No. You Can’t Make me. I Don’t Want to Worship the God of the Calvinists and Classical Theists; I Want to Worship the God Revealed in Jesus Christ

I think since I started blogging in 2005 I’ve covered the gamut in regard to writing on all things Calvinism. But what is it that I find most troubling about what Calvinism is offering? Any ‘system’ of theology will be funded by one primary touchstone; i.e. its relative doctrine of God. This is what troubles me most about Calvinism (of the classical sort): its way of thinking God; the God it presents the world and church at large. This, I would imagine is what troubles most people who have problems with Calvinism, and yet for its devotees it’s this very reality that attracts them to Calvinism. How can this be?

This begs the question: What kind of God does Calvinism present? For anyone in the know—even folks who aren’t Calvinists, but know something of its basic premises, they would probably be able to get the answer to this question right—we all know that Calvinists require that God be Sovereign in all things (in meticulous ways even). But the Christian in general might query: “well, yeah, don’t all of us affirm that God is sovereign?” Indeed, all Christians affirm that God is sovereign; and yet for me, this is the biggest problem I have with the Calvinist conception of God. But I am a Christian, and so I affirm the sovereignty of God in all things. So how can this be the biggest problem I have with Calvinism? It’s because the way sovereignty is construed for the Calvinist God is contingent upon the metaphysic they, by and large, utilize in order to fund their conception of the God ostensibly revealed in Holy Scripture.

Classical Calvinists, who are a subset of Classical Theists (which covers a continuum of Roman Catholic and Protestant thought) primarily start their thinking about God by way of integrating Aristotelian categories about God with the God revealed in Christ attested to in Holy Scripture. In this scheme we get a God who is all Powerful, all Sovereign, but framed by the requirements we find in Aristotle’s conception of the Pure Being (Unmoved Mover, Actual Infinite). So this conception of God will not be defined by any type of passion, emotions, or indeed Love. In order for God to remain God in this scheme God must remain unmoved by his contingent creation, or he fails at being God and as its sustaining sovereign Creator. Bruce McCormack writes this with reference to the attributes of the God given to us by the classical theists (the classical Calvinists):

Classical theism presupposes a very robust Creator/creature distinction. God’s being is understood to be complete in itself with or without the world, which means that the being of God is “wholly other” than the being of the world. Moreover, God’s being is characterized by what we might think of as a “static” or unchanging perfection. All that God is, he is changelessly. Nothing that happens in the world can affect God on the level of his being. He is what he is regardless of what takes place—and necessarily so, since any change in a perfect being could be only in the direction of imperfection. Affectivity in God, if it is affirmed at all, is restricted to dispositional states which have no ontological significance.[1]

Veli – Matti Kärkkäinen provides further elaboration:

  • Pure actuality: According to the philosophy of Aristotle, everything that exists is a combination of form and matter; thus, everything possesses both actuality and potentiality. Potentiality for Aristotle meant a lack of perfection; it implied that something was yet to come. Therefore, to preserve God’s perfect nature, Christian thinkers had to deny potentiality in relation to God. Consequently, God is absolute actuality, pure form, and there is no matter to actualize his potentiality.
  • Immutability and impassibility: While these two attributes are not identical, they are related. The former suggests that God does not change, while the latter refers to the impossibility of God’s being acted upon. Often—but not always—immutability was interpreted in the sense that God cannot be “moved” in a true emotional sense; where Scripture seems to suggest that God grieves or rejoices, such passages were considered mere metaphor.
  • Timelessness: God’s eternal existence is timeless, outside of time. While the majority of classical theists beginning with Augustine (according to whom God created time as part of creation) accept this statement as true, it has been and is a disputed issue. This element, therefore, is not a decisive feature of classical theism.
  • Simplicity: God is not composed of parts as is everything else that exists. This attribute of God is, of course, related to many others, such as his changelessness. If God has no parts, God cannot change, since there are no parts for him to lose or gain.
  • Necessity: This attribute has two aspects. On the one hand, God’s existence is necessary in the sense that it is impossible for God not to exist. Everything except God exists contingently (is dependent on God). On the other hand, necessity means that the divine essence itself—”the particular package of attributes God possesses”—is necessary. It is no accident, and it cannot be otherwise; God cannot be other than as he is.
  • Omnipotence and omniscience: These attributes follow from what has been said before. Omniscience means that God knows all truths and holds no false beliefs. Omnipotence means that within the “limits” of God’s own attributes, God possesses the capacity to do everything.[2]

Now don’t get me wrong, there are certain features in the classical theistic basket that seem illuminating or even non-negotiable in regard to an orthodox understanding of God. Yet, it is this conception of God that causes me certain problems. Again, not that God is all powerful, nor that he is distinct from his creation, or that he does not need us to be God. The problem comes when this philosophical conceiving of God is privileged over against the categories that come with God’s Self-revelation itself. The idea that when the Bible refers to God having emotions, passions, and genuine love do not mesh well with the philosophical categories classical theists feel compelled to work with; and so they must simply relegate such Bible talk to metaphor, anthropomorphisms, anthropopathisms so on and so forth.

What we get with a God who cannot genuinely be touched by his creation, who will not be moved by his love for the other (in reality), is the God we see operative in the Westminster Confession of Faith. We get a God who is simply a brute Creator God of pure power; who is framed by what the philosopher believes is required for us to get the type of creation we have; a powerful God who can be discovered by negating the finite and inferring from that negation who God must be categorically and infinitely.

But this is not what or who we get in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. We get a God who cries, in Christ, for the people; as if they are lost sheep without a Shepherd. We get a God who speaks of his church as if his bride who he seeks to consummate relationship with; the most intimate and sacred of pictures. Jesus says: ‘when you see me you see the Father.’ Is this also figurative, or is this actual and concrete reality? If this is actually the case then with the epistolaro, John, we can genuinely affirm that God is love; that his sovereignty is defined by his filial love as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and not defined by his status as some sort of monadic pure being God who creates and relates to his creation as the brute Creator that he is only to be identified later (but figuratively) as a loving Father, and intimate Bride-groom Shepherd-God.

So this is the biggest problem I have with classical Calvinism’s God; he really is just a ‘God behind the back of Jesus,’ a God who really only interacts with his creation, when it comes to passionate-emotional realities, in figurative but not real or actual ways. When one must qualify their conception of God under such foreign pressures (relative to the Revelation itself), then we know there is something seriously awry. When the God we get in classical Calvinism (and Arminianism for that matter, and let’s not leave Open Theists out of this either) resembles the Pure Being of the classical Hellenic Philosophers more than the God revealed in Godself, in Jesus Christ, then we have a serious problem that must needs be attended to.

Sure, the most respected among us—particularly in the evangelical and Reformed ranks—have felt compelled to drink freely and without charge at the fount of classical theism’s wet bar; but why? The only response I can come up with in regard to the ‘why’ question is that these young (and old) guys and gals are seriously ecclesiocentrically driven. In other words, they want to be identified as Reformed catholics; i.e. they believe in a kind of progressive revelation under the care of God’s providential watch when it comes to the development of ecclesial tradition. They are fully committed to the idea that, all-in-all, the way the doctrine of God has developed through the centuries in the church has had to have Divine guidance, at some level. In other words, there is a serious natural theology at play here. These (relatively) young, restless, and reformed theologians believe, I surmise, that because it’s there—in church history and the history of churchly ideation—that, indeed, God must have wanted, for example, Thomas Aquinas to integrate Aristotle’s categories with Christian theology thus producing a faithful and orthodox accounting of how the church ought to understand and grammarize God in their theologizing and witness bearing capacities as churchly thinkers.

