Myk Habets and the Evangelical Calvinists Against Apophatic Theology: How Cataphatic Theology and the Theology of the Cross are the Better Way

There seems to be a revival of apophatic theology taking place in our moment; I’m thinking of someone like Katherine Sonderegger and her newish Systematic Theology: Volume One. This trend seems prevalent, even as a mood, among others (because this is a blog post I’m not going to get into proving this further at this point). In contrast, we as Evangelical Calvinists are committed to the via positiva (‘positive way’), or cataphatic theology; thinking that is contingent, relative to its knowledge of God, upon God’s Self-revelation and explication in the eternal Logos made flesh, Jesus Christ. This commitment is based upon at least two realities: 1) that the noetic effects of the fall have so affected our constitution as human beings that any knowledge of God we might innately have is so polluted as to be useless and idolatry producing (so in other words there’s an epistemological and ontological issue); 2) more positively, we believe that the Incarnation and Accommodation of God in Christ therein implies that God himself understands that our need is such that without his stooping down to us in the grace of his life in Christ, without his Self-revelation, the gap between a genuine knowledge and him and us is unattainable.

In our newly released book (May 2017), Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion, Myk Habets, in one of his personal chapters wrote a chapter entitled: Crossing the Epistemological Impasse Thinking out of a Center in God and Not out of a Center in Ourselves. In this chapter Myk develops a Torrancean epistemology that is grounded in the objective life of God in Jesus Christ for us. His development is rich, and places all of the weight of epistemology vis-à-vis knowledge of God where it should be: on and in and from Christ. In the conclusion to his chapter, based on the catatphatic epistemology he just developed, he contrasts that with apophatic theology (via negativa) in this way (at length):

CONCLUSION

The epistemological stance developed in this essay has an obvious implication for Christian dogmatics, namely, that constructive theology is possible due to the work of the Word and Spirit. As a final note, this essay makes the claim that dogmatics is a cataphatic enterprise, and not, contra the current trend in some theological circles, an apophatic one. At the very least it is what A. N. Williams once described as “lukewarm apophaticism” which is nothing more than a qualification of cataphaticism.42

In light of 1 Cor 2:4, we do not rely on “natural reason” or “human logic,” which is fallen and in need of redemption. Rather, this human inadequacy forces us to rely on what has been given by the Spirit.43 It is the Spirit alone who grants us union and communion with God such that we can participate in the divine life and know the mind of Christ as we think out of a center in God and not in ourselves, something unattainable by human discourse or intellect alone.44

There is no denying that God is above and beyond human reason; Rom 11:33, to name but one text, is clear here. But to argue for a robust apophaticism is to deny either the ability or the intention of God to communicate with his creatures. Knowledge of God is basic to the Christian

life, and such knowledge comes via God’s self-revelation, most fully through the Word written; and never without the Spirit. Williams offers sage advice when she asserts that “Scripture thus declares our epistemological predicament, not so as to discourage us in our journey towards knowledge and love of God, but so as to spare us futile forms of striving, and the God whom Scripture proclaims to be unknowable is the very same who grants us enlightenment, notably through the sacred page.”45 “Come Holy Spirit, renew the whole creation.”[1]

I remember the first time I ever was confronted with this disjunction, between doing theology apophatically versus cataphatically, it was in seminary; it was tied into Martin Luther’s theologia crucis or theology of the cross, and it intrigued me supremely.[2] Luther’s theology of the cross fits into the cataphatic mood of theology that us Evangelical Calvinists are interested in. Fitting, particularly in light of what Myk has developed and argued (in his whole chapter); it is fitting because Martin’s theology starts with God’s Self-revelation right in the very climax of what needed to take place in order for humanity to have a genuine knowledge of God; i.e. naked human reason needed to be put to death, which is what was accomplished at the cross of Christ, and in the light of that reality, a kind of theological double entendre and dialectic, wherein not only was revelation happening, but the reconciliation between God and humanity, in order for the cross-work to be really appreciated as revelation took place at once in Christ. As Barth and Torrance assert (and argue): revelation is reconciliation; it is this that cataphatic theology orbits around and from—it’s a cruciform, staurological way of theology wherein out of the death of death, in Christ, comes the light and life of revelation. In other words, in keeping with Myk’s argument, apophatic theology, the idea that humans can conceive of God through discursive reasoning and speculation, doesn’t get off the ground because, as we believe, genuine Christian theology can only start from the ground up a posteriori (versus a priori) in the concrete reality of the dusty humanity of God in Jesus Christ wherein God is humbled and humanity is exalted at once in the singular and particular person, the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ.

In other words, as Torrance notes of Barth’s theology, all theological and biblical thought is circumscribed and sublimated by Christ alone (solo Christo); there is no free reign for thinking God but from the field of God’s life in Christ for us. Note Torrance on Barth at this juncture, and with this we end:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[3]

[1] Myk Habets, “Crossing the Epistemological Impasse Thinking out of a Center in God and Not out of a Center in Ourselves,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2017), 27-8.

[2] To be clear I am constructively building upon Myk’s insights; he doesn’t bring Luther’s theology of the cross into the mix in his chapter, but I think it fits.

[3] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

 

How Erasmus’ Mood Impacts the Development and Posture of an Evangelical Calvinist

When I first came across the reality of late medieval scholasticism at work in the Roman Catholic Church, and then later in the Post Reformed orthodox period of the Protestant Reformation, it brought a lot together for me. As a method the scholastic approach was a dialectic, one that went like this: 1) thesis, 2) anti-thesis, 3) synthesis, 4) synthesis becomes the new thesis, 5) so on and so forth. It’s easy to see how an approach like this over a period of centuries could remove the exegete and theologian further and further away from the realities disclosed afresh and anew in Holy Scripture. It was this commentary-building tradition, which had become normative for the medieval church, which someone like Martin Luther protested against. It was the movement known as Christian Humanism that kicked against such an approach, and instead trumpted a call of ad fontes (‘back to the sources’).

