The Elevation-Line in Theology: The Primacy of God in Incarnation and His Reality in ‘EC’ Theology

I have written on the primacy of Christ and ‘elevation-line’ theology before (a theology articulated in the medieval period by John Duns Scotus), here at the blog; but I thought I would revisit it (it has come up in my TF Torrance readings). The issue under consideration has a basic premise, but comes, of course, with complex and profound elucidation. That said, I don’t think it’s a speculative or abstract type of theological consideration. The basic premise of so called ‘elevation-line’ theology is: That Jesus Christ would have incarnated for humanity with or without the fall. One reason for orthodoxjesusthis view is that it emphasizes the idea that the telos or purpose for creation, from the beginning, was always to “elevate” humanity into the kind of relationship, by grace, that the Son has always had with the Father (what we see Jesus speaking to the Father about in his so called ‘high priestly prayer’ in John 17). But beyond this it avoids making the incarnation of God contingent upon sin, and meeting the conditions set out by sin (this for me, theologically, is quite significant). Contrary to this, and what would be the majority report in the Western church (by the way elevation-line theology is also a Western development), there is also what has been called ‘restitution-line’ theology (articulated foremost, during the medieval period by Thomas Aquinas). Myk Habets explains what these positions entail quite clearly when he writes:

Two views on the primacy of Christ dominate the discussion within medieval theology, those of the Franciscans, led by John Duns Scotus, and those of the Dominicans, led by Thomas Aquinas. According to the first view humanity was created for glory, and sin is merely an episode along the way. The incarnation would have occurred irrespective of the fall since humanity’s ultimate destiny is participation in the being of God and the incarnation guarantees that this will be realized. This Franciscan position is known as the Scotistic thesis. It is what one scholar terms ‘elevation-line’ theology which sees the incarnation as the way to the elevation or consummation of creation. The second major view considers the deliverance of creation as secondary to the question of sin. This is the Dominican position known as the Thomistic thesis. It may be characterised as a ‘restitution-line’ theology, in which the incarnation occurred solely as a remedy for humanity’s sin, with the restitution of creation as a corollary. Both ‘school’s’ of thought deserve some articulation before examining some recent contributions to the issue.[1]

David Fergusson writes of the development of elevation-theology this way:

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]

All of this type of thinking, first generated by Duns Scotus, and then its counterpoint provided by Aquinas came together for Myk in his essay, and then finally resulted in a thesis that Myk and I co-wrote in our first evangelical Calvinist book: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church. Here is thesis 8 of 15 from our book, let me share this with you all, it will help to illustrate how a doctrine of the primacy of Christ (over and for creation), a supralapsarian doctrine of election, and so called elevation-line theology all mutually implicate and inform each other as aspects of the whole reality located in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and how that frames salvation and situates that within a doctrine of God, Christ, protology, covenant, creation, recreation, and eschatology. Here is our thesis 8:

Thesis Eight

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, theologically 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.”[3]

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.”[4] 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.”[5] [6]

As if this wasn’t enough, I wanted to illustrate further how this functions in TF Torrance’s own thinking and theology (this so called ‘elevation-line’ theology). Torrance writes: “… But this very condescension of God, in which he humbled himself to enter into our lowly creaturely and fallen existence, means also the elevation  of our creaturely existence, by the very fact of God’s will to unite himself to it and to bring the creature into coexistence with himself. Thus his very act of becoming man is itself an act of reconciliation.”[7] He writes further in this vein:

But further, the assumptio carnis means also that God has joined himself to us in our estranged human life in order to sanctify it, to gather it into union with his own holy life and so lift it up above and beyond all the downward drag of sin and decay, and that he already does simply by being one with man in all things. Thus the act of becoming incarnate is itself the sanctification of our human life in Jesus Christ, an elevating and fulfilling of it that far surpasses creation; it is a raising up of men and women to stand and have their being in the very life of God, but that raising up of man is achieved through his unutterable atoning self-humiliation and condescension.[8]

I share this from Torrance in order for the reader to see where some of the inspiration has come from for me and Myk as evangelical Calvinists, and how elevation theology and the Scotist thesis, at this level anyway, is present in Torrance’s writings and thought.


This turned into a long post, but there is a lot of rich stuff to share in this regard. I hope this all gives you, the reader, further insight into where evangelical Calvinism is coming from. What should stand out for you is how indeed this differentiates our approach from “classical” renditions of Calvinism. Classical, so called, iterations of Calvinism work from the Thomist or as Myk identifies it for us, ‘restitution-line’ theology; i.e. the primary reason for the incarnation and God become man was to take care of sin and pay its penalty (so we end up with a more forensic and juridical emphasis). Us evangelical Calvinists follow the Scotist thesis (at least at this level of things), which makes for an altogether different emphasis in the way we understand everything, including salvation. We see salvation in ontic terms, in the terms we see presupposed upon by TF Torrance in the quotes I shared from him; and also as those get addressed in the sharing of our thesis 8. This ontological focus moves us away from juridical or forensic frames when we think about anthropology, soteriologly, and the point of creation in total. Along with David Fergusson, as evangelical Calvinists who affirm the elevation-line, we can say: “The world was made so that Christ might be born.”[9]

For evangelical Calvinists Jesus is primary over all of creation, through and through. One of our favorite passages of Scripture (as it was for Scotus himself) comes from the Apostle Paul’s Colossian correspondence:

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And 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, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.[10]


[1] Myk Habets, “On Getting First Things First,” 344-45.

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

[3] This idea is forcefully presented by Torrance in a sermon “The Trinity of Love,” when he defines the love of God according to 2 Corinthians 13:14 as a holy, pure, true, and only love, and as such: “If God in His love gives Himself to me, His love would burn up my self-love; His purity would attack my impurity; His truth would slay my falsehood and hypocrisy. The love of God would be my judgment. God’s love is wrath against all self-love. God’s love is a consuming fire against all that is unloving and selfish and sinful,” Torrance, When Christ Comes, 187. (this footnote is the original one made in our EC book coordinate with thesis 8)

[4] Habets, “On Getting First Things First,” 349. (this footnote is the original one made in our EC book coordinate with thesis 8)

[5] See Purves, chapter 5, and Goroncy, chapter 10. (this footnote is the original one made in our EC book coordinate with thesis 8)

[6] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theses on a Theme,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 437-39.

[7] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 65.

[8] Ibid., 66.

[9] Fergusson, “Creation,” 77.

[10] Colossians 1.15-20, ESV.

Athanasius and T.F. Torrance Contra Mundum, Against the World of classical Calvinist Forensic Conception of the Atonement

Here’s a post I originally wrote in 2011. It illustrates how evangelical Calvinists, following T.F. Torrance and Athanasius are at odds with classical Calvinist or Federal theology. In this post I use Michael Horton as the representative of the Covenantal/Forensic approach. The focus is on what has happened in the atonement, and, indeed, in salvation generally.

