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Nature, Grace and Knowledge of God: Does Michael Allen Really Understand the Thomist’s and Thomas Aquinas’s Position on Created Grace?

Let’s keep on theme. This has been an important thing for me for quite a few years now, and I’m realizing once again that it remains such. It has to do with the theme we’ve been touching on in the last many posts I’ve been writing; i.e. how can a human being have real knowledge of God? This essentially gets underneath that now proverbial question of ‘what hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ Is there something, some moral quality, some created grace, some inherent bent in humanity’s teleology that equips and allows them to know God; or want to know God? There have been many attempts by various theologians over the centuries to engage this question, but I want to start with Holy Scripture; and then think from there. It’s not that those who arrive and different conclusions than me haven’t worked from Scripture, all that that variety illustrates is the impact that certain a priori theological commitments have upon the exegetical practice.

To start, let’s take a look at Romans 3:9-18:

What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. 10 As it is written:“There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” 14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery mark their ways, 17 and the way of peace they do not know.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

I take this, particularly the portion I have emboldened, to be definitive of the state of the human heart coram Deo (‘before God’); and I’m not alone. Most Reformed theologians would want to affirm the traditional doctrine of total depravity although maybe not total inability, but because these same theologians also have, what I would contend is a competing (with Scripture) metaphysic underwriting their approach to Scripture, they at some point have to soften the “way” the Romans passage sounds at a prima facie level. Most Reformed theologians follow in the Thomist tradition; the Thomist tradition, also known as the Thomist Intellectualist tradition sees the human intellect as the definitive component of what makes a human being a human being at an essential level. So they must posit that when the fall of Genesis 3 took place that the intellect, at some level, remained untouched[1]; viz. that it maintained some level of operative power even in its capacity to posit, at the most, God (again we can see how something like this would coalesce with a subsequent [but also prior in a basic way] appeal to the philosophers in order to supply such Reformed theologians with the categories they find useful in their theological endeavors). Such Reformed thinkers have their point of contact precisely at this point; i.e. their point of contact between God and humanity. Yes, they would also recognize that the intellect, while still operative, even if living under the dregs of the fall, and because of such dregs, requires the supplement of grace to enter into the [elect] individual and ‘escalate’ or elevate the intellect to a regenerate status resulting in the person’s ability to fully access God (at least in the ways God has generously decided to accommodate that in ectypal fashion). So the mainstay of classical Calvinist or Reformed theologians really don’t affirm that people are fully or even functionally disabled (as the Romans passage would intimate), instead they must, at some level (and there are various ways to nuance that among such theologians) keep, as a live option, the operation of the intellect such that people, in general, have a capacity towards knowledge of God. Sure, it might not ultimately terminate in a true and saving knowledge of God, but nevertheless that moral ‘point of contact’ and hook remains active in fallen humanity (i.e. a proclivity or at least an ability to seek after God).

I wanted to share the full quote from Allen because it helps illustrate the various ways all of this has unfolded in and among both Roman Catholic and Reformed theologians alike. He notes the differences and even the internecine differences among Catholics and the classically Reformed alike; but what stands out, and this is what I’ll share from Allen simply to illustrate the reality, is their shared point of convergence when it comes to working from the Thomist tradition. Yes, this can take numerable directions, from Henri de Lubac, to Thomas Aquinas, to Herman Bavinck, to Kathryn Tanner; but the point is, they all at some level, one way or the other want to affirm and work from the Thomist intellectualist tradition (e.g. remember how I described, a bit, the theological anthropological component that funds this tradition i.e. ‘the intellect’). Allen writes:

How then does the new life relate to the character of created nature or, more specifically, how does the regenerated being of the saints relate to their given nature as sons of Adam and daughters of Eve? Here we enter debates regarding nature and grace, matters which have marked controversies both in the classical era and also into recent decades. Indeed, twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology debated the relationship of nature and grace at length, pointing to even deeper disputes within the tradition. We do well to attend to these conversations, as they suggest realities present in the medieval and early modern context in which the Reformed tradition was shaped decisively. They also present a conversation wherein the heritage of Reformed thought has been altered or misperceived by much more recent developments. Before turning to specifically Reformed approaches, then, we do well to note the broader trends in Roman Catholicism and to find their roots in a shared Thomist heritage, at which point we are in a position to ask about specific concerns flowing out of the Protestant Reformation.[2]