Lorenzo Valla was one of the forerunners of Christian Humanism and helped to foster the culture which would finally allow for the Protestant Reformation; a culture wherein folks, like Luther and Erasmus, were encouraged to read the Bible and the Church Fathers for themselves; in the original languages to boot. I want to highlight the contribution that Erasmus made to all of this in this post. It is this type of mood that turned me to someone like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and allowed me to see how the Reformation actually turned into a type of magesterium in itself, regulated by its own commentary tradition which the Westminster Confession of Faith illustrates.

Erika Rummel writes this of Erasmus’s approach, and his posture against scholastic theology:

Erasmus strongly objected to scholastic theology with its emphasis on dialectical reasoning. In his eyes, a purely academic theology was useless for providing guidance to Christians in their daily life. Rhetoric, by contrast, fulfilled that mediating function which allowed God’s injuctions to take root in the human heart. The Word of God was inherently rhetorical in the sense that it had persuasive and redemptive power; theologia rhetorica, unlike scholastic theology, pointed the way to the Word and aroused ‘a new zeal for the true religion of the gospel’. This message remains constant in Erasmus’ writings. It informs the Paraclesis (‘Invitation’), first published with his New Testament edition in 1516, and constitutes the dominant theme in his last original work, a manual of preaching entitled Ecclesiastes (‘The preacher’). In the Paraclesis Erasmus devoutly wished for an eloquence that would not only beguile the reader but enter his heart and transform his very soul. In the Ecclesiastes Erasmus outlines the task of the preacher in similar terms. He must be persuasive so that the congregation can hear in his sermons the voice of God. Again he uses the images of rapture and transformation to indicate the power of the theologia rhetorica. The practical moral impact of the preacher and the theologian – that is, of sermon and exegesis – is of utmost importance to Erasmus. The parallels between the prolegomena to the New Testament and his manual of preaching show that in his opinion the task of the preacher and that of the exegete converged. It was therefore appropriate to focus attention on language and on the rhetorical power of scripture. Because the Word of God has the power to transform, Erasmus wanted the laity directly exposed to the text: ‘Let the farmer sing a passage from the Bible at the plough, the weaver hum a passage to the movement of his shuttle, the traveler lighten the weariness of his journey with biblical stories!’[1]

There is some irony here. If you speak to a classically Calvinist person today they will claim to be part of the ad fontes tradition; and, indeed, in the beginning Reformed theology was motivated by that tradition (catch the irony of how tradition is inescapable). But over time, and particularly as it once again became ensconced within a Ramist/Agricolan locus methodology, the scholastic dialectic was once again imbibed and a whole new magisterium was created. Today we can witness, when speaking to a classically Calvinist person, the role that the three forms of unity might have (i.e. Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, Canons of Dordt), or more significantly the Westminster Standards. It really isn’t possible, even though they affirm that all else is subordinate to Scripture, for them to come to Scripture in an ‘back to the sources’ type of way since they see their standards as regulative and the most faithful interpretations of the text.

This is what evangelical Calvinism, of the sort I endorse, repudiates, and instead follows the lead and sense of someone like Erasmus. Clearly, we, as evangelical Calvinists don’t come to the same conclusions, theologically, as Erasmus on many things—in fact we probably agree much more with our classically Reformed brethren on many things, at least at an inchoate level—but we do follow his approach when it comes to bucking scholastic theology and always already moving back to the sources (i.e. Holy Scripture as the normative attestation to its reality in Jesus Christ).

Evangelical Calvinists are committed to a dialogical theology, an approach that works immediately after the fact that God has spoken (Deus dixit) in Christ as His most faithful and authoritative self-explication. We believe, like Erasmus, in pointing to an immediate encounter with the lively reality of the text of Holy Scripture as that breaks off in Christ who mediates us by grace through his vicarious humanity into the inner sanctum of the Triune life. We believe that Revelation, and Scripture as a subset of revelation, is an event; it isn’t something that we can control, or layer through tradition-making, but instead it is God in Christ confronting us afresh and anew moment by moment speaking His Lordly and Sovereign self to us as He draws us deeper and deeper into the realization of all that He is and all that we have because of who He is for us and with us.

Solo Christo; Sola Scriptura; Soli Deo Gloria

 

[1] Erika Rummel, The theology of Erasmus in David Bagchi and David C. Steinmetz eds., The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 33-4.

The Relationship Between Philosophy and Christian Theology: A Theology of the Word

What is it that I have against Philosophy; I mean what did it ever do to me? Nothing really. Except when it is used in place of or even as Christian Theology, proper, it’s at that point that it starts to intrude into my life, and more importantly the church’s life in such a way that I believe the Gospel and theology done from and through the Gospel gets distorted. I know many think this is naïve, but it’s all a matter of method; that is, how ought a genuinely Christian theology be done, and where from? One of the primary principles of the Protestant Reformation is that Scripture, the Word is where all theology for the church of Jesus Christ ought to be done from; I couldn’t agree more. But what that meant, as far as explicating the inner-logic of Scripture (so theology), was based too much in Aristotelian metaphysics, to the point that that type of (substance) metaphysic distorted the intention of Reformed theologian’s task. Yes, the intention was always good, but the tools available to the Protestant Reformed, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, were not, I contend, compatible with the Gospel; in other words, the metaphysic was not amenable to being evangelized by the Gospel.

