A Response to the Reformed Baptists: Against Naked Scripture Reading

What’s going on with these Reformed Baptists? I’m referring to people like James White, Rich Pierce (White’s sidekick), Owen Strachan et al. I just had a fun exchange with White’s guy, Pierce on Twitter. It’s always the same thing with these guys. I cut my teeth in the blogosphere with these types of extended engagements with the JMac crew over at the Pyromaniacs blog back in the day. White, and his whole Alpha and Omega crew, along with the Apologia guys, and then people like Strachan and Jeff Johnson, and all their followers in the so-called Reformed Baptist camp suffer from the same sort of arrogant naivete. They all operate with this notion that it’s possible for the biblical interpreter to read Scripture without a hermeneutic. In other words, they simply believe that they purely read the 5 Points of Calvinism out of the text of Scripture (or a modified/heretical understanding of the Trinity, in some cases). They don’t acknowledge any reception history from its development in the Reformed history of ideas. In fact, they are anti-Confessional (except maybe for the London Baptist Confession of Faith, the parts that resonate with them). Here’s a sampling of my recent excursion with that really nice guy, Rich Pierce:

This guy took this tone with me immediately, in a previous tweet exchange. This is how it always goes with them. The irony is that they operate out of an Enlightenment rationalist/naturalist hermeneutic, not confessionally Reformed whatsoever. They fail to recognize that all reading is interpretation, and that confessional Christian reading is simply the mode that has given the orthodox categories we use to think the Trinity and Christological loci like the hypostatic union, homoousios so on and so forth. Instead, they read from the confessionalism provided for by the naturalism inherent to the Enlightenment; being confessional is an inescapable reality of interpretation (any kind of interpretation). The only people in Reformation history who claimed to read the Bible outwith confessionalism were the Socinians (and maybe the Anabaptists before them). That’s the spirit people like White, Pierce, Strachan et al. operate from. Indeed, in Strachan’s case, and now White is defending him, he arrives at his eternal functional subordinationism (EFS) of the Son, precisely because of their anti-ecclesial confessional reading of Holy Scripture. No matter how much testosterone these guys muster up to counter critiques like mine, just as Pierce does above, the facts of the theo-logic, they are ignoring, remain.

What they don’t understand is how the order of authority works. People like White/Pierce seem to think that if you use conciliar categories (like we get from Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon etc.) that somehow you are denying the Protestant Scripture Principle (or more colloquially, sola Scriptura), but that is to engage in a radical error of thought. The ecumenical confessions/creeds, for example, are subordinate to Holy Scripture insofar that they are attempting to supply a grammar for the inner-theo-logic of the text. In other words, given the occasional nature of the text, which it always is, even if the occasion turns out to be purely canonical, the authors of Scripture make theological assertions; that is, they leave many things either inchoate or unstated in their respective communications about God. What the creeds/confessions do, in principle, is come along and recognize that things are stated about God, in Scripture, that require a grammar; particularly so that the Church can know the difference between truth and error; not to mention, so that the Church can speak and think intelligibly about God. There is no inherent denial of the Protestant Scripture principle in this endeavor. The only real problem that can and has obtained, at points, is that the ‘metaphysic’ used to flesh out said biblical theo-logic could potentially be at odds with the Scriptural categories and witness vis-à-vis God. This has always been the basis of my critique with reference to the developments of scholasticism Reformed dogma in the 16th and 17th centuries. But this sort of thinking goes right over the heads of people like White, Pierce, Strachan et al.

In order to end this post on a positive note, let me share something I’ve shared multiple times in the past from Oliver Crisp. He offers a nice taxis, in regard to how to think the relationship of Holy Scripture to the creeds, confessions, and theologoumena. And with this we’ll close:

  1. Scripture is the norma normans, the principium theologiae. It is the final arbiter of matters theological for Christians as the particular place in which God reveals himself to his people. This is the first-order authority in all matters of Christian doctrine.
  2. Catholic creeds, as defined by and ecumenical council of the Church, constitute a first tier of norma normata, which have second-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. Such norms derive their authority from Scripture to which they bear witness.
  3. Confessional and conciliar statements of particular ecclesial bodies are a second tier of norma normata, which have third-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. They also derive their authority from Scripture to the extent that they faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture.
  4. The particular doctrines espoused by theologians including those individuals accorded the title Doctor of the Church which are not reiterations of matters that are de fide, or entailed by something de fide, constitute theologoumena, or theological opinions, which are not binding upon the Church, but which may be offered up for legitimate discussion within the Church.[1]

It would be nice if the Reformed Baptists under consideration could internalize the above, but they won’t. Instead, they will continue to appeal to their egos and insecurities and respond the way Pierce did to me in the aforementioned. Unfortunately, these things have real life consequences; like denying an orthodox understanding of the Holy Trinity (as we now see in Strachan, and White’s defense of him). This is why sometimes I’ll bring this sort of discussion up for consideration. Peoples’ eternal souls are literally at stake in many cases.

