Another Response to Kevin Vanhoozer: Reformed Theology, the Genus — Evangelical Calvinism and Classical Calvinism, the Species

This is a second installment to a post where I offered some more response to Kevin Vanhoozer in regard to his chapter length critique of evangelical Calvinism—you can (and should) read that post here. Graciously, Vanhoozer responded to my post in the comments section of that post (you can of course read those there). In one of his comments he succinctly summarizes his ongoing and lingering question (and problem) with evangelical Calvinism and our approach to salvation issues. Professor Vanhoozer commented:

I suppose my lingering question is this: if the Incarnation means that  all humans are elect (because the Son assumes/elects human nature), and if the atoning work of Christ benefits all human twotonecalvinbeings, 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!

This type of lingering question is not actually unique to Vanhoozer, it has been the primary push-back I have received here at the blog over the last seven years (ever since I started this particular blog). It is the type of question that is worthy of a PhD dissertation, one that maybe I’ll research and I write someday. But until then all you’re going to get are blog posts J.

In Responsio

I think the simple response to what Vanhoozer writes, particularly when it comes to his point about ‘sufficient for all’ is to say: no. No, we are not, of course, affirming of that old Peter Lombardian adage of ‘sufficient for all, efficient for the elect’ that many a Reformed has used to speak of the efficacy (or in-efficacy) of the atoning work of Christ. Since this post isn’t just intended to be a direct response to Vanhoozer, but also informative for others, let me share a description and some history on this adage of ‘sufficient for all, efficient for the elect.’ Escondido theologian, and church historian, R. Scott Clark explains it this way:

In the midst of controversy over the nature of God’s sovereignty, Godescalc of Orbais defended Augustine vigorously and suffered for it. He taught that there are two “worlds,” that which Christ has purchased with his blood and that which he has not. Thus when Scripture says that Christ died for the “world” (e.g., John 3:16) it is extensive of all those Christ has actually redeemed, but it does not include everyone who has ever lived. 18 In the same way, those passages which seem to say that Christ died for all, in all times and places must but understood to refer to all the elect. Thus he saw 1 John 2:2 not as a problem passage, but a proof-text for definite atonement.19

The Lombard’s teaching on the atonement is most famous for his use of the distinction between the sufficiency of Christ’s death and its efficiency. Though they are not familiar to many of us today, from their publication in the late 12th century until the late 16th century, Peter’s Sentences were the most important theological text in the Latin-speaking world. Theological students even earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the Sentences.

In Book 3, distinction 20 he taught that Christ’s death was “sufficient” to redeem all (quantum ad pretii) but it is “efficient” only “for the elect” (pro electis).20 This distinction, though not followed by all Western theologians after Lombard, was adopted by most until the nominalist movement (e.g., William of Ockham, d. 1347) overturned the “Old School” (via antiqua).21

In his great work, Summa Theologiae, Thomas distinguished between God’s will considered as his antecedent will, by which he could be said to have willed the salvation of all; and his will considered as consequent, i.e., what he actually decreed to exist, i.e., that only the elect would be saved and that some will be reprobated (damned).22 Later, Protestant theologians would revise this distinction to refer to his revealed and hidden will. With respect to his revealed will, God is said to desire certain things (i.e., that none should perish). It is his revealed will that we should know the existence of a hidden decree (who will be saved and who will perish) but the content of that decree is part of his hidden will.

Thomas also made it very clear that he adopted Lombard’s sufficient/efficient distinction but also taught unambiguously that Christ died effectively only for the elect.[1] 

Vanhoozer is implying since not all believe, and yet Christ died for all humanity (so EC), then it would seem that, according to Vanhoozer’s logic, that evangelical Calvinists are majoring on one half of the equation: i.e. that Christ’s death is sufficient for all, but only hypothetically efficient for the elect. But of course this is where we so disparately depart from one another; i.e. evangelical Calvinists from classical Calvinists (such as Kevin Vanhoozer).

