Thomas Torrance’s Objection to Federal Theology: In Response to From Heaven He Came and Sought Her

Continuing with my recent theme of thinking about Federal Theology (classical Calvinism), in general, and the extent of the atonement, in particular; I thought I would repost this post which I have reposted multiple times before. I have been incited to repost this once again because of the just released book edited by David and Jonathan Gibson entitled: From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (you can read the first two chapters by Pdf here). The quote from Paul Molnar on Torrance’s objection to ‘definite atonement’ as one of the material theological points of Federal theology will give you insight into why I as an Evangelical Calvinist might be at odds (which I am) with ‘particular redemption’, ‘definite atonement’, and/or ‘limited atonement’ in its classical, and I would argue dualist form. It is better, along with the Apostle Paul, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, et. al. to think such things (like atonement in particular) from Christ and his vicarious humanity for us (pro nobis). It is better to think about humanity from God’s definite humanity for us in Christ; this way we aren’t left to think ourselves or unite ourselves (in the Holy Spirit’s name) to Christ’s humanity (salvation). Anyway, read the following from Molnar on Torrance and be blessed.

Here Paul Molnar gives a good summary overview of some of the reasons that T.F. Torrance objected to ‘Federal’ or ‘Westminster’ Calvinism:

Torrance’s objections to aspects of the “Westminster theology” should be seen together with his objection to “Federal tftTheology”. His main objection to Federal theology is to the ideas that Christ died only for the elect and not for the whole human race and that salvation is conditional on our observance of the law. The ultimate difficulty here that one could “trace the ultimate ground of belief back to eternal divine decrees behind the back of the Incarnation of God’s beloved Son, as in a federal concept of pre-destination, [and this] tended to foster a hidden Nestorian dualism between the divine and human natures in the on Person of Jesus Christ, and thus even to provide ground for a dangerous form of Arian and Socinian heresy in which the atoning work of Christ regarded as an organ of God’s activity was separated from the intrinsic nature and character of God as Love” (Scottish Theology, p. 133). This then allowed people to read back into “God’s saving purpose” the idea that “in the end some people will not actually be saved”, thus limiting the scope of God’s grace (p. 134). And Torrance believed they reached their conclusions precisely because they allowed the law rather than the Gospel to shape their thinking about our covenant relations with God fulfilled in Christ’s atonement. Torrance noted that the framework of Westminster theology “derived from seventeenth-century federal theology formulated in sharp contrast to the highly rationalised conception of a sacramental universe of Roman theology, but combined with a similar way of thinking in terms of primary and secondary causes (reached through various stages of grace leading to union with Christ), which reversed the teaching of Calvin that it is through union with Christ first that we participate in all his benefits” (Scottish Theology, p. 128). This gave the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “a very legalistic and constitutional character in which theological statements were formalised at times with ‘almost frigidly logical definiton'” (pp. 128-9). Torrance’s main objection to the federal view of the covenant was that it allowed its theology to be dictated on grounds other than the grace of God attested in Scripture and was then allowed to dictate in a legalistic way God’s actions in his Word and Spirit, thus undermining ultimately the freedom of grace and the assurance of salvation that could only be had by seeing that our regenerated lives were hidden with Christ in God. Torrance thought of the Federal theologians as embracing a kind of “biblical nominalism” because “biblical sentences tend to be adduced out of their context and to be interpreted arbitrarily and singly in detachment from the spiritual ground and theological intention and content” (p. 129). Most importantly, they tended to give biblical statements, understood in this way, priority over “fundamental doctrines of the Gospel” with the result that “Westminster theology treats biblical statements as definitive propositions from which deductions are to be made, so that in their expression doctrines thus logically derived are given a categorical or canonical character” (p. 129). For Torrance, these statements should have been treated, as in the Scots Confession, in an “open-structured” way, “pointing away from themselves to divine truth which by its nature cannot be contained in finite forms of speech and thought, although it may be mediated through them” (pp. 129-30). Among other things, Torrance believed that the Westminster approach led them to weaken the importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity because their concept of God fored without reference to who God is in revelation led them ultimately to a different God than the God of classical Nicene theology (p. 131). For Barth’s assessment of Federal theology, which is quite similar to Torrance’s in a number of ways, see CD IV/1, pp. 54-66. (Paul D. Molnar, “Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity,” 181-2 [fn. 165])

Some great insightful stuff on Torrance here. Let me know what you think.

