Thomas Torrance’s Scottish Theology as evangelical Calvinism: Jonathan Fraser of Brea versus Westminster

Here is a post I originally wrote in 2008; this was just before I started the original Evangelical Calvinist blog at blogger, which has since migrated over here to the WordPress location. I think what you will see in this post, early as it was in my thinking, is the continuity in themes that remain to this day in evangelical Calvinism. The post itself is a result of my reading of T.F. Torrance’s book on Scottish theology, and his focus, in particular, on the theology of Jonathan Fraser of Brea. While I would, and do say some of this stuff differently nowadays, in gist, I would say that most of what is torrancethomascovered in this post still remains the stuff of evangelical Calvinism; at least my style of it. It is this book that the language of evangelical Calvinist comes from; Torrance uses it to describe the theology of the Scots he is covering in contrast to the Federal or Westminster Calvinism he is countering in this book. For me, evangelical Calvinism took shape because of this book by T.F. Torrance; while many of the themes and motifs were already present in my own development, prior to reading this book, T.F. Torrance brought all of those together as he articulates what he does here.

I have been reading a book by T. F. Torrance called Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell, and it has been quite elucidating. How many of you realized that Scotland, and many of her theologians offered a Reformation trajectory much different from that offered, later on, by what we today know as “Reformed doctrine” articulated at Dort and in the Westminster Catechisms? In other words one of the touchstones that we have inherited as “Reformed Dogma” is the TULIP and its emphasis upon God’s decrees and logico/causal relationships (like William Perkins’ Golden Chaine represents). I.e. the emphasis upon God as the unmoved mover who has decreed all of salvation history in time and space; one of these decrees being that God elected some in eternity past, and subsequently died for only these “special” people (e.g. limited atonement). Without going into too much detail, this abstract notion of God’s nature as the divine despot who decrees all of reality in a syllogistic style was challenged by some of Scotland’s “Evangelical” “Reformed” theologians. One of these theologians was named Jonathan Fraser of Brea (1638-1698), Torrance describes Fraser’s thought on the topic of “assurance of salvation” and the “extent of the atonement” as he summarizes one of Fraser’s books:

His great book, Justifying Faith, has two main parts. 1) The main part is devoted to the ground of faith in which it is shown that it is not faith itself that justifies us but Christ in whom we have faith. The ultimate grounds of believing are ‘the Attributes of God, his Power, and Faith, Fulness and Wisdom’, but ‘the immediate grounds of believing are the gracious promises in the Gospel: But my Belief of the Truth of the Promises is founded on Christ’s Faith, Fulness, the Bottom and Pillar of all Divine Faith [“Justifying Faith 2”, p. 3]. Of particular significance here is the correlation of our faith with the faith of God and the faith of Christ—human faith derives from, rests on, and is undergirded by divine faithfulness. Great stress was laid from the outset, by Fraser, on ‘Christ’s all Sufficiency’, in that ‘He is able to save them to the uttermost, that come unto God by him [“Justifying Faith,” p. 11]’. (2) The second and longer part of Fraser’s work is called an ‘Appendix’ devoted to the object of Christ’s death. In it he shows that Christ died for all people, and not for a limited number as it was claimed in the so-called ‘covenant of redemption’ made between the Son and the Father. He rejected the distinction between a covenant of grace and a covenant of redemption [“Justifying Faith”, p. 170]—the former, as he said again and again, is absolute in its nature and universal in its extent. Throughout his book Fraser differed at crucial points sharply with Samuel Rutherford and James Durham, as also with William Twisse the Prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly, not to mention the puritan divine John Owen. But reference is made to several others like William Fenner in connection with their support for the biblical teaching that Christ died for all men. This had to do sometimes with a subtle form of Pelagianism in their understanding of faith. “It is an Error oftentimes in our Faith, that it is not built purely and only on the Grace of Christ, but we seek secretly other Props, and so to set some other thing on Christ’s room, and this is as it is derogatory to Christ, and evidence of Distrust in him [“Justifying Faith”, p. 295]’.[1]

Here we have an example of what a Reformed theologian looked like, who thought outside the constraints imposed upon scripture by Westminster. Interestingly, many today would not consider this kind of thinking “Reformed,” but this would be circular wouldn’t it? Since one would have to assume that Westminster is the ‘historic’ standard of what being Reformed actually entails, in order to deny that people like Brea and many others also represented the variegated mainstream of the burgeoning “Reformed Tradition”—I digress.

Let me highlight a few points that Brea offers in opposition to Westminster Calvinism—that is if they aren’t apparent enough—1) notice the emphasis that Brea places on Christ as the “objective” basis of salvation. This gets into issues of ontology, union with Christ, and faith as an immediate reciprocating response” from Christ and to Christ as humanity is brought into union with Him through the incarnation. 2) This leads to the  far reaching extent of the atonement, in line with scripture (I think), Brea holds to a universal atonement (objectively), thus Christ can be called the Savior of all men; and the offer of salvation genuinely made to all people.

This is all contrary to the salvation framework provided by Westminster. For Westminster assurance came from reflecting upon ‘my good works’ (Perseverance of the saints), and then reflexively (after looking at my ‘behavior’) by faith I can find assurance that I am one of those elect for whom Christ died. This is the kind of theology that Brea was writhing against, this is what he calls “Pelagianism,” since in this construct, methodologically, man is driven to self before he gets to Christ; in other words, the decree gets in the way of Christ. Not only that, but we also end up with a rather “Nestorian” outlook, relative to election, since the incarnation was not representative of all humanity but only for the “elect”—which is problematic.

It might be surmised that Brea was a universalist (that all humanity will be saved), but he was not. Instead he believed that all humanity who believed would be saved on the basis of Christ’s universal salvation—being a direct corollary of the incarnation (and its universal extent and representation). A Westminster Calvinist would say, but wait, if Christ died for all, then all will be saved. But Fraser would respond that that is only true if you are straightjacketed by the rigid logico-causal system that has shaped the articulation and thought process of Westminster/Federal Calvinism. In other words, Fraser’s Calvinism (and he was a Calvinist) had “scriptural evangelical tension” in it—something that Westminster Calvinism just can’t live with.

I am happy to say that I am Reformed in the “Evangelical way” represented by Fraser. In fact I think Fraser, and others, are the kind of fellows that Karl Barth picked up on in his thinking on soteriology. If not, the similarity is quite shocking.

[1] T. F. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 184-85.

 

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