The classical Calvinist God Behind the Back of Jesus: And the Barthian-Torrancean Return to Nicaea

Classical Calvinism has taken shape, by and large, by its appropriation of Aristotelian substance metaphysics. Their respective doctrine of God is based in the Hellenic actus purus tradition of philosophical conniving. Their understanding of a God-world relation is grounded in the decretum absolutum (‘absolute decree’ —double predestination). They think God, by and large, from an analogia entis (‘analogy of being’) speculative mode of reasoning that takes its seasoning not from God’s Self-revelation, as the preamble, but instead from the wily machinations of the philosophers. This produces a notion of godness that understands God in terms of a metaphysical jurist who engages with the created order, including with the apple of creation, human beings, via mechanistic and law-like precision. As a result, the classical Calvinists thinks salvation in terms of a Federal (covenantal) schema.

Here Paul Molnar explicates TF Torrance’s critique of Federal theology:

Torrance’s objections to aspects of the “Westminster theology” should be seen together with his objection to “Federal Theology”. His main objection to Federal theology is to the ideas that Christ died only for the elect and not for the whole human race and that salvation is conditional on our observance of the law. The ultimate difficulty here that one could “trace the ultimate ground of belief back to eternal divine decrees behind the back of the Incarnation of God’s beloved Son, as in a federal concept of pre-destination, [and this] tended to foster a hidden Nestorian dualism between the divine and human natures in the on Person of Jesus Christ, and thus even to provide ground for a dangerous form of Arian and Socinian heresy in which the atoning work of Christ regarded as an organ of God’s activity was separated from the intrinsic nature and character of God as Love” (Scottish Theology, p. 133). This then allowed people to read back into “God’s saving purpose” the idea that “in the end some people will not actually be saved”, thus limiting the scope of God’s grace (p. 134). And Torrance believed they reached their conclusions precisely because they allowed the law rather than the Gospel to shape their thinking about our covenant relations with God fulfilled in Christ’s atonement. Torrance noted that the framework of Westminster theology “derived from seventeenth-century federal theology formulated in sharp contrast to the highly rationalised conception of a sacramental universe of Roman theology, but combined with a similar way of thinking in terms of primary and secondary causes (reached through various stages of grace leading to union with Christ), which reversed the teaching of Calvin that it is through union with Christ first that we participate in all his benefits” (Scottish Theology, p. 128). This gave the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “a very legalistic and constitutional character in which theological statements were formalised at times with ‘almost frigidly logical definiton’” (pp. 128-9). Torrance’s main objection to the federal view of the covenant was that it allowed its theology to be dictated on grounds other than the grace of God attested in Scripture and was then allowed to dictate in a legalistic way God’s actions in his Word and Spirit, thus undermining ultimately the freedom of grace and the assurance of salvation that could only be had by seeing that our regenerated lives were hidden with Christ in God. Torrance thought of the Federal theologians as embracing a kind of “biblical nominalism” because “biblical sentences tend to be adduced out of their context and to be interpreted arbitrarily and singly in detachment from the spiritual ground and theological intention and content” (p. 129). Most importantly, they tended to give biblical statements, understood in this way, priority over “fundamental doctrines of the Gospel” with the result that “Westminster theology treats biblical statements as definitive propositions from which deductions are to be made, so that in their expression doctrines thus logically derived are given a categorical or canonical character” (p. 129). For Torrance, these statements should have been treated, as in the Scots Confession, in an “open-structured” way, “pointing away from themselves to divine truth which by its nature cannot be contained in finite forms of speech and thought, although it may be mediated through them” (pp. 129-30). Among other things, Torrance believed that the Westminster approach led them to weaken the importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity because their concept of God fored without reference to who God is in revelation led them ultimately to a different God than the God of classical Nicene theology (p. 131). For Barth’s assessment of Federal theology, which is quite similar to Torrance’s in a number of ways, see CD IV/1, pp. 54-66.1

Molnar, a Roman Catholic, ironically, but a TF Torrance scholar par excellence, offers a very nice precis of Torrance’s critique of what I call classical Calvinism. As Molnar intimates at the end of his sketch, Barth similar to Torrance sees Federal theology as an abstract framework thinking God, and a God-world relation, precisely because God’s ostensible relation to the world, in that system, is not thought from God’s second person in Jesus Christ, but instead from an ad hoc absolute decree that has nothing to do with God’s person. Instead, this ‘decree’ is purely formed out of a need to keep the classical Calvinist God of pure being impassible and immutable; in other words, it allows God to remain immovable, and at the same time ostensibly presents a way for this unmoved God to interact with the created order. This is why Torrance, in loud contest, makes his strong claim that ‘there is no God behind the back of Jesus.’ He is referring to the decretum absolutum of classical Calvinism. He is referring to the classical Calvinist nominalist like version of a potentia absoluta / potentia ordinata dualistic conception of God wherein there is no necessary correlation between the God of the economy ad extra, and the God of the ontology ad intra; that there is no necessary relation between the God of the eternal processions, and the temporal missions.

At the end of the day, classical Calvinism doesn’t offer a relational, and thus trinitarian notion of God. I contend that classical Calvinism has actually departed from the Nicene faith of someone like Athanasius, and instead has reverted back to an absolutely Hellenic conception of God like we might find with the some of the homoiousions like Eusebius of Caesarea. This is the fallout produced by redevising a philosophical conception of God rather than one that is principially grounded in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; the Son of the Father. Whey a system’s doctrine of God goes awry, when it strays from the reality of Holy Scripture, and imposes foreign categories upon Scripture’s res we end up with a less than desirable conception of God; not to mention how that impacts a doctrine of salvation, and the spirituality produced therefrom.

