Two Controversial (for some) Quotes on Barth’s Theology of Eternity, History, Being, and Impassibility

Here are two quotes from Bruce McCormack on Barth’s theology of eternity, history, and being; and then how that all impacts concepts like impassibility and immutability. These are not uncontroversial. The first quote would be controversial among Barth scholars who take a more “textual” reading of Barth (like Hunsinger and Molnar), while the latter quote would be controversial pencilbarthamong trad Protestant theologians who affirm a classical understanding of immutability and impassibility as it comes to a theology proper. What do you think?

For Barth, Jesus Christ is his history. He is the history set in motion by an eternal act of self-determination; hence, the history that he is finds its root in election. This is what he is “essentially.” Jesus Christ is what he is in his eternal act of self-determination and in its outworking in time. The implications for a putative divine timelessness should be clear: Already in Church Dogmatics, II/1Barth had treated “eternity” as something that is defined by God’s being. The concept is used illegitimately where it is filled with content drawn from some other quarter and then applied to God. Moreover, Barth had already claimed that eternity is that which founds time, that which provides time with its basis. And it would be hard to see how it could be anything else. If God’s eternal act of self-determination is a determination for existence as a human being in time, then it is the eternal decision itself which founds time. And if God’s being is, on the basis of this decision, a being-for-time, then clearly God’s being cannot be timeless. We would do better to understand the decision in eternity and its outworking in time to be a single activity, one which originates in eternity and is completed in time. But this then also means that time is not alien to the innermost being of God.[1]

And this:

The critique of impassiblity requires a further step. Who, we might well ask, is the Subject who suffers in Jesus of Nazareth? We have just seen how a commitment to impassibility [prior discussion to these two quotes] led to an understanding of the Logos as an absolute metaphyscial Subject, with the consequence that it became necessary to treat the human nature as a Subject in its own right, capable of a suffering which had no ontological implications for the Logos. That such a conception tilts in the direction of Nestorianism is clear. What Barth has done, however, is to insist that a single-Subject Christology such as Chalcedon’s cannot make this move. There can be only one Subject of the human sufferings of Jesus, and this Subject is the Logos. That the Logos suffers humanly goes without saying. Suffering is made possible only through the assumptio carnisBut it is the Logos who suffers, for there is no other Subject. Even more important where the concept of impassiblity is concerned, Barth has also closed the gap between the Logos and his divine nature. If the Logos is the Subject of the human sufferings of Jesus, then suffering is an event which takes place within the divine lifewhich also means that the divine “nature” cannot be rightly defined in abstraction from this event. The divine nature can rightly be defined only by this event. The net consequence of this move is that Barth is able to advance an understanding of divine immutability which is no longer controlled by the further thought of impassiblityIf becoming human, suffering and dying, and so forth, are the content of the eternal decision in which God gives himself his being, then no change is introduced into the being of God when this becoming and so forth take place in time. And if God is immutably determined for suffering, then the concept of immutability has been cut loose from impassibility.[2]


[1] Bruce L. McCormack, ed.,Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives, 222.

[2] Ibid., 222-23 [brackets mine].

God’s Plight as Our Plight in Christ; Death Couldn’t Hold Him Down

I have read loads of theology books over the years, but I can’t ever recall being moved to tears as a result of reading them. That just changed as I’m finishing up Robert Dale Dawson’s book (published PhD dissertation) The Resurrection in Karl Barth. In the closing chapter he is offering up some critical constructive points in regard to Barth’s theology of resurrection and doctrine of christcrucifiedGod (prior to this, the whole of the book is affirmative of Barth in every way). Here, in the quote I am going to share from Dawson, he is offering a word of development relative to what he sees as somewhat of a lack in Barth’s relating of resurrection and Trinity. So that’s the context of the quote, but the quote really stands on its own, materially. The reality of what is being communicated is so deep, profound, and worship-inducing that indeed it actually did cause me to cry for a moment; because of the depth of love that God has for us. As you read this quote just reflect on what is being communicated, and allow it to cause worship. Dawson is reflecting on what has happened on the cross, and in the Triune life (as that implicates the being of God):

For what then is the Son appealing to the Father, except that the Father should restore him (and all who are gathered in him) to eternal life and fellowship with the Father? That is, he commends his Spirit into the hands of the Father in order that he may, by the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, be raised (that is, begotten as ever and always) into the being and perichoretic fellowship of the Trinity; that he may yet again and despite all assume his place as the Son of God bound eternally both to the Father and to humankind, the God-man who is alive and forevermore. This is not to say the Trinity has been dissolved in the death of the Son of God and remade in his resurrection, but that the Son of God has so bound himself to humankind that death’s threat against humanity must now also become a threat directly against the trinitarian being of God, a threat which can never be victorious for God simply lives in his freedom to exist as Trinity. The God-man has so bound himself to sinful men that he takes their plight, even their death and destruction, upon himself, such that their end is inextricably bound up with his. Yet it is the very nature of the being of God to will to be God not in isolation, not imprisoned in monadic aloneness, but in fellowship with himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Because it is the will and essence of God to be God in this manner, death has no victory, for God precisely in this moment reaffirms his eternal trinitarian being, this time with human being bound to himself in the being of the second Person. The resurrection is the outward form of God’s reaffirmation of himself as trinitarian being. That is God so binds himself to humankind in Jesus Christ that the very trinitarian being of God is threatened, by virtue of the fact that the God-man, the Son of God and the Son of Man, goes into death. The Son of God surely dies, and humankind with him, but not without hope. Beacause it is the very nature of God to elect himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; that is, because God continues to elect himself as the Father who is the fount of the eternal begetting of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit, the threat of the dissolution of God as Trinity is utterly – in the grace and freedom of the Father – nullified. What is more, the thread of the dissolution of creation and humankind is also removed forevermore. In other words, God removes the thread of death against humanity by securing human being in his own trinitarian life, against which death has no avail.[1]

[1] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 222.

If Christ Believes For Us, Then What Place is There For Us; How are Humans Responsible in Salvation?

This one dovetails with the last post, and the one prior to that. It has to do with human agency in salvation. The fear of those who encounter Barth’s, Torrance’s, or even if I can be so bold, the evangelical Calvinist’s theologies is that everything gets swallowed up by Jesus Christ. Now excuse me if you think I’m a bit audacious, but I’m not totally sure how that’d be wrong; I digress. What we will look cropped-patristicjesus.jpgat in this post is how in light of the vicarious humanity of Christ—which implies that even in salvation he has faith for us—how, particularly with focus on Barth’s theology, humans (us) after Christ’s humanity for us (pro nobis) maintain integrity and active agency ourselves within the frame of salvation.

