Assurance Of Salvation

The 16th and 17th Century Reformed Covenantal Roots of the 21st Century evangelical and Reformed Theological Understanding of a ‘Legally Strained’ Gospel

When I can, I like to highlight where the legalistic character of the contemporary evangelical and Reformed faith came from. I realize that for many, maybe even most at this point, doctrine doesn’t really mean much these days for evangelicals; but there are still obviously large segments of evangelical Christians who actually do care about what they believe and why—so I write posts for folks
like that in mind. It would be difficult to detail a kind of ideational genealogy in regard to tracing how something like Covenant theology has made its way into 21st century evangelical and Reformed systems of theology. So for lack of doing such genealogical work I will write towards people who are enamored with the theology that The Gospel Coalition distills for the evangelical masses.

If one were to go to TGC’s website you could read up on their confessional or doctrinal statement, and you’d pick up almost immediately—if you were so tuned—the type of legal framework for understanding salvation that they promote. Like I noted, we won’t be able to draw the hard and fast lines between the forensic Gospel promoted by TGC with its predecessor theology found in historical Covenant theology (in a lineament[al] type of way); instead we will just have to leave such linkage at a suggestive and inchoate level.

With the ground cleared a bit, for the remainder of this post I wanted to survey, with M. Charles Bell’s help, the whence from where legally oriented, performance based conceptions of the Gospel came from; to do that we will look at an early Scottish proponent of what is called Federal or ‘Covenant’ theology. Maybe you have never heard of Covenant theology before, but at its base it is made up of two covenants (as a hermeneutical construct): the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

Robert Rollock was a Scottish theologian who operated in the late 1500s in the Scottish Kirk; as Bell develops, Rollock was one of the first Scots to propose and advocate for a Covenant theology in the Scottish Reformed church. As we look at Rollock’s take on Federal theology, my hope is that the reader will organically ‘get’ what I’m suggesting in this post in regard to the antecedent theology that funds the mood we find being promoted in theology offered by associates of The Gospel Coalition. Without further ado, here is Bell’s sketch of Rollock’s understanding of Covenant theology (and as you read others Rollock’s view of Covenant theology is quite standard when it comes to the basic structure and emphases).

The Covenant of Works

Rollock states that the covenant of works is a ‘legal or natural covenant’ founded in nature, and God’s law. For when God created man, he engraved his law in man’s heart. After the fall of man it was necessary to republish this covenant, which was done at Mt. Sinai when Moses delivered the written tablets of stone containing God’s commandments for his people. The substance of this covenant of works is the promise of eternal life for those who fulfill the conditions of holiness and good works.

In grounding this covenant in nature and the law, and making the substance of the covenant a conditional promise of eternal life, Rollock denies any place to Christ in this legal covenant. Christ is not the ground of the covenant, its substance or its mediator, he states. In fact, this covenant has no need of a mediator. This is so because the covenant was first made between God and Adam before the fall. Therefore, asserts Rollock, this covenant does not involve Christ in any way. It is not faith in Christ that is needed, but knowledge of the law and obedience to it. The covenant of works relates to Christ only as a means of preparing the individual to receive Christ in the covenant of grace. Rollock stresses time and again that law precedes grace or the gospel. First the covenant of works or the law, is set before us, and only when this works in us a feeling of our miserable, sinful estate are we ready to proceed to the next step of embracing the covenant of grace. The doctrine of the gospel begins with the legal doctrine of works and of the law.’ Rollock insists that if this preparationist ordo is not followed then the preaching and the promises of the gospel are in vain.

The Covenant of Grace

Although the covenant of works is the major concern within the Old Testament, Rollock insists that the ‘mystery of Christ’ is to be found in the Scriptures from Adam to Christ, thought this covenant of grace is expounded ‘sparingly and darkly’ in shadows. This covenant of grace is not entirely a new agreement between God and man, but is actually a ‘reagreement, and a renewing of an old friendship betweene two that first were friends.’ However, because of the breach between God and man since the fall, this second covenant is grounded upon the blood of Christ, and God’s free mercy in Christ. Moreover, the promise of this second covenant is not only that of eternal life, but, because of the fall of man, must involve also a promise of imputed righteousness which comes to us by faith and the work of Christ’s Spirit. On the other hand, like the first covenant, Rollock insists that the covenant of grace is conditional. The condition, however, is not one of works, but faith, ‘which embraces God’s mercy in Christ and makes Christ effectual in us’. Furthermore, this condition is not fulfilled naturally by us, but the required faith is itself God’s gift to us.

Rollock does not, however, do away with the requirement of works in the covenant of grace. The natural works of man have no part in this covenant, since the works of unregenerate man are of no value, and the covenant of works is abolished as a means of salvation for all who are in Christ. However, works are required of the believer not as merits on our part, or as ‘meritorious causes’ of our eternal life, but rather, as tokens of our gratitude and thankfulness to God for his grace. They can also be considered as the means by which we progress from our initial regeneration to eternal life, and so, in a sense, may be deemed ‘causes’, but only when they are first understood as themselves caused ore effected by ‘the only merit of Jesus Christ, whereof they testify’. Rollock is clear that these works do not proceed naturally from us, in our own strength, Rather, these works proceed from us, in our own strength. Rather, these works proceed from, and are produced by ‘the grace of regeneration’. They are God’s doing and not man’s. They are, as well, not perfect works, but merely ‘good beginnings’. Their perfection ‘is supplied, and to be found in Christ Jesus’.

Rollock attempts to make a strong case for the objective ground and nature of salvation in Christ, and the covenant of grace. He states that God’s grace is the ‘sole efficient cause’ of faith, hope, and repentance. Although in the ministry of reconciliation there are two covenant partners involved, Rollock stresses that the initiative for healing lies with God and not us. God the Father seeks and saves us. It is his love manifested in our healing. His call in the gospel comes to us; we do not seek it. Echoing Calvin, Rollock writes that the cause of our salvation lies in God alone, and ‘na pairt in man quha is saved’. Nevertheless, it becomes clear in his writings that because of his conditional covenant schemed and his preparationist ordo salutis, in which law precedes grace, he is forced to return to a subjective basis within man for one’s final assurance of salvation.[1]

There is a lot in there. Rather than attempting to unpack it all, I want to essentially let it stand as is and simply be a kind of proof of where evangelical and Reformed theology’s ‘legally’ flavored conception comes from; as I read it, it is rather self-evident.

To be clear, I am not wanting to suggest that in every detail the Gospel preached by something like TGC is corollary, one-for-one. Instead what I’m hoping the reader can see, especially if you have never been exposed to this, is where the roots are for contemporary 21st century understandings of evangelical and Reformed soteriology; one could also think of the resurgence of Reformed theology we find in the so called Young, Restless and Reformed. I’m not wanting to suggest that all of this type of retrieval and resurgence among the conservative evangelical and Reformed wings of today is one wherein a full blown recovery of Covenant theology is taking place (although for some that’s exactly what is happening). Instead, I’m hoping that the reader will be able to see the framework, in a general type of way, wherein a ‘legal’ performance based understanding of salvation comes from. Many of those retrieving the historical Reformed faith are Baptists; they typically are not Covenantal like what we find in someone like Rollock, or later in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Nevertheless, the forensic way for conceiving of salvation, whether someone is a flaming Federal theologian or not, for the evangelical, comes from something like what we see evidenced in the theology of Robert Rollock. This is, I would submit, the mood of theology that gives us the idea that the Penal Substitutionary Atonement is the theory of the atonement that is the bedrock Gospel understanding of what the Gospel actually is; I contend that without Covenant theology PSA would never have come to have the prominence it does for evangelical and Reformed theories of the atonement and the Gospel itself.