Also, something worth noting, while it is possible (although not totally understandable) to be ‘Evangelical Calvinist’ without being ‘Torrancean’; it would be hard-pressed to understand why you wouldn’t want to at least learn a bit from Torrance. In case it is not obvious, I am unapologetically a beneficiary of Torrance’s thinking and direction, on many fronts. The king of ‘EC’ you are getting exposed to here at “The Evangelical Calvinist,” is most certainly shaped by the contribution that Torrance has made in this direction. I really only mention this, because there are some who would claim to be ‘EC’; and at the same time not come to their ‘EC’ conclusions by looking to Torrance much (or, at all).

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21 Responses to Thomas Torrance’s Objection to Federal Theology: In Response to From Heaven He Came and Sought Her

  1. Keith Johnston says:

    First, it is so nice to have an explanation of why something is not good theology, when I had only sensed that something was wrong with TULIP or Westminster without being able to say exactly why. Secondly, I got the Molnar book because I heard about it from you, so thanks for that. Thirdly, reading Torrance convinced me that I am only starting to understand Christian theology, and I am glad that it is so deep that we never fully plump the profound depths of the ocean of truth that we have been introduced to.


  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Keith,

    Glad that you have come to see the depth and width available in Christian thought in general, and in reformed theology in particular. Let me know what you think of Molnar’s book when you finish; I think it is excellent!


  3. Bobby Grow says:

    And just a caveat for this post: David and Jonathan Gibson would actually hold this quote from Molnar on Torrance up as illustrative of a caricature made by Torrance, and as they might say, ‘centraldogmatists’ that the method used to arrive at the conclusion of ‘definite atonement’ is an abstract logical-deductive schemata versus a biblical theological which they believe their approach offers and works from.

    I understand that they repudiate this kind of “caricature” from a Torrancean vantage point. But the point here, is that what Torrance and Barth are getting at, is that in principle, any time a *system* of theology and hermeneutic is developed that is not itself shaped by attending to Christ as the intensive center will only be able to offer up an abstract, and thus logically deductive system of biblical interpretation that must employ things like decrees to get us back to God in Christ.

    And so given this, to not think atonement from Christ in a deep way must result in an abstract theological approach by way of definition.


  4. David Hart says:

    I appreciate everything written on Torrence’s Theology.


  5. Steve says:

    Molnar says, “that salvation is conditional on our observance of the law.” Who says this that claims to be, more or less, sympathetic to Calvinism? None of the guys I read would ever say such a thing (Lloyd-Jones, FF Bruce, Leon Morris, Philip E Hughes, Carson, and many others).


  6. caseybedell says:

    I am sorry, there is so much unjustified rhetoric here it is hard to take serious. Any reputable scholar of the Westminster Divines would find these all laughable. The WCF was formed in a highly political and strained ecclesiastical context, not to mention it was forced to provide proof-texts. So you can disagree with it all you want, but the rhetoric from Molnar is not helpful and just betrays any sort of sensitivity to the documents historical context. Torrance is an excellent theologian but sometimes his critiques of Reformed Orthodoxy are anachronistic and just make for bad church history.

    “foster a hidden Nestorian dualism”

    “ground for a dangerous form of Arian and Socinian heresy”

    “reversed the teaching of Calvin”

    “This gave the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “a very legalistic and constitutional character”

    “the Westminster approach led them to weaken the importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity”

    “led them ultimately to a different God than the God of classical Nicene theology”


  7. Bobby Grow says:

    @David Hart: Me too! 🙂

    @Steve: Molnar reports on TFT this way, just for more context: “… His main objection to Federal theology is to the ideas that Christ died only for the elect and not for the whole human race and that salvation is conditional on our observance of the law. The ultimate difficulty here that one could “trace the ultimate ground of belief back to eternal divine decrees behind the back of the Incarnation of God’s beloved Son,…”

    Well no one is going to come out right and say such a thing, Steve! But if we follow the inner logic of Federal theology this is clearly the formal and then the material reality offered by said Federal theology. And the doctrine of perseverance would be the “doctrine of grace” that best exemplifies such a belief–i.e. “law keeping, albeit qualified by ‘in Christ'”; nevertheless salvation and proof of election is contingent upon personal and independent adherence to the law. A quid pro quo view of salvation, with cooperative grace at its center:

    @Casey: Nope, I don’t agree! It is materially justifiable on many fronts. I have read the literature myself, Casey. And Torrance isn’t just engaging in rhetoric for his choir, but identifying material implications present within the framework provided, for example, by the WCF among other confessions. There are non-Torrance people and historians of this period who identify similar things. Yeah, all the quotes you highlight in your comment are spot on identifications of problems presented by Westminster Calvinism. Argue why you think what TFT claims is unjustifiable, and then I could take you more seriously. Have you read Letham’s book The Westminster Assembly? He only helps substantiate Torrance’s critique instead of mitigate it.


