Category Archives: Critiquing Classic Calvinism

Semper Reformanda-Always Reforming Regulated by the Eschatological Life of God For Us In Jesus Christ

See, I don’t agree with much of David Congdon’s conclusions (as he has continued to develop personally-dogmatically), but I do agree with him on the Christian reality being an eschatological reality and what that ought to do to the theological endeavor. What that ought to do is ground theological practice in the reality that God has spoken (Deus dixit) as that is given to and for us in the faith of Christ. It is as God reveals himself to us in the reconciliation of God and humanity in the man Christ Jesus that theology has place to happen. And it is in this combine that the eschatological becomes the domineering frame by which theology ought to find its orientation; an orientation that is always already outside of us, yet for us; it is in this ‘for us’ in the mediatorial and Priestly work of Jesus Christ that our knowledge of God is refreshed anew just as God’s mercies are new every morning great is his faithfulness.

We will see, as I quote Congdon at length, that Congdon’s explication is mediated through Rudolph Bultmann’s theology; but also with Barth’s presence felt. I am afraid that because of Congdon’s progressivism that people of a more conservative orientation (such as myself) will be put off, and won’t even give this analysis of things a listen. I’m hoping that people can appreciate how we can constructively appropriate theology from places that might seem antagonistic towards our general theological dispositions, and come to the realization that it is possible to reify theologies under more socio-conservative pressures (vis-à-vis the tradition); even while the theology (like Bultmann’s) being reified itself is a reification of the socio-traditional theologies of the 16th and 17th centuries in particular.

Here is how Congdon details the reality of faith, and how ‘the faith that is believed’ is grounded through ‘the faith by which we believe’; hopefully you will come to see how that impacts an eschatological understanding of the theological task—and for my interests, how that implicates a semper reformanda (always reforming) mode.

Glossary of Key Terms: Fides quae creditur (the faith that is believed) and fides qau creditur (the faith by which one believes)

At the other end of the spectrum lies orthodoxy, by which Bultmann primarily, though, not exclusively means the Protestant scholasticism that developed in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but persists  in the supernaturlistic reaction to rationalism and historicism. This alternative to liberal theology fares no better. To be sure, orthodoxy correctly grasps that “the object of theology is God as the object of faith, as the fides quae creditor,” and in this regard Bultmann stands with orthodoxy over against liberalism, a key fact often lost in the debate over his New Testament exegesis. But orthodoxy loses its object also in its misguided concern to secure a universally valid understanding of the Christian faith over against heterodoxy. The result is a “confusion . . . of kerygma and scientific theory” such that “a doctrine appears as the object of faith.” Orthodoxy makes the same error as liberalism but in an inverted way. Whereas liberalism sets itself (the fides qua) in place of the object (the fides quae), orthodoxy sets the object in place of itself. Either way, faith becomes faith in something human and objectifiable. Whereas liberalism makes history and experience into its object via the projection of the fides qua, orthodoxy reduces the divine fides quae to the level of rational human inquiry. The latter occurs “when it attempts to prove the faith (the fides quae creditor), whether by a natural theology or even from reason, or from an authority, such as scripture,” and “when it . . . requires assent to correct doctrine as to specific notions that are submitted to people from somewhere.” Orthodoxy is thus identical with (a) apologetics, the attempt to establish the object of faith as something one can acknowledge as true (assensus) prior to and apart from faith (fiducia), and (b) confessionalism, which sets up a test of conformity to certain doctrinal formulations as the condition belonging to the (true) Christian community. Each requires isolating the fides quae from the fides qua, so that the object of faith can be rationally verified and discussed as a human artifact.

If liberalism makes science of faith, orthodoxy makes a science of the kerygma. In both cases faith becomes a work, and theology becomes philosophy. What is lost in either case is God as the true object of theology. Theology is supposed to be the science of God, the logos of theos. But if God is an eschatological reality, then theology has to be an eschatological science. This has crucial implications for our understanding of the fides quae and the fides qua. It means, among other things, that the object of theology is not something “in hand” that can be fixed to a specific formula, a single authoritative interpretation: “God cannot be made into an object of our conduct. . . . God does not ‘hold still,’ as it were.” The eschatological being of God requires a strict differentiation between the kerygma, the fides quae, and theology: “Fides quae creditor = quod deus dixit! Theology = what human beings say.” Hermeneutically, therefore, an eschatological fides quae is never finalized and always open to new understandings, and that is because, ontologically speaking, the divine fides quae is transcendent and free, never at the disposal of any person or institution, whether church or state. It further means that the fides quae is not an object one can ascertain and understand prior to the mode of faith and obedience. The notion of “Christian apologetics” is an impossible contradiction; to give an apology for “God’ is to abandon talk of God. Science, as the general discipline that analyzes the ontological, cannot speak of God, who is the event of the ontic.

If God is eschatological, our only access to God must come from God’s own self. The fides quae creditor is “quod deus dixit,” what God has said. God must give Godself to us, must speak to us, in order for God to be known. And since such giving is inherently an act of grace—there being no separation between an intellectual self-giving and a salvific self-giving, since the latter is the former: the word of justification is the word of revelation—it follows that our only access to the fides quae is through faith in God as the Lord: “Should there be talk of God, it is of course clear that there can only be talk of God as the Lord, i.e., as the one who sends the moment and delivers God’s claim in it,” and thus “there can only be talk of God on the basis of God’s revelation, and revelation can only be heard in faith.” The fides quae only gives itself in and through the fides qua: “revelation is only revelation in actu and pro me.” And since the fides qua is given by the eschatological fides quae—since “faith is the answer to revelation”—it further follows that genuine faith is itself an eschatological event in that it is included within the singular eschatological event that is God; faith is an eschatological mode of relating to the eschatological. Concretely, this means that faith takes the form of love, in obedience to the “new commandment” of Jesus (John 13:34). The eschatological age inaugurated in Christ is “the new aeon of love . . . and life.” The eschatological science of theology is an eschatological praxis.[1]

There is hardly anything I find objectionable here. The only thing I would want to qualify is that I maintain a stable core of catholic orthodoxy even as that is continuously attenuated and “filled out” by the eschatological in-breaking of God’s life in and for the church, as that comes with a “fuller knowledge” of the living God; but not a knowledge that is dispossessed of the knowledge of God once for all delivered to saints (as that has been unfolding through the centuries). In other words, David doesn’t contain things enough; in my view. Congdon gives the impression that everything is “open,” and his developing personal dogmatic attests to that. What I affirm though is the eschatological nature of the faith; and that knowledge of God can only be grounded in God’s spoken Word (fides quae) as that is apprehended by the vicarious faith of Christ for us (fides qua). This is the basis, I contend, for a robust Reformed understanding of semper reformanda (‘always reforming’). God is not something we can handle, but someOne who handles and approaches us. In this, we have capacity to be confronted and given over to ‘repentant thinking’ such that our thoughts can be continuously reformed as that is regulated (regula fidei) indeed by the faith of Christ. Not something we own, but someOne we are owned by and learn of by constant confrontation of the living Word as the basis of our lived lives in and from the living God who is Triune, Immanuel.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 385-88.

