“Disbelief in God’s love is the root of all evil”: Engaging With Luther’s Theology of Desire, Doctrine of Sin, and Freewill

Sin, desire, and freewill; each of these can be trigger words that often lead to intense theological debate among various parties. In this post I want to address these loci from a particular angle; the angle will have to do with salvation and theological anthropology in particular. When I was in seminary my mentor/professor, Ron Frost, introduced me to his work on what he calls Affective Theology; I’ve written of it, more than once here at the blog, and years ago wrote a very introductory post detailing what it entails in its entailments. I want to redress this ‘theology’ again, not only referring to Frost, but some insights that I’ve picked up from Paul Hinlicky and his work with Luther, Melanchthon, Leibniz, and Barth’s theology; and how his work dovetails nicely with Frost’s work in the area of Affective Theology.

In brief Frost’s Affective Theology is largely a theological anthropological endeavor that, of course, as with all theological projects, reaches back into a doctrine of God. In the main Frost’s thesis, as he focuses most pointedly on Puritan, Richard Sibbes, is to argue, from within a tripartite faculty psychology (per theological-anthropological concerns), that unlike the Thomist Intellectualist tradition, the most basic and defining component of what makes someone human is not their intellect/rationales (which is the major Western Tradition following Thomas Aquinas et al.), but instead it is their ‘affections’ or more biblically attuned, the ‘heart.’ Frost argues that this anthropology can be identified all the way back to Augustine, and then into Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventura, Gerson, Von Staupitz, Luther, Calvin, Sibbes, Cotton et al. Here is some of Frost’s work that should help the reader get a better feel for what his thesis was about. Here you see him comparing and contrasting Richard Sibbes and William Perkins; the latter representative of the more dominant Western tradition—the tradition being uncritically retrieved today by young (and many older forebears) evangelical Reformed theologians.

Some final observations may be made about the positive and privative views of sin. The two approaches differ fundamentally on the reason for sin; while man is identified as responsible for sin in both views, he tends to be portrayed more as a pliable innocent overcome by the serpent’s deceit in the privative model. It is Adam presented as inadequate, not because he was unable to fulfill the law, but, because, in his mutability as a creature, he was vulnerable to moral change. This the serpent exploited while God was willfully away. In scholastic terms, the formal cause of sin was twofold, given the double causality associated with God’s sovereignty. God, as the primary agent for all things, determined the outcome by his withdrawal. In this he was arbitrary but just. The second agent, Adam, failed to apply the grace he had available and thus was culpable for his own fall, albeit as something of a victim. In both considerations the issue of grace is pivotal in its absence. For the privative model, as seen in both Thomistic and Reformed theology, this leads to a greater emphasis on the acquisition and application of grace in hypostatized or commodity-like terms, and a tendency toward Aristotelian moralism — the establishing of one’s righteousness through righteous actions based on grace. To the degree that grace becomes an impersonal quality, the greater the impression one has that something worthy of appreciation, if not merit, is being accomplished.

The doctrine of positive sin, on the other hand, rejects any tendency to see man as a victim; Adam is always the culprit in that he willfully replaced the Creator with the creature as the object of absolute devotion. It also recognizes human mutability as a fact which allows the fall, but rejects it as a meaningful explanation. The fall, in positive sin, remains an impenetrable mystery; Adam is not portrayed as deceived and God is not portrayed as withholding grace. In the positive model sin is always a competition: Adam seeks to usurp God’s role while God confounds Adam’s autonomy.

Thus, the most important difference between the two models is found in the way God is portrayed. In the privative view, as Aquinas and Perkins have it, he remains a supplier of grace — withholding what is needed for salvation except to the elect. He even remains parsimonious to the elect but, as their efforts prevail, is increasingly generous. In the positive view, on the other hand, he is an enemy until conversion which comes by the Spirit’s direct intervention. He invites the elect to see God as he really is: righteous, strong, and loving. Conversion, in fact, is a litmus for the two views: the privative model generally adopts a catechetical process which culminates in an affirmation of faith. The positive model, while recognizing that the Spirit uses prevenient stirrings, expects a more distinct Paul-light conversion which displays the moment in which selfish autonomy melts before God’s self disclosure. For the one, nature remains very much in view; for the other, God, once unveiled by grace, dominates the scene.

The importance of the affections for Sibbes and the nomists differed in profound ways. For Sibbes the affections were both the avenue by which sin entered the world and the avenue by which God, through the Spirit, restores the fallen soul. Slavery of the will was seen to be an enslavement by one’s own desires, something broken only by transforming vision of God as more desirable than anything human autonomy offers. Perkins and the nomists, on the other hand, saw the affections as a subordinate element of the will; they also provided a suitable theology for the prominent will by adopting the Thomist privation-enablement model of sin and grace.

Perkins and the nomists thus established human responsibility as the center-theme of salvation; the moral law became the locus of the soul in the process of sanctification. The belief that the covenant of grace is essentially a legal contract shaped all spirituality into a restorative stance: life is seen as an effort to regain and sustain Adam’s original obedience through the Spirit-enabled will. This generated a Christology which emphasized the juridical work of Christ to the point that, for pastoral ministry, the purpose of restored communion was easily reduced into the preaching of moralist endeavor.

Against this view, Sibbes, in line with Augustine, emphasized the place of Christ as much more than the source of justification, but primarily as one to be loved. The promise of the indwelling Spirit, whose ministry in Christ’s life is now allocated to the Christian, gives promise of a greater hope than the nomists offered: full and eternal intimacy of the Godhead through a true, although mystical, union with Christ. The feet of the soul are the affections and the affections are meant for communion with God.[1]

Hopefully you can get a better grasp on what Frost’s theory on Affective Theology entails. I think he identifies a pivotal reality that is lost, in serious ways, when it comes to the Reformed theology being retrieved today. Frost’s is actually a retrieval of a genuinely formed Reformational (versus post-Reformational) theology, one that hearkens from Luther himself; one that has been lost to the Christian Aristotelian tradition that Richard Muller et al. is wont to emphasize as THE dye that ostensibly serves pervasive in the whole of Reformed theology in thematic ways. What Frost demonstrates is that this ‘affective theology’ was as pervasive in and among the development of post-reformation theology as was the Christian Aristotelian form that people focus on today.

Okay, Hinlicky, someone who works even more so as a constructive theologian (versus Frost who is more of a historical theologian) whose period is from the modern angle, interestingly (to me), identifies these same themes in Luther’s et al. theology as Frost gleaned from Puritan theology; the point of convergence for both of them is indeed, Martin Luther and Augustine. Hinlicky brings the discussion that I want to have, on the role of desires, loves, sin, and freewill into relief as he writes (at serious length):

What Augustine and his tradition chiefly deny, however, is that any conceivable creature, pre- or postlapsarian, has freedom of desire. This is the “popular” sense of human free-will (which Luther identified and rejected as presuming “a power of freely turning in any direction, yielding to none and subject to none”). Creaturely desire instead spontaneously and as such involuntarily seeks the good and averts from evil. Desire that sought its evil would be pathological. The creature cannot help but seek its good and assent to it, or conversely, avert from its evil. The creature is motivated by its loves. It is analytic to the creaturely state that, as Aristotle famously declared at the outset of the Nichomachean Ethics, all by nature seek the good. Being creatures, they do not, as Martin Luther put it commenting on the first article of the creed, have life in themselves such that they can ever be free from desire: “Thus we learn from this article that none of us has life — or anything else that has been mentioned or could be mentioned — from ourselves, nor can we by ourselves preserve any of them, however small and unimportant.” As long as they live, in order to live, creatures must desire what appears good to them and avert the evil; the will spontaneously desires its perceived good. If it did not, it would be sick to death. The will is bound to desire and is bound to desire. This is what is in mind, then, when this tradition speaks of the bound or enslaved will, voluntas, not arbitrium (though Luther muddles the two terms). As Jan Lindhardt has shown: “St Augustine (d. 431) determined in extension of the Platonic tradition, that a man was identical with his love. He defined love itself as concupiscentia (desire).” This yielded a view of “man more as a unity than as a creature subdivided into various departments. . . . It was not the distinction between body/soul/reason, which occupied his attention, but the direction adopted by the soul or will, or drive,” and this “was interpreted during the Renaissance as representing a completely different view of man,” “not conceived of as an active subject, but as a receptive object” taking on the form of what is loved. Luther agreed with this understanding of Augustine’s anthropology, that “a man is his love.” This is the basis for his eccentric anthropology. Any will other than God’s is a will bound to desire the good that appears to it from without; this desire becomes one’s own will (not another’s) by virtue of free choices from among the available goods that one actually, historically, biographically pursues, since a human being is free to act, or to critically refrain from action, in the face of such choices. In just this way she forms the story of her life, as patient of her own passions and agent of her own actions.[2]

