What is Evangelical Calvinism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thesis Three. There is one covenant of grace.

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

Thesis Five. Election is christologically conditioned.

Thesis Six. Grace precedes law.

Thesis Seven. Assurance is of the essence of faith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Christ Conditioned Assurance of Salvation: Against ‘Conditional Security’ and Synergisms

The following is the concluding summary from my personal chapter for our last book. The title of my chapter is: “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith” Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the “Faith of Christ.” As you can see the body of work prior to this conclusion engaged with John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Thomas Torrance on the issue of assurance of salvation. I offered some constructive critique of Calvin’s insufficiency, stemming directly from his doctrine of predestination; and attempted to correct that with the work of Barth/Torrance. The result, insofar as the correction was successful, were my following summative thoughts on assurance of salvation vis-à-vis a doctrine of predestination qua election/reprobation. I was prompted to share this because I just listened to a podcast where the speakers were attempting to argue for what they call ‘conditional security.’ They both affirm some form of what is more commonly known, in church history, as “semi-Pelagianism” (for better or worse). They both claim to be proponents of synergism vis-a-vis salvation. In other words, they both believe that we must cooperate or work ‘concurrently’ with God in order for final salvation (glorification) to ultimately obtain. They both think of salvation from an abstract frame, meaning their respective views of salvation are not principially grounded in the vicarious (homoousios) humanity of Jesus Christ. As such they place space between humanity and God in Christ in the reconciliatory event that a concrete understanding of a Christ conditioned notion of salvation does not suffer from. As a result of their ‘synergism’ and abstract notion of soteriology vis-à-vis Christology, they arrive at the conclusion that personal salvation is ultimately contingent on the human agent’s drive to maintain relationship with the triune God. As such, for my money, they operate from the very homo incurvatus in se that a Christ conditioned notion of salvation has come to save us from; not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit of the Lord. But it is because of this ‘space’ between the human agent in salvation, and God’s salvation for humanity accomplished in Christ, that these two must think a way to continuously make salvation somehow conditional upon the part ‘they’ play in the salvific event (which for them isn’t an event at all, but a process).

In light of the aforementioned, as already noted, I offer the following as a correction to any sort of synergistic or even so-called ‘semi-Pelagian’ understandings of salvation wherein Christ himself isn’t salvation for all humanity, in his vicarious humanity, which indeed is archetype humanity for all. Indeed, he isn’t called the ‘second Adam’ for nothing.

Having surveyed Calvin’s, Barth’s, and Torrance’s respective doctrines of union with Christ and vicarious humanity, it remains to offer a constructive retrieval of their theology and apply this directly to a doctrine of assurance. We will see how Calvin’s belief that “assurance is of the essence of faith” might be affirmed, particularly as we tease out Barth’s and Torrance’s thinking on the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

    1. Calvin was onto something profound, and this is why 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 Grow—“Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith” 53 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.

What is Evangelical Calvinism?: ‘Grace All the Way Down’

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

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

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

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

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

Thesis Three. There is one covenant of grace.

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

Thesis Five. Election is christologically conditioned.

Thesis Six. Grace precedes law.

Thesis Seven. Assurance is of the essence of faith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Law/Gospel Actualized as Gospel Alone in Contraposition to Thomistically Retreived Soteriologies

Protestants of a certain stripe are all about retrieving classical theologies, particularly of a Thomistic[1] hue. These Protestants typically, and rightly, as the case may be, start by retrieving theology proper (doctrine of God) categories, and then work their way from there. They terminate in soteriology; and in the Protestant frame I’m thinking of, this termination looks most closely akin to Federal (Covenantal) theology.[2] Built into Federal theology is a notion of bi-lateral contract between God and humanity. God provides the grace and salvation, and the elect person (if they don’t have a temporary faith) co-operates with that grace thus meeting the conditions required for acquiring final justification (aka ‘glorification’).[3]

Lutheran theologian, and ethicist, Helmut Thielicke describes this theory of salvation in the following way. You will notice that his sketch is in discussion with the Augsburg Confession which stands in contraposition to the Catholic (and Thomistic) understanding of salvation. If you are familiar with Lutheran (and Reformed theology) you will immediately pick up on the Law/Gospel combine Thielicke and the Augsburg Confession are thinking through.

