The classical Calvinist God Behind the Back of Jesus: And the Barthian-Torrancean Return to Nicaea

Classical Calvinism has taken shape, by and large, by its appropriation of Aristotelian substance metaphysics. Their respective doctrine of God is based in the Hellenic actus purus tradition of philosophical conniving. Their understanding of a God-world relation is grounded in the decretum absolutum (‘absolute decree’ —double predestination). They think God, by and large, from an analogia entis (‘analogy of being’) speculative mode of reasoning that takes its seasoning not from God’s Self-revelation, as the preamble, but instead from the wily machinations of the philosophers. This produces a notion of godness that understands God in terms of a metaphysical jurist who engages with the created order, including with the apple of creation, human beings, via mechanistic and law-like precision. As a result, the classical Calvinists thinks salvation in terms of a Federal (covenantal) schema.

Here Paul Molnar explicates TF Torrance’s critique of Federal theology:

Torrance’s objections to aspects of the “Westminster theology” should be seen together with his objection to “Federal Theology”. His main objection to Federal theology is to the ideas that Christ died only for the elect and not for the whole human race and that salvation is conditional on our observance of the law. The ultimate difficulty here that one could “trace the ultimate ground of belief back to eternal divine decrees behind the back of the Incarnation of God’s beloved Son, as in a federal concept of pre-destination, [and this] tended to foster a hidden Nestorian dualism between the divine and human natures in the on Person of Jesus Christ, and thus even to provide ground for a dangerous form of Arian and Socinian heresy in which the atoning work of Christ regarded as an organ of God’s activity was separated from the intrinsic nature and character of God as Love” (Scottish Theology, p. 133). This then allowed people to read back into “God’s saving purpose” the idea that “in the end some people will not actually be saved”, thus limiting the scope of God’s grace (p. 134). And Torrance believed they reached their conclusions precisely because they allowed the law rather than the Gospel to shape their thinking about our covenant relations with God fulfilled in Christ’s atonement. Torrance noted that the framework of Westminster theology “derived from seventeenth-century federal theology formulated in sharp contrast to the highly rationalised conception of a sacramental universe of Roman theology, but combined with a similar way of thinking in terms of primary and secondary causes (reached through various stages of grace leading to union with Christ), which reversed the teaching of Calvin that it is through union with Christ first that we participate in all his benefits” (Scottish Theology, p. 128). This gave the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “a very legalistic and constitutional character in which theological statements were formalised at times with ‘almost frigidly logical definiton’” (pp. 128-9). Torrance’s main objection to the federal view of the covenant was that it allowed its theology to be dictated on grounds other than the grace of God attested in Scripture and was then allowed to dictate in a legalistic way God’s actions in his Word and Spirit, thus undermining ultimately the freedom of grace and the assurance of salvation that could only be had by seeing that our regenerated lives were hidden with Christ in God. Torrance thought of the Federal theologians as embracing a kind of “biblical nominalism” because “biblical sentences tend to be adduced out of their context and to be interpreted arbitrarily and singly in detachment from the spiritual ground and theological intention and content” (p. 129). Most importantly, they tended to give biblical statements, understood in this way, priority over “fundamental doctrines of the Gospel” with the result that “Westminster theology treats biblical statements as definitive propositions from which deductions are to be made, so that in their expression doctrines thus logically derived are given a categorical or canonical character” (p. 129). For Torrance, these statements should have been treated, as in the Scots Confession, in an “open-structured” way, “pointing away from themselves to divine truth which by its nature cannot be contained in finite forms of speech and thought, although it may be mediated through them” (pp. 129-30). Among other things, Torrance believed that the Westminster approach led them to weaken the importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity because their concept of God fored without reference to who God is in revelation led them ultimately to a different God than the God of classical Nicene theology (p. 131). For Barth’s assessment of Federal theology, which is quite similar to Torrance’s in a number of ways, see CD IV/1, pp. 54-66.1

Molnar, a Roman Catholic, ironically, but a TF Torrance scholar par excellence, offers a very nice precis of Torrance’s critique of what I call classical Calvinism. As Molnar intimates at the end of his sketch, Barth similar to Torrance sees Federal theology as an abstract framework thinking God, and a God-world relation, precisely because God’s ostensible relation to the world, in that system, is not thought from God’s second person in Jesus Christ, but instead from an ad hoc absolute decree that has nothing to do with God’s person. Instead, this ‘decree’ is purely formed out of a need to keep the classical Calvinist God of pure being impassible and immutable; in other words, it allows God to remain immovable, and at the same time ostensibly presents a way for this unmoved God to interact with the created order. This is why Torrance, in loud contest, makes his strong claim that ‘there is no God behind the back of Jesus.’ He is referring to the decretum absolutum of classical Calvinism. He is referring to the classical Calvinist nominalist like version of a potentia absoluta / potentia ordinata dualistic conception of God wherein there is no necessary correlation between the God of the economy ad extra, and the God of the ontology ad intra; that there is no necessary relation between the God of the eternal processions, and the temporal missions.

At the end of the day, classical Calvinism doesn’t offer a relational, and thus trinitarian notion of God. I contend that classical Calvinism has actually departed from the Nicene faith of someone like Athanasius, and instead has reverted back to an absolutely Hellenic conception of God like we might find with the some of the homoiousions like Eusebius of Caesarea. This is the fallout produced by redevising a philosophical conception of God rather than one that is principially grounded in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; the Son of the Father. Whey a system’s doctrine of God goes awry, when it strays from the reality of Holy Scripture, and imposes foreign categories upon Scripture’s res we end up with a less than desirable conception of God; not to mention how that impacts a doctrine of salvation, and the spirituality produced therefrom.

The classical Calvinists will continue on though; they are like a machine. They fear modernity, that is until it comes to socio-political theories; that’s another story for another day. But the irony is that modernity, for all the demon-possession classical Calvinists see therein, has, in the right hands, liberated scholasticism Reformed from its overly philosophical and Aristotelian romances, and allowed those with eyes to see and ears to here to return to Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon. Solo Christo / Soli Deo Gloria

No Decree Behind the Back of Jesus: Barth’s ‘Actual’ Doctrine of Election

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. -Ephesians 1.3-6

The doctrine of election has plagued the Christian churches for centuries; but that is because they haven’t more accurately thought this doctrine from the hypostatic union of God and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. When a person is able to finally distantiate themself from the speculative hubris that has surrounded this doctrine for so long—one grounded in the optics provided for, primarily, by Aristotelian causation and actus purus (pure being) theology—it is finally possible to think about God’s relation to the world, with humanity as His principal focus, through the Christic lens He has freely ordained for us, for Himself. Once the foreign grammars have been shed all we are left with us what Scripture is left with: Jesus Christ. Karl Barth saw this, particularly with regard to a doctrine of election, more keenly than anybody prior. Following along the impetus provided for him through the work of his French connection, Pierre Maury, Barth launched out in what I would contend was finally a genuinely Protestant and Nicene doctrine of election grounded in the double homoousios Son of man, Jesus Christ. He writes:

2. THE ETERNAL WILL OF GOD IN THE ELECTION OF JESUS CHRIST

Starting from Jn. 1.1, we have laid down and developed two statements concerning the election of Jesus Christ. The first is that Jesus Christ is the electing God. This statement answers the question of the Subject of the eternal election of grace. And the second is that Jesus Christ is elected man. This statement answers the question of the object of the eternal election of grace. Strictly speaking, the whole dogma of predestination is contained in these two statements. Everything else that we have to say about it must consist in the development and application of what is said in these two statements taken together. The statements belong together in a unity which is indissoluble, for both of them speak of the one Jesus Christ, and God and man in Jesus Christ are both Elector and Elect, belonging together in a relationship which cannot be broken and the perfection of which can never be exhausted. In the beginning with God was this One, Jesus Christ. And that is predestination. All that this concept contains and comprehends is to be found originally in Him and must be understood in relation to Him. But already we have gone far enough from the traditional paths to make necessary a most careful explanation of the necessity and scope of the christological basis and starting-point for the doctrine as it is here expanded.

1 We may begin with an epistemological observation. Our thesis is that God’s eternal will is the election of Jesus Christ. At this point we part company with all previous interpretations of the doctrine of predestination. In these the Subject and object of predestination (the electing God and elected man) are determined ultimately by the fact that both quantities are treated as unknown. We may say that the electing God is supreme being who disposes freely according to His own omnipotence, righteousness and mercy. We may say that to Him may be ascribed the lordship over all things, and above all the absolute right and absolute power to determine the destiny of man. But when we say that, then ultimately and fundamentally the electing God is an unknown quantity. On the other hand, we must say that elected man is the man who has come under the eternal good-pleasure of God, the man from whom all eternity God has foreordained to fellowship with Himself. But when we say that, then ultimately and fundamentally elected man is also an unknown quantity. At this point obscurity has undoubtedly enveloped the theories of even the most prominent representatives and exponents of the doctrine of predestination. Indeed, in the most consistently developed forms of the dogma we are told openly that on both sides we have to do, necessarily, with a great mystery. In the sharpest contrast to this view our thesis that the eternal will of God is the election of Jesus Christ means that we deny the existence of any such twofold mystery.1

Jesus, for Barth, is both the electing God (equals subject of election), and elected man (equals object of election). In his subsequent point #1 we see immediately how this, for Barth, impacts a knowledge of God, and humanity (think Calvin). This is why Barth (and Torrance) believe revelation is reconciliation; it flows organically from Barth’s doctrine of election, from his actualism. There is no unknown quantity in Barth’s theology; no potentia absoluta or ordinata; no decree behind the back of Jesus. This is quintessential Barthian theology: in God’s Kingdom in Christ, for Barth, there are no secrets; it is a genuinely revealed Kingdom that comes populated with God’s furniture as that is all shaped by the face (prosopon) of Jesus Christ.

This is what the critics of Barth don’t get. He is simply working within the Nicene frame of cataphatic theology, exhaustively. There is no uncertainty of who God is in Barth’s theology. There is a Divine vulnerability, revealed in God’s humanity and humility in Jesus Christ; but this vulnerability is not an uncertainty, it is simply an aspect of God’s freedom to be with and for and in us. Classical theologies typically operate with speculative thinking as the fund by which they think theology and its verity of implications. This is what Barth’s doctrine of election overcomes as it thinks all things from God’s Self-revelation; thus, bypassing unnecessary “shiny-things” generated by the imaginative machinations of witty ‘theological’ people.

1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §32-33: Study Edition (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 156. 

 

This is the Way: The Nicene Way:: The Nicene Creed V The Westminster Confession of Faith

Scholastic Reformed theologians claim to be in line with Nicene theology proper. But when you read scholastic Reformed theology, particularly their confessions, what becomes immediately apparent is that scholastic Reformed theology operates out of the apophatic ‘negative’ and/or speculative tradition for thinking a doctrine of God (and Christ); whereas Nicene theology thinks from cataphatic ‘positive’ and/or revealed theology for thinking God. By way of prolegomena or theological methodology this places Niceno-Constantinopolitano theology at loggerheads with something like we see in the scholastically Reformed Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). Note the way the WCF articulates its doctrine of God: 

Chapter 2 Of God, and of the Holy Trinity  

    1. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal, most just, and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty. 2. God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever himselfpleaseth. In his sight all things are open and manifest, his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to him contingent, or uncertain. He is most holy in all his counsels, in all his works, and in all his commands. To him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience he is pleased to require of them. 3. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost:the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. 

Notice the WCF’s entrée: it starts with ‘negative’ and or philosophical attributes of Godness, only to “get-to” the triune life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in its last chapter, chapter 3. This is illustrative of the spirit and mode by which the scholastic Reformeds attempt to think God. Somehow, they maintain that this way is in keeping with the catholic theology we find articulated in Nicene theology. But you do see what they are doing, right? They start with a logico-deductive schematized notion of God’s singularity or oneness (actus purus) prior to ever getting to the revealed categories for God, and this only in the last paragraph of chapter 2.  

With the aforementioned in mind, let’s now review the Nicene Creed. What the reader will see is that my original claim, in regard to the discontinuity between Nicene theology and scholastic Reformed theology, vis-à-vis a doctrine of God, bears out.  

We believe in one God,
      the Father almighty,
      maker of heaven and earth,
      of all things visible and invisible. 

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
      the only Son of God,
      begotten from the Father before all ages,
           God from God,
           Light from Light,
           true God from true God,
      begotten, not made;
      of the same essence as the Father.
      Through him all things were made.
      For us and for our salvation
           he came down from heaven;
           he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
           and was made human.
           He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
           he suffered and was buried.
           The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
           He ascended to heaven
           and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
           He will come again with glory
           to judge the living and the dead.
           His kingdom will never end. 

And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
      the Lord, the giver of life.
      He proceeds from the Father and the Son,
      and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.
      He spoke through the prophets.
      We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
      We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
      We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
      and to life in the world to come. Amen. 

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit condition and define the terms of the Nicene Creed itself. There is nothing speculative or discursive about Nicene theology, in regard to its doctrine of God. Nicene theology affirms the doctrine of Divine simplicity (the idea that God is non-composite), but it thinks simplicity from within the co-inhering relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; rather than thinking this doctrine from negations about what Godness must entail based on the sort of logico-deductive schematizing that we see funding the scholastic Reformed theology that is communicated in the Westminster Confession of Faith.  

