Johann von Staupitz as Proto-Evangelical Calvinist in Constructive Critique of the Calvinists, Arminians, and Provisionists

Theories of salvation remain a contentious thing; particularly among us Protestants. We have such an array of theories that it becomes a task in and of itself to simply index them. But for our purposes, I want to focus on a particular thread as that is given to us in a Catholic and medieval development. I want to use this sketch and appeal to the past to help interrogate certain contemporary Protestant doctrines of salvation that we are currently living with. We will use David Steinmetz’s sketch of medieval nominalism in the soteriology of Luther’s mentor, Johann von Stuapitz. And from this sketch we will contrast one strand of nominalist soteriology with Staupitz’s own unique offering. What emerges from these sketches, I submit, is a helpful roadmap for better understanding the why and the what of contemporary theories of salvation such as we find in Calvinism, Arminianism, and what has been called Traditionalism (or ‘Provisionism’ a la Leighton Flowers—Flowers’ own position is really just a sub-set or nuanced version of classical Arminianism as that has been tweaked in an even more ‘semi-Augustinian’ or ‘semi-Pelagian’ direction than what we find in Arminianism or even Nominalism proper).

As is my normal blogging mode, let me offer a long quote and then we will use that quote as a material font for populating the sort of constructive critique I want to make of Calvinism, Arminianism, and Provisionism. I will juxtapose these other traditions with our Evangelical Calvinist soteriology, as that is grounded in a doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ or the Patristic Homooousion. As we engage with Steinmetz’s sketch of Staupitz, what we will find is an interesting emphasis on what Calvin later came to identify as the Duplex Gratia (‘double grace’ of salvation) within a broader doctrine of unio cum Christo (‘union with Christ). This focus on union with Christ also, not uncoincidentally, plays a heavy role in Luther’s soteriology, along with TF Torrance’s and Barth’s after them. You will see, through Steinmetz’s work, how these themes begin to become contrasted and set into relief, one from the other. Steinmetz writes:

Staupitz’s stress on the initiative of God in predestination led him to redefine the doctrine of justification. The entire scholastic tradition, and not simply the nominalists, defined justifying grace as the grace that makes sinners pleasing to God. This definition seemed to Staupitz to mirror inadequately the nature of God’s act. It is not justification but predestination that makes sinners pleasing to God. The function of grace given in justification is to make God pleasing to sinners. Justification is simply the fruition in time of a sovereign decree of election made before time. When God chose the elect, God placed Jesus Christ under obligation to give justification to them through his work as mediator. The function of the mediatorial work of Jesus Christ is, therefore, not to make men and women dear to God, but rather to make God dear to them. The elect are the beneficiaries of a covenant initiated and fulfilled by God in Jesus Christ.[1]

Compare Staupitz’s understanding of salvation, with its emphasis on predestination and a doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ with Barth’s:

This all rests on the fact that from the very first He participates in the divine election; that that election is also His election; that it is He Himself who posits this beginning of all things; that it is He Himself who executes the decision which issues in the establishment of the covenant between God and man; that He too, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is the electing God. If this is not the case, then in respect of the election, in respect of this primal and basic decision of God, we shall have to pass by Jesus Christ, asking of God the Father, or perhaps of the Holy Spirit, how there can be any disclosure of this decision at all. For where can it ever be disclosed to us except where it is executed? The result will be, of course, that we shall be driven to speculating about a decretum absolutum instead of grasping and affirming in God’s electing the manifest grace of God. And that means that we shall not know into whose hands we are committing ourselves when we believe in the divine predestination. So much depends upon our acknowledgement of the Son, of the Son of God, as the Subject of this predestination, because it is only in the Son that it is revealed to us as the predestination of God, and therefore of the Father and the Holy Spirit, because it is only as we believe in the Son that we can also believe in the Father and the Holy Spirit, and therefore in the one divine election.[2]

We can sense some parallels, and see some antecedents of emphasis between Barth and Steinmetz’s Staupitz. What it most significant to me is the emphasis placed on a doctrine of predestination. Because of Staupitz’s situadedness he would not have had the intensive Christological edge that Barth brings to these things. But Staupitz does have the sort of ‘from above’ unilateral focus on salvation that kicks against any form of quid pro quo covenantalism as we find that in various forms in classical Calvinism, Arminianism, and Provisionism. We see Staupitz move away from the dualistic potentia God of the nominalists proper, and towards an understanding of salvation that focuses solely on God’s Word of grace and hope. Luther couldn’t help but pick this emphasis up, and Barth following could not as well.

For Barth and Torrance (latterly), the logic of reformational thinking, whether that be thought back from someone like Staupitz, or more radically from Luther and Calvin, is a Logic of Grace; as TF Torrance calls it. This logic is not the starting point for the Augustinian forms of salvation that we find in classic Calvinism, Arminianism, or Provisionism. Instead we get a focus on ‘justification’ as the starting point for thinking salvation, which in itself thinks in terms of an abstractly elected human with the focus on the human’s responsibility to respond to God. This might sound like strange fire to some, particularly classical Calvinists. But if we read the Federal theologians of Calvinist heritage, what we find is a ‘two-winged’ conception of the Covenant where the unconditionally elect person is burdened with task of keeping their end of the covenant. Indeed, in the Federal scheme, this person has been predestined to keep on keeping on in the faith, but they are burdened with this need to persevere in the salvation they have been granted. This need to persevere is set within a juridical framework (i.e. Covenant of Works and the Divine Pactum), such that the focus becomes one wherein the elect is to a live a life that seeks to avoid the judgment and instead find justification and vindication at the second advent of Jesus Christ.

In contrast to this focus, once again, we find that Staupitz that is more aligned with Barth’s and Torrance’s theologies, or Luther’s and Calvin’s. Steinmetz writes again:

Staupitz, on the other hand, had very little to say about the work of Christ as judge. The work of hope was expanded for him from the past into the present. He did not think simply in terms of the first advent of Christ in the flesh (which for Biel was the basis of the work of hope) or the final advent of Christ in glory (which for Biel was the culmination of the work of justice). Rather, he laid heavy emphasis in his theology on the advent of Christ in grace. Grace is not an impersonal power or habit of love, though in his early thought he could speak of it in these terms. Grace should be defined instead as the personal presence of the risen Christ and justification as an intimate marriage between Christ and the Christian. Life in the present is live out of the boundless resources of the indwelling Christ, who provides at every moment all the Christian needs in order to persevere. Because in his union with Christ the Christian has access to all the unlimited resources of grace, Staupitz could not be anxious about the impending judgment of God. His certitude was grounded in the love of God, a reality that is not subject to change and fluctuation.[3]

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not attempting to suggest that Staupitz was a proto-Barthian; but I am suggesting that in the history there were prominent threads and strands of soteriological bounty that stand in stark contradistinction to what later came to be known as a Protestant Reformed orthodoxy; or what Richard Muller calls Christian Aristotelianism. Staupitz fits within a Christological formed nominalist theology that we find quite present in the emphases of Luther&company. We might want to read this emphasis as Stauptiz against the Calvinists, just as we have Calvin against the Calvinists (Muller’s critique notwithstanding).

The Evangelical Calvinist thread is always the thread that emphasizes God’s Grace, his ‘Logic of Grace’ in Jesus Christ. We see this thread in medieval times, as much as we see it in the modern times of Barth and Torrance. It is a thread that the contemporary offerings don’t grasp, and thus they fail to offer a radically and Christologically formed understanding of salvation for the Church. The Arminians and Provisionists fall prey to the critique of a bottom-up juridical understanding of salvation just as much as the Calvinists do. Unlike Evangelical Calvinism, and like Calvinism proper, Arminians and Provisionists start their respective soteriologies in the person needing the saving, rather than in the God doing the saving. This is not to say that they reject the idea that salvation is of God, instead mine is a methodological observation. They think of the ‘elect’ or the ‘justified’ in abstraction from the choice of God to be for us rather than against us. In other words, they continue to emphasize the judgment of God on individual sinners, rather than the cosmic life of God in Christ for the world as the basis for their understanding of salvation. So, they have a vision of God, unlike Staupitz et al. that starts with a Judgment-God rather than Father-God who is eternal Love.

