On classically Reformed Limited Atonement, and an Evangelical Calvinist Response

Since my new friend, Jonathan Kleis, is going to write some posts on an evangelical Calvinist understanding of the atonement, I thought I would repost this as something that will dovetail with whatever he ends up writing at his blog.

I continue to slowly read that behemoth of a book on defending limited atonement edited by David and Jonathan Gibson, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her. When they released the book, part of Crossway’s marketing strategy was to make the claim that this book is the definitive one on this particular topic—i.e. definite atonement. I have only made into chapter 10, and so I have 11 chapters to go; thus far I would definitenot agree that this book is the definitive book on the topic. It might serve well as a one place shopping market for various ways into this doctrine (i.e. historical, biblical, theological, pastoral), but if you have spent any time at all researching this area, most of the arguments that I have read (and at this point I am not planning on being surprised by the rest of the volume), are not new at all. That said, the book is worth your while, if you are interested in this stuff; and I have found most of the essays to be well written, and obviously current with the most recent literature available. But this is not what I really want to talk about in this post, per se. Instead I want to use a quote from chapter 10 (which is the biblical section of the volume), and constructively demonstrate how an Evangelical Calvinist would say ‘yes’, and then ‘no.’

Chapter 10 is written by Old Testament scholar J. Alec Motyer, and his chapter is entitled: “Stricken for the Transgression of My People”: The Atoning Work of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. Besides the fact that now he, and the last author (in chapter 9), Paul R. Williamson, who did his study on limited atonement in the Pentateuch, have engaged in the classical logical-deductive (Ramist) mode of interrogating the text through a locus methodology (i.e. taking a previously conceived theological point, and using that point to exegete a particular section of Scripture in such a way that that point has regulative and conclusive force upon the practitioner’s exegetical conclusions); what I want to briefly, identify, as I have already alluded to, is why and how these guys (the classical guys) are really missing the boat. In a book that claims to offer a critique of the Barthian heritage, especially in regard to this topic, it is seriously hard to appreciate when over and again what they demonstrate is a failure to understand the theological categories through which someone like Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and/or us Evangelical Calvinists think through; and how the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ serves as regulative (like a reification of the regula fidei) for the way we think about all of this. And thus why we can say yes and no to limited atonement, even if we (or I) don’t agree with the way these classical folk are entering the text to begin with (i.e. locus methodology).

Motyer, in his chapter is detailing an argument for limited atonement (I don’t like the way this book is trying to reframe this topic by calling it definite atonement, I think it is better to stick with limited atonement, the grammar people are familiar with), as his chapter title suggests, from the book of Isaiah, and in particular, by looking at the ‘Suffering Servant’ motif. Here is what he has written about limited atonement, the Suffering Servant, and the extent and intent of the atonement:

Clearly, personal conversion has taken place, yet nothing is said about hearing and responding to the truth; there is no reference to personal decision, commitment, or faith. It is totally a story of needy sinners in the hand of God. It is the secret history of every conversion, the real story, the OT counterpart of “you did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). It is also the death knell to any open-ended understanding of the atonement, which seeks to posit a disjunction between redemption accomplished and applied. It matters not how the question is asked. Could any whose iniquities the Lord laid on his Servant fail to be saved? Could that laying-on prove ineffectual? Were any iniquities laid on the Servant save with the divine purpose of eternal salvation? Since universalism is ruled out by Isaiah’s insistence on “the many” (see below), 53:4–6 commits the unprejudiced interpreter to an effective, particularistic understanding of the atonement. The heart of the matter is boldly put: the “we” of these crucial verses were locked into a failure to grasp what the Servant was all about, but our iniquities were laid by Yahweh on his Servant; and this is what led to our “seeing.” The theological implications are profound: the atonement itself, and not something outside of the atonement, is the cause for any conversion. The resources for conversion are found in the Servant’s death; they flow from it. Thus, it is the atonement that activates conversion, not vice versa (cf. Titus 3:3–5). (pg. 261-62)

