Someone on Facebook took issue with my post on Torrance’s critique of Westminster Calvinism, or more pointedly: Federal theology. He believes that Torrance fully mischaracterizes and misunderstands Covenant theology and its implications; he wrote in comment to the post on the FB thread:
Not sure what to think of this. Of course, this isn’t outside of your modus operandi, so on the one hand, I should just nod my head, saying, “classic Bobby Grow.” And, at the same time, I recognize that your blog posts are, at base, a paraphrase rather than developed presentation of your thought. But, on the other hand, I question Torrance’s accuracy regarding his reading of the Westminsterian tradition and thus his reading of the classic theism of which Westminster is only a species. Consequently, I question the strength of your judgment in following him.
Would you be willing to offer us a blog post or two (I’m sure you have some in your archives that you could publish as well) that would directly engage with the Westminster Standards? Again, I recognize that your posts are distillations and summaries, but it may help the sympathetic reader (or otherwise) to see the strength and substance of your argument.
My blog itself (and when I say “blog” I am referring to my blog in toto, not blog posts that populate the blog) is a living testimony to what I think about Westminster theology. In fact, I have a whole category dedicated to critiquing Federal Calvinism which I have endearingly entitled: critiquing classic Calvinism. But in an effort to reiterate such things once more, let me do that throughout the rest of this post.
The issue, the way I see it, can be reduced simply to a doctrine of God, and how God relates to the world in the so-called God/world relation. It ought to be made clear upfront that Torrance’s critique of classical theism, in general, and Westminster Calvinism, in particular, is not unique to him, or the After Barth tradition within which he broadly works (I say broadly because in many ways TFT is his own man, particularly when it comes to critiquing classical theism of a certain mechanical sort). My initial openness to Torrance (and Barth) was because of my formal education and background in historical theology. My now former professor, and mentor (who I would still consider as such), Ron Frost, turned me onto a critique of Federal theology, and its God, not from engaging with the theologies of Barth or Torrance, but through reference to Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Sibbes, John Cotton et al. Again, the theme that grounds the critique of Covenant theology, whether that be in the aforementioned theologians, or presently in Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance is the same. The theme that they all have in common in critique of Federal theology’s supporting doctrine of God is that the God underwriting Westminster Calvinism is a God who relates to the world mechanically; that is their God, in their understanding, relates to the world through decrees, and thus mechanically rather than relationally. This was the critique Frost turned me onto, and is the one that both Barth and Torrance make of “classical theism” in their own respective ways.
With this in mind let me lift up a rather definitive and “summarizing” quote from Barth that helps to, once again, illustrate for us just how decisive a doctrine of God is towards determining all subsequent theological lines of reflection. Here we have Barth offering a critique of Calvin’s doctrine of election (in this instance Calvin’s doctrine of election ought to be understood as typical of classical Calvinism’s understanding in general), and the decretal God funding such doctrine:
How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.
Compare Barth’s critique of Calvin’s doctrine of election with what would come latterly (relative to Calvin) in the Westminster Confession of Faith’s chapter three Of God’s Eternal Decree
Of God’s Eternal Decree
- God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
- Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.
- By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.
- These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.
- Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace.
- As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.
- The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy, as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice.
- The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in his Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel.
While Barth refers us to Calvin he might as well have been referring us to chapter three of the Westminster Confession of Faith; in fact, he may well have been anachronistically overlaying some of that onto Calvin’s theology. For our purposes I am hopeful (because of both time and space constraints) that the contrast and the basis of critique that Torrance himself (insofar as he imbibes Barth’s) is grounded in a doctrine of God.
For those who adhere to the tradition codified in the WCF it is what Richard Muller calls the Christian Aristotelian tradition that stands glaringly at the forefront. In other words, there is no attempt to hide the fact that those present at Westminster (and Dordt for that matter) were simply re-iterating Thomas Aquinas’ synthesis of Aristotle’s categories of the Infinite or Pure Being with Christian theology. In other words, for the WCF it isn’t Jesus Christ, as the Son of the Father, who is the ground or basis of election; for the WCF it is the absolutum decretum or absolute decree that God has chosen, post-lapsarian, to relate gratuitously to a small elect group of people. And his choice to relate to these elect people will be actualized by Christ for them; by Christ meeting the legal requirements that were set out by the so-called covenant of works. Richard Muller writes (at excessive length):
Given these relationships between law and grace, the two covenants, and the problems of sin and salvation, it should not be surprising that a central issue addressed in the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works was the issue of federal headship and, therefore, the parallels between the first and the second Adam, the federal heads of the covenants of works and of grace. It is at this point that the soteriological ground of the doctrine of the covenant of works is most clearly presented, particularly in terms of its relationship to the doctrine of Christ’s mediatorial headship and work of satisfaction.
