T.F. Torrance Objects to Federal Theology, and So Do I!

Here Paul Molnar gives a good summary overview of some of the reasons that T.F. Torrance objected to ‘Federal’ or ‘Westminster’ Calvinism:

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. [Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity, 181-2, fn. 165]

I originally wrote this post years ago, but I wanted to reshare it because I am currently working on a book chapter that is attempting to engage with TFT’s thinking on Calvin and Calvinism. One reason I think many do not appreciate Torrance (and Barth) is because they do not fully grasp the theological context TFT was working against. Hopefully this overview, provided by Molnar, will prove helpful in providing further background context on the theological milieu Torrance was working within and against. Some take issue with the characterization that TFT (and his brother, James) provides on Federal or Covenantal theology. But I have read that theology, and its historical development, extensively, and I don’t see any mischaracterization whatsoever. Torrance might not state things, lexically, in the same way that Federal theologians do, or would like. But that doesn’t mean he is materially misrepresenting what that theology teaches or implies about God, salvation, and its mechanics. Evangelical Calvinism’s whole intention, at least from my perspective, is intended to offer an alternative ethos to Westminster styled Federal theology; an ethos that has been present all the way through Reformed theology’s development, and even prior in antecedent thinkers (like Staupitz, Luther, et al.).

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What’s The Difference Between Evangelical Calvinism and Classical Calvinism? Election After Barth

I often get asked what distinguishes evangelical Calvinism from classical Calvinism; I think that one of the more instructive ways to illustrate this is to compare John Calvin with Karl Barth. It is the disparity between their respective hermeneutic that makes clear where the point of departure is at between EC and CC. For EC, following Barth at this juncture, the distinction is that we see barthstampthings from a personalist rather than impersonalist perspective; in other words when we think about salvation we start immediately with Jesus Christ. Contrariwise CC’s, when they think about salvation start with decrees, and work mediately from there to Christ. This distinction is rife in the theologies of Calvin and Barth; as David Gibson notes, “…Calvin’s theology allows us to speak of Christ and the decree, but Barth’s theology to say that Christ is the decree….”[1] Evangelical Calvinists think after Barth here, and depart from Calvin at this point. Gibson writes further as he comments on Calvin and Barth:

First, the patient work of a thick description will reveal why both of their respective doctrines of election may be described as christocentric. This establishes a similarity between both theologians. But secondly, precisely in this description of their christocentric doctrines of election, we will see a conceptual distinction emerging. Calvin’s doctrine of election is best described as christocentric in the soteriological sense: although in his theology election is connected to Christology in the realm of the inscrutable divine decree, the weight of his treatment falls on the nexus of ideas associated with the preaching of the gospel, the Spirit’s call and the response of faith in the Mediator. By having more to say about election’s connection to Christ in this temporal realm of faith and obedience, Calvin’s doctrine of election is an example of his soteriological christocentrism. By contrast, we will see that the opposite is true of Barth. The connection of election to Christology is not primarily to be found in something that God does (issue a decree) but rather, in the person of Jesus Christ, election describes who God is (turned toward us in his self determination). Barth’s understanding of Christology and election locates his christocentrism principially: it is the ‘ground and content’ of the doctrine of election, with this particular understanding itself having a determining influence on the divine being and intra-trinitarian life. Here Christology operates as a methodological rule which is more pervasive and radical than in the thinking of Calvin. Thirdly, the contrasts which emerge between a soteriological–principial christocentrism help to show that the difference between Calvin and Barth in the area of Christology and election is fundamentally explained by their contrasting understandings of how election is related to the doctrine of the Trinity.[2]

calvinpostageBarth, and evangelical Calvinists after him, cannot conceive of God’s election but personally and ontically in Christ; thus the focus is personal, grounded in the personal and loving life of God as Triune. Calvin thinks from a voluntarist position where God’s will is given expression in an abstract decree. In other words, the decree is not something necessarily related to who God is; instead it arises from an abyss in God where there is no access (Deus absconditus)—God in this scheme arbitrarily chooses some and rejects others, and this based upon a remote and absolute decree. This is why Barth and Torrance charged this Calvinian and classically Reformed view with the idea that ‘there is a God behind the back of Jesus’. The God behind the back of Jesus is the abyss (inner-life of God) from whence the decrees are generated. But the God revealed (Deus revelatus) in Christ, for the evangelical Calvinist, after Barth, is the same God who antecedently co-exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (i.e. the ontological is the immanent Trinity). There is no distinct decree from Christ for the evangelical Calvinist; Christ is the ‘decree’ (to stick with that language).