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Why Evangelicals, the Classically Reformed, and the Post-Reformed orthodox Are Suspicious of After Barth Thinkers

If you don’t find yourself in agreement with mainstream evangelical reformed theology you might find yourself placed into a role that plays like the antitriniarian biblicists of 17th and 18th century Western Europeans. In other words, and this helps explain a lot for me personally, any reluctance to be a flaming post reformed orthodox thinker finding your theological marching orders from 16th and 17th century developments ostensibly places you into a mold that, at best, is on the fringes of Protestant orthodoxy, and at worst makes you a far-gone heretic (such as the antitrinitarians just noted). Richard Muller explains the matrix:

Not to be underestimated here is the impact of patristic scholarship in the seventeenth century. If the Reformation altered the balance of Scripture and tradition by declaring that, although tradition stood as a subordinate norm identifying probabilities, it still could err (as demonstrated by the experience of the later Middle Ages), the antitrinitarian debate of the late seventeenth century altered the balance once more. The antitrinitarians claimed a biblical foundation that was radically antitraditionary—to the point that writers like Nye and Smalbroke argued the biblical rectitude of views expressed by early heretics like the Ebionites and Nazarenes.

The last decades of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century saw such a vast alteration of the exegetical and philosophical framework of explanation that the attempts at trinitarian discussion of a whole generation of writers failed to produce a statement of doctrine that was at the same time philosophically contemporary and theologically orthodox. In addition, these English Socinians claimed to be truly Protestant and fundamentally biblicistic, true heirs of the Reformation—noting that the Reformation proclaimed the correct biblical standard but did not go far enough in rooting out the problematic elements of the tradition (among which the doctrine of the Trinity held a place of prominence).[1]

Muller, and many following him, believes that the 18th century is the period where Reformed orthodoxy took a turn for the worse and began a turn to heterodoxy. His development above helps us to see the premises that funded this deleterious turn, in Muller’s eyes. It is a radical-biblicism uncoupled from any norms found in the ecumenical church councils (particularly Nicaea-Constantinople and Chalcedon) that Muller sees as the culprit. We have these contours already present, as Muller notes, in the late 17th century which we see climaxing in the English Enlightenment and the rationalism produced therein (Muller sees Christian Wolff as a key player in this polluting time).

What does this mean for Modern theology vis-à-vis Protestant orthodox theology in the period prior? By and large it means anyone thinking from the former period needs to be approached with some serious suspicion; that such thinkers might well be closer to the antitrinitarians than they are the orthodox. This is why anyone associated with Karl Barth, not just incidentally, but in more overt terms, is typically written off as a “Barthian.” Such people are immediately, by the purported “orthodox” folks (the folks involved in the project of repristinating [oh, constructively of course] the 16th and 17th century orthodox developments), placed into the antitriniarian if not full-fledged Socinian type-set.

Sure, there are multitudinous examples of modern theologians, theological biblicists, who indeed fit Muller’s description of antitraditionary to the core. But it is, for one thing, a sweeping generalization to place people into that same location merely because they happen to believe that particular modern theologians (such as Barth and T Torrance) have some very valuable things to say; often in critique of many of the 16th and 17th century moves. This is unfortunate, to say the least.

I think there is a slippery-slope fear that many of these “conservatives” have. And to be frank, yes, I can think of examples of people I know who went whole-hog into modern theology and indeed fit into this sort of ‘biblicist’ mode; who have bit-the-bullet so hard that they are now denying basic and traditional Christian teaching around the bodily resurrection of Christ, or belief in an “after-life.” But this is  not the necessary conclusion that comes by finding value in modern theologies. I affirm all of the trad teachings of historic Christianity, and yet think very closely alongside of folks like Barth et al.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Four. The Triunity of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 121.

A Quick Response to ‘God Of Our Fathers’ and the ‘Spirit’ of the Schleiermacherian Reformation

I am about two-thirds through the new critical edition of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Christian Faith, so it intrigued me when the opening chapter of another book I just picked up, God of Our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church (h/t Derek Rishmawy) engages with Schleiermacher a bit. I want to engage a bit with what the author, Eric Hutchinson, by way of sketching, has to say about Schleiermacher’s initiation of a movement of modern theological discourse, that according to Hutchinson was placed into a trajectory, because of Schleiermacher that wanted desperately to reformulate not just the foundations of soteriological consideration (so the move of the magisterial reformers et al.), but all of the foundations; most importantly for Hutchinson’s purposes, with reference to a doctrine of God.

Here is Hutchinson at some length as we pick up with his sketch and the implications of Schleiermacher’s impact on the development and trajectory of modern theology. Following, I will offer some feedback and response to Hutchinson’s thought.

These are the brief gestures toward the Trinity found in the bulk of the work. But, to repeat, explicit treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity is saved for Schleiermacher’s concluding remarks. What is particularly interesting for the purposes of this paper is the justification—or, more precisely, an additional justification—he gives for the freedom with which he treats this doctrine. He writes:

We have the less reason to regard this doctrine as finally settled since it did not receive any fresh treatment when the Evangelical (Protestant) Church was set up; and so there must still be in store for it a transformation which will go back to its very beginnings.

We should ponder the peculiar view of the Reformation in this statement, for it is one that is, one suspects, widely shared even among so-called “conservative” Protestants today. What is required for a doctrine to be treated as “finally settled”? “[F]resh treatment” at the time of the Reformation.

Aside from the fact that this view is paradoxical—if “fresh treatment” is a desideratum as such, how can anything ever be “finally settled”?—there is a more basic point that should be highlighted with respect to the idea of “reformation.” On Schleiermacher’s reading, “reformation” entails that all dogmatic loci be revised and overhauled from their very foundations. According to the gloss of a recent commentator, Schleiermacher believed that the Protestants of the sixteenth century “too uncritically took over earlier views without testing them against the Protestant spirit.” Schleiermacher is explicit in the work’s final section that his placement of the doctrine of the Trinity is due to just such a desire for total overhaul. The assumption lurking behind this viewpoint—and it is an assumption—is that there was a unifying drive broader than and undergirding particular theological revisions, that it ought to be generalizable to all doctrinal topics, and that if it has not been so generalized, it is due to a lapse on the part of the Reformers in carrying their Grundsatz all the way through. Thus Schüssler Fiorenza can gloss Schleiermacher’s stance as follows: “The traditional doctrinal formulations [about the Trinity] fail to express [the] reformation impulse.”