  8. caseybedell says:

    Hi Bobby,

    On TT’s unjustifiable claims, it would be rather difficult to explain without providing examples across a broad range of issues. So for brevity sake, all I can say is that I don’t adopt the “Calvin against Calvinist” paradigm or follow Barth in the ways you do, so that puts us in different orbits. Again, Torrance is a great scholar (Dr. Kelly @ RTS turned me onto him), but his critique of Reformed Orthodoxy is a bit idiosyncratic at times, especially since he is an heir of the very tradition he can throw under the bus (i.e, the Nestorian, Arian, Socianian labels, and charge of denying Nicene theology, etc.). I realize he locates himself in the stream of Scottish Theology and then back to Calvin, but not everyone drives as big of a wedge between Scottish Theology and Westminster as he does.

    This is more anecdotal, but I find it interesting that there are many who can subscribe to the WCF and appreciate Torrance and Barth (Letham for example), but disciples of Barth and Torrance have a very hard time appreciating any tradition that is not refracted solely through Calvin, the church fathers, Barth, and Torrance. With regards to church history, this reflects a weak pneumatology. And culturally speaking, it has the ethos of fundamentalism (i.e, narrow, overly polemical).


  9. Bobby Grow says:


    If you understand either Barth’s or Torrance’s (the brothers) critique of Westminster Calvinism (or even Calvin’s view of predestination), it is fully material, and thus not idiosyncratic (which I don’t even know what you mean by that). They don’t just charge classic Calvinism with those “labels” they explain why those labels have teeth, and they are right (Barth and Torrance). It is the dualism, the theo-anthropology, the substance metaphysic funding classical Calvinism that spawn such things. Who said anything about Calvin against the Calvinist paradigm; that is a rather shallow reading of Torrance, one propagated by Muller & crew. Torrance identifies a stream of “Calvinists” in Scotland who were anti-Westminster (like John McLeod Campbell, who the Westminsters deemed a heretic–so who is driving the wedge?). Plus, if you read Molnar’s book, he readily answers your kind of old critique of Thomas Torrance’s “idiosyncratic” readings; it is rather limp-wristed, in my view, to make these kinds of critiques of Torrance.

    On “fundamentalism,” what?! Again, the problem is, Casey, is that Barth, Torrance et al are offering a completely different ground from which to think constructively Dogmatically from Westminster and even the Remonstrants. So it would be strange if they were not to notice that, and thus disagree; even vehemently at points. Apparently you aren’t aware of how Van Til and Westminster Theological Seminary California, in particular, demonize Barth, Torrance, et al through people like Muller, Scott Clarke, Carl Truemen (all historians and not theologians, simpliciter, by the way). Who are the fundamentalists, then? Again, this is a rather strange charge, and one that Paul Molnar engages with in his book, and dispels quite handily.


  10. MARK MCCULLEY says:

    Have you read what McCormack’s essay in What’s At Stake in Justification, in which he comments on Torrance’s dogmatic insistence on reading what Calvin says about the atonement and justification through the lens of “regeneration” by the Holy Spirit? An ambiguity is created by the tension between what Calvin says about justification and what Calvin says about “union”, and McCormack thinks part of the problem is Calvin’s traditional noton of “eucharistic feeding”

    BTW, you might want to go back to Mike Horton’s 4 volume “drama” series, especially book 3 on “union”. Mike Horton quotes Bruce McCormack at length and agrees with his concern vs Torrance.

    I suggest this as a reporter, mostly.I do not agree with Horton about “the covenant of works”. But neither do I agree with the Torrance. Barth confusion of law and gospel, I am able to do this because I am not mono-covenantal in the way Horton is (the covenant of grace).

    And neither am I partisan of McCormack, who like Barth and Torrance, ultimately rejects any idea that God must by nature necessarily satisfy His own penal justice.