The difference is personal rather than impersonal between the evangelical Calvinist and classical Calvinist.

[1] David Gibson, Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth (London/NY: T&T Clark, 2009), 30.

[2] Ibid., 30-1.

*Repost from 2016

Contra Mundum: A Riposte to Leighton Flowers’ ‘Provisionism’, the Classical Calvinists and Arminians, and the Rest of the ‘Latins’: Human Agency in Salvation

In the predominately Calvinist world many Christian people, especially conservatives, inhabit online, this post might not have much interface with you. Indeed, what we will be considering might be more demographically relevant than it is conceptually. My guess is that Millennial and younger generations will not really see this as very pertinent to their Christianity. I mean most, Millennial and under, have simply been given a theological entrée, that if they are theologically astute and ‘serious,’ if they are conservative and evangelical, has been flavored with TULIP petals and Dutch chocolates; not to mention Latin cigars and German beer. But be that as it may, I wanted to touch on something I just said I would; I want to engage further with the ‘traditionalism,’ or what Leighton Flowers calls ‘Provisionism,’ when it comes to things salvific. You see, what Leighton is re-iterating for his Southern Baptist tribespeople, and anyone else who will listen, is something I grew up with myself (as a Conservative Baptist pastor’s kid); only we called it “Biblicism.” Let me offer something of a sketch of Flowers’ offering, at least one part of it, the part that has to do with his view of human agency in the appropriation of salvation; and then after I will offer the Evangelical Calvinist alternative.

What will make some of this difficult, in regard to presenting Flowers’ views, is that most of them are articulated via podcasts, and interviews he’s done with guests (he has written some books, so maybe someday I’ll read and engage with those as well); so we will have to rely on my recall and ability to accurately re-present (via paraphrase) what was communicated in said podcast. Let me focus on a podcast that Flowers recently did (they are videoed on YouTube as well) with Augustine expert, Ken Wilson. In this podcast the basic thesis was this: It wasn’t until Augustine entered the picture that Christian theology/soteriology received its deterministic shape. Wilson’s argument is that Augustine is at fault for introducing the notion that later Martin Luther would call (in response to Erasmus) The Bondage of the Will. That is, that original sin entered the picture, and as a result all of humanity became guilty and noetically and volitionally impotent to respond to God’s free offer of salvation. The argument went further, per Wilson (with Flowers’ approval): Wilson argues that because Augustine was really more of a rhetorician and apologist, even a popular one, that his teachings, especially his later teachings gained the traction that they did. In the process, as Wilson contends, Pelagius’ ideas on human freedom for or against God were besmirched, and as such Pelagius became a ‘boogeyman’ and the arch-heresiarch of the Church catholic (and Catholic). Wilson, and Flowers following, seek to re-boot Pelagius’ view on human freedom, and apparently his understanding on the ‘naturalized’ will as orthodox; thus, displacing Augustine’s view, and placing it in the heretical bin of history instead.