 

[1] Oliver Crisp, god incarnate, (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 17.

The Seed of the Classical Theistic God Given Blossom in the god of Modern Atheism

I have been an oft critic of the ‘classical theistic’ god. The classical theistic God is typically known by actus purus, ‘pure being.’ I have argued that this conception of Godness as Monad comes to us from the ancient Greek philosophers, and not from God’s Self-revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ. Some would say that my argument is modern, but that would simply be the chronological snobbery fallacy. Truth has no provenance; that is, truth is truth no matter where or whence it comes. Bruce McCormack describes this sort of critique this way (here his comments are in the context of his treatment on Eberhard Jüngel’s explication of Barth’s doctrine of God): 

The term “essence” in its origins is a class term, descriptive of what is common to all members of a class. As such, it is an abstraction from all exemplars belonging to that class in their lived existence. Applied to God, the qualification was traditionally added: “but, of course, God belongs to no class. God is unique.” But the qualification came too late for it did not qualify the definition of divine essence that had been devised by means of negations alone without reference to God’s existence. Jüngel shows that the classical ambivalence in holding and, at the same time not holding the claim that essence and existence are one in God gave rise in the early modern period to Descartes’ insinuation of the cogito (the “thinking human subject”) between divine “essence” and divine “existence” — thereby creating “a contradiction which disintegrates the being of God: namely, into a highest essence over me and into its existence through and with me.” Ibid., p. 126. From there, it was but a short step for modern thinkers to remove the contradiction through surrender of this highest essence. In this way, the ambivalence of classical treatments of the relation of essence and existence in God made a substantial contribution to the rise of modern atheism.1 

Usually, it is the evangelical opponents of modern theology in favor of their retrieval of classical theism who decries anything modern; like Jüngel’s critique of the classical theistic god. Yet, if Jüngel is right, and McCormack’s commentary on him is to the point, then it is these evangelical retrievers of classical theism who, if anyone, should be ‘demonized’; insofar that the God they are introducing the churches to reduces to the god of modern atheism. Just because the evangelical suitors of classical theism (indeed, they have created that designation) assert that modern theology is demonic, doesn’t make it so. The greatest irony here is that in fact it is the god of classical theism who reduces, quite easily, into the “thinking human subject”; or the god of the modern atheist.  

In my experience, nobody really wants to bite the bullet on these things. Most evangelical theologians today (of the Reformed provenance) simply live in a posture of denial. They feel the pressure to think God from antique roots, because they seem to think God spoke more clearly then than now, but then when a modern theologian[s] shows that the way this God was synthesized with Hellenic conceptualities results in the No-God of modern atheism, they simply deflect and claim that it is the modern theologian who is the devil. Both can’t be right. I’ve never seen an evangelical counter the sort of critique made by people like Jüngel, McCormack et al. There are guys like Craig Carter, Matthew Barrett, Scott Swain and Michael Allen, who are continuously pushing the classical theistic god for the massa of evangelicals out there. But again, this simply glosses past critiques like those made by people like EJ.  

 

1 Bruce Lindley McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son: Reformed Kenoticism and the Repair of Chalcedon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 170-71 n.41.

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.   

 

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!

What’s the Relationship Between Emphasizing God’s Love and Progressive Theologies and Politics?: Barth as a Case Study

It seems like so called progressive and exvangelical Christians present the world with a gushy-squishy God who just ‘loves,’ and nothing else. The theologians I follow most closely, namely Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance, along with others in the universe of theologians, likewise emphasize that God is love. Often progressive Christians are drawn to theologians like Barth et al., because he seems to present an emphasis on God that resonates with what they perceive as the good and the beautiful. Most of the Barthian Christians I know are in fact progressive Christians (PC); both theologically and socio-politically. In fact, for most, Barth serves as a gateway to more radical conceptions of ‘God is love’ than Barth actually offers (as some of these folks begin to realize when they actually read Barth for themselves). But the fact remains that Barth is often a mainstay theologian, at least in spirit, for the progressive Christian. My question is: is there a substantial causal correlation between this perception of Barth’s et al. conception of God as love, and the progressive politics and theology that so many progressive Christians (we might want to call them liberal Christians) operate with?

This really, in my mind, comes down to a question of ‘inclusiveness,’ and inclusiveness understood in a particular direction. I think the PC wants to believe in a certain instance of God’s bigness. What I mean is that the PC, as you listen to their logic, will often appeal to God’s all-encompassing compassion and grace. As you listen further, and start reading between the lines, you start to realize that they are now presenting a concept of God’s bigness and graciousness in abstraction from God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; even as they continue to conflate this abstraction with the name of Jesus Christ. This is where they quickly depart from Barth’s conception of God as love and grace.