Schleiermacher’s basic position on this question became a hallmark of a certain style of Protestant theologizing in subsequent generations. For that reason, one is not surprised to find Adolph Harnack claiming, in the late nineteenth century, that the spirit of the Lutheran Reformation required something like what Schleiermacher desired, though it was impossible for a single man, Martin Luther, to carry it out; thus the “Catholic elements” in Luther’s theology “belong certainly to the ‘whole Luther,’ but not to the ‘whole Christianity of Luther.” This latter required the wholesale reworking that Luther himself could not perform. Indeed, this tension between the new and the old led the Reformation to “terminate . . . in a contradiction,” in that “it gave to [the new Church, in addition to Pauline faith] at the same time the old dogma as the unchangeable cardinal article, together with a christological doctrine, which did not negate the fundamental evangelical interest, but which had received an entirely scholastic shape and had therefore the inevitable effect of confusing and obscuring faith.’[1]

If the point of continuity for retrieving a ‘church catholic’ for the 21st century church is to find a common core between all the traditions (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant) having a uniquely iterated Protestant doctrine of God—one that at least ‘innovates,’ and at most ‘reformulates’—will not do. While I am only just getting into Hutchinson’s chapter I am pretty sure this is the basic premise that shapes his thinking; it is a common thesis held among almost all those in this particular style of retrieval.

But I am getting ahead of myself. We could agree with Hutchinson that after Schleiermacher Pandora’s Box was opened in certain extreme ways (Hutchinson mentions Moltmann and Barth, although he hasn’t engaged much with Barth yet). Us Evangelical Calvinists, insofar that we work ‘after Barth,’ and insofar as Barth works ‘after Schleiermacher’ might be candidates for the critique that Hutchinson is most likely going to make. The idea of operating in and from some sort of ‘pervasive spirit’ of the original reformational mind, as Hutchinson attaches that to Schleiermacher’s mind, clearly has substance to it. Indeed, if you have ever read Karl Barth’s Theology of the Reformed Confessions (one of my favorites!) you will see him pressing into this very distinction; viz. a distinction between the ‘letter’ versus the ‘spirit’ of the Reformed faith. Barth maintains that to operate in the letter of semper reformanda (‘always reforming’) means that the spirit of this letter entails that while there are certain orthodox parameters attending to and presented by the tradition of the church, that within those ‘orthodoxing’ parameters there is space to operate (‘the spirit’) with imagination that is regulated not by the force of the tradition (which is always and only a proximate or ectypal knowledge), but by the regula revealed in God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. For Barth, and for myself as an Evangelical Calvinist, to operate in the ‘spirit’ of the Reformational impulse is to recognize as Barth did, that knowledge of God is always already an eschatological reality, and as such allows for the Christian mind to grapple with him in ways that might just recalibrate certain aspects about who he has revealed himself to be that prior imaginations (and the categories they had available to them, philosophically) were unable to see. Bruce McCormack makes this very point in regard to Barth’s theology:

I say all of this to indicate that even the ecumenical creeds are only provisional statements. They are only relatively binding as definitions of what constitutes “orthodoxy.” Ultimately, orthodox teaching is that which conforms perfectly to the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture. But given that such perfection is not attainable in this world, it is understandable that Karl Barth should have regarded “Dogma” as an eschatological concept. The “dogmas” (i.e., the teachings formally adopted and promulgated by individual churches) are witnesses to the Dogma and stand in a relation of greater or lesser approximation to it. But they do not attain to it perfectly—hence, the inherent reformability of all “dogmas.” Orthodoxy is not therefore a static, fixed reality; it is a body of teachings which have arisen out of, and belong to, a history which is as yet incomplete and constantly in need of reevaluation.[2]

Also, in the same ‘spirit’ Adam Neder writes this:

while fully conversant with and significantly indebted to the vast resources of the church’s reflection on the person and work of Christ, Barth regarded himself to be primarily accountable to Holy Scripture, not church dogma, and thus asked that his Christology be judged, above all, by its faithfulness to the New Testament presentation of the living Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, one regularly finds Barth justifying a Christological innovation with the argument that the New Testament depiction of Christ requires it (or something like it) and that the older categories are inadequate to bear witness to this or that aspect of his existence. In other words, and quite simply, Barth understood himself to be free to do evangelical theology — free, as he put it, to begin again at the beginning. And this approach, it seems to me, is one that evangelicals have every reason to regard with sympathy rather than suspicion.[3]

For Barth, according to McCormack and Neder, ‘orthodoxy’ is not the absolute in the theological enterprise, instead the object and norm by which we come to recognize orthodoxy is the effulgence of God’s life given to us and for us in Christ; so orthodoxy is a symbol that serves as a boundary criteria that the ‘faithful’ have come to recognize, but it is only a boundary wherein greater reality, not lesser can come to be realized. This is not to suggest that there are no recognizable contours or ‘orthodox’ corners by which the church might confidently know her God. But it is to recognize that the church lives in a constant state of vulnerability and contradiction as she is ever afresh and anew by the grace of God confronted with her sinfulness—which implicates her ability to know—vis-à-vis con-versation with the living God.

Much more needs to be said, but let me close. My ultimate concern is that all of modern theology ends up getting caricatured by this type of gloss on Schleiermacher and it is seen as a hindrance to the advancement of presenting a fiduciary way forward for the church to know her God. That it is seen as an affront, or ulcer on the church’s capacity to think ‘catholically’ with our brothers and sisters pre-17th century and backwards looking, and thus relegated to a heterodox period of theological development that should be, with all purpose, abandoned. What a travesty! And all this in the name of offering the orthodox churches a ‘catholic foundation.’

As we can see, at least in Barth’s case and us Evangelical Calvinists following, to be orthodox is to always be in conversation with God as he encounters afresh and anew in the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. I would suggest that to take the tact that I believe Hutchison actually presents us with a conception of God that gets necessarily reflected in the method of catholicity that Hutchinson et al are calling us to. In other words, if God is a monadic unmoved mover then so will one’s conception of catholicity be.

Addendum: I finished Hutchinson’s chapter, and he went in another direction than what I had anticipated; although his chapter could serve as a historical ground clearing for the thesis of catholicity that I had anticipated in my blog post here. His chapter is an attempt to contextualize Melanchthon, particularly with reference to Melanchthons’s Loci Communes 1521. He argues that Barth and Ferdinand Bauer misread Melanchthon and as such find something in him that actually isn’t the case; in regard to Melanchthon’s supposed lack of focus, or abstraction of focus on creedal Christology and Trinitarianism (per the ordering of his communes). Hutchinson argues and concludes that the apparent ‘lack’ was precisely because Melanchthon was so committed to these traditional permutations that he didn’t feel compelled to spell them out because they served, instead, as the understood bases upon which he made his points about salvation and so on.

[1] E.J. Hutchinson, “Melanchthon’s Unintended Reformation? The Case of the Missing Doctrine of God,” in Bradford LittleJohn ed., God of our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Institute, 2018), Loc 571, 581, 593, 603 kindle version.