To make what Hinlicky just wrote crescendo he writes further:

In running roughshod over the important differentiation between freedom of choice and freedom of desire, Luther wanted to indicate how making choices contrary to God’s will in disobedience reflects the deeper fault of a root usurpation of God’s place as Creator. The root of all evil choices is disbelief in God’s love, seeking instead by one’s own choices and actions creatively to bestow value on something by one’s own sovereign good-pleasure. Human works are never what they appear to be on the surface; they are always acts of faith or disbelief. Choices are never merely temporal decisions, but decide whether or not in faith to rest in God’s good pleasure that bestows value on oneself, precisely as patient of one’s own sufferings, maker of one’s own choices, and agent of one’s own actions. Disbelief in God’s love is the root of all evil. Thus the ontologically impossible possibility of human freedom of desire, that desire sovereignly creates the object of its desire by the triumphant assertion of its will. This usurpation no theology that upholds the ontological difference between Creator and creature can admit. Even as arrogant pride presumes this freedom, there comes a Day of the Lord to topple it from its throne. One can want to be Hitler or Stalin, one can really make this choice, one can provisionally and disastrously for self, for others, and for the cosmos act on it. But finally one cannot succeed in it. “God’s purpose in this [causing failure of the human choice to be one’s own god] is that the heavenly City, during its exile on earth, by contrasting itself with the vessels of wrath, should learn not to expect too much from the freedom of the power of choice, but should trust in the ‘hope to call upon the name of the Lord God.’” We may recall here as well Barth’s well-intended but problematic teaching that a real alternative between God and the abyss of nihilism is ontologically impossible. Unlike Barth, however, for Luther or Augustine the nihilism of human superbia is impossible because hell puts the end to evil that will not otherwise die. The wrath of the God of love forces away from His company the usurper who wants to be God and not let God be God. That finally (not until then! Rev. 20:10) is how the real evil in the world is refuted. Actual evil is the presumption of divine “power of freely turning in any direction, yielding to none and subject to none,” that is met and matched, fire met by fire, not by persuasion but with force. If there are possibilities of mercy beyond this ultimate threat, they cannot in any event be conceived apart from it, only somehow through it and beyond it. In the interim, for Augustine, the relation of human freedom to divine sovereignty is not symmetrical: “when the will turns from the good and does evil, it does so by the freedom of its own choice [i.e., a logical alternative is available], but when it turns from evil and does good, it does so only with the help of God.”[3]

There is too much to attempt to address, but let me try and emphasize the themes we started out with. We see in Hinlicky’s treatment the same sorts of themes present in Frost’s analyses of different figures. But as I highlighted earlier the common thread between Frost and Hinlicky is to focus on Luther and Augustine. What I am hoping you, the reader, are picking up is how profound the affections/desires are and were for Luther[an] theology, and how that theme never went away; even if it unfortunately became overshadowed by much of the Aristotelian formed post-reformation theology that developed latterly.

Something else I hope the reader is picking up, without me attempting to draw all the pieces together (between Frost’s and Hinlicky’s analyses) is how the way we view humanity flows from the way we view God. If God is Triune love, a God’s who being is defined by his intra-relation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, if that reality defines our “metaphysics,” if that reality is allowed to evangelize our metaphysics, then the way we develop anthropology, and our doctrines of sin/evil, so on and so forth will be radically re-oriented by this understanding of God. We see this re-orientation in what Frost and Hinlicky are offering us as they engage with Augustine, Luther, and the tradition itself. It is an emphasis that many today would make us think is fringe or non-existent; or that it reflects a revisionist understanding of the history of ecclesial ideas that isn’t totally accurate. To the contrary! There are threads in the tradition that fit much better with the idea that what stands at the center of who humans are has to do with God’s love,[4] and the human love attenuated by that love, rather than seeing people defined by their intellect; the latter coming from an understanding that sees God as the Big Brain in the sky, the Brain that relates through decrees rather than filial love by the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ.

There is more to say, more technical things to get into and unpack. But let’s what I’ve offered from Frost and Hinlicky suffice for now, and maybe we can attempt to distill these things further, and more technically at a later date. We never really did get too far into the issues broached in regard to freewill etc. But hopefully, at the very least, from the long quotes, you can see how we might develop these themes vis-à-vis the greater frame provided for by a theology of desire/love.

P.S. This new theme I just plugged in doesn’t seem to overtly provide a way for commenting (if you want to). If you’d like to comment on this post then simply click on the title of the post, and it will open up the combox for you to write a comment[s].


[1] Ron Frost, Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology, [unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, 1996 University of London Kings College], 94-96. Frost’s work has since been published as, Richard Sibbes God’s Spreading Goodness.

[2] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 151-52.

[3] Ibid., 153-54.

[4] Which is what we are also identifying with Evangelical Calvinism, with a particular focus on Thomas F. Torrance’s theology.


The Moralistic Focus of Covenant Theology: Further Notation on What is Being Recovered in the Reformed ‘Resurgence’

As a continuation from the last post I wanted to get into William Ames’s Federal or Covenant theology a bit further; in order to do that I will be referring to Janice Knight—at great length!—with the purpose of highlighting what in fact are the guts of Covenant theology. Within the field of Covenant theologians there are a range of nuances and views, whether that be historically or contemporaneously, relative to the way that this theologian or that emphasizes this syllable or that in the covenants (of works, grace, and redemption). That noted there is also a general self-referential ambit within which someone who is considered a Federal theologian thinks from; it is within this shared reality, conceptually, that I want to lift up Ames’s theology as exemplary of what the foundational stuff of Covenant theology entails. Knight, as our tour guide, I think, provides insightful analysis and description of Ames’s theology, with the type of critical attention that is often lacking in others when engaging with this period of theological development.

As a caveat, before we get into Knight’s analysis, I want to make clear that she isn’t writing as a Barthian, Torrancean, or even an Evangelical Calvinist; she is writing from the perspective of a historian who is attempting to critically offer penetration through the historiography of this period.[1] She is attempting to break down the wall that early 20th century, Puritan expert, Perry Miller set in regard to reading the Puritans monolithically; to reading Calvinism and Reformed theology in general as monolith. Her work is typically dismissed by the establishment historians and theologians of this period; ironic, I know! Clearly this is why she is so appealing to me; her work coalesces well with the work that Evangelical Calvinists are engaged in (e.g. broadening the landscape or the scope of the makeup of Reformed theology in the history). With this in mind let’s turn to Knight, and allow her to explicate the clarion of federal theology in its classic English form.

William Ames was careful to maintain the distinction between covenant as contract and as free testament; he argue that the first sense properly applied only to Adam’s bond. The fall of Adam made necessary the death of Christ and the testament of his free grace. The first covenant was between friends and implied mutual responsibilities; the second was a “reconciliation between enemies” made possible only by divine intercession.

Yet Ames’s discourse, like that of his famous teacher William Perkins, seems consistently caught in the undertow of legalism. His admirers argue that “theologically and propositionally Ames preached the omnipotence of God,” yet admit that for Ames “on the practical level man was responsible.” Detractors like R.T. Kendall claim that Ames’s theology “is ‘Arminian’ in every way but in the theoretical explanation that lies behind the actual practice of the believer.”

In terms of the covenant, this emphasis meant that despite strong reminders of God’s provenience, Ames exhorts auditors as if faith were a condition of the covenant, contingent on human action. Practically speaking, the doctrine of the covenant became an exhortation to the saint to work out his or her salvation with fear and trembling; it offered a means of assurance but also enjoined the saint to make that assurance secure. In one sense, it was a doctrine of great comfort, motivated by a humane desire to provide a place for human initiative. In another sense, however, it bound men and women to unremitting self-scrutiny and anxiety.

The stress on conditionality evolved with the elaboration of English covenant theology; it entered into the formulation not only by the avenue of antecedent faith but from the other direction, by a consequent moralism. Once elected, God’s saints manifested their gratitude by observing the moral law. Since Ames de-emphasized the doctrine of perseverance, keeping within the covenant also became tinged with the conditional. Even theologians who were adamant about the absolute freeness of grace might admit conditionality in this second sense. Flexibility with respect to perseverance of the saints, then, allowed conditionality even where God’s prevenience was insisted upon. Covenant-keeping became the province of human beings, and the engine for communal as well as individual exhortation. It was by this means that the tribal identification with Israel was effected, and the jeremiad as a rhetorical strategy for social control was born.

Ames first introduces the covenant as a part of God’s providence, his special government of intelligent creatures: “the revealed will of God, which is the rule for the moral life, applies to the rational creature” and requires obedience. God’s governance demands that he “give to everyone according to his ways and according to the fruit of his action.” From this sense of justice and reasonable recompense, “from this special way of governing rational creatures there arises a covenant between God and them.” Resting on justice and its conditions, “this covenant is, as it were, a kind of transaction of God with the creature whereby God commands, promises, threatens, fulfills; and the creature binds itself in obedience to God so demanding.” This description properly applies to the governance of creatures under the covenant of works.