To take this in another direction a bit I am going supply a few quotes, and provide some reflection on them in the context of this response to Vanhoozer. As Vanhoozer rightly observes the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ is the key for evangelical Calvinists. This doesn’t, at a first order level, have to do with the question Vanhoozer is concerned with in regard to his conclusion that our view leads to a ‘Christ sufficient for all’ view, but it absolutely implicates it. So, as has been cycled through over and over here at the blog, we see Jesus as both the object and subject of God’s election and reprobation; we see Jesus as archetypal humanity before God, as such we do not think of humanity in abstraction, we think it from Christ’s humanity as the imago Dei. As such redemption and reconciliation (and all that attends that) has been exhaustively realized in Jesus Christ’s humanity. George Hunsinger unpacks this reality well as he explains Barth’s thinking at this very point:

To say that Jesus Christ is the “pioneer of faith” (Heb. 12:2), Barth suggests, is not to say that his faith is merely the exemplar of ours, but that it is the vicarious ground and source of our faith. “There is vicarious faith,” writes Barth, “… only in the form of the faith which Jesus Christ established for us all as the archegos tes pisteos (Heb. 12:2), who empowers us for our own faith, and summons us to it, even as he stands there in our stead with his faith. Through his faith, we are not only moved but liberated to believe for ourselves” (IV/4, 186). Our faith may be said to exist “as a predicate” of his in the sense that whatever is real and true “in this Subject” is the foundation for whatever is correspondingly real and true in us (cf. II/2, 539). In short, our subjective apprehension of God does not exist independently, but only insofar as its source, mediation, and ground are found in the humanity of Jesus Christ.[2]

We might say that in Christ, the second Adam (the greater Adam cf. Rom. 5): what it means to be human has a brand new horizon. In other words, what it means to be human before God, is what Christ’s humanity is for us; truly the One for the all; not just sufficiently (to use the Lombardian language), but efficiently—since his humanity is the all of what it means to be genuinely human before and with God. But Vanhoozer’s issue is how does what Christ did in his vicarious humanity work its way into the rest of humanity; if this re-birth (or re-creation) has happened then how does that implicate all other humans? The answer to that question is the Holy Spirit, and by individual faith. Robert Dale Dawson does a superb job of explaining how this Spirit breathed miracle takes place in the theology of Barth; he writes:

The Miraculous Character of the Power of Transition

The power of the resurrection is, therefore, in Barth’s view, the power of the transition from Jesus Christ in himself pro nobis to human persons. Not only is the power of the resurrection active as a revelatory event, it is also clearly a miraculous power. It is not to be understood as a factor or phenomenon, albeit extraordinary and striking, in the closed nexus of world occurrence. Nevertheless, it is a definite power with a definite character, the power and character of resurrection. It is the power of God:

The power of the transition on which the New Testament counts when it looks from the basis and origin of its witness in Jesus Christ to its goal in the existence of Christians is absolutely unique as the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Barth describes the particular character of this power of transition as light, liberation, knowledge, peace and life. Summarizing, he asserts: ‘It aims at enlightened, liberated and understanding life which is at peace in all dimensions. … The power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ may be known by the fact that it snatches man upwards.’ That is to say, this power is ‘the power which proceeds from His resurrection, and He Himself as the Resurrected.’ As such, this power sows ‘a seed which is not only psychical by physical, and gives nourishment which is not only spiritual but material – a whole preservation of the whole man.’

As this miraculous power of transition, the resurrection of Jesus Christ enables human persons to live in the hope of their own resurrection and eternal life. The proof of the power of the resurrection, according to Barth, lay in the fact that it reveals the life of the man Jesus as ‘exalted to participation in the eternal life of God’ and in so doing it effectively brings the human person ‘the promise of eternal life which is given in it, making it his own, and moving him for his part to make it his own, to grasp it, to allow it to be the comfort and confidence and hope of his life as he still lives it in the shadow of death.’ No other force can bring about this miraculous result, that is, the enabling of men and women, who receive and possess the promise, ‘to live a life which already defies death, and arrests that discontinuity, and persists even in that flight through the times.’

It is on account of this miraculous power of God, says Barth, that it is both possible and actual that a human person becomes and is a Christian. The answer to our plaguing question can only be that:

deriving from Jesus Christ, i.e., His resurrection, there is a sovereignly operative power of revelation, and therefore of the transition from Him to us, of His communication with us; a power by whose working there is revealed and made known to us our own election as it has taken place in Him … and therefore the deliverance and establishment of our own being, so that our existence receives a new determination. It is by the operation of this power that we become and are Christians.

