In Response to Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Critique of evangelical Calvinism: No We Don’t Hold to Ontological Union Alone

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
kingjamesonlyontologizes what for Paul (and Calvin) is ultimately a personal union wrought by the Holy Spirit, the giver of life (and faith).”[1]
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….[2]

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.[3]

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….[4]

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.[5]

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.


[1] 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).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] John McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 38-39.

[5] Myk Habets, Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2009), 57-58.

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10 Responses to In Response to Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Critique of evangelical Calvinism: No We Don’t Hold to Ontological Union Alone

  1. Pingback: In Response to Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Critique of evangelical Calvinism: No We Don’t Hold to the Physical Theory of Atonement — The Evangelical Calvinist | Talmidimblogging

  2. Kevin Vanhoozer says:


    Thanks for this interaction. However, for the record, I don’t say evangelical Calvinists hold to a physical view of union, so your title is somewhat misleading. I say that you focus on the union as something ontological, a matter of (human) nature, rather than on whether or not an individual person has faith, which is what I see Paul and Calvin stressing.

    Kevin Vanhoozer


  3. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Thank you for looking past the bloggy aspects of this post 🙂 and for interacting. I can see how I over-read you a bit; maybe I’ll have to re-title it. But I don’t see how focusing on the ontological precludes an equal focus on the faith of Christ; and then on the faith of individual people after and in and from Christ. That’s the point I am intending to clarify a bit in my follow up post. It will still be bloggy interaction, meaning I have found something in my current reading (on Barth) that I think addresses the issue of faith that you bring up. I don’t think, of course, it will answer things the way you’d like–probably–but it will be an attempt to respond to your concern nonetheless.

    Having said that, I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with focusing on theo-logic that could be present in Paul et al; and then trying to un-pack. I think we do the same thing as the mind of the church developed a grammar for the doctrine of the Trinity.

    Are you concerned that TFT, and so us, have engaged in an over-hellenization of Scripture?


  4. Bobby Grow says:

    And by the way, Professor Vanhoozer,

    I am humbled that you replied to my little blog post. I also appreciate that you took the time to take what we are communicating as a serious proposal and something worth pushing back at and critiquing. Pax Christi


  5. Kevin Vanhoozer says:


    It’s always good to have dialogue rather than mere debate! I work hard to understand my interlocutors, but I realize I probably have theological astigmatisms despite my best efforts. I’ve also come to believe the old adage that people are more likely to be right in what they affirm than in what they deny, probably because they’ve experienced what they affirm and not (yet) what they deny. No doubt this holds true for me too.

    Yes, we’re all trying to say in our own words what we hear Paul and others saying in Scripture, or what we’ve heard theologians like TFT saying about what they have heard in Scripture. The main pushback I have is that in TFT there seems to be (sometimes) a conflation of person/nature, such that Jesus’ human nature is doing all the soteriological work, including believing on our behalf.

    I suppose my lingering question is this: if the Incarnation means that the all humans are elect (because the Son assumes/elects human nature), and if the atoning work of Christ benefits all human beings, and if Jesus’ vicarious humanity includes his faith on my behalf, then it would seem that his saving work is sufficient for all.

    The usual response at this point is that I am imposing a Western logico-causal framework onto the discussion, whereas I’m only trying to think clearly!

    I’m glad you receive my comments in the spirit they were intended, namely, to engage what I take to be a serious attempt to reform the Reformed tradition, an attempt that merits serious attention.

    Yours in Christ,


  6. Hi Dr. Vanhoozer,

    I have a question for you, but first a bit of introduction so you know where I’m coming from. First let me say that I am highly appreciative of and have benefited immensely from your work, for which I would like to thank you. I, however, am on board theologically with Bobby here. I have started my own blog ( where I dedicate many posts to working out the Evangelical Calvinist perspective on various topics, and I hope to begin study under Myk Habets (possibly as soon as next year) pursuing a PhD in TFT’s theology.

    So as I ponder your lingering question, I am wondering how you would respond to the TFT’s statement that “all of grace does not mean none of man but all of man”? What is underwriting this statement, of course, is TFT’s commitment to conform theological thinking not so much to logic in general (whether the infamous ‘logico-causal’ logic or something else) but rather the unique theo-logic that obtains from historic reflection on the nature of the incarnation itself, specifically in relation to the anhypostatic-enhypostatic couplet to which TFT often appealed as providing the “logic of grace”. Having read your essay to which Bobby is responding, I am aware that you consider (or considered at the time of writing) this to be “a somewhat desperate incarnational analogy”. In the essay, however, it doesn’t seem as though you provide a rationale for why you dismiss this move as “somewhat desperate”, and I’m wondering if the solution to your lingering question does not reside in this very analogy?

    As an aside (and admittedly as a bit of a shameless plug), I have the intention of offering a response (or two) to your essay on my own blog in the coming days, and I would be both curious and honored to receive feedback as you have given Bobby here.

    God bless,
    Jonathan Kleis


  7. Bobby Grow says:


    Thank you, and having a dialogue partner like you is a gift indeed!

    I have inhabited the theo-logic of your “side” ever before I had thought of something like evangelical Calvinism; or better, been introduced to Barth and Torrance. I understand your point about affirmation and denial, but I don’t think that’s the stumbling block for me in this instance.

    I am going to now respond to your lingering question (which you develop so well in your chapter), in a blog post. Maybe instead of saying that you are imposing a Western logico-causal framework onto this, maybe it would be better to say that you are reading things more Augustinianly than we are; more soteriologically driven than we are. Maybe evangelical Calvinists would rather start with a doctrine of God whereas Augustinians would rather start with a doctrine of salvation/anthropology. Not meaning that either approach is neglecting the other, but simply by way of emphasis.

    Yes, semper reformanda, I wish, was more at the forefront of much of Reformed theology than it is. As I’ve often lamented I think repristination is instead more of the approach that characterizes North American Reformed theology today–particularly in its popular instances.



  8. Pingback: Another Response to Kevin Vanhoozer: Reformed Theology, the Genus — Evangelical Calvinism and Classical Calvinism, the Species | The Evangelical Calvinist

  9. Bobby Grow says:


    Here’s my next response post to you (it’s rather long for a blog post), and you’ll probably see it as simply doubling down. But that’s not necessarily my intention, per se 🙂 .


  10. Pingback: On Lingering Questions and the Nature of Theology | Reformissio

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