The Patristic Rather than the Protestant, Calvin: Calvin’s Doctrine of Theosis and Ontological Salvation in Con-versation With Irenaeus

It might be said that John Calvin was something of a theologian born out of time. When you read him, particularly the French version of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, what you will find is someone who sounds more like a Patristic theologian more than one who worked in and post late medieval theology. His Christocentric emphasis, I think, leads him to sound like maybe an Athanasius or Irenaeus; he offers insights about the eternal life of salvation that operate from the catholicity borne out by ecumenical councils like the niceno-constantinopolitano-chalcedony offered towards the orthodox grammar and thought of the Church since.

More materially, Calvin’s thinking sounds almost exactly like Irenaeus’s idea of theosis, and how it took God become human in Christ for humanity to become sons of God, by the adoption of grace, and thus participants in the eternal triune life of God. Note Irenaeus, and then Calvin following:

But again, those who assert that He was simply a mere man, begotten by Joseph, remaining in the bondage of the old disobedience, are in a state of death having been not as yet joined to the Word of God the Father, nor receiving liberty through the Son, as He does Himself declare: If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. John 8:36 But, being ignorant of Him who from the Virgin is Emmanuel, they are deprived of His gift, which is eternal life; Romans 6:23 and not receiving the incorruptible Word, they remain in mortal flesh, and are debtors to death, not obtaining the antidote of life. To whom the Word says, mentioning His own gift of grace: I said, You are all the sons of the Highest, and gods; but you shall die like men. He speaks undoubtedly these words to those who have not received the gift of adoption, but who despise the incarnation of the pure generation of the Word of God, defraud human nature of promotion into God, and prove themselves ungrateful to the Word of God, who became flesh for them. For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons?[1]

And Calvin:

What we have said will be clearer if we consider that the office of Mediator is not a common thing — that is; to restore us to God’s grace in such a way that we are made His children, we who were the children of people; to make us heirs of the heavenly kingdom, we who were heirs of hell. Who could have done that unless the Son of God had been made Son of man and had taken our condition so as to transfer to us what was His properly by nature, making it ours by grace? So we have confidence that we are God’s children, having the guarantee that the natural Son of God took a body from our body, flesh from our flesh, bone from our bone, to be united with us. What was properly ours, He accepted in his person in order that what was properly His might belong to us, and thus He had in common with us that He was Son of God and Son of man. For this reason we hope that the heavenly inheritance is ours, because the unique Son of God who completely deserves it, has adopted us as His brothers. Now if we are His brothers, we are His co-heirs.[2]

In context, both Irenaeus and Calvin are writing against people who are attempting to denigrate the full divinity of the Son. Both thinkers identify the necessity of full divinity in Christ in order for ultimate salvation and eternal life to obtain. Interestingly, particularly with reference to Calvin, what we see is an inkling toward what we freely call theosis or divinization in the Patristic writers like Irenaeus. What is significant to me, in this regard, is that Calvin has an ontological understanding of salvation operative in and underwriting his thinking on salvation; contra the steep forensic or declarative understanding of salvation we end up seeing the scholastic Reformed or Post Reformed orthodox theologians of the Protestant period in the 16th and 17th centuries develop. This continues to be an underappreciated reality in Calvin, particularly by those who would like to read him into the Post Reformed orthodox period.

Thomas Torrance picks up on this theosis motif in Calvin’s thinking and rightly brings Calvin into the ontological frame when developing his own constructive doctrine of salvation. Again, this is rebuffed by people like Richard Muller et al. who want to read Calvin away from divinization salvific grammar, and instead see him fitting into the juridical models developed in the Post Reformation period. I think Torrance is right to align Calvin more with the Patristic Fathers rather than with the Post Reformed orthodox Fathers. I commend the aforementioned from Calvin as evidence in that direction. I also present it to you as further evidence that Calvin was someone born out of time; that he often sounds more like the Patristics than the Protestants, so to speak.

[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies: Book III, Chpt. 19 [Emphasis mine].

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 223-24 [Emphasis mine].


Irenaeus Against John MacArthur: What Hath Creatio Ex Nihilo to Do With the Genesis and Exodus of Biblical Interpretation?

I am going to apply the following quote on theological interpretation of scripture (TIS) from Colin Gunton to a popular pastor among many conservative evangelical Christians; i.e. John MacArthur. The reason I am going to apply the following quote to MacArthur is because part of my passion is to take deep school theology and use that to help correct what I consider to be wayward theological method and application as that is distilled, indeed, through people like John MacArthur. We could apply the quote and its content to many other evangelicals in North America and abroad, but MacArthur, because of his ubiquitous presence (at least in the circles I grew up in) works well as a typological character who I think needs correcting. What might seem ironic (or asinine, depending on the person) to some is that I would dare to correct someone like MacArthur; someone who prides himself on being slavishly committed to biblical exegesis in order to establish every jot and tittle of his exposition and sermonic form. In principle I think, at least for us Protestant Reformed, I can certainly get behind the idea that we want to establish all of our doctrine and teaching based upon biblical exegesis. But the problem arises, especially for folks like MacArthur, when one simply presumes upon some sort of prima facie mode of biblical exegesis; as if what counts as Literal-Grammatical-Historical is simply a neutered or generic way of engaging with texts, in particular the biblical text, such that whatever is produced through thorough application of this method will simply be just what the Bible says. This is the mode of MacArthur; he believes that his exegesis comes prior to his theology, but I am countering that he has a prior commitment to a certain theological paradigm that informs his exegesis in ways he can’t seem to imagine (we all have theological premises informing our engagement with Holy Scripture).