I have much more to say, but these are some inchoate thoughts (I have written on many of these themes over the years here at the blog and my other blogs of past repute). But I simply leave off with this: classical Calvinism’s conception of God (or any other expression of classical theism) is not of necessity the orthodox conception of God. There are better ways to think God, and we can be attuned to some of the classical theistic concerns while not giving them pride of place. We need to, as good Protestant Christians, give God’s Self-revelation pride of place; we need to realize that that revelation itself, as attested to in Holy Scripture (i.e. the ‘scripture principle’) comes with its own categories. We need to flip the normal way of doing business for so many of these classical theistic thinkers on its head, and return to the mode that believes the best way forward is to allow God’s Self-revelation in Christ, as attested to by Holy Scripture, to have the categorical say when it comes to how we think God.

I don’t personally want to worship a hybrid version of God who me and Aristotle could equally ascribe worth to based upon our similar convictions about his nature. I want to worship the God who is considered both foolish and weak; the God the Greeks originally believed this to be true of (i.e. weak and foolish), the God revealed in Jesus Christ (cf. I Corinthians 1.17-25). And there is a way to do all of this without losing orthodoxy; there is a way in the history of the church even.

 

[1] Bruce McCormack, ed.,Engaging the Doctrine of God, 186–87, cited by Bobby Grow in Evangelical Calvinism, 96.

[2] Veli- Matti Kärkkäinen citing David Ray Griffin in, The Doctrine of God: A Global Introduction, 54-5.

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Miscellanies on the Thomist Intellectualist Tradition and its Impact on Reformed Theology

westminster

Something that I don’t think most Reformed theologians, whether yet budding, or senior are all that concerned with or cognizant of is the role that their respective anthropology plays in their theological prolegomena. I would say that most if not almost all of North American (and Western) Protestant Reformed theologies are funded by thinkers who are committed, in one form or another, to what is called an intellectualist anthropology. The originator of this type of anthropology, for Christian theological consumption, is most prominently, Thomas Aquinas; indeed Norman Fiering, in his index of medievally derived anthropologies, calls Thomas’s anthropology Thomist intellectualist—which would be a general label for anyone who receives Thomas’s intellectualist anthropology after him, in one way or the other. Here is how Aquinas describes the centrality of the ‘intellect’ or reason as definitive for what it means to be human:

In the original integrated state of man reason controlled our lower powers perfectly and God perfected the reason subordinated to him. This state was lost to us by Adam’s sin, and the resulting lack of order among the powers of our soul that incline us to virtue we call a wounding of nature. Ignorance is a wound in reason’s response to truth, wickedness in will’s response to good; weakness wounds the response of our aggressive emotions to challenge and difficulty, and disordered desire our affections’ reasonable and balanced response to pleasure. All sins inflict these four wounds blunting reason’s practical sense, hardening the will against good, increasing the difficulty of acting well and inflaming desire.[1]

For Thomas, the intellect, in a faculty psychology, is the defining component of what it means to be human. As we can see from his Summa Thomas does not believe that, during the fall, the ‘intellect’ was touched[2], instead it is only the ‘disordered desire [of] our affections’ that corrupts the rest of our humanity; as such the mind/intellect becomes central to what it means to be human relative to God as ultimate mind/intellect and Creator.

Ron Frost develops this further, and the impact this type of intellectualist anthropology had on the theology/soteriology of Post Reformed orthodox theologian William Perkins:

… William Perkins was answering the question of how God reaches humanity—the relation of grace to nature—by reengaging Thomas Aquinas’s thirteenth-century cooperative approach to salvation. Aquinas, with Aristotle, believed that morality is determined by the will, so that virtue is gained by making the virtuous choice. In its Christian expression the human will must be engaged in a saving choice to believe. But Aquinas also held, with Augustine, that the will is crippled by sin. Aquinas’s solution was to synthesize the moral axiom of Aristotle and Augustine’s axiom of disability: God places a newly created gift of grace in the souls of the elect that enables the will to operate once again. By this means of gracious enabling the will receives the necessary power to embrace salvation by an act of faith. This enabling “habit of grace” allows a person to make the saving decision, a decision God crowns with merit.

This cooperative scheme featured the human and divine wills working together, with the mind using the information offered by God. When the will has a set of operations set before it, its challenge is to overcome distracting affections. The greater power of the properly informed will, the greater its ability to defeat faulty passions. The act of believing is thus the premier work of the will, and is only accomplished by the prevenient enabling grace God provides.[3]

It is the mind/intellect that is given primacy in Perkins’s theological anthropology, and we can see (as reported by Frost) how this gets cashed out in Perkins’s soteriology.

Perkins was not alone, he was simply expressing what was common fare among the Post Reformation Protestant scholastic theology he was a part of during his period of history. Richard Muller speaks to the reality of this Thomist intellectualist tradition as he describes Arminius’s context as a theologian of his time:

The enlightenment of the intellect that draws man spiritually into final union with God leads to the “enlargement” of the will “from the inborn agreement of the will the intellect, and the analogy implanted in both, according to which the understanding extends itself to acts of volition, in the very proportion that it understands and knows.” Arminius, in summary, places himself fully into the intellectualist tradition.

What is more, Arminius’ argument for the priority of intellect in the final vision of God perfectly reproduces the classic intellectualist thesis of Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, intellect is higher or nobler than will inasmuch as the intellect does not merely address an object that is external to itself (as does the will) but, in addressing the object, also in some sense receives the object into itself and possesses in itself the form of the object. In the final vision of God, according to Aquinas, the soul has direct vision of the divine essence that is higher and nobler than the will’s love of God.

The juxtaposition of an intellectualist philosophical perspective with a practical orientation in Arminius’ theology represents, as noted earlier, a significant departure from the major medieval paradigms and a use of the scholastic past that is best characterized as eclectic. Praxis is, typically, associated with love and will, speculatio or contemplatio with intellect: the intellectualist model will, therefore, advocate a theology that is either primarily or utterly contemplative while the voluntarist model will define theology as primarily or utterly practical. Thus Aquinas assumes that theology is primarily contemplative whereas Scotus defines theology as practical. The Reformed tended toward a compromise that respect the balance of intellect and will but recognized the underlying soteriological issue as voluntaristic and, therefore, defined theology as both speculative and practical with emphasis on the practical….[4]

An Evangelical Calvinist Response

As we have just surveyed—I fear too fragementedly—what was predominate in Post Reformed orthodox theology was a mind/will centered anthropology that reflects (through an analogy of being) upon who God is conceived to be in this frame. The intellectualist tradition presumes that God as eternal ‘being’ implicates (as reflection as it were) what it means to be human being; and thus reasoning from the effect back to the cause, the intellectualist tradition believes that what it means to be God is someone who exists a se as a big intellect. This shapes the way classically Reformed (inclusive of Arminians) thinkers think of God, and it follows then that ‘feeling’ or ‘movement’ in God, which love presupposes upon, is simply an anthropopathism; in other words, love is not real, in an ontological sense. What defines God is something like an ultimate-Spock like being of existence, as such this God relates to humanity in a God-world relation in very impersonal ways (like through decrees).

The evangelical Calvinist after Barth and Torrance, on the other hand, does not think of God from within an intellectualist speculative tradition. Instead evangelical Calvinists along with Athanasius think it is better to think God, and as consequent, theological anthropology, from the eternal relation of Father-Son revealed by the Holy Spirit in Christ in the incarnation of the Son. As Athanasius famously asserts, “Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.” Evangelical Calvinists don’t attempt to think God from an analogy of being (analogia entis) in and from an abstract humanity; we think God from a center in God, in His Self-exegesis in the Son, Jesus Christ.