Now I have many examples from Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth, Myk Habets, our edited book, and other people or places where I can draw from to illustrate how we as Evangelical Calvinists would modify Moyter’s point about the death knell, in a way that agrees with him in principle (de jure), but disagrees with him in fact (de facto). So what I am going to share just happens to be the first thing I found that I thought was pertinent as I scanned my archives on this. There is no death knell, even granting that Moyter’s exegesis is legitimate to begin with. Someone, like us Evangelical Calvinists, can affirm universal atonement, and at the same time affirm, with just as much force, its particularity and definiteness. We do so by viewing election and thus the atonement through a Christ conditioned or Christ concentrated lens, or by focusing on a particular understanding of the vicarious humanity of Christ such that Christ is understood, in his humanity for us, as what real humanity does, or would do under the conditions of the ‘Fall’. Christ in his real (arche) humanity circumscribes what it means to be human, such that he is the mediator between God and man for us. And as real humanity who penetrates the depths of what it means to be human for all of humanity (not just an elect lump out of the mass), the atonement, at an ontological level, is fully accomplished and terminates in the one for whom it was intended in our stead, Jesus Christ in his elect humanity for us. Here is how Karl Barth thinks about the vicarious humanity:

[T]he answer is that we ourselves are directly summoned, that we are lifted up, that we are awakened to our own truest being as life and act, that we are set in motion by the fact that in that one man God has made Himself our peacemaker and the giver and gift of our salvation. By it we are made free fro Him. By it we are put in the place which comes to us where our salvation (really ours) can come to us from Him (really from Him). This actualisation of His redemptive will by Himself opens up to us the one true possibility of our own being. Indeed, what remains to us of life and activity in the face of this actualisation of His redemptive will by Himself can only be one thing. This one thing does not mean the extinguishing of our humanity, but its establishment. It is not a small thing, but the greatest of all. It is not for us a passive presence as spectators, but our true and highest activation—the magnifying of His grace which has its highest and most profound greatness in the fact that God has made Himself man with us, to make our cause His own, and as His own to save it from disaster and to carry it through to success. The genuine being of man as life and activity, the “We with God,” is to affirm this, to admit that God is right, to be thankful for it, to accept the promise and the command which it contains, to exist as the community, and responsibly in the community, of those who know that this is all that remains to us, but that it does remain to us and that for all men everything depends upon its coming to pass. And it is this “We with God” that is meant by the Christian message in its central “God with us,” when it proclaims that God Himself has taken our place, that He Himself has made peace between Himself and us, that by Himself he has accomplished our salvation, I.e., our participation in His being. [Karl Barth CD IV/I, p. 12]

And here is how George Hunsinger parses Barth on such things:

[…] To say that Jesus Christ is the “pioneer of faith” (Heb. 12:2), Barth suggests, is not to say that his faith is merely the exemplar of ours, but that it is the vicarious ground and source of our faith. “There is vicarious faith,” writes Barth, “… only in the form of the faith which Jesus Christ established for us all as the archegos tes pisteos (Heb. 12:2), who empowers us for our own faith, and summons us to it, even as he stands there in our stead with his faith. Through his faith, we are not only moved but liberated to believe for ourselves” (IV/4, 186). Our faith may be said to exist “as a predicate” of his in the sense that whatever is real and true “in this Subject” is the foundation for whatever is correspondingly real and true in us (cf. II/2, 539). In short, our subjective apprehension of God does not exist independently, but only insofar as its source, mediation, and ground are found in the humanity of Jesus Christ. [George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 96, Nook.]

If Christ is understood to be the elect human for all of humanity, then this dualistic and abstractive process of focusing on particular individuals as elect and reprobate will loose its teeth. Indeed, the volume I am reading on definite atonement would be a book on Christology, more than what it is, a book on Soteriology prior to Christology (as its dogmatic starting point). It is wrong for the editors and authors of this volume to suggest and argue that Barth, Torrance[s], et al. are hypothetical universalists; in fact just the opposite is the case. We believe that the atonement is even more definite than they do, because we see it fully realized and accomplished not in individually elect people, part of a realm of pure nature that is at competition with God; instead we see it accomplished (atonement) in Christ, and we think from there into the atonement, into humanity, and into everything else.


What’s the Difference Between Evangelical Calvinism and Classical Calvinism?: A Response After Barth

I often get asked what distinguishes evangelical Calvinism from classical Calvinism; I think that one of the more instructive ways to illustrate this is to compare John Calvin with Karl Barth. It is the disparity between their respective hermeneutic that makes clear where the point of departure is at between EC and CC. For EC, following Barth at this juncture, the distinction is that we see barthstampthings from a personalist rather than impersonalist perspective; in other words when we think about salvation we start immediately with Jesus Christ. Contrariwise CC’s, when they think about salvation start with decrees, and work mediately from there to Christ. This distinction is rife in the theologies of Calvin and Barth; as David Gibson notes, “…Calvin’s theology allows us to speak of Christ and the decree, but Barth’s theology to say that Christ is the decree….”[1] Evangelical Calvinists think after Barth here, and depart from Calvin at this point. Gibson writes further as he comments on Calvin and Barth:

First, the patient work of a thick description will reveal why both of their respective doctrines of election may be described as christocentric. This establishes a similarity between both theologians. But secondly, precisely in this description of their christocentric doctrines of election, we will see a conceptual distinction emerging. Calvin’s doctrine of election is best described as christocentric in the soteriological sense: although in his theology election is connected to Christology in the realm of the inscrutable divine decree, the weight of his treatment falls on the nexus of ideas associated with the preaching of the gospel, the Spirit’s call and the response of faith in the Mediator. By having more to say about election’s connection to Christ in this temporal realm of faith and obedience, Calvin’s doctrine of election is an example of his soteriological christocentrism. By contrast, we will see that the opposite is true of Barth. The connection of election to Christology is not primarily to be found in something that God does (issue a decree) but rather, in the person of Jesus Christ, election describes who God is (turned toward us in his self determination). Barth’s understanding of Christology and election locates his christocentrism principially: it is the ‘ground and content’ of the doctrine of election, with this particular understanding itself having a determining influence on the divine being and intra-trinitarian life. Here Christology operates as a methodological rule which is more pervasive and radical than in the thinking of Calvin. Thirdly, the contrasts which emerge between a soteriological–principial christocentrism help to show that the difference between Calvin and Barth in the area of Christology and election is fundamentally explained by their contrasting understandings of how election is related to the doctrine of the Trinity.[2]

calvinpostageBarth, and evangelical Calvinists after him, cannot conceive of God’s election but personally and ontically in Christ; thus the focus is personal, grounded in the personal and loving life of God as Triune. Calvin thinks from a voluntarist position where God’s will is given expression in an abstract decree. In other words, the decree is not something necessarily related to who God is; instead it arises from an abyss in God where there is no access (Deus absconditus)—God in this scheme arbitrarily chooses some and rejects others, and this based upon a remote and absolute decree. This is why Barth and Torrance charged this Calvinian and classically Reformed view with the idea that ‘there is a God behind the back of Jesus’. The God behind the back of Jesus is the abyss (inner-life of God) from whence the decrees are generated. But the God revealed (Deus revelatus) in Christ, for the evangelical Calvinist, after Barth, is the same God who antecedently co-exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (i.e. the ontological is the immanent Trinity). There is no distinct decree from Christ for the evangelical Calvinist; Christ is the ‘decree’ (to stick with that language).

The difference is personal rather than impersonal between the evangelical Calvinist and classical Calvinist.



[1] David Gibson, Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth (London/NY: T&T Clark, 2009), 30.

[2] Ibid., 30-1.

Definite Atonement and Assurance Compared: From Heaven He Came and Sought Her Style with Evangelical Calvinist Style

I am continuing to engage with David Gibson’s and Jonathan Gibson’s just released book From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective. At the Urgent, Prayer Request!end of their introductory chapter which they co-wrote, they close with a summary of what is offered in the ‘pastoral’ section of their volume; in it, they describe how ‘definite atonement’ (i.e. ‘limited atonement’) is actually a pastoral strength and not an ostensible weakness.

It is often alleged that in the pastoral domain the weaknesses of definite atonement become most acute. This is not so. We contend that, precisely because it is a definite atonement that gives greatest glory to God, so it is this understanding of the atonement that affords church and world the greatest good. The drama of the Son-King who was promised the nations as his inheritance (Ps. 2:8) adds motivation for the evangelization of the peoples of the world. The Lamb has purchased people for God (Rev. 5:9–11). Conversely, the “unevangelized” become an uncomfortable “stone in the shoe” for advocates of a universal atonement: Christ has provided a de jure salvation for all but which de facto is not accessible to all and, inadvertently, ends up in reality limited in its scope. Definite atonement ensures that what is offered in the proclamation of the gospel is the actual accomplishment of redemption. To herald the gospel is to herald a Savior who has by his blood established the covenant of grace which all are called to join. Proponents of a general, universal atonement cannot in fact, if being consistent, maintain a belief in the sincere offer of salvation for every person. All that can be offered is the opportunity or the possibility of salvation—and that not even to all in reality.