For Barth, God is the Judge judged. For Barth, there is no abstract conception of God’s bigness and graciousness. He is a full-frontal and flaming trintarian actualist. In other words, for Barth, there is nothing speculative or abstract about God; at least not for a genuine Christian understanding. For Barth, we can only conceive of God’s love, bigness, and graciousness as that comes to us in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ; the shed blood of Jesus Christ, in fact. What is, in the incarnation, for Barth, is who God is for us; there is no room for PC abstractive thinking about what and who God’s bigness includes. Surely, for Barth, all are included; just as sure as the eternal Son assumes humanity in the incarnation. But unlike the PC approach to God’s inclusiveness, Barth doggedly clamps off any other way for knowing God’s way except by way of looking at Jesus Christ. Notice how TF Torrance presses this in Barth’s theology:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[1]

The progressive Christian has no quarter in Barth’s theology. Barth’s God is inclusive, big, gracious, and for the world; the progressive’s conception of God is not grounded in the concrete history of God as given in the humanity of Jesus Christ.

The progressives would be better suited in looking for the God they’d prefer in such theologians as Friedrich Schleiermacher and Rudolf Bultmann. Barth, as we know, worked against any notion of turn to the subject theology like we find in the romantic theology of Schleiermacher and the existentialist of Bultmann. But there is an explanation, theologically, for why so many PCs go off the rails in their conception of God and his inclusiveness; it is because they project from themselves, and more collectively, the cultural moment, and construct a conception of God in their desires and images. Exvangelicals, by and large, while good intentioned, don’t like the classical or biblical conception of God as Judge judged, and so embark on a life-long pursuit and project of constructing a God who is not bounded by the delimiting historical reality of God’s givenness in Jesus Christ.

The enigmatic thing to me is this: why are so many Barth scholars (like we find at Princeton) liberal and progressive? My current conclusion is that these scholars have elevated their school understanding of Barth’s theology, and then read that into, and in fact deployed that as their biblical hermeneutic. The emphasis in my conclusion should be placed on ‘school.’ These scholars, and the progressive Christians who follow them more popularly, are subject to the atmosphere they have devoted their lives to in the university setting. Such settings, as we all know, are rarified by air that blows with the spirit of Marx, Schleiermacher, and the idea that the human condition is an exalted reality. This somehow mixes, in the case of Barth scholars, with their reading of Barth, and somehow gets transposed into their understanding of God and all subsequent reality. It’s a rather complex thing when it comes to such Barth scholars; since Barth’s theology itself was intended to thwart this sort of ‘humanistic’ approach to reality. True, Barth wasn’t a North American evangelical (I mean he was known as the ‘Red Pastor’ after-all), but the lineaments of his theological project, in my view, militate against theologies that become conflated with the cultures at large; school or otherwise.

There is still the question that we started out with: is there a substantial causal correlation between this perception of Barth’s et al. conception of God as love, and the progressive politics and theology that so many progressive Christians (we might want to call them liberal Christians) operate with? No, I don’t think so. But then again, it depends on the cultures Barth is read within. Currently, in North America, and anglophone Barth studies in general, he is read from within school contexts that are progressive, liberal, and navel-gazing. So, Barth, in my view, and those who are in his wake, are guilty by association with professors and Christians who have been taken captive by their particular cultures rather than the God who invades and contradicts such cultures, in Jesus Christ.[2]

I still want to probe this question further, and not focus as much on Barth, but instead on the question of the relationship between understanding or emphasizing God as love, and the appropriation of progressive theologies and politics (like is there a causal/material connection, or is it more incidental?). More to come, at some point.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

[2] I’m trying to win a popularity contest; can’t you tell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria.

 

 

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

A Response/Review of Les Lanphere’s: Calvinist Film

Rather than a review I thought I would offer a response to Les Lanphere’s recently released film: Calvinist. Co-founder of the Reformed Pub and Pubcast, and film producer, Les Lanphere last year started a crowd-sourcing campaign to raise money to produce the film I’m offering response for now. The film just released September 12th, 2017 on vimeo, and it already appears to be getting quite a few views. It is available for $7.99 to rent (for 48 hours), or $20.00 to purchase. I was actually surprised that it cost anything given that it was a crowd-sourced undertaking; I’d wrongly assumed that the $50,000 or $60,000 raised from that would have been sufficient for producing and distributing this film—apparently it was not. Beyond that, for the rest of this response I will attempt to cover the main bases covered in the film, and try to provide an accurate feel for what to expect. Once I have finished with that I will offer my response (so I guess this will be something like a review). Here is the preview to the film:

