Classical and Neo-Classical Understandings of Assurance and Reprobation in Discussion

I am supposed to be writing a chapter in our forthcoming Evangelical Calvinism book (Volume 2) on the doctrine of assurance of salvation; confessionaland I am, it is just a very slow process. The rest of this post will engage with this ‘doctrine’ embedded as it is in a discussion about Calvin’s understanding of election and reprobation vis-à-vis Barth’s.

Stephen R. Holmes (or Steve Holmes as I know him on Facebook) has written a little book entitled Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology. One of the chapters in his book is entitled: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Reprobation. As he himself notes this particular chapter is less about Barth’s doctrine (although it is), and more about developing a history for a Reformed understanding of election/reprobation and how that relates latterly to a doctrine of assurance of salvation (or not). As Holmes develops his material he focuses in on, as I noted above, on John Calvin and his doctrine of election. Holmes concludes, in summary, that Calvin’s doctrine of election (as, in general, that of all of the prominent voices in Post-Reformed orthodoxy) ultimately fails in providing assurance of salvation because Calvin does not really have a robust place for reprobation in his theology; with the result that reprobation remains ‘Christless,’ that it does indeed remain in the dark recesses of God’s remote will as it were. Beyond this, what Holmes sees as problematic, especially in providing the kind of assurance of salvation that Calvin wanted to provide for his parishioners, was that Calvin had an idea of ‘temporary faith’ (the idea that people could look like they have a genuine effectual saving faith, but in the final analysis it only ‘appeared’ that way, in the end they really weren’t one of the elect of Christ) in his broader doctrine of salvation. When coupled with a doctrine of reprobation that remains in the darkness of God’s remote or secret will, it becomes apparent why Holmes believes Calvin’s doctrine[s] here fail.

An Aside: I think that most of what we are discussing in this post is pretty much lost on most people in the church of Jesus Christ today. The irony, though, is that the grammar of salvation that people appeal to on a daily basis (particularly evangelicals in North America and in the rest of the Western world) finds its context and meaning in the type of “abstract” discussion we are engaging with in this post. I really have hardly any hope that the people that I would like to read this most will ever read or consider such things. So I guess this means I am just writing this for you, dear reader. And if not you, and even if for you, I write this as an act of worship unto God (if I don’t do that, then I feel as if writing and contemplating such things in such a small corner of the vast ocean of the internet would almost seem meaningless … hopefully the elect angels might read this).

So Steve Holmes has written this (and he has written more, and what he has written does actually end up being much more on the classical side of Calvin rather than the neo-classical side of Barth) in regard to Calvin’s flawed doctrine of election and reprobation as opposed to Barth’s more robust offering.

Barth’s great concern in treating the doctrine of election is that it should be gospel – good news. He begins with the programmatic assertion ‘The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or hear it is the best …’ Given this, a rapid way to an idea, at least, of what separated Barth from the Reformed tradition might be attained by asking what prevented previous Reformed accounts from fulfilling this laudable aim. Why, for instance, did Calvin’s presentation of election, certainly intended to offer assurance of salvation to worried believers, not succeed?

Well, the point at which Calvin appears to engage in special pleading in his attempt to give assurance to believers is when speaks of ‘temporary faith’ (III.24.7-9). Those with this ‘temporary faith’, according to Calvin, ‘never cleaved to Christ with the heartfelt trust in which the certainty of election has, I say, been established for us’. They may indeed ‘have signs of a call that are similar to those of the elect’, but lack ‘the sure establishment of election’ (III.24.7). Such phrases achieve the very opposite of their intention, however, suggesting that there is something that masquerades as true faith, but is not. How can any believer know whether he or she feels a ‘sure establishment’ or whether it is merely ‘signs of a call similar to those of the elect’? The invitation for years of morbid introspection by later believers is surely here–at this point, with these phrases in my ears, that I cannot be sure of my own salvation. There is no assurance, and so the doctrine fails to be gospel, instead informing me that there is a way of being, indistinguishable (to those living it at least) from Christian being, which is nonetheless supremely dangerous. The weakness in Calvin’s account of predestination, I suggest, is that the doctrine of reprobation is detached. Christless and hidden in the unsearchable purposes of God. As such it bears no comparison with the doctrine of election, but remains something less than a Christian doctrine. There is, in Calvin’s account, a fundamental difference between election and reprobation. Contra Barth, Calvin’s failure is not that he teaches a symmetrical double decree (Barth speaks of ‘the classical doctrine with its opposing categories of “elect” and “reprobate”’), but that he has almost no room for the doctrine of reprobation in his account.