I often speak of T. F. Torrance’s view of the atonement as the ontological view, which is inextricably related, for Torrance to the Incarnation (which is why his most recent posthumously athanasiuspublished books Incarnation & Atonement came in the order that they did— there is a theo-logical and even, dare I say it, necessary relation between the two). Well I just wanted to quote Athanasius directly, so that folks won’t think that Torrance fabricated such things out of whole cloth. Here’s Athanasius discussing the apparent dilemma God has set before Him given the reality of the “Fall” (and the non-existence or non-being that it brought humanity separated from Him), and the fact that not just a “legal” kind of relation had been violated between God and man through the “Fall;” but in fact an actual corruption of man Himself and the loss of grace as an intricate aspect of man’s relation to God had occurred —man’s very “nature” and even “heart” had been broken to the point of death (non-being and separation from God). Athanasius is sketching the only way the only dénouement possible for God to remain consistent with Himself as the Creator of man in His image; he says:

Yet, true though this is, it is not the whole matter. As we have already noted, it was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back upon His word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence. He could not falsify Himself; what, then, was God to do? Was He to demand repentance from men for their transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case. What—or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.[1]

Rich stuff. Now if you’re into the “kind” of Covenantal/Reformed/Federal Theology that Michael Horton & co. articulates, then you might as well throw Athanasius’ insights, just quoted, in the burn pile. Here’s why. Horton style Covenant theology offers a “Juridically-Forensically” based view of the atonement—the kind that would actually fit into the “repentance-only” model that Athanasius says or NO to—that frames what takes place on the cross as a Divine transaction between the Son and the Father. The “Law” (eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil cf. Hos. 6.7) has been broken (Covenant of Works), and the Father-Son agree to a pact (Pactum Salutis or Covenant of Redemption) wherein the Son will become a man, die on the cross for particular people (elect), “pay” their penalty (or fee), and give them back to God (Covenant of Grace). On the face that might sound good, but let’s think with Athanasius. All that has occurred in the Hortonian view of salvation is essentially to deal with an “external” issue and payment (which is akin to Athanansius’ point on repentance). The fundamental problem with this approach, as Athanasius so keenly points out, is that the issue isn’t primarily an external issue wherein a legal repentance will do; the issue is an issue of nature. Man’s nature was thoroughly corrupted and even lost. The only remedy is for the image of the Father (the Son) to literally become humanity; penetrate into the depths of our sinful souls through His redemptive grace; take that corrupted nature/heart from the manger to the cross to the grave; and resurrect/recreate it into the image of the Father which can only be realized as we are vicarious participants in Christ. The issue is not primarily an issue of a broken “Law;” the issue is that we have broken “Hearts,” and only God’s grace in Christ in the Incarnation can reach down into those depths and recreate us in Him. Horton’s approach to salvation does not allow for such thinking. It doesn’t deal with the heart, and thus we are left in our sins non-being.



[1] Athanasius, On The Incarnation, §7, 32.


Are ‘Good Works’ Required in order to ‘Possess’ or ‘Attain’ Eternal Life? That’s What John Piper, the Post Reformed Orthodox, and the Classical Reformed in General Believe

I am going to have to do my best to contain myself in this post; I haven’t been irked like this in a long while—maybe it’s because I haven’t been paying attention to it as much as I used to. What I am referring to is how ‘good works’ are considered necessary if someone is going to ‘attain’ or ‘posses’heaven and/or eternal life within classical Reformed or Calvinist theology. My post here is prompted by Mark Jones’s blog post which he posted over at Reformation21 just over a year ago. In his post he is lauding this very type of thinking (about good works) in the theologies of John Piper, Tom Schreiner, and a host of other Post Reformed orthodox theologians who can be found in the 16th and 17th centuries. In fact, apparently, Piper has gotten some push back from some within the Reformed camp because they seem to think that Piper is not fairly or strictly representing the Reformed orthodox well enough in his endorsement of Schriener’s book on Justification; and so Jones offers his defense of Piper by comparing Piper’s language with the language and thought found in some venerable orthodox theologians relative to the role that good works play in ‘possessing’ eternal life. Let me share some of what Jones has written, then we will attempt to provide some more background to this by looking at a long quote from Stephen Strehle and his analysis of where this type of thinking about ‘good works’ came from in the first place within the 16th and 17th centuries’ development of Covenantal or Federal theology.

Mark Jones writes this:

I’ve been told that some folk are taking issue with John Piper’s Foreword to Thomas Schreiner’s book on justification. According to Piper, who agrees with Schreiner, we are “right with God by faith alone” but we do not “attain heaven by faith alone.” He adds that “there are other conditions for attaining heaven.”

Based on what I believe is a charitable and straight-forward reading of Piper, there is not a single word in his Foreword that seems out of place in terms of the basic Reformed approach to justification, salvation, and conditionality.

Piper affirms strongly and clearly that works do not contribute to the acquisition of salvation. But Piper also wants to affirm that good works should be considered necessary for the obtaining of salvation. I fail to understand how this idea isn’t present in literally dozens of Reformed luminaries from the Early Modern period. As Francis Turretin says:

“This very thing is no less expressly delivered concerning future glory. For since good works have the relation of the means to the end (Jn. 3:5, 16; Mt. 5:8); of the ‘way’ to the goal (Eph. 2:10; Phil 3:14); of the ‘sowing’ to the harvest (Gal. 6:7,8)…of labor to the reward (Mt. 20:1); of the ‘contest’ to the crown (2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8), everyone sees that there is the highest and an indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory. It is so great that it cannot be reached without them (Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:27).”

Again, Piper says we do “not attain heaven by faith alone” and Turretin speaks of the “indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory”. I don’t see why we can’t

agree that they are saying essentially the same thing; and, indeed, if they are, what is the problem?

For those who have trouble grasping how Piper can affirm that justification is by faith alone, but that entering glory is not by faith alone, we must keep in mind the well-known distinction between the right to life versus the possession of life.

Herman Witsius makes a distinction between the right to life (i.e., acquisition) and the possession of life. The former is “assigned to the obedience of Christ, that all the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded.” However, regarding the latter, “our works…which the Spirit of Christ works in us, and by us, contribute something to the latter.”

Similarly, Petrus van Mastricht once wrote: “in so far as God, whose law we attain just now through the merit alone of Christ, does not want to grant possession of eternal life, unless [it is] beyond faith with good works previously performed. We received once before the right unto eternal life through the merit of Christ alone. But God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, 10.”

Is there anything in Piper’s Foreword that could not have come from the pen of Witsius or Turretin or Boston or Ball (see Patrick Ramsey’s post here) or Owen or Rutherford or Mastricht? I’m having trouble understanding what the problem is both biblically and historically. In fact, I can point to works by authors in the Reformed tradition who have stated the matter perhaps a little more strongly than Piper does (e.g., Mastricht, Davenant).[1]

Where does this type of thinking come from? For the average ‘Bible believing’ Christian out there this would sound either like the Roman Catholicism they came from (if they did), or it might sound like semi-Pelagianism (for the above average ‘Bible believing’ Christian), or it might just sound like a works-righteousness schema that does not fit with some simple and prima facie biblical assertions and explications of what is entailed in salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, through Christ alone. And what might sound really crazy to the average Bible believing Christian, who knows about the classical Protestant ‘solas’ (which I just alluded to), is that this conception of works and eternal salvation actually is developed from within this type of classical ‘grace alone’ framework. This of course begs many questions. One of the more important questions is: how is grace conceived within this development of Protestant theology? How could someone claim that salvation is by ‘grace alone’, but then like Piper, Schreiner, Jones, and the Post Reformed orthodox maintain that good works are still required in order to finally posses eternal life? And after trying to parse that out, then we would want to know: what constitutes ‘good works’ to the level that I can be assured that I am actually engaging in those enough in order to ensure that I am indeed “doing enough” to attain eternal life?