Athanasius was clear about the sort of Nicene theology he was a central proponent of when he wrote in his famed document Contra Arianos:  

    1. Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call HimUnoriginate. For the latter title, as I have said, does nothing more than signify all the works, individually and collectively, which have come to be at the will of God through the Word; but the title Father has its significance and its bearing only from the Son. And, whereas the Word surpasses things originated, by so much and more does calling God Father surpass the calling Him Unoriginate. For the latter is unscriptural and suspicious, because it has various senses; so that, when a man is asked concerning it, his mind is carried about to many ideas; but the word Father is simple and scriptural, and more accurate, and only implies the Son. And ‘Unoriginate’ is a word of the Greeks, who know not the Son; but ‘Father’ has been acknowledged and vouchsafed by our Lord. For He, knowing Himself whose Son He was, said, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me;’ and, ‘He that has seen Me, has seen the Father,’ and ‘I and the Father are One ;’ but nowhere is He found to call the Father Unoriginate. Moreover, when He teaches us to pray, He says not, ‘When you pray, say, O God Unoriginate,’ but rather, ‘When you pray, say, Our Father, which art in heaven Luke 11:2.’ And it was His will that the Summary of our faith should have the same bearing, in bidding us be baptized, not into the name of Unoriginate and originate, nor into the name of Creator and creature, but into the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. For with such an initiation we too, being numbered among works, are made sons, and using the name of the Father, acknowledge from that name the Word also in the Father Himself. A vain thing then is their argument about the term ‘Unoriginate,’ as is now proved, and nothing more than a fantasy.1 

In context, of course, Athanasius is working against the Arians, and even aspects of the homoiousion sect (think Eusebius of Caesarea et al.) wherein what was meant with reference to ‘Unoriginate’ was that the Father alone owned this status, whereas the Son (and Holy Spirit) were originate (or ‘begotten’) lending to the idea that the Son was a creature and thus subordinate to God. But this is to our point: to think God from speculative philosophical notions, as the Arians and Homoiousions did, only leads to unbiblical conclusions, and thus grammar about who God is; indeed, it thinks of God in terms of whatness rather than whoness as a first-step. Athanasius, and the Nicene theology he helped develop, repudiated thinking God from Hellenic frames of reference, and instead allowed God’s Self-revelation in the Son, Jesus Christ, to shape the way he, and the other Nicenes, thought God. Indeed, Arius, and his homeboys would also assert that they were equally being faithful to Scripture; but in fact, what they were doing, instead, was allowing their a priori commitment to strict Hellenic thought-forms to shape the way they arrived at their biblical exegetical conclusions vis-à-vis God.  

Are the scholastic Reformeds Arian with reference to God; or homoiousion with reference to Christology? No. But this isn’t because of their theological method; instead, it is because of their piety. If they were consistent with their respective commitment to their speculative (Aristotelian) theological methodology, as Arius et alia were, they would necessarily need to arrive at the conclusion that the Son and Holy Spirit were somehow subordinate to the Unoriginate Father (which would serve as a cipher for their concept of ‘oneness’). 

I am Athanasian Reformed because I am slavishly committed to the Nicene theological way. This way only thinks God from within the concrete and revealed terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; it allows God’s triune life to serve as the ‘ground and grammar’ of all subsequent theologizing. The scholastic Reformeds, as much as they like to assert to the contrary, do not have these sorts of continuous connections to Nicene theology in the way they suppose. This discontinuity between scholastic Reformed theology and Nicene theology serves as the basis by which I as an Athanasian Reformed (or Evangelical Calvinist) negatively critique the scholastic Reformed. But you will note: the critique is made from a positive orientation insofar as my theology is grounded in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; this is the way, the Nicene way.    

1 St. Athanasius, Contra Arianos 1.9.34, accessed 06-18-2021.

Leighton Flowers Knows Just Enough to be Dangerous: A Would-Be Critic of Calvinism

Theological polemics, for better or worse, have been at the heart of positive theological developments since the beginning of the Church. There are, of course, various levels of both polemics and theology attendant to this venture. That is, there is a variety of ‘quality’ and virtue that shapes the sorts of polemics the Christian might encounter in the broader ecclesial discourse. Since this is a blog, by definitional location, I operate in the online space; when I write for the blog. As a result, I am aware of other people in this space who similarly are attempting to engage in theological discourse; often times this involves, polemics. My preference is to focus on offline theologians, with particular reference to the Christian Dogmatists of the Church (from all periods). But then, I am also exposed to popular level, online characters who ostensibly are offering theological machinations for the edification of the Church. One of these people, operating in this realm, who I have become aware of is, Leighton Flowers. His primary focus, online, is to be an anti-Calvinist operative. If you know anything about me you can almost immediately see a potentially shared perspective between Flowers and myself in regard to being a critic of classical Calvinism. But the perception is where this commonality evaporates. 

What I mean is that Flowers claims to be a critic of Calvinism, but what that actually means is that he is critical of a popular level, reductionistic understanding of what Calvinism entails. Of course, he wouldn’t say it like this, but this is the level of discourse he operates out of and within; with the type of Calvinism he is critiquing. Just recently he tweeted the following (this is in response to a popular level Calvinist who is in fact critiquing Flowers): 

Looks like they aren’t happy with my videos biblically refuting their views, so they resort to mostly “to the man” arguments. I expected better . . . Maybe folks @WWUTTcom are only interested in 2 min vids? So here is one with a clip from a Calvinist correcting their proof texting error, all the while they continue accusing me of not understanding #Calvinism or basic soteriology . . . I get that’s the way you feel Gabe, but instead of just assuming someone who has spent his entire adult life studying a subject doesn’t understand it maybe just consider that they might understand it and disagree with your conclusions so then you can learn the actual reasons why.1 

Flowers believes that he has accurately and successfully reduced the core premises of Calvinist theology to its very essences, and so he feels justified in simply speaking of Calvinist theology in terms of ‘theological determinism,’ and ‘compatibilism.’ If you listen to him for just a week straight you will realize that these two themes serve as the reduction of Calvinist theology that Flowers believes defines the whole phenomenon of Calvinist theology. But the irony of Flowers’ approach, and this is a symptom of his reductionist mode, is that he evinces no knowledge, none at all!, of how Calvinist theology developed ideationally in the 16th and 17th centuries; the period known as Post Reformation Reformed Orthodoxy (see Richard Muller’s Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4Vols). His common Calvinist opponents are James White, John Piper, and RC Sproul (with scattered references to Lorraine Boettner and Herman Bavinck). And yet the themes he picks out, even with these rather popular level Calvinists (they are not world renowned as Flowers claims—and I’m referring to the former three) are the reduced themes we have already noted.  

