On Real Reformed Theology: Getting Past its Reception-Thomist Orthodoxy

At this point I’ve been at it online since 2005. My bread-and-butter writing has revolved around issues pertaining to Reformed theology, with a particular focus on critiquing what I like to call ‘classical Calvinism’ (as a riff on its informing ‘classical’ theistic theology). I was mentored in seminary, and after, by a Puritan expert, and historical theologian (for whom I also worked as a teaching fellow). I have published two edited books, with Myk Habets, on what we identify as a mood in the history of theological ideas known as ‘Evangelical Calvinism.’ This is my way. Clearly, I have interests, many, in various other theological loci, but the issues orbiting around the scholastic Reformed theology will probably always serve as a sort of mainstay for me; at least in the background sound of my theological life.  

You might ask why? Well, on the negative side, I wanted to understand my own informing theological background. I didn’t grow up as a 5-point Calvinist, but instead a Calminian Baptist; or what we endearingly liked to call: a Biblicist. Nevertheless, the fall-out produced by the binary debate between Calvinism and Arminianism was the playground that etched my life as a Christian, for better or worse; it was for worse. Once I was introduced to historical theology, I came to realize that theologies didn’t form in a vacuum, they have a history. Once I came to know that history (as I continue to work at) I was able to achieve sufficient distanciation, to the point that I could critically engage with the superstructural ideas that gave rise to the popular debates that took and take place between Calvinists and Arminians; instead, I became a Barthianish-Torrancean LOL. Even as I note my current influences, as alternative to the classical debates, what shouldn’t be presumed in this, is that you have to be a Barthian or Torrancean in order to come to the insights I have in regard to the history that stands behind so-called classical Calvinism. For example, aforementioned mentor, is not a Barthian or Torrancean in any way; he is, if anything, a Sibbesian.  

What I continue to see in the young crop of budding-theologians, those with interests in these areas, is a failure to grasp the contours present in the history and development of Reformed theology proper. The Deus ex machina narrative that they are being fed is that scholasticism Reformed, or what I like now to call Reception-Thomist theology, is in fact the only or dominant iteration of what in fact the total Reformed theology is. What Evangelical Calvinists, like Myk and me, have been intent on showing is that this is an absolute revisionist understanding and presentation of the Calvinist history. My mentor, Ron Frost, has been showing this, although mostly only in teaching settings, for decades; and like I noted, his critique has been from a non-Barthian perspective. Until the youngins get their heads around the fact that they’ve been being fed a fake-narrative about Reformed history, in regard to its character and development, they will continue to fight battles, and make statements that have no correspondence to the concrete depth reality of the matter.  

My hope is that younger theologians will come along, and recognize what I’ve come to recognize about the development of Reformed theology. Life is short, so it’s best to get to the facts as quick as possible. Otherwise, one might spend their whole days doing theology in an eclipse of the actual realities. I did this for a long time as a dispensationalist. It isn’t that the Lord can’t work in spite of bad theology, and bad ideas, it’s just that it’s better to work from good theology and good ideas. If you sense some triumphalism in what I’m saying, you’re just sensing it.  

I was going to write a post on Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology; maybe next time.   

Addressing the Withering Assurance of Salvation Among the Saints: From a Position of Christ Concentration

I once wrote something on assurance of salvation for publication, you can read that here. Assurance of salvation has always been an important soteriological locus for me; primarily because my dad struggled with this issue in very deleterious ways. I experienced struggles with this myself for a season of dark nighted soul, but came to experience denouement as I came to internalize what a genuinely Christ conditioned notion of salvation implied. Unfortunately, my dad never personally experienced this, and the enemy of our souls was able to effectively torture my dad with this for decades. Far from being an academic issue for me, it is highly personal. I know my dad wasn’t unique, there are many who struggle with this issue; although probably not to quite the extent that my dad did.

