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.

Analogia Fidei in Contrast to Analogia Entis; Barth More Committed to a Theology of the Word than the Classically Reformed

Clearly the question of analogical knowledge of God (contrary to something like univocal) is a reality that the mainstream of Christian orthodox theology has appropriated in its quest to engage with God (think about the relationship between archetypal/ectypal knowledges). But as we can see analogia represents a continuum when it comes to nuancing exactly what one means when they appeal to analogical knowledge of God. In the last post we responded, a bit, to Richard Muller and the Post Reformed orthodox’s defense of the Thomist analogia entis (analogy of being), and contrasted that with Karl Barth’s alternative, analogia fidei (analogy of faith). In this post I thought I would elaborate further what in fact Barth means when he refers to an analogia fidei. There is an obvious point of convergence between Thomas and Barth on analogical knowledge of God, but that is where the commonality also becomes a point of departure; and that all has to do with the way that Barth develops his theological anthropology from the Logos of God. For Barth what it means to be human, the reality of humanity’s esse or ‘being’ is always extra nos (outside of us)—as Arthur McGill would say it: humans have an ecstatic existence. As such it follows that there is nothing inherently present within humanity, whether that be in the original creation or the new creation, that allows it to ever have a genuine knowledge of God. The moment that thought is entertained, I surmise for Barth, we collapse into some form of naturum purum (pure nature), or into an abstract ontology for what it means to be human; i.e. a humanity that can be conceived of in abstraction from the humanity of Jesus Christ pro nobis (for us). This is why analogical knowledge, for Barth, cannot start in a conception of humanity that is isolated from God, but we must start, according to Barth, from a concrete ground in Godself if we ever hope to have a genuine knowledge of God; which is why the Logos of God, Jesus Christ, is so central to this effort for Barth.

I mean if I were a Roman Catholic I suppose I could see why being a Thomist, neo-Thomist, or scholastic Reformed is so important, but as a Protestant that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. If one of the primary principia for the Protestant movement is a commitment to a thick theology of the Word then the semper reformanda (always reforming) move means to me that I want to always be reforming my knowledge of God according to the depth dimension and res (reality) of Holy Scripture; viz. according to Jesus Christ. In light of this Barth gives us further elucidation for understanding what he thinks analogia fidei is, and why it is so important to him vis-à-vis the Roman Catholic (and the scholastic Reformed) analogia entis. Here are some of Barth’s rationales:

Our reply to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the analogia entis is not, then, a denial of the concept of analogy. We say rather that the analogy in question is not an analogia entis but according to Rom. 12.6 the ἀναλογίαν τῆς πίστεως , the likeness of the known in the knowing, of the object in thought, of the Word of God in the word that is thought and spoken by man, as this differentiates true Christian prophecy in faith from all false prophecy. This analogia fidei is also the point of the remarkable passages in Paul in which man’s knowledge of God is inverted into man’s being known by God. Paul calls Christians γνόντες θεόν only to amend it once at: μᾶλλον δὲ γνωσθέντες ὑπὸ θεοῦ. It is obviously this γνωσθhnai that distinguishes their gignwvskein as Christians from their previous non-knowing of God as pagans (Gal. 4.8f). If here in the Christian community a man thinks he has known something, he has not known what must be known. One can never look back on the human, even the Christian act of knowledge as such as on a successful work corresponding to its object. The man who loves God οὗτος ἔγνωσται ὑπ αὐτοῦ. Again it is the divine act of knowledge which takes place on man rather than through man that distinguishes those whose knowledge is grounded in love of God and therefore in true fellowship with Him, in the presence of God (1 Cor. 8.2f). But even in the Christian this being known, the divine possibility, remains distinct from the human possibility of knowing; this cannot exhaust it; there is only similarity, analogy. To see God “face to face” without dissimilarity must await the eternal consummation even in the case of Christians τότε δὲ ἐπιγνώσομαι καθὼς καὶ  (i.e., not just corresponding, similarly, analogously, but exactly as) ἐπεγνώσθην (1 Cor. 13.12). We find the same reversal in the words of Augustine And those who see them (namely, the works of God) through Your Spirit, You see in them. And when they see that they are good, you see that they are good: and whatever is pleasing because of You, You are pleased in them; and whatever pleases us through Your Spirit is pleasing to You in us (Conf. XIII, 31, 46)…. Precisely when we describe both the conformity of man to God that takes place in faith and also the point of contact for the Word of God posited in this conformity, not as an inborn or acquired property of man but only as the work of the actual grace of God, our only final word at this point can be that God acts on man in His Word. Because man’s work in faith is that on which God’s work is done, man can know the Word of God. He knows as he is known by God.[1]