We note in the last emboldened clause just what I was referring to previously; that Allen fully affirms the reliance for the classically Reformed (including himself) upon the Thomist heritage, and all that attends to that. Like I highlighted earlier, there are multiform ways to flesh out said heritage; nevertheless, in categorical ways, certain features remain basic and fundamental for the Thomistically inspired theologian. This is where I found Allen’s coverage rather lacking; he prefers to gloss over the theological anthropological point that I was noting earlier, and which I only alluded to in my prologue, in regard to grace. Remember I noted that some theologians, the Thomist ones, see some source of contact built into even fallen humanity’s bent or capacity for some knowledge of God (even if that remains fleeting among the reprobate). Thomists, and Thomas Aquinas himself, actually posits a concept of created grace (which I’ve written on before, more than once here at the blog), this is an addition and quality that God (to state it crudely) implants into the accidents of elect humanity which allows them, through moral effort and habituation (habitus) activate and allows them to move beyond the fleeting knowledge that all human beings have, in regard to capacity for knowledge of God, and takes them to the next level. Allen glosses this component—in regard to created grace as a thing or quality or stuff—and simply transubstantiates such thinking from a created stuff/quality to the personal work of the Holy Spirit; he writes:

Grace’s gift does not merely heal sin’s harm by returning one to Eden. Grace also moves us forward such that there is escalation from Eden. Grace is not a stuff or substance, of course, but the personal presence and action of God. Specifically, grace is the life-giving work of Christ by his Holy Spirit. We do well to remember the way in which Thomas Aquinas spoke of this effective presence: “The Holy Spirit makes those to whom he is sent like the one whose Spirit he is.” The Spirit, then, conforms the Christian into the image of the invisible God, to the form of Jesus Christ, for the Spirit is none other than the “Spirit of Christ” (e.g., Rom 8:9; Phil 1:19; 1 Pet 1:11).[3]

I mean who am I to question a genuine theologian, I’m just a blogger, but this makes me seriously wonder whether or not Michael Allen actually understands Thomas Aquinas’s superstructure; particularly when it comes to Thomas’s appropriation of Aristotle’s habitus theology and substance metaphysic. Aquinas writes all over his Summa about grace being a created quality, and refers to it as medicine (which fits well with the kind of intellectualist sin/grace-ailment/medicine symmetry that would be funding Thomas’s theology). Note, as an example of many of instances from Thomas:

Now this nature is disordered, however, man falls short even of the goodness natural to him, and cannot wholly achieve it by his own natural abilities. Particular good actions he can still perform in virtue of his nature (building houses, planting vineyards and the like); but he falls short of the total goodness suited to his nature. He is like a sick man able to make certain movements by himself, but unable to move like a man in perfect health until he has had medicine to heal him.[4]

This will have to suffice to illustrate how I’m not sure, exactly, Allen is really reading Aquinas right in this regard. You can go read Thomas for yourself to see if I’m misrepresenting Aquinas on this, or if Allen is.[5]

I digress somewhat; but I wanted to note what I think is a misreading in the analysis of Allen in regard to Thomas’s theology. Further, in this process, I’m hoping you can see how this issue, relative to knowledge of God, gets fleshed out in the ways that it does for the classically Calvinist in particular (at least by way of providing some exposure). But furthermore, let me also just note, that because of this kind of Thomist commitment by many of these guys and gals, I think they end up misrepresenting what Scripture asserts about the noetic impact of the fall on humanity’s capacity to have a point of contact and/or capacity for knowledge of God as an inherent capacity in the created nature (even if that’s in the accidents rather than essential as we have been  highlighting). We can see how they must go the direction they do; and we can start to see how their a priori commitment to Aristotle’s categories mediated through Thomas pressures them into this extra-biblical direction.

The tradition Karl Barth et al. offers does not work from the grace/nature combine that most classical theologies work from; particularly as we’ve noticed that in the Thomist frame. Barth’s offering sees all reality funded by God’s grace and then miracle alone; his doctrine of creation is funded by the covenant of grace, which for Barth works from his doctrine of election and God’s choice to be for us in Christ. For Barth the inner reality of creation is God’s covenant life of grace, consequently leading to the idea that creation itself is the external expression of that life as grounded and conditioned by the humanity of God in Jesus Christ.