The claim is also made that prior to Augustine, the Eastern church, and the church in the first three hundred years, in general, operated in the mold of Pelagius’ viewpoint when it came to human free agency. That it was Augustine’s introduction of Manichean-Gnostic-Platonist inspired conceptual matter into Christian teaching that has set the Western church on the trajectory it took ever since his synthesis of such things. I think though, it is very important to note that the early church, pre-Augustine, really did not operate with the notion of libertarian freedom that Wilson, Flowers and others in this community are asserting. For one thing, this would be philosophically anachronistic, but more importantly what we find in folks like Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria is a heavy emphasis on a Christologically based notion of human freedom for and thus from God. In other words, Athanasius offered a view that bases human freedom on the freedom God has offered us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ (see his book On the Incarnation). Cyril of Alexandria, similarly, sees human freedom for God in salvation, grounded in a thick understanding on participation with God through union with Christ; again, emphasizing our participation in and from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ (see Donald Fairbairn’s work on Cyril in particular). Not to mention, John Calvin himself, known as the ‘theologian of the Spirit,’ places weighted emphasis on salvation only being found in Christ alone and our being united to Christ by the Spirit (think of his so called duplex gratia or double grace soteriology, and emphasis on union with Christ unio cum Christo). All of this is in agreement with the Apostle Paul’s teaching and understanding of human freedom for God (see Rom 6–8 and II Cor 8.9). Indeed, Paul’s teaching on the vicarious humanity of Christ, and thus human freedom for God in Christ, is most evident in a passage like Gal 2.20; as we translate that (as we should) with the subjective (V the objective) genitive. If we translate this passage thusly it reads (as the KJV correctly does):

20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (KJV)

ζῶ δὲ οὐκέτι ἐγώ, ζῇ δὲ ἐν ἐμοὶ Χριστός: ὃ δὲ νῦν ζῶ ἐν σαρκί, ν πστει ζ τ το υο το θεο τοῦ ἀγαπήσαντός με καὶ παραδόντος ἑαυτὸν ὑπὲρ ἐμοῦ. (GNT)

I have emboldened the language that serves our purposes; i.e. ‘the faith of the Son of God.’ We don’t trust God from our own resources; there is no ‘created grace’ that we are given to believe from in abstraction from Christ’s priestly and mediatorial trust for us. For the Apostle Paul, and much of the early church (pre-Augustine, and even post-Augustine in spite of Augustine and his Latin theology) freedom for God has a decidedly Christ concentrated grounding to it; such that when freedom is used in the New Testament it always already has reference to what Christ has accomplished for us as our High Priest, and the Greater Adam (think first and second Adam motif cf. Rom 5). In other words, the Wilson/Flowers thesis, in regard to human freedom for or against God in the early Church, and more importantly as found in the New Testament witness isn’t correlative with the actual reality. For the Apostle Paul we never think of humanity apart from Christ’s resurrected humanity, and our union with His humanity by grace (see Rom 6).

Ironically, Wilson, Flowers et al. continue to operate with the same sort of dualistic and abstract conception of humanity that they claim the Calvinists and Augustine himself did (which they do). They are right to find certain problems in Augustine’s understanding of salvation. They are wrong to offer up Pelagius as a shining star for understanding human freedom (he is the heretic that he has been rightly labeled as). And they are wrong to think there is some notion of libertarian free agency that has some sort of free-standing ontological status of its own; a status that can be de-linked and gifted to humanity’s ‘accidents’ as a means by which the mass of humanity can either say yes or no to God by a capacity they have sovereignly been given by God—we might call it, in reminiscence of Pelagius’s understanding: a ‘naturalized grace.’ Next post I will push further into the irony of Wilson’s and Flower’s usage of Augustine’s soteriological or abstract conception of humanity (labelled by TF Torrance as ‘The Latin Heresy’), and how they deploy that just as readily as Augustine did.

P.S. Make sure you click on all the hyper-links I have strewn throughout this post. They will lead you to pertinent posts that help to develop and establish my thesis further.