We can maybe appreciate better where Barth is coming from. He is simply wanting to impress the idea that only God can give genuine knowledge of God, and that he has freely chosen to do that in a particular and scandalous way through his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

I will have to say that it is rather strange to me these days. I grew up as an evangelical Protestant being inculcated in the idea that God’s Word alone was my standard for life and godliness, for doctrine and teaching, and all else. And yet as we have entered the 21st century what I have come to realize, at least for the new generation (and her teachers) what it means to follow sola scriptura is only in an extensive sense, and instead to privilege the tradition of the church as actually authoritative for life, practice, and most importantly: exegesis of Holy Scripture. Barth fits much better with the sensibilities I was inculcated with as a Protestant evangelical and generally Reformed Christian; with a strict emphasis upon the Word of God. And with a theology of the Word that we might think would make someone like Martin Luther very proud. In Barth we don’t have someone who is not resourcing the past, or who isn’t working through all the important voices of the history of the church; but what we do have is someone who actually elevates the Word of God as authoritative over all else—and he supplies an ontology of the Word of God in order to do that.

I mention all of this, in the context of this post, because I see people rejecting Barth’s offering almost purely upon the notion that the tradition of the church has rejected the almost novel ideation that Barth is providing the church in his modern milieu (novel according to his naysayers). But this isn’t a good enough response to me. If folks simply want to argue with Barth purely based upon the supposed tradition of the church, then I see this as evasion rather than genuine engagement. More, if people aren’t going to get down and dirty and actually attempt to take Barth’s idea on analogia fidei down by way of real material theological objections, then again, this really isn’t worth much response. And yet this seems to be the way people usually respond to Barth’s ideas. “Well the church has never entertained anything close to Barth’s theology so it is at best heterodox, and at worst heretical.” At the end of the day it clearly is a judgment call as to whether or not someone wants to accept the type of radical approach Barth is taking, but that judgment should be based upon engagement with the realities that Barth actually presents; not just based upon general evasions and put downs.

That said: I’m with Barth.




[1] Karl Barth, CD I/1, 240-41.

Richard Muller and Scott Oliphint Both Need to Repent: Responding to the Thomas Aquinas Analogy of Being Discussion Through Barth

I have been interested in the locus known as analogia entis, or ‘analogy of being’ for a long time; and have written about it as well. I have also been reading Richard Muller for many years, and have read most of his published writings. So it caught my eye when I saw an internecine rejoinder by him to his classical Reformed brother Scott Oliphint in regard to Oliphint’s reading of Thomas Aquinas and the analogia entis. For those who don’t know, the analogia entis is basically the idea that humanity has a capacity latent in themselves (intellectually) to conceive of God by way of negating the finite (i.e. the being of human) to the infinite (i.e. the being of God), even if there is great dissimilarity between the two beings (so ‘analogy’). Oliphant believes that Thomas Aquinas, and the whole Thomist project following, is in error by attributing too much to the fallen human being’s ability to think God in any way. Muller thinks Oliphint completely distorts Thomas’ thinking on the ‘light of natural reason’ (i.e. think Romans 1–2), and critiques Oliphint thusly:

The problem is most apparent in Oliphint’s highly selective use of Aquinas’ commentary on John 1:9, which leaves out the portions that undermine his argument. Aquinas indicates that human beings are enlightened by “the light of natural knowledge,” which insofar as it is light is such by participation in the “true light,” which is the Word. He adds, “If anyone is not enlightened, it is due to himself, because he turns from the light that enlightens.” Aquinas also distinguishes this true light, given to all by God, from which human beings turn away, from the “false light” which “the philosophers prided themselves on having,” citing Romans 1:21.11 Despite what Aquinas says quite clearly, Oliphint concludes, “We should make it clear here that Thomas does not think that the ‘enlightening’ of which John speaks necessarily includes divine truth or content” (p. 15).