Colin Gunton as he is engaging with a Christian doctrine of creation, particularly the notion of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), and as he has been developing Irenaeus’ theology in this direction, brings theological interpretation of scripture into his discussion. I am just going to quote him at length (as is typical of my blogging style), and then we will draw off of what he has to intone about TIS and how I think we can apply that to MacArthur in particular and to many conservative evangelical pastors in general. Gunton writes:

What, then, is to be understood by a theological interpretation? At the very least we must essay an integration, if not systematisation, of the various biblical witnesses to creation, and not simply Genesis, in the light of the God made known in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit who relates the world to the Father through him. If we accept Irenaeus’ strong contention that the God of Jesus Christ is the one who created in the beginning, we must interpret Genesis in the light of God’s involvement in the material historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. This enables us not to read trinitarian themes directly into the book of Genesis, as if the author were in some way theologising in a consciously trinitarian way, but to understand the forms of divine action there depicted as the acts of the triune God. This is particularly well illustrated if we see that part of the divine engagement with creation in Genesis 1 involves the ministerial use of parts of the created order in the forming of others. When God says ‘Let the earth bring forth’ we have a picture of divine action enabling the sovereign creator intends. As we shall see, this has important implications for the way we shall understand the relation of creation and evolution.

A theology of creation does not in any case limit it biblical basis to Genesis 1, but is concerned with the meaning of the scriptural understanding of creation as a whole. Because Irenaeus’ focus is incarnational he looks at the whole of scripture through what happened in Jesus Christ, and refuses to become preoccupied, as were some of his opponents, with the exchange of ‘proof-texts’. This is not to say that we should hold that the biblical writers were consciously trinitarian thinkers. Clearly, they were not. The doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrinal development dedicated to saying something of who the God is who creates and redeems the world. In its turn and in its light, this enables an interpretation of the Bible’s teaching as a whole. Thus, when Psalm 33:6 says that ‘by the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth’, we may recognise the adumbration of a conception which is later filled out by an understanding of the personal presence of God made explicit by Jesus Christ and the Spirit. As we have seen, the heart of the matter is the concept of mediation which the Bible makes possible, generating as it does its unique doctrine of creation out of nothing.[1]

Does that make sense? Maybe a further illustration might help: Think of what the Evangelist in the Gospel of John did. He “re-interpreted,” or per Irenaeus’ style, he recapitulated the original creation account in Genesis 1.1 by linking his linguistic harmonizing in John 1.1 “In the Beginning God” with his introduction of the Logos or Word to the world. In other words, in light of Jesus Christ what is presented in the Old Testament is re-understood in light of its fulfillment and substantive res (reality) as that is actualized in the Son, Jesus Christ. This is something of a further illustration of what Gunton is after in his linking of biblical interpretation into the context of a doctrine of creation. I.e. without God in Christ there would be no creation, or indeed recreation, wherein all of reality could come to have a Christ conditioned Triune shape and meaning. In other words, particularly as Gunton leaves off with a reference to creatio ex nihilo, what Irenaeus was about, according to Gunton, is basing his interpretation of Holy Scripture within a grandeur context than simply reading off its purported ‘face’ and absolutizing biblical meaning and reality from there. No, what Irenaeus, according to Gunton was about was recognizing that Scripture has a depth dimensional context and reality, and that that only comes as its total canonical orientation is found in and from its ever afresh ever anew referencing beyond itself, beyond its paper and ink, to its flesh and bloodied reality in Jesus Christ and the Triune life co-inhering therein.

Let me try to bring this down a notch (never an easy thing to do): in Irenaeus’ frame, in particular, and in a theological exegetical frame in general, what theological interpretation of scripture entails as a method of biblical interpretation, is the full recognition that scripture itself only has meaning as it constantly is referring itself to its deep reality in Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 5.39). It recognizes that all of reality only has reality as a contingent reality as that is given forth by the Word of God in Jesus Christ. Gunton, through Irenaeus, is showing that at least for the theological interpretation of scripture mode, we must presume upon the reality of who God is as revealed in Jesus Christ in order to cognize any sort of biblical meaning; if in fact we can first recognize that the Bible only has meaning as an instrument mediating something greater than itself to us (something or someOne who has made clear that He alone upholds all things by the word of His power; even Scripture’s meaning as that is found in his Word).

Does John MacArthur fit into this sort of theological interpretation of scripture, or does he operate from somewhere else? The irony is, as we examine his antecedents, when it comes to his hermeneutical method and exegetical practice, is that he operates off of Enlightenment text critical premises that are actually in contest with the sort of Irenaean hermeneutic we have been touching upon in this post. If this is the case (and it is), then how can we accept that MacArthur is actually offering us the Gospel According to Jesus when he is working from hermeneutical premises that themselves are concocted from ideational commitments that are in fact antagonistic to the sort of rich and deep theological pedigree of interpretation that someone like Irenaeus operated from? MacArthur doesn’t self-critically even think from a doctrine of creation and recreation (resurrection) as the basis within which the Bible can find orientation and meaning. MacArthur naively presumes upon a certain method of biblical interpretation that starts with a sort of rationalist common sense notion of reality and language that sees words and meaning abstractly accessible by the powers of human wit and a pressing into linguistic and historical realities without recognizing how reality itself is contingent upon the Word of God. In other words, MacArthur doesn’t make an intentional (Dogmatic) connection between meaning generation and God’s Word as the predicator of all meaning; even Scriptural meaning. He doesn’t allow that primal reality to form his development of a biblical hermeneutic and exegetical practice. As such he falls short in untold manner of ways in his exposition and sermonic deliveries.


