The Evangelical Calvinist

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

Jesus, the Reason for the Season. Salvation from Beginning to End. From the Patristics to Barth and Torrance.

Donald Fairbairn, Patristics theologian par excellence, has written a rich and very accessible book entitled Life In The Trinity: An Introduction To Theology With The Help Of The Church Fathers. I would highly eleisonrecommend this book to you, and even recommend it as a devotional type of book if you are interested in doing your devotions with the Trinity.

I have just recently finished reading through a section of the book that is discussing Christian salvation, and in particular, God’s action and human action in the realm of salvation. After sketching the common dilemma that has obtained in the Western branch of the Protestant church (i.e. Calvinism V Arminianism, e.g. emphasis on God’s choice or humanity’s choice in salvation – to be a bit reductionistic) in regard to salvation, Fairbairn offers an alternative that he has gleaned from his years spent with the Church Fathers. Here is what he has written:

To spell this idea out a bit more, I suggest that in our discussion of election/predestination, we should not place such priority on God’s choosing particular people that we imply he has nothing to do with those he will not ultimately save. Conversely, I suggest that we not place such priority on God’s universal desire to save that we imply that he deals exactly equally with everyone and all differences between people are due to their own responses to God (responses that God foreknows). Rather, I suggest that we place the priority on God’s eternal decision to honor his own relationship with his beloved Son and his Spirit by bringing people into that relationship. God’s eternal will was, first and foremost, a will to accomplish human redemption through the person and work of his Son and his Spirit. That eternal will included within its determination all that God ordained to happen, all that he knew would happen, all that both he and we would do. This means that when a person begins to trust in Christ or a believer prays for the salvation of others or someone proclaims the gospel, these people are privileged to share in what God has from all eternity determined that he would do. We are not merely the means by which he achieves his purpose, we are somehow privileged to be a part of the determination of that purpose, the establishment of the will of God in connection with his Son Jesus Christ. Such a way of looking at the relation between election and human action may help to ease the logjam the Western discussions of this issue have created for a millennium and a half. But even if it does not succeed in doing that, such a way of looking at the issue does place the emphasis where Scripture indicates it should lie–not on a seemingly arbitrary decree or on allegedly independent, free human action but instead on Christ the beloved Son of the Father, the one in whom we are chosen to participate.[1]

This will be too vague of an alternative for the scholastically Reformed mind among us, or even the evangelical mind. We want all of our theological “i’s” dotted and “t’s” crossed a certain way. But if a person is willing to live with some revelational dialectical tension, then what Fairbairn suggests from his reflection on the writings of the Fathers, will be resonant.

Interestingly, Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, both Western theologians (Barth is even considered ‘scholastic’ by many) would affirm Fairbairn’s suggestion; but with further nuance and development. George Hunsinger writes on Barth, this:

[…] To say that Jesus Christ is the “pioneer of faith” (Heb. 12:2), Barth suggests, is not to say that his faith is merely the exemplar of ours, but that it is the vicarious ground and source of our faith. “There is vicarious faith,” writes Barth, “… only in the form of the faith which Jesus Christ established for us all as the archegos tes pisteos (Heb. 12:2), who empowers us for our own faith, and summons us to it, even as he stands there in our stead with his faith. Through his faith, we are not only moved but liberated to believe for ourselves” (IV/4, 186). Our faith may be said to exist “as a predicate” of his in the sense that whatever is real and true “in this Subject” is the foundation for whatever is correspondingly real and true in us (cf. II/2, 539). In short, our subjective apprehension of God does not exist independently, but only insofar as its source, mediation, and ground are found in the humanity of Jesus Christ.[2]

Barth represents someone who works, as a theologian, within the domain offered by the Patristics and noticed by Fairbairn where he makes his ‘suggestions’ from. If the focal point of salvation starts with God’s Triune life, and his Revealed life in the Son, Jesus Christ, I conclude that it will sound something like Fairbairn’s suggestions and proceed something like Barth’s (as described by Hunsinger) locution.


Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father except through him! This is where the heart of God is at for us, in the Son. Salvation constructs that don’t start and end here, in the Alpha & Omega of God, in my view, are not worth their salt in theological discussion. Salvation constructs that orbit around a psychologized self, or work from the bottom up (i.e. start in a frame that is concerned about ‘my salvation’ and how it relates to God’s salvation) are not commendable. Wherever we start the discussion, is where we will end up. If we start talking about salvation in Christ, then we will end in Christ; if we start the discussion with ourselves, we will end up with ourselves.



[1] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 197-98.

[2] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 96, Nook.



Written by Bobby Grow

December 23, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Posted in Christology

15 Responses

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  1. “Rather, I suggest that we place the priority on God’s eternal decision to honor his own relationship with his beloved Son and his Spirit by bringing people into that relationship.”