The classical Calvinists will continue on though; they are like a machine. They fear modernity, that is until it comes to socio-political theories; that’s another story for another day. But the irony is that modernity, for all the demon-possession classical Calvinists see therein, has, in the right hands, liberated scholasticism Reformed from its overly philosophical and Aristotelian romances, and allowed those with eyes to see and ears to here to return to Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon. Solo Christo / Soli Deo Gloria

This is the Way: The Nicene Way:: The Nicene Creed V The Westminster Confession of Faith

Scholastic Reformed theologians claim to be in line with Nicene theology proper. But when you read scholastic Reformed theology, particularly their confessions, what becomes immediately apparent is that scholastic Reformed theology operates out of the apophatic ‘negative’ and/or speculative tradition for thinking a doctrine of God (and Christ); whereas Nicene theology thinks from cataphatic ‘positive’ and/or revealed theology for thinking God. By way of prolegomena or theological methodology this places Niceno-Constantinopolitano theology at loggerheads with something like we see in the scholastically Reformed Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). Note the way the WCF articulates its doctrine of God: 

Chapter 2 Of God, and of the Holy Trinity  

    1. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal, most just, and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty. 2. God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever himselfpleaseth. In his sight all things are open and manifest, his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to him contingent, or uncertain. He is most holy in all his counsels, in all his works, and in all his commands. To him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience he is pleased to require of them. 3. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost:the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. 

Notice the WCF’s entrée: it starts with ‘negative’ and or philosophical attributes of Godness, only to “get-to” the triune life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in its last chapter, chapter 3. This is illustrative of the spirit and mode by which the scholastic Reformeds attempt to think God. Somehow, they maintain that this way is in keeping with the catholic theology we find articulated in Nicene theology. But you do see what they are doing, right? They start with a logico-deductive schematized notion of God’s singularity or oneness (actus purus) prior to ever getting to the revealed categories for God, and this only in the last paragraph of chapter 2.  

With the aforementioned in mind, let’s now review the Nicene Creed. What the reader will see is that my original claim, in regard to the discontinuity between Nicene theology and scholastic Reformed theology, vis-à-vis a doctrine of God, bears out.  

We believe in one God,
      the Father almighty,
      maker of heaven and earth,
      of all things visible and invisible. 

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
      the only Son of God,
      begotten from the Father before all ages,
           God from God,
           Light from Light,
           true God from true God,
      begotten, not made;
      of the same essence as the Father.
      Through him all things were made.
      For us and for our salvation
           he came down from heaven;
           he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
           and was made human.
           He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
           he suffered and was buried.
           The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
           He ascended to heaven
           and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
           He will come again with glory
           to judge the living and the dead.
           His kingdom will never end. 

And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
      the Lord, the giver of life.
      He proceeds from the Father and the Son,
      and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.
      He spoke through the prophets.
      We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
      We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
      We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
      and to life in the world to come. Amen. 

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit condition and define the terms of the Nicene Creed itself. There is nothing speculative or discursive about Nicene theology, in regard to its doctrine of God. Nicene theology affirms the doctrine of Divine simplicity (the idea that God is non-composite), but it thinks simplicity from within the co-inhering relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; rather than thinking this doctrine from negations about what Godness must entail based on the sort of logico-deductive schematizing that we see funding the scholastic Reformed theology that is communicated in the Westminster Confession of Faith.  

Athanasius was clear about the sort of Nicene theology he was a central proponent of when he wrote in his famed document Contra Arianos:  

    1. Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call HimUnoriginate. For the latter title, as I have said, does nothing more than signify all the works, individually and collectively, which have come to be at the will of God through the Word; but the title Father has its significance and its bearing only from the Son. And, whereas the Word surpasses things originated, by so much and more does calling God Father surpass the calling Him Unoriginate. For the latter is unscriptural and suspicious, because it has various senses; so that, when a man is asked concerning it, his mind is carried about to many ideas; but the word Father is simple and scriptural, and more accurate, and only implies the Son. And ‘Unoriginate’ is a word of the Greeks, who know not the Son; but ‘Father’ has been acknowledged and vouchsafed by our Lord. For He, knowing Himself whose Son He was, said, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me;’ and, ‘He that has seen Me, has seen the Father,’ and ‘I and the Father are One ;’ but nowhere is He found to call the Father Unoriginate. Moreover, when He teaches us to pray, He says not, ‘When you pray, say, O God Unoriginate,’ but rather, ‘When you pray, say, Our Father, which art in heaven Luke 11:2.’ And it was His will that the Summary of our faith should have the same bearing, in bidding us be baptized, not into the name of Unoriginate and originate, nor into the name of Creator and creature, but into the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. For with such an initiation we too, being numbered among works, are made sons, and using the name of the Father, acknowledge from that name the Word also in the Father Himself. A vain thing then is their argument about the term ‘Unoriginate,’ as is now proved, and nothing more than a fantasy.1 

In context, of course, Athanasius is working against the Arians, and even aspects of the homoiousion sect (think Eusebius of Caesarea et al.) wherein what was meant with reference to ‘Unoriginate’ was that the Father alone owned this status, whereas the Son (and Holy Spirit) were originate (or ‘begotten’) lending to the idea that the Son was a creature and thus subordinate to God. But this is to our point: to think God from speculative philosophical notions, as the Arians and Homoiousions did, only leads to unbiblical conclusions, and thus grammar about who God is; indeed, it thinks of God in terms of whatness rather than whoness as a first-step. Athanasius, and the Nicene theology he helped develop, repudiated thinking God from Hellenic frames of reference, and instead allowed God’s Self-revelation in the Son, Jesus Christ, to shape the way he, and the other Nicenes, thought God. Indeed, Arius, and his homeboys would also assert that they were equally being faithful to Scripture; but in fact, what they were doing, instead, was allowing their a priori commitment to strict Hellenic thought-forms to shape the way they arrived at their biblical exegetical conclusions vis-à-vis God.  

