Miscellenies on a Doctrine of Assurance of Salvation in the Theologies of Karl Barth and John Calvin with Reference to Stephen Holmes

I am supposed to be writing a chapter in our forthcoming Evangelical Calvinism book (Volume 2) on the doctrine of assurance of salvation; and 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 young-calvinentitled: 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 he 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.

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7 Responses to Miscellenies on a Doctrine of Assurance of Salvation in the Theologies of Karl Barth and John Calvin with Reference to Stephen Holmes

  1. Rein Zeilstra says:

    It certainly is a can of worms. I do feel that Barth is closer to seeing the true place where salvation comes in than the problematic hurdles Calvin kept in place to qualify human surmise. For Barth and, I think, for Paul the gospel is first of all that what calls us into union with God and then God’s holiness and consequent justice brings about this sense of assurance that is brought about by God’s overarching righteousness and grace. So faith/ trust from God works truth and fidelity for humanity in return. Sarah Coakley similarly suggests that salvation should rather be seen as a continuation of a state of spiritual infusion where holiness becomes the lifeblood for ensuing future life in union with God’s Spirit. Calvin might even partly agree with this tweaking interpretive angle.

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  2. cal says:

    I wonder if this is one of the negative effects, a shadow, cast by the Reformation. The ‘Doctrine of Assurance’ is a kind of antithetical against the Medieval Roman sacramental-complex, but it’s still trapped within its logic, if only as something in opposition. Thus the Institution of a great Catholic Church, which tried to bring the World into its doors, is broken open. But this leads to secularized-sacraments (e.g. meditation, good works, success in life).

    So Torrance brings a return to the kind of historically minded approach vis. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. Thus Salvation is established in time, founded upon Christ’s Person, which presupposes the Work. For Torrance, this Incarnation is the building block of any kind of assurance (that’s my reading, open to dispute!).

    In my understanding, Torrance opens up the Patristics in a more radical way than Barth. Barth still regards post-Calvin Reformed categories, but guts them so that the question of assurance is nullified by a better understanding of Election. This is not detached from Incarnation, but the emphasis is different.

    Barth and Torrance get to a similar solution, but find themselves with different sets of metaphysics. Is that fair to say? Yet both are preferable to the quagmire that results immediately out of the Reformed and even Luther’s psychological concerns.

    Though, pace Holmes, I can see why Calvin’s teaching can be a comforting assurance. However one must take the psychologically posture of Fatalism. Hence why I can see why James Jordan would speak of the development of an “Islamo-Calvinism”, even as he is someone who still identifies with the Reformed.

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  3. cal says:

    Addendum:

    In case it’s not clear, “Islamo-Calvinism” is a pejorative and Jordan finds Fatalism false and terrible.

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  4. Bobby Grow says:

    Rein,

    I think Barth offers one of the best ways forward here because I think his concentrated focus on Jesus Christ and His vicarious humanity cuts the ground from under thinking about assurance of salvation at all. Assurance of salvation in my mind is not genuinely a Christian dogmatic category, but one of human psychology from below. As such, when confronted with healthy theological reality I think the orientation of how we think of assurance loses its force.

    But the problem for Calvin’s double predestination (juxtoposed with Barth’s reification of it) is that as Holmes notes Calvin does not have a positive doctrine or understanding of reprobation. So this leaves wounded souls in the absolute dark in regard to whether they are one of the elect. Of course this all springs from the problem that unconditional election brings forward. If Christ only died for certain people, then it is the task of people to determine whether they are one of those for whom Christ died. But if they are one of the eternally reprobate (if there is such a category), then how are they to really know? Calvin accentuates this problem because he leaves the question of reprobation in a passive category and thus in the recesses of God’s ultimate will hovering somewhere behind the back of Jesus, in a dark corner of God’s decretive will. That’s a labyrinth of the sort that could cause certain people to go crazy! But again this is why Barth is spot on in his critique of Calvin, and why Barth’s reformulation is so important.

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  5. Bobby Grow says:

    Cal,

    I agree that TFT and Barth have different approaches to things, and that TFT works more from a paleo approach, but TFT’s doctrine of election/reprobation is Barth’s. And I actually think election is the lynch-pin here, as is reformulated by Barth. This is why TFT’s approach is still Protestant-Reformed even if he ends up filling his articulation out with appeal to Patristic language.

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  6. Bowman Walton says:

    “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).”

    This could be an OP in its own right.

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  7. Bobby Grow says:

    Yes, it could. 🙂

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