That’s enough.


[1] The Thomist needs the intellect to remain untouched in some way because without that in the fall, if the intellect along with the will and affections (in a tripartite faculty psychology) fell, the human being would no longer be, at a constituent level, a human being; they’d be some sort of monster or zombie. For the Thomist the affections are what not only led to the fall (i.e. the lust of the flesh etc.), but were what actually fell in toto (in totality); the intellect, for the Thomist, was affected by this in some significant ways, but not in the same way that the affections/will were impacted. It is interesting, the Thomists, because they are working, in basic ways, from anthropological categories (i.e. the faculty psychology) that many theologians of today have abandoned for non-reductive physicalism etc.; so we can see a pretty stark repristination project being engaged in by such theologians in our 21st century.

[2] Michael Allen, Sanctification (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2017), 213 kindle edition. [emboldening mine]

[3] Ibid., 215 kindle edition.

[4] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Concise Translation, 16.

[5] See also a paper I wrote many years ago on grace and nature in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Bear in mind I was very dilettante at this point, in my writing and theologically; but the paper itself will help to illustrate further my point in regard to Allen’s apparent mishandling of Aquinas’s theology on a rather salient front in regard to what Allen is attempting to glean relative to Aquinas’s theology qua Reformed theology simplicter: NATURE AND GRACE IN THE THEOLOGY OF THOMAS AQUINAS.


Responding to a Sleight in Michael Allen’s Book, Sanctification: The Torrances and Charles Partee as Calvin Scrubs

I am continuing to read Michael Allen’s new book, Sanctification. I am going to register a little gripe in regard to what might seem nit-picky, but it bothered me; it’s a rather nerdy-editorial observation, but it says something to me—and I think that’s an intentional move by Allen. Here he is discussing John Calvin’s double grace (duplex gratia), and how Calvin fits in with other theological standouts of his time, following his time, and the post reformed orthodox theology that developed later in the 16th and 17th centuries respectively. Before we hear from Allen, in case you’re unaware, there has been no small debate about Calvin and the Calvinists, and their relationship (or not). Richard Muller has spent substantial amounts of time arguing that there is material theological continuity between Calvin’s inchoate theology (relative to what would be developed later), then, and what post reformed orthodoxy (or “Calvinism”) developed later. You can see Allen’s tip of the hat to the Mullerian argument here, and how he wants to make it appear that the opponents of Muller et al. are less than directed by primary texts in their own engagement with Calvin (which they argue that there is discontinuity between Calvin and the Calvinists). Allen writes:

There have been historiographic debates as of late regarding the way that Calvin’s theology of union with Christ is or is not similar to Luther’s, Melanchthon’s, and the Lutheran confessions’, and whether it is or is not consistently developed by later reformed theologians, such as those federal divines who prepared the Westminster Standards in the seventeenth century. Mark Garcia and others in the so-called “Gaffin School” have argued that Calvin and the Lutheran tradition offer markedly different approaches to union with Christ, and that Calvin in no way identifies justification as a cause for sanctification. James Torrance, Thomas Torrance, and Charles Partee, among others, argue that Calvin was not faithfully followed by later Calvinists, who failed to maintain his focus on union with Christ. And yet, leading scholars of Reformation and post-Reformation theology on just these doctrines—in particular, J. Todd Billings, J.V. Fesko, and Richard A. Muller—have argued at length from primary sources that both dichotomies are false. Calvin stood alongside Lutherans (like Melanchthon, in particular) in affirming the priority of justification as well as the necessity of sanctification; and Calvin’s insistence on union with Christ as the context for the double grace was developed in a faithful or continuous way by later federal theologians (and in the Westminster Standards). We do well, mindful of those debates, to look at the wider theological context of Calvin’s theology.[1]

Not so fast. Do you notice what Michael does? He stacks the deck in his favor, and sleights his opponents. In other words, as he mentions the Torrances, Partee, and some amorphous others (whoever they might be), he doesn’t actually provide any sort of bibliographic information on them; you know, so we all could go and see if this is so (what he asserts about them). He also contrasts them with his scholars who “have argued at length from primary sources,” making it appear that Partee, the Torrances, et al. are not “leading scholars” themselves. Let’s just focus on Charles Partee by himself; Partee is a true blue Calvin scholar who has written treatises on the theology of John Calvin—in other words, he is just as much a Calvin scholar as the folks that Allen appeals to (and a senior one to boot!).

