If You Want to Understand How Evangelical Calvinism Differs Interpretively From Classical Calvinism Read This

In the Christian life there is a constant drum to perform, it seems. This is something that Evangelical Calvinism is intent on reorienting in and through a focus on the performance of Jesus Christ for us. The Evangelical Calvinist’s thesis is that God’s life of Triune love is the basis for everything; as such everything must be understood from God’s love for his creation/creatures. Consequently we reject the Federal (or Covenantal) hermeneutic wherein a Covenant of Works (and thus forensic/law) is the frame wherein God relates to creation. To think of God’s relationship to creation through a Covenant of Works is never ameliorated in the process of salvation history, but instead is only magnified as Jesus is seen as the keeper of the Covenant of Works par excellence in the institution of the Covenant of Grace; wherein he, by decree, meets the forensic conditions of the Covenant of Works for the elect who he will die for and subsequently live for in the resurrection. It is this schemata that veers drastically from what Evangelical Calvinists believe is the primary theme of God’s Self revelation as God who is necessarily ‘love’ because he is necessarily and eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (necessarily because that is the only way we can know him grounded in who he has revealed himself to be as Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit’s spiration).

The question might be: How does Federal theology contribute to an emphasis upon personal performance in salvation? Before answering this question I think it is important to highlight that an aspect of this critique—that I’m making—has to do with a question of Christian spirituality; i.e. the idea that there is a principled reality associate with Federal theology that results in a Christian spirituality that is necessarily performance driven. This is the reason why I make this assertion: If the focus of the atoning work of Jesus Christ is primarily to pay a juridically framed penalty for breaking God’s Law (cf. Gen. 3); and God decides to only pay the penalty for an elect few among the mass of humanity; and God in Christ only dies for these elect people; and these elect people have the possibility of having a ‘temporary faith’ that makes them appear to be one of the elect, but in the final analysis aren’t; and if the measure for determining whether they are one of the elect (i.e. seeking assurance of salvation) by observing their good works (including church membership etc.); then a performance based salvation will be the natural consequent of such a schema. We don’t often see the Young, Restless, and Reformed or even the more serious Federal theologians talking openly like this, but this remains a constant and present reality for anyone who affirms Covenant theology; for anyone who is seeking to resource (and repristinate) the old paths offered by the Post Reformed orthodox theology developed in the 16th and 17th centuries.

As we can see the whole salvific complex is implicated by this discussion, primary of which is the issue of atonement. I.e. What is the primary metaphor through which atonement ought to be framed? For the Federal theologian it is Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) theory. Subsequent to this certain Federal theologians are willing to appropriate other theories of the atonement scattered throughout the development of the history of Christian ideas, but the primary frame of reference remains PSA; and this for good and self-referential/self-consistent reason (e.g. it fits with their Covenantal hermeneutic of the Covenant of Works being regulative for their linear and progressive view of salvation history).

