Kevin J. Vanhoozer (KJV) has offered a chapter length critique of the evangelical Calvinism that Myk Habets and I present in our book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church. I’ve responded a bit to it in the past, and here I will again. KJV’s primary critique is that we uncritically ontologize salvation, whereas say the Apostle Paul and John Calvin do not. Vanhoozer writes, “3. As to the crucial concept “being in Christ” – the font from which all spiritual blessings flow (Eph. 1:3) – Evangelical Calvinism
ontologizes what for Paul (and Calvin) is ultimately a personal union wrought by the Holy Spirit, the giver of life (and faith).” He unpacks this further by saying,
According to Calvin (and Paul), the Holy Spirit is the bond that unites us to Christ by as it were “breathing” faith into the elect: “he unites him-self to us by the Spirit alone.” Evangelical Calvinism’s language of incarnational union conflicts with that of the New Testament at precisely this point: one is “in Christ” not by virtue of the first creation through the Logos, nor by virtue of the sheer humanity of Christ, but rather by virtue of sharing in the new creation through Spirit-enabled faith….
This obviously is a problem in the mind of Vanhoozer, but I don’t think it accurately understands our position; or at least my position. Along these same lines, Vanhoozer writes more:
“By the Spirit”: Salvation as (ontic) union with Christ
Despite what some might take to be the logic of their position, Evangelical Calvinists universally deny universalism. They also universally deny particularism: “If Christ died only for some then he would not be the Savior of the world but rather an instrument in the hands of the Father for the salvation of a chosen few.” The question, then, is how all people can be both “in” Christ in one sense (ontologically) and not in another (salvifically). John Colwell’s reminder about the way Barth handles this problem may help Evangelical Calvinists too: Barth “clearly prohibits too simplistic a relationship between the ontological definition of man as elect in Jesus Christ and the actual election of individual men.”120 He does so by distinguishing one’s objective (ontological) election in Christ from its subjective (ontic, existential) realization. On this view, the Spirit’s role is limited to opening our eyes, minds, and hearts to what is already objectively the case in Christ.
Do you see the problem that Vanhoozer is highlighting and critiquing? He thinks that we, as evangelical Calvinists, maintain that Christ objectively and substitutionarily represents all of humanity by simple virtue of just being; of just becoming human in the incarnation. But this flattens things out prematurely in my view. If what Vanhoozer is saying was accurate, then he might be onto something, but things are more fluid for us in evangelical Calvinism; we are a project on the way.
What I personally maintain is that Jesus in the incarnation surely is the ontic ground of what it means to be human coram Deo, and thus his history (as Barth develops) is human history simpliciter; but I don’t see this penetration, by God in Christ, into humanity as a strong-arm move—like what we see in the patristic physical theory of the atonement. The physical theory as described by John Anthony McGuckin is,
… The Logos descended to earth in order to teach the paths for souls to ascend once more on high. His death was an exemplary one. In patristic writing this does not mean “merely” or only exemplarist, for Origen certainly combines his pedagogical theory with sacrificial views and notions of transactional redemption. After the fourth century the Alexandrian theory witnessed in Athanasius, and later brought to a pitch by Cyril of Alexandria and the Byzantine theologians, begins to dominate Eastern patristic thought. This has been called the “physical theory” of atonement, whereby the entrance of the divine Word into the fabric and condition of the flesh so radically constitutes the humanity of the race that the mortal is rendered immortal. The image of Christ’s fleshly body (his finger or spittle, for example) becoming a divine medium of grace and power (healing the blind man or calling Lazarus back to life) is taken as a paradigm for what has happened to the humanity of all people after the transfiguration of Jesus’ own humanity. Irenaeus described it in terms of: “Out of his great love, he became what we are, so that we might become what he is” (Adversus haereses 5 praef.). And Athanasius repeated it more succinctly: “He [the Logos] became human that humans might become God” (De incarnation 54). After the fourth century the theory of deification (theopoiesis) dominated the Byzantine religious imagination….
While patristic theology is deeply informing and attendant to what we are about in evangelical Calvinism, we do not uncritically appropriate some of these apparent implications or aspects of patristic theology. Because this is important to get a handle on, particularly in light of Vanhoozer’s misreading of us, let’s look at how Myk Habets responds to the ‘physical theory’ charge as he distinguishes Thomas Torrance’s conception of this (and thus the evangelical Calvinist’s) from the patristic:
Beyond a physical theory of redemption. Given Torrance’s stress on incarnational redemption it will pay us to return to the mistaken charge that Torrance presents a physical theory of redemption. Like Athanasius, Torrance understands the uniting of the divine Logos and human nature in the one person of the Son (hypostatic union) to divinise human nature. If this same process were applied to men and women generally, it would amount to a ‘physical theory’ of redemption. However, according to the way in which Torrance adopts patristic theology, the physical theory, mistakenly first put forward by Irenaeus, is not what is in mind.