For Aquinas, reason, “the light of nature,” is itself a gift of God to human beings in the original creation of humanity that is capable of knowing not only that God exists, but that God is good, wise, and powerful. Where reason falls short, because of its finitude, its rootedness in sense perception, and the errors brought about by sin, is that, without the aid of revelation, it cannot know the truths of salvation. This “Thomistic” assumption should have a familiar ring in Reformed circles. It is paralleled by the very first sentence of the Westminster Confession—as also by the second article of the Belgic Confession, and Calvin’s commentary on the passage. Oliphint’s claim that Aquinas’ reading has “no basis” in the text of Scripture becomes an indictment of Calvin and the Reformed tradition as well.[1]

Anyone familiar with Thomas’s theology knows that he has an axiom underwriting it, this: “grace perfects nature.” Latent in this axiom is the presupposition that nature has not been fully destroyed by the fall, but instead has retained some ‘light’ (there are theoanthropological reasons for this); that there is a continuity yet to be realized between nature and grace that is indeed realized, for Aquinas’s theology, by the coming of Jesus Christ. For Aquinas this bond between nature and grace is the basis by which he can construct his style of analogy of being, and suppose that humans, to a point, have this capacity retained within their natures (even as ‘fallen’) to reach towards a knowledge of God; even if that necessarily is an impoverished reaching requiring grace to bring it (to bridge it) to completion in its terminating cause in the Unmoving mover, God.

Oliphint, to his credit, rejects this type of Thomist understanding while Muller (to his discredit) embraces it and argues for it (as much as I argue against it). The quote I have shared from Muller should help to illustrate this. This is where it is pretty interesting to me; I think Muller is right to identify the heavy Thomist influence in the Westminster and Belgic Confessions of Faith; one would have to wonder what Oliphant wants to make of that.

So the timing of all of this is interesting because in my reading of Barth’s CD I/1 I have just come across his section where he is responding to Emil Brunner’s ‘point of contact’ theology, and the type of natural theology that funds that. Whether it be John Cassian, Thomas Aquinas, or Emil Brunner, in their own respective ways they all share the common idea that there is a ‘hook’ within humanity, or moral capacity that allows them to have some real knowledge of God apart from God’s “special” revelation in Jesus Christ and Holy Scripture. Barth rejects this notion, as do I! The following is indeed Barth’s response to Brunner, and yet I share it to not only observe Barth’s response to Brunner, but to illustrate how far the breach actually is between someone like Muller (and the Westminster theology he represents), and Barth in regard to natural theology and all the attending loci that are present therein:

This point of contact is what theological anthropology on the basis of Gen. 1.27 calls the “image of God” in man. In this connexion we cannot possibly agree with E. Brunner (Gott und Mensch, 1930, 55 f.) when he takes this to refer to the humanity and personality which even sinful man retains from creation, for the humanity and personality of sinful man cannot possibly signify conformity to God, a point of contact for the Word of God. In this sense, as a possibility which is proper to man qua creature, the image of God is not just, as it is said, destroyed apart from a few relics; it is totally annihilated. What remains of the image of God even in sinful man is recta natura [the good nature], to which as such a rectitude [goodness] cannot be ascribed even potentialiter [potentially]. No matter how it may be with his humanity and personality, man has completely lost the capacity for God. Hence we fail to see how there comes into view here any common basis of discussion for philosophical and theological anthropology, any occasion for the common exhibition of at least the possibility of enquiring about God. The image of God in man of which we must speak here and which forms the real point of contact for God’s Word is the rectitudo which through Christ is raised up from real death and thus restored or created anew, and which is real as man’s possibility for the Word of God. The reconciliation of man with God in Christ also includes, or already begins with, the restitution of the lost point of contact. Hence this point of contact is not real outside faith; it is real only in faith. In faith man is created by the Word of God for the Word of God, existing in the Word of God and not in himself, not in virtue of his humanity and personality, not even on the basis of creation, for that which by creation was possible for man in relation to God has been lost by the fall. Hence one can only speak theologically and not both theologically and also philosophically of this point of contact, as of all else that is real in faith, i.e., through the grace of reconciliation.[2]

Following on in this small print section, Barth continues, in contrast to the analogia entis (‘point of contact’), develops his analogia fidei (‘analogy of faith’) which we can already see him segueing to towards the end of his paragraph. What we have heard from him though is sufficient for our purposes. And this is the point at which I sometimes scratch my head, particularly when it comes to classically Reformed people touting a doctrine of the total depravity of humanity. True, many of them will qualify what they mean by distinguishing total depravity from something like total inability, but it still leaves me wondering why. This is where Barth, in my view, out-Reforms the Reformed; viz. when it comes to thinking biblically about total depravity (in particular, from a Pauline perspective found in such pericopes like Rom. 3; Eph. 4 etc.).

