God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility in Hypostatic Union

The following is Karl Barth’s articulation on a Christ centered understanding of human freedom and God’s sovereignty. Barth focuses on Jesus as the archetypical man, which then becomes the basis for how we should understand our relationship to the Father — and the subsequent freedom “for” God that humanity has in Christ. We will hear from Barth and Bruce McCormack in the following quote:

seen in the light of God’s self giving and the freedom of Jesus’ obedience unto death, Barth concludes that [this was McCormack’s part]:

the perfection of God’s giving of himself to man in the person of Jesus Christ consists in the fact that far from merely playing with man, far from merely moving or using him, far from dealing with him as an object, this self giving sets man up as a subject, awakens him to genuine individuality and autonomy, frees him, makes him a king, so that in his rule the kingly rule of God himself attains form and revelation. How can there be any possible rivalry here, let alone usurpation? How can there be any conflict between theonomy and autonomy? How can God be jealous or man self assertive? (CD I I/2, p. 179)

. . . Genuine freedom as it is realized in Jesus is not a freedom from God but a freedom for God (and, with that, a freedom for other human beings). ‘ To the creature God determined, therefore, to give an individuality an autonomy, not that these gifts should be possessed outside Him, let alone against Him, but for him and within his kingdom; not in rivalry with his sovereignty but for its confirming and glorifying’ (CD I I/2, p. 178).

I think it is important to ground everything in Christ, even this apparent and historical conundrum; I appreciate Barth’s framing of this issue here, and I really appreciate T. F. Torrance even more as he fleshes this out through emphasizing the vicarious nature of Christ’s Spirit anointed work — and further, how he grounds “our freedom and choice for God” in Christ’s medatiorship as the God-Man (cf. I Tim. 2:5-6). Too often in Christian theology we have a dualistic competition between God and Man; instead we should see this in unitary harmony as God reconciles man in Christ through the Incarnation and hypostatic union.

*an old post from another blog

Prayer and Scripture in Barth’s Theology contra His Reformed Critics


The Bible for the Christian is the place to be, so to speak. It’s the place I want to be, because particularly as a Reformed Protestant Christian I believe this is the special place that God has decided and ordained to encounter His people; those with eyes to see and ears to hear. As of late I have been pressing into, once again, the theology of the Post Reformation Reformed Orthodox theologians—the theologians who followed behind the magisterial reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin; the theologians who are known as the ‘schoolmen’ or even the intellectual fathers—it is these theologians who helped to develop the Protestant Bible reading ethic with the belief in the priesthood of all believers. It was these theologians who believed, starting even with Luther (and prior, think of Wycliffe et al.), that the Bible should be in the vernacular so that all Christians could encounter God for themselves; so that all believers could be confronted with the living voice of God (viva vox Dei). This reading ethic for us Protestants presses on.

And yet those who claim heir to these Protestant forebears believe that they alone have the keys to this kingdom; to the truly Reformed and Protestant kingdom. Which means that if you don’t align with the neo-Calvinists, neo-Reformed of the 21st century, then you simply are a sub-classed Christian. It is this sub-class status that the neo-Reformed place someone like Karl Barth in (who I consider my teacher); even though Barth was someone who helped stem the tide of German liberal Protestantism in Western Europe in the early and mid 20th century. Barth believed he was working as a Reformed theologian in the spirit of the Reformed faith, in the spirit of semper reformanda (always reforming). Barth believed that the Reformed scripture principle was of utmost importance, and it informed his own theological program as a fundamentum (foundation). Indeed, personally I think Karl Barth represents the best of the Reformed faith, particularly with his focus and emphasis on actually engaging with the Bible and its theology grounded in Jesus Christ. Note what Barth writes in his book from 1923 The Theology of the Reformed Confessions; he is reflecting on the Reformed scripture principle and how it was articulated among certain early Reformed confessions. Here he is referencing the Berner Synodus and how prayer and Bible reading ought to be the mainstay, particularly for pastors, but indeed for all Christians. Barth writes:

Taken together, all these documents emphasize as the first admonition, often expressly incorporated into the confession: One should read the holy Scripture. Theologians especially should do this “night and day” [“noctes diesque”], as the Bohemian Confession demands (M 454, 32). Zwingli, speaking of his Short Instruction, says that it would be in vain if those who teach it do not firstly petition God “that he give them grace, and afterwards search in the Scriptures diligently, remaining therein day and night, and as well finally they do not show a disposition to built the true Jerusalem” (23,11[–13]). In its thirty-seventh and thirty-eighth chapters, the Berner Synodus gives its pastors weighty instruction, still valuable today, regarding how they should do this. Above all, they should pray:

[I]t is abundantly plain that prayer is an emptying and preparing of the hear, so that a person might grasp and retain the meaning and counsel of God that is concealed in the letters. Otherwise, lacking devotion one will read the Scripture like a worldly history and apply only one’s reason to it. Such a reading produces nothing more than inflated carnal wisdom, which is subsequently imposed upon the poor congregation as though from God and the Word of God…. If the prayer is made from a repentant, thirsty heart, then the book should be opened and carefully read as God’s Word, which it truly is, and not as human word. While doing so, one should persist in that intensive prayer until a little divine understanding flows down from above. The reader is obligated to accept this and to consider immediately that the Holy Spirit speaks in it for his chastising improving. That is, the reader should freely engage with God alone, excluding all other creatures, with a simple and committed spirit. He should not consider what he should tell the people but rather how he himself might receive from God further light and knowledge.

In addition, he should consider his own faith experience up to now, as well as other writings that might contradict his present understanding, and “pray for more insight while he continues with determination in such practice until the truth of the scripture completely illumines his heart, producing a composed gratitude and zealous consideration of the knowledge he has received” (M 54, 10[–33]). Moreover, he should certainly make use of old and new books and commentaries. “May they be properly read ‘judiciously’ [cum judicio], with understanding and improvement. What a joy it is when one discovers that God has given him something with which the gifts of other people agree or that perhaps others have not yet attained. He should not be proud of this, since he has requested it from God and knows very well what will follow if he should fall into rampant arrogance” (B. Syn. 101). Finally, the pastors should “together compare the Scriptures,” confer, conduct “conversations” about the gospel, “each one with his neighbor, who is also God-fearing and desires to gain further knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” They should be not “biting, angry, stubborn,” and insistent upon their own opinion already formed , but thankful for the smallest thing “of Christ and his gifts that one might find in another person” (B. Syn. 102[–3]). This is how the Reformed principle of Scripture should take shape in living theological practice. |[1]

Barth refers to this in the affirmative. We see the role that prayer and Bible reading played for Barth in his own theological development and posture as a Reformed theologian. When you read Barth for yourself all of the demonizing of him melts away, particularly when it comes to the way that Barth thought of Holy Scripture and the instrumental role it played in his theological development. I grow weary of the neo-classically-Reformed piling on Barth based upon absurd caricature and lampooning. I grow tired of people pissing on Barth making claims about Barth and what he thought about Scripture as if they speak from some holy height; they don’t, and it is un-Christian and irresponsible to make claims about Barth and his views of Scripture that are simply not true. And more than that, it is ironic that Barth himself, in his reverence for Scripture out-Scriptures most of his classically Reformed critics (i.e. think of Cornelius Van Til, Carl Henry, and the way that Christianity Today back in the day tarred and feathered him, particularly in regard to what he ostensibly believed about Scripture).

I say that Barth’s critics are ironic because when you actually read the theology that funds these critic’s theology you quickly realize that they rely more on classical philosophical thinking than Barth does; by a long shot. When you read the post reformed orthodox theology you realize that it is funded by Aristotelian Thomist intellectualist assumptions about God and every other subsequent cogitation. Barth’s theology, by contrast, attempts to think directly from revelation, from Jesus Christ. Barth attempts to embody the ideal of the Reformed Protestant scripture principle as we see illustrated beautifully in what I just quoted from him (the rest of his book is loaded with the same). So Barth, as a modern, thinks from the categories of Scripture itself much more directly than what we find funding his critic’s theology; which is ironic.