As we have illustrated in this post, if someone is committed to an intellectualist anthropology and tradition it gets cashed out in interesting ways; particularly with reference to how a thinker conceives of God, and how salvation is understood and given shape after that conception of God. As is the case in all instances, how God is conceived in the first order, will have subsequent and second order consequences for every other theological loci following.

I am afraid I have only started to pull on a whole bunch of threads all at once in this post, but I wanted to start pulling those threads so that maybe someone’s curiosity might be piqued to the point of doing further research themselves. I realize this post has a kind of palpable incoherence to it, but I am simply wanting to provide soundings for you as you come to realize that there are alternative traditions available to you, even in the Reformed world of thought.

What evangelical Calvinism does is to eschew thinking from a center within an abstract humanity; in other words we repudiate the idea that there is an analogy of being between God and humanity. There is no point of contact, then, between God and humanity from whence God can be conceived of apart from God’s own Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. If this is true, evangelical Calvinists have the advantage of the ground of all theological grammar, anthropology, and worship being the Triune life of God itself as ‘mediated’ to humanity in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. We do not have to think God from a faculty psychology as the ground of being from whence we think God. We can eschew thinking God from the accidents and effects that we discover and observe in the created order[5], and instead think directly of God, mediated in the hidden-ness of God in the humanity of God enfleshed in Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Concise Translation, 270-71.

[2] This is an important point because it keeps it keeps the imago Dei intact, and an analogy of being can be interconnected between God’s being (who is ultimate intellect) and human being (who is penultimate intellect).

[3] Ronald N. Frost, “The Bruised Reed: By Richard Sibbes (1577–1635),” in The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics, eds. Kelly M. Kapic and Randall C. Gleason (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 88-9.

[4] Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991), 78-9.

[5] See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 7.: “. . . the proposition that “God exists” is self evident in itself, for, as we shall see later, its subject and predicate are identical, since God is his own existence. But, because what it is to be God is not evident to us, the proposition is not self-evident to us, and needs to be made evident. This is done by means of things which, though less evident in themselves, are nevertheless more evident to us, by means, namely of God’s effects.”

‘Classes’ of People: A Relationship Between Gnostic and classical Calvinist/Arminian Understanding of Election? Appropriated from J. Kameron Carter

This won’t be a popular post among some, but I think it hits upon something that needs to be addressed in regard to how the doctrine irenaeus1of election and reprobation (double predestination) has taken shape; as far as its conceptual antecedents.

Greek metaphysics are never far from the development of Christian theology; many of the most notable church Fathers (and Mothers) were Greek (not all of course, we have Latin theologians of the era too, most prominent being Augustine); the trick of course is to reify or repurpose metaphysics in a way where said metaphysics get evangelized with the Gospel, such that their meaning is given determination by God in Christ himself instead of the other way around. I would like to suggest (emphasis upon suggest – since this is merely a blog post written under time constraints) that the classical conception of double predestination, of the kind that we find in classical Calvinism (and Arminianism for that matter) has more to do with a Greek metaphysic that remains more Greek and less Christian. Why would I assert such a thing? Because, there appears to be some analogous relation between the conclusions of classical Gnostic understandings of ‘classes’ of people and classical Calvinist understandings of classes of people (i.e. ‘elect’ and ‘reprobate’)[ I have written about this before in a very reflective state]. And I don’t think this is mistake; I think it comes from a common (but nuanced differently) understanding of God that comes from a philosophical basis rather than a revelational one (of the kind that we find provided by God’s Self revelation and interpretation in Jesus Christ); common that is between Greek Gnostic understanding and classical Calvinist understanding in regard to an socio-anthropological fleshing out of humanity (which is of course also a theological reality).

Like I asserted above this is all at the level of suggestion, but I don’t think unfounded. To help illustrate this let me quote something from theologian J. Kameron Carter as he sketches out church Father, Irenaeus’ understanding of the Ptolemaic Gnosticism that he was engaged with in his day. I hope, at least, that you will get a lineament of what I am talking about in regard to a parallel between Gnostic understanding of election (back in the day), and classical Calvinist and Arminian understanding of the same theological locus (‘election’ and how that gets cashed out anthropologically/sociologically/theologically). Carter writes of Irenaeus’ understanding of Gnosticism in this way:

… As far as Achamoth (or Desire herself), who is of a pneumatic constitution, and for the pneumatic race of humans, they will enter the Pleroma. Desire will be restored to Wisdom (Sophia), and the pneumatics will also enter the pleromatic heavens. Such is their eschatological destiny. And finally, those psychics (who give in to their passions, thus remaining trapped in material existence and weighed down by the body) and the hylics (who have no hope of transcending themselves and aspiring toward supramaterial existence) will go the way of all matter: they will undergo the fires of apocalyptic destruction (AH I.7.5). The material Cosmos will perish, and they along with it. Such is Irenaeus’s account of the Gnostic myth, which when all is said and done is deeply concerned as he interprets their mythology with anthropology and the justification of the superior “race” inside the discourse of Christian theology….[1]

I wonder if this hasn’t confused you more than enlightened you? Basically, Gnostics believed in a dualism; the idea that the material world was evil, and the spiritual world was pure. In general they believed that certain people had the ‘spark’ of divine within them, albeit trapped in this physical material body, and that the only way out was to achieve a special kind of Gnosis or ‘knowledge’ that would finally allow them to escape and return to their divine source or the ‘pleroma’ (which means ‘fullness’ or ‘plenitude’ in classical and Koine Greek). As Carter describes Ireanaeus’ understanding of the Gnostic’s view, he is highlighting how there was a particular class among humanity who indeed had access to this divine spark within themselves in a special way, a ‘spiritual’ way that set them apart from two other classes of people who had no chance whatsoever to overcome their materiality or physicality; unfortunately for these latter two (reprobate) classes they had no determined end other than eternal destruction (something like a concept of ‘hell’).[2]

I wish I could get deeper into this; I have quite a bit more material that I would like to cover, especially to draw out how these kinds of correlations between Greek Gnosticism and their conception of a ‘elite’ class of people fit curiously well with how classical Calvinism (and Arminianism) understands there to be an ‘elect’ class of ‘spiritual’ people who are sensitive to the things of the true God (thus bringing salvation) versus a class of ‘reprobate’ people who are slaves of their ‘fleshy’ physical live realities. [Maybe I am simply engaging in the ‘guilt by association’ fallacy … I don’t really think so]

I would argue that the similarities between these two very different trajectories of thought are a result of a shared theory of revelation, and a commitment to a type of natural theology that implicates, at a methodological level, the way that people can ostensibly ‘know’ metaphysical things. I will have to leave this assertion pretty vague, but if you are read up on such things you’ll understand what I am intimating.

More later.

[1] J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account, Kindle loc. 548.

[2] See J.N.D. Kelly for further definition of what Gnosticism entails in his book: J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978), 26.

Old Debate, New Day: Calvinism — My Second Comment: Is Grace a ‘Thing’ or a ‘Person?’

Please refer to my last post to gain insight on the issues I am dealing with in this post (follow this link).

jesusloveIn the second proposition of the Calvinist, non-Calvinist (Arminian) debate that just took place in Chicago under the watchful moderating eye of Christianity Today’s, Mark Galli (who is CT’s editor, and someone I have known for a few years, electronically), the debaters, this time around discussed the pressing issue of monergism and synergism. Monergism and Synergism are basically the ideas that God’s grace is given to the elect unilaterally by God, and once given the elect will respond in faith and receive the salvation that God has won for them through the payment of the cross of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, Synergism is the idea that God’s grace is available to everyone, and that appropriating salvation is a bilateral affair wherein the respondent or non-respondent can freely and deliberatively choose whether or not they want to receive salvation or not (the emphasis in this scheme is placed upon the person’s choice to receive salvation or not).