Unlike Richard Muller, and the Westminster Confessional theology he represents, Karl Barth sees a total discontinuity between original creation and new creation; particularly when it comes to issues that have to do with purported ‘moral capacities’ that humans may or may not retain post-fall. For Barth the point of contact is the Word of God (extra nos), and faith is the knowledge of God that comes from the Word of God; and the Word of God, for Barth, is the Logos of God, Jesus Christ. It is because of this principia in Barth’s theology—a radically Reformed focus on the living Word of God, Jesus Christ—that a doctrine of resurrection necessarily becomes centrally-dogmatic and important. The point of contact between God and humanity in Barth’s theology is not a continuity between creation and new creation, it is instead a continuity between the God of original creation and the God of new creation, and the Logos that has been present and central for both creations to actualize. Robert Dale Dawson helps to emphasize this point for us:

For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[3]

As George Hunsinger has developed Barth’s theology he refers to ‘disruption’ as an apropos way to think of how grace works in the theology of Barth; I couldn’t agree more! Resurrection in Barth’s theology provides the new basis from whence a genuine knowledge of God can be obtained; in Christ. There is no old man, or old creation to think from; there is only the Word of God. Yes the Word of God present for the original creation, but with the knowledge that this original creation would be superseded by a required new creation bringing all of creation to its ordered telos in the beatific vision of God that God had always already desired from the very beginning. We can see why nature doesn’t have a ‘point of contact’ between God and humans for Barth now; creation was never intended to have this type of capacity (i.e. for knowledge of God), only God in se could be capacious enough for such knowledge—and in Barth’s theology the point of contact that God freely chose was/is grounded in his eternal Logos and Son, Jesus Christ.

I think Richard Muller and Scott Oliphint should both repent and recognize how radical things need to get in order for there to be a genuine way for knowing God. Sure, the 16th and 17th centuries did the best they could do with the metaphysics they had available to them, but in my view such categories don’t jive so well with the categories and emphases we find in a Bible that Jesus thinks is all about him.

[1] Richard Muller, Aquinas Reconsidered, accessed 02-19-2018.

[2] Karl Barth, CD I/1, 235. [emboldening mine]

[3] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid.

If You Want to Understand How Evangelical Calvinism Differs Interpretively From Classical Calvinism Read This

In the Christian life there is a constant drum to perform, it seems. This is something that Evangelical Calvinism is intent on reorienting in and through a focus on the performance of Jesus Christ for us. The Evangelical Calvinist’s thesis is that God’s life of Triune love is the basis for everything; as such everything must be understood from God’s love for his creation/creatures. Consequently we reject the Federal (or Covenantal) hermeneutic wherein a Covenant of Works (and thus forensic/law) is the frame wherein God relates to creation. To think of God’s relationship to creation through a Covenant of Works is never ameliorated in the process of salvation history, but instead is only magnified as Jesus is seen as the keeper of the Covenant of Works par excellence in the institution of the Covenant of Grace; wherein he, by decree, meets the forensic conditions of the Covenant of Works for the elect who he will die for and subsequently live for in the resurrection. It is this schemata that veers drastically from what Evangelical Calvinists believe is the primary theme of God’s Self revelation as God who is necessarily ‘love’ because he is necessarily and eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (necessarily because that is the only way we can know him grounded in who he has revealed himself to be as Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit’s spiration).

The question might be: How does Federal theology contribute to an emphasis upon personal performance in salvation? Before answering this question I think it is important to highlight that an aspect of this critique—that I’m making—has to do with a question of Christian spirituality; i.e. the idea that there is a principled reality associate with Federal theology that results in a Christian spirituality that is necessarily performance driven. This is the reason why I make this assertion: If the focus of the atoning work of Jesus Christ is primarily to pay a juridically framed penalty for breaking God’s Law (cf. Gen. 3); and God decides to only pay the penalty for an elect few among the mass of humanity; and God in Christ only dies for these elect people; and these elect people have the possibility of having a ‘temporary faith’ that makes them appear to be one of the elect, but in the final analysis aren’t; and if the measure for determining whether they are one of the elect (i.e. seeking assurance of salvation) by observing their good works (including church membership etc.); then a performance based salvation will be the natural consequent of such a schema. We don’t often see the Young, Restless, and Reformed or even the more serious Federal theologians talking openly like this, but this remains a constant and present reality for anyone who affirms Covenant theology; for anyone who is seeking to resource (and repristinate) the old paths offered by the Post Reformed orthodox theology developed in the 16th and 17th centuries.

