The Evangelical Calvinist

"The world was made so that Christ might be born."-David Fergusson

Old Debate, New Day: Calvinism — My Comment

I want to “briefly” weigh in on a recent debate that just happened and was moderated by my friend, editor of Christianity Today, Mark Galli. The debate was on calvinist debatethat old perennial thing that just will not go away; i.e. classical Calvinism versus classical or I would say, revised (evangelical) Arminianism. In order to gain a full appreciation for my comments below it would be best for you to watch both presentations, and videos linked below (although as I write this I have not watched the second proposition or video yet).

Link 1, Link 2 (ht:/T.C. Moore)

I want to keep this as brief as I can, without being reductionistic (which will be difficult). The participants in the debate are four guys; two taking the affirmative for the classical Calvinist position on Unconditional election (the idea that God before creation elected some people to be saved and other people to be eternally reprobated or damned in hell experiencing God’s justice and wrath in themselves), and two taking the non-affirmative position against the classical Calvinist position on Unconditional election (just as a reminder Unconditional election is the “U” in the Five Points of Calvinism: the TULIP).

Let me cut to the chase for sake of time and space: the classical Calvinist position is that God eternally predestined some individuals to be eternally ‘saved’ (the elect), and in the classical conception of a double predestinarian version of this, God also eternally chose the mass of humanity (most of) to be eternally damned (the reprobate). In this scheme, then, the only way someone can come to Christ is if God chooses that for someone (apart from their choosing of him). Conversely, in contrast to this, the non-Calvinist position being affirmed by the non-Calvinist debaters are arguing that the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ will not allow us to conclude that God chose only a few elect individuals to be eternally saved; they argue that God’s love at the cross reveals that God died for all of humanity (thus providing the way for all of humanity to come to God in Christ), and that all of humanity has the deliberative capacity and choice to be either for Christ or against him. And so this leaves us at impasse, at a debate.

This debate in many ways is unnecessary. It traffics in a binary that is ultimately not a binary at all, other than a shift in referent. If you listen to the debate you will notice that the only real obvious difference is between an emphasis upon referent, as I just noted; but the conception of God being engaged with is quite similar. Although on the non-Calvinist side we do hear of a non-decretal (or a non-decreeing God, which is laudable), God, and that God is only understood, that Scripture is only understood through God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. This is where it gets a little mossy for me, on the non-Calvinist side; Brian Zhand in particular is arguing from straight Karl Barth[ian] themes. What would have been fruitful though, at least in my view, would have been if he had explicitly provided the alternative understanding of election and reprobation that Karl Barth advocated for, and indeed imaginatively explicated through his magisterial works and writing. In other words, what would have made this debate more about a genuinely theological and material difference instead of one about shifting referent (i.e. a debate on free-will or God’s sovereignty), would have been if Zhand cashed in on, and pressed Barth’s Christ-concentrated conception of double election.

If I was in this debate, as an evangelical Calvinist, that is exactly how I would have proceeded. I would have cleared the ground, introduced my hermeneutical approach (dialectical versus analytical, analogy of faith versus an analogy of being [which is what the Calvinists are arguing from]), and proceeded to show how Christ in his vicarious humanity is both the electing God (predestination), and the elected human[ity], and in his election to be human for us, he took our reprobation, thus by his poverty for us making us rich (II Cor. 8.9)–in classical theology this is called the mirifica commutatio, ‘the wonderful exchange.’ This is the hermeneutic, the lens, that Zhand, while right there, was skirting around (at least in the first proposition, I have not watched the second one yet).

Secondly, I would have pressed the power that hermeneutics and theological exegesis has upon our exegetical and theological conclusions. Daniel Montgomery, on the Calvinist side, made the claim of being a ‘biblicist,’ and Zhand rightfully pressed back on this; but not enough (although there were time constraints). This is a key, in order for meaningful discussion in this sphere to happen, we must must be open about our theological commitments, and understand that these commitments actually inform and even determine the way that we interpret Scripture. Zhand was hitting on this, but I think he could have done better, even in the time he had.