    Yes. However, this placement requires the act of devoted imagination that the Whirlwind demanded of Job when he admired his creature, Leviathan. For me, that act is easiest when I think forward from the ‘First Testament’ roots of apocalyptic to the New Creation. But understandably, those thinking from the New Testament backwards into the ‘Old Testament’ torah may find themselves so preoccupied with human behavior, both good and evil, that Fairbairn’s placement feels abstract, hollow, beside the point. Eventually, the rabbis drove speculation about the One like a man (Ezekiel 1.26, Daniel 7.13) to the margins of their faith, but systematized the torah to sanctify even ordinary daily acts, while the bishops contributed little to the precise prescription of behavior, but presided over the adoration of the Son as the Logos of all that is.


    Bowman Walton

    December 23, 2014 at 1:35 pm

  2. Bowman,

    I don’t think the imagination required here is abstract from the Incarnation, but instead required of it. So it is a matter of thinking from Christ as the Revelation of God rather than thinking from him as the annex of Revelation, annexed to previous “revelation” in Torah for example. So if Christ is prime, then I think it all follows.

    Liked by 1 person

    Bobby Grow

    December 23, 2014 at 1:52 pm

  3. So, for a reformed(ish) evangelical like myself, for whom this does sound kind of vague, what would you suggest as a means of trying to “get” this? It’s so vague for me, that I don’t even feel the “dialectical tension.”

    Read more patristics? Barth? Fairbairn?



    December 23, 2014 at 2:04 pm

  4. “If the focal point of salvation starts with God’s Triune life, and his Revealed life in the Son, Jesus Christ, I conclude that it will sound something like Fairbairn’s suggestions and proceed something like Barth’s (as described by Hunsinger) locution.”

    ” So if Christ is prime, then I think it all follows.”

    Yes, Bobby, of course, and it is just this that many find imaginatively difficult, even though they would never ever wish to deny that “Christ is prime.” Whether it is the subjective eclipsing the cosmic (as you say) or the cosmic being too weakly imagined in the first place (as I do), we seem to be talking about the same difficulty of seeing election in the light of the Son. That is the difficulty of imagining oneself, not on the path from the rabbis to the pharisees, but on the path from the prophets to the apostles.

    Liked by 1 person

    Bowman Walton

    December 23, 2014 at 2:25 pm

  5. @dtkleven,

    What about this do you find vague? Knowing that might help me know what way to direct you.


    Bobby Grow

    December 23, 2014 at 2:53 pm

  6. Bowman,

    Ah, yes, okay, yeah, we seem to be talking about the same thing!


    Bobby Grow

    December 23, 2014 at 2:53 pm

  7. I hear lots of good things about Fairbairn, because he teaches here in Charlotte at Gordon-Conwell. One of our elders is attending GC and sings his praises, and my pastor has recommended this book to me. We should see if he could teach a Sunday school class or two here at Westminster. We are having Carol Kaminski from GC (Charlotte campus) teach in January. I like it when seminary professors retain these connections with the local church.

    Liked by 2 people

    Kevin Davis

    December 23, 2014 at 3:24 pm

  8. I’ll do my best. Don’t be afraid to send me off with some suggested reading, or places you’ve already posted on this.

    “Rather, I suggest that we place the priority on God’s eternal decision to honor his own relationship with his beloved Son and his Spirit by bringing people into that relationship. ”

    What exactly does “honor his own relationship with his beloved Son and his Spirit” mean? How exactly does his honor this relationship “by bringing people into that relationship”?

    Once I’ve got this, I think I can get this being an eternal decision. (haha, “get” anything predicated of God in himself, I know)

    Then, how would I “place the priority” on this when, say, reading Romans 9, or Ephesians 1, or any of the common reformed proof-texts?

    Liked by 1 person


    December 23, 2014 at 9:08 pm

  9. It has to do with vicarious humanity. That’s the key to getting this; it is placing a discussion of election into a doctrine of God and christology.


    Bobby Grow

    December 24, 2014 at 1:48 am

  10. Merry Christmas!


    Bowman Walton

    December 24, 2014 at 6:39 am

  11. Or as is said in Orthodoxy–

    Greeting: Christ is Born!
    Response: Glorify Him!


    Bowman Walton

    December 24, 2014 at 6:48 am

  12. DT and Bobby, my favorite Orthodox blogger Aidan Kimel preaches predestination like this: “You are the elect people of God. You have been chosen for eternal salvation. In Christ you are justified. In Christ you are sanctified. In Christ you are glorified. By the love of the Crucified you are predestined to the kingdom of everlasting life. Believe and rejoice!” He obviously has no trouble preaching that from Ephesians 1.

    But how might an Orthodox preacher preach Romans 9? Whether Eastern or Western, incorporationist exegeses do not press St Paul’s meditations on the fate of the Jews into the mold of an individualistic election. He was discussing the failure of some C1 Jews to return from exile and enter his kingdom, and incorporationists usually see any transhistorical reading of his memo on that problem as eisegesis. To most Reformed preachers, such exegetes may possibly be closer to what the historical St Paul was thinking about, but they are avoiding the plain implications of what he wrote. People do reject the gospel, and if we are not going to make sense of this with election language, then how are we going to do it?