What I want to do at this point is to describe further how grace was conceived of in this debate, and what its historical antecedents are in the Protestant Reformed history. [a side note here: it is important to remember that this whole Calvinist, Arminian/non-Calvinist debate is being informed and shaped by certain historical realities and conceptualities. Both the Calvinist side and the Arminian side both work from a view of grace and human ‘will’ that come from what is called substance metaphysics. While this is the reality, not once in this debate did I hear any mention of this; and so it becomes unsurprising that there really isn’t any headway made in debates like this] Grace in this debate was talked about as someTHING, as if it is something that God gives to us, ‘creates’ in us, and thus something that we can manipulate for our good in appropriating eternal life and salvation (and this is true for both the Calvinist side or Arminian side). In order to illustrate what I mean, let me quote famed Calvin and Calvinist scholar, Richard Muller. In the following quote from Muller he is giving a definition of different senses of grace in the Protestant Reformation, and I submit to you that these senses were both appealed to and informing the discussion being had by these gentlemen (in the debate) on grace, monergism and synergism. Here is how Muller defines grace in the Protestant conception of things:

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 thepraeparatio 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…. [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.]

As you read along, you can see how grace is a ‘thing’. And I will submit to you that this is always a problem, theologically. Even if God initiates salvation, even if it is unilaterally (monergistically) or bilaterally (synergistically) conceived the person appropriating salvation is cooperating with God in his/her salvation. It is only if grace is understand as a person wherein salvation ceases to come off as a cooperative thing that we work with God in, and where the Triune participatory relationship can happen. And it is this view of grace that we hold to and articulate in Evangelical Calvinism.

Let me close with how we as Evangelical Calvinists understand God’s grace in salvation through a quote:

To sum up: Grace in the New Testament is the basic and the most characteristic element of the Christian Gospel. It is the breaking into the world of the ineffable love of God in a deed of absolutely decisive significance which cuts across the whole of human life and sets it on a new basis. That is actualized in the person of Jesus Christ, with which grace is inseparably associated, and supremely exhibited on the Cross by which the believer is once and for all put in the right with God. This intervention of God in the world and its sin, out of sheer love, and His personal presence to men through Jesus Christ are held together in the one thought of grace. As such grace is the all-comprehensive and constant presupposition of faith, which, while giving rise to an intensely personal life in the Spirit, necessarily assumes a charismatic and eschatological character. Under the gracious impingement of Christ through the Spirit there is a glad spontaneity about the New Testament believer. He is not really concerned to ask questions about ethical practice. He acts before questions can be asked. He is caught up in the overwhelming love of Christ, and is concerned only about doing His will. There is no anxious concern about the past. It is Christ that died! There is no anxious striving toward an ideal. It is Christ that rose again! In Him all the Christian’s hopes are centred. His life is hid with Christ in God. In Him a new order of things has come into being, by which the old is set aside. Everything therefore is seen in Christ, in the light of the end, toward which the whole creation groaneth and travaileth waiting for redemption. The great act of salvation has already taken place in Christ, and has become an eternal indicative. The other side of faith is grace, the immediate act of God in Christ, and because He is the persistent Subject of all Christian life and thought, faith stands  necessarily on the threshold of the new world, with the intense consciousness of the advent of Christ. The charismatic and the eschatological aspects of faith are really one. In Christ the Eternal God has entered into this present evil world which shall in due course pass away before the full unveiling of the glory of God. That is the reason for the double consciousness of faith in the New Testament. By the Cross the believer has been put in the right with God once for all—Christ is his righteousness. He is already in Christ what he will be—to that no striving will add one iota. But faith is conscious of the essential imminence of that day, because of the intense nearness of Christ, when it shall know even as it is known, when it shall be what it already is. And so what fills the forward view is not some ideal yet to be attained, but the Christian’s position already attained in Christ and about to be revealed. The pressure of this imminence may be so great upon the mind as to turn the thin veil of sense and time into apocalyptic imagery behind which faith sees the consummation of all things. Throughout all this the predominating thought is grace, the presence of the amazing love of God in Christ, which has unaccountably overtaken the believer and set him in a completely new world which is also the eternal Kingdom of God. [Thomas F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, 34-5.]

When grace is understood in personalizing terms we are able to move away from discussions like monergism and synergism, which prove to be unhelpful; especially when grace becomes a thing, for once it becomes a thing (a quality), it places the emphasis upon us, and what we do with this thing (whether the broader framework be Calvinist or Arminian). Once grace is understand as God in Christ himself, come with the Holy Spirit, the emphasis in salvation can be placed where it ought to be, upon the Triune life of God. We no longer have to be concerned about what we do in appropriating salvation, but in what God has done as salvation, as grace; and the focus becomes one of participation (even theosis) in God’s life rather than persevering in God’s life (which both classical Calvinism and Arminianism emphasize).

What Hath Einstein to Do With Calvinism and Arminianism?

I think what often gets lost in the Calvinist/Arminian discussion among many non-specialist thinkers (but specialist thinkers too!) is the idea of ‘causation’. As Western people, especially in North America (but albert_einstein_256515elsewhere in the so called ‘developed’ world as well) we have simply inherited a very analytical and Newtonian mechanical understanding of how things work. We have lost all sense of dynamism in the way things relate, and we have overlaid our personal relationships, whether those take place at home, work, the church, etc., with philosophical baggage. And we attempt to squeeze our relationships into patterns that think of people and relationships more in terms of mathematical equations or logical syllogisms (just think of on-line dating for example; i.e. e-Harmony.com, Match.com, etc; or personality tests that corporations often require their potential or new employees to take; etc.) than in actual personal terms (which cannot be quantified). And so we take this kind of Newtonian or even Euclidian (geometric) understanding of human relationships, and apply that to the way we think about God. But this would be wrong. God, nor humans, created in the image of Christ (imago Christi), are susceptible to being reduced to a mathematical equation or logical syllogism; instead the way God relates, and thus people relate to others is dynamic and truly personal (meaning truly Trinitarian). We can’t measure God’s interaction with His creation/creatures by reducing that to a kind of mechanical matrix of a rigidly conception of cause and effect relationships. And the interesting thing about this, is that nature itself, created by a Triune relational God, bears witness to this dynamic reality; a reality that moves us beyond what we as Western Protestant Christians have inherited through the informing philosophy that guides the classical offerings of Calvinism and Arminianism. Thomas F. Torrance in his book Divine And Contingent Order develops this further, by describing the sea-change that occurred through Einstein’s work on the theory of relativity (don’t let this scare you away), and what this illustrates about the way the universe itself was created, and how this disrupts, or should, our conception of thinking about relationships with other humans, and God in particular, away from a rigid logical understanding of causation. Here is what Thomas Torrance has written:

… Thus Faraday and Maxwell opened the way for a new understanding of nature in terms of field theory which could be set against the Newtonian outlook and which, in spite of Maxwell’s acceptance of Newtonian dualism and mechanism, pointed to a non-mechanical view of the universe in which matter and field are unified.