This difference, this asymmetry, is ‘a very amiable fault’; it gives insight into Calvin the pastor, whose heart and mind were full of the glories of God’s gift of salvation in Christ–so different from the caricature often painted. Calvin’s doctrine fails not because of a double decree, because the ‘No’ is equal to the ‘Yes’, but because the ‘No’ does not really enter his thinking. It is a logical result of the ‘Yes’, and necessary for the ‘Yes’ truly to be ‘Yes’, but, whereas election is bound up in his theology, it is the very fact that he is seemingly not interested in reprobation, that he has not brought it within the Trinitarian scope of his system, that makes it such a weak point. That is to say, Calvin’s doctrine fails to be gospel, is not ‘of all words … the best’, because he gives no doctrinal content to his account of reprobation and hence has no meaningful symmetry between the two decrees.[1]

For Holmes Calvin’s doctrine of reprobation fails because he really doesn’t have a ‘positive’ one at all in his theology. As a result (as noted) when coupled with a conception of ‘temporary faith’ it becomes clear why folks submitted to this theology (especially as it blossomed in Puritan theologies), within ecclesiopolitical contexts where ‘normal public life’ and ‘special private religious life’ were one and the same, why folks struggled desperately with assurance of salvation. They might have wondered (and did): “Am I one of the elect or reprobate?” “Do I have a temporary faith, or real ‘effectual’ saving faith; do I just appear to be one of the elect of Christ, or do I fall into the abyss of reprobation?” These seem to be honest indicators of how Calvin’s theology of reprobation and assurance failed. Barth didn’t have this problem (we will have to leave this for another day).

All of this begs the question though: If a properly conceived doctrine of election/reprobation can be presented (and I think it can be as evinced in the theology of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance), do we even end up with a theological category known as “assurance of salvation” (as a corollary of ‘reprobation’)? I would say the answer to this question is No! Assurance of salvation only becomes a psychological category and fall-out for folks if the premises that funded Calvin’s thought (for example) on the subject of predestination are taken seriously and to its logical conclusion (as evinced in later Federal theology and experimental predestinarianism, so called). In other words, and ironically, I believe that ‘assurance of salvation’ as a doctrine should be a non-doctrine, and that any angst associated with it (insofar as it points weary souls back to themselves rather than to Christ alone) ought to be thrown into the abyss where it (as a teaching) ought to experience eternal conscious torment.

[1] Stephen R. Holmes, Listening To The Past: The Place Of Tradition In Theology (UK/Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster Press/Baker Academic, 2002), 129-30.


13 thoughts on “Classical and Neo-Classical Understandings of Assurance and Reprobation in Discussion

  1. How might a fuller view of reprobation induce an assurance of salvation that is not only plausible, but credible. “My salvation is assured. You see that reprobate over there? Thank God, I am nothing like him.” On the face of it, this is not a solution but a problem. Steve Holmes must have something else in mind, but I have not yet understood what.


  2. Nor do I quite see why ‘temporary faith’ per se poses a problem for Calvin’s non-believer. On Sunday, Fred believed; he had assurance; he was happy. On Monday, Fred did not believe; he had no assurance, but he had been baptized and communicated, and God does not lie; he was still happy. On Tuesday, Fred lost his faith altogether; he had no assurance, but he also had no problem and no pastor; he was still happy. What problem was Calvin really trying to solve with ‘assurance’?


  3. George Fox had a positive doctrine of reprobation. Like everyone she knew, Sally went to hear the choir in church and the screams in public executions; she was a shallow woman following shallow custom; she was not reprobate. Then Sally’s thoughts were disrupted by a pleasant impulse to dissociate herself from artifice and cruelty that opposed her habitual desire to hear choirs and screams. Sally wholeheartedly chose the habit over the pleasure. The pleasure was from Christ; it never returned; she was reprobate forever.


  4. I’m referring to certain theological categories Bowman. The practical syllogism, divine pactum, the golden Chaine, precisianism, etc. The problems that this produced is well documented.


  5. Brother Spiro climbed the rocks to find his geronta, the hermit Phred. “What are your thoughts telling you, my son?” “My thoughts are telling me that God has forsaken me,” said Spiro. “Then He has blessed you with the suffering of our Lord on the Cross. His work in you has never been more clear; your salvation has never been more sure.”


  6. Yes, Bobby, your post was as clear as its referenda allow, and I see no disagreement between us. Quite the contrary. The outworking through later time of Calvin’s speculation is well-known history. Calvin’s search for gospel hope in St Paul’s predestinarian passages was and is reasonable, but meeting ‘temporary faith’ with ‘assurance’ seems not to be its end.

    Turning to Calvin and his predecessors, it is less clear, at least to me, which prior commitments constrained him to advance that problem-solution pair rather than others, and in what way those commitments so constrained him. Faced with Brother Spiro, Pastor Calvin could have emphasized the comfort of the sacraments (Fred on Monday; eg Luther throwing inkpots at devils in the Wartburg shouting “Baptismus sum!”), or he could have interpreted Spiro’s dysphoria as an event within the believer’s union with Christ (Phred; eg St John of the Cross on the ‘dark night’ of Carmelite nuns). Calvin probably had the theological resources to support either of these alternate pastoral strategies, but he did not use them. Why not? Was Calvin inhibited by something we might see as Western (eg no Maximian concept of ‘gnomic will’), Humanist (eg a theory of emotions), Reformed’ (eg dematerialization of grace, avoidance of ecclesial mediation), or peculiar to Calvin himself (eg the influence of St Bernard)? Identifying those commitments as Calvin knew them in C16 Geneva might not shed new light on later ‘Calvinism’ (eg Janice Knight’s C17 ‘orthodoxies in Massachusetts’), but it still seems propadeutic to detecting Calvin’s exegetical choices, which we might compare to the somewhat different ones viable for us today.