 

The Doctrine of the Vicarious Humanity of Christ Cannot Be Overstated for The Evangelical Calvinist Understanding of All Things

For Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and us Evangelical Calvinists following, what it means to be human is grounded in our participation in and from Jesus Christ’s vicarious humanity for us (pro nobis). This has broad reaching implications for theoanthropology, soteriology, and other important theological loci. I know I have iterated this before, and multiple times, but I thought I would reiterate it again because the significance of this point cannot be overstated if you are going to be an adherent to the mood of Evangelical Calvinism we are presenting to the church catholic. I am just now starting to read Jeff McSwain’s published PhD dissertation Simul Sanctification: Barth’s Hidden Vision for Human Transformation, which he accomplished under the watchful eye of Alan Torrance at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He offers a nice precise description of what the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ entails in the theology of Barth. He writes:

For Barth, when God becomes a human being he lives not only as a singular Jewish man of humble origins, but  he also represents in himself every human being—the whole spectrum of the human race. Jesus Christ is the true and original human being beloved by God, and at the same time the representative human sinner—and therefore “the greatest of all sinners”—being forsaken by God. In his person, Christ defines the goodness of humanity, and he also delimits the evil and brokenness of humanity. The implications are somewhat startling: every single human being exists in the human being of Jesus Christ, eternal Son of God. In terms of Barth’s beloved Colossians, we describe the simul iustus et peccator as the simultaneous, twofold, “Christ is your life” (see 3:4) and “Christ is your death” (see 3:3). In Barth’s view, then, righteousness is not primarily a forensic term to be fitted into a legal scheme of atonement but signifies true life from above, life derived solely from the life of God. Righteousness and life cannot be separated in Barth’s view any more than sin and death.[1]

We see foreshadowing’s of McSwain’s thesis on Barth’s simul, but for our purposes we get a sense of the radical nature of Barth’s understanding of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. We see what Luther and the tradition calls the mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’), or what the Apostle Paul notes here, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (II Cor 8.9). We get a sense of Barth’s doctrine of election, even though McSwain doesn’t explicitly refer to it; to be sure, that is what is underwriting this understanding of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ: viz. in eternity past the eternal Logos freely elected, with the Father, by the spiration of the Spirit, our humanity for Himself thus by becoming us He has graciously allowed us to become what He is for us in His elected humanity; and all that implies vis-à-vis participation in God’s triune life.

Much more to be said, but this will have to suffice for now. I simply wanted to elevate this doctrine once more because I do not think it can be overstated for those who are seeking to affirm an Evangelical Calvinist posture. Without this doctrine, grounded in the primacy of Jesus Christ as it is, the Evangelical Calvinist project doesn’t work. As McSwain underscored, “righteousness is not primarily a forensic term to be fitted into a legal scheme of atonement but signifies true life from above, life derived solely from the life of God.” This represents the deeper reality, the depth dimension of what Evangelical Calvinists are seeking to offer the church catholic as it reflects upon the reality of God become man, and how that affects all else. We don’t ultimately elide the forensic aspects of the atoning work of Christ, but we don’t see that as the frame of how atonement theory ought to be understood; instead we see the frame grounded in the ‘ontological’ reality of the God-human relationship rooted in the hypostatic union of God and human in Jesus Christ. Herein is the emphasis that Evangelical Calvinists promote in regard to the way we see God’s relationship to and for us; it isn’t ultimately based on a legal brief, but in a marriage proposal of the Son of Man for us (cf. Eph 5.18ff).

[1] Jeff McSwain, Simul Sanctification: Barth’s Hidden Vision for Human Transformation (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018), 4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Thought