In this context, Ames seems to advocate the kind of contractualism with which he has been so widely associated. He argues that moral deeds done under the rubric of the covenant “lead either to happiness as a reward or to unhappiness as a punishment.” In theory, however, he protects God’s sovereignty by adding that “the latter is deserved, the former not.” Men and women are fallen creatures who deserve only reprobation; grace is wholly gratuitous. The terms of the covenant of works are satisfied only by the sacrifice of Christ. Accordingly, at one point Ames declares that the new dispensation is termed a testament as well as a covenant. Yet, this is a designation and a meaning he does not pursue.

Indeed, though Ames repeatedly reminds his readers that God fulfills all of these conditions under the covenant of grace, in practice he begins to exhort them, to stress the necessity of an active faith. Just as he argues that the two covenants are parts of the single work of redemption, differing only in application from age to age, so too Ames discovers conditions in both covenants. Christ performs obedience to God’s decrees, but human being must accept Christ’s offer of righteousness. Drawing on biblical injunction to believe and live, Ames and his followers argued that the covenant of grace depends “upon condition of faith and obedience.” Even though God himself provides faith as the fruit of his favor, human beings must actively hope in Christ. To the Amesians, the very term covenant implies this reciprocal relation. In contrast to the unilateral testament of the Sibbesians, Ames asserts that this is a covenant in which faith defines human obligation.

The original relation of the sinner and God, based on such vast disproportions of sin and power, now issues in relation suggesting greater mutuality. Emphasis on the condition of faith focuses Ames’s theology on practical divinity. Indeed, though his rhetoric takes him further in the direction of human voluntarism than he would wish, it might be argued that the central concern of the Marrow is to map the ordo salutis as a series of predictable and practical increments. The first step on Ames’s path involves not only passive receiving of the habit of faith but also active believing, in which the individual turns to Christ. For Ames, both of these steps precede justification.

Faith is the virtue whereby “we learn upon [God], so that we may obtain what he gives to us.” Ames uses active verbs to describe the life of faith: “by faith we first cleave to God and then fasten on to those things which are made available by God.” Faith is “our duty towards God,” the condition by which we enter his covenant and secure his promises for ourselves. Ames is not afraid to spell out the “divers duties . . . which both ought and are wont ordinarily to be performed by the certainty of this grace can be gotten.” As with Perkins, there is an implied condition or contract whereby human beings deal with God. The activism implied in the constructions “to cleave,” “to labor,” “to fasten on to” become more pronounced in Ames’s followers, as does the appeal to self-interest in laying hold of the covenant.

Conditionality is admitted into an otherwise predestinarian scheme by way of the distinction between chronometricals and horologicals—God’s time and ours. This distinction allows for the simultaneous understanding of God’s promise as absolute and conditional, and therein underwrites an emphasis on preparationism. Ames argues that justification is a twofold change, “relative and absolute.” In real terms, “the change, of course, has no degrees and is completed at one moment and in only one act.” This absolute change, however, is according to God’s reckoning. As Ames goes on to say, “yet in manifestation, consciousness, and effects, it has many degrees; therein lie justification and adoption.” This space between the relative and absolute allows preparationism to thrive, and with it the pragmatism closely associated with American religious expression. By focusing on relative change, men like Ames and Hooker could map the steps to the altar and enjoin their auditors to make their salvation sure. Their antinomian critics, however, would argue that even when deployed in the interests of a pastoral pragmatism, preaching the conditionality of faith invests doctrine with a legalistic aura.[2]

Much to consider. I will not try to unpack what I just quoted from Knight, I’ll let what she wrote stand on its own and allow it to impose itself on you one way or the other (this quote covers a whole little sub-section on her coverage of Ames and the conditionality and preparationism inherent to his style of federal theology).

In closing though, let me just put this out there in anticipation of the dismissiveness that comes with sharing critical things like this from Knight. Indeed, someone offered this response to my last post, and what I shared from Knight (this is very typical):

From a Calvinist perspective, I don’t recognize this critique at all. There seems to be a lack of familiarity with the Puritan and Reformed tradition if Sibbes is seen as an outlier. What about Rutherford? What about Goodwin? Andrew Gray? There are so many Puritan sermons and works which pointedly attack the love of Christ merely for his benefits and not his person.[3]

The respondent in the last post failed to appreciate the gravitas of Knight’s thesis; her thesis isn’t that Sibbes and those of his company were the “outliers,” no, just the opposite. Knight’s thesis is that Richard Sibbes offered an alternative emphasis and trajectory within the English house of Puritanism which was just as much, and even more so in England, the accepted or majority report among many of the more successful Puritan pastors and theologians. Knight addresses this respondent’s other concerns as well; but what is required is that he actually reads her argument in full. Will he; will others?

For further reading from ecclesial historians who also see the things that Knight does (and some of these are on the side that Knight is critiquing when it comes to their own theological moorings), to one degree or another let me suggest:

There are of course more resources, the primary literature itself; but these are helpful in getting a handle on Knight’s own claims. At the very least it should problematize the critic’s easy-dismissivism of Knight’s work.


[1] It’s funny that I feel compelled to make this caveat, but I feel I must since so many simply reject what they perceive might be informed by Barthian themes in regard to anything historical theological; particularly when it comes to Reformed theology. Believe it or not there are other critics of the turn to Muller historiography of things; in Knight’s case she is critiquing a thesis that Muller himself follows in Perry Miller’s reading of English Puritanism. He set the stage, just as Muller is nowadays, for how historians ought to read the Puritan age; she thinks he flattened things too much thus missing important movements within the period. Rather than simply being a complexity within a monolithic frame (think Muller’s own thesis in regard to the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox period), Knight sees English and thus American Puritanism as an amalgam of two distinct movements. She doesn’t downplay emphasis, instead she thinks this is definitive in the formation of the distinct movements of Puritans that she is engaging with.

[2] Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994), 93-6.

[3] Unnamed respondent from a Facebook thread.

A Riposte to Derek Rishmawy’s Post: Handling Legal Matters

I wanted to offer a quick reply-post to Derek Rishmawy’s post on the purported value of reading the Bible through a Latin forensic reading of Holy Scripture and the subsequent doing of theology therefrom. Derek writes:

A similar sort argument is often lodged against the Western tradition in general. Depending on the subject, it is charged that the Latin tradition has always tended towards a more forensic, legal conception of the salvation, the relationship between God and man, etc. Instead of blaming feudal social arrangements, here we meet the claim that the Roman legal tradition exerted undue force, through say, Tertullian, Ambrose, or that perennial (because undeniably influential) whipping boy, Augustine.

Sometimes this is done with an eye towards promoting a superior Eastern account of deification. Or it is used by contemporary theologians to try to supplant the account with some proposal of their own, more attuned to the cultural needs of the current moment. Because, you know, moderns have no concept of guilt and such.

Now, as Sonderegger demonstrated in that last post, simply noting that a point is contextually-rooted, or more appealing to someone in a different cultural context, does not mean it is not translatable or valid in our own.

But let’s go even further. Conceding that Anselm was influenced by feudalism, and the West in general by Latin legal tradition, isn’t it just possible that was a good thing at points? Isn’t it just possible that these cultural influences were not hindrances but providential helps in aiding the church recognize real truths within Scripture that, say, a more Eastern perspective focused on gnosis and ontology might tend to gloss over? Or from which our contemporary culture, possibly over-prone to therapeutic denials of guilt, might want to avert its gaze?

I mean, think about the narrative of Scripture. God is presented as Lord, king, and judge of the earth. He gives Israel a Law-covenant to order their relationship summed up in the 10 Commandments. This covenant is a legal-relational reality which, beyond cultic elements, has large sections of material concerned with the organization of Israel as a people, the administration of justice, courts, and so forth. Indeed, both Leviticus and Deuteronomy have large chapters which include blessings and curses based on the legal-relational matter of obedience and fidelity God as the covenant-Lord.[1]

One of the patron saints of Evangelical Calvinism, Thomas Torrance, refers to Augustine’s influence on the development of Christian ideas/theology as the Latin Heresy; for one reason among others (i.e. what he sees as a dualistic/Platonic problem), because he believes Augustine unduly elevated the forensic/juridical to an improper level when thinking things salvific.