An atonement symbolized by the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep provides pastoral riches of motivation, joyful obedience, and perseverance for pastor and people alike. Atonement which radiates from the union of Christ with his people and which is set within the wider paradigm of the triune operations cannot but give assurance to the believer. If God—Father, Son, and Spirit—has worked indivisibly for us in Christ, who then can be against us? Models of the atonement that make salvation merely possible fail to provide this robust assurance and comfort. Assurance of salvation necessarily becomes detached from the secure source of what Christ has done and lodges itself in the unstable realm of our response. Atonement has been made, yes—but knowledge of it sufficient to calm our fears and assure us of our adoption is grounded in human action, not divine. We are salvation’s decisive donors.[1]

They fear a few things: 1) Universal atonement, 2) That salvation is could only be possible and not actual thus undercutting God’s sovereign action in salvation, 3) That human agents (given the prior two fears) become determinative in the actualization of the salvation process (thus undercutting, again, the sovereign action of God), and 4) That assurance of salvation will always be elusive of universal atonement is affirmed, because salvation will always only be possible and not actual if left to the ‘decisive donor[ship]’ of human agents.

Their fears might well be founded if the only alternative scheme for universal atonement was what appears to be their target; Arminianism. But Arminianism is not the only alternative. Evangelical Calvinism affirms a universal atonement, but not a universal salvation; and we do so by, ironically, limiting the atonement to Christ’s particular humanity, which is universal and for all in its reality. Here is the alternative way we as Evangelical Calvinists would counter what the Gibson’s are offering through their Westminsterized understanding of definite atonement, and the attendant view of assurance of salvation they think they can offer (which I do not think they actually can without inventing some sort of mechanism to provide assurance—i.e. practical syllogism). What I am sharing is thesis 7 from Myk Habets’ and my edited book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (2012). I will share this, to simply identify the contrast, and an alternative that eludes the critique of the Gibson’s in regard to universal atonement and the attendant view of assurance of salvation. I will share this, and leave off with it (since this will make this post rather lengthy). Here it is:

Thesis Seven.Assurance is of the essence of faith.

Coordinate with theses 2 and 3, Evangelical Calvinism understands assurance of salvation to be inseparably linked with union with Christ. Salvation is not understood as “our” salvation so that our subjectivity over-rides the objective ground in Christ; instead it is of upmost importance that we see both the objective and subjective sides of salvation rooted in the person of Jesus Christ. The basis for assurance of salvation, then, flows from the faith that is founded in Christ’s vicarious faith/fullness for us; so the subjective side of Christ’s faith becomes ours as we are united to Christ “spiritually” by the Holy Spirit’s inveterate movement of gracious action, co-extending from the once for all faith realized in the person of Jesus Christ. Commensurate with this understanding, John Calvin framed “assurance” through similar foci; as Charles Partee points out:

The conviction that salvation is not conditional but certain is an almost forgotten mark of the Protestant Reformation. According to Calvin, doubting the certainty of one’s salvation is sinful. We do not understand the goodness of God apart from full assurance (III.2.16). “[F]aith is not content with a doubtful and changeable opinion . . . but requires full and fixed certainty” (III.2.15). If salvation were not certainly known to believers, election “would have been a doctrine not only lacking in warmth, but completely lifeless.” In summary, Calvin insists, “Our faith is nothing, unless we are persuaded for certain that Christ is ours, and that the Father is propitious to us in Him. There is, therefore, no more pernicious or destructive conception than the scholastic dogma of the uncertainty of salvation” (Com. Rom. 8:33, 34). . . . Union with Christ is exactly the direction Calvin’s theology moves. For Calvin certainty is not to be found in a principle or a book but a person. That is, in union with Jesus Christ. Our task is “to establish with certainty in our hearts that all those who, by the kindness of God the Father, through the working of the Holy Spirit, have entered into fellowship with Christ, are set apart as God’s property and personal possession” (IV. 1. 3). . . .[2]

With Calvin and early Reformed thought generally, assurance teaches us we are elect. Tony Lane clearly shows how Calvin considered assurance to be of the essence of faith and how this was coordinated with various other aspects of this theology, notably with the doctrine of election.[3] Salvation is not salvation if one is unsure of possessing it. That, at least, was Calvin’s argument when he wrote:

Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.[4]

As it is for Calvin at this point, so it is for the Evangelical Calvinist. The root of assurance is found in Christ himself, and Christ’s faith and faithfulness is mediated to us through our union with him by the personal work of the Holy Spirit, a work which brings humanity into the effervescent and indestructible life of God’s eternal Logos.

[2] Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 205–6.

[3] Lane, “Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance Revisited,” Tributes to John Calvin: A Celebration of His Quincentenary, 270–313.

[4] Calvin, Inst., 3.2.7.

[1] David Gibson and Johnathan Gibson, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013), 51-2.