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

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

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

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

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

thegospelcoalition

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

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

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

gratia: grace; in Greek, χάρις;  the gracious or benevolent disposition of God toward sinful mankind and, therefore, the divine operation by which the sinful heart and mind are regenerated and the continuing divine power or operation that cleanses, strengthens, and sanctifies the regenerate. The Protestant scholastics distinguish five actus gratiae, or actualizations of grace. (1) Gratia praeveniens, or prevenient grace, is the grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon sinners in and through the Word; it must precede repentance. (2) Gratia praeparens is the preparing grace, according to which the Spirit instills in the repentant sinner a full knowledge of his inability and also his desire to accept the promises of the gospel. This is the stage of the life of the sinners that can be termed the praeparatio ad conversionem (q.v.) and that the Lutheran orthodox characterize as a time of terrores conscientiae (q.v.). Both this preparation for conversion and the terrors of conscience draw directly upon the second use of the law, the usus paedagogicus (see usus legis). (3) Gratia operans, or operating grace, is the effective grace of conversion, according to which the Spirit regenerates the will, illuminates the mind, and imparts faith. Operating grace is, therefore, the grace of justification insofar as it creates in man the means, or medium, faith, through which we are justified by grace…. (4) Gratia cooperans, or cooperating grace, is the continuing grace of the Spirit, also termed gratia inhabitans, indwelling grace, which cooperates with and reinforces the regenerate will and intellect in sanctification. Gratia cooperans is the ground of all works and, insofar as it is a new capacity in the believer for the good, it can be called the habitus gratiae, or disposition of grace. Finally, some of the scholastics make a distinction between gratia cooperans and (5) gratia conservans, or conserving, preserving grace, according to which the Spirit enables the believer to persevere in faith. This latter distinction arises most probably out of the distinction between sanctificatio (q.v.) and perseverantia (q.v.) in the scholastic ordo salutis (q.v.), or order of salvation….[1]

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

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

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

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastics Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 129-30.

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

Providing Critical and Historical Context for the Theology of The Gospel Coalition: Evangelical Calvinism’s Reason for Reformation

The Gospel Coalition’s annual conference is currently underway in Indianapolis, as such I thought it appropriate to post something on the sort of theology that funds TGC as a contemporary iteration and representation of what counts as “Reformed” theology. Instead of re-inventing the wheel I thought I would repost a post I once wrote with reference to the ‘Real Reason for the Protestant Reformation.’ It is rather lengthy, for a blog post, but I thought I would share it because it gets into the antecedents from whence I critique the theology of TGC, and the Federal or Covenantal Calvinism that largely stands behind it. What I will share will give insight into my personal introduction to Reformed theology, and why I have taken the turns I have towards what we are calling Evangelical Calvinism. Let me share the post, and then I’ll offer some closing words following.

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.

People who work and are associated with The Gospel Coalition continue, by and large, to ignore the theses I have highlighted in this post. They don’t even seem to be aware of the history of ideas that includes what I have noted as formative within the development of Reformed theology. You don’t have to be Barthian or Torrancean in order to appreciate the critique noted by Frost, indeed Frost isn’t. And this is what I don’t think proponents of the style of Calvinism that shapes TGC theology have begun to grasp. Ultimately the reason this all matters is because who we think God to be is at stake. How we think God relates to the world is at stake. If we get a doctrine of God wrong, we will get everything following wrong as well.

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

‘Protestantism is not the Church. We are a prophetic movement of reform within it.’: TF Torrance’s Ecumenicity

As Protestant (even more pointedly, as Reformed) Christians it is easy to give into a sectarian attitude wherein we believe that we have recovered the Gospel like no other iteration of Christian tradition has ever known. It is easy in the evangelical-Reformed sub-culture to look out at the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox with animus, as if they have such a perverted Gospel, that we should not consider them brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. But this isn’t the attitude that TF Torrance operated with. Torrance was unceasingly ecumenical in his theological endeavor and hope. As some of you may know, he was involved in an Orthodox-Reformed dialogue, with the hope of closing the breach between the Reformed churches and the Orthodox; particularly as that breach opened up around the ‘Great Schism’ of 1054, which had to do with Trinitarian concerns vis-à-vis the so called Filioque. Torrance, as a result of that effort, was named a Protopresbyter of the Greek Orthodox church.

In 2013 I was involved with Participatio as an Assistant Editor on a volume (of that journal) that revolved around TFT and Orthodoxy; later it was published as a book under the editorship of Matthew Baker and Todd Speidell—I commend this volume and book to you. Jason Radcliff, following those publications, ended up publishing his PhD dissertation, which he completed at New College, University of Edinburgh (TFT’s school), under David Fergusson’s watchful eye; his book is entitled Thomas F. Torrance and the Church Fathers: A Reformed, Evangelical, and Ecumenical Reconstruction of the Patristic Tradition (he refers to the work Myk and I have done with our Evangelical Calvinism books, therein). Since then Jason has published another important monograph entitled: Thomas F. Torrance and the Orthodox-Reformed Theological Dialogue (which he graciously had sent to me as a review copy; thank you, Jason!). What I want to engage with, just as I’m starting my read of it, is what Jason has written in the preface to the book. He impresses just how important being ecumenical was, not only to TFT, but to the magisterial reformers in general.