I have so much more to say, but this will have to suffice for now. There is a lot of assertion in this post about classical Calvinists and Arminians, but if you scour my blog you will find posts on Calvinism and Arminianism (the latter implicates so called Provisionism) that help take my assertions out of the realm of assertion, and into the realm of critical and substantial statement.

 

[1] David C. Steinmetz, Reformers In The Wings: From Geiler von Kaysersberg to Theodore Beza: Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 19.

[2] Barth, CD II/2:111.

[3] Steinmetz, Reformers In The Wings, 20.

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‘Theological Theology’ as a Biblical Hermeneutic: Calling Leighton Flowers and the Calvinists to Think Soteriology from Christology

As Protestants we all want our interpretations of Holy Scripture to be the “right ones”; at least we want to be able to operate with the conviction that what we believe Scripture teaches is in fact what it is teaching. I continue to follow along with Leighton Flowers and his proposed soteriological view known as Provisionism (which is his riff on the Southern Baptist so called Traditionalism). In fact I just
listened to a four hour response he gave to some of his critics and fellow podcasters, one of whom included Chris Date. There are certain things that resonate with me in regard to Flowers’ desired conclusion. In other words, he wants to work, de jure, from revelation as his authoritative source for working out his theological conclusions. We don’t share the same theory of revelation, which has some considerable implications in regard to how we approach Scripture and its interpretation; but we have a shared desire to avoid over reliance on metaphysical speculation when it comes to the way we in fact arrive at our respective soteriological conclusions.

But what I find ironic about Leighton, and this isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to him, is that in his speed to defeat the Calvinist theological framework he continues to work from the same sort of soteriological and Augustinian premises that he derides as foolishness. In other words, even though Leighton seems to think that he is offering a more accurate and more biblically reliant doctrine of salvation, it has become clear to me that he is working from the same sort of soteriologically-driven-from-below starting point for thinking salvation as his Calvinst counterparts. It isn’t that he isn’t thinking less “systematically” and theologically than his Calvinist opponents, it is just that he has shifted the ‘systematic’ (his word) from thinking salvation from Augustinian premises—particularly when that comes to thinking about anthropology and ‘freewill’—and instead works from Pelagian premises. This might seem like a violation of a theological Godwin’s Rule by bringing up Pelagius, but I do so because Flowers et al make this move as they attempt to recoup Pelagius’s understanding of freewill over against Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. In this vein, Flowers contends that the Bible itself never teaches that humanity lives in what Luther calls ‘The Bondage of the Will.’ Flowers argues that this reading of Scripture can be attributed to Augustine’s titanic influence on the Western Church’s reading of Scripture in the main. As such, according to Flowers, we ought to throw off the shackles of the Augustinian prison, and freely choose, at the least, to follow the trajectory that Pelagius has given us in regard to understanding the ‘neutrality’ of the human will coram Deo.

To bring this full circle: It is important, in my view, for Flowers and all of us to recognize the power that theological assumptions have upon the way we arrive at our theological and soteriological conclusions. I think Flowers does recognize this, which is why he hopes to defeat the impact of the tradition Augustine has provided for, and replace that with a trajectory, at least with reference to thinking a theological anthropology, with Pelagius’ voice. And yet Flowers seems to slip back and forth between recognizing the role that theological exegesis has on the way he receives and reads Scripture, and then he seems to argue that he is just attempting to offer a ‘pure’ reading of the New Testament text in particular.

But this is the point I want to counter with: We all are ‘enslaved,’ as it were, to a Traditioned reading of the text of Holy Scripture. In other words, none of us read it in a vacuum. That said, Scripture itself does indeed offer up its own categories and emphases. So, the theological lenses we read Scripture through need to dialectically and spirally be understood as lenses that have taken shape as they are formed under the pressures of revelation, and encounter with the living Lord that revelation in fact is. What I am saying is that while we read Scripture theologically, indeed, we are doing so in a dialogical sense; in a sense that Scripture’s teaching, and its witness to its reality in Jesus Christ become mutually informing things. This should chasten Flowers’ et als constant appeal to a more plain teaching of Scripture in regard to soteriological and other loci. His opponents might be reading Scripture from a ‘systematic,’ but no more or less than is Leighton. The question is: Whose systematic is more closely proximate to Scripture’s reality in Christ? And this question, in itself is a highly theological question; but this shouldn’t be surprising since our reception of Scripture, as Protestants, is based on a highly charged theological confession that Scripture is God’s Word where the viva vox Dei (living voice of God) can be encountered through the mediating humanity of Jesus Christ. These things, these hermeneutical realities need to be better attended to by Flowers and his Calvinist interlocutors. In an absence of this sort of attendance I do not believe a fruitful discussion between the parties can inhere. Without a critical understanding and delineation of what Scripture is, without a robust doctrine of Scripture in the forefront, Flowers’ and the Calvinist’s arguments, respectively, will only keep sliding right past each other. I place this emphasis on a doctrine of Scripture because it takes us back to the more fundamental question of hermeneutic and where that comes from for the Protestant reader of Scripture. This lacuna continues to plague the internecine discussions that take place between evangelical thinkers.

There is a better way. The better way is to follow the lead of someone like John Webster. He understood the importance of doing ‘theological theology’; meaning, he understood that there is a theological taxis or order to Christian thought. As such, if we fail to attend, in an intentional way, to this ordered way of thinking—thinking that starts with Theology Proper, subsequently leading to other loci like a doctrine of creation, doctrine of Scripture so on and so forth—we will have very thin hermeneutical frameworks that actually keep us from penetrating the depth dimension of the text of Scripture. If this remains the case, then the inner-theological-reality that allows Scripture to teach what it does will never really be engaged with. Jesus believed (cf. Jn 5.39) that He is the inner-reality of Scripture, as such, I suggest to Leighton et al. that Christology, not soteriology ought to be the starting point in regard to our broader biblical hermeneutic. If we think our thoughts from Jesus as regulator of the text’s reality we will end up with different questions than those being debated by those committed to an Augustinian/Pelagian frame such as the Calvinists and Leighton are. They can choose to recognize this or not. If they don’t recognize this then their discussions will continue to traffic in the status quo of evangelical conservative theological banter with no real hope for advancing deeper into the once for all faith delivered to the saints.

Engaging With Leighton Flowers’ ‘Provisionalism’ Along With Critique of Classical Calvinism

I am going to attempt to write more posts on and in critique of classical Calvinism (once again). But I am planning on writing posts that are aimed at non-specialist Christians, and yet who are thoughtful about such things. In other words, I am going to attempt to write posts that are accessible to a broader cross-section of Protestant Christians. This means that I will be entering the fray—with trembling—of what is currently underway among the more populace audience of Calvinists. But I am not going to limit my posts to addressing Five Point Calvinism; I also will be addressing what Leighton Flowers is promoting as Provisionalism or what he calls Traditionalism. Flowers, as far as I can tell, is gaining quite a following via his YouTube videos, and his podcast which he calls Soteriology 101. He is attempting to offer an alternative to Five Point Calvinism, and Arminianism; an ostensible via media between these two classical poles. It isn’t much different, from what I gather, from Zane Hodges’ Free Grace soteriology which Hodges articulated in his book Absolutely Free; which by the way was a counter proposal to John MacArthur’s Lordship Salvation which he presents in his book: The Gospel According to Jesus (and latterly, The Gospel According to the Apostles). Flowers seems to be latching onto Hodges’ approach, even if he isn’t following him in every step; in other words, if you listen to Flowers he sounds much more Calvinistic than what we get in Hodges. That said the premises in regard to ‘free-will’ and libertarian free agency, with reference to ‘human responsibility’ in the appropriation of salvation, is ostensibly univocal between Hodges and Flowers.