An Open [Instead of Shutdown] Theology of Grace and Election Funded by God in Christ: In Response to the New Book: From Heaven He Came and Sought Her. Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective

Today I just became aware of a new book out by Crossway entitled: From Heaven He Came and Sought Her edited by David Gibson and John Gibson. Justin Taylor, Crossway’s general editor who, put this book together definite(at his level), just posted on this book at his blog here. And the book itself has a promotional website here,  where you can watch the promotional video as well. I read the Introduction to the book today, which you can do by going to amazon.com and clicking on the “Look Inside” banner tied to the book.

I was going to do a full post interacting with some things communicated in the Introduction that are pretty inconsistent with the purported thesis driving the book (i.e. like on not using a logico-deductive schemata as the lens through which their biblical exegesis is done. They claim that they don’t—in direct contrast to the claim that Thomas and James Torrance makes in regard to this kind of classical approach—but the reality is, is that towards the very end of the Intro, they in fact evidence that they do use a logico-causal scheme which clearly is dictating their exegetical conclusions. I will have to write that post some time soon.

Until I am able to write the post I just alluded to, I want to repost something I just posted on election from George Hunsinger on Karl Barth, only a couple of months ago. What this book from the Gibson&Gibson, I think, is going to do, is that it is going to presume that their approach is the only real alternative. And from this thesis, argue from there throughout. I think a more critical approach would at leas acknowledge the weightiness and alternative offered by Karl Barth and After Barth studies. What a book like this will do, is harden those already in this mode; and it will, unfortunately, draw others in who might be on the fringe, not realizing that there is an alternative way and grammar into this discussion. This repurposed post below, is my online attempt, to at least alert folks (who on the fringe) that there is an alternative to what is on tap with this new book from Gibson&Gibson. And that as biblicist as they want to appear to be, by imbibing a certain kind of nostalgia in regard to the kind of exegesis that I presumptuously assume will be present in their edited book, what they aren’t going to be alerting people to is the fact that they actually have a metaphysic and notion of causality driving their exegesis that is not simply from the “Bible.” So the question is always: are we truly going to let the tensions of scripture dictate the kind of metaphysic or post-metaphysic we are going to adopt; or are we going to smuggle a metaphysic into scripture that ends up disemboweling the text by way of imposing a logical-deductive scheme upon its disclosure? I know they assert in the Introduction that they don’t do this, but in the very Intro itself, they do (I will demonstrate this by a post in the near future).

So the following is an alternative conception to thinking about election-reprobation, and then the impact that has on thinking about the extent and impact of the atonement.


This is an always an cantankerous subject among Christian theology and its students; the role between the objectivity of salvation accomplished by God in Jesus Christ, and the existential appropriation of that and inclusion in that (or not) by the human agent. Karl Barth offers the best way forward on this impasse (that will just not pass via classical and traditional attempts), by grounding both the objectivity and existential reality of salvation—surprise!—in the vicarious humanity of Christ. With an emphasis on the universal scope of salvation, in Christ, Barth provides a better grounding (in a theological-anthropology and a Triune-shaped doctrine of God) for accessing this variegated conundrum that just won’t seem to let go for many a Christian thinker. But I think we ought to let this go, and rest in the vicarious humanity of Christ; and rest in the dialectic kind of tension that is present if and only if we follow a God who is dialogically present, and dynamically given, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here is how George Hunsinger comments on this in the theology of Karl Barth:

The history of every human being is seen as included in that of Jesus. The history of Jesus is taken as the center which establishes, unifies, and incorporates a differentiated whole in which the history of each human being as such is included. This act of universal inclusion is his accomplishment and achievement. He enacts our salvation as a gift which is valid and efficacious for all. The validity and efficacy of this gift cannot be denied without compromising (among other things) the absolutely unconditioned and therefore gratuitous character of divine grace in him. This denial would therefore be unjustifiable within the web of Christian (or biblically derived) beliefs. The inclusion of every human being’s history in that of Jesus is therefore described according to the pattern of dialectical inclusion.  No one is excluded from the validity and efficacy of what took place for our salvation in Jesus Christ. In his history is objectively included the history of each and all.