But I think, really, Rishmawy’s post sort of misses the critique; at least from the Torrance angle—and from other angles of the same critique (not just from Torrance). It isn’t that the ‘legal’ aspects found in Scripture are unimportant or absent, it is that, at least for my money, these shouldn’t be understood as the frames of how we think of a God-world relation. Derek writes further as he brings up John Calvin and the role that Derek sees the forensic playing in Calvin’s theology (under Augustinian pressure no doubt):

Nonetheless, it should give pause to those of us tempted to appeal to neat “just-so” stories about cultural influence, which often amounts to no more than a sophisticated form of the genetic fallacy. The question can never merely be a matter of whether Calvin’s legal background pushed him towards a legal understanding of atonement. The question is whether that legal background blinded or enlightened him to something in the text.[2]

Again, the issue isn’t whether or not the ‘legal’ aspects are present or not in Scripture—they clearly are—the question is: Whether or not this aspect should be allowed to frame the way the theologian and biblical exegete not only approaches the scriptural witness itself, but beyond that, whether or not they should approach the res (reality) of Scripture this way? In other words, does God want us to approach him through the idea that his relationship to us is contingent upon legal matters being settled first, or does he want us to approach him as a bride approaches her Bride-groom; as if God first loved us that we might love him? This is the point of the critique; it’s the point of the critique targeted at Federal theology and Westminster Calvinism that I am wont to make here at the blog and in our books etc.

It’s not that the ontological must be in competition with the legal framing of Scripture, it’s just that the ontological is the ground for any legal happenings to take place to begin with. I mean could you imagine a world made up of a legal framing vis-à-vis God without the ontological being in place first (by way of logical and even chrono-logical ordering)? No? Me either; I mean we wouldn’t even be here if there was no ontology. As a rule I follow the axiom that ‘being’ precedes ‘knowing,’ and knowing, whether that be of the legal or romantic sort (or other sorts), is premised first upon there being ‘being’ in the first place. This is one reason why here at The Evangelical Calvinist we place such an emphasis upon ontology; why we follow what Torrance has called the ontological theory of the atonement etc; it’s because there is a depth dimension to reality, to a God-world relation, that the legal frame alone cannot handle nor account for. And in highlighting this, simply following the contour of Holy Scripture we would be remiss to not mention that God’s primary “metaphor” for framing his relationship to humanity is not legal (not even in Genesis), it is that of a bride-groom (cf. Gen 2; Eph 5 for the Pauline recapitulation of Gen 2. etc) with his bride who walks in the cool of the garden with her. The legal is present, but not prior to the romantic/affective (which I take to be the ontological grounding of all else).

Addendum: I’ve heard back from Derek, and he thinks my post distorts the real intention of his post. He didn’t apparently have Torrance’s program in mind when writing his post, and thus believes that me bringing TFT into this discussion skips off the atmosphere of the real referents of his post (whoever and whatever those might be). Be that as it may, I do think TFT fits squarely within the sights of the type of critique Derek is responding to (just survey the landscapes of such critiques in the literature), and let me know if you can find better candidates than Thomas F Torrance (with his strong language of Latin Heresy etc.).

[1] Derek Rishmawy, On the “Legal Influence” of the Latin West (A Thought on Culture and Atonement), accessed 02-16-2018.

[2] Ibid.

Miscellanies. Jonathan Edwards’s Lockean Theology of the Affections

On the Edwardsean reification of Lockean ‘sensations’ and how that created a theology of affections for Jonathan Edwards and the evangelical outlook. The following quote will be less a post and more a bookmark for my future reference. If you find it beneficial, then good! If you have read me at all it might remind of how ‘affective theology’ has been an impetus for me in my own theological development as I was introduced to that by Ron Frost and his development of affective theology in a Sibbesian key. Maybe I’ll try to draw other connections later—between Edwards’ affective theology, Luther’s, and Sibbes’ (one thing I find, maybe pregnant, is a kind of parallel between Luther and nominalism and Edwards and Locke)—here’s the quote (you can check the bibliographic info in the footnote):

The Great Awakening marked the triumph of sensation over ratiocination. To understand supernatural grace, Edwards did not resort to the language of theology and logic but to aesthetics and, again drawing on Locke for his own purposes, what he termed a “new sense of the heart.” I his classic 1734 sermon “A Divine and Supernatural Light” (much more the essential Edwards than his better known sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”), Edwards employed a sensory visual vocabulary to describe the essence of regeneration as a “divine light,” an evangelical enlightenment. At its essence, the divine light was a new sense of the heart. Drawing on a vocabulary grounded in aesthetics and Locke, rather than medieval logic, Edwards described the new sense of the heart, not as a set of theological propositions dutifully memorized and endorsed, but as a new perception of beauty:

This spiritual light primarily consists . . . in a real sense and apprehension of the divine excellency of things revealed in the Word of God. A spiritual and saving conviction of the truth and reality of these things, arises from such a sight of their divine excellency and glory; so that this conviction of their truth is an effect and natural consequence of this sight of their divine glory. There is therefore in this spiritual light a true sense of the divine and superlative excellency of the things of religion; a real sense of the excellency of God, and Jesus Christ, and of the work of redemption. . . . There is a divine and superlative glory in these things; an excellency that is of a vastly higher kind, and more sublime nature, than in other things; a glory greatly distinguishing them from all that is earthly and temporal. He that is spiritually enlightened truly apprehends and sees it, or has a sense of it. He don’t [sic] merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart. There is not only a rational belief that God is holy, and that holiness is a good thing; but there is a sense of the loveliness of God’s holiness. There is not only a speculatively judging that God is gracious, but a sense of how amiable God is upon that account; or a sense of the beauty of this divine attribute.

If you were counting, you will have noticed that Edwards repeated the word “sense” ten times in this paragraph. By understanding grace aesthetically as a “new sense of the heart,” rather than logically, Edwards represented regeneration or the “new birth” in ways to be visually pictured rather than logically deduced. By shifting the ground to aesthetics, Edwards participated directly in the Enlightenment project in ways that would usher in a new spirit of romanticism.

In addition to speaking of regeneration as a new sense of the heart, Edwards revolutionized the traditional “faculty psychology” that had governed theology by giving primacy to reason and the understanding over the heart and the affections. Edwards reversed the priority, giving primacy to the affections and, in the process, again turned Locke on his head. As summarized by Miller: “Edward’s great discovery, his dramatic refashioning of the theory of sensational rhetoric, was his assertion that an idea in the mind is not only a form of perception but is also a determination of love and hate. . . . For Edwards, in short, an idea became not merely a concept but an emotion.” This would lead to a radical definition of grace as “a new simple idea” supernaturally implanted.

In so framing his argument in this context of love and hate, or in Locke’s term “delight or uneasiness,” Edwards, more than any other eighteenth-century theologian, would anticipate Freud. In his Treatise on the Religion Affections, Edwards collapsed the distinctions of the faculty of the will and the affections, asserting that “the will, and the affections of the soul, are not two faculties; the affections are not essentially distinct from the will, nor do they differ from the mere actings of the will and inclination of the soul.” In his new ordering of the senses, Edwards again borrowed from the Enlightenment to say that humans do not act in response to rational calculations but in response to their emotion predispositions of love or hatred. There was no possibility of a “perfect indifference” to anything. The difference between Edwards and Locke was Edwards’s emphasis on overweening supernatural grace. For the affections to be redirected toward their proper spiritual objects, God had to intervene.[1]

The discussion on the transformation of “faculty psychology,” is something to keep your eye on; even if in our contemporary period we have moved on from developing theological-anthropology this way, there remains a serious usefulness to grasping this. A serious usefulness because even if we don’t consciously think theological anthropology this way, these days, it nevertheless, the force of it remains present in forming the way the evangelical psyche functions before both God and people in general.

For me, as an Evangelical Calvinist, there is resonance here with Edwards’s affective theology because of the primacy he places on relationality; this type of emphasis works well with a focus on Trinitary theology (and the kind of relational understanding of God we glean from this reality grounded in his life). These are the types of themes I seek to integrate into the broader project that we are calling Evangelical Calvinism; attempting to resource this type of “love-grounded” mood that has permeated the theological history of the church ever since the beginning.

There are other interesting things to reflect on with reference to this quote; for me, maybe how nominalism and Lockeanism work together in regard to developing an epistemology. Or more minimally how these constructs implicated Luther’s and Edwards’s theologies, respectively; to wonder if there might be any constructive way to bring these types of ostensibly disparate periods of theological development into mutually implicating and flourishing discussion around a theology of the affections.

[1] Harry S. Stout, “What Made the Great Awakening Great?,” edited by Heath W. Carter and Laura Rominger Porter, Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 13-15.