Jason writes (in full):

Upon reaching the Reformation one is reminded of both the great importance and the great tragedy of the Protestant Reformation. Concerning the great importance, as Robert Farrar Capon put it, “The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace—bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly” (Between Noon and Three, 109-10). Yet, as Joseph McLelland says in the discussion following the Third Preliminary consultation of the Orthodox-Reformed Dialogue (in 1983) “we Reformed tend to overemphasize the uniqueness of the 16th century Reformation.” The Reformation was a movement of rediscovery of the radically unconditional grace of God as witnessed by the Scriptures and church fathers; but, it was one movement of many throughout history and, it was never meant to be decisively schismatic in the way that it eventually became.

As Thomas F. Torrance says at the beginning of “Memorandum A” on Orthodox/Reformed relations, “’The Reformed Church’ does not set out to be a new or another Church but to be a movement of reform within the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ . . .” (p. 10). Elsewhere Torrance states, “the Reformed Church is the Church reformed according to the Word of God so as to restore to it the face of the ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church.” (Conflict and Agreement in the Church: Volume 1, 76). In other words, we should never be happy with being “Protestant.” We must always, as Protestants, work toward rapprochement with Rome and Constantinople.

As we pass by the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation these words of Torrance are as relevant today as they ever were. As we commemorate the Reformation and celebrate the wonderful discovery of the radical grace of God in Jesus Christ, the inherently ecumenical and catholic approach of Torrance and the Orthodox Reformed Dialogue remind us that being Protestant was not the point of the Reformers. Torrance and the Dialogue remind us that we are not faithful to the spirit of the Reformation if we cease working for reform and renewal within the the [sic] one universal church. As Protestants, Torrance reminds us that we should bewail the necessity of the Reformation and, indeed, the continued existence of Protestantism. Torrance reminds us that Protestants faithful to the Reformation should regularly work towards rapprochement with the other two wings of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church: Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. He reminds us that Protestantism is not the Church. We are a prophetic movement of reform within it; if we cease working for reform and rapprochement, we cease to follow the Reformers

The type of ecumenical rapprochement offered by the Orthodox-Reformed Dialogue also provides an example of real ecumenical dialogue. The agreement reached by Orthodox and Reformed was authentic and substantial. It was not the “agree to disagree” compromise so often settled for in ecumenical conversations today. The Orthodox and Reformed confessed together a doctrine of the Trinity that bridged East and West on the basis of the Trinitarian and Christocentric theology of Athanasius and Cyril.[1]

Knowing the sensibilities of many Reformed Christians today, I think this approach, by Torrance, would rub many of them the wrong way (understatement). Yet, for us Evangelical Calvinists, while we’re not shy about stating our beliefs, and attempt to develop and articulate those for the church at large, it is this attitude of ecumenicity, modelled by TFT, that we hope to reflect. While Evangelical Calvinists, at least this one, are not shy about engaging in heated discussion surrounding various theological ideas; this should not be taken as a sign that at the end of the day, I, as a representative, want schism. But even so, some might surmise, “okay, but what about certain fundamentals of the faith; the very fundamentals that brought about the rupture between the Protestants and Catholics (and by default, the Orthodox) in the first place; you know like sola fide, sola gratia so on and so forth?” Someone might say: “it’s fine to attempt rapprochement around a doctrine of God, and the finer workings of Trinitarian dogma; but when it comes to salvation by faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, well that’s another story.”

These are not always easy questions to engage with, but one must start somewhere. Torrance decided to start with the doctrine of God. Maybe he was astute to something in that particular doctrine par excellence that he thought if relief could be brought there, if greater depth of understanding could be agreed upon at that point; that the following doctrines, developed from that primal one, would also be open for redress and discussion among the churches—in this case the Reformed and Orthodox churches.

