Responding to a Sleight in Michael Allen’s Book, Sanctification: The Torrances and Charles Partee as Calvin Scrubs

I am continuing to read Michael Allen’s new book, Sanctification. I am going to register a little gripe in regard to what might seem nit-picky, but it bothered me; it’s a rather nerdy-editorial observation, but it says something to me—and I think that’s an intentional move by Allen. Here he is discussing John Calvin’s double grace (duplex gratia), and how Calvin fits in with other theological standouts of his time, following his time, and the post reformed orthodox theology that developed later in the 16th and 17th centuries respectively. Before we hear from Allen, in case you’re unaware, there has been no small debate about Calvin and the Calvinists, and their relationship (or not). Richard Muller has spent substantial amounts of time arguing that there is material theological continuity between Calvin’s inchoate theology (relative to what would be developed later), then, and what post reformed orthodoxy (or “Calvinism”) developed later. You can see Allen’s tip of the hat to the Mullerian argument here, and how he wants to make it appear that the opponents of Muller et al. are less than directed by primary texts in their own engagement with Calvin (which they argue that there is discontinuity between Calvin and the Calvinists). Allen writes:

There have been historiographic debates as of late regarding the way that Calvin’s theology of union with Christ is or is not similar to Luther’s, Melanchthon’s, and the Lutheran confessions’, and whether it is or is not consistently developed by later reformed theologians, such as those federal divines who prepared the Westminster Standards in the seventeenth century. Mark Garcia and others in the so-called “Gaffin School” have argued that Calvin and the Lutheran tradition offer markedly different approaches to union with Christ, and that Calvin in no way identifies justification as a cause for sanctification. James Torrance, Thomas Torrance, and Charles Partee, among others, argue that Calvin was not faithfully followed by later Calvinists, who failed to maintain his focus on union with Christ. And yet, leading scholars of Reformation and post-Reformation theology on just these doctrines—in particular, J. Todd Billings, J.V. Fesko, and Richard A. Muller—have argued at length from primary sources that both dichotomies are false. Calvin stood alongside Lutherans (like Melanchthon, in particular) in affirming the priority of justification as well as the necessity of sanctification; and Calvin’s insistence on union with Christ as the context for the double grace was developed in a faithful or continuous way by later federal theologians (and in the Westminster Standards). We do well, mindful of those debates, to look at the wider theological context of Calvin’s theology.[1]

Not so fast. Do you notice what Michael does? He stacks the deck in his favor, and sleights his opponents. In other words, as he mentions the Torrances, Partee, and some amorphous others (whoever they might be), he doesn’t actually provide any sort of bibliographic information on them; you know, so we all could go and see if this is so (what he asserts about them). He also contrasts them with his scholars who “have argued at length from primary sources,” making it appear that Partee, the Torrances, et al. are not “leading scholars” themselves. Let’s just focus on Charles Partee by himself; Partee is a true blue Calvin scholar who has written treatises on the theology of John Calvin—in other words, he is just as much a Calvin scholar as the folks that Allen appeals to (and a senior one to boot!).

As a reader, a critical one, this does not play well with me; it is far from being persuasive, for example, and makes it appear that Allen is simply appealing to the people (his). Whether or not what he is arguing, or signaling, is the case or not (in regard to Calvin and the Calvinists) is beside the point. To me it represents poor form to not give us some bibliographic information for the Torrances and Partee, while at the same time providing biblio for his privileged sources. Here’s the bibliographic information he gives us via a footnote after he brings up Billings, Fesko, and Muller:

See esp. J. Todd Billings, “The Contemporary Reception of Luther and Calvin’s Doctrine of Union with Christ: Mapping a Biblical, Catholic, and Reformational Motif,” in Calvin and Luther: The Continuing Relationship, ed. R. Ward Holder (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 158–75; as well has his larger study, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012); and J.V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517–1700) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012).[2]

And yet we don’t have a corresponding footnote for material from the Torrances, Partee, or the others that Allen refers us to. The net effect is to make the Torrances, Partee, et al. look like mere scrubs compared to the venerable sources Allen elevates as the “leading scholars.” This is at best an oversight, but since I don’t think Allen would make such an oversight, I’d have to say it’s an intentional sleight towards the Torrances, Partee, et al. All I can say is: What the?!

There is obviously some intramural banter taking place here, and Allen lets us know exactly where he lines up. It’s not surprising at this point, he’s already taken other swipes at the Torrances, The Evangelical Calvinists (like our book[s]), et al. But his form here is poor, I think. At least let people know what Partee, the Torrances, et al. have produced in their own right in regard to the scholarship in this area; and don’t make it appear that, again, they are just the scrubs who really don’t know what they’re talking about (i.e. avoid genetic fallacies, poisoning the well, and other types of fallacies).

[1] Michael Allen, Sanctification (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2017), 174.

[2] Ibid., 174-5 n16.

6 thoughts on “Responding to a Sleight in Michael Allen’s Book, Sanctification: The Torrances and Charles Partee as Calvin Scrubs

  1. I also noticed what you wrote in your current entry. I am also reading ‘Sanctification’ by Allen and have noticed he is definitely pushing his own theological position and dismissing those who disagree too lightly.

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  2. I might add this. I sympathize with your gripe. But there may be a reason why he does what he does. The older Calvin v. Calvinist scholarship is now so outmoded that its not even taken as credible in scholarship anymore. The newer scholarship is the academic consensus. Now, maybe it shouldn’t be. Perhaps the older scholarship can still make a comeback (gosh, I hope not). But the older, outmoded view doesn’t even get a footnote. That’s what scholarship does. You mention it and move on. No need to keep doing the heavy lifting that has already been done to show it is outmoded. I think for Allen to have gotten bogged down with the debates which (from his perspective) have already been settled would have been an unnecessary distraction. I wouldn’t want to read it. Why would I? I can just go back to Fesko or Muller or whoever and read that stuff. The older view is going to have to present a strong united front against the newer view if it will ever be taken serious again. And so far, I don’t see any advocate of the older Calvin v. Calvinists trying. Maybe some day in the future, but not now. Again, I appreciate your gripe, Allen could have at least provided a fn. But I also understand why he didn’t. Everyone already knows that scholarship is old news.

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  3. Jim, to suggest that Charles Partee is not a leading Calvin scholar is absurd. Consensus never establishes the truth or reality; so to simply appeal to that is to appeal to the people (in other words it’s an ad hoc insular appeal). But I wasn’t even griping about the merits of that one way or the other; Allen should have provided examples from the Torrances and Partee so people could know exactly what HE is referring to. It’s not heavy lifting to take 15 minutes to provide some biblio; it’s good scholarship to cite sources no matter what the state of affairs.

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  4. I agree Bobby. Although I respect Dr. Allen as a theologian, his failure to include references for the group which he opposed, while including references for those with whom he agreed, is an oversight (assuming the best) that shouldn’t be made. If we are to fairly engage with those with whom we disagree, we must not, whether implicitly or explicitly, communicate in such a manner that would cause the one’s hearing/reading us to fail to be fair, judicious and balanced in their hearing of others.

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