Philosophy is good at observing things empirically and horizontally, from the human condition, and attempting to abstract “metaphysical” reality from that vantage point; but Christian theology, a genuine approach, doesn’t start there. Christian theology starts from above and only works a posteriori (or from ‘what’s in front of us’) as Deus absconditus (the hidden God) becomes Deus revelatus (the revealed God) in Jesus Christ. In other words, Christian theology is distinct from Philosophy (of Religion), as such the “metaphysic” appealed to for the Christian theologian must be determined by the Logos (Word) o f God. God is his own metaphysic; indeed God is meta-metaphysical. In other words, if the human agent in general wants to have access to this ‘hidden God’ then they must come through the veil of his flesh in Christ. Yes, this might sound foolish or weak, but it is the way of the Christian theologian.

This all does beg the question: Is there a metaphysic for the Christian theologian then? One of my theologian friends (in person) asked me this, in the context of my affection for Barth. I suppose the closest we could get to that, in my view, is Barth’s type of actualism[1]; i.e. being in becoming. It is this kind of “metaphysic” that I see as much more corollary with the reality of Gospel; it gets away from the ‘Pure Being’ static type of conception of God that Aristotle and other philosophers provide for, and of which classical theism and Post Reformed orthodoxy have drunk from so freely. In light of this I thought it would be apropos to hear from Barth himself on how he sees the relationship between Philosophy and genuine Christian Theology which is radically Logocentric and/or Word based. Barth writes:

Theology’s essential hypothesis, or axiom, is revelation, which is God’s own act done in His Word and through His Spirit. How shall this axiom be exhibited or determined? It cannot be done directly, but indirectly. Not positively by negatively. Not by setting it a bound among other sciences. Theology would be falsified or misinterpreted, betrayed or given up, if it sought to make its fundamental assumption or axiom a direct and tangible exhibit. Theology would have ceased to be theology, if it sought to, or could, justify itself. It has always been forsaken by its guardian angels above, every time it has sought to take this way.

For example, is there anything more hopeless than the attempt that has been made in the last two hundred years with ever-increasing enthusiasm to create a systematic link-up, or synthesis, or even a discriminate relationship, between the realms of theology and philosophy? Has there been one reputable philosopher who has paid the least attention to the work which the theologians have attempted in this direction? Has it not become apparent that the anxiety and uncertainty with which we pursued this course only reminded us that we can pursue this course only with an uneasy conscience? Theology can become noticed by philosophy only after that moment when it no longer seeks to be interesting. Its relation to philosophy can become positive and fruitful only after it resolutely refuses to be itself a philosophy and refuses to demonstrate and base its existence upon a principle with, or alongside of, philosophy.[2]

Clearly, from this quote we can see the period that Barth has in his sights in particular; i.e. his ‘modern’ antecedents (e.g. Hermann, Schleiermacher, Kant, Hegel, et al.). And I would be remiss if I didn’t note how appreciative Barth actually was of many of the themes provided for by the Post Reformed orthodox, or we might call them the scholasticism reformed theologians. Nevertheless, what’s at stake here is a critique of how philosophy is ‘synthesized’ and appropriated by Christian theologians.

If we are going to do a genuine Christian theology, the Christian theologian, I believe, will avail themselves of the best grammar available to them. In other words, they won’t, at a formal level, commit themselves to a period of theologizing as if that period is inherently sacrosanct and limit themselves to the theological grammar of that period. Instead they will be driven more by the expectations of the Gospel itself, as if the Gospel is lively and is anew and afresh today; we might call this the ‘Gospel for Today’ approach. The theologian will resource whatever they can with the goal of allowing the Gospel itself to determine its own categories and emphases; and if the theologian comes across “metaphysics” that comport with the reality that God is indeed lively and dynamic in his inner-being as revealed in Christ, then the theologian will adjust themselves accordingly. In my view, what’s more important is that the categories of the Gospel itself be determinative of what is orthodox versus what is heterodox; I think if we follow this then we won’t be afraid of some of the important gains that modern theology has afforded the church of Jesus Christ.

On a material point: Something that Barth&co. did was identify the import that a theology of the Word has for the Protestant theologian, but then he/they developed that further. He (Barth) saw Christ as the ‘Word’ that ‘God has spoken’ (Deus dixit) for the world; for the church. As such this changes the manner and indeed the way “metaphysics” are commingled with the Gospel itself. In other words, things change when the Word with whom we have to do is the second person of the Triune Godhead (Monarxia). The theologian recognizes that God in Christ is alive, and ever present; the theologian while bounded by the text of Scripture, realizing that as being within the ‘Domain of the Word,’ recognizes that He is Risen! as such the theologian continues to engage theologically as if we can actually grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. The theologian starts with the Word, and sees the living Word as determinative of who God is and how we ought to engage with Scripture itself. But the point is, is that the Word is genuinely alive; as such the theologian should want to seek out a way to articulate that for the church in such a way that comports with the lively reality of God’s inner life. The theologian should move away from theologies that have attempted to synthesize God with a philosophy that sees God as ‘Pure Being’ and all the attendant baggage associated with that.

[1] See this definition of actualism in Barth’s theology:

“Actualism” is the motif which governs Barth’s complex conception of being and time. Being is always an event and often an act (always an act whenever an agent capable of decision is concerned). The relationship between divine being and human being is one of the most vexed topics in Barth interpretation, and one on which the essay at hand hopes to shed some light. For now let it simply be said, however cryptically, that the possibility for the human creature to act faithfully in relation to the divine creator is thought to rest entirely in the divine act, and therefore continually befalls the human creature as a miracle to be sought ever anew. (Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth, 16.) Also see this post

[2] Karl Barth, God In Action (Manhasset, NY: Round Table Press, 1963), 41-2.

