A Gospel Statement on the Trinity by Thomas Torrance

Thomas Torrance provides a rich statement on the Gospel situated in the Triune life of God:

While the Lord Jesus Christ constitutes the pivotal centre of our knowledge of God, God’s distinctive self-revelation as Holy Trinity, One Being, Three Persons, creates the overall framework within which all Christian theology is to be formulated. Understandably, therefore, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity has been called the innermost heart of Christian faith and worship, the trinityukrainecentral dogma of classical theology, the fundamental grammar of our knowledge of God. It belongs to the Gospel of God’s saving and redeeming love in Jesus Christ who died for us and rose again and has given us the Holy Spirit who has shed the love of God abroad in our hearts. The doctrine of the Trinity enshrines the essentially Christian conception of God: it constitutes the ultimate evangelical expression of the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ who though he was rich for our sakes became poor that we through his poverty might become rich, of the Love of God who did not spare his own Son but delivered him up for us all, for it is in that personal sacrifice of the Father to which everything in the Gospel goes back, and of the Communion of the Holy Spirit through whom and in whom we are made to participate in the eternal Communion of the Father and the Son and are united with one another in the redeemed life of the people of God. Through Christ and in the Spirit God has communicated himself to us in such a wonderful way that we may really know him and have communion with in his inner life as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.[1]

[1] Thoams F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons, 2.

Martin Luther’s ‘Real Reason for the Protestant Reformation’, and What Critics of evangelical Calvinism Don’t Get about evangelical Calvinism’s Impetus or Their Own Mode of Theologizing

Martin Luther famously critiqued and rejected Aristotle, and the impact that Aristotelian philosophy had had upon Christian theology in the late medieval period; particularly as mediated through the synthesis of Thomas Aquinas’s theology with Aristotelian philosophy. This was such a fundamental piece for Luther, that it can be said, as Alister McGrath, and my former seminary professor luthermartinand personal mentor, Ron Frost have said, that this rejection and repudiation of Aristotle’s impact on Christian theology led, theologically, to Luther’s “breakthrough” in regard to his understanding of sola fide, and the material principle of the Protestant Reformation theology. The implication of this, if followed, is that theological reasoning is strictly reduced to reliance upon the revelation of God in Christ apprehended by faith.

As McGrath sharpens this further, he underscores why this move for Luther was so important; he underscores why working away from Aristotelian and forensic conceptions of God’s righteousness, and working from the righteousness of God revealed by Christ is so important and so delimiting for a genuinely Christian approach to the theological task. McGrath writes:

For Luther, ratio and its associated concept of iustitia (as used by Aristotle and the jurists) had its proper place in the ordering of civil affairs. Luther’s rejection of ratio relates to his soteriology, particularly to the definition of iustitia Dei, which is of central importance to his theology as a whole. The concept of iustitia which Luther rejected in this context is none other than that of Aristotle’s Ethics, which had been taken up by the medieval canonists and jurists, which had found its way into the soteriology of the via moderna, and which corresponded to a secular, commen-sense understanding of justice in terms of a quid pro quo morality, whose validity was immediately apparent to reason. Julian of Eclanum had insisted that God judged man rationabiliter, which he took to be equivalent to iuste, and had therefore applied to a common-sense concept of iustitia by a process of analogical predication to God. God rewards each man according to his merit, which may be defined in terms of whether he has lived well by the standards set him in the law: non ego, sed ratio concludit. A similar interpretation of iustitia Dei can be derived by direct analogical predication of the Aristotelian understanding of iustitia, linked with the associated interpretation of the relationship between iustitia and lex, to God. The young Luther appears to have adopted precisely such a concept of iustitia in his early attempt to expound the Psalter: indeed it is of particular significance that Luther should choose Psalm 9 (10). 9 to expound the relationship between iustitia and equitas in the divine judgement, as Julian of Eclanum had earlier used exactly the same passage to demonstrate the divine equity in dealing with man according to his merit! It was against this understanding of iustitia, as applied to God (but not applied to civil affairs), that Luther rebelled when he discovered the mira et nova diffinitio iustitiae, with such momentous results for his theology. Luther’s revolt against reason is indeed occasioned by his soteriology — but in a far more specific manner than appears to have been generally realised. Whilst it cannot be proved that Luther appreciated the theological ramifications of everything he read in Book V of the Nichomachean Ethics, it is beyond dispute that he recognised that the concept of iustitia developed therein, applied to God, had appalling theological consequences for sinners: Tota fere Aristotelis Ethica pessima est gratiae inimica. Luther’s joy at his discovery of the new definition of iustitia reflects his realisation that God loves and forgives sinners, and that the iustitia of iustitia Dei is not to be understood qua philosophi et iuriste accipiunt, but qua in scriptura accipitur. Luther’s vitriolic attacks against Aristotle, reason, the jurists, the law, and the Sautheologen of the via moderna reflects his basic conviction that all these employed a concept of iustitia which, when applied to God, destroyed the gospel message of the free forgiveness of sinners. Luther’s ‘evangelical irrationalism’ is closely correlated with his discovery of the righteousness of God: if reason and its allies were unable to comprehend the mystery of the justification of the ungodly, then so much the worse for them. Reason has its role to play in the civil affairs of men, as in so many other spheres — but when faced with the justification of sinners, the central feature of the gospel proclamation, it collapses, unable to comprehend the mystery with which it is confronted. For Luther, the word of the gospel, upon which all theological speculation was ultimately based, was that of a righteous God who justified those worthy of death: if reason was unable to comprehend this fundamental aspect of the gospel, it had forfeited its right to have any say in theology as a whole. In Luther’s opinion, reason was not neutral in this matter: according to reason, God should only justify those whose deeds made them worthy of such a reward: itaque caro est ipsa iustitia, sapientia carnis ac cogitatio rationis, quae per legem vult iustificari. Human wisdom and human concepts of righteousness are inextricably linked — and, as Luther emphasised, both were called into question by the fact that a righteous God could justify sinners. It is clear that this critique of human wisdom, which is ultimately based upon Luther’s deliberations upon the concept of the ‘righteousness of God’, foreshadows the theologia crucis of 1518 in a number of respects. Before moving on to consider the nature of the theology of the cross, however, it may be helpful to summarise our conclusions concerning the nature and the date of Luther’s theological breakthrough.[1]

It is precisely for what McGrath just detailed that Ron Frost in 1997 wrote an essay for the Trinity Journal entitled: ‘Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?’ Frost believes, and I agree with him, that insofar as the following Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology imbibes a ‘Christian Aristotelianism’ it has skipped off the central critique of Luther’s protest movement; which is very ironic indeed. Note Frost’s analysis here:

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed—measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles—a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther—who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week—chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[2]

This is quite profound, to say the least! It is this very premise and insight as developed by Ron Frost, and illustrated by the work of McGrath, that has led me to my form of evangelical Calvinism. It is this fundamental critique and insight that not a single contemporary Reformed thinker or theologian I have come across has grasped whatsoever. I know many who read me seem to think that evangelical Calvinism, my form, is wholly contingent upon Barth and Torrance, but that is way too quick and limited of a conclusion to draw!