To leave though on a positive note: I am indebted to Barth and Thomas Torrance for doing Reformed theology in a way that attempts to think only Deus dixit[2], after God has spoken; and to do so in a principled way, as if Jesus Christ is the exegesis of God (Jn. 1.18). I commend Barth and after Barth theologians to you for this very reason. And I challenge those critics of Barth to actually read Barth and quit denying him to people who would benefit from him most; people sitting in the pews, and out on the streets.

[1] Karl Barth, The Theology of the Reformed Confessions, trans. Darrell L. Guder and Judith J. Guder (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 51-2.

[2] See Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics.

How evangelical Calvinism is not Arminianism et al.: Metaphysics Matter

Just because evangelical Calvinism affirms universal atonement some have concluded, or might conclude that we are essentially a sub-set of Arminian theology; if not, at the least, Amyrauldian—but this could not be further from the truth. Evangelical Calvinists, such as myself, follow a thoroughly different prolegomenon (or theological methodology) than what we will find funding the arminiusprintthinking of Arminians, Arminius, or even the classically Reformed (who take their cues from scholasticism Reformed, and Thomist intellectualism [as did Arminius himself, in a modified form]). I have written on our dialectical approach to theology, and analogy of faith method, with Myk Habets and personally in our 2012 edited book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church.

In order, though, to illustrate my point further let me highlight Arminius’ personal approach to how he thinks of knowledge of God and how that implicates God’s dealing with humanity in salvation in a God-world relation. I will appeal to a rather lengthy section from Richard Muller’s book on Arminius; in this section Muller elucidates Arminius’s appropriation of Molina’s (et al.) ‘middle knowledge,’ and how Arminius used this to foreword his own uniquely styled understanding of God, foreknowledge, predestination, and salvation. What this sketch from Muller should illustrate is how Arminius, much like his scholastic and Reformed contemporaries worked from within a logico-causal mechanistic and deterministic Aristotelian (if not Stoic) understanding of metaphysics (it is precisely this that evangelical Calvinists, following the lead of Barth and Torrance through their respective actualism[s], repudiate).

Muller writes (in full):

This problem, resident in Thomist theology, had become a focus of discussion at the University of Louvain after the publication of John Driedo’s De concordia liberi arbitrii et praedestinationis divinae in 1537. Driedo argued that divine grace and human freedom ought not to be severed in the work of salvation and, indeed, that “the right use of free will, foreknown by God, ought to be the basis for election to the grace of “justification” and that, therefore, predestination could be defined as the divine decree “to call and to aid human beings in such a way as to bring about their obedience.” Driedo found it necessary to distinguish between the prior divine intention to save all human beings which establishes the priority of grace and rests all salvific acts of human beings on the effective movement of God as first cause and the divine foreknowledge of the success or failure of that grace, inasmuch as those who are called do not respond equally to the divine offer of salvation. The ultimate ground of predestination is the divine good pleasure, but this ultimate ground cannot conflict with the divine demand that human beings freely choose to live rightly. Driedo’s views were carried forward by his students at Louvain and were, beginning in 1556, adopted by the Jesuit teacher, Fonseca, as the basis for his refutation of Calvin’s teaching, De praedestinatione, libero arbitrio et gratia contra Calvinium (Paris, 1556). By 1565, Fonseca had provided a full description of the concept of a divine scientia media, prior to the divine decrees and, therefore, having the character of a noncausal knowing, distinct from the categories of scientia necessaria and scientia libera.

It was precisely this ultimately causal character of the divine intellect—that God knows all possibilities and, granting the priority of intellect over will knowingly ordains which possibilities he will actualize—that Molina strove to overcome in his debate with the somewhat radicalized Augustinianism of Bañez and with the Dominican interpreters of Thomas Aquinas. Whereas Thomism generally and Bañez in particular “began with metaphysical principles,” with God “as first cause and prime mover,” Molina began with the problem of the free consent of the will and assumed as his task the explanation of “divine foreknowledge and the action of grace in such a way that the freedom of the will is not explained away or tacitly denied. Molina’s Concordia liberi arbitrii cum gratiae donis, divina praescientia, providential, praedestinatione et reprobatione, published in 1588, argued that God’s foreknowledge of future contingents must be understood not as a knowledge of contingencies created or ordered as such by the direct action of the divine will (and therefore a category of scientia libera) but as a knowledge of contingencies standing prior to “any free act of his will” and resting on a clear and certain knowledge of the act of the creature.

Thus , Molina argues the existence of a divine knowledge or foreknowledge

Mediate between the free and the purely natural knowledge of God by which … God knew, before any free act of his will, what would come to pass conditionally (ex hypothesi) by the agency of the created will in the order of things, granting that he had decided to place these angels or men in a particular situation; if, moreover, the created will were able to do the contrary, by [this foreknowledge] he would know the contrary.

This divine knowledge, therefore, rests entirely upon the acts of creatures. No divine determination enters into the scientia media. Thus, God is capable of foreknowing the way a given creature will act, given certain conditions—and capable, therefore, of acting upon this foreknowledge of future contingents by establishing those conditions accordingly. Molina refers specifically to the statement of Origen that “a thing will happen not because God knows it as future; but because it is future, it is on that account known by God before it exists,” as cited by Aquinas had categorically refused to view the future event as the cause of something in God or as standing outside of the divine causality.

A crucial element, therefore, in the transition from Aquinas’ view to the modified Thomism—on this point, radically modified—of the Jesuit theologians, was the denial of the causal nature of the divine knowing. Molina insisted on the utter omniscience of God and rested the divine foreknowledge of future contingents on the “unlimited perfection of the divine intellect.” In other words, God so utterly knows the entire realm of possibility that, beyond his willing some things to be and other things not to be, God also knows, simply because of his own infinite cognitive powers, the actual results of all contingent causes prior to their actualization. Suárez, whose formulation of the problem Arminius also probably read, chose not to rest his argument purely upon the nature of divine cognition. Suárez argued that God, in foreknowing the nature or character of his creatures, foreknows how creatures will be disposed to act in any given situation, and therefore foreknows with certainty the actual result of a future creaturely choice.[1]

While this represents interesting historiography and theological development relative to the Protestant scholastics (inclusive of the Reformed and Arminius in particular), it should be illustrative of my point which I made to start this post out. Evangelical Calvinism does not think from the type of a priori speculative metaphysics and theory of causation we see funding this sketch by Muller. I don’t really think critics of evangelical Calvinism (if they have engaged at all) get this, not at all. Roger Olsen’s engagement with evangelical Calvinism (i.e. our book) doesn’t get this; Kevin Vanhoozer in his engagement with evangelical Calvinism (in published form) doesn’t really appreciate this (he thinks our appeal to a “Barthian” or “Torrancean” mode of dialogical/dialectical theology does not serve as the pressure valve we think it does). I say this because these critics of evangelical Calvinism continue to try and force us to operate from the type of metaphysics we see funding what Muller just described of the scholastics Reformed, the Molnisits, Arminius et al. But to me this is thoroughly disingenuous, especially if both Olson and Vanhoozer, among others can recognize that we do indeed work from other theological methodological grounds (which attendant to that comes with its own set of self-referential criterion of coherences).