Gannon Murphy On: To truly know God is to love him. Religion and Piety As a Frame for Knowing God

By now you know that our second Evangelical Calvinism book was just released, the full title being: Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion. But as you also know Myk and I had a volume 1 Evangelical Calvinism book published under the title: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (which this subtitle is also attached to our second volume as well). This post will be referencing one of the chapters found in EC1; a chapter written by Gannon Murphy on knowledge of God in John Calvin’s thought.

What I want to focus on, in regard to Gannon’s chapter is his brief but profound development of how the Latin terms religio and pietas function in Calvin’s theological offering when it comes to knowledge of God. As Murphy points out Calvin’s conception of knowledge of God was never a disembodied one; in fact it was more existential. It was never really a philosophical or abstract engagement with some sort of abstract brute conception of a substance that we could correlate through abstract reasoning to the God disclosed in Holy Scripture and Jesus Christ. No, as Murphy argues, for Calvin, knowledge of God was something more akin to knowledge in God; more particularly in Christ. Gannon up-points how the concepts of religio and pietas functioned in this type of dialogical/existential mode for the Christian knower coram Deo (‘before God’). Gannon writes (at length):

Religio and Pietas

The very beginning of the Institutes commences in a statement concerning that which constitutes true wisdom, to wit, that wisdom “consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Some theologians have argued that this first statement is actually the entire point of the Institutes, a contestable, but not entirely meritless, claim.

It is perhaps customary in our technological age to think of knowledge as a purely apprehensive or propositional enterprise—we have knowledge of this object, or that thing, or such-and-such a set of data. The key to preserving Calvin’s doctrine of knowledge (cognitione), however, is to see it as something much fuller and more “holistic.” In sum, to truly know God is to love him. Theological knowledge is not merely propositional in nature or a matter of mere intellectual assent (assensus). Rather, it must also be experiential, stemming from love that also manifests itself in adoration, trust, fear, and obedience to God. Edward Dowey, for example, refers to Calvin’s concept of knowledge, as “existential knowledge.” The idea of coming to God merely in mind is an utterly foreign concept throughout the Calvinian corpus. Further, Calvin (like Luther) alludes to the nonsensical nature of conceiving of God as a mere object of knowledge.

Calvin uses the terms religio and pietas which, unfortunately, do not translate well into our English words, religion and piety, both of which tend to connote merely a system of ecclesiology or perfunctory, external religious observance. Both words in the Latin, however, denote something much deeper. Re-ligio derives from re, “again” and ligere, “to literally means “careful,” the opposite of negligens. Religio, then, means something more along the lines of “careful attention to” and to be “rebound.” Pietas, while often suggesting merely “dutifulness,” is better understood as “dutiful kindness,” stemming from the Latin root pius (literally, “kind”). Thus, pietas is friendly obedience toward the things of God. It is the perfect opposite of animosity toward godly things—to find oneself welcoming of, and delighting in, his or her Creator.

Calvin, characteristically never wanting to be misunderstood but always desiring clarity for his readers, defines religio as, “confidence in God coupled with serious fear—fear, which both includes in it willing reverence, and brings along with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed by the law.” On the other hand, pietas is “that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires.” Expounded here is something rather far removed from trajectories that find natural theology as their starting point—the idea of an irrefragable knowledge of God garnered apart from reverence and revelation, that is, a special and specific Word from God. Rather, Calvin speaks of the first step of pietas being, “to acknowledge that God is a Father, to defend, govern, and cherish us, until he brings us to the eternal inheritance of his kingdom.”

That true knowledge of God cannot be torn asunder from pietas and religio means, then, that overly-philosophical speculation about the essence or substance of God is necessarily ruled out. Calvin derides such pursuits as “Epicurean,” as “frigid speculations,” and admonishes us rather to seek out “what things are agreeable to his nature.”[1]

Personally this resonates with me deeply; which is why Murphy’s chapter is so apropos in a book with the title Evangelical Calvinism. It is this embodied way of knowing God, by loving God that represents the proper kind of ‘pure religion’ and piety that Jesus himself claims sums up all of the Law and Prophets:

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”[2]

What this Calvinian mode towards knowledge of God kicks against, ironically, is any approach that would attempt to know God through discursive reasoning, or philosophical abstraction. What Calvin’s approach admonishes us to is to approach God through God in Christ en concreto (specific); through the realization that genuine knowledge of God is never an abstract academic endeavor, it always entails the particular and scandalous approach to God that only comes through the Lamb slain before the foundations of the world. In other words, genuine religion and piety,  relative to the Christian, involves a committed and lively relationship with God; but one that is not initiated by humans in abstraction, instead one that is unilaterally provided for by the initiation and election of God in Christ. Some might consider this relational way for conceiving of knowledge of God as foolish and weak; but so goes the way of the Gospel.

What this all avoids is presenting a knowledge of God that is rooted, again, in philosophical speculation and even what counts today, most, as what it means to do good Christian evangelical theology. What we want to avoid, which Dag Hammarskjöld so eloquently describes is a presentation of a knowledge of the faith that in the end is perceptibly empty by the discerning and reflective human Christian or even non-Christian would-be knower. Note Hammarskjöld: “‘How many have been driven into outer darkness by empty talk about faith as something to be rationally comprehended, something “true”’.[3] If we follow Calvin’s lead, according to Gannon, we won’t be ‘driven into outer darkness’ when coming to know God in Christ; instead because of union and participation in and from life in Christ we will be “irresistibly” drawn deeper and deeper into the winsome and ineffable inner life of God, in Christ, wherein an effervescent and luminous knowledge of God’s life, by experience (properly understood), will be ever increasing and ever inviting.