I am not going to offer a critique of anyone in this post, other than to say that I know Evangelical Calvinism, as we are presenting it in our books and at this blog, offers a genuine alternative that does not traffic in the same sorts of dualistic categories that we get in classical Calvinism, classical Arminianism, Lordship Salvation, Free Grace, or ‘Provisionalism.’ This is the irony of Flowers’ project: he seems to think that he is categorically avoiding the sort of substance metaphysics that his interlocutors fall prey to (according to him), and yet he is just the same making appeal to them; albeit his offering is a re-route or re-application of those categories when we think about a theological-anthropology and how that implicates soteriology. I can only speak in generalities currently, but my aim is to get into some of this with more detail; and then offer the Evangelical Calvinist alternative that Flowers seems to be unaware of (indeed many are still regrettably unaware of what we are presenting with Evangelical Calvinism). Stay tuned.

 

Some Critical and Personal Thoughts on the Theology Offered by The Gospel Coalition

What is it about The Gospel Coalition that I don’t like? For starters, I’m not a fan of coalitions that use the language of the Gospel to modify them; it makes it seem as if they have the corner on the Gospel, and anyone who might disagree with their presentation is probably not an orthodox Christian. I don’t like the notion of “coalition” because it starts to function like a monopolizing corporation wherein all other comers, if they want to be part of the movement, need to sign onto the mission and confession statement to be included. Indeed, this is the effect it is producing among the many evangelical churches out there. TGC, because of its breadth have church resources, and packages for various programs for local churches to easily implement into the body life of their respective churches. But what has come along with that is the attending theology that funds TGC. Now, this might not pose a problem for many pastors and ministries out there, but I think it has indeed had a homogenizing effect; such that many churches and pastors who weren’t necessarily Calvinistic previously, have now become so. In fact, I personally know of more than one pastor out there where this is the case. Indeed, I think this was the desired hope to begin with; i.e. to introduce Calvinist theology into churches wheretofore this sort of theology was not necessarily on tap at the various evangelical churches. It has had an amazing impact over at least the last decade; the growth has been exponential, and people who never would have been open to Calvinist theology previously (say like at churches like Calvary Chapels) are now full-fledged Calvinists (or they’re at least on the way).

Clearly, not all evangelical churches have given into the machine known as The Gospel Coalition; I mean there are a variety of self-conscious Arminian and other sorts of churches out there. But this is the problem, at least for me personally. Movements like TGC have largely co-opted the conservative evangelical movement. In other words, if you want to be intentionally doctrinally oriented in your church, and you’re looking for resources in that direction, the only place really going is TGC (and like conference oriented movements). On the other hand, we have many evangelical churches, clearly, which are still stuck in the 80s and 90s focusing on church growth, being relevant, meeting felt needs types of churches. But this is the dilemma for us evangelicals out here who don’t want either of these alternatives. This obviously is not TGC fault, per se, but their ‘coalition’ model has helped contribute to this sort of polarity in the evangelical world. Of course, they think they are offering a really good product to the churches; they believe they do indeed have a corner on what the orthodox and Protestant Gospel actually entails; they think the 16th and 17th centuries of the Protestant Post Reformation Reformed orthodox developments offer the best footing forward for the evangelical churches. But I don’t agree!

It is interesting; the appeal for many is that TGC still comes with the warm-hearted piety so many evangelicals have grown up with, historically and in their own lives. But what many unsuspecting churches don’t realize is that TGC’s mission is to get the Gospel, or the Doctrines of Grace, into the pulpits all throughout the land. My contention is that the piety they come with is not supported by the theology that stands behind them. The theology that stands behind TGC is what is called Covenantal or Federal theology. It starts with the Covenant of Works and ends with the Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Works presents a system wherein God relates to the people through a juridical/forensic frame rather than first relating to people as a God of Grace and Triune Love. The Covenant theology that gives TGC theology shape operates with a metaphysic of God that is legally shaped, decretally determined, and impersonally given. In other words, because God’s first relationship with Adam and Eve, in the Garden, was based upon a legal contract of obedience, between God and humanity, this then ends up coloring the whole theology as it develops in salvation history and eventuates in what Christ does in the Covenant of Grace; i.e. he meets the conditions set out in the Covenant of Works. The whole relationship between God and humanity, in this framework, is one that is based on a concept of God that emphasizes His monadic oneness, rather than emphasizing his filial threeness as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a genuine problem that people don’t really understand when they sign on with TGC. But most evangelicals think this is the best thing going. And most evangelicals who are busy with life, attend church maybe bi-weekly or weekly, don’t have the strength or time or resource to critically evaluate what in fact they are being fed; even the pastors in most evangelical churches don’t have the background to critically engage with the history of ideas that have shaped the theology of The Gospel Coalition.

The ultimate problem with what is being presented by The Gospel Coalition, in my view, is their doctrine of God. As I’ve noted numerous times: get the doctrine of God wrong, and everything following will be wrong. Most proponents of TGC theology, the ones who have the time to study, teach and write for TGC, are operating in good-faith; and they think they have found something that is rich and wonderful for the churches. But I am here to protest that! I am conservative evangelical, but one who thinks that the piety I grew up with, of the sort where intimacy with God in Christ is of a premium, can indeed be better supported by alternative streams of theological inquiry available in the history of ecclesial ideas. In other words, and this is of course where Evangelical Calvinism comes in, I KNOW that there are a variety of developments in the Reformed faith that are distinct and fundamentally different than what is being offered to folks through the theology of TGC. If you read me for any length, you know who I think offers better ways forward; unfortunately, people like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance have been smeared in many of the TGC quarters. People have been given the impression that Barth, in particular, cannot be trusted; indeed, people have been told that he does not trust the sufficiency of Scripture, among other things. Of course, none of this could be further from the truth.

But beyond this, the critique of Federal theology, as I have noted in a variety of my posts, comes from within the Reformed tradition itself; it comes contemporaneous with the developments that eventuated in the theology codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith so on and so forth. But people don’t know this. Indeed, many of the folks, the theologians involved with the development of TGC theology itself don’t seem to be aware of the various antecedents and movements in the history of Reformed theology. They are spoon-fed by people like Richard Muller as their historians, and simply use his thinking, and others, as the foundation upon which they do their recovery work. This, in my view, is a tragic development, and one that unfortunately impinges upon TGC and what they then offer the churches, theologically.

I haven’t written much on The Gospel Coalition recently; I used to write about its theology quite frequently. But their annual conference is currently underway in Indianapolis, and so I was prompted to think about TGC’s impact once again. People in the evangelical churches need to know what they are getting into when they sign up with TGC, or at least allow their materials into their churches. They come bearing ideas, and their ideas have theological and real life spiritual consequences in the lives of the people you are ministering to (pastors). Now, again, for many of you this is a good thing. But I am writing for those who might not be aware of this, or for those who are, and yet haven’t fully thought out the implications of all of this as that comes to the impact TGC theology can potentially have in your churches, respectively. I would think we would want to introduce people, at a foundational level, to an understanding of God that is thoroughly shaped by an emphasis upon Who He is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and allow that Grace filled, relational life to bleed through all that you teach into the people’s lives in your churches. There is a better way, theologically, than TGC offers.