Problem Presented

To drive home the radical nature of what we mean as evangelical Calvinists in regard to the vicarious humanity and thus the vicarious faith of Christ for us, let me refer to Jason Goroncy and his chapter in our edited volume Evangelical Calvinism (2012); his chapter is entitled “Tha mi a’ toirt fainear dur gearan:” J. McLeod Campbell and P.T. Forsyth on the Extent of Christ’s Vicarious Ministry. Here Goroncy is describing the way J. McLeod Campbell (1800–1872), Scottish theologian, thinks salvation from the humanward side; albeit the humanity of Jesus Christ (at length):

While Western orthodoxy has mostly stressed the Godward side of the atonement, Campbell laid the weight on the creaturely side, following Anselm: “None therefore but God can make this reparation . . . Yet, none should make it save a man, otherwise man does not make amends.” Campbell recognized that an adequate repentance by those disabled by sin, while required, was morally impossible, and therefore if such were to be offered it would have to be by God, albeit from our side—that is, God in fallen flesh. This is because, Campbell argued, genuine repentance involves seeing the sin (and sinners) “with God’s eyes,”11 viewing broken humanity from within, feeling the deep sorrow  that sin creates and confessing the righteousness of God’s judgment upon it. As R. C. Moberly recalls, sin “has blunted the self’s capacity for entire hatred of sin, and has blunted it once for all.” Only one, therefore, who could see things as they really are could make an adequate confession both of God’s righteousness and of human sin. Such confession is not made in order to avoid sin’s consequences but precisely that sin’s consequences may be embraced in all their dreadfulness, “meeting the cry of these sins for judgment, and the wrath due to them, absorbing and exhausting that divine wrath in that adequate confession and perfect response on the part of man.”

Genuine repentance and confession for “The sin of His brethren” would have to come from one who, as it were, stood on God’s side in the human dock.14 What was impossible for sinners was possible for this man who in the fullness of the hypostatic union penetrated into the depths of our humanity to see sin as God sees it, and to condemn sin as God condemns it, and yet do so from our side and as our head. That is, in “The High Priest of redeemed humanity” such confession and condemnation of sin happened not only with “great sorrow” but from the side of sin. So Campbell: “This confession as to its nature, must have been a perfect Amen in humanity to the judgment of God on the side of man. Such an Amen was due in the truth of things. He who was the Truth could not be in humanity and not utter it—and it was necessarily a first step in dealing with the Father on our behalf. He who would intercede for us must begin with confessing our sins.”

Christ’s “perfect Amen in humanity to the judgment of God” has value for humanity insofar as Christ, ‘spiritually speaking . . . is the human race, made sin for the race, and acting for it in a way so inclusively total, that all mortal confessions, repentances, sorrows, are fitly acted by him in our behalf. His divine Sonship in our humanity is charged in the offering thus to God of all which the guilty world itself should offer,” as Horace Bushnell notes. In offering that perfect response from the depths of humanity Christ “absorbs” the full realization of God’s judgment against sin. Standing as God, Christ knows “a perfect sorrow” regarding sin. And, standing with no “personal consciousness of sin” but fully clad in fallen flesh, Christ is able to offer “a perfect repentance” that is required from humanity’s side offering that perfect “Amen” to God’s mind concerning sin. With this response—even in the midst of Calvary’s darkness—God re-speaks those words first heard over Jordan’s waters: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And in response, humanity cries out “Our Father, hallowed be thy name.”

But to stop here is to misrepresent Campbell’s position. His notion of Christ’s representative repentance must be conceived as that to be exercised with the full weight of the prospective goal of Christ’s atonement—that those for whom he died might be enabled by the Spirit to participate in the confession and repentance of their elder brother, his repentance being “reproduced” in them.[1]

In Campbell’s theology, as developed by Goroncy, Christ stands in our stead ontically. It is the eternal Logos robed in the dregs of humanity, according to Campbell, wherein the full weight of sin can truly be addressed; as such genuine reconciliation between God and humanity is wrought. There are lots of interesting elements that can be developed from this line—and Jason does that throughout the rest of his excellent chapter—but what I am pressing in this post is the vicarious aspect of it all. For evangelical Calvinists, for Barth, for Torrance Jesus in his humanity, as the God-man, does for us what we could never do for ourselves, left to ourselves.

But to the critics, like Kevin Vanhoozer, Kevin Chiarot et al., this poses an abiding problem. They fear, as I mentioned earlier, that if Christ does all of this for humanity, then there remains no place for human agency and responsibility before God; i.e. humanity is so metaphysicalized, within this particular fear, that these critics believe this schemata to be un-biblical—thus un-orthodox.

Answer Provided

Since evangelical Calvinism is a resourceful endeavor, instead of pushing further into Campbell, we will appeal to Karl Barth’s theology—someone else for whom the vicarious humanity/faith of Christ is pivotal—and we will do so through one of his commentators, Robert Dale Dawson. In Dawson’s development of Barth’s theology, particularly with reference to Barth’s doctrine of resurrection, the problem that the critics fear is addressed—at least I think it is. Here Dawson reflects on the cross and resurrection, and how that reality realized in Christ is transitioned to the rest of humanity:

It is perhaps for this reason that Barth’s development of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and of his prophetic office have such great similarity, for both have to do with that further ontological transformation – which appears to follow sequentially the justification and sanctification of human being in Jesus Christ – established and revealed in the resurrection, in which human beings are granted ne life, that is, new space and time, in which to offer genuinely free and independent, and therefore appropriate, subjective response to the objective accomplishment of reconciliation in Jesus Christ, and at the same time to serve as true partners with God in the fulfilling of this reconciliation. The teleological determination of reconciled being and action must be taken then as a new aspect of the being of Christ conferred by the Father in the resurrection.

