Guest Contribution, Derrick Peterson: A Panic of Joy: Union With Christ as the Skopos of Trinitarian Discourse

Here is our next guest contribution provided by a great brother and young emerging theologian and Christian scholar, Derrick Peterson. Derrick is finishing up his studies at Multnomah Biblical Seminary (my own alma mater), and is just a genuine dude who loves Jesus! I have only briefly met Derrick, a few years ago now, as he delivered a paper at the regional Evangelical Theological Societies’ theological conference held that year at Multnomah; I hope he and I get to hook up again soon for a more substantial time of meeting and fellowship. His short essay as you will read below engages with a very important piece that serves formative for Evangelical Calvinism; that is the doctrine of the Trinity (ironically, I just wrote on the same issue for a short paper I wrote for my theology class at Princeton, which I will post in the days to come). Pay attention to what Derrick has to say, he has some important insights on the recent developments in Trinitarian theology. Beyond that, as you read what he writes, you will notice that Derrick provides something of a survey, indeed an index of important authors and Trinitarian thinkers that you should be paying attention to if you are at all interested in Trinitarian theology for today. Be blessed. And thank you Derrick for providing this wonderful piece of writing on the Trinity. If you are interested in writing a guest post or article (and you can do more than one!), then please contact me at: growba@gmail.com.

Bio: Derrick is a graduate student at Multnomah Seminary who recently completed his M.Div in theological studies, and is finishing his Th.M. in historical theology. His research interests include Patristic and Medieval theology, Philosophy of Science, and how the history of theology has shaped our contemporary world.

A Panic of Joy: Union With Christ as the Skopos of Trinitarian Discourse

If the Trinity is the “Ground and Grammar” of Christian thought and life, then the only true point of departure for theorizing on that front is through our union with Christ Jesus in the power of the Spirit.  It is here that the unity of Evangelical Calvinism’s first (Trinity as ground and grammar) and tenth theses (union with Christ as central) are shown in essence to be two sides of a single vision.  My claim is that though I personally may not bean Evangelical Calvinist (though I am sympathetic enough to their claims that I would not begrudge being deputized) precisely to the extent that contemporary Trinitarian theology has forgotten these vital points, it begins to treat the trinity in 3rd rather than 1st person perspective (terms I am blatantly stealing from Michael Hanby’s Augustine and Modernity); to perhaps put it a bit unfairly, such 3rd person perspectives use the trinity descriptively as an “object” or “blueprint” that can be held in some sort of ratio with miscellaneous finite media (be it the church, society, politics, etc…) in order to allow the Trinity to “adjust” the finite via analysis engendered by the comparison.  This not only in one sense “idealizes” the Trinity abstracting from its “onto-relational” context (to wax Torrancian, as this is Bobby’s blog!).  It also, if my own research is to be believed, in its own ironic way through the univocal (non-dialectical, non-analogous) theological conceptualization of God that appears implicit in such accounts repeats the particular circumstances that led to the marginalization of the Trinity in the 17th century (I realize that may seem an idiosyncratic date; for the curious, here I am reliant on research I am doing for my M.Div./Th.M. thesis, particularly the convergence of the detailed historical narratives in Philip Dixon, Nice and Hot Disputes: The Doctrine of the Trinity in the 17th Century; Jason Vickers Invocation and Assent: The Making and Remaking of Trinitarian Doctrine; and William Placher, The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking About God Went Wrong).

A Panic of Joy

In the mid-1990’s the theological world awoke, and was startled to find itself Trinitarian.  Such was, of course, not always the case (or so the standard accounts of the story tell us).  Once upon a time, it is said, a dark veil hung over the church’s opinion of the doctrine because of men like Schleiermacher (whose name, in a felicitous coincidence for Trinitarian pundits everywhere, means veil-maker) who relegated the doctrine to the shadowy back bits of his appendices (whatever other problems one might have with Schleiermacher’s Trinitarianism, this is not true: Schleiermacher was quite careful regarding the construction of The Christian Faith.  The Trinity occurs not in the appendix, but his conclusion, it is the “coping-stone” of the Christian faith, its absolute summary statement).  Of course the Trinity was living a moderately successful double-life by pulling shifts in philosophy departments influenced by Schelling and Hegel (the Thrice-Holy trying to avoid a stint in the unemployment line, no doubt, after physicists like Laplace averred they had no need of “that hypothesis”).  But despite some profound insights, these were, to put it politely, slightly outside the bounds of what was traditionally considered orthodox.

