Scottish Theology as an Antidote to The Gospel Coalition’s Calvinism

The Gospel Coalition’s annual conference is currently underway. I thought, once again, I would repost a post that gets into some material critique of the sort of Federal Calvinism that funds TGC’s theology. It disheartens me that TGC, and other like movements in conservative evangelicalism, is having the sort of impact and reach it is. In this post I identify, through Bell’s work, a distinction even in and among the Federal theologians as that theology was being developed in Scotland and elsewhere. Here’s that post:

Evangelical Calvinism is really a bubbling over of a variety of impetuses from within the history of Reformed theology. We look to the Scottish theology of Thomas Torrance, and the antecedent theology he looks to in the theology of John Calvin and also in the Scottish Kirk from yesteryear. We of course also look to the Swiss theology of Karl Barth towards offering a way forward in constructive ways in regard to where some of the historical antecedents trail off (primarily because they didn’t have the necessary formal and material theological resources available to them to finally make the turn that needed to be made in regard to a doctrine of election and other things).

In an attempt to identify this kind of movement, that has led to where we currently stand as Evangelical Calvinists, let me share from Charles Bell’s doctoral work on the Scottish theology that Torrance himself looked to in his own development as an evangelical Calvinist. Bell has been doing genealogical work with reference to various Scottish theologians, and also with reference to John Calvin, in his book. We meet up with Bell just as he is summarizing the development he has done on what is called the Marrow theology. This was theology that was developed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries by a group of twelve men; they sought to offer critique of the legalistic strain they discerned in the mainstream of Federal or Covenantal theology of their day, and hoped to place a priority of grace over law (which they believed their colleagues, the Federal theologians, had inverted thus providing for a legal faith) in regard to the covenantal system of theology. What Bell highlights though, is that while they discerned and even felt the pastoral problems provided by Federal theology, they themselves still did not have the wherewithal to remove themselves from that system; and so they suffered from a serious tension and irresolvable conflict in regard to the correction they saw needing to be made, and the way to actually accomplish that correction. Bell writes:

Boston and Erskine can only be fully appreciated against the background of 17th century Federal theology and the Marrow controversy. The Black Act of 1720 threatened the very heart of Reformed teaching concerning the nature of God’s grace. See in this context, it becomes highly significant that Boston and Erskine contend for the universal offer of Christ in the gospel, for such an offer is necessary to provide a basis for assurance. Not only do the Marrow men’s contemporary Federalists deny this universal offer, but they also deny that a basis for the assurance of faith is necessary since, according to them, assurance is not of the essence of faith. In light of the legalism which pervaded the Scottish scene, it is highly significant that men, who were themselves Federalists, detected this legalism and contended against it for the unconditional freeness of God’s grace. This they did by rejecting the covenant of redemption and insisting that there is but one covenant of grace, made for us by God in Christ. It is, therefore, a unilateral covenant which is not dependant or conditional upon our acts of faith, repentance, or obedience.

The Marrow men adhered to such doctrine precisely because they believed them to be both biblical and Reformed truths. Yet, because these men were Federal theologians, they were never able finally to break free of the problems engendered by the Federal theology. The Federal doctrines of two covenants, double predestination, and limited atonement undermined much of their teaching. So, for instance, the concept of a covenant of works obliged them to the priority of law over grace, and to a division between the spheres of nature and redemption. The doctrine of limited atonement removed the possibility of a universal offer of Christ in the gospel, and also removed the basis for assurance of salvation. Ultimately such teaching undermines one’s doctrine of God, causing us to doubt his love and veracity as revealed in the person and work of Christ. The Marrow controversy brought these problems to a head, but unfortunately failed to settle them in a satisfactory and lasting way. However, the stage is now set for the appearance of McLeod Campbell, who, like the Marrow men, saw the problems created by Federal Calvinism, but was able to break free from the Federal system, and therefore, to deal more effectively with the problems.[1]

What I like about Bell’s assessment is his identification of a distinction in and among the Federal theologians themselves; the Marrow men represent how this distinction looked during this period of time. And yet as Bell details even these men were not able to finally overcome the restraints offered by the Federal system of theology; it wasn’t until John McLeod Campbell comes along in the 18th century where what the Marrow men were hoping to accomplish was inchoate[ly] accomplished by his work—but he paid a high price, he was considered a heretic by the standards of the mainstream Federal theologians (we’ll have to detail his theology later).

What I have come to realize is that while we can find promising streams, and even certain moods in the history, we will never be able to overcome the failings that such theologies (like the Federal system) offered because they were, in and of themselves, in self-referential ways, flawed. As much as I appreciate John Calvin’s theology I have to critique him along the same lines as Bell critiques the Marrow men here, even while being very appreciative for the nobility of their work given their historical situation and context. This is why, personally, I am so appreciative of Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance); Barth recognized the real problem plaguing all of these past iterations of Reformed theology, it had to do with their doctrine of God qua election. It is something Barth notes with insight as he offers critique of Calvin, in regard to his double predestination and the problem of assurance that this poses (and this critique equally includes all subsequent developments of classical understanding of double predestination):

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[2]

This was the problem the Marrow men needed to address; it is the problem that McLeod Campbell attempted to address with the resources he had available to him; and yet, I conclude that it was only Barth who was finally successful in making the turn towards a radically Christ concentrated doctrine of double predestination and election. With Barth’s revolutionary move here he washed away all the sins of the past in regard to the problems presented by being slavishly tied to classical double predestination and the metaphysics that supported that rubric.

Concluding Thought

This is why I am so against what is going on in conservative evangelical theology today (again, think of the ubiquitous impact and work The Gospel Coalition is having at the church level). The attempt is being made to retrieve and repristinate the Reformed past as that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries in particular; and the retrieval isn’t even of the Marrow men, it is of the theology that the Marrow men, as Federal theologians themselves, understood had fatal problems in regard to a doctrine of God and everything else subsequent. My question is: Why in the world would anybody want to resurrect such a system of theology? There is no theological vitality there; it can only set people up to repeat the history of the past, in regard to the type of Christian spirituality it offered. Indeed, a spirituality that caused people to be overly introspective, and focused on their relationship with God in voluntarist (i.e. intellectualist) and law-like ways (because of the emphasis of law over grace precisely because of the covenant of works as the preamble and definitive framework for the covenant of grace/redemption). People might mean well, but as far as I am concerned they are more concerned with retrieving a romantic idea about a period of history in Protestant theological development—an idea that for some reason they have imbued with sacrosanct sentimentality—rather than being concerned with actual and material theological conclusions. For my money it does not matter what period of church history we retain our theological categories from; my concern is that we find theological grammars and categories that best reflect and bear witness to the Gospel reality itself. Federal theology does not do that!

[1] M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985), 168.

[2] Karl Barth, CD II/2:111. For further development of this critique, with particular reference to John Calvin, see my personal chapter, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the “Faith of Christ,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene: OR, Pickwick Publications, 2017), 30-57.

