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.

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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.

Chapter 4, Evangelical Calvinism Vol 2: John Williamson Nevin, Why the Person and Work of Jesus Christ Must Be Thought Together for orthodoxy’s Sake

In this time of seasonal reflection on the reality of Christmas, the Incarnation of God become flesh in the man from Nazareth, I thought it apropos to share something from our most recent Evangelical Calvinism book (Evangelical Calvinism Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church); it is from Marcus Johnson’s chapter (4) The Word Became Flesh: John Williamson Nevin, Charles Hodge, and The Antichrist. He is distilling John Williamson Nevin’s theology of Incarnation, and noting the centrality that an orthodox understanding of the hypostatic union—of the fully divine and human in the singular person, Jesus—necessarily has on the way people think of salvation. You will see Johnson pressing the necessity of maintaining a high view of the incarnation—meaning seeing the homoousion (that Jesus is fully God and fully human)—as integral towards living a Christian life that is fully contingent upon who God is for us in Christ, and what that means in regard to thinking the person and work/work and person of Christ together rather than apart (as is so common in classical Western Christian thinking). Here is what Johnson writes at some length; we will follow this by teasing out a few more implications and applications when thinking about how classical Calvinism, in many ways, falls foul of Nevin’s critique (as distilled by Johnson’s commentary):

The Person and Work of Christ

Nevin offers the following overarching definition of the spirit plaguing many of the churches of his time: “The ultimate, universal criterion of the Antichristian spirit is before us already, in the rule of St. John. It will not yield, in full, that Christ is come in the flesh.” Here is a criterion so biblically clear as to invite universal acceptance. After all, what Christian would not yield that Christ is come in the flesh? Finney would have yielded, so too Hodge. What, then, is Nevin after? Two words: “In full.” It is one thing to acknowledge the truth of Christ’s embodiment, it is quite another to affirm the massive mediatorial and redemptive implications of that embodiment. This is Nevin’s fundamental concern, and it undergirds all the “Marks of the Antichrist.” The spirit of the Antichrist can be identified, first and foremost, by an undervaluation of the person of Christ in relation to the atonement.

Antichrist owns no real mediation between God and man to be necessary, in order to Christian salvation . . . The relation in which Christ stands to the whole object [redemption] may be considered highly important and necessary, but it is altogether outward and mechanical, and no good reason appears why he should be a human Christ at all.

What is the danger of not yielding in full that Christ is come in the flesh? The danger lies in a tendency to reduce Christ to an Intermediary, rather than the Mediator, of salvation between God and humanity. As the incarnation so gloriously demonstrates, Christ is far more than an intermediator, a third party who brokers an “outward and mechanical” contract or covenant between two others. On the contrary, what makes Christ the Mediator, rather than an intermediator, between God and men is the reality of his living person. He mediates God to humanity as truly and fully God, and he mediates humanity to God as fully and truly human—he is as fully the one side of the mediation as he is the other. No third party needed. The at-one-ing mediation that Christ secures between God and men is an ontological reality defined by his person—he is the saving union between God and humanity—and so all depends on who Christ is. To yield fully that Christ is come in the flesh, in other words, is to yield that Christ constitutes, rather than merely performs, the atonement. It is to yield that the embodied Christ himself is, rather than merely secures, the covenant of grace.[1]

This is a classic patrological presentation and understanding of Christology qua Soteriology; something that we find funding St. Athanasius’s theology, and even what we find present in the Chalcedonian settlement. Arius comes to mind when thinking about a mitigated Christ, a Christ who is simply an instrument in the hands of God; a demiurge who serves as a step-stool to the heavenlies. For an orthodox understanding of salvation to be maintained we, according to Nevin’s theology et al., will want to affirm along with the rest of the church catholic that Jesus is both fully God and man; anything less than this affirmation results in living under the spirit of anti-Christ.

Another danger associated with this, as Johnson develops further, is that we allow the work of Christ to become detached from the person of Christ; elevating the work over against the person. But Nevin, as Johnson underscores, would have none of this; it is either the person and the work together, in Christ, or a heretical version of Jesus Christ and an aberrant non-saving salvation (one that becomes contingent upon ‘me working out my own salvation’ rather than on Christ doing what only he could do for me). Johnson writes:

An undervaluation of the saving mystery of the person of Christ, Nevin goes on, will inevitably lead to a dichotomy between his person and his work, in which his work will come to overshadow his person, “sinking [his person] into comparative insignificance in the work of redemption.”

