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.

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The Athanasian, Thomas Torrance: How Soteriology is Christological in the Vicarious Humanity of Christ

Thomas Torrance is one of the, if not the most Athanasian english speaking theologians one might come across. His focus on the mediation of God’s life to humanity and humanity’s life to God in the hypostatic union of God and humanity in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ attests to these Athanasian impulses. Indeed, personally, this is what I have found so compelling and attractive about Torrance’s theology over the years; and it is why I keep coming back to it over and over again. It is the Christological focus and how that conditions all that Torrance writes—again this is the Athanasian influence—how he sees the hypostatic union and God’s Self-revelation therein as the inner-reality of how Christians ought to think salvation (soteriology).

But there is a controversial aspect to this, for some. You will notice in the following quote from Torrance how he understands salvation to be fully participationist; i.e. fully charged with God and humanity’s reality in the singular person of Jesus Christ. In other words, and this is the controversial part, for Torrance salvation is ontological rather than just declarational; for Torrance what it means to be human coram Deo is tied into salvation, such that Incarnation, recreation/resurrection is determinative of what takes place in the justificatory and sanctificatory aspects of salvation in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. So, for Torrance, the conditions for salvation to take place are all inherent to God’s predetermined or pre-destined choice to be for us given full expression in the ensarkos of the eternal Logos; or, salvation is fully actualized and realized in the incarnation of the Son of Man resulting in the elevation and exaltation of humanity, in the resurrected humanity of Christ; in other words, Jesus’s humanity is justified humanity, sanctified humanity, and glorified humanity for us, our only hope is to be united to his—that impossible possibility itself made possible by Jesus’s entering into our humanity opening us up for God in and through his freedom to be for us and for God all at once in, again, his vicarious humanity. As we are spiritually joined to his humanity (a reality that takes place out of his vicarious humanity in the Spirit) we participate in the eternal life that is his priestly life for us (pro nobis), in us (in nobis). Torrance writes:

We have to do here with a two-fold movement of mediation, from above to below and from below to above, in God’s gracious condescension to be one with us, and his saving assumption of us to be one with himself, for as God and Man, the one Mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ ministers to us both the things of God to man, and the things of man to God. This has to be understood as the self-giving movement of God in Christ to us in our sinful and alienated existence where we live at enmity to God, and therefore as a movement in which the revealing of God to us takes place only through a reconciling of us to God. The incarnation of the eternal Word and Son of God is to be understood , therefore, in an essentially soteriological way. Divine revelation  and atoning reconciliation take place inseparably together in the life and work of the incarnate Son of God in whose one Person the hypostatic union between his divine and human natures is actualised through an atoning union between God and man that reaches from his birth of the Virgin Mary throughout his vicarious human life and ministry to his death and resurrection. It was of this intervening activity of Christ in our place that St Paul wrote to the Corinthians: ‘You know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ who though he was rich yet for our sakes became poor that you through his poverty might be rich.

We may express this two-fold movement of revelation and reconciliation in another way by saying two things.

a) Since the Father-Son relation subsists eternally within the Communion of the Holy Trinity we must think of the incarnation of the Son as falling within the eternal Life and Being of God, although, of course, the incarnation was not a timeless event like the generation of the Son from the Being of the Father, but must be regarded as new even for God, for the Son of God was not eternally Man any more than the Father was eternally Creator.

b) Correspondingly, since in Jesus Christ the eternal Son of God became man without ceasing to be God, the atoning reconciliation of man to God must be regarded as falling within the incarnate life of the Mediator in whose one Person the hypostatic union and the atoning union interpenetrate one another….[1]

We see then, for Torrance, how knowledge of God is also part and parcel with the salvific reality precisely because the ontological is tied into the epistemological and the epistemological into the ontological just as the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father and we in their life as the Holy Spirit, by the faith of Christ, brings us into this eternal fellowship of resplendent love.

Truly, this is a different way to think about salvation; it is neither juridical nor Augustinian in any meaningful sense; as such it departs most basically from classical Reformed soteriology just at this point. Nevertheless it presents in the spirit of the Reformed teaching insofar as salvation is understood as fully contingent on the gracious unilateral movement of God for humanity in Christ; it’s just that the absolutum decretum or way of the decrees, and attendant theory of causation associated with that, is elided insofar, for Torrance, salvation is a fully personal event mediated directly and immediately by Godself in the Son. Further, sin, total depravity is taken very seriously by Torrance; which again is why it is so necessary for the Son Incarnate to be the all in all of salvation for us—left to ourselves homo in se incurvatus we could never, nor would ever choose God; we’d simply continue to choose ourselves as our highest love.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2016), 144.