I am simply attempting to register, once again, that Flowers is ironically out of his depth in regard to who and what he claims to be critiquing. He has a huge YouTube following (45K), but this isn’t an indicator of the solidity of Flowers’ provenance as a “sound” critic of Calvinist theology. It only indicates, at best, that there is an audience in the churches that would like to have a solid alternative to Calvinist theology. And I am here to say that Flowers is not offering that. His followers, though, do not have the resources to know whether or not Flowers is actually offering a sound alternative or not. And Flowers (and I don’t think maliciously) is capitalizing on the genuine want for an alternative to the Young, Restless and Reformed; and he does so by having enough linguistic and conceptual knowledge, along with rhetorical ability, to be dangerous.  

As my readers know, I am a critic of classical Calvinism. But for me this means we must do our homework with reference to the entailments of Reformed theology, proper. I am a critic of classical Calvinism (as I call it) from within the Reformed family. If we are going to criticize anything, as Flowers himself often notes, we ought to critique a ‘steelman’ rather than a ‘strawman.’ And yet Flowers critiques a caricatured version classical Calvinism; particularly because of his historical anemia. He doesn’t understand the development of Calvinist ideas, historically, and thus can only engage in a critique of Calvinism that is skimmed off the top of popular ideas about the entailments of Calvinism. As an alternative you ought to read us Evangelical Calvinists, or Athanasian Reformed types. We attempt to engage with the history of ideas and theological development of historic Calvinism, and do our respective critiques from there. True, our approach is more academically oriented, and it takes more work to follow along. But if we are going to be true theological Bereans (as Flowers claims to be, but isn’t), then it will require that we spend the requisite time in expanding our personal theological vocabularies, and elevating our respective theological understanding in general. Flowers does not offer his followers the sort of tools necessary to think properly theological in general, and thus critically (with reference to Calvinism) in particular.   

 

The Augustinian-Dualism of Leighton Flowers’ Provisionism

Leighton Flowers of YouTube fame, with reference to his anti-Calvinist soteriological position known as Provisionism, asserts that his theological framework is genuinely ‘Christocentric,’ whereas his counterparts in classical Calvinism are not. The irony of this is too hard to ignore for me. Flowers’ premise is as follows: he believes that classical Calvinists’ theistic determinism keeps them from operating from a genuinely Christocentric approach because instead they think from a God who deterministically causes all things to obtain through decrees. What you will notice with this premise, for Flowers, in this sort of deterministic God-world relation, is that a foreign God (juxtaposed with the one ‘revealed’ in Holy Scripture) is operative for the Calvinist. That in the Calvinist depiction, according to Flowers, all of reality is steamrolled (and thus flattened) to such an extent that there can be no genuine, or responsive relationship possible between God and humanity. As such, for Flowers, the Calvinist is merely playing an automaton role in the Puppet-Master’s hand to the extent that it is ALL God (and thus the Calvinists’ definition of Divine Sovereignty, according to Flowers), and nothing of humanity.

His alternative theory of salvation is what, indeed, he calls Provisionism. His nomenclature, language he coined himself, is intended to signify the expansive nature of God’s love for all of humanity; to the point that, according to Flowers, God in Christ died for all of humanity (us Evangelical Calvinists don’t disagree with him on this point), thus ‘providing’ provision for all who will. But then he goes awry. He posits, in contradistinction to classical Calvinism, that human beings simpliciter are born with a God-given capacity to say Yes or No to God’s provision of salvation to whomever will. He rejects the notion of original sin, which he strictly relegates to an Augustinian invention, and instead theorizes that humanity, even after the Fall has retained an affective-intellectualist capaciousness that allows humans, from within themselves to deliberate whether or not they want to accept the Gospel offer once confronted with it. Flowers maintains that his theory of salvation is genuinely “Christocentric” purely because God in Christ has made provision through unlimited atonement for all of humanity. But this isn’t sufficiently Christocentric; not to the point that Flowers can sustain his assertion that his is a genuinely Christocentric soteriology in contraposition to his counter-locutors, the “Calvinists.”

You see, Flowers’, and this is the irony, is still operating from what us Evangelical Calvinists would identify as a dualistic-Augustinian frame of reference. This type of dualism operates, necessarily so, from a competitive frame of reference vis-à-vis a God-human relation. In other words, just as Flowers (rightly) critiques the classical Calvinist for thinking God from a brute-sovereignist understanding (what I would identify with the decretum absolutum), he simply thinks from the obverse of this. That is, his theory thinks of humanity, in relationship to God in Christ, in just as abstract terms as does the classical Calvinist. It is just that he locates this abstraction in a liberum arbitrium (i.e., an isolated or independent human freewill) rather than in the decretrum absolutum (absolute decree) of the Calvinists. But both approaches, respectively, have not thought a God-human relation through a principial doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. That is to say, neither the Provisionists nor the classical Calvinists think a God-human relation through the lens offered by the Chalcedonian patterning provided for by the patristic homoousion.

This is where the Evangelical Calvinists offer a genuinely Christ-conditioned alternative to the whole of the sort of Augustinian-laced dualisms that both the Provisionists and classical Calvinists, respectively, suffer from. As Evangelical Calvinists we think from a non-dualist non-competitive frame (so my Athanasian Reformed label) wherein we posit salvific theory from the hypostatic-union and consubstantial realities of the Divine and human coming into an inseparable union in the singular person of Jesus Christ. This means that, after Thomas F. Torrance et al., we think from the homoousial reality of a Godward to human / humanward to God movement as the actualization of God’s grace for all of humanity; particularly as ‘all of humanity’ (in actualistic terms, which is very important to press) is indeed Christ’s archetypal humanity. In other words, for the Evangelical Calvinist, salvation (or re-conciliation) obtains in the Incarnation&Atonement of God as that is realized/acutalized in the Theanthropos person of Jesus Christ. For the Evangelical Calvinist, Jesus is God’s salvation realized for the world. Not in a ‘corporate’ or hypothetical sense (as the Provisionists tacitly want to maintain), but in an actualized sense, such that all of humanity has indeed been redeemed and atoned for in Jesus Christ; just because He is God’s humanity for the world. This presents apparent dilemmas for some, like they think the reduction of this necessarily leads to Christian universalism, but they would be wrong (this can be addressed at a later time).

