Responding Further to Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Critique that Evangelical Calvinism Fails: With Appeal to Karl Barth as an Accessory to Thomas Torrance.

It is time to respond a bit further to Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s[1] critique of Evangelical Calvinism. Remember I wrote that post awhile ago letting you all know about the chapter length critique KJV offered of us in the edited book he was a contributor to entitled: Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians andPICKWICK_TemplateNew Testament Scholars; his particular chapter title is: The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism). If you do not remember the post I am referring to where I got into this then click here. For the remainder of this post I am going to respond to his most basic, and I think he thinks, damning critique of the whole Evangelical Calvinist project and premise (in regard to both Christology and its implicate soteriology).

KJV, and many others by the way, believes that the theo-logic of Evangelical Calvinism necessarily leads to some form of Christian Universalism, and if it doesn’t, KJV believes that there is a glaring incoherence. Here is what he writes:

Torrance does not want to say that Christ died “sufficiently for all, but efficiently only for the elect.” However, what he does say, in agreement with John Cameron (1579–1625), is remarkably similar, namely, that Christ died “conditionally for all, absolutely for the elect.” The difference is important inasmuch as it describes two different ways of construing the plan of salvation, two different meanings of “the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:5). The outstanding challenge for Evangelical Calvinists is to explain, from Scripture, how God elects all but not all are saved, for at present there is a troubling incoherence between the ontological objectivity of incarnational redemption in Christ and the non-universal scope of salvation, as well as confusion in the way they conceive the place of human faith and its relationship to grace. Specifically, does divine grace take the place of freedom, enable libertarian freedom, or secure freedom? As we have seen, human freedom is a libertarian link in the chain of Evangelical Calvinism’s ordo salutis, the weakest link that reintroduces the very contingency into the ordo that the notion of incarnational union was designed to eliminate.[2]

To clarify, initially, we don’t subscribe to an ordo salutis or order of salvation in the classical sense that KJV or ‘classical Calvinists’ in general would; I will have to explain that aspect of our approach some other time.[3] But even being able to highlight this helps illustrate what KJV’s critique is ultimately missing; i.e. it is missing the point that Evangelical Calvinism is not working from vanhoozereither the formal or material prolegomenon (theological methodology) nor theologoumena (learned theological opinions present within the Post-Reformation Reformed orthodox theologian’s judgments) that impinges upon and shapes KJV’s own commitments. Does this mean that KJV, or others, cannot  attempt to make material critiques of our (Evangelical Calvinist’s) theological conclusions; that we have been hermetically sealed off from any heat or light that someone might want to apply to us and our theological theses? Nein! No!, it doesn’t mean that, and we are open to critique. But it is important, again, to clear ground (as I did in my first post in response to KJV) and let everyone know that if the ruler being used against us is only a twelve inch ruler and we start operating on the twenty-fourth inch then the measurement (critique) really does not even get started.

That notwithstanding, KJV’s critique does need to be responded to. This is the problem that I would say almost everyone has with Evangelical Calvinism; if indeed someone has a problem with it, it is this point. It is the question that KJV highlights in what I quoted from him: i.e. if God in Christ elects all of humanity for salvation in His election of humanity for Himself which is temporally realized and given concrete expression in the Incarnation; and if Jesus dies for all of humanity at the cross; and if Christ’s union with us in our humanity is more than declarative, juridical, or forensic, but it is also ontological, meaning the eternal Word, Jesus Christ assumes all that humanity is, at ontic depth, and redeems it from there; then how can it be said that some, even the many are doomed, damned, and not eternally “saved?” For someone like KJV, a classically Reformed/Calvinist, there is a logical-causal deterministic relationship between who Jesus dies for on the cross, and who ends up getting “saved” through union with Him; which is why for his system of thought it is so important to major on the idea that there are individually elect people who Jesus died for. So we can see what is informing the premise upon which KJV is attempting to critique the Evangelical Calvinist’s ontological theory of the atonement; if we followed his logic it looks like this: Jesus dies for you=you will be saved in an irresistible beyond a shadow of a doubt way (because you are elected to it). But you will notice further, that in KJV’s critique he also thinks that our only way out of this dilemma, since we indeed repudiate Christian universalism (e.g. eventually all people will be “saved” through Christ even post-mortem), is to fall back into some form of libertarian free agency, which would end up making us look something like an Arminian and consequently undercut the objective de jure reality for all of humanity that Christ ostensibly accomplished in His choice to elect humanity for Himself, and thus be for all Humanity resulting in the reconciliation of all things unto God (Col. 1:15ff).