All sectarian, schismatic Christianity has a tendency to make Christ’s actual person of small account, as compared with his doctrine and work. It affects to magnify, it may be, the mediatorial functions of the redeemer; but sees not the proper and necessary root of all these in the mediatorial life . . . Its Christology is, after all, the outward apparatus of its theory of redemption, the divine machinery of salvation, rather than the very substance and process of this salvation itself.

It is characteristic of the Antichrist to introduce a chasm between the person and work of Christ, to so accentuate the work of Christ that his person becomes merely perfunctory. In just such an objectified soteriology, Jesus and salvation become separable—gift and Giver torn apart, redeemer and redemption rent asunder, Christ valued chiefly for his benefits. Three hundred years previous, John Calvin, whom Nevin admired greatly, referred to the peril of seeking “in Christ something else than Christ himself.”As Nevin seemed to know all too well, this is an ever-present peril for the Church. Under the ostensibly salutary design of magnifying the mediatorial work of Christ, the One whose work it is recedes into the background. In a dangerous theological reversal, whereby soteriology is made to precede and determine Christology, the all-encompassing mystery of God uniting himself forever to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ becomes obscured by abstract theories of the atonement which require the incarnation only as a “necessary prerequisite” to the cross. The incarnation becomes simply a means to the end of Christ’s work. The necessity of the Son taking on flesh all will readily admit, but for too many the incarnation comes to serve as little more than an indispensable precondition for the forgiveness of our sins. This is to value the incarnation but to devalue the Incarnate One.[2]

Here you will notice an emphasis on the Incarnation itself as the nexus of a fully thickened account of atonement and salvation in general. The emphasis is on the whole Christ, and his whole lived life; the focus is not simply on the work but on the very being of Christ, as if the work and the person of Christ are self-same (think of John 14 when Jesus claims to be the ‘way, truth, and life’).

Assertion: When you consider this way of thinking salvation, and compare it to what you find on offer through the decretal theology of Westminster Calvinism, which way do you think Westminster Calvinism tends? Does it tend to focus simply on the cross-work of Christ as payment for the penalty of sin (i.e. a juridical/forensic account), or does it tend toward thinking the person of Christ and his work together as a whole? I will contend, precisely because of their mal-suited hardware (i.e. Aristotelianism etc.), that they think salvation in terms that emphasize the work of Christ without tying them to the person of Christ in a necessary way. This is because they have the mechanism of decree, and tie the condition of salvation to decree rather than Christ; i.e. Christ simply meeting the conditions set out by an abstract media of decrees wherein other ad hoc covenantal (federal) requirements must be met in order for the elect of God to be redeemed. The emphasis is on the cross-work rather than the whole person who accomplishes salvation in his whole life, starting in the manger, and penultimizing in the cross work and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

These are heady things to consider, but nevertheless, highly important things to consider; things that press on your own Christian spirituality, as you, indeed live out the implications of the salvation you’ve said yes to in Christ (from his Yes for you to the Father).

 

[1] Marcus P. Johnson, “The Word Became Flesh: John Williamson Nevin, Charles Hodge, and The Antichrist,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017), 62-3.

[2] Ibid., 63-4.

The Ontological Character of Sin and the Atonement of Jesus Christ: Why TF Torrance’s Offering is So Much Better than Federal Theology’s

For Thomas Torrance the atonement is the contradiction of sin by which Godself inserts himself into the brokenness and fallen-ness of our humanity, through the humanity of Christ, and by so doing vanquishes sin—its death and destruction—by his very own and sui generis being as God and man in Christ. We left off in the last post referring to sin in the theology of Torrance, let me briefly touch upon that further here.

For Torrance sin isn’t simply a transactional or legal situation it is something that touches the deepest reaches of what it means to be a human being; it sub-humanizes people because it disintegrates the koinonial bond that was originally inherent to what it meant for a human to be a human created in the image of God as an image of the image who is Christ (cf. Col. 1.15). This is why for Torrance, and us Evangelical Calvinists following, what was required in the atonement was that our very beings as human beings be recreated in the human being that Jesus assumed enhypostatically as the man from Nazareth. You won’t find this type of penetrative consideration in the forensic framing of atonement that you find in Federal or Covenantal theology; or for that matter, as a subset, what you find in more basic accounts of Reformed theology as we see typified in what is popularly called Five-Point-Calvinism.