Evangelical Calvinists, at least this one (me), after Barth think from the scandal and particularity of Jesus Christ. Instead of thinking a priori from ad hoc speculative metaphysics and schemata, we attempt to think all things theological from the depth dimension of God Self-revealed and interpreted in Jesus Christ; so we think a posteriori. We aren’t attempting to think out all of these types of abstract causal relations in a tightly wound conception of a God-to-world relation that is informed by a mechanical theoretical conception of causation (from God to humanity). Thomas F. Torrance gets at how an evangelical Calvinist understanding of causation, if we have one, is totally at odds with what we find funding classical Calvinism and Arminianism. Torrance writes:

It is this interweaving of natural processes and human agencies, of nature and rational intention, that gives history its complicated patterns. The course of events has often quite unforeseen results, for human acts may fail to achieve what would have been expected or may achieve far more than would or could have been anticipated. But in our interpretation of history we must never forget that in the heart of historical events there is free happening which bears the intention in which the true significance of history is to be discerned. Thus while we must appreciate fully the physical factors involved, we must penetrate into the movement of time in the actual happening in order to understand the event in the light of the intentionality and spontaneity embedded in it. The handling of temporal relation has proved very difficult and elusive in the history of thought, for it has so often been assimilated to logical relation and so transposed into something very different. The confusion of temporal with logical connection corresponds here to that between spontaneity and causal determinism in natural science. We can see this error recurring, for example, in notions of predestination where the free prius of the divine grace is converted by the scholastic mind into logico-causal relation, while the kind of time-relation with which we operate between natural events is imported into the movements of divine love and activity. It is a form of the same mistake that people make in regard to the resurrection, when they think of its happening only within the logico-causal nexus with which they operate in classical physics.[2]

In other words for the evangelical Calvinist, there are unseen, unknown contingencies built into the nature of things themselves that make it impossible to accurately infer a stable causal chain of events from the event back to the cause itself. The answer to this, in relation to knowledge of God, is to see the event and cause conjoined together in the person-act of Jesus himself. It is from this vantage point that we then are set up to know God, in Christ, but no longer as some sort of deterministic causal agent; but instead, as personal, triune Divine agent who apocalyptically breaks into the contingencies of history re-creating them towards their telos or created purpose in Christ (cf. Col. 1:13ff) — the resurrection, then, being the instantiation of this within time-space history. So we are forced to think from the mystery of God made flesh itself. What this does is to set up a whole other set of questions, ones that have to do with Godself and Christ revealed, rather than abstract speculative questions that cause thinkers to construct the types of theories of causation and metaphysics that we see funding classical Calvinist and Arminian theologies (among others).

I could share more, particularly with reference to how actualism works, at least in my style of evangelical Calvinism. But hopefully what has been shared will allow the reader to appreciate how at odds evangelical Calvinism is with its kissing cousins in the classical forms of Calvinism and Arminianism (and other so construed expressions of classical theistic theology). I know it is tempting for folks committed to the classical metaphysic to force evangelical Calvinists into their conceptual playground, but that’s just simply a dishonest requirement. We all work within and from self-referential coherentist constructs of thought, as such it is appropriate that we recognize that and then test the “coherence” of said frameworks from within the parameters of their own conceptual houses. Having said that, not all conceptual frameworks are equal; I contend that evangelical Calvinism has the capacity to think more responsibly from the implications and conceptual impositions of the Gospel itself, in contrast to what we find in the classical frameworks, which work from a prioris not necessarily related to the God of the Bible or the Gospelself.


[1] Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991), 158-61.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2009, 249-50.

Vulnerability as an Attribute of God

Holbein Dead Christ, detail_phixr (2)

I recently wrote this on Facebook: “I think we too quickly forget that one of the most amazing things about what God in Christ demonstrated in the incarnation was total vulnerability; a willingness to be taken advantage of for something greater.”

What I had in mind was this famous Pauline passage:

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.[1]

And as I had the Philippians correspondence in mind, I also had this Karl Barth reflection on the humiliation of God in Christ in mind:

Positively his self-emptying refers to the fact that, without detracting from his being in the form of God, he was able and willing to assume the form of a servant and go about in the likeness of a human being, so that the creature could know him only as a creature, and he alone could know himself as God. In other words, he was ready to accept a position in which he could not be known in the world as God, but his divine glory was concealed from the world. This was his self-emptying…. His deity becomes completely invisible to all other eyes but his own. What distinguishes him from the creature disappears from everyone’s sight but his own with his assumption of the human form of a servant with its natural end in death, and above all with his death as that of a criminal on the cross…. He can so empty himself that, without detracting from his form as God, he can take the form of a servant, concealing his form of life as God, and going about in the likeness of a human being…. It all takes place in his freedom and therefore not in self-contradiction or with any alteration or diminution of his divine being…. This means that so far from being contrary to the nature of God, it is of his essence to possess the freedom to be capable of this self-offering and self-concealment, and beyond this to make use of this freedom, and therefore really to effect this self-offering and to give himself up to this self-humiliation. In this above all he is concealed as God. Yet it is here above all that he is really and truly God. Thus it is above all that he must and will also be revealed in his deity by the power of God.[2]

Rarely do we hear of vulnerability as an attribute of God, but that’s what we see revealed in the most dramatic reality of all time; i.e. the incarnation of God (in the asumptio carnis). We live in a world where, often, might is seen as right; and fake it till you make it is chivalrized. We live in a world where we attempt to sell ourselves by putting our best faces all over our curriculum vitas and resumes. Humanity in its in se incurvatus (incurved) state presents a different version of God, a paper-god. The conception of divinity that shapes the modern Western psyche is a projection of the greatest “discernible” attributes of what it means to be human; these attributes are “hulkinized,” and it is this conception of God we worship on a daily systemic basis. We build great cathedrals of materialism and sport to honor our conception of the divine. And we look at the God revealed in Jesus Christ as foolish and weak (cf. I Cor. 1.17-25).

But this is the radical reality of the Gospel, of the God of the Gospel. The living God revealed in Christ is a God who is willing to be mis-taken as a mere man, as a human being among us. He is willing to be seen as the many instead of the One, if only He might redeem the many from His inner-reality as the God-man. It is this vulnerability that we see on display in the true and the living God; this is why the world-system, and the spirit that makes that up ultimately believe that the God exegeted in Christ is an imposter. This is why the wisdom of the world, if anything, must abstract any sense of divinity from Christ, and at the most, attempt to elevate Him up as one of their own; as a ‘good’ man, or sage teacher. Vulnerability as an attribute of God does not compute with humanly conceived conceptions of the divine; it seems weak and foolish. But such is the wisdom of God; his foolishness and weakness is greater than the foolishness and weakness of the self-possessed human.

[1] Philippians 2.5-8.

[2] Karl Barth, CD II/1, 516-17 cited by George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 86-7, Nook version.


The Word of God with its Four Standpoints: Power to Change from Glory to Glory


I cannot emphasize enough what a radical work Holy Scripture as God’s Holy Word has done in my life personally. It all started back in 1995, the Lord introduced a crisis of faith into my life, a crisis that lasted for years and years; full of heavy anxiety, depression, and dark nights of the soul. It was this crisis of faith that propelled me to push deep into Holy Scripture; Scripture became my daily bread, it was my sustenance. I memorized it (books), read through it over and over again, I even went so far as to sleep with my Bible (it brought that much peace and comfort for me). The Lord has used His Holy Word to transform my life from glory to glory, and He still is. The “mystery” of all of that transformative power in my earlier days didn’t have as much clarity to me; I just knew that Scripture was powerful and that it was God’s Word, and that I needed it to survive.

What I didn’t realize back then, as much, is how intimately related the written Word was to its reality, the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ. In a way I somewhat imbued the written Word with secret mystical powers immanent to itself; as if it was its own terminus (the way an North American understanding of inerrancy does currently). But as I continued to read Scripture that understanding was busted open to the point that Scripture, for me, asserted its instrumental nature. I began to see, apart from any insight from trained theologians or exegetes, that Scripture was living and the living voice of God precisely because it pointed beyond itself to its reality (res), Jesus Christ. I began to understand that Scripture’s reality was not contingent upon my capacity to make it so, but that it has its own objectivity extrinsic from me; that it is only contingent upon the Triune God’s life and reality in Jesus Christ. Once this clicked for me Scripture became even more holy  because I understood that this was the place, the holy ground where I could encounter the living God in Jesus Christ.

As I have continued to study, all of this has gained even more clarity. Someone who has helped me the most (no surprises for any of you!) is, Karl Barth. Here is what he has to say about the Word, as he articulates his theology and ontology of the Word (in extenso):

(1) First, the Word of God as directed to us is a Word which we do not say to ourselves and which we could not in any circumstances say to ourselves. Every human word, including that of proclamation and even the Bible, we could and can perhaps say to ourselves as such. Encounter with the human word as such is never genuine, irrevocable encounter, nor can it be. Encounter with the Word of God is genuine, irrevocable encounter, i.e., encounter that can never be dissolved in union. The Word of God always tells us something fresh that we had never hear before from anyone. The rock of a Thou which never becomes an I is thrown in our path here. This otherness which is yet related to us and made known to us, though only in this way, stamps it fundamentally and comprehensively as the Word of God, the Word of the Lord, compared to which all other words, however profound or new or arresting, are not words of the Lord. Whatever God may say to us will at all events be said in this way; it will be said as the Word of the Lord.