But, not so fast! It is important to remember something, what we have identified as Evangelical Calvinism comes from a theological tradition; especially in regard to election and salvation. When Vanhoozer critiques Evangelical Calvinists at the point that he does, he also, of course is critiquing the one who has inspired the language of Evangelical Calvinism, Thomas F. Torrance (which Vanhoozer clearly understands), but he is also critiquing the ‘founder’, as it were, of the tradition that Evangelical Calvinism largely works from: i.e. Karl Barth.

Thomas Torrance responds that something like Vanhoozer’s critique fails because he (TFT) is not bound to the metaphysics or logico-causal necessitarian deterministic mechanics that Vanhoozer is, and thus on those grounds alone Torrance would demur. But he would go further than that; he might say (my paraphrase): Indeed, all of humanity has been elected/assumed by the humanity of Jesus Christ, and thus He died for all, and all the conditions are present for all of humanity to be saved, but not all humanity in the end is saved; and all we can say is that this is a ‘surd’ that sin is inexplicable and a mystery, and this is why people reject what has been done for them in Christ—we cannot explain that. But we can explain why people say yes to their election and salvation in Jesus Christ, because of the Holy Spirit’s vivifying activity in people’s lives bringing them to repentance and salvation through the vicarious repentance and salvation accomplished for them in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. So Torrance’s response turns on an asymmetrical response to Vanhoozer’s question: i.e. we have a positive answer for ‘why’ someone says yes to Christ, and a negative answer to ‘why’ someone else says no to Christ. But this is not satisfactory to Vanhoozer.

Beyond Torrance, though, we have Karl Barth, and Torrance gets much of his thinking on this particular point straight from Barth. As such, it is fitting to understand how Barth would respond to a similar critique of his view of election applied to soteriological questions and the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individual people.

Karl Barth has of course as many critics, if not more, than Thomas Torrance; some of those critics are more charitable in their critiques (as far as tone) than others. W. Travis McMaken (a friend of mine over the years through blogging) wrote his PhD dissertation on Barth and Baptism, and it has recently been published by Fortress Press; it is an excellent book! In his development of various ‘Barthian’ themes throughout the body of his book he engages with and develops how Barth has responded to similar critics of Torrance, especially in regard to human free agency and how that gets worked out in Barth’s view of election. As I have already noted, but to reiterate, Barth and Torrance are open to the same types of critiques. McMaken highlights three critics of Barth on election, soteriology, and human free agency; the same theological loci that Vanhoozer thinks is the Achilles heel in Torrance’s presentation. These three critics of Barth are Nate Kerr, Suzanne MacDonald, and Michael Horton. In a fundamental way these three critique Barth the same way Vanhoozer critiques Torrance. For them they wonder how it is that Barth can maintain the universal scope of election, atonement, and the offer of salvation for all and at the same time not fall into universalism and/or give way to some sort of libertarian free agency. Here is how McMaken (in an abridged form) responds to MacDonald and Horton (he responds more to Kerr just prior to what I am going to share from him here):

signofgospelThis raises the second aspect of the “twofold diminution in the Spirit’s role” that McDonald finds in Barth’s theology, namely, that Barth’s understanding of the Spirit as the one in whose power the individual awakens to faith implicitly reestablishes something like the traditional Reformed double-decree.

Given that the Spirit awakens some but not others, and given that Barth credits this awakening to divine power in the mode of the Holy Spirit, does it not follow that God has made some unknown decision about whom to awaken and whom to pass over? Of course, Barth wants to do no such thing. Part of his criticism of Calvin’s doctrine of election concerns how it functions to make sense of precisely that sort of question. For Barth’s money, however, basing one’s doctrine of election on “a datum of experience” such as this is “decidedly to be rejected” (CD II/2, 38;
KD II/2, 39–40). All this does play into Barth’s reticence in affirming universal salvation, however. He honors this observation, but locates its meaning not in any lack of divine action but in a persisting disobedience on the human side—and this persistence is not to be taken lightly. But Barth insists in the very next paragraph that the possibility of universal salvation should not be renounced (see CD IV/3, 477–78; KD IV/3, 549–51).