Affective Theology, A Seedbed for My Style of evangelical Calvinism

The following is a post I first wrote about a year into my blogging, back in 2006 (started blogging in 2005). I like to introduce folks to this every now and then because it serves, theologically, as the impetus that led me to the mood of evangelical Calvinism I am in now. As you read this you will see some things that might not jive exactly with the theology I currently promote here at the blog, and in our Evangelical Calvinism book; but there is lots of constructive material available here that I think can be fitted together with some of the contours of thought and theological theses that we have in evangelical Calvinism (as articulated by Myk Habets and myself in our “theses” chapter in our book). Also, beware that as you read this there are some spelling and grammar errors, as well as bibliographic formation problems. I plan on following up this post with another one that gets further into the issue of “created grace” (that you will see mentioned in this post—I have that section emboldened below). Here we go:

Here is a brief sketch to a historical system of theology that I was first introduced to while in seminary, under the tutelage of Dr. Ron Frost. This theology is known as Affective Theology (or even Free Grace Theology—not of the Zane Hodges’ style. I am a proponent of this form of theological engagement (qualified at a few points, I actually like to assimilate this with the “Scottish Theology” of Thomas F. Torrance), and believe that it beautifully captures the intention of scripture relative to things salvific and God’s nature. This framework was communicated in Puritan England by people such as Richard Sibbes and William Erbery amongst others. This was a movement that was responding to the stringent “precianism” of Federal Theology (Calvinism) articulated by fellows such as William Perkins and William Aames. Notice a testimonial offered by a man named Humphrey Mills, someone who knew what it meant to live under the unbearable burden of the moralistic proving ground spawned by the inevitable consequence of “Perseverance of the Saints” and “Limited Atonement/Election”, here he speaks in his own words about the freedom of conscience he finally felt under the teaching/preaching of Sibbes:

I was for three years together wounded for sins, and under a sense of my corruptions, which were many; and I followed sermons, pursuing the means, and was constant in duties and doing: looking for Heaven that way. And then I was so precise for outward formalities, that I censured all to be reprobates, that wore their hair anything long, and not short above the ears; or that wore great ruffs, and gorgets, or fashions, and follies. But yet I was distracted in my mind, wounded in conscience, and wept often and bitterly, and prayed earnestly, but yet had no comfort, till I heard that sweet saint . . . Doctor Sibbs, by whose means and ministry I was brought to peace and joy in my spirit. His sweet soul-melting Gospel-sermons won my heart and refreshed me much, for by him I saw and had muchof God and was confident in Christ, and could overlook the world . . . My heart held firm and resolved and my desires all heaven-ward.[1]

Here’s a heart freed from the constant burden of looking to self for assurance of salvation; and prompted to look up to Christ for freedom and salvation.

Sibbes was one of the key-note articulates against the popery he observed with the moralistic tradition provided framework through the Calvinist doctrines. Sibbes believed, along with others, that external works should never be the basis for assurance of salvation–in fact Sibbes believed that assurance of salvation should not even be a functional premise within a soteriological construct; such as Calvinism provided. Sibbes was part of a movement known as Free-Grace, this was ” . . . the party of Puritans who opposed any idea that grace is conditioned by human cooperation.” (Frost, The Devoted Life, 81). Notice this quote offered by William Erbery, a contemporary of Sibbes, as he discusses progression of Purtian thought ending with that kind of Free-Grace preaching exemplified most clearly by Sibbes, note:

I observed four great steps of God’s glorious appearance in men’s preaching. First, how low and legal were their teachings as they learned the way of preaching from Mr. Perkins, Bolton, Byfield and Dod and Dike. . . . Next the doctrine of free grace came forth, but with less success or fruit of conversion by Doctor Preston, Sibs [Sibbes], [and] Crisp. . . . Thirdly the letter of scripture, and flesh of Christ hath been highly set up by both the famous Goodwins: . . . [Thomas] excels in spiritual discourses of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and intercession, yet much according to the flesh, for he meddles not with the mystery of Christ in us. . . . [The fourth step] is the knowledge of Christ in the Spirit.[2]

As Erbery highlights, Sibbes’, amongst the other Free-Grace teachers, was not taken as seriously as the predominate moralistic (Calvinist) teachers, i.e. Perkins, Bolton, et al. But notice where Erbery’s quote leaves off, “the knowledge of Christ in the Spirit”, to this we now turn. This is an important point of departure for the teaching of Affective Theology, as defined by Sibbes, i.e. the immediacy of the Holy Spirit in the person’s life.

While Sibbes believed works were an aspect of salvation, he did not believe that these should be a barometer for determining a person’s salvation. Furthermore he believed constant obsession with such thinking was a product of an unscriptural understanding foisted on the laity of Puritan England by the Calvinist Divines. Note Ron Frost’s assessment of Sibbes’ approach here:

While Sibbes acknowledged some biblical support in calling Christians to obedience as a duty (Erbery’s category of ‘low and legal’ preaching) Sibbes clearly understood that duty can only be sustained if it is supported by the motivation of desire. Thus Sibbes featured God’s winsome love more than his power: the Spirit accomplishes both conversion and sanctification by a single means: through the revelation of God’s attractiveness by an immediate, personal disclosure. This unmediated initiative was seen to be the means by which God draws a response of heartfelt devotion from the elect.”[3]

Notice the relational nature of the salvific event, the Holy Spirit comes to the heart of the “elect” and showers the heart of the sinner with the beautiful person of Jesus Christ. It is as the heart of the sinner is enflamed a love by the work of the Holy Spirit that the sinner responds back in love–given the overwhelming attractiveness of the sweet Savior. Another thing of note, is that the primary instrument used for disclosing sweet Jesus to the heart of the sinner is through the Holy Scriptures. Furthermore, notice the centrality that heart, motive, and desire play in the thought of Sibbes’ as articulated by Frost. This to me is very important, because it takes seriously what God takes seriously, and alone searches, the hearts and motives of men (see Jer. 17:9 and many other passages). This is God’s concern, the motives, and desires of men and women; this is contrary to the system that emphasized external moralistic duties as the basis of determining one’s election (which by the way had horrific ramifications for Christian ethics as well)– Calvinism. Sibbes’ approach, and his affective anthropology, i.e. the defining feature of man (i.e. where values and motives take shape), was directly contrary to the Calvinist anthropology that saw the intellect and will as the defining features of man, and actually saw the “affections” as that which was the weakest part of man. In Calvinist thought it is within the will via interaction with the intellect that becomes enlivened by a “created quality” or Grace. It is through this created quality of Grace that man is able to cooperate with God and thus keep the duty driven moralistic standards consequently proving one’s election and salvation (like Humphrey Mills lived under).

Conversely, Sibbes saw grace as a relational characteristic of God imbued upon the heart of man. It is through this transformative intervention that man’s heart is changed (II Cor 3), and drawn to God. Note Frost’s description here, as he contrasts the Calvinist understanding of grace and the historic Free-Grace (Affective Theology) understanding of grace (as articulated by Sibbes):

In this framework some additional theological assumptions were revised. For instance, Sibbes understood grace to be God’s love offered immediately (rather than mediately) by the Spirit to the elect. By identifying grace primarily as a relational characteristic of God—the expression of his goodness—instead of a created quality or an empowerment of the will, Sibbes insisted that God transforms human desires by the Spirit’s immediate love and communion. Faith, for Sibbes, was not a human act-of-the-will but a response to God’s divine wooing. God’s laws, Sibbes argued, must be ’sweetened by the gospel’ and offered within a framework of ‘free grace.’ He also held a moderately developed form of affective anthropology (which is as further explained by Frost: Augustine’s affective position emerged in the Pelagian debate. Augustine held sin to be concupiscence of the heart—an enslavement to a love of self rather than God. In Augustine’s anthropology the heart is held to generate values; the mind uses the heart’s values to consider its options and to offer its best judgments; the will uses those judgments to engage in action. . . .”)[4]

This represents the touchstone, and most basic understanding of historic Free-Grace theology, or Affective Theology. Some highlights to take away: Affective Theology (AT) believes man heart is in total bondage to self-love; AT believes that man cannot cooperate whatsoever with God in salvation; AT believes that until the heart is transformed by God’s love through the Holy Spirit’s enflaming work, man will never find rest or salvation; AT believes contra historic Calvinist teaching that the emphasis of salvation is relationally based given the identification of God’s gift of grace with the work and person of the Holy Spirit; AT believes, given the relational basis, is not obsessed with proving one’s election since works are not the foundational component of AT’s framework of salvation.

I’ll leave it here for now, there is much more to be said about this perspective . . . especially about the framework that served as the touchstone for Affective Theology. That touchstone is found in Ephesians 5, and the Pauline marriage discussion. The marital framework provided in this beautiful epistle is picked up by AT and pressed into as the picture, but more than a picture (actually an ontological reality), of what union, and thus communion with Christ, is all about. I.e. this is contrary to the covenental framework provided by Calvinism, and the “contractual” implications provided by such a system (e.g. you keep your end of the contract, and God will keep His). The marital framework, rooted in the New Covenant, is no longer obsessed with personal performance–but instead is overwhelmed with the beauty of her bride-groom [Jesus]–marriage presupposes relationship, i.e. nothing to prove, just something to grow in–ultimately finding consummation in glorification and celebrated at the marriage supper feast of the Lamb.


