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