What, one may ask, does this have to do with the turn of the Crucified to others? How does this teleological dimension of our reconciled being and action revealed in the resurrection answer the question of the genuineness of the subjective human response extra Christum to the objective achievement of reconciliation intra Christum? Our answer must be that it is precisely in address of this question that Barth develops the material as he does. Barth underscores the fact that the Father acts upon the Son in the resurrection and in this makes his declaration to the world. Hence, only in the Son is there the reality and the promise of the resurrection of the dead for all other men and women. Therefore, the transition from the objective accomplishment of reconciliation to its subjective appropriation is focused christologically in the particular act of the Father upon the Son. In addition the specific shape of this transition takes the form of declaration, and as declaration, takes also the form of promise, for the declaration itself is a declaration of what is real and true in Jesus Christ but which has still to be experienced as real and true in the as yet ‘unevangelized’ anthropological world. According to Barth, this inalienable aspect of our reconciled being, this teleological determination, this ‘being in a co-operation of service with God’ is an aspect of our reconciled being which we lay hold of in hope. That is to say, our new being is a coming being. It will be ‘ a being by the side of God, the participation of man in the being and life of God, a willing of what He wills and a doing of what He does. It will be a being not only as object, but as an active subject in the fellowship of God with the created world and man. Thus, it is in the teleological dimension of our reconciled being, conferred and revealed in the resurrection, that time and space is created for free and independent human response to the objective accomplishment of reconciliation in Christ.[2]

Lots going on here, but for our purposes we will simply underscore the context of new creation. This is the key to Barth’s theology, i.e. understanding that all of contingent reality is because of God’s grace; and God’s grace is his very own inner-Triune-life. There is no independent nature in Barth’s theology; again, it is all grace. As such, in the resurrection, as the first stage of parousia (or presence) in the new creation (the germ, as it were), all things have been re-created; it is this context from whence humanity lives, grounded and concentrated as it is in the vicarious humanity of Christ. In other words, humanity, even in the original creation, for Barth, was an ec-static reality; it was never something that human’s possessed of themselves, it was always something that was constitutionally given to them in the elect humanity of Jesus Christ (Deus incarnandus ‘God to be incarnate’). Same in the re-creation/resurrection; what it means to be human is given to humanity from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ (as we noted in the last post it is transitioned from Christ’s humanity to ours by the Holy Spirit). The humanity and context we live in now, all of creation, is from the new-creation in Christ; what needs to be done has already been accomplished. Creation has been re-created, and the conditions of the Fall, both noetically and ontically have been irrupted anew in the humanity of Christ; as such all of creation is impacted (Romans 8)—just because we can’t see it yet doesn’t mean it isn’t so (II Cor. 5.7 ‘we walk by faith not sight’).

To be human, for the evangelical Calvinist, for Barth, for Torrance is to be fully free for God; this is what was always intended (protologically), and what is and will be (eschatologically). I personally think this fits much better with the creational and global trajectory of the Apostle Paul’s theology, as well as the theology in the whole of the Apostolic Deposit (i.e. the New Testament).

P.S. So you ask: “why don’t all believe then?” As soon as you can explain to me why humans fell to begin with (without appealing to some sort of speculative theology, or decrees of God), then I’ll answer your question.


[1] Jason Goroncy, “Tha mi a’ toirt fainear dur gearan:” J. McLeod Campbell and P.T. Forsyth on the Extent of Christ’s Vicarious Ministry,” in eds. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 255-57.

[2] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 184-85.

The Athanasian Barth: The Holy Spirit of Christ in Salvation

Again, because this is important, in evangelical Calvinist theology, After Barth and After Athanasius, the work, the being and reality of salvation cannot be separated from the person of Christ (and the unio personalis). That said, how is the integrity of humanity simpliciter maintained if all of salvation is accomplished in the humanity of Jesus Christ as a prius? Following Barth, this
barthiconis something I affirm as an evangelical Calvinist; it is the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit who overshadowed Mary, and the same Holy Spirit who did the work of salvation in the humanity of Christ, who works that salvation into humanity after the new/re-created humanity of Jesus Christ.

The following is a quote (a short one compared to my last post) that elucidates how this transitioning work looks from the humanity of Christ to the remaining humanity (or ours). The link is made between Barth and Athanasius at this point; you’ll see why:

We must further note that there are strong parallels between Barth’s development of the necessity of the identity of the Spirit as the Spirit of the Lord and the Athanasian development of the soteriological necessity of the hypostatic union. For Athanasius, if Jesus Christ is not fully God, he could not save us, for divine presence and power is indispensable to salvation. Likewise, if Jesus Christ is not fully human, he could not save us, for full and effective comprehension of human being is also necessary to salvation. In similar fashion, in Barth’s construal of this transition, if it is not genuinely the Spirit of Jesus Christ who comes to us, how can we be encountered by our new reconciled human being as it is in Jesus Christ? Moreover, if the selfsame Jesus Christ does not come to us, how can we be saved? The transition from Jesus Christ to others must be the radical encounter of Jesus Christ himself (not a tertium quid) and us others. Only in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Lord, is this possible.

Looking to the New Testament, Barth concludes that the solution given there to the problem of the distance between Jesus Christ in his crucifixion and us, and of the transition from him to us, is ‘[t]he outpouring of the Spirit as the effect of His resurrection, of His life in His death and in the conquest of His death, and therefore the occurrence of His self-impartation.’ On Barth’s reading of the New Testament, the holiness of the Holy Spirit is to be understood as:

the fact that He is the self-expression of the man Jesus, and that as such He is Himself His effective turning to us and our effective conversion to Him; His disclosure for us and our disclosure for Him; and, as this comes to us in this twofold sense, the new thing in earthly history.

Whatever else we might be said concerning the Holy Spirit, we cannot moderate the claim of the identity of the Spirit as the Spirit of the Lord, without sacrificing the genuine transition of reconciled human being and action from Jesus Christ to others.[1]

It is the whole Christ, both fully God fully man/human who we require to save us. It is in this hypostatic union wherein salvation is fully accomplished in Christ. In his humanity (theanthropos) what it means to be human before God has become fully actualized and realized, and this for all of humanity. Jesus’s yes to God, means that all humans can now say yes to God, from Christ’s (as the mediating and archetypal human). But, how does this work its way into the rest of humanity without violating what it means for the rest of humanity to be personal agents? By the Holy Spirit.

We will have to leave this here for now. I just wanted to share this quote with you because it fits well with my last post.

[1] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 150-51.

Personal Faith and Union with Christ Theology in Evangelical Calvinism: In Response to Kevin Vanhoozer

The following will address three issues in Kevin Vanhoozer’s critique of evangelical Calvinism: 1) how union with Christ theology is detailed and works in evangelical Calvinist theology; 2) how person/nature relate to each other in Christ in the work of redemption; 3) how individual faith, by the Holy Spirit, is important in evangelical Calvinist theology, particularly as it is grounded in the calvinpostagevicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. After we work through this, briefly, the reader should understand better what a Christ conditioned salvation looks like in evangelical Calvinism. And at the same time, the reader will see how Kevin Vanhoozer’s critique on some of these key points misses the mark.


Here we catch up with Vanhoozer in his critique of EC, as he is describing, from his perspective, what election, atonement, and union with Christ have to do one with the other; particularly as that has to do with the evangelical Calvinist articulation of that in our book Evangelical Calvinism (2012):

To say what is in Christ is both to proclaim the gospel and to make an ontological statement. The key soteriological principle for Torrance is the patristic maxim “the unassumed is the unhealed.” Election and atonement alike are thus a matter of incarnation – hence the importance of “natural” union with Christ. Indeed, Habets devotes the longest section (six pages) in his essay on election to the topic of union with Christ.