It is ironic, indeed, that the most adamant of Reformed voices today simply and uncritically accept the research of someone like Richard Muller who advocate for the Post Reformed orthodox re-appropriation of a ‘Christian Aristotelian’ mode; this is ironic because the very thing that kicked off the Protestant Reformation was in protest to Aristotle’s influence on Christian theology; particularly the impact that played on defining God’s righteousness and how that implicates a variety of things; including how ‘faith’ is conceived. If someone wants to critique evangelical Calvinism, at least my form, then start with engaging with Luther’s critique of ‘Christian Aristotelianism,’ the informing “theology” of what now constitutes most of Reformed theology, proper.

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 139-41.

[2] R.N. Frost, “Aristotle’s “Ethics:” The “Real” Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal (18:2) 1997, p. 224-25.

The Theology of the Cross in Job Says No to Natural Theology and the Theology of Glory

The book of Job provides such a visceral and existential reality toward unfolding human suffering in the context of a God-world relation. What is interesting (and this is an insight I picked up while in Ray Lubeck’s class in undergrad Old Testament Biblical Theology), is that the whole story of Job is framed by the ‘suffering-servant’ motif which starts with Moses, and is reiterated in Isaiah jobsuffering53. Understood through this canon, the book of Job ought to be read through a redemptive-historical nexus wherein the suffering of Job, while evincing existential reality and heart-ache, should not be read as an ad hoc peering into one man’s suffering as an exemplary for how we should deal with our own suffering (even though it does provide depth for this!), but instead Job’s suffering should be understood as a foreshadowing of The Suffering-Servant’s suffering for all humanity. Job’s suffering then is not simply a gratuitous one that is offered as a stand-alone story of how God and evil in the world might relate; but this story provided by Job’s life is oozing rich with cross-shaped depth that finds its real reality in the cross of Jesus Christ. We see Job vindicated by Yahweh at the end of the book, over against his “friends” or naysayers who thought they knew best; and yet what is realized is that for some unfathomable reason, God most often (as Job illustrates) has us walk through horrific instances of suffering if for no other reason but that we would cease trusting in our own resources and learn a pattern of trust and filial relationship with Him that will be much more precious than Saint Peter’s notion of pure gold (i.e. ‘our faith’). Further, what this pattern of suffering and vindication also demonstrates is that God is not interested in instant gratification, but He is long-suffering, and understands the ultimate outcomes of such suffering; nevertheless, as the Psalmist notes, he also remembers that our frames are but dust. Job’s vindication, is largely one where his friend’s “wisdom” about God is shown to be foolish and ridiculous, and Job’s simple relational and dynamic trust in God was shown to be lasting and fruitful.

One more interesting point to me that stands out about Job’s “friends;” they were basing their knowledge of God on a natural theology. They thought that God worked a certain way, based on a certain sense of creational power that they had observed by way of reflection; but what Job’s vindication shows at the end of the book, is that God’s real wisdom comes revealed in cruciform shape. A shape wherein we have no resources in and of ourselves, and in that moment where we are in total desperation, and absolute dependence on God’s sustenance alone. I can’t think of a book in the Bible where an analogy of faith versus an analogy of being is more starkly contrasted than what we find in the book of Job.

Affective Theology, A Seedbed for My Style of evangelical Calvinism

The following is a post I first wrote about a year into my blogging, back in 2006 (started blogging in 2005). I like to introduce folks to this every now and then because it serves, theologically, as the impetus that led me to the mood of evangelical Calvinism I am in now. As you read this you will see some things that might not jive exactly with the theology I currently promote here at the blog, and in our Evangelical Calvinism book; but there is lots of constructive material available here that I think can be fitted together with some of the contours of thought and theological theses that we have in evangelical Calvinism (as articulated by Myk Habets and myself in our “theses” chapter in our book). Also, beware that as you read this there are some spelling and grammar errors, as well as bibliographic formation problems. I plan on following up this post with another one that gets further into the issue of “created grace” (that you will see mentioned in this post—I have that section emboldened below). Here we go:

Here is a brief sketch to a historical system of theology that I was first introduced to while in seminary, under the tutelage of Dr. Ron Frost. This theology is known as Affective Theology (or even Free Grace Theology—not of the Zane Hodges’ style. I am a proponent of this form of theological engagement (qualified at a few points, I actually like to assimilate this with the “Scottish Theology” of Thomas F. Torrance), and believe that it beautifully captures the intention of scripture relative to things salvific and God’s nature. This framework was communicated in Puritan England by people such as Richard Sibbes and William Erbery amongst others. This was a movement that was responding to the stringent “precianism” of Federal Theology (Calvinism) articulated by fellows such as William Perkins and William Aames. Notice a testimonial offered by a man named Humphrey Mills, someone who knew what it meant to live under the unbearable burden of the moralistic proving ground spawned by the inevitable consequence of “Perseverance of the Saints” and “Limited Atonement/Election”, here he speaks in his own words about the freedom of conscience he finally felt under the teaching/preaching of Sibbes:

I was for three years together wounded for sins, and under a sense of my corruptions, which were many; and I followed sermons, pursuing the means, and was constant in duties and doing: looking for Heaven that way. And then I was so precise for outward formalities, that I censured all to be reprobates, that wore their hair anything long, and not short above the ears; or that wore great ruffs, and gorgets, or fashions, and follies. But yet I was distracted in my mind, wounded in conscience, and wept often and bitterly, and prayed earnestly, but yet had no comfort, till I heard that sweet saint . . . Doctor Sibbs, by whose means and ministry I was brought to peace and joy in my spirit. His sweet soul-melting Gospel-sermons won my heart and refreshed me much, for by him I saw and had muchof God and was confident in Christ, and could overlook the world . . . My heart held firm and resolved and my desires all heaven-ward.[1]

Here’s a heart freed from the constant burden of looking to self for assurance of salvation; and prompted to look up to Christ for freedom and salvation.