Overview of the Film

The film starts out by describing the phenomenon of Christianity itself, but then quickly turns its focus to why the Protestant Reformation was needed and who was involved in that process. Before getting into anything else the film highlights the role that the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement has played in revitalizing the resurgence of Reformed theology in North America. The producer, Les Lanphere notes his own generational position within this movement, and frames the rest of the film through this lens. Once this frame is provided we get right into the thick of things with Martin Luther and his realization from his engagement with Scripture, in the original languages that the Roman Catholic Church had come to its current shape in the 16th century through an accretion of traditions that were actually unbiblical. The film notes how Luther’s realization led him to begin protesting what he considered to be unnecessary and burdensome religious tasks that had nothing to do with what the biblical Gospel entails. Moving on we are next introduced to John Calvin as the second generation reformer who provided the concrete impress into a doctrine of Scripture; what later would be known as sola Scriptura. The film emphasizes how a move in authority shifted from the magisterium of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to Holy Scripture; and then notes how things developed from there. Pretty quickly we are introduced to Jacobus Arminius, and the development of Arminianism; the debate between the Arminians and Calvinists is noted with reference to the Synod and Canons of Dordt. Accordingly we move from this entrée into an introduction of what the 5 points of Calvinism entail; each point of the TULIP is given some depth of coverage. Much of that coverage involves interviews with various participants who describe what a particular point involves, and how they see it functioning both personally and corporately in the church. As we finish up with the “P”, and in closing, the Calvinist touches upon a potential weakness that has plagued Reformed theology since its inception; that is its ostensible lack of penetration into the more marginalized demographic of people groups. It speaks to this primarily through the impact that the Young, Restless, and Reformed resurgence has brought to Reformed theology by interacting with some Christian rap artists, most prominently with Shai Linne, and their thoughts on the impact that Reformed theology is having within the minority communities as it has contact through rap music in particular.

The film features these voices: R.C. Sproul, Collin Hansen Paul Washer, Shai Linne, Ligon Duncon, Michael Horton, Timothy Brindle, Steven Lawson, Joel Beeke, Kevin DeYoung, James White, Joe Thorn, R. Scott Clark, Tim Challies, Carl Trueman, Jeff Durbin, Peter Lilliback, Scott Oliphant, Robert Godfrey,  and some lesser known folks. There is reference made to Matt Chandler, John Piper, J.I. Packer, Martin Lloyd Jones, Marc Driscoll; with particular focus on Piper as a kind of codifying godfather of the Young, Restless, and Reformed resurgence. The film also singles out Driscoll as a kind of golden-child of the movement, but then also as a representative of what happens when celebrity takes over instead of the doctrines of grace; and the kind of ruin that can come if perspective is not kept.

Calvinist makes a hard case for the 5 points of Calvinism and attempts to demonstrate how the TULIP simply represents a straightforward prima facie reading of Holy Scripture. It contrasts its reading of Scripture with the mainstream evangelical understanding of salvation which it aligns with the man-centered part Roman Catholic/part Arminian concept offering of the salvific envelope. The film wants to provide a hard and fast distinction between the orthodox Gospel of grace that Calvinist theology offers, versus the shallow offering that mainstream seeker-sensitive churches offer; or more extreme what televangelists like Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen offer their parishioners. There is a binary set up between what Calvinism offers, and what the rest of evangelicalism offers. It does attempt to soften how folks approach this by warning of what is often called the cage stage; the stage that happens when someone is “converted” to the ‘truth’ of Calvinism, and they want everyone to know it (and if people don’t accept it then folks in this stage are prone to look at these people as possibly not even Christian).

My Response

As The Evangelical Calvinist we are automatically going to have problems with how the Calvinist film set things up. For one thing it trivializes the history and development of Reformed theology. It glosses over huge aspects and developments of Calvinist theology, and as a result it ends up reducing things to an unfortunate and binary level. For example because it almost immediately sets things up within the context of Calvinists versus Arminians, and it does so by noting the Remonstrant articles and the Synod of Dordt’s subsequent response and articles (which much later would be captured by the acronym known as the TULIP), it sets things up as necessarily combative from the get go. Because the film moves so quickly in this direction it doesn’t give the proper focus to the development of the guts of what classical Reformed or Protestant theology involves; viz. Covenant or Federal theology. It doesn’t note how this framework in the historical milieu sets up the conditions that gave rise to Arminius’s own theology; and ultimately how Reformed theology culminates in something like the Westminster Confession of Faith. It does acknowledge that this history is present, but only with a quick reference and comment made by Carl Trueman. Without this context all the Calvinist could be left with is what it ended up emphasizing and presenting: TULIP theology. While it noted that there is more to Calvinist theology than the TULIP, and it noted, quickly, the various streams and developments of the Reformed Confessions and catechisms, it failed to discuss in any meaningful way what type of theology was present in these important confessions.