Against the pitch of this darkling plain came the sudden bright light—one would imagine both bomb-like and Taboric—of the two Karl’s (Barth and Rahner), exploding and transfiguring the theological scene at large.  Then, in the last two or three decades of the twentieth-century, Trinitarian theology turned from famine to feast, and then by the end of the century, waddled into a sort of bloated critical mass.  This transition can be traced within editions of key works, and often to humorous effect.  In the introduction to the 1990 edition of Colin Gunton’s The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, for example, Gunton still notes the paucity of works dealing explicitly with the Trinity, but sings the praises of the rise in its systematic interest at large by remarking, however vaguely, that they are “a hopeful sign.”  Just six years later, in the introduction to the 2nd edition, Gunton’s tone has changed and become quite sardonic: “suddenly, we are all Trinitarian, or so it would seem.”  Indeed, such was the onslaught of Trinitarian works that David Cunningham writes in his 1998 book These Three Are One, that the movement looks less a renaissance, “than a bandwagon,” and that “once threatened by its relative scarcity…the doctrine now seems more likely to be obscured by an overabundance of theologians clustered around it.”

Not burdened by the relatively slow turn-over rate of the physical paper-and-ink publishing world (or troublesome bothers like peer review, facts, and knowing what one was talking about), the online world of blogging fared much worse.  Such was the abuse (and perhaps worse, banality) of “Trinitarian this” and “Trinitarian that” (indeed, even the dusty backwaters of my own blog at the time were guilty on several occasions) that Dr. Ben Meyers, owner of the wonderful blog Faith and Theology, called for a “five-year moratorium” on the word Trinitarian.  Since such an embargo apparently lifted last year, I can only hope I am safe.  Though I truly hope Ben keeps a permanent ban on the word “trinitarianly” which is and ever shall be an abomination to English one can, unfortunately, neither unhear, nor unsee.

A Useful Almighty

Part and parcel in this upsurge of Trinity projects is the concerted attempt to counter the claim of Kant in his Conflict of the Faculties, for example, that the Trinity, even if true, would have no practical import for the life of the believer.  To cite one particularly influential writer: “The Trinity is the most practical of doctrines,” says Catherine LaCugna.  Matthew Levering calls this nearly rabid concern to prove the Trinity’s practicality the “Jamesian impasse” of Trinitarian theology, after a similar charge made by William James in his The Varieties of Religious Experience; and Neil MacDonald refers to it as theology’s “meta-theological” dilemma, after yet another similar, but more all-encompassing charge by Church-Historian-turned-atheist Franz Overbeck: that all of theology was reducible to non-theology (history, philosophy, sociology, etc…) so that if theologians were honest they must do non-theology, or nothing (echoing, of course, today’s Ultra-Darwinists like Daniel Dennet in his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea who notes Darwinism is a universal acid that can “reduce everything,” i.e. Darwinism is the Rosetta Stone that can translate and explain all life purely within the scope of its own idiom).  “Kant would be hard pressed to make this criticism stick today” writes Keith Johnson in a remarkable recent work Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: “Contemporary theologians are driven by a quest to relate Trinitarian doctrine to a wide variety of concerns.  Books and articles abound on Trinity and personhood, Trinity and societal relations, Trinity and gender, Trinity and marriage, Trinity and church, Trinity and politics, Trinity and ecology, and so forth.”

One Does Not Use God as One Does a Pocketknife[1]

 Yet, I’m not so sure Kant would be impressed.  Or, put differently (since I’m not particularly worried what Kant would think): are these projects truly proving the “practicality” of the Trinity?  To employ a Barthian use of italics, there are two issues here: that the Trinity has practical consequence, and that the Trinity has practical consequence.  Regarding the first: what counts as practical?  As Kathryn Tanner puts it in a fairly damning essay simply entitled “Trinity” in the Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, (repeated recently and at greater length in her Christ the Key) these projects are guilty of “ideological pandering,” so that often “what the Trinity tells one about politics is no more than what one already believes about politics.”  Karen Kilby likewise argues that “social trinitarianism” by and large merely idealizes a particular social schema and then projects this onto God.  This is particularly relevant for my own evangelical background.  The irony is thick when scholars like Fred Sanders, Robert Letham, and even the great Carl Henry, have noted that by and large Evangelicals were quite slow to respond and even contribute to the Trinitarian renaissance, and yet the first thing that seemed to have happened when we did start to participate in the on-going conversation, is that the Trinity was passed around like a shiny new weapon for both sides of the already ossified battle-lines of our complementarian/egalitarian hullaballoo (I’ve never had the pleasure of using hullaballoo in a sentence before; if you are wondering, it feels pretty great).