Adam, in the covenant of works, “stood as the head of mankind [caput totius generis humani],” in his person “representing” the entire human race. By the same token, as indicated by the Apostle in Romans 5:11-15, Christ as the antitype of Adam stands as the representative of humanity in the covenant of grace and the “surety” of fulfillment or substitute for mankind before the law of God, in effect, in fulfillment of the demands of the violated covenant of works. After all, the violation of the covenant of works abrogated the law as a covenant, not as the ultimate “rule of life.” It is both the permanence of the divine promise of fellowship and the stability of the divine law as the standard of holiness and righteousness and, therefore, as the basis for fellowship with the holy and righteous God, that relates the covenants to one another: “the law declares, that there is no admission for any to eternal life, but on the account of a perfect and absolutely complete righteousness; [and] also, that every sinner shall undergo the penalty of death, the dominion of which is eternal” unless the penalty of sin is paid and “the dominion of death … abolished.”
Drawing on the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, Witsius argues the equivalency of the promises of the two covenants. Paul, he notes, “distinguishes the rightness of the law from the evangelical” while at the same time indicating that “life” is promised under both covenants. Concerning legal righteousness, Paul writes “that the man which doth these things shall live by them” (Rom. 10:5) and concerning evangelical righteousness, “the just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17). Even so,
On both sides, the promise of life is the same, proposed in the very same words. For the apostle does not hint by the least expression, that one kind of life is promised by gospel, another by the law…. But the apostle places the whole difference, not in the thing promised by the law to the man that worketh, which he now receives by faith in Christ. But to what man thus working was it promised? to the sinner only? Was it not to man in his innocency? Was it not then when it might truly be said, If you continue to do well, you shall be the heir of that life upon that condition. Which could be said to none but to upright Adam. Was it not then, when the promise was actually made? For after the entrance of sin, there is not so much a promise, as a denunciation of wrath, and an intimation of a curse, proposing that as the condition for obtaining life, which is now impossible. I therefore conclude, that to Adam, in the covenant of works, was promised the same eternal life, to be obtained by the righteousness which is the law, of which believers are made partakers through Christ.
The identical point is made by Brakel with reference to the same texts.
Arguably, both theologians here manifest the central reason for the doctrine of a covenant of works and its fundamental relationship to the doctrines of justification by grace through faith and Christ’s satisfaction for sin: the issue is not to hammer home a legalistic view of life and salvation but precisely the opposite, while at the same time upholding the stability of divine law. There can be no salvation by works, but only by a means that excludes works—in short, through faith in Christ. Nonetheless, the law is not void. Indeed, the law remains the representation of divine goodness, holiness, and righteousness placed in the heart and mind of Adam even as he was created in the image of God. Given the fact of sin, such a law can no longer hold forth its original promise of fellowship with God, but it remains the condition of fellowship just as it remains the temporal indication of the goodness, holiness, and righteousness of God. The covenant of works takes on for the fallen Adam the function of the second or pedagogical use of the law—precisely the function of the Mosaic law understood as the legal covenant or covenant of works: “The Lord willed,” Brakel writes, that Adam “would now turn away from the broken covenant of works, and, being lost in himself, would put all hope in the seed of the woman, which was promised to him immediately thereafter.”
The covenant of works, then, was not violated and made void from the human side by the sin of Adam and Eve, rendering the promises of the covenant inaccessible to their posterity—but it was also, Witsius argues, abrogated from the divine side in the sense that God has clearly willed not to renew or recast the covenant of works for the sake of offering to fallen humanity a promise of life grounded in its own personal righteousness. In other words, God will not now, in the context of human sinfulness “prescribe a condition of obedience less perfect than that which he stipulated” in the original covenant of works. Nontheless, so far as the promise of eternal life is concerned, all of mankind remains subject to its “penal sanction”: thus, sin does not render void nor the divine abrogation of the covenant of works remove “the unchangeable truth” of God’s “immutable and indispensable justice.” Even so, Calvin had argued the “perpetual validity” of the law and had insisted that “the law has been divinely handed down to us to teach us perfect righteousness; there no other righteousness is taught than that which conforms to the requirements of God’s will.”