Conversely, the history of Jesus is viewed as included in that of every human being. Although this history and what it accomplishes occur in definite sequence in time and a definite location of place, they are not encapsulated in that time and place in an unqualified way. On the contrary, they are present, in a mysterious and differentiated way, and in ways known and as yet unknown, to the history of each and every human being as such. Just as their history is enclosed in his, so is his enclosed in theirs, with all its efficacy and validity. The continual, miraculous, and mysterious presence of his history (and therefore he himself to theirs (and therefore to themselves) cannot be denied without denying (among other things) his resurrection from the dead. Therefore his denial, too, would be unjustifiable within the web of Christian beliefs. The inclusion of Jesus’ history in that of everyone else’s is therefore described according to the pattern of actualism. The once-for-all event of Jesus’ history, without ceasing to such, reiterates itself so as to be present to the history of and each and every human being. In the history of each and all, his history is objectively included. [George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 110-11. Nook]

Barth eludes the usual approach to this theological conundrum; indeed the point of entrance (a faulty presumption about the elect and reprobate) that leads to this as a theological conundrum. By seeing grace as the reality that predicates and grounds humanity, the humanity of God for us in Christ, it is impossible to deny its universal and ontological reality; if we do—as Barth would contend—then we would have to deny the mystery of God become human. It is not possible then to dissect creation, and humanity as its crown, into a sufficient and efficient mass; as if God’s grace in salvation is sufficient for all of creation, but only efficient for the particularly elect. If grace funds all of creation (as Romans 8:18ff requires), then it does. Barth allows the dialectic of Scripture to be truly dialectical in this regard; which then invites continued dialogical engagement with our Triune God. Barth’s theology of creation and grace does not shut down inquiry, but opens it up toward and from our Triune God who is full of mercy and grace.

Making a Distinction Between Two Types of a Christ-centered Hermeneutic: And My Continued Thoughts Toward a Proposal

Here is more on what I am thinking in regard to approaching biblical interpretation christocentrically (‘Christ-centerdly’). I am using a distinction that David Gibson uses in his PhD dissertation on Barth and Calvin, that helps kjvhim nuance how both Calvin and Barth were both christocentric in approach, but christocentric in their respective ways. It is this nuance, in its respective articulation that is helping me to form my own kind of christological approach to exegetical practice. That said, I am still on the way in this regard, and so throwing posts out here like this help me along my own path of development in this regard.

Here is how David Gibson describes the differences between Calvin’s and Barth’s respective christocentric approaches to biblical interpretation:

[…] Calvin’s hermeneutical approach to the biblical text is christologically extensive: although he reads the whole of the Bible’s plot-line in connection with Christology and finds the gospel which the text reveals to be inseparably connected to Christology, he does not always read every aspect of election through a christological lens. Underlying this approach is Calvin’s doctrine of revelation. Calvin has a conception of revelation which never exclusively identifies the Word of God with the person of Jesus, but sees revelation more extensively as also a property of the biblical text. This is different from Barth. His hermeneutics of election may be described as christologically intensive: he both finds the text to speak about Christ at those moments where Calvin speaks more generally about God or the decree, and finds the text to speak about election where Calvin would find the text to speak only about Christology. Likewise, we will see that driving this hermeneutical approach is a doctrine of revelation which  more intensively identifies revelation with Jesus the Word of God than does Calvin. [emboldening mine] [David Gibson, Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth, 16.]

My proposal, instead of placing Calvin against Barth, or Barth against Calvin in their respective christoformed hermeneutics is to instead posit that both approaches should be viewed as present in a thick and theologically rich account and understanding of exegesis. So the extensiveness of Calvin and the intensiveness of Barth can both be present if we take as a bridge of sorts, the vicarious humanity of Christ. What I see in this Gibsonian distinction is a dogmatic distinction between soteriology (so Calvin’s christocentrism), and christology (so Barth’s christocentrism), but if I am going to constructively engage with this, I think the better way forward (instead of emphasizing disparity between the two) is to work from an analogy of the vicarious humanity of Christ. In this way, a hermeneutic can be formed that is Christologically shaped with soteriological expression. Meaning that we can be both intensive in principle (Barth), de jure, and extensive in exegetical practice (Calvin), de facto. And one of the matrices that I think is helpful here, for drawing these together Christologically, is what Matthew Levering identifies as the ‘linear-historical’ and ‘participatory-historical’; and yet even more specific than Levering’s development of his helpful identification, what regulates the relation between the particularity of the text (Calvin’s extensive approach) and the universality of the text (Barth’s intensive approach) finds rapproachment  through the unio personalis of the person of Jesus Christ so that within his person we have God-ward and man-ward movements all taking place within the conversation of His hypostatically united life for us (pro nobis). And by the Spirit we participate in this movement and conversation—so our hermeneutic.

Anyway, my time and thus thinking have to break off right here. Alas, this is a blog, and so it always stays unfinished. More later.