On the other side of the italics: how is this showing that the Trinity is the “most practical of doctrines”?  As Keith Johnson notes against what he critiques in general as the “Trinity-as-blueprint” paradigm, that with such methods of abstraction “some attempts to refer human existence to the Trinity…may actually have the opposite effect—namely, displacing the triune God as ‘the center of our life and thought’” precisely because what is substituted is some cipher or other.  Indeed, Tanner again: “The danger of such [Trinitarian] strategy” she says, “is that the Trinity fails to do any work.  We do not need the Trinity to tell us that human beings condition one another by way of their relationships.  We do not even need the Trinity to tell us that persons are catholic in their conditioning by others; there is nothing especially Trinitarian about the idea that individuals are a microcosm of the whole world’s influences.  These ideas are platitudes of the philosophical literature and recourse to the Trinity does not seem to be doing anything here to move us beyond them.”

Moreover, these practical employments seem to warp the limits of the doctrine under the strain of use.  Stephen Holmes quite damnably writes in his recent book, The Quest for the Trinity: “in each case the acceptable ethical outcomes cannot flow from the Patristic doctrine of the Trinity: the dogma needs massaging, relativizing, or simply reversing before it generates ‘acceptable’ political content for today…[P]olitical utility is only achieved [in these contemporary projects when] the received form of the doctrine of the trinity is radically adjusted.”  The irony here is that precisely in the celebrations of a renewed Trinitarian vigor in theology (what I have called its “panic of joy”) we repeat what historical sleuthing reveals were the very causes of its 17th century decline: attempts at clear, “univocal” pictures of God as trinity that ironically did not work precisely because of the feigned attempt at artificial clarity, and fragmented into dozens of different views even among proponents.  The significant addition to our time, itself still in the mode of the 17th century decline, is that we are expecting the Trinity to do some seriously heavy conceptual and practical labor for us, and yet as Tanner stated, the Trinity does not seem even in this way to be adding much.

Conclusions?

This perhaps seems a bit bleak.  But here, while I must be brief as I have already strayed far and away from my word limit, we must notice that in the history of theology all of the fecund Trinitarian insights—its transitions from certain Aristotelian and Platonic views of the eternity of the world, for example, the significance of the category of person and relation, the contingent yet knowable quality of the universe, etc…–all of these were born out of a Trinitarian theology that did not resort to the schematized “3rd person” perspective, but were insights that flowed profoundly and in some sense naturally from a “1st person” account of our union with Christ in the holy spirit.  Henri de Lubac once commented that “it must be admitted that often the force and depth of a doctrine are diminished rather than increased by over-enthusiasm.”  It seems this holds true to the ironic character of contemporary trinitarianism: precisely in our zeal to “trinitarianize” everything explicitly, the doctrine became a sort of parody of itself and its very mode of elaborating our new creation in Christ, and who Christ and the Spirit must be if this is true, became strangely hazy and ideal precisely as they were thought to be concrete and at the forefront and center of our theology.  The true way forward for Trinitarian thought is through renewed attention to its original skopos, union in Christ, who as Augustine remarks frequently in de Trinitate, is not merely our goal, but also our path.  This is why Evangelical Calvinism presents an opportunity to move forward.


[1] A play on a phrase once spoken by Martin Heidegger: “One does not lose God as one does a pocketknife.”

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Guest Contribution, Bill Ford: Everyman? The Role of An/Enhypostasis

I have recently been getting to know Bill Ford, a great brother in Christ, and a real fan of the theology of Thomas F. Torrance. He has offered here an excellent short article on the role that the Patristic an/enhypostasis plays in the theology of Thomas Torrance, and indeed, this is something very important to the identity of Evangelical Calvinism. So thank you, Bill for your good piece of writing, and for highlighting a very important piece in Scottish Theology in general, and Evangelical Calvinism in particular.