These are all, I think, natural questions that ought to arise for those who take Piper’s et al.’s view seriously. The Puritans and the Westminster Divines took all of this very seriously, and somehow they were able to affirm all of this and yet maintain that salvation is by ‘grace alone.’ As many of you know I have written much on this already, and in our next evangelical Calvinism book I  critique all of this in a chapter on assurance of salvation in the theologies of John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Thomas Torrance. But until you have a chance to read that I thought I would provide more historical background to how all o f this came to be in the development of what is called Covenant theology. The following quote does just that as Stephen Strehle engages with Heinrich Bullinger’s (1504 – 1575) development of the framework wherein salvation could be said to be ‘attained’ through good works. After we finish this quote I will leave off with some concluding and provocative remarks in regard to charting a way out of this quagmire of salvation which emphasizes the law and good works, but in such a way by conflating that in equivocal manner with God’s grace and love. Here is Strehle:

Fifth, he [Bullinger] so stresses a human component in the fulfillment of God’s work that he verges upon the synergism of humanistic teaching. In creation he speaks of God as working through certain creaturely means to achieve his end so that even if he is to be praised as the author of all good things in man, he does not accomplish his work without human cooperation. Following Augustine Bullinger is now inclined to employ the term “free will” (liberum arbitrium) as he recounts the stages of man’s relationship to God: 1) Adam is said to have been created with free will, 2) fallen man is said to do his evil through it, and 3) the regenerate is said to be renewed in it, “not by the power of nature but through the power of divine grace.” In salvation he speaks of man’s complicity in the entire process from his initial acceptance to his final perseverance. He can speak of repentance as a “preparation” for faith, faith as a “requirement” for receiving grace, and grace as less coercive and more resistible than that which Paul had experienced on the Damascus road. Once saved the faculty to serve God is said to be restored and the faithful are said to “actively,” not “passively” work with grace unto the salvation of the entire man. God as  our “helper” gives to us his cooperation (gratia cooperans), not to circumvent our participation or insure our perseverance but to provide what is necessary in a process that remains contingent upon us. We must therefore endeavor to work with God, for all is lost if we do not continue in the grace once received.

This synergism comes to a most definitive expression in his doctrine of a bilateral covenant between God and man. Zwingli had previously set forth a doctrine of covenant in order to unify the promises and precepts of God to man, but he never spoke as if this was a bilateral or contingent compact. It is Bullinger who decides to recast the doctrine in this way through the synergistic tendencies and thus coordinate what is promised by God and exacted of man. God and man are now to be understood as confederated into a relationship of mutual responsibility, contingent not only upon the faithfulness of God but also upon that of man. While God might have initiated the relationship, man has his “conditions” to fulfill in order to receive the blessings offered.

The text states the conditions under which they bound themselves together, specifically that God wished to be the God of the descendants of Abraham and that the descendants of Abraham ought to walk uprightly before God.

The second condition of the covenant prescribes to man what he should do and how he should conduct himself toward the initiator and his fellow member of the covenant (confoedo), namely God. “Walk,” he says, “before me and be whole.” They walk before God who purposes throughout their whole life to always say and do the will of God. This is what makes us “whole.” That wholeness is being produced by faith, hope, and love. In these things every duty of the blessed confederation is comprehended. [Bullinger]

While these conditions are found throughout scripture, the charge to Abraham is considered its most succinct and important form. And yet, regardless of the form, the same essential conditions are necessary to secure divine favor. According to Bullinger, upon fulfilling these conditions we are now in a position to expect God to fulfill his part and thus receive his blessings. If we spurn them, we become disinherited (i.e. we lose our salvation).

This doctrine of covenant, we cannot say, is central to the overall theology of Bullinger, but we can say that through his monumental work on the covenant, The One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God (1534), it did become an important and permanent fixture of Reformed theology. The influence of Bullinger has already been noted among the Puritan elders of Massachusetts Bay and can be noted also among the Scholastics of Continental Europe. These Scholastics speak of the covenant in much the same way, even if more subtle in expression.

However, strictly and properly it denotes the covenant of God with man, through which God by his goodness promises above all eternal life and he demands from man in turn his service and worship, with certain outward signs which provided for confirmation. It is said to be two-sided or reciprocal because it consists from the reciprocal obligation of the two members of the covenant: from the side of God, a promise, and from the side of man, the demand of a condition.

In that covenant there is mutual obligation, both in regard to God to be gracious and in regard to man to present his penance.

The covenant generally speaking is a mutual pact between two parties by which one member binds himself to do, give, or receive something under certain conditions. In order to confirm this promise and make it inviolable, external signs and symbols are attached as a most solemn testimony. [Ursinus]

They can even speak of God as man’s debtor.

In the covenant of God with man, there is something which God does and another which man does. God by his most eminent right commands or demands from man a service, love of himself and compliance, and promises life to the one who loves and complies. By agreeing (astipulando) man promises to love and be obedient to God who demands and prescribes his duty, and by demanding in return (restipulando) from God he claims and expects with confidence life by right of the promise. [J. Heidegger]

The tensions between the doctrine of a bilateral covenant and other staples of Reformed orthodoxy, such as unconditional election and justification by faith—doctrines that exalt in divine grace—did summon their theologians to employ their skills in concocting some sort of a solution. Sometimes the sovereignty of God was invoked in order to emphasize that faith or whatever condition might be exacted of us does not arise out of our own strength but is a product of God’s work within us, making it, in their words, an a posteriori condition. Such a solution, however, did not eliminate the problem since divine favor was still made to depend upon a condition wrought within us—no matter how irresistible this grace was conceived. Luther and Protestantism had originally sought to eliminate any basis within man for his justification, and such a solution did raise this specter again. Other times a Franciscan concept of covenant was invoked in order to mitigate the value of any human contribution before God. In other words, faith and whatever condition might be exacted of man was seen to receive its reward, not so much in accordance with strict justice as if worthy of eternal life (meritum ex condign), but through a God who voluntarily condescends by his covenant to accept the mere pittance that we render to God beyond its just due. However, such a solution did not utterly eliminate the conditional force of the covenant, for something—no matter how disproportionate to its reward—must still be offered to God in exchange for salvation. Salvation was still made contingent on something we do.[2]

We leave off with Strehle’s critique of this Covenantal or Federal theology, and he rightly critiques it.