Sibbes was one of the key-note articulates against the popery he observed with the moralistic tradition provided framework through the Calvinist doctrines. Sibbes believed, along with others, that external works should never be the basis for assurance of salvation–in fact Sibbes believed that assurance of salvation should not even be a functional premise within a soteriological construct; such as Calvinism provided. Sibbes was part of a movement known as Free-Grace, this was ” . . . the party of Puritans who opposed any idea that grace is conditioned by human cooperation.” (Frost, The Devoted Life, 81). Notice this quote offered by William Erbery, a contemporary of Sibbes, as he discusses progression of Purtian thought ending with that kind of Free-Grace preaching exemplified most clearly by Sibbes, note:

I observed four great steps of God’s glorious appearance in men’s preaching. First, how low and legal were their teachings as they learned the way of preaching from Mr. Perkins, Bolton, Byfield and Dod and Dike. . . . Next the doctrine of free grace came forth, but with less success or fruit of conversion by Doctor Preston, Sibs [Sibbes], [and] Crisp. . . . Thirdly the letter of scripture, and flesh of Christ hath been highly set up by both the famous Goodwins: . . . [Thomas] excels in spiritual discourses of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and intercession, yet much according to the flesh, for he meddles not with the mystery of Christ in us. . . . [The fourth step] is the knowledge of Christ in the Spirit.[2]

As Erbery highlights, Sibbes’, amongst the other Free-Grace teachers, was not taken as seriously as the predominate moralistic (Calvinist) teachers, i.e. Perkins, Bolton, et al. But notice where Erbery’s quote leaves off, “the knowledge of Christ in the Spirit”, to this we now turn. This is an important point of departure for the teaching of Affective Theology, as defined by Sibbes, i.e. the immediacy of the Holy Spirit in the person’s life.

While Sibbes believed works were an aspect of salvation, he did not believe that these should be a barometer for determining a person’s salvation. Furthermore he believed constant obsession with such thinking was a product of an unscriptural understanding foisted on the laity of Puritan England by the Calvinist Divines. Note Ron Frost’s assessment of Sibbes’ approach here:

While Sibbes acknowledged some biblical support in calling Christians to obedience as a duty (Erbery’s category of ‘low and legal’ preaching) Sibbes clearly understood that duty can only be sustained if it is supported by the motivation of desire. Thus Sibbes featured God’s winsome love more than his power: the Spirit accomplishes both conversion and sanctification by a single means: through the revelation of God’s attractiveness by an immediate, personal disclosure. This unmediated initiative was seen to be the means by which God draws a response of heartfelt devotion from the elect.”[3]

Notice the relational nature of the salvific event, the Holy Spirit comes to the heart of the “elect” and showers the heart of the sinner with the beautiful person of Jesus Christ. It is as the heart of the sinner is enflamed a love by the work of the Holy Spirit that the sinner responds back in love–given the overwhelming attractiveness of the sweet Savior. Another thing of note, is that the primary instrument used for disclosing sweet Jesus to the heart of the sinner is through the Holy Scriptures. Furthermore, notice the centrality that heart, motive, and desire play in the thought of Sibbes’ as articulated by Frost. This to me is very important, because it takes seriously what God takes seriously, and alone searches, the hearts and motives of men (see Jer. 17:9 and many other passages). This is God’s concern, the motives, and desires of men and women; this is contrary to the system that emphasized external moralistic duties as the basis of determining one’s election (which by the way had horrific ramifications for Christian ethics as well)– Calvinism. Sibbes’ approach, and his affective anthropology, i.e. the defining feature of man (i.e. where values and motives take shape), was directly contrary to the Calvinist anthropology that saw the intellect and will as the defining features of man, and actually saw the “affections” as that which was the weakest part of man. In Calvinist thought it is within the will via interaction with the intellect that becomes enlivened by a “created quality” or Grace. It is through this created quality of Grace that man is able to cooperate with God and thus keep the duty driven moralistic standards consequently proving one’s election and salvation (like Humphrey Mills lived under).

Conversely, Sibbes saw grace as a relational characteristic of God imbued upon the heart of man. It is through this transformative intervention that man’s heart is changed (II Cor 3), and drawn to God. Note Frost’s description here, as he contrasts the Calvinist understanding of grace and the historic Free-Grace (Affective Theology) understanding of grace (as articulated by Sibbes):

In this framework some additional theological assumptions were revised. For instance, Sibbes understood grace to be God’s love offered immediately (rather than mediately) by the Spirit to the elect. By identifying grace primarily as a relational characteristic of God—the expression of his goodness—instead of a created quality or an empowerment of the will, Sibbes insisted that God transforms human desires by the Spirit’s immediate love and communion. Faith, for Sibbes, was not a human act-of-the-will but a response to God’s divine wooing. God’s laws, Sibbes argued, must be ’sweetened by the gospel’ and offered within a framework of ‘free grace.’ He also held a moderately developed form of affective anthropology (which is as further explained by Frost: Augustine’s affective position emerged in the Pelagian debate. Augustine held sin to be concupiscence of the heart—an enslavement to a love of self rather than God. In Augustine’s anthropology the heart is held to generate values; the mind uses the heart’s values to consider its options and to offer its best judgments; the will uses those judgments to engage in action. . . .”)[4]

This represents the touchstone, and most basic understanding of historic Free-Grace theology, or Affective Theology. Some highlights to take away: Affective Theology (AT) believes man heart is in total bondage to self-love; AT believes that man cannot cooperate whatsoever with God in salvation; AT believes that until the heart is transformed by God’s love through the Holy Spirit’s enflaming work, man will never find rest or salvation; AT believes contra historic Calvinist teaching that the emphasis of salvation is relationally based given the identification of God’s gift of grace with the work and person of the Holy Spirit; AT believes, given the relational basis, is not obsessed with proving one’s election since works are not the foundational component of AT’s framework of salvation.

I’ll leave it here for now, there is much more to be said about this perspective . . . especially about the framework that served as the touchstone for Affective Theology. That touchstone is found in Ephesians 5, and the Pauline marriage discussion. The marital framework provided in this beautiful epistle is picked up by AT and pressed into as the picture, but more than a picture (actually an ontological reality), of what union, and thus communion with Christ, is all about. I.e. this is contrary to the covenental framework provided by Calvinism, and the “contractual” implications provided by such a system (e.g. you keep your end of the contract, and God will keep His). The marital framework, rooted in the New Covenant, is no longer obsessed with personal performance–but instead is overwhelmed with the beauty of her bride-groom [Jesus]–marriage presupposes relationship, i.e. nothing to prove, just something to grow in–ultimately finding consummation in glorification and celebrated at the marriage supper feast of the Lamb.


[1] Ron Frost, The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics, Frost is quoting from: John Rogers, Ohel or Bethshemesh, A Tabernacle for the Sun (London, n.p., 1653).

[2] Frost, The Devoted Life, quoting from: William Erbery, The Testimony of William Erbery (London: n.p. 1658).

[3] Frost, The Devoted Life, 82.

[4]Frost, The Devoted Life, 82.


The Quingentesimus of the Protestant Reformation and the Analogia Lutherano in Christ Concentrated Biblical Exegesis

As I announced on FaceBook a week or so ago, given that we are in the year that leads to the Quingentesimus, or 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (i.e. October 31st, 1517), I have decided, in celebration, to devote much of my reading to the primary or as they are called, magisterial reformers. As such, since my blogging follows my reading, much more of my posting will beardedlutherlikewise be characterized by this period of theological development in the earlier years of the Protestant Reformation. My last post actually reflects this trajectory, as will this one. I will still of course be posting on Barth’s, Torrance’s, and other people’s theologies (and other topics of interest); but the character of my posting will have more of the historical theological thrust than maybe you’ve gotten used to from me (although if you’ve been reading me for awhile you will have seen me posting quite a bit on historical theological issues—in fact that’s all I originally posted on when I first started blogging in 2005).

