The Evangelical Calvinist

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

Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, Against Federal Theology Side by Side

Both Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance (Barth’s best English speaking student) were against Federal or classical Covenant theology, even though both of them took the concept of foedus or covenant and reified or recasted it in such a way that Christ truly became the center on both God’s side and man’s side (and they did other stuff with covenant too, like in Barth’s innovative way he barthglassesinverted the classical Federal order of things from 1) creation, 2) covenant to 1) covenant (as regulative in regard to God’s relation to creation), 2) creation.

In the following I am going to share on Barth from Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, and on Torrance from Paul Molnar; both detailing why Barth and Torrance had serious problems with classical Federal or Reformed theology (as it came to us in a Westminster shape). First we will hear from Reeling Brouwer on Barth:

Barth writes ‘For the rest you shall enjoy Heppe’ s Locus xiii only with caution. He has left too much room for the leaven of federal theology. It was not good, when the foedus naturae was also called a foedus operum’. In Barth’ s eyes, the notion of a relationship between God and Adam as two contractual partners in which man promises to fulfil the law and God promises him life eternal in return, is a Pelagian one that should not even be applied to the homo paradisiacus. Therefore,

one has to speak of the foedus naturae in such a way that one has nothing to be ashamed of when one speaks of the foedus gratiae later on, and, conversely, that one does not have to go to the historians of religion, but rather in such a way that one can say the same things in a more detailed and powerful way in the new context of the foedus gratiae, which is determined by the contrast between sin and grace. For there is re vera only one covenant, as there is only one God. The fact that Cocceius and his followers could not and would not say this is where we should not follow them – not in the older form, and even less in the modern form.

 In this way paragraph ends as it began: the demarcation of sound theology from federal theology in its Cocceian shape is as sharp as it was before. Nevertheless, the attentive reader will notice that the category of the covenant itself is ‘rescued’ for Barth’ s own dogmatic thinking.[1]

And Paul Molnar on T.F. Torrance (I have shared this before):

Torrance’s objections to aspects of the “Westminster theology” should be seen together with his objection to “Federal Theology”. 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 torranceyoungdualism 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 theScots 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.[2]

For those of you who are interested in this kind of stuff hopefully you find this helpful to have these insights together in one post.

[1] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 112-13.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity,  181-2 fn. 165.


Written by Bobby Grow

August 28, 2015 at 10:17 pm

4 Responses

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  1. My impression of some of classical Reformed people is that when they speak of the atonement, they make seem put the emphasis on the fact that God would have been absolutely in the right to condemn all of us to Hell, but since he was so gracious and merciful, he instead sent his son to die for us. While there is nothing with wrong with that statement in of itself, the way it’s construed makes God sound more like a distant God who simply decided to save us and not the God who loved us and therefore save us.

    BTW, I still consider myself to be classical Reformed, but if I’m not careful enough I may become a Barthian myself. Considering my views on the Incarnation and how it necessitates a universal atonement, I can already see how his doctrine of election would probably fit better in my theological framework. The only bridge left would be exegetical support.



    August 29, 2015 at 8:44 am

  2. Hi Ivan,

    I’ll respond with more detail later, but if it is exegetical support you are looking for there is plenty. Although the first step towards that is for a person to realize how we all do theological exegesis; until that is admitted, until we can identify the often times foreign dogmatic theological categories we impose on scripture we won’t ever really be open to the type of theological exegesis that will yield the exegetical support you are looking for. For the evangelical Calvinist, Barth, Torrance, et al the vicarious humanity of Christ and or the homoousion does the heavy lifting in regard to providing the “rule” for biblical exegesis.


    Bobby Grow

    August 29, 2015 at 10:36 am

  3. I look forward to your more detailed response and how you read Scripture through the categories of Christ’s vicarious humanity. It did just occur to me that during the Christ’s transfiguration in Luke, the Father referred to Christ as his “chosen one” (ESV).

    Liked by 1 person


    August 31, 2015 at 6:43 pm

  4. Ivan, that’s what Christ means (ie anointed one).


    Bobby Grow

    September 4, 2015 at 9:41 pm

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