One other point, before we go; I think of the work that someone like Brian Zahnd is doing. His most recent book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, is intended to offer an alternative conception of the Gospel wherein a Gospel of grace and love is presented; i.e. in contrast to the type of theology he is riffing on like what we might find in Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Zahnd is all about critiquing the ‘legal strain’ sense of the Gospel we find say in the theology presented by TGC et al. But I really think that if he wants to offer a full blown critique he needs to engage with the antecedent theology informing the theology he is attempting to critique. He often attributes all of this to Calvin, as if Calvin was the founder of Calvinism. But that’s just not the case, and so his critiques often miss the target when he is attempting to critique a legal forensically styled Gospel. I think he would do better to engage with the type of Post Reformed orthodox theology (of the 16th and 17th centuries) that we are covering here in this post. It helps to provide more context for people in attempting to understand where this type of ‘legal’ quid pro quo Covenantal theology comes from. It also is more honest and truthful as it gets into the actual meat and development of theology that indeed does offer us the ‘legal’ categories for conceiving of salvation that we still work under today in the evangelical and Reformed world.

 

[1] M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985), 53-4.

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Assurance of Salvation in Christ

My personal chapter for our newly released (May, 2017) Evangelical Calvinism book, volume 2, is entitled: “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith”: Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the “Faith of Christ”. In it I offer a constructive critique of Calvin’s doctrine of election/reprobation and what that does to his understanding of assurance of salvation. We are generally and favorably disposed to Calvin’s idea that assurance of salvation is of the essence of faith, but I personally believe Calvin’s particular theological framework, when it comes to his double predestination and other issues, does not really support his belief about assurance. So I sought to not only constructively critique him, but also to correct him through Barth’s and Torrance’s categories with reference to this particular locus. At the end of the chapter I offered four summarizing and concluding points in regard to what we have seen in Calvin’s understanding—i.e. what he offered that was highly positive towards assurance of salvation—but then also how Barth and Torrance come along and help Calvin along theologically. The following are two of the four summarizing points that I offered in that concluding section:

3 As we moved from Calvin to Barth and Torrance what we have are the theological resources required for a robust doctrine of assurance. With Barth and Torrance we certainly have Calvin’s emphases on union with Christ and grace, as Christ is understood as the objective (and subjective) ground of salvation. But moving beyond this we have Calvin’s weaknesses corrected when it comes to a doctrine of election. Because Barth and Torrance see Jesus as both elect and reprobate simultaneously in his vicarious humanity for all of humanity, there is absolutely no space for anxiety in the life of the seeker of assurance. Since, for Barth and Torrance, there is no such thing as “temporary faith,” since faith, from their perspective, is the “faith of Christ” (pistis Christou) for all of humanity, there is no room for the elect to attempt to prove that they have a genuine saving faith, since the only saving faith is Christ’s “for us and our salvation.” Further, since there is no hidden or secret decree where the reprobate can be relegated, since God’s choice is on full display in Jesus Christ— with “no decree behind the back of Jesus”—the seeker of assurance does not have to wonder whether or not God is for them or not; the fact and act of the incarnation itself already says explicitly that God is for the elect and not against them.

4 If there is no such thing as elect and reprobate individuals, if God in Christ gave his life for all of humanity in his own elect humanity, if there is no such thing as temporary faith, if Christ’s faith for us is representative of the only type of saving faith there is; then Christ is all consuming, as such he is God’s assurance of salvation for all of humanity. The moment someone starts to wonder if they are elect, properly understood, the only place that person can look is to Jesus. There is no abstract concept of salvation; Jesus Christ is salvation, and assurance of salvation and any lingering questions associated with that have no space other than to look at Jesus. The moment someone gets caught up in anxious thoughts and behavior associated with assurance, is the moment that person has ceased thinking about salvation in, by, and for Christ. Anxiety about salvation, about whether or not I am elect only comes from a faulty doctrine of election which, as we have seen, is in reality the result of a faulty Christology. We only have salvation with God in Christ because of what Jesus Christ did for us by the grace of God; as such our only hope is to be in union with Christ, and participate in what Calvin called the “double grace” of God’s life for us. It is this reality that quenches any fears about whether or not I am genuinely elect; because it places the total burden of that question on what God has done for us, including having faith for us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.[1]

The primary correction comes from Karl Barth’s reformulation of election/reprobation as he orders that around and from Christ in a genuinely principled way. Indeed, as I argue in my chapter, it is at this pivotal point where Calvin loses the ability to actually offer the type of assurance of salvation that he had hoped for within his own frame of thought and theological-biblical exegesis.

The only way, as I have argued, that someone can genuinely say that ‘assurance of salvation is of the essence of saving faith’ is if it is grounded in Christ all the way down. If we don’t have a doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ at the center of our theological thinking, then we, like Calvin, will stumble when it comes to this issue (among other issues). If Christ is not genuinely the key, in an absolute kind of way, we will be forced to look elsewhere when attempting to construct our theologies and soteriologies; we will be forced to look, potentially anyway, to speculative philosophical approaches, and theories of causation and metaphysics (like Aristotelianism) that will do damage to a faithful Bible reading; and will do damage to people’s spirituality (that is if the theology itself is internalized).

I wouldn’t want you to think that I have totally relegated Calvin’s theology to the garbage heap; God forbid it! Indeed, I offer much praise of Calvin’s offering even in the midst of my critical engagement with him. He has a rich union with Christ theology, along with his double grace theology; both of which are significantly grounded in a thoroughgoing Christocentrism that you will be hard pressed to find among any of Calvin’s contemporaries.

 

[1] Bobby Grow, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith”: Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the “Faith of Christ,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2017), 53-4.

What Does the Practical Syllogism [assurance of salvation] Have to Do With Modern Theology’s Turn-to-the-Subject?

For people concerned about such things—I haven’t come across anyone who seems to be for a long time now, which normally I would think is a good thing, but I’m afraid that the reason despairwhy is not for a good reason—the doctrine of assurance of salvation and certainty about one’s eternal destiny has a long pedigree in the history of the church’s ideas. If you are someone who has struggled with this, and would like to get a handle on where it came from in the history of ideas, then this post is for you (there’s also a twist to this post as the title suggests).

It all started, it can be surmised, back in the days of late medieval and early reformational theology; an apparatus known as the practical syllogism came to the fore, and is what Protestant’s appealed to in an attempt to grasp a sense of certitude about whether or not they were one of the elect of God. It starts early on in the Protestant genesis, and maturates in unhealthy ways as we get into Puritan England, particularly in the theology of William Perkins. Stephen Strehle provides a type of genealogy for the development of the practical syllogism.

Deducing Salvation

The practical syllogism began to be sure much like the doctrine of eternal security, looking to ascertain one’s election a posteriori from its “signs” or “marks.” However, this time instead of focusing upon the promises of God as revealed in Christ, the concentration shifted toward the faith and works of those who would obtain and partake of those promises. The faith and works of one’s salvation experience became signs through which a true believer could discern his relationship to Christ’s promises and his election before the Father. It was all a simple deduction: “Every one that believes is the child of God: But I doe beleeve: Therefore I am the child of God.” This practical syllogism became a significant feature in most accounts of the Reformed orthodox and unfortunately turned the faith of the church away from Christ and toward an inspection of oneself and the fruits of true salvation.