What happens when particular emphasis is laid on the imperative? The Apology draws attention to this problem in a polemical section of Article IV on “Love and the Keeping of the Law.” According to the Thomistic doctrine of justification the imperative, although not exactly isolated and absolutized, is nonetheless accorded an autonomous significance. For justification is linked with the “keeping of the Law,” and the imperative, i.e., the requirement of good and meritorious works, has the significance of co-operation in the attainment of justification. The Apology finds the reason for this primacy of the imperative, or at least for the high degree of emphasis laid upon it, in the Thomistic concept of prima gratia.

In opposition to this accentuating of “initial grace,” the Apology maintains that Christ does not cease to be the mediator after we are renewed. “All those err who maintain that he [Christ] has merited for us only the ‘initial grace’ and that we then subsequently attain acceptance and ear for ourselves eternal life by our keeping of the Law. Christ remains the mediator, and we must always maintain that on his account we have a reconciled God, even though we ourselves be unworthy.

By way of interpretation, it should be noted that the expression “Christ remains the mediator” is an exaggerated formulation which is to be taken with a grain of salt. For it goes without saying, as the Apology realizes well enough, that Thomism does not present the doctrine of justification in such crude and deistic fashion that Christ is, as it were, only the initiator of justification, and that then, having started the movement, he withdraws, after the manner of Deism, and leaves everything to the human action thus “cranked up” and released. Thomism cannot mean this, since it regards all the “merits” attained by man as merits only through grace, and hence only for the sake of Jesus Christ. Hence we must not allow this polemical formulation to give us too simple a view of Thomism.

Nevertheless, the Apology does use this polemical formulation; and if we cannot think that it is simply caricaturing its opponents in order to ease the task of refuting them, we must interpret it as follows. The concept of prima gratia involves a decisive infringement upon and restriction of the mediatorial significance of Christ. For when justification is linked with the prima gratia, this initial grace is regarded as the basis which makes possible our doing of the meritorious works necessary for salvation. Thus grace becomes merely the basis which makes possible the real thing. The real thing is the meritorious works; they are the key to the process of justification. For it is by works that we see whether the grace lent to us is actualized and put to good use, or whether it remains instead idle capital. In the strict sense, therefore, initiatory grace is really the basis of the possibility, the indispensable condition of the real event. In relation to the merits which are normative for salvation, justification has liberating and creative power. Its position is rather like that of a means to an end.

In thus characterizing Thomistic faith as a “means to an end,” we should not forget, of course, that this is an exaggerated formulation because in Thomism grace is in some sense final as well as primary. For what man merits is grace in its quality as an end, as ultimate “goal.” Between the two, however, merits have a decisive position, since they can challenge and even block the way from primary grace to ultimate grace.

In Rome’s assigning of a key position to works, the Apology sees not only an infringement upon the exclusiveness of Jesus Christ, but also a threatened perpetuation of the assaults of doubt [Anfechtung] which Luther sought to overcome. “If those who are regenerated are supposed later to believe that they will be accepted because they have kept the law, how can our conscience be sure that it pleases God, since we never satisfy the law?” If good works occupy the key process of justification, then the assurance of our being accepted and justified by God (the “sure conscience” [conscientia certa]) is continually threatened. For this assurance depends in turn on the assurance that we have fully kept the Law, an assurance that can never be definitive and unequivocal. To the degree that the decisive phase in the process of justification passes into the hands of men, there is always instability, and hence assaults of doubt.[4]

This, in a nutshell, is the stuff that Federal theology is made of. While it is all vouchsafed by the absolutum decretum, and God’s brute sovereignty therein, this is how the Divine pactum unfolds, in a loose way, in Federal theology. Is this by mistake, or is there a correlation between the doctrine of God and soteriology present in the Thomist (Aristotelian) frame? There is a correlation. In other words, the way a theological system thinks God, so goes the rest of its subsequent theologizing. If a system gets a doctrine of God wrong, everything following will be eschewed in orientation to the wrongness of who and what God is conceived to be.

In Evangelical Calvinism, even more expressly than we find in Thielicke’s Lutheran frame, the object of salvation is the subject. In other words, there is no discussion that takes place, about salvation (or anything else!), in abstraction from the concrete life of God in Jesus Christ. Both the person and work of Jesus Christ are thought together, never apart. As such, the ‘imperative’ (Law) of the Christian life is never thought in rupture from its indicative (Gospel), but only together. This is because, for the Evangelical Calvinist, as Thomas Torrance would emphasize, salvation is Grace all the way down; insofar that salvation is God become human in Christ for us (pro nobis). This means, simply, that insofar that the person is in union with the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, that this person is justified, sanctified, and glorified, from head to toe, in the robe of Christ’s righteousness. Further, this means that the ‘eternal indicative’ is also the eternal imperative insofar that God freely elected to step into the gap between Himself and fallen humanity. As He stepped into this gap, which is Grace, all conditions, particular to the actualization of re-conciliation between God and humanity, were immediately realized. In other words, the dilemma that Thielicke and the Augsburg Confession are addressing, in regard to the Thomist categories, are never raised as real dilemmas.