What is “evangelical” about this new perspective on Calvinism is the insistence that all human beings are elect in Jesus Christ by virtue of the Son’s assumption of human nature: humans “can no more escape from [God’s] love and sink into non-being than they can constitute themselves [persons] for whom Christ has not died.” This is because, for Torrance and the Evangelical Calvinists, there is only one union with Christ, namely, the Incarnation: “spiritual union is a sharing in the one and only union between God and humanity wrought out in Jesus Christ.” This one union, moreover, is ontological: “human beings have no being apart from Christ.” To be precise, there is one union with two aspects: the objective aspect is the incarnational or ontological union that God has done and that humans cannot undo; the subjective aspect pertains to the Holy Spirit actualizing in individuals what is objectively already the case. Christ’s atoning work is for all human beings even if some reject it.[1]

Here is what Vanhoozer may have been looking at when he wrote the above paragraph; it comes from thesis five (‘Election is christologically conditioned’), which Myk and I co-wrote. TF Torrance is reflecting upon Scottish Calvinist, John Craig’s, understanding of salvation with reference to union with Christ. You will note the two aspects that Vanhoozer is critiquing in the above paragraph: i.e. ‘carnal’ union (which has to do with the incarnation of Christ), and ‘spiritual’ union (which for us evangelical Calvinists has to do with what first took place in Christ’s humanity by the Spirit—something which Vanhoozer does not mention, which is unfortunate). Here’s the quote:

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

Craig regarded election as bound up more with adoption into Christ, with union with him, and with the communion of the Spirit, than with an eternal decree. The union of people with Christ exists only within the communion of the redeemed and in the union they conjointly have with Christ the Head of the Church. . . . Union with Christ and faith are correlative, for it is through faith that we enter into union with Christ, and yet it is upon this corporate union with Christ that faith and our participation in the saving benefits or “graces” of Christ rest. John Craig held that there was a twofold union which he spoke of as a “carnal union” and a “spiritual union.” By “carnal union” he referred to Christ’s union with us and our union with Christ which took place in his birth of the Spirit and in his human life through which took place in his birth of the Spirit and in his human life through which he sanctifies us. The foundation of our union with Christ, then, is that which Christ has made with us when in his Incarnation he became bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh; but through the mighty power of the Spirit all who have faith in Christ are made flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. It is only through this union, through ingrafting into Christ by faith and through communion with him in his Body and Blood, that we may share in all Christ’s benefits—outside of this union and communion there is no salvation, for Christ himself is the ground of salvation. . . .[2]

Vanhoozer misses the most important aspect of this (which I alluded to earlier), he fails to recognize that Torrance and evangelical Calvinists hold that both the objective and subjective, both the carnal and spiritual unions have been realized in Christ pro nobis (for us). Vanhoozer skips that part, and simply says: “the subjective aspect pertains to the Holy Spirit actualizing in individuals what is objectively already the case.” No, the subjective aspect of union, for evangelical Calvinists, pertains to what the Holy Spirit accomplished in Christ’s vicarious humanity for us. As I shared in my last post, as Dawson cites Barth, precisely as concerns this point:

deriving from Jesus Christ, i.e., His resurrection, there is a sovereignly operative power of revelation, and therefore of the transition from Him to us, of His communication with us; a power by whose working there is revealed and made known to us our own election as it has taken place in Him … and therefore the deliverance and establishment of our own being, so that our existence receives a new determination. It is by the operation of this power that we become and are Christians.[3]

This is a significant point and should not be glossed over; particularly because it elides the charge of Vanhoozer when he claims (in one of his comments at the blog here): “The main pushback I have is that in TFT there seems to be (sometimes) a conflation of person/nature, such that Jesus’ human nature is doing all the soteriological work, including believing on our behalf.” There is no conflation of person/nature in Torrance, or Barth, on this; the point for them, as for us: is that the believing, or the vicarious faith of Christ is indeed that, but this is not to suggest that individual persons or people do not have to believe themselves by the Holy Spirit. Instead it is to say that because of God’s “grace all the way down,” as Torrance would say, humanity can now say yes to God, because Jesus has said yes first for us in his mediatorial and priestly humanity.

Vanhoozer, prior to what we just addressed, wrote this as he sketched Calvin’s conception of union with Christ:

Surprisingly enough, Calvin agrees with Vermigli that there is also an incarnational or “natural” union that relates all human beings, saints and sinners, to Jesus Christ by virtue of their shared humanity: “That the Son of God put on our flesh, in order that He might become our Brother, par-taker of the same nature, is a Communion on which I do not mean to speak here.” However, Calvin says he is “entirely in agreement” with Vermigli’s qualification of this physical union as “very general and feeble [de-bilis]”). Elsewhere Calvin is adamant: “For we know that the children of God are not born of flesh and blood but of the Spirit through faith. Hence flesh alone does not make the bond of brotherhood.” Paraphrasing Calvin, we might say that the Son’s humanity, a merely “natural” or ontological union, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the kind of union with Christ that Calvin (and Paul) typically have in view in the context of soteriology. This natural or “incarnational” union with Christ is “the platform upon which redemption is carried out but [is] not . . . independently redemptive.”[4]

Again, Vanhoozer wants to suggest, or more forcefully, argue that evangelical Calvinists are at odds with the Apostle Paul and Calvin, while his classical Calvinism with its emphasis on individual faith is not. But in the very book and in the very section that Vanhoozer is critiquing (in our theses chapter), Myk and I also wrote this (represents our thesis ten in full):

Evangelical Calvinism places an emphasis upon the doctrine of union with/in Christ whereby all the benefits of Christ are ours.

Whether one wishes to adopt a formal ordo salutis or not, there is evident in any work of systematic theology at least a rudimentary historia salutis or even a via salutis, in the sense that one must distinguish between various aspects of reconciliation and an implicit logical (and chronological) articulation of them. From the foundational event of union with Christ several corollaries follow, and it is these corollaries which we may view as an implicit ordo salutis within an Evangelical Calvinism. As such union with Christ configures the ordo salutis, not some abstract, secret, and hidden Divine decree as propounded by the likes of Theodore Beza and William Perkins, et al. It is not that this becomes the central dogma or a philosophical centrum, but from union with Christ all the blessings and benefits of Christ flow—such as justification, sanctification, and glorification. In this we follow Calvin when he states:

Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.