The precise history of the doctrine is not so clear, although we do find certain theologians of note who were influenced in its publication and help us to trace its development. Calvin as we have noted is not a party to this as his focus remains centered upon Christ and his promises throughout his works. While he might at certain points speak of works as providing some assistance to a troubled conscience, they are considered only secondary means of consolation, and generally when he looks at himself Calvin finds nothing but despondency and condemnation. Theodore de Beza, who succeeded Calvin at Geneva, did tend, however, to reverse this order and must be considered prominent in the initial dissemination of the doctrine. He speaks of the practical syllogism a few times in his works, maintaining that it is the “first step” by which we progress toward the “first cause” of our salvation. While it is not a major emphasis of his, just the mere mention of it in his works is all that was needed. His very stature as the only theological professor at Geneva from 1564-1600 and practically all Reformed Europe for that matter would insure its place in the Reformed tradition, along with the rest of his Aristotelian (non-Christocentric) program, as we shall see later. As far as other important figures, Jerome Zanchi, a theologian from Strasbourg and disciple of Calvin, must also be accorded his place in the ascent and prevalence of the doctrine, perhaps providing an even earlier inspiration from Beza. He supplies in his works a syllogistic argument that displays the same basic structure of Beza’s and orthodoxy’s formulation but without supplying the specific name (indicating an early date). He then exhorts the believer to look within, not without, to find Christ working. Zanchi will prove to exert a major influence not only in Europe but especially in England among the Puritans where the doctrine will receive its most protracted and painstaking treatment. The Calvinists will hereafter speak of faith and certitude as involving a “serious exploration of oneself,” a “reflexive act” in which “faith in one self is felt,” and an inner knowledge of what one “feels and believes.” All of this resulted, of course, as they forsook the Christocentric orientation of Calvin for Aristotle, as well as the sacramental basis of personal assurance in Luther, which we had emphasized earlier. The quest for certitude had now devolved into an introspective life from which only depravity and uncertainty could be found, as well as a calculus, deduced from a more general promise and the Christ who made it, both of which seemed strangely at a distance. The Puritans, as we said, serve as the most notable example of this turn and should be accorded special mention in the study of assurance. In contrast to the perfunctory manner in which many of the Calvinists treated the doctrine, often reserving a mere page or two in otherwise prodigious tomes, the Puritans produced numerous and voluminous treatises upon the doctrine, considering it to be the most pressing of all religious issues.[1]

Anyone familiar with Richard Muller’s writings will immediately recognize the critique he would make against Strehle’s development; particularly the idea that Beza, contra Calvin, took Reformed theology into Aristotelian and philosophical modes of thought. I myself am critical of Strehle’s idea that Calvin was purely Christocentric when it comes to this issue; in fact in my forthcoming chapter in our EC2 book, I argue, along with Barth and others, that Calvin actually contributed to a non-Christocentric trajectory when dealing with this particular issue of assurance of salvation.

But none of the above withstanding, in a general way Strehle provides a faithful accounting, in my view, for how the practical syllogism developed and made its way into Puritan theology. What I would like to suggest, though, is that this development, this turn to the self, it could be argued at an intellectual-heritage level, contributed to the modern turn to the subject that is often, at least theologically, attributed to the work of someone like Friedrich Schleiermacher. Kelly Kapic sketches Schleiermacher, and his interlocutors this way:

The genius of Schleiermacher’s system is that he takes his anthropological emphases and pulls his entire theology through this grid. Arguably this creates an anthropocentric theology, since he consciously grounds his methods in human experience. This understandably provoked many questions. For example, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), a one-time student of Schleiermacher, later turned this perspective on its head, concluding that there really is no theology at all, since it is all ultimately reducible to anthropology. God is nothing more than the projection of human desires and feelings, but not a reality in itself. Nodding in Schleiermacher’s direction, Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer later commented that “theological anthropocentrism is always a more serious danger than secular anthropocentrism, since we, from the very meaning of theology, might expect that it would not misunderstand man as centrum.” Karl Barth, especially in his younger years, also chastened Schleiermacher with his famous quip: “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice,” since doing so means you will misunderstand both God and man. Finally, Paul Tillich worried that Schleiermacher’s language and emphasis on “feeling,” which he admits was commonly misunderstood, nevertheless contributed to the exodus of men from German churches.  Although this appears to me an unfair charge to level against Schleiermacher, it is fair to say that his proposal to orient all religion, and consequently the truth of theology, to Gefühl does widen the canvas on which theological anthropology will be painted by including more than rationality and will as the core of being human.[2]

It might seem like a stretch to suggest that the type of theology produced by someone like Schleiermacher, or moderns in general, can be attributed by antecedent to what we see developed in the theologies that produced something like the practical syllogism, but I don’t think it is too big of a stretch. I see at least a couple of links: 1) there is an informing anthropology where anthropology starts from a philosophical starting point rather than a Christian Dogmatic one. In other words, the humanity of Jesus Christ, for Beza and Scheiermacher alike is not the ground for what it means to be a human at a first-order level, as such within this abstraction, even from the get go, there is of necessity a turn to the human subject as its own self-defining terminus; i.e. there is not external ground by which humanity can be defined in this frame, instead it is humanity as absolute (obviously at a second order after-this-fact level, Beza, Schleiermacher, et al. then attempt to bring Christ’s humanity into the discussion). 2) There is a methodological focus on a posteriori discovery in regard to knowing God and knowing self before God in practical syllogism theology as well as turn to the subject theology (pre-modern and modern respectively). This in and of itself is not problematic, per se, but it is problematic when informed antecedently by an anthropology that is, at a first order level, detached from Jesus Christ’s humanity as definitive. Again, if humans start with a general sense of humanity devoid of the humanity of Christ as its primal ground, and attempt to know God and place themselves before God from that starting point there are devastating consequences. One of the primary consequences is that all theologizing from that point on, coram Deo, must start epistemologically and ontologically, from below; i.e. from my humanity, from your humanity. At the end of all of  this we end up with a rationalizing affect that colors the way we attempt to negotiate our standing and understanding with and before God.

So What?

Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, both modern theologians,  sought to invert and flip turn-to-the-subject theology on its head by thinking from truly Christian Dogmatic taxis (or ‘order’). Torrance made a special point of emphasizing how an order-of-being must come before and order-of-knowing; in other words, the idea that God’s being precedes our being, and that all conditions for knowing God and thus self (cf. Calvin) must start within this frame and order of things. I.e. There is no general or abstract sense of humanity, if we are going to have genuine knowledge of God, ourselves, and the world, then we must start with the concrete humanity of Jesus Christ. Barth, in his own ways, makes these same points, particularly by flipping Immanuel Kant on his head, and as a consequence flipping Schleiermacher on his.

I would contend that Western society, in general, still is living out what this turn-to-the-subject has meant for society at large. In fact, in the 21st century we see this type of turn in hyper-form; we might want to call it normative relativism. Ideas do have consequences, as such I think getting an idea of where they come from can help us engage those ideas critically; and when needed we are in a better position to repudiate and/or reify ideas that might ultimately be deleterious to our souls.

What I have suggested in this post remains quite general, and some would say reductionistic; but I think there is something to what I’m getting at. Since this is a blog post, and a long one, it will have to simply remain at the level of suggestion.

[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 37-41.

[2] Kelly M. Kapic, “Anthropology,” in Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, eds., Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2012), 192 Scribd version.

Assurance of Salvation in Martin Luther, with Reference to Barth and Torrance. ‘I absolve you!’

Myk Habets and I have edited our volume two Evangelical Calvinism book due out in the early half of 2017. My personal chapter in that volume is on John Calvin’s, Karl Barth’s, and Thomas Torrance’s doctrine of assurance of salvation. This topic has always been of luther_martin-3interest to me, at one point it was something I struggled with; and I’ve known others (who are very close to me) who have struggled with this as well. Currently, I’m not really sure many evangelicals struggle with this anymore; mostly, I would suggest, because of the kind of superficiality present in most evangelical churches today when it comes to actual doctrine and doctrinal understanding or interest (and I’m including the leadership levels as well). That said, the rest of this post will be dealing with this ancient doctrine; we will have particular focus on how this doctrine functioned in the thought and theology of Martin Luther.

Luther, as so many know, was an Augustinian monk; to say he was devout and driven would be an understatement. He, not unlike many in his day, struggled deeply with assurance of salvation. Because of the teaching of the medieval Roman Catholic church people could never really know with certainty if they had done enough penance and engaged in enough heartfelt contrition to know if they were right with God; the result was that people languished with a sense of doubt and fear before a perceived wrathful God. It was this framework Luther was succored in as a monk, indeed it was the air he breathed his whole life; and he was tormented.