[2] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 15-16. Also see this article.

[3] Adam Neder, History in Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union, in Bruce McCormack and Clifford Anderson eds., Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 150. For further elaboration on Neder see this article.

Miscellanies on How the Order of a Doctrine of Election Affects the Pyromaniacs and The Gospel Coalition

The Gospel is Kingdom initiating, Kingdom grounding; indeed it could be said that the Gospel is the disruptive orientation of the original creation’s ultimate purpose as that is realized in the re-creation of God in Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead. As David Fergusson has written, “the world was made so that Christ might be born;” this adage captures well the inherent value or the inner reality that the creation itself has. It is one born only in and from God’s reality to graciously be for the world and to do so in himself, in the Son, by the Spirit and thus to pretend as if the Triune reality is not the ground and grammar of ALL of reality—inclusive of morality—is to reduce the Gospel to a pietist individualism that only has to do with me and my salvation/me and my eternal destiny. While personal salvation, its appropriation, is very important, it is grounded more objectively and universally in the reality of redemption that God in Christ has proffered for all of creation, with Jesus being its crowning reality and jewel. In other words, the cosmic reality of salvation, grounded in the humanity and divinity (an/enhypostasis) of the eternal Logos become flesh, Jesus Christ, encompasses all aspects of created reality. It is not simply a matter of sufficiency but of efficacy; in other words, in the Kingdom, in the recreation there is not a delimitation of that to particular parts (i.e. classic election/reprobation) of the creation; no, the Kingdom of God in Christ (which is given reality in the Gospel which is embodied and lived in the Christ) is a macrocosmic reality (Rom. 8.18ff) that indeed disruptively impacts individuals who are willing, by the Holy Spirit’s wooing, to participate in this new created reality in and through the priestly-vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. This is why when people like Phil Johnson want to attempt to reduce the Gospel reality to its more individualistic provenance they end up critiquing work like The Gospel Coalition is engaging in as it sees the whole of reality implicated by the Kingdom Gospel; he fails to recognize that the Gospel is about a broader work and doctrine of creation/recreation than it simply being about ‘fire-insurance’ for an elect group of people elevated over and against the rest of creation (what TF Torrance identifies as ‘The Latin Heresy’ or an inherent dualism that comes to pass when we start denominating parts of creation from the mass of the creation). In this vein note what Johnson recently wrote in critique of The Gospel Coalition and its engagement with popular culture:

The “gospel-centered” movement that many of us were so enthusiastic for just one decade ago has gone with the drift. The Gospel Coalition has for some time now shown a pattern of embracing whatever new moral issue or political cause is currently popular in Western culture by arguing that this, too, is a legitimate “gospel issue.” They are by no means alone in this. Everything from the latest Marvel movie to gun control legislation has been deemed a “gospel issue” by some savvy evangelical writer at one or more of the most heavily trafficked evangelical websites. But if everything is supposedly a gospel issue, the expression “gospel-centered” is rendered meaningless.

As I said in a Tweet earlier today, we must not abandon the focused simplicity of Luke 24:46-47 in favor of a social gospel that encompasses a large complex of racial, economic, and political issues. Every denomination, every educational institution, and every church that has ever made that error has seen a quick demise. I for one don’t intend to watch in silence while the current generation repeats that mistake.[1]

In response to this I have read others on Twitter raise the question of sufficiency; in other words, is Scripture itself sufficient in responding to race or human sexuality questions, or in Scripture’s overt silence on these things are we able and responsible to turn to other resources—latent within God’s good creation (i.e. common grace)—to seek responses to the ills that the fallen world presents us with in an attempt to ultimately point people to the ultimate sufficiency of the living God as that is provided for in Jesus Christ? So the response seems to be: not all things are intensively or directly related to the narrower message of the Gospel, instead they are related but only in an extensive or indirect matter which allows for and even calls for Christian thinkers to respond to questions not explicitly spoken to in Scripture in such a way that honors the general reality of the Gospel; and within that space has freedom to address issues that might not otherwise seem to have to do with the Gospel in any meaningful sense, but in fact are Gospel issues insofar as they are indirectly impacted by the ultimate reality of it (in other words: natural law, or a natural ethic is going to be appealed to—something that in this line of thinking does not undercut the sufficiency of Scripture to speak to what it intends to speak to, but in fact works in a complementary way to Scripture with the a priori recognition that all of creation belongs to God and is within the realm of his Providential care, governance, and sustenance).

There is a certain irony to these views (Johnson’s and Twitter’s). Both of these approaches share a similar doctrine of creation, theologically/soteriologically. They both share a particular view on the sufficiency of the Gospel and Scripture, but apply that differently (because of broader hermeneutical differences). They denominate parts of creation out from the greater mass of creation, believing that one part is the elect of God while the rest is damned. Johnson focuses on the elect part of creation, but dispensationally neglecting the whole of creation, while the other side also focuses on the elect part of creation, but they see that as the seed that ultimately cashes out in the new creation; they place election into a cosmic understanding of salvation and Providence while Johnson places election into an individualistic and pietist understanding of salvation wherein what ultimately matters is not this creation simpliciter, but the legal salvation of an elect people from an eternal hell. The irony is that they share some overlapping soteriological assumptions, in regard to election, but where that doctrine is placed in their respective theologies cashes out differently in the way that they see the Gospel itself implicating the whole of creation. The Twitter-view works from a cosmic doctrine of salvation, while the Johnson view works from a pietistic, individualist understanding of salvation that is discontinuous from creation as a cosmic reality. The difference in the end is that the Twitter view is Covenantal while the Johnson view is Dispensational. The Twitter view reflects a historic confessionally Reformed perspective, while the Johnson view reflects his Calvinist-lite perspective which is the reduction of Reformed theology to the so called five-points.

Just take this post for what it’s worth. I was going to totally go in another direction and refer us to Oliver O’Dononvan and Philip Ziegler (and apocalyptic theology), but the above is what came out instead. It’s just me thinking out loud. But I think there might be something to my theoretical meanderings. And I only think this is a worthwhile exercise because I think it illustrates a substantial theological polarity that is present within the so called Reformed world. I’ll want to return to how I opened this post up, and get into the relationship of the Gospel and the Kingdom within an Apocalyptic Theology and how I think that informs discussions like these.

[1] Phil Johnson, The Root of the Matter, accessed 05-28-2018.