My “way out,” as I alluded to previously, was to come to a concrete understanding of who God is pro me in Jesus Christ. Once I saw myself in and from God’s Yes and Amen for me in His Yes and Amen in Jesus Christ, it was at this point that I started down a trajectory wherein the smiling face of Jesus shown through everywhere; even when the enemy would attempt to toss his darts my way. This trajectory first started with learning Martin Luther’s theology, and then into John Calvin’s. As I gained their respective foci on a Christ concentrated theology, it was in this reality that the dogged days of lack of assurance eviscerated into the thin air of the devil’s nothingness. Beyond that, I immersed myself in the study of Puritan and Post Reformed Orthodox theology; this was guided by my mentor and seminary professor, Ron Frost (a Puritan expert). Once I realized the role that Federal (Covenantal) theology played in concocting the mercantile categories that funded things like experimental predestinarianism, the practical syllogism, the divine pactum, so on and so forth, my assurance issues took on new light. I realized that much of what I was thinking about salvation was grounded in a Monsanto-like ground poisoned with ingredients that had no rootage in God’s Self-revelation in Christ; but instead in philosophical categories that led to thinking God in terms of a decretrum absolutum (or in terms of an impersonal deterministic decree that was grounded in a forensic rather than love relationship within a God-world relation). Once all of these things, and more, came to blossom in my understanding, it was at this point that I was able to quit straining under false-pressures that were not induced by the revealed God whatsoever. Once these pressures were depressurized I was finally able to rest in the finished work of Jesus Christ, as that had been fully actualized in His vicarious humanity pro me; and particularly as that was and is grounded in the triune bond of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Once I knew this was the reality the enemy no longer had a topos or foothold of fear in my life in this way. I had hoped to encourage my dad with these truths, and I did. At a level it did come to help him, but not fully because these seeds remained unwatered and uncultivated in his life.

Karl Barth, whilst working constructively with the categories he had received from the Post Reformed Orthodox theologians (of the 16th and 17th centuries) came to the focus that I have been broadly describing above. He was no fan of the Remonstrant or Arminian theology, and says so bluntly; and he would side with their counterparts in the Dortian Post Reformed theology. But again, because of Barth’s wholesale reformulation of a doctrine of election, seeing Jesus as both the object and subject, and thus sum of the Gospel, he was able to receive the Post Reformed Orthodox theology, but from a recasted vistapoint that genuinely offered a truly Christ concentrated ground that neither the Remonstrants nor Dordtians were able to present. He writes:

Now obviously we can only affirm and adopt this intepretation of the matter. It is palpable that what the Remonstrants brought against it was unspiritual, impotent and negligible—a feeble postlude to the Catholicism of the late Middle Ages, and a feeble prelude to rationalist-pietistic Neo-Protestantism. Since God—”the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1.3)—cannot deceive Himself, cannot be conjured, and cannot be unfaithful either to Himself or to us, it is of the essence of election that there can be no fundamental, eternal reversal. The Yes of God to His elect cannot be transformed into an absolute No. Because, then, they have the absolute divine Yes in their ears and in their hearts, they both may and should be assured in faith of their election, and therefore of eternal salvation—not in harmony with their evil human No to God, but in spite of it, and in this way in genuine and successful conflict with it. Even the objection of the Lutherans is valueless, and hardly worthy of Luther himself. If the faith of the elect lives with Jesus Christ as its basis and with Jesus Christ as its goal, it is impossible to see how it can be absolutely lost. A faith that can be lost is as little comfort in ultimo vitae puncto [at the last point of life] as it is relevant in the rest of life. Does not faith, both in life and death, consist in the fact that—non quoad nos [not from our point of view] but respectu Dei [with respect to God], trusting in His Word, His decision behind and before us, and armed on this account for the good warfare of faith—we know continually, and not merely occasionally, that our case is sure. Can we more effectively cheapen faith than by denying its constancy? We cannot be sufficiently grateful to Calvin for presenting the statement of perseverentia [perseverance] in this manner, and advancing beyond both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.1

And likewise, we cannot be sufficiently grateful to Barth for advancing beyond Calvin for offering a revised Reformed theological framing wherein Christ genuinely and actualistically is the centraldogma of the whole cake of theological endeavor.

For Barth, and for anyone interested in inhabiting a concretely Christ conditioned soteriological understanding, Jesus Christ is the Alpha and Omega of the whole salvation all the way down. The Logos enfleshed starts salvation, and has finished it for us in His risen life of recreated bounty. This is where I rest, and I commend this as a place of refuge for all the bruised reeds among us. Solo Christo

 

1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §35 The Doctrine of God: Study Edition Vol. 11 (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 138-39.  

An Evangelical Calvinist Christ Conditioned Account of Total Depravity

I am going to write approximately five posts, one for each point of the TULIP, providing an alternative sort of reified version of the TULIP; per Evangelical Calvinist lights. This will be the first installment where I will attempt to develop an explanation for the T or Total Depravity per a Christ conditioned understanding. As the first installment of this series let me also explain what the TULIP stands for, for those unaware. Total Depravity Unconditional Election Limited Atonement Irresistible Grace Perseverance of the Saints. 