(2) Secondly, the Word of God as this Word of the Lord directed to us is the Word which aims at us and smites us in our existence. No human word has the competence to aim at us in our existence and no human word has the power to smite us in our existence. The only word that may aim at us in our existence an can smite us in our existence is one which questions and answers us in just the same way as death might question and answer us at the end of our existence. But death is dumb. It neither questions nor answers. It is only the end. It is not really a thing outside and above our existence which can aim at our existence and smite it. The Word of God is the Word of the Lord  because it comes from the point outside and above us from which death itself would not speak to us even if it could speak at all. The Word of God applies to us as no human as such can do, and as death does not do, because this Word is the Word of our Creator, of the One who encompasses our existence and the end of our existence, by whom it is affirmed and negated, because everything has come into being and preserved by this Word, and without it would not exist. He who makes Himself heard here is the One to whom we belong. Whatever He may say, it will be said in this relation of the Creator to His creature.

(3) Thirdly, the Word of God as the Word of the Creator directed to us is the Word which has obviously become necessary and is necessary as a renewal of the original relation between us and Him. The fact that God speaks to us, that He reveals Himself to us, i.e., that He turns to us in a wholly new way, that as the Unknown He makes Himself known – even after creating us and although we belong to Him – all this implies on the one side of a criticism of the reality of the present relation between Him and us and on the other side a declaration on His part to uphold and re-establish the relation in spite of this criticism of His. Neither of these could be the content of a human word. Only the One who has instituted the relation to confirm and renew it when it is disrupted or destroyed. Only God can pronounce the verdict and give the promise and raise the claim which all lie equally in the concept of revelation. Under this third aspect of its purposiveness the Word of God is the Word of reconciliation, i.e., the Word of the Reconciler, of the God who effects a new creation, who sets up His covenant with us afresh in judgment and grace. Whatever God may to us, it will at all events be said in this relationship of renewal.

(4) Fourth and finally the Word of God as the Word of reconciliation directed to us is the Word by which God announces Himself to man, i.e., by which He promises Himself as the content of man’ s future, as the One who meets him on his way through time as the end of all time, as the hidden Lord of all times. His presence by the Word is His presence as the coming One, coming for the fulfillment and consummation of the relation established between Him and us in creation and renewed and confirmed in reconciliation. Again this final Word cannot be a word of man. Human words are never final words. They are never the promise of a specific and definitive coming of the Other. It is proper to God’s Word and to God’s Word alone to be also the full and authentic presence of the Speaker even if this be as the coming One. God’s Word is the Word of our Redeemer, i.e., of the Lord who will be Lord as He was and is, who in His relation to us keeps faith both with Himself and us. In this way He is Lord indeed, the Lord of all lords. And whatever God may say to us, it will at all events be said always in this final, consummating, eschatological relation too.

Again, what God says to us specifically remains His secret which will be disclosed in the event of His actual speaking. The concrete fullness of what He has said and will say specifically to men is and remains in truth His own business. We can only cling to the fact – but we must cling to it – that when He spoke it was, and when He will speak it will be, the Word of the Lord, the Word of our Creator, our Reconciler, our Redeemer. Understanding it as directed and applying to us, we are well advised to keep what we think and say about it open in at least these four directions, to be ready and vigilant from these four standpoints.[1]

There is no natural theology prior to God’s Word, God’s Word discloses the reality of all realities, even creation’s, in Jesus Christ. It His Word which is living and powerful because His Word is Him; it is Jesus Christ. What I have come to understand (and this is my evangelical Calvinist view) is that the Word both theo-logically and chronologically precedes the written Word, or the latter is nothing more than an idol. God’s Word is distinct from man’s word, as such it has something meaningful and transforming to say to us.

[1] Karl Barth CD I/1, 132-43.

The “error” of Jesus as the Center: Eternal Generation, Ontology of the Word, God’s Triune Love and other Miscellanies

Here is something from Barth that bespeaks of the beauty of God’s Triune life of love; eternal generation has something to do with that according to Karl Barth. God’s aseity is appealed to in what Barth writes; if someone read this and hadn’t been tainted by critiques of Barth they might think Barth was one of their orthodox own (and he actually is in his own creative and brilliant way). Barth explicates the reality of Triune love and the eternal generation of the Son as he speaks to his theology of the Word.

barthbarthIn its form neither as proclamation, Holy Scripture, nor revelation do we know God’s Word as an entity that exists or could exist merely in and for itself. We know it only as a Word that is directed to us and applies to us. The fact that it is this is not, of course, self-evident. It is not something one might deduce from a general concept of speech. It is so in fact, but it might not be. In the inter-trinitarian life of God the eternal generation of the Son or Logos is, of course, the expression of God’s love, of His will not to be alone. But it does not follow from this that God could not be God without speaking to us. We undoubtedly understand God’s love for man, or in the first instance for any reality distinct from Himself, only when we understand it as free and unmerited love not resting on any need. God would be no less God if He had created no world and no man. The existence of the world and our own existence are in no sense vital to God, not even as the object of His love. The eternal generation of the Son by the Father tells us first and supremely that God is not at all lonely even without the world and us. His love has its object in Himself. And so one cannot say that our existence as that of the recipients of God’s Word is constitutive for the concept of the Word. It could be no less what it is even without us. God could satisfy His love in Himself. For He is already an object to Himself and He is an object truly worthy of His love. God did not need to speak to us. What He says by Himself and to Himself from eternity to eternity would really be said just as well and even better without our being there, as speech which for us would be eternal silence. Only when we are clear about this can we estimate what it means that God has actually, though not necessarily, applies to us, that His Word has actually, though not necessarily, been spoken to us. The purposiveness by no means essential to God Himself. We evaluate this purposiveness correctly only if we understand it as the reality of the love of the God who does not need us but who does not will to be without us, who has directed His regard specifically on us.[1]

Eternal generation matters. The fact that God is God matters. And as we can see through Barth, the Word of God has ontology, it has personality; it is the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ. I’m trying to think of other cool things to say about this right now, but I think what Barth has written stands on its own.

The elegance with which he writes, particularly with reference to Jesus, has captivated my soul now for the last ten years. I have still never come across another theologian who thinks so crystalline from the Gospel itself; who seeks to magnify Jesus in everything he writes and thinks. I have never come across another deep well like Barth who thinks from the heights and depths all at once centered in Jesus Christ. Years ago I came to the conclusion, and this from simply reading the Bible over and over again, that if I was going to err in my thinking, theologically, it would be to err from the conclusion that everything is about Jesus. To my delight when I found Barth I found someone who agreed, and then he wrote more than six million words demonstrating that “error” over and over again.


[1] Karl Barth CD I/1.120-124.