For the Evangelical Calvinist there is no sunlight between God’s inner life for us and the human conscience and concrete lived existence we inhabit on a day-to-day basis. And all of this is because the Evangelical Calvinist does not think God from the speculative and Aristotelian categories that Thomism, and her Calvinist (and Lutheran orthodox) iterations do. We think concretely from the evangelical life of God for us revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ. In other words, we think of God in relational and personalist ways which avoid thinking of Him in terms that are law-like, decretal, and juridical. As such, the dilemma Thielicke is rightly countering, as presented by the Thomist categories, are non-starters for the Evangelical Calvinist. Nevertheless, it is important to understand, contextually, why Evangelical Calvinism offers a positive way forward that does not fall prey to these sorts of dilemmas as given rise by speculative theologies like we find under the umbrella of the Thomisms.

[1] Thomas Aquinas’ theology, and its subsequent “neo-Thomist” receptions and developments.

[2] We get ‘poser’ versions of this in sub-set forms in lower iterations of Reformed or more accurately “Calvinist” theologies (think of Five-Point Calvinism, and other like versions; whether those be in direct correlation with, or in contraposition to Five-Pointism).

[3] See Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theologia Reformata et Semper Reformanda: Towards an Evangelical Calvinism,” in Editors Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 1: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 1-19. Also see Bobby Grow, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the ‘Faith of Christ,'” in Editors Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics and Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017), 30-57.

[4] Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics: Volume 1: Foundations, edited by William H. Lazarus (Philadelphia: Fortess Press, 1966), 74-6.

If All Humanity is Elect in Christ’s Vicarious Humanity Why Aren’t All Saved? TFT’s Response to Vanhoozer and Others

If all of humanity is elected in Christ’s vicarious and elect humanity; if Christ gave His life for all of humanity (i.e. universal atonement); then why aren’t all humans ultimately justified before God? These are questions that people like Roger Olson, Robert Letham, Kevin Vanhoozer have put to us, as Evangelical Calvinists, or to Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth more directly. Here is a snippet from Vanhoozer in his chapter length critique of us; this represents his summative conclusion in regard to his argument contra Evangelical Calvinism (which is why it comes off so triumphalistic):

The differences between Classical and Evangelical Calvinism here come into sharp contrast. First, as concerns election: Classical Calvinists associate being chosen in Christ with the Spirit’s uniting people to Christ through faith, whereas Evangelical Calvinists associate being chosen in Christ with the Son’s assumption of humanity in the Incarnation. Second, as concerns union with Christ: Classical Calvinists tend to follow Pauline usage, for whom “in Christ” serves as referring to the Spirit’s incorporation of saints into Christ (and hence the life of the triune God) through faith (i.e., a covenantal union of persons), whereas Evangelical Calvinists tend to follow a distinctly non-Pauline usage, viewing being “in Christ” as a necessary implication of the incarnation (i.e., an ontological union of natures, our humanity with Christ’s).[1]

The quote from KJV underscores the Evangelical Calvinist commitment to, after TFT, an ontological theory of salvation. We will leave KJV’s claims that his classical Calvinism represents the biblical side, and ours doesn’t, to the side for now. What I simply want to address in this short post is the question that KJV brings to us throughout his critique: again, if all are elect, why aren’t all ultimately saved? If I was motivated enough I have a quote from KJV, from the same chapter, where he identifies this question as the straw that breaks the Evangelical Calvinist’s camel back; but I’m not that motivated (you’ll just have to take my word for it). KJV et al. don’t like how Torrance responds to this apparent conundrum, but it is how we, following TFT, answer this conundrum, indeed. TFT simply remains in wonder about why all people don’t come to Christ either; why they would remain in their sins after Christ has elected them in His vicarious humanity (‘carnally’ or objectively). In short, TFT appeals to the incomprehensible / inscrutable nature of sin; he writes:

In the face of this it is utterly inconceivable to us that anyone, man or woman, should finally reject the saving love of God incarnated in Jesus and enacted in his vicarious and substitutionary death on the cross — yet that is incomprehensibly what can and does take place — an utterly irrational event which we can only leave to the Lord God himself in his infinite mercy and judgment.[2]