Enough of this housekeeping, in this post I want to highlight the type of Christ concentrated or Christ-centered hermeneutic that Martin Luther followed in his exegesis. We will appeal to Alister McGrath in order to highlight how Luther wanted to see Jesus Christ in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament and the Psalter. As we lead into the quote from McGrath,  he has just finished sketching the medieval Quadriga (i.e. literal, allegorical, tropological/moral, and anagogical) method for interpretation. He is noting how folks like Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, et al. still worked within that medievally styled framework, but with a focus on the literal as the foundation for the other three senses. Within the literal, as we will see, there was further distinction between ‘literal-historical’ and ‘literal-prophetic;’ we will let McGrath explain the rest:

Luther makes an important distinction between the literal-historical meaning of his Old Testament text (that is, the literal meaning of text, as determined by its historical context), and its literal-prophetic sense (that is, the meaning of the text, as interpreted as referring to the coming of Christ and the establishment of his church). The Christological concentration, which is so characteristic a feature of the Dictata, is achieved by placing emphasis upon the literal-prophetic, rather than the literal-historic, sense of scripture. In this manner, Luther is able to maintain that Christ is the sensus principalis of scripture….[1]

For further development of how this works itself out in both theory and practice in the medieval context, but with particular focus on how this works out in Thomas Aquinas’s exegesis, check Matthew Levering’s outstanding book Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation.

This distinction is interesting to me, particularly because we as evangelical Calvinist follow a Christ-concentrated hermeneutic as birthed in the theologies of both Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, respectively. What we see in both of their theologies is an exegetical norm that I would suggest follows the Luther[an] or even Thomist focus upon the literal-prophetic component rather than with as much concern on the literal-historic; albeit abstracted somewhat from the Luther-esque medieval and Quadriga framework. If you read Levering’s work, he identifies this type of distinction in the literal aspect of the Quadriga as linear-historical (which would correlate with Luther’s literal-historical) and participatory-historical (which would correlate better with Luther’s literal-prophetic sense). As Levering highlights, these two aspects do not need to be in competition one with the other, but in some ways can be complementing.

As someone deeply influenced by both Barth and Torrance, and also someone who reads more broadly than just Barth or Torrance, I am committed to both senses of the literal. But, if we are going to use the Luther[an] distinction, the emphasis will be upon the literal-prophetic as regulative towards understanding the significance or telos of the literal-historical as situated providentially within the created order which is for Christ (which according to McGrath fits well with Luther’s emphasis of seeing Christ as the sensus principalis of Holy Writ).

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxdford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 80.

The Whole Church of Jesus Christ Needs to be ‘Always Reforming,’ Not Just the Reformed: Christian Humanism’s Significance for the 21st Century Church

In the past I have referred to Christian Humanism in my blog posts, and the significance I see in that medieval movement towards fostering the atmosphere where the Protestant Reformation could foment and burn. Personally I have been motivated by this ad fontes (back to the sources) movement, particularly with its desire to get back to the Bible and paleo-Christianity; without that erasmusimpetus, in fact, The Evangelical Calvinist would never have become a reality. To this end, let me share a bit more about Christian Humanism, or the studia humanitatis, as Alister McGrath describes that with particular focus on one of its most important promulgators, Erasmus. McGrath writes:

In a prefatory epistle, written in 1518 to Paul Volz, a monastic reformer, Erasmus indicated that his intention is publishing the Enchiridion was to provide a simple and yet learned philosophia Christi for the educated layman. Erasmus directed most of his criticism against scholastic theologians towards the specialised theological language they used, which made their writings unintelligible to the layman. Indeed, it is a hallmark of Erasmus’ criticism of scholastic theologians, that their verbal formulations are singled out as being of greater importance than the actual theological substance of these formulations.

In the Enchiridion, Erasmus lays great emphasis upon the need to study scripture incessantly, and to read commentaries upon them written by the fathers, rather than the schoolmen, as the former were much closer in time to the sources of doctrine than latter. In general, Erasmus’ interest in scripture and the fathers reflects the general humanist desire to return to antiquity, rather than any profound skepticism concerning the orthodoxy of later medieval theology. Although his personal creed remains elusive, Erasmus’ method is clear: the Christian church must return to her sources, and break free from the scholasticism which so addled her of late. With this end in mind, Erasmus himself undertook extensive editorial work, including the publication of the Novum Instrumentum omne in 1516. This work not only included the full Greek text of the New Testament, but also a new Latin translation which differed from the Vulgate at points of potential theological significance, along with extensive notes justifying these alterations. Erasmus’ editions of patristic texts were notable in two respects. The first is their accuracy and comprehensiveness, which made them indispensable to scholars. It is, however, the second respect which particularly claims our attention: the works of St Augustine were not given any pride of place among these texts. This reflects Erasmus’ marked preference for Jerome, whom he regarded as the essential embodiment of the ideals of the Renaissance. In a letter of 21 May 1515 to Leo X, Erasmus declared his intention to encourage the re-emergence of Jerome as the Christian theologian. As early as that year, Erasmus had defined Jerome, not Augustine, as summus theologus. Although the western theological tradition may be regarded as essentially an extended commentary upon the works of St Augustine particularly with respect to the theological renaissance of the twelfth century, Erasmus effectively called this foundation into question with his predilection for noster Hieronymus. The humanist concern for accurate texts was thus not without its theological overtones.[1]

Christian Humanism may sound like a purely literary movement, but even as McGrath underscores, it was more than that; a movement with serious theological implications. It might also appear that humanism of this sort was antagonistic towards specialized theological or ecclesial vocabulary, but that would be a mis-reading. Instead, humanism was critical of such language-systems becoming terminal in themselves; with the result of creating a culture that was too inwardly focused. Indeed, a culture that in effect cut Christian people off from the fount of Christian reality and truth as found in the Apostolic Deposit of the New Testament. What Christian Humanism brought was not just a method, but a spirit that fostered critical space for critical engagement with the church and of course other areas of engagement.

Here at The Evangelical Calvinist I am still motivated by this kind of reformational spirit, and committed to the ad fontes of Christian Humanism. The thing is, I think, at this point, that spirit and those tools need to be turned on Protestant Reformation theology itself. I see a need for reinvigoration and renewal within Reformed Christianity; that’s what has motivated me for years, i.e. to bring reformation to church of Jesus Christ by pointing people to the terminal source of all reality, Jesus Christ Himself. I believe Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth, both as Reformed theologians, represent what it looks like to be involved in this type of Christian Humanist and reformational spirit; both seeing the need to bring critique and theological development to Reformed theology. It isn’t, obviously, just Reformed theology that needs to be ‘always reforming’ (semper reformandum), but Christian theology and the Christian church in general. The spirit we find in Christian Humanism, I believe, is a spirit that should live on!