What it Means to be an authentic Theologian before God: Søren

Søren Kierkegaard famously opined at an early age in his diary on August 1st, 1835 upon his course in life as a budding theologian (although not particularly in those terms). He offers an existential look into what I think a good theologian should be motivated by; i.e. to know the reality of God and what that implicates for self. Kierkegaard wrote:

What I really need is to get clear about what I am to do. . . . What matters is to find my purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I should; the crucial thing is to find a truth that is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. Of what use would it be to me to discover a so-called objective truth, to work through the philosophical systems so that I could, if asked, make critical judgments about them, could point out the fallacies in each system; of what use would it be to me to be able to develop a theory of the state, getting details from various sources and combining them into a whole, and constructing a world I did not live in but merely held up for others to see; of what use would it be to me to be able to formulate the meaning of Christianity, to be able to explain many specific points—if it had no deeper meaning for me and for my life?. . . [Truth] must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all. This is what my soul thirsts for as the African deserts thirst for water. This is what is lacking, and this is why I am like a man who has collected furniture, rented an apartment, but as yet has not found the beloved to share life’s ups and downs with him. But in order to find that idea—or, to put it more correctly—to find myself, it does no good to plunge still farther into the world. That was just what I did before. . . . I have vainly sought an anchor in the boundless sea of pleasure as well as in the depths of knowledge. I have felt the almost irresistible power with which on pleasure reaches a hand to the next; I have felt the counterfeit enthusiasm it is capable of producing. I have also felt the boredom, the shattering, which follows on its heels. I have tasted the fruits of the tree of knowledge and time and again have delighted in their savouriness. . . . Thus I am again standing at the point where I must begin again in another way. I shall now calmly attempt to look at myself and begin to initiate inner action; for only thus will I be able, like a child calling itself “I” in its first consciously undertaken act, be able to call myself “I” in a profounder sense. But that takes stamina, and it is not possible to harvest immediately what one has sown. . . . I will hurry along the path I have found and shout to everyone I meet: Do not look back as Lot’s wife did, but remember that we are struggling up a hill.[1]

There is an existential honestly about what Kierkegaard writes; and he’s right I don’t want to engage in vain meanderings simply to say that I can. Theology is a lived reality coram Deo (before God); theology penetrates deeply into the warp and woof of our very existence as sentient and breathing human beings. Jesus Christ, the theanthropos, entered into this in the incarnation and lived what it meant to truly be human before God for us. I think Kierkegaard was wanting to press into this reality by probing his own inner thoughts. There is a humility about this, really. It is easy to get caught up in the accolades of praise from others, and then use that praise to seek more; even when doing theology (what Martin Luther would call ‘theology of glory’ and what Jesus warns against all throughout the Gospel of John). I want to be the type of theologian that Kierkegaard wanted to be; to be driven by nothing else than love of God and others in the most authentic ways possible. So I will continue to look to Jesus and ask him to help me in my unbelief.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard cited by Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016), 74-5.

Human Agency in Salvation


This is not the post I was going to post, which I noted in my last post, because this is a post I wrote years ago; I was going to post a fresh post on this subject, and I still will. In lieu of that at the moment this will have to suffice; I think it suffices quite well, to be honest. I find it interesting that Calvinists are never satisfied with responses like this; I suppose that makes sense, since they are slavishly committed to a certain metaphysics and theory of causation. But please dear Calvinist, don’t assert that this somehow just sounds like Arminianism; that’s about as honest as me asserting that you aren’t committed to Aristotelian Christianity, when we know you are.

Something that continues to shape theological constructs in Christian theology is the nexus that is present between God’s Sovereignty and Human autonomy/responsibility/freedom. Depending on which side the theological system leans toward will help to determine where that system will find its moorings within the history of ideas and interpretation. Obviously this nexus, as I just cryptically described it finds its most blatant expressions in either Calvinism or Arminianism (and/or nowadays Open Theism). In general (and in oversimplification), the classical Calvinists are afraid if God’s sovereignty is not absolutely emphasized that our theology will end up in heresy, in Pelagianism; and God will become held captive by His own creation. On the other hand (and in oversimplification), the classical Arminian or Open Theist fears that if human freedom (sometimes=’free-will’) or responsibility is over-determined and objectified by God’s sovereignty that it no longer truly can remain HUMAN freedom, and now God has become the author of everything that happens (meticulously so), even sin.

Thankfully the quagmire noted above, while dealing with real and material concerns, is not where we have to preside; in fact we ought not to dwell there too long. The above (as I oversimply described it), is a result of engaging in negative theology; it is thinking philosophically about God and humanity, and it is not (by way of method) thinking from the center of God’s life, Jesus Christ. If we think from God’s Self-revelation, and allow that to interpret how we think about the ‘union’ between God’s sovereignty and Human Freedom, we will think directly and methodologically from the Hypostatic Union of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ. This is exactly how, of course, Karl Barth maneuvers through this. He gives objective primacy to Jesus Christ, and allows Him to determine the categories through which we should think about God’s sovereignty and Human freedom. Of course, then, as a consequent, what it means to be truly human will be given its understanding from what it means to be human for Christ. Christ’s humanity, by nature, is given shape and reality by its determinate reality as the second person of the Trinity, as the Son. We, by participation in His humanity by the Holy Spirit, and not by nature but grace and adoption, have a Divinely shaped humanity that like Christ’s can only truly be for God (which is the terminus or end/purpose of what it means to be human and free). Prior to hearing from R. Michael Allen’s commentary on Barth in this regard, and prior to hearing from Karl Barth himself; let’s first hear from the Apostle Paul:

15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! 16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. ~Romans 6:15-18

If Jesus’ humanity for us (in his active obedience—the Reformed concept) is what it means to be objectively human, if he obeyed for us; then we have been set free and opened up for what it means to be truly human. In other words, there is no other way to be truly human except for the way that that is given ultimate shape in and through Christ’s vicarious humanity for all.

Michael Allen will open Barth up further for us, and then I will close with a couple of Karl Barth quotes. Interestingly, Allen places his discussion on this in his category of Providence, in his Karl Barth Reader that I take his thinking from. Allen writes of Barth:

[B]arth’s attention to providence is attuned to ethical concerns, namely, to sketching out the shape of human agency. While he is criticized by many as christomonist – as giving insufficient space to creaturely agency – his dogmatic approach is not meant to supplant, but to situate human agency. In his ethical reflections, he will address the crucial concept of freedom, following the early Reformed tradition in affirming real human freedom while defining it as freedom ‘within the limits which correspond to its creaturely existence (III/3.61). Barth affirms what seems contradictory to those who believe human and divine agency exist in a competitive fashion: ‘That the creature may continue to be by virtue of the divine preserving means that it may itself be actual within its limits: actual, and therefore not a mere appearance engendered by some heavenly or hellish power; itself actual, and therefore not an emanation from the being of God … God preserves the creatures in the reality which is distinct from His own. It is relative to and dependent upon His reality, but in its relativity and dependence autonmous towards it, existing because it owes its existence to Him, as subject with which He can have dealings and which have dealings with Him’ (III/3.86). Barth argues that divine providence in no way rules out creaturely agency, though it does locate such human freedom within the economy of grace. Barth will even speak of human autonomy, though he will always maintain that it is an autonomy given by God – a counter-intuitive sort of autonomy if ever there were one. [emboldening mine, that is Barth being quoted by Allen] [R. Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: And Introduction and Reader, 134 Nook version.]

And here are a few more quotes from Barth to help illustrate what Allen just sketched:

[…] the perfection of God’s giving of himself to man in the person of Jesus Christ consists in the fact that far from merely playing with man, far from merely moving or using him, far from dealing with him as an object, this self giving sets man up as a subject, awakens him to genuine individuality and autonomy, frees him, makes him a king, so that in his rule the kingly rule of God himself attains form and revelation. How can there be any possible rivalry here, let alone usurpation? How can there be any conflict between theonomy and autonomy? How can God be jealous or man self assertive? [CD I I/2, p. 179]

Genuine freedom as it is realized in Jesus is not a freedom from God but a freedom for God (and, with that, a freedom for other human beings). ‘ To the creature God determined, therefore, to give an individuality an autonomy, not that these gifts should be possessed outside Him, let alone against Him, but for him and within his kingdom; not in rivalry with his sovereignty but for its confirming and glorifying’ [CD I I/2, p. 178].

Ultimately, what is being argued is that there is no other ontological category known as ‘freedom’ by which humanity can operate. Even if human freedom, and I believe it is (in honoring the Creator/creature distinction), is independently contingent, it is still contingent and derived from God’s independent non-contingent freedom which is derived from nowhere but from His own Self determined, Free, and Triune life. If creation is the external reality of the Covenant of which God’s life is its inner ground – and I believe it is! – then creaturely freedom can only be understood from this position, from the purpose that is ec-statically given to it by Christ Himself; who according to Col. 1.15-20 is the point and purpose and ground of all of creation’s reality. Note:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Jesus has realized, for us, in His resurrection and ascension what it truly means to be human. To be genuinely and humanly free, means to be free for God. The rest of creation recognizes this (on this earth day, ironically), us humans ought to repent and recognize this too!

