Why ‘Evangelical Calvinism’ is Better than ‘Classical Calvinism’

***This is a classic repost. You will notice that my tone in this post is quite provocative; it is this kind of tone that used to characterize most of my posts. I have tried to tone myself down this last year or so, and I think I have; but to be honest, it’s not as fun. Plus, I think being provocative has a place, but being so with a modicum of knowledge and intent. The intent is to challenge all of us, me included, to test once again if what we believe is most proximate with God’s Self-revelation in Christ, or the Gospel. As you can see this post is at least a rerepost.

**This is a post I wrote quite some time ago for my other blog, I thought I would repost it here — I realize there are things and characterizations in this post that some of you disagree with, but I still hold that there is a distinguishable difference between ‘Federal Calvinism’ and ‘Evangelical Calvinism’ (which is akin to ‘Scottish Theology’) . . . and that this difference, no less, flows from a distinct doctrine of God (the Federal understanding being Thomistic, the Evangelical, Scotist)**

I have been reading a book by T. F. Torrance called Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell, and it has been quite elucidating. How many of you realized that Scotland, and many of her theologians calvinismjesusoffered a Reformation trajectory much different from that offered, later on, by what we today know as “Reformed doctrine” articulated at Dort and in the Westminster Catechisms? In other words one of the touchstones that we have inherited as “Reformed Dogma” is the TULIP and its emphasis upon God’s decrees and logico/causal relationships (like William Perkins’ Golden Chaine represents). I.e. the emphasis upon God as the unmoved mover who has decreed all of salvation history in time and space; one of these decrees being that God elected some in eternity past, and subsequently died for only these “special” people (e.g. limited atonement). Without going into too much detail, this abstract notion of God’s nature as the divine despot who decrees all of reality in a syllogistic style; was challenged by some of Scotland’s “Evangelical” “Reformed” theologians. One of these theologians was named Jonathan Fraser of Brae (1638-1698), Torrance describes Fraser’s thought on the topic of “assurance of salvation” and the “extent of the atonement” as he summarizes one of Fraser’s books:

. . . His great book, Justifying Faith, has two main parts. 1) The main part is devoted to the ground of faith in which it is shown that it is not faith itself that justifies us but Christ in whom we have faith. The ultimate grounds of believing are ‘the Attributes of God, his Power, and Faith, Fulness and Wisdom’, but ‘the immediate grounds of believing are the gracious promises in the Gospel: But my Belief of the Truth of the Promises is founded on Christ’s Faith, Fulness, the Bottom and Pillar of all Divine Faith [“Justifying Faith 2”, p. 3]. Of particular significance here is the correlation of our faith with the faith of God and the faith of Christ—human faith derives from, rests on, and is undergirded by divine faithfulness. Great stress was laid from the outset, by Fraser, on ‘Christ’s all Sufficiency’, in that ‘He is able to save them to the uttermost, that come unto God by him [“Justifying Faith,” p. 11]’. (2) The second and longer part of Fraser’s work is called an ‘Appendix’ devoted to the object of Christ’s death. In it he shows that Christ died for all people, and not for a limited number as it was claimed in the so-called ‘covenant of redemption’ made between the Son and the Father. He rejected the distinction between a covenant of grace and a covenant of redemption [“Justifying Faith”, p. 170]—the former, as he said again and again, is absolute in its nature and universal in its extent. Throughout his book Fraser differed at crucial points sharply with Samuel Rutherford and James Durham, as also with William Twisse the Prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly, not to mention the puritan divine John Owen. But reference is made to several others like William Fenner in connection with their support for the biblical teaching that Christ died for all men. This had to do sometimes with a subtle form of Pelagianism in their understanding of faith. “It is an Error oftentimes in our Faith, that it is not built purely and only on the Grace of Christ, but we seek secretly other Props, and so to set some other thing on Christ’s room, and this is as it is derogatory to Christ, and evidence of Distrust in him [“Justifying Faith”, p. 295]’. (T. F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” 184-85)

Here we have an example of what a Reformed theologian looked like, who thought outside the constraints imposed upon scripture by Westminster. Interestingly, many today would not consider this kind of thinking “Reformed,” but this would be circular wouldn’t it? Since one would have to assume that Westminster is the ‘historic’ standard of what being Reformed actually entails, in order to deny that people like Brae and many others also represented the variegated mainstream of the burgeoning “Reformed Tradition”—I digress.

Let me highlight a few points that Brae offers in opposition to Westminster Calvinism—that is if they aren’t apparent enough—1) notice the emphasis that Brae places on Christ as the “objective” basis of salvation. This gets into issues of ontology, union with Christ, and faith as an immediate reciprocating response” from Christ and to Christ as humanity is brought into union with Him through the incarnation. 2) This leads to the the far reaching extent of the atonement, in line with scripture (I think), Brae holds to a universal atonement (objectively), thus Christ can be called the Savior of all men; and the offer of salvation genuinely made to all people.

This is all contrary to the salvation framework provided by Westminster. For Westminster assurance came from reflecting upon ‘my good works’ (Perseverance of the saints), and then reflexively (after looking at my ‘behavior’) by faith I can find assurance that I am one of those elect for whom Christ died. This is the kind of theology that Brae was writhing against, this is what he calls “Pelagianism,” since in this construct, methodologically, man is driven to self before he gets to Christ; in other words, the decree gets in the way of Christ. Not only that, but we also end up with a rather “Nestorian” outlook, relative to election, since the incarnation was not representative of all humanity but only for the “elect”—which is problematic.

It might be surmised that Brae was a universalist (that all humanity will be saved), but he was not. Instead he believed that all humanity who believed would be saved on the basis of Christ’s universal salvation—being a direct corollary of the incarnation (and its universal extent and representation). A Westminster Calvinist would say, but wait, if Christ died for all, then all will be saved. But Fraser would respond that that is only true if you are straightjacketed by the rigid logico-causal system that has shaped the articulation and thought process of Westminster/Federal Calvinism. In other words, Fraser’s Calvinism (and he was a Calvinist) had “scriptural evangelical tension” in it—something that Westminster Calvinism just can’t live with.

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2 comments

  1. This sort of set up legitimizes the Spirit’s work in building Christ’s body instead of making history a non-thing that God merely watches roll out. He moves and interacts IN history and is yet totally free and sovereign!

    One question is how Fraser would interpret 2 Peter 1:10, where examining how one is living out love is a sign of the election Christ gave (my interpretation).

    However, it is not advocating the Puritan obsession. Making one’s election sure in love may be for a man, who is a violent killer, to say hi to someone he doesn’t like.

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  2. Cal,

    I don’t know exactly how Fraser would interpret 2 Peter 1:10; but my hunch is that he would ground this ‘living out’ objectively & subjectively in the vicarious humanity of Christ for us (maybe appealing to something like Eph. 2:10). This does not displace our own responsibility to live from his Humanity by the Spirit ourselves, but it grounds those ‘good works’ and activities in a way that their orientation is truly in and from Christ and not from ourselves. We are simply called to obedience, but not an obedience that can be abstracted from Christ’s obedience for us, first.

    I think I Peter and other passages like this have been so muddled, categorically by the Puritan/Calvinistic readings that it is hard for us to not think of such things (like I Peter) in the hard logico-causal determinisms that we have become used to in Protestant Evangelical culture.

    As far as history; I like Thomas Torrance’s distinction/dialectic when he notes that God is non-contingent independent, but that creation has its own contingent independence; which honors the classical Creator/creature distinction which indeed emphasizes God’s sovereign Self-determinative freedom as the ground which gives creation its own and proper reality and telos/purpose.

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