What I want to conclude with is the idea that when the work of salvation is abstracted from the person of salvation, Jesus Christ, we end up with a framework of salvation where the conditions of salvation, in order to be attained by the “elect,” are collapsed into individually elect people. This is what Thomas Torrance has labeled the ‘Latin Heresy’ because it follows a theological anthropology that starts the salvation discussion in Soteriology rather than in Christology. In other words, we get this type of focus on good works in salvation when we start our discussion about salvation from below, and make the locus of salvation us instead of Jesus Christ. There are other contributing factors to how Piper, Schreiner, Jones, et al. get to where they get (factors which I’ve exhaustively engaged with here at the blog over the years); we will have to leave those for another time (maybe my next post).

I will simply end this by saying I repudiate what John Piper et al. have to say about good works and salvation, and go so far as to say that I think this type of stuff  has sprung from the pit rather than from the right hand of the Father. Anytime we have theology that necessarily points us to ourselves and our good works as the objective ground for ‘attaining’ eternal life, then we have a problem Houston!


[1] Mark Jones, In Defense of Piper, accessed 01-07-2017.

[2] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 55-61.

TF Torrance on Human Sexuality: Gender Dysphoria and its Relationship to God

We are a fractured people, the current state of sexuality and gender ideology illustrates this fracturous state. As Christians we have insight on why this is so, that the ‘world’ or secular perspectives do not have access to (or at least they reject their access to it). There is a confusion about what it means to be male and female; the confusion, I submit, comes from a deeply grounded interruption between the ground of being and what it means to be a gendered human coram Deo (‘before God’). This confusion is given all types of expression, whether of the heterosexual, homosexual, or trinitysketchtranssexual form (among other expressions). As is the case for all of reality there is a theological reason that provides explanatory power for our current state; power that has the capacity to break into the confusion and bring clarity. Thomas Torrance describes the source of this sexual confusion this way:

We begin by going right back to Genesis to examine its theological account of the divine purpose of creation and redemption. God made man, male and female, and placed man in a perfect environment. As man and woman they are made to have fellowship with God, and in themselves they are essentially social beings, in harmony with God, and in harmony with their environment. It is as male and female, in the unity of man, that they are made in communion with God, and as male and female, one man, they reflect the glory of God. Man is in the image of God.

Then we discover that the bond of fellowship between God and man is broken by rebellion and sin. It belongs to the nature of sin to divide, to create disorder, to disrupt, to destroy fellowship. What are the consequences of sin? Not only is the bond of communion between God and man broken, issuing in man’s guilty fear of God, but the bond between man and woman is impaired: guilt and shame come in between them, and even the symbol of wearing clothes is interpreted in terms of the hiddenness of man from woman and of woman from man. The man-woman relationship is involved in the broken relation with God. With the bond between them broken, man and woman are individualised, and each is turned in upon himself or herself. But even the unity of man as male, and the unity of woman as female, within the individual heart is disrupted, in the knowledge of good and evil. Each knows that he or she is no longer what he or she ought to be.

Thus the rupture in the relation between God and man, and man and woman, entails a rupture within each between what a person is and the person ought to be. Once the constitutive bond between God and man is broken, every other relation suffers irreparable damage. And so we find the relation between man and the environment broken. Adam and Eve are thrust out of the garden of Eden, and the way back to utopia  is barred by divine judgement. Moreover, man now exists in a state of tension with nature. Man must earn his living by the sweat of his brow among thorns and thistles, and woman has pain in childbirth. Mankind is out of gear with nature, and anxiety characterises their life. But the consequences of broken fellowship with God extend deep into human life and keep spreading. The first brothers fall out with each other, and one slays the other. And so the story of the theological narrative goes on. It is a double story. On one side it is the story of the atomisation of mankind, for the internal rupture results in individualisation and conflict. On the other it is the story of human attempts at re-socialisation, great attempts to mend the broken relations, to heal the internal rupture, to bind divided humanity together again, as at Babel. But all the attempts to heal man partake of our fallen nature and cannot but give new orientation in sin to the broken relationship with God, so that all attempts break themselves on the divine judgement and result in further disintegration. Mankind is unable to re-socialise itself, unable to heal its internal rupture for that which really makes man man is the bond between man and God.[1]

Human sexuality, as TF Torrance rightly understands, is part and parcel with what it means to be created in the imago Dei (‘image of God’). Once that relationship was marred and thrown into disrepute in Adam’s and Eve’s choice to choose their way instead of God’s the fallout of that has become irreversible (lest God become human in Christ).

Realistically what this means is that the gender dysphoria we are seeing unfold in the 21st century is only going to get worse, it will never get better. Yes, there will be individual people who are currently arrested by the current state of gender and sexuality dysfunction, who will experience reversal of all of this in their lives personally as they come to Christ. But the ‘secular’ the profane world we inhabit in this in-between time will only continue its downward spiral into the chaos created by the rupture introduced between the bond of God and humanity in the fall. Yes, there’s hope, and as Christians we are supposed to be spreading that hope as we bear witness to the great reversal of Christ in our own lives; as we bear witness to the eschatological reality of Christ come and coming again.

Let me also submit that the current acquiescence of some Christians to gender dysphoria and the confusion surrounding human sexuality does no one any good. God in Christ has come to re-create indeed, but according to a taxis or order that he has decided to be coordinate with his purposes not ours. So, I think, part of what it means to point people to Christ is to point them to the new creation; a creation that is corollary with the original creation but far surpasses it in its telos in and for Christ. It’s a new-creation and kingdom wherein all its component parts work within the perfectly calibrated and egalitarian way God has always intended. There’s no false binary between the sexes in this new-creation but a new way for twoness to be oriented by the threeness and oneness God.[2]

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 38-9.

[2] See Sarah Coakely, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

In The Hands of a Loving God: A Riff on The Babylon Bee’s Angry Calvinist God

The Christian satire site, The Babylon Bee, recently shared this about Calvinists:

BOISE, ID—Local Calvinist Evan Rollins loudly announced Sunday afternoon his increased level of discomfort and wariness with Pastor Frank after the minister preached a passionate sermon angrygodon the love of God, witnesses confirmed Wednesday.

According to Rollins, he first began to feel uncomfortable with the message when the pastor quoted John 3:16 and pleaded with his hearers to believe the gospel, with his doubts and fears seemingly being confirmed as Pastor Frank reminded his audience that “God is love.”

 “I’m just not sure about Pastor Frank anymore, with all the love and grace talk,” Rollins told a friend at a local microbrewery after service. “I’m not saying he’s a heretic—or worse, an Arminian—but just that we should have our guard up from here on out. I’m seeing a lot of red flags.”

“Did you catch that bit about God’s love reaching to the heavens? Wow,” he added.

At publishing time, Rollins had begun searching for another church “where we’re really exhorted to rest in God’s wrath and judgment from the pulpit.”[1]

The irony of this, and why it’s satirical, is because there’s some relative truth to this. In a general sense classical Calvinists have emphasized God’s relationship to His creatures through a legal/juridic framework of mediating decrees (think of the theology that undergirds the Covenant of Works/Grace).