Personal Jesus Theology: A Small Primer on the History and Development of Reformed Theology

You may grow tired, you might be wearied by my constant references to the history of Calvinism and the Reformed tradition, but check the name of my blog. I don’t do this gratuitously though, it comes from a heart that recognizes the need for people to be informed; and in many cases liberated from a received personal history that has them living in a world where they feel there are only binaries to inhabit and thus no space to grow. I am referring to, at least in the conservative evangelical Christian world, the binaries of Calvinism and Arminianism. What, at the very least I hope to do is alert people to the reality that even in the history and development of Reformed theology itself it was not a monolith; there were thinkers who were considered the orthodox who were not close to what we consider to be orthodox Calvinism or Reformed theology today (at least by way of emphasis). In an effort to continue to provide exposure in these directions let me once again, and quickly, refer to Janice Knight’s work on the history and development of English and American Puritanism. Here she is referring to Richard Sibbes as a touchstone thinker who represented a movement of Reformed theologians who challenged what we know as orthodox Reformed theology today; at least as that is given expression in federal or covenant theology.

When the Cambridge Brethren preached the covenant, they described an unconditional promise: the personal Christ, not the covenant bond, secured spiritual adoption. Reversing the emphasis of the Intellectual Fathers, Sibbes and his disciples invented a language stressing divine activity and human passivity in the work of salvation. Consistently, they favored metaphors of God as effulgent, a fountain of goodness overflowing, or an abundant river of graces pouring forth. The Brethren carefully qualified legalist language that might restrict the freeness of this exuberant flow.[1]

When Knight refers to the ‘Intellectual Fathers’ she is referring to William Perkins (as the figurehead of the movement), and those following his lead and style of federal theology. It is his style that has become synonymous with what people think of when they think of Reformed theology (proper) today. You see the way Knight construes the way Sibbesians reversed the emphasis of a contractual God to a personal Jesus. This fits well with Evangelical Calvinism; it fits well with Barth’s and Torrance’s theological emphases; and so Evangelical Calvinists have antecedent impulses within the theology of Sibbes and the Sibbesians. Some today want to simply gloss Sibbes and Perkins together, as if the distinction Knight is making is artificial; but just read Sibbes, read Perkins, and see if it is so artificial.

[1] Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994), 109.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

[3] Unnamed respondent from a Facebook thread.

The AChristological Focus of Covenant Theology: A Note on What in Fact is Being Retrieved in the Reformed ‘Resurgence’

The ‘resurgence’ of Reformed theology in the conservative evangelical sub-culture and beyond continues, but what is being retrieved in this recovery of the so called ‘doctrines of grace?’ In this post I wanted to briefly highlight an emphasis, or lack thereof, that is present in the style of Reformed theology that is currently being recovered. It might be argued that the English and American Puritan forms of Reformed theology represent a type of flowering or blossoming of the Post Reformed orthodox theology that developed most formidably in the 16th and 17th centuries; indeed we see an organic overlap between these developments, something of the theoretical/doctrinal (i.e. ‘school theology’) moving to the applied practical outworking in the Puritan experiment. It is this period that is being looked to as the resource that is supposed to revitalize and reorient the wayward evangelical churches of the 21st century. But again, I ask, what in fact is being recovered; what is present, theologically, by way of emphasis that is informing the reconstructive work being done by the theologians presently involved in this effort?

Janice Knight in her book Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism offers some helpful insight on the role that reception of William Ames’s form of Puritanism, his ‘Intellectual’ style, had in regard to shaping what we even now are seeing in the recovery of Federal or Covenantal theology. What you will note, and this has been the source of my own critique, along with others of Federal theology, is the lack of focus on the personal Christ, with an alternative focus, instead, on a legal contract (Divine Pactum) and its conditions. You will notice, through Knight’s analysis, that Christ is seen more as an instrument of meeting the conditions of the covenant (of works/grace). Knight writes at length:

Students of the period have long regarded this preference for the functional rather than the personal Christ as characteristic of all Puritan preachers. John Eusden, for example, draws a sharp distinction between Lutheran and Reformed christology, arguing that Luther’s emphasis on the mystery of incarnation was never of crucial importance to English divines: “The Christocentrism of Martin Luther is not shared by most English Puritans . . . The incarnation . . . was not a mystery in which man should lose himself.” A chorus of scholars has echoed this conclusion, arguing that Puritans “minimized the role of the Savior in their glorification of the sovereignty of the Father.” Their means was to focus on the ascended Christ and their purpose was “as far as mortals could” to emphasize the distance between heaven and earth.” The only bridge was the contractual covenant, not the personal Christ.

This argument is confirmed by the structure as well as the content of the Marrow. The person and life of Christ are only briefly treated, and again in language that is figurally abstract. Christ as agent of the covenant assumes center stage in the Marrow. This emphasis on Christ’s legal function effectively forces Ames’s discussion away from godly essence and toward divine omnipotence.

Ames’s real interest is indeed the efficiency or the “working power of God by which he works all things in all things.” Other aspects of God’s nature are subordinated to this application of power. “the meaning both of the essence of God and of his subsistence shines forth in his efficiency.” In this somewhat surprising move, Ames collapses distinctions he had been careful to establish: “The power of God, considered as simple power, is plainly identical with his sufficiency.” In these statements Ames shifts the focus of divinity from a mediation on the being of God (esse) to his performance (operati) in the world—from God’s nature ad intra to his being ad extra.

This stress on the exercise of power is inscribed in the works of Ames’s disciples as well. Again, the caveat obtains: while they celebrated the beauty of Christ and the blessings of grace, on balance preachers like Hooker, Shepard, and Bulkeley focused on the functional application not the indwelling of Christ. It is not God as he is in himself, but as he deals with the sinner that engages them—God as exacting lord, implacable judge, or demanding covenanter. God is imagined as the creditor who will “have the utmost farthering” due him, or the landlord pressing his claim. Repeatedly, Hooker refers to Christ as “Lord Jesus,” or “Lord Christ”—terms which are found with far less frequency in the writings of Sibbes and Cotton. To be sure, this is a loving God, but he is also a “dreadful enemy,” an “all-seeing, terrible Judge,” a consuming infinite fire” of wrath.

And when these preachers use familial tropes to describe God’s dealings, they often warn that loving fathers are also harsh disciplinarians; there is “no greater sign of God’s wrath than for the Lord to give thee thy swing as a father never looks after a desperate son, but lets him run where he pleases.” Though God is merciful, if is a mercy with measure, “it is to a very few . . . it is a thousand to one if ever . . . [one] escape this wrath to come.” Such restriction of the saving remnant is of course an axiom of Reformed faith, but one that Sibbes rarely stressed. On the other hand, Hooker and Shepard’s God often acts by “an holy kind of violence,” holding sinners over the flames or plucking them from sin at his pleasure. This God wounds humankind, hammers and humbles the heart until it is broken.