The decisive step in this direction was taken by Einstein in his rejection of Newtonian dualism and mechanism. Following on clarification particularly by H. Hertz and H.A. Lorentz of difficult problems resulting from contradictions between Maxwellian and Newtonian mechanics, Einstein introduced a fundamental change into field theory, coordinating it with a startlingly new view of the universe and its unitary dynamic order, very different from the Newtonian world-view. He dethroned time and space from their absolute, unvarying, prescriptive role in the Newtonian system and brought them down to empirical reality, where he found them indissolubly integrated with its on-going processes. At the same time he set aside the idea of instantaneous action at a distance, but also set aside the existence of ether (still maintained by Lorentz) and all idea of the substantiality of the field (in Faraday’s sense). There now emerged the concept of the continuous field of space-time which interacts with the constituent matter/energy of the universe, integrating everything within it in accordance with its unitary yet variable objective rational order of non-causal connections. Thus instead of explaining the behaviour of the field and all events within it in terms of the motion of separated material substances characterize by unique unchanging patterns and defined by reference to the conditioning of an inertial system, and therefore in terms of quantifiable motion and strict mechanical causes, Einstein explained it in terms of the objective configuration of the indivisible field and the dynamic invariant relatedness inherent in it–that is to say, in terms of the principle of relativity. It was the radical break with Newtonian mechanics and the Newtonian world-view that made relativity so difficult to grasp, but it was in coherence with this new understanding of the universe and its intrinsic order that Einstein also sought to develop quantum theory, without a duality of particle and field, which, as he believed, calls for the determination of relativistic field-structures in a proper scientific description of empirical reality, rather than a merely statistical account of quantum-experimental events and conditions. If a statistical approach is required in quantum mechanics it cannot rest content with offering an account of how experiments operate, but must offer an account of reality itself. All this implied the unification of matter and field in a dynamic, unbroken continuum–i.e. without the contiguous yet discontinuous connection of particles as in the Cartesian ‘field’–which prompted Einstein to devote so much attention to developing a unified theory and thereby determining the general laws of the whole indivisible filed. Although Einstein himself was not able to achieve this specific aim, nevertheless he succeeded, particularly through general relativity, as the staggering unfolding of its implications and the verification of its predictions have since shown, in opening the way toward a unified view of the universe with a very different conception of order. –Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 77-8.

Okay, much of that may have sounded like gibberish to you (but I assure you, it is not!), but either way, what it should illustrate for you is that the way we think about reality and the way it works should not be something that we superimpose artificially upon it, thus forcing it into the mold we would have it operate in; but instead, we ought to come and accept that the universe itself (contingent as it is directly upon the Word of God, Gen. 1:1; Heb. 1:1-3) has its own given intelligibility, given to it by God, and allow the way it operates to inform the way we think about how God works, and relates to His creation, even in its very composition. In short, if the universe, at a fundamental level, does  not operate in a mechanical logically syllogistic way, then it would be wrong for us to tell the universe that it needs to operate under the conditions that we want it to operate within (Newton, Euclid, et al.).

Bringing this home now: How does this relate to classical Calvinism and Arminianism (among other classical theisms)? Calvinism and Arminianism largely operate from a system of thought about reality (metaphysics), that holds that God relates to creation “mechanically” (like a Newtonian view of the universe); and that God then relates to creation through decrees and built into the creation there are secondary causes that determine how creation itself will operate based upon God’s arbitrary choice. In effect this de-personalizes the relation of creation to Creator, and undercuts the idea that God at His core is Triune and personal. But, as Torrance, through Einstein and others has highlighted, is that the universe at a sub-atomic level is not put together this way; as corollary then, it would be better to recognize that the metaphysics and theory of causation that informs Calvinist and Arminian theology is not adequate, and that we should look for a theological approach that aligns with what is actually revealed and given to us by God; instead of imposing our theories about how God acts toward his creation based upon worn out and out-dated conceptions of metaphysics.

A Mechanical-Universe: Against Classical Theologies that Subvert the Freedom of God and the Freedom of Humanity

I have kind of been on a bit of a sabbatical from reading Thomas Torrance, but I am tired of that sabbatical; it is time to jump back on the wagon, and resume where I left off with TFT, wherever that was.

maryjesusI just re-picked up (I never actually read it the first time I picked it up) Torrance’s book Divine and Contingent Order, and I am excited I did. The fact that Torrance dedicates this book to his long time Greek Orthodox compatriot Georges Florovsky should say something; that is, that this book, per classic Torrance, is going to take us back to the patristic past, and constructively through retrieval bring us into some modern and contemporary discussion–in the case of this book it will have mostly to do with issues surrounding science, with obvious overlap with theology.

The following quote from this book brings me back to what I have probably become known for best (at least in my past iteration as a blogger) in the theo-blogosphere, that is my rather contentious relationship with what I have called classical Calvinist (and Arminian) theology (but I wouldn’t want to limit my contentiousness to just the Calvinists and Arminians, I believe in offering equal opportunity of contention for other expressions and certain kinds of classical, mostly Aristotelian inspired, medieval theologies). And so this quote is intended to once again–for I fear that people have become lax in regard to the current takeover of North American evangelical theology by tributaries of resource that are flowing directly from the Aristotelian stream of deterministic logico-causality present and funding evangelical movements like The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, et. al. etc.–re-register that Bobby Grow is still watching 😉 , and I haven’t grown lax in my disdain for the mechanical God of classical Calvinism, in particular, even if I understand that many Calvinists have a deep piety and love for God. So consider my vigor, in this regard, to be motivated, in part, by a desire to align said Calvinist piety and love of God, with a ground and grammar for articulating God and dogma in a way that is correlative and consistent with who the Calvinists and Arminians want to love as God.

In step with the above then, let me get to this quote from Thomas Torrance. In this quote Torrance is sketching the impact that Aristotelian and then Newtonian categories have had upon God and the subsequent development of theology that followed, in particular, and for our purposes, in the post Reformed orthodox era of Calvinist and Arminian theology. And given the fact that much of this theology is being repristinated and resurrected by the neo-Calvinists/Puritans et. al., again, it will only be apropos to visit its informing background through the lens that Torrance provides for that. Torrance writes (at length),

It was in terms of these basic ideas that classical Christian theology of the fourth and fifth centuries set out to reconstruct the foundations of ancient philosophy and science upon which the pagan picture of God and the cosmos rested.  Today we can see that they were masterful ideas which lay deep in the development of Western science, and with which we are more than ever concerned in the new science of our own day and its underlying concept of a unifying order. But what became of these ideas in thought subsequent to the Nicene and immediately post-Nicene era? For a short period they bore remarkable fruit in the physics of space and time, and of light and motion, that arose in Alexandria in the fifth and sixth centuries and which, like the theology out of which it grew, was thoroughly anti-dualist in its basic orientation. Before long, however, these ideas became swamped in the massive upsurge of dualist cosmologies and epistemologies which took somewhat different forms in the Augustinian West and Byzantine East. The idea that the created universe is rational because its Creator and Preserver is rational remained, and was to see considerable development, especially in Western medieval theology and philosophy, which thus has contributed immensely to our scientific understanding of the universe. Unfortunately, however, the doctrine of God behind it all suffered not a little modification in terms of his inertial motion which was to have considerable effect upon classical Newtonian physics. Here the conception of the impassibility and immutability of God (i.e. that God is not subject to suffering or change), which has patristic sources, became allied to the Aristotelian notion of the Unmoved Mover. Although the idea of the creation of the universe out of nothing remained, that became difficult to maintain when the universe itself came to be construed more and more in terms of Aristotle’s four causes in which the effect was understood as following inexorably from its antecedent and defining cause, for to regard the Creator as the First Cause from which the universe took its rise appears to imply ‘the eternity of the world’ if only the mind of God who knows himself as its First Cause. Mediaeval theology on evangelical grounds had to reject the notion of ‘the eternity of the world’ but it remained trapped, for the most part at least, in notions of impassibility and immutability of God which had as their counterpart a notion of the world which, given its original momentum by the First Cause, constituted a system of necessary and causal relations in which it was very difficult to find room for any genuine contingence. Contingence could only be thought of in so far as there was an element of necessity in it, so that contingence could be thought of only by being thought away. The inertial relation of an immutable God to the world he has made thus gave rise to a rather static conception of the world and its immanent structures. Looked at in this way it seems that the groundwork for the Newtonian system of the world was already to found in mediaeval thought.[1]

Does this, at all, sound familiar to you? Have you been exposed to this kind of over-determined world in what you have been taught at church or elsewhere? What do we lose if we affirm the kind of mechanical world that Torrance just described? We lose intimate relationship with God in Christ for one thing. We also have potential for losing compassion for others; we might conclude that the plight of some people, or a whole group or nation of people are ‘just’ determined to be where they are in their own lived lives, no matter how miserable. We might not overtly or consciously think all of this, but it surely would be informing the way we view ourselves and other selves in relation to God in the world.