According to William Evans:

It is here that a concrete soteriological approach is called for. In contrast to the abstractions of the ordo salutis framework, in which justification and sanctification are not “in Christ” but rather occur somehow “on the basis of what Christ did,” there is a need to reflect more deeply on the relationship of the person and work of Christ. Once again, the Pauline materials provide food for thought. R. B. Gaffin has argued that for St. Paul, all of the traditional loci of Reformed soteriology—justification, sanctification, adoption, and glorification—are comprehended in the experience of Christ as the resurrected Second Adam. Furthermore, the Pauline perspective here is that the redemptive experience of Christ is not only paradigmatic for the Christian, but also is constitutive of the believer’s experience (the believer will not merely be raised like Christ, but is crucified and raised with and in Christ, Rom. 6:4–10; Eph 2:4–7). If these insights are to be utilized in Reformed dogmatics, then all of salvation is in a sense “participatory,” that is, a participation in the redemptive experience of Christ. All is to be found, as T. F. Torrance rightly suggests, in the “vicarious humanity of Christ.”

Evans continues:

A decisive break with the ordo salutis thinking that has vitiated Reformed thought since the early seventeenth century is clearly implied here. This historical record shows that as long as justification is viewed as taking place at a specific point in time (either in eternity or upon the exercise of faith) it is nearly impossible to find a meaningful relationship between justification and the economy of faith (the ongoing life of faith and obedience). Only when the traditional ordo salutis is eschewed can a truly forensic and synthetic doctrine of justification that is at the same time relational and dynamic be articulated.

Union with Christ and how that relates to salvation is one of the key pillars upon which Evangelical Calvinism rests. This nuance serves to differentiate Evangelical Calvinism from other approaches. Using Thomas Torrance as something of a guide here we can clearly see how our choice for God (conversion) is first grounded in Jesus’ choice for us, and is acted out in his Spirit-constituted-humanity in-our-stead (substitution):

Based upon the mutual mediation of Son and Spirit, there is both a God-humanward movement and a human-Godward movement and Jesus through the Spirit mediates both. This means . . . “the Spirit not only brings to us the objective effects worked out in the vicarious life of Christ, but also the subjective effects worked out in his humanity. That is, the Spirit enables us to share in Jesus’ own faithful response to the Father.” Torrance’s doctrine of human response as previously analyzed provides a foundation for what is developed here by way of the Holy Spirit. . . . Through the Spirit we share in Christ’s response to the Father. The Spirit empowers the believer to cry “Abba, Father,” in the same way that comes naturally to the Son of God; for to be “in the Spirit” is to be “in Christ”. . . . according to Torrance, “our whole lives in every part are constituted a participation: a dynamic life of union and communion with God.” Torrance insists that our holiness or sanctification is realised in Christ by the Holy Spirit: our repentance, faith, and obedience are actualised in Christ by the Holy Spirit; every part of our relationship with and response to God is thus achieved in, through, and by the Son and the Spirit. Not only is the Holy Spirit instrumental in justification, but now, also, to sanctification. Critically, however, both are located in Christ. Here we have, in effect, the other side of redemption: “the side of the subjectification of revelation and reconciliation in the life and faith of the church. That means the Spirit is creating and calling forth the response of man in faith and understanding, in thanksgiving and worship and prayer. . . .”

Of keynote importance is how all the typical concepts—election, limited atonement, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, etc.—which are usually placed in the absolutum decretum—are reified so that it is all grounded in God’s life in Christ by the Spirit. Humans, in this schema, do not cooperate with God through grace (as if grace is something given to humanity that they can cooperate with Christ through) to appropriate salvation (which is the way Classic Calvinism construes it); instead the response is through the “free” response of Jesus Christ to the Father by the Holy Spirit on our behalf. Humanity is placed into, united to Christ, by the “person” of the Holy Spirit; it is through this union that humanity’s response is first instantiated, first accomplished in Christ’s mediation for us. Union with Christ is an integral part of Evangelical Calvinist theology because it holds that God’s life itself is salvation (not meeting the dictates of some decrees), thus if humanity is going to “be saved” it must be in union with this life. And that is what happens through Christ’s humanity by the Spirit first; then humanity is united to his humanity by the Spirit, and it is out of this recreated humanity that we say “Yes” to the Father—“thy will be done”![5]


In light of all this it is hard to see how Vanhoozer’s critique holds much weight in regard to:  our apparent failure to detail how union with Christ works, to properly relate union with Christ theology to the Apostle Paul and John Calvin, and our supposed conflation of person/nature (after Torrance). As this post hopefully lays to rest, none of these points of critique by Vanhoozer work.

There is one more aspect I want to respond to in particular, but we have run out of space. Vanhoozer will later, in the same context go on and argue this:

The differences between Classical and Evangelical Calvinism here come into sharp contrast. First, as concerns election: Classical Calvinists associate being chosen in Christ with the Spirit’s uniting people to Christ through faith, whereas Evangelical Calvinists associate being chosen in Christ with the Son’s assumption of humanity in the Incarnation. Second, as concerns union with Christ: Classical Calvinists tend to follow Pauline usage, for whom “in Christ” serves as referring to the Spirit’s incorporation of saints into Christ (and hence the life of the triune God) through faith (i.e., a covenantal union of persons), whereas Evangelical Calvinists tend to follow a distinctly non-Pauline usage, viewing being “in Christ” as a necessary implication of the incarnation (i.e., an ontological union of natures, our humanity with Christ’s).[6]

We have already addressed some of this particularly in the last paragraph of our thesis ten; i.e. where we mention the absolutum decretum. It is hard for me not to launch into another response at this point particularly when Vanhoozer states that: “Classical Calvinists tend to follow Pauline usage, for whom “in Christ” serves as referring to the Spirit’s incorporation of saints into Christ (and hence the life of the triune God) through faith (i.e., a covenantal union of persons), whereas Evangelical Calvinists tend to follow a distinctly non-Pauline usage, viewing being “in Christ” as a necessary implication of the incarnation (i.e., an ontological union of natures, our humanity with Christ’s).”[7] That is troubling indeed! We have just shown that we affirm the centrality of personal faith; and we have also shown how that is personalized (and thus in line with the Apostle Paul’s focus on faith) in the vicarious humanity of Christ. When Vanhoozer makes the audacious claim that classical Calvinists have a much greater and Pauline emphasis upon personal faith, it is hard to take that; particularly when I know how decretal theology informs the classical Calvinist framework.

Alas, enough; next time.


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

[2] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theses on a Theme,” in eds.  Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 433.

[3] Karl Barth CD IV/2, p. 317 cited by Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 148.

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

[5] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theses on a Theme,” in eds.  Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 441-44.