Conclusion

I think Flowers has good intentions, but he doesn’t have the theological resources to offer a genuinely Christocentric approach towards a theory of salvation. He is still operating out of the Latin or Augustinian frame of reference that he says he is critiquing. He still thinks of salvation from dualist optics wherein humanity still stands abstract or aloof from God; that is until they may or may not actualize the offer of salvation that God in Christ has left hanging over humanity’s head to do with as they will. Flowers’ alternative is merely, as noted, the obverse of the classical Calvinist offering insofar as he thinks about humanity in abstraction from Christ’s humanity; he simply thinks this abstraction from what he calls libertarian freewill (rather than from the Calvinists thinking that equally thinks in abstraction, but from the absolute decree instead). This is the irony of Flowers’ alternative. He thinks he is offering a genuine solution to the theological dilemmas offered by the classical Calvinist decretum absolutum, but in point of fact he is only forwarding the same Augustinian dualist and God-human competitive relationship that he had hoped to conquer. There is a better way; a genuinely Christ-conditioned way that thinks a God-human relation from the hypostatic-union of God and humanity in and from the singular person of Jesus Christ.

What is Evangelical Calvinism?

I wrote the following just before Thanksgiving last year. I was going to write a new post in an attempt to redress these things for new readers, but I thought I would just repost this one since it covers all the bases I had intended to cover in the post I was about to write. One thing that hinders people from really grasping our whole ‘Evangelical Calvinist’ project is the amount of historical context someone must have in order to really apprehend what we are doing. People (especially at the popular level) just presume that when they hear ‘Calvinism’ that they have a general idea of what any iteration of its doctrinal development must entail. Attempting to ‘become’ an Evangelical Calvinist requires work and staying-power that I have found most don’t have; and so we haven’t made hardly a dint in the popular ecclesial world. Be that as it may the historical and theological facts don’t go away; i.e. they aren’t mind-dependent (e.g. they don’t require that people know about them in order for them to be part of the swath of Reformed theological development). Hopefully the following will help bring further enlightenment for some.

What is Evangelical Calvinism, and how is it different from Federal (Covenantal) theology, and more popularly (and reductionistically) 5 Point Calvinism? For starters my Evangelical Calvinist colleague, Myk Habets and I have co-written two introductions to our 2 volumed Evangelical Calvinism series; you can read those in Volume 1 and Volume 2. But I wanted this post to be more concise than those intros are; and paired down for the social media attention span. In a nutshell Evangelical Calvinism is what the blurb to our first volume (2012) says:

In this exciting volume new and emerging voices join senior Reformed scholars in presenting a coherent and impassioned articulation of Calvinism for today’s world. Evangelical Calvinism represents a mood within current Reformed theology. The various contributors are in different ways articulating that mood, of which their very diversity is a significant element. In attempting to outline features of an Evangelical Calvinism a number of the contributors compare and contrast this approach with that of the Federal Calvinism that is currently dominant in North American Reformed theology, challenging the assumption that Federal Calvinism is the only possible expression of orthodox Reformed theology. This book does not, however, represent the arrival of a “new-Calvinism” or even a “neo-Calvinism,” if by those terms are meant a novel reading of the Reformed faith. An Evangelical Calvinism highlights a Calvinistic tradition that has developed particularly within Scotland, but is not unique to the Scots. The editors have picked up the baton passed on by John Calvin, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and others, in order to offer the family of Reformed theologies a reinvigorated theological and spiritual ethos. This volume promises to set the agenda for Reformed-Calvinist discussion for some time to come.[1]

But you might be asking: okay, but what does Evangelical Calvinism entail in material detail? If you purchase our first volume (kindle is $9.99) Myk and I present 15 theological theses in the last chapter of the book. You will have a much fuller grasp of what in fact we are on about after reading these. Here they are, but without the development they receive in the book:

Thesis One. The Holy Trinity is the absolute ground and grammar of all epistemology, theology, and worship.

Thesis Two. The primacy of God’s triune life is grounded in love, for “God is love.”

Thesis Three. There is one covenant of grace.

Thesis Four. God is primarily covenantal and not contractual in his dealings with humanity.

Thesis Five. Election is christologically conditioned.

Thesis Six. Grace precedes law.

Thesis Seven. Assurance is of the essence of faith.

Thesis Eight. Evangelical Calvinism endorses a supralapsarian Christology which emphasizes the doctrine of the primacy of Christ.

Thesis Nine. Evangelical Calvinism is a form of dialectical theology.

Thesis Ten. Evangelical Calvinism places an emphasis upon the doctrine of union with/in Christ whereby all the benefits of Christ are ours.

Thesis Eleven. Christ lived, died, and rose again for all humanity, thus Evangelical Calvinism affirms a doctrine of universal atonement.

Thesis Twelve. Universalism is not a corollary of universal redemption and is not constitutive for Evangelical Calvinism.

Thesis Thirteen. There is no legitimate theological concept of double predestination as construed in the tradition of Reformed Scholasticism.

Thesis Fourteen. The atonement is multifaceted and must not be reduced to one culturally conditioned atonement theory but, rather, to a theologically unified but multi-faceted atonement model.

Thesis Fifteen. Evangelical Calvinism is in continuity with the Reformed confessional tradition.[2]

The contributors to our edited volumes work from various emphases, in regard to the broader Reformed tradition. But we all concur on a historic mood that we understand to be present and pervasive throughout the history and development of Reformed theology. My personal orientation, as an Evangelical Calvinist has taken shape after the theologies of Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, John Calvin (and Martin Luther even though he isn’t “Calvinist,” per se). Evangelical Calvinism is Athanasian rather than Augustinian in trajectory. This means that we operate from within an ontological understanding of salvation rather than juridical/forensic, as the latter has developed and taken shape in the West (to oversimplify a bit). This also means, at least for me, that I think in terms of an absolute mode of sola gratia: viz. I do not operate with the Thomist or Aristotelian concept of ‘grace perfecting nature,’ as if the former complements or completes the latter in a one-for-one correspondence. In other words, I operate out of a slavish adherence to what TF Torrance identifies as ‘grace-all-the-way-down.’ This means that there is no dualistic conception, that there is no two-story universe of Nature/Grace. For me, as an Evangelical Calvinist, all of reality is grounded in God’s inner life of triune Grace for us (pro nobis). Karl Barth articulates this idea well when he writes:

How can grace meet him as grace if it simply decks itself out as nature. When grace is revealed, nature does not cease to exist. How can it, when God does not cease to be its Creator? But there is in nature more than nature. Nature itself becomes the theatre of grace, and grace is manifested as lordship over nature, and therefore in its freedom over against it. And again God is not less but more gracious for us in miracle than elsewhere. Again miracle is simply the revelation of the divine glory otherwise hidden from us, on the strength of which we can believe and honour Him elsewhere as Creator and Lord. Miracle must not be reduced to the level of God’s other and general being and action in the world. Its miraculous nature must not be denied. It must be maintained—even for the sake of the general truth. For it is miracle alone which opens for us the door to the secret that the Creator’s saving opposition to us does not confront us only at individual points and moments, but throughout the whole range of our spatio-temporal existence.[3]

This ought to give you a sense of what I am referring to in regard to ‘grace all the way down.’ My form of Evangelical Calvinism also works from the mode of theological development that Philip Ziegler identifies as Apocalyptic Theology; which the quote from Barth above illustrates quite nicely.