 

Scottish Theology as an Antidote to The Gospel Coalition’s Calvinism

The Gospel Coalition’s annual conference is currently underway. I thought, once again, I would repost a post that gets into some material critique of the sort of Federal Calvinism that funds TGC’s theology. It disheartens me that TGC, and other like movements in conservative evangelicalism, is having the sort of impact and reach it is. In this post I identify, through Bell’s work, a distinction even in and among the Federal theologians as that theology was being developed in Scotland and elsewhere. Here’s that post:

Evangelical Calvinism is really a bubbling over of a variety of impetuses from within the history of Reformed theology. We look to the Scottish theology of Thomas Torrance, and the antecedent theology he looks to in the theology of John Calvin and also in the Scottish Kirk from yesteryear. We of course also look to the Swiss theology of Karl Barth towards offering a way forward in constructive ways in regard to where some of the historical antecedents trail off (primarily because they didn’t have the necessary formal and material theological resources available to them to finally make the turn that needed to be made in regard to a doctrine of election and other things).

In an attempt to identify this kind of movement, that has led to where we currently stand as Evangelical Calvinists, let me share from Charles Bell’s doctoral work on the Scottish theology that Torrance himself looked to in his own development as an evangelical Calvinist. Bell has been doing genealogical work with reference to various Scottish theologians, and also with reference to John Calvin, in his book. We meet up with Bell just as he is summarizing the development he has done on what is called the Marrow theology. This was theology that was developed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries by a group of twelve men; they sought to offer critique of the legalistic strain they discerned in the mainstream of Federal or Covenantal theology of their day, and hoped to place a priority of grace over law (which they believed their colleagues, the Federal theologians, had inverted thus providing for a legal faith) in regard to the covenantal system of theology. What Bell highlights though, is that while they discerned and even felt the pastoral problems provided by Federal theology, they themselves still did not have the wherewithal to remove themselves from that system; and so they suffered from a serious tension and irresolvable conflict in regard to the correction they saw needing to be made, and the way to actually accomplish that correction. Bell writes:

Boston and Erskine can only be fully appreciated against the background of 17th century Federal theology and the Marrow controversy. The Black Act of 1720 threatened the very heart of Reformed teaching concerning the nature of God’s grace. See in this context, it becomes highly significant that Boston and Erskine contend for the universal offer of Christ in the gospel, for such an offer is necessary to provide a basis for assurance. Not only do the Marrow men’s contemporary Federalists deny this universal offer, but they also deny that a basis for the assurance of faith is necessary since, according to them, assurance is not of the essence of faith. In light of the legalism which pervaded the Scottish scene, it is highly significant that men, who were themselves Federalists, detected this legalism and contended against it for the unconditional freeness of God’s grace. This they did by rejecting the covenant of redemption and insisting that there is but one covenant of grace, made for us by God in Christ. It is, therefore, a unilateral covenant which is not dependant or conditional upon our acts of faith, repentance, or obedience.

The Marrow men adhered to such doctrine precisely because they believed them to be both biblical and Reformed truths. Yet, because these men were Federal theologians, they were never able finally to break free of the problems engendered by the Federal theology. The Federal doctrines of two covenants, double predestination, and limited atonement undermined much of their teaching. So, for instance, the concept of a covenant of works obliged them to the priority of law over grace, and to a division between the spheres of nature and redemption. The doctrine of limited atonement removed the possibility of a universal offer of Christ in the gospel, and also removed the basis for assurance of salvation. Ultimately such teaching undermines one’s doctrine of God, causing us to doubt his love and veracity as revealed in the person and work of Christ. The Marrow controversy brought these problems to a head, but unfortunately failed to settle them in a satisfactory and lasting way. However, the stage is now set for the appearance of McLeod Campbell, who, like the Marrow men, saw the problems created by Federal Calvinism, but was able to break free from the Federal system, and therefore, to deal more effectively with the problems.[1]

What I like about Bell’s assessment is his identification of a distinction in and among the Federal theologians themselves; the Marrow men represent how this distinction looked during this period of time. And yet as Bell details even these men were not able to finally overcome the restraints offered by the Federal system of theology; it wasn’t until John McLeod Campbell comes along in the 18th century where what the Marrow men were hoping to accomplish was inchoate[ly] accomplished by his work—but he paid a high price, he was considered a heretic by the standards of the mainstream Federal theologians (we’ll have to detail his theology later).

What I have come to realize is that while we can find promising streams, and even certain moods in the history, we will never be able to overcome the failings that such theologies (like the Federal system) offered because they were, in and of themselves, in self-referential ways, flawed. As much as I appreciate John Calvin’s theology I have to critique him along the same lines as Bell critiques the Marrow men here, even while being very appreciative for the nobility of their work given their historical situation and context. This is why, personally, I am so appreciative of Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance); Barth recognized the real problem plaguing all of these past iterations of Reformed theology, it had to do with their doctrine of God qua election. It is something Barth notes with insight as he offers critique of Calvin, in regard to his double predestination and the problem of assurance that this poses (and this critique equally includes all subsequent developments of classical understanding of double predestination):

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]

This was the problem the Marrow men needed to address; it is the problem that McLeod Campbell attempted to address with the resources he had available to him; and yet, I conclude that it was only Barth who was finally successful in making the turn towards a radically Christ concentrated doctrine of double predestination and election. With Barth’s revolutionary move here he washed away all the sins of the past in regard to the problems presented by being slavishly tied to classical double predestination and the metaphysics that supported that rubric.

Concluding Thought

This is why I am so against what is going on in conservative evangelical theology today (again, think of the ubiquitous impact and work The Gospel Coalition is having at the church level). The attempt is being made to retrieve and repristinate the Reformed past as that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries in particular; and the retrieval isn’t even of the Marrow men, it is of the theology that the Marrow men, as Federal theologians themselves, understood had fatal problems in regard to a doctrine of God and everything else subsequent. My question is: Why in the world would anybody want to resurrect such a system of theology? There is no theological vitality there; it can only set people up to repeat the history of the past, in regard to the type of Christian spirituality it offered. Indeed, a spirituality that caused people to be overly introspective, and focused on their relationship with God in voluntarist (i.e. intellectualist) and law-like ways (because of the emphasis of law over grace precisely because of the covenant of works as the preamble and definitive framework for the covenant of grace/redemption). People might mean well, but as far as I am concerned they are more concerned with retrieving a romantic idea about a period of history in Protestant theological development—an idea that for some reason they have imbued with sacrosanct sentimentality—rather than being concerned with actual and material theological conclusions. For my money it does not matter what period of church history we retain our theological categories from; my concern is that we find theological grammars and categories that best reflect and bear witness to the Gospel reality itself. Federal theology does not do that!

[1] M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985), 168.

[2] Karl Barth, CD II/2:111. For further development of this critique, with particular reference to John Calvin, see my personal chapter, “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, 2017), 30-57.

So You Want Grace, You Want the Gospel? Here’s What You Get When You Sign Up with The Gospel Coalition

The Gospel Coalition’s annual conference is currently underway, so I thought it would apropos to repost a post I once wrote (among many) detailing aspects of the theology that stands behind TGC’s understanding of salvation and the Gospel. Here’s that post:

thegospelcoalition

This post will be a hearkening back post, hearkening back to the times when I used to write much more frequently and vociferously, and even polemically against what I have called classical Calvinism, Westminster Calvinism, etc. What is of interest to me is that the so called ‘new Calvinism’ of folks like John Piper and the The Gospel Coalition continue to thrive among a certain sub-culture within North American evangelicalism; truth be told I would lean more towards the biblical conservatism of this mode Versus the other dominant trend within North American evangelicalism which can (and has) been called Progressive Christianity. So with this kind of ground clearing paragraph out of the way let me get into what I want to quickly write about in this post: gratia, or Grace.