Bio: I am currently Senior Pastor of the Grace Christian International (F.K.A. Worldwide Church of God) circuit churches in Massachusetts, and soon to retire after twenty-five years as a pastor. One of the highlights of my life was to graduate Grace Communion Seminary with a Masters in Pastoral Studies (what a great program!) this past August.  I was privileged, and will be forever grateful to have had as my thesis advisor, Dr. Gary W. Deddo of Grace Communion International.  Gary helped me begin to understand Thomas Torrance “all the way down.” The greatest highlight of my life is yet to come after my wife and I say a fond farewell to the churches here and relocate to Cleveland, OH, where we will finally get to know our eight grandchildren!

In The Person of Christ, Donald Macleod writes that the humanity of Christ is “that of Everyman. But he is not Everyman. He is the man, Christ Jesus; and the only humanity united to him hypostatically is his own. This must control our understanding of such a concept as the vicarious humanity of Christ.” Macleod then quotes J. B. Torrance who writes in total agreement with his brother Thomas Torrance: “When Jesus was born for us at Bethlehem, was baptized by the Spirit in Jordan, suffered under Pontius Pilate, rose again and ascended, we were born again, baptized by the Spirit, suffered, died, rose again and ascended in him.” Macleod then asks what do you mean we? Who is the we? Is it Judas, Hitler, or Stalin? Were they all included in the acts of the historical Jesus by way of the vicarious humanity? Macleod goes on to say, “We can entertain such notions only in defiance of enhypostasia. It was not the human race but the specific, personalized humanity [enhypostatis] of Christ that suffered under Pontius Pilate.”  As Macleod understands it, enhypostasia limits and defines the humanity of Jesus Christ (Person 202-3).

Macleod’s argument here reminds me of something a Calvinist friend once said to me, “Just because Jesus Christ became human does not mean that he died for all people.”  Of course, he speaks from the Calvinist point of view that limits the range of the word “all” here to only a limited elect, while the rest of humanity is condemned, thus never mind 2 Corinthians 5:14. However, I think Torrance would say that both Macleod and my friend do not grasp the doctrine of enhypostatis as it should be applied to the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ together with anhypostasis, as a couplet. Torrance describes these terms as “severely technical,” yet “remarkably fertile,” in that they “serve to bring out the essential logic of Grace and the logic of Christ” (Theological Science 217, 269).  In Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, Torrance explains,

The anhypostatic [anhypostasis, not-person] assumption speaks of God’s unconditional and amazingly humble act of grace in assuming our humanity in the concrete likeness of the flesh of sin. But within that, enhypostasia [enhypostasis, in-person, or person-in] speaks of the fact that the person of Christ was the person of the obedient Son of the Father, who in his humanity remained in perfect holy communion with the Father from the very beginning, and so was sinless, and absolutely pure and spotless and holy. Thus he, the enhypostatic Son of Man, lived out a life of perfect and sinless obedience to the Father in the midst of the fallen human nature which he had anhypostatically assumed, and in virtue of which he had entered into solidarity with all mankind. (232)

Torrance says it another way earlier in this same chapter, “The Hypostatic Union,” as he quotes Heidegger, “The human [nature] is per se anhypostatos and becomes enhypostatos in the Logos, who being pre-existent, in fact existent from all eternity, has received in time the form of a servant (Phil 2.7), and assumed the seed of Abraham (Heb 2.16) as its shrine and instrument” (Incarnation 229). In other words, as Torrance clarifies,

The human nature of Jesus never existed apart from the incarnation of God the Son. At the first moment of the existence of his human nature, it was in hypostatic union with his Godhead. That is, the human nature from the first moment of its existence had its hypostasis or personal subsistence in the personal subsistence of God the Son. That is the meaning of en-hypostasis. (Incarnation 229)

To reiterate the important point Torrance offers above, an-hypostasis means that Jesus has graciously “entered into solidarity with all mankind” in assuming and healing our fallen humanity, giving it divine personhood (232).

