Evangelical and Federal Calvinism, at odds

**This is a post I wrote quite some time ago for my other blog, I thought I would repost it here — I realize there are things and characterizations in this post that some of you disagree with, but I still hold that there is a distinguishable difference between ‘Federal Calvinism’ and ‘Evangelical Calvinism’ (which is akin to ‘Scottish Theology’) . . . and that this difference, no less, flows from a distinct doctrine of God (the Federal understanding being Thomistic, the Evangelical, Scotist)**

I have been reading a book by T. F. Torrance called Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell, and it has been quite elucidating. How many of you realized that Scotland, and many of her theologians offered a Reformation trajectory much different from that offered, later on, by what we today know as “Reformed doctrine” articulated at Dort and in the Westminster Catechisms? In other words one of the touchstones that we have inherited as “Reformed Dogma” is the TULIP and its emphasis upon God’s decrees and logico/causal relationships (like William Perkins’ Golden Chaine represents). I.e. the emphasis upon God as the unmoved mover who has decreed all of salvation history in time and space; one of these decrees being that God elected some in eternity past, and subsequently died for only these “special” people (e.g. limited atonement). Without going into too much detail, this abstract notion of God’s nature as the divine despot who decrees all of reality in a syllogistic style; was challenged by some of Scotland’s “Evangelical” “Reformed” theologians. One of these theologians was named Jonathan Fraser of Brae (1638-1698), Torrance describes Fraser’s thought on the topic of “assurance of salvation” and the “extent of the atonement” as he summarizes one of Fraser’s books:

. . . His great book, Justifying Faith, has two main parts. 1) The main part is devoted to the ground of faith in which it is shown that it is not faith itself that justifies us but Christ in whom we have faith. The ultimate grounds of believing are ‘the Attributes of God, his Power, and Faith, Fulness and Wisdom’, but ‘the immediate grounds of believing are the gracious promises in the Gospel: But my Belief of the Truth of the Promises is founded on Christ’s Faith, Fulness, the Bottom and Pillar of all Divine Faith [“Justifying Faith 2”, p. 3]. Of particular significance here is the correlation of our faith with the faith of God and the faith of Christ—human faith derives from, rests on, and is undergirded by divine faithfulness. Great stress was laid from the outset, by Fraser, on ‘Christ’s all Sufficiency’, in that ‘He is able to save them to the uttermost, that come unto God by him [“Justifying Faith,” p. 11]’. (2) The second and longer part of Fraser’s work is called an ‘Appendix’ devoted to the object of Christ’s death. In it he shows that Christ died for all people, and not for a limited number as it was claimed in the so-called ‘covenant of redemption’ made between the Son and the Father. He rejected the distinction between a covenant of grace and a covenant of redemption [“Justifying Faith”, p. 170]—the former, as he said again and again, is absolute in its nature and universal in its extent. Throughout his book Fraser differed at crucial points sharply with Samuel Rutherford and James Durham, as also with William Twisse the Prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly, not to mention the puritan divine John Owen. But reference is made to several others like William Fenner in connection with their support for the biblical teaching that Christ died for all men. This had to do sometimes with a subtle form of Pelagianism in their understanding of faith. “It is an Error oftentimes in our Faith, that it is not built purely and only on the Grace of Christ, but we seek secretly other Props, and so to set some other thing on Christ’s room, and this is as it is derogatory to Christ, and evidence of Distrust in him [“Justifying Faith”, p. 295]’. (T. F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” 184-85)

Here we have an example of what a Reformed theologian looked like, who thought outside the constraints imposed upon scripture by Westminster. Interestingly, many today would not consider this kind of thinking “Reformed,” but this would be circular wouldn’t it? Since one would have to assume that Westminster is the ‘historic’ standard of what being Reformed actually entails, in order to deny that people like Brae and many others also represented the variegated mainstream of the burgeoning “Reformed Tradition”—I digress.

