One of the benefits of reading published PhD dissertations is that often the doctoral supervisor, of whomever you happen to be reading, will write the preface to the publication. In the case of the book I’m just starting by M. Charles Bell—Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance, which is Bell’s published dissertation submitted to the University of Aberdeen in 1982—James B. Torrance, Bell’s supervisor offers a brilliant summation of the state of affairs present in the Reformed church in Scotland at the time of its writing. Torrance’s précis surveys the nature of Calvinism in Scotland, and how it developed a legalistic rather than gracious character. This is quite stunning, particularly as it aligns so well with a central impetus for our offering of Evangelical Calvinism. We of course took the language of Evangelical Calvinism from James’ brother Thomas, which we found in his book Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell. It encouraged me to read James’ foreword to Bell’s book, it is in keeping with the critique presented by his brother in his book: Scottish Theology. As such I thought I’d share it at length.
JB Torrance’s Preface is only about two pages in length, so I thought I would transcribe the whole thing. I will follow up on it with some of my own closing reflections. Torrance writes:
James Denny, the beloved Scottish theologian and New Testament scholar, used to say that in the ideal Church all our theologians would be evangelists and our evangelists theologians. He was echoing the langue of Plato’s Republic that in the ideal State all our politicians would be philosophers and our philosophers politicians.
This ideal is one to which our Scottish Church has often aspired but perhaps too seldom realised. Yet when one thinks of the names of churchmen studied in this book — John Knox, Samuel Rutherford, Fraser of Brea, Thomas Boston, the Erskine brothers, John McLeod Campbell and a host of others — we see that these men were preachers of the Gospel of grace and scholars who sought to use their minds to understand the meaning and the implications of grace and to be ready to give an answer to those who ask a reason for their faith.
In all ages, issues have emerged which have tended to obscure the meaning of grace, and Scotland is no exception. But in all ages, God has raised up faithful witnesses to call the Church back to her foundations in Christ. In the early eighteenth century, Thomas Boston, reflecting on ‘the legal strain’ in Scottish Calvinism, which he detected early in his ministry, wrote in his Memoirs, ‘I had no great fondness for the doctrine of the conditionality of the covenant of grace.’ He sensed that much of the ‘legal preaching’ of his day was far removed from the doctrine of the unconditional freeness of grace taught by Calvin and the first Reformers—from the twin doctrines of sola gratia, that ‘all parts of our salvation are complete in Christ’ and that faith means ‘union with Christ our Head’. Where had this ‘legal strain’ come from in a Calvinistic land like Scotland? The issue came out into the open in the so-called ‘Marrow Controversy’ a few years later when the General Assembly, to the dismay of Boston and his evangelical friends, condemned the teachings of a Puritan work entitled The Marrow of Modern Divinity by an Edward Fisher. Boston had come across this book in his parish ministry, and it had opened his eyes to the meaning of grace and the assurance of faith.
A century later, another Scottish preacher and theologian, John McLeod Campbell, wrote in his Reminiscences how as a young minister he was deeply disturbed by the introspective, joyless, legalistic religion of many in his day and in his own congregation in Rhu in Dunbartonshire, and tells us that he made it his early concern to give his people ‘ a ground for rejoicing in God’ by calling them back to the freeness and universality of God’s grace. He felt that the major reason for his people’s introspective lack of joyful assurance was the high Calvinistic doctrines of election and limited atonement, and the resultant calls for self examination for ‘evidences’ of election — not least in participation for coming to the Lord’s Table. His earliest concern was therefore to direct their faith away from themselves to the love of God in Christ in whom we are forgiven and who calls us to ‘joyful repentance’.
Dr Bell, in this excellent book, carefully examines the doctrines of atonement, faith and assurance in the teaching of Calvin and then of a long remarkable succession of Scottish preachers and theologians, to show how joyful assurance flows from an awareness of the universality and unconditional freeness of grace. This has too often been obscured by unfortunate elements in the development of Scottish Calvinism — the restriction of grace and the Headship of Christ as Mediator to the elect, by the doctrine of ‘a limited atonement’, by subordinating grace to law, by notions of ‘legal repentance’, by confusing the concept of ‘covenant’ with that of ‘contract’.