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross  (Oxford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 44-5.

Thomas Torrance Speaks Apocalypse into the Season of the World

In light of current events—political, geo-political, economical, moral, sickness, disease, famine, natural disasters, blight, living in a sinful body, so on and so forth—I find great comfort and hope in the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. Knowing that behind the veil of what eye can see, stands the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ as revealed in the book of Revelation. There is hope that vindication is annunciation2coming at that the Deus absconditus (the hidden God) will no longer remain hidden to the eyes of faith, but also by sight, be revealed Deus revelatus (the God revealed). This is the theology that stands behind the book of Revelation; it is encouraging theology, the type of theology that reflects the sofia Theou, the wisdom of God. It is God’s wisdom to veil Himself for us in the humanity of Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 1.17-25), break into this world, redeem and reconcile it from the inside out, set all things right, leave the Holy Spirit as a guarantee, ascend to the right hand of the Father, establish His Kingdom (which we see in the book of Revelation), and come again with reward and vindication for the saints (particularly the martyrs) to once and for establish His Kingdom in consummate form wherein the final enemy death is put under His feet.

Thomas F. Torrance in a little book of his Apocalypse Today offers some elegant insight into what apocalypse, revelation, and incarnation mean; all within the theology of the book of Revelation. He fleshes out, briefly, the implications of the apocalypse and how that ought to impact our hopes and perspectives as those who wait in anticipation for the second coming of Jesus Christ. As we catch up with Torrance he is just speaking of (as these are his published sermons on the book of Revelation) of how our perspectives ought to be re-oriented as we realize that God is the God of history, as such He sovereignly orders things in His providence in such a way that only He could. Torrance here is speaking about the Roman empire, as well as the island of Patmos where John has been exiled; all of this in context within which the book of Revelation was written (in his perspective by the Apostle John, I agree with Torrance on that):

That is what happens when God Almighty blows a blast of His Spirit-Breath upon the inexorable march of events. To the outward eye there may be only the mailed legions of Rome, the flinty rocks of an island prison, but to the eye of faith the whole course of history is seen to march only at the smoking chariot wheels of God. All things are discerned to work together for good so as to yield only holiness and love.

That is the meaning of Apocalypse. Apocalypse or Revelation is the unveiling of history already invaded and conquered by the Lamb of God. Apocalypse means the tearing aside of the veil of sense and time to reveal the decisive conquest of organic evil by the incarnate Son of God. Apocalypse means the unveiling of the new creation as yet hidden from our eyes behind the ugly shape of sinful history. There is to be a new creation which is the out-working of the Cross in the teeth of all the principalities and powers of darkness. In the advent presence of Christ there is to be a new heaven and a new earth. No doubt we are unable by mere outward inspection to trace the lineaments of the Kingdom of God in history, but it is nevertheless a fact that even now God governs and orders the course of the world. When Christ Himself comes, as come again He will, we shall see with our eyes that which we see now only by faith.

At its very heart Revelation means the unveiling of Jesus Christ. That is the significance of the first verses in this chapter, and it is the clue to the whole book. The unveiling of Jesus Christ implies that He has already been veiled—which is one of the facts of the Incarnation. God the Son has come amongst us in such a fashion that the full glory of His divine majesty is veiled in the humanity of Jesus. In a very real sense God was concealed in Jesus, veiled behind His flesh and suffering. How could it be otherwise? Moses looked only upon the divine glory when covered under the shadow of God’s hand. But in Jesus, God Himself has entered the shadow, in order to draw nigh and reveal Himself to us. Such veiling is a necessary part of His unveiling, for He can be unveiled to us only as we are forgiven and healed of our darkness. It is through the “veiled” Son of God, the suffering servant, that God’s sublime glory is fully revealed in the Cross and Resurrection.

In the same way we must think of the Kingdom of God as having entered our world in the life and death of Jesus as veiled in history. It is concealed behind the forms and fashions of this sinful world, so that we are unable to see it directly or immediately. The Kingdom of God does not come with observation—not yet. Look out upon the history of these two thousand years culminating in two wars of unheard-of magnitude and disaster. It is impossible to say, “Lo, here is the Kingdom of God! Lo, there!” You cannot trace the lines of the pattern of the Kingdom of God by inspecting the course of history. But in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day you can see, in spite of all that declares against it, that the Kingdom of God has already broken into our midst and is already at work amongst us. The Cross is in the field, and though its working is veiled to the outward eye, God is even now overruling the world and its sin. So now by the power of the Cross He makes all things to work together for good, and even makes the wrath of man to praise Him. The key to the ages, the clue to history, is Christ crucified, the Lamb of God. It is only the man who has seen and understood the veiling and unveiling of Jesus Christ who can penetrate beneath the guilt and wrath of history and see the veiling and unveiling of God’s Kingdom in it all.[1]

As far as I’m concerned there is nothing more relevant than the reality of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. His Kingdom has come, does come, and is coming; this is the Christian’s hope in this world. It is the hope that we have been called to proclaim from the roof-tops for all those with eyes to see and ears to hear. I find the evangel, this good news of God come in the flesh, particularly relieving, as I’ve already noted, in the days in which we live. It is this political season here in North America that causes me to press even deeper into the hope that all of humanity has in Jesus Christ; because it is clear as day that there is no hope anywhere else! Maranatha!

[1] T.F. Torrance, The Apocalypse Today (London: James Clark&Co. Limited, 1960), 12-14.

A Word to evangelicals from Alister McGrath and John Webster on Being Citizens from Another World in This World During this Political Season

In this rather intense political season I found this little thought-experiment from Alister McGrath instructive; particularly with reference to how we as Christians coram Deo (before God) ought to handle ourselves relative to our place in the culture at large. McGrath essentially argues for an ‘ambassador’ or ‘alien’ like posture as we live in this world system that is contrary to the dictates of christthekingthe heavenly-kingdom from whence we derive our citizenship and character. McGrath writes:

But let me end with a Pauline image, lent new importance by trends in secular moral philosophy. It is the image of Christians as “citizens of heaven,” developed with such force in Phil. 3:20-21. The model is that of a colony, an image familiar to the Philippians, Philippi then being a Roman colony. It was an outpost of Rome on foreign territory. Its people kept the laws of the homeland, they spoke its language, they longed for the day when they could return home to the patria, the motherland.