Are the scholastic Reformeds Arian with reference to God; or homoiousion with reference to Christology? No. But this isn’t because of their theological method; instead, it is because of their piety. If they were consistent with their respective commitment to their speculative (Aristotelian) theological methodology, as Arius et alia were, they would necessarily need to arrive at the conclusion that the Son and Holy Spirit were somehow subordinate to the Unoriginate Father (which would serve as a cipher for their concept of ‘oneness’). 

I am Athanasian Reformed because I am slavishly committed to the Nicene theological way. This way only thinks God from within the concrete and revealed terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; it allows God’s triune life to serve as the ‘ground and grammar’ of all subsequent theologizing. The scholastic Reformeds, as much as they like to assert to the contrary, do not have these sorts of continuous connections to Nicene theology in the way they suppose. This discontinuity between scholastic Reformed theology and Nicene theology serves as the basis by which I as an Athanasian Reformed (or Evangelical Calvinist) negatively critique the scholastic Reformed. But you will note: the critique is made from a positive orientation insofar as my theology is grounded in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; this is the way, the Nicene way.    

1 St. Athanasius, Contra Arianos 1.9.34, accessed 06-18-2021.

Leighton Flowers Knows Just Enough to be Dangerous: A Would-Be Critic of Calvinism

Theological polemics, for better or worse, have been at the heart of positive theological developments since the beginning of the Church. There are, of course, various levels of both polemics and theology attendant to this venture. That is, there is a variety of ‘quality’ and virtue that shapes the sorts of polemics the Christian might encounter in the broader ecclesial discourse. Since this is a blog, by definitional location, I operate in the online space; when I write for the blog. As a result, I am aware of other people in this space who similarly are attempting to engage in theological discourse; often times this involves, polemics. My preference is to focus on offline theologians, with particular reference to the Christian Dogmatists of the Church (from all periods). But then, I am also exposed to popular level, online characters who ostensibly are offering theological machinations for the edification of the Church. One of these people, operating in this realm, who I have become aware of is, Leighton Flowers. His primary focus, online, is to be an anti-Calvinist operative. If you know anything about me you can almost immediately see a potentially shared perspective between Flowers and myself in regard to being a critic of classical Calvinism. But the perception is where this commonality evaporates. 

What I mean is that Flowers claims to be a critic of Calvinism, but what that actually means is that he is critical of a popular level, reductionistic understanding of what Calvinism entails. Of course, he wouldn’t say it like this, but this is the level of discourse he operates out of and within; with the type of Calvinism he is critiquing. Just recently he tweeted the following (this is in response to a popular level Calvinist who is in fact critiquing Flowers): 

Looks like they aren’t happy with my videos biblically refuting their views, so they resort to mostly “to the man” arguments. I expected better . . . Maybe folks @WWUTTcom are only interested in 2 min vids? So here is one with a clip from a Calvinist correcting their proof texting error, all the while they continue accusing me of not understanding #Calvinism or basic soteriology . . . I get that’s the way you feel Gabe, but instead of just assuming someone who has spent his entire adult life studying a subject doesn’t understand it maybe just consider that they might understand it and disagree with your conclusions so then you can learn the actual reasons why.1 

Flowers believes that he has accurately and successfully reduced the core premises of Calvinist theology to its very essences, and so he feels justified in simply speaking of Calvinist theology in terms of ‘theological determinism,’ and ‘compatibilism.’ If you listen to him for just a week straight you will realize that these two themes serve as the reduction of Calvinist theology that Flowers believes defines the whole phenomenon of Calvinist theology. But the irony of Flowers’ approach, and this is a symptom of his reductionist mode, is that he evinces no knowledge, none at all!, of how Calvinist theology developed ideationally in the 16th and 17th centuries; the period known as Post Reformation Reformed Orthodoxy (see Richard Muller’s Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4Vols). His common Calvinist opponents are James White, John Piper, and RC Sproul (with scattered references to Lorraine Boettner and Herman Bavinck). And yet the themes he picks out, even with these rather popular level Calvinists (they are not world renowned as Flowers claims—and I’m referring to the former three) are the reduced themes we have already noted.  

I am simply attempting to register, once again, that Flowers is ironically out of his depth in regard to who and what he claims to be critiquing. He has a huge YouTube following (45K), but this isn’t an indicator of the solidity of Flowers’ provenance as a “sound” critic of Calvinist theology. It only indicates, at best, that there is an audience in the churches that would like to have a solid alternative to Calvinist theology. And I am here to say that Flowers is not offering that. His followers, though, do not have the resources to know whether or not Flowers is actually offering a sound alternative or not. And Flowers (and I don’t think maliciously) is capitalizing on the genuine want for an alternative to the Young, Restless and Reformed; and he does so by having enough linguistic and conceptual knowledge, along with rhetorical ability, to be dangerous.  

As my readers know, I am a critic of classical Calvinism. But for me this means we must do our homework with reference to the entailments of Reformed theology, proper. I am a critic of classical Calvinism (as I call it) from within the Reformed family. If we are going to criticize anything, as Flowers himself often notes, we ought to critique a ‘steelman’ rather than a ‘strawman.’ And yet Flowers critiques a caricatured version classical Calvinism; particularly because of his historical anemia. He doesn’t understand the development of Calvinist ideas, historically, and thus can only engage in a critique of Calvinism that is skimmed off the top of popular ideas about the entailments of Calvinism. As an alternative you ought to read us Evangelical Calvinists, or Athanasian Reformed types. We attempt to engage with the history of ideas and theological development of historic Calvinism, and do our respective critiques from there. True, our approach is more academically oriented, and it takes more work to follow along. But if we are going to be true theological Bereans (as Flowers claims to be, but isn’t), then it will require that we spend the requisite time in expanding our personal theological vocabularies, and elevating our respective theological understanding in general. Flowers does not offer his followers the sort of tools necessary to think properly theological in general, and thus critically (with reference to Calvinism) in particular.   