As a reader, a critical one, this does not play well with me; it is far from being persuasive, for example, and makes it appear that Allen is simply appealing to the people (his). Whether or not what he is arguing, or signaling, is the case or not (in regard to Calvin and the Calvinists) is beside the point. To me it represents poor form to not give us some bibliographic information for the Torrances and Partee, while at the same time providing biblio for his privileged sources. Here’s the bibliographic information he gives us via a footnote after he brings up Billings, Fesko, and Muller:

See esp. J. Todd Billings, “The Contemporary Reception of Luther and Calvin’s Doctrine of Union with Christ: Mapping a Biblical, Catholic, and Reformational Motif,” in Calvin and Luther: The Continuing Relationship, ed. R. Ward Holder (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 158–75; as well has his larger study, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012); and J.V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517–1700) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012).[2]

And yet we don’t have a corresponding footnote for material from the Torrances, Partee, or the others that Allen refers us to. The net effect is to make the Torrances, Partee, et al. look like mere scrubs compared to the venerable sources Allen elevates as the “leading scholars.” This is at best an oversight, but since I don’t think Allen would make such an oversight, I’d have to say it’s an intentional sleight towards the Torrances, Partee, et al. All I can say is: What the?!

There is obviously some intramural banter taking place here, and Allen lets us know exactly where he lines up. It’s not surprising at this point, he’s already taken other swipes at the Torrances, The Evangelical Calvinists (like our book[s]), et al. But his form here is poor, I think. At least let people know what Partee, the Torrances, et al. have produced in their own right in regard to the scholarship in this area; and don’t make it appear that, again, they are just the scrubs who really don’t know what they’re talking about (i.e. avoid genetic fallacies, poisoning the well, and other types of fallacies).

[1] Michael Allen, Sanctification (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2017), 174.

[2] Ibid., 174-5 n16.

Written by Bobby Grow

November 27, 2017 at 11:54 pm

Appealing to Maximus the Confessor to Differentiate Evangelical Calvinism from Federal Theology: And Riposting at Michael Allen’s New Book Sanctification

I just started reading Michael Allen’s new book Sanctification, he refers to us and our Evangelical Calvinism book[s]; and as corollary seeks, in a way, to refute Thomas Torrance’s critique of Federal theology, of which Allen is a proponent. In a footnote he refers to an essay/chapter that Kevin Vanhoozer wrote in critique of our understanding of salvation; an essay I have responded to more than once here at the blog. What is continuing to be unaddressed or unidentified by any of our interlocutors (whether that be Roger Olson, Kevin Vanhoozer, Scott Swain, Michael Allen et al.) is the radical role that an Eastern emphasis plays in the funding of our mode. This is a basic point of departure and impasse, particularly in regard to the way we think of a God-world relation as that is mediated in the Logos ensarkos, the Word made flesh In-carnation. In the days to come expect more interaction with Allen’s book, as I read it further, until then I simply wanted to offer a quote from Maximus the Confessor, since I’m currently reading him, which might serve instructive for us in regard to understanding just what is at stake, indeed at impasse between the type of Calvinism we are proposing versus the Federal/Westminster type that Allen&co. are articulating.

In this quote Maximus is referring to what it means to be human coram Deo (before God), and how that implicates not only what it means to be human for humanity, but what that means for re-conciliation with God and salvation itself. Maximus writes:

I do not think further testimony is required for someone who lives a devout life and accepts the revelation of the truth as it has been believed by Christians. One clearly learns it from the following expressions. We are his members and his body, and the fullness of Christ of God who fills all things in every way according to the plan hidden in God the Father before the ages. And we are being recapitulated in him through his Son our Lord the Christ of God.