Let me just leave off by suggesting that what Torrance describes above, about a mechanical-world is the world you get when you embrace classical Calvinism, Arminianism, etc. (philosophically, theologically, ethically, etc.). And let me suggest that there is a better way forward that is more consistent with the idea that God is love, and that he serves (or should) as the ground and grammar of everything.

 

 

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 5-6.

Being Really Free: God’s Sovereignty and Human Freedom in Resolution

Something that continues to shape theological constructs in Christian theology is the nexus that is present between God’s Sovereignty and Human autonomy/responsibility/freedom. Depending on which side the theological system leans toward will help to determine where that system will find its moorings within the history of ideas and interpretation. Obviously this nexus, as I just cryptically described it finds its most blatant expressions in either Calvinism sov1or Arminianism (and/or nowadays Open Theism). In general (and in oversimplification), the classical Calvinists are afraid if God’s sovereignty is not absolutely emphasized that our theology will end up in heresy, in Pelagianism; and God will become held captive by His own creation. On the other hand (and in oversimplification), the classical Arminian or Open Theist fears that if human freedom (sometimes=’free-will’) or responsibility is over-determined and objectified by God’s sovereignty that it no longer truly can remain HUMAN freedom, and now God has become the author of everything that happens (meticulously so), even sin.

Thankfully the quagmire noted above, while dealing with real and material concerns, is not where we have to preside; in fact we ought not to dwell there too long. The above (as I oversimply described it), is a result of engaging in negative theology; it is thinking philosophically about God and humanity, and it is not (by way of method) thinking from the center of God’s life, Jesus Christ. If we think from God’s Self-revelation, and allow that to interpret how we think about the ‘union’ between God’s sovereignty and Human Freedom, we will think directly and methodologically from the Hypostatic Union of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ. This is exactly how, of course, Karl Barth maneuvers through this. He gives objective primacy to Jesus Christ, and allows Him to determine the categories through which we should think about God’s sovereignty and Human freedom. Of course, then, as a consequent, what it means to be truly human will be given its understanding from what it means to be human for Christ. Christ’s humanity, by nature, is given shape and reality by its determinate reality as the second person of the Trinity, as the Son. We, by participation in His humanity by the Holy Spirit, and not by nature but grace and adoption, have a Divinely shaped humanity that like Christ’s can only truly be for God (which is the terminus or end/purpose of what it means to be human and free). Prior to hearing from R. Michael Allen’s commentary on Barth in this regard, and prior to hearing from Karl Barth himself; let’s first hear from the Apostle Paul:

15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! 16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. ~Romans 6:15-18

If Jesus’ humanity for us (in his active obedience—the Reformed concept) is what it means to be objectively human, if he obeyed for us; then we have been set free and opened up for what it means to be truly human. In other words, there is no other way to be truly human except for the way that that is given ultimate shape in and through Christ’s vicarious humanity for all.

Michael Allen will open Barth up further for us, and then I will close with a couple of Karl Barth quotes. Interestingly, Allen places his discussion on this in his category of Providence, in his Karl Barth Reader that I take his thinking from. Allen writes of Barth:

[B]arth’s attention to providence is attuned to ethical concerns, namely, to sketching out the shape of human agency. While he is criticized by many as christomonist – as giving insufficient space to creaturely agency – his dogmatic approach is not meant to supplant, but to situate human agency. In his ethical reflections, he will address the crucial concept of freedom, following the early Reformed tradition in affirming real human freedom while defining it as freedom ‘within the limits which correspond to its creaturely existence (III/3.61). Barth affirms what seems contradictory to those who believe human and divine agency exist in a competitive fashion: ‘That the creature may continue to be by virtue of the divine preserving means that it may itself be actual within its limits: actual, and therefore not a mere appearance engendered by some heavenly or hellish power; itself actual, and therefore not an emanation from the being of God … God preserves the creatures in the reality which is distinct from His own. It is relative to and dependent upon His reality, but in its relativity and dependence autonmous towards it, existing because it owes its existence to Him, as subject with which He can have dealings and which have dealings with Him’ (III/3.86). Barth argues that divine providence in no way rules out creaturely agency, though it does locate such human freedom within the economy of grace. Barth will even speak of human autonomy, though he will always maintain that it is an autonomy given by God – a counter-intuitive sort of autonomy if ever there were one. [emboldening mine, that is Barth being quoted by Allen] [R. Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: And Introduction and Reader, 134 Nook version.]

And here are a few more quotes from Barth to help illustrate what Allen just sketched:

[…] the perfection of God’s giving of himself to man in the person of Jesus Christ consists in the fact that far from merely playing with man, far from merely moving or using him, far from dealing with him as an object, this self giving sets man up as a subject, awakens him to genuine individuality and autonomy, frees him, makes him a king, so that in his rule the kingly rule of God himself attains form and revelation. How can there be any possible rivalry here, let alone usurpation? How can there be any conflict between theonomy and autonomy? How can God be jealous or man self assertive? [CD I I/2, p. 179]

Genuine freedom as it is realized in Jesus is not a freedom from God but a freedom for God (and, with that, a freedom for other human beings). ‘ To the creature God determined, therefore, to give an individuality an autonomy, not that these gifts should be possessed outside Him, let alone against Him, but for him and within his kingdom; not in rivalry with his sovereignty but for its confirming and glorifying’ [CD I I/2, p. 178].

Ultimately, what is being argued is that there is no other ontological category known as ‘freedom’ by which humanity can operate. Even if human freedom, and I believe it is (in honoring the Creator/creature distinction), is independently contingent, it is still contingent and derived from God’s independent non-contingent freedom which is derived from nowhere but from His own Self determined, Free, and Triune life. If creation is the external reality of the Covenant of which God’s life is its inner ground – and I believe it is! – then creaturely freedom can only be understood from this position, from the purpose that is ec-statically given to it by Christ Himself; who according to Col. 1.15-20 is the point and purpose and ground of all of creation’s reality. Note:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Jesus has realized, for us, in His resurrection and ascension what it truly means to be human. To be genuinely and humanly free, means to be free for God. The rest of creation recognizes this (on this earth day, ironically), us humans ought to repent and recognize this too!

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that  the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. ~Romans 8.18-25 

Jacobus Arminius, The Theologian of Law: Miscellanies on Moralism and the Priority of Justice

There is so much I would like to communicate through this post; Jacobus Arminius is just that kind of rascal! Unfortunately, because of space limitations and blog attention span disorder, I will have to delimit myself to the
arminiusbare minimum of what I would really like to cover in regard to Arminius’ conception of duplex amore Dei (i.e. God’s ‘twofold love’), and how that is taken captive by a ‘Legal theology’ of the sort that I would think ought to heal any Arminian of being Arminian (if they actually followed the actual teachings of Arminius–which I don’t think most know). I am really having a hard time knowing how to whittle this down, much of what I am going to provide will just be straight quotation of Arminius from his Declaration of Sentiments, and then maybe some commentary from his translator W. Stephen Gunter.