‘Christocentrisms’: What Does it mean to use the language of “Christ-centered?” And a little more application to NT Wright

There is more ways than just one to be Christ-centered or Christocentric in approach, hermeneutically, or biblically interpretively. Yesterday I had an exchange with T.C. Moore on Facebook that was prompted by my last post. His contention was that he believes N.T. Wright has struck an excellent balance between the employment of historical studies with a Christ-centered focus. And I might be inclined to say Yes and No. I might say Yes and No, because to use the language of “Christ-centered” has expanse to it, it is not monolithic, but instead, multi-valent; and this is something that we did not address in our quick exchange, but should have. So I am extending that exchange, and quickly touching on it in this venue.


Marc Cortez, former Dean of Academics at Western Theological Seminary in Portland, OR, and now professor of Theology at Wheaton University (at their seminary), has provided an essay that explores just what in fact using the language of “Christ-centered” entails, in particular, in the theology of Karl Barth. Unfortunately I have not been able to read it yet, but I have come across reference to it in David Gibson’s published PhD dissertation: Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth. I mention Cortez, because, among others he has apparently identified how to understand what Christ-centered means by way of approach, especially when this designation is applied to Barth. The point is this though; that to say that someone is Christ-centered almost, in our day and age, is almost meaningless; it is like saying someone is an “Evangelical.” Until we define what we mean by “Christ-centered” (or ‘Evangelical’ for that matter), it could mean almost anything. It could be referring to someone’s intention, it could refer to a piety someone has, it could refer to a basic assertion (without explanation), it could refer to a mystical desire, or it could refer to an intentional and principled methodological approach in someone’s hermeneutic. Indeed, it is this latter way of being “Christ-centered” that I refer to when using the language of Christ-centered. It is the way that Karl Barth and the tradition he has spawned employs such language. Bruce McCormack describes what it means for Karl Barth to be Christ-centered in his method and hermeneutic:

‘Christocentrism’, in Barth’s case then, refers to the attempt (which characterized his mature theology) to understand every doctrine from a centre in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; i.e. from a centre in God’s act of veiling and unveiling in Christ … ‘Christocentrism’, for him, was a methodological rule – not an a priori principle, but a rule which is learned through encounter with the God who reveals himself in Christ – in accordance with which one presupposes a particular understand of God’s Self-revelation in reflecting upon each and every other doctrinal topic, and seeks to interpret those topics in the light of what is already known of Jesus Christ. [Bruce McCormack, Critically Realistic, 454 cited by David Gibson, Reading the Decree, 9.]

Gibson correlates this with Richard Muller’s distinction between Barth and Calvin’s respective ‘Christocentric’ approaches; Muller label’s Barth’s approach as principial (or principled) and Gibson adds to this as ‘intensive’, while Muller  labels Calvin’s as ‘soteriological’ Christocentric, which Gibson adds to as extensive—I have written more on that here. Suffice it to say, it is not as simple as asserting that N.T. Wright is Christ-centered, what this post should at least illustrate, is that it is possible to be Christocentric in at least two discernable ways, if not more (and probably more).

The question that was driving the exchange between Moore and myself, on my side, had to do with whether or not N.T. Wright was sufficiently Christ-centered in approach or not. If we use my definition of what that entails, as described of Barth by McCormack, above, then I don’t think N.T. Wright’s approach is sufficiently Christocentric. And this because N.T. Wright, as I understand him, does not intentionally work from a hermeneutical practice and methodology that is robustly or principally Christo-centric. Wright, might be Christocentric in the way Calvin is construed by Muller and Gibson; as ‘soteriologically-extensively’ so (as I described in that linked article). But I am not sure Wright even meets these standards. What I see funding Wright’s approach is a kind of naturalist-historical approach to Scripture that he employs as a ‘Christian’ person, and with the goal of edifying the body of Christ. But again, I don’t see how we can say his approach is Christocentric, if in fact his method is primarily funded by tools that are public and without primary resource to a principled Christological approach.

In the end, I can still learn from Wright, and have! I know NT Wright is a smart guy, with good intention, and has laid bare many many interesting things about the social-historical context of Christ. But for my money, there is much more Christian depth available in the text of Scripture, much more devotional depth, that Wright’s approach necessarily leaves dangling, and for me, empty.