Without getting into Luther’s whole biography, and theological antecedents, suffice it to say Luther needed a way out; he needed an assuaged conscience before God. He became a monk with the goal of finding such consolation; but would he find it? As most of us know, yes, indeed, Luther did think he found it; but as many of us might not know he didn’t find it by abandoning his Catholic medieval framework of thought, instead he found it afresh as he read the New Testament for himself. Luther came to realize that he could only stand before God by trusting God’s Word, by standing by faith with the understanding that the righteousness of God wasn’t something he could muster up, instead it was an ‘alien righteousness’ external to Luther and all humanity found in Christ. With this new found insight Luther reified the Catholic penitential system by grounding it in a theology of God’s Word, and understanding that as the priest spoke absolution over people it was in actuality the Word of God itself. Luther was finally able to find certainty of standing before God, not by cooperating with God in penance, or by mustering up heartfelt contrition, but by looking to the cross of Jesus Christ itself; by knowing that the righteousness he needed before God was not latent in him, but explicit in Jesus Christ. Stephen Strehle explains all of this for us this way:

Luther, the founder of the Protestant doctrine, often spoke of his fifteen (sometimes twenty) years as a monk in the Catholic Church as a time of bondage to the works of self-righteousness and the fear of God. As a monk he did not trust in the righteousness of Christ but in the incessant performance of vigils, prayers, and fasts—a righteousness that was a veritable “cesspool and delightful kingdom of the devil.” Such righteousness, of course, brought nothing but despair to Luther. His confessions did not bring help or solace, for his sins, he felt, were too great to mention and his contrition never sufficient to satisfy the demands of true righteousness. His experience was thus filled with fear, doubt, and torment, and his concept of Catholicism became slanted accordingly, as he imputed those anxieties to the church’s own teachings and practice.

Luther, however, did not abandon the practice of penance in order to rediscover his Gospel elsewhere, as is so often supposed among scholars, but found assurance and faith by reinterpreting the purpose of the sacrament along a direction other than the one that we have just witnessed. Instead of pointing to the worthiness of one’s own righteousness or contrition, which is indeed the kingdom of the devil and leads to despair, Luther pointed the penitent in another direction. He exhorted the penitent to listen and trust in the words of comfort, uttered by the priest in the sacrament, as the very word of God. He exhorted them to no longer trust in their “contrition of the heart, the confession of the mouth, or satisfaction of works,” but to listen to the mercy that God freely offers them through the priest. The priest’s role after all is said to bring comfort to those who are shackled with anguish over their sins. His words must be seen as God’s words; his actions God’s actions; his forgiveness God’s forgiveness. When he pronounces the simple words “I absolve you,” this must be seen as a special pronouncement from God to the individual that his sins have been forgiven.

This is how Luther first became so absolutely assured of his standing before God. God had told him personally. This word was not a promise spoken generally to all men or made contingent upon the fulfillment of conditions, always subject to human frailty and their misconceptions. It was a word spoken from God’s mouth to Luther’s ear. When the priest said, “I absolve you,” the “I” was God and the “you” was Luther.[1]

Strehle gives a sense of how Luther reified assurance of salvation; placing the referent for “certitude” no longer in self, but in Jesus Christ. In my view what Luther did serves only as a first step; he needs to be taken further.

Just as with Calvin, Luther offers pregnant contours of thought that are weighted with a Christ concentration just waiting for further development. I contend that that type of development is exactly what we’ve been given in the theologies of Barth and Torrance. Here’s what I mean with reference to a Barthian development. Here Barth offers critique of Calvin’s doctrine of election and assurance; while Luther was different than Calvin in some important ways (especially in the early Luther we just had elucidated for us by Strehle), the Christ-direction that Barth takes this would equally serve Luther just as well as it serves Calvin. Barth writes:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[2]

The moral is the Word of God. What is missing, in an explicit way, in both Calvin and Luther is a focus on the vicarious humanity of Christ. We see the lineaments of that in both of them at important points, but not in explicit ways. For Barth, as for Torrance, the word of absolution that Luther found in the priest’s words, were actually first spoken by God over the humanity of Jesus Christ, for us. As we are in union with Christ and his vicarious humanity, the ground of our assurance isn’t found from the lips of a priest, or pastor, they are found in the very Word of God Himself; we look directly and thus not indirectly to Christ. The mediation isn’t through sacraments, it is directly given through Christ; the mediation isn’t through decrees, it is directly through Jesus Christ. We look to Christ.

Martin Luther and John Calvin, as noted, provided a very fruitful and rich trajectory; Barth and Torrance stood on their shoulders (and other’s), and took it straight to the heavenlies in Christ. Assurance isn’t a concept, it isn’t something we generate; it’s Jesus Christ.

[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 8-10.

[2] Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.

Assurance of Salvation Articulated from the Theology of Barth

The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom. It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ because He is both the electing God and the elected man in One. It is part of the doctrine of God because originally God’s election of man is a righthandpredestination not merely of man but of Himself. Its function is to bear basic testimony to eternal, free and unchanging grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God. – Karl Barth CD II/2 §32

I am writing on a doctrine of assurance of salvation (for our forthcoming EC book). There is no better place to start and end than with Jesus Christ and His choice to be for us; to start with God’s self-determined free and gracious choice to not be God without us, but with us, Immanuel. This is why Barth says that “the doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best; that God elects man; that God is for man to the One who loves in freedom.” If God in Christ predestines Himself to be both elect, in His election of our humanity in the Son, and as corollary reprobate in the assumption of our fallen humanity this removes the space for any cleavage or dualism to inhere between an elect class of humanity and a reprobate class of humanity. All of humanity is grounded in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, and in His election to be human. As a result in His humiliation we are exalted in His exaltation for us as He as the elected reprobate takes our reprobation to the cross and grave and puts it to death. We share in His exalted and elected state as He recreates humanity in His resurrected humanity, ascending to the right hand of the Father where He always lives to make intercession for us. But in His election of us He also has faith for us, as an implicate of His primacy and prototypical place as the human par excellence. He, in His vicarious humanity by the Holy Spirit believes for us; as such we do not need to look inward to find faith for God, we need to look outward to the faith of Christ as the ground and reality from which we can echo as we participate in and from His vicarious humanity by the same Holy Spirit.

Salvation becomes nothing of us, but all of Jesus for us! Salvation is exhausted fully and totally by God’s elect life for us in Jesus Christ. God’s election for us in Christ erases any space between us and God (except that the Son is the Son by nature, and we by grace and adoption); in Christ we have been fully reconciled to God, and this is the space, by God’s grace therein, where we can look nowhere but Christ. We cannot look to ourselves as the ground of anything, by God’s grace God has re-created brand-new ground from whence we live and move and have our being (II Cor. 5.17 )—as the Apostle Paul writes “we are new creations, the old has gone the new has come.” The moment we attempt to think of salvation in abstraction from Jesus Christ, in any way, we have lost our way already.

Consequently, when people struggle to find assurance of salvation the answer is truly: look to Jesus! It isn’t a matter of whether he chose this or that person for salvation or eternal destruction; it is a matter of understanding that God in Christ has freely chosen all of humanity for Himself the moment He chose to not be God without us but with us in Christ. If this causes people to fear universalism we should ask: why?! This does not need to terminate in a dogmatic universalism, but only a hopeful one; of the sort that we can find within the Apostle Paul himself. ‘Perfect love casts out fear,’ so if we are embracing theological constructions that find their thrust and vive from anxiety and fear (i.e. “am I one of the elect or reprobate” so on and so forth), then we know that we have moved outside of a theology that honors Jesus Christ, and that does not find its reality from Him.

 

Miscellenies on a Doctrine of Assurance of Salvation in the Theologies of Karl Barth and John Calvin with Reference to Stephen Holmes

I am supposed to be writing a chapter in our forthcoming Evangelical Calvinism book (Volume 2) on the doctrine of assurance of salvation; and I am, it is just a very slow process. The rest of this post will engage with this ‘doctrine’ embedded as it is in a discussion about Calvin’s understanding of election and reprobation vis-à-vis Barth’s.