Let us think of ourselves, our seminaries, our churches and our families as colonies of heaven, as outposts of the real eternal city, who seek to keep its laws in the midst of alien territory. C.S. Lewis gave us many helpful ways of thinking about the Christian life, and one of the most helpful is that of the world as enemy territory, territory occupied by invading forces. In the midst of this territory, as resistance groups, are the communities of faith. We must never be afraid to be different from the world around us. It is very easy for Christians to be depressed by the fact that the world scorns our values and standards. But the image of the colony sets this in its proper context. At Philippi the civilizing laws of Rome contrasted with the anarchy of its hinterland. And so or moral vision—grounded in Scripture, sustained by faith, given intellectual spine by Christian doctrine—stands as a civilizing influence in the midst of a world that seems to have lost its moral way. If a new dark age does indeed lie ahead of us—indeed, if it is already upon us—then it is vital that the Christian moral vision, like the torch of liberty, is kept alight. Doctrine, I firmly and passionately believe, gives us the framework for doing precisely that. It can be done—and it must be done.[1]

There are aspects of this that might sound like Reinhold Niebuhr’s against culture, but I think it is actually for culture with a proper perspective. It really is a call for Christians to see themselves properly related to this world system; while we live in it we ought to operate as a leavening force by way of our perspective and posture as we draw our life blood from the other worldly kingdom we come from in Christ.

I think one consequence this can have for the Christian is that our relation to this world system will be quite loose. We won’t tie all our hopes, dreams, and aspirations as Christians into the politics of human governments, but we will learn to trust in the government of God’s Kingdom in Christ; we will walk by faith rather than by sight. I think this is the struggle we are currently witnessing right now; particularly in evangelicalism. Older evangelicals, or those of that mind-set (the mind-set I grew up in, I’m 42) have been conditioned by and brought up as culture warriors; as such, I think, they have come to tie their identity too closely to a certain sense of patriotism and nationalism—and a golden age perception of that—that becomes too determinative for their personal security and identity; to the point that that can lead to some pretty out-landish behavior when it comes to supporting this or that candidate. John Webster, as he comments on Karl Barth’s theology, has this pertinent word to offer as he comments on the German Christian’s relationship to the German state during the WW2 period. Webster writes:

A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.[2]

While ‘liberal Protestantism’ is referenced I think this kind of cultural confidence can be applied across the board to North American evangelicals, and of course, to mainline North American Christians. Two sides of the same coin, both “sides” fighting for their rights as determined by their moral and absolute selves, this mind-set has too infected the body of Christ. I think it is high time for Christians to lose confidence and hope in their nation’s successes and focus solely on the successes of God’s in-breaking Kingdom; a Kingdom that actually speaks  judgment to this world system wherein the poor and desperate among us will finally be vindicated by the coming of Jesus Christ at the final consummation (the whole theology of the book of Revelation).

I honestly can say that this political season is making me sick at this point. I cannot believe what it is revealing about evangelicalism, in particular, in my home country of the United States of America. But the good news is that properly oriented all the ugliness being revealed through this election can be and has been redeemed by the super-abundant grace of God in Jesus Christ. Our citizenship is in Christ.

[1] Alister E. McGrath, “Doctrine and Ethics,” in David K. Clark and Robert V. Rakestraw, eds., Readings in Christian Ethics. Volume 1: Theory and Method (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994), 90-1.

[2] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 35-6.

How Do We Know God? The Analogy of Being Strained Through David Bentley Hart and Karl Barth

We have discussed often, here at The Evangelical Calvinist, the analogia entis (‘analogy of being’); indeed I have even written a whole chapter in critique of it for our first volume edited book, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church—my chapter was entitled: Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either Through Christ or Through Nature. I jesusmanofsorrowscontinue to see this as a touchstone issue, but it remains one that most either just take for granted, or simply don’t care about and see it as an abstraction. But I think that is mistaken, this is a fundamental hermeneutical issue that impacts just about everything in regard to biblical interpretation, theological method, anthropology, and everything else. For those who do care, and for those who do understand its significance, what this becomes is a dividing line between those who ostensibly do classical church traditional theology or those who follow Karl Barth’s critique that analogia entis is antichrist. I have of course been inspired by Karl Barth’s and Thomas Torrance’s critique of the analogy of being.

In order to reiterate what indeed the ‘analogy of being’ entails we will refer to Kurt Anders Richardson’s description of it. In Richardson’s description, through some parting words, he offers critique of the analogy of being. After we work through Richardson’s description (and partial critique, which he develops more in his book), we will take his words of critique and use those to analyze a quote from David Bentley Hart’s affirmation of the analogia entis; particularly in its Erich Przywaraian form, which Hart advocates for. And then we will offer an alternative to the classical analogia entis through Karl Barth’s thinking on what would become known as his analogia fidei (analogy of faith). We will see, hopefully, without being too triumphalist, that Hart’s position does not withstand the criticism that Richardson alerts us to. Here is Richardson:

Barth’s rejection of natural theology is a subtheme running throughout the CD. He was a discerner of its many forms, reasons, contexts, and representatives. At the center of his critique was his alertness to the anthropological character of all natural theology. In every case, intentionally or not, something self-justifying about the human subject is being claimed, something to be humanly achieved at the highest level of awareness and motivation, by which to credit the self before God. This problem with the natural theology was rooted, however, in the statements of Scripture attesting to what is called the natural knowledge of God and the exegetical and theological traditions that took up these statements in positive ways. That Genesis 1:26–27 had presented the human being as created according to the image of God suggested to many early theologians that a deposit of divine being was to be found in the former. Theologians had long contended that however corrupted human nature had become, this implanted deposit could be revived through the rebirth of faith and intellectual renovation by the Spirit of God. The natural knowledge of God could be taught to the world not only as part of the expositions of Christian truth but also as part of that which is essential to human nature. The fact of existence could be said to be true of creatures as well as God, when thought of in binary terms, in contrast to nonexistence; yet matter was a created continuity of divine existence between God and the human on account of the imago Dei. Human beings owed their nature to being created by God in his image, according to his likeness; hence, an absence of the image, so the classic theologians reasoned, would be the cessation of human existence. This type of reflection stood behind the Catholic theology of analogia entis (analogy of being), which held the concept of a knowable correspondence between human beings and the divine Being that is part of the necessary movement toward faith in God, which God accepts and counts worthy of himself. Indeed, much of the appeal to that which persists in the goodness of God’s human creature is part of the apologetic that derives itself from the analogia entis, reflection on the imago Dei. Indeed, one could assert that the best argument for the unique value of the human being flows from this very type of reflection. The problem with this reasoning with respect to Christian theology, in its dogmatic expression of what it is to be taught, is that it misses two basic truths: the judgment and the grace of God.[1]

With Richardson’s description in mind, let’s read David Bentley Hart’s opening salvos in favor of the analogy of being; he writes:

I: The Analogy as a Principle of Christian Thought

In that small, poorly lit, palely complected world where the cold abstractions of theological ontology constitute objects of passionate debate, Erich Przywara’s proposal regarding the analogia entis is unique in its nearly magical power to generate inane antagonisms. The never quite receding thunder of Karl Barth’s cry of “antichrist!” hovers perpetually over the field of battle; tiny but tireless battalions of resolute Catholics and Protestants clash as though the very pith and pulp of Christian conviction were as stake; and, even inside the separate encampments, local skirmishes constantly erupt among the tents. And yet it seems to be the case that, as a rule, the topic excites conspicuous zeal—especially among its detractors—in directly inverse proportion to the clarity with which it is understood; for, in itself, there could scarcely be a more perfectly biblical, thoroughly unthreatening, and rather drably obvious Christian principle than Przywara’s analogia entis.