Let me highlight a few points that Brae offers in opposition to Westminster Calvinism—that is if they aren’t apparent enough—1) notice the emphasis that Brae places on Christ as the “objective” basis of salvation. This gets into issues of ontology, union with Christ, and faith as an immediate reciprocating response” from Christ and to Christ as humanity is brought into union with Him through the incarnation. 2) This leads to the the far reaching extent of the atonement, in line with scripture (I think), Brae holds to a universal atonement (objectively), thus Christ can be called the Savior of all men; and the offer of salvation genuinely made to all people.

This is all contrary to the salvation framework provided by Westminster. For Westminster assurance came from reflecting upon ‘my good works’ (Perseverance of the saints), and then reflexively (after looking at my ‘behavior’) by faith I can find assurance that I am one of those elect for whom Christ died. This is the kind of theology that Brae was writhing against, this is what he calls “Pelagianism,” since in this construct, methodologically, man is driven to self before he gets to Christ; in other words, the decree gets in the way of Christ. Not only that, but we also end up with a rather “Nestorian” outlook, relative to election, since the incarnation was not representative of all humanity but only for the “elect”—which is problematic.

It might be surmised that Brae was a universalist (that all humanity will be saved), but he was not. Instead he believed that all humanity who believed would be saved on the basis of Christ’s universal salvation—being a direct corollary of the incarnation (and its universal extent and representation). A Westminster Calvinist would say, but wait, if Christ died for all, then all will be saved. But Fraser would respond that that is only true if you are straightjacketed by the rigid logico-causal system that has shaped the articulation and thought process of Westminster/Federal Calvinism. In other words, Fraser’s Calvinism (and he was a Calvinist) had “scriptural evangelical tension” in it—something that Westminster Calvinism just can’t live with.

I am happy to say that I am Reformed in the “Evangelical way” represented by Fraser. In fact I think Fraser, and others, are the kind of fellows that Karl Barth picked up on in his thinking on soteriology. If not, the similarity is quite shocking.

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II Corinthians 2:15, 16: The Two 'Smells' and the 'Non-Causal' Implication

II Corinthians 2:15 says:

15 For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.

Which illustrates something about the”why” of appropriating of salvation (or not); and that is, simply, that Scripture really never speaks to “why” (i.e. why some choose and some don’t, to follow Christ). We do know that the Holy Spirit is the one who so works on the hearts of those who finally believe; but we also know that He works on the hearts of those who don’t believe (Jn 16). For one He works in a way that the Gospel is a “sweet aroma and the fragrance of life;” for the other the “smell of death.” This is where scripture leaves it, certainly all of this is grounded in Christ’s work . . . even His rejection (but we are never fully led to know “why” folks remain in “unbelief”).

Here is how T. F. Torrance describes Jonathan Fraser of Brea (an 17 century Scot, and one of the foremost Evangelical Calvinists of his time):

Quite clearly, then, Fraser held that Christ died for all people, the unbelieving as well as the believing, the damned as well as the saved, the reprobate as well as the elected. How, then, did he think that the death of Christ, not least his atoning satisfaction for sin, bears upon those who reject Christ and bring damnation upon themselves? This was one of the basic issues where James Fraser sided with the teaching of John Calvin, rather than with that of those ‘ Protestant Divines’ who, he complained, had not followed the old road. The particular point we must take into account here is that according to St. Paul the knowledge of Christ is to some people a ’savour of life unto life’, but to others it can be a ’savour of death unto death’. In that light it may be said that while the preaching of the gospel of Christ crucified for all mankind is meant for their salvation, it can also have the unintended effect of blinding and damning people—it becomes a ‘ savour of death unto death’. That is how Fraser regarded what happened to the reprobates in becoming ‘ the vessels of wrath’. (Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell,” 198–201)

Unlike the Classic Calvinist (Westminster), the Evangelical Calvinist does not look — necessarily — for all the “causal” reasons of “Why.” We want to look at scripture, and most definitely work out and into the inner logic of the scriptures; but this only means that we can only press as far as the boundaries of scripture, and Christ’s life, allow. I would suggest, then, that knowing “Why,” in the form provided by the CC’s; is not a tenable approach to interpreting scripture. And the reason I know this, is because in their method, in their desire to “fill in the gaps,” they end up flattening out scripture; when scripture in reality is alot more rough than “our systems” would have them to be.