[1] Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical And Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), Loc 924, 931, 937 kindle.

Thinking of Creation in Elevated and Eschatological Terms with Irenaeus: And Allowing Such Terms to Bring Eternal Perspective to Temporal Realities

Creatio ex nihilo. ‘Creation out of nothing’ is an important concept when it comes to a doctrine of creation for the Christian; TF Torrance, along with the Patristic tradition, made this a staple of his theological outworking. Colin Gunton offers a look at Irenaeus’, among others, doctrine of creation and brings to attention the central role that Christology and the economy of God’s Triune life plays in his theology of creation and redemption. What I want to focus on, through Gunton, is how eschatology functioned in Irenaeus’ conception of creation, and the role the ‘perfecting’ of creation played therein. It is interesting, as Gunton highlights, that for Irenaeus in-built into creation’s “perfection” there is an “imperfection” or a latency or potentiality within creation wherein it is originally created, out of nothing, with a pregnancy that can only come to term through an experiential maturation and growth process that finally comes to fruition and ultimacy only insofar as that is realized (recapitulated) in and through Jesus Christ.

We will hear from Gunton, and then I am going to try and draw out some implications of this Irenaean teaching for us in the 21st century church. I want to emphasize how thinking reality from this sort of Christ-centric creatio ex nihilo is significant for understanding our purpose and place in the world coram Deo; and how it ought to clear away for us so much of the cultural accretions that we allow to artificially build up around us based upon our own pseudo-creating as human animals.

Eschatology is important because it enables us to engage with what is both a crux of interpretation of the thought of Irenaeus and a major problem in the doctrine of creation. Irenaeus has been accused of inconsistency in his doctrine of creation in teaching both that creation is perfect and that it is imperfect:

In his protracted rebuttal of gnostic sects, Irenaeus repeatedly emphasises the unqualified goodness of creation. But in iv, 38 he springs upon the reader the surprising contention that Adam, as first created by God, was imperfect.

Although, however, Irenaeus may appear sometimes to say that Adam was created perfect, sometimes not, there is a contradiction only on a rather static understanding of perfection. As we shall see when we come to treat them meaning of creation ‘in the beginning’, the doctrine of creation out of nothing does imply that creation in one sense indeed complete. But it does not follow that it is perfect in the sense that it does not have to be perfected. The creation is, we might say, perfect in that it is destined for perfection. That is, it is relatively perfect: created for an eschatological perfecting. It is the eschatological destiny of finite creation that makes a fall possible; in that sense, the creation is imperfect. As Douglas Farrow has argued, with particular reference to the passage on the basis of which Irenaeus is accused of contradiction, this theologian does apparently teach the imperfection of creation; but it is an imperfection which:

makes the fall possible,  not inevitable. The ‘imperfection’ is this: The love for God which is the life of man cannot emerge ex nihilo in full bloom; it requires to grow with experience. But that in turn is what makes the fall, however unsurprising, such a devastating affair. In the fall man is ‘turned backwards.’ He does not grow up in the love of God as he intended to. The course of his time, his so-called progress, is set in the wrong direction.

For Irenaeus, ‘good’ means precisely that which is destined for perfection. On such an eschatological understanding, the relation of creation and redemption according to Irenaeus is clear in its basic outline, though complex in its outworking, because we are here concerned with the relation of time and eternity. Redemption or salvation is that divine action which returns the creation to its proper direction, its orientation to its eschatological destiny, which is to be perfected in due course of time by God’s enabling it to be that which it was created to be. By virtue of their trinitarian mediation, both creation and its restoration in redemption are acts of the one God in and towards the whole created order. In turn, that means that Irenaeus must not be thought to operate with a naively linear conception of time. As Dr Farrow has shown, for Irenaeus the world is to be understood as process, but it is not – as in the contemporary process theologians – linear process.

[I]t is one of Irenaeus’ great strengths to have incorporated process as a positive . . . feature of his world-view. But the process in question is not a straightforward, linear one. Rather it involves a fraction, a breaking up. Worldly reality in all its aspects, the material and the immaterial, enters into a situation of fructification and endless bounty precisely by way of participation in the descent and ascent of Jesus.[1]

That is an interesting discussion to me. It notes what Matthew Levering might call the ‘participatory’ nature of history and eschatology. Creation itself has a primacy, as the Scotist thesis understands, and its primacy is grounded in its experience with the Christ; with its originally intended ‘elevation’ to something greater than what it seemingly originally came with. Irenaeus was attuned to this early on, and I think it is something we ought to become attuned to ourselves. Beyond the technical critique of “inconsistency,” as Gunton has shown through Farrow, there is a depth dimension to what Irenaeus was thinking in regard to creation and recreation. That creation itself has always already been tensed by its prior reality given to it in and by the reality of God in Christ for the world.