We will jump into the discussion that involves Arminius Legal Theology. I will quote Gunter’s lead into Arminius, and then we will hear directly from Arminius.

[P]oint nineteen is a tightly woven sustained argument exhibiting a fine example of Arminius’ scholastic inclinations. He starts where his opponents start, with Legal Theology in the pre-fall situation, logically irrespective of Christ’s saving work. God is characterized by justice, which produces a hatred for sin, and God is characterized by his “love for humanity” as creatures endowed with reason…. At this juncture he invokes Hebrews 11:6, because in Arminius’ theological dialectic, election is God’s free decision to save those who by grace come seeking and believing: “For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Regardless of where one encounters the doctrine of election in Arminius, one finds also the dimensions of uncoerced, non-necessitated freedom. It is important to keep this in mind, even as we see how Arminius weaves his notion of the duplex amor Dei:

[Here is Arminius]A mutuality exists between those two kinds of love. The love that God extends to humanity cannot come into play unless it is permitted by God’s love of justice. This implies that God’s love for justice is the more excellent of the two; however, love for the creature abounds, except where the love of justice would prohibit its expression. The consequence of this is demonstrated by God’s condemning humanity on account of sin. God clearly demonstrates this love relationship in the original created order; however, this does not imply that God’s love for the creature supersedes his love for justice. Had this been the case, God would have manifested a stronger aversion to the eternal misery of the creature than to the creature’s disobedience. The abundant place for divine love is clear because God condemns no person for any reason other than sin, and God saves the multitudes of humanity who are converted from sin. In the divine dispensation, this salvation would not be possible unless it was God’s will to allow an abundant scope for his love toward the creature under God’s judgment, to the extent this is permitted by his justice (p. 124).[1]

For Arminius, then, God loves His justice more than He loves creation. The consequent of this is that for Arminius, God’s own life is shaped and given co-inherence through a relation of Law and Justice; and thus not a conception of God as Triune, ‘personal’, self-giving love. Love of Law precedes Love (of people) and Grace in the theology of Jacobus Arminius, and this is played out–in my view–in the most heinous of ways as it relates to God’s love for humanity.

As an aside [I don’t have the time to get into this here], Arminius intentionally operates with a subordinationist conception of the Divine Monarchia (or God-head); which makes perfect sense, given His ‘Legal Theology’, and thus the priority of Law being met prior to Love being given (so in order for this to happen, Jesus, then must become the ‘instrument’ by which God’s [the ‘Father’s] ‘Just’ requirements are met, prior to Love being given. So Law is always the orienting pole of salvation, and then the subsequent Love for the sinner. Law becomes the control that leverages the continued obedience of the sinner, and thus salvation and relationship with God continues to be shaped by God’s ontological character as a Lover of Justice, more than a Lover of the Person. Note Arminius:

[…] This prioritizing of justice is the only adequate protection against carelessness. At the same time, the foundation for the latter kind of faith, one that dares to believe that God will undoubtedly reward those who diligently seek Him, is that great love for humanity which neither can nor will prevent God from effecting salvation for the sinner—unless God be hindered by his greater love for justice…. God’s twofold love, and the mutuality that each part bears toward the other, serve together to form the foundation of religion, without which no true religion can possibly exist. Any doctrine, therefore that is in open hostility to this twofold love and to the relationship that mutually exists between them, subverts the foundation of all religion. (pp. 126-28)[2]

Okay, so this aside has gotten a little out of control. What this illustrates, though, is the utter contingence that God’s own life and then subsequent relation to His creation has on Law/Justice (and the voluntarism therein). Beyond that, what this also demonstrates is that Arminius suffered from a terrible case of, at least, semi-Pelagianism. As corollary with Arminius’ conception of God’s love of justice as primary, this becomes the rule by which humanity sustains their salvation, and it becomes the motivation for personal holiness; fear of damnation. So Arminius, in good Pelagian form has constructed a soteriology that is a principled moralism; one that starts in God’s life and works all the way down to ours, and back up to God’s again.

There is much more to say, but let me end by quoting Arminius’ final summarization of his view of predestination and election; the final summation that he gives to his opponents and detractors in his Declaration of Sentiments (which represents Arminius’ mature and final statements on his positions). Here is Arminius, and with this we end:

  1. The first specific and absolute divine decree regarding the salvation of sinful humanity: God decreed to appoint his Son, Jesus Christ, as Mediator, Redeemer, Savior, Priest, and King in order that he might destroy sin by his own death, so that by his own obedience he might obtain the salvation lost through disobedience, and by his power communicate this salvation.

  2. In the second precise and absolute decree, God decided graciously to accept those who repent and believe in Christ, and for Christ’s sake and through him to effect the final salvation of penitents and believers who persevere to the end in their faith. Simultaneously, God decreed to leave in sin under divine wrath all impenitent persons and unbelievers, damning them as alienated from Christ.

  3. The third divine decree: God decided to administer in a sufficient and efficacious manner the means necessary for repentance and faith—this being accomplished according to divine wisdom, by which God knows what is proper and becoming both to his mercy and his severity. And this all proceeds according to divine justice, by which God is prepared to adopt whatever his wisdom may prescribe and carry out.

  4. From these decrees the fourth proceeds, by which God decreed to save and to damn certain particular persons. This decree has its own foundation in divine foreknowledge, through which God has known from all eternity those individuals who through the established means of his prevenient grace would come to faith and believe, and through his subsequent sustaining grace would persevere in the faith. Likewise, in divine foreknowledge, God knew those who would not believe and persevere.[3]

It is fitting that Arminius ends his summary with an article (IV) grounded and framed by keeping the conditions of the Law, meeting God’s standard and definitive form as Lover of Justice more than Lover of People.

Roger Olson (contemporary evangelical Arminian theologian, par excellence), has written more than once (online and elsewhere), that most Arminians nowadays are nothing more than semi-Pelagian; he communicates this with the triumphalism that if Arminians today really followed and knew what Jacobus Arminius actually taught, they would cease all  semi-Pelagian activity, and become ‘orthodox’. Really?

[T]here is nothing in that reasoning of Calvin that I cannot heartily approve, if all things (in it) are rightly understood. For I confess that the grace by which the Holy Spirit is given, is not common to all men; I also confess that the origin [fontem: source, principal cause] of faith can be said to be gratuitous election of God, but it is election to bestow faith, not to communicate salvation. For a believer is elected to participate in salvation, a sinner is elected to faith. ~Jacobus Arminius[4]


[1] W. Stephen Gunter, Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation with Introduction and Theological Commentary, (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012), 176-77.

[2] Ibid., 179.

[3] Ibid., 180.

[4] Works, 1:747 cited by Gunter, p. 181.

A Word of Wisdom from Bruce L. McCormack: On Universalism and Limited Atonement

Universal atonement (and Universalism), and Limited Atonement have been part of the ongoing theological (soteriological) struggle between classical Calvinists and Arminians since at least Dort (but prior to Dort, which kbaewould be the logical/chronological coordinate and presupposition of Dort). The battle, on this particular patch of turf, has to do (if you don’t know) with whether Jesus died for all, and thus all are saved; or, if He died for a limited particular elect group of people, and thus this limited group of people are eschatologically ‘saved’. This has been where a major tussle has been (and is being) had over the years between these two disparate attempts to read the Apostle Paul, in particular, theologically/soteriologically.