Here, I would like to offer somewhat of an aside that speaks to a practical application for ministry in the midst of this “severely technical” jargon. The terms, anhypostasia and enhypostasia are used by Torrance as “disclosure models,” what he calls “cognitive instruments” that give us clarity to see the reality of Jesus Christ, thus the range of the atonement. He likens these terms to “theological algebra” that must “be translated back into ‘the flesh and blood’ of…the person and work of Christ himself,” as we work out the “inner logic” in Christology. “Anhypostasia and enhypostasia together do not themselves contain the ‘stuff’ of Christology, but they may be, rightly used, theological instruments or lenses through which we may discern more deeply and clearly the ontological structures of the incarnation” (Incarnation 233).  In my personal theology of ministry, I am compelled to translate the “theological algebra” and preach the “flesh and blood,” but I find Torrance’s explication especially enlightening in the quest of “faith seeking understanding” in relation to the range of the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

 

Guest Contribution, Lawrence Garcia: Justification According to Works At the End of the Age: Sanders, Wright, and Torrance All Walk Into A Bar…

Here is our next guest contribution provided by Lawrence (Larry) Garcia. I met Larry a couple of years ago (maybe), where else, but on Facebook. He is a great brother, loves Jesus, and has become intrigued more recently with Thomas F. Torrance’s offering in particular. Larry brings an interesting perspective as he is also very well read in the sphere of current biblical studies issues, and in particular, revolving around N.T. Wright. As you will see his most excellent and provocative short essay engages with biblical studies folks, and brings them into conversation with TF Torrance. Let’s welcome Larry, and be edified and provoked by what he has written. If you would like to contribute a short essay or article for the blog having to do with some themes (for, against, or indifferent) of Evangelical Calvinism (as you understand them), then please, like Larry, contact me, and we’ll see what we can do towards getting your article published here. Here is Larry.

larrygarciaBio: Lawrence Garcia is the current head pastor of Academia Church in Goodyear-Phoenix, AZ and blogs over at The Unlikely Theologian where he engages in weekly theological, pastoral, and missional reflection. He enjoys dance, cooking, and reading all things N.T. Wright and T.F. Torrance. His ultimate mission is to show that deep theological reflection and real life co-inhere and uphold one another.

If E.P. Sanders’ 1977 watershed work, Paul And Palestinian Judaism, forced anything upon Pauline studies at all, it made it face up to the fact that Judaism[1] was not a legalistic monolith where everyone’s chief aim was to accomplish self-justifying works as sort of proto-Pelagian. After a fresh re-examination of the extensive literature of the Second-Temple and rabbinic traditions Sanders coined an alternative term to describe what he would style as “covenantal-nomism,” a “pattern of religion” that held together the tension between God’s gracious formation/election of the nation of Israel and their reciprocal response by way of the covenant. Sanders stated:

The ‘pattern’ or ‘structure’ of covenantal nomism is this: (1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the law. The law implies both (3) God’s promise to maintain the election and (4) the requirement to obey. (5) God rewards obedience and punishes transgression. (6) The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in (7) maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship. (8) All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement and God’s mercy belong to the group which will be saved. An important interpretation of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.[2]

Of course, when the texts largely confirm (even if we go with something like Caron’s “variegated nomism” to give allowance for some “legalistic” sects during the period, even the “ethnocentric nomism” proposed by Bird) this so-called “pattern,” the temptation is either to say Paul himself misunderstood his contemporaries  (doubtful) or Paul shared in a Christianized version of covenantal nomism (à la Sanders or VanLandingham) or Paul introduces something altogether new in total disconnection to what went before (more de-Judaizing, thus introducing a radical revelational and soteriological break in salvation history).

In fact, something radically “new” seems also to be rejected on purely exegetical grounds, because for the life of me I cannot locate a final judgment passage where works do not appear to be decisive on some level. It seems, Sanders’ work has brought back into focus what Paul and others never lost sight of: that in the final judgment works seem to play a major if not central factor on the outcome. This is where N.T. Wright comes in and takes a seat at the bar of Pauline perspectives. Picking up on Sanders’ key insights (Sanders never fully develops the continuity between Paul and Palestinian Judaism at this point into anything theologically satisfying) Wright, on the other hand, offers a robust account of the role of works in the final judgment (or, even, “justification” as Romans 2 puts it) through a pneumatic axis between justification in the present based off of Christ’s representative faithfulness and final vindication in “accordance with the whole life led.”