Here is an example of how Torrance thinks about the depth dimension of salvation/atonement:

On the cross, the oneness of God and man in Christ is inserted into the midst of our being, into the midst of our sinful existence and history, into the midst of our guilt and death. The inserting of the oneness of God and man into the deepest depths of human existence in its awful estrangement from God, and the enactment of it in the midst of its sin and in spite of all that sin can do against it, is atonement. In a profound sense, atonement is the insertion of the union into the very being of our alienated and fallen humanity. That insertion of oneness by atonement results in koinōnia, in the church as the communion in which Christ dwells, and in which we are made partakers of the divine nature. The koinōnia thus created by the atonement and resurrection of Christ is fully actualised in our midst by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and is maintained by the power of the Spirit as the church continues in the fellowship of word and sacrament….[1]

As we have been emphasizing, for Torrance, and then us Evangelical Calvinists in his wake, salvation is an ontological occurrence; of necessity. The Apostle Paul is quite clear about the depth and reach of sin’s impact, which is why he emphasizes creational and new creational themes so frequently (cf. II Cor. 5:17; Rom. 8:18ff; Col. 1:15ff; etc.). Torrance along with a part of the Christian tradition simply notes this reality in the Apostolic deposit found in the New Testament and seeks to develop the inner logic being presupposed upon by Apostles like Paul et al.

Here is one more example of how Torrance thinks salvation. Here we have an example of what Torrance calls the ‘ontological theory of the atonement,’ it is in line with what we just read from him previously:

It is above all in the Cross of Christ that evil is unmasked for what it actually is, in its inconceivable wickedness and malevolence, in its sheer contradiction of the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, in its undiluted enmity to God himself—not to mention the way in which it operates under the cover of the right and the good and the lawful. That the infinite God should take the way of the Cross to save mankind from the pit of evil which has engulfed it and deceived it, is the measure of the evil of evil: its depth is revealed to be ‘absymal’ (literally, ‘without bottom’). However, it is only from the vantage point of God’s victory over evil in the resurrection of Christ, from the bridge which in him God has overthrown across the chasm of evil that has opened up in our violence and death and guilt, that we may look into the full horror of it all and not be destroyed in the withering of our souls through misanthropy, pessimism, and despair. What hope could there ever be for a humanity that crucifies the incarnate love of God and sets itself implacably against the order of divine love even at the point of its atoning and healing operation? But the resurrection tells us that evil, even this abysmal evil, does not and cannot have the last word, for that belongs to the love of God which has negated evil once and for all and which through the Cross and resurrection is able to make all things work together for good, so that nothing in the end will ever separate us from the love of God. It is from the heart of that love in the resurrected Son of God that we may reflect on the radical nature of evil without suffering morbid mesmerization or resurrection and crucifixion events, which belong inseparably together, has behind it the incarnation, the staggering fact that God himself has come directly into our creaturely being to become one of us, for our sakes. Thus the incarnation, passion, and resurrection conjointly tell us that far from evil having to do only with human hearts and minds, it has become entrenched in the ontological depths of created existence and that it is only from within those ontological depths that God could get at the heart of evil in order to destroy it, and set about rebuilding what he had made to be good. (We have to think of that as the only way that God ‘could’ take, for the fact that he has as a matter of fact taken this way in the freedom of his grace excludes any other possibility from our consideration.) It is surely in the light of this ontological salvation that we are to understand the so-called ‘nature of miracles’, as well as the resurrection of Jesus from death, for they represent not a suspension of the natural or created order but the very reverse, the recreation of the natural order wherever it suffers from decay or damage or corruption or disorder through evil. God does not give up his claim that the creation is ‘good’, but insists on upholding that claim by incarnating within the creation the personal presence of his own Logos, the creative and ordering source of the creation, thereby pledging his own eternal constancy and rationality as the ground for the redemption and final establishment of all created reality.[2]

We see the ontological aspect noted once again, and even further we see Torrance, in step with Barth, highlighting how even the knowledge and depth of sin can really only be understood Christologically; as we understand its depths through dwelling upon the reality of what actually was required for salvation to be accomplished. We see in this quote components that we find in Patristic thinkers like Athanasius, and even Maximus the Confessor; particularly as the latter gets into proposing things along the lines of the logoi thread that is interwoven throughout the created order as its taxis or order.