I once tried to distinguish evangelical Calvinism from classical Calvinism at another blog I once had (i.e. The Evangelical Calvinist in Plain Language). I don’t think Evan Rollins would like us too much either. Here’s what I wrote (I was trying to make it is as simplistic as I possibly could):

The way, when in person with someone, that I have tried to describe what evangelical Calvinism is, is to contrast it with what most people think of Calvinism today (as represented by The Gospel Coalition, or more explicitly by the acronym TULIP or 5 point Calvinism). So that is the way I will engage to flesh that out with you as well.

In general evangelical Calvinism emphasizes and starts from the idea that God is love! We know this to be the case because He has revealed that to us in and through His Son, Jesus. One of my (still) favorite Bible verses is:

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16


“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” I John 4:7-12

So we know that God is a personal God who does what He does because of who He is, He is love. And we, as evangelical Calvinists, use this belief to shape everything else that we articulate in regard to how we think of the way that God relates to us.

This means that we do not think that God primarily relates to us through Law, or us keeping the Law (which is the basic underlying premises upon which 5 point Calvinism is based on); we believe that God has always related to us, first, because He simply loves us (because that is who He is). And within that relationship He has provided expectations that He knew we couldn’t even uphold; so because He is love, He did that for us too, through Christ (Christ thus has become the end of the Law for all who believe Romans 9:5).

I would submit that the imagery and reality of marriage is the better way to think of our relationship to God in Christ (that’s what the Apostle Paul thought in Ephesians 5, and this is a common theme throughout all of Scripture, especially in Revelation). We don’t relate, humanly speaking, to our spouses through a set of codes and laws (even though there are expectations within the relationship); no, ideally, our relationship is based upon love (or self-giveness for the other). I think this is the better metaphor (and reality/our union with Christ) to think of our relationship with God through. Richard Sibbes, a Puritan thought so, as did Martin Luther.

So in general, then, evangelical Calvinism holds that God is Love and thus dynamic and personal. This is in contrast to Classical Calvinism’s and Arminianism’s belief that God relates to us through impersonal decrees and laws.

[1] The Babylon Bee

Christian Imagination and Creativity Provided Fertility Towards Knowledge of God in Christ by Prayer and Contemplation

I wrote this on FaceBook this evening:

I think the power of reception, when reading the Bible, as far as interpretive and even meaning generation, is more powerful than many might think. At least as I contemplate this this is what is standing out to me. And at some level I would attribute this more to a participatory reading practice embodied by the church through the centuries rather than say something like a meditationPostModern understanding of reader response. I think it has to do with dialogical realities between Christ and His church, and the imagination and creativity he evokes as we prayerfully submit ourselves to Him.

If I casually was scrolling through FaceBook and read this it might cause me a little bit of concern; it might make me think that whoever wrote this (if it wasn’t me) had abandoned the idea of authorial intentionality or the idea that God is a good communicator. But then as I got to the last few clauses I might see what this person was trying to say (if that person wasn’t me).

As Divine Providence would have it I just tonight bought a new book on theology, one written by Sarah Coakley called God, Sexuality, and Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’. Again, as Providence would have it, Coakley addresses exactly what I had in mind when I wrote what I did on FaceBook; and as far as chronology goes, I wrote what I did on FaceBook just prior to reading what I am about to quote for you from Coakley. Coakley helps explicate what I had in mind with my statement; particularly when it comes to ‘creativity’ and ‘imagination’ coram Deo (before God). I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I believed that meaning, relative to God, is not a stable thing, or something unbeknownst to him; instead what I had in mind was from our direction of things. As Thomas Torrance et al. often underscores an ‘order of being’ precedes an ‘order of knowing’; as such, while meaning is fully objectified (and subjectified) in Godself, we only see through a rose colored glass. If this is so, even as we repose in God’s full Self-revelation and exegesis in Jesus Christ, even as we’ve been given new antennae for God ‘in Christ’ (for knowing Him), we still suffer with the polluting effects of sin; we still don’t know fully as we are already fully known in Christ. This means that meaning, instead of my ‘generational’ language in my original FaceBook post, has the ability to be clarified over and over again (as we are changed from glory to glory by the Spirit, cf. II Cor. 3.18). So as Coakley astutely recognizes (along with other people like John Webster, Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth et al.) God draws us closer and closer to Him, and our knowledge of Him, through deepening our horizons relative to who He is within the bedrock parameters He has already provided of Himself as Triune God revealed in and by His Son, Jesus. He ‘illumines’ our imaginations, and allows for the human mind, grounded as it is in the archetypal human mind of Christ for us, to think even more aesthetically and more deeply about who He is (in se), as we encounter Him over and again by the Spirit in the evangel.

Coakley writes this, and it is this that I was originally trying to get at in my FaceBook post. She is referring to her theological approach, one that is grounded in prayer and deep contemplation. She is responding preemptively to the potential charges that hers is a subjectivist approach. It is her response to that where she not only answers for herself, but in her answer she helps to answer for me in regard to what I was attempting to suggest.

Finally, one charge that might be levelled against the theological approach outlined here should perhaps be faced and deflected immediately, at the close of this Prelude. That is, is the appeal to the life of contemplation, or deep prayer in the Spirit, necessarily tainted with subjectivism? Is it just another form of wish-fulfilment or projection, spun out of a misguided inner need for comfort or certainty? My answer to that charge would be a firm no; and at least three reasons will emerge, in this book and its successors, for countering that charge. The first is that, as already intimated, this approach does not involve a philosophically naïve appeal to ‘subjective experience’, as if that were somehow separable from the exercise of biblical exegesis, patient examination of tradition, reasoned theological exposition, and testing by the criterion of ‘spiritual fruits’. Rather, the practice of prayer provides the context in which silence in the Spirit expands the potential to respond to the realm of the Word, and reason too is stretched and changed beyond its normal, secular reach. This can be strangely far from ‘comforting’ as a new undertaking — indeed deeply anxiety-making in its initial impact. It cannot therefore be claimed to be an exercise in mere wish-fulfillment: its spiritual impact far exceeds what it finds to be confirming of original expectation.[1]

The clearest illustration I can think of found in Holy Writ is the story of Daniel; this:

15 As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. 16 I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter … 28 Here the account ends. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly terrified me, and my face turned pale; but I kept the matter in my mind.[2]

While Daniel is referring to visions, in principle I think it correlates to what Coakley is getting at. While in prayerful contemplation with all the saints we are pushed deeper into the verities of God’s life that opens us further to who He is. Indeed, He is such a consuming fire that our frail frames often lack the capacity to cope with the intensity of who He is; in Daniel’s case it caused psychological and physical sickness.