What, after all, are the traditional objections to the analogy? What dark anxieties does it stir in fretful breasts? That somehow an ontological analogy between God and creatures grants creaturely criteria of truth priority over the sovereign event of God’s self disclosure in time, or grants the conditions of our existence priority over the transcendent being of God, or grants some human structure of thought priority over the sheer novum of revelation, or (simply enough) grants nature priority over grace. Seen thus, the analogia entis is nothing more than a metaphysical system (which we may vaguely denominate “Neoplatonist”) that impudently imagines there to be some ground of identity between God and the creature susceptible of human comprehension, and that therefore presumes to lay hold of God in his unutterable transcendence. But such objections are—to be perfectly frank—total nonsense. One need not even bother to complain about the somewhat contestable dualities upon which they rest; it is enough to note that such concerns betray not simply a misunderstanding, but a perfect ignorance, of Przywara’s reasoning. For it is precisely the “disjunctive” meaning of the analogy that animates Przywara’s argument from beginning to end; for him, it is the irreducible and, in fact, infinite interval of difference within the analogy that constitutes its surprising, revolutionary, and metaphysically shattering power. Far from constituting some purely natural conceptual scheme to which revelation must prove itself obedient, the analogia entis, as Przywara conceives of it, is nothing more than the largely apophatic, almost antimetaphysical ontology—or even meta-ontology—with which we have been left now that revelation has obliged us to take leave of any naïve metaphysics that would attempt to grasp God through a conceptual knowledge of essences or genera. A more plausible objection to the analogy might be the one that Eberhard Jüngel attributed (unpersuasively) to Barth, and that even Hans Urs von Balthasar found somewhat convincing: that so austere and so vast is the distinction between the divine and human in Przywara’s thought that it seems to leave little room for God’s nearness to humanity in Christ. This is no less mistaken than other, more conventional views of the matter, but at least it demonstrates some awareness of the absolute abyss of divine transcendence that the analogy marks.[2]

At least with Hart we know right where he stands right off the bat! But he falls prey to the parting critique of Richardson, in my view. Not too long ago I wrote another blog post that was titled Barth’s Orthodoxy and the Resurrection of Jesus as the History of the World. In that post I quoted and wrote some stuff that gets at Richardson’s critique of the analogia entis with his reference to God’s judgment and grace, and how that is absent in the classical understanding of the analogy of being. Here’s something that I think helps develop that a little further, with particular reference to Barth’s theology by Robert Dale Dawson:

The resurrection of Jesus Christ for Barth in his The Resurrection of the Dead has to do with the transition, the crossing of the infinite gulf, from God’s eternity to human history – but a transition which involves not merely an entrance into the stream of history (as might be said of the virgin birth) but also a decisive transformation of the whole of historical reality. Whereas the incarnation embraces the particular history of Jesus Christ from Bethlehem to Golgotha, the resurrection is the reality of Jesus Christ which includes and affects all history and every historical moment. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the event of existential import for every other human being. Apart from this transition there is no sure and reliable revelation of God to humankind. Religion and even the Christian witness is pitilessly nothing more than the dream of human wishes, and the whole of the theological enterprise falls to the Feuerbachian critique as being nothing more than a pretence – anthropology in guise.[3]

In Barth’s (and Torrance’s) theology there is no nature or imago Dei, no image of God separate from Jesus Christ as God’s imago (cf. Col. 1.15). This is basic to understanding Barth’s critique of the analogy of being. As Richardson alerts us to, what is absent in the classical construal of the analogy of being is that even though humanity is created in the image of God it does not emphasize the fact that that image has been utterly de-humanized, or “de-imagized” in the Genesis fall. The analogy of being, classically understood, operates under a premise that makes an abstract conception of the image of God regulative and normative for theological ontology, and human capacity for knowledge of God. The classical analogy of being gives nature a primacy and primalcy relative to human engagement with God, that Barth believes only God’s grace gives space for; particularly as that grace is given lovingly in the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ. This is why Barth, as Dawson develops, was so intent on pressing the idea that God’s grace is the total ground that is required for human beings to have a right standing before God; attendant with that standing in grace comes with it the capacity to actually and genuinely know and speak of God. In other words, it is God’s grace that fallen humanity is judged in the Judge Jesus Christ and created anew in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. This is where capacity for knowing God from all time is made possible in the theology of Barth; it is all grace.

Furthermore, in Barth’s theology,  the utter transcendence between God and humanity, which Hart rightly notes, is breached by God’s gracious election to become human, enter into all that entails, and from the inside/out re-create, through resurrection, all that was lost (and more) in the lapse of humanity in the Garden. In other words, in Barth’s thinking, there was no human ‘being’ present, not even in the original creation, that wasn’t first funded and formed by the grace of God. There wasn’t, in Barth’s thinking, an image of God, even in the original creation, that wasn’t first imaged by Jesus Christ, Deus incarandus, ‘the God to be incarnate’.


I am not totally persuaded, as Hart develops his argument in his essay, that even the classical position on the analogy of being is at odds with Barth’s critique as someone like Hart would have us to believe. That’s not to say that anything like the classical analogia entis remains, but something more like what we find in Barth’s reformulation of election happens to the analogia entis. I think the ‘apparent’ impasse between the analogy of being and something like Barth’s analogia fidei is not a total loss; I believe there actually might be a constructive way forward here. But it would take an open heart in order for that to happen, a heart that is willing to be innovative and constructive; even to the point that that heart is willing to depart, in letter, from what it perceives as the tradition of the church. This is radical, I know, but no more radical than being a Protestant in the first place; just ask Martin Luther.


[1] Kurt Anders Richardson, Reading Karl Barth: New Directions For North American Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004), 123-24.

[2] David Bentley Hart, “The Destiny of Christian Metaphysics: Reflections on the Analogia Entis,” accessed from somewhere online via Google. I don’t remember when or why I found this essay, but do remember it was a chance find.

[3] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 5-6.

The Covenant of Works in Reformed Theology and an Alternative Covenantal Frame Provided by evangelical Calvinism

I have had a little interaction, recently, on Twitter, with Derek Rishmawy in regard to his affirmation of the Protestant Reformed Federal theology covenant of works. As such I am returning to this post I originally wrote up at least a couple of years ago, a post that offers a full explanation of the history and development of the covenant of works; and then offers an evangelical Calvinist alternative informed by none other than Karl Barth. This is also in response (but only in acknowledgement) to a forty page paper I read from David Gibson where he critiques the type of critique I offer up in my first paragraph following this one (which is informed by T.F. Torrance’s type of critique of Federal theology). Gibson argues that the three points I make in my following paragraph are weak and misunderstand Federal theology; his response isn’t directly to me, but to Torrance and Rolson in particular.