Let me make what will seem like an abrupt turn at this point. What theology like this does for me, from a doxological perspective, is that it takes me deeper than the normal church sub-cultures allow me to go. It takes me into an orientation where so much of the hubris generated by the superficialities we experience in the church, as we allow the culture at large to shape the church culture, to be cut away. What we are left with as we reflect on these deeper creational and primal realities is that God is God and we are not; that the world we live in is his and its shape, whether we are saturated in its reality or not, is that Jesus is King. What thinking at these levels does for me is to ground me in the fact that almost all of what counts as reality and culture in the broader societies is chaff. So this gives me a substantial hope and orientation; one that is grounded in the reality that the Word of the LORD will endure forever whereas what the World says is reality will simply fade away as the grass withers and blows away.


[1] Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical And Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), Loc 812, 819, 825, 831 kindle.

Irenaeus of Lyon Against the Annihilationists and Evangelical Conditionalists of the 21st Century

Remember in the past when I said that I was going to write a paper refuting annihilationism or evangelical conditionalism? I haven’t forgot about that, it’s just that I have a lot of other things going on (including the ongoing trial of putting together my PhD proposal). In my reading of my friend’s published PhD dissertation for the University of Manchester, Jerome van Kuiken’s Christ’s Humanity In Current And Ancient Controversy: Fallen Or Not?, as he gets into engaging with Irenaeus of Lyon’s theology/Christology, Jerome refers to Irenaeus’s theological-anthropology. If you remember, part of my thesis in arguing against annihlationism was going to be to refer to the immortality that grounds what it means to be human being as construed from the elect human being of Jesus Christ for us. As Jerome develops Irenaeus’s theology he refers to something therein that helps underscore my own thesis contra the annihilationist position. Note Jerome’s reference to this pertinent point in a footnote he offers on Irenaeus’s theology:

In passages like Haer. 3.20.2 and Epid. 15, Irenaeus can speak of humanity’s possessing immortality prior to the Fall; however, Haer. 5.12.1-3 explains that humanity lost its life in Eden because it had only the ephemeral breath of life, not the eternal Spirit of life available in Christ. Cf. Haer. 5.3.1, which says that humans are naturally mortal, and 5.7.1, which interprets Gen. 2.7 as teaching that human nature comprises an immortal soul and a mortal body (i.e. a soul incapable of decomposition and a body capable of it). Cf. Lane, ‘Irenaeus’, pp. 145-6.[1]

As a reminder the conditionalist position is this (at least for those over at the ReThinking Hell consortium):

Conditionalism is the view that life or existence is the Creator’s provisional gift to all, which will ultimately either be granted forever on the basis of righteousness (by grace, through faith), or revoked forever on the basis of unrighteousness.

Evangelical conditionalists believe that the saved in Christ will receive glory, honor and immortality, being raised with an incorruptible body to inherit eternal life (Romans 2:7). The unsaved will be raised in shame and dishonor, to face God and receive the just condemnation for their sins. When the penalty is carried out, they will be permanently excluded from eternal life by means of a final death (loss of being; destruction of the whole person; Matthew 10:28).[2]

For the conditionalist, contra Irenaeus, immortality is a contingent reality that is only given with the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. Irenaeus, according to van Kuiken’s observation, held that immortality was an inherent property to what it means to be human, albeit a property ultimately grounded in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

My original thesis was going to be to argue the Irenean position, albeit in a modified form through Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth’s theologies, contra the ReThinking Hell conditionalist position. My thesis, now bolstered by Irenaeus’s own reasoning, was and would be that humanity’s ontological grounding in the humanity of Jesus Christ necessarily requires that humanity itself, once originated and created in and from the image of God in Christ’s vicarious humanity is ultimately immortal or unable to be distinguished once created. This, because, to reiterate, what it ultimately and archetypically means to be human is grounded in the singular humanity of Jesus Christ’s humanity for us (pro nobis). On my account, since humanity is always already ‘immortal,’ or unable to be annihilated, the definitional distinctions that must be made come to how we think ‘immortality.’ For my treatment, there is an asymmetrical symmetry between people who experience the light side of immortality—which would be equal, potentially, to the conditionalist position on the univocal relationship between immortality and eternality language vis-à-vis ‘salvation’—and the many people who will experience the shadow side of immortality. The light side of human immortality is to fully experience the divine plenitude of participation within the Triune life, mediated through the gracious humanity of Jesus Christ to those who believe; the shadow side of human immortality would be for those who have chosen to reject the beauty and resplendence of full immortality available for them in the humanity of Jesus Christ; nevertheless, de jure, by virtue of the ground of human being, even those who reject the experience of what it means to be human, and live out of the immortality that is available in the humanity of Christ for them, remain ‘human’ and thus ‘immortal’ insofar as their humanity has ultimately and creationally/recreationally been grounded by Christ’s.

This is a thesis I continue to ponder. And maybe someday I’ll have the time to actual work it out in paper form. Until then I’ll just keep throwing out dispatches about it, like this one, until the time comes for me to finally write the darn thing.