I think it is important to sketch the basics and understand what we are getting when we adopt the theology of The Gospel Coalition (I will pick on them, in general, since they are having the most impact across North America upon the local church and her pastors). The Gospel Coalition is not monolithic, there are a variety of and types of Calvinists who are associated with TGC; but in the main they all affirm the categories offered up by scholastic Reformed theology which took shape, primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries of the Protestant Reformed church in Europe and the UK in particular (as well as Puritan America a little later, and at points, concurrently). If this is true–that in the main they all affirm the theological categories offered up by post-Reformed orthodox theology–then what is funding how they conceive of ‘grace?’

If we turn to post-Reformed orthodox Calvinist scholar par excellence, Richard Muller, he helps elucidate what concept of grace was operative for the post-Reformed orthodox theologians (like from the 16th and 17th centuries), and then by corollary, what is operative now for The Gospel Coalition theologians and pastors when it comes to conceiving of grace in the dogmatic category of salvation. Here is how Muller describes a definition for ‘grace’ for both groups of theologians and pastors:

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

When you sign up for The Gospel Coalition’s news letter, or subscribe to their feed, and when they are discussing salvation in that letter or feed, this is what will be standing behind their commentary and exegesis at a theological/philosophical level. I just wanted you to be informed about that, I wouldn’t want you to think that you are getting the ‘pure Gospel’ when reading such commentary; I’d want you to know that there is a history of ideas behind the Gospel you are getting when you read the writers and theologians from The Gospel Coalition (I am not even sure that many of TGC’s thinkers are all that critically aware themselves of what informs their exegetical and theological decisions). So you have been served.

There are many material things highlighted in the definition of ‘gratia’ or grace by Muller above, and I cannot get into them in this post (but I will, I have a future post already queued up in my mind, expanding on the concept of ‘created grace’, the ‘habitus’, ‘cooperative grace’, and the idea of an enablement view of salvation as highlighted by Muller). Suffice it to say here, if you would like an alternative to the above, an alternative that sees grace as personal, and embodied by God himself in Jesus Christ, then Evangelical Calvinism will be a better fit for you. Stay tuned.

PS. When folks of whatever stature want to critique Evangelical Calvinism, and her premises, as laid out by Myk and myself in our book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church it would be helpful for the uninformed if you would let your readers know that your critiques come from a certain metaphysical direction, namely, the Aristotelian direction, and so when you do biblical exegesis in critique of EC, please at least have the courtesy of footnoting where your informing voices come from–this will be more honest, up front, and critical, especially for your readers.

 

[1] 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.

*I usually get all kinds of push back with posts like this (people typically don’t like the politics of posts like this, but I am aiming at simply opening the windows toward a critical horizon that people can better think from when approaching such discussions and life altering realities).

Providing Critical and Historical Context for the Theology of The Gospel Coalition: Evangelical Calvinism’s Reason for Reformation

The Gospel Coalition’s annual conference is currently underway in Indianapolis, as such I thought it appropriate to post something on the sort of theology that funds TGC as a contemporary iteration and representation of what counts as “Reformed” theology. Instead of re-inventing the wheel I thought I would repost a post I once wrote with reference to the ‘Real Reason for the Protestant Reformation.’ It is rather lengthy, for a blog post, but I thought I would share it because it gets into the antecedents from whence I critique the theology of TGC, and the Federal or Covenantal Calvinism that largely stands behind it. What I will share will give insight into my personal introduction to Reformed theology, and why I have taken the turns I have towards what we are calling Evangelical Calvinism. Let me share the post, and then I’ll offer some closing words following.

I was first introduced to Martin Luther’s theology, for real, in my 2002 Reformation theology class, during seminary, under the tutelage of Dr. Ron Frost (who I would later serve as a TA for, and be mentored by). Ron had written an essay for the Trinity Journal back in 1997, which caused an exchange—by way of rejoinder—by Richard Muller; who wanted to dispute Frost’s arguments (which I think he failed, because he didn’t really address Ron’s basic thesis and thus subsequent argument). So I wanted to share, with you all, just the first few opening paragraph’s of Ron’s essay in order to give you a feel for what he argued.

Given the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that is upon us, I thought it would be more than apropos to get into this through Frost’s essay. It throws how we think of the reason for the Protestant Reformation into some relief; relief in the sense that for Luther the indulgences weren’t the real driving force for him; what really motivated him had to do with Aristotle’s categories infiltrating Christian theology—primarily through Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis. What Frost convincingly demonstrates in his essay is that Luther’s primary concern had to do with a theological-anthropological locus; i.e. that humanity’s relation to God was set up under conditions that were philosophical and intellectualist rather than biblical and affectionist.

Here is a lengthy quote from Ron’s essay; I will follow it up with a few closing thoughts.

Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?

What was it that stirred Martin Luther to take up a reformer’s mantle? Was it John Tetzel’s fund-raising through the sale of indulgences? The posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences in October, 1517, did, indeed, stir the public at large. But Luther’s main complaint was located elsewhere. He offered his real concern in a response to the Diatribe Concerning Free Will by Desiderius Erasmus:

I give you [Erasmus] hearty praise and commendation on this further account-that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous [alienis] issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like-trifles rather than issues-in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.1

The concern of this article, then, is to go behind the popular perceptions-the “trifles”-of Luther’s early activism in order to identify and examine this “hinge on which all turns.”

What was this vital spot? Luther was reacting to the assimilation of Aristotle’s ethics within the various permutations of scholastic theology that prevailed in his day. Indeed, Luther’s arguments against Aristotle’s presence in Christian theology are to be found in most of his early works, a matter that calls for careful attention in light of recent scholarship that either overlooks or dismisses Luther’s most explicit concerns.

In particular, historical theologian Richard A. Muller has been the most vigorous proponent in a movement among some Reformation-era scholars that affirms the works of seventeenth century Protestant scholasticism-or Protestant Orthodoxy-as the first satisfactory culmination, if not the epitome, of the Reformation as a whole. Muller assumes that the best modern Protestant theology has been shaped by Aristotelian methods and rigor that supported the emerging structure and coherence of Protestant systematic theology. He argues, for instance, that any proper understanding of the Reformation must be made within the framework of a synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotle’s methods:

It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers…. It is also an error to discuss [it] without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages…. the Reformation … is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed as it were by the five-hundred-year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism.2

The implications of Muller’s affirmations may be easily missed. In order to alert readers to the intended significance of the present article at least two points should be made. First, Muller seems to shift the touchstone status for measuring orthodox theology from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas. That is, he makes the Thomistic assimilation of Aristotle-which set up the theological environment of the late middle ages-the staging point for all that follows in orthodox doctrine. It thus promotes a continuity between Aquinas and Reformed theology within certain critical limits3-and this despite the fact that virtually all of the major figures of the early Reformation, and Luther most of all, looked back to Augustine as the most trustworthy interpreter of biblical theology after the apostolic era. Thus citations of Augustine were a constant refrain by Luther and John Calvin, among many others, as evidence of a purer theology than that which emerged from Aquinas and other medieval figures. Second, once a commitment to “Christian Aristotelianism” is affirmed, the use of “one or another of the Reformers” as resources “to characterize Protestant orthodoxy” sets up a paradigm by which key figures, such as Luther, can be marginalized because of their resistance to doctrinal themes that emerge only through the influence of Aristotle in Christian thought.

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed-measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles-a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther-who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week-chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.” His solution was straightforward:

In this regard my advice would be that Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, Concerning the Soil, and Ethics which hitherto have been thought to be his best books, should be completely discarded along with all the rest of his books that boast about nature, although nothing can be learned from them either about nature or the Spirit.