According to The Canons of Dort Total Depravity entails the following: 

Article 1: The Effect of the Fall on Human Nature 

Human beings were originally created in the image of God and were furnished in mind with a true and sound knowledge of the Creator and things spiritual, in will and heart with righteousness, and in all emotions with purity; indeed, the whole human being was holy. However, rebelling against God at the devil’s instigation and by their own free will, they deprived themselves of these outstanding gifts. Rather, in their place they brought upon themselves blindness, terrible darkness, futility, and distortion of judgment in their minds; perversity, defiance, and hardness in their hearts and wills; and finally impurity in all their ­emotions. 

Article 2: The Spread of Corruption 

Human beings brought forth children of the same nature as themselves after the fall. That is to say, being corrupt they brought forth corrupt children. The corruption spread, by God’s just judgment, from Adam and Eve to all their descendants—except for Christ alone—not by way of imitation (as in former times the Pelagians would have it) but by way of the propagation of their perverted nature. 

Article 3: Total Inability 

Therefore, all people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin. Without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform.1 

As an Evangelical Calvinist I can affirm all of the above, and even go further in an Athanasian way; in regard to the sub and dissolving human being as that entered into a ruptured relationship with God post-lapse. But as an Evangelical Calvinist I don’t see fallen humanity in abstraction from Jesus Christ’s humanity as Deus incarnandus (‘the God to be incarnate’). In other words, as an Evangelical Calvinist I think these things from a Christ conditioned supralapsarianism wherein fallen humanity was accounted for by God, logically and chronologically prior to humanity come to existence at all. That is to say, I affirm the depth dimension of fallen humanity, it is just that I think that the humanity Christ was to assume already was ready to deal with that, so to speak. This is not to say that I believe that sin was or is essential to what human being entails. But it is to say that Christ’s humanity, the one He would assume and personalize as Jesus Christ (an /-enhypostasis), was fittingly ready to do so with the aim of re-conciling all of humanity in His humanity for them.  

At a very basic level the aforementioned does not discount what classically obtained at the fall of humanity. Evangelical Calvinists maintain that humanity, at an even deeper level than the Canons articulate, was so submerged into subhumanity, that the only one who could reverse such a tragedy was the Theanthropos (Godman), Jesus Christ. The requirement was not simply a forensic decision, and by virtue of that humanity was re-fellowshipped with God; the requirement was that humanity needs-be re-created in such a way that they might be genuinely human again—from the inside/out. But this re-humanization isn’t simply a reditus or return to ‘paradise lost’; for the Evangelical Calvinist it is an apocalyptic elevation wherein humanity is taken to where God had always intended to take humanity through the incarnation of the Second Person. In other words, as the Apostle Paul argues, the second Adam is greater than the first Adam; as corollary, the fellowship re-created humanity has come to have with God, as mediated through the resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ, is greater than what Adam and Eve only experienced as inchoate humans whose destinies were always already intended to be elevated through participatio Christi.  

Conclusion 

In principle, Evangelical Calvinist can go along with the classical Calvinist idea that humanity is desperately lost, and inhabitants of a bondaged will. But we don’t think this sort of lostness in terms of an abstract humanity, as if we can think these things from below, so to speak. Evangelical Calvinists maintain, at least this one does, that just as knowledge of God, in general, is slavishly conditioned by a principial Christ concentration; likewise, knowledge of what it means to be human, and as such, fallen human, can only be thought from Christ’s humanity for all. Just as He assumed flesh (assumptio carnis), it is in this reality wherein the actual depth dimension of sin becomes ‘knowable.’ In other words, the fact that it required God to become human in Christ to ‘save’ us from ourselves, in this it should become apparent at just this point that humanity, outwith Christ, and God’s unilateral movement for us therefrom, was absolutely lost in the death of our trespasses and sins. So, for the Evangelical Calvinist, from this Christ-spectacled vantage point, fallen humanity was total. In other words, what the incarnation of God reveals is that humanity was something like a wandering star for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever. This is the depth of what Christ took on when He entered our fallen humanity and took it for Himself. That is, there was no hope in the ‘far country’ of the dead-humanity apart from God’s genuine humanity confronting us with the Light of His Word in Jesus Christ. Only His Word as that took on flesh could speak to these dead bones by the spiration of the Spirit and bring new life; new humanity; a humanity where there had come to be none until His unilateral and gracious movement for us in Jesus Christ.  

1 The Canons of Dort.

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.