[1] E. Jerome van Kuiken, Christ’s Humanity In Current And Ancient Controversy: Fallen Or Not? (London/New York: T&T Clark Bloomsbury, 2017), 94 n.14.

[2] ReThinking Hell, Statement on Evangelical Conditionalism, accessed 03-05-2018.

The Father-Son Relation: Rowan Williams on the Irenaean Theology of Participation, and TF Torrance’s Homoousion

Rowan Williams in his chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Jesus entitled A History of Faith in Jesus offers historical insight to the rapid doxological posture the early church took towards Jesus as God become man. As Williams details this he highlights this particular development in the theology of Irenaeus, and how Irenaeus provided for what Karl Barth, later, might call an analogia relationis. This is a beautiful way, a doxological and participatory way to conceive of what God in Christ has done for us in the mediatorial vicarious humanity of the eternal Logos, Jesus irenaeusChrist. It is this relation that Thomas Torrance swoons about so much and as corollary so do we as evangelical Calvinists. Williams writes of this development in Irenaeus’ theology this way:

Some of the language of early Alexandrian theology in particular similarly emphasises the role of Jesus as the visible manifestation of the invisible God, the mediator, not so much  of salvation or forgiveness as of true perception of the divine nature. The earlier theologian to stress this theme, however, is not an Alexandrian, but an émigré from Asia Minor, Irenaeus, who became bishop of Lyons in France; and fro him Jesus’ role as revealer immediately connects with a further and more profound set of considerations. Jesus reveals because of his own relation to the Father; because his face is wholly turned to the Father, it reflects his glory. For us to know and recognise that glory, we must be brought into that relation – a fundamental theme of Paul and John in the New Testament (Rom 8, John 17, among much else), which Irenaeus develops extensively, Jesus is an example, not only in the sense of being a model of behavior we ought to imitate (again a New Testament theme, as in Matt 11.29; 1 Cor 11.1), but as a paradigm of relation to God as Father. Our attention or devotion to him is a kind of tracing the contour of his life so as to see its conformity to the Father’s character and purpose; we are to pick up the essential clues as to how to recognise what it is to be a child of the heavenly Father by looking single-mindedly at him (cf. Heb 12.2). Being in the Spirit is not only or even primarily a gift of prophetic alignment with the ultimate judgement of Jesus, but entails the gift of sharing Jesus’ relation with the Father, beginning to love God as parent with the same confidence as Jesus shows.[1]

As I reflect upon this it conjures up for me the way T.F. Torrance presses into his constructive appropriation of the Athanasian themed, patrological focused homoousion, that developed post-Irenaeus. The idea that Jesus, the eternal Son, is consubstantial or one nature (ousia) with the Father [and the Holy Spirit]. Note Torrance:

. . . Hilary of Poitiers argued that it was the primary purpose of the Son to enable us to know the one true God as Father. This was the theme to which he gave considerable theological reflection in view of the Nicene homoousion and what it implied for our two-fold belief in God the Father Almighty and in God the Son of the Father. ‘All who have God for their Father through faith have him for Father through the same faith whereby we confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ Again: ‘The very centre of saving faith is the belief not merely in God but in God as Father; nor merely in Christ, but in Christ as the Son of God; in him, not as a creature, but as God the Creator born of God.’ ‘The work which the Lord came to do was not to enable you to know him as the Father of the Son who addresses you . . . The end and aim of this revelation of the Son is that you should know the Father . . . Remember that the revelation is not of the Father manifested as God, but of God manifested as the Father’.[2]

It is this theme of participation in Christ, who is homoousios or consubstantial with the Father that was so important for Irenaeus, Nicene and Chalcedonian theology, as well as for people like Torrance who made that particular doctrine a touchstone for his theological-hermeneutic. It is the idea of ‘relation’ with God as Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit that I believe is so important for what it means to know God in proper standing as His children. It is a matter of being rightly related through Christ; if we understand what that means, we will understand God to be our loving Father, and as Williams writes we will begin “to love God as parent with the same confidence as Jesus shows.”

As of late we have seen a lot of energy expended over the so called eternal functional subordination debate; the debate that is attempting to clarify what in fact the inner-life (ad intra) of God’s life looks like. I would contend that if that debate was shaped more by the dialogical, participationist mood that we have been highlighting in this post, and less by the analytical mode and tone it has taken, that the “debate” itself may never have happened to begin with. It is surely important to attempt to apprehend the mystery of God’s ineffable Triune life, and it is surely important to follow the pattern of God’s inner-life as revealed in Jesus Christ (which I believe the pro-Nicene theology has done), but when we press the edges of that apprehension too far we end up saying more than we are capable of saying; we lose sense of the fact that God will share His glory with no one. That said, there are “orthodox” contours of thought articulated by the church catholic that indeed set the boundaries and thus grammar by which Christians have a certain rule to follow when attempting to speak meaningfully about God as Triune. But we would do well to remember that just as the early church did, this all must be prayerfully held within a sense of deep awe and worship of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; co-equal, co-eternal, with no subordination whatsoever in the inner-life (ad intra).

Apart from my digression on EFS, what I really wanted to emphasize through this post is how central and important the ‘analogy of relation’ is for evangelical Calvinism; how important it should be for all Christians, even if they don’t identify as evangelical Calvinists (God forbid it!). If you really contemplate the implications of all of this all you can do is worship.