Bruce McCormack offers a word of wisdom for these two groups, and it is a word (really) that finds corollary with Thomas Torrance as well; although McCormack has his own Barthian way of providing denouement — in one sense, for McCormack, it is not to provide any resolution, but instead to let the two disparate and apparently mutually exclusive poles stay so, but dialectically (and as the occasion for a fruitful way forward beyond this impasse, through a Barth[ian] escapade of constructive vigilance). It is this kind of dialectic resonance that McCormack suggests, and indeed prescribes for these two classically trained brawlers (i.e. classical Calvinism and Arminianism). Here is McCormack’s word of knowledge:

[I] would suggest that there is a better way of dealing with this, the most profound and important of the tensions found in the New Testament. I am certainly conservative enough in my understanding of biblical inspiration to believe that if something appears in the New Testament, it is there because God wanted it there. So if a tension exists, there must be a reason for it. And if I had to guess, I would say that the reason has to do with the fact that those awakened to faith in Jesus Christ in this world are still sinners. If God told us the answer to the problem in advance of the eschaton, we would harm ourselves on the one side or the other. If Hew were to tell us that a universal salvation will be the final outcome, we would very likely become lax, antinomian even. The sense of urgency that is pervasive in Paul’s Christian existentialism would be lost. If, on the other hand, God told us that limited atonement is the true resolution of the tension, we would very likely despair of our salvation. How could anyone be certain that the atoning death of Christ was really intended for him or her? And so I would venture to guess that the tension I have described is divinely intended — in order to protect us from ourselves.

In short, I think it was a mistake for the Westminster Assembly to seek to resolve this question on the side of limited atonement in advance of the return of Christ in glory — just as I think that it would be a mistake for any church today to teach universalism. Again, these are simply the logical possibilities that arise on the soil of the Reformed understanding of the relation of grace and faith. As such, they constitute the walls within which we are to live in this world. All of us will tilt more to one side than the other. And if individual theologians wish to conclude to one or the other — for the sake of exploring implications and relationships among the various Christian doctrines, they should be allowed to do so. That belongs to their unique calling. But churches need to be responsible for all the faithful. And for that reason, I would say, neither limited atonement nor universalism should ever be made church dogma.

We are now in a position to appreciate Karl Barth’s position on the problem of universalism. [Bruce L. McCormack, So That He May Be Merciful to All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism, 240-41 in, Karl Barth And American Evangelicalism, edited by Bruce L. McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson.]

This is a good word, and provides the proper levity and gravitas that should attend this usually hard chargin’ discussion and theological debate. There are enough passages of Scripture on either side of this to make a half-baked argument for either position (i.e. universalism and/or particularism vis-à-vis limited atonement). The desire to find and then prescribe resolution between either of these teachings is only driven by a chosen prolegomena, or theological methodology that front-loads on the side of precision, absolute coherence, and mathematical execution (e.g. scholasticism Reformed).

What professor McCormack is calling for (as we leave him here, prior to his discussion of Barth on such things), is, if anything, that we approach these issues with chastened attitudes, instead of riled up egos that has to have the answer to everything; and everything in the sense set out and required by a certain a priori commitment to a theological methodology, and even material schema that requires a riled up method of rationalist certitude and precision. McCormack is recognizing that Scripture’s disclosure is a fully loaded one that does not cater to specialized meanderings of whatever our pet and chosen theological paradigms might be. And if this is the case, then we need to let the force of this reality impose itself on us, allow it to create the categories through which we think about God (and subsequent things), and understand that our position as Christians, and theologians, is one that is always in an open-ended provisional stance of learning and reforming accordingly; according to the force and power of God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ.

We ought to heed McCormack’s wisdom. And then listen to Barth ;-).

Jacobus Arminius’ Twenty Theses on Predestination [In His Own Words]

This is a follow up post to the recent post I just put up that shared Jacobus Arminius’ view of Predestination (in contrast to his interlocutors, or more, examiners whom today we would know as classical or Westminster Calvinists; you can read that post (if you haven’t already) hereThe content of this post shares once again from Arminius; these are the twenty points and implications that Arminius shared (from his Declaration of Sentiments) immediately following the four points on predestination I shared from him in that last post. So here are the positive (and negative) implications that Arminius thinks flows from his view on predestination:

arminiusprint[T]his doctrine of predestination declares:

1. The foundation of all Christianity, both with regard to salvation and to the certainty of salvation.

2. The essence of the Evangel. Indeed, it declares the Gospel itself, which must be believed for salvation (as far as the two articles above are concerned).

3. Because predestination is a clear and explicit Scriptural teaching, it has never been examined by a general or particular Council of the Church, nor has it ever been contradicted by any orthodox divine.

4. Predestination has been consistently acknowledged and taught by all well-informed teachers.

5. Predestination is consistent with the harmony of all the confessions of faith made by the Protestant churches.

6. The Dutch Confession and [Heidelberg] Catechism are of one accord on this doctrine. This agreement is such that if in the sixteenth article of the Confession the two expressions “those persons who” and “others’ be interpreted as “believers” and “unbelievers,” my position on predestination will be comprehended in that article with the utmost clarity. For this reason, when I held a public disputation at the university, I required that the article of faith under consideration be composed in the exact words of the Confession. When compared, it is evident that there is a complete harmony with the [Heidelberg] Catechism, specifically questions 20 and 54.

7. Interpreted in this manner, predestination is in full harmony with the nature of God—his wisdom, goodness, and justice, because it enshrines their primary content in the clearest possible witness to God’s wisdom, goodness, and justice.

8. This predestination is in harmony with the nature of humanity at every level—in the primitive state of creation, in its fallen state, as well as in its restoration.

9. It is in complete accord with the act of creation. It affirms that creation is a genuine communication of goodness, both with regard to the intention of God as well as with regard to the actual creative act. Predestination has its origin in the goodness of God, so that whatever has reference to its being fully preserved and carried out proceeds from divine love. The act of creation is itself a perfect and appropriate divine act in which God is well pleased and through which humanity has received the requisite means to avoid falling into sin.

10. This predestination is in accord with the nature of eternal life and all the Scriptural nomenclature by which it is designated.

11. It also agrees with the nature of eternal death and all the names by which that death is described in Scripture.

12. This predestination underscores that sin is actual disobedience and therefore the meritorious cause of condemnation. For this reason predestination must be understood in the context of the fall and sin. [Jacobus Arminius, Declaration of Sentiments, trans. by W. Stephen Gunter, 137.]

Okay, so this is twelve of the twenty theses. Let me provide the remaining eight later.

I think one thing (of many) that stands out to me from Arminius’ view of predestination is how he explicitly ties it into creation. This is different from the way that us Evangelical Calvinists articulate this. We believe that Pre-destination finds its primary referent in the life of God, in particular, in God’s elected life for us in Jesus Christ; and we see, as corollary of this, election as Pre-destination’s outworking in and through the history of redemption. Arminius’ view falls prey to collapsing God’s life into the creation in a way that ultimately presents a fissure between the Father and the Son. When the Son becomes flesh (incarnate), he begins to play out the purposes that Arminius believes are for a humanity that is abstracted out from the life of God; once Jesus enters into this situation (of predestination), he simply becomes (adopts) a humanity (like ours) that is given shape by this decree of election/reprobation. And which ultimately has nothing to do with God’s Self-determinate life. Jesus becomes a creature, and subordinated from God’s life as the means or instrument through which God saves the elect; but He ceases to have a necessary bearing on the shape of God’s life.