These are ways into a discussion about the atonement and salvation that are lacking, typically, in the Western mode. John Calvin, though, is an exception to this rule; and we could say this is because of his hyper-Christ concentrated approach. If a thinker genuinely focuses on the deep Christologicalness we find in the New Testament it is almost an axiom that that thinker will end up pressing into union with Christ themes that look something like what we find in Torrance’s presentation. Federal theology and the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology does not have this emphasis when thinking salvation; it is framed forensically and under a legal strain, necessarily, precisely because their hermeneutical system starts with a Covenant of Works only to be succeeded by the Covenant of Grace. Some will argue that this does not give Covenant theology a necessary legal character, but I think the proof is in the pudding.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 173.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 115-16.

Appealing to Maximus the Confessor to Differentiate Evangelical Calvinism from Federal Theology: And Riposting at Michael Allen’s New Book Sanctification

I just started reading Michael Allen’s new book Sanctification, he refers to us and our Evangelical Calvinism book[s]; and as corollary seeks, in a way, to refute Thomas Torrance’s critique of Federal theology, of which Allen is a proponent. In a footnote he refers to an essay/chapter that Kevin Vanhoozer wrote in critique of our understanding of salvation; an essay I have responded to more than once here at the blog. What is continuing to be unaddressed or unidentified by any of our interlocutors (whether that be Roger Olson, Kevin Vanhoozer, Scott Swain, Michael Allen et al.) is the radical role that an Eastern emphasis plays in the funding of our mode. This is a basic point of departure and impasse, particularly in regard to the way we think of a God-world relation as that is mediated in the Logos ensarkos, the Word made flesh In-carnation. In the days to come expect more interaction with Allen’s book, as I read it further, until then I simply wanted to offer a quote from Maximus the Confessor, since I’m currently reading him, which might serve instructive for us in regard to understanding just what is at stake, indeed at impasse between the type of Calvinism we are proposing versus the Federal/Westminster type that Allen&co. are articulating.

In this quote Maximus is referring to what it means to be human coram Deo (before God), and how that implicates not only what it means to be human for humanity, but what that means for re-conciliation with God and salvation itself. Maximus writes:

I do not think further testimony is required for someone who lives a devout life and accepts the revelation of the truth as it has been believed by Christians. One clearly learns it from the following expressions. We are his members and his body, and the fullness of Christ of God who fills all things in every way according to the plan hidden in God the Father before the ages. And we are being recapitulated in him through his Son our Lord the Christ of God.

[1097B] The mystery hidden from the ages (Col 1:26) and from the nations is now revealed through the true and perfect incarnation of the Son and God. For he united our nature to himself in a single hypostasis, without division and without confusion, and joined us to himself as a kind of first fruits. This holy flesh with its intellectual and rational soul came from us and is ours. He deemed us worthy to be one and the same with himself according to his humanity. For we were predestined before the ages (cf Eph 1:11-12) to be in him as members of his body. He adapted us to himself and knitted us together in the Spirit as a soul to a body and brought us to the measure of spiritual maturity derived from his fullness. For this we were created; this was God’s good purpose for us before the ages. [1097C] But this renewal did not come about through the normal course of things, it was only realized when a wholly new way of being human appeared. God had made us like himself, and allowed us to participate in the very things that are most characteristic of his goodness. Before the ages he had intended that man’s end was to live in him, and to reach this blessed end he bestowed on us the good gift of our natural powers. But by misusing our natural powers we willingly rejected the way God had provided and we became estranged from God. For this reason another way was introduced, more marvelous and more befitting of God than the first, and as different from the former as what is above nature is different from what is according to nature. [1097D] And this, as we all believe, is the mystery of the mystical sojourn of God with men. For if, says the divine apostle, the first covenant had been blameless, there would have been no occasion for a second (Heb 8:7). It is clear to all that the mystery accomplished in Christ at the end of age (Heb 9:26) shows indisputably that the sin of our forefather Adam at the beginning of the age has run its course.[1]

We see Maximus reference the Irenean concept of recapitulation, and he ties that into an Athanasian sense of how the Incarnation and the humanity assumed by God in Christ therein, recreates what it means for a human to be human. What we see operative in the mix is what has been called a doctrine of the Primacy of Jesus Christ. Myk Habets describes this type of theology