 

What is Evangelical Calvinism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thesis Three. There is one covenant of grace.

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

Thesis Five. Election is christologically conditioned.

Thesis Six. Grace precedes law.

Thesis Seven. Assurance is of the essence of faith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    1. Calvin was onto something profound, and this is why Evangelical Calvinists gravitate towards his belief that “assurance is of the essence of faith.” That notwithstanding, as we developed previously, Calvin’s lack of place for reprobation in his soteriology coupled with the idea of “temporary faith” can be problematic. It has the potential to cause serious anxiety for anyone struggling with whether or not they are truly one of God’s elect. In this frame someone can look and sound like a Christian, but in the end might just be someone who has a “temporary” or “ineffectual faith.” The problem for Calvin, as with the tradition he is representing, is that the focus of election is not first on Jesus Christ, but instead it is upon individuals. Even though, as we have seen, Calvin does have some valuable things to say in regard to a theology of union with Christ, if we simply stayed with his doctrine of election and eternal decrees, we would always find assurance of salvation elusive.
    2. Despite what is lacking in Calvin’s superstructure he nevertheless was able to offer some brilliant trajectories for the development of a doctrine of assurance. Union with Christ and the duplex gratia in Calvin’s theology provide a focus on salvation that sees salvation extra nos (outside of us), and consequently as an objective reality that Grow—“Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith” 53 is not contingent upon us, but solely contingent on the person and achievements of Jesus Christ for us. This is where assurance can be developed from Calvin’s theology in a constructive manner. If salvation is not predicated upon my faith or by my works, but instead is a predicate of Jesus’ faith and faithfulness, then there is no longer space for anyone to look but to Christ. As we have already noted, Calvin did not necessarily press into the idea of Jesus’ faith for us, but that could be an implication in an inchoate way within Calvin’s thought. Calvin provides hope for weary and seeking souls because of his doctrines of union with Christ and the duplex gratia; primarily because what these doctrines say is that all aspects of salvation have been accomplished by Jesus Christ (namely here, justification and sanctification). Calvin’s theology, when we simply look at his theology of union with Christ and grace, leaves no space for seekers to look anywhere else but to Christ for assurance of salvation. And at this level Calvin can truly say that “assurance is the essence of faith.”
    3. As we moved from Calvin to Barth and Torrance what we have are the theological resources required for a robust doctrine of assurance. With Barth and Torrance we certainly have Calvin’s emphases on union with Christ and grace, as Christ is understood as the objective (and subjective) ground of salvation. But moving beyond this we have Calvin’s weaknesses corrected when it comes to a doctrine of election. Because Barth and Torrance see Jesus as both elect and reprobate simultaneously in his vicarious humanity for all of humanity, there is absolutely no space for anxiety in the life of the seeker of assurance. Since, for Barth and Torrance, there is no such thing as “temporary faith,” since faith, from their perspective, is the “faith of Christ” (pistis Christou) for all of humanity, there is no room for the elect to attempt to prove that they have a genuine saving faith, since the only saving faith is Christ’s “for us and our salvation.” Further, since there is no hidden or secret decree where the reprobate can be relegated, since God’s choice is on full display in Jesus Christ— with “no decree behind the back of Jesus”—the seeker of assurance does not have to wonder whether or not God is for them or not; the fact and act of the incarnation itself already says explicitly that God is for the elect and not against them.
    4. If there is no such thing as elect and reprobate individuals, if God in Christ gave his life for all of humanity in his own elect humanity, if there is no such thing as temporary faith, if Christ’s faith for us is representative of the only type of saving faith there is; then Christ is all consuming, as such he is God’s assurance of salvation for all of humanity. The moment someone starts to wonder if they are elect, properly understood, the only place that person can look is to Jesus. There is no abstract concept of salvation; Jesus Christ is salvation, and assurance of salvation and any lingering questions associated with that have no space other than to look at Jesus. The moment someone gets caught up in anxious thoughts and behavior associated with assurance, is the moment that person has ceased thinking about salvation in, by, and for Christ. Anxiety about salvation, about whether or not I am elect only comes from a faulty doctrine of election which, as we have seen, is in reality the result of a faulty Christology. We only have salvation with God in Christ because of what Jesus Christ did for us by the grace of God; as such our only hope is to be in union with Christ, and participate in what Calvin called the “double grace” of God’s life for us. It is this reality that quenches any fears about whether or not I am genuinely elect; because it places the total burden of that question on what God has done for us, including having faith for us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

There is no “Calvinism” Behind the Back of the Athanasian Reformed

There is a reason why I changed the name of blog to: Athanasian Reformed (from The Evangelical Calvinist). By the standards of what counts as Calvinism today, I am not a Calvinist. By historic standards, though, I am Reformed. By national standards I am Swiss and Scottish Reformed (let the reader understand). And both nationalities are largely shaped by a Greek rather than Latin orientation (so, Athanasius) Selah. I just wrote the aforementioned for Twitter and Facebook. I want to expand, briefly, on this.

Clearly, for anyone who reads me you know that I am Calvinian, Barthian, Torrancean, Athanasian, Luther[an]. But of course, the tradition I think after is Barthian. We all think from this or that tradition, most evangelicals, though, are totally unconscious of this informing reality. I don’t want to function like most evangelicals. Instead, I want to be self-conscious and intentional, which is why I stand back and have moments like this every now and then.