This study will note, especially, three of Luther’s works, along with Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes Theologici. The first is Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, presented in the Fall of 1517, at least a month before he wrote his more famous Ninety-Five Theses. Second is his Heidelberg Disputation, which took place April 26,1518. The third is his Bondage of the Will-which we cited above written in 1525 as a response to Erasmus. Melanchthon’s Loci was published in 1521 as Luther was facing the Diet of Worms.4 A comparative review of Augustine’s responses to Pelagianism will also be offered.[1]

It is interesting that we rarely if ever hear about Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology; Luther posted 97 theses a month prior to his famous 95 that kicked off, at a populace level, what we know of as the Protestant Reformation of today. But because the “indulgence theses” are elevated to a level wherein we associate the Protestant Reformation with that, we miss the real reason Luther was so invigorated to Protest in the first place; and insofar that we miss his motivation we, as Frost notes, may well be living in the wake of a ‘still-born’ Reformation; a Reformation that has very little to do with Luther’s real concern in regard to the impact that Aristotelianism has had upon Christian theology.

Furthermore, as we can see, as Frost is going to argue (and does), because of folks like Richard Muller who have championed the idea that what happened in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox period of the 16th and 17th centuries, wherein an Aristotelian Christianity developed, the theology that Reformed and evangelical theologians are largely retrieving today—for the 21st century—lives out of the hull of a theological development that if Luther were alive today would cause him to start Protesting once again. This is ironic indeed!

And so maybe you, the reader, might gain greater insight into what has been motivating me all these years. I am really a Luther[an] in spirit; along with Frost et al. I am desirous to live out Protestant Reformation theology that is in line with Luther’s original intent; i.e. to genuinely get back to the Bible, and to think and do theology from God’s Self-revelation in Christ in a kataphatic key (or the via positiva ‘positive way’). When I came across Thomas Torrance’s (and Karl Barth’s) theology the original attraction and hook for me was that he was operating under the same type of Luther[an] spirit; in regard to recovering the original intent of the Protestant Reformation. To be clear, Ron Frost’s work has no dependence whatsoever on Torrance (or Barth), his work is purely from a historical theological vantage point; indeed, Frost is Augustinian, whereas Torrance et al. is largely Athanasian. So while there is convergence in regard to the critique of Aristotelianism and its impact on the development of Reformed theology, the way that critique is made, materially, starts to diverge at some key theological vantage points. Frost finds reference to Luther, Calvin, Augustine, and to the Puritan Richard Sibbes as the best way to offer critique of the Reformed orthodox theology that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. Torrance et al. look back more closely attuned to Athanasius, Cyril, Calvin, Jonathan McLeod Campbell, and Karl Barth.

For me, as I engage with all of this, you might see how I have viewed both streams of critique (the Frostian and Torrancean, respectively) as representing a kind of full frontal assault on something like Muller’s positive thesis in regard to the value he sees in Aristotelian Christianity. It’s like opening all canons, both from an Augustinian and Athanasian, a Latin and Greek movement against an Aristotelian Christianity that has taken root; and contra what is now considered ‘orthodox’ theology when it comes to what counts as the Reformed faith.

Evangelical Calvinism, on my end, involves all of these threads; it is not just a Torrancean or “Barthian” critique. And the relevance of it all is that it alerts people to the reality that: 1) The Reformed faith is more complex than it is represented to be; 2) the Reformed faith is much more catholic in its orientation; 3) popular developments like The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God (i.e. John Piper), and the theology they present, is given proper context and orientation—i.e. there is historical and material resource provided for in regard to offering challenges and critique to what they are claiming to be Gospel truth; and 4) the theology that we find in something like the Westminster Confession of Faith, insofar as it reflects the Aristotelian Christianity that Richard Muller lauds, is confronted with the sobering truth that Martin Luther himself would be at stringent odds with what they have explicated for the Reformed faith in general.

People who work and are associated with The Gospel Coalition continue, by and large, to ignore the theses I have highlighted in this post. They don’t even seem to be aware of the history of ideas that includes what I have noted as formative within the development of Reformed theology. You don’t have to be Barthian or Torrancean in order to appreciate the critique noted by Frost, indeed Frost isn’t. And this is what I don’t think proponents of the style of Calvinism that shapes TGC theology have begun to grasp. Ultimately the reason this all matters is because who we think God to be is at stake. How we think God relates to the world is at stake. If we get a doctrine of God wrong, we will get everything following wrong as well.

[1] Ron Frost, “Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal 18:2 (Fall 1997): 223-24.

Pastors Will Be Held to a Higher Standard than Group Think; The Elder Said ‘God just is Wrath’: Miscellanies on FaceBook Posts

This post will attempt to expand and clarify upon two FaceBook posts that seemed to cause some people confusion and even consternation. I mean this is usually the case on such platforms, isn’t it? People share context-less anecdotes, or enthymemic notions that are usually sub a greater and more fulsome context of meaning. This post will attempt to provide some of that for these two little ‘posts.’ Here’s the first one:

Much theology is adopted for purposes of pastoral polity and expediency, not necessarily because it represents the best alternatives critically available.

What I had in mind with this one isn’t all that profound, but here’s the context of thought: Growing up as an evangelical Baptist Christian, particularly as a ‘pastor’s kid’, it has made me sensitive to trends in the evangelical churches; as I’m sure it has for many of us. As someone who has been trained formally to be involved in some sort of Christian ministry, and been involved in pastoral and evangelical ministry over the years, what I’ve come to recognize in the Free churches, is that they are largely driven by trends. Usually because of time and personnel constraints, which is almost always driven by fiscal issues, pastors and leadership teams in churches are simply attempting to stay afloat among the rigors of daily ministry. As a result, there isn’t seemingly a lot of time for doctrinal reflection or development, so they fall back on whatever their ‘denomination’ or ‘tradition’ has adopted or gravitated towards. In the baptistic oriented churches, if they are wanting some sort of doctrinal bases, they seemingly have looked to outlets and ministries like The Gospel Coalition, John MacArthur’s ‘Grace to You’, Mark Dever’s 9Marks, or even Paul Washer (so on and so forth); but something in this range of theological trad. What, of course, is common to these various outlets is that they are largely shaped directly by what I call soteriological (versus Federal/Covenantal) Calvinism. But this is what is expedient and in the air for those who want to be doctrinally astute, at least at some level. So, the churches are being fed this sort of theological fare, whether that be in a more aggressive or passive way, respectively.

This is really all I was getting at with my FB post. Most local churches, for mostly administrative reasons, and then the way that pastors are trained to think to be pastors these days, are caught in this doctrinal web. If not, then they’ve caught other trends, like: moralistic therapeutic deism, self-help, seeker sensitive, market-based churching. But my basic premise is: That churches, largely because of their pastor[s], end up going along with theological group-think, rather than being critically reflective on what in fact the Bible might actually teach; and then the attending theological grammar and thought that comes along with that. Pastors will be held to a higher standard than ‘group think.’

My second post was this (this one was more doctrinally focused):

We attended a church for a while where one of the elders, as he was going to lead us in prayer stated: we just thank God for His wrath. Everything has a theological background. Do you want to guess the theological background that would lead someone to say something like this, in an abstraction?