To be fair it is a film that only had about 90 minutes to work with (although I would imagine they could have made it longer at the discretion of Lanphere), but because of this limitation the film unfortunately comes off rather flat; and I mean in regard to the picture that it paints of Calvinist or Reformed theology. Furthermore, because of this kind of flat development, in regard to the material ideas that shapes Calvinist theology in the history, it didn’t have the capacity to offer any type of meaningful nuance and distinctions that were actually present in the history. The film comes by this lacuna honestly though; in other words, the scholars it relies on are committed to an idea that the Reformed faith is basically a monolithic reality. Not that there aren’t nuances in and among the various theologians say of the 16th and 17th centuries, when what is called Post Reformed orthodoxy developed, but they would argue that there is an essentialist type of congruency at a basic thematic level that would allow all of these theologians in one way or another to affirm what we find, for example, in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Unfortunately what these scholars, and subsequently, this film fail to recognize is that the history itself reflects different strains of Reformed theologians who were actually contemporary with the construction of something like the Westminster Confession of Faith. There were the Marrow men in England and Scotland who were averse to the hard Federal theology that prevailed at Westminster; there were Puritans like Richard Sibbes, John Cotton (in America), et al. who have been called The Spiritual Fathers who contested the so called Intellectual Fathers who came to be known as the orthodox champions of Reformed theology. But things were never as tidy as the scholars in this film would like us all to think.

I was not surprised by the direction of the film; it delivered exactly what I expected. It is not a film that will provide any new information for anyone who has had any exposure to Calvinism for any length of time—even at the most rudimentary of levels. I see the Calvinist as a kind of introductory or orientation film for the newly ingratiated Calvinists; folks who aren’t totally sure yet what it is all about. Or maybe for folks who are, indeed, in the so called stage cage, who would like to be bolstered in their new found tradition.

As far as its relationship to Evangelical Calvinism; there is none. This film offers a version of Reformed theology, 5-Pointism that Evangelical Calvinism stands at total odds with. What the film doesn’t do, because it skims across the surface as it does, is that it doesn’t delve into any of the background depth theological and metaphysical levels that funds the theology they are promoting. Unfortunately, as is typical, it doesn’t note the role that Aristotelianism, Scotism, Ramism, Agricolanism, Voluntarism, Nominalism, so on and so forth plays in the development of the apparatus that supplies the 5 point Calvinist with their hermeneutic and subsequent exegetical conclusions. In other words, it oversimplifies to the point that things are left too sterile and clean; it doesn’t complexify the history enough in order to problematize or self-criticize in anyway. Honestly I wouldn’t expect this with a film like this—not even the scholars and pastors it relies on take this tact typically—but that’s what a film called the Calvinist should be about. It makes a point about how the Young, Restless, and Reformed represent a generation that wants to get deep, but then ironically the film itself doesn’t illustrate what that looks like for them. It doesn’t dig deep into the history of Reformed theology; it doesn’t refer to scholars like Michael Allen or Scott Swain who are aware of some of the challenges in the history and development of Reformed theology (even though both of them argue, along with folks like Carl Trueman that Federal or Covenant theology is the way to go). The film’s producer[s] doesn’t seek out other strains that have developed in Reformed theology; like the strain that we flow from as Evangelical Calvinists (which can be found primarily in Scottish, English, and American contexts in the history). So the Calvinist fails to layer things in the deep kind of way that its self-identified audience, by their own description, is looking for; for depth of understanding in regard to the development of Reformed Protestant theology. In this respondent’s view this was a seriously missed opportunity by the Calvinist.

Overall, other than viewing this for “critical” purposes I wouldn’t recommend this film. I think most people who already identify as Calvinist won’t find anything new here, and for those in the ‘cage stage’ it will only add unnecessary fuel to your fires. I think it glosses things too quickly; that it doesn’t provide the depth its audience would be looking for; and it presents the Calvinist or Reformed faith too reductionistically.

How Erasmus’ Mood Impacts the Development and Posture of an Evangelical Calvinist

When I first came across the reality of late medieval scholasticism at work in the Roman Catholic Church, and then later in the Post Reformed orthodox period of the Protestant Reformation, it brought a lot together for me. As a method the scholastic approach was a dialectic, one that went like this: 1) thesis, 2) anti-thesis, 3) synthesis, 4) synthesis becomes the new thesis, 5) so on and so forth. It’s easy to see how an approach like this over a period of centuries could remove the exegete and theologian further and further away from the realities disclosed afresh and anew in Holy Scripture. It was this commentary-building tradition, which had become normative for the medieval church, which someone like Martin Luther protested against. It was the movement known as Christian Humanism that kicked against such an approach, and instead trumpted a call of ad fontes (‘back to the sources’).