[6] 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).”

[7] Ibid.

*[see index to all five of my responses to K.J. Vanhoozer, here]

Another Response to Kevin Vanhoozer: Reformed Theology, the Genus — Evangelical Calvinism and Classical Calvinism, the Species

This is a second installment to a post where I offered some more response to Kevin Vanhoozer in regard to his chapter length critique of evangelical Calvinism—you can (and should) read that post here. Graciously, Vanhoozer responded to my post in the comments section of that post (you can of course read those there). In one of his comments he succinctly summarizes his ongoing and lingering question (and problem) with evangelical Calvinism and our approach to salvation issues. Professor Vanhoozer commented:

I suppose my lingering question is this: if the Incarnation means that  all humans are elect (because the Son assumes/elects human nature), and if the atoning work of Christ benefits all human twotonecalvinbeings, and if Jesus’ vicarious humanity includes his faith on my behalf, then it would seem that his saving work is sufficient for all.

The usual response at this point is that I am imposing a Western logico-causal framework onto the discussion, whereas I’m only trying to think clearly!

This type of lingering question is not actually unique to Vanhoozer, it has been the primary push-back I have received here at the blog over the last seven years (ever since I started this particular blog). It is the type of question that is worthy of a PhD dissertation, one that maybe I’ll research and I write someday. But until then all you’re going to get are blog posts J.

In Responsio

I think the simple response to what Vanhoozer writes, particularly when it comes to his point about ‘sufficient for all’ is to say: no. No, we are not, of course, affirming of that old Peter Lombardian adage of ‘sufficient for all, efficient for the elect’ that many a Reformed has used to speak of the efficacy (or in-efficacy) of the atoning work of Christ. Since this post isn’t just intended to be a direct response to Vanhoozer, but also informative for others, let me share a description and some history on this adage of ‘sufficient for all, efficient for the elect.’ Escondido theologian, and church historian, R. Scott Clark explains it this way:

In the midst of controversy over the nature of God’s sovereignty, Godescalc of Orbais defended Augustine vigorously and suffered for it. He taught that there are two “worlds,” that which Christ has purchased with his blood and that which he has not. Thus when Scripture says that Christ died for the “world” (e.g., John 3:16) it is extensive of all those Christ has actually redeemed, but it does not include everyone who has ever lived. 18 In the same way, those passages which seem to say that Christ died for all, in all times and places must but understood to refer to all the elect. Thus he saw 1 John 2:2 not as a problem passage, but a proof-text for definite atonement.19

The Lombard’s teaching on the atonement is most famous for his use of the distinction between the sufficiency of Christ’s death and its efficiency. Though they are not familiar to many of us today, from their publication in the late 12th century until the late 16th century, Peter’s Sentences were the most important theological text in the Latin-speaking world. Theological students even earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the Sentences.

In Book 3, distinction 20 he taught that Christ’s death was “sufficient” to redeem all (quantum ad pretii) but it is “efficient” only “for the elect” (pro electis).20 This distinction, though not followed by all Western theologians after Lombard, was adopted by most until the nominalist movement (e.g., William of Ockham, d. 1347) overturned the “Old School” (via antiqua).21

In his great work, Summa Theologiae, Thomas distinguished between God’s will considered as his antecedent will, by which he could be said to have willed the salvation of all; and his will considered as consequent, i.e., what he actually decreed to exist, i.e., that only the elect would be saved and that some will be reprobated (damned).22 Later, Protestant theologians would revise this distinction to refer to his revealed and hidden will. With respect to his revealed will, God is said to desire certain things (i.e., that none should perish). It is his revealed will that we should know the existence of a hidden decree (who will be saved and who will perish) but the content of that decree is part of his hidden will.

Thomas also made it very clear that he adopted Lombard’s sufficient/efficient distinction but also taught unambiguously that Christ died effectively only for the elect.[1] 

Vanhoozer is implying since not all believe, and yet Christ died for all humanity (so EC), then it would seem that, according to Vanhoozer’s logic, that evangelical Calvinists are majoring on one half of the equation: i.e. that Christ’s death is sufficient for all, but only hypothetically efficient for the elect. But of course this is where we so disparately depart from one another; i.e. evangelical Calvinists from classical Calvinists (such as Kevin Vanhoozer).

To take this in another direction a bit I am going supply a few quotes, and provide some reflection on them in the context of this response to Vanhoozer. As Vanhoozer rightly observes the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ is the key for evangelical Calvinists. This doesn’t, at a first order level, have to do with the question Vanhoozer is concerned with in regard to his conclusion that our view leads to a ‘Christ sufficient for all’ view, but it absolutely implicates it. So, as has been cycled through over and over here at the blog, we see Jesus as both the object and subject of God’s election and reprobation; we see Jesus as archetypal humanity before God, as such we do not think of humanity in abstraction, we think it from Christ’s humanity as the imago Dei. As such redemption and reconciliation (and all that attends that) has been exhaustively realized in Jesus Christ’s humanity. George Hunsinger unpacks this reality well as he explains Barth’s thinking at this very point:

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.[2]

We might say that in Christ, the second Adam (the greater Adam cf. Rom. 5): what it means to be human has a brand new horizon. In other words, what it means to be human before God, is what Christ’s humanity is for us; truly the One for the all; not just sufficiently (to use the Lombardian language), but efficiently—since his humanity is the all of what it means to be genuinely human before and with God. But Vanhoozer’s issue is how does what Christ did in his vicarious humanity work its way into the rest of humanity; if this re-birth (or re-creation) has happened then how does that implicate all other humans? The answer to that question is the Holy Spirit, and by individual faith. Robert Dale Dawson does a superb job of explaining how this Spirit breathed miracle takes place in the theology of Barth; he writes:

The Miraculous Character of the Power of Transition

The power of the resurrection is, therefore, in Barth’s view, the power of the transition from Jesus Christ in himself pro nobis to human persons. Not only is the power of the resurrection active as a revelatory event, it is also clearly a miraculous power. It is not to be understood as a factor or phenomenon, albeit extraordinary and striking, in the closed nexus of world occurrence. Nevertheless, it is a definite power with a definite character, the power and character of resurrection. It is the power of God:

The power of the transition on which the New Testament counts when it looks from the basis and origin of its witness in Jesus Christ to its goal in the existence of Christians is absolutely unique as the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Barth describes the particular character of this power of transition as light, liberation, knowledge, peace and life. Summarizing, he asserts: ‘It aims at enlightened, liberated and understanding life which is at peace in all dimensions. … The power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ may be known by the fact that it snatches man upwards.’ That is to say, this power is ‘the power which proceeds from His resurrection, and He Himself as the Resurrected.’ As such, this power sows ‘a seed which is not only psychical by physical, and gives nourishment which is not only spiritual but material – a whole preservation of the whole man.’