Responding to a Sleight in Michael Allen’s Book, Sanctification: The Torrances and Charles Partee as Calvin Scrubs

I am continuing to read Michael Allen’s new book, Sanctification. I am going to register a little gripe in regard to what might seem nit-picky, but it bothered me; it’s a rather nerdy-editorial observation, but it says something to me—and I think that’s an intentional move by Allen. Here he is discussing John Calvin’s double grace (duplex gratia), and how Calvin fits in with other theological standouts of his time, following his time, and the post reformed orthodox theology that developed later in the 16th and 17th centuries respectively. Before we hear from Allen, in case you’re unaware, there has been no small debate about Calvin and the Calvinists, and their relationship (or not). Richard Muller has spent substantial amounts of time arguing that there is material theological continuity between Calvin’s inchoate theology (relative to what would be developed later), then, and what post reformed orthodoxy (or “Calvinism”) developed later. You can see Allen’s tip of the hat to the Mullerian argument here, and how he wants to make it appear that the opponents of Muller et al. are less than directed by primary texts in their own engagement with Calvin (which they argue that there is discontinuity between Calvin and the Calvinists). Allen writes:

There have been historiographic debates as of late regarding the way that Calvin’s theology of union with Christ is or is not similar to Luther’s, Melanchthon’s, and the Lutheran confessions’, and whether it is or is not consistently developed by later reformed theologians, such as those federal divines who prepared the Westminster Standards in the seventeenth century. Mark Garcia and others in the so-called “Gaffin School” have argued that Calvin and the Lutheran tradition offer markedly different approaches to union with Christ, and that Calvin in no way identifies justification as a cause for sanctification. James Torrance, Thomas Torrance, and Charles Partee, among others, argue that Calvin was not faithfully followed by later Calvinists, who failed to maintain his focus on union with Christ. And yet, leading scholars of Reformation and post-Reformation theology on just these doctrines—in particular, J. Todd Billings, J.V. Fesko, and Richard A. Muller—have argued at length from primary sources that both dichotomies are false. Calvin stood alongside Lutherans (like Melanchthon, in particular) in affirming the priority of justification as well as the necessity of sanctification; and Calvin’s insistence on union with Christ as the context for the double grace was developed in a faithful or continuous way by later federal theologians (and in the Westminster Standards). We do well, mindful of those debates, to look at the wider theological context of Calvin’s theology.[1]

Not so fast. Do you notice what Michael does? He stacks the deck in his favor, and sleights his opponents. In other words, as he mentions the Torrances, Partee, and some amorphous others (whoever they might be), he doesn’t actually provide any sort of bibliographic information on them; you know, so we all could go and see if this is so (what he asserts about them). He also contrasts them with his scholars who “have argued at length from primary sources,” making it appear that Partee, the Torrances, et al. are not “leading scholars” themselves. Let’s just focus on Charles Partee by himself; Partee is a true blue Calvin scholar who has written treatises on the theology of John Calvin—in other words, he is just as much a Calvin scholar as the folks that Allen appeals to (and a senior one to boot!).

As a reader, a critical one, this does not play well with me; it is far from being persuasive, for example, and makes it appear that Allen is simply appealing to the people (his). Whether or not what he is arguing, or signaling, is the case or not (in regard to Calvin and the Calvinists) is beside the point. To me it represents poor form to not give us some bibliographic information for the Torrances and Partee, while at the same time providing biblio for his privileged sources. Here’s the bibliographic information he gives us via a footnote after he brings up Billings, Fesko, and Muller:

See esp. J. Todd Billings, “The Contemporary Reception of Luther and Calvin’s Doctrine of Union with Christ: Mapping a Biblical, Catholic, and Reformational Motif,” in Calvin and Luther: The Continuing Relationship, ed. R. Ward Holder (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 158–75; as well has his larger study, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012); and J.V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517–1700) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012).[2]

And yet we don’t have a corresponding footnote for material from the Torrances, Partee, or the others that Allen refers us to. The net effect is to make the Torrances, Partee, et al. look like mere scrubs compared to the venerable sources Allen elevates as the “leading scholars.” This is at best an oversight, but since I don’t think Allen would make such an oversight, I’d have to say it’s an intentional sleight towards the Torrances, Partee, et al. All I can say is: What the?!

There is obviously some intramural banter taking place here, and Allen lets us know exactly where he lines up. It’s not surprising at this point, he’s already taken other swipes at the Torrances, The Evangelical Calvinists (like our book[s]), et al. But his form here is poor, I think. At least let people know what Partee, the Torrances, et al. have produced in their own right in regard to the scholarship in this area; and don’t make it appear that, again, they are just the scrubs who really don’t know what they’re talking about (i.e. avoid genetic fallacies, poisoning the well, and other types of fallacies).

[1] Michael Allen, Sanctification (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2017), 174.

