Sola Gratia, Sola Fide in an Evangelical Calvinist-Torrancean Frame: In Distinction from Classical Federal Theology

Some people might wonder how Evangelical Calvinism in any meaningful way could ever be considered Reformed. I mean EC repudiates classical Federal theology, and does not endorse the theology codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith; so people are immediately suspicious of any mood or train of thought that would assert a kind of self-profess Reformed allegiance (relative to theological commitments), but then reject what is so understood as definitive of what it currently means to be a Reformed Christian in the 21st century.

The following quote from Evangelical Calvinist, par excellence, Thomas F. Torrance should illustrate, for anyone who is suspicious, how EC can claim to be Reformed. Here we meet up with Torrance as he is discussing what faith alone by grace alone means in a very EC and Christ concentrated key. He writes:

It is first to last salvation by grace alone — even our faith is not  of ourselves for it is a gift of God — salvation for humanity, among men and women and within them, but a salvation grounded on an immediate act of God himself, and not on both God and man. We are saved by faith, but faith is the empty vessel (as Calvin called it) that receives Christ, faith so to speak is the empty womb through which Christ comes to dwell in our hearts. Faith as our reception of Christ, our capacity for Christ is itself a gift of grace. It is not a creation out of nothing,  however, but a creation out of man, out of the human sphere of our choices and decisions, capacities and possibilities, a creation out of our full humanity but a creation of God — and therefore faith is something that is far beyond all human possibilities and capacities. It is grounded beyond itself in the act of God. In faith we are opened up from above and given to receive what we ourselves are incapable of receiving in and by ourselves. Faith is not therefore the product of our human capacities or insights or abilities. The relation between faith and the Christ received by faith is the Holy Spirit: conceptus de Spiritu Sancto. Just as Jesus was conceived by the Spirit so we cannot say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. It is by the operation of the Spirit that we receive the Word of God which is ingrafted into our souls, and, as it were, conceive the truth in our hearts and minds. We do not bring Christ in by our own power, by our own decision or choice, nor do we make Christ real to ourselves or in ourselves. How could we do that? That is entirely the work of the Holy Spirit — our part in being addressed by the Word is to hear the gracious decision that God has already taken, hear the word of the gospel that God has set his love and favour upon us, although we do not in the least deserve it. Although we have done nothing and can do nothing to bring it about, yet when he works in us what he has been pleased to do, it is ours to work it out in obedient living and faith.[1]

Sounds very unilateral on God’s part, and very Reformed in that sense. But what might not stand out (you may think there’s more context) is the absence of the absolutum decretum (absolute decree), and the Federal or Covenantal frame of the Covenant of Works (Covenant of Redemption), and Covenant of Grace. There is an absence, in Torrance’s theology of conceiving of God’s acts within a decretal framework and the style of substance metaphysics that that approach flows from. Further, even as we reflect currently, what should also stand out is how a doctrine of God is front and center in all of this; in Torrance’s treatment of sola gratia sola fide it is grounded in and within the filial and Triune relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We can see how that is informing Torrance’s development just by looking in on his work in this one quote. This is distinct from classical Reformed formulating; it is distinct, again, because it works from an immediacy relative to God and his relation to the world/creatures. He mediates himself, in Torrance’s theology, not through decrees but through his Son, Jesus Christ. This changes things; it changes the way we think about God’s character. It makes us realize that salvation is always already an adjunct of who God is, and that who he is as Triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love. It deemphasizes any kind of law based approach to God; any kind of performance based conception of salvation; and negates any type of quid pro quo construct which Federal theology emphasizes (through its conditio/promissio/confessio construct within the structure of the covenant or pactum between God and humanity itself).

Conclusion

Hopefully how Evangelical Calvinism can claim to be Reformed is seen through TF Torrance’s development of sola gratia sola fide; and yet how we are also distinct in regard to the filial emphasis we think from relative to the way we are grounded in the Triune life of God as the grammar of theological theology is noticed as well.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 102.

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One Response to Sola Gratia, Sola Fide in an Evangelical Calvinist-Torrancean Frame: In Distinction from Classical Federal Theology

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