Ultimately, Evangelical Calvinism is an alternative iteration of Calvinism within broader Reformed theology that operates from a more Patristic or Eastern orientation. An iteration that starts its thinking from an absolute solo Christo (Christ alone), meaning that we reject natural theology, and its mechanism found in the so-called analogia entis (analogy of being). An iteration that rejects all forms of dualism as we find in classical Calvinism, and its adoption of the Aristotelian two-story universe of nature/grace. Evangelical Calvinism, in other words, is not your grandpa’s Calvinism; or maybe it is, that is if he was attuned to the ulterior development of Calvinism that was present all along through the 16th and 17th centuries of such development. Hopefully this piques your interest.


[1] Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church: Volume 1.

[2] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene: OR, Pickwick Publications, 2012), 425-52.

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 §31: Study Edition Vol 9 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 72.

Craig Carter’s Arian God Versus Karl Barth’s Athanasian God

Yesterday Craig Carter tweeted the following: “The days of revising & despising CT w/o challenge are over. I’ll be arguing that the proofs are missing from much recent theology b/c of “the Barthian gambit,” i.e. the attempt to do theology w/o metaphysics & ground it in Xology alone. My conclusion: the Barthian gambit failed.”1 I have had a couple exchanges in the past with Carter on Twitter, with reference to Barth’s theology. What stood out in those exchanges was that he is rather clueless about Barth’s theology; the newest tweet above continues to illustrate this. But Carter isn’t alone in his disregard, and even animus toward the Trinitarian theological revolution that Barth was a huge part of in the 20th century; Katherine Sonderegger in her Systematic Theology V1, also takes aim at Barth’s supposedly errant ‘Christomonism’ when it comes to doing Christian theology. The assumption, particularly as evinced in Carter’s mis-characterization of Barth, is that Barth’s mode is purely a modern aberration with no historical or paleo antecedents; as if nobody in the history of the Church operated with the sort of Christ concentration that Barth does in his theologizing. Carter et alia want to engage in a sort of subtraction process by claiming that Barth is simply representative of a modern method of erasing the classical way of doing theology by way of imposing Kantian postmetaphysics on the whole antique gambit of theological reflection. 

But does Carter’s misunderstanding withstand critical scrutiny; that is when he isn’t able to simply appeal to his people? What Carter doesn’t understand is that Barth’s whole program, particularly his Church Dogmatics, only ever took off when he got hold of the Patristic mechanism of an/ -enhypostasis. This gave Barth a way to engage in the sort of Christ concentration that would have made Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria quite proud. Indeed, and I will use this to prove my point about Barth’s classical chops, one of Barth’s best Anglophone students, TF Torrance, developed what might be called an Athanasian stratified knowledge of God that is in lockstep with Barth’s own theory of revelation. Here’s a taste: 

The economic Trinity might well be spoken of as the evangelical Trinity and the ontological Trinity as the theological Trinity. ‘Evangelical’ in this sense refers to the truth content of the Gospel as it is revealed to us through the incarnate or human economy (ἡ ανθρώπινη οικονομία) which Christ undertook toward us, in the midst of us, and for our sakes. . . ; and’theological in this sense refers to the truth of the eternal Being and Activity of God as he is in himself, the essential Deity . . . or ‘Theology’ (Θεολογία, which Athanasius equated with divine worship). While for Athanasius economy and theology (οικονομία and Θεολογία) must be clearly distinguished, they are not to be separated from each other. If the economic or evangelical Trinity and the ontological or theological Trinity were disparate, this would bring into question whether God himself was really in Jesus Christ reconciling the world to himself. That is the evangelical and epistemological significance of the homoousion (‘consubstantial’, of one substance, or of one and the same being with the Father) formulated by the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. If there is no real bond in God between the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity, the saving events proclaimed in the economy of the Gospel are without any divine validity and the doctrine of the Trinity is lacking in any ultimate divine truth. The trinitarian message of the Gospel tells us that the very contrary is the case, for in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit we really have to do with the Lord God himself as our Saviour. Thus, as we shall see, the designation of Jesus as ‘Lord’, ie Κύριος = YHWH, is found more than a hundred times in the New Testament Scriptures.2 

This is the sort of “Barthian gambit” that Carter bombastically claims he will be defeating in the near term. Barth is part of the Athanasian tradition of Christ concentration, just as much as is his student: TF Torrance. When Carter refers to CT (classical theism) he clearly has something nearer in focus; oh yeah: Thomas [Aquinas], and the Christian Aristotelianism that he thinks serves as a capstone for the classical theistic, so-called, tradition. But I’m afraid that what he doesn’t seem to grasp, Carter that is, is that Athansius would have been on Barth’s and Torrance’s side, and not his. You see, Athanasius understood what a rank Hellenic approach to God does to God. He understood that it didn’t actually get you to the God who is Father of the Son, but instead that it gets you to a notion of godness that is constrained by the rationalist projections of the philosophers and theologizers supposedly thinking this God. Here is how Athanasius would respond to the sort of unbridled and unevangelized Hellenic god that Carter believes classically reflects the true God: 

Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate. For the latter title, as I have said, does nothing more than signify all the works, individually and collectively, which have come to be at the will of God through the Word; but the title Father has its significance and its bearing only from the Son. And, whereas the Word surpasses things originated, by so much and more does calling God Father surpass the calling Him Unoriginate. For the latter is unscriptural and suspicious, because it has various senses; so that, when a man is asked concerning it, his mind is carried about to many ideas; but the word Father is simple and scriptural, and more accurate, and only implies the Son. And ‘Unoriginate’ is a word of the Greeks, who know not the Son; but ‘Father’ has been acknowledged and vouchsafed by our Lord. For He, knowing Himself whose Son He was, said, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me;’ and, ‘He that has seen Me, has seen the Father,’ and ‘I and the Father are One ;’ but nowhere is He found to call the Father Unoriginate. Moreover, when He teaches us to pray, He says not, ‘When you pray, say, O God Unoriginate,’ but rather, ‘When you pray, say, Our Father, which art in heaven Luke 11:2.’ And it was His will that the Summary of our faith should have the same bearing, in bidding us be baptized, not into the name of Unoriginate and originate, nor into the name of Creator and creature, but into the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. For with such an initiation we too, being numbered among works, are made sons, and using the name of the Father, acknowledge from that name the Word also in the Father Himself. A vain thing then is their argument about the term ‘Unoriginate,’ as is now proved, and nothing more than a fantasy.3 

Is Carter’s God the Arian god? No. But not because of methodology, only because of Piety. By way of methodology Carter’s God only gives us a god who is in turn a monad; a singular essence from whence the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit accidently subsist. It is Barth’s and Torrance’s and Athanasius’s God, the One known through the Son (grounded in “Xtology alone”) whom allows us to have actual ‘inner’ knowledge about Who God is. The Athanasian tradition Barth thinks from doesn’t yield a monadic god, as Carter’s necessarily does; instead, it yields a knowledge of God wherein God is God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  

Can’t wait to see how Carter defeats the Athanasian conception of God with his Arian methodology. 