Knowing me, this one should be pretty clear already. The theological background I’m referring to is classical Calvinism, of the sort we’ve already mentioned in the last explanation. The stunning thing to me about this pronouncement, from this elder, was that there was no qualification. He just got up, and as a matter of fact, he simply stated what I’ve noted; I’d never heard, not even a Calvinist be so blatant in language like this before (that was actually our last Sunday at this church). Does God have wrath? Yes, but in the sense noted by Thomas Torrance:

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.[1]

Or in the Barthian sense that God in Christ is the Judge, judged. The point being that God’s first Word of wrath is one of love. He first loved us that we might love Him, and in this God’s wrath begins to make theological sense. To simply state that we thank God for his wrath without explicitly grounding that first in His life of triune love gives the impression that God just is wrathful, full stop. But we know that this isn’t the case. We know who God is first, as Athanasius says (paraphrase): as Father of the Son; we know Him filially, and familially, as a child knows their parent—but in a primal, ultimate way. To unhinge God’s wrath from His love, from His being that is shaped by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to give the people a No-God; at least not a God who the Christian first has come to know as their Lord and Savior.

Clearly, there is an interpretive tradition this particular elder has been formed by; one that I’ve spilled much cyber-ink over. What this elder illustrated for me once again, is that theologies have consequences; of the sort that could potentially destroy people’s recognition of the true and living God; the God Christians only know, by definition, through the biblical reality who is the Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria.

 

 

[1] T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

Karl Barth, The Reformed Theologian Par Excellence: Christ Rather than the Confessions as the Canon

This might seem rather pedantic, like at the level of: who cares? But, apparently I do. Others do too, but only those ensconced in the confessional of so called Protestant Reformed orthodoxy; theological identity is important in these sectors. For me it’s mostly important as a matter of fact, rather than proving an identity [for Barth] that in itself does nothing, one way or the other, with reference to his constructive theological offering for the Christian churches. Maybe you are tracking already with what I am referring to. Barth is denied entrée into the genuinely Reformed branches of the Protestant churches, pretty much because those in those churches believe he is still too liberal and modern; that he doesn’t submit, in slavish ways, to the confessional traditions in the purist ways they ostensibly do.

But Barth was a Reformed theologian. He might not fit in with the ad hoc standards the “standardizers” have set, but that’s no matter; that’s ad hoc. As is typical though with Barth his approach to all things, at a formal level even, is always Christ concentrated. Of course when we read Barth, as with any theologian, we must be attentive to their point of maturation. The early Barth, or we might say the Göttingen Barth, was clearly a Reformed theologian; just at the point that demarcated Lutherans from the Reformed, even in the magisterial days—the days saturated with the Eucharistic debates about Christ’s presence. This debate, surely, stemmed from a broader discussion and implication grounded in the Christological quarrels that we can trace into the patristic period.

At the very minimal we can say that the early Barth was a Reformed theologian. But I would contend that he remains largely Reformed throughout his career as a theologian; even after he reforms the classical understanding of election in Church Dogmatics II. Here Darren Sumner notes Barth’s self-conscious Reformed location, contra the Lutherans, as he works out his dogmatics in Göttingen:

Finally, it should be noted that here Barth is self-consciously Reformed. The lectures are given as a contrast to Lutheran Christology—which Barth regards as an innovation (particularly with respect to the communicatio idiomatum) doomed to fail just as Eutychian monophysitism failed. There seems to be no possibility of harmony between these two Reformation schools on the matter of Christology. Both lay claim to parts of the Chalcedonian Definition. One must decide between the two, and Barth acknowledges that the place from which he speaks is Reformed and not Lutheran: “One cannot be both, as far as I can see and understand.” But at least, Barth adds, the decision on the Reformed side has never been understood as exclusive: “Not No, but Yes!” The sense of this is that Barth believes that the Reformed may not have it all right in their Christology, but they did well in maintaining an attitude of theological openness while opposing the errors of their opponents. Theirs is a corrective, but not a replacement of one theological system with another, in a definite and exclusionary sense.[1]

I think this represents a better way towards identifying theological identity. In other words, why refer to the Reformed confessions as the standard for membership in the Reformed faith. Even among those who ostensibly adhere to them as their canons, even they have severe lassitude and disagreement on points of emphasis and articulation. Historically, I think referring to actual theological material as the theological identifier of someone is the better way. The Christological impasse represents an excellent standard for this, in and amongst the ancient and even contemporary Protestants.

Barth self-consciously falls on the Reformed side, particularly given his christological commitments. Even as he became more constructive, moving beyond Göttingen, he still retains his Reformed emphases. Just read his CD, in particular his footnotes and you’ll see his heavy engagement with the scholastics Reformed throughout.

At the end of the day, what Barth offered was a theological oeuvre that is fruitful and edifying because he attempted a theological endeavor that intentionally and obsessively worked from Jesus Christ. Whether or not this meets the standards of what counts as Reformed theology in the 21st century doesn’t ultimately matter. The eschaton will reveal what matters; the eschaton will be the time that shows that Barth’s attempt was the better way, just because he slaved himself to the Christ as the reality and centrum of all theological output for the churches. Even so, Barth was Reformed!

[1] Darren O. Sumner, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), Loc. 1965, 1973.

A Response to Peter Leithart and Steve Duby: ‘In Defense [or Critique] of Christian Philosophy’

God and philosophy, and age old discussion; i.e. ‘what hath Jerusalem to do with Athens?’ I want to broach this topic in this post, and with particular reference to an exchange that has taken place between Peter Leithart and Steve Duby; in regard to Leithart’s interaction with Steve’s book Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account. I will not recount everything they have written, but let me attempt to summarize.

Leithart offers, as I recall, eight critiques of Duby’s thinking on the relationship between God and philosophy; or the wisdom of attempting to speak God from philosophical categories rather than ‘biblical’ ones. Here is a helpful nutshell of Leithart’s larger critique[s]: “3) Philosophy bewitches by her rhetoric. She makes us think that speaking in her dialect is more precise or profound than speaking in the poetic dialect of Scripture. I contend, on the contrary, that the Scriptural talk of God is the most precise and adequate language we can have. It’s God’s own talk about Himself.”[1] And Duby’s basic response to this is as follows (also part of his larger rejoinder), at length:

Accordingly, Leithart’s third statement takes us to the heart of the problem with his post: when a theologian tries to claim the high ground by asserting that he or she is simply drawing from Scripture while his or her opponents are indulging in “philosophy,” the theologian is either being naïve or deceptive. Neither Leithart nor anyone else is simply repeating verbatim statements from Scripture. Leithart, along with everyone else, has to engage and draw upon knowledge developed by the use of the natural (and God-given) intellect. When someone is bent on trying to claim the aforementioned high ground, they are misleading their readers. Until someone like Leithart concedes that he is making use of extrabiblical knowledge to articulate his theological position, little can be gained from engaging in a debate about the doctrine of God and other particular topics. The first challenge is to dispel the naivete and establish some initial common ground.[2]

And:

However, philosophy is fundamentally a knowledge or study of things discoverable by natural reason without necessarily being informed by supernatural revelation. It is a setting forth of things typically known implicitly by ordinary human beings (like the difference between an efficient cause and a final cause or the law of non-contradiction). What contemporary Christian theology needs, I would suggest, is a renewal of the traditional Protestant commitment to Scripture as the cognitive principle of theology and to reason or philosophy as a subordinate instrument for expounding what Scripture teaches.[3]

Now, you’re going to have to go and read exactly what Leithart actually wrote (in full) in response to his reading of Duby’s book. As you read Duby’s rejoinder, in full, as I have, he sort of misrepresents what Leithart actually is saying; albeit, the quote I shared from Leithart leaves him open for this sort of misreading. I don’t think, as I read Leithart, that he is actually taking the naïve route, or the sort of fundamentalist nuda scriptura that Duby attributes to him. It seems to me that Leithart is merely pushing back on the idea that biblical language itself isn’t sufficient to explicate and communicate who God is. What I see Leithart, potentially doing, is overreacting to the tradition that Duby represents; i.e. the Thomist/Aristotelian tradition that shapes much of the tradition being retrieved in the 16th and 17th century theological developments found in what has come to be called Post Reformed Orthodoxy. In this sense, Leithart’s critique is not far removed, not at all!, from my sustained critiques of the same tradition.