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that  the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. ~Romans 8.18-25 

A Reformed Reformulated Doctrine of Limited Atonement In Christ


The doctrine known as limited atonement, or in some circles ‘definite atonement’, isn’t talked about much; even among its proponents. It is ‘hard teaching’ who can hear it? If you’re unaware, limited atonement is the teaching that: God determined in Christ, in unconditional election, to only atone for, or to only die for those that God had previously elected to be his children; in the pre-temporal council of his inner/eternal life. The Post Reformation Reformed Orthodox theologians[1] reached back into the medieval past and took the logically-deductive phraseology of Peter Lombard that: Christ died ‘sufficiently’ for everyone, but only ‘efficaciously’ for the elect; i.e. they wanted to make sure to affirm God’s sovereignty in a dual-way. In other words, by claiming that what Christ did at the cross was sufficient for all, they could affirm that God’s work in Christ is effulgent enough to cover the sins of the whole world (thus he is sovereign in that sense — the reach of his Triune life); but in order to maintain the particularity of God’s sovereignty in salvation it was imperative for them to argue that those for whom Christ ‘efficaciously’ (or actually) died for will be “eternally justified” thus demonstrating the sovereignty of God’s choice in salvation.[2]

David and Jonathan Gibson in their edited volume From Heaven He Came and Sought Her define limited or definite atonement (as they call it) this way:

The doctrine of definite atonement states that, in the death of Jesus Christ, the triune God intended to achieve the redemption of every person given to the Son by the Father in eternity past, and to apply the accomplishments of his sacrifice to each of them by the Spirit. The death of Christ was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone.[3]

They expand on what is involved in limited atonement further:

… the saving work of God is circumscribed by God’s electing grace and purpose. That is, God’s redemptive love and divine initiative shape and guide the other moments of salvation. God’s love toward his own in election and predestination is the fountainhead from which salvation flows. In this regard, there is an inescapable ordo within the divine decree…. before time, the triune God planned salvation, such that the Father chose a people for himself from among fallen human­kind, a choice that would involve the sending of his Son to purchase them and the sending of his Spirit to regenerate them. In the mind of God, the choice logically preceded the accomplishment and the application of Christ’s re­demptive work, and so in history it circumscribed them both. Louis Berkhof asks, “Did the Father in sending Christ, and did Christ in coming into the world, to make atonement for sin, do this with the design or for the purpose of saving only the elect or all men? That is the question, and that only is the question.”[4]

The Gibson brothers, along with all classically Reformed people[5] answer Berkhof’s question in affirming that Christ only died for the elect. The Westminster Confession of Faith states this affirmation this way:

I. 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. II. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions. III. 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.  IV. 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.  V. 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, has 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.  VI. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has 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.  VII. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extends or withholds mercy, as He pleases, 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.  VIII. 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.[6]

It is from this background theology that the more popular TULIP has taken shape.[7] What we are discussing in this post, primarily, is the ‘L’ in the TULIP. For the rest of this post we will attempt to offer an alternative account of Limited Atonement, but from a decidedly evangelical Calvinist perspective.[8]


Before we move onto an evangelical Calvinist alternative, let’s summarize where we’ve been so far. We have briefly sketched a definition of what Limited Atonement entails by noting that it is the belief that God elected certain individuals, of no merit of their own, for eternal life. We then touched upon the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, and how that’s an important piece to understanding ‘why’ the classically Reformed, in particular, want to pursue the line of thought that leads to limited atonement. And then lastly we showed, from the history, how this theology and doctrine were articulated by the Westminster divines in the Westminster Confession of the Faith §Chapter Three.

Limited Atonement in Evangelical Calvinist Theology

Me and Myk Habets co-edited and authored a multi-author volume in 2012 entitled Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church. We currently have a second volume forthcoming at the publishers entitled Evangelical Calvinism: Dogmatics&Devotion, be on the look-out for that in late 2016. In our first volume Myk and I co-wrote fifteen theological theses that he and I see as definitive for the type of evangelical Calvinism we endorse. Thesis eleven reads as follows (in full):

Christ lived, died, and rose again for all humanity, thus Evangelical Calvinism affirms a doctrine of universal atonement.

Evangelical Calvinism can genuinely preach the Good News to all that Christ has died for them and their salvation and has forgiven their sins. We affirm a universal atonement and forgiveness of sin through the finished work of Christ. This flows theo-logically from the implications of the Incarnation of Christ: the humanity he assumed was real ontological humanity, which included all of humanity.

According to Thomas Torrance:

We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity—that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact—nothing can undo it. That means that God has taken the great positive decision for man, the decision of love translated into fact. But because the work and the person of Christ are one, that finished work is identical with the self-giving of God to all humanity which he extends to everyone in the living Christ. God does not withhold himself from any one, but he gives himself to all whether they will or not—even if they will not have him, he gives himself to them, for he has once and for all given himself, and therefore the giving of himself in the cross when opposed by the will of man inevitably opposes that will of man and is its judgement. As we saw, it is the positive will of God in loving humanity that becomes humanity’s judgement when they refuse it.

If we fail to accept this theo-logic, then we are left with the possibility that Christ could have assumed a particular (elect) humanity that was not truly representative of real sinful humanity which potentially injects Nestorianism into Reformed theology.

Torrance further surmises that there is no

suggestion that this atoning sacrifice was offered only for some people and not for all, for that would imply that he who became incarnate was not God the Creator in whom all men and women live and move and have their being, and that Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour was not God and man in the one Person, but only an instrument in the hands of the Father for the salvation of a chosen few. In other words, a notion of limited atonement implies a Nestorian heresy in which Jesus Christ is not really God and man united in one Person. It must be added that the perfect response offered by Jesus Christ in life and death to God in our place and on our behalf, contains and is the pledge of our response. Just as the union of God and man in Christ holds good in spite of all the contradiction of our sin under divine judgment, so his vicarious response holds good for us in spite of our unworthiness: “not I but Christ”. . . .

This ties back into thesis 8, and the idea that Christ is primary over all creation; Colossians 1:15 is apropos, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” The extent of the atonement is an interlocking reflection of the extent of his all encompassing life as the Triune God; no-one can escape the reach of God’s life of love and grace.[9]

This represents an evangelical Calvinist understanding of the atonement. It has particularity in the sense that it is limited to the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; i.e. the One for the many/all.

What will seem problematic for the critic of this is that it seems to suggest either a universalism (that all will be saved)—following the logical-causal-deductive reasoning that many in the classically Reformed wing think from—or on the flip side it seems to suggest an Arminian libertarianism wherein someone can reject God’s sovereign plan, thus thwarting God’s sovereignty in salvation. Thomas Torrance has a rejoinder to these ostensible quandaries:

The rationalism of both universalism and limited atonement

Here we see that man’s proud reason insists in pushing through its own partial insight into the death of the cross to its logical conclusion, and so the great mystery of the atonement is subjected to the rationalism of human thought. That is just as true of the universalist as it is of those who hold limited atonement for in both cases they have not yet bowed their reason before the cross of Christ.[10]

But Torrance’s rejoinder most likely will not be persuasive to the critics of the modified Christ concentrated ‘limited atonement’ that evangelical Calvinists affirm. One of these critics is Kevin Vanhoozer; he writes in critique of evangelical Calvinism on this very point:

Torrance does not want to say that Christ died “sufficiently for all, but efficiently only for the elect.” However, what he does say, in agreement with John Cameron (1579–1625), is remarkably similar, namely, that Christ died “conditionally for all, absolutely for the elect.” The difference is important inasmuch as it describes two different ways of construing the plan of salvation, two different meanings of “the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:5). The outstanding challenge for Evangelical Calvinists is to explain, from Scripture, how God elects all but not all are saved, for at present there is a troubling incoherence between the ontological objectivity of incarnational redemption in Christ and the non-universal scope of salvation, as well as confusion in the way they conceive the place of human faith and its relationship to grace. Specifically, does divine grace take the place of freedom, enable libertarian freedom, or secure freedom? As we have seen, human freedom is a libertarian link in the chain of Evangelical Calvinism’s ordo salutis, the weakest link that reintroduces the very contingency into the ordo that the notion of incarnational union was de-signed to eliminate.[11]