 

1 Craig Carter, Twitter.

2 Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 7-8. 

3 St. Athanasius, Contra Arianos 1.9.34. 

A Response to Anthony Bradley’s Insufficient Critique of Voddie Baucham’s Fault Lines

Anthony Bradley Tweet-stormed the following with reference to Voddie Baucham’s recently released book, Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe 

In Chapter 6, it becomes glaringly clear that Voddie Baucham does not understand what the “Sufficiency of Scripture” actually means. He straw mans the definition, divorces it from the Reformed Tradition, and then critiques David Platt, John O, Eric Mason, Ligon Duncan, & others. This explains so much. Baucham’s personal definition of the sufficiency doctrine is 1920s fundamentalism rather than Reformed. He says, “there’s not a better book to address men on the issue of race in America than the Bible.” But the “issue of race” includes economics, e.g. The Sufficiency of Scripture is about faith. “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture”(WCF 1.6). In his book, his quotes the wrong part of the WCF to defend the doctrine. He seems to be out of his lane here. He says that the Bible is sufficient to address every issue of race in America. How is that possible when dealing with race which is not what the Bible is about? Fact: the actual Reformed tradition will say that Bible is insufficient to address matters outside those of saving faith (like Presbyterians believe). Baucham’s book is a departure away from the Reformed tradition & takes its readers back a century in biblicist Fundamentalism. WCF: “and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, & government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, & Christian prudence…” (1:6). It’s so bizarre that he’d quote section 1:1 not 1:6. This chapter only further exposes that Baucham doesn’t know what the doctrine actually means in the Reformed tradition. “The light of nature” includes “sociology, psychology, and political science.” The disciplines he says Christians don’t need. Using Reformed doctrines as a proxy for American fundamentalism misleads readers. It’s sad. Calvin, Vermigli, Althusius, Turrentin, etc. are all turning in their graves with Baucham’s anti-Reformed, American fundamentalist understanding of the Sufficiency of Scripture. You can’t get more of the false distinction between sacred and secular than reading Chapter 6 of “Fautlines.” It’s simply Neo-fundamentalism masquerading as apologetics. The only thing it’s defending in its attacks on Ligon Duncan, Eric Mason, David Platt, & others is biblicism. It’s too much to post here but Baucham’s misunderstanding and misuse of the Reformed doctrine of the Sufficiency of Scripture would be helped by joining a confessionally connectional denominational where theology is practice in community & leaders are bound by confessionalism. A great example of confessionalism on race is the Missouri-Synod Lutheran discussion of race. This conservative and Reformational denomination use “the light of nature” to discuss race. Baucham isn’t representing confessional Reformation perspectives. Perhaps Baucham would have better theological application of the doctrine of sufficiency if he were in the PCA & could learn about the insufficiency of Scripture and put the straw men to death.

I Tweeted the following in response to Bradley, and in some defense of Baucham:

What Bradley fails to grasp—as usual—(and I’m not in Baucham’s “theological lane”) is that Voddie’s assumption is that Holy Scripture is Gospel-centric in orientation. As such, and this is clear from other things Baucham et al have noted, he believes that the Gospel is sufficient for all “issues,” particularly because it addresses the central problem of humanity; ie a depraved heart. If this is the premise Baucham is working from, he hasn’t strayed from the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation at all: viz. ‘the Scripture Principle.’ Like I noted: Bradley is engaging in his typical cultural subterfuge by errantly appealing to his people.

One irony I noticed in Bradley’s Tweet was when he wrote: “Baucham’s personal definition of the sufficiency doctrine is 1920s fundamentalism rather than Reformed.” This is an interesting oversight since the ‘1920s Fundamentalists’ were the Protestant Reformed by and large, particularly when it comes to the issue of biblical inerrancy. 1920s biblicism was vanguarded largely by the thought of Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, and J. Gresham Machen among others. 1920s Fundamentalism was by-and-large made up of the ‘conservative Reformed’ of that day; and they were largely confessional. Bradley’s diatribe might work on the historically anemic, but not on folks who know American history vis-à-vis the Reformed faith and its biblical inerrancy.

Ultimately, I am not sure Baucham is all that concerned with affirming natural theology or natural law theory as that relates to parts of the confessionally Reformed faith. What Bradley seemingly fails to mention is that Post Reformation Reformed Orthodoxy rejected ‘natural theology,’ and thus natural law theory in the main (see Richard Muller’s Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4Vols). Bradley wants his uniformed readers to think that the confessionally Reformed faith was a monolith; how convenient (and absurd!)

But to the point of Baucham’s book: like I noted in my Twitter response, I don’t think Baucham would accept Bradley’s characterization of racism as not being a matter of the Evangel; indeed, that’s precisely the point (which is clearly lost on Bradley, who obviously is simply attempting to charter the “Reformed faith” in the direction of his wanderlust for using ‘analytic’ tools like Critical Race Theory). For my money, Calvin and Vermigli et alia would be turning in their graves if they saw where someone like Bradley wants to take Reformed theology in the 21st century. Is Baucham guilty of appealing to a 1920s Fundamentalism? Sure, just as much as someone like Machen or others would have been, particularly as they articulated the sort of inerrancy vis-à-vis sufficiency of Scripture principle that Baucham is appealing to himself. What Bradley is leaving out of his Tweet-storm is that Baucham believes that racism is indeed a matter that ‘salvation’ itself corrects. This would make Bradley’s critique moot, with reference to Baucham’s premise, in regard to the transformative power of the Gospel. And as I already noted, Bradley is only appealing to certain parts of the confessionally Reformed faith; he is misrepresenting its development and history though. Baucham stands squarely within the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation. Bradley is simply being selective to serve his own purposes. This is not good form, no not at all!

Lazarus as the Antidote to Legal Theories of Salvation

I get this sense that there are many Christians operating with a juridical or forensic theory of salvation. There is this sort of pervasive idea that when a person dies, or even lives, a person who has believed on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that this person MUST be living a victorious Christian life or their respective salvation is suspect. If the reader is aware of the history and development of salvation systems, though, they would be more theological-critical than this. Some are aware and continue to articulate theories of salvation that offer a juridical understanding of God’s grace; this understanding, as noted, leads people to operate with a performative understanding of salvation. In order to creatively think this through further let me offer an imaginative riff on the famed Rich Man and Lazarus passage found in Luke 16.