According to Christian tradition Jesus Christ is pre-eminent over all creation as the Alpha and the Omega, the ‘beginning and the end’ (Rev 1.8, 21.6; 22.13). This belief, when theologically considered, is known as the primacy of Christ.1 The specific issue this doctrine addresses is the question: Was sin the efficient or the primary cause of the incarnation? This essay seeks to model the practice of modal logic in relation to the primacy of Christ, not to satisfy the cravings of speculative theologians but to reverently penetrate the evangelical mystery of the incarnation, specifically, the two alternatives: either ‘God became man independently of sin,’ or its contradiction, ‘God became man because of sin’. . . .[2]

Not to be anachronistic, Myk is describing this doctrine (the primacy of Christ) as he develops thinking on what has come to be called the Scotist thesis; which entails exactly what Myk describes. What is important for our purposes is how we can see this theme, or this doctrine functioning within an Eastern theologian’s theology as we do in Maximus’s. This is an important frame to grasp, it gets us into a doctrine of creation and its teleology. The reason this is an important frame is because it says something about who God is, and what his aim has been for humanity and creation from the get go. According to Maximus (John Duns Scotus and I’d argue, the Apostle Paul), God’s preoccupation was with human being so sharing in his being that even in his original creation, and prior to it, logically and chronologically, that this realization was always intended to come to fruition in and through the Incarnation; i.e. creation was purposed with a pregnant inchoate sense, a sense to only be realized at the coming of God become human in the theanthropos God-man, Jesus Christ. A disruption occurred (i.e. the ‘Fall’), and God, because of who he is as a wise and living God, had the gracious capaciousness to accommodate to the human need, in light of the lapse, and not only overcome death through resurrection, but in the process bring humanity to where God had always intended it to come (he “elevated” it). He brought humanity into the inner sanctum of his holy life of eternal koinonia that has co-inhered for eternity immemorial as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Maximus sees this as the terminus of what it means to be human; and yet it is a terminus not realized by individual humans (more commonly “the elect) in abstracto from Christ’s humanity, but precisely from his humanity as humanity.

If you’re following the logic—I’m trying to 😉 —in this emphasis of things, what comes prior to creation (and thus the ‘Fall’ and sin/redemption) is God’s graciousness to create to begin with. The frame of creation, and thus the original relation that was set up as the condition of that relation, was not a covenant of works (as we get in Federal theology), but the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, creation was always a mediated reality between God and humanity, and a mediation that was grounded in Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So to speak of salvation, which first requires creation and creatures, the Christian disciple will always speak of this most primal relationship of Christ as mediator and primary of contingent reality itself.

I will have to leave things dangling here for the moment. But hopefully, once again, you’re seeing how Evangelical Calvinism is basically different and thus departs in quite fundamental ways from Federal theology. Without recognizing this, which thus far the interlocutors I’ve mentioned of Evangelical Calvinism haven’t allowed to tint their responses to our responses relative to the way we critique classical Covenant or Federal theology, folks like Allen et al. aren’t really engaging with the actual ramifications of the Evangelical Calvinist critique.

[1] St Maximus the Confessor, On The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: Ambiguum7 (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 70-1.

[2] Myk Habets, On Getting First Things First: Assessing Claims for the Primacy of Christ ©The author 2008. Journal compilation ©The Dominican Council/Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2008, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK, and 350 Main Street, Malden MA 02148, USA DOI:10.1111/j.1741-2005.2008.00240.x.

Are Good Works Essential in a Protestant Faith Alone Understanding of Salvation? Considering the Soteriologies of John Piper, the Post Reformed Orthodox, and other Bilaterally Minded Salvationists

I originally wrote this post back in January of this year, but I wanted to share it again. I was about to write a brand new post on this issue, but I thought I should first do a search of my blog to see if something I’d already written would suffice; this does. John Piper has been in the “news” lately in regard to his works oriented understanding of the Gospel; but he’s not alone. He’s part of a huge lineage of Protestant Reformed Christians who have taught very similar things, and it all can be attributed to the development of what is called Covenant or Federal theology. Just as I start the following post out noting that I was irked as I wrote this post, I am once again irked in the same way. You will notice that I reference our Evangelical Calvinism Vol 2 book in this post, and speak of it as in a yet forthcoming way; well it has since been released and you can find it here or here. I will just add to this post; any time we abstract good works from the person of Christ in a discussion about salvation—on both the objective and subjective side—and we replace that with artificially construed constructs such as Federal theological categories represent; we will always end up focusing the discussion back on ourselves rather than Jesus Christ. This is the litmus test I always defer to when entering into discussions orbiting around salvation; i.e. does the discussion ultimately point me back to Jesus, or does it terminate in me as an individually elect person? If it grounds me in Jesus, in a principial way, then I know I am on solid rock ground and anything built upon this foundation will endure. As you will notice in this post is that where Federal theology starts is with a covenantal framework that starts with a focus on God’s election (or reprobation) of individual people. Evangelical Calvinists, along with Thomas Torrance, maintain that Jesus’s humanity is archetypal; as such, what it means to be human is found in and from participation in his vicarious humanity as the firstborn from the dead. A mystical union inheres by the Spirit’s recreative activity between his humanity and ours through the bond of faith that is the faith of Christ for us. Here’s the post. 