[2] Ibid., 174-5 n16.

My Status with Barth and A Ramble On Distinguishing Covenant Theology From Evangelical Calvinism: Theocentrism V Christocentrism

My Status With Karl Barth

In some ways I’m still in crisis mode in regard to Barth, personally. I don’t want this whole post to be about this, but I wanted to start off with a word as I continue to think about how it might still be possible for me to be Barthian. The reality is this: in the main I find a large percentage of what Barth teaches to be some of the most compelling teaching in regard to theological method (formal) and theological content (material) that I have ever been confronted with; this is not going away for me. I know for some this isn’t the struggle it is for me, but for me it is a struggle—we’ve already treaded these waters. I have come to the conclusion that I will have to accept the notion that Who Barth bears witness to is bigger than Barth himself, and bigger than any unconfessed immorality he lived within throughout his life-time with Charlotte von Kirschbaum. I remain deeply troubled by the whole ordeal, and so I experience some sort of dissonance as I engage with Barth’s theology; but like I said, I believe that despite Barth God was able to use Barth to point people beyond Barth and to the living Word of God, Jesus Christ and the Triune God. With this caveat in place let’s move on to the rest of this post.

A Ramble On Distinguishing Covenant Theology From Evangelical Calvinism: Theocentrism V Christocentrism

I am continuing to read Michael Allen’s newly released book Sanctification—I won’t be sharing any quotes from it here—and in it he is arguing, really, for the value of federal or covenantal theology as the best hermeneutic for engaging scripture. Further, he is seeking, in mood, to offer a recovery operation wherein he resources the categories offered by luminaries such as Thomas Aquinas, Post Reformed orthodox thinkers, John Owen, et al in order to furnish the 21st century evangelical and neo-reformed landscape with touchstone fixtures by which the Protestant church might better know Jesus through. The reason I bring this up here is because part of what is being retrieved is something that evangelical calvinists are seeking to ameliorate through recovering a different hermeneutic; a hermeneutic that thinks personalistically about how the church engages with God, as if in ongoing dialogue with him. Not through the metaphysics and geometry that funds what Allen is seeking to recover, but instead through understanding that our relation to God is immediately grounded in God’s choice to encounter us in an ongoing basis through the miracle of the Christ-event; the event of the ensarkos, the enfleshment of God in Christ, the assumption of humanity by God for us. And in this event, in the coming of God for us in Christ, the conditions for that coming created by the Holy Spirit, created in the hovering over the waters, over the womb of Mary, becomes the condition by which we come to know God; in and through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, the glory of God in the proposon of the Christ. In other words, what, in accord with folks like Barth, T Torrance, et al evangelical calvinists are interested in developing and pointing people to is that our relationship to God is based upon an ongoing non-analogous miracle. The miracle’s context is given performative reality by the Holy Spirit’s action of uniting the eternal Logos with the humanity of the Son (an/enhypostatic) in the singular person (singular personalis) of Jesus Christ. In further words, what the Holy Spirit accomplishes for the Son in the miracle of the Incarnation is what is accomplished from that first miracle of Incarnation in the lives of humanity simpliciter. What I’m referring to—admittedly I’m not being as forthright as I ought to be—has to do with what traditionally is called the ordo salutis (order of salvation). The entailments of the ordo, doctrinally, are bound up, traditionally, in the theology that someone like Allen is seeking to recover. Grace is typically understood as a created quality, or an abstract quantity that is attached, cumbersomely to the work of the Holy Spirit, by which the elect individual is not only regenerated but enabled by to cooperate with God through fulfilling their covenanted role in the salvific process. In other words, the only thing in this kind of ordo way of understanding salvation that serves as the framework for understanding it in a “personal” way between God and man is the introduction of the covenantal or “contractual” arrangement God has set up between himself and elect humanity in order to bring about salvation (and fulfill the Abrahamic covenant) for the nations. The mechanisms, within this covenantal scheme, that give it energy is not the mystical and personal relationship that coinheres between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; instead, it is a set of Aristotelian properties, quantities, and qualities synthesized with soteriological categories that covenant theology must appeal to in order to offer their theory of salvation.