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  7. So what I’m curious about is the role of people who think themselves believers and affirm the Gospel with the mouth but live blatantly as though they had never even heard of Christ? Or of people who get deeply involved in the faith for a time, and then completely abandon it? How are we to understand such people? What are they, for lack of a better way to phrase the question? Are they to be reckoned believers, unbelievers, or something else? Do we expect (inasmuch as any such expectation is valid) for such people to experience eternal felicity or eternal conscious torment?
    None of this is, by the way, a critique of anything said here, more of an exploration.


  8. Blessings, Caleb. “How are we to understand such people?” Answer: we cannot understand them at all; their pastors, if any, discern their status provisionally; Christ determines it eternally. The Holy Spirit integrates the inner salvation of individuals into their outer participation in the visible Body that, as a sign of the Kingdom, is itself his part of the salvation of the world (Rm 8). This integration is implicit in the inspired language of union in Christ, which compasses both persons and congregations, and never pits a gnostic interiority against a material ecclesiality.*

    So far as those in Christ are concerned about their status, the visible Body determines it. Persons inside that visibility presumptively are whatever their churches say that they are (Mt 18:18, Jn 20:23)– struggling sinners, holy fools, excommunicate souls, hidden saints, whatever. By default, those outside of that visibility are materially outside of Christ and so beyond our further knowledge in this aeon. Even though we confess that Christ himself both can and will second guess such determinations when he comes, we have no soul-scanning faculty, no theological need, no supernatural gift, and no authority from God to do so ourselves. We cannot scan the souls of our fellow sinners and classify them, as one might net and pin individual butterflies for sport, because no episteme has been given to us in which we might do it.

    What we should “explore”– and that passionately– is what ecclesial bodies really are the material visibility of the Body that, as a sign of the Kingdom, is itself part of the salvation of the world. The Brand X theology that Bobby corrects in post after post has long inhibited evangelicals from considering the materiality of the Body with due seriousness. The tide appears to have begun to change, but the C21 discussion that we need has not quite begun. When it does, an assessment of C20 moralism will surely be a part of it.

    * Brannon Ellis reviews the case for this in his contribution to Kelly Kapic (2014) Sanctification.

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  9. Caleb,

    Honestly, I don’t think that is our place (cf. I Cor 4). God alone knows the heart. If professes Christ and yet their lifestyles seem blatantly opposed or in contradiction to that profession, then I think all we can do is treat them as brothers and sisters and encourage them to repent (I actually had a situation like this once with a guy I worked with, and approaching it in sensitivity I was able to explain to him my position in relation to him as a brother in Christ, and that it would be un-loving if I said nothing to him about the apparent contradiction). But again, ultimately, none of us can ever truly know someone’s eternal destiny (at least on the negative side of things). I just think we keep bearing witness to Christ among our brothers and sisters, and pray that God works in the hearts of people who might be going through a season of time in their walks or non-walks with Christ where they simply need to be gently held accountable and pointed to Christ (as much as possible).

    But I see your question as quite different than what Calvin and the later Puritan Precisianism was on about.


  10. Bowman,

    I don’t know why Calvin choose to go the way he did in regard to temporary faith and assurance. You’re right, he didn’t have to even in his conceptual context, and could have avoided that kind of dilemma, but he didn’t.

    But, I don’t let such errors hinder me from gleaning from the good stuff that Calvin did have to offer the body of Christ (among his many flaws) 🙂 .


  11. Yes, Bobby, speaking of Calvin (or Luther or Maximus or…), “the good stuff that [he does] have to offer the body of Christ” is exactly the right focus. Since “the good stuff” that we need is not what the C16-17 or C18-20 needed, we quite rightly make our own lists now. Read that way– as living thought rather than as inscription on white marble guarded by soldiers and pots of flowers– what past generations have taken as flaws may turn out to be pretty good stuff, and what they saw as sublime truths may seem to us to have been badly misunderstood. For example, Calvin’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit was long read uncritically as enabling a pious modern project of dematerializing the divine. Today, that project seems like apostate surrender to the Epicureanism of later centuries, and we are apt to re-read in Calvin as instead envisioning God’s presence in a new and maybe better way. But to read him in that way is to read him as saying something new that only becomes clear with some critical engagement. So Luther and Calvin do stand behind their streams of confessions, up to a point, but they also transcend those confessions in ways that adherents of Brand X have found difficult to accept. In the end, we read any of it to return to the Word with fresh eyes.


  12. Yeah, I would say Partee and Zachman offer some of the better treatments of Calvin’s and Luther’s theology for today; and from a historical and retrieval vantage point.


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