I commend Jason’s book to you just as I am starting into it myself. His work is always stellar, and so I am confident in giving a pre-recommendation prior to my own reading of it. It is important to engage with these issues, I think, because, for one thing, it gives a, hopefully, a broader more fulsome and catholic attitude about the Church of Jesus Christ in its catholic reality. Maybe you aren’t aware of just how miniscule, among Christendom, the Reformed faith is. As I recall, George Husinger, for purposes of perspective and humility, once noted that the Protestant Reformed Church only accounts for 1% of the Church worldwide; in regard to tradition and theological location. This doesn’t, in itself mean that what the Reformed churches think is marginal, per se; but what it ought to tell us is that the church catholic is made-up of peoples and traditions that aren’t univocal with what the Reformed churches are currently recovering, theologically. We at least ought to have an attitude of charity as we engage with these other traditions, with hopes of fostering fruitful dialogue, and working towards the unity of the One Faith once for all delivered to the saints

[1] Jason Robert Radcliff, Thomas F. Torrance and the Orthodox-Reformed Theological Dialogue (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publications, 2018), ix-x.

Still Working on This: My PhD Proposal: The Exegetical Foundations for an Evangelical Calvinism

PhD Proposal: The Exegetical Foundations for an Evangelical Calvinism

Summary of Topic. Evangelical Calvinism offers an alternative reading to Federal theology from within the Reformed perspective. Myk Habets and I have co-edited two edited multi-author volumes entitled Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 1: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (2012) and Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics & Devotion (2017) where we identify and develop what we are calling Evangelical Calvinism (per Thomas F. Torrance’s usage) as a mood that has been present in the historical and contemporary development of Reformed theology. As a consequence of this identification we have created fifteen theological theses articulating what we think constitutes the Evangelical Calvinist mood. These theses work constructively from the themes found in the theologies of Athanasius, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Sibbes, Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth, and a group of Scottish theologians. As a consequence of our publications we have received critical response from such scholars as Kevin Vanhoozer, Roger Olson, Scott Swain, and Michael Allen. The response has largely revolved around an attempt by these readers to read the Evangelical Calvinist mood through their broadly classical theist, and mostly classical Calvinist lens (Olson’s reading being an exception as he works from an evangelical Arminian perspective). There are two points that are generated from these disparate approaches: 1) Non-Evangelical Calvinism (i.e. Federal theology) works from a scholastic methodology that begins with the divine decrees in a logico-deductive fashion and then reads texts theologically in that light; 2) Evangelical Calvinism works opposite to that. As a result I want to show the theological starting point for Evangelical Calvinism and then the theological interpretation of scripture commensurate with that, which in turn will show the bases for the theological exegetical foundations for an Evangelical Calvinism.

Proposal. This thesis will attempt to clearly articulate where the differences occur between the exegetical foundations for classical Calvinism and an Evangelical Calvinist approach. I will seek to define what the key theological commitments are that inform the classical Calvinist and Evangelical Calvinist reading and exegesis of Holy Scripture, and attempt to show where their relative points of convergence as well as departure are one from the other. This process will engage in a survey of the history of ecclesial ideas ranging from the patristic, medieval, Reformed, post-Reformed, and contemporary periods of theological interpretive development. The thesis’s primary objective will be to argue that Evangelical Calvinism’s theological exegetical approach has just as much, if not more grounding in the history of the church catholic as does the classical Calvinist reading of Scripture. More than providing an apologetic for Evangelical Calvinism’s reading of Scripture vis-à-vis classical Calvinism’s, this thesis will offer a positive description of the antecedent theological underpinnings that have given rise to Evangelical Calvinism’s reading of Scripture and the Dogmatic loci produced from that reading. The final objective of this thesis will be to provide a cogent iteration of the specific theological entailments and exegetical principles of Evangelical Calvinism’s theological interpretation of Scripture which clearly highlight the Reformed provenance of an Evangelical Calvinist method.