    For Us and Our Salvation, Studies in Reformed Theology., Mccormack, p 27–“they make God’s mercy the prisoner, so to speak, of His righteousness, until such time as righteousness has been fully satisfied.”

    Mccormack, “We reject an understanding of biblical inspiration which would require that all biblical statements find their source in a Single Author.” p 195, “Actuality of God”, Engaging God


  11. MARK MCCULLEY says:

    Marcus Johnson: Federal theology assumed that justification is a synthetic declaration that takes into account no prior relationship of the believer to the person of Christ. p 92

    mark: The “unionists” assume that justification is a legal fiction (as if) unless it’s an analytic declaration that takes into account an already existing personal relationship to Christ. They don’t talk about justification of the ungodly, but only about a justification of those united to Christ.


  12. MARK MCCULLEY says:

    Marcus Johnson: The benefits of Christ’s saving work are received only insofar as Christ Himself is received. p 93

    mark: Christ Himself is received by the ungodly elect only insofar as these ungodly elect are federally imputed with Christ’s righteousness.

    Johnson: Justification is a legal benefit of a personal reality.

    mark: The personal indwelling of Christ is a benefit of the federal legal reality of God’s imputation.

    Johnson: God justifies us because we are joined to Christ.

    mark: God joins us to Christ when God imputes to us (while we are ungodly) the righteousness of Christ. God joins us to Christ because God imputes to us the death of Christ.

    Johnson: In Philippians 3, we are only imputed with righteousness because we are found in Christ. p 95

    mark: In Philippians 3, we are only found in Christ because of the righteousness imputed.

    We all start with our dogma…yours makes it more comfortable for you


  13. MARK MCCULLEY says:

    Marcus Johnson: Berkhof thinks that justification cannot be the result of any existing condition in the sinner, not even an intimate, vital, spiritual, personal union with Christ. This strikes me as enormously confusing. p 97

    mark: Johnson thinks that both the atonement and justification are federal fictions unless the incarnation means that all sinners are already in some kind of union with Christ before legal imputation.

    This strikes me as a theory of universalism which removes the reality of God’s justice in giving Christ as a propitiation for sins legally imputed.

    Johnson: What exactly is this union which can be REDUCED to either justification or the results of justification? p 98

    mark: What is the reality of God’s imputation of righteousness to the ungodly elect if it’s not real apart from some other previous (and more than merely legal) connection?

    Johnson: William Evans argues that Berkhof’s soteriology is the logical conclusion of a federal theological trajectory, epitomized by Charles Hodge, in which union ceases to function as an umbrella category unifying all of salvation.

    mark: Johnson rejects “imputation priority” because he has already rejected the federal imputation of Adam’s guilt (see his chapter 2 on incarnation) and because he has already rejected what he calls a “mechanical transfer” of sins to Christ.

    I would say “the sins of the elect” but Johnson does not consider the doctrine of election in his discussion of imputation and justification. Election for him seems to be only an “apologetic doctrine” which he does not deny but which plays no part in his soteriology. (This is his accusation against those of us with “justification priority”, that the incarnation and the Trinity are no part of our gospel., p 41)


  14. MARK MCCULLEY says:

    Johnson: Both Horton and Fesko subordinate union with Christ to justification, indicating that they see union with Christ as reducible to sanctification.

    mark: Johnson denies the reality of legal imputation, and subordinates imputation as merely one benefit of “union”, and then Johnson defines “union” as the personal presence of Christ in us because of our faith (given to us by the Holy Spirit). So Johnson subordinates the work of Christ to the person of Christ, and then accuses those who disagree with him of dividing person and work.

    And then Johnson subordinates the imputation of Christ’s work to the work of the Holy Spirit, who Johnson thinks is the one who unites us to Christ’s person by creating faith in us.

    This subordination of Christ to the Spirit’s work means that Marcus Johnson is not Barthian in the way that Bruce McCormack advocates.

    McCormack: We must transfer the concept of irresistible grace out of the realm of the Holy Spirit’s work in calling and regenerating the individual into the work of Christ….”

    Participation in Christ is not of the Holy Spirit but by God’s imputation of Christ’s work.