I am going to have to do my best to contain myself in this post; I haven’t been irked like this in a long while—maybe it’s because I haven’t been paying attention to it as much as I used to. What I am referring to is how ‘good works’ are considered necessary if someone is going to ‘attain’ or ‘posses’heaven and/or eternal life within classical Reformed or Calvinist theology. My post here is prompted by Mark Jones’s blog post which he posted over at Reformation21 just over a year ago. In his post he is lauding this very type of thinking (about good works) in the theologies of John Piper, Tom Schreiner, and a host of other Post Reformed orthodox theologians who can be found in the 16th and 17th centuries. In fact, apparently, Piper has gotten some push back from some within the Reformed camp because they seem to think that Piper is not fairly or strictly representing the Reformed orthodox well enough in his endorsement of Schriener’s book on Justification; and so Jones offers his defense of Piper by comparing Piper’s language with the language and thought found in some venerable orthodox theologians relative to the role that good works play in ‘possessing’ eternal life. Let me share some of what Jones has written, then we will attempt to provide some more background to this by looking at a long quote from Stephen Strehle and his analysis of where this type of thinking about ‘good works’ came from in the first place within the 16th and 17th centuries’ development of Covenantal or Federal theology.

Mark Jones writes this:

I’ve been told that some folk are taking issue with John Piper’s Foreword to Thomas Schreiner’s book on justification. According to Piper, who agrees with Schreiner, we are “right with God by faith alone” but we do not “attain heaven by faith alone.” He adds that “there are other conditions for attaining heaven.”

Based on what I believe is a charitable and straight-forward reading of Piper, there is not a single word in his Foreword that seems out of place in terms of the basic Reformed approach to justification, salvation, and conditionality.

Piper affirms strongly and clearly that works do not contribute to the acquisition of salvation. But Piper also wants to affirm that good works should be considered necessary for the obtaining of salvation. I fail to understand how this idea isn’t present in literally dozens of Reformed luminaries from the Early Modern period. As Francis Turretin says:

“This very thing is no less expressly delivered concerning future glory. For since good works have the relation of the means to the end (Jn. 3:5, 16; Mt. 5:8); of the ‘way’ to the goal (Eph. 2:10; Phil 3:14); of the ‘sowing’ to the harvest (Gal. 6:7,8)…of labor to the reward (Mt. 20:1); of the ‘contest’ to the crown (2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8), everyone sees that there is the highest and an indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory. It is so great that it cannot be reached without them (Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:27).”

Again, Piper says we do “not attain heaven by faith alone” and Turretin speaks of the “indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory”. I don’t see why we can’t

agree that they are saying essentially the same thing; and, indeed, if they are, what is the problem?

For those who have trouble grasping how Piper can affirm that justification is by faith alone, but that entering glory is not by faith alone, we must keep in mind the well-known distinction between the right to life versus the possession of life.

Herman Witsius makes a distinction between the right to life (i.e., acquisition) and the possession of life. The former is “assigned to the obedience of Christ, that all the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded.” However, regarding the latter, “our works…which the Spirit of Christ works in us, and by us, contribute something to the latter.”

Similarly, Petrus van Mastricht once wrote: “in so far as God, whose law we attain just now through the merit alone of Christ, does not want to grant possession of eternal life, unless [it is] beyond faith with good works previously performed. We received once before the right unto eternal life through the merit of Christ alone. But God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, 10.”