Some believe that Barth’s refusal to simply affirm universalism as the logical consequence of his doctrine of election ultimately smuggles a deus absconditus back into Barth’s theology. For instance, consider the following comment from Michael Horton, who asserts that Barth’s holding back from universalism “presents . . . [the] ominous threat of a breach between the hidden and revealed God. Barth holds that, despite one’s being chosen, redeemed, called, justified, and sanctified, it is at least possible that one may not at last be glorified but will be reprobate after all.”

Horton incorrectly implies that Barth is reticent about the eternal condition of those who have awakened to faith. In truth, Barth is more interested in a fundamental optimism about those who have not yet awakened. But the logic of Horton’s argument deserves fuller treatment: (1) Barth argues that all are elect in Jesus Christ, (2) some people seem to have faith while others seem not to, (3) those who seem to have faith only have it—if they do—because the Holy Spirit awakened them to it, (4) this means that those who seem not to have faith—if they do not—lack it because the Holy Spirit has not awakened them, (5) such selective pneumatological deployment must depend on a divine decision concerning whom to awaken and whom not to, (6) this decision must be independent of election in Jesus Christ, or else all would be awakened, and (7) ergo, a rather traditional Reformed predestinarianism lies hidden in Barth’s theology.

This criticism is misguided, however. Barth’s intention is not to introduce a gap between humanity’s election in Christ and the eternal condition of individuals; rather, it is to recognize humanity’s eschatological location. As those baptized by the Spirit and living under the second form of the parousia, we do not yet know what the parousia’s third form will be.

We cannot explain why it is that some people, and even the vast majority of people, seem not (yet?) to have come to faith in Jesus Christ. Some things we do know, however: we know what Jesus Christ has accomplished for us, we know of our election—and of all humanity’s election—in him, and we know that election includes not only our own but also their baptism by the Spirit. In other words, we know that the eschatological consummation will be the consummation of Jesus Christ, of his history. All this we know and confess by faith, without understanding how God will close the gap between what we see and what we believe. To attempt closure of this gap ourselves would be to cease treating Jesus Christ as a living and active agent, and to transform him into a principle.

We can only live as those who confess by faith that Spirit baptism is always already on the way to each and every human being and, perhaps even more strikingly, that this renewal is likewise always already on the way to us. Consequently, and as Hunsinger puts it, “we will not abandon hope for anyone, not even for ourselves.”[4]

I am certain that this will also and equally be just as dissatisfying of a response to Vanhoozer as is Torrance’s. Especially given the universalistic tone of Barth’s (according to McMaken) trajectory. The thing is, the Apostle Paul has a universalistic tone throughout his epistolary corpus; and Paul only gets really particular when he qualifies that type of discussion of his with “in Christ.”


We have run way too long for a blog past, in fact the word count on this almost makes this 3x longer than an acceptably lengthed blog post of a thousand words.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer believes that us Evangelical Calvinists have misread the Apostle Paul and Calvin, he writes, “It is not self-evident that Evangelical Calvinists have understood either Paul or Calvin, or that they have done a better job at explaining the relationship between election, incarnation, and redemption than their Calvinist forbearers.”[5] You will have to read his whole argument at some point to see if this statement is a bit triumphalistic or not. But maybe we are not necessarily trying to out-narrate our “Calvinist forebearers,” maybe we are attempting to identify a parallel possibility and reading of things, from within the Reformed tradition, of the Apostle Paul and Calvin that is resourceful, constructive, and faithful to the implications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ itself.

Hopefully at the very least what this exercise has done, appealing to McMaken’s Barth as I have, will throw KJV’s critique of us Evangelical Calvinists and Thomas Torrance into some critical relief. That there is a way to respond to the charges made by those who I call “classical Calvinists,” and that the theological well provided for by the Gospel is deeper than the Hellenists could have ever imagined. When we abandon modes of theological methodology that require us to fit the Gospel into predetermined a priori philosophically derived categories (like those that Vanhoozer’s tradition work from) we have the freedom to stand in front of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, and say at points: ‘I don’t know.’ This does not usually sit well with the theological types, but we should be excited to realize that even when we come to a point where we must say ‘I don’t know because the Bible hasn’t told me so … and neither has the Revelation of God in Jesus Christ’, like Torrance and Barth do, particularly on this issue, that it is still possible to have over six hundred published works on theological issues as Torrance accomplished in his life, or to have written six million words on Jesus, as Barth did in his Church Dogmatics, and still satisfy the longing that every theologian has which is: to know God in Jesus Christ. Take heart!