    “The work of the Holy Spirit does not complete a work of Jesus Christ which was incomplete without it. The work of the Holy Spirit does not make effective a work of Jesus Christ which is ineffective without it.”, p 229, “The Actuality of God, Engaging the Doctrine of God

    bobby, you can help me out with some information here. Would the Torrances be closer to McCormack at this point (vs the subordination of Christ’s work to the Spirit’s work)? If you have time, give me relevant section on this in Torrances, as I am trying to at least report correctly….



  15. Bobby Grow says:


    The format of your comment is confusing.

    The Torrance’s do not subordinate Christ’s work to the Spirit’s. I don’t have any quotes to provide for you off the top. But they clearly do not “subordinate,” in the way you have described it.


  16. MARK MCCULLEY says:

    But would you agree with me that most Calvinists DO indeed focus on sovereign regeneration instead of on justification and atonement? I think this is because they are still Augustinians, more focused on what God does in the sinner instead of what God does in Christ outside the sinner (at cross and resurrection). But I am nor sure you would say it that way, given the Torrance confusion of “in Him” with “Him in us”.

    Do you agree with McCormack about the confusion, ambiguity of definition, in Calvin?


  17. Bobby Grow says:

    I don’t agree, at all!, that Torrance has this confusion.

    Marcus Johnson has never claimed to be Barthian; he’s not even Torranican; he’s Calvinian (and he appreciates Torrance).

    I think most Calvinists focus on assurance of salvation, which flows from there attempt to move from the elect, and God’s sovereign choice, and how, existentially the elect know if they are elect or not.


  18. MARK MCCULLEY says:

    What do you think of the recent essay on Torrance in First Things by Farrow.? On the one hand, Farrow commends the focus on incarnation. But then he denies that there is such a thing as “the Latin heresy”.

    I would say it this way. Torrance replaces what he calls “dualisms” with his own dualisms. He puts the traditional antitheses into antithesis with his own antitheses.

    He has not stopped playing the person vs work game, but he takes a different side, so that he opposes “forensic” reality with what he assumes to be “actual” ontology.

    The confusion of law and gospel ends up denying the reality of law. The focus on Christ as revealing true divinity ends up under-emphasizing the humanity….And so on.

    I do agree that Marcus Johnson thinks of his theology as being in continuity with Calvin and Luther in a way which is not that important to Torrance.

    Not all of us Calvinists are puritans who rush for the practical syllogism.


  19. Bobby Grow says:

    I don’t have access to Farrow’s article, so I don’t know. He wouldn’t be the first to claim that TFT’s “Latin heresy” is non-existent. But I would have to read how he argues for that assertion. I have written on this from a different angle–in regard to theological method, for example–TFT’s approach to doing theology (along with Barth), through the analogy of faith V the analogy of being clearly illustrates what TFT would mean by the Latin heresy. Or David Gibson’s and Richard Muller’s employment of identifying a principial (Barth/Torrance) V a soteriological (Calvin, Augustinian, et al), clearly illustrates, though, the material substance of what differentiates someone like Torrance from the Augustinian stream; heck, Torrance says so himself–viz. that he is Athanasian V Augustinian, and Athanasian in a particular Scottish and even Swiss way. So I don’t buy such assertions, like Farrow’s. Maybe he should re-read the book by Molnar on Torrance that he edits for Ashgate if he believes the Latin heresy (the way TFT describes) is non-existent; it clearly is not.

    He opposes forensic framing because he should (as did Barth). If we follow forensic framing we run into the Latin heresy once again; by making God a predicate of creation, decree, and Law. TFT still sees Law (just read him like in Incarnation!), he just sees it rightfully framed by God’s first movement in Grace (Gen 1:1 instead of 3:15).

    So there is no confusion.

    Most Calvinists today are too individualistic (Western-wise), and so there is no need for a mechanism like the practical syllogism; their self-confidence functions in place of such things (like the syllogism).


  20. MARK MCCULLEY says:

    When Adam sinned, Adam did not fall from grace.

    Of course that statement has (at least) two different meanings, depending on one’s theology.. I mean that Adam before sin had no need of grace.

    Galatians 5: 2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace…. 11 But if I still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. 12 I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!


  21. Bobby Grow says:

    He fell in the sphere of grace. I would argue, along with Ray Anderson, that grace is the word that God spoke in Genesis 1:1. If God is not first a God of grace, then indeed, I guess your only alternative is that He is one of Law. But that would be to import into God more than, I think, Scripture allows for. I am not trying to engage with this discussion, primarily, through the optics provided by the classically Calvinist; it seems you are. I don’t know.


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