Category Archives: Order of Salvation

The Covenant of Works, The Covenant of Grace; What Are They? The evangelical Calvinists Respond

As evangelical Calvinists we stand within an alternative stream from classical Calvinism, or Federal/Covenantal theology; the type of Calvinism that stands as orthodoxy for Calvinists today in most parts of North America and the Western world in general. The blurb on the back of our book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church makes this distinction clear when it states:

In this exciting volume new and emerging voices join senior Reformed scholars in presenting a coherent and impassioned articulation of Calvinism for today’s world. Evangelical Calvinism represents a mood within current Reformed theology. The various contributors are in different ways articulating that mood, of which their very diversity is a significant element. In attempting to outline features of an Evangelical Calvinism a number of the contributors compare and contrast this approach with that of the Federal Calvinism that is currently dominant in North American Reformed theology, challenging the assumption that Federal Calvinism is the only possible expression of orthodox Reformed theology. This book does not, however, represent the arrival of a “new-Calvinism” or even a “neo-Calvinism,” if by those terms are meant a novel reading of the Reformed faith. An Evangelical Calvinism highlights a Calvinistic tradition that has developed particularly within Scotland, but is not unique to the Scots. The editors have picked up the baton passed on by John Calvin, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and others, in order to offer the family of Reformed theologies a reinvigorated theological and spiritual ethos. This volume promises to set the agenda for Reformed-Calvinist discussion for some time to come.

A question rarely, if ever addressed online in the theological blogosphere, and other online social media outlets, is a description of what Covenant theology actually entails. Many, if acquainted at all with Reformed theology, have heard of the Covenant of Works, Covenant of Grace, and Covenant of Redemption (pactum salutis); but I’m not really sure how many of these same people actually understand what that framework entails—maybe they do, and just don’t talk about it much.

In an effort to highlight the lineaments of Federal theology I thought it might be instructive to hear how Lyle Bierma describes it in one of its seminal formulator’s theology, Caspar Olevianus. So we will hear from Bierma on Olevianus, and then we will offer a word of rejoinder to this theology from Thomas Torrance’s theology summarized for us by Paul Molnar; and then further, a word contra Federal theology from Karl Barth as described by Rinse Reeling Brouwer. Here is Bierma:

When did God make such a pledge? [Referring to the ‘Covenant of Grace’] We will be looking at this question in some detail in Chapter IV, but it should be mentioned here that for Olevianus this covenant of grace or gospel of forgiveness and life was proclaimed to the Old Testament fathers from the beginning; to Adam after the fall (“The seed of the woman shall crush [Satan’s] head”); to Abraham and his descendents (“In your seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed”); to the remnant of Israel in Jeremiah 31 (“I will put my laws in their minds . . . and will remember their sins no more”); and still to hearers of the Word today. To be sure, this oath or testament was not confirmed until the suffering and death of Christ. Christ was still the only way to Seligkeit, since it was only through His sacrifices that the blessing promised to Abraham could be applied to us and the forgiveness and renewal promised through Jeremiah made possible. Nevertheless, even before ratification it was still a covenant — a declaration of God’s will awaiting its final fulfillment.

In some contexts, however, Olevianus understands the covenant of grace in a broader sense than as God’s unilateral promise of reconciliation ratified in Jesus Christ. He employs some of the same terms as before — Bund, Gnadenbund, foedus, foedus gratiae, and foedus gratuitum — but this time to mean a bilateral commitment between God and believers. The covenant so understood is more than a promise of reconciliation; it is the  realization of that promise — reconciliation itself — through a mutual coming to terms. Not only does God bind Himself to us in a pledge that He will be our Father; we also bind ourselves to Him in a pledge of acceptance of His paternal beneficence. Not only does God promise that He will blot out all memory of our sins; we in turn promise that we will walk uprightly before Him. The covenant in this sense includes both God’s promissio and our repromissio.

This semantical shift from a unilateral to a bilateral promise is most clearly seen in two passages in Olevanius’s writings where he compares the covenant of grace to a human Bund. In Vester Grundt, as we have seen, he portrays the covenant strictly as a divine pledge. While we were yet sinners, God bound Himself to us with an oath and a promise that through His Son He would repair the broken relationship. It was expected, of course, that we accept the Son (whether