Some critics have picked up on Wright’s use of the word “based” (when used in the context of final vindication) as if this means Wright is trying to serve up (albeit in a back door route) a semi-Pelagian account of works and end-time justification, but this, as I see it, is simple pedantry which ignores the wider context in which Wright is clearly appealing to the work of the Spirit in the believer to produce the justifying fruit. Wright responds:

But I want now to emphasize particularly that this future justification, though it will be in accordance with the life lived, is not for that reason in any way putting in jeopardy the present verdict issued over faith and faith alone. Precisely because of what faith is—the result of the Spirit’s work, the sign of that Messiah-faithfulness which is the proper covenant badge—the verdict of the present is firm and secure. “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” Of course. Nothing that Paul says, or that I say, about future justification undermines that for a moment. The pardon is free, and it is firm and trustworthy. You can bet your life on it. It is everlasting. It will be reaffirmed on the last day—by which time, though you will not be fully perfect even at your death, the tenor and direction of your life, through the Spirit’s grace, will have been that patience in well-doing which seeks for glory, honor, and immortality. Following that final verdict, to quote another great hymn, we will be “more happy, but not more secure.” That is the truth of justification by faith in the present time, as Paul stresses in Romans 3.[3]

This, to me, is fine as it goes and is obviously supported everywhere in the NT (VanLandigham at least got this correct). But here come the Aristotelian trained critics who realize that if final justification/vindication is based on the obedience of the believer and not Christ’s complete work, then, it cannot be of grace (even after taking into account Wright’s pneumatic component). Take what Phil Johnson says in a blog post for Ligonier Ministries (which I take to be a good sample of the concern of many over Wright’s account) contra Wright:

That’s troubling for two reasons: first, it makes a person’s covenant faithfulness—obedience—the basis of final justification, thus grounding the ultimate declaration of righteousness in the believer’s own works, rather than grounding justification completely in the finished work of Christ on our behalf.[4]

Thus, for many, a final vindication of the believer in accord with their Spirited transformed life is a complete contradiction of justification based on the “finished work of Christ on our behalf” alone. It is, for them, an absolute either/or. And even if the works are given mention they are not in anyway soteriological, having had a bearing on the outcome itself and at best only serving as a witness of an election already given before time began.

However, as I see it, the either/or here (grace/works in the role of final vindication/justification) is not forced upon us by the Bible, but a restraining dualism in our epistemology that in a priori way rejects what Scripture seems to hold together and without apology to our desire for rationalistic satisfaction and consistency. In fact, this is when Torrance walks in and sits snuggly but cautiously next to Wright and Sanders on the one hand and rather suspiciously over against their critics on the other.

You see, I find in Torrance an epistemological answer to the discussion above. For starters, Torrance, I believe, would concede to the pattern of religion noted by Sanders, but would choose to state it in different, albeit theological[5] terms. Sanders’ “covenantal nomism” is for Torrance a “covenanted way of response,” but with some key differences. Elmer Colyer in his How To Read T.F. Torrance states:

Thus while the covenant involved God and Israel, it is a covenant of pure grace established by God in which God effects reconciliation with humanity at its worst in rebellion against God. Within the conflict between God and Israel, God provides Israel with a covenanted way of response in the ordinances of worship and liturgies of atoning sacrifices so that the Israelites could come before God, receive forgiveness and restoration to covenant partnership with God, and fulfill Israel’s vicarious priestly mission in history.[6]

What is important to note is, that for Torrance, “pure grace” within the covenant does not mean “less of man” or less of Israel, but “all of Israel” in their appointed worship and ordained liturgical service. Torrance is not following logico-casual reasoning, but using the “inner logic of grace” supplied by the vicarious humanity of Christ (who is the embodied fulfillment and telos of the OT “covenanted way of response”) where the epistemological categories to work through human and divine agency are to be truly discovered—and where both are fully appreciated.

You see, Torrance is a critical-realist that believes objects of reality are truly knowable and afford their own conceptual matrix (and hence appropriate logical categories during the process) for those seeking to articulate their nature (kata physin); by the way, Torrance is simply following the same epistemological turn that science made when breaking free of the logico-casual boundaries of Newtonian physics following Einstein et al. In sum, if the question of grace and human works at the end of the age are going to be satisfactorily answered and accounted for, we have to do it within the categories that Scripture and Christ provide as the conceptual matrix. And not with Aristotelian categories and frameworks in hand (which give rise to polarized statements like Phil Johnson’s above).

The “inner-logic of grace” for taking into account the question of grace/works (at the end of the age, even at every point of the ordo salutis!) is to be discovered in the hypostatic union in Christ’s own person who is both fully divine and fully human. Remember, to say that Jesus is fully divine in no way diminishes his humanity; in Jesus’ own ontological existence “fully divine” and “fully human” coexist in all of their respective paradoxical glory and mystery and majesty.