In a rather striking way, ironically, TFT’s presentation reflects the structure of Calvin’s own understanding of election and reprobation. Calvin’s understanding is an asymmetrical one in the sense that he sees election tied to God’s revealed will (so the via positiva), whereas he sees reprobation un-revealed and resident in God’s secret will (so the via negativa). Unlike Calvin, though, TFT doesn’t have the same superstructure informing the way he thinks of predestination, in the sense that TFT only has place for the revealed and actualized will of God in the person of Jesus Christ (you can read more about my thinking and critique of Calvin here). Nevertheless, there is this notion of relegating unbelief, even in Calvin, to per accidens, or the inscrutable nature of sin; even if TFT doesn’t have a decretal system in place, as Calvin does. I think Vanhoozer and others overlook this rather salient point. They also fail to recognize just how significant Athanasius is in TFT’s (and Barth’s) system; probably because they have the Augustine goggles on too tightly.

Anywho, this is TFT’s response. This is my response as an Evangelical Calvinist. And it should be your response, because it’s what the Bible teaches. Sola Scriptura!

[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism),” in Benjamin E. Reynolds, Brian Lugioyo, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer eds., Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars (Germany: Mohr Siebeck) [pagination missing in my copy].

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 114.

How Dialogical Theology is the Better Protestant Way for Doing Christian Theology: With Reference to Wolf Krötke

Back in the day, when me and Myk were working on our Evangelical Calvinism books, one of our Evangelical Calvinist theses (found in chapter 15 of our first volume [2012]) was that we work from a Dialogical Theology. If anyone knows Thomas Torrance or Karl Barth this will immediately be familiar to them. At base, this approach to theology inhabits the reality, in concentrated form, of God’s triunity; it works from the premise that theology is and only can be done in and from an ongoing dialogue between the would-be theologian and God. This means, 1) that God has first spoken and speaks (Deus dixit); and 2) that after God speaks the theologian begins to know what they might speak back to God in and from participating in His life through Christ by the Spirit; so 3) this theological endeavor is grounded on the premise that the theologian knows God through the dynamic of filial relationship and worship, as the theologian participates in and is brought into the inter-cessions of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This places a primacy on speech and doxology as the form the theology takes, and the formation the theologian is transformed into from glory to glory (II Cor. 3.18). On the negative, and contra the speculative theological tradition that we find largely in the so called Great Tradition of the Church, and more pointedly, in what has come to be called classical theism, dialogical theology avoids speculation about God and thinks a posteriorily from the concreto givenness of God for us in Jesus Christ. It isn’t that we think metaphysics are wrong, per se, but that the whole point of Christian theology is to know God as God has freely elected to be known by us in His pro nobis (for us) in Jesus Christ. So, the dialogical theologian believes that while God has an antecedent life in His a se and immanent life as eternal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that He has decisively decided to come down to us by becoming us in the economy of His life for us in the humanity of the Son. This entails that the dialogical theologian isn’t attempting to think about God in abstract discursive terms that muddy things up, but that we are always already happy to think God from His concrete givenness in the face of Jesus Christ; from the timber of the cross, the rock hardness of his tomb, and warmth of His flesh and blood risen humanity.

I am currently working my way through Philip Ziegler’s published PhD dissertation on Wolf Krötke, entitled: Doing Theology When God Is Forgotten: The Theological Achievement of Wolf Krötke. In this wonderfully written book Ziegler describes what we might call the dialogical form of Krötke’s theology. I want to share a passage on this, from Ziegler, as I think it helps explicate further just what is going on in the dialogical theologian’s modus operandi:

The question of the speakability of God is an important aspect of the pursuit of concreteness in theology as Krötke understands it. In fact, as should be apparent by now, Krötke’s account of the reality of god makes consistent and direct reference to what and how the Christian community actually speaks of God. His theology proceeds by asking not so much how and what we are to think of God, as how and what we are to say of God. This persistent emphasis reflects Krötke’s conviction that theology stands in the service of Christiana witness: proclamation and not cogitation is the telos of Christian theological discourse. Theology serves proclamation by heightening its concreteness, orienting and re-orienting it time and again to is whence and its whither, to its warrant for speaking of God at all, as well as to the particularities of those for whom it is so warranted. We have noted that, for Krötke, this means discerning how testimony can come about that can be heard by ears long-stopped by pervasive Gottesvergessenheit. Responsibility for the gospel in this situation enjoins theology “not to become ever more diffuse, more prolix and more general, but rather to become ever more concrete when speaking of God.” This reflects also “the pre-eminent task of proclamation and the whole praxis of the Christian community” itself. Since “God has not shown himself to be God in abstractions, but rather in real life,” theology must provide an account of the speakability of God that stands by this concreteness, insists upon it, and is sharply critical of past and present theological discourse for the sake of it. Only thus will it “encourage preaching instead of religious talk, and dialogue instead of unreliable banter.”[1].