[1] Ron Frost, The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics, Frost is quoting from: John Rogers, Ohel or Bethshemesh, A Tabernacle for the Sun (London, n.p., 1653).

[2] Frost, The Devoted Life, quoting from: William Erbery, The Testimony of William Erbery (London: n.p. 1658).

[3] Frost, The Devoted Life, 82.

[4]Frost, The Devoted Life, 82.


The “Marriage Framework” versus the “Legal Framework” of Salvation in Post-Reformation Reformed Theology

This is a very old post that I am sure none of you have read. It was written in a time before I became “The Evangelical Calvinist,” and represents the influence I had on me coming out of seminary back in 2003. I still hold to this distinction, and believe it can be synthesized well with what we are doing with evangelical Calvinism. The period the theology in this post is resourced from is the Post-Reformation Reformed orthodox period. I am almost positive that most Reformed folks of today are unaware of the distinctions discussed in this post, and much of that lack of exposure has to do with the way the scholarship has run in Reformed theology. 

Is there a proper framework for salvation, or is it “just” salvation?

Federal Calvinism believes the answer to this question is an “affirmative!” They believe[d] that God (the divine *Law-giver*) provided framework to salvation through a bilateral contract, viz.
that God initiated a “Covenant” with man (“Covenant of Works”), and now man (if He is “elect”) must keep his end of the *deal* by “obeying” the “Law” (e.g. Mosaic) through a “Spirit-enablement” marriagereformedprovided by the incidental obedience of Christ (you know quid pro quo). If “elect man” keeps his end of the deal (and he will, since he’s elect — so goes the “story” [“Covenant of Grace”]), then based on the conditions originally set out by the “Law-giver,” he will (according to the divine “pact”) reap the “rewards” of said obedience consummating in “eternal felicity.” This is a “rough” overview of the “legal” (juridical) framing of salvation [in fact much of this is still in force, at a very popular level, through the preaching and teaching of folks like R. Scott Clark and the White Horse Inn]. So this is scenario, and framework #1.

There is another group though. This other group “grew up” concurrent with the group above (the Federal Calvinist), and they had a different answer — albeit an affirmative to my original question. Instead of saying “Your honor” (as the Federalist), they say “My lover,” let me explain. This group, lets call them the Marital Mystics, believed that the best framework for salvation is not primarily “legal,” but “marital.” They believed that the Apostle Paul’s framework, in Ephesians 5:18ff, of Marriage; was much more than a metaphor, but that this language spoke to a “real union” (an ontological reality) between Christ and His bride — so human marriage is only a “prefigurement” of the real thing between Christ and His Church. Instead of a “potential union,” as implied by the “legal guys” (i.e. if we meet our end of the deal [viz. obedience to the Law, good works], then God will ratify the deal and bring us into eventual union at the eschaton), the *Marital Mystics* believed that we have been sought after by the “lover of our souls;” and once He catches us, we are overcome with His winsome beauty and love (we become smitten with “love at first sight”). At this instance, we reciprocate His love for us (cf. Rom. 5:5) and respond with an “I do!” It is this framework that shapes our relationship to Jesus Christ (Song of Songs is a favorite book of the Bible for this group, and lets not forget the “bridal” language of John in Revelation, and other smadderings throughout the OT [Hos., etc.]), and it is this kind of relationship that crowds out the “responsibility” (cooperative) duty driven construction provided by the “Legal guys.” The “Marital guys” see a freedom for reciprocating love, a unilateral movement initiated by the bridegroom for His bride; which eventuates in whispers of sweet nothings towards the bridegroom, from His bride — there is not a sense of responsibility and duty shaping this relationship, but a continual and deepening love for the bride as He woos her with His beauty and charm. There is no fear of “not living up to the “Judge’s” expectations, in this arrangement, but a disposition of hopeful anticipation; as the bridegroom takes His bride into His Father’s house, and “covers” her with His “robes of righteousness” through penetrating and “mystical union” (unio mystica) [but real union] with Him. The focus in this arrangement is on Him — the Bridegroom — and His love and righteousness given as a “dowery” to His Bride, through the communion (communio) of the Spirit. And this is framework #2 (notice the trinitarian involvement in this model, this is meaningful vs. the “legal approach”).

I was first introduced to “framework #2” by my prof in seminary, Ron Frost. He did his PhD dissertation on a Puritan named Richard Sibbes, and Sibbes was a proponent of framework #2 (and so was John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Bernard of Clairvaux, amongst others); and his opining (Sibbes’) on this subject was intentionally contrairian to the “Legal guy’s” (typified by William Perkins, amongst others) approach — and rightly so. Here is how Frost summarizes Sibbes’ framing:

. . . It seems likely, then, that Sibbes’ doctrine of mystical marriage based on a Bernardian reading of the Song of Songs drew him away from the cooperative theology of his Perkinsonian training, back to a unilateral view of the covenant. He came to hold that the affections are crucial in the function of mystical marriage, and that mystical marriage is the ground of saving union. In his emphasis he was well aligned with the view of the early reformers who held that the marriage of Christ and the church represents a primary foundation for the theology of real union. [Ronald N. Frost, “Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology” [Unpublished PhD Dissertation, King’s College University of London, 1996, 121.]

You may ask why is this important? And you may ask for a variety of reasons. I would just say, because understanding how we relate to Christ has everything to do with everything! If our conception is formed by the “legal accounting” then we are stressed with an relationship that comes off rather cold and calculated . . . not to mention an arrangement that causes us to be consumed with ourselves and our performance (“man-centered” — anthropocentric) — and approaching life in Christ this way could have dastardly consequences on our daily walk and spirituality (could lead to: angst, fear, depression, dark nights and seasons of the soul, anger, frustration, fatalism, hopelessness, etc., etc.). But beyond the “consequences,” scripture is replete with passages and concepts that present the “Marital Framework” as the most adequate framing, providing the greatest explanatory power for understanding a biblical approach to thinking about “salvation.” I’m an advocate for #2, how about you?

P. S. There are other implications (having to do with: salvation from the “inside-out” vs. “outside-in,” “assurance” [becomes an non-issue], sanctification, ethics, etc.), but we will have to wait and flesh those out later . . . or if you want in the comment meta on this post.

Grace Compared and Correlated: classical Reformed theology versus evangelical Calvinist theology

There is a lot of talk nowadays about the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Typically when it is Reformed Protestants the reference to Aquinas’ theology has more to do tommyaquinaswith his Trinitarian theology, and doctrine of God, and less to do with his soteriology. But in a way they are of a piece; how we conceive of God will implicate how we think of salvation, and other theological places downstream from God. In light of that I thought it would be interesting to present something of a portrait of Aquinas’ doctrine of salvation, and then leave that with some suggestive notes.

Steven Ozment, I have found[1], is a trustworthy guide in elucidating the theology of the medieval and early Reformed periods; as such we will refer to his nutshell description of how salvation looks within a Thomist frame. He writes:

It was a traditional teaching of the medieval church, perhaps best formulated by Thomas Aquinas, that a man who freely performed good works in a state of grace cooperated in the attainment of his salvation. Religious life was organized around this premise. Secular living was in this way taken up into the religious life; good works became the sine qua non of saving faith. He who did his moral best within a state of grace received salvation as his just due. In the technical language of the medieval theologian, faith formed by acts of charity (fides caritate formata) received eternal life as full or condign merit (meritum de condign). Entrance into the state of grace was God’s exclusive and special gift, not man’s achievement, and it was the indispensable foundation for man’s moral cooperation. An infusio gratiae preceded every meritorious act. The steps to salvation were:

1 Gratuitous infusion of grace

2 Moral cooperation: doing the best one can with the aid of grace

3 Reward of eternal life as a just due[2]

Bear in mind the flow of how salvation was appropriated in the medieval Thomist mind started with 1) a gratuitous infusion of grace from God (this is also called created grace where grace is thought of as ‘stuff’ the elect receive in order to cooperate with God in the salvation process through), 2) then the elect are ‘enabled’ to cooperate (as just noted) with God, doing good charitable works, with 3) the hope of being rewarded with eternal life.

It might seem pretty clear why contemporary Reformed Protestants don’t get into Thomas Aquinas’ model of salvation as a fruitful place to develop salvation themes, but the irony is, is that they do. Remember as I noted above that how we think of God will flow downstream and implicate everything else; well, it does.