Beyond this, I want folks to understand that the way we use Calvinism is as shorthand for Reformed. Like I noted, we are not Calvinists if that is understood from the popular frame of the 21st century (which exclusively entails either Federal/Covenantal theology and/or Five Point “Baptist” Calvinism). I am historically Reformed, and that from an Eastern orientation as noted. When I attempt to enter the popular fray, particularly among the apologetically minded, when they see that I am “Evangelical Calvinist” they immediately presume that I am simply Evangelical + Calvinist, which of course couldn’t be further from the reality. What I am trying to bear witness to, when I enter such communities (online), is that there is a better and catholic way to think as a Christian. Even if we come with various informing traditions there is only one centraldogma to the Christian reality; that is, that Jesus is Lord. But this ‘Lordness’ is bounded up with 2000 years of history and catholicity behind it. Most in the popular evangelical sector have no sense of this. If they did much of the sectarian spirit would be elided, and then genuine non-binary theological disputation could unfold. But this requires greater work than sitting down in front of the webcam and claiming yourself to be something. This requires the work of a priest of Christ; of the sort that is willing to sacrifice other ventures in order to spend time with the fathers and mothers of the Church. If this becomes the person’s mode they will begin to experience a distanciation, at which point a sense of catholicity and the Cosmic Christ (see Maximos the Confessor) will so pervade their visio that they will be able to move onto the meatier things of the Evangel.

This is what stands, some, behind the blog name change. I want folks to understand that there is something deeper and greater going on behind things; greater than the evangelical debates between the Calvinists (so-called) and Arminians (and Provisionists). Soli Deo Gloria

A Theology of Crisis: How a Doctrine of Creatio Ex Nihilo Ought to Lead to Christ Concentration in Theological Reflection

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” –Genesis 1:1

Thomas Torrance makes much of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, as he should! The very freedom of God is at play in this doctrine, such that God remains free from the contingencies of this world, just as He is its Creator; but only first as He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As a result, knowledge of God remains contingent on God’s free choice to make Himself known to the world. Thus, systems of theology that attempt to think God discursively from His effects in nature, like Thomism does, are discounted from the get-go. To appropriate creatio ex nihilo in this way entails a theory of revelation wherein the world, and humanity as part of the world, is at God’s behest, and solely contingent upon its knowledge of Him insofar as He chooses to reveal Himself.

It isn’t just Torrance who thinks this way about God’s relation to the world, but prior to TFT, we get this from theologians like Karl Barth, in his theology of crisis, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in certain ways, although not in uncritical lockstep, is already thinking After Barth. Matthew Puffer writes the following with reference to Bonhoeffer’s own style of theology of crisis, and how that relates to a doctrine of creation, and more significantly, as this ties into a received doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, and the attending doctrine of creatio continua (God’s continuing creative power deployed in its sustenance from moment to moment).

During the 1930/1 academic year as a Sloane Fellow at Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer’s paper on ‘The Theology of Crisis and its Attitude Toward Philosophy and Science’ introduced American students and professors to recent developments in German theology, including ‘the position of the founder and most original thinker of the theology of crisis, of Karl Barth’ (DBWE 10: 462-3). Bonhoeffer presents a view of science and theology in which the two, properly practiced, cannot conflict due to their differing roles. Science, in this heuristic, is concerned only with what takes place within the realm of the physical world. Theology, on the other hand, is concerned to interpret what takes place in the physical world as science presents it. Bonhoeffer applies this schema to cosmology and creation.

In its pure sense cosmology presumes to know nothing about God and can only speak about the universe on the basis of naturalistic explanations. Cosmology is limited in that it can never get beyond the limits of human thinking and perception, albeit aided and constrained by technology. Cosmology may come to the end of its investigative powers in discovering the foundational principles or the first moments of all that is and, if it so chooses, call that which it assumes must be the cause behind these discoveries “God.” The theology of crisis argues that such a God cannot be the Christian God of whom the Bible speaks as the creator for two reasons.

Firstly: I know God as creator not without the revelation of Christ. For God’s being the creator means being the judge and the savior too; and I know all that only in Christ. Secondly: creation means creation by absolute freedom, creation out of nothing. So the relationship of God to the world is completely free, it has been set and is always set anew ‘creatio continua’ by God. Thus God is not the first cause, the ultimate ground of the world, but its free Lord and creator [and] as such he is not to be discovered by any cosmology, but he reveals himself in sovereign freedom wherever and whenever he wants. (DBWE 10: 475)

According to Bonhoeffer, the god of the cosmologists is not the Creator, the Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer rightly ascribes to the Barth of Romans both creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua, and he gives no indication of any disagreement on his part. The creative act of God is always taking place beyond the empirical realm of natural science. God thus remains free with respect to creation, as the continuing creator, and cannot be discovered by means of human capacities and initiatives, whether by Christians or cosmologists. Only in Christ does God reveal Godself to be Creator, judge, and saviour. (In Ethics, Bonhoeffer’s language of Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer reflects Barth’s continuing influence in this matter [DBWE 6: 48, 402].)[1]

This dovetails nicely with a recent post vis-à-vis Bonhoeffer’s rejection of the analogia entis. Evangelicals, in particular, need to come to learn to think Christian Dogmatically about things; they need to understand that there is a theological taxis or order to the way various doctrines relate to each other, with particular reference to a theology proper.

But to the point of what was just said about Bonhoeffer by Puffer, if we think God radically as the God of creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua, we will come to better appreciate just why it is that many of us in this tradition repudiate natural theology at its core. We are contingent beings, as such our knowledge of God, the Creator, is contingent on His gracious willingness to make Himself known. This is why Evangelical Calvinism, as an iteration of this particular tradition, believes that a genuinely Christian theology can only unfold after Deus dixit (‘God has spoken’ [see Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics]). There is no necessary linkage between our beings and God’s, not if our beings our contingent on His freedom in being for us first. As such this sort of theological ontology, in and order of being to knowing, implicates a theological epistemology. I.e. God first, then us, as He becomes us in Christ, and in this becoming we come to have a knowledge of God as we are participatio Christi (participants with Christ). The crisis of our situation, the anxiety produced by being a Gentile lot separated from God comes to an end, moment by moment, as God breaks down the veil, and makes one new humanity in the new humanity of His life for and with and in us, in Jesus Christ.