The Making of an "Evangelical Calvinist"

Let me provide a lengthy quote from T. F. Torrance on Jonathan Fraser of Brae (a Scottish theologian from the 17th century). This is what makes someone an “Evangelical Calvinist” (EC) versus an “Classical” one; remembering that there is something behind all this that is really at stake in speaking of someone as an EC — and that is our “Doctrine of God.” I digress, here is this quote; it will require follow up, which I will do at a later time (or in the comments, which if you read here, I would appreciate your feedback 😉 — although I have provided a little commentary at the end of this quote). Here we go:

. . . Fraser realized that the extent of the atoning death of Christ had to be thought out in light of the interrelation between the incarnation and the atonement, and so of the saving assumption by Christ of our Adamic humanity which was comprehensive in its nature and range. As the one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus embraced all mankind, and therefore what Fraser called all ‘ mankind sinners’. As the first Adam brought death by sin upon all flesh, so Christ came as the second Adam in order by means of death to lay a foundation of reconciliation and life for all. He did not take on himself the nature of man as elected, but the actual human nature of mankind as the object of his atoning death and satisfaction, which applies to all and every member of the human race. Hence it may be said ‘ all men are fundamentally justified in him and by him.’ ‘ Christ obeyed, and died in the room of all, as the head and representative of fallen man.’ Fraser understood this incarnational assumption of our humanity in accordance with St. Paul’s teaching in Romans 8. 2f about Christ condemning sin in the flesh, i.e. all sin in all flesh, and in 2 Corinthians 18. 5f [sic] about Christ being made sin for us, that through his death and blood we might be reconciled to God, and be made the righteousness of God in him. Christ came into the world, then, as mediator not to condemn it but to save it.

Woven into this understanding of redemption through Christ as mediator and Fraser’s understanding of the all sufficiency of the death of Christ, was the place he gave to the reformed doctrine of the active and passive obedience of Christ, his obedient life and vicarious suffering. As with earlier reformed theologians of the 53rd chapter of Isaiah about the suffering servant played a basic role in Fraser’s thinking about the mediatorial life and activity of Jesus, prompting him to take into account ‘ the whole course of Christ’s obedience from his incarnation’ through which he united himself to sinners in an effectually saving way in order that all men might believe. Fraser admitted, however, as we have already noted, that the atoning death of Christ for sinners was ‘ not necessarily effectual’ for all, for there was no physical or necessary connection between them, although there may be one of faith. It is significant that Fraser would not divorce the all sufficiency of Christ’s death from the all sufficiency of his incarnate person and obedient life. This is very evident in the arguments he developed for ‘ a sufficient universal satisfaction for reprobates’.

Quite clearly, then, Fraser held that Christ died for all people, the unbelieving as well as the believing, the damned as well as the saved, the reprobate as well as the elected. How, then, did he think that the death of Christ, not least his atoning satisfaction for sin, bears upon those who reject Christ and bring damnation upon themselves? This was one of the basic issues where James Fraser sided with the teaching of John Calvin, rather than with that of those ‘ Protestant Divines’ who, he complained, had not followed the old road. The particular point we must take into account here is that according to St. Paul the knowledge of Christ is to some people a ‘savour of life unto life’, but to others it can be a ‘savour of death unto death’. In that light it may be said that while the preaching of the gospel of Christ crucified for all mankind is meant for their salvation, it can also have the unintended effect of blinding and damning people—it becomes a ‘ savour of death unto death’. That is how Fraser regarded what happened to the reprobates in becoming ‘ the vessels of
wrath’.