Leaving on a Personal Note

I honestly do not think this is the approach people in the 21st century evangelical church, particularly in North America and the West, are being provided with. Instead, contra Calvin, what folks are being fed is a pablum of religio and pietas that come in that name only. In other words, people are being encouraged, if they want to press deep into God, to engage with God from a philosophical and ‘natural’ approach to him. What makes this hard for folks to discern is that so much of what they are being fed has been conflated and couched in a Christian (i.e. Reformed) heritage that has this type of heart-warmed-over affectionate “piety” associated with it; but when that person digs deeper into the intellectual framework that is funding this “piety” what in fact they will find is a highly philosophical apparatus for knowing God that has more to do with the classical Philosophers of ancient Greece than it does with God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

It seriously agitates me that this is what counts as engaging with God for the evangelical Christian today. I blame institutions such as The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, and other associations of evangelicals for much of this; i.e. at least as this is making its way into the broader community of evangelical Christians in North America. We need to return to the sources, ad fontes, truly; but may that be understood to be genuinely rooted in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ alone. May that be understood to be grounded in an actual framework that genuinely is relational and personal, and works from the “foundation” that the Triune God is indeed ‘the ground and grammar’ of all things; particularly and mostly of knowledge of Godself.

[1] Gannon Murphy, Pietas, Religio, and the God Who Is, in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2012), 159-60.

[2] NASB.

[3] See Jason Goroncy’s post, On Empty Talk About Faith, accessed 05-16-2017.

Language About God’s Life: How Language Ought to Be Transformed By God’s Self-Revelation in Theological Discourse

As Trinitarians Christians often, and rightly, refer to the inner reality of God’s singular life as his ousia or ‘being.’ The fear might be that Christians might be imposing Hellenistic (i.e. classical Greek philosophical) categories onto God thus morphing him into an tertium quid, or even worse something completely alien to who he actually is. This is the critique I often bring against classical Calvinists in their deployment of Aristotle to articulate their Pure Being theology relative to the Christian God;[1] I don’t think they are successful in allowing the Revelation to determine the language’s shape; I think they carry over too much of the Aristotelian philosophical implications in their endeavor to give grammar to articulating God for human understanding. As such, I think they eschew everything else downstream; i.e. whether that be in the area of doctrine of creation, theory of revelation, theory of history, doctrine of Scripture, soteriology, so on and so forth.

Us Evangelical Calvinists, like classical Calvinists (and other iterations of classical theists), also use the Hellenic language of ‘being’ and ‘persons’ (hypostases), among other expressions. But unlike—and here I’ll just keep picking on the classical Calvinists—the classical Calvinists, or as Richard Muller calls it, the “Christian Aristotelians,”[2] we follow Athanasius’s style and mode in regard to allowing the antecedent and ontological reality of God’s life to give shape and reify the Hellenic language of ‘being’ and ‘persons’; our intention is to allow God’s Self-revelation to retext the Hellenic language in such a way that the language’s meaning itself becomes brand new (recreated even) because of the new context it finds itself in (since context determines meaning anyway). Thomas Torrance explains how this worked out in the Athansian mode:

Athanasius much preferred to use verbs rather than nouns when speaking of God as the mighty living and acting God, for abstract terms or substantives seemed to him (as indeed to the biblical writers) to be inappropriate in speaking about the dynamic Nature of God, or in expressing who God is who makes himself known to us in his mighty acts of deliverance and salvation. For Athanasius, here as elsewhere, the precise meaning of theological terms is to be found in their actual use under the transforming impact of divine revelation. This is how he believed that the words ousia and hypostasis were used at the Council of Nicaea, not in the abstract Greek sense but in a concrete personal sense governed by God’s self-revelation in the incarnation. He preferred a functional and flexible use of language in which the meaning of words varied in accordance with the nature of the realities intended and with the general scope of thought or discourse at the time. Hence he retained the freedom to vary the sense of the words he used in different contexts, and declined to be committed to a fixed formalisation of any specific theological term for all context which might have violated his semantic principle that terms are not prior to realities but realities come first and terms second. This intention is nowhere more evident than in his cautious and differential use of human terms to speak of the Being of God or the Subsistence of Persons in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.[3]

Us Evangelical Calvinists go with TF Torrance and Athanasius; particularly when it comes to the idea that the reality precedes and thus should be allowed to control the terminology in its context and sense.

If you ever wonder how Evangelical Calvinists can use the language of ‘being’ and ‘persons’ and not fall prey to the same temptations as the Christian Aristotelians, refer to this post.

One more important point in closing: If we get our doctrine of God wrong (which includes very much so how we employ theological language), then everything else following will be eschewed. This is why Evangelical Calvinists place such emphasis on our Trinitarian Doctrine of God as the ground and grammar of everything.

[1] See this post.

[2] See Richard Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Three (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 45, 62, 107, 121, 132, 140, 150, 367, 545, 553.

[3] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 117-18.

Providing Some Theological Correction for John Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance: From Evangelical Calvinism, Volume 2

I think I am going to start doing some posts that refer to our just released book Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion; in other words, I will share particular quotes from particular chapters, and do what I do as a blogger: reflect and
engage with that material. In this post I will briefly engage with something I wrote in my personal chapter for the book entitled: “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance and the ‘Faith of Christ.’ In my chapter I offer a constructive critique of Calvin’s doctrine of assurance of salvation, while also constructively picking up on the themes within it that indeed fit well with the type of Christ concentrated/conditioned understanding of all things that Evangelical Calvinism is becoming known;  particularly, of course, as we rely on Barth and Torrance for much of our theological impulses. In our volume 1 Evangelical Calvinism book Myk Habets and I co-wrote a chapter wherein we offered 15 theological thesis that he and I see as the kind of touchstone contours of thought that we see as definitive for our style of EC thinking. One of those was that we believe, along with John Calvin, that assurance of salvation is of the essence of faith. My chapter in this new volume 2 actually takes a critical look at that through critique offered by the theological soundings present in Barth’s and Torrance’s theological offerings.