Lorenzo Valla was one of the forerunners of Christian Humanism and helped to foster the culture which would finally allow for the Protestant Reformation; a culture wherein folks, like Luther and Erasmus, were encouraged to read the Bible and the Church Fathers for themselves; in the original languages to boot. I want to highlight the contribution that Erasmus made to all of this in this post. It is this type of mood that turned me to someone like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and allowed me to see how the Reformation actually turned into a type of magesterium in itself, regulated by its own commentary tradition which the Westminster Confession of Faith illustrates.

Erika Rummel writes this of Erasmus’s approach, and his posture against scholastic theology:

Erasmus strongly objected to scholastic theology with its emphasis on dialectical reasoning. In his eyes, a purely academic theology was useless for providing guidance to Christians in their daily life. Rhetoric, by contrast, fulfilled that mediating function which allowed God’s injuctions to take root in the human heart. The Word of God was inherently rhetorical in the sense that it had persuasive and redemptive power; theologia rhetorica, unlike scholastic theology, pointed the way to the Word and aroused ‘a new zeal for the true religion of the gospel’. This message remains constant in Erasmus’ writings. It informs the Paraclesis (‘Invitation’), first published with his New Testament edition in 1516, and constitutes the dominant theme in his last original work, a manual of preaching entitled Ecclesiastes (‘The preacher’). In the Paraclesis Erasmus devoutly wished for an eloquence that would not only beguile the reader but enter his heart and transform his very soul. In the Ecclesiastes Erasmus outlines the task of the preacher in similar terms. He must be persuasive so that the congregation can hear in his sermons the voice of God. Again he uses the images of rapture and transformation to indicate the power of the theologia rhetorica. The practical moral impact of the preacher and the theologian – that is, of sermon and exegesis – is of utmost importance to Erasmus. The parallels between the prolegomena to the New Testament and his manual of preaching show that in his opinion the task of the preacher and that of the exegete converged. It was therefore appropriate to focus attention on language and on the rhetorical power of scripture. Because the Word of God has the power to transform, Erasmus wanted the laity directly exposed to the text: ‘Let the farmer sing a passage from the Bible at the plough, the weaver hum a passage to the movement of his shuttle, the traveler lighten the weariness of his journey with biblical stories!’[1]

There is some irony here. If you speak to a classically Calvinist person today they will claim to be part of the ad fontes tradition; and, indeed, in the beginning Reformed theology was motivated by that tradition (catch the irony of how tradition is inescapable). But over time, and particularly as it once again became ensconced within a Ramist/Agricolan locus methodology, the scholastic dialectic was once again imbibed and a whole new magisterium was created. Today we can witness, when speaking to a classically Calvinist person, the role that the three forms of unity might have (i.e. Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, Canons of Dordt), or more significantly the Westminster Standards. It really isn’t possible, even though they affirm that all else is subordinate to Scripture, for them to come to Scripture in an ‘back to the sources’ type of way since they see their standards as regulative and the most faithful interpretations of the text.

This is what evangelical Calvinism, of the sort I endorse, repudiates, and instead follows the lead and sense of someone like Erasmus. Clearly, we, as evangelical Calvinists don’t come to the same conclusions, theologically, as Erasmus on many things—in fact we probably agree much more with our classically Reformed brethren on many things, at least at an inchoate level—but we do follow his approach when it comes to bucking scholastic theology and always already moving back to the sources (i.e. Holy Scripture as the normative attestation to its reality in Jesus Christ).

Evangelical Calvinists are committed to a dialogical theology, an approach that works immediately after the fact that God has spoken (Deus dixit) in Christ as His most faithful and authoritative self-explication. We believe, like Erasmus, in pointing to an immediate encounter with the lively reality of the text of Holy Scripture as that breaks off in Christ who mediates us by grace through his vicarious humanity into the inner sanctum of the Triune life. We believe that Revelation, and Scripture as a subset of revelation, is an event; it isn’t something that we can control, or layer through tradition-making, but instead it is God in Christ confronting us afresh and anew moment by moment speaking His Lordly and Sovereign self to us as He draws us deeper and deeper into the realization of all that He is and all that we have because of who He is for us and with us.

Solo Christo; Sola Scriptura; Soli Deo Gloria

 

[1] Erika Rummel, The theology of Erasmus in David Bagchi and David C. Steinmetz eds., The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 33-4.

The Covenant of Works, The Covenant of Grace; What Are They? The evangelical Calvinists Respond

As evangelical Calvinists we stand within an alternative stream from classical Calvinism, or Federal/Covenantal theology; the type of Calvinism that stands as orthodoxy for Calvinists today in most parts of North America and the Western world in general. The blurb on the back of our book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church makes this distinction clear when it states:

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.

A question rarely, if ever addressed online in the theological blogosphere, and other online social media outlets, is a description of what Covenant theology actually entails. Many, if acquainted at all with Reformed theology, have heard of the Covenant of Works, Covenant of Grace, and Covenant of Redemption (pactum salutis); but I’m not really sure how many of these same people actually understand what that framework entails—maybe they do, and just don’t talk about it much.