[1] Rowan Williams, “A History of Faith in Jesus,” edited by Markus Bockmuehl, The Cambridge Companion to Jesus (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 221-22.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 139.

On Irenaeus. Christ ‘the concentric feedback loop of Israel’ or Recapitulation

Jesus is the recapitulation of Israel; or in fact of God’s life itself in the kameronvia historia, according to Patristic theologian Irenaeus. I want to share what Duke Divinity School theologian J Kameron Carter has to say about this in his book Race. I will want to revisit the substance of this at a later date, until then, here is what Carter has written in regard to Irenaeus’ view of how God in Christ “re-does” “re-lives” “re-capitulates” creation, Israel-Mary, and Godself in his lived life for the nations:

In arguing this way, it is as if Irenaeus is saying that the recapitulation of all things in Christ occurs in a concentric feedback loop. Creation itself is a concentrated expression of the love the Father has for the eternal Son through the Holy Spirit. That is, it is a condensed narrative that captures without diluting the rhetorical plotline of the depths of God’s love for the Son, a love that embraces within itself even that which is not God (i.e. creation). In this sense, creation in its own way recapitulates the divine life as the “structure of supreme love.” But then as if even this condensed story were still too prolix, YHWH presents the story of Israel, beginning with the call of Abram-become-Abraham to create ex nihilo a people who before did not exist, as a compendium of the story of creation, which too came into being. And so to grasp the story of Israel is to grasp the story of creation. And finally again, in an effort to contain what yet appears to be too elongated a narrative filled with plot twists, reversals, and surprises, Christ himself “cuts short” the story of Israel into the résumé of his own material body and historical life, only then to have this loop back to the story of creation, but now under the aspect of the second Eve. He is the biography of creation. But in so being, he proves to be God’s own autobiography, God’s writing of Godself.[1]

Rich. Too rich for me to try and engage with at the moment (due to time constraints), but hopefully you grasp some of the point, and see what is going on in the theology of Irenaeus, at least as mediated through Carter’s wit.

[1] J Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account, kindle loc. 851.

Reading the Bible: Dogmatically or non-Dogmatically, but Dogmatically

Is following a purported “Christ-centered” hermeneutic—of which there is more than one alternative—a dogmatic or systematic theological imposition, or even a “creedal” one over the text of Scripture? Is following a patriarchpurported methodological or principled Christ centered hermeneutic an artificial way to read the Scriptures, with the result of flattening out the various caverns and contours offered by the oft rough edges of Scripture? This is not so easy of a question for me to answer at the moment, but my inclination is to say, NO! It is not artificial, and it is not a theological imposition. Why? Because Jesus apparently offered this kind of hermeneutic himself (cf. John 5:39; Luke 24:44), and the early church seemed to follow an incipient confessional hermeneutic that saw all of the promises made in the Hebrew Bible (TaNaKh) as fulfilled in Jesus, which we now have deposited for us in the New Testament. Indeed what the early church seemed to have been operating with—early on—was a very theological (albeit pre-Nicene) Christ-centered, and quite apocalyptical hermeneutic and reading of the Scriptures. Someone who imbibes this kind of ‘rule-of-faith’ (the early Christ creedal approach) reading of Scripture is none other than Irenaeus (c. 130–c. 202); he was a second century biblical theologian who is known for his run ins with the proto-Gnostics (a dualist sect). As well, he is also known as a disciple of Polycarp, who is purported to be the disciple of the Apostle John; and so he has a rather unique Christian pedigree, and a closeness to the early church that is quite intimate. Irenaeus developed his own style of a Christ-centered hermeneutic in his recapitulation mode of interpretation (which he took over from the Apologist, Justin Martyr), which was given shape as a result of his frequent battles with these incipient Gnostics. Brevard Childs helpfully sketches the main contours of Irenaeus’ approach, which I want to share. Here is Childs on Irenaeus:

Central for Irenaeus was the biblical emphasis that God’s order for salvation had extended from creation to its fulfillment in Christ, as God progressively made himself known in creation, law, and prophecy through the divine Logos. Christian scripture bore witness to Jesus Christ as God’s son and saviour who was from the beginning with God and fully active throughout this entire history (IV .20.1ff). All the economies of God reveal this history of revelation according to its stages which led the church from infancy to perfection. Indeed in his doctrine of ‘recapitulation’ Irenaeus pictured Christ’s joining the end of time with the beginning and thereby encompassing within himself fully the entire experience of Israel and the church (III.21.10–23.8). Because of the unity of God’s salvation, it was absolutely essential to the faith that the two testaments of the Christian Bible be seen as a harmonious witness to the one redemptive purpose in history. Through his use of ‘types’ (IV .14.3) and prophecy (IV .10.1) Irenaeus sought to demonstrate that the two covenants were of the selfsame substance and of the one divine author (IV .9.1). [Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 1993), 31.]

So early on we see a kind of dogmatically rendered hermeneutic that starts with the reality of Christ as the center which serves as the substance and reality of both the Old Testament and what became the New Testament. For Irenaeus, the so called ‘rule-of-faith’ did not represent something that was in competition with Scripture, but in fact reflected apostolic witness to the reality of Scripture that bridged both the Old and New Testament.