That said, part of the critique I made of Calvin on this front gets into Calvin’s doctrine of election/reprobation, and how he deploys the absolutum decretum. This doctrine, and the way Calvin’s kind of asymmetrical understanding of election and reprobation functions is the point at which I conclude that Calvin’s theological superstructure can’t really support his laudable thesis that assurance is the essence of saving faith. So I critique him on that front, and then contructively help him along through the theological categories of Barth and Torrance; with particular focus on the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. But in critique of Calvin I actually appeal to a critique that Steve Holmes made of Calvin on Calvin’s doctrine of assurance and reprobation and temporary faith. Here’s the quote I quoted from Holmes on this in my chapter:

The weakness in Calvin’s account of predestination, I suggest, is that the doctrine of reprobation is detached, Christless and hidden in the unsearchable purposes of God. As such it bears no comparison with the doctrine of election, but remains something less than a Christian doctrine. There is, in Calvin’s account, a fundamental difference between election and reprobation. Contra Barth, Calvin’s failure is not that he teaches a symmetrical double decree (Barth speaks of ‘the classical doctrine with its opposing categories of “elect” and “reprobate”’), but that he has almost no room for the doctrine of reprobation in his account.

This difference, this asymmetry, is ‘a very amiable fault’; it gives insight into Calvin the pastor, whose heart and mind were full of the glories of God’s gift of salvation in Christ—so different from the caricature so often painted. Calvin’s doctrine fails not because of a double decree, because the ‘No’ is equal to the ‘Yes’, but because the ‘No’ does not really enter his thinking. It is a logical result of the ‘Yes’, and necessary for the ‘Yes’ truly to be ‘Yes’, but, whereas election is bound up in his theology, it is the very fact that he is seemingly not interested in reprobation, that he has not brought it within the Trinitarian scope of his system, that makes it such a weak point. That is to say, Calvin’s doctrine fails to be gospel, is not ‘of all words . . . the best’, because he gives no doctrinal content to his account of reprobation and hence has no meaningful symmetry between the two decrees.[1]

And I write, just following this quote from Holmes in my chapter:

For Holmes, Calvin is so enamored with the positive aspect of election for the elect of God in Christ, that reprobation, as a doctrine, really has little or no place in the theology of Calvin.20 Holmes believes this is further exacerbated when attempting to provide assurance for weary souls, because, as Holmes writes, “the point at which Calvin appears to engage in special pleading in his attempt to give assurance to believers is when he speaks of ‘temporary faith’ (III.24.7–9)….”[2]

In brief, the problem for Calvin, and for anyone who holds to a classical doctrine of double predestination, is that assurance of salvation will indeed be elusive for the weary soul. If Christ only reveals the positive side of predestination, election, and not the negative side, reprobation, then we end up with some serious issues in regard to giving an account for assurance of salvation. In Calvin’s mind the elect could look to the decree, to Christ, and see him as the mirror of election for them; but of course, as we leave off with reference to Holmes’ critique of Calvin, Calvin also had the concept of ‘temporary faith’ operative in his theology, coupled with the idea that reprobation was hidden back in the secret decree of God (unlike his doctrine of election which was revealed, according to Calvin, in Christ). If someone could “look” elect, but only have a temporary ineffectual faith, and if reprobation was not accounted for positively in Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, then it becomes clear how anxiety for folks could remain; and it did.

These are the areas I critique Calvin of; I use Holmes and Barth. But I don’t leave off there, and of course I offer more development and substantiation for my critique of Calvin on this front in the chapter. After a description of Calvin’s understanding of reprobation/election and its implications towards assurance of salvation, I get into Barth’s and Torrance’s theology as a helper and constructive course correction for Calvin. I point up Barth’s reification of the classical doctrine of election/reprobation, and then how Torrance also develops that; I show, in contrast to Calvin’s doctrine here, how they have the resources to actually offer a real doctrine of assurance precisely at the point where Calvin’s doctrine is less than laudable: i.e. when we start talking about election and reprobation.

I don’t leave off with a negative note in regard to Calvin though; I show how he offered a properly Christ concentrated mode of theology in other areas of his theology, particularly when that came to his double grace and union with Christ conceptions of salvation and Christology.

Anyway, maybe this will whet your appetite enough to go and buy our book. If not I’ll share stuff from other chapters in order to give you all a feel for what to expect. Our authors really did bring a set of stellar contributions to make this volume 2 the outstanding work that I think it is.

[1] Holmes, Listening To The Past, 129–30 in Bobby Grow, “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 an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017), 39.

[2] Bobby Grow, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith,” 39-40.

Table of Contents for our New Book: Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics and Devotion

The following is the Table of Contents for our new book, Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion. It has just released through Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, and currently can be ordered directly through them. In another 2 to 4 weeks you can order it through Amazon; or in 4 weeks it will be available through Ingram; or in 3 to 4 months you can pick it up as a Kindle edition (again through Amazon). This volume 2 is a distinct volume from our volume 1 book that came out in 2012. In this volume we seek to offer further fleshing out of the pastoral and theological implications we presented in our volume 1; with particular focus on the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ. Here is the blurb from the back of the book, and then the two endorsements. Tolle lege!