In an effort to highlight the lineaments of Federal theology I thought it might be instructive to hear how Lyle Bierma describes it in one of its seminal formulator’s theology, Caspar Olevianus. So we will hear from Bierma on Olevianus, and then we will offer a word of rejoinder to this theology from Thomas Torrance’s theology summarized for us by Paul Molnar; and then further, a word contra Federal theology from Karl Barth as described by Rinse Reeling Brouwer. Here is Bierma:

When did God make such a pledge? [Referring to the ‘Covenant of Grace’] We will be looking at this question in some detail in Chapter IV, but it should be mentioned here that for Olevianus this covenant of grace or gospel of forgiveness and life was proclaimed to the Old Testament fathers from the beginning; to Adam after the fall (“The seed of the woman shall crush [Satan’s] head”); to Abraham and his descendents (“In your seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed”); to the remnant of Israel in Jeremiah 31 (“I will put my laws in their minds . . . and will remember their sins no more”); and still to hearers of the Word today. To be sure, this oath or testament was not confirmed until the suffering and death of Christ. Christ was still the only way to Seligkeit, since it was only through His sacrifices that the blessing promised to Abraham could be applied to us and the forgiveness and renewal promised through Jeremiah made possible. Nevertheless, even before ratification it was still a covenant — a declaration of God’s will awaiting its final fulfillment.

In some contexts, however, Olevianus understands the covenant of grace in a broader sense than as God’s unilateral promise of reconciliation ratified in Jesus Christ. He employs some of the same terms as before — Bund, Gnadenbund, foedus, foedus gratiae, and foedus gratuitum — but this time to mean a bilateral commitment between God and believers. The covenant so understood is more than a promise of reconciliation; it is the  realization of that promise — reconciliation itself — through a mutual coming to terms. Not only does God bind Himself to us in a pledge that He will be our Father; we also bind ourselves to Him in a pledge of acceptance of His paternal beneficence. Not only does God promise that He will blot out all memory of our sins; we in turn promise that we will walk uprightly before Him. The covenant in this sense includes both God’s promissio and our repromissio.

This semantical shift from a unilateral to a bilateral promise is most clearly seen in two passages in Olevanius’s writings where he compares the covenant of grace to a human Bund. In Vester Grundt, as we have seen, he portrays the covenant strictly as a divine pledge. While we were yet sinners, God bound Himself to us with an oath and a promise that through His Son He would repair the broken relationship. It was expected, of course, that we accept the Son (whether promised or already sent) in faith, but Olevianus here does not treat this response as part of the covenant. The emphasis is on what God would do because of what we could not do.

In a similar passage in the Expositio, however, Olevianus not only identifies the covenant with reconciliation itself but describes it as a mutual agreement (mutuus assensus) between the estranged parties. Here God binds Himself not to us “who were yet sinners” but to us “who repent and believe,” to us who in turn are bound to Him in faith and worship. This “covenant of grace or union between God and us” is not established at just one point in history; it is ratified personally with each believer. Christ the Bridegroom enters into “covenant or fellowship” with the Church His Bride by the ministry of the Word and sacraments and through the Holy Spirit seals the promises of reconciliation in the hearts of the faithful. But this is also a covenant into which we enter, a “covenant of faith.” As full partners in the arrangement we become not merely God’s children but His Bundgesnossen, His confoederati.

When he discusses the covenant of grace in this broader sense, i.e., as a bilateral commitment between God and us, Olevianus does not hesitate t use the term conditio [conditional]. We see already in the establishment of the covenant with Abraham that the covenant of grace has not one but two parts: not merely God’s promissio [promise] to be the God of Abraham and his seed, but that promise on the condition (qua conditione) of Abraham’s (and our) repromissio [repromising] to walk before Him and be perfect. Simply put, God’s covenantal blessings are contingent upon our faith and obedience. It is to those who repent, believe, and are baptized that He reconciles Himself and binds Himself in covenant.[1]

What we see in Olevianus’s theology, according to Bierma, is a schema of salvation that is contingent upon the elect’s doing their part, as it were. In other words, what binds salvation together in the Federal scheme is not only the act of God, but the act of the elect; an act that is ensured to be acted upon by the absolute decree (absolutum decretum). The ground of salvation involves, then, God’s act and humanity’s response; the objective (or de jure) side is God’s, the subjective (or de facto) side is the elect’s—a quid pro quo framework for understanding salvation. What this inevitability leads to, especially when getting into issues of assurance of salvation, is for the elect to turn inward to themselves as the subjective side of salvation is contingent upon their ‘faith and obedience.’