Is there anything in Piper’s Foreword that could not have come from the pen of Witsius or Turretin or Boston or Ball (see Patrick Ramsey’s post here) or Owen or Rutherford or Mastricht? I’m having trouble understanding what the problem is both biblically and historically. In fact, I can point to works by authors in the Reformed tradition who have stated the matter perhaps a little more strongly than Piper does (e.g., Mastricht, Davenant).[1]

Where does this type of thinking come from? For the average ‘Bible believing’ Christian out there this would sound either like the Roman Catholicism they came from (if they did), or it might sound like semi-Pelagianism (for the above average ‘Bible believing’ Christian), or it might just sound like a works-righteousness schema that does not fit with some simple and prima facie biblical assertions and explications of what is entailed in salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, through Christ alone. And what might sound really crazy to the average Bible believing Christian, who knows about the classical Protestant ‘solas’ (which I just alluded to), is that this conception of works and eternal salvation actually is developed from within this type of classical ‘grace alone’ framework. This of course begs many questions. One of the more important questions is: how is grace conceived within this development of Protestant theology? How could someone claim that salvation is by ‘grace alone’, but then like Piper, Schreiner, Jones, and the Post Reformed orthodox maintain that good works are still required in order to finally posses eternal life? And after trying to parse that out, then we would want to know: what constitutes ‘good works’ to the level that I can be assured that I am actually engaging in those enough in order to ensure that I am indeed “doing enough” to attain eternal life?

These are all, I think, natural questions that ought to arise for those who take Piper’s et al.’s view seriously. The Puritans and the Westminster Divines took all of this very seriously, and somehow they were able to affirm all of this and yet maintain that salvation is by ‘grace alone.’ As many of you know I have written much on this already, and in our next evangelical Calvinism book I  critique all of this in a chapter on assurance of salvation in the theologies of John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Thomas Torrance. But until you have a chance to read that I thought I would provide more historical background to how all o f this came to be in the development of what is called Covenant theology. The following quote does just that as Stephen Strehle engages with Heinrich Bullinger’s (1504 – 1575) development of the framework wherein salvation could be said to be ‘attained’ through good works. After we finish this quote I will leave off with some concluding and provocative remarks in regard to charting a way out of this quagmire of salvation which emphasizes the law and good works, but in such a way by conflating that in equivocal manner with God’s grace and love. Here is Strehle:

Fifth, he [Bullinger] so stresses a human component in the fulfillment of God’s work that he verges upon the synergism of humanistic teaching. In creation he speaks of God as working through certain creaturely means to achieve his end so that even if he is to be praised as the author of all good things in man, he does not accomplish his work without human cooperation. Following Augustine Bullinger is now inclined to employ the term “free will” (liberum arbitrium) as he recounts the stages of man’s relationship to God: 1) Adam is said to have been created with free will, 2) fallen man is said to do his evil through it, and 3) the regenerate is said to be renewed in it, “not by the power of nature but through the power of divine grace.” In salvation he speaks of man’s complicity in the entire process from his initial acceptance to his final perseverance. He can speak of repentance as a “preparation” for faith, faith as a “requirement” for receiving grace, and grace as less coercive and more resistible than that which Paul had experienced on the Damascus road. Once saved the faculty to serve God is said to be restored and the faithful are said to “actively,” not “passively” work with grace unto the salvation of the entire man. God as  our “helper” gives to us his cooperation (gratia cooperans), not to circumvent our participation or insure our perseverance but to provide what is necessary in a process that remains contingent upon us. We must therefore endeavor to work with God, for all is lost if we do not continue in the grace once received.

This synergism comes to a most definitive expression in his doctrine of a bilateral covenant between God and man. Zwingli had previously set forth a doctrine of covenant in order to unify the promises and precepts of God to man, but he never spoke as if this was a bilateral or contingent compact. It is Bullinger who decides to recast the doctrine in this way through the synergistic tendencies and thus coordinate what is promised by God and exacted of man. God and man are now to be understood as confederated into a relationship of mutual responsibility, contingent not only upon the faithfulness of God but also upon that of man. While God might have initiated the relationship, man has his “conditions” to fulfill in order to receive the blessings offered.

The text states the conditions under which they bound themselves together, specifically that God wished to be the God of the descendants of Abraham and that the descendants of Abraham ought to walk uprightly before God.