Stephen R. Holmes (or Steve Holmes as I know him on Facebook) has written a little book entitled Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology. One of the chapters in his book is young-calvinentitled: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Reprobation. As he himself notes this particular chapter is less about Barth’s doctrine (although it is), and more about developing a history for a Reformed understanding of election/reprobation and how that relates latterly to a doctrine of assurance of salvation (or not). As Holmes develops his material he focuses in on, as I noted above, on John Calvin and his doctrine of election. Holmes concludes, in summary, that Calvin’s doctrine of election (as, in general, that of all of the prominent voices in Post-Reformed orthodoxy) ultimately fails in providing assurance of salvation because Calvin does not really have a robust place for reprobation in his theology; with the result that reprobation remains ‘Christless,’ that it does indeed remain in the dark recesses of God’s remote will as it were. Beyond this, what Holmes sees as problematic, especially in providing the kind of assurance of salvation that Calvin wanted to provide for his parishioners, was that Calvin had an idea of ‘temporary faith’ (the idea that people could look like they have a genuine effectual saving faith, but in the final analysis it only ‘appeared’ that way, in the end they really weren’t one of the elect of Christ) in his broader doctrine of salvation. When coupled with a doctrine of reprobation that remains in the darkness of God’s remote or secret will, it becomes apparent why Holmes believes Calvin’s doctrine[s] here fail.

An Aside: I think that most of what we are discussing in this post is pretty much lost on most people in the church of Jesus Christ today. The irony, though, is that the grammar of salvation that people appeal to on a daily basis (particularly evangelicals in North America and in the rest of the Western world) finds its context and meaning in the type of “abstract” discussion we are engaging with in this post. I really have hardly any hope that the people that I would like to read this most will ever read or consider such things. So I guess this means I am just writing this for you, dear reader. And if not you, and even if for you, I write this as an act of worship unto God (if I don’t do that, then I feel as if writing and contemplating such things in such a small corner of the vast ocean of the internet would almost seem meaningless … hopefully the elect angels might read this).

So Steve Holmes has written this (and he has written more, and what he has written does actually end up being much more on the classical side of Calvin rather than the neo-classical side of Barth) in regard to Calvin’s flawed doctrine of election and reprobation as opposed to Barth’s more robust offering.

Barth’s great concern in treating the doctrine of election is that it should be gospel – good news. He begins with the programmatic assertion ‘The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or hear it is the best …’ Given this, a rapid way to an idea, at least, of what separated Barth from the Reformed tradition might be attained by asking what prevented previous Reformed accounts from fulfilling this laudable aim. Why, for instance, did Calvin’s presentation of election, certainly intended to offer assurance of salvation to worried believers, not succeed?

Well, the point at which Calvin appears to engage in special pleading in his attempt to give assurance to believers is when he speaks of ‘temporary faith’ (III.24.7-9). Those with this ‘temporary faith’, according to Calvin, ‘never cleaved to Christ with the heartfelt trust in which the certainty of election has, I say, been established for us’. They may indeed ‘have signs of a call that are similar to those of the elect’, but lack ‘the sure establishment of election’ (III.24.7). Such phrases achieve the very opposite of their intention, however, suggesting that there is something that masquerades as true faith, but is not. How can any believer know whether he or she feels a ‘sure establishment’ or whether it is merely ‘signs of a call similar to those of the elect’? The invitation for years of morbid introspection by later believers is surely here–at this point, with these phrases in my ears, that I cannot be sure of my own salvation. There is no assurance, and so the doctrine fails to be gospel, instead informing me that there is a way of being, indistinguishable (to those living it at least) from Christian being, which is nonetheless supremely dangerous. The weakness in Calvin’s account of predestination, I suggest, is that the doctrine of reprobation is detached. Christless and hidden in the unsearchable purposes of God. As such it bears no comparison with the doctrine of election, but remains something less than a Christian doctrine. There is, in Calvin’s account, a fundamental difference between election and reprobation. Contra Barth, Calvin’s failure is not that he teaches a symmetrical double decree (Barth speaks of ‘the classical doctrine with its opposing categories of “elect” and “reprobate”’), but that he has almost no room for the doctrine of reprobation in his account.

This difference, this asymmetry, is ‘a very amiable fault’; it gives insight into Calvin the pastor, whose heart and mind were full of the glories of God’s gift of salvation in Christ–so different from the caricature often painted. Calvin’s doctrine fails not because of a double decree, because the ‘No’ is equal to the ‘Yes’, but because the ‘No’ does not really enter his thinking. It is a logical result of the ‘Yes’, and necessary for the ‘Yes’ truly to be ‘Yes’, but, whereas election is bound up in his theology, it is the very fact that he is seemingly not interested in reprobation, that he has not brought it within the Trinitarian scope of his system, that makes it such a weak point. That is to say, Calvin’s doctrine fails to be gospel, is not ‘of all words … the best’, because he gives no doctrinal content to his account of reprobation and hence has no meaningful symmetry between the two decrees.[1]

For Holmes Calvin’s doctrine of reprobation fails because he really doesn’t have a ‘positive’ one at all in his theology. As a result (as noted) when coupled with a conception of ‘temporary faith’ it becomes clear why folks submitted to this theology (especially as it blossomed in Puritan theologies), within ecclesiopolitical contexts where ‘normal public life’ and ‘special private religious life’ were one and the same, why folks struggled desperately with assurance of salvation. They might have wondered (and did): “Am I one of the elect or reprobate?” “Do I have a temporary faith, or real ‘effectual’ saving faith; do I just appear to be one of the elect of Christ, or do I fall into the abyss of reprobation?” These seem to be honest indicators of how Calvin’s theology of reprobation and assurance failed. Barth didn’t have this problem (we will have to leave this for another day).

All of this begs the question though: If a properly conceived doctrine of election/reprobation can be presented (and I think it can be as evinced in the theology of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance), do we even end up with a theological category known as “assurance of salvation” (as a corollary of ‘reprobation’)? I would say the answer to this question is No! Assurance of salvation only becomes a psychological category and fall-out for folks if the premises that funded Calvin’s thought (for example) on the subject of predestination are taken seriously and to its logical conclusion (as evinced in later Federal theology and experimental predestinarianism, so called). In other words, and ironically, I believe that ‘assurance of salvation’ as a doctrine should be a non-doctrine, and that any angst associated with it (insofar as it points weary souls back to themselves rather than to Christ alone) ought to be thrown into the abyss where it (as a teaching) ought to experience eternal conscious torment.

[1] Stephen R. Holmes, Listening To The Past: The Place Of Tradition In Theology (UK/Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster Press/Baker Academic, 2002), 129-30.

Ephesians 1.4, Election, Assurance and Moving Beyond Identity with Karl Barth

I want to keep pressing this idea on the importance of election. Beyond drawing bright lines between various tribes of interpretation I want to emphasize the import of this doctrine materially, and the impact it has upon our perception of God and us. I think too often what gets youngbarthlost in a discussion like this is, indeed, the actual constructive theological consideration we purportedly are endeavoring to engage with. In other words, I am afraid that we get too interested in trying to self-promote our own theological identities to the point that we get lost in that fog and fail to recognize the significant material (and formal) theological distinctions on offer; and thus we fail then to capitalize on the value that the array of theological loci have towards cultivating disciples of Christ in our local church bodies (I digress!).

So the following will be a quote from G.C. Berkouwer (again!), and his read of Barth’s understanding of election and its impact on a doctrine of assurance of salvation. [Berkouwer does not agree with Barth, ultimately, but he does offer a pretty good description of Barth’s approach, and what Barth was attempting to squelch in regard to self-focus and anxiety relative to discerning one’s salvation] Berkouwer will offer a little historical detail, and then jump right into Barth’s view and how it relates to his interpretation of Ephesians 1:4.