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So You Want Grace, You Want the Gospel? Here’s What You Get When You Sign Up with The Gospel Coalition

The Gospel Coalition’s annual conference is currently underway, so I thought it would apropos to repost a post I once wrote (among many) detailing aspects of the theology that stands behind TGC’s understanding of salvation and the Gospel. Here’s that post:

thegospelcoalition

This post will be a hearkening back post, hearkening back to the times when I used to write much more frequently and vociferously, and even polemically against what I have called classical Calvinism, Westminster Calvinism, etc. What is of interest to me is that the so called ‘new Calvinism’ of folks like John Piper and the The Gospel Coalition continue to thrive among a certain sub-culture within North American evangelicalism; truth be told I would lean more towards the biblical conservatism of this mode Versus the other dominant trend within North American evangelicalism which can (and has) been called Progressive Christianity. So with this kind of ground clearing paragraph out of the way let me get into what I want to quickly write about in this post: gratia, or Grace.

I think it is important to sketch the basics and understand what we are getting when we adopt the theology of The Gospel Coalition (I will pick on them, in general, since they are having the most impact across North America upon the local church and her pastors). The Gospel Coalition is not monolithic, there are a variety of and types of Calvinists who are associated with TGC; but in the main they all affirm the categories offered up by scholastic Reformed theology which took shape, primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries of the Protestant Reformed church in Europe and the UK in particular (as well as Puritan America a little later, and at points, concurrently). If this is true–that in the main they all affirm the theological categories offered up by post-Reformed orthodox theology–then what is funding how they conceive of ‘grace?’

If we turn to post-Reformed orthodox Calvinist scholar par excellence, Richard Muller, he helps elucidate what concept of grace was operative for the post-Reformed orthodox theologians (like from the 16th and 17th centuries), and then by corollary, what is operative now for The Gospel Coalition theologians and pastors when it comes to conceiving of grace in the dogmatic category of salvation. Here is how Muller describes a definition for ‘grace’ for both groups of theologians and pastors:

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 the praeparatio 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 between sanctificatio (q.v.) and perseverantia (q.v.) in the scholastic ordo salutis (q.v.), or order of salvation….[1]

When you sign up for The Gospel Coalition’s news letter, or subscribe to their feed, and when they are discussing salvation in that letter or feed, this is what will be standing behind their commentary and exegesis at a theological/philosophical level. I just wanted you to be informed about that, I wouldn’t want you to think that you are getting the ‘pure Gospel’ when reading such commentary; I’d want you to know that there is a history of ideas behind the Gospel you are getting when you read the writers and theologians from The Gospel Coalition (I am not even sure that many of TGC’s thinkers are all that critically aware themselves of what informs their exegetical and theological decisions). So you have been served.

There are many material things highlighted in the definition of ‘gratia’ or grace by Muller above, and I cannot get into them in this post (but I will, I have a future post already queued up in my mind, expanding on the concept of ‘created grace’, the ‘habitus’, ‘cooperative grace’, and the idea of an enablement view of salvation as highlighted by Muller). Suffice it to say here, if you would like an alternative to the above, an alternative that sees grace as personal, and embodied by God himself in Jesus Christ, then Evangelical Calvinism will be a better fit for you. Stay tuned.

PS. When folks of whatever stature want to critique Evangelical Calvinism, and her premises, as laid out by Myk and myself in our book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church it would be helpful for the uninformed if you would let your readers know that your critiques come from a certain metaphysical direction, namely, the Aristotelian direction, and so when you do biblical exegesis in critique of EC, please at least have the courtesy of footnoting where your informing voices come from–this will be more honest, up front, and critical, especially for your readers.

 

[1] 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.

*I usually get all kinds of push back with posts like this (people typically don’t like the politics of posts like this, but I am aiming at simply opening the windows toward a critical horizon that people can better think from when approaching such discussions and life altering realities).

The Sheep Know the Shepherd’s Voice, In Contrast to the Non-voice of the No-God in Scholasticisms: Thinking on Assurance of Salvation Again

Let us consider assurance of salvation, once again. As many of you know I have elaborated on this theme further in our last EC book, but I wanted to continue thinking further on it here. This will be brief, and we will use a quote I have used more than once from Barth in critique of Calvin’s ability to offer a real doctrine of assurance of salvation. But we will not be focusing on Barth and Calvin, per
se, we will only use the quote as a jumping off point for another point I want to make on the same theme. Here is that quote:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[1]

The aspect of this quote I do want to appropriate is the emphasis on the Word of God, on Jesus Christ. The thought that seemingly and randomly occurred to me this evening was how the ‘hidden God’ functions as a contributory to doubt of one’s personal salvation. In other words, if God is a brute Creator God who relates to the world via decretum absolutum, through decrees that keep God untouched and unmoved by His creation, then it becomes psychologically plausible that a person could live an entire life in doubt that they genuinely are participants in eternal salvation. If God’s salvation remains hidden back up in a decree, then what correlation is there between God’s voice and knowledge of God and thus self? In other words, the Bible says (cf. Jn 10) that the sheep know their Shepherd’s (Jesus’s) voice; which presumably means that the Christian is in a dialogical/con-versational relationship with their Lord. If this is so, the decretal God is, at best, a total misunderstanding of who the God of biblical reality is.

This is the thought that hit me: Pro me, God is not an impersonal and objective/capricious being I have no access to. NEIN! Pro me, God is a personal God I have an intimate relationship with bonded in the sweetness of love bounded by the Holy Spirit, who has placed me into union with God in and through the grace of Christ’s vicarious humanity. In other words, I actually KNOW God. I know His character, and hear His still small voice in the inner recesses of my heart. I know that I am my beloveds and He is mine! This knowledge quenches any concept of a hidden God; like the sort of hidden God who stands behind an absolute decree to choose some and reject others. For the Christian, God is not an unknowable quantity; we know Him, because He first has known us in the Son made flesh.

But the point I want to get across in this post, most fervently, is that I actually KNOW my Lord; I actually KNOW His voice, and He speaks to me. If there is a theology that mitigates this most biblical reality, then it is no theology at all; instead it is a philosophy going under the name of theology—no matter its historical lineage.

[1] Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.

Election Was Barth’s Hook: Contra the Five Point Calvinists and the Absolutum Decretum

What initially attracted me to Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance? It really was a matter of theological utility, and need. I lived in a nut, and I needed it cracked; they cracked it for me with integrity and theological acumen. That was the hook for me. What am I referring to; what’s the nut? Election/Reprobation/Predestination. Some people simply want to ignore these words, and the concepts they symbolize, because they would claim they aren’t biblical words (but neither is the Trinity). So for those of us who don’t want to live with our heads in the theological sands we feel compelled to deal with the material language like election represent. For me, growing up as an evangelical, a Conservative Baptist to boot, my inculcation in this area was to live in a mode that some call: Calmanian. You see what’s being done there? The smooshing together of the words Calvinist and Arminian; this was the smooshy world I lived in all the way through seminary. I freely chose to reject the idea that God in Christ only died for a limited elect group of people (the “U” in the TULIP: ‘Unconditional Election’ and the “L” ‘Limited Atonement’); indeed, I have always found that idea reprehensible and at severe odds with who I’ve always understood God to be as Triune love. I could never stomach the idea, and still can’t, that God only ultimately loves certain people that He chooses to love based on an ad hoc choice that He makes for reasons known only to Him. I find this reprehensible because I don’t find it cohering with who God has revealed Himself to be in Jesus Christ; never have!