[1097B] The mystery hidden from the ages (Col 1:26) and from the nations is now revealed through the true and perfect incarnation of the Son and God. For he united our nature to himself in a single hypostasis, without division and without confusion, and joined us to himself as a kind of first fruits. This holy flesh with its intellectual and rational soul came from us and is ours. He deemed us worthy to be one and the same with himself according to his humanity. For we were predestined before the ages (cf Eph 1:11-12) to be in him as members of his body. He adapted us to himself and knitted us together in the Spirit as a soul to a body and brought us to the measure of spiritual maturity derived from his fullness. For this we were created; this was God’s good purpose for us before the ages. [1097C] But this renewal did not come about through the normal course of things, it was only realized when a wholly new way of being human appeared. God had made us like himself, and allowed us to participate in the very things that are most characteristic of his goodness. Before the ages he had intended that man’s end was to live in him, and to reach this blessed end he bestowed on us the good gift of our natural powers. But by misusing our natural powers we willingly rejected the way God had provided and we became estranged from God. For this reason another way was introduced, more marvelous and more befitting of God than the first, and as different from the former as what is above nature is different from what is according to nature. [1097D] And this, as we all believe, is the mystery of the mystical sojourn of God with men. For if, says the divine apostle, the first covenant had been blameless, there would have been no occasion for a second (Heb 8:7). It is clear to all that the mystery accomplished in Christ at the end of age (Heb 9:26) shows indisputably that the sin of our forefather Adam at the beginning of the age has run its course.[1]

We see Maximus reference the Irenean concept of recapitulation, and he ties that into an Athanasian sense of how the Incarnation and the humanity assumed by God in Christ therein, recreates what it means for a human to be human. What we see operative in the mix is what has been called a doctrine of the Primacy of Jesus Christ. Myk Habets describes this type of theology

According to Christian tradition Jesus Christ is pre-eminent over all creation as the Alpha and the Omega, the ‘beginning and the end’ (Rev 1.8, 21.6; 22.13). This belief, when theologically considered, is known as the primacy of Christ.1 The specific issue this doctrine addresses is the question: Was sin the efficient or the primary cause of the incarnation? This essay seeks to model the practice of modal logic in relation to the primacy of Christ, not to satisfy the cravings of speculative theologians but to reverently penetrate the evangelical mystery of the incarnation, specifically, the two alternatives: either ‘God became man independently of sin,’ or its contradiction, ‘God became man because of sin’. . . .[2]

Not to be anachronistic, Myk is describing this doctrine (the primacy of Christ) as he develops thinking on what has come to be called the Scotist thesis; which entails exactly what Myk describes. What is important for our purposes is how we can see this theme, or this doctrine functioning within an Eastern theologian’s theology as we do in Maximus’s. This is an important frame to grasp, it gets us into a doctrine of creation and its teleology. The reason this is an important frame is because it says something about who God is, and what his aim has been for humanity and creation from the get go. According to Maximus (John Duns Scotus and I’d argue, the Apostle Paul), God’s preoccupation was with human being so sharing in his being that even in his original creation, and prior to it, logically and chronologically, that this realization was always intended to come to fruition in and through the Incarnation; i.e. creation was purposed with a pregnant inchoate sense, a sense to only be realized at the coming of God become human in the theanthropos God-man, Jesus Christ. A disruption occurred (i.e. the ‘Fall’), and God, because of who he is as a wise and living God, had the gracious capaciousness to accommodate to the human need, in light of the lapse, and not only overcome death through resurrection, but in the process bring humanity to where God had always intended it to come (he “elevated” it). He brought humanity into the inner sanctum of his holy life of eternal koinonia that has co-inhered for eternity immemorial as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Maximus sees this as the terminus of what it means to be human; and yet it is a terminus not realized by individual humans (more commonly “the elect) in abstracto from Christ’s humanity, but precisely from his humanity as humanity.

If you’re following the logic—I’m trying to 😉 —in this emphasis of things, what comes prior to creation (and thus the ‘Fall’ and sin/redemption) is God’s graciousness to create to begin with. The frame of creation, and thus the original relation that was set up as the condition of that relation, was not a covenant of works (as we get in Federal theology), but the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, creation was always a mediated reality between God and humanity, and a mediation that was grounded in Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So to speak of salvation, which first requires creation and creatures, the Christian disciple will always speak of this most primal relationship of Christ as mediator and primary of contingent reality itself.