[1] KJV hereafter, or if you prefer Textus Receptus. 😉

[2] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism) in Benjamin E. Reynolds, Brian Lugioyo, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer eds., Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars (Germany, Tubignen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 33 [pagination does not correlate to published volume].

[3] At most it could be said that Evangelical Calvinists subscribe to a via historia (way of history relative to salvation’s unfolding and temporal expression).

[4] W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism After Karl Barth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 357 Scribd version.

[5] KJV, 34 [pagination does not correlate to published volume].


What is an ‘Onto-Relation’?: Thomas Torrance, Stephen Holmes, and Trinitarian Theology in Relief

Let me just pull this quote out of the broader context from which it is russiantrinitytaken in order to preserve this definition in online form for future reference; if for no one else but me (and keep reading, because at the end of the quote I go off on a tangent in regard to Steve Holmes’ recent book on the Trinity and Thomas Torrance’s following definition of ‘onto-relational’). This definition is so important to understand in regard to grasping Thomas Torrance’s theological project that it is hard to overemphasize it. If Torrance has a metaphysic (which I think he does), then this is it in brief. The following quote from Torrance comes from within a broader context where he is discussing Clerk Maxwell’s approach to science. Torrance argues that Maxwell’s approach comes from a Patristic based conception of relationality and persons-in-relation against the mechanical paradigm of things that dominated the universities and sciences during Maxwell’s era (and we could say still does in many sectors of the sciences: Just think of someone like Richard Dawkins). While Torrance is describing Clerk Maxwell’s approach he provides a definition for what became quite definitive for himself; what became definitive at a metaphysical and even physical level for Torrance was what he called onto-relations. Here is how TF Torrance defines what onto-relations entail:

… It will be sufficient to recall that it was due to the development of relational thinking about the activity of God in creation and incarnation that enabled Christian theology to overcome the static container notion of space, and it was out of this relational thinking that there came the concept of person, unknown in the world before Christianity, in accordance with which it was held that the relations between persons are of constitutive importance for they enter into what persons really are as persons. Thus an onto-relational way of understanding persons in community rejected an atomistic way of thinking of them as self-sufficient, independent, separated individuals who may be organised into a society only through their external relations with one another–the very notion into which John Locke disastrously carried European socio-political thought under the impact of Newtonian atomism and action at a distance….[1]

Recently I read Steve Holmes’ book on the Trinity, in that book he critiques Barth and Dorner, in particular, of introducing an existentialist understanding of person into Trinitarian theology. He argued that the result of this had nothing to do with the way ‘person’ was conceived of for the Patristic framers of ecumenical Trinitarian theology. Whether or not I fully agree with Holmes on this point (which I don’t fully), what would have been of great benefit, would have been if Holmes attempted to engage with Thomas Torrance as an interlocutor on the conception of ‘person’; to engage with TF Torrance’s onto-relational understanding of relationship not only between the Divine Monarxia, but subsequently at an theological anthropological level. I think Torrance offers something from a modern theological landscape, retrieved somewhat from the Patristic period, that would challenge the idea that modern theology should be totally junked in regard to a Trinitarian theology. Torrance stands out as someone, with his category of ‘onto-relational’, that indicates that the modern project has not been a complete waste when it comes to articulating afresh categories for thinking Trinitarian theology.

And we could and should argue that Torrance’s proposal is modern insofar as it draws directly off of the work of Einstein and Clerk Maxwell (among other moderns). The unique thing with Torrance is that he hagiographically ties these modern concepts back into the Patristic paradigm more stridently than someone like Barth does. Nevertheless, Torrance is still largely a modern theologian who seeks to be one in ressourcement.


[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Christian Theology & Scientific Culture (Belfast: Christian Journals Limited, 1980), 50.