Barth, and Torrance following, offered a way out for me; but not in the negative way that might sound. In other words, what I found in them, with there intensive concentration on Jesus Christ, was a way to think about election-reprobation in and from what Hunsinger calls the ‘Chalcedonian Pattern’ (in reference to Barth’s theology). In the spirit of Athanasius, Barth and Torrance, both take the categories of election-reprobation and ground them principally in Jesus Christ; they see Him as both the electing God, and the elected human. In His free choice to be elected human, by virtue of His electing work, he assumes the reprobate status of what it means to be human (post-lapse). When we think about election-reprobation alongside Barth-Torrance we start thinking in terms of what has been called the mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’), or in the more Pauline terms of ‘by His poverty we’ve been made rich’ (cf. II Cor. 8.9). So the focus for Barth and Torrance is on a concrete humanity versus the abstract and individualistic conception of humanity we find in the so called absolutum decretum funding five point soteriology. In other words, for Barth and Torrance, Jesus is archetypal humanity, the ‘firstborn from the dead’ (cf. Col. 1.15-18), the ‘new creation’ (cf. II Cor. 5.17); by virtue of this status it is not possible to connive any other ontology or concept of humanity except by thinking that through the resurrected/recreated humanity of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, this isn’t just in Barth-Torrance, Calvin’s union with Christ (unio cum Christo) and double grace (duplex gratia) concepts are inchoate seeds that finally led to what Barth ultimately developed (see Pierre Maury’s influence on Barth’s aha moment in regard to his reformulation of election — Maury can be seen as a stepping stone between Calvin and Barth).

Some people are troubled by this schema for election-reprobation because of the theory of causation and the metaphysics they have imbibed (that produced the absolutum decretum), but that’s their problem. If people want to conflate a foreign ideological framework with kerygmatic reality, and then petitio principii (circular) argue that anyone who disagrees with them is disagreeing with the Gospel and its implications has deeper problems they ought to attend to; like an inability to critically engage with their own theological methodology. In other words, the Calvinist is very concerned, with reference to Barth’s reformulation, with how someone will finally come to the point that they need Jesus; i.e. given their totally depraved state. Given their options, in the metaphysics they live in, all they have available to them is a world that either emphasizes God’s choice, or the human choice. But that’s not the only alternative (in regard to thinking about causality); and Torrance’s work with Einstein’s theory of relativity and Maxwell’s field theory, helps to illustrate, by engagement with what Torrance calls ‘social-coefficients’ (what Barth might call ‘secular parables’ and some Patristics might call Logoi) how things are more dynamic in the warp and woof of the fabric of contingent/created reality vis-à-vis God.

Let me leave us with a good quote from Barth:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[1]

I develop all of this further in my personal chapter for our last Evangelical Calvinism book; which you can read via google books here.

I don’t know if you hang around in Calvinist circles (like I do!), but it’s interesting, they hardly ever talk about this doctrine. There is good reason why! Roger Olson, the evangelical Arminian, often refers to the Calvinist God as a monster, precisely because of their doctrine of election-reprobation. But Olson, ironically, works in and from the same theological material, and the same basic metaphysic that the Calvinists do; he doesn’t offer a viable alternative.

[1] Karl Barth, CD II/2, 111.

Gannon Murphy On: To truly know God is to love him. Religion and Piety As a Frame for Knowing God

By now you know that our second Evangelical Calvinism book was just released, the full title being: Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion. But as you also know Myk and I had a volume 1 Evangelical Calvinism book published under the title: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (which this subtitle is also attached to our second volume as well). This post will be referencing one of the chapters found in EC1; a chapter written by Gannon Murphy on knowledge of God in John Calvin’s thought.

What I want to focus on, in regard to Gannon’s chapter is his brief but profound development of how the Latin terms religio and pietas function in Calvin’s theological offering when it comes to knowledge of God. As Murphy points out Calvin’s conception of knowledge of God was never a disembodied one; in fact it was more existential. It was never really a philosophical or abstract engagement with some sort of abstract brute conception of a substance that we could correlate through abstract reasoning to the God disclosed in Holy Scripture and Jesus Christ. No, as Murphy argues, for Calvin, knowledge of God was something more akin to knowledge in God; more particularly in Christ. Gannon up-points how the concepts of religio and pietas functioned in this type of dialogical/existential mode for the Christian knower coram Deo (‘before God’). Gannon writes (at length):

Religio and Pietas

The very beginning of the Institutes commences in a statement concerning that which constitutes true wisdom, to wit, that wisdom “consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Some theologians have argued that this first statement is actually the entire point of the Institutes, a contestable, but not entirely meritless, claim.

It is perhaps customary in our technological age to think of knowledge as a purely apprehensive or propositional enterprise—we have knowledge of this object, or that thing, or such-and-such a set of data. The key to preserving Calvin’s doctrine of knowledge (cognitione), however, is to see it as something much fuller and more “holistic.” In sum, to truly know God is to love him. Theological knowledge is not merely propositional in nature or a matter of mere intellectual assent (assensus). Rather, it must also be experiential, stemming from love that also manifests itself in adoration, trust, fear, and obedience to God. Edward Dowey, for example, refers to Calvin’s concept of knowledge, as “existential knowledge.” The idea of coming to God merely in mind is an utterly foreign concept throughout the Calvinian corpus. Further, Calvin (like Luther) alludes to the nonsensical nature of conceiving of God as a mere object of knowledge.

Calvin uses the terms religio and pietas which, unfortunately, do not translate well into our English words, religion and piety, both of which tend to connote merely a system of ecclesiology or perfunctory, external religious observance. Both words in the Latin, however, denote something much deeper. Re-ligio derives from re, “again” and ligere, “to literally means “careful,” the opposite of negligens. Religio, then, means something more along the lines of “careful attention to” and to be “rebound.” Pietas, while often suggesting merely “dutifulness,” is better understood as “dutiful kindness,” stemming from the Latin root pius (literally, “kind”). Thus, pietas is friendly obedience toward the things of God. It is the perfect opposite of animosity toward godly things—to find oneself welcoming of, and delighting in, his or her Creator.

Calvin, characteristically never wanting to be misunderstood but always desiring clarity for his readers, defines religio as, “confidence in God coupled with serious fear—fear, which both includes in it willing reverence, and brings along with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed by the law.” On the other hand, pietas is “that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires.” Expounded here is something rather far removed from trajectories that find natural theology as their starting point—the idea of an irrefragable knowledge of God garnered apart from reverence and revelation, that is, a special and specific Word from God. Rather, Calvin speaks of the first step of pietas being, “to acknowledge that God is a Father, to defend, govern, and cherish us, until he brings us to the eternal inheritance of his kingdom.”