In closing let me quote how we as Evangelical Calvinists conceive of double election, and unconditional election; like the classic Calvinists we work through these categories, we just do so in Christ conditioned/concentrated ways. This is from one of our theses that Myk and I cowrote for our Evangelical Calvinist book:

Thesis Four

God is primarily covenantal and not contractual in his dealings with humanity.

At the heart of any theology is Theology Proper—an Evangelical Calvinist doctrine of God emphasizes the triune God of grace: the covenantal God versus any sort of contractual god as may be found in, for instance, certain forms of Roman Catholicism, Federal Calvinism, and classic Arminianism.[1]

God’s Covenant with humanity is grounded in the freedom of his Triune life which remains constant despite the twists and turns presented by human proclivities for rebellion. This resists the impulse for creating two or three “covenant’s” (per Thesis 3), which would suggest a dualism in the Godhead and thus in his interaction with humanity. It is covenant theology cast in this light that an Evangelical Calvinism adopts and from which it seeks to understand the triune God of grace as being covenantal.

Thesis Five

Election is christologically conditioned.

This follows on as a corollary from the thesis above. Christ’s work is perfect and requires no supplement, such as the faith of an individual. In forms of Classical Calvinism the subjective elements of salvation have tended to dominate its theology so that an experimental predestination (syllogismus practicus) developed and faith was separated from assurance in an unhealthy manner as Christ was separated from his work. The resultant crises of faith and assurance threw believers back onto themselves and their own works for assurance, rather than onto Christ our perfect mediator and redeemer. Christ has been sanctified, and in his sanctification he has sanctified the elect in him. Believers find their subjective sanctification in Christ’s objective work, and not the other way round. This reflects the duplex gratia Calvin made so much about and yet contemporary Reformed theology has tended to separate—through union with Christ flows the twin benefits of justification and sanctification.[2]

Thomas F. Torrance is instructive as he comments on Scottish Calvinist, John Craig’s approach to articulating what a christologically conditioned doctrine of election looks like; with a carnal and spiritual union providing its orientation:

Craig regarded election as bound up more with adoption into Christ, with union with him, and with the communion of the Spirit, than with an eternal decree. The union of people with Christ exists only within the communion of the redeemed and in the union they conjointly have with Christ the Head of the Church. . . . Union with Christ and faith are correlative, for it is through faith that we enter into union with Christ, and yet it is upon this corporate union with Christ that faith and our participation in the saving benefits or ‘graces’ of Christ rest. John Craig held that there was a twofold union which he spoke of as a “carnal union” and a “spiritual union.” By “carnal union” he referred to Christ’s union with us and our union with Christ which took place in his birth of the Spirit and in his human life through which took place in his birth of the Spirit and in his human life through which he sanctifies us. The foundation of our union with Christ, then, is that which Christ has made with us when in his Incarnation he became bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh; but through the mighty power of the Spirit all who have faith in Christ are made flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. It is only through this union, through ingrafting into Christ by faith and through communion with him in his Body and Blood, that we may share in all Christ’s benefits—outside of this union and communion there is no salvation, for Christ himself is the ground of salvation. . . . [3][4]

Thus election is grounded in a personal union with Christ through his “carnal union” with humanity in the Incarnation, and our “spiritual union” with him through his vicarious faith for us by the Holy Spirit. Christ, in this framework, is known to be the one who elects our humanity for himself; by so doing he takes our reprobation, wherein the “Great Exchange” inheres: “by his poverty we are made rich.”

I wish I could comment more, but this will have to do for now.


[1] Historical antecedents to such an approach in which a doctrine of God correctly shaped their doctrines of Christology and soteriology would include, amongst others, Richard St Victor and John Duns Scotus. For both, Theology Proper was robustly Trinitarian, thus relational, personal, and pastoral.