This kicks against the goads of classical theology. Even so, as the Apostle Paul writes: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”[2] Knowledge of God for the Christian, as Krötke is keen to emphasize, comes from its kerygmatic or proclaimed character. It doesn’t come from joining hands with the philosophers and speculating about an outer-regioned pure being; but instead from being in contact with the living voice of God for us as revealed and spoken to us from the lips and assumed humanity of Jesus Christ. Some classical theologians like to see this as the ‘modern’ turn to a post-metaphysical approach to theological endeavor. To me it pretty much looks like, instead, a turn back to focusing on the contours of Holy Scripture, and allowing the concreteness of its disclosure and witness to Jesus Christ to shape the way the theologian comes to think God; particularly as they are in an ongoing, ever afresh and anew, con-versation or dialogue with the triune God we encounter therein.

Maybe you’ve noticed a theme in my last three posts, all posted between yesterday and today. They all, one way or another, are calling the theologian (Christian) to simply look to the Christ of Scripture as the ground-bed for how the theologian thinks and speaks to God theologically. I hope that this point is coming across loud and clear; it is what distinguishes my approach from much of the theology being presented as the only orthodox theology available for the conservative (often Reformed) evangelical Christian. The theology being presented to most evangelicals today, if it is offered at all, is culled from the history of what is called Post Reformation Protestant orthodoxy. It is a theology steeped in speculative, propositional (non-relational), and scholastic means for thinking God. It majors on talk of God that can cause consternation for the regular church goer, and even the trained theologian for that matter. But doesn’t this seem precisely at odds with the God we encounter in Jesus Christ as we prayerfully read Holy Scripture?

I am a conservative (Reformed) evangelical Christian, and I think that the dialogical theology I am presenting you with is much more commensurate with the Protestant Scripture Principle Protestants like to tout as their mode for doing theology. Along with Krötke, the dialogical theologian, for doxological and concrete purposes, will be willing to be critical of so called ‘classical’ theologies that major on speculative talk of God that invites the Christian into confusion rather than clarification as they attempt to approach the living God. The dialogical theologian is keen on listening to the ‘Shepherd’s voice’ as the ‘sheep know His voice, and He theirs’ (Jn 10) as He has taken theirs’ as His by the Spirit and made our crooked talk of Him straight (Rom 8.26) in such a way that God rightly hears us and we rightly hear Him; indeed as it is all mediated from the Godward to humanward and humanward to Godward sides in the hypostatic unioned life of Jesus Christ for us. Classical theology will balk at this, but the dialogical theologian would wonder why. It’s not as if we are Catholic Christians slavishly bound to the so-called Great Tradition and Thomistic wonderland of the church; we are Protestants bound to the esse, the very warp and woof of Scripture’s res (reality) as that is found in the Mediator-God for us in Jesus Christ. We can certainly sack the riches, as those might or might not be present, in the Great Trad, but always and only as those can comport with and be modulated through the filter of God’s prosopon (face) in Jesus Christ. amen, amen

[1] Philip G. Ziegler, Doing Theology When God is Forgotten: The Theological Achievement of Wolf Krötke (New York/Berlin: Peter Lang, 2007), 63-4.

[2] Romans 10.17

How John Calvin Found Comfort in the Providence of God in the Midst of His Suffering and Own Frailty: With Reference to DSRCT and COVID-19

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 a 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.

Addendum COVID-19

The above is a repost, but I think it is highly pertinent right now! I am trying to work through all of the complexities of this currently; it’s hard to do with all the noise out there, and in my own head. A medical doctor I just came in contact with, Andrew Doan, alerted me to an important article on the numbers revolving around COVID19. I’ve been skeptical, up to this point, of the seemingly drastic measures being taken to squelch this virus; but as I’ve read them, the measures seem justified to me at this point. When the statistical projections are made, as the article linked demonstrates, the numbers coming back from the impact of COVID19 are quite alarming. If we take the measures we are taking now, and maybe more stringent ones, it seems, we can bring this virus to a quicker and less deadly termination for the lives of many of the most vulnerable. I cannot, in good faith, argue for the most vulnerable in the womb of the their mothers, and not equally fight for the most vulnerable among us now. Consistency urges that our response to COVID19 promotes a culture that responds with equal ferocity when it comes to other viruses, and the abortion industry; that we fight these things, and create an infrastructure that makes death and destruction, at least to the level that we have a modicum of control, less rather than more.