I will have to leave things dangling here for the moment. But hopefully, once again, you’re seeing how Evangelical Calvinism is basically different and thus departs in quite fundamental ways from Federal theology. Without recognizing this, which thus far the interlocutors I’ve mentioned of Evangelical Calvinism haven’t allowed to tint their responses to our responses relative to the way we critique classical Covenant or Federal theology, folks like Allen et al. aren’t really engaging with the actual ramifications of the Evangelical Calvinist critique.

[1] St Maximus the Confessor, On The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: Ambiguum7 (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 70-1.

[2] Myk Habets, On Getting First Things First: Assessing Claims for the Primacy of Christ ©The author 2008. Journal compilation ©The Dominican Council/Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2008, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK, and 350 Main Street, Malden MA 02148, USA DOI:10.1111/j.1741-2005.2008.00240.x.

Assurance of Salvation: The Puritan’s ‘Practical Syllogism’ in Discussion with Karl Barth’s Election

Do you struggle with assurance of salvation? You know, we are working on putting together a second EC volume that deals with more pastorally driven questions (still theologically grounded) that deal with the “so what?” kinds of questions that naturally might follow upon the doctrines dealt with in our first EC volume. I will be writing, for one of my personal chapters, on the Christian doctrine of assurance. Unfortunately I am afraid that this doctrine has fallen on hard times, not because everyone has assurance of salvation, but for more dire reasons; I think this doctrine has fallen on hard times because most Evangelical Christians in America (and maybe elsewhere in the world) don’t think deep enough about salvation to ever concern themselves with such things. If you are a depth kind of Christian though, the rest of this post is for you.

I used to write, quite frequently on the exploits and happenings of the Puritans (probably because an important mentor of mine, Ron Frost, through seminary was/is a Puritan expert); the Puritans of course are known for their rigid and even ‘precisianist’ (see Theodore Dwight Bozeman’s seminal book The Precisianist Strain: Disciplinary Religion and Antinomian Backlash in Puritanism to 1638 [Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia]) modes of existence; in short they became known, in some instances for their legalism. But more positively, the Puritans and that era of Calvinist development (in both England and America) are also known for producing a rich pietistic heritage that promotes a warm hearted love for Christ through the expositional teaching of Scripture (many of the so called New Calvinists [Collin Hansen’s “Young, Restless, and Reformed” are enamored with much of the spirituality promoted by this Puritan heritage, today). One of the doctrines that was internalized and developed during this period was known as the practical syllogism. The ‘syllogism’ was basically an intellectual (mechanistic in its employment) apparatus used to measure the intangibles of either a genuine or temporary (false) Christianity and spirituality. Here is how famed and seminal English Puritan William Perkins articulates this practical syllogism:

Major Premise: He that believes and repents is God’s child.

Minor Premise: I believe in Christ and repent: at the least I subject my will to the commandment which bids me repent and believe: I detest my unbelief, and all my sins: and desire the Lord to increase my faith.

Conclusion: I am the child of God.

[William Perkins cited by R.T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, p. 71,  cited by Joseph C. Dillow, The Reign of the Servant Kings: A Study of Eternal Security and the Final Significance of Man, p. 264.]

This syllogism flows out of what Kenneth Stewart in his book calls the only universally agreed upon fifth point of Calvinism (see his book Ten Myths About Calvinism, Appendix: The Earliest Known Reference to the TULIP Acronym, 291-92), Perseverance of the Saints. The belief that true Christians (not just temporary ones, which was another teaching of the Puritan teaching known as experimental predestinarianism) would persevere in good works until they died (or until Jesus came back); and that this perseverance in ‘good works’ reflected that they truly had the Spirit of Christ enlivening them thus proving that indeed they were one of the unconditionally elect for whom Christ died in particular (I just anachronistically used the TULIP conceptually to read the Puritan experience through). You can see how unstable of a situation this might produce for someone who lived under the burden of culturally/societally internalized teaching. Here is the testimony of one man who indeed lived during this period, and was finally set free from this burden through the teaching of Richard Sibbes:

[I] was for three years together wounded for sins, and under a sense of my corruptions, which were many; and I followed sermons, pursuing the means, and was constant in duties and doing: looking for Heaven that way. And then I was so precise for outward formalities, that I censured all to be reprobates, that wore their hair anything long, and not short above the ears; or that wore great ruffs, and gorgets, or fashions, and follies. But yet I was distracted in my mind, wounded in conscience, and wept often and bitterly, and prayed earnestly, but yet had no comfort, till I heard that sweet saint . . . Doctor Sibbs, by whose means and ministry I was brought to peace and joy in my spirit. His sweet soul-melting Gospel-sermons won my heart and refreshed me much, for by him I saw and had muchof God and was confident in Christ, and could overlook the world . . . My heart held firm and resolved and my desires all heaven-ward. (Ron Frost. Kelly Kapic and Randall Gleason, eds., “The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics,” Frost is quoting from: John Rogers, Ohel or Bethshemesh, A Tabernacle for the Sun (London, n.p., 1653)

Thankfully for, Humphrey Mills (the man whose testimony we just read), he was relieved from looking to himself apart from Christ as the ground and thus assurance of his salvation. The key is that there should never be an mediate wedge or thing that stands between the believer and their Savior; there should be an immediate relation between Christ and His saints. Sibbes began to offer this kind of way forward (through his style of ‘Free Grace’ Calvinism) under the conditions and material theological categories he had available to him in his particular context.

But I think there is even more constructive resource available for us today; because even though Sibbes pointed people to look to Christ alone first (as a lover of their soul, instead of the law-keeper of their bodies), he still didn’t have the adequate theological resource to truly ground a person’s humanity and thus salvation/reconciliation in the Savior’s, in Christ’s humanity for them. It wasn’t really until we come up to Karl Barth that this kind of teaching was finely tuned and developed. [I would like to write and say more about Karl Barth—and will in the future—but because I am running out of time all I am going to be able to do is offer a quote from Michael Allen as he comments on Barth in his CD, as Barth discusses this issue of assurance of salvation through his teaching on election] Barth was quite aware of this ‘practical syllogism’ as I have described it above, but because Barth saw Jesus as both electing God (the subject) and elected man (the object) of election, he saw Jesus fulfilling both sides of election; thus humanity can rest assured not in their good works, not in their continued and sustained subjective choice for God (made evident by their good works), but they are, for Barth, able to rest assured because Jesus holds in Himself both the Subjective and Objective sides of God’s election for all of humanity in the humanity of Christ which is for us, and thus representative of God with us. Here is how Michael Allen comments on this reality in Barth’s teaching (I have some sweet quotes from Barth from his CD on this that I will have to share later):

[N]otice the personal application of the election of the Son – all others are elect ‘in Him – that speaks volumes about the doctrine of assurance…. Elsewhere in this volume, Barth addresses the so-called ‘practical syllogism’ (II/2.335–340), whereby the Puritan tradition grounded assurance not only in the objective work of Christ but also in the subjective fruits of that union with Christ (namely, in sanctifying evidences of justification in Christ). Barth believes assurance is entirely in Christ, and that the practical syllogism denies that Jesus is obedient for us, just as He is accursed for us. He fills both sides of the covenantal relationship…. [Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader, 102, Nook version.]

So Barth sees through this artificial distinction (dualism) between our humanity juxtaposed with Christ’s humanity, as if our humanity has an ontological reality of its own (apart from finding its grounding in Jesus’ humanity for us). And Barth sees how the Puritans abstracted and annexed the sanctification side of salvation to our humanity while placing this in a refracted relationship with the objective justifying work done by Jesus Christ. The effect, as Barth so presciently observed, was a spirituality was produced that caused people to look at themselves before they could ever look to Christ for assurance. The individual person had to subjectively check their own lives to see whether or not they had enough good works to plausibly confirm that they indeed were fitted with the genuine righteousness of Christ and thus saved. Barth’s remedy (and Barth was not purely seeking to find a remedy for this, in a negative sense) was to ground our humanity from Christ’s elected humanity (as archetypal) for us. Thus, we cannot think of ourselves apart from Him, but only in and through His “saved” humanity for us.

I am out of time …

Written by Bobby Grow

February 22, 2013 at 2:39 pm