That true knowledge of God cannot be torn asunder from pietas and religio means, then, that overly-philosophical speculation about the essence or substance of God is necessarily ruled out. Calvin derides such pursuits as “Epicurean,” as “frigid speculations,” and admonishes us rather to seek out “what things are agreeable to his nature.”[1]

Personally this resonates with me deeply; which is why Murphy’s chapter is so apropos in a book with the title Evangelical Calvinism. It is this embodied way of knowing God, by loving God that represents the proper kind of ‘pure religion’ and piety that Jesus himself claims sums up all of the Law and Prophets:

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”[2]

What this Calvinian mode towards knowledge of God kicks against, ironically, is any approach that would attempt to know God through discursive reasoning, or philosophical abstraction. What Calvin’s approach admonishes us to is to approach God through God in Christ en concreto (specific); through the realization that genuine knowledge of God is never an abstract academic endeavor, it always entails the particular and scandalous approach to God that only comes through the Lamb slain before the foundations of the world. In other words, genuine religion and piety,  relative to the Christian, involves a committed and lively relationship with God; but one that is not initiated by humans in abstraction, instead one that is unilaterally provided for by the initiation and election of God in Christ. Some might consider this relational way for conceiving of knowledge of God as foolish and weak; but so goes the way of the Gospel.

What this all avoids is presenting a knowledge of God that is rooted, again, in philosophical speculation and even what counts today, most, as what it means to do good Christian evangelical theology. What we want to avoid, which Dag Hammarskjöld so eloquently describes is a presentation of a knowledge of the faith that in the end is perceptibly empty by the discerning and reflective human Christian or even non-Christian would-be knower. Note Hammarskjöld: “‘How many have been driven into outer darkness by empty talk about faith as something to be rationally comprehended, something “true”’.[3] If we follow Calvin’s lead, according to Gannon, we won’t be ‘driven into outer darkness’ when coming to know God in Christ; instead because of union and participation in and from life in Christ we will be “irresistibly” drawn deeper and deeper into the winsome and ineffable inner life of God, in Christ, wherein an effervescent and luminous knowledge of God’s life, by experience (properly understood), will be ever increasing and ever inviting.

Leaving on a Personal Note

I honestly do not think this is the approach people in the 21st century evangelical church, particularly in North America and the West, are being provided with. Instead, contra Calvin, what folks are being fed is a pablum of religio and pietas that come in that name only. In other words, people are being encouraged, if they want to press deep into God, to engage with God from a philosophical and ‘natural’ approach to him. What makes this hard for folks to discern is that so much of what they are being fed has been conflated and couched in a Christian (i.e. Reformed) heritage that has this type of heart-warmed-over affectionate “piety” associated with it; but when that person digs deeper into the intellectual framework that is funding this “piety” what in fact they will find is a highly philosophical apparatus for knowing God that has more to do with the classical Philosophers of ancient Greece than it does with God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

It seriously agitates me that this is what counts as engaging with God for the evangelical Christian today. I blame institutions such as The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, and other associations of evangelicals for much of this; i.e. at least as this is making its way into the broader community of evangelical Christians in North America. We need to return to the sources, ad fontes, truly; but may that be understood to be genuinely rooted in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ alone. May that be understood to be grounded in an actual framework that genuinely is relational and personal, and works from the “foundation” that the Triune God is indeed ‘the ground and grammar’ of all things; particularly and mostly of knowledge of Godself.

*repost

[1] Gannon Murphy, Pietas, Religio, and the God Who Is, in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2012), 159-60.

[2] NASB.

[3] See Jason Goroncy’s post, On Empty Talk About Faith, accessed 05-16-2017.

How John Calvin Found Comfort in Regard to His Physical Frailty and Sicknesses: And Application of that to My Cancer Diagnosis and Human Suffering in General

Sickness, disease, suffering, death, and evil, among other such trifles, are all things that Christians have a capacity to face, before and because of God, with an utter sense of hope and sober trust. Often evil, and all of its attendant realities (including human suffering!), is used as a scalpel to cut God to pieces; leaving him as nothing more than a corpse that the modern person can look at with kind of perverted joy, and yet somber realization that all they are left with is themselves (they’d have it no other way).

John Calvin, pre-modern as he was, was no stranger to human suffering, sickness, and disease. Indeed, as W. Allen Hogge, M.D. and Charles Partee detail in their contribution to our Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2 book, through their chapter entitled Calvin’s Awful Health and God’s Awesome Providence, we come to see, with some precision, the scope of suffering that Calvin endured; particularly with regard to his physical health. We see how Calvin dealt with his fragile constitution, coram Deo, by intertwining his theological framework with his interpretation of his own predicament as a broken and ill person. We see how Calvin’s doctrine[s] of predestination, election, Divine Providence, so on and so forth informed the way he attempted to deal with the ostensible problem of suffering, disease, and the brokenness with which he was so familiar.

In an attempt to provide some good context on how Calvin dealt with all of this theologically, I thought I would appeal (at some extensive length) to Hogge’s and Partee’s writing on the matter; and then offer some reflections of my own in light of Calvin’s approach to suffering. I thought I would tie my own experiences of dealing with severe depression, anxiety, doubt of God, and diagnosis of a terminal and incurable cancer into Calvin’s own approach when it comes to God’s Providence and care in these instances. So at length here is a section from Hogge’s and Partee’s chapter (I’m thinking this is actually a section that Partee wrote):

An Alternative Conclusion

Granted the erstwhile power of Calvin’s exposition of God’s almighty providence, this once shining heirloom is tarnished for many in recent generations. If God is the author of everything and evil is clearly something, then simple logic seems to dictate the conclusion that God is responsible for evil. In other words in the light of his strong affirmation of God’s providence, Calvin’s equally strong denial that God is the author of evil is not as convincing as once it was. Obviously, the sweeping philosophical conundrum of the origin and existence of evil (of which physical illness is a painfully personal example) has exercised serious reflection from the beginning with no satisfactory end in sight. Therefore, if a completely satisfactory resolution is unlikely, at least Calvin’s conclusion can be gently modified by his own suggestion.

Among the alternative possibilities for resolution, Calvin did not for a moment consider that God might be limited in nature (as in process theology) or self-limited by choice (as in Emil Brunner)83 or that God’s interest in “soul-making” requires the existence of evil.84 The regnancy of God is unquestioned. Calvin believed all things are governed by God including human free will. We are to understand “that on both sides the will is in God’s power, either to bend the hearts of men to humanity, or to harden those which were naturally tender.”85 In a bold metaphor Calvin even claims that God fights against us with his left hand and for us with his right hand.86 In both events we are in God’s hands.

Two modern, major, and massive theological acquisitions have provoked a climate change of opinion that Calvin could not have anticipated and which require integration into the family heritage. First, a particularly contentious debate over Calvin’s doctrine of Scripture continues to roil his descendants. There is, of course, no gainsaying that Calvin did not feel the impact of the Critical Historical Method, and, while his response to this development cannot be predicted, its adoption by most mainstream biblical scholars today means that the distinction between human and divine in Scripture is less adamantine than Calvin thought. Thus, a biblical citation no longer closes a discussion but opens it to furtherdevelopment.87

The second wider and deeper change concerns the role of reason. The dream of reason in Western intellectual culture stretched from Plato to Spinoza, but the famous wake-up call which sounded from David Hume alarming Immanuel Kant and rousing him from his dogmatic slumbers, leads to the claim that “The Copernican revolution brought about by Kant was the most important single turning point in the history of philosophy.”88 If so, it is now impossible for Western theologians to ignore Kant’s strictures on pure reason to make room for deep faith. Additionally, the necessity and universality of reason has been challenged by anthropological studies of differing cultures and gender studies within the same culture. Moreover, the developing scientific study of the human and animal brain modifies the confidence of Hamlet’s appeal to “godlike reason” (Hamlet IV.4.38).