Contrariwise, evangelical calvinists, at least this one, as noted earlier, seek to understand salvation directly from Jesus Christ; directly from the unio mystica of God’s Triune life in eternal relation. We understand that because we are up against an Ultimate, up against the ineffable God, that we are fully dependent upon what this God reveals about himself; and this implicates everything. This is why miracle is such an important loci for an evangelical calvinist; we are thinking salvation from Christology; we are thinking salvation from what T Torrance calls a novum, the novum of God’s life in Christ. Yes, there are many implications about reality that are given explication and elucidation from there; but in such a way that things remain untidy, and less coherent (by the standards of philosophical endeavor) than the human mind would like. There remains an element of trust, and vulnerability in how the evangelical calvinist theologian thinks salvation. This bothers people. It makes them think that we are engaging in sleight of hand, and magic thinking; but what is really going on is that we are allowing the rationality of our thought to be conditioned by the determination of the givenness of God’s life in Christ; we are allowing the categories and emphases we think through to come to us through God’s Self-exegesis in Christ (Jn 1.18). This doesn’t mean we don’t have to still interpret, but we are attempting to bear up under the pressure of the Revelation itself; we are attempting to allow that Revelation of God to dictate the terms of our interpretive process; allowing God to interpret us, by the Holy Spirit in the archetypical humanity of Christ, prior to us interpreting him; and living in the spiral of this dialogical relationship.

What this gives us, in part (because there are other parts to all of this), is an understanding of salvation that is at odds with the classical covenantal theology that Allen is recovering; it places us at loggerheads with the substance metaphysics that covenant theology appeals to in regard to developing the guts or mechanics of the various working parts of their federal schema. We end up with an emphasis, relative to salvation, that focuses on the agential and personal reality of the Holy Spirit working us into union with the miracle he accomplished, first, in the hypostatic unioning of the eternal Logos with humanity in the womb of Mary. George Hunsinger brings this into clarity as he details how miracle works in the soteriology of Karl Barth:

The work of the Holy Spirit, as Barth saw it, is miraculous in operation. Within the trinitarian and christocentric framework of his theology, this theme elaborates his point that the Spirit’s work is never “anthropological in ground.” The Holy Spirit is seen as the sole effective agent (solus actor efficiens) by which communion with God is made humanly possible. In their fallen condition (status corruptionis) human beings cannot recover a vital connection with God. Their minds are darkened, their wills enslaved, and the desires of their hearts are debased. Through the proclamation of the gospel, however, the impossible is made possible, but only in the form of an ongoing miracle. This miracle is the operation of the Holy Spirit, not only to initiate conversion (operatio initialis), but also to continue it throughout the believer’s life (operatio perpetua). The only condition (necessary and sufficient) for new life in communion with God is the Spirit’s miraculous operation in the human heart (operatio mirabilis). Faith in Christ, hope for the world, and consequent works of love have no other basis in nobis than this unceasing miracle of grace. Faith, hope, and love, in other words, do not depend on regenerated capacities, infused virtues, acquired habits, or strengthened dispositions in the soul. Those who are awakened to lifelong conversion by the Spirit never cease to be sinners in themselves. Yet despite their continuing sinfulness, the miracle of grace never ceases in their hearts.[1]

Do you see what I emboldened in the Hunsinger quote? This is what I’ve been referring to previously; these are the categories that Allen’s theology, in particular, and covenant theology, in general, operate with. They come, as I noted, from an Aristotelian complex of ideas integrated into the medieval church and taken over by Post Reformed orthodox theology; the theology that produced federal or covenant theology. You can see the distinction, I was noting previously, in the Hunsinger quote; the distinction between the impersonal and kind of abstract potentially theocentric theology offered by Allen&co. versus the christocentric concrete theology offered by evangelical calvinists following Barth, Torrance, et al.

Conclusion

The differences here are basic and fundamental. They have their sources not only in and from Barth, but evangelical calvinists appeal to the patristic theology of Irenaeus, Athanasius, and to later Orthodox theologians like Maximus the Confessor. The ontology of salvation for the evangelical calvinist is grounded in seeing the Trinity as determinative for the bases of what salvation entails and what may be said of it. The ground of salvation for the evangelical calvinist is personal, it is Jesus Christ as the mediator between God and humanity in his humanity; a humanity created by the Holy Spirit. We aren’t going to appeal to qualities, the habitus, or created grace when we refer to salvation; we will refer to Jesus Christ and the emphases that come with his coming for us.

Hopefully in my rambling you have come to see, once again, how us evangelical calvinists are different than what you typically will find in what people say counts as “Reformed theology.”

 

[1] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 162. [emphasis mine]

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.

The Real Reason for Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation: And How that Confronts and Contradicts what is Known as Reformed Orthodoxy Today

I was first introduced to Martin Luther’s theology, for real, in my 2002 Reformation theology class, during seminary, under the tutelage of Dr. Ron Frost (who I would later serve as a TA for, and be mentored by). Ron had written an essay for the Trinity Journal back in 1997, which caused an exchange—by way of rejoinder—by Richard Muller; who wanted to dispute Frost’s arguments (which I think he failed, because he didn’t really address Ron’s basic thesis and thus subsequent argument). So I wanted to share, with you all, just the first few opening paragraph’s of Ron’s essay in order to give you a feel for what he argued.