καθὼς ἐξελέξατο ἡμᾶς ἐν αὐτῷ πρὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου, εἶναι ἡμᾶς ἁγίους καὶ ἀμώμους κατενώπιον αὐτοῦ ἐν ἀγάπῃ,

just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. Ephesians 1.4

What, then, is the deepest reason for the difference between Calvin and Barth? [on election] Our earlier analysis will already have suggested the answer to this question. According to Barth, the Lutheran and the Reformed doctrines of election have weakened the connection between Christ and election. In that doctrine Christ is seen only as the executor of election, not as its foundation. Therefore there is a vacuum behind election which the pastoral office is not able to fill.

In a certain sense, the debate centers around the exegesis of Eph. 1:4. Barth judges that there can be certainty only when this verse is understood to meant that Christ is not only the executor but also the foundation of election, because the decision of election is taken in Him and thereby all men have been elected in Him. Only then is certainty possible, only then can there be a knowing unmarred by threat. In the revelation of Christ the fact of the election of all men has been revealed. This universal election stands revealed as God’s decisive election. All uncertainty is removed by this universally decisive act of God. That which Barth sees as a “blind spot,” a sinister “vacuum,” in the traditional view, he fills with this decisive act of God which forms the content of the kerugma. In this manner Barth thinks to correct the Reformation doctrine of election on the score of the certainty of salvation and thus do full justice to Eph. 1:4.

This certainty can now point to its foundation: Christ as the rejected and elected One. The kerugma has this unassailable decisiveness as its concrete content, and as God’s definite decision precedes all human decisions. It does not assume the human decision, but in faithfulness it triumphs over that decision which is a rebellion against grace. In this way Christ is not merely the mirror of election, He is the manifestation of our election in Him.[1]

Berkouwer follows what I just quoted from him (in his book) with fear that Barth’s program necessarily leads to universalism; even though he recognizes that Barth didn’t think so (and rejected universalism).

Beyond that, what do you think worry about hooking into one particular theological tradition over another will do in the way that we receive Barth on his ostensible reformulation of the trad conception of election? I think if we move beyond trying to locate ourselves theologically and simply look at Barth’s critique and reformulation of the trad conception of election that it becomes pretty clear that he at the very least is onto something!

We need to be able to look at Christ as not only the exemplum (exemplar) of humanity, but to use Calvin’s language as the very ‘mirror of our election’ without remainder, without partiality. If there is a 1% chance that Jesus may have not elected to die for you personally, then when extrapolated, that 1% can become an infinite gap between the possibility of you and God being truly reconciled; and 1% is just too much to bear. Jesus didn’t become 99% human for us (pro nobis), he became 100% human for us, and that before the foundation of the world (Deus incarnandus ‘the God to be incarnate’). The force of this fact is much more than a declarative one, it is ontic reality; viz. the eternal Logos, the eternal Son has elected to be the very ground of our humanity as he is the very icon or image of God (cf. Col. 1.15) in whose image we not only have been created but recreated (resurrected), in his vicarious humanity.

Conclusion

How do I tie this somewhat fragmented post up? Let’s just say this: It is all about Jesus!

 

 

[1] G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph Of Grace In The Theology Of Karl Barth: An Introduction And Critical Appraisal (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 286-87.

A Second Riposte to Kevin DeYoung on Assurance of Salvation in I John. There is a History

I

I wanted to continue to engage with Kevin DeYoung’s recent couplet of posts on the doctrine of ‘assurance of salvation.’ In my last post,
as you might recall, I tried to simply poke the exegetical basis upon which DeYoung feels (apparently) sure-footed relative to articulating a doctrine of assurance based upon his straightforward calvinwoodreading of I John. I intimated a few things in that post (in regard to further critique and alternative), and so in this post I would like to further elaborate upon a kind of critique of what DeYoung believes in regard to assurance of salvation, and its exegetical basis.

As we discussed previously (in my first post), as is typical, I believe it is really important to be cognizant and upfront with how we have come to our exegetical conclusions. In other words, instead of asserting that we just believe that this is what the Bible communicates (on whatever topic), I think it is of the upmost importance to be aware of the theological assumptions and tradition that we are committed to; DeYoung should be commended for this, on one hand. He is very open about his Calvinism, and does not try to hide that. But as we can see his Calvinism (of the variety that he follows) informs his exegetical conclusions in regard to first John. This is what I would like to highlight further in this post; i.e. the history of interpretation and the power it has not just for DeYoung, but for all of us, of course!

II

In DeYoung’s second post he wrote this:

There is nothing original about these points. Stott calls the three signs “belief” or “the doctrinal test,” “obedience” or “the moral test,” and “love” or “the social test.” As far as I can tell from the commentaries I consulted, my understanding of 1 John is thoroughly mainstream. I made clear that “These are not three things we do to earn salvation, but three indicators that God has indeed saved us.” I also explained that looking for these signs was not an invitation to look for perfection. “Lest this standard make you despair,” I said at one point, “keep in mind that part of living a righteous life is refusing to claim that you live without sin and coming to Christ for cleansing when you do sin (1:9-10).” In other words, the righteous life is a repentant life.

As DeYoung notes, he is in comfortable company; he has a lot of compatriots when it comes to his particular view of assurance as found, ostensibly, in I John. But even though DeYoung is in good company, does that make his view of I John and assurance true? No, of course not! And I am sure that DeYoung would agree with me; but then he most likely would go on (as he has) and continue to hold the view that he does and continue to claim that his view and understanding of I John is unremarkable when it comes to the history of Protestant Reformed interpretation. One problem I see with this is that it engages in ‘question begging’ (petitio principii). It presumes that the conclusions it has come to (the view that DeYoung holds on I John) is self-evident, almost tautologous , and that the burden of proof is on those who would question his conclusions about assurance in I John as I do. But why is that? I mean why is the burden of proof on those who disagree with DeYoung?

The form of Calvinism that DeYoung holds to, as I noted in post one, has a metaphysic; in other words, it has a way of viewing and presenting God (a view that doesn’t just fall off the pages the of Scripture). As a result of this view, we end up with a conception of God that elevates ‘performance’ before and for God, I would contend, to an unhealthy level. One prominent example of this is evidenced in the theology of one of the “founders” of the style of Calvinism that DeYoung is a proponent for; the example is provided by Puritan theologian William Perkins (of the 17th century). Indeed, it is this period where this kind of performance based style of thinking about God and salvation was introduced; at least for the Western, English speaking, west. And it is this style that, I contend, provides the theological (metaphysical) categories through which DeYoung, and much of the tradition DeYoung breathes from, gets their strength (as it were) from. Richard Muller describes what this style of theology looked like in Perkins’ theology, and in particular with reference to assurance of salvation:

William Perkins and Johannes Wollebius are among the later Reformed writers who used one or another forms of the syllogismus practicus in their discussions of assurance of salvation. In Perkins’ case, the syllogism is both named and presented in short syllogistic form. As is clear, however, from the initial argumentation of his Treatise of Conscience, the syllogisms are all designed to direct the attention of the believer to aspects or elements of the model of Romans 8:30, where the focus of assurance as previously presented by the apostle was union with Christ and Christ’s work as the mediator of God’s eternally willed salvation. In other words, as Beeke has noted, Perkins draws on links–calling, justification, and sanctification–in what he had elsewhere referenced as the “golden chaine” of salvation. Thus, Perkins writes, “to beleeve in Christ, is not confusedly to beleeve that he is a Redeemer of mankind, but withall to beleeve that he is my Saviour, and that I am elected, justified, sanctified, & shall be glorified by him.” Perkins’ syllogisms will be variants on this theme.