Contents

Contributors / ix

Foreword by Oliver D. Crisp / xvii

Acknowledgments / xxi

1 Introduction: On Dogmatics and Devotion in the Christian Life—Myk Habets and Bobby Grow / 1

part one: Dogmatics

2 Crossing the Epistemological Impasse: Thinking out of aCenter in God and Not out of a Center in Ourselves—Myk Habets / 17

3 “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith”: Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the “Faith of Christ”—Bobby Grow / 30

4 The Word Became Flesh: John Williamson Nevin, Charles Hodge, and The Antichrist—Marcus P. Johnson / 58

5 Perichoretic Salvation—James D. Gifford Jr. / 76

part two: Dogmatic Devotion

6 The Advent of Ministry: Torrance on Eschatology, the Church, and Ministry—Andrew Purves / 95

7 “The Principal Point on Which Our Whole Salvation Turns”: Calvin on the Vicarious Priesthood of Jesus Christ—John C. Clark / 128

8 The Problem with “Preferential Love”: Should Love Dependupon My Initiative? A Challenge for Reformed Theology—An Answer from the Vicarious Humanity of ChristChristian D. Kettler / 152

9 The Vicarious Humanity of Christ as the Basis of Christian Spirituality—Jason R. Radcliff / 184

10 The Vicarious Humanity of Christ and Sanctification—Alexandra S. Radcliff / 199

part three: Devotion

11 Christ and Culture: Toward a Contextual Theology—Eric Flett, Andrew Picard, and Myk Habets / 221

12 The Pastoral Function of Calvin’s Doctrine of Election—Victor Shepherd / 241

13 Calvin’s Awful Health and God’s Awesome Providence—W. Allen Hogge, MD, and Charles Partee/ 267

14 John Calvin and the Weekly Prayer Meeting—Douglas F. Kelly / 290

15 What Kind of Ministry?—David W. Torrance / 303

16 Preaching Christ: Grace, Faith, and Assurance—David W. Torrance / 320

17 The Form of Formation: Trinitarian Christian Participation as the Way of Christian Formation—Geordie W. Ziegler / 339

18 On Prayer and the Criticism of the Political and Cultural Positioning of “Religion”—Scott A. Kirkland / 357

19 Script(ur)ing the Performance of Neighborly Personhood: Theology’s Transformative Reading with John Calvin—John C. McDowell / 375

Index of Authors | 397

Index of Subjects | 401

Index of Bible References | 411

 

Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics and Devotion has been released

You can now order our new coedited book from Wipf and Stock: Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2 Dogmatics and Devotion. I think you will be blessed and encouraged by this book, and all of the awesome chapters we have for you in regard to filling out further what Evangelical Calvinism entails. What you will notice is how prominently the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ is for us in EC, and I think that after you read the various chapters you will see how that all plays out. It is a volume written in a such a way that intends on answering pastoral types of questions, but at the same time still has its unique kind of theological edge. It’s a great volume, if I must say so myself, and I’m so happy to have worked with Myk Habets on its production; we plan on doing two more volumes (for a total of four). The book will be available through Amazon in two to four weeks, and Kindle in three to four months. Go take up a copy and read!

Click here for purchasing details.

Announcing the Soon Release of our Edited Book: Evangelical Calvinism, Volume 2: Dogmatics and Devotion

I’m excited to announce that our second volume Evangelical Calvinism book is about to be released! If you liked our first volume (2012), then I think you’ll love this one. And even if you didn’t like our first volume so much, you might like this second one better; it’s a little different in what it’s attempting to accomplish. We just received a PDF file of our now approved cover for the second volume; you’ll notice its continuity with the last cover for vol. 1—which is intentional of course. We hope to do two more volumes, so stay tuned. I took a picture of the cover, so excuse its less than crispness, but I wanted to share this with you all in hopes of whetting your appetites sufficiently enough to encourage you to go out and pick one up once available. At this point it could be out any time within the next month or so.

A Different Way: A Calvinism Where God is Love not Law

God is love. For evangelical Calvinists such as myself and Myk Habets this is determinative for how theology ought to be done, and the shape which Christian spirituality should have—the shape of love, Triune love. One of the theses Myk and I wrote for our Evangelical Calvinism book (vol. 1) states in part:

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

Hugh Binning (1627-1653), a young Scottish theologian, spoke of the primacy of God’s life as the ground of salvation. Speaking of the primacy of God’s love as the foundation of salvation he wrote:

Our salvation is not the business of Christ alone but the whole Godhead is interested in it deeply, so deeply, that you cannot say, who loves it most, or likes it most. The Father is the very fountain of it, his love is the spring of all—“God so loved the world that he hath sent his Son.” Christ hath not purchased that eternal love to us, but it is rather the gift of eternal love . . . Whoever thou be that wouldst flee to God for mercy, do it in confidence. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are ready to welcome thee, all of one mind to shut out none, to cast out none. But to speak properly, it is but one love, one will, one council, and purpose in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, for these Three are One, and not only agree in One, they are One, and what one loves and purposes, all love and purpose.[1]

This is the character of evangelical Calvinism, and we believe it is in contrast to what I have termed classical Calvinism (other terms might be: TULIP Calvinism, Federal/Covenantal theology, Westminster Calvinism, Bezan Calvinism, neo-Puritanism, Lordship salvation, so on and so forth). In a general way classical Calvinism’s character is an outflow of its conception of God, just as ours is (or any theology’s is). The classical Calvinist conception of God starts with a God, I would contend, that is Law based, instead of Love based. This conception subsequently leads to a different understanding of salvation, and a God-world relation than what we will find in an evangelical Calvinist conception.