11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God bythe Spirit. –Ephesians 2:11-22


[1] Matthew Puffer, “Creation,” in Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler eds., The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 182-3.

The Hyper-Augustinians and Pelagians: Juxtaposed with the Pauline Christ Relation

Douglas Campbell in his book The Triumph of God’s Love: Pauline Dogmatics offers a nice sketch of a theological continuum; what he identifies as ‘Hyper-Augustinianism’ and ‘Pelagianism.’ He concisely shows how both fail to do justice to Paul’s theology proper, and subsequently, his soteriology. But both of these loci have continued to plague the church from Augustine/Pelagius; Luther/Erasmus; Calvin/Pighius; Dort/Arminius; classical Calvinists/- Arminians; MacArthur’s Lordship Salvation/Hodges’ Free Grace; James White/Provisionists; so on and so forth. This frame of reference, or this binary is rather false when we examine, with a critical eye, what we find in the teaching of the New Testament in general, and the Pauline corpus in particular. It is from within this frame of reference that Campbell offers up the aforementioned sketches with reference to Augustinianism/Pelagianism. In this post we will work through Campbell’s sketch on Hyper-Augustianism, and in a post following we will visit what he has to say on Pelagianism juxtaposed with the Pauline theology. After we read Campbell’s sketch on Hyper-Augustinianism, I will attempt to tease out some further applications, and show how they might impinge on some current soteriological wanderings among the crowds ‘out there.’

Campbell writes at some length:

Hyper-Augustinianism

If election is understood mechanistically, someone might attach this notion to grace and argue that God has given us everything we need in the act of electing us. God simply acts decisively upon us, albeit generously. This gift would then operate in spite of anything we do, and anything we might do should be excluded. Indeed, if we had to act, we would to that degree undermine what God has given us. Grace and human activity operate here in a zero-sum relationship, so, if we take the side of God, we would go on to attack any endorsements of a need for human activity in the name of grace.

A particular reading of Augustine can cause readers of Paul trouble in this respect, so that the assertion of any need for agency or even learning in response to grace is dubbed “Pelagianism”! I don’t think this is a complete reading of Augustine, who was a complex thinker and shifted significantly in his thinking over time. But an extreme account of some of his positions can be advocated in this way and in his name, and at this moment his influence—however misrepresented—must be resisted. We can speak of a hyper-Augustinian view, then, that eliminates any role for human agency in discipleship, the long-term results of which are serious. The whole process of formation is neglected if not opposed by hyper-Augustinians, and the end result is a church without discipleship. How good is this church likely to be? And how Pauline will it look?

Fortunately, we have already exposed the error at work in this view and corrected it. God’s election is certainly unconditional, but in the sense that a covenantal relationship is. It will never be withdrawn and will ultimately prevail. In the meantime, however, it respects human agency carefully, as seen most clearly in God’s incarnation to meet us. Moreover, as we will see in much more detail shortly, among those who respond to it, it enhances human freedom. Those who learn actively and wholeheartedly to live out of their new location in Christ can grow dramatically in their capacity to act in good ways. Relational election nurtures human agency and freedom; it does not stifle it. It summons us to ongoing and deeper responsiveness, which is to say, to learning, and many of Augustine’s writings contain a great deal of wisdom about this process. Nevertheless, any exclusion of human activity in response to God’s initiative in his name, in a type of hyper-Augustinianism, must be vigilantly opposed and rejected. This type of unconditionality undermines the heart of the life of discipleship.

However, a further mistake is, as is often the case, a swing to the opposite and complementary error. Whereas hyper-Augustinians emphasize election and grace to the exclusion of human agency, misconceiving both divine and human agency in the process. Pelagians share the same basic misunderstanding but emphasize human agency on the other side of the supposed divide, and so go on to override divine election, with equally destructive results.[1]

If you are familiar with the history, you’ll agree that Campbell’s sketch captures the ground quite well; viz. in regard to understanding the binary, or divide between what we know today, and more popularly, as the ‘Calvinists versus the Arminians.’ What shouldn’t be lost, and often is when considering something like Campbell’s points, is the alternative he is working into this mix. That is the ‘relational election’ he mentions, and the covenantal relationship, as Campbell contends, that is central to Paul’s understanding of a God-world relation. What he doesn’t tease out so explicitly in his sketch, but that is because it implicitly underwrites what he is developing, is the objective/subjective status that the Pauline soteriology operates from, insofar that God acts, within a covenantal relationship, unilaterally for the world in Jesus Christ. This is his, or the Apostle Paul’s alternative to both Hyper-Augustinianism and Pelagianism.

Hyper-Augustinianism and Pelagianism both operate, respectively, from an abstract non-relational-covenantal frame when they attempt to think salvation. That is to say, anyone who operates on this continuum, and they are legion, thinks salvation from an abstract humanity (rather than from Christ’s vicarious humanity), and think in terms of individualism insofar as the cosmic Christ does not ground the way they think God’s election for the world in Jesus Christ. In other words, both Hyper-Augustinians and Pelagians, on a continuum, think salvation is contingent upon the elect’s response/decision to be for God. Paul’s alternative thinks salvation is contingent upon God’s election to be for humanity in Jesus Christ; that salvation is Christ-focused, and that within this as the inner-covenantal ground of the God-world relation, humanity comes to have the capaciousness to say Yes to God from God’s Yes and Amen for them in Jesus Christ. But you will notice that for the Apostle Paul, particularly as Campbell tells it, humanity comes to have this capacity from the elect and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. It is by this signification of God for humanity in Christ that humans come to have genuine liberty or freedom for God, ‘for where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.’ This undercuts the emphases that both the Hyper-Augustinians and Pelagians give us in regard to their foreclosure of God’s grace by placing God into a competitive relationship with humanity; whether that be from the Augustinian side, which emphasizes God’s brute determination and sovereignty to be for the world through a series of decrees, particularly the decretum absolutum; or from the Pelagian side which emphasizes the freedom of an abstract human agency to respond to God, insofar as they posit that said freedom has been an inherent given from since the beginning of creation. Both fail to think from Paul’s relational conception of election, and the corresponding relational-covenantalism that funds the Pauline Christ concentrated conception of a God-world relation.