In addition, Perkins does not so much advocate the repetition of syllogisms as argue the impact of the gospel on the mind of the believer, as wrought by the Holy Spirit. Speaking of the certainty that one is pardoned of sin, Perkins writes,

The principall agent and beginner thereof, is the holy Ghost, inlightning the mind and conscience with spirituall and divine light: and the instrument in this action, is the ministrie of the Gospell, whereby the word of life is applied in the name of God to the person of every hearer. And this certaintie is by little and little conceived in a forme of reasoning or practicall syllogism framed in the minde by the holy Ghost on this manner:

Every one that believes is the childe of God:

But I doe beleeve:

Therefore I am a childe of God.

What is more, Perkins identifies faith as a bond, “knitting Christ and his members together,” commenting that “this apprehending of Christ [is done] … spiritually by assurance, which is, when the elect are persuaded in their hearts by the holy Ghost, of the forgiveness of their owne sinnes, and of Gods infinite mercy towards them in Iesus Christ.”[1]

What this quote further helps to shed light on (beyond helping to establish my point about the history and theological categories behind DeYoung’s theological approach that have led to his exegetical conclusions) is the role that ‘election’ plays in all of this. A doctrine of assurance of salvation flows, quite naturally, from a view of election that is both unconditional and supported by definite or more popularly limited atonement; indeed this is the categorical history behind DeYoung’s style. In other words, DeYoung’s Calvinism, like Perkins’ (in this respect) holds that God, in eternity past, ‘elected’ that some people would necessarily become Christians, and in order for this to happen Christ then came and died for these elect people alone thus satisfying the requirement of God’s holiness, paying for the penalty of sin (for the elect). But this created a dilemma, Karl Barth explains this dilemma in his critique (yes) of Calvin’s view of election (which for all intents and purposes is very similar to Perkins’ and DeYoung’s); he writes:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[2]

Here we see further how not only is someone’s psychology at play in this discussion, but also what this view of salvation, election, etc. has to do with the type of God behind it. This insight from Barth also takes us further than we want to go in this post; suffice it to say, as Barth insightfully notes, the kind of election behind DeYoung’s approach untethers Jesus as the basis and ground of election for humanity by placing that burden upon individual people. What this does is to thrust people upon themselves, and to somehow “prove” that they are indeed one of the elect for who Christ died (this used to be called in Perkins’ day experimental predestinarianism).

III

Lest we lose the forest for the trees let’s try to reign this rain-deer in by way of summarizing where we currently stand.

We have noted that Kevin DeYoung’s approach to assurance has a history, and that this history took shape under the pressures of a certain theological trajectory (primarily the one found in Puritan Calvinist theology). As a result of this history, DeYoung has come to the text of I John, in particular, with certain categories in place when it comes to thinking about the “elect’s” relationship to God in salvation. We have come to see (if ever so shadowy) that there is a certain conception of God driving the shaping of these categories, and as a result there is an emphasis upon ‘performance’ in salvation placed upon the elect individual; of the sort that will lead elect people to attempt discern if they are truly one of the elect for who Christ has died. We have also come to see (with the help of Barth’s critique of Calvin) that the framework that DeYoung is operating under, relative to God, places the emphasis upon God’s choice of individual people for salvation, instead of placing the emphasis upon God’s personal choice to be elect for all of humanity in his own humanity in Jesus Christ; with the result of forcing the elect to continuously attempt to prove their salvation (and thus find assurance) through “1) personal belief, 2) personal obedience, and 3) personal morality.” So the emphasis, if all of this is the case, is upon introspection and what some have called ‘reflexive faith’ (i.e. looking at our good works, etc., and then looking to Christ and being able to attribute those good works, belief, morality to Christ’s life in us – thus what Muller identified for as the practical syllogism).

DeYoung has a history. It causes him to read I John a certain way. I have a history, an informing theology, and it causes me to read I John much differently. In the next post or whenever I have the chance, I will try to elucidate what my theology is, and why I think it better makes sense of a passage like I John, and how it handles the claims put to I John that make it sound like it supports a Puritan like doctrine of assurance.

 

 

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 268-69.

[2] Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.

 

A Riposte to Kevin DeYoung on Assurance of Salvation in First John

Kevin DeYoung, Young, Restless, and Reformed, has written two posts now, on his blog sponsored by The Gospel Coalition, engaging assuranceofsalvationJesuswith the topic of Assurance of Salvation. Throughout the rest of this post I intend to interact with what DeYoung has written, and to offer a kind of critique and then alternative to what DeYoung has offered.

(Be warned, this is only an introductory post, I fully intend on offering a fuller scale and more detailed response to DeYoung, based upon the conclusions you will see at the end of this post)

I                

There are many ways into a discussion on what many call ‘pastoral theology’ revolving around the psychology of whether or not someone is genuinely saved; indeed, that is what is at bottom here: i.e. a kind of theologically induced psychology relative to how someone perceives their relationship to God in Jesus Christ (either in the affirmative or the negative). DeYoung chooses to go the ostensible exegetical route; choosing as his primary text (locus classicus) the epistle of I John. This little Johannine letter is probably the most appealed to book in the Bible for discussing and developing a doctrine on a so called assurance of salvation. In DeYoung’s post he identifies three classic points that are claimed to be (not just by DeYoung, but by many in the Reformed camp in particular) the defining components that frame the epistle of I John; at least when we are attempting to develop answers to our psychological questions in regard to our status as ‘saved’ or ‘unsaved’ (or we could say with the classical Reformed position: ‘elect’ or ‘reprobate’). Here are the three points that DeYoung lists as a kind loci (using identifiable theological and psychological and ethical points to interrogate and purportedly interpret I John):

The first sign is theological. You should have confidence if you believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God (5:11-13).

The second sign is moral. You should have confidence if you live a righteous life (3:6-9).

The third sign is social. You should have confidence if you love other Christians (3:14). (source)

I would like to respond to these points in turn. Now because this is a blog post (and not a term paper), my responses can only be suggestive and general in trajectory, but hopefully made in such a way that these points provided by DeYoung will take on a more critical tone (and at least get problematized); such that a different hermeneutical background will be provided leading to the conclusion that what DeYoung (and much of the Reformed tradition has offered) is less straightforwardly “Biblical” as DeYoung would have us believe, and, well, more ‘hermeneutical’. In other words, I would at the very least like to illustrate that there is something deeper; something more metaphysical going on behind Kevin’s exegesis versus the straightforward and pastoral reading of the text that he contends is present in his reading of this epistle. This seems like too large of a task, really, to attempt to accomplish in about seven hundred and fifty words or so, but that is what we will attempt to do with the space remaining.

 

II

DeYoung, in his second post on this topic is responding to a critic of his posts (much as I am becoming now); a Lutheran interlocutor who challenges DeYoung’s understanding of assurance from his Lutheran convictions (which in part will be more closely aligned to my critique, at least in some respects). DeYoung writes in response to the Lutheran, this:

While it is never a good idea to “focus inside ourselves,” it is impossible to make sense of 1 John if looking for moral, social, and theological evidence is entirely inappropriate. For example, 1 John 2:5-6 says “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” Likewise, 1 John 3:10 says, “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” We see similar “by this we know” language in 1 John 2:3; 3:14, 19, 24; 4:2-3; 4:13; 5:2. Clearly, we are meant to know something about the person by looking at what he believes, how he lives, and how he loves. One doesn’t have to be in favor of morbid introspection to understand that 1 John urges Christians to look for evidences of grace in themselves and in those who might be seeking to lead them astray. (source)

I think DeYoung’s response to the Lutheran, at face, sounds compelling, but I think it is more complex, even at a simple exegetical level, than DeYoung let’s on. I mean what if I John isn’t really answering the questions that DeYoung (and the Westminster Confession of Faith that he appeals to) is putting to it; what if I John was written to first century Roman/Graeco Christians who were being tempted by a prevailing philosophical system of the day known as Gnosticism (at this early stage this would have only been an incipient or proto form of Gnosticism) which, in general is a dualistic system of thought that sees the material world (inclusive of human bodies) as evil, and the spirit as pure and undefiled, albeit trapped within a fleshy world of evil and malevolence (which was seeking escape from this world of material back to the pure Spirit from whence it originally came; escaping through a series of graded levels of ‘secret’ knowledge that was intended for the elect, so to speak)? And so if this were the case, if I John is challenging these early Christians to look to Christ instead of a secret knowledge that turns inward instead of upward for release (so to speak) from themselves; then wouldn’t it be somewhat presumptuous to take I John captive as a text that is intended to answer questions about assurance of salvation that were formed most prominently in the 16th and 17th centuries in scholastically Reformed Western Europe, and then in a final and intense form in English and other Puritanism[s]?