Closer in time to the medieval period (than us) were the Post-Reformed orthodox theologians. These theologians were men who inhabited the 16th and 17th centuries, and they developed the categories and grammar of Reformed theology that many today are resourcing and developing for contemporary consumption; among not only overtly confessionally Reformed fellowships and communions, but also for ‘conservative’ evangelical Christians at large (think of the work and impact of The Gospel Coalition). The Post-Reformed orthodox theologians, interestingly, developed an understanding of grace and salvation that sounds very similar to what we just read about Aquinas’ and the medieval understanding of salvation (within the Papal Roman Catholic context). Ecclesial historian, Richard Muller in his Latin theological dictionary defines how the Post-Reformed orthodox understood grace and salvation this way:

gratia: grace; in Greek, χάρις;  the gracious or benevolent disposition of God toward sinful mankind and, therefore, the divine operation by which the sinful heart and mind are regenerated and the continuing divine power or operation that cleanses, strengthens, and sanctifies the regenerate. The Protestant scholastics distinguish five actus gratiae, or actualizations of grace. (1) Gratia praeveniens, or prevenient grace, is the grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon sinners in and through the Word; it must precede repentance. (2)Gratia praeparens is the preparing grace, according to which the Spirit instills in the repentant sinner a full knowledge of his inability and also his desire to accept the promises of the gospel. This is the stage of the life of the sinners that can be termed the praeparatio ad conversionem (q.v.) and that the Lutheran orthodox characterize as a time of terrores conscientiae (q.v.). Both this preparation for conversion and the terrors of conscience draw directly upon the second use of the law, the usus paedagogicus (see usus legis). (3)Gratia operans, or operating grace, is the effective grace of conversion, according to which the Spirit regenerates the will, illuminates the mind, and imparts faith. Operating grace is, therefore, the grace of justification insofar as it creates in man the means, or medium, faith, through which we are justified by grace…. (4) Gratia cooperans, or cooperating grace, is the continuing grace of the Spirit, also termed gratia inhabitans, indwelling grace, which cooperates with and reinforces the regenerate will and intellect in sanctification. Gratia cooperans is the ground of all works and, insofar as it is a new capacity in the believer for the good, it can be called the habitus gratiae, or disposition of grace. Finally, some of the scholastics make a distinction between gratia cooperans and (5)gratia conservans, or conserving, preserving grace, according to which the Spirit enables the believer to persevere in faith. This latter distinction arises most probably out of the distinction betweensanctificatio (q.v.) and perseverantia (q.v.) in the scholastic ordo salutis (q.v.), or order of salvation….[3]

If we had the space it would be interesting to attempt to draw corollaries between the five ‘actualizations of grace’ and the infusion gratiae (infused grace) that we find in Aquinas. I have done further research on this, and the ‘actualizations of grace’ we find in Protestant orthodox theology come from Aquinas, and for Aquinas it comes from Aristotle. Gratia operans or operating grace, gratia cooperans or cooperating grace, and habitus gratiae or disposition of grace all can be found as foundational pieces within Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of salvation; which is ironic, because these are all fundamental components that shape Protestant Reformed orthodox soteriology.

Why is this important? Because how we think of God affects how we think of salvation, and a host of other things downstream. If Protestant theology was an attempt to protest and break from Roman theology, but the Protestant orthodox period ends up sounding once again like the very theology that the magisterial Reformers (i.e. Martin Luther, John Calvin, et al.) were seeking to break away from; wouldn’t it behoove us to critically engage with what we are being fed by contemporary theologians who are giving us theology/soteriology directly informed by theologian’s theology that is shaped by a theological/soteriological framework that might be suspect? In other words, what if the Protestant orthodox period, instead of being an actual reforming project was instead a return to the theology that the early magisterial reformers protested against? What if the early Reformation was “stillbirthed?”[4]

Is it the best way forward for Protestant Christians to rely on Aristotle for funding our conceptions of God and Grace? It seems like many a theologian in the Reformed and evangelical traditions in the 21st century think so. But do we really want a conception of salvation that has us cooperating with God; with a conception then that has a focus towards our good works as indicatives and proofs of our salvation? Do we want a salvation like this that first points us to ourselves, even if in the name of Christ, which only after we observe our good works we are able to reflexively look to Christ our great hope? What will this do, at the least, to our daily walks and Christian spirituality? There is a better way forward.

Ron Frost, my former historical theology professor in seminary, and mentor offers what he calls Affective Theology as an alternative to the Federal Protestant orthodox theology we just sketched and briefly considered. We here at the evangelical Calvinist offer an alternative that comes from a form of Scottish Theology through Thomas Torrance, and then from Karl Barth. These alternatives, different as they are (Frost’s approach is not related to Thomas Torrance or Karl Barth whatsoever), have a focus towards God in Christ that moves beyond the Aristotelian framed theories of salvation offered by the Post Reformed orthodox as well as what we find in contemporary popular theology like what we are currently finding in the theology promulgated by The Gospel Coalition (and other similar groups: i.e. Together 4 the Gospel etc.).

While I don’t talk about this as much as I used to, it is still this reality that motivates me. Barth and Torrance have become welcome voices for me, but there are other alternative voices in the history of ideas (which Frost really taps into, esp. with reference to Puritan theology). Like it or not there is some competition between ideas here; Federal/Covenantal/Confessional Reformed theology (i.e. corollary with Post-Reformed orthodox theology) versus what we in an umbrella term are calling evangelical Calvinism.

More to be said …


[1] Text we used for my Reformation Theology class in seminary.

[2] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250–1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven&London: Yale University Press, 1980), 233.

[3] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastics Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 129-30.

[4] See Ronald N. Frost, “Aristotle’s ‘Ethics:’ The ‘Real’ Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal 18:2 (1997).


Reformed Theology: Affective Theology and Evangelical Calvinism, Highlighting their Reality and Charting New Ways

In the last post we spoke of a development in Reformed theology known as Affective Theology. I was first introduced to this thread of Reformed theology in seminary by my professor (who also became a mentor of mine as I served as his TA for a couple of years, and then beyond my graduate studies as well), Dr. Ron Frost—a Historical Theologian with special focus in the area of Puritan theology bonaventure(his PhD dissertation was on Richard Sibbes with reference to William Perkins, among others). The antecedents to this type of Reformed theology, just as with all traditions within Reformed theology, come from earlier theological developments found in the medieval period, and even into the Patristic era. Richard Muller underscores a development of this style of theology for us in Roman Catholic medieval theology:

The great Franciscans, Alexander of Hales and Bonaventure, insisted on the affective, experimental, and moral character of theology and argued that this character of the discipline prevented it from being considered as a scienta in the Aristotelian sense of a rational or demonstrative discipline. Thus Alexander could write that there is “one mode of certainty in scientia taught according to the human spirit and another in scientia taught according to the divine Spirit” and that this latter mode, a “certainty of speculation” or the “certainty of experience” belonging to other sciences. For Alexander, theology could never be a rational or demonstrative science, because its certainty rests on the work of the Holy Spirit rather than on rational conclusions drawn from its principles. This is not to say that theology must not develop doctrinal formulations and defend them by rational argument or must not draw conclusions from principles, which is the very nature of a scientia, but only that its certitude lies elsewhere.

Bonaventure, even more than Alexander, stresses inward illumination as the source of theological knowledge rather than a scientia resting upon the perception of externals. Bonaventure had already distinguished between the theology of the sacra pagina, that is, Scripture, and the theology of his commentary on the Sentences. The former follows a “revelatory, perceptive mode” whereas the latter adopts a “ratiocinative or inquisitive mode….”[1]

This Affective mode is in contrast to the mode that Thomas Aquinas (and later scholasticism Reformed) would develop, the “ratiocinative mode.” Just to illustrate this contrast here is the beginning clause of the next paragraph just following where we left off with Bonaventure:

That step of defining the character of theological scientia among the various sciences was taken by Thomas Aquinas, who joined the concept of theology as a ratiocinative discipline characterized by definition and division of the subject for purposes of debate to the Aristotelian concepts of scientia and scientia subaltern, subalternate science….”[2]

What I am hoping to illustrate are not the fine details (yet) of the differences in theological methodology between these two approaches to doing theology (both formally and materially), but simply to demonstrate that these trajectories are available in the history itself.

Interestingly the affective approach, if you are tracking so far, might seem at odds with the approach of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance; Barth and Torrance might seem to adopt the ratiocinative or a posteriori approach to doing theology, following a scientific kind of almost positivist mode to doing theology. Whereas in contrast the affective mode seems to be focused more on experiential knowledge of God, and more of maybe an Augustinian a priori even mystical approach toward knowing God. If you were tracking thusly; very perceptive of you!

Even though there might be some variance between an affective mode and a Barthian or Torrancian mode to doing theology I think the point of some convergence between them is that they both seek to focus on revelational theology that is non-speculative and kataphatic or positive in character. I would like to bring these two modes together further in constructive dialogue and see what happens (since I am influenced greatly by both). A point of contact between them could very well be to bring Kierkegaard into the discussion, since Kierkegaard played a big role in the development of the respective theologies of Barth and Torrance; I think the affective might be at play there.