The Evangelical Calvinist objects to this framing of things, as has been iterated over and over again by me here at the blog. We object to this because our theory of revelation requires that we start our theologizing not with a doctrine of creation/salvation, but instead with a theory of revelation that in a theological taxis (order) logically starts with God as Grace and Mercy who has freely chosen to reveal himself, again, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; i.e. and this necessitates that we see God first and foremost as a lover ad intra (in his inner life) which is the antecedent reality of what we encounter, by the Spirit, in his ad extra (outer life) economic life revealed in the Son. In other words, the Evangelical Calvinist, because of our theory of revelation, places a premium not on the Bible as the first Word of God, but instead we place such emphasis on the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ, as the first Word of God within which the written Word of God (the Bible) has context and comes to make sense. It is because of this theory of revelation that the Evangelical Calvinist places such an emphasis on God’s self-giveness (love) for the other; because this is the co-inhering reality of his own Self-explicated life in the Son, and as corollary, as Christians in encounter with this reality we cannot understand reality any other way. This means that our hermeneutic starts in a type of Irenean (cf. Irenaeus) mode of recapitulation, of the sort we see taking place in the theologian’s Gospel, the Gospel according to John (KATA IΩANNHN). John 1:1 is a clear allusion to Genesis 1:1; the Evangelical Calvinist sees this allusion as a type for the way to read the history of salvation Christocentrically through recapitulation; viz. understanding that the original doctrine of creation finds its primal telos (purpose) in and from Jesus Christ; that Jesus Christ has always already been the way we should understand the beginning of God’s good and very good creation Καὶ τῷ ἀγγέλῳ τῆς ἐν Λαοδικείᾳ ἐκκλησίας γράψον: Τάδε λέγει ὁ Ἀμήν, ὁ μάρτυς ὁ πιστὸς καὶ ἀληθινός, ἡ ἀρχὴ τῆς κτίσεως τοῦ θεοῦ[1]. This is why the Evangelical Calvinist does not start our reading of the Bible with the book of Genesis, we start our reading from the Logos of God, and the realization that He is the ‘beginning of God’s creation,’ in the sense that he is the reason for creation; i.e. he is the basis from whence God freely elected to create and ultimately recreate in his primal council of free love (of the sort that inheres in the koinonial relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The Word of God ὁ λόγος τοῦ Θεοῦ for the Evangelical Calvinist is the principial basis for our hermeneutic, as such we don’t start our reading with a Covenant of Works, we start it with and from the reality that God’s Word in Genesis 1:1 is corollary with God’s Word in John 1:1; this results in the development of a hermeneutic where the whole of creation (protological and eschatological) is understood as Christ conditioned, and one where the performance of salvation is anchored in his life and reality for us.

Now that we have taken this rather lengthy excursus (at least relative to a blog post), how does this get us back to the question of performance in personal salvation? The answer comes when we consider that the Evangelical Calvinist has shifted their thinking from a frame that requires a forensic starting point with God vis-à-vis creation, and displaced that with starting with a God who relates to his creation as a gracious lover. If you get nothing else from this post, then understand that. Performance, in the Evangelical Calvinist frame is present in the salvation locus, but it is grounded in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ and his work for us in accomplishing salvation and reconciliation between God and humanity/humanity and God in his personal unioning of humanity with God in his mediatorial humanity. Evangelical Calvinists don’t need to posit such things as Covenant of Works, Covenant of Redemption (pactum salutis), Covenant of Grace; we see all of reality principially reduced to Jesus Christ. If we have a decree, it is Christ alone (solo Christo).

Hopefully, for those wondering, this helps, once again, to clarify how Evangelical Calvinism is distinct from Federal Calvinism, or Covenant Theology (with its more popular reduction found in the TULIP). We work from decidedly Reformed categories of thought, we simply choose to reify those through Athanasian and other patristic sources (Ad Fontes), along with medieval and classical Reformed symbols in order to develop the way we approach our tradition for reading Holy Scripture. Evangelical Calvinism is an ongoing project of resourcement that works from the best of the scholastic practice of retrieval for the 21st century Reformed church. This post intends to illustrate some of the ways we might go about that.

[1] Revelation 3:14 (KJV), “14 And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;…”


3 thoughts on “If You Want to Understand How Evangelical Calvinism Differs Interpretively From Classical Calvinism Read This

  1. Bobby,
    Are all forms of “Covenant Theology” Federalistic in nature? Or would you say that EC’s believe in the covenant, but just don’t let the concept of the covenant override Christ himself as the starting point?


  2. Geordie, I don’t think all forms of Covenant theology are necessarily Federal, per se; I think of Amyraut for example. He offers a Covenantal theology that is not Federal in the normal understanding of what that entails. That said, even Amyraut follows this type of linear/progressive understanding of salvation history; something that became the norm in Lombard’s Sentences (as far as the way he structures it).

    Personally, I believe in the Covenant the way Barth reifies it. Covenant in this sense, per Barth (as far as I understand Barth’s theology), is an important aspect but it functions from a theological proper rather than soteriological center as far as order goes. As Myk once in the past referred to this—and I think he’s right—Barth inverted the order from the usual Covenantal schema by inverting creation and covenant to covenant/creation (Barth’s order) and covenant then becomes a concept that is governed by the reality of the Triune life of grace (i.e. election) in creation rather than creation determining the shape of covenant with its attendant doctrine of the fall. So Barth’s idea of covenant of grace (God’s life) as the inner reality of which creation becomes the external expression of that.

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