    After 3 Constantinople in 681, the Orthodox stopped worrying about this because the resolution of the controversy over monothelitism presented another way. Joseph Farrell (Free Will in St Maximus the Confessor, p 217) explains– “Christ produces the permanence of everlasting being for all of human nature, but only ‘as each human hypostasis’ wills. To put this point in more ‘Calvinistic’ terms makes its implications quite clear: the resurrection is the one, universal, irreformable and ineluctable fact of all human destinies, admitting of no exceptions. However, the type or state of that resurrection, that is to say, Ever-Ill or Ever-Well Being depends upon the person. One might go so far as to say that the irresistible will of God to save all men is viewed as being fulfilled by Christ in His resurrection of all human nature to everlasting being. The ‘all’ of St. John 6:39 would thus be taken as referring to Christ’s humanity, that is, to His human nature, and not to a predestined number of human persons. It is this humanity in its fullness and perfection in Christ which is raised, and nothing is lost to it if some person wills not to be saved. Nothing has been denied to God’s sovereignty because nothing is lacking to Christ’s humanity,and yet nothing has been denied to personal human liberty either.” In St Augustine, a line of separation runs between the elect and the reprobate; in St Maximus, that line runs between human nature and individual rebellions against that human nature.

    So then back to Bobby’s OP. Evangelical Calvinism is not Eastern Orthodoxy, but T F Torrance was sensitive to the problems of separating Christ’s work from his person. If we do this, then the Maximian line of separation is hard even to imagine, because Jesus’s assumption of human nature is not given much weight. Conversely, if we see the work in relation to the person, as Torrance does, then it is the Augustinian line of separation that is counterintuitive. Getting this clear before taking up Karl Barth’s solution usually makes it easier to follow what he is doing.

    And please note that the Maximian line of separation also makes more sense of Romans 9 than the Augustinian one, quod erat demonstrandum.

    All of which is very evangelical thought for a Christmas Eve.

    Christ is born!


    Bowman Walton

    December 24, 2014 at 9:12 am

  13. Bowman:

    But, according to Maximus, has the whole world become ‘Israel’? The eschaton was envisioned as the Gentiles flooding into Israel and offering themselves and their treasures at the Temple. We see this now as happening in the inclusion of the Gentiles into Jesus’ Kingdom.


    The whole world does not believe, the whole world is not the Church, the Body of the true Israel, the Christ, the Son of God. Unless the World is Israel, then the entirety of mankind is not included in these promises prima facia, unless they are grafted on to them. The goal is for Israel to be the Priest of Creation, the vocation for all men everywhere.

    I believe, along with Gregory, that what was not assumed was not healed. There is something to the person of Christ, the Word in Flesh. But this needs to be worked out through the shadows and types of the Tanakh (i.e. Temple, Ark, King etc.), and not the weird philosophizing that Maximus engages in.

    Augustine might be off in his dichotomizing, but at least it makes sense. It’s hard to tell the difference, functionally, between some Eastern theologians and Pelagius’ arguments. The monk didn’t deny grace, he sectioned it off to the reception of the Law.

    Instead of: God has saved you, live in, and according to, it!

    I hear from Maximus: God has bought eternal life for humanity, if you don’t want to live eternally in hell start acting right!

    Which isn’t too far from: God has told you (graciously even!) what to do, now do it if you want to be saved!




    December 25, 2014 at 5:28 pm

  14. Merry Christmas, Cal 😀

    My comment was narrowly tailored to answer DT’s question about Bobby’s OP, so it is not, of course, a systematic treatment of Eastern anthropology, soteriology, etc. Quick responses after much eggnog–

    (1) Yes, I too prefer to situate ecclesiology in the eschatology of Israel.

    (2) Maximian eschatology fits Romans 8.18-23 quite comfortably.

    (3) Yes, the Church should be universal, isn’t yet, and someday will be. Is this more a problem for an incorporationist ecclesiology than for the covenantal schemes that Bobby inveighs against?

    (4) Pelagian software will not run on a Maximian operating system. If you say “I can do it all” then your gnomic will is oriented away from the Logos– obviously– and therefore toward Satan.

    (5) Justification by Christ through faith still works even if sin is rebellion against human-nature-in-communion-with-God. Why wouldn’t it? And if it does, what is the problem?

    To be clear, I am not urging the Reformed to sail to Byzantium. I do occasionally point out that ‘sola scriptura’ would seem to require a faith that is held in demonstrable independence of every prior systematician, including both St Augustine and St Maximus. Common sense would suggest that Western Christians learn from the East, and Eastern Christians from the West. For those doing the work and earning the right to their ‘sola scriptura,’ St Maximus is a particularly important guide to a large body of theology, but he is not the only one.


    Bowman Walton

    December 25, 2014 at 11:19 pm

  15. I think a hallmark of the Protestant Reformation is a theology of the Word, Barth & co. have just rightly radicalized that.

    Liked by 1 person

    Bobby Grow

    December 26, 2014 at 10:07 pm

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