So we have been discussing things revolving around prolegomena (theological methodology), but where all of this gets even more interesting is when we start getting into theological anthropology; this is where I would like to do most of the nuancing and work in regard to bringing the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ (so important and centraldogma to Barth’s and Torrance’s theologies) into discussion with affective theological-anthropological categories. This will implicate much, not to mention how we conceive of ethics, which I would rather really call personal holiness, which for the evangelical Calvinist is grounded and conditioned by Jesus Christ’s life for us–in other words we participate in and from His holiness for us from His heart which is aligned with the Father’s heart by the Spirit’s heart (which is a shared heart in perichoresis) in Triune life.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1500 to 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 91-2.

[2] Ibid., 92.

Interpreting Robin Williams’ Death through the Heart instead of the Mind

Robin Williams’ death is tragic, and represents something of a surd to all of humanity. What Robin did flies in the face of the existentialistic philosophy that so many of us North Americans (if not the whole Western world) live robinunder, even if only loosely appreciated. Existentialistic philosophy as a philosophy of life basically is the idea that we only have the now to live in, and in order to experience life to the fullest we must press up against and essentially fight the other dominant reality of this life which is death. Existentialism as a philosophy of life says that humanity must do things that express our existence even in the face of the annihilation of our essence through death. Essentially, existentialism is an assertive philosophy of life that says that we only live if we assert our existence which then can collectively, as humanity, defines our essence as human beings. Here is how James Sire describes it:

Here is how an existentialist goes beyond nihilism. Nothing is of value in the objective world in which we become conscious, but while we are conscious we create value. The person who lives an authentic existence is the one who keeps ever aware of the absurdity of the cosmos but who rebels against that absurdity and creates meaning.[1]

Williams’ actions do not comport with a system of thought that places a premium on life lived in the face of death, who is rebelling, apparently against the cosmos’ depersonalizing call to non-existence. And yet this is exactly what Williams’ did, he rebelled against a dominant philosophy of life in the West, and he, at a more basic level, rebelled against the basic reality that God has recreated us through his image in Jesus Christ. So either way, what Robin Williams did causes all of us problems with processing his suicide.

And yet, there is a ‘beyond’ beyond all of this. Apparently Robin Williams suffered deeply with depression, and so this has become the way, the mechanism through which we as the human race are currently attempting to process and place what Williams did into an intelligible category (even if the category itself remains very subjective and even mysterious at a certain level). So he was deeply depressed, as are so many other folks in the world (I myself went through years of it); and this seems to be the way we have allowed what Robin Williams did to be intelligible. In our world today, in point of fact, what Robin did, people would say, was a result of him being mentally ill (and the language of mentally ill, which used to be rather taboo, has now almost become trendy); and I can accept that, to a degree, but I would like to press this further.

We have come to the conclusion so far that Robin did something that flies in the face of a major philosophy of life for the West, that he has rebelled against his humanity that he has from God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ; and that he did what he did because he was mentally ill. But this conclusion seems somewhat hollow to me, I think the ‘mentally ill’ label shuts things down too quickly in the name of closure (even though we still remain shocked). Robin clearly was not thinking rationally, he obviously was not thinking spiritually (not rightly anyway), but really, as my last two points illicit, maybe the problem we are having with processing this adequately is that we have the wrong anthropology, that we are attempting to think of people as thinking/rationalist agents only. Interestingly the anthropology we get in the Bible is different. It does not define human beings by reducing them to rationalist thinking only agents, instead it talks much more about the most definitive component of human beings as the ‘heart’, as ‘affective’ beings who are motivated by certain desires, really as motivated by certain ‘loves.’

I think it would be interesting to attempt to think more about Robin’s suicide through a different anthropology, through a biblical anthropology, one that sees the affections as the core component of what defines humanity coram Deo (before God). If we did this it might reveal more about some of the deeper issues at play in the complex of Robin’s life, as well as in our own lives. This endeavor, should we undertake it, would probably not give us the ultimate answer to why Williams did what he did, but I am almost positive that it would reveal more than the current models being used by society and even Christians at large in attempting to make intelligible the unintelligible in the action of Robin Williams and of so many others among us.


[1] James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1997), 100.

The Role of Imagination and Affections in Human Action and Christian Formation

I am currently reading James K. A. Smith’s new book (the second volume following his first, Desiring the Kingdom) entitled: Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. At first I was leery, I was afraid that what, in reality Smith was imagineoffering is something like a virtue ethics (which is quite intellectualist in orientation). But to my welcoming, he is not; he is offering a kind of modified affective-literary rich liturgical anthropology as the basis for promoting a proper Christian understanding of spiritual formation and even critical cultural engagement. I was first put onto “affective” thinking by Ron Frost’s work, and his promotion of what he calls “Affective theology,” as he has retrieved that primarily from his PhD work on the Puritan Richard Sibbes, and the Augustinian anthropology that funded such an approach. I am happy to see that Smith is taking this kind of affective thinking and developing it even further, and by engagement with contemporary literary theory, neuro-science (which Frost would allude to often in his own work, in an incidental way), and some French theorists.

Now the above might sound somewhat obtrusive, or rather academic (and some of it is!); but Smith is aiming at providing a trajectory that is accessible for thoughtful pastors and lay people alike (he says so in the introduction of his book). With this in mind I wanted to whet your appetite by quoting a good summary of what is going on in Smith’s book, and offer a response to that afterwards. Here is Smith on the reality of affections and emotion (different from feeling, as he qualifies), and the role it plays in formation; whether that formation be actually into the image of Christ, or deformation into the tacit narratives and thus emotion-laden planes of reality:

Having fallen prey to the intellectualism of modernity, both Christian worship and Christian pedagogy have underestimated the importance of this body/story nexus—this inextricable link between imagination, narrative, and embodiment—thereby forgetting the ancient Christian sacramental wisdom carried in the historic practices of Christian worship and the embodied legacies of spiritual and monastic disciplines. Failing to appreciate this, we have neglected formational resources that are indigenous to the Christian tradition, as it were; as a result, we have too often pursued flawed models of discipleship and Christian formation that have focused on convincing the intellect rather than recruiting the imagination. Moreover, because of this neglect and our stunted anthropology, we have failed to recognize the degree and extent to which secular liturgies do implicitly capitalize on our embodied penchant for storied formation. This becomes a way to account for Christian assimilation to consumerism, nationalism, and various stripes of egoisms. These isms have had all the best embodied stories. The devil has had all the best liturgies.

A proper response to this situation is to change our practice—to reactivate and renew those liturgies, rituals, and disciplines that intentionally embody the story of the gospel and enact a vision of the coming kingdom of God in such a way that they’ll seep into our bones and become the background for our perceptions, the baseline for our dispositions, and the basis for our (often unthought) action in the world. While the goal is renewed practice, we cannot simply return to a fabled past, nor can we simply impose foreign practices. In order to generate a desire to renew and reorient our practices, we do well to engage in reflection to help understand why this is needed. So while the goal is practical, the way there is theoretical…. The kinaesthetic link between story, the body, and the imagination is implicit in historic Christian wisdom about spiritual formation and liturgical practice. However, rather than merely excavate that from historical sources, in this chapter I will engage Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of embodiment as a catalyst for us to remember the incarnational, sacramental wisdom that is ours. No one has better mapped the interplay between the imagination, perception, the body, and narrative.[1]

This resonates, a little, with Thomas Torrance’s idea of tacit knowledge, which he appropriated from Michael Polyani. But as I was transcribing this quote from Smith, it dawned on me, a bit; what I think Smith is proposing in his liturgical anthropology is a mode of spirituality that becomes heavily bedded down in ecclesiology, and thus not primarily, Christology.

I think Smith might be onto something; I think the affections (or his “emotions”V. “feelings”) have something very important to say to us about how we process and engage with reality as embodied persons. But my concern, in the end is that this is not going to have the kind of Christ concentration — anthropologically — that Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth, for example, provide for us. My concern is that with all of the good intention, the focus will end up being on how we are able to manage and manipulate our surroundings, our liturgies, such that we have to master our domain through habitus (habiting or habituating) practices that are self derived or abstract from the vicarious humanity of Christ himself; i.e. which is apocalyptic, and breaks in on our lives moment by moment by the Spirit, afresh and anew unhampered by our intentionality.

Obviously the key here, once again, is to try and travel a path that does not so objectify human action, in God’s action in the Incarnation in Christ for us, that we lose any sense of responsibility and subjectivity that moves from us, ourselves. The key, I think, is to have a proper understanding of the relation between nature and grace; the latter being the reality that predicates a proper concursus between God and man — and that proper concurrence must be understood, by way of order and grounding, by happening first in Jesus Christ’s humanity with us. And we, by the same Holy Spirit, and grace, act and become from Christ and not just toward him.

Anyway, more to come …

[1] James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 39-41.