Given the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that is upon us, I thought it would be more than apropos to get into this through Frost’s essay. It throws how we think of the reason for the Protestant Reformation into some relief; relief in the sense that for Luther the indulgences weren’t the real driving force for him; what really motivated him had to do with Aristotle’s categories infiltrating Christian theology—primarily through Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis. What Frost convincingly demonstrates in his essay is that Luther’s primary concern had to do with a theological-anthropological locus; i.e. that humanity’s relation to God was set up under conditions that were philosophical and intellectualist rather than biblical and affectionist.

Here is a lengthy quote from Ron’s essay; I will follow it up with a few closing thoughts.

Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?

What was it that stirred Martin Luther to take up a reformer’s mantle? Was it John Tetzel’s fund-raising through the sale of indulgences? The posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences in October, 1517, did, indeed, stir the public at large. But Luther’s main complaint was located elsewhere. He offered his real concern in a response to the Diatribe Concerning Free Will by Desiderius Erasmus:

I give you [Erasmus] hearty praise and commendation on this further account-that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous [alienis] issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like-trifles rather than issues-in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.1

The concern of this article, then, is to go behind the popular perceptions-the “trifles”-of Luther’s early activism in order to identify and examine this “hinge on which all turns.”

What was this vital spot? Luther was reacting to the assimilation of Aristotle’s ethics within the various permutations of scholastic theology that prevailed in his day. Indeed, Luther’s arguments against Aristotle’s presence in Christian theology are to be found in most of his early works, a matter that calls for careful attention in light of recent scholarship that either overlooks or dismisses Luther’s most explicit concerns.

In particular, historical theologian Richard A. Muller has been the most vigorous proponent in a movement among some Reformation-era scholars that affirms the works of seventeenth century Protestant scholasticism-or Protestant Orthodoxy-as the first satisfactory culmination, if not the epitome, of the Reformation as a whole. Muller assumes that the best modern Protestant theology has been shaped by Aristotelian methods and rigor that supported the emerging structure and coherence of Protestant systematic theology. He argues, for instance, that any proper understanding of the Reformation must be made within the framework of a synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotle’s methods:

It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers…. It is also an error to discuss [it] without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages…. the Reformation … is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed as it were by the five-hundred-year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism.2

The implications of Muller’s affirmations may be easily missed. In order to alert readers to the intended significance of the present article at least two points should be made. First, Muller seems to shift the touchstone status for measuring orthodox theology from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas. That is, he makes the Thomistic assimilation of Aristotle-which set up the theological environment of the late middle ages-the staging point for all that follows in orthodox doctrine. It thus promotes a continuity between Aquinas and Reformed theology within certain critical limits3-and this despite the fact that virtually all of the major figures of the early Reformation, and Luther most of all, looked back to Augustine as the most trustworthy interpreter of biblical theology after the apostolic era. Thus citations of Augustine were a constant refrain by Luther and John Calvin, among many others, as evidence of a purer theology than that which emerged from Aquinas and other medieval figures. Second, once a commitment to “Christian Aristotelianism” is affirmed, the use of “one or another of the Reformers” as resources “to characterize Protestant orthodoxy” sets up a paradigm by which key figures, such as Luther, can be marginalized because of their resistance to doctrinal themes that emerge only through the influence of Aristotle in Christian thought.

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed-measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles-a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther-who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week-chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.” His solution was straightforward:

In this regard my advice would be that Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, Concerning the Soil, and Ethics which hitherto have been thought to be his best books, should be completely discarded along with all the rest of his books that boast about nature, although nothing can be learned from them either about nature or the Spirit.

This study will note, especially, three of Luther’s works, along with Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes Theologici. The first is Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, presented in the Fall of 1517, at least a month before he wrote his more famous Ninety-Five Theses. Second is his Heidelberg Disputation, which took place April 26,1518. The third is his Bondage of the Will-which we cited above written in 1525 as a response to Erasmus. Melanchthon’s Loci was published in 1521 as Luther was facing the Diet of Worms.4 A comparative review of Augustine’s responses to Pelagianism will also be offered.[1]

It is interesting that we rarely if ever hear about Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology; Luther posted 97 theses a month prior to his famous 95 that kicked off, at a populace level, what we know of as the Protestant Reformation of today. But because the “indulgence theses” are elevated to a level wherein we associate the Protestant Reformation with that, we miss the real reason Luther was so invigorated to Protest in the first place; and insofar that we miss his motivation we, as Frost notes, may well be living in the wake of a ‘still-born’ Reformation; a Reformation that has very little to do with Luther’s real concern in regard to the impact that Aristotelianism has had upon Christian theology.