What I am wrestling with, is a challenge I was recently given in this regard. I was actually moving along, happily on my way, with a certain constructive view toward a Christ centered (‘depth dimensioned’) hermeneutic that I thought had an ancient pedigree. Indeed, I still think this; but I am having to wrestle, still with what this means beyond principle, and in actual practice. And I want to wrestle with what this means in regard to dealing with the Bible as literature (even if it is unique and sacred). The Bible itself has an ontology (as John Webster likes to point out), and a dogmatic orientation and giveness and place; and so this placement itself supposes upon a certain dogmatic principle (i.e. that God is gracious, and that God has spoken and speaks; triunely so). I simply think it is impossible, and really not advisable, to try and engage with Scripture, hermeneutically, as if it can or should be done non-Dogmatically and non-Ecclesiastically; and more importantly, then, non-Christically. I think to approach Scripture through all of these “non” ways, is really more Englightenment generated, and thus anthropologically generated (which itself is a kind of naturalist Dogmatic approach), than my interlocutors would like to think. Really, though, I don’t think my interlocutors are all that Enlightenment formed; they are just Augustinian, and want to follow a certain salvation-history and pietistic relational reading of the text of Scripture. But let’s be honest, we all follow a dogmatically construed understanding of Scripture; that really isn’t the issue (it is an understood, or should be). The question is: Who is following a more faithful ordering of the dogma? And which dogma (or theological schema) is one following? I hate how this always has to come back to these methodological questions, but it does; and once engaged with at this level, we are better ready to engage the text on its given level—which is to do so ‘in Christ.’

In short: To presume that reading Scripture “Christ-centeredly” is an artificial theological imposition, would be a double edged sword; since reading Scripture as if God has spoken therein is just as much of a theological imposition, respectively. It is better just to be honest, to level the playing field, and admit that reading Scripture as Christians is a highly theological endeavor. The only other alternative, really, is to read it from a naturalist frame of some kind, and who wants to do that?

Interpreting Scripture as if Jesus is the Center and not the [Nation] of Israel

Is the nation of Israel distinct as a people of God, or was the nation of Israel the prefigural and pre-incarnate mode of God’s Self-revealing life in the unfolding reality of salvation history; such that Jesus then is the distinct person[s] of God who is the Israel of God, and indeed the point of the nation of Israel’s existence? I hold to the concept that Jesus is the ‘Israel of God’; however, I did not always hold to this interpretation. In my previous life as a Dispensationalist I held that a defining feature of  salvation history, and God’s prophetic plan for the nations was that Israel was distinct from the Church (which is probably the sine qua non of what it means to be a dispensationalist in any of its expressions); and that God’s primary intention with his dealings with creation had to do with the nation of Israel (the Church was simply an ‘add-on’ in God’s plan). But this old belief of mine runs contrary to the Patristic (early Church–’Church Fathers’) interpretation of Scripture, and even more importantly, I believe it runs counter to the Apostolic and Dominical (Jesus’) interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures (and we have their interpretation deposited for us in the New Testament writings). Robin Parry (Gregory MacDonald) provides a really good and precise statement on my belief:

The insight that throughout the New Testament Jesus is portrayed in terms that recall the nation of Israel and its mission is so commonplace I shall not spend long defending it. The kinds of evidence appeal can be made to include the fact that many titles for Jesus have strong associations with Israel. For instance, Jesus’ use of the title Son of Man as influenced by Daniel 7 (e.g., Mark 14:62), where it refers to Israel or Israel’s representative of the nation. This could suggest that Jesus, in his role as messianic king of Israel, represents and embodies the destiny of that nation. Now the title Son of God did evolve during the New Testament period and afterwards into something closer to the later title of God the Son, but its messianic connections are still clear in places. This insight helps explain some otherwise peculiar Christian interpretations of the Old Testament, such as when Matthew takes the words of Hosea 11:1, “out of Egypt I called my son,” which in their context refer to the exodus of the Israelites, and applies them to Jesus’ flight to Egypt after the death of Herod (Matt 2:15). Once it is perceived that for Matthew Jesus is Yahweh’s son because he is embodying the story of Israel, this apparent misuse of an Old Testament text begins to make sense. The title Messiah/Christ could also suggest one who represents the whole nation before God; and, in light of our arguments in the previous chapter, thinking of Jesus as Isaiah’s Servant of Yahweh, as the early Christians certainly did (Mt 3:17/Isa 42:1; Mark 10:45/Isa 53:10; Acts 8:30-35/Isa 53:7-8), is to think of him as one who fulfils the story and mission of Israel. On top of this, we can see how the Gospels can tell the story of Jesus in such a way as to parallel the story of Israel. For instance, after Jesus is baptized he goes into the wilderness for forty days before crossing the Jordan into Israel to begin his mission just as Israel went into wilderness for forty years before crossing the Jordan into Canaan. However, where Israel failed its testing in the wilderness, Jesus succeeds. [Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 75.]

This way of interpreting Jesus’ reinterpretation and “re-living” of the nation of Israel has been called recapitulation; something that dominated Church Father, Irenaeus’ method of re-interpreting the Old Testament, and the nation of Israel, in light of its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. J. N. D. Kelly remarks in regard to Irenaeus’ method:

The conceptions, Pauline in its ultimate derivation, of the inauguration of a new, restored humanity in Christ seems to have reached Justin [Martyr] from the theological tradition of Asia Minor. It was taken up and deepened by Ireanaeus, who was also the first to work out comprehensive theories both of original sin and of redemption…. [J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christ Doctrines, revised ed., 170.]