I was set on the evangelical Calvinist trajectory, contrary to popular belief, not through Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance; but instead, through some Puritans (like Richard Sibbes), John Calvin, Martin Luther, and other historical theological characters. My historical theology and ethics professor in seminary, Dr. Ron Frost, set me, by and large, on the trajectory I find myself today. In his own PhD dissertation he develops the kind of distinction I have just noted relative to the God of love that we find in evangelical Calvinism versus the God of law we find funding classical Calvinism. I will share two quotes from Frost; one highlighting how Calvin fit into a love based conception of God, and the other highlighting the flowering of classical Calvinist thought in the theology of English Puritan William Perkins. You will notice that in Calvin’s approach love of God, and affections are front center; and you will conversely notice how duty, cooperation, and law of God are most prominent in Perkins’ theology. Both of these vignettes can serve as windows for us and illustrative of what distinguishes an evangelical Calvinist ethos  from a classical Calvinist ethos, respectively.

Here is Frost on Calvin:

 Calvin’s rejection of habitusCalvin also rejected the notion of grace-as-a-created-quality, insisting instead that grace is always relational. He was sharply critical of the scholastic discussions of grace, charging in the Institutes (1559) that by it the “schools” have “plunged into a sort of Pelagianism”. In book three of the Institutes,Calvin developed his own doctrine of grace. His view that faith is relational and a matter of the heart—a personal certainty of God’s gracious benevolence—is implicit if not explicit throughout the exposition. The Spirit is the “bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself”. He cited Rom. 5:5, the verse so important to Augustine’s affective theology, that the Spirit pours God’s love into the believer’s heart. He readily associated this with the affective language of moderate mystics: as the Spirit is “persistently boiling away and burning up  our vicious and inordinate desires, he enflames our hearts with the love of God and with zealous devotion.”

In defining faith Calvin derided the medieval-scholastic notion of formed and unformed faith as an attempt “to invent” a “cold quality of faith.” He was similarly critical of the moralistic tendencies inherent in the Thomistic model: “Hence we may judge how dangerous is the scholastic dogma that we can discern the grace of God toward us only by moral conjecture …” Against such ideas, faith actually “consists in assurance rather than in comprehension”. Even Phil. 2:12-13, with its explicit synergism (“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure”), was seen to portray a believer’s appropriate humility as a counterpart to his or her assurance of God’s goodness. He attacked “certain half-papists” who represent Christ as “standing afar off” as an object of faith “and not rather dwelling in us”. The work of justification is, he insisted, a gaze in which the believers are led “to turn aside from the contemplation of our own works and look solely upon God’s mercy and Christ’s perfection.”[2]

We quickly run into some pretty technical stuff in this quote, but what ought to stand out for our purposes is the relational and love ground we see in Calvin’s theology; a ground that is critical of the law based and impersonal ground we are confronted with in classical Calvinism, and it’s Thomistic/Aristotelian understanding.

In Contrast to evangelical Calvinists and John Calvin himself (according to Frost), William Perkins typifies the classical Calvinist feeling and theology. Again, here is Frost, this time on William Perkins:

Perkins’ moralistic assumptions. The Old Testament moral law was fully engaged with Perkins’ supralapsarian theology. Obedience to the law served to display God’s glory among the elect and God’s glory is the goal to which every aspect of the supralapsarian model moves. In Perkins’ view, a person’s ability to achieve God’s glory through obedience requires that the moral quality of every action should be well defined. To this end Perkins offered a taxonomy of sins in his Treatise of the Vocations or Calling of Men that looked to the Mosaic Decalogue. A closer examination of the law as part of Perkins’ theology of God awaits chapter two but some initial comments will introduce Perkins’ place among English theologians who elevated the law.

Perkins’ emphasis on the law was part of a broader movement among the Puritans. Jerald C. Brauer proposed four categories of Purtians: nomists, evangelicals, rationalists, and mystics. His attention was drawn to the smallest of the categories, the mystics, given his interest in Francis Rous. Nevertheless his recognition of the two major groups, nomists and evangelicals, displays the same division among Puritans noted by Schuldiner, Knight and the present study. Brauer, in fact, identifies Sibbes as the Puritan who epitomized the evangelicals. Nomists, according to Brauer, “held the fundamental belief that the divine intention is to recreate obedient creatures who can now, through grace, fulfill the intent of God, namely, obedience.” Brauer’s nomists include Thomas Cartwright, John Field, Walter Travers, John Penry, John Udall, John Greenwood, William Pryn, and Samuel Rutherford. Perkins, overlooked in the list, must be included on the basis of the criteria that Brauer identifies. It was, in fact, Perkins’ written expositions of Federal theology that did the most to promote the importance of obedience to the law for sanctification among Puritans in his era.[3]

Again, there are many threads left dangling in the quote, but what’s important for our purposes is to notice the ethos of law based, and duty driven spirituality present in Perkins’ theology (according to Frost).

What should stand out, hopefully, are some distinct trajectories available within the Reformed tradition. Evangelical Calvinism, as Myk Habets and I have presented it, is a resource project; as such we seek to resource theology, primarily from within the Reformed tradition (with roots in Patristic and catholic theology), that flows from the hermeneutic provided for by the reality that God is indeed love. This is contrariwise to what we find currently in the resource work of classical Calvinists of today. They are starting with a conception of God wherein God’s law is primary, not love; as such the way they read and retrieve the history will follow accordingly. Furthermore, then, the type of Christian spirituality that this latter type of retrieving will lead to, if taken beyond the academy, will lead to a Christianity that is shaped by an ethic of duty, and decision(intellect)-based spirituality. Evangelical Calvinists offer a different way.

[1] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theses on a Theme,” in editors Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 428-30.

[2] RN Frost, Richard Sibbes: God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, Washington: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 165-66.

[3] RN Frost, Richard Sibbes. God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, WA: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 47-8.