Thus, when we employ the OT “covenanted way of response” in approximation with the hyspostatic union (“the inner logic of grace”) as the conceptual matrix for final vindication we will see that we won’t be forced to accept the false antithesis between Christ’s completed work and our works through and in relation to the Spirit which will both be present as the paradoxical axis for our final verdict. “All of grace” for the God of revelation and reconciliation does not mean “less of man” or much worse, “none of man,” but as Torrance would say, “all of man.”

In Jesus’ person, the place where his divinity upholds and accounts for and sustains his humanity, is the theo-logical and soterio-logical categories for noting that at the end of the age “all of grace” in light of Christ’s completed work through the Spirit will mean all of man’s works, all of man’s freedom, and all of man’s fulfillment of the law. Christ is, after all, as Torrance would say a “Personalizing Person” who, when he acts, gives rise to “humanized humans” whose humanity, and the works therein, will not be diminished a single degree in light of the cross, but will be gloriously accounted for and upheld. Where all of grace is proclaimed at the close of the age of sin and death there we shall also hear, “Well done my good and faithful servant.” I’m sure, Sanders, Wright, and Torrance could all toast to that!


[1] Some even prefer to call it Judiasm(s) to denote the multivalent nature of the way people applied this worldview/religion.

[2] E.P Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), pg. 422).

[3] N.T. Wright, Jusitifaction: Yesterday, Today, and Forever, Jets March 2011.

[4] Phil Johnson, What’s Wrong with Wright: Examining the New Perspective. I’m tempted to write a post about the cessation of Wright/wrong puns among bloggers and authors.

[5] As increasingly is being recognized, no one approaches a text with a theological tabula rasa, we all have theological and epistemological presuppositions in this regard.

[6] Elmer M. Coyler, How To Read T.F. Torrance: Understanding His Trinitarian & Scientific Theology (Downers Grover: InterVarsity Press, 2001), pg. 99.

Guest Contribution, Steven Nemes: An Eclectic Calvinism

Here is our first submission and guest contribution from Steven Nemes. I have gotten to know Steven over the last year or so through contact with one of his friends, Pastor Larry Garcia. Steven is a great brother, an excellent thinker (as you will read), and someone who genuinely loves Jesus–which is what it is all about! Thank you Steven for offering us with this first contribution to my new and unfolding idea of an ‘Evangelical Calvinist Forum’. To everyone else, Steven’s article represents a great example of what you (other potential contributors) can do; i.e. that is tell us why Evangelical Calvinism as you understand it is attractive to you. Or, on a negative side, why Evangelical Calvinism is not attractive to you, etc. Here is Steven Nemes, enjoy and be encouraged.

Steven is an MDiv student at Fuller Theological Seminary with a B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University. He likes listening to avant-garde progressive rock music, watching The X-Files, and reading Jürgen Moltmann. Once in a blue moon he blogs at http://crucifiedgod.wordpress.com/

An eclectic Calvinism

by Steven Nemes

stevennemesMy tastes are eclectic, whether in movies [Mulholland Drive, Ostrov, City Lights, Aguirre: the Wrath of God] , music [Kayo Dot, Genesis, Secret Chiefs 3, Morton Feldman, J.S. Bach], or theology [Douglas Campbell, T. F. Torrance, Athanasius, Jurgen Moltmann, Isaac of Nineveh, Dumitru Staniloae, Karl Barth, David Brondos]. Evangelical Calvinism, at least far as I understand its insights and principle commitments, enters into my very eclectic theological vision in some critical ways, though in other ways I may be the furthest thing from an EC-ist.

In the first place I find myself compelled by the classical metaphysics which informed the philosophical theology of numerous Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and pagan philosophers for hundreds of years—the kind of synthesized aristotelian and neoplatonic metaphysic that informs the philosophical theology of Thomas Aquinas and others. This metaphysical vision compels me to posit the existence of God, the ultimate ground of the existence of everything else, ipsum esse subsistens, the One, immutable and metaphysically simple and eternal and necessarily existent and impassible and so on.

I take it that the more famous evangelical Calvinists – Torrance and Barth come to mind – held a dim view of natural theology and were disinclined to acquiesce to its call, suggestions, proposals, insistings, etc. To some extent I am inclined to agree with both parties – God as the classical metaphysical tradition conceives of him is largely unknowable, describable more or less in only negative terms (incomposite, immutable, etc.), so it would turn out that natural theology actually does not tell us much about God at all; revelation is necessary for that.