Divine sovereignty also animates Hooker’s description of conversion as royal conquest and dominion: Christ is like “the King [who] taketh the Soveraigne command of the place where he is, and if there be any guests there they must be gone, and resigne up all the house to him: so the Lord Jesus comes to take soveraigne possession of the soule.” With sins banished and the heart pledged to a new master, the saint begins the long journey of sanctification. This repetition of the language of lordship insists not only on the centrality of domination in conversion but in the general tenor of human/divine relations—abjection replaces the melted heart so often imagined by Cotton and Sibbes.[1]

This helps summarize what I have been writing on for many years; writing against in fact! It is this harsh version of ‘Calvinism’ that became orthodoxy in New England and North America at large; it is this version of Reformed theology that is currently being retrieved for purposes of revitalization for the evangelical churches in North America and elsewhere. But we see the emphasis that is being imported into the evangelical church world; an emphasis wherein Jesus Christ is underemphasized as the centrum of salvation, instead instrumentalized as the organ that keeps the heart of Federal theology pumping.

The concern, at least mine, is that pew sitters sitting under such ‘recovery’ are getting this type of theology; one where Jesus Christ is not the center, instead the contract, the covenant of works/grace is. The emphasis of salvation, and the correlating spirituality present in this framework does not provide the type of existential contact with the living God that there ought to be; at least according to Scripture. We see Knight mention folks like Richard Sibbes and John Cotton; they offered an alternative focus juxtaposed with what we just surveyed. They offer an emphasis upon God’s triune love, and his winsome character; they focus on God in Christ as the Bridegroom and we the Bride. Evangelical Calvinists, like me, work within the Sibbesian emphasis, albeit informed further by folks like Karl Barth’s and Thomas Torrance’s theological loci. I invite you to the genuinely evangelical focus we are offering by seeing Christ as the center of all reality, in particular salvation, and within this emphasis we might experience what it is to have a participatory relationship with the living God mediated through the second person of the trinity, enfleshed, Jesus Christ.

 

[1] Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994), 77-8.

*Artwork: Gwen Meharg, He Will Not Snuff Out!accessed 05-09-2018.

Putting the Evangel in Our ical: What Makes Evangelical Calvinism ‘Evangelical’ in Contrast to Other Calvinisms?

I was at a theological conference last month and was asked what makes ‘Evangelical’ Calvinism Evangelical? In other words, my forthcoming interlocutor wondered what distinguished Evangelical Calvinism from, well, Calvinism simpliciter. He noted: “aren’t all iterations of Calvinism evangelical?” He couldn’t imagine that the way someone, like me, was using Evangelical could mean anything else but evangelical.

Briefly, and once again (because I’m sure I’ve responded to this before here at the blog, and I know we have in the Introductions to our book, book) let me touch upon what we mean by ‘Evangelical,’ theologically. If you look at the sidebar of my blog I have had the following TF Torrance quote posted for years; I was first alerted to it by Myk Habets, and then of course read it in context later for myself in Torrance’s book The Mediation of Christ. In this brief statement we have encapsulated what it is that us Evangelical Calvinists mean by our usage of the word Evangelical; it has an adjectival force that, indeed, finds referent in a theological frame rather than its normal frame of reference which is socio-cultural (although Bebbington’s quadrilateral does have some useful theological permutation). The way we use ‘Evangelical’, more to the point, and materially, has to do with the ‘for whom’ God in Christ died; it has to do with the range and reach of the atonement. This sets us apart from our cousins, the classical or Federal Calvinists, who Limit or Particularize the atonement, redemption, to certain elect individuals whom God arbitrarily chose in absolute decree (decretum absolutum). We think this represents an anti-Evangelical Calvinism in the sense that when the Gospel is proclaimed to the masses it actually only has hypothetical value; viz. there is a disingenuous nature to the proclamation, at an ontological/metaphysical level, given the character of the Federally construed Calvinist gospel. Disingenuous, if you haven’t seen the logic yet, because the in concrete reality of the Gospel is only actually and effectually available for some and not the whole of creation; it is delimited and sublimated by a decree of God that is abstract from the person of God in the assumptio carnis, in the Incarnation. In contrast to this, TFT, Evangelical Calvinist par excellence summarizes the Gospel and its hopeful proclamation this way:

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]

For Torrance, for the Evangelical Calvinist, the Gospel reality, the work of salvation is not separated from the person of God in Christ; instead it is grounded directly in his person, and his work reposes therein, without remainder. There is no absolute decree rupturing God’s person from God’s work; the limit of salvation for the Evangelical Calvinist is God’s Triune life externalized in the concrete person, the eternal Son of God, Jesus Christ. As such the Gospel is necessarily universal, just as God’s reach is necessarily universal in his assumption of the only humanity available—the one he created and recreated—in the man from Nazareth.

So the Evangelical in Evangelical Calvinism symbolizes the genuine range of the Gospel, and it is grounded in the reality that God is the personalizing personal God whose oneness (De Deo uno) is constituted by his threeness (De Deo trino) in perichoretic wholeness and interpenetrative love. Because this God freely elected to become Creator, because this God freely elected to become human in Christ, because this God has eschatological purpose shaping his protological action forming his gracious creational act, all of humanity, just as all of creation (Rom. 8; Col. 1) is included in the first fruits of his life in Christ. Because Federal or classical Calvinists can’t affirm this, because they delimit the Gospel by separating God’s person in Christ from his works in Christ through an ad hoc decree, they cannot genuinely offer the Gospel to the whole of creation; they can only hypothetically or disingenuously do this. This is what makes Evangelical Calvinism, Evangelical; it’s what puts the Evangel into our ical.

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

 

Not So Fast Young, Restless, and Reformed; Not So Fast Neo-Puritans: The Reformed Faith, Not a Monological Reality but a Multilogical Made Up of Variegated Centers

I used to write about this frequently, particularly because of my education under Ron Frost; I somewhat quit alerting folks to this reality, but I think I will, every now and then, continue to offer a counter-voice to the dominant narrative that continues to build steam like a locomotive unabated. What I’m referring to is the idea that the Reformed tradition, that Calvinism, is a monolithic reality; as if what we have come to know as classical Calvinism today is and only ever was the tradition that constituted what we know as orthodox Calvinism. This is simply not the case! I operate, as an Evangelical Calvinist, within a continuing counter-stream, but not underrepresented stream in the past, of the Calvinist tradition. True, personally I have now adopted Barthian and Torrancean modes of Reformed cogitation, but these were prompted previously by impulses that I  learned were present in the Reformed tradition in people like Calvin himself, Sibbes, Eaton, Cotton, et al. Some might be willing to admit that there was dissent in the Reformed past among the Reformed, but the thesis I follow, developed by Janice Knight et al., is that the picture of ‘orthodoxy’, particularly in English and American Puritan theology, is a contested reality; it is one that I continue to contest, materially.