The second condition of the covenant prescribes to man what he should do and how he should conduct himself toward the initiator and his fellow member of the covenant (confoedo), namely God. “Walk,” he says, “before me and be whole.” They walk before God who purposes throughout their whole life to always say and do the will of God. This is what makes us “whole.” That wholeness is being produced by faith, hope, and love. In these things every duty of the blessed confederation is comprehended. [Bullinger]

While these conditions are found throughout scripture, the charge to Abraham is considered its most succinct and important form. And yet, regardless of the form, the same essential conditions are necessary to secure divine favor. According to Bullinger, upon fulfilling these conditions we are now in a position to expect God to fulfill his part and thus receive his blessings. If we spurn them, we become disinherited (i.e. we lose our salvation).

This doctrine of covenant, we cannot say, is central to the overall theology of Bullinger, but we can say that through his monumental work on the covenant, The One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God (1534), it did become an important and permanent fixture of Reformed theology. The influence of Bullinger has already been noted among the Puritan elders of Massachusetts Bay and can be noted also among the Scholastics of Continental Europe. These Scholastics speak of the covenant in much the same way, even if more subtle in expression.

However, strictly and properly it denotes the covenant of God with man, through which God by his goodness promises above all eternal life and he demands from man in turn his service and worship, with certain outward signs which provided for confirmation. It is said to be two-sided or reciprocal because it consists from the reciprocal obligation of the two members of the covenant: from the side of God, a promise, and from the side of man, the demand of a condition.

In that covenant there is mutual obligation, both in regard to God to be gracious and in regard to man to present his penance.

The covenant generally speaking is a mutual pact between two parties by which one member binds himself to do, give, or receive something under certain conditions. In order to confirm this promise and make it inviolable, external signs and symbols are attached as a most solemn testimony. [Ursinus]

They can even speak of God as man’s debtor.

In the covenant of God with man, there is something which God does and another which man does. God by his most eminent right commands or demands from man a service, love of himself and compliance, and promises life to the one who loves and complies. By agreeing (astipulando) man promises to love and be obedient to God who demands and prescribes his duty, and by demanding in return (restipulando) from God he claims and expects with confidence life by right of the promise. [J. Heidegger]

The tensions between the doctrine of a bilateral covenant and other staples of Reformed orthodoxy, such as unconditional election and justification by faith—doctrines that exalt in divine grace—did summon their theologians to employ their skills in concocting some sort of a solution. Sometimes the sovereignty of God was invoked in order to emphasize that faith or whatever condition might be exacted of us does not arise out of our own strength but is a product of God’s work within us, making it, in their words, an a posteriori condition. Such a solution, however, did not eliminate the problem since divine favor was still made to depend upon a condition wrought within us—no matter how irresistible this grace was conceived. Luther and Protestantism had originally sought to eliminate any basis within man for his justification, and such a solution did raise this specter again. Other times a Franciscan concept of covenant was invoked in order to mitigate the value of any human contribution before God. In other words, faith and whatever condition might be exacted of man was seen to receive its reward, not so much in accordance with strict justice as if worthy of eternal life (meritum ex condign), but through a God who voluntarily condescends by his covenant to accept the mere pittance that we render to God beyond its just due. However, such a solution did not utterly eliminate the conditional force of the covenant, for something—no matter how disproportionate to its reward—must still be offered to God in exchange for salvation. Salvation was still made contingent on something we do.[2]

We leave off with Strehle’s critique of this Covenantal or Federal theology, and he rightly critiques it.

Conclusion

What I want to conclude with is the idea that when the work of salvation is abstracted from the person of salvation, Jesus Christ, we end up with a framework of salvation where the conditions of salvation, in order to be attained by the “elect,” are collapsed into individually elect people. This is what Thomas Torrance has labeled the ‘Latin Heresy’ because it follows a theological anthropology that starts the salvation discussion in Soteriology rather than in Christology. In other words, we get this type of focus on good works in salvation when we start our discussion about salvation from below, and make the locus of salvation us instead of Jesus Christ. There are other contributing factors to how Piper, Schreiner, Jones, et al. get to where they get (factors which I’ve exhaustively engaged with here at the blog over the years); we will have to leave those for another time (maybe my next post).

I will simply end this by saying I repudiate what John Piper et al. have to say about good works and salvation, and go so far as to say that I think this type of stuff  has sprung from the pit rather than from the right hand of the Father. Anytime we have theology that necessarily points us to ourselves and our good works as the objective ground for ‘attaining’ eternal life, then we have a problem Houston!

[1] Mark Jones, In Defense of Piper, accessed 01-07-2017.

[2] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 55-61.