If you haven’t noticed yet, evangelical Calvinism’s view of Salvation starts with Jesus Christ and his vicarious humanity rather than the classically Reformed’s, Augustinianly conditioned view which starts from below with an abstract ‘mass’ of humanity who are separated from God, not simply because they are sinners, but in their natural constitution as creatures (in a ‘pure nature’). This is the point that Vanhoozer is critiquing when he states, “…at present there is a troubling incoherence between the ontological objectivity of incarnational redemption in Christ and the non-universal scope of salvation, as well as confusion in the way they conceive the place of human faith and its relationship to grace.” As evangelical Calvinists we maintain that humanity are ‘images’ of the ‘image of God,’ that we were originally made in this image, in Adam and Eve, and that when Christ came as the ground of all human being, he recreated what it means to be human being, from the ground up, in his vicarious humanity. Because Vanhoozer, and other classically Reformed people, are committed to a logico-causal-deductive form of reasoning, to their minds, just as the Gibson brothers illustrated for us earlier: 1) If God in Christ elects to redeem humans in his pre-temporal council, 2) and thusly, if God executes that election in history in his incarnation dying on the cross for those he elected, 3) then, those individuals whom he sovereignly elected will respond in faith to his unconditional offer of salvation. Extrapolating from this kind of “golden-chaine,” folks like Vanhoozer, the Gibsons, et al. believe that if Christ enters into humanity and by virtue of that choice dies for all of humanity, then it logically must follow that all of humanity will respond to the ‘irresistible grace’ of God actualized for them in Christ—so Vanhoozer thinks this must either lead to universalism, or if we as evangelical Calvinists reject that, he believes that we must then fall on the horns of Arminianism since we have now given to human beings the libertarian choice to reject God’s sovereign offer of salvation to humanity.

But this is only a dilemma if evangelical Calvinists are committed to the same kind of theological optics and hermeneutic that the classically Reformed are; we are not. As I noted, and as Vanhoozer characteristically and astutely noticed, evangelical Calvinists are committed to an ontological theory of salvation versus the declarational theory of salvation that the classically Reformed are. In other words we place a heavy emphasis on what some would consider an Eastern theological locus; we place a heavy emphasis on a doctrine of the primacy of Jesus Christ. Thesis eight from our edited volume reads (in full):

Evangelical Calvinism endorses a supralapsarian Christology which emphasizes the doctrine of the primacy of Christ.

As a direct result of thesis 5 and its concomitant doctrine of God, Evangelical Calvinists subscribe to a broadly conceived supralapsarian Christology along the lines of that famously propounded by John Duns Scotus. That is to say that, Evangelical Calvinists embrace the idea that who God is for us in Christ is grounded in the pre-temporal reality of his choice to be for us apart from and prior to the “Fall” or even the creation itself. This, theo-logically coheres with the Evangelical Calvinist conception of God’s life being shaped by who he is as love, and thus both chronologically and logically places his love and his self-determining freedom as the primary mode of God’s life; and thus the basis from which he acts, even in wrath. As such an Evangelical Calvinist may confidently assert that: “There is no wrath of God that is not first experienced as the love of God for you.”

As one of us has argued elsewhere: “The sine qua non of the Scotistic thesis is that the predestination of Christ took place in an instant which was logically prior to the prevision of sin as absolutum futurum. That is, the existence of Christ was not contingent on the fall as foreseen through the scientia visionis.” It is through this matrix that Evangelical Calvinists can be said to hold to a “supralapsarian Christology,” that is that we believe in God’s primacy over all of creation; and thus his choice to be for us is in Christ is not contingent upon sin, but instead it is the result of the overflow of who he is as the God for the other—God is Love!

The election of the eternal Son for us that occurs pre-temporally becomes temporally externalized in the Incarnation of Christ, and ultimately finds its resounding crescendo in being actualized through the cross-work of Christ, exemplifying that God’s life of over-flowing love is in fact cruciform in shape as it is revealed within the conditions of a post-lapsarian world.

In salvation God accomplishes multiple things but perhaps four may be pointed out here: 1) God’s glory is revealed; 2) God’s salvation is accomplished, 3) God’s judgment is made manifest, and 4) God’s damnation of the sinner outside of Christ is realized. All four of these components find their extrinsic locus in the person of Christ as the primary exemplar and mediator of God’s life for humanity. Each of these—God’s glory, salvation, judgment, and damnation—take on significance as Jesus’ God-shaped humanity brings God and humans together in himself. The Father is glorified through the Son’s loving submission as the scapegoat, sacrifice, and representative for fallen humanity; and through this ultimate act of the obedient love of the Son, the Father brings reconciliation (salvation) to humanity as Christ enters into the wilderness of humanity’s sin, bears the weight of that sin in his “being” for us; and thus suffers the tragic damnation that rightfully belonged to sinful humanity. Through this mediation of life for life (substitution), Christ not only pays the penalty for sin; but as a corollary with who he is as love, he reconciles humanity’s non-being with his resurrected being of life and thus brought God and humanity together in a spiritual union such that reconciled and adopted sinners may now experience the love of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ as our Abba, our Father, and our worship, by the Holy Spirit, may be acceptable to God.

Supralapsarian Christology, correctly understood, does not reflect an Amyraldian, or a hypothetical universalism; but rather an actualized universal atonement which recreates humanity through Christ’s humanity, and provides salvation for all who will believe through Spirit generated, Christic formed faith. A purview that genuinely can claim to be “Christ-conditioned.”[12]

Hopefully this helps to clarify the “ontological” reality we see in Christ’s humanity for all of humanity, and how that implicates our view of salvation. For the evangelical Calvinist, if God in Christ chooses to become human (which as modified supralapsarians, we maintain that this choice to be human was freely made by God in Christ pre-temporally or before creation), if God in Christ is the imago Dei, then both in the original creation where Adam and Eve were created in the image of God, who is Christ, it will hold that in the re-creation or resurrection all of humanity will be re-created in Christ’s humanity.

The apparent dilemma, the one presented by Vanhoozer, and by implication, the dilemma presented by the classical Reformed position in general, is that evangelical Calvinists still seem to at least have to offer an explanation of how their version of a Christ conditioned limited atonement does not lead to either Christian universalism, or to some form of Arminian “free-will” libertarian freedom (understood rather philosophically). Since this post is about the length of four long blog posts put into one, I will have to offer the evangelical Calvinist answer to this dilemma, of human agency in salvation, in the next installment. Stay tuned.

[1] The Reformed theologians who followed the so called magisterial reformers, like Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Bullinger, Viret, Knox, et al., who sought to bring Reformed exegetical thought into codified and coherent form for the Protestant academic setting.

[2] I.e. Those who he elected for salvation will respond to his offer of salvation in the affirmative. In this schema, if someone rejected God’s salvation offer to them, then God’s sovereignty in salvation would be thwarted and the logic of salvation (according to God’s absolute decrees) would be undercut. There’s also the issue of ‘double jeopardy’ which we will have to leave for another time.

[3] David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, “Sacred Theology and the Reading of the Divine Word: Mapping the Doctrine of Definite Atonement,” From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Publishers, 2013), 33.

[4] Ibid., 44.

[5] Although we need to qualify this a bit, there was the teaching of Moises Amyrault who some call a 4 Point Calvinist; see Brian Armstrong. And then even at the famed Westminster Assembly there was an Anglican contingent led by Anglicans such as Davenant who only affirmed hypothetical universalism and thus not full fledged definite or limited atonement.

[6] WCF/III.

[7] Really TULIP theology took its most pointed shape from the theology articulated at the Canon of Dort where those who held Westminster theology stood against what they believed was the heresy being promoted by the Remonstrants (Arminians) in the Netherlands.

[8] Which for me means following Karl Barth’s reformulation of election/reprobation, as well as Scottish theologian, Thomas Torrance.

[9] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theses on a Theme,” in Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church, eds. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 444-46.

[10] Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2009), 187-88.

[11] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism),” in Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars, eds. Benjamin E. Reynolds, Brian Lugioyo, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Germany, Tubignen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014). [I have a PDF copy of KJV’s chapter and pagination does not match the book’s pagination]

[12] Habets and Grow, “Theses on a Theme,” 437-39.