In order to help illustrate what I am talking about, let me quote Janice Knight, a historian of Puritan theology. She argues, just as I noted, that what we have come to accept as orthodoxy in the Reformed tradition, indeed, in the Calvinist resurgence, was a variegated reality; that it belies the monological character that historians like Perry Miller have given it in his seminal writings back in the early 20th century. The reason I think it is important to at least acknowledge this, at least at one level, is to inject a  modicum of humility into the mix with the hopes that the Young, Restless and Reformed might realize they haven’t found the theological pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow that they seem to think they have. In other words, realities like those noted by Knight ought to problematize, ought to complexify the gusto we find in both popular and academic iterations of Reformed theology on offer today. It ought to inform such folks that their version of Reformed theology is just a version and not the only one available; that there is room in the family of the Reformed tradition for brothers and sisters who operate within the space offered by the variegation that has always been present in this tradition. Knight writes this about how the current monological narrative of the Reformed understanding developed under the pressure of Miller’s reconstruction of the Puritan period of development:

A curious yet largely unexamined contradiction in the early scholarship of the field may prove instructive. Just one year before Miller published the first volume of The New England Mind, William Haller published his classic account of The Rise of Puritanism (1938). Though many scholars treat these two works as founding texts for modern Puritan studies, few have remarked that they bear surprisingly little resemblance to one another.

Like Miller, Haller constructs a genealogy of Puritan “fathers,” but he does so from the perspective of English intellectual history. Interestingly, Ames, William Bradshaw, and Hooker—central figures in Miller’s Puritan pantheon—have a lesser place in Haller’s universe. They are briefly mentioned as “the intellectual fathers of Independency.” Haller’s interest attaches to the prominent group of Puritans who move in circles of power at court and the colleges. The roll call of that leadership—Sibbes, Cotton, Preston, Thomas Goodwin, Philip Nye—constitute my Spiritual Brethren. As prominent actors in the salient events of the prewar period, these men achieved a reputation that eclipsed Ames’s and Hooker’s and continued to do so in subsequent historical accounts of the British national past. Haller’s reading, drawing on the Lives of Samuel Clarke, in some measure imported the whiggish bias of that early hagiography.

Conversely, the victors of the early disputes in New England have been given a disproportionate place in our national history. In the aftermath of the Antinomian Controversy, men like Shepherd and Winthrop began the task of writing apologies regarding the disputes, naturalizing their own authority as inevitable, as “orthodox,” and rewriting opposition as “heresy.” Shoring up their authority not just by exiling dissenters or by marginalizing Cotton and Davenport, they also engaged in literary acts of self-justification. The volatility of the events was represented as the inevitable emergence of “right opinion,” a history later rehearsed by Cotton Mather, among others. While admitting of rupture and dissonance, this Puritan archive inscribed the winner’s tale in the very act of narrating difference as dissent. Drawing on this written record, even wary historical reconstruction of the “original” context runs the risk of re-authorizing the myth of inevitable origin by redeploying this triumphalist dynamic of margin and center.

The Winthrop orthodoxy has dominated American hagiography, theirs is the theology that has become synonymous with the univocal Puritan piety. Drawing on this record and from an Americanist perspective, Miller could conclude that with respect to the “fundamental point” of preparationism “Hooker’s influence eclipsed Cotton’s and his share in the formation of American Puritanism is correspondingly larger.” This bias is reflected in a subsequent focus on the preparationist orthodoxy in succeeding historical interpretations and a romanticizing of Cotton’s piety as the lost, best part of ourselves.

My study is offered as an effort of recovery—one that seeks return to the period before orthodox modes were secured in New England in order to restore a sense of drama and volatility to our early history. A corrective to triumphalist histories, this study offers a thick description of the ideas, associations, and experiences that bound the Sibbesian party together and describes the set of compromises, dialogic exchanges, and heated conflicts that ultimately set them apart from the “orthodox” culture. Rather than acquiescing in a description that locates them as dissenters from an orthodox center, this study places them at the center and considers the production of a single “orthodoxy” as a volatile process that has only come to seem inevitable in subsequent narrative accounts.[1]

This remains largely an untold unheard story. I have mentioned it to people like R. Scott Clark and others of like mind in the past, and they have only dismissed the work of Knight; of course!! My hope is that by alerting folks to this, once again, that they will slow their charge down a bit. That when they label ‘dissenting voices’ within the Reformed tradition as ‘heretics’ or ‘heterodox’ that they will realize they are only continuing on a historiographical charade that started early in Whiggish England and early America.

Does this reality—i.e. that there were ‘orthodoxies’ in the Puritan Reformed faith—necessarily challenge the material theological developments that are currently being retrieved and recovered by the jubilantly resurgent? No, not necessarily. But it does marginalize the claim that they are THE orthodox in the Reformed theological domain. It does problematize the belief that other voices, other than theirs, are merely dissenting, even heretical voices. On this point, something of interest to me is how indeed someone like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance are treated; they are labeled heretics by many of these hard charging Young, Restless, and Reformed types. And if not labeled heretics they are received with suspicion and as sub-Reformed thinkers who might offer pearls or flourishes of theological wisdom that can be extracted for utilitarian purposes; the fall-back always being the belief that Reformed orthodoxy’s sum can be found in something like the Puritan produced Westminster Confession of Faith.

I offer this up as a form of protest; dissent even. But dissent that works from within the orthodoxies of the Reformed faith rather than outwith.

[1] Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997), 10-11.

The Prius of God’s Life IS God’s Life of Triune Personal Love: An Alternative Account of Predestination Referred to God’s Life

Predestination that shibboleth of Reformed theology; it has been shibboleth to me as well. Predestination is the idea that God arbitrarily elects particular people to eternal life, and chooses that others either remain (passive) reprobate or are (active) reprobate with no actual hope for eternal life. This approach to a God-world relation relies upon a philosophical theory of causation of the sort that we find in Aristotle’s theology; a theory of causation that relegates God’s relation to the world to a set of necessary commitments—primary of which is that God is the Unmoved Mover (e.g. impassibility; immuatability). Without getting into the details of what this theory of causation entails specifically I will refer us instead to the Westminster Confession of Faith’s (WCF) chapter three where it confesses what it thinks about a God-world relation in the doctrine of Predestination:

Chapter III

Of God’s Eternal Decree

I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. II. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions. III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death. IV. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished. V. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto; and all to the praise of His glorious grace. VI. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only. VII. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extends or withholds mercy, as He pleases, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice. VIII. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel.[1]