We are facing hard times as a people. May Christians, as Calvin did, bear witness to the providential control of God’s goodness in the midst of the most tumultuous moments of our lives. May the death of death be on display in our lives, as the resurrection power of God in Christ is borne witness to as we bear witness to the life of Christ as the ground and grammar of all that is lovely. Maranatha

[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.

What is the Ground of Christian Salvation?: A Reference to God’s Vicarious Humanity in Christ as the Basis for “Christian Everything”

Confession is enough. According to Holy Scripture becoming a Christian requires the following:

For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, “The man who does those things shall live by them.” But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down from above) or, “ ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. 11 For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. 13 For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” –Romans 10.5-13

And there is a theological ground to this that is rarely to never discussed or acknowledged. When we reflect on the theo-logic implicate to the Incarnation of God, what we start to see is that God in Christ has freely chosen our humanity for His. In this assumption of our humanity He does for us what we could never do for ourselves; given our incurved predilection to seek first our kingdom and our rightness. He chooses what is best for us; what we were created for; He chooses the life of the Triune God for us, and re-conciles us to Eden lost into the Greater recreation of Jerusalem restored. In other words, and this is the Calvinist aspect of the Evangelical, because of our sub-human totally depraved statuses we could never seek God first; so, He has freely chosen to say Yes for us. It is this doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ that informs everything I say, do, and think as a Christian.

Here is the Athanasian Creed which articulates the significance of the Incarnation in regard to eternal life obtaining for each of us:

But it is necessary for eternal salvation that one also believe in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ faithfully. Now this is the true faith: That we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is both God and human, equally. He is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time; and he is human from the essence of his mother, born in time; completely God, completely human, with a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father as regards divinity, less than the Father as regards humanity. Although he is God and human, yet Christ is not two, but one. He is one, however, not by his divinity being turned into flesh, but by God’s taking humanity to himself. He is one, certainly not by the blending of his essence, but by the unity of his person. For just as one human is both rational soul and flesh, so too the one Christ is both God and human. He suffered for our salvation; he descended to hell; he arose from the dead; he ascended to heaven; he is seated at the Father’s right hand; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. At his coming all people will arise bodily and give an accounting of their own deeds. Those who have done good will enter eternal life, and those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.[1]

We might want to quibble with the idea of the performance based understanding of salvation that the last clause makes things sound like; but in a theosis theory of salvation, we might also want to frame this in the Luther-esque understanding of a ‘bad tree producing bad fruit’ and a ‘good tree producing good.’ The point being, the Incarnation is the key logic that should stand behind any theory of salvation.

TF Torrance eloquently articulates these truths in regard to salvation, and its Christological conditioning 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.[2]

In order to press this further let me refer us to my friend, Jason Goroncy. Here is something he wrote in his chapter for our first Evangelical Calvinism book. He is detailing what this Christ-conditioned lens of salvation looks like; in particular, as that was developed in the soteriology of the Scot, John McLeod Campbell (someone TF Torrance admires, among other Scottish theologians):

While Western orthodoxy has mostly stressed the Godward side of the atonement, Campbell laid the weight on the creaturely side, following Anselm: “None therefore but God can make this reparation . . . Yet, none should make it save a man, otherwise man does not make amends.” Campbell recognized that an adequate repentance by those disabled by sin, while required, was morally impossible, and therefore if such were to be offered it would have to be by God, albeit from our side—that is, God in fallen flesh. This is because, Campbell argued, genuine repentance involves seeing the sin (and sinners) “with God’s eyes,”11 viewing broken humanity from within, feeling the deep sorrow  that sin creates and confessing the righteousness of God’s judgment upon it. As R. C. Moberly recalls, sin “has blunted the self’s capacity for entire hatred of sin, and has blunted it once for all.” Only one, therefore, who could see things as they really are could make an adequate confession both of God’s righteousness and of human sin. Such confession is not made in order to avoid sin’s consequences but precisely that sin’s consequences may be embraced in all their dreadfulness, “meeting the cry of these sins for judgment, and the wrath due to them, absorbing and exhausting that divine wrath in that adequate confession and perfect response on the part of man.”