Calvin’s epistemological reliance on Scripture and reason is an immense and complicated subject on its own.89 He believed the Bible was the divine Word of God but he also noted its human elements. Likewise, Calvin both praised and blamed reason. “Reason is proper to our nature; it distinguishes us from brute beasts.”90 At the same time, because of sin human reason is not able to understand God nor God’s relation to humanity. 91 Therefore, “Christian philosophy bids reason give way to, submit, and subject itself to, the Holy Spirit.”92 Still at the end of the day, although Calvin rejects “speculation,”93 he thinks there must be a reason for the existence of illnesses, even if we do not know exactly what it is. Among his explanations, Calvin offers the punishment of human sin, God’s hidden will, the malignancy of Satan and the demons, and the evil will of other human beings. According to Calvin, the proper human response to this situation is faith, humility, patience, and so on. Nevertheless, the variety of these explanations does not challenge Calvin’s basic confidence that the divine intellect has its reasons even though they are hidden from us.

An alternative category of “mysteries beyond reason” is sometimes employed by Calvin and should be noted. That is, Calvin affirms many divine things that humans do not, and cannot, know. For example, he admits the existence of sin as “adventitious”94 meaning it has no rational explanation. Calvin did not, but he might have, applied this category to disease suggesting that while medicine seeks to describe “what” and “how,” theology cannot explain its “why.” This situation has some affinity with Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal realm leading to the concept of “antinomy”—a category impervious to pure, but not to practical, reason. If then we humans can recognize and treat the penultimate and medical causes of disease, we might admit that we do not understand the “reason” for illness and are not obligated to insist ultimately and theologically that there is one. One might leave the painful puzzle to reason and the trustful victory to faith.

Many contemporary students of Calvin’s theology, both clerical and medical, cannot with best mind and good conscience adopt the obvious conclusion that Calvin draws concerning the existence and meaning of disease. Still, seeking a life of faith, hope, and love, one can appreciate Calvin’s passionate conviction that in neither prosperity nor adversity are we separated from the love of God. Therefore, leaving the study of “material,” “efficient,” and “formal” causes to the scientific community, theologians might come full stop before the “final” causes of illness. Affirming in faith with Calvin God’s good creation and encompassing providence, the impenetrable mystery of assigning a “final cause” for disease might be approached with the modesty and humility which Calvin sometimes evinces.

Following this interlude of thundering silence, theology could resume with the glorious theme of hope in life everlasting and abundant where, delivered from pain and death, all tears are dried, all sorrows past, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see, lepers are cleansed—the dead being raised up made alive in Christ.[1]

Following Hogge’s and Partee’s treatment of Calvin, we can see that Calvin himself, because of his historical location, would defy the modern attempt to peer into the ‘abyss’ of God’s secret council when it comes to trying to understand the ‘cause’ of evil, sickness, and disease. But precisely because of Calvin’s location, theologically, he will consistently defer to God’s sovereign hand of providence in the affairs of this world order, and all of us ensconced within it. So while he will not attempt to speculate or press in the type of rationalist ways that moderns might want to; at the same time he rests and trusts in the reality that God is providentially in control of sickness and disease. He doesn’t have the type of scientific acumen that moderns have ostensibly developed, but he rests in the always abiding reality of God’s almighty ability to succor the needs of all of us frail and indolent humans as we inhabit a world of contingencies and ailments not of our own making, per se.

As modern and now “post-modern” people we want more scientifically derived answers than Calvin can offer us. When we get sick, when we suffer immeasurable diseases and anxieties in our apparently cold and chaotic world, we look to the lab-coats to offer us a cure-for-what-ails-us. But for anyone, particularly those of us, who like Calvin, abide in a deep union with God in Jesus Christ, we will most consistently end up right where pre-modern Calvin always ended up; we will repose in God’s faithful care to never leave us or forsake us; we will rest in the reality that God is both sovereign, and that he providentially walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, even more than we realize.

When I was diagnosed with desmoplastic small round cell tumor sarcoma (DSRCT), an incurable and terminal cancer for which there is no known treatment, I ended up right where Calvin ended up; I had to simply rest and trust in God’s providential and loving care. I did due diligence, in regard to pursuing all known treatment avenues, both traditionally and alternatively, but at the end of the day, and in every instance, I had to rest in the reality that God was in control. Like Calvin, as Hogge and Partee highlight, I had to find assurance and hope in the fact that the God who I couldn’t control was in control, indeed, of my every waning anxiety and fear; that he was in control of the chaos (the cancer) inside of my body that wanted to consume me like a voracious monster. I did find rest and hope in God’s providential care; not in the abstract, but as God broke into my life moment by moment, every moment of everyday during that season.

While sickness, disease, suffering, evil, and the like might not have an easy answer—as far as causation—what we can rest in, like Calvin did, is the fact that we know the One who is in control; who is in control of what might even look like absolute chaos and destruction upon us. We can rest in the fact that, in Christ, we are in union with an indestructible life that death couldn’t even hold down. This is my comfort in life, even now. I rest in the fact that God in Christ gives me every breath that I breathe, literally; the same breath that the risen Son of God rose with on that Easter morning.

[1] W. Allen Hogge, M.D. and Charles Partee, “Calvin’s Awful Health and God’s Awesome Providence,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2017), 285-88.

*Repost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Christologically Construed Account of Assurance of Salvation in Contrast to an Ecclesiocentric-Catholic Account

Just the other day I was listening to the local Catholic radio station, Mater Dei, and in particular a show they feature (that is a nationally syndicated show originating in San Diego) called Catholic Answers. On the show they had an apologist and public representative for Catholicism fielding call in questions. One of the questions came from a Protestant caller who wanted clarification on the basics of Roman salvation, and in particular, wondered if a Catholic could have assurance of salvation. The apologist’s answer was standard fare, in regard to explaining how Catholics think of salvation; and his response on assurance was that Catholics cannot have that. He noted that this was because salvation was contingent upon the level of cooperation a person has in their walk of salvation, as such coming to any sort of certitude in regard to their “metaphysical standing” (his words) before God is always a tenuous one, and not something any one individual can have in this life.