The Word of the Lord goeth not in vain, but shall certainly accomplish that whereunto it is sent. Isa.I.5. The Messengers thereof being a sweet savour unto God, in them that perish, and in them that are saved, 2 Cor. ii.15. So the blood of Christ is a sacrifice of a sweet smelling savour to the Lord both in them that perish, and in them that are saved.

While the Arminians used this as an argument for universal redemption, Fraser, like Calvin, interpreted it as indicating how the death of Christ proclaimed in the Gospel has a ‘ twofold efficacy’ in which it can act in one way upon the elect and in a different way upon the reprobate. That is to say, it is the Gospel with that acts in that way. Those who reject the blood of Christ thereby become objects of ‘ Gospel and Wrath and Vengeance’ and bring destruction and damnation upon themselves. It is the very condemnation of sin in the atoning satisfaction made by Christ for all mankind, elect and reprobate alike, that becomes the condemnation of the reprobate who turn away from it, and thereby render themselves inexcusable. ‘ Reprobates by the death of Christ are made more inexcusable … If the death of Christ affords clear ground for all to believe, then I think the death of Christ makes all unbelievers inexcusable.’ Fraser spoke of this judgment of the unbelieving and the reprobate as ‘ Gospel wrath’ or wrath of a gospel kind.

God’s intention, end and purpose he designed, was indeed to save the elect amongst them, but not to save the rest, but that they contemning and rejecting the offer salvation might be made fit objects to shew his just gospel-vengeance and wrath upon them, tho’ it be true that God intended the work should have such an end.

According to Fraser this ‘ Gospel-Wrath’ is a worse punishment than ‘ Law-Wrath’. This was rather harsher than what Fraser said elsewhere, where he was closer to Calvin. Thus in speaking of Christ as ‘ crucified and crucified for our sins’, he wrote ‘ Nothing can be expected from this Saviour but good will: It’s by accident Christ condemns, but his primary end is to give life to the world.’
Again:

I grant indeed Christ doth condemn many, but then consider that such as he condemns it is for flighting of his grace offered in the Gospel; his first office is to preach glad tidings, to hold out the golden scepter that the world might believe and be saved, but then the world misbelieves Christ (for a great part of them did) Christ secondarily condemns and per accidens.If by unbelief they neglect this great salvation, the death of Christ will be so far from saving of them that it shall be their greatest ditty. (Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell,” 198–201)

Notice how Fraser makes the distinction between creation and election. This allows him to speak about a universal atonement, and at the same time talk about election and reprobation as theological realities. In other words, the incarnation vis-à-vis the atonement becomes the touchstone framework for his articulation of his brand of covenant theology. So on one hand he can say that Christ genuinely died for all humanity, and on the other hand hold that this universal atonement encapsulates both the elect and reprobate. One having a positive response to the Gospel, and one having a negative response to the Gospel.

Something that I like about Fraser, and his approach, is that he provides an alternative, more evangelically motivated Calvinism; contra his rationalist counterparts from Westminster. In other words, whereas W
estminster Calvinists frame the whole atonement discussion with logico/causal language so that if Jesus dies, whomever he dies for “will be saved”—i.e. because if he doesn’t save who he dies for then he shed some of his blood in vain, and his sovereignty is called into question. Fraser’s approach reorientates the atonement from the causal rationalist language toward a more Christ centered evangelical framing; he accomplishes this by focusing on the supremacy of Christ over both life and death. For Fraser Jesus is the centrifugal force who alone (along with the Father and Holy Spirit) determines salvific reality for all people. Fraser does not seem to feel forced, as the rationalist Westminster Calvinists does, to explain why some respond positively and some negatively; he just recognizes that this is the reality. And this reality all orbits around Jesus Christ, and his ultimate determination shaped by his triune life.

There is a lot more that needs to be said, but I would say this piece has gone on long enough. If you have made it this far, then I’m sure this quote has prompted many questions; so I’ll see you in the comment meta.