As this miraculous power of transition, the resurrection of Jesus Christ enables human persons to live in the hope of their own resurrection and eternal life. The proof of the power of the resurrection, according to Barth, lay in the fact that it reveals the life of the man Jesus as ‘exalted to participation in the eternal life of God’ and in so doing it effectively brings the human person ‘the promise of eternal life which is given in it, making it his own, and moving him for his part to make it his own, to grasp it, to allow it to be the comfort and confidence and hope of his life as he still lives it in the shadow of death.’ No other force can bring about this miraculous result, that is, the enabling of men and women, who receive and possess the promise, ‘to live a life which already defies death, and arrests that discontinuity, and persists even in that flight through the times.’

It is on account of this miraculous power of God, says Barth, that it is both possible and actual that a human person becomes and is a Christian. The answer to our plaguing question can only be that:

deriving from Jesus Christ, i.e., His resurrection, there is a sovereignly operative power of revelation, and therefore of the transition from Him to us, of His communication with us; a power by whose working there is revealed and made known to us our own election as it has taken place in Him … and therefore the deliverance and establishment of our own being, so that our existence receives a new determination. It is by the operation of this power that we become and are Christians.

Once again, it is in his description of the particularity and definiteness of the miraculous power that Barth adds force to his argument that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is indeed the transition of reconciled human being and action in him to the remaining anthropological sphere.[3]

Whatever, then, is possible for the ‘remaining anthropological sphere’ is only so because it first became realized in the humanity of Jesus Christ for all.

Evangelical Calvinists, such as myself, are fundamentally at odds with Vanhoozer’s more classical Reformed perspective right from the starting block. In other words, we might use much of the same lexicon, but per Barth’s radical reformulation of that lexicon, insofar as evangelical Calvinists imbibe that vibe, we depart. We are much more Eastern (and even patristic) in many ways in contrast to what I would suggest is the more Western (and mediaeval) character of classical Reformed theology; the type that I think Vanhoozer is critiquing evangelical Calvinism from.

Patristic theologian par excellence, Donald Fairbairn, offers a way forward (from a patristic theological vantage point), with particular reference to the issue of predestination, extent of atonement, so on and so forth that I think the feeling of evangelical Calvinism coheres with quite well. Fairbairn writes:

To spell this idea out a bit more, I suggest that in our discussion of election/predestination, we should not place such priority on God’s choosing particular people that we imply he has nothing to do with those he will not ultimately save. Conversely, I suggest that we not place such priority on God’s universal desire to save that we imply that he deals exactly equally with everyone and all differences between people are due to their own responses to God (responses that God foreknows). Rather, I suggest that we place the priority on God’s eternal decision to honor his own relationship with his beloved Son and his Spirit by bringing people into that relationship. God’s eternal will was, first and foremost, a will to accomplish human redemption through the person and work of his Son and his Spirit. That eternal will included within its determination all that God ordained to happen, all that he knew would happen, all that both he and we would do. This means that when a person begins to trust in Christ or a believer prays for the salvation of others or someone proclaims the gospel, these people are privileged to share in what God has from all eternity determined that he would do. We are not merely the means by which he achieves his purpose, we are somehow privileged to be a part of the determination of that purpose, the establishment of the will of God in connection with his Son Jesus Christ. Such a way of looking at the relation between election and human action may help to ease the logjam the Western discussions of this issue have created for a millennium and a half. But even if it does not succeed in doing that, such a way of looking at the issue does place the emphasis where Scripture indicates it should lie–not on a seemingly arbitrary decree or on allegedly independent, free human action but instead on Christ the beloved Son of the Father, the one in whom we are chosen to participate.[4]

Along with the patristic trajectory offered by Fairbairn, along with Karl Barth’s focus, along with T.F. Torrance’s resourcefulness; evangelical Calvinists are not concerned with answering the ‘who’ question of election when that is in reference to individual people. We are not concerned with explaining a theory of causation (like classical Calvinism does with primary and secondary causation, etc.); we are content to simply attribute salvation to all that has been done in Christ, and to the work that the Holy Spirit brings to that as he miraculously creates space for all of humanity to echo in the yes of God, in Jesus Christ. This might well sound Arminian, but of course Arminianism works within the same theological and metaphysical sphere that we find funding classical Calvinism; evangelical Calvinists simply do not fit into that mold of conception or analysis.


In brief, I think at the end of the day (not to shut discussion down), evangelical Calvinism is doing something much different than classical Reformed theology. While we do have, on the negative side of things, critical points of departure from (and critique of) classical Federal theology (or Westminster Calvinism); on the other side, the positive side, we are proposing a style of Reformed theology that thinks from a wholly other starting point—from a fundamentally different hermeneutic. Does that mean we are not open for critique? No. But it does mean that the level of critique needs to be at the more formal level, I suppose. It’s hard to say that Calvin’s or the Apostle Paul’s emphasis is more this or that, when in order to say that, the informing hermeneutic helps us to reach that conclusion; i.e. in other words, it is hard to say the Apostle Paul says this or that without engaging in petitio principii, at least if that’s the basis of the critique (even if its not the only basis of critique).

Professor Vanhoozer, I very much so appreciate your willingness to interact with me, and the evangelical Calvinists. I do think it is possible, by way of mood, for us to constructively engage with each other; but at least for my money, in many ways, as I’ve been iterating over and again, we are probably different species even if within the same genus.


[1] R. Scott Clark, resource is no longer available. I originally posted this quote in this blog post.

[2] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 96, Nook.

[3] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 147-48.

[4] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 197-98.

Augustine’s Theory of Atonement: Divine Child Abuse?