As a Protestant Reformed Christian, who is also an Evangelical Calvinist, this of course kicks against the goads of my own mind and theological development. I do believe that with a proper Christologically conditioned soteriology assurance of salvation is not an elusive thing; indeed, I think it is the essence of saving faith insofar as that saving faith is grounded in Jesus’ vicarious ‘yes’ for us. In my personal chapter for our most recent book Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion I wrote a whole chapter on the doctrine of assurance of salvation. I thought I would share four concluding points on assurance of salvation that I presented towards the end of my chapter. It is because of these reasons, and more, that the Catholic response does not do justice to a Christologically conceived doctrine of salvation; not to mention it’s problems when measured against a sound exegesis of Holy Scripture. Here are those points:

  1. Calvin was onto something profound, and this is why we Evangelical Calvinists gravitate towards his belief that “assurance is of the essence of faith.” That notwithstanding, as we developed previously, Calvin’s lack of place for reprobation in his soteriology coupled with the idea of ‘temporary faith’ can be problematic. It has the potential to cause serious anxiety for anyone struggling with whether or not they are truly one of God’s elect. In this frame someone can look and sound like a Christian, but in the end might just be someone who has a “temporary” or “ineffectual faith.” The problem for Calvin, as with the tradition he is representing, is that the focus of election is not first on Jesus Christ, but instead it is upon individuals. Even though, as we have seen, Calvin does have some valuable things to say in regard to a theology of union with Christ, if we simply stayed with his doctrine of election and eternal decrees, we would always find assurance of salvation elusive.
  2. Despite what is lacking in Calvin’s superstructure he nevertheless was able to offer some brilliant trajectories for the development of a doctrine of assurance. Union with Christ and the duplex gratia in Calvin’s theology provide a focus on salvation that sees salvation extra nos (outside of us), and consequently as an objective reality that is not contingent upon us, but solely contingent on the person and achievements of Jesus Christ for us. This is where assurance can be developed from Calvin’s theology in a constructive manner. If salvation is not predicated upon my faith or by my works, but instead is a predicate of Jesus’ faith and faithfulness, then there is no longer space for anyone to look but to Christ. As we have already noted, Calvin did not necessarily press into the idea of Jesus’ faith for us, but that could be an implication in an inchoate way within Calvin’s thought. Calvin provides hope for weary and seeking souls because of his doctrines of union with Christ and the duplex gratia; primarily because what these doctrines say is that all aspects of salvation have been accomplished by Jesus Christ (namely here, justification and sanctification). Calvin’s theology, when we simply look at his theology of union with Christ and grace, leaves no space for seekers to look anywhere else but to Christ for assurance of salvation. And at this level Calvin can truly say that “assurance is the essence of faith.”
  3. As we moved from Calvin to Barth and Torrance what we have are the theological resources required for a robust doctrine of assurance. With Barth and Torrance we certainly have Calvin’s emphases on union with Christ and grace, as Christ is understood as the objective (and subjective) ground of salvation. But moving beyond this we have Calvin’s weaknesses corrected when it comes to a doctrine of election. Because Barth and Torrance see Jesus as both elect and reprobate simultaneously in his vicarious humanity for all of humanity, there is absolutely no space for anxiety in the life of the seeker of assurance. Since, for Barth and Torrance, there is no such thing as “temporary faith,” since faith, from their perspective, is the “faith of Christ” (pistis Christou) for all of humanity, there is no room for the elect to attempt to prove that they have a genuine saving faith, since the only saving faith is Christ’s “for us and our salvation.” Further, since there is no hidden or secret decree where the reprobate can be relegated, since God’s choice is on full display in Jesus Christ— with “no decree behind the back of Jesus”—the seeker of assurance does not have to wonder whether or not God is for them or not; the fact and act of the incarnation itself already says explicitly that God is for the elect and not against them.
  4. If there is no such thing as elect and reprobate individuals, if God in Christ gave his life for all of humanity in his own elect humanity, if there is no such thing as temporary faith, if Christ’s faith for us is representative of the only type of saving faith there is; then Christ is all consuming, as such he is God’s assurance of salvation for all of humanity. The moment someone starts to wonder if they are elect, properly understood, the only place that person can look is to Jesus. There is no abstract concept of salvation; Jesus Christ is salvation, and assurance of salvation and any lingering questions associated with that have no space other than to look at Jesus. The moment someone gets caught up in anxious thoughts and behavior associated with assurance, is the moment that person has ceased thinking about salvation in, by, and for Christ. Anxiety about salvation, about whether or not I am elect only comes from a faulty doctrine of election which, as we have seen, is in reality the result of a faulty Christology. We only have salvation with God in Christ because of what Jesus Christ did for us by the grace of God; as such our only hope is to be in union with Christ, and participate in what Calvin called the “double grace” of God’s life for us. It is this reality that quenches any fears about whether or not I am genuinely elect; because it places the total burden of that question on what God has done for us, including having faith for us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.[1]

The Roman Catholic, as well as the classical Arminian and Calvinist positions flounder against this type of theological or Christological backdrop. Can we have assurance of salvation? I don’t know, ask Jesus.

[1] Bobby Grow, “’Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith’ Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the ‘Faith of Christ’,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017), 52-4.

Jean Gerson as a Paragon for Evangelical Calvinist Tendencies: What Hath Mystical Theology to do With Scholastic?

Jean Gerson (1363-1429) medieval theologian and chancellor of the University of Paris offers a helpful vision towards the type of corrective that I’ve been hoping Evangelical Calvinism along with Ron Frost’s Affective Theology might offer the resurgence of scholastic Reformed theology we see evident in movements like The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, so on and so forth. We do see an attempt by some of these movements, especially at the more pastoral levels, to integrate a piety and spiritual practices that Gerson hoped to inject into his own scholastic context; but I don’t think scholasticism Reformed actually has the theological categories to consistently apply a genuinely ‘love-based’ theological trajectory for the church. In order to fill out my very introductory comments here about Gerson let’s hear from Steven Ozment’s more developed commentary, and build from there:

In his magisterial study, On Mystical Theology, Gerson (1363-1429), chancellor of the University of Paris and an accomplished spiritual writer, contrasted the different approaches to God and religion in scholastic and mystical theology. The work was both a summary of the tempermental differences that historically divided the scholastic and spiritual traditions and an eloquent statement of the latter’s superiority. Scholastic and mystical theologians were seen to differ, first of all, in their basic sources. Scholastics derived their information about God and religion from God’s “outward effects”; they studied the Bible and church history and read theological commentaries. Mystical theologians, by contrast, found their basic sources in records of God’s “internal effects,” that is, in evidence of divine presence in the recorded history and tradition of the heart. A second difference cited by Gerson was that scholastics relied on reason and distrusted the emotions, while mystical theologians trusted the affections—provided they had been disciplined by true doctrine—and believed that the reasons of the heart were closer to God than the speculations of the mind. Third, while scholastics strove to behold God as the highest truth, mystical theologians sought to embrace him as the highest good. A fourth difference lay in the mystical theologians’s belief that love could reach farther than reason and help the mind transcend its natural limitations; following the pes amoris, the pes cognitionis was able to enter regions otherwise inaccessible to it. Gerson compare this to the way fire caused water to boil over; heated by love, the mind bounded to new heights.

Gerson drew two further contrasts between scholastic mystical theology. He described the mystical way to God as the more democratic: “even young girls and simple people [idiotae]” could become experts in mystical theology, where love and personal experience, not formal university training, were the essential requirements. Finally, Gerson presented the mystical way as intrinsically more self-fulfilling, since love gave both the heart and the mind a satisfaction beyond any that the mere technical knowledge of scholastic theologians could provide.

As chancellor of the University of Paris, Gerson was a lightning rod for the conflicts within and between the various faculties. Within his own theological faculty, warring Scotist, Ockhamist, and Thomist factions proved so frustrating to him that he threatened to resign on March 1400. The threat won him new political power within the university, which made possible a positive effort to reform Parisian education by recapturing the unity of theology and spirituality that Gerson believed existed in the days of the church fathers and, more recently, in the life and work of the two medieval theologians who became his personal models: Bernard of Clairvaux and Bonaventura.