Thomas F. Torrance, patron saint of evangelical Calvinists like me, rightly objects to this type of juridical and transactional and/or bilateral understanding of salvation. Paul Molnar, TF Torrance scholar par excellence, describes Torrance’s rejection of Federal theology this way and for these reasons:

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 Torrance 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 theScots 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.[2]

And here is how Brouwer describes Barth’s feeling on Federal theology, with particular reference to another founder of Federal theology, Johannes Cocceius. Brouwer writes of Barth:

Barth writes ‘For the rest you shall enjoy Heppe’ s Locus xiii only with caution. He has left too much room for the leaven of federal theology. It was not good, when the foedus naturae was also called a foedus operum’. In Barth’ s eyes, the notion of a relationship between God and Adam as two contractual partners in which man promises to fulfil the law and God promises him life eternal in return, is a Pelagian one that should not even be applied to the homo paradisiacus. Therefore,

one has to speak of the foedus naturae in such a way that one has nothing to be ashamed of when one speaks of the foedus gratiae later on, and, conversely, that one does not have to go to the historians of religion, but rather in such a way that one can say the same things in a more detailed and powerful way in the new context of the foedus gratiae, which is determined by the contrast between sin and grace. For there is re vera only one covenant, as there is only one God. The fact that Cocceius and his followers could not and would not say this is where we should not follow them – not in the older form, and even less in the modern form.

 In this way paragraph ends as it began: the demarcation of sound theology from federal theology in its Cocceian shape is as sharp as it was before. Nevertheless, the attentive reader will notice that the category of the covenant itself is ‘rescued’ for Barth’ s own dogmatic thinking.[3]

For Barth, as for Torrance, as for me, the problem with Federal theology is that it assumes upon various wills of God at work at various levels determined by the absolute decree. The primary theological problem with this, as the stuff we read from Torrance highlights, is that it ruptures the person and work of God in Christ from Christ; i.e. it sees Jesus, the eternal Logos, as merely an instrument, not necessarily related to the Father, who carries out the will of God on behalf of the elect in fulfilling the conditions of the covenant of works ratifying the covenant of grace. Yet, even in this establishment of the Federal framework, salvation is still not accomplished for the elect; it is contingent upon the faith and obedience of those who will receive salvation, which finally brings to completion the loop of salvation in the Federal schema.

These are serious issues, that require sober reflection; more so than we will be able to do in a little blog post. At the very least I am hopeful that what we have sketched from various angles will be sufficient to underscore what’s at stake in these types of depth theological issues, and how indeed theology, like Federal theology offers, can impact someone’s Christian spirituality if in fact said theology is grasped and internalized; i.e. it is understood beyond academic reflection, and understood existentially as it impacts the psychology and well being of human beings coram Deo.

 

[1] Lyle D. Bierma, German Calvinism in the Confessional Age: The Covenant Theology of Caspar Olevianus, 64-68.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity,  181-2 fn. 165.

[3] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 112-13.

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

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

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

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

gratia: grace; in Greek, χάρις;  the gracious or benevolent disposition of God toward sinful mankind and, therefore, the divine operation by which the sinful heart and mind are regenerated and the continuing divine power or operation that cleanses, strengthens, and sanctifies the regenerate. The Protestant scholastics distinguish five actus gratiae, or actualizations of grace. (1) Gratia praeveniens, or prevenient grace, is the grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon sinners in and through the Word; it must precede repentance. (2) Gratia praeparens is the preparing grace, according to which the Spirit instills in the repentant sinner a full knowledge of his inability and also his desire to accept the promises of the gospel. This is the stage of the life of the sinners that can be termed thepraeparatio ad conversionem (q.v.) and that the Lutheran orthodox characterize as a time of terrores conscientiae (q.v.). Both this preparation for conversion and the terrors of conscience draw directly upon the second use of the law, the usus paedagogicus (see usus legis). (3) Gratia operans, or operating grace, is the effective grace of conversion, according to which the Spirit regenerates the will, illuminates the mind, and imparts faith. Operating grace is, therefore, the grace of justification insofar as it creates in man the means, or medium, faith, through which we are justified by grace…. (4) Gratia cooperans, or cooperating grace, is the continuing grace of the Spirit, also termed gratia inhabitans, indwelling grace, which cooperates with and reinforces the regenerate will and intellect in sanctification. Gratia cooperans is the ground of all works and, insofar as it is a new capacity in the believer for the good, it can be called the habitus gratiae, or disposition of grace. Finally, some of the scholastics make a distinction between gratia cooperans and (5) gratia conservans, or conserving, preserving grace, according to which the Spirit enables the believer to persevere in faith. This latter distinction arises most probably out of the distinction betweensanctificatio (q.v.) and perseverantia (q.v.) in the scholastic ordo salutis(q.v.), or order of salvation…. [Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastics Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 129-30.]

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

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

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

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