Furthermore, as we can see, as Frost is going to argue (and does), because of folks like Richard Muller who have championed the idea that what happened in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox period of the 16th and 17th centuries, wherein an Aristotelian Christianity developed, the theology that Reformed and evangelical theologians are largely retrieving today—for the 21st century—lives out of the hull of a theological development that if Luther were alive today would cause him to start Protesting once again. This is ironic indeed!

And so maybe you, the reader, might gain greater insight into what has been motivating me all these years. I am really a Luther[an] in spirit; along with Frost et al. I am desirous to live out Protestant Reformation theology that is in line with Luther’s original intent; i.e. to genuinely get back to the Bible, and to think and do theology from God’s Self-revelation in Christ in a kataphatic key (or the via positiva ‘positive way’). When I came across Thomas Torrance’s (and Karl Barth’s) theology the original attraction and hook for me was that he was operating under the same type of Luther[an] spirit; in regard to recovering the original intent of the Protestant Reformation. To be clear, Ron Frost’s work has no dependence whatsoever on Torrance (or Barth), his work is purely from a historical theological vantage point; indeed, Frost is Augustinian, whereas Torrance et al. is largely Athanasian. So while there is convergence in regard to the critique of Aristotelianism and its impact on the development of Reformed theology, the way that critique is made, materially, starts to diverge at some key theological vantage points. Frost finds reference to Luther, Calvin, Augustine, and to the Puritan Richard Sibbes as the best way to offer critique of the Reformed orthodox theology that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. Torrance et al. look back more closely attuned to Athanasius, Cyril, Calvin, Jonathan McLeod Campbell, and Karl Barth.

For me, as I engage with all of this, you might see how I have viewed both streams of critique (the Frostian and Torrancean, respectively) as representing a kind of full frontal assault on something like Muller’s positive thesis in regard to the value he sees in Aristotelian Christianity. It’s like opening all canons, both from an Augustinian and Athanasian, a Latin and Greek movement against an Aristotelian Christianity that has taken root; and contra what is now considered ‘orthodox’ theology when it comes to what counts as the Reformed faith.

Evangelical Calvinism, on my end, involves all of these threads; it is not just a Torrancean or “Barthian” critique. And the relevance of it all is that it alerts people to the reality that: 1) The Reformed faith is more complex than it is represented to be; 2) the Reformed faith is much more catholic in its orientation; 3) popular developments like The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God (i.e. John Piper), and the theology they present, is given proper context and orientation—i.e. there is historical and material resource provided for in regard to offering challenges and critique to what they are claiming to be Gospel truth; and 4) the theology that we find in something like the Westminster Confession of Faith, insofar as it reflects the Aristotelian Christianity that Richard Muller lauds, is confronted with the sobering truth that Martin Luther himself would be at stringent odds with what they have explicated for the Reformed faith in general.

I hope you have found this interesting.

 

[1] Ron Frost, “Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal 18:2 (Fall 1997): 223-24.

Sola Gratia, Sola Fide in an Evangelical Calvinist-Torrancean Frame: In Distinction from Classical Federal Theology

Some people might wonder how Evangelical Calvinism in any meaningful way could ever be considered Reformed. I mean EC repudiates classical Federal theology, and does not endorse the theology codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith; so people are immediately suspicious of any mood or train of thought that would assert a kind of self-profess Reformed allegiance (relative to theological commitments), but then reject what is so understood as definitive of what it currently means to be a Reformed Christian in the 21st century.

The following quote from Evangelical Calvinist, par excellence, Thomas F. Torrance should illustrate, for anyone who is suspicious, how EC can claim to be Reformed. Here we meet up with Torrance as he is discussing what faith alone by grace alone means in a very EC and Christ concentrated key. He writes:

It is first to last salvation by grace alone — even our faith is not  of ourselves for it is a gift of God — salvation for humanity, among men and women and within them, but a salvation grounded on an immediate act of God himself, and not on both God and man. We are saved by faith, but faith is the empty vessel (as Calvin called it) that receives Christ, faith so to speak is the empty womb through which Christ comes to dwell in our hearts. Faith as our reception of Christ, our capacity for Christ is itself a gift of grace. It is not a creation out of nothing,  however, but a creation out of man, out of the human sphere of our choices and decisions, capacities and possibilities, a creation out of our full humanity but a creation of God — and therefore faith is something that is far beyond all human possibilities and capacities. It is grounded beyond itself in the act of God. In faith we are opened up from above and given to receive what we ourselves are incapable of receiving in and by ourselves. Faith is not therefore the product of our human capacities or insights or abilities. The relation between faith and the Christ received by faith is the Holy Spirit: conceptus de Spiritu Sancto. Just as Jesus was conceived by the Spirit so we cannot say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. It is by the operation of the Spirit that we receive the Word of God which is ingrafted into our souls, and, as it were, conceive the truth in our hearts and minds. We do not bring Christ in by our own power, by our own decision or choice, nor do we make Christ real to ourselves or in ourselves. How could we do that? That is entirely the work of the Holy Spirit — our part in being addressed by the Word is to hear the gracious decision that God has already taken, hear the word of the gospel that God has set his love and favour upon us, although we do not in the least deserve it. Although we have done nothing and can do nothing to bring it about, yet when he works in us what he has been pleased to do, it is ours to work it out in obedient living and faith.[1]