19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”

I am going to disregard the broader context and direct point of this parable in order to illustrate another; a point that is in line with what I was referring to previously. The juridically oriented Christian, the one who functions with a self-performance understanding of salvation—think of Federal/Covenantal theology, 5 Point Calvinism, Arminianism, so on and so forth—would look at the outwardly righteous, outwardly “victorious” (think morally) and have total confidence that these people were now in the presence of the LORD (and they may well be, and probably are); but then, on the other hand, they would look at the poor beleaguered soul, and conclude that such a person was in the torment of hell. They might look at Lazarus and wonder: ‘what poor choices did this unbecoming person make in their lives in order to lead them to the deplorable status they lived in prior to death.’ And then they would walk away self-justified, like Job’s friends, only to find out that Jesus was actually with the bruised-reed Lazarus, and not the rich man (upwardly mobile and successful) after all. Such self-justified people arrive at these wrong conclusions precisely because they have artificially imposed a foreign theory of salvation onto the text and reality of Holy Scripture.

God’s Grace is much more latitudinarian, much more sufficient and universal than the self-righteous expect or even want it to be. I would argue, and have for many years, that classical Calvinism (and Arminianism) in all of its iterations, artificially foists an alien framework of salvation onto the text and reality of Scripture. It does this precisely because it has adopted a wrong doctrine of God, wherein God is thought of from a substance metaphysic that reduces His relation to the world to a mercantile contractual relationship grounded in deterministic decrees (decretum absolutum). And yet Jesus came to save the sick, down-trodden, and broken; the Lazarus’s and Rons among us. He came for you and me. The second we lose sight of the expansiveness of God’s Grace we have only submitted to some sort of Pelagian frame wherein we want to attribute our salvation to our performance one way or the other—even if we logic-chop in an attempt to work around this implication.

God is Love

Thinking in terms of God’s so-called perfections can actually be a tricky complex. Is there a way to prioritize them; do we think them speculatively (in se), or concretely (ad extra)? Even through the cursory questions I just noted what we quickly come to realize is that what is at stake, in regard to answering how we approach the perfections, vis-à-vis knowledge of God, implicates our prolegomena; or theological methodology. For this Evangelical Calvinist, as many of you know, following both Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth (not to mention Athanasius et al), I prefer to think God from His economic revelation, which I take to be synonymous with His ontological/immanent/antecedent reality as the triune God. As Jesus said to Phillip,

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be content.” Jesus replied, “Have I been with you for so long, and you have not known me, Philip? The person who has seen me has seen the Father! How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you, I do not speak on my own initiative, but the Father residing in me performs his miraculous deeds. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me, but if you do not believe me, believe because of the miraculous deeds themselves. –John 14:8-11

When we see Jesus [Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν] we see the triune God’s work and person, without remainder, in the Son’s enfleshment. In other words, when the Son incarnate shows up, He comes as Son of the Father, as Athanasius famously emphasized; and He does so by the creative creativity of the Holy Spirit’s activity as the One who works as the bonding agent between the Father and the Son in the effulgence of their three-in-one / one-in-three love. It should be apparent by now what ‘perfection’ I take to be the ground of all others. In other words, it should be clear that I take who God is as Self-revealed love to be the ground and shape of all the other so-called perfections the Christian tradition likes to think God through. Ian McFarland affirms this way of thinking about the primordial perfection of God as triune love. And he thinks that the way we think God ought to come from the primacy of God’s Self-revelation as revealed in the οἰκονομία of His life for the world come in the flesh and bone of Jesus Christ. He writes the following in summary of previous development he has given in the broader context from which this is taken:

In summary, to say that God is love is to confess God as Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is love in that the Father loves the Son in giving all that he is to the Son and confirming this in the Spirit, even as the Son loves the Father by glorifying the Father in the same Spirit, with the Spirit bearing witness to—and thereby sharing in—the mutual love of the Father and the Son. In other words, “love” characterizes God’s concrete existence as these three, traditionally designated as hypostases or “persons.” As realized in the communion of the three persons, the love of God is free, in that it is not involuntary or compelled as though grounded in a reality either logically or ontologically prior to the act of the divine persons’ loving one another. Rather, God loves freely, and thus willingly, since it is integral even to the human love of which God’s is both the ground and goal that love can never be unintended, as though a lover could refrain from acknowledging her love as he own act. At the same time, the freedom of divine love does not make it a matter of choice or decision, as though God’s freedom were to be understood as its cause. If love were in this way the product of some more fundamental divine activity (viz., the divine will), then it would not be strictly true that God simply is love. For us, love is adventitious, in that we are before we love. It is not so for God, since the mutual love of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit is just what it means for God to God: neither relative to or dependent on any nondivine reality, but simply the One who lives in and as three persons.[1]

There are some technical things McFarland is addressing (at least as I read in-between the lines), in the literature, but we won’t let that detain us here. What is instructive for our purposes is to simply press the point that who God is is love; as the epistolero puts it in the starkest of terms: ‘The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love.’[2] Per the Scriptural attestation, and the reality it attests to in Jesus Christ, this is indeed the primary perfection by which all other so-called perfections take shape. If this is so, it tells us that at the very heart of what God does, because He never does anything apart from who He is, is that it is shaped by His overflowing life of Triune love.

When we have theologies that take their relative shape from metaphysical and speculative categories—such as we have in Christian Aristotelianism—God is not thought, primarily from His perfection of love, but instead from discursive reasoning that posits God as the necessary Creator; attendant, of course, with all the other speculative perfections such as eternality, impassibility, immutability, the omnis, so on and so forth. When God is thought under these pressures, alien pressures relative to His Self-revelation, in regard to Who God is, it changes how the Christian thinks a God-world relation. In this frame, no longer does God’s relationship to, for, and with us come attenuated by God is [first] love; instead it comes with the emphases that God is sovereign Creator, who now relates to the world, to us through (in the Reformed case) impersonal decrees that come with a juridical frame.

It is best to think God from the centraldogma that He is love. We can think through the other ‘classical’ categories, but not unless we do so first through the lens of God’s Triune love as the ‘ground and grammar’ of all the other attributes that are present within the Divine life; within the mysterium Trinitatis. Love you, Jesus. Love you, Father. I say so by the Holy Spirit who has brought me into Your life through the anointed and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

[1] Ian A. McFarland, The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of the Incarnation (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 29-30 kindle.

[2] I John 4:8, NET.