In his first reform proposals, Gerson traced the problems of the theological faculty to what he called “useless, unedifying, and insubstantial teachings,” by which he meant primarily the extreme speculations of Scotist theologians on such impossible topics as the generation of the Holy Trinity. Gerson believed that such probings beyond the mind’s ken gave laymen a false picture of Christianity and led other scholars in the university to suspect that the theologians preferred utterly incredible and absurd things (incredibilia et absurdissima) to the Bible and moral theology. These speculations divided the theological faculty itself, one side accusing the other of being bumpkins (rudes), while the other charged their critics with pure fantasy (curiosi et phantastici). Gerson found that scholastics generally had transmuted traditional theological vocabulary, in use since patristic times, into a language only experts understood. He described a favorite of the Parisian scholastics, Raymond Lull (1235-1316), a Franciscan tertiary, as a theologian who used terms even the theologians had not heard before.

Gerson proposed two basic remedies: first, he would require students to read less of book 1 of Lombard’s Sentences, where the nature of God is dealt with, and to give more attention to books 2 through 4, where they would learn about Jesus, the church, the sacraments, and the life to come—topics assumed less likely to occasion flights of fancy and bitter argument; second, he would forbid the discussion of sophistical questions (sophismata) and all topics declared suspect and scandalous by the church.[1]

It is no coincidence that Martin Luther’s spiritual father, Johann von Staupitz was influenced by Jean Gerson; we see this influence heavily engendering Luther’s own reforming efforts (which I’ve written on here).

What I want folks to see is that the issues I have been alerting folks to for years are issues that aren’t ones that simply have fomented whole cloth from my own very round head. I think what Gerson saw is something we are still contending with, especially with the resurgence of aspects of Reformed theology (think [at the popular level] Young, Restless, and Reformed et al.) today. Evangelicals have come to a breaking point, especially the younger generation, and they want more depth. Yet, I would contend, that what they have stumbled upon in the history only represents one stream of Reformed theology; they have failed to recognize that there are various eddies that make up the totus Reformed theologia landscape (in the history). What Gerson points up for us, once again, is that there is always this need to attend to the deeper realities of theology, realities that speculative theology (such as we find funding most of what is currently being resourced by young evangelicals and now Reformed theologians) does not have the resources to fund.

This is why I appeal to Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. These two in particular, among the modern theologians, have an eye to the Gersonian concerns that I do not find in much of what counts as Reformed theology currently. The emphasis of Barth and Torrance is to start their theologies with the Word of God (which is a very reformed notion/principia), and think God and relationship with God from a necessarily Trinitarian and thus love-relational grounding; from a filial grounding rather than a discursive and speculative one. This remains the locus classicus for what we are proposing as an Evangelical Calvinism; i.e. that the ground and grammar of all theology must be God’s Triune Life of Love (versus grounding our relationship in and through the discursive and speculative machinations of the theologians). I think this fits, in its own 21st century kind of way, with Gerson’s own 14th and 15th century concerns.

The bottom line is that who we think God is will determine everything else that follows, theologically. If we get God wrong everything else following will be skewed; such gravity is too much to overlook.

 

[1] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550: An Intellectual And Religious History Of Late Medieval And Reformation Europe (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), 73-5.

Being a Theologian For and From Jesus Rather than For Men: Getting Past Historical Reconstruction and Getting To Genuinely Constructively Christian Theologizing

In an attempt, once again, to highlight my approach to theology and constructive ressourcement (theology of retrieval, so called), let me share something I wrote in our Introduction to our most recent Evangelical Calvinism book: Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion. Myk Habets and I cowrote the introduction to our most recent book; the following is my contribution to that chapter (it is actually an adaptation and refinement of a blog post that I wrote originally for my blog here). I wanted to reiterate this because I think there is some confusion about the
theological task sometimes, by some folks. I think some folks confuse the constructive theological task with historiography and reconstruction of the ideational past in the realm of ecclesial ideas and development; there is a difference. While I think it is very important to report as accurately as we can when we are involved in the reconstruction and culling of various personages’ theological offerings, what shouldn’t be forgotten is that in large part theology is really a material endeavor (rather than a mostly formal process). In other words, the ultimate goal, even when referring to the past, is to magnify Jesus with all the possible ideational resources available to the Christian theologian. The measure of sound theology is not whether or not we always accurately portray this theologian or that (while this is still important), but how we plumb what these Christian brothers and sisters have offered by way of categorical/thematic development when it comes to continuing to provide a creative and imaginative grammar for Christians to continue to know God in growing and fresh ways. This is the basic premise of what I wrote in our Introduction:

Beyond the more popular YRR Movement that Owen helpfully details there are also academics within the classically Reformed, and/or the Post-Reformation Reformed orthodox tradition, like Richard Muller, who believe that Evangelical Calvinism is not critically attuned to the actual history of the Reformers; particularly that of John Calvin. Muller believes that any attempt to offer an alternative voice to the multi-valent reality of the Reformed faith, that is, by critiquing Post-Reformation Reformed orthodoxy and Federal Calvinism, assumes the form of an argument that in the literature has been labelled “Calvin against the Calvinists.” Essentially this is the idea that Calvin’s own theological emphases were discordant from what later developed into Post-Reformation Reformed orthodoxy and/or what we often refer to as classical Calvinism. Muller is right that some over-zealous thinkers in the past have reconstructed history in such a way that Calvin appears to be severely out of step with the “predestinarian” Calvinism that developed later. However, that notwithstanding, we maintain that it is still possible to critique the theological conclusions produced by the classical Calvinists, even sounding like, and agreeing with, some of the critiques of the so called “Calvin against the Calvinists” thinkers, and yet not be guilty by association with that particular argument.

A persistent and central claim of Muller’s is that critics of classical Calvinism, the editors of this work included, continue to misunderstand and misconstrue the definition of, and relation of scholasticism to Reformed dogmatics. Muller writes:

The point is simple enough—indeed, it ought to have been self evident and in need of no comment had it not been for the major confusion caused by older definitions of Protestant scholasticism, definitions that still remain in vogue in particular among the proponents of the “Calvin against the Calivinists” methodology. Several recent works, including one embodying this defective methodology, have further confused the point by misrepresenting the distinction, as if it were a denial that method has any effect on content. It therefore bears further attention here, particularly in view of the confusion of scholasticism with predestinarianism and determinism and of scholasticism with Aristotelianism, so evident in the “Calvin against the Calvinists” literature.

As a preliminary issue, it needs to emphasized that the definitions of scholasticism as primarily a matter of method, specifically, of academic method, rather than a reference to content and particular conclusions whether philosophical or theological—very much like the definitions of humanism as a matter of method, specifically, of philological method, rather than a reference to content and particularly conclusions—were not definitions devised by a revisionist scholarship for the sake of refuting the “Calvin against the Calvinists” understanding of Protestant scholasticism. Rather, they are definitions held in common by several generations of medieval and Renaissance historians, definitions well in place prior to the dogmatic recasting of the notion of scholasticism by the “Calvin against the Calvinists” school of thought, definitions characteristically ignored by that school in its presentations of the thought of Calvin and later Reformed theologians. In other words, identification of scholasticism as primarily referencing method places the reappraisal of Protestant scholasticism and orthodoxy firmly in an established trajectory of intellectual history, while the content-laden definitions of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” school have been formulated in a historical vacuum filled with the doctrinal agendas of contemporary theologians. This problem is particularly evident in the more recent versions of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” claim, inasmuch as they cite the revisionist literature on the issue of Protestant scholasticism rather selectively and fail to engage the significant body of scholarship on the issue of nature scholasticism [sic], indeed, of the nature of humanism as well, as has been consistently referenced as an element in the formulation of a revised perspective on early modern Protestant thought, and in addition, fail to engage the sources that have been analyzed in the process of reappraising the scholasticism of early modern Protestantism.