Genuine repentance and confession for “The sin of His brethren” would have to come from one who, as it were, stood on God’s side in the human dock.14 What was impossible for sinners was possible for this man who in the fullness of the hypostatic union penetrated into the depths of our humanity to see sin as God sees it, and to condemn sin as God condemns it, and yet do so from our side and as our head. That is, in “The High Priest of redeemed humanity” such confession and condemnation of sin happened not only with “great sorrow” but from the side of sin. So Campbell: “This confession as to its nature, must have been a perfect Amen in humanity to the judgment of God on the side of man. Such an Amen was due in the truth of things. He who was the Truth could not be in humanity and not utter it—and it was necessarily a first step in dealing with the Father on our behalf. He who would intercede for us must begin with confessing our sins.”

Christ’s “perfect Amen in humanity to the judgment of God” has value for humanity insofar as Christ, ‘spiritually speaking . . . is the human race, made sin for the race, and acting for it in a way so inclusively total, that all mortal confessions, repentances, sorrows, are fitly acted by him in our behalf. His divine Sonship in our humanity is charged in the offering thus to God of all which the guilty world itself should offer,” as Horace Bushnell notes. In offering that perfect response from the depths of humanity Christ “absorbs” the full realization of God’s judgment against sin. Standing as God, Christ knows “a perfect sorrow” regarding sin. And, standing with no “personal consciousness of sin” but fully clad in fallen flesh, Christ is able to offer “a perfect repentance” that is required from humanity’s side offering that perfect “Amen” to God’s mind concerning sin. With this response—even in the midst of Calvary’s darkness—God re-speaks those words first heard over Jordan’s waters: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And in response, humanity cries out “Our Father, hallowed be thy name.”[3]

Goroncy helps fill things out for us. The most important aspect to grab onto is how the logic of the Incarnation is brought to its soteriological conclusion. In other words, and I think this is an inescapable conclusion, if the eternal Word of God became human, His humanity becomes the fully ‘in-stead’ humanity for us. Not as a cipher or instrument, per se, but as the ‘personalising humanity’ that genuinely gives us space, in our own particularity, to be human before God; that is, human in and from the recreated/resurrected humanity of Jesus’s priestly and vicarious humanity for us. This is the Word of God’s Grace; it is Christ become human and in this downward trajectory He unites us to an upward vector that He has always already and eternally shared in glory with His Father by the bond of the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

I still have Kanye West’s conversion on my mind. I have been shocked, once again, by how much apparent confusion there is ‘out there’ in regard to what Christian salvation actually entails. Kanye, like all of us, has an antecedent voice, a voice that has said, and continues to say Yes to the Father for Him. It is this that gives substance and heft to West’s confession of faith before the world; it is the confession of Jesus’s faith being echoed in and through the vocal cords of Kanye’s voice—through every Christian’s voice. This is the miracle and mystery of salvation, and it is one we should rejoice in whenever and in whomever we see it obtain. We are seeing the miracle of God becoming human borne witness to; not directly, but indirectly as we someone else come to the realization that they are now participants in the plenitude of the Triune Life. This is the Evangel, and it has already succeeded in West’s life, just as sure as Jesus’s Yes can never be turned into a No.

 

[1] Source.

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

[3] Jason Goroncy, “Tha mi a’ toirt fainear dur gearan:” J. McLeod Campbell and P.T. Forsyth on the Extent of Christ’s Vicarious Ministry,” in eds. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 255-57.

The ‘Double Salvation’ of the French Calvin: Participation with Christ as the Locus Classicus of Calvinian Soteriology

John Calvin is an important figure for Protestant theology. If we can move past all the polemics that are associated (usually, wrongly) with his name, and actually engage with his theological offering; what the reader will find is a rich storehouse of theological reflection that is highly Christ concentrated. That’s what I intend to do with this post; I want the reader to be turned onto an aspect of Calvin’s soteriology that has enriched me greatly since the first time I was exposed to it. I am referring to what Calvin calls Double Grace (DUPLEX GRATIA). It is this soteriological frame, that for Calvin, is deeply grounded in a Christological focus; to the point that when reading his development of it, at points, you might mistake him for Karl Barth or Thomas Torrance. In this teaching Calvin thinks both justification and sanctification from nowhere else but the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. For Calvin, in order for salvation to inhere for the person, he/she must be in participation with Christ’s humanity by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. In order for eternal life to obtain for the individual, that person must be in union with Christ (unio cum Christo); since Christ alone has won the salvation of God in the work He accomplished through incarnation and atonement. This conceptuality, by the way, is a locus classicus for what we are attempting to offer with our notion of Evangelical Calvinism.

