living speech of the living Lord. For this I pray whenever I preach.

 I also find Barth to be a fine historical theologian (indeed a fine historian of philosophy and culture), and there’s an unusual spiritual vibrancy in his sermons, especially the collections he did with Thurneysen.

So there you have it – a precis of Barth’s positive effect on this Evangelical Reformed Baptist. Of course, you might wish to say, “But didn’t you get what he says on….” (fill in the blank). And maybe I didn’t. As I mentioned, I’m still learning.

All I’m saying here is simply that as a person of Evangelical and Reformed identity and churchmanship, I’ve found it an easy and joyful thing to learn from Barth. I’m just sad that so many of my spiritual family have demonized him, can’t and won’t learn anything from him, and think that one is bound to go wildly off the theological rails merely by reading him. I count Barth as one of the Church’s theological giants, along with Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, et al, at whose feet I’m happy to sit and learn (under Scripture, of course). One of my greatest wishes is that folk in my church-circles would see what a positive resource we have in Barth (and T.F.Torrance) for exploring and refining our Biblical, Evangelical, and Reformed theology.

Thank you, Barth Fan X! Your thoughts are most appreciated. I hope you all, my readers, find benefit in this thinker’s thoughts on Barth as I have. Maybe you, like this reader, are in a similar situation and feel the pressure of remaining “quiet” because of your own ecclesial affiliations. If so, take heart, you aren’t alone. It is sad that this is the way it is; a result of a demonization of a whole cloth Barth that does not actually exist when someone actually engages with his theology. Contra mundum.


Giving Up Facebook and Twitter

My intention is to finally give up FB and Twitter, except for streaming my blog posts through. As a result, expect many more posts here; and expect them to be extra bloggy like this one. I started as a blogger in 2005, and I have always been a blogger at heart. It’s the best medium, I think, for communicating deeper theological things; at least as far as social media goes. So, stay tuned.

God First Loves Us In Christ Before He Dies For Us Not Just After: The Evangelical Calvinist Critique of the Legal God of Westminster Calvinism

Getting back to my roots, probably not any less controversial than my political posts, let us revisit the Evangelical Calvinist critique of Federal or Westminster theology. The Evangelical Calvinist aim is to re-present people with a concept of God that is grounded in His eternal reality as triune love. The contention is that classical Calvinism or Covenantal (Federal) theology gives the world a conception of God that is drenched in a legal or juridical frame; such that their conception of God requires that the elect meet certain legal requirements prior to becoming loved by God. In other words, for the Federal theologian, the ‘penalty of sin’ (which resulted when Adam and Eve broke the covenant of works in Gen 3) came to stand in the way of God loving humanity since God’s love for humanity was contingent upon them keeping His commandments. Once they broke his commandment (the inner constitution of the so called covenant of works) God could no longer love them, and had to broker a framework wherein He could once again love them in keeping with the legal conditions set out by Him in the covenant of works. To accomplish this effort God, according to the Federal theologians, decreed a covenant of grace wherein the Son agreed (pactum salutis ‘covenant of redemption’) to become human (in the Incarnation), die for those God arbitrarily and individually elected, and provide the space for God to once again love a ‘set’ amount of humanity. As you can see, if my sketching is correct, in the Federal frame, God’s relationship to humanity is contingent upon a legal frame rather than a loving relational one; which has direct corollary with how God is, and more importantly Who God is.

Thomas Torrance was highly critical of Federal theology, and the antecedent theology it was founded within in the Aristotelian/Thomist frame as that was bequeathed to her from her Roman Catholic heritage. Paul Molnar, a Roman Catholic, ironically, helpfully summarizes Torrance’s thinking on this:

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 ofpre-destination, [and this] tended to foster a hidden Nestorian dualism between the divine and human natures in the one 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 the Scots 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.[1]

This is the basic critique Evangelical Calvinists have towards Federal theology in particular, and much of classical theistic[2] soteriology in general. It presents the world with a God who does not first love us because of who He is, but instead only loves some of us (effectually) insofar that we meet His legal requirements as set out in His decree (decretum absolutum). The Evangelical Calvinist can genuinely affirm with the “epistolero” that ‘God first loved us that we might love Him’ (I Jn 4.19). My contention remains that the Covenant theologian, insofar  that they affirm the juridical framework for thinking God, cannot genuinely affirm the sentiment of John’s epistle; and if they attempt to, which they must, they can only do so with heavy qualification. In brief: The Evangelical Calvinist rejects the idea that God’s wrath must first be appeased before God can or will genuinely love a certain people. The Evangelical Calvinist affirms that because of who God is eternally as Father of the Son in the bond of the Holy Spirit, that out of this reality God so loved the world that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.

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

[2] Particularly of the sort developed in Thomas’ and post-Thomist Roma.