In brief, the “Calvin against the Calvinists” definition assumed that the intrusion of scholasticism into Protestant theology brought with it forms of “deductive racionation . . . invariably based upon Aristotelian philosophic commitment” and implying “a pronounced interest in metaphysical matters, in abstract speculative thought, particularly with reference to the doctrine of God,” with the “distinctive Protestant position” being “made to rest on a speculative formulation of the will of God. . . .”

As Evangelical Calvinists we do not disagree with Muller, insofar as he accurately appraises the so called “Calvin against the Calvinists” argument, but Muller’s critique begs a question: what in fact is scholasticism? Even though some of the Calvin against the Calvinists thinkers may have been too strident in their construction of some of the history, that does not also mean that their material theological critiques are totally awry simply because some of their more formal methodological parameters may have been out of calibration. Even so, what if we take Muller’s view of scholasticism to heart—and for the most part, as Evangelical Calvinists, we do—what if being “scholastic” in form ends up agreeing with many of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” theological critiques, while at the same time agreeing with Muller that some of the formal historical reconstruction of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” was aloof? We believe that Evangelical Calvinism has found the center-ground by affirming the need for sober appropriation of what it means to be scholastic in mode, but as a result we end up disagreeing with Muller and others in regard to what kind of theological conclusions are produced when following through with a truly scholastic project and mode. But again, what are the actual entailments of scholasticism?

In Scholasticism Reformed: Essays in Honor of Willem J. van Asselt, Martijn Bac and Theo Pleizier offer a chapter entitled “Teaching Reformed Scholasticism in the Contemporary Classroom.” Bac and Pleizer outline how scholasticism should be taught today in theological classrooms and they develop how scholastics of the past retrieved authoritative voices for their own material and theological purposes. More than simply reconstructing the history of ideas and theological development, proper scholastic method was concerned to engage the concepts of prior voices from the tradition by appropriating themes and motifs that fit broader theological concerns, and all in order to forward the cause of theological truth. In other words, the greater concern was to organically move within the trajectory and mood set out by the past in order to constructively engage the present and future by developing the ideas of these past voices by placing them within the burgeoning and developing movement of Reformed theology. What Bac and Pleizer highlight is that the scholastic mode of retrieval is very much like Evangelical Calvinism’s method; which ironically runs counter to the typical critique of Evangelical Calvinism as illustrated by Muller. Here is what Bac and Pleizer write in regard to the scholastic method, and what was called “reverential exposition”:

Reformed theologians did not read their sources of Scripture and tradition in a historical sense, i.e., as part of an ongoing tradition, but rather as ‘authorities’ of truth. Until the breakdown of scholasticism and the historical revolution, sources were not quoted in a historical way, be they the Bible, Aristotle, Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas. A quotation did not indicate a correct historical understanding of what its original author had meant, but was read systematically as bearer of truth. From this it follows that contradictions among authorities were solved logically rather than hermeneutically.

We find it ironic that people like Muller and others would critique Evangelical Calvinism for imbibing the “spirit” of even the Post-Reformation Reformed orthodox faith (methodologically) more than their apparent heirs (Muller and others). If there are themes and motifs present in Calvin (such as his doctrine of unio Christi) then such themes and doctrines can legitimately be appropriated, critiqued, and developed from within a Reformed trajectory.

A final example of how Bac and Pleizier develop the idea of reverent exposition will suffice.

Therefore, these texts had to be explained with reverence (exponere reverenter), that is, not in historical conformity with a tradition or with the author’s expressed intention but in conformity with truth, i.e., reverently denoted in correspondence with established theological and philosophical truth. This method of reverent exposition involved a hermeneutical procedure that went back to the patristic period. To be sure, there was room for some exegesis but, as de Rijk has noted, the scholastics used the hermeneutical norm of objective truth (of the debated subjects: veritas rerum) in addition to a kind of philological exegesis employing semantic criteria for interpretation. This resulted in an incorporation of the authoritative text into one’s own conceptual framework.

Scholastic methodology was not about repristinating and absolutizing a period as the norming norm, but felt the freedom to fluidly engage with the past in a way that had relevance for the present; and in a way that organically built from the trajectory provided for in the past. Or, as Barth would argue in his book, The Theology of the Reformed Confessions,11 to operate within the “spirit” of the Reformed faith (subordinate to Scripture and thus always reforming), and not the “letter,” which is to appeal to a sort of repristinated procrustean bed of perceived static truth that can simply be inherited but not developed in any kind of new or meaningful way.

In summary, we suggest that Evangelical Calvinism is actually imbibing the spirit of the Reformed faith. Our mode is to primarily engage the past constructively with the goal of engaging the truth which transcends, but does not elide, the historical situadedness of particular people; but at the same time doing so in a way that seeks dialogical engagement with the past in order to provoke the present with themes that most magnify the name of Jesus. If Muller and company want to critique Evangelical Calvinism (and those of like mind), then they will need to be truly “scholastic” in form, and not just presume that being historians (which has its rightful place) is what this is all about. Instead it is about resourcing the past to magnify Jesus in Christianly dogmatic robust ways which we believe the mood of Evangelical Calvinism offers by elevating theological themes, from history, that do just that.[1]

This is my way. There seems to be, in contrast, among those in the resourcing of the past movement, a myopic focus on reconstructing the history as if that in and of itself is sufficient towards presenting the 21st century church with a lively theology for its present needs as the church. There seems to be a slavish commitment to arguing about what this theologian or that theologian believed or said, but never taking the next step of appropriating said theologians’ themes for the purposes of advancing material theological knowledge about who God is, and what he is about as the Christian God for the Christian. In other words, it seems to me that what counts for many of these “theologians,” these days, is reconstructing theological periods as ends in themselves; and then pretending like this is sufficiently theological theology for the church. No. All that that represents is academic egg-headedness that really isn’t theology being done for the church, and is not an enhancing project whatsoever; it remains a strictly intramural practice among an elite crew of theological minds that for all intents and purposes can remain church-people-independent. This is not what “scholastic” theology was all about in the past, as my writing should make clear. A component, and even basic function of the doing of Christian Dogmatic (for the church) theology is always moving into the “so what” area; and the ‘so what’, for the Christian, always begins and ends with Jesus Christ and his magnification, both in the heavenlies and in the church and world at large.

Evangelical Calvinists are more scholastic than the scholastics. But that too could become a distraction. Who is more “scholastic” is also an egg-headed debate, what is more important is that we get on with the project of engaging dialogically and contructively with the past with the goal of edifying the church, and advancing knowledge of God by drawing off all that he has deposited in the millennia of church ideas for the growth of his covenant people in his covenanted humanity in Jesus Christ.

[1] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Introduction: On Dogmatics and Devotion in the Christian Life,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017), 5-10.