Here Calvin in his 1541 French edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion explains what he means when referring to ‘double grace.’

It seems to me that I have previously explained carefully enough how it is that there remains to people only one refuge for salvation, which is faith, because by the law they are all cursed. I believe that I have also sufficiently discussed what faith is and what graces of God it communicates to people and what fruit it produces in them. Now the summary was that by faith we receive and possess Jesus Christ as He is presented to us by God’s goodness, and that in participating in Him we have a double grace. The first grace is that when we are reconciled to God by His innocence, instead of having a Judge in heaven to condemn us we have a very merciful Father there. The second grace is that we are sanctified by His Spirit to meditate on and practice holiness and innocence of life. Now as for regeneration, which is the second grace, I have said what seemed to me necessary. Justification was more lightly touched upon, because we had to understand what the good works of the saints are, which is a part of the question we must treat next.[1]

Of significance, per my impression, is the way Calvin thinks of these ‘two graces’ as embodied in Jesus Christ first. So, if we were to think this in terms of an ordo salutis (‘order of salvation’), we might think of it in this way: 1) Justification and Sanctification first obtain in Christ’s life for us, and 2) Justification and Sanctification second obtain for all those, who by faith, are in participation with Christ and His humanity for us. To frame salvation from this accent gives it a decidedly filial feeling, such that other sorts of theories of salvation, the ones that have juridical or forensic frames, are put into relief; or out to pasture where they should be. Not wanting to overread Calvin here, I wouldn’t want to make it sound like Calvin was a crypto-Barthian, but I do think the personalist and even existential conceptions present in Barth’s soteriology can be found in Calvin—to a degree. In order to illustrate this ‘feeling,’ in regard to the filial sort of salvation Calvin is offering, let me share from him further. Here you will notice the sharp emphasis Calvin lays on being in Christ; I take this to be a further development of his duplex gratia as that is given form in Christological repose.

Now in speaking of the righteousness of faith scripture leads us to quite another place; that is, it teaches us to turn our attention away from our works to regard only God’s mercy and the perfect holiness of Christ. For it shows us this order of justification: that from the beginning God receives the sinner by His pure and free goodness, not considering anything in him by which He is moved to mercy except the sinner’s misery, since He sees him completely stripped and empty of good works; and that is why He finds in Himself the reason for doing him good. Then He touches the sinner with a feeling of His goodness so that, distrusting everything he has, he may put the whole sum of his salvation in the mercy which God gives him. That is the feeling of faith, by which a person enters into possession of his salvation: when he recognizes by the teaching of the gospel that he is reconciled to God because, having obtained the remission of his sins, he is justified by means of Christ’s righteousness. Although he is regenerated by God’s Spirit, he does not rest on the good works which he does, but is reassured that his perpetual righteousness consists in Christ’s righteousness alone. When all these things have been examined in detail, what we believe about this matter will be easily explained. They are better digested if we put them in a different order than we have proposed them; but one can scarcely fail to grasp these matters provided that they are recounted in order in such a way that everything is well understood.[2]

What we have in Calvin is a robust, and I’d argue, Pauline development of what an ‘in Christ’ theory of salvation entails. The focus, for Calvin, unlike so much later ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Puritan’ theology, is not primarily on the recipient of salvation, but on the ‘cosmic’ Christ. Let me qualify this: when reading Calvin we can certainly find conceptual matter that sounds like what developed later in ‘Calvinism’ and the sort of ‘practical syllogism’ soteriology that the Puritans (like William Perkins) developed. But, I’d contend, and have here, that Calvin tends to contradict his Christ conditioned superstructural foundation when he presents us with a hidden decree of reprobation and ‘temporary faith.’

In the main Calvin is a richly and profoundly Christ funded theologian who seeks to find Christ in just about every nook and cranny conceivable; particularly when that comes to a doctrine of salvation. He isn’t a Barth or Torrance, come on, he lived in the 16th century; but in an antecedent form, under the theological conceptual pressures he inhabited, he (along with Luther) is as close as we might get to what latterly developed under the Barthian regimen of theological endeavor. I commend Calvin’s double grace soteriology to you; one that is decidedly grounded in the singular person of Jesus Christ.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 318 [emboldening mine].

[2] Ibid., 320-21 [emboldening mine].

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.