Further, I am not fully persuaded that Duby has read Leithart all that accurately; and as such, if this is the case, it makes Duby’s rejoinder almost unnecessary (at least in the form it was given). I don’t actually think Leithart is either naïve or attempting to intentionally mislead his readers (as Duby suggestively claims) when he commends people to use the ‘poetic’ language of the Bible rather than the metaphysical language of the philosophers, in order to speak God. I don’t actually think Leithart repudiates the catholic faith represented in the ecumenical councils such as we find in Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon. If anything, what I see Leithart doing is attempting to push church people back to the Bible, but not in a Socinian attempt to undercut the basic theo-logic given grammar by the ecumenical councils; but instead, to redress that grammar with the biblical language and emphases us Protestants are so presumably accustomed to (sola scriptura).

So that is my précis on the exchange, as it stands now, between Leithart and Duby. But what do I think about God and Philosophy? This will represent a summary perspective, and will further engage with Duby’s rejoinder to Leithart.

Let me respond to this part of Duby’s response to Leithart; this large quote from Duby will have to serve, for our purposes, as the sort of distillation of his broader pushback to Leithart, and his larger push back at anyone who challenges an overly analytic or Thomist frame for doing Christian theology. And this is what always piques my interest; i.e. the discussion revolving around how the Christian ought to think and speak God. This quote from Duby gives his general belief about what he thinks represents the best ‘philosophy’ for articulating God, and it does so as he is engaging with some material points about the Arisotelian/Thomist categories of substance/accidents vis-à-vis God and his explication—we will not get into the nitty gritty of those details, but instead focus on the general point about the relationship of God and Philosophy, and what ‘philosophy[s]’ are best suited for the Christian’s explication of God for the church in the 21st century. Duby writes:

However, the fact that the use of the metaphysical language is not absolutely necessary does not mean that the metaphysical resources in question are detached from reality. It does not mean that what they offer us is just a set of coherent rules for saying things – rules that we might either take or leave. On the contrary, the classical metaphysical tradition developed by Christian thinkers like John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas or the early Reformed theologians and philosophers involves a knowledge of how things are. Indeed, it is fundamentally an exposition of things human beings know to be true prior to engaging in any formal academic work. For example, things do have natures by virtue of which they are similar to other things. There really are substances in which accidents inhere. It is true that a whole is greater than any of its individual parts. The ad hoc nature of the decision to incorporate Aristotelian philosophical resources concerns the fact that explicit use of these concepts is not absolutely necessary for articulating doctrine. It does not concern the truthfulness or explanatory fecundity of the basic natural insights into the created order that are unpacked in the Aristotelian tradition. The notion that a whole is greater than its parts, for example, is true and is implicit in a statement like the one found in Colossians 2:9. As we seek ways to express what God is like according to scriptural teaching, we should look to this philosophical tradition, not Kant or Hegel, because it sheds light on reality. Of course, we will have to clarify how certain things that are true in the case of creatures are not true in God’s case, but that is precisely one of the ways in which someone like Aquinas puts this tradition to good use in saying, for example, that God’s attributes are not accidents but really are just God himself.[4]

As a prius, Duby is committed to the idea that there just is a natural or profane knowledge of how things are vis-à-vis the creation and the Creator, as such he premises from there that this natural knowledge (metaphysically) just is the way we have for rationally (not rationalistically) thinking God. This is what we see him getting at with his appeal to the Aristotelian tradition; the intellectual tradition Duby believes is the best suited for the Christian reality and theological ambition. This becomes his basic or major premise in response to Leithart, and any like detractors.

In further interaction with Steve (on FaceBook), he informed me that his response has nothing to do with whether or not Thomism etc. is the best frame for doing theology, but instead, according to him, his response simply has to do with the idea that we all operate with extrabiblical language and conceptual apparatus when it comes to working out the inner-logic of Scripture. Yet, as I read Duby’s rejoinder, particularly what I just shared from him, this doesn’t really seem to be the case; and it never really does seem to be. When folks like Duby (who by the way, I actually like and appreciate) make the sorts of arguments they do about God and Philosophy, and when they think the Tradition of the church, they have a certain strand of that tradition in mind; again, in Steve’s case it is the Thomist/Aristotelian strand. But at the end of the day I am unaware of an ecumenical church council that has asserted that the Tradition just is what we see climaxing in Thomas (other than say the Catholic Church). I think this is an important piece, and it is one that I would suggest that Leithart himself is pushing; that is, that the tradition itself is very expansive, made up of both East and West, and in-between. In the expanse of the tradition, even in the post reformed orthodox aspect, Thomas and Aristotle are not the crème de la crème that they are for many, like Duby, who are attempting to retrieve the catholic tradition for the evangelical churches. Again, I recognize that Duby is attempting to do more than one thing in his response to Leithart; i.e. 1) To simply argue that all responsible theologians use extrabiblical language and conceptual apparatus to speak and think God for the church, but 2) to also argue that Thomas, and the Aristotelian/analytic frame represents the most responsible way for explicating a Protestant and biblically theological orthodoxy. And I think that these two, rather than being exclusive for Duby, are in fact mutually conditioning, in regard to what he thinks the tradition at its best looks like.

Conclusion

I have already gone too long. I will have to make this at least a two part posting. In closing let me assert that: I don’t disagree with Duby, in toto; but of course I do disagree with him when he claims that only the Aristotelian tradition represents the best (and presumably orthodox) way for doing Christian theology. Along with Barth et al. I maintain that the Evangel does indeed contain its own emphases and categories that come not from an abstract human form of reasoning (which is Duby’s major premise about how we get to extrabiblical language and metaphysics), but instead from the Gospel reality itself Revealed in Jesus Christ. This is where I depart with Duby et al., I reject the idea that the analytical frame (the frame Duby is committed to) is the best suited for providing the Christian with a theological methodology and biblical hermeneutic in that process. Instead, as an Evangelical Calvinist, along with Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, I am committed to what Barth (in his Göttingen Dogmatics) calls ‘dialectical’ theology, and what Torrance calls dialogical theology. The ground for this approach to theology is in Reconciliation as God’s Revelation, as such it necessarily repudiates any notion that we can do theology from a natural ‘sight’, as Duby’s theological methodology premises, and instead requires that we theologize from ‘the faith of Christ,’ as that is mediated to us by His vicarious humanity and the new creation that He is for us in the Resurrection. It is in this frame that ‘extrabiblical’ language can properly be reified under the pressures provided by Godself, and the center we have to think Him from in His triune life for us in Jesus Christ. This is the fault-line in Duby’s thinking, I contend. And I think, in Leithart’s own way, it is this that he is calling out.

There is a way to redress/reify the “philosophical,” but I contend that that can only happen through an analogy of faith and relation with God in Christ, such that a ‘natural reasoning’ process does not become the basis for our theology; which is Duby’s premise. I ultimately believe that this is Leithart’s push-back to Duby. I think Leithart is challenging Duby’s idea about ‘our capacity’ to think God based on a metaphysic that is formed otherwise from God’s Self-Revelation. I might differ from Leithart in regard to his theory of revelation, but in principle I think we have convergence (but who am I?).

There may or may not be a part two to this post. I already have a million part twos that I’ve written over the years. Pax Christi

 

[1]Peter Leithart,  Source.

[2]Steve Duby, Source

[3]Ibid. The emboldened part from Steve is the common refrain of those who are committed (as Duby is) to a medievally and post reformed orthodoxy mode of theologizing.

[4]Ibid.