There is nothing our Church in Scotland more needs to recover in this pragmatic and restless age than this understanding of ‘the unconditional freeness of grace’ given to us in Christ. A proper doctrine of grace flows from a proper doctrine of God, who prime purpose for humanity is legal rather than filial, who needs to be conditioned into being gracious by human obedience and repentance? This call to a proper doctrine of God sounds out clearly in this masterly study of our Scottish inheritance. But it is relevant, not only for Scotland, but for all of our churches whose roots are in the Latin West.
James B. Torrance
This could summarize what we have been attempting to do with our Evangelical Calvinism books. James and Thomas Torrance have both been taken to task by someone like Richard Muller; he claims their historiography in regard to this period is off, as such, as corollary, he wants argue that their theology, in general, is also off. I.e. that this “legal” reading of the history of Reformed theology is awry and destitute of actual reality when we carefully examine the theologians of this period. Interestingly, as Bell, it appears, and Thomas in his book on the period have demonstrated Muller is wrong. But the proponents of Muller would argue that what I just did there is circular; i.e. appeal to James Torrance’s endorsement of his doctoral student’s work on the period. Likewise, I could assert that their critique is circular based upon Muller’s own biased reading of the period.
But getting beyond such pedantic things what I really want to highlight is what James highlights in his précis; i.e. the idea that we need to recover the gracious evangel of God’s Triune life given for the world in his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ. This is what I continuously am hoping to accomplish through posts here at the blog, and through the books Myk and I have been producing (two more are slated). I am not interested in presenting a fluffy concept of grace, like an easy-believism or something, but a concept that isn’t a concept at all but instead a person, Jesus Christ.
As much as modern day proponents of the ‘legal’ Calvinism that James speaks of attempt to retrieve the past, what they are unfortunately doing is giving the church a Gospel that is No-Gospel; a concept of God’s relation to the world that is primarily based upon a legal set of decrees , and thus a spirituality that is performance based and too introspective. What I’m hoping to present to people, through engaging with the Torrances, Barth, something like Bell’s book, etc. is the idea that the Gospel is an ecstatic reality given to us in and through the objective reality of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. ‘Legal’ Calvinism cannot give you an ecstatic Jesus, at least not in its spirituality; this is because their doctrine of limited atonement does not allow for that. Their concept of limited atonement necessarily forces the individual to focus on themselves, on a daily basis. That’s what produced things like English Puritanism, and it’s why the Marrow Men arose (what JBT references in his précis) as a contravening voice; a voice that the ‘legal’ Calvinists knew they’d have to put down quickly.
Evangelical Calvinism is distinct from Federal, ‘Legal’ Calvinism precisely at the point that we think God in Christ. We think from God’s Self-revelation in personalist terms rather than legal terms; in genuinely covenantal terms (think of how Barth uses that), rather than quid pro quo contractual terms of the sort that you’ll get in the covenant of works and grace construct. Unfortunately this ‘legal’ type of Calvinism continues to pick up steam among the populace in the church through movements like The Gospel Coalition or the Young, Restless, and Reformed. This is too bad. They are creating a generation (beyond just craft beer drinking, cigar smoking, tat wearing) Christians who will be pressed up against a conception of God who is more a ‘Law-giver’ than he is a ‘Lover’; this precisely because of the type of underly-evangelized Aristotelian metaphysics they have retrieved in and through their engagement with the scholastic Reformed of the Post Reformed Orthodox period (16th and 17th centuries in particular).
But there is another way, even in the history. This is why JB Torrance was so excited by his student, Bell’s, work; and it’s something we should all be excited about. Any time we can understand God’s grace in personal, Triune, loving ways we should be shouting such news from the roof tops; and we should in the process be challenging other presentations that point people in the wrong direction.
 James B. Torrance, “Preface,” in M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985), 5-6.