Home » Critiquing Classic Calvinism » classical Calvinism juxtaposed with Affective Theology: Comparing and Contrasting William Perkins and Richard Sibbes

classical Calvinism juxtaposed with Affective Theology: Comparing and Contrasting William Perkins and Richard Sibbes

*This is a repost that I am sure almost none of you have read. I am feeling pretty undermotivated to write blog posts at the moment, so this will have to suffice. I have added a caveat to this post in an addendum at the end of the post. Don’t worry I have fresh posts coming (I always do), but I would imagine that for most of you this will be quite fresh (meaning that this will be the first time you have ever read this post, so it might as well be a new post.

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The following is a lengthy quote highlighting the differences between Federal [Classic] Calvinism and Free-Grace Calvinism [Affective Theology]. William Perkins represents the Federal “Vision” side, while Richard Sibbes the “Free-Grace” perspective. The quote is taken from Ron Frost’s unpublished PhD dissertation on Richard Sibbes and English Puritanism. He is providing conclusion to a discussion he had previously undertaken where he had articulated, in detail (with bibliographic support), the disparate “covenantal approaches” reflected by Perkins and Sibbes. The primary disjunction between the two is how they framed the Adam-motif (i.e. first and second Adam theology, see Rom. 5, etc.); and the different trajectories this placed their soteriological outlooks upon. Perkins forwarded the “Federal” model, which assumes continuity between the “law-keeping” of the first Adam and second Adam (i.e. think “Covenant of Works”); while Sibbes forwarded the “Marital Mystical” construct, which assumes some discontinuity between the “two Adams;” viz. while Christ truly represents us before the Father (juridical–i.e. forensic or legal), He also takes us as His spouse, which is presupposed by a real union with Him. The main difference, then, between Perkins and Sibbes, according to Frost, is that Perkins framed salvation purely as legal and “juridical”, which did not assume a “real union” with Christ; while Sibbes framed his view, not just as legal, but beyond that, as a Marriage framework, which is presupposed by a “real union” with Christ.

A Brief Glossary of Terms: **Privative Sin = the privation or absence of God’s righteousness [negative definition of sin] — **Positive Sin = Self love vs. God’s love.

Enough said on my part, lets hear from Frost:

Some final observations may be made about the positive and privative views of sin. The two approaches differ fundamentally on the reason for sin; while man is identified as responsible for sin in both views, he tends to be portrayed more as a pliable innocent overcome by the serpent’s deceit in the privative model. It is Adam presented as inadequate, not because he was unable to fulfill the law, but, because, in his mutability as a creature, he was vulnerable to moral change. This the serpent exploited while God was willfully away. In scholastic terms, the formal cause of sin was twofold, given the double causality associated with God’s sovereignty. God, as the primary agent for all things, determined the outcome by his withdrawal. In this he was arbitrary but just. The second agent, Adam, failed to apply the grace he had available and thus was culpable for his own fall, albeit as something of a victim. In both considerations the issue of grace is pivotal in its absence. For the privative model, as seen in both Thomistic and Reformed theology, this leads to a greater emphasis on the acquisition and application of grace in hypostatized or commodity-like terms, and a tendency toward Aristotelian moralism — the establishing of one’s righteousness through righteous actions based on grace. To the degree that grace becomes an impersonal quality, the greater the impression one has that something worthy of appreciation, if not merit, is being accomplished.

The doctrine of positive sin, on the other hand, rejects any tendency to see man as a victim; Adam is always the culprit in that he willfully replaced the Creator with the creature as the object of absolute devotion. It also recognizes human mutability as a fact which allows the fall, but rejects it as a meaningful explanation. The fall, in positive sin, remains an impenetrable mystery; Adam is not portrayed as deceived and God is not portrayed as withholding grace. In the positive model sin is always a competition: Adam seeks to usurp God’s role while God confounds Adam’s autonomy.

Thus, the most important difference between the two models is found in the way God is portrayed. In the privative view, as Aquinas and Perkins have it, he remains a supplier of grace — withholding what is needed for salvation except to the elect. He even remains parsimonious to the elect but, as their efforts prevail, is increasingly generous. In the positive view, on the other hand, he is an enemy until conversion which comes by the Spirit’s direct intervention. He invites the elect to see God as he really is: righteous, strong, and loving. Conversion, in fact, is a litmus for the two views: the privative model generally adopts a catechetical process which culminates in an affirmation of faith. The positive model, while recognizing that the Spirit uses prevenient stirrings, expects a more distinct Paul-light conversion which displays the moment in which selfish autonomy melts before God’s self disclosure. For the one, nature remains very much in view; for the other, God, once unveiled by grace, dominates the scene.