[2] See further in Johnson, chapter 9.

[3] Torrance, Scottish Theology, 52–3.

[4] See further in Habets, chapter 7.



8 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] refer to my last post to gain insight on the issues I am dealing with in this post (follow this […]


  2. I watched the debate last week, and I was left with wanting more. As you noted, Zhand had some really good things to say, but then he would stop too soon — leaving the impression of rhetorical skill, without the doctrinal meat. The Calvinist side rightly wanted to exegete Scripture, but they were equally thin on thinking systematically about God. There were good moments on both sides, but the whole debate suffered from a lack of focus, though I’ve seen far worse. As a result, each side played to their own strengths, as is to be expected.

    My greatest worry was with the anti-Calvinist side. Both Zhand and Fischer frequently appealed to beauty and love, which has the effect of making the Christian the arbiter of God’s works and ways. It’s not they they intended this. But, I have long believed that the Reformed (both Dordtian and Barthian) do a better job at recognizing the God we don’t understand — the God who commands the conquest of Canaan and the sacrifice of the Son. Our categories for God have to constantly be negotiated and played-off against each other, which is basically how dialectic operates. At their best, even the old Reformed scholastics could do this rather well, as Barth readily recognized throughout II.1. “Beauty” and “love” are just as dangerous as “might” and “wrath,” if they are defined apart from and (logically) prior to God’s own self-disclosure.

    By the way, I love Mark Galli’s work at CT. He’s fantastic.


    Kevin Davis

    August 31, 2014 at 10:59 am

  3. Amen, and great points to add, Kevin; esp in re to Barth’s point relative to “beauty” and “love.”


    Bobby Grow

    September 1, 2014 at 8:29 pm

  4. “…they argue that God’s love at the cross reveals that God died for all of humanity (thus providing the way for all of humanity to come to God in Christ), and that all of humanity has the deliberative capacity and choice to be either for Christ or against him.”

    It might simply be because you didn’t watch the video of Proposition 2 and that is where the bulk of their positive arguments were covered, but this is not the impression I took away from Fischer and Zahnd’s position at all. They clearly advocated God’s *Grace* as the means by which humanity can respond to God. I’m not sure where you got “deliberative capacity” from. What’s ironic is, it was Jones (Not Zahnd or Fischer) who went out of his way to address “free will,” even though he was clearly advocating Compatibilism.

    It sounds like you’re attempting to portray Zahnd and Fischer’s position as mere sentimentality. I hope I’m just misreading you.


    T. C.

    September 2, 2014 at 7:31 pm

  5. When I wrote this I hadn’t listened to the second video yet (I have now), but I definitely heard Austin Fischer in particular refer to free will and choice in regard to God’s beauty and love and our relation to that or not. But I don’t take that as the crux of their arguments against the Calvinist position that were contesting.


    Bobby Grow

    September 2, 2014 at 7:41 pm

  6. Cool, I’m glad you saw that too. Zahnd and Fischer weren’t saying anything that hasn’t already been said a billion times by Arminians over/against Calvinists.

    But, just so I’m clear (since I can’t remember ever directly asking you this before), do you reject the logic of love requiring free choice (in the Libertarian sense) a la C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity? Specifically, are you saying that you don’t agree with Fischer that God’s love entails freedom-bestowing grace toward humanity? Or, to be more pointed still, would you join Jones in advocating Compatibilism over/against Libertarianism re: “free will”?


    T. C.

    September 2, 2014 at 7:49 pm

  7. I don’t follow either, I don’t think I have to really. Check out this mega-post on why I think there is a better way based upon Barth’s so called ‘Chalcedonian Pattern’:


    Bobby Grow

    September 2, 2014 at 7:58 pm

  8. You might want to check out this whole series of posts I did on this subject (there is an index to all of the posts that I did in this series in this linked post:


    Bobby Grow

    September 2, 2014 at 8:20 pm

Comments are closed.