PS. To simply relativize my points above by asserting “well, you are just making your judgements about Christocentrism from your “Reformed” bias,” is neither here nor there. To make such an assertion is not an argument, it does not have legs, it doesn’t go anywhere, it is, in short: a non-starter. All that such a statement is is an exercise in description, it is an observation about a formal situation (i.e. that I think from a Reformed direction). What this statement does not undercut, is the material points that I am suggesting. It does not matter whether or not a point is made from a “Reformed”, “Arminian,” “Greek Orthodox”, “Roman Catholic,” “American Evangelical” perspective; what matters is whether or not the point is true, and thus sound.

The Men, The Method: Barth, Calvin

I thought it might be instructive to post some on the differences that inhere between Calvin’s approach to Biblical interpretation, and Barth’s. David Gibson in his book Reading The Decree: Exegesis, Election, and Christology in Calvin and Barth provides a helpful grid for trying to compare and contrast these two virtuosos. He actually borrows, from both Richard Muller and Bruce McCormack, a lense that helps to sharpen our vision for why Calvin’s approach varies from Barth’s, relative to their disparate understandings of election and Christology (and how this then impinges upon their methodological approaches to doing exegesis and theology). In this vein, I thought I would quote a distinction that Muller makes between Calvin’s and Barth’s approaches (as cited by Gibson), and then I thought I would quote a bit of McCormack (as cited by Gibson) to further highlight how Gibson seeks to develop the divergence in approach that inheres between our two famed theologians. Here is Gibson quoting Muller:

In examining the historical differences between [the models for theological systems that we see in Schleiermacher, Schweizer, Thomasius, Ritschl and Barth] and the theological models of past eras, it is necessary, therefore, to distinguish between the soteriological christocentrism of traditional Christian theology, and what can be called the ‘principial’ christocentrism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The former christocentrism consistently places Christ at the historical and at the soteriological center of the work of redemption. In the theology of Calvin and of the Reformed orthodox, such soteriological christocentrism opposes all synergistic and, therefore, anthropocentric approaches to salvation. The latter, a principial christocentrism, may include the monergistic view of salvation, but it will also assume that Christ is the principium cognoscendi theologiae or, in Kickel’s phrase the Erkenntnissgrund of theology. [R. A Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition, cited by David Gibson, Reading The Decree, 6]

And then Bruce McCormack on what Muller just described as a ‘principial’ christocentrism (in contrast to Calvin’s soteriological christocentrism):

‘Christocentrism’, in Barth’s case then, refers to the attempt (which characterized his mature theology) to understand every doctrine from a centre in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ; i.e. from a centre in God’s act of veiling and unveiling in Christ . . . ‘Christocentrism’, for him, was a methodological rule — not an a priori principle, but a rule which is learned through encounter with the God who reveals himself in Christ — in accordance with which one presupposes a particular understanding of God’s Self-revelation in reflecting upon each and every other doctrinal topic, and seeks to interpret those topics in the light of what is already known of Jesus Christ. [Bruce McCormack, Critically Realistic, cited by David Gibson, Reading The Decree, 9]

Here we have a central distinction made by both Muller and McCormack in regards to Calvin’s and Barth’s disparate approaches to exegesis and theological reflection. These are significant methodological departures, one from the other, that as a microcosim serve to illustrate two very different traditions that are at play in biblical exegesis and theology today. David Gibson goes on to constructively appropriate what he here quotes from Muller and McCormack, and labels Calvin’s approach as “soteriological-extensive,” and Barth’s approach as “principial-intensive;” meaning that Calvin’s ‘Christocentrism’ and approach was very much so grounded in salvation history and the landscape provided by the text of Scripture itself. While Barth’s approach, on the other hand, was committed to penetrating deeply into the theo-logical assumptions (or inner-logic) that God’s life in Christ implies about God’s person in eternity which has then been given visibility in the incarnation and salvation history.

So it should become a little clearer what distinguishes the two. Calvin’s questions, in regards to election, Christology, etc. are driven by soteriological questions; “on the ground,” as it were. While Barth’s questions by looking at the incarnation in Christ, making theological inferences about God’s life and election from there; and then working back into the text of Scripture and salvation history with these ‘inner-logical’ theo-logical assumptions as the guiding principles through which Barth then endeavors to interpret the text of Scripture — as if Scripture could get nowhere without this ‘Christocentric’ mode in place (as construed by his dogmatic theological assumptions). So Calvin isn’t necessarily looking for Jesus in every nook and cranny of Scripture, at least not in the principled way that Barth is.

I’m afraid that this is where I am going to have to leave this one. Hopefully this has helped to provide a little more insight into the differences between Calvin and Barth, and furthermore; hopefully this helps illustrate how more traditional exegesis differs from a more modern exegesis that we find in Barth & co.