As we can see the whole salvific complex is implicated by this discussion, primary of which is the issue of atonement. I.e. What is the primary metaphor through which atonement ought to be framed? For the Federal theologian it is Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) theory. Subsequent to this certain Federal theologians are willing to appropriate other theories of the atonement scattered throughout the development of the history of Christian ideas, but the primary frame of reference remains PSA; and this for good and self-referential/self-consistent reason (e.g. it fits with their Covenantal hermeneutic of the Covenant of Works being regulative for their linear and progressive view of salvation history).

The Evangelical Calvinist objects to this framing of things, as has been iterated over and over again by me here at the blog. We object to this because our theory of revelation requires that we start our theologizing not with a doctrine of creation/salvation, but instead with a theory of revelation that in a theological taxis (order) logically starts with God as Grace and Mercy who has freely chosen to reveal himself, again, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; i.e. and this necessitates that we see God first and foremost as a lover ad intra (in his inner life) which is the antecedent reality of what we encounter, by the Spirit, in his ad extra (outer life) economic life revealed in the Son. In other words, the Evangelical Calvinist, because of our theory of revelation, places a premium not on the Bible as the first Word of God, but instead we place such emphasis on the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ, as the first Word of God within which the written Word of God (the Bible) has context and comes to make sense. It is because of this theory of revelation that the Evangelical Calvinist places such an emphasis on God’s self-giveness (love) for the other; because this is the co-inhering reality of his own Self-explicated life in the Son, and as corollary, as Christians in encounter with this reality we cannot understand reality any other way. This means that our hermeneutic starts in a type of Irenean (cf. Irenaeus) mode of recapitulation, of the sort we see taking place in the theologian’s Gospel, the Gospel according to John (KATA IΩANNHN). John 1:1 is a clear allusion to Genesis 1:1; the Evangelical Calvinist sees this allusion as a type for the way to read the history of salvation Christocentrically through recapitulation; viz. understanding that the original doctrine of creation finds its primal telos (purpose) in and from Jesus Christ; that Jesus Christ has always already been the way we should understand the beginning of God’s good and very good creation Καὶ τῷ ἀγγέλῳ τῆς ἐν Λαοδικείᾳ ἐκκλησίας γράψον: Τάδε λέγει ὁ Ἀμήν, ὁ μάρτυς ὁ πιστὸς καὶ ἀληθινός, ἡ ἀρχὴ τῆς κτίσεως τοῦ θεοῦ[1]. This is why the Evangelical Calvinist does not start our reading of the Bible with the book of Genesis, we start our reading from the Logos of God, and the realization that He is the ‘beginning of God’s creation,’ in the sense that he is the reason for creation; i.e. he is the basis from whence God freely elected to create and ultimately recreate in his primal council of free love (of the sort that inheres in the koinonial relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The Word of God ὁ λόγος τοῦ Θεοῦ for the Evangelical Calvinist is the principial basis for our hermeneutic, as such we don’t start our reading with a Covenant of Works, we start it with and from the reality that God’s Word in Genesis 1:1 is corollary with God’s Word in John 1:1; this results in the development of a hermeneutic where the whole of creation (protological and eschatological) is understood as Christ conditioned, and one where the performance of salvation is anchored in his life and reality for us.

Now that we have taken this rather lengthy excursus (at least relative to a blog post), how does this get us back to the question of performance in personal salvation? The answer comes when we consider that the Evangelical Calvinist has shifted their thinking from a frame that requires a forensic starting point with God vis-à-vis creation, and displaced that with starting with a God who relates to his creation as a gracious lover. If you get nothing else from this post, then understand that. Performance, in the Evangelical Calvinist frame is present in the salvation locus, but it is grounded in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ and his work for us in accomplishing salvation and reconciliation between God and humanity/humanity and God in his personal unioning of humanity with God in his mediatorial humanity. Evangelical Calvinists don’t need to posit such things as Covenant of Works, Covenant of Redemption (pactum salutis), Covenant of Grace; we see all of reality principially reduced to Jesus Christ. If we have a decree, it is Christ alone (solo Christo).

Hopefully, for those wondering, this helps, once again, to clarify how Evangelical Calvinism is distinct from Federal Calvinism, or Covenant Theology (with its more popular reduction found in the TULIP). We work from decidedly Reformed categories of thought, we simply choose to reify those through Athanasian and other patristic sources (Ad Fontes), along with medieval and classical Reformed symbols in order to develop the way we approach our tradition for reading Holy Scripture. Evangelical Calvinism is an ongoing project of resourcement that works from the best of the scholastic practice of retrieval for the 21st century Reformed church. This post intends to illustrate some of the ways we might go about that.

[1] Revelation 3:14 (KJV), “14 And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;…”