On classically Reformed Limited Atonement, and an Evangelical Calvinist Response

Since my new friend, Jonathan Kleis, is going to write some posts on an evangelical Calvinist understanding of the atonement, I thought I would repost this as something that will dovetail with whatever he ends up writing at his blog.

I continue to slowly read that behemoth of a book on defending limited atonement edited by David and Jonathan Gibson, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her. When they released the book, part of Crossway’s marketing strategy was to make the claim that this book is the definitive one on this particular topic—i.e. definite atonement. I have only made into chapter 10, and so I have 11 chapters to go; thus far I would definitenot agree that this book is the definitive book on the topic. It might serve well as a one place shopping market for various ways into this doctrine (i.e. historical, biblical, theological, pastoral), but if you have spent any time at all researching this area, most of the arguments that I have read (and at this point I am not planning on being surprised by the rest of the volume), are not new at all. That said, the book is worth your while, if you are interested in this stuff; and I have found most of the essays to be well written, and obviously current with the most recent literature available. But this is not what I really want to talk about in this post, per se. Instead I want to use a quote from chapter 10 (which is the biblical section of the volume), and constructively demonstrate how an Evangelical Calvinist would say ‘yes’, and then ‘no.’

Chapter 10 is written by Old Testament scholar J. Alec Motyer, and his chapter is entitled: “Stricken for the Transgression of My People”: The Atoning Work of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. Besides the fact that now he, and the last author (in chapter 9), Paul R. Williamson, who did his study on limited atonement in the Pentateuch, have engaged in the classical logical-deductive (Ramist) mode of interrogating the text through a locus methodology (i.e. taking a previously conceived theological point, and using that point to exegete a particular section of Scripture in such a way that that point has regulative and conclusive force upon the practitioner’s exegetical conclusions); what I want to briefly, identify, as I have already alluded to, is why and how these guys (the classical guys) are really missing the boat. In a book that claims to offer a critique of the Barthian heritage, especially in regard to this topic, it is seriously hard to appreciate when over and again what they demonstrate is a failure to understand the theological categories through which someone like Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and/or us Evangelical Calvinists think through; and how the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ serves as regulative (like a reification of the regula fidei) for the way we think about all of this. And thus why we can say yes and no to limited atonement, even if we (or I) don’t agree with the way these classical folk are entering the text to begin with (i.e. locus methodology).

Motyer, in his chapter is detailing an argument for limited atonement (I don’t like the way this book is trying to reframe this topic by calling it definite atonement, I think it is better to stick with limited atonement, the grammar people are familiar with), as his chapter title suggests, from the book of Isaiah, and in particular, by looking at the ‘Suffering Servant’ motif. Here is what he has written about limited atonement, the Suffering Servant, and the extent and intent of the atonement:

Clearly, personal conversion has taken place, yet nothing is said about hearing and responding to the truth; there is no reference to personal decision, commitment, or faith. It is totally a story of needy sinners in the hand of God. It is the secret history of every conversion, the real story, the OT counterpart of “you did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). It is also the death knell to any open-ended understanding of the atonement, which seeks to posit a disjunction between redemption accomplished and applied. It matters not how the question is asked. Could any whose iniquities the Lord laid on his Servant fail to be saved? Could that laying-on prove ineffectual? Were any iniquities laid on the Servant save with the divine purpose of eternal salvation? Since universalism is ruled out by Isaiah’s insistence on “the many” (see below), 53:4–6 commits the unprejudiced interpreter to an effective, particularistic understanding of the atonement. The heart of the matter is boldly put: the “we” of these crucial verses were locked into a failure to grasp what the Servant was all about, but our iniquities were laid by Yahweh on his Servant; and this is what led to our “seeing.” The theological implications are profound: the atonement itself, and not something outside of the atonement, is the cause for any conversion. The resources for conversion are found in the Servant’s death; they flow from it. Thus, it is the atonement that activates conversion, not vice versa (cf. Titus 3:3–5). (pg. 261-62)

Now I have many examples from Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth, Myk Habets, our edited book, and other people or places where I can draw from to illustrate how we as Evangelical Calvinists would modify Moyter’s point about the death knell, in a way that agrees with him in principle (de jure), but disagrees with him in fact (de facto). So what I am going to share just happens to be the first thing I found that I thought was pertinent as I scanned my archives on this. There is no death knell, even granting that Moyter’s exegesis is legitimate to begin with. Someone, like us Evangelical Calvinists, can affirm universal atonement, and at the same time affirm, with just as much force, its particularity and definiteness. We do so by viewing election and thus the atonement through a Christ conditioned or Christ concentrated lens, or by focusing on a particular understanding of the vicarious humanity of Christ such that Christ is understood, in his humanity for us, as what real humanity does, or would do under the conditions of the ‘Fall’. Christ in his real (arche) humanity circumscribes what it means to be human, such that he is the mediator between God and man for us. And as real humanity who penetrates the depths of what it means to be human for all of humanity (not just an elect lump out of the mass), the atonement, at an ontological level, is fully accomplished and terminates in the one for whom it was intended in our stead, Jesus Christ in his elect humanity for us. Here is how Karl Barth thinks about the vicarious humanity:

[T]he answer is that we ourselves are directly summoned, that we are lifted up, that we are awakened to our own truest being as life and act, that we are set in motion by the fact that in that one man God has made Himself our peacemaker and the giver and gift of our salvation. By it we are made free fro Him. By it we are put in the place which comes to us where our salvation (really ours) can come to us from Him (really from Him). This actualisation of His redemptive will by Himself opens up to us the one true possibility of our own being. Indeed, what remains to us of life and activity in the face of this actualisation of His redemptive will by Himself can only be one thing. This one thing does not mean the extinguishing of our humanity, but its establishment. It is not a small thing, but the greatest of all. It is not for us a passive presence as spectators, but our true and highest activation—the magnifying of His grace which has its highest and most profound greatness in the fact that God has made Himself man with us, to make our cause His own, and as His own to save it from disaster and to carry it through to success. The genuine being of man as life and activity, the “We with God,” is to affirm this, to admit that God is right, to be thankful for it, to accept the promise and the command which it contains, to exist as the community, and responsibly in the community, of those who know that this is all that remains to us, but that it does remain to us and that for all men everything depends upon its coming to pass. And it is this “We with God” that is meant by the Christian message in its central “God with us,” when it proclaims that God Himself has taken our place, that He Himself has made peace between Himself and us, that by Himself he has accomplished our salvation, I.e., our participation in His being. [Karl Barth CD IV/I, p. 12]

And here is how George Hunsinger parses Barth on such things:

[…] To say that Jesus Christ is the “pioneer of faith” (Heb. 12:2), Barth suggests, is not to say that his faith is merely the exemplar of ours, but that it is the vicarious ground and source of our faith. “There is vicarious faith,” writes Barth, “… only in the form of the faith which Jesus Christ established for us all as the archegos tes pisteos (Heb. 12:2), who empowers us for our own faith, and summons us to it, even as he stands there in our stead with his faith. Through his faith, we are not only moved but liberated to believe for ourselves” (IV/4, 186). Our faith may be said to exist “as a predicate” of his in the sense that whatever is real and true “in this Subject” is the foundation for whatever is correspondingly real and true in us (cf. II/2, 539). In short, our subjective apprehension of God does not exist independently, but only insofar as its source, mediation, and ground are found in the humanity of Jesus Christ. [George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 96, Nook.]

If Christ is understood to be the elect human for all of humanity, then this dualistic and abstractive process of focusing on particular individuals as elect and reprobate will loose its teeth. Indeed, the volume I am reading on definite atonement would be a book on Christology, more than what it is, a book on Soteriology prior to Christology (as its dogmatic starting point). It is wrong for the editors and authors of this volume to suggest and argue that Barth, Torrance[s], et al. are hypothetical universalists; in fact just the opposite is the case. We believe that the atonement is even more definite than they do, because we see it fully realized and accomplished not in individually elect people, part of a realm of pure nature that is at competition with God; instead we see it accomplished (atonement) in Christ, and we think from there into the atonement, into humanity, and into everything else.