For its time and place this might have been the best the Westminster Divines could do; viz. with the theological categories they had available to them—although that is contestable, given the reality that there were counter voices within the Reformed world at that time who emphasized a God of immediate personal love (think, Richard Sibbes). But we live in the 21st century, and time has passed; reflection has been undertaken; theological categories have developed; and I would suggest that the Gospel can be better for it. Thomas Torrance under the influence of Athanasius and Karl Barth (and Michael Polyani, Clerk Maxwell, Einstein et al.) offers an alternative account of Predestination wherein the reference is not individual people scattered throughout the annals of created history, but instead the reference is God’s life in Christ. In other words, Pre-destination, in Torrance’s theology, and Evangelical Calvinist theology after, refers to God’s life in Christ, his choice to be for the world and not against it, his prothesis grounded in who he is as eternal Triune love. For Torrance God’s life of love just is the inner-factor that grounds his choice to be Immanuel, God with us. This is counter the ad hoc choice of God we see orienting the doctrine of predestination in the theology of the Westminsterians; a choice that he makes based upon his secret will hidden in the recesses of his remote life that remains inaccessible (Deus absconditus) even with the revelation (Deus revelatus) of Godself in Christ. In other words, again as both Barth and Torrance would say, there is a ‘god behind the back of Jesus’ in the Westminsterian schema such that we aren’t ultimately sure of why God does what he does; only that he indeed does it. But this isn’t concordant with Holy Scripture or the reality it attests to in Jesus Christ. What we know is that God does what he does because he is love, of the sort that shapes his response to the human predicament by electing to be human, and giving his life in Christ for the sheep. What we know is that God acts in personal and intimately driven ways, filial ways, of the sort that inhere eternally between the Father and the Son by the fellowshipping love of the Holy Spirit. Place this up against the Westminsterian conception of God in the doctrine of predestination and see if it coheres.

Paul Molnar, as he develops Thomas Torrance’s theology (and Barth’s) of predestination offers a wonderful account of all that we have just been sketching. Let me offer, at length, his considerations, and commend them to you. As Evangelical Calvinists, what follows, by way of description of Torrance’s theology, is what shapes our own approach to a doctrine of Pre-destination.

The second important thing to notice is that Torrance insists that in Jesus Christ we are confronted with “the eternal decision of God’s eternal love. In Jesus Christ, therefore, eternal election has become temporal event.” But that means that election is not “some static act in a still point of eternity.” Rather it is “eternal pre-destination, moving out of its eternal prius into time as living act that from moment to moment confronts people in Jesus Christ.” Hence, “the ‘pre’ in predestination refers neither to a temporal nor to a logical prius, but simply to God Himself, the Eternal.” This is a vital insight. For Torrance, while we tend to think of eternity “as strung out in an infinite line with past, present, and future though without beginning and without end, in the form of an elongated circular time,” this must not lead us to suppose that there is a “worldly prius” in God, because that would introduce immediately a “logical one” as well. If and when predestination is brought within the compass of created time, then it would be thought of within the “compass of the temporal-causal series” and “interpreted in terms of cause and effect,” and this would necessarily lead to determinism, which is the very opposite of what is actually affirmed in the “pre” of predestination. Torrance says the “pre” in predestination, when rightly understood, is “the most vigorous protest against determinism” known to Christian theology. Since the “pre” in predestination does not refer to a “prius to anything here in space and time,” it cannot be construed as “the result of an inference from effect to first cause, or from relative to absolute, or to any world-principle.” Rather, because election is “in Jesus Christ,” the “pre” does not take election “out of time” but “grounds it in an act of the Eternal which we can only describe as ‘per se’ or ‘a se.’” That means it is grounded “in the personal relations of the Trinity” so that “because we know God to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we know the Will of God to be supremely Personal—and it is to that Will that predestination tells us our salvation is to be referred.”

But we can make that reference only “if that Will has first come among us and been made personally known. That has happened (ἐγένετο) in Christ, and in Him the act of predestination is seen to be the act of creative Grace in the communion of the Holy Spirit.” Election thus refers to God’s “choice or decision” and “guarantees to us the freedom of God. His sovereignty, His omnipotence is not one that acts arbitrarily, nor by necessity, but by personal decision. God is therefore no blind fate, no immanent force acting under the compulsion of some prius or unknown law within His being.” The importance of emphasizing choice here concerns the fact that election cannot involve any necessity without becoming immediately a form of determinism. Instead, election refers to God’s freedom “to break the bondage of a sinful world, and to bring Himself into personal relations with man”; election refers to a personal action from God’s side and from the human side. Hence it is an act that creates personal relations. While God freely creates our human personal relations, human freedom is “essentially dependent freedom,” while “the divine freedom is independent, ‘a se’ freedom; the freedom of the Creator as distinguished from the freedom of the creature.” In this connection Torrance describes election as “an act of love.” It means that “God has chosen us because He loves us, and the He loves us because He loves us.”

That may sound a bit strange. But it is loaded comment, because what Torrance means is that if we try to get behind this act of God’s love toward us to find a reason beyond the simple fact that God loves us because he does, we will end up turning God’s free love of us into a necessity in one way or another and thus once again compromise both divine and human freedom in the process. So Torrance insists,

The reason why God loves us is love. To give any other reason for love than love itself, whether it be a reason in God Himself, such as an election according to some divine prius that precedes Grace, or whether it be in man, is to deny love, to disrupt the Christian apprehension of God and to condemn the world to chaos! [Torrance, “Predestination in Christ,” 117]

Election is Christ the beloved Son of the Father, and the act of election in him is once and for all, a perfectum praesens, an eternal decision that is ever present. God’s eternal decision does not halt or come to rest at any particular point or result, but is dynamic, and ever takes the field in its identity with the living person of Chirst. [Torrance, “Predestination in Christ,” 117]

Hence it is “contemporary with us” and summons us to decision as to who we say he is. Here we must confront more directly the relationship between time and eternity. How exactly can one maintain that election is an eternal decision without reducing the eternal love between the Father and Son to the love of God enacted in the history of Jesus Christ for us? How can one maintain the strength of Torrance’s insight that creation and incarnation are new acts even for God without obviating the power contained in the assertion that Jesus Christ is the ever-present act of God’s electing love?[2]

Molnar leaves off with some questions that alert us to the discussion and critique he has been making in regard to a McCormackian reading of Barth’s theology, in particular. But that does not currently concern us. I wanted to share this very lengthy quote (and thus risk losing blog readers who typically won’t go beyond 1500 words) in order to provide insight into theology that I rarely see shared online; at least not in the context of Reformed theology. People need to know that Reformed theology is expansive, but they also need to appreciate that Christian theology in general isn’t ultimately about being able to align with that interpretive tradition, or this; but instead what we should really care about is whether or not what is being communicated is most proximate with the Gospel itself.

What I hope you have come to see is that God loves us because he just is, LOVE! I hope you can see that there is a way to think of soteriological issues from within the concrete revelation of God’s life in Jesus Christ; and that from that vantage point how we conceive of the God-world relation ought to be thought of in personal rather than abstract terms. Theological systems are often averse to thinking in personal and relational terms because they are afraid that this reduces God-thought to an existentialist frame of reference (oh no, not that!), or that it so subjectivizes God that theology becomes a form of anthropology (the boogeyman, Schleiermacher). But within the theologies of Barth, Torrance et al. what becomes apparent is that none of those fears are true. If we want to think about Predestination properly then we ought to think it from God’s Self-revelation itself; where the Son of the Father is the primary means by which we understand God to be—in other words in personal terms.

[1]Westminster Confession of Faith.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 202-05.