John McGuckin describes the basic premise of Augustine’s theory of atonement, and how that has impacted the Western church ever since. We often hear this Augustinian (and now Calvinist) sentiment derided; i.e. under the charge of God the Father being a cosmic child abuser of his Son in the atoning cross-work. As McGuckin also notes, though, there were multi-valent models of augustine1atonement theories abound during the patristic period; and as he notes (rightly, I believe), this is because of the diffuse nature of Scripture’s witness itself. Here’s what McGuckin has written:

In the West the idea of substitutionary sacrifice, to appease the anger of God, remained the dominate and most vivid idea of the atonement. The idea was prevalent in the North African writers Tertullian and Cyprian, and when it was restated by Augustine (in more balanced and philosophical terms) it was set to enter the Western church as the primary motif of atonement theology for centuries to come. It is conveyed in Augustine’s statement: “Since death was our punishment for sin, Christ’s death was that of sacrificial victim offered up for sins” (De Trinitate 4.12.15). Many modern patristic theorists have attempted to bring some order into the sprawling images of atonement we find in this literature, describing various “schools” or theories (physical theory, Christ the Victor, and so on). The simple fact is that the patristic writing is organically diffuse on the central mystery of Christ’s economiastic preaching. The writers used many images, often a combination of them, all of them devolving in some sense or another from the rich poetic tapestry of scriptural texts about the work of Christ. To impose systematic order on this wildly vivid kerygmatic witness is often anachronistic and inappropriately scholastic.[1]

It is the Augustinian model itself that has so deeply funded what we see taken over in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement given development particularly in the Federal or Covenantal wing of Reformed theology. Often this is also connected to Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement, but really the only relationship there is the idea of satisfaction; i.e. not much material linkage, theologically.

I’m not going to comment too much on all of this, other than to say that those committed to the Augustinian theory, in the main, are going to have a difficulty appreciating the ontological theory of the atonement that we promote as evangelical Calvinists.

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

Speaking Plainly as a Christian from my Own Experiences

I just want to write from the heart, and reflect on what I have come to learn of God in Jesus Christ over my life; and in particular over the last twenty-one years. This reflection will range from the intimate to the intellectual.

As a Child

I first heard the Lord’s voice when I woke up in the middle of the night, and knew that I was ready to ask Jesus into my heart—I was three and a half. I woke my parents up, and they led me in lookingatstarsprayer to Jesus. That same voice has continued to speak to my heart and at points wake me up (metaphorically) in moments when I need that, even now. He has never left or forsaken me; whether that be through depression, anxiety, doubts, or an incurable cancer diagnosis. The Lord of life has always been there; just as a faithful shepherd never leaves his sheep. He has laid his life down for me over and over again, as he always lives to make intercession for me. He has captured my heart with his heart of Triune love; a love that is not of this world, but has come into this world in the eternal Son. I have come to know that his love is not just for me, but for the whole world; that his love is bi-partisan and crosses every-and-any line humanity might attempt to draw—he transcends all lines.

As a Theologian

What theology has taught me is that God is Triune; that he is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that his oneness is shaped by his threeness/his threeness by his oneness. I have learned that it was just this life, because of who this life was, is, and will be in itself, that the world was created; it was created so that the plenitude which is God’s life of self-given love and fellowship, could participate with the other—with us. I have come to learn that this Triune God is purely holy, that he can have no part in evil or darkness; but beyond that his holiness is defined by his just “isness,” it is because he is who he is in himself that he is holy—that he is set apart unto himself. The beauty of God’s holiness, I’ve learned, is that it is in his holiness that he is most open for the other; first in the Father-Son-Holy Spirit relation, but concordant with that, with us as his creatures.

As a Sinner

I’ve learned that as his creatures we have no life apart from him; apart from him we can do nothing. But because of sin, and our un-holiness we lost our way; we have separated from him. In this separation we wander aimlessly like wandering stars for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever; but he does not desire this for us so he sent his Son. His Son, Jesus, freely chose to be for us, to be God with us, Immanuel, and to bring reconciliation in himself for us, between us and God. Christ alone has been able to bridge the breach, that outwith his selfless work and wound for us, we would still be aimlessly fluttering around the universe with no hope. I’ve learned, and am learning that Jesus is the Gospel, he is the Good News that this world needs; that I need.

As the World

I’ve also learned that this world hates Jesus; that it would rather serve and worship itself. I’ve learned that the world, if it could, would crucify Jesus all over again; and that that spirit dominates this world system. I’ve learned that people would rather listen to their own voices, even in the church, rather than the voice of the living God in Jesus Christ. I see people every day, in this world, consider the blood of Jesus a vain thing; as if the shed blood of Jesus Christ is as common as the next fad. I see people every day walk passed the face of Christ as if his face is the face of just another religion. I am surrounded by people, in this world, who hear the Gospel, and count it as just one more power-play over their lives. I see people rushing to and fro never able to find rest; crowding their lives out with noise; self-medicating themselves with pseudo-intellectualism and entertainment; self-therapizing themselves with drugs, alcohol, and sex—the usual vices. I see people who look up into the sky on a dark starry night and only see a cold, black, empty space with no meaning behind it. I experience a world that is always learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth; because they don’t love the truth, they love the lie. I see a world at war, a world bludgeoning itself into oblivion with hopes of exalting itself as God. I see a world with no peace.

As a Disciple, As a Witness

I have come to learn that Jesus is the peace that this world is looking for, but that it doesn’t ultimately want. But I want that peace, and by the graciousness of God in Christ I experience that peace every day; I want the world I am surrounded by to experience that peace, but they will not. I want the world I come into contact with every day to know that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; that God is love, and he comes with healing in his wings as the Sun of Righteousness. I want people to know that when they see the cross of Jesus Christ that this is God’s answer to the chaos in the world; this is where God’s Kingdom breaks into the hearts of men and women, boys and girls. I want the world to know that by God’s poverty in Christ, they have been made rich by the wonderful exchange that has taken place in the person of Jesus Christ; that the crooked has been made straight, the darkness made light. I want the world to know that Jesus has risen indeed! That the governments of this world rest on the Son’s shoulders, and that in Christ there is freedom indeed. I want the world to know that God has spoken, that he speaks in his Son; and that all who will can participate in the very life of God. I want the world to know that the holiness of God’s inner life has been opened up for them in Jesus Christ; that Jesus is the mediator between God and humanity, and that in him they can escape into the very sanctum of God—so close as to be at the very right hand of God. I want the world to know what it’s like to look up at the heavens, and the starry night, and see the majesty of God; to know that there is the theater of God’s glory, and he wants to share it with them. I want the world to know that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all; at his right hand are pleasures forevermore. I want the world to know that God’s heart breaks for them as a Father’s heart breaks for his prodigal son; he wants them to come home. I want the world to know that there is no suffering so deep that God in Christ hasn’t gone deeper; that he can meet us at the deepest point we could ever go. I want to be a testimony of this grace and mercy to them, to the world that wanders around as if existing is simply what life is.

As one Resurrected

I’ve learned that there is urgency about the Gospel, and that this life is but a vapor; cancer taught me this the most. I learned that we as a people need to be ready to die, literally. But people don’t want to think like that, they don’t want to think they could die; but the fact is, they are. I’ve learned that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and though we die yet shall we live. amen.


In Response to Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Critique of evangelical Calvinism: No We Don’t Hold to Ontological Union Alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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

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

Evangelical Calvinism, Reforming the Reformation with Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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