Contemporary examples of Hyper-Augustinians and Pelagians: Classical Calvinists, classical Arminians / John Piper, Leighton Flowers (and his Provisionism).


[1] Douglas A. Campbell, The Triumph Of God’s Love: Pauline Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 180-81.

Twitter Miscellanies: From Evangelical Calvinism to Critical Theory

Here are four ‘posts’ I Tweeted in succession earlier today. This is sort of a miscellanies, and I thought I would post them here as well.

I

Neo-Marxism and Critical Theory is not the key that unlocks the kerygma (Gospel) for the world; Jesus does that. Jesus plundered the frailty and wickedness of a fallen humanity in the asumptio carnis, and out of that poverty made us rich from His riches. It is only the Gospel itself that is the power of God; that is, Jesus Christ. With Christ comes the tools, categories, and emphases to engage with a fallen world from the inside out. It is sheer arrogance and utter theology of glory that leads the theologians and pastors to imagine that they have the mastery to pierce the veil of nature and plunder it. Only God in Christ is capable of such a feat, and the second He did that He was intent on following the Jerusalem road; which eventuated in Him putting ‘nature’ to death and re-creating a new nature, a new humanity. This is the Gospel key for engaging this world system. There are no critical tools to plunder from the old-nature; for that realm has been put to death by the death of Christ. So, we walk by faith not sight; we walk in the reality of the resurrection from whence our tools come to us from the eschatos of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. Neo-Marxism and Critical Theory is purely Antichrist and the doctrine of demons all the way down.

II

For much (most) of American (Western) Evangelicalism it seems clear to me that her Babylonian Captivity is finally blossoming. Her uncritically examined pietistic roots, and thus turn to the subject anthropology, is finally giving way to what might be called the: being and becoming of a Babylonian Christian. A Babylonian Christian can no longer distinguish between God’s Word and their word; they are the same, in effect. The scandalous nature of the Gospel has become too scandalous for the Babylonian Christian, as such the more genteel culture has been allowed to regulate the way the Babylonian Christian thinks and lives; all in the name of Jesus Christ. The Babylonian Christian is not allowed to speak of hell, or to maintain, along with Jesus, that there are people who are children of the devil. That is hard doctrine, and the Babylonian Christian will not hear it, and definitely not speak it! The Babylonian Christian has a total fear of appearing as a Fundamentalist, out of step with the modern foot. kyrie eleison

III

I didn’t grow up as a Calvinist. My way into Calvinism is circuitous; and it isn’t your grandpa’s Calvinism either. I’m an After Barth (like trad) “Calvinist” or Reformed person. There are real antecedents in the Reformed tradition that pre-date Barth, Torrance et al. which I was introduced to by my former historical theology prof in an iteration known as Affective or Free Grace theology (of the Puritan period). Some of these past emphases find corollary with what Barth and TFT developed latterly; indeed, ironically after Von Harnack. All this to say that my “Reformed faith,” while confessional, in a reified sense, is quite Free church in orientation. I have never in my entire life affirmed a decretal God, or the 5 Points of Calvinism, for example. This may be why I’m so openly constructive in in my appropriation of various theological loci and theologians. My concern is to live and breathe in a theological frame that is slavishly regulated by the centrality and reality of Jesus Christ concentration as the ground and grammar of all that was, is, and will be.

IV

Something I Tweeted: Evangelical Calvinism, of the sort that me and Myk Habets propose in our two books, and what I write about at my blog, is not 5 Point Calvinism and is counter classical Federal/Covenantal theology. People almost always presume that to be Calvinist equals the aforementioned. Indeed, the iteration we propose has roots in the contemporaneous development and history of the so-called classical Calvinism (think Westminster); but what we imbibe operates from a Calvinism focused on God’s triune filial life as the ground and grammar of all theological reflection. We emphasize a God of winsome love and grace, rather than a brute God of law and gratuitous decrees. This is in the history and development of Reformed theology, but most Reformed et al know nothing of this. It is a revisionist history that makes people think Westminster Calvinism was always and the only orthodox form of Reformed theology. Evangelical Calvinism works from what my former historical theology professor identifies as Affective theology in the theology of someone like Richard Sibbes. We work from the more contemporary framing of theologians like Thomas F. Torrance, and his Scottish Theology, along with the Swiss man, Karl Barth and the whole *After Barth* trad that has developed subsequent to him. We represent a genuine stream in Reformed theology that you would be churlish to ignore. You would do well to acknowledge the breadth of the Reformed tradition and not come under the false illusion that Westminster Calvinism is the only thing going.

One Way to the Father: Many Entrees:: ‘Saved as by fire’

I’ve been meaning to write this post for the last couple of days. In a way it is somewhat anecdotal, but it is also richly theologically biblical. It has to do with the continual process I am in as I continue to grieve the loss of my dad (circa Jan 11th, 2021 @4am). You see, my dad did not enter the presence of the Lord in “victory,” he entered in “defeat.” My dad loved Jesus; probably led more people to Jesus Christ in his tenure as a pastor, chaplain, and evangelist than most Christians have in history (serious). But throughout my dad’s life he also had deep trials and tribulations; I have mentioned some of that in the past. Over the last 15 to 20 years, and then in the last 2 years in particular, these trials and tribulations seemed to climax in his life. He really died a “death of despair,” which I would characterize as a slow and drawn out in front of our faces suicide (many people die and are dying from this sort of death right now, even Christians). What I am going to get into, throughout the rest of this post, gets into this issue from a soteriological angle. It will kick against the goads of popular and even technical juridical or forensic based theories of salvation, and offer the biblical alternative which is a Christologically conditioned and grace-full understanding of salvation. Rather than refer to theologians like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance explicitly, I am simply going to refer to a few passages of Scripture (which in a way makes this seem a bit anecdotal, but in a substantive way) which indicate exactly what my thesis is. My thesis is this: ‘There is only One way to the Father: But there are many types of entrees into the eternal Kingdom.’  