Yet there is no denying that revelation in the Judeao-Christian tradition depicts God most of the time in a very different light: he changes his mind about things, he goes back and forth between being angry or letting go of his anger at Israel, he suffers and feels for his covenant people, etc. It would be ridiculous to suppose the biblical writers had the same metaphysical vision as Aquinas, Plotinus, and Aristotle; no, it seems to me they painted a picture of God which is fundamentally contradictory to that of these latter thinkers.

This contradiction between two sources to which I am fundamentally committed leads me to a sort of endeavor to harmonize, the result of which may sound like this. God as ipsum esse subsistens doesn’t become this or that, but always is – yet his effect on things is not always the same. The example given to explain how this is possible in the scholastic tradition is this: the sun is always burning just the same, but it hardens clay and melts ice; in other words, different effects are produced because of the difference in the natures of the affected objects, not in the cause. As a Christian I am committed to the belief that there are critical insights about God, his purposes for the world, his nature, etc., had by the writers of the scriptures, insights they received because of God’s activity upon them at the right times and places. These scriptures tell us something real about God, though they were expressed in the context of a metaphysic which may be unenlightened and ultimately to be rejected. But this doesn’t negate the significance of the insights themselves: that God is for the world, that he loves the world he has created and intends good for it despite all appearances to the contrary, and that this has been made especially clear in the person of Jesus Christ who is himself God among men.

(As a side note, it seems to me my belief in divine simplicity makes these convictions about God all the more comforting and trustworthy: if God is for me and that is fundamentally who he is as a matter of strict metaphysical necessity, then I can live fearlessly and with peace in the world knowing this fact, something which would be unavailable to me if I affirmed a kind of fundamental divine freedom that allows him to go beyond or against even what he has done in the past. And of course this is not a fact I’ve come across through rational speculation or by gleaning insights from nature; it was one had through the scriptures, themselves a product of divine (and human) activity.)

To add a further complication into the mix: I am not bent on harmonizing all descriptions of God’s activity in Tanak or Second Testament, for instance, with the metaphysical picture of the world and its implied doctrine of God. I do metaphysics and think metaphysically in the philosophical context, whereas I do the language and think biblically when I am involved in the ecclesial and cultic context. Why? Because these are two distinct spheres of my life, two distinct domains of experience and of life. The language of the bible is how I engage in acts of religion, such as going to church or preaching or praying, whereas the language of the classical metaphysics is how I do philosophy. I suppose I am not a hardened and committed realist about language, nor incredibly optimistic in human epistemological capabilities in understanding the world and formulating an accurate interpretation of it. These are just two ways of thinking and speaking – the philosophical and the biblical – which I think put me in a certain critical and important touch with a reality that is ultimately beyond my description. This makes me think of ‘religion’ in more practical terms, as a more practical than theoretical enterprise – a conception to which my actual practice does not always live up, I admit.

Where does evangelical Calvinism come into all this? I think its theological methods, insights, proposals and interpretations are all very compelling as interpretations of the data of scripture. For instance I think it’s doctrine of election as christologically informed is very compelling, and Barth’s arguments against the tradition’s take on election in Church Dogmatics II/2 are very good. “In [Christ] we were chosen” – I think such a statement nicely summarizes the notion of a derivative election of humanity through Christ’s own election; of course it says that we were chosen, but the election of Christ is implicit in his very title as “anointed one.” I think that the EC position on the universal scope and efficacy of the atonement, for instance, is adequate to the teaching of (for example) 1 John 2.2, where Christ is spoken of in the indicative mood as the hilasmos for our sins and also for the whole world, the adjective “whole” here functioning naturally as a universalizer, to include the entirety of the thing being described. This affirms Christ as an actual hilasmos, not a potential one, for all of the world, believers and nonbelievers included.

To summarize, then: I belong to the classical metaphysical tradition and posit God as immutable, necessarily existent, simple and incomposite, impassible, and all the rest; but this God is accessible in a soteriologically significant way through the church, her scriptures, her sacraments, etc.; and the best way to understand these scriptures – the best way to talk about God from within the conceptual universe of the scriptures, in other words – is largely the way EC-ists do. This is my eclectic Calvinism.