DeYoung might respond to my first riposte here by querying “so what?” He might say that what I have suggested above is unnecessarily abstract, and even if true (the context I have suggested) does not really undercut his pastorally motivated development towards a doctrine on assurance of salvation. He might say: “that’s interesting, Bobby, but my points are simply attempting to identify universal principles present within the first letter of John, in such a way that transcends its original context, while at the same time seeking to honor it.” I might simply respond: how, Kevin, does your engagement of I John honor it when you are imposing questions upon it in a schematized way that does not fit into the questions it was originally seeking to address? I might ask: “if the conception of salvation present within I John fits well with the dogmatic conception of salvation that he reads it from as formed from 16th and 17th century Calvinist categories?” If the conception of God, based upon appeal to Aristotelian categories (primarily), the metaphysic used to shape the God of the Reformed theology that DeYoung follows, coalesces with the God revealed in Jesus Christ that is being referred to in John’s letter?

III

In conclusion, I obviously think things are more complicated in regard to reading the first epistle of John. I think it is too facile, and not apparent enough to attempt to read first John as if it readily answers questions put to it that were generated not by its original audience, but by a certain conception of God (and thus interpretive methodology or hermeneutic) that I contend is not similar (categorically) to the God revealed in Jesus Christ (if thought from Jesus Christ, first).

And so based upon my conclusion what is left is to explore what the alternative to DeYoung’s hermeneutic is. We have seen that there is a Lutheran alternative, but that’s not the only one; there of course are other ways to read first John based upon other metaphysics, or maybe no metaphysics. In other words, in a later post from this one, I will contend, in another response to DeYoung’s post, that what he is doing is, as we all do, is engaging in theological exegesis. Thus, under the guise of being “pastoral” or maybe “straightforward” DeYoung smuggles in certain interpretive suppositions that he is committed to, “theologically,” in an a priori way, as we all do, that has led him to his conclusions about assurance of salvation; and in particular in his reading of that doctrine in the epistle of I John.

More to come (as I have time). In the more to come I will attempt to sketch the role that our theological positions have upon our exegeses of the texts of Scripture, and in that sketch I will attempt to, as I noted, provide an alternative theological exegetical way that ultimately stands in contradistinction to DeYoung’s conclusions in regard to assurance in I John.

 

 

Assurance of Salvation: William Perkins, Richard Muller, and a New Way To Think About It

I am currently reading Richard Muller’s newish book Calvin and the
jesuscollageReformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation.
I have skipped ahead to read the last chapter first which is titled: Calvin, Beza, and the Later Reformed on Assurance of Salvation. I am going to be writing a chapter in our next Evangelical Calvinist book (which we are under contract for) on the doctrine of Assurance of Salvation. So this chapter by Muller is very apropos, and will definitely make some impact (at some level) on what I end up writing for my chapter.

That said, what I want to focus on throughout the remainder of this post is a discussion that Muller has on William Perkins and his doctrine of assurance of salvation (which he is quite famous for, Perkins that is). The context I am taking the quote from is where Muller transitions from a long discussion on how he believes that Theodore Beza and John Calvin are univocal in their respective doctrines on assurance of salvation for the elect. Not getting into that, as I noted, I want to focus on William Perkins, which Muller does as well. Muller highlights the fact that Perkins fits the charge better (than Beza) of promoting an idea of moving from sanctification to justification, as if the fruit of sanctification is the ground upon which assurance for the elect is based (but of course, Muller wants to caution us from accusing Perkins of too much failure as well). Perkins, as are many of the English Puritans, is known for his Golden Chaine of salvation, which is a series of steps that he uses (from Romans 8) to demonstrate that someone is one of the elect for whom Christ most definitely died; this was also known as the practical syllogism. Here is what Muller writes in regard to William Perkins (he also introduces us to another Puritan who he engages with later, Johannes Wollebius):

William Perkins and Johannes Wollebius are among the later Reformed writers who used one or another forms of the syllogismus practicus in their discussions of assurance of salvation. In Perkins’ case, the syllogism is both named and presented in short syllogistic form. As is clear, however, from the initial argumentation of his Treatise of Conscience, the syllogisms are all designed to direct the attention of the believer to aspects or elements of the model of Romans 8:30, where the focus of assurance as previously presented by the apostle was union with Christ and Christ’s work as the mediator of God’s eternally willed salvation. In other words, as Beeke has noted, Perkins draws on links–calling, justification, and sanctification–in what he had elsewhere referenced as the “golden chaine” of salvation. Thus, Perkins writes, “to beleeve in Christ, is not confusedly to beleeve that he is a Redeemer of mankind, but withall to beleeve that he is my Saviour, and that I am elected, justified, sanctified, & shall be glorified by him.” Perkins’ syllogisms will be variants on this theme.

In addition, Perkins does not so much advocate the repetition of syllogisms as argue the impact of the gospel on the mind of the believer, as wrought by the Holy Spirit. Speaking of the certainty that one is pardoned of sin, Perkins writes,

The principall agent and beginner thereof, is the holy Ghost, inlightning the mindand conscience with spirituall and divine light: and the instrument in this action, is the ministrie of the Gospell, whereby the word of life is applied in the name of God to the person of every hearer. And this certaintie is by little and little conceived in a forme of reasoning or practicall syllogism framed in the minde by the holy Ghost on this manner:

Every one that believes is the childe of God:

But I doe beleeve:

Therefore I am a childe of God.

What is more, Perkins identifies faith as a bond, “knitting Christ and his members together,” commenting that “this apprehending of Christ [is done] … spiritually by assurance, which is, when the elect are persuaded in their hearts by the holy Ghost, of the forgiveness of their owne sinnes, and of Gods infinite mercy towards them in Iesus Christ.”[1]

Notice what this understanding of assurance of salvation turns on; on a particular conception of election, so called: ‘unconditional election’. If Christ died for only the elect (i.e. particular redemption, limited atonement, definite atonement), then psychological angst could (and should) be produced for the recipient of salvation; the recipient of salvation (or hopeful recipient) should wonder if they are one of the elect for whom Christ died (?). It was this scenario that Perkins, in his English Puritan context sought to remedy by producing his form of the so called practical syllogism.

What is concerning about Perkins’ approach is the mechanical-logistical nature that salvation takes on, and the unhealthy focus on the individual person’s attempt to discern whether they are elect or not. There clearly is a piety charging Perkins’ approach, but the approach, even with piety intact, is unnecessary if his doctrine of election can be reified in a way that does not ground it in the individual’s capacity to discern whether they have genuine belief or not (therefore making them one of the elect for whom Christ died). If Christ died for all of humanity (i.e. universal atonement), the framework Perkins offers never needs to be offered, and a doctrine of assurance of salvation need not be articulated in the way that Perkins et al. attempts to do that.

I would want to argue that the doctrine of assurance of salvation is not a truly biblical category, and that it, categorically and materially has come to us as a result of the salvation-psychology created for us in our English-American Puritan heritage. It is natural to want to know if we are saved (John thought so in his first epistle), but we are not the ones who determine that, God in Christ is. He is the ground of life, and in him we have life. I think a better category, instead of assurance, is hope. We have a genuine hope of salvation in Christ, because he is salvation, and he is both for us and with us by the Holy Spirit. We know this simply because he has said this is so, he is the last and first Word on salvation; he is salvation.

 

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 268-69.