So this is

… the distinctively Irenaean interpretation of the work of Christ. ‘Because of His measureless love,’ he writes, ‘He became what we are in order to enable us to become what He is.’ The method he outlines in the oft-repeated assertion that what we lost in Adam we recovered in Christ; its premiss is the idea that, if we fell through our solidarity with the first man, we can be restored through our solidarity with Christ. The key-conception which Irenaeus employs to explain this is ‘recapitulation’ …, which he borrows from St. Paul’s description of the divine purpose as being ‘to sum up all things in Christ’. He understands the Pauline text as implying that the Redeemer gathers together, includes or comprises the whole of reality in Himself, the human race being included. In close conjunction with this he exploits to the full the parallelism between Adam and Christ which was so dear to St. Paul. Christ is indeed, in his eyes, the ‘second Adam’ …, and ‘recapitulated’ or reproduced the first even in the manner of His birth, being generated from the Blessed Virgin as he was from virgin earth. Further, just as Adam contained in himself all his descendants  so Christ (as the Lucan genealogy proves) ‘recapitulated in Himself all the dispersed peoples dating back to Adam, all tongues and the whole race of mankind, along with Adam himself’ [sic] Thus, when He became incarnate, Christ ‘recapitulated in Himself the long sequence of mankind’, and passed through all the stages of human life, sanctifying each in turn. As a result (and this is Irenaeus’s main point), just as Adam was the originator of a race of disobedient and doomed to death, so Christ can be regarded as inaugurating a new, redeemed humanity. [Kelly, 172-3.]

As we can see from Kelly’s description of Irenaeus’ method, the whole of it is shaped by a deeply rooted christological conditioning; such that all of Israel’s history, both in its obedience and disobedience (mostly the latter), and in its Adamic heritage is taken up in a Christian way, so that Christ is understood as the center of what it is to be God’s primary hope and purpose for all of creation, for all of the nations.

It is this method of interpretation, an Apostolic (if you will) method that is at the heart of my own hermeneutical theory. It is working in a ‘depth dimension’ as Thomas Torrance has called it, and Adam Nigh has developed it in our edited book, Evangelical Calvinism, and Nigh’s chapter, The Depth Dimension of Scripture: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Calvinism. And as can be observed, this kind of method has soteriological shape to it, such that Scripture is to be interpreted through the saving and mediating (e.g. ‘Priestly’) person of Jesus Christ for us. It is this kind of hermeneutic that leads to (and from, really) an ‘ontological theory of the atonement’, which we have developed in detail in our book (already mentioned).

Maybe this will better help some appreciate where I am coming from with even more clarity than heretofore. And maybe it will help some of you who have known me in my past to better understand why it is that I have rejected dispensationalism as my hermeneutical method.


Recapitulation has been developed further, and has been taken up, in certain ways, by what has become known as (especially in Reformed circles) ‘Covenant theology’. I advocate a certain form of this kind of theology, one that is tied to what Barth and Torrance have called an ‘analogy of faith’ versus an ‘analogy of being’ interpretation of the text of Scripture (which in my application of this refers to God’s life and Self revelation as a God who is grace and not Law … which is fodder for another post).

Too Much Jesus? Your Method of Biblical Interpretation

I would like to expose you all to Thomas Torrance’s take on Irenaeus’ understanding on what could be called a Christocentric Hermeneutic. As you read Torrance’s account of Irenaeus, understand that you are reading Torrance too. Here is Torrance on Irenaeus:

It is, then, to the Incarnation that Irenaeus turns for the clue to the interpretation of the history of creation and redemption and therefore for the clue to the interpretation of the Scriptures. The essential order and connection of things is embodied in Jesus Christ and it is by reference to him that the economic ministrations of God in humanity and the historical covenants are to be understood aright, and therefore the interconnection between the scriptures of the prophets and the scriptures of the Apostles, ‘the Gospel and the Apostles. Even the Scriptures of the old covenant have to be read in the light of Christ’s advent in the flesh, for his coming connected the end with the beginning and made the beginning predictive of the end, thus showing that the faith of the patriarchs and prophets and ours is one and the same. They sowed the seed, the word about Christ (sermonem de Christo), but it is in us that the fruit is reaped and received, and only in the Church is the truth of the things prefigured realised. ‘Certain facts had to be announced beforehand by the fathers in a paternal manner, (paternaliter), and others prefigured by the prophets in a legal manner (legaliter), but others delineated according to the pattern of Christ (deformari secundum formationem Christi) by those who perceived the adoption, for in one God are all things shown forth.’ [Thomas F. Torrance, Divine Meaning, 122-23]

How does this strike you? Do you think this is too intense for a hermeneutic or mode for interpreting Scripture? Is your method of biblical interpretation this intensively Christ focused? I am really curious how you all think of this; I obviously highly appreciate this kind of ‘Patristic’ method of interpreting and reinterpreting (the OT) Scripture in light of  its fulfillment in Christ. This rubs against the method of interpretation I learned (by and large) in Bible College and Seminary; which is the Literal Grammatical Historical method (the kind that leads to and from Dispensationalism).