Sounds very unilateral on God’s part, and very Reformed in that sense. But what might not stand out (you may think there’s more context) is the absence of the absolutum decretum (absolute decree), and the Federal or Covenantal frame of the Covenant of Works (Covenant of Redemption), and Covenant of Grace. There is an absence, in Torrance’s theology of conceiving of God’s acts within a decretal framework and the style of substance metaphysics that that approach flows from. Further, even as we reflect currently, what should also stand out is how a doctrine of God is front and center in all of this; in Torrance’s treatment of sola gratia sola fide it is grounded in and within the filial and Triune relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We can see how that is informing Torrance’s development just by looking in on his work in this one quote. This is distinct from classical Reformed formulating; it is distinct, again, because it works from an immediacy relative to God and his relation to the world/creatures. He mediates himself, in Torrance’s theology, not through decrees but through his Son, Jesus Christ. This changes things; it changes the way we think about God’s character. It makes us realize that salvation is always already an adjunct of who God is, and that who he is as Triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love. It deemphasizes any kind of law based approach to God; any kind of performance based conception of salvation; and negates any type of quid pro quo construct which Federal theology emphasizes (through its conditio/promissio/confessio construct within the structure of the covenant or pactum between God and humanity itself).

Conclusion

Hopefully how Evangelical Calvinism can claim to be Reformed is seen through TF Torrance’s development of sola gratia sola fide; and yet how we are also distinct in regard to the filial emphasis we think from relative to the way we are grounded in the Triune life of God as the grammar of theological theology is noticed as well.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 102.

Pierre Maury, “An Election without Christology,” and The Evangelical Calvinist Way Explained

John Calvin calls the reality of the absolute decree in regard to predestination a “labyrinth;” others in the tradition have equally voiced concern about election as if it is a secret thing bound up in the hidden will of God in eternity. Not to get too overstated, many of these same folks, mostly Calvin, offered relief to the terror that God’s predestination could cause if it wasn’t chained close enough to Jesus; indeed Calvin, even though operating under the Augustinian way began to turn this discussion Christward. If nothing else Calvin provided some of the trajectory and grammar required to develop a better more fully aware Christological account of election. People like John McLeod Campbell, Thomas Torrance, and Pierre Maury were only too ready to pick up the baton and do the kind of developmental work that us Evangelical Calvinists are also keen in developing for the church of God in Jesus Christ. As an example of someone who not only identifies this lacuna in the works of Augustine, Calvin, et al. Pierre Maury, a French theologian of no ill-repute, has this to say:

An Election without Christology

How has it been possible to develop a doctrine full of what Pascal called “false windows”—those windows painted on the facades of some old houses in order to achieve an apparent symmetry? This is what we now need to look into.

We shall see here again the weakness, which we have noted several times, of a doctrine of election that is independent—I mean unconnected to Christology, or rather one that sees in the redemptive Person of Christ nothing but the executor of a purpose formed without him in the darkness of the mystery of God.

If St Augustine, St Thomas, Calvin, Luther, and Pascal had seen more clearly that God has no other thought, no other will, no other action than Jesus Christ, that he dwells in Christ in the fullness of the Godhead, if they had, like St John of the Cross, repeated the famous sentence, “God never speaks any word but one, and that is his Son,” doubtless they would have given us a description of “the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:1) by the decision of God, a description that would not make us tremble, but would fill our troubled hearts with peace. And if they had known more clearly that to be elected is to be elected in Christ, and that this election of which we are the object is as freely sovereign, and as independent of any merit on our part, as the absolute decree whose power they venerated, but could not praise, because it was utterly hidden from them, doubtless they would not have caused so many misunderstandings, nor such anxiety in the consciences it was their intention to reassure, and in the long run such ignorance—relative at least—of the love of God and of his Son.[1]

If you sense antecedents, or if you hear echoes of Karl Barth here, or Thomas Torrance, it is because, as I noted in another post, Pierre Maury served, according to Barth, as a decisive impetus to Barth’s own Christologically concentrated understanding of election. This particular essay of Maury’s, “Predestination,” was written after Barth had developed his own understanding in CD II/2; but these thoughts are original to Maury, per his own unique movement towards an development of a Christologically conditioned doctrine of election. Even here in the essay we can see his reference back to St John of the Cross; and this is something I want to alert all of us to. In the history of interpretation prior to Barth or modern developments we have antecedent theologies wherein a doctrine of election that is Christologically steeped is latent. The proof of that is what we see right here in Maury’s essay, or in the work of Thomas Torrance with his constant reference back to Athanasius.