The point of all this, in my mind, is that our mode before God always needs to be in prayerful contemplation and dialogue with Him. It is through this that the church of Christ grows deeper into the one faith once for all delivered to the saints; it is in this mode wherein who God is in reality (meaning) is opened up further and further, and this modulated through Jesus Christ. This process of knowing God is one that is ‘eternal life’ itself (Jn. 17.3), and it involves the history and witness of the church militant and triumphant. It involves our imaginations and creativeness as those are enlivened by the imagination and creativity of the mind of Christ (I Cor. 2.16) which we are in participation with. In another post of mine, somewhat on this topic, David Guretzki wrote this to me:

Bobby, what if you instead thought of these authors as part (even if not the only) communion of the saints? We do not read scripture as individuals, but as the Church–of which these doctors of the Church are a gift (charism). The Protestant evangelical way of reading Scripture assumes perspecuity (clarity) available to all–that is its strength. But its weakness is that it too often has degenerated into a non-ecclesial way of reading scripture. It is precisely other voices that keeps us from hearing only the echoes of our own thoughts and subjectivities imposed upon scripture. The problem, of course, is that we are too often too selective of the voices we listen to. The danger is not that we read Barth or Aquinas or Augustine, but that we are too apt ONLY to read Barth, Aquinas, or Augustine (or Calvin or Luther, etc. etc.) and thus keep reconfirming too often our own subjectivities and biases.[3]

This is in keeping with what I’m after with this post. We are part of the communion of the saints, and the Spirit has been working in the body of Christ for a long time. We are part of that body, and when we read Scripture we do so in reception of what has already come before through their witness. The body of Christ comes loaded with the mind of Christ spread throughout the centuries, and we can do nothing to disentangle ourselves from that (and of course we shouldn’t want to); thus it behooves us to participate in that great cloud, and actively engage with them through prayerfully engaging with our great God. He is the objective/subjective ground, and it is He, in Christ who regulates and informs our imaginations and creativity towards Him.



[1] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 25.

[2] Daniel 7.15, 16, 28 NRSV.

[3] David Guretzki, accessed from this post Sanctorum Communio, The Communion of the Saints and being catholic Thinkers.


The Enlightenment, Biblical Studies, and the Development of the Dispensational Hermeneutic

I just found this buried in my saved documents in Word. It gets into some reasons why I have abandoned Dispensationalism as my hermeneutic (which I did approx. eleven years ago), as it tries to draw attention to the impact that the Enlightenment had upon the context within which Dispensationalism developed as a system of biblical interpretation. I don’t think I have ever shared this post before here at the blog, but maybe I have. Either way I think it is apropos to share this given the two videos I just did today on Dispensationalism on FaceBook Live.

There is no doubt a retreat, or migration as it were of evangelicals from engaging with doctrine, but insofar as doctrine is still present for many evangelicals of a certain era anyway, what informs them most, at least hermeneutically is the hermeneutic known as Dispensationalism. It was this hermeneutic that I was groomed in myself, not only as a kid, but in and through Bible College and Seminary (of the Progressive sort). Dispensationalism, without getting into all of the nitty gritty, is a hermeneutic that prides itself on using the ‘literal’ way of reading Scripture in a ‘consistent’ form as they claim; it is a hermeneutic that maintains a distinction between Israel and the Church (in its classic and revised forms); and it is a hermeneutic that simply seeks to read its understanding straight off the pages of Scripture in the most straightforward ways possible (again ‘literally’ with appeal to Scottish Common Sense Realism[1]). One of its most ardent proponents says it like this:

Literal hermeneutics. Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation. This means interpretation that gives to every word the same meaning it would have in normal usage, whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking. It is sometimes called the principle of grammatical-historical interpretation since the meaning of each word is determined by grammatical and historical considerations. The principle might also be called normal interpretation since the literal meaning of words is the normal approach to their understanding in all languages. It might also be designated plain interpretation so that no one receives the mistaken notion that the literal principle rules out figures of speech….[2]

The Dispensationalist’s hermeneutic springs then from a philosophy of language that holds to the idea that language corresponds to real and perceptible things in reality, and as such, based upon this assumption attempts to, in a slavish way (to this principled understanding of language and reality) reads Holy Scripture in such a way that comports with language’s and history’s most basic and simple and normal component parts (i.e. as it can be reconstructed through critical and rationalist means).

It is no surprise that Dispensationalism developed when it did, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when what it meant to do Biblical Studies and exegesis of Scripture was to engage Scripture through developmental/evolutionary criterion for reconstructing Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) history (the periods that Biblical Scripture developed within), and using various other literary criteria for determining Scripture’s origination and the cultural-societal-rhetorical contexts that gave it rise. In other words Dispensationalism developed in a context wherein things are only true insofar as they comport with the canons of observable and empirical protocol. G.C. Berkouwer describes this development this way:

We now confront the noteworthy fact that, during the rise of historical criticism, concentrated attention to the text of Scripture was considered vital and necessary. Criticism protested against every form of Scripture exposition which went to work with a priori and external standards. It wanted to proceed from Scripture as it actually existed; it sought to understand Scripture in the way in which it came to us in order thus to honor the “interprets itself.” This is what it claimed in its historical exposition of Scripture: something supposedly free of all the a prioris of dogmatic systems or ecclesiastical symbolic. In that way justice could be done to Scripture itself.[3]

Maybe you noticed something in the Berkouwer quote, he is implicitly noting something that happened in the 18th century—again remembering that this is the context which the Dispensationalist hermeneutic developed within and from—there was a split (as a result of Enlightenment rationalism among other forces) between doing confessional/churchy biblical interpretation/study from the kind of biblical interpretation/study that came to dominate what it meant to do ‘critical’ biblical study. This split was given formalization in the mid-1700s first by publications from Anton Friedrich Büsching and then most notably by G. Ebling; Gerhard Hasel summarizes it this way:

Under the partial impetus of Pietism and with a strong dose of rationalism Anton Friedrich Büsching’s publications (1756-58) reveal for the first time that “Biblical theology” becomes the rival of dogmatics. Protestant dogmatics, also called “scholastic theology,” is criticized for its empty speculations and lifeless theories. G. Ebeling has aptly summarized that “from being merely a subsidiary discipline of dogmatics ‘biblical theology’ now became a rival of the prevailing dogmatics.”[4]

Dispensationalism developed within the new ‘critical’ approach to doing biblical studies, although it was attempting to still honor its pious commitment to Scripture as Holy and God’s. But it did so under the ‘Modern’ constraints provided for by Enlightenment rationalism; its philosophy of language (i.e. the literalism we have already broached), grounded in Scottish Common Sense Realism, was very so much so moving and breathing in and from a non-confessional, non-dogmatic mode of doing biblical study. Hasel once again describes the ethos which the Dispensational hermeneutic developed within:

In the age of Enlightenment (Aufklärung) a totally new approach for the study of the Bible was developed under several influences. First and foremost was rationalism’s reaction against any form of supernaturalism. Human reason was set up as the final criterion and chief source of knowledge, which meant that the authority of the Bible as the infallible record of divine revelation was rejected. The second major contribution of the period of the Enlightenment was the development of a new hermeneutic, the historical-critical method which holds sway to the present day in liberalism [dispensationalism] and beyond. Third, there is the application of radical literary criticism to the Bible …. Finally, rationalism by its very nature was led to abandon the orthodox view of the inspiration of the Bible so that ultimately the Bible became simply one of the ancient documents, to be studied as any other ancient document.[5]

It might appear that what was just described sounds nothing like who the practitioners of the dispensational hermeneutic are (i.e. evangelical Bible loving Christians). That would be correct, but the point is to note that dispensational hermeneutes don’t ever really abandon the Enlightenment principles nor the split from confessional hermeneutics that the Enlightenment produced between the disciplines. Instead dispensationalism attempts to work with and from the material and rationalist principles provided by the Enlightenment;  primarily meaning that the Dispensational hermeneutic hopes to be able to go immediately to the text of Scripture, through its grammatical and historical analysis under the supposition that biblical language simply functions like any other literary language does under its plain and normal meanings without any pretext or reliance upon its (potential) theological significance. Instead its theological significance can only be arrived at after abstracting that out from the plain meaning of the words of Scripture.


John Webster summarizes what happened during this period of development this way (and what he describes applies to the development of the Dispensational hermeneutic as well):

To simplify matters rather drastically: a dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible has been a progressive concentration on what Spinoza called interpretation of Scripture ex ipsius historia, out of its own history. Precisely when this progression begins to gather pace, and what its antecedents may be, are matters of rather wide dispute. What is clear, at least in outline, is that commanding authority gradually came to be accorded to the view that the natural properties of the biblical text and of the skills of interpreters are elements in an immanent economy of communication. The biblical text is a set of human signs borne along on, and in turn shaping, social religious and literary processes; the enumeration of its natural properties comes increasingly to be not only a necessary but a sufficient description of the Bible and its reception. This definition of the text in terms of its (natural) history goes along with suspension of or disavowal of the finality both of the Bible and of the reader in loving apprehension of God, and of the Bible’s ministerial function as divine envoy to creatures in need of saving instruction.[6]

Whenever you hear someone say they just interpret Scripture ‘literally’ dig deeper to see if what they mean is ‘literalistically’ under the constraints of what we described provided for by the Enlightenment.

To be clear, following the Enlightenment does not, of course, nor necessarily terminate in the Dispensational hermeneutic, in fact a case can be made that what the Enlightenment did to biblical studies, in some ways provided for some fruitful trajectory as well (insofar as it highlights the fact that the Bible and its phenomenon cannot be reduced to historicist or naturalist premises themselves); but we will have to pursue that line later. Suffice it to say, Dispensationalism is not the pure way to Scripture that its adherents want us to think that it is. It does not spring from Christian confessional premises, and in fact ignores the fact that indeed Scripture study and exegesis is actually a theological endeavor at its heart. The only way to get a plain meaning of Scripture is to read it through the lens of God’s life revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ.

[1] See Thomas Reid, “If there are certain principles, as I think there are, which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them — these are what we call the principles of common sense; and what is manifestly contrary to them, is what we call absurd.” The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid (2004), 85.

[2] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism. Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 80.

[3] G.C. Berkouwer, Studies In Dogmatics: Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 130.

[4] Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues In The Current Debate. Revised and Expanded Third Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1989), 19.

[5] Ibid., 18-19 [Brackets mine].

[6] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason(London/New York: T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 6.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Botanist Loving, Serpent Kissing Prophet of Modern Man

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28 June 1712 – 2 July 1778) was somewhat of a tipping point, a prophet of the modern man to come. It caused him no small angst to be such a harbinger; Karl Barth writes, as he reflects on Rousseau’s place in history: rousseau1“twenty or thirty years later he would have been able to find a thousand people who shared his knowledge.”[1] This begs the question, what exactly was it in Rousseau that caused him to kick up against the waning religious establishment of his day? There are many ways to answer that question, but I thought for the purposes of this post I would share one long paragraph from Barth on Rousseau that I think captures well the broad framework which Rousseau developed in his own rather tortured existence (but not always tortured, just sometimes).

Karl Barth writes of Rousseau’s thought, this (at some length):

But we would be failing to understand Rousseau’s—or Goethe’s—Pelagianism if we simply ascribed it, as theologians have so often done, to a lightness of conscience, and therefore judged it, so to speak, as a moral deficiency. The decisive factor we must take into account in considering Rousseau’s belief in the goodness of man, held with a firmness astonishing even to such a time as his, and the wholehearted support for this view which the age of Goethe then lent him all along, is the fact that this new age, And Rousseau as one of the first within it,  had made a completely new discovery in the realm of anthropology, and that it was this same discovery which underlay its contention that man was good, its rejection of the dogma of original sin, and such self-appreciations as those of Rousseau, so moving to us now in their naïveté; but which also underlay Goethe’s glorified vision of his own existence and development. From this fact it follows also that what we might call optimism of the new age was not only incomparably more powerful, but essentially different from what might strike us as being optimism in those belonging to the age which was then drawing to its close. The natural goodness of man which Rousseau claimed exists is definitely not in any simple or direct sense that which we are in the habit of calling moral goodness, freedom from evil impulses, freedom from all kinds of temptation, and freedom to respect the feelings of our fellow-men. And hence his self praise is not in any simple or direct sense moral self-praise. The goodness of which he speaks is of course moral goodness too: Rousseau imagined that he was good-hearted truly and particularly also in this respect. But his kind of goodness was not primarily moral goodness. If Rousseau believed his heart was good he did so because he imagined that in the midst of a society whose whole striving and interest were directed outwards, he had discovered quite anew that man has a heart, and what the human heart actually is. The heart is simply the man himself, discounting everything he produces or which confronts him as an alien existence or as the work of alien hands. This is what Rousseau has found: himself. And this is what he holds to be good and even precious: the fact that he exists and does not-exist, precisely as the man he is, situated precisely as he is in fact situated. A whole world revealed itself to him when he gazed into himself. He did not do this in the manner of the individualism of his time, which looked within in order to go out again at once into the outside world, desiring to apprehend, form and conquer. Rousseau intended to linger there because he had recognized that in it he possessed his own unique world full of unique forms of truth and beauty. Existence was not just a predicate, not entirely a matter of how I conduct myself towards the outerworld. It was definitely not just acting and suffering. Existence was a beautiful, rich and lively inner life of its own, so beautiful, rich and lively that anyone who has once discovered it no longer attributes any worth to any life which differs from it, and can only have and love anything different from it as it is connected with this life; but he really could have and love it now in this connexion. Existence was, so to speak, the realm of the middle, the mean. It was the paradise of the happy and at the same time the secure haven of the unhappy. It was the dependable norm for all the distinctions and choices that are necessary in life, and a norm which functioned as it were automatically. Man existing, being himself as Rousseau more than once said, was in God’s presence and like him. If a state exists where the soul can find a secure place which can contain it whole, a place secure enough that it can find complete rest in it and can collect again the forces of its being in it, without needing to recall the past, nor encroach upon the future, a place where time is as nothing to the soul and the present lasts for ever, without making its duration noticeable and without leaving any after-effects, a place where the soul is without any other feeling, be it privation or pleasure, joy or pain, fear or desire, except for that existence, if there is such a state and if this feeling can fill the soul utterly, while it lasts he who is enjoying it can call himself happy. It would not be an imperfect, poor and relative happiness, like that found in the pleasures of life, but a happiness which is sufficient, perfect and full, leaving no void in the soul which the soul experiences the need to fill. Such is the state in which I often found myself in St Peter’s Island during my solitary day-dreams, sitting sometimes in my boat, which I simply let drift as the waters took it, or sitting sometimes on the shore of the troubled lake, or beside a river murmuring over the pebbles. What does one enjoy in such a moment? One enjoys nothing exterior to oneself, nothing except oneself and one’s own existence; while it lasts one is self-sufficient, like God. The feeling of peace and security, which would alone be quite enough to make one’s existence sweet and dear.[2]

I share this only to highlight something that I find highly informative; in a way it is like reading commentary on where humanity currently reposes. In fact I think learning such things, about the origins of the modern psyche are beneficial in a way such that it provides space to be self-critical about the ‘spirit’ of our own age; insofar as all of this serves as the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ precursor to what ended up fomenting (and now de-fomenting, but not really).

Barth goes on, as he closes out his chapter on Rousseau, to tease out the theological implications and impact that Rousseaus’s thought would end up having on 18th and 19th century theological development. What interested me most though was simply what was shared in the long paragraph from Barth on Rousseau above. While most people aren’t deep enough in North American society to think as reflectively as Rousseau, that doesn’t mean that the ‘spirit’ he was “séancing” with isn’t alive and well among even the so called garden variety pagan of the 21st century today; that ‘spirit’ (among many others) indeed is present and is just as alluring and seductive now to the heart of modern and post-modern man as it was in the 18th century. Even though the Serpent looks like an innocent creature doesn’t mean it still is not a Serpent. Rousseau, ironically loved the study of botany; he believed it was the purest form of knowing himself as non-identical and identical with the spirit-nature world he participated in. This is ironic, to me at least, because ‘the garden’ is where this all started to begin with (Gen. 3).

[1] Karl Barth, Protestant Thought: From Rousseau to Ritschl (New York, New York: Simon&Schuster, 1969), 115.

[2] Ibid., 109-11.

Reading Scripture with Calvin and the Inevitability of Theological Exegesis for All

The following is a post I wrote many years ago now; it’s rather short and to the point, but it’s about a very important thing that continues to remain a problem johncalvinsickbedfor many a Christian. It can be a very positive thing once the Christian Bible reader can be humble enough, and/or critical enough to come to recognize the inevitable reality that it is. What I am referring to is the reality of theological exegesis; we all do it, and it has been done ever since the Patristic beginning (meaning the theology that was developed in the so called ecumenical councils; the theology we consider orthodox today relative to the Trintarian and Christological grammar we employ as Christians). The following post broaches this topic once again, I can only hope that if you don’t realize that the way you read Scripture comes from a particular theological tradition, that in fact you will indeed come to realize that you do in fact read Scripture from a particular theological tradition[s]. Here’s what I had to say, appealing to John Calvin, back some time ago.

. . . Calvin, like the other reformers, understood that scripture could not stand without a framework of intepretation. And that framework ultimately supported his theological conclusions. This was precisely how it worked in Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic churches of the sixteenth century.[1]

I have recently been in a dialogue with a guy who clearly loves the Lord. We have been discussing the idea that God is the Gospel. This idea actually troubles this fellow, “that God is the Gospel,” he has said:

I’ve been going over this and talking it over with people. I am unwilling to say that God is the gospel. The gospel is the proclamation of the saving redemptive work of Christ. That is the way scripture defines the word “gospel”. It’s very specific. To go beyond that is to go beyond the teaching of scripture, the way scripture defines the term for us and I am unwilling to go there.

The reasons supporting the phrase “God is the gospel” presented so far are not based on exegesis of scripture, but rather on philosophical reasoning. In fact I find the reasoning to be specious. By the same reasoning one might conclude that God is the author of sin. Logic would lead us to believe that was true if we were not fenced in by the limits of scripture.

For this gentleman, the Gospel is strictly a verb, and is not a subject too — which it is. Not to digress, but to illustrate, in contemporary ways, the importance of Calvin’s own approach to scripture. That is, part of interpretation is to recognize that we are indeed interpreting. And that it is okay, and necessary, to go deep into the inner logic and implication of scriptures’ own assumptions. Calvin was aware of the fact that we all have grids of interpretation that we bring to the text, and part of this “spiraling” process of interpreting scripture is to allow scripture and Christ’s life to impose its own categories of thought upon our preconceptions.

In our case, with the fellow I mention above, if he realized that even his desire to read scripture in the way that he does (rather “woodenly”), is in fact a consequence of his prior commitment to an interpretive framework; then he would quickly realize that “his commitment” itself is not “scripture.” That his interpretive paradigm in fact — and I think this is safe to say — is resting on a certain philosophical arrangement that, unfortunately, is unbeknownst to this well intending brother in Christ.


[1] Bruce Gordon, Calvin, 108.


John Calvin in His Commentaries on Christocentricity [3]

Here is John Calvin commenting on Colossians 1:15:

The sum is this — that God in himself, that is, in his naked majesty, is invisible and that not to the eyes of the body merely, but also to the calvinpostageunderstandings of men, and that he is revealed to us in Christ alone, that we may behold him as in a mirror. For in Christ he shews us his righteousness, goodness, wisdom, power, in short, his entire self. We must, therefore, beware of seeking him elsewhere, for everything that would set itself off as a representation of God, apart from Christ, will be an idol.[1]

And on Philippians 2:6:

. . . As, then God is known by means of his excellences, and his works are evidences of his eternal Godhead, (Rom. I. 20,) so Christ’s divine essence is rightly proved from Christ’s majesty, which he possessed equally with the Father before he humbled himself. As to myself, at least, not even all devils would wrest this passage from me — inasmuch as there is in God a most solid argument, from his glory to his essence, which are two things that are inseparable.[2]

Two eloquent statements, by Calvin, on (a.) Positive Theology, so that “knowledge of God” is limited to Christ alone — and not searching around for other “[sophist]icated” ways to talk about God (all you conceptually oriented scholastics out there). And (b.) on the relationship between the ontological/immanent nature of God, and the‘evangelical’/economic nature of God. Calvin believed that the ‘works and miracles’ (“his glory”) are the external and univocal expression of His eternal being perichoretically united to the Father and the Holy Spirit. In other words, Calvin didn’t think that there was “a God behind the back of Jesus;” but that who Christ revealed Himself to be, was the ‘exact representation’ and externalization of the coinhering glory (Jn. 17) that He has always shared with the Father by the communion of the Holy Spirit. So as John the Evangelist records Jesus saying:

If ye had known me, ye also should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him. 8. Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us. 9. Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, shew us the Father? 10. Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. 11. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works’ sake. John 14:7-11 KJV

This is all Calvin is getting at. When we do theology, when we work in the realm of “Christian epistemology,” we are strictly limited to doing Christology. If we want to know what the Father is like, if we want to talk about what God is like; then we are limited to looking at Jesus for all the proper boundaries and emphases that He wants us to know. Calvin would probably be appalled to see how his name has been applied to an theological methodology that has gone astray from this narrow framing provided by Calvin in his commentaries.


[1] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, trans. John Pringle, 150.

[2] Ibid., 56.

[3] Originally posted at another blog in 2010.