Here are four passages from Scripture, which I will take in turn, in regard to some explication vis-à-vis my thesis.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14.6

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us tohis own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. II Peter 1.3-11

10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. II Corinthians 3.10-15

28 And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. 29 If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. I John 2.28-29

In light of my thesis the aforementioned passages ought to be self-evident; nonetheless, let me provide a little explication.

As orthodox Christianity has understood for millennia, there is only One way to the Father; and that is to participate in the eternal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and that is to be united by Holy Spirit with the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ. It is as a person ‘becomes one spirit’ with Jesus (see I Cor 6.17) that they are now born again of an imperishable seed that will endure as long as the eternal life of the Son in Christ endures for them; which is for eternity. So, we all affirm this basic premise if we are orthodox Christians. But there is disparity following when this gets fleshed out with reference to who will actually “make” it into the corridor of perichoretic life of the de Trino / de Uno God.

When I note above that there are many entrees into the eternal kingdom, what I mean, and I’d think this would be self-evident, is that Christians, those who are born again and adopted into the family of God by the blood of Jesus Christ, can and do enter heaven upon their death (and even upon the coming of Christ, when that happens) in at least one of two ways. They either are walking in the victory of sanctification, or the defeat of their own poor choices that leaves them broken and in despair.

As Peter notes for us: as we walk in step with the Spirit (to borrow a Paulinism) and cultivate the virtues of the eternal kingdom in our daily lives (Paul’s fruit of the Spirit), as we leave this in-between life and enter the beatific life to come, it will be a time of almost seamless rejoicing; of a race well run. But as Paul identifies, along with the theologian, John, it is also possible, even for the Christian to step into ‘eternity’ in a status that leaves this particular Christian in a momentary state of shame and fiery ordeal. This person, to be sure, is now and will forever be in the presence of the Lord, finally away from the dregs of their various and incapacitating sins, but it will, at the first twinkling entail a moment of sadness that they did not walk in the victory that they, at that point, will fully understand that Christ had won for them. They will be saved ‘but as through fire.’

Theological Iterations

A large part of my project over the years, with Evangelical Calvinism, has been driven by some of the concerns we have been visiting in this brief posting. My critique of classical Calvinism and Arminianism (which I have identified less explicitly, even though it flows from the same theological and philosophical premises that fund classical Calvinism) has been against its necessarily forensic and/or performance based notion of salvation. In order to attempt any critique of this sort, in the theological game, the critiquer must start where all things start: with a doctrine of God. As such, my critique of classical Calvinism has targeted its conception of God as One who is shaped by an Aristotelian substance metaphysic wherein he relates to the world, in a God-world relation, through the mechanism of the decretum absolutum (absolute decree of deterministic election/reprobation). My contention has been that to think God under this type of pressure is to mis-think just at the point that it departs from God’s own Self-presentation in the hyper or radically relational reality of the SON become human; insofar that this becoming, in its antecedence, presupposes that the Son has a Father (see Athanasius’ dictum here). If God is first and foremost a person and relational God, if He is first Father of the Son before He is Creator (see Torrance), then the apparatus that the decretral God of ‘classical’ pedigree operates from is necessarily null and void. If God’s act of original creation, and re-creation in the resurrection has its asymmetrical correspondence and elevation, in who God necessarily is: then God necessarily is Grace. This entails that God, thus, works immediately with us and for us, in relational and gracious ways, to the point that even if we are faithless He remains faithful for He cannot deny Himself. As such, an absolute decretive god becomes a fabrication vis-à-vis God’s own Self-presentation in Jesus Christ. As such, the God-world relation then becomes contingent not upon some sort of mercantile set of salvific conditions, such as we get in Federal or Covenantal theology, but instead upon the very life/person and work of God in Jesus Christ without rupture from the triune life of God. And so someone like Thomas Torrance can write the following with reference to the reality of the Gospel:

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

Conclusion

There is one way to the Father, and that is through Christ alone! But as the Christian walks in this simul-time[2], our experiences can be very different. We can be ‘born-again,’ and become ‘blood’ children of the living God in Christ; which can lead someone like TF Torrance to write what he does above for us. And yet even as children, we can disobey and live lives that are less than pleasing to our eternal Father. There are consequences, both temporal and eternal, that follow these choices, but ultimately, like the Prodigal experienced, the Father’s graciousness far outshines our own failures while we live in these bodies of death. Our aim, clearly, as children of God, as co-heirs with Jesus Christ, is to be holy as God is holy. But depending on a variety of variables, often times unforeseen, the Christian might experience a life of continued failures rather than perfections. The classical Calvinist and Arminian systems of salvation don’t have space for failure before God—their only outs, respectively, are to posit that the “failure Christian” was never elect to begin with (Calvinist), or that the “failure Christian” simply lost their salvation (Arminian). But again, these systems, respectively, are based on a doctrine of God that is at odds with God’s own Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. They import categories and emphases about God that don’t come after Deus dixit (God has spoken), but before God has spoken (i.e. from the speculations offered by the philosophers about “Godness” and Pure Being). Maybe you can see why my whole project has been so deeply personal for me. My dad did not die in victory, but failure; but He died in the gracious and forever faithful arms of the Father and the Son, as bonded together by the unrelenting power of the Holy Spirit.   


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

[2] Think Luther’s simul justus et peccator.