The Evangelical Calvinist Way

My desire as a young (43yrs) and impassioned theologian is to offer an alternative account of evangelical theology to the church catholic. As a North American, whatever I write will be tinted by that location, but hopefully because what I write is so rooted in the transcendent but scandalous particularity of God in Christ, the reach it has will be greater than my own particularity and have some capacity to edify the church catholic.

As Evangelical Calvinists we see a real lacuna in what evangelical Christians are being offered in regard to the type of theology they are being fed through the collaborative work of movements like The Gospel Coalition. I remain very unsatisfied with what is being offered, theologically, by TGC, and so because of that, and because I know I’m not alone, I want to offer alternative ways into Reformed theology that are present in the history of interpretation; Maury being a good example of this alternative way. I want to continue to offer an alternative to the Covenantal theology that the Young, Restless, and Reformed are feeding their churches Sunday in, Sunday out. I believe there is a better way; it’s not a way, as even Maury illustrates, that leaves behind what the past has offered. No, on the contrary, it is attempting to be more creative, more industrious in the resourccement process; looking for thinkers scattered throughout the tapestry of the history of Reformed theology (and beyond) who can be brought to bear, and help us develop an ‘always reforming’ theology that is given regulative and normative reality in and from Jesus Christ; let him alone be the regula fidei (rule of faith)!

In many ways this venture is a lonely one; it is prone to be misunderstood; or to be associated with other movements of theological development that evangelicals are suspicious of. This way seems reckless to the mainstream of evangelical and mainline theologies, because it seems to not care so much about fitting into usual modes of theological and ecclesial being; people fear that the Evangelical Calvinist mode is a wayward one. The way I see all of this, what we are attempting to do with Evangelical Calvinism, is just what I’ve been noting above; we want to follow a Christ conditioned approach that actually works against many of the more church-centered and soteriologically driven (in abstraction) bases for doing the theological work of the church. We aren’t as concerned with the period of church history we resource, instead it’s more about what we resource relative to the truth of it all; i.e. the truth and implications required by the Gospel reality itself. Here is part of what I wrote in the co-written section of our newest Evangelical Calvinist Vol2 book:

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.[2]

There is a real irony to what we’re doing; as I argued further in our book, and you get a sense of above, what we are attempting to do is work within the spirit of the Reformed faith—even more pointedly, the scholasticism Reformed faith. This is ironic because it is folks like TGC and other movements popular in the Reformed evangelical world who see themselves as being faithful to resourcing the Protestant theology of the 16th and 17th centuries; and yet they aren’t really operating in that spirit at all. What is currently underway in the evangelical world (and I’ll keep picking on The Gospel Coalition) is not just a resourcing project (which is the real “scholastic and Reformed” way), but instead a repristination project; a project that is simply seeking to replicate the theology of the past, as they perceive it, driven not by any kind of intentional hermeneutic other than one of piety.

Piety isn’t bad, but it’s not enough; and it’s not thick enough to provide a real hermeneutic and intention from whence to resource from. This is what I am hoping to get across; Evangelical Calvinism as a “resource movement,” as a movement that genuinely does work from the ‘always reforming’ spirit of the Reformed scholastic past, has a center. The center isn’t a piety derived from an individualistically grounded conception of election and the church, instead we are resourcing with the goal of developing theology that is intensively grounded in and from Jesus Christ; radically so.

Conclusion

I submit to you the Pierre Maury example of the type of theology we are attempting to resource for the church of God in Jesus Christ. It’s a more catholic way because it thinks from Christ, the Lord of the church, rather than simply from a particular expression or instantiation of the church that we find present in the local theology of the Protestant Reformed orthodox theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries. We aren’t attempting to promote a certain piety in the church, we are seeking God in Christ first and realizing that all these things [including a healthy piety] will be added unto us from there; as we seek Christ in regulative ways, first.

All of this sounds audacious; I know! But it is the way I am committed to, and a way that I believe an evangelical Christian would rather follow. We aren’t just a receiving faith, we are a speaking faith; and we believe that God in Christ continues to speak to his church afresh and anew today. It is this reality that we work from.

 

[1] Pierre Maury, “Predestination,” in Simon Hattrell, ed., Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a “Decisive Impetus” to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), loc 2115, 2123, 2130.

[2] 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), 8.

On a Christ Concentrated Theology: Its Historical Development from Calvin, to the Federal Theologians, to the Marrow Men, to Barth and Torrance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Thought

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

 

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

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