The Covenant of Works/Grace in classic Covenant Theology ultimately provides us with a God who 1) becomes shaped by Law as Grace, in relation to His creation (primarily the gem of His creation: humanity); 2) cannot efficaciously love His ‘elect’ people until the legal conditions of the Law are met; 3) and who ends up with a rupture in His subject (or person in the Son), as the Son’s jesuscreatorlife is shaped by the decrees in creation when He agrees (in the pactum salutis or Covenant of Redemption) to meet the conditions of the broken-Law by redeeming and purchasing the ‘elect’ humanity by incarnating (enfleshing), actively obeying (meriting), and dying on the cross.

I think these above stipulations and observations all represent theological problems that most Christians, by way of piety, would want to repudiate, because these observations about God in classic Covenant Theology do not actually end up cohering with the conception of God as love and grace that becomes so apparent in God’s first Word of original creation in Genesis 1, and His continuous exemplification of this in the manger of Christmas, and so forth.

Beyond trying to further engage with the inherent theological problems that I find plaguing classical Covenant Theology, for the rest of this expose, as it were, what I would like to do is attempt to substantiate my claims by simply quoting post Reformed orthodox scholar, par excellence, professor Richard Muller on what gives classical Covenant Theology its purported shape;  both in its etymology and synchronic historic development, and in its contemporary expression in our current situation. So, be prepared to read for about the next five to seven minutes or so, and then reflect upon what Muller articulates as the focal points of what constituted, and thus of what constitutes the particular and global realities of what makes classic Covenant Theology, classic Covenant Theology. [ps. The following is not for the faint of heart, take off your blog hat, and put on your paper reading hat, the following is made up of approx. 3600 words]

[G]iven 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.

mullerAdam, 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.[1]

Muller’s explication of the history, development, and contemporaneous reality of classical Covenant Theology is quite clear. As he develops this it becomes clear that for classical Covenant Theology, the touchstone for the subsequent redemptive-historical narrative development in the Old Testament, in particular, is Genesis 3; wherein ‘Law’ is elevated as locus classicus for interpreting God’s relation to tim-kellerhumanity in the imago Dei, and further, for exegeting how ‘Grace’ functions as an adjunct of ‘Law’ in the divine determination and decree.

Bringing this into application: In reference to my post on Timothy Keller’s book, Gospel Theology: Center Church, what bubbles up for me, and becomes pretty apparent (especially understanding the background of Keller’s theological education at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he also has taught as Adjunct Faculty), is that even if Keller is not a theological technician, such as Witsius & Brakel are in the history, or as Richard Muller, Carl Truemen, Scott Clark, et. al. are presently, he (Keller) is a practitioner, and I would suggest not a naïve one, as some would like to understandably suggest. Keller’s theology in general, and soteriology in particular, have an ‘informing theology’, as Walter Kaiser imbibes in another (and in his own biblical studies) context. And while Keller might not dot all of his “i’s” and cross all of his “t’s,” like Muller & co. do, he still has these “i’s” and “t’s” present and underwriting his practical theology (I think my post on him illustrates that to a “t”).

An alternative to all of the above, the alternative that we offer in our so called, Evangelical Calvinism, can be indicated by Karl Barth’s reification or recasting of Covenant Theology by starting the order of things not in Genesis 3, but in Genesis 1 as reinterpreted by John 1:1. The relation of God to His creation is ‘protologically’ grounded personally (not decretively) in His first and final Word of grace to be for us  barthglassesand with us (as the archetypal imago Dei & imago Christi in the original creation and apocalyptic re-creation) in and through His Self-determined (gracious) free choice to not be God without us, but only with us. Barth’s reordering of things, in this regard is captured well as he opines in (and more commonly as he applies this contour of thought throughout his theological oeuvre):

He [God] wills and posits the creature neither out of caprice nor necessity, but because He has loved it from eternity, because He wills to demonstrate His love for it, and because He wills, not to limit His glory by its existence and being, but to reveal and manifest it in His own co-existence with it. As the Creator He wills really to exist for His creature. That is why He gives it its own existence and being. That is also why there cannot follow from the creature’s own existence and being and immanent determination of its goal or purpose, or a claim to any right, meaning or dignity of existence and nature accruing to it except as a gift. That is why even the very existence and nature of the creature are the work of the grace of God.[2]

Barth sees the Covenant [of Grace], as do I, as the ‘internal basis for creation’ and ‘creation as the external basis of the covenant’[3]; Michael Allen writes:

[…] Faithful to his doctrine of election, he [Barth] considers creation within the bounds of his ‘Christological concentration’. The next paragraph (§41) considers the link between creation and covenant, noting that they are intertwined with ‘creation as the external basis of the covenant’ and ‘covenant as the internal basis for creation’….[4]

I will have to leave this kind of suggestive alternative for later (and simply refer you to other posts on my blog where I have engaged with the ‘alternative’ further, and to our edited book: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church).


This paper (of sorts) has covered a lot of ground (about 3,500 words of ground). I started this “paper” out with a few points of theological critique in regard to classical Covenant Theology and its implications. I then turned to Richard Muller, and quoted him at length for the purposes of illustrating how I might have come to my conclusions which are based upon the kind of historic classical Covenant Theology that Muller & co. articulates, embraces and defends. I then turned this depiction of classical Covenant Theology towards the pastoral theology of Timothy Keller as he has articulated it in his book Gospel Theology; and I included, therein, that Keller, while not a technician of classical Covenant Theology, is in fact a practitioner of classical Covenant Theology in its most basic and thematic expression. After all of this, I offered an alternative to classical Covenant Theology by alerting the reader to Evangelical Calvinism’s ‘informing theology’ provided by Karl Barth (and I would add here, Thomas F. Torrance). And I have had to leave it here, because of space and time restraints.

My hope is that, at the least, even if you disagree with my conclusions and the way forward in regard to engaging with Covenant Theology, that you will at least arrive at the one conclusion; and that is that classical Covenant Theology (made up as it is of the covenant of works, grace, and redemption, respectively) elevates ‘Law’ as the touchstone—even if one wants to argue is couched in ‘Grace’—for how Covenant Theology believes that God relates to humanity, even in His ‘dearly beloved Son’. If Grace is contingent upon Law and Law is contingent upon Grace, then it becomes very hard to conceive of a way to disentangle them as distinct things or realities; indeed, Muller and the classical Reformed position does not want to do so. And so grace is really law, and law is really grace. And I must leave it here.

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

[2] Karl Barth, CD III/1.95

[3] See R. Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader (New York: T&T Clark International, 2012), 115 (nook edition, chapt. 8, first page).

[4] Ibid.