According to the physical theory of theosis human nature is immortalised (aphtharsia) and thus divinised by the fact of the ultimate contact that the incarnation establishes between it and the divine nature of the Word. This would make human beings indistinguishable from God and deification would be automatic. At the very least a strict adherence to a physical theory of the atonement postulates deification by contact. In place of a physical theory whereby ‘deification’ or theosis occurs automatically or naturally within human persons, Torrance presents an ontological theory of incarnational redemption, as we have seen. This ontological atonement, mediation, or redemption forms the first stage of theosis proper in Torrance’s theology, characterised by the theopoiesis of Christ’s own human nature. As Torrance articulates it:
[Christ] had come, Son of God incarnate as Son of man, in order to get to grips with the powers of darkness and defeat them, but he had been sent to do that not through the manipulation of social, political or economic power-structures, but by striking beneath them all into the ontological depths of Israel’s existence where man, and Israel representing all mankind, had become estranged from God, and there within those ontological depths of human being to forge a bond of union and communion between man and God in himself which can never be undone.
At the cross God meets, suffers, and triumphs over the enmity entrenched in human existence once and for all in Jesus Christ. Ontological atonement has been achieved in the incarnate life and death of the Son of God, confirmed in the resurrection from the empty tomb, and in the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost.
The human life of Christ contains redemptive value in the sense that it completes the efficacy of the incarnation. For full redemption and reconciliation to occur the incarnate Logos assumed our natural – fallen – human condition in order to divinise the human life in its various stages. That is to say ‘he lived it personally’. This does not imply that Torrance’s conception of the matter has any form of mechanical theosis for men and women, the physical theory simpliciter. There are processes or stages to be followed by which human beings in general may be ‘deified’, including the sacraments and the Christian life. This will be considered later in the study. Before that, Torrance constructs the basis for theosis to occur; it must first of all be a reality in the life of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. The work of theosis is supremely the work of Christ (and the Holy Spirit), to whom the initiative goes completely.
What Myk, and Torrance, rightly develop is a differentiation between Christ’s humanity as his (enhypostatic) humanity, while at the same time maintaining that what Christ has done as archetypal humanity in his assumed humanity pro nobis (for us) is accomplish, de jure, salvation and reconciliation with God all the way down. For evangelical Calvinists Jesus Christ in his unio personalis is who he is in relation to God by nature; and yet his assumption of humanity is an expression of God’s grace for us. Even though our humanity is what is, before God, and even though we embrace our full humanity in Christ, it is only by grace, it is not by nature. In other words, we do not conflate nature and person, as Vanhoozer claims we do, but instead we see Jesus’s humanity as the objective ground of what it means for all humanity to be truly human before God. In other words, contrary to what Vanhoozer writes, along with Paul and Calvin, we do affirm the need for personal faith for someone to fully participate in the humanity of God in Christ (e.g. it is not automatic in the incarnation), and thus experience the full benefits of reconciliation and salvation with God in Christ. It is just that evangelical Calvinists believe that all that is required for humans to be “saved” or ‘justified’ has already happened fully in Christ (which is not discordant from Calvin’s duplex gratia and unio cum Christo theology).
In brief, we do not hold to the physical theory of the atonement as Vanhoozer mistakenly presumes about us. He seems to think, as we’ve been noting, that by virtue of the eternal Logos becoming human, that we believe that justification/salvation is both objectively and subjectively accomplished—so the physical theory—for all of humanity ipso facto; which is why Vanhoozer is so baffled by the fact that we reject universalism.
I was going to explain how we can hold what we hold, and at the same time not affirm universalism. If we reject the physical theory—which hopefully this post has laid to rest—then how do we think it possible for only some people to affirm their election in Jesus Christ, and not all? What place do we have in our theology for the person and work of the Holy Spirit in transitioning us from our unbelieving states into believing states; and how does what has already happened in Jesus’s humanity work its way into ours? Since this post has run too long already, I will answer this question in the next post (so a mini-series). Stay tuned.
 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism),” in Benjamin E. Reynolds, Brian Lugioyo, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer eds., Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars (Germany: Mohr Siebeck).
 John McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 38-39.
 Myk Habets, Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2009), 57-58.