Framing What I Think a Christian Theologian’s Life is Characterized By

Being a Christian theologian is a consequence of being an active participant in the triune life of God in Jesus Christ. In this post I want to explicate, by way of reflecting on the fly, what I think being a Christian theologian entails.

Frame One. At a very basic level I think every Christian is a theologian. In other words, when a person professes Christ as their Lord, they are saying that they are in a committed relationship with the God of the cosmos; and that by definition of commitment, they are going to live in a mode of life that is fulsome with a doxological (worshipful) orientation as that is driven by a growing knowledge in the grace of God in Christ. In this sense, de jure, every Christian is a theologian.

Frame Two. Given the aforementioned, a Christian, or a theologian, will be a person who lives in this doxological frame by obedience to the Father, by the Holy Spirit; just as we see Jesus doing, over and again. I think this aspect of being a theologian is often lost on the Christian. We often think of obedience to God as some sort of legalistic bondage that the Son has come to set us free from. But if in fact the works and persons of God are indivisible in both their processions and missions, then it follows, as the Christian finds their life in that life in Christ, that a life of obedience, or submission to the Father’s will, will indeed characterize the Christian’s life.

So, we now have implicated frame two by frame one, and vice versa. In other words, while the theologian’s life is oriented by worship and a growing in the grace and knowledge of God in Christ, therein; this will be characterized by a life of constant obedience and repentance as we seek to be transformed from glory to glory by the Spirit who is the LORD. As I alluded to previously, the way these things are patterned are from the life of the Father and the Son in eternal bliss and plenitude by the Holy Spirit. It is as the inner-life of God is made extra for us in Christ that God’s grace is actualized in such a way that creatures are allowed to enter the inner life in and through union with Christ (unio cum Christo), and in and from this ground in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, the Christian, in participatio Christi (participation with Christ) advances in a ‘stratified knowledge of God’[1], as God’s anterior life becomes interior to ours by the Grace of the living Christ. As the Christian comes into this evangelical reality, they now have bases to think God from the center of God in Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 1.18); this is what in the tradition is identified as an exitus/reditus (extraficiation and return — God comes out to us in Christ, and returns us to God in the resurrected and ascended Christ). Here we come into beatific vision by faith as we have access to contemplate in the Holy of Holies and inner sanctum of what it means to have life in the mysterium trinitatis and the mysterium tremendum; what it means to be confronted with the God who just is, first for Himself in the perichoresis of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and then for us out of (extra) this life as He chose to be with us and not God without us in and through the mediatorial humanity of the Son, who is the Christ.

These represent some lineaments of what it means to be a Christian theologian, from my perspective. It is an activity that is grounded in the triune life, and then lived out in worshipful exaltation of the living God as we move and breathe in and from the obedience of the Son’s active and passive obedience for us; as He gives both of these for us in the Incarnation&Atonement. We recognize all of this as a life of Love; a life that has eternally known itself in Self-givenness One for the Other as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the shape that the obedient life has; as a life of eternal love between the Father and the Son bidden and begotten by the Holy Spirit. And it is this life that the Christian lives in and from on a daily and moment by moment basis. This is where knowledge of God is advanced; as the praxis is a piece with the doxa, and both actualized and realized for us in the resurrection power of the Son of God in Christ. Thus, being a Christian theologian has a concrete and staurological (cross) shaped character to it, such that the Christian theologian is actively living out the Great Commission making disciples of the nations, baptizing them in the singular Name of the multiplied persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; who is the One God (de Deo Uno). The Christian theologian therefore is an actor in the drama of God as God is the author and finisher of our lives in Christ; viz. the Christian theologian lives out the good activities of God as those were primarily and poetically worked out for us in the life of Christ. The Christian theologian knows God as they live in this commission of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ; a commission that encompasses the far reaches of the cosmos, first starting in Jerusalem.

Again, these are just some lineaments and off the top bases I think ought to characterize what the Christian theologian’s life might entail; and from whence that entailment gains energy and breath.

 

[1] See Thomas F. Torrance.