The importance of the affections for Sibbes and the nomists differed in profound ways. For Sibbes the affections were both the avenue by which sin entered the world and the avenue by which God, through the Spirit, restores the fallen soul. Slavery of the will was seen to be an enslavement by one’s own desires, something broken only by transforming vision of God as more desirable than anything human autonomy offers. Perkins and the nomists, on the other hand, saw the affections as a subordinate element of the will; they also provided a suitable theology for the prominent will by adopting the Thomist privation-enablement model of sin and grace.

Perkins and the nomists thus established human responsibility as the center-theme of salvation; the moral law became the locus of the soul in the process of sanctification. The belief that the covenant of grace is essentially a legal contract shaped all spirituality into a restorative stance: life is seen as an effort to regain and sustain Adam’s original obedience through the Spirit-enabled will. This generated a Christology which emphasized the juridical work of Christ to the point that, for pastoral ministry, the purpose of restored communion was easily reduced into the preaching of moralist endeavor.

Against this view, Sibbes, in line with Augustine, emphasized the place of Christ as much more than the source of justification, but primarily as one to be loved. The promise of the indwelling Spirit, whose ministry in Christ’s life is now allocated to the Christian, gives promise of a greater hope than the nomists offered: full and eternal intimacy of the Godhead through a true, although mystical, union with Christ. The feet of the soul are the affections and the affections are meant for communion with God. (Ron Frost, “Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology,” [unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, 1996 University of London Kings College], 94-96)

I realize this was quite long, but if you made it to this point, great! I really appreciate Sibbes’ approach, and find it to be much more scriptural. Hopefully you noticed some of the discontinuity I alluded to earlier. For Sibbes in the second Adam (Christ), we go beyond what the first Adam had with God. For Sibbes, we are brought into the very life of God, through Christ; for Perkins we enter a quid pro quo contractual relationship with God . . . likened to the first Adam’s relationship with God (this is Covenant theologies’ Covenant of Works).

If you have any questions then please let me know, I will do my best to answer them. There are quite a few quotes I would like to share from Sibbes, provided by Frost which he used to support what his conclusion, above, summarizes so neatly–maybe another time. I wish I could just tell you to go buy Frost’s dissertation at Amazon, but unfortunately it was never published. Anyway I hope some of you find this helpful.

Addendum: I wrote this post before I was exposed to Thomas Torrance and the idea of the vicarious humanity of Christ, and a ‘Christ conditioned’ way. But this is an example of the kind of stuff that I will bring into conversation with the themes we have been articulating through evangelical Calvinism.

Addendum1: I really like what Sibbes has to offer (as mediated through my mentor Ron Frost). But here is the area that I plan on bringing into constructive conversation, in regard to the way Frost construes Sibbes’ Augusintianism; read:

[A]gainst this view, Sibbes, in line with Augustine, emphasized the place of Christ as much more than the source of justification, but primarily as one to be loved. The promise of the indwelling Spirit, whose ministry in Christ’s life is now allocated to the Christian, gives promise of a greater hope than the nomists offered: full and eternal intimacy of the Godhead through a true, although mystical, union with Christ. The feet of the soul are the affections and the affections are meant for communion with God.

It will be to simply bring together the person and work of Christ; instead of dualistically locating the ‘indwelling Spirit’ in elect individuals (as Sibbes does), I believe it ought to be located in Christ’s vicarious humanity for us (pro nobis). I think the Christological is the Soteriological, that Revelation is Reconciliation, and so I think Sibbes offers an excellent way forward, but that he needs a little help in being a little more radical and Christologically personalist by thinking from the humanity of Christ, and all of the beautiful bridal language and framing that is attendant (and rightly and biblically so) prior to thinking of the rest of us. I actually don’t think my proposal here will be that difficult to develop. Whereas Torrance was about personalising classical (Federal) theology, or as Leithart might say, ‘evangelising metaphysics’, I think it is even better if we follow the “classical” trajectory available from someone like Sibbes (and marriage mysticism), and do the same as Torrance was doing with Federal theology; that is, to ‘Christify’ it, or place the marital framework of Sibbes (Luther, Bernard, the Apostle Paul et al) into a dogmatically rich Christ conditioned frame.

So now you know further what I will be attempting to do.

 

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2 thoughts on “classical Calvinism juxtaposed with Affective Theology: Comparing and Contrasting William Perkins and Richard Sibbes

  1. Hey Bobby, I may be wrong but I am pretty sure Ron’s dissertation was printed by Lulu and is also available at Amazon under the title, Richard Sibbes: God’s Spreading Goodness. I heartily recommend the book):

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