Once again, it is in his description of the particularity and definiteness of the miraculous power that Barth adds force to his argument that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is indeed the transition of reconciled human being and action in him to the remaining anthropological sphere.[3]

Whatever, then, is possible for the ‘remaining anthropological sphere’ is only so because it first became realized in the humanity of Jesus Christ for all.

Evangelical Calvinists, such as myself, are fundamentally at odds with Vanhoozer’s more classical Reformed perspective right from the starting block. In other words, we might use much of the same lexicon, but per Barth’s radical reformulation of that lexicon, insofar as evangelical Calvinists imbibe that vibe, we depart. We are much more Eastern (and even patristic) in many ways in contrast to what I would suggest is the more Western (and mediaeval) character of classical Reformed theology; the type that I think Vanhoozer is critiquing evangelical Calvinism from.

Patristic theologian par excellence, Donald Fairbairn, offers a way forward (from a patristic theological vantage point), with particular reference to the issue of predestination, extent of atonement, so on and so forth that I think the feeling of evangelical Calvinism coheres with quite well. Fairbairn writes:

To spell this idea out a bit more, I suggest that in our discussion of election/predestination, we should not place such priority on God’s choosing particular people that we imply he has nothing to do with those he will not ultimately save. Conversely, I suggest that we not place such priority on God’s universal desire to save that we imply that he deals exactly equally with everyone and all differences between people are due to their own responses to God (responses that God foreknows). Rather, I suggest that we place the priority on God’s eternal decision to honor his own relationship with his beloved Son and his Spirit by bringing people into that relationship. God’s eternal will was, first and foremost, a will to accomplish human redemption through the person and work of his Son and his Spirit. That eternal will included within its determination all that God ordained to happen, all that he knew would happen, all that both he and we would do. This means that when a person begins to trust in Christ or a believer prays for the salvation of others or someone proclaims the gospel, these people are privileged to share in what God has from all eternity determined that he would do. We are not merely the means by which he achieves his purpose, we are somehow privileged to be a part of the determination of that purpose, the establishment of the will of God in connection with his Son Jesus Christ. Such a way of looking at the relation between election and human action may help to ease the logjam the Western discussions of this issue have created for a millennium and a half. But even if it does not succeed in doing that, such a way of looking at the issue does place the emphasis where Scripture indicates it should lie–not on a seemingly arbitrary decree or on allegedly independent, free human action but instead on Christ the beloved Son of the Father, the one in whom we are chosen to participate.[4]

Along with the patristic trajectory offered by Fairbairn, along with Karl Barth’s focus, along with T.F. Torrance’s resourcefulness; evangelical Calvinists are not concerned with answering the ‘who’ question of election when that is in reference to individual people. We are not concerned with explaining a theory of causation (like classical Calvinism does with primary and secondary causation, etc.); we are content to simply attribute salvation to all that has been done in Christ, and to the work that the Holy Spirit brings to that as he miraculously creates space for all of humanity to echo in the yes of God, in Jesus Christ. This might well sound Arminian, but of course Arminianism works within the same theological and metaphysical sphere that we find funding classical Calvinism; evangelical Calvinists simply do not fit into that mold of conception or analysis.


In brief, I think at the end of the day (not to shut discussion down), evangelical Calvinism is doing something much different than classical Reformed theology. While we do have, on the negative side of things, critical points of departure from (and critique of) classical Federal theology (or Westminster Calvinism); on the other side, the positive side, we are proposing a style of Reformed theology that thinks from a wholly other starting point—from a fundamentally different hermeneutic. Does that mean we are not open for critique? No. But it does mean that the level of critique needs to be at the more formal level, I suppose. It’s hard to say that Calvin’s or the Apostle Paul’s emphasis is more this or that, when in order to say that, the informing hermeneutic helps us to reach that conclusion; i.e. in other words, it is hard to say the Apostle Paul says this or that without engaging in petitio principii, at least if that’s the basis of the critique (even if its not the only basis of critique).

Professor Vanhoozer, I very much so appreciate your willingness to interact with me, and the evangelical Calvinists. I do think it is possible, by way of mood, for us to constructively engage with each other; but at least for my money, in many ways, as I’ve been iterating over and again, we are probably different species even if within the same genus.


[1] R. Scott Clark, resource is no longer available. I originally posted this quote in this blog post.

[2] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 96, Nook.

[3] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 147-48.

[4] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 197-98.


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