The divine abrogation of the covenant of works, then, does not abolish the promise of God or the condition of holiness and righteousness required for the fulfillment of the promise. And it is precisely because of this coordinate stability of promise and law that the covenant of grace becomes effective in Christ alone. When the Apostle Paul writes, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law,” he indicates both that “the covenant of grace does not abrogate, but supposes the abrogation of the covenant of works” and that
the covenant of grace is not [itself] the abolition, but rather the confirmation of the covenant of works, inasmuch as the Mediator has fulfilled all the conditions of that covenant, so that all believers may be justified and saved according to the covenant of works, to which satisfaction was made by the Mediator…. The very law of the covenant, which formerly gave up the human sinner to sin, when his condition is once changed by union with Christ the surety, does now, without any abolition, abrogation, or any other change whatever, absolve the man from the guilt and dominion of sin, and bestow on him that sanctification and glorification, which are gradually brought to perfection, which he shall obtain at the resurrection of the dead.
The stability of the law, guaranteed in the divine maintenance of the terms of the covenant of works, points not to a legalistic view of salvation but to the fullness of Christ’s work of sanctification and to the totally unmerited character of the salvation provided by grace through faith to believers. “Recognize,” writes Brakel, that “the Lord Jesus placed Himself under” the “same law Adam had … and thereby He merited redemption and adoption as children for the elect.”
The ultimate relationship of the covenant of works to the covenant of grace and, equally so, of Adam to Christ as the old and new federal heads of the humanity, is established and outlined by Witsius, Brakel, and virtually all of the major Reformed covenant theologians of the seventeenth century in their discussion of the “covenant of redemption” or pactum salutis between God the Father and God the Son. Here, also, as in the case of the covenant of works, we encounter a doctrinal construct, elicited according to the terms of the older Reformed hermeneutic, from the collation and exegetical analysis of a series of biblical passages. The doctrine itself probably originated with Cocceius, but its roots are most probably to be found in the earlier Reformed mediation on the trinitarian nature of the divine decrees. While not attempting to offer a discussion of the entire doctrine of the covenant of redemption, we can note here its function with respect to the two other covenants. In the first place, it is the eternal foundation of the covenant of grace, according to which Christ is established, in the depths of the Trinity, as the Redeemer, the new federal head of humanity, and the surety and sponsor of humanity in covenant: in short, the covenant of redemption is an “agreement between God and his elect. The covenant of grace thus also “presupposes” the covenant of redemption and “is founded upon it.”
In the second place, the covenant of redemption established the eternal remedy for the problem of sin and ensured the full manifestation and exercise of the divine righteousness and justice both in the covenant of works and beyond its abrogation. As Brakel comments, “The fact that God from eternity foreknew the fall, decreeing that He would permit it to occur, is not only confirmed by the doctrines of His omniscience and decrees, but also from the fact that God from eternity ordained a Redeemer for man, to deliver him from sin: the Lord Jesus Christ whom Peter calls the Lamb, “who was foreknown [voorgekend] before the foundation of the world. By the covenant of redemption, the Son binds himself to the work of salvation and, therefore, to the fulfillment of the condition of fellowship with God for the sake of God’s covenant people. Thus the promises, the conditions, and the penalties for failure to fulfill the conditions remain—but the conditions are met and the penalties satisfied in Christ. As eternally guaranteed by the covenant of redemption, “conditions are offered, to which eternal salvation is annexed; conditions not to be performed again by us, which might throw the mind into despondence; but by him, who would not part with his life, before he had truly said, “It is finished.”
After excoriating Thomas F. Torrance, Rolson, and Poole for naïvely deconstructing this kind (the above aforementioned by Muller) of classical Covenant theology through a ‘Barthian’ misunderstanding and caricature (of classical Covenant theology, as described by Muller above); Muller concludes thusly:
[…] The purported legalism of the continuing covenant of works as presented in the demands of the law is nothing less than permanence of the original divine intention to ground the fellowship in the nature of God and in the imago Dei. Witsius and Brakel recognized in their debate with seventeenth-century Arminian and Socinian adversaries that as long as covenant refers to a relationship between God and human beings, law must belong to covenant as much as promise. They also understood—as we should perhaps recognize in the theological presuppositions of the contemporary critics of the doctrine—that the denial of the covenant of works, the attempt to deny the legal element of covenant in general (and, today, the attempt to pit the Reformers against their successors), represent not only an alternative view of the original relationship between God and human beings but also an alternative theory of Christ’s atonement and a theology that, at best, is less than traditionally Reformed.
The elements of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works that I have described here indicate the result of a process of doctrinal development in the Reformed tradition. As such, the language of the doctrine is certainly different from the language of the Reformers and even from that of earlier successors to the original Reformers such as Ursinus and Olevian or, indeed, in a slightly later time, William Perkins. Yet, the fundamental points of the doctrine, that the work of redemption must be understood both in terms of law and of grace, that human beings were created in and for fellowship with God under terms both of promise and of law, that Adam’s fall was a transgression of God’s law, that human inability after the Fall in no way removes the standard or the demands of the law, and that the gift of salvation through Christ’s satisfaction for sin both sets believers free from the law’s condemnation and upholds the laws demands, remain virtually identical. The free gift of grace in the one covenant respects the stability of law in the other, while the presence of law under different uses in both covenants echoes both the immutability of the divine nature and the constancy of the divine promises.
I wanted to share this whole section from Muller because I want to be clear that my assertions are in line with what the foremost scholar of such things articulates himself.
For Barth, Torrance, and others there is no abstract decree standing behind the back of Jesus in the work of redemption; particularly as that is couched in a doctrine of election vis-à-vis doctrine of God. For Barth, contra Westminster theology, God is only known and given to and for us, for all of humanity, in the concrete humanity and history of the Son become flesh and blood. For Barth God first loved us, not based on legal conditions, but because He first loved us in the Son (so we see a radical doctrine of supralapsarianism present in Barth’s and “my” theology), so that we might love Him. ‘In the beginning God created,’ this is the first word of God’s Grace for us (h/t Ray Anderson); thus, all of human reality in a God/world relation is one that is grounded in Grace, not Law, all the way down (h/t TFT).
But as we can see with reference to WCF directly, and Muller’s description of Covenant theology in particular, the ‘Westminsterian’ tradition is grounded in an Aristotelian Pure Being conception of God; as such, God, in this frame will relate to humanity through a mechanical non-relational/non-personalist frame of reconciliation. Indeed, he must relate to us this way if in fact God’s immutability and simplicity, under its Aristotelian terms, is to remain untouched by or non-contingent upon creation. This is the sine qua non of classical Westminster theology; viz. that God’s ‘Pure Being’ remain pure and unfettered by the trivialities of this world order. This is why TF Torrance has argued that God’s relationship to the world, in the Westminsterian frame, isn’t first based upon an ontology of triune love, as the logic of grace and ground of relationship to humanity, but instead upon a mechanism of Law-keeping; Law-keeping of the sort that is in concert with a God who in His inner-life is characterized by brute power and monadic self-preoccupation; a conception of God that conceives of God’s inner-life as made up of a non-relational substance-in-being relationship that emphasizes God’s oneness at the expense of His threeness (and thus relationality).
With God’s oneness, and the need to keep God pure and actually infinite in the heavens, the Westminster theologians concocted a theological framework (based on the work of others as Muller attests) that makes sure that God’s abstract and ‘other’ power remains intact; even at the expense of emphasizing Who God is for us as revealed in the Father-Son relationship in the God-man, Jesus Christ. Thus, for the Westminsterians, God’s love for the elect is contingent upon the Son, in the covenant of grace, meeting the conditions and requirements originally set out in the covenant of works. He could only love the elect after such legal requirements and penalties were met. This is what Torrance’s critique says, and it is not erroneous when we consider what in fact Westminster is built upon. Torrance (and Barth’s) theology counters by saying that God’s love for us is not contingent upon us meeting legal requirements, but simply upon who God is eternally as Father of the Son in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. There is no decree, for Barth, or Torrance, but Christ. And to even use the language of ‘decree’ in such a frame is to do so ironically and for purposes of reifying what in fact God is about as triune love.
There is still much more to be said (and I have said so so much more in that category I referred you to earlier). Remember, this is bloggy and off the top. This is worthy of a polished paper in order to present things in a more coherent manner; but the lineaments of the argument and response (to my interlocutor) should be clear enough as presently presented.
 Karl Barth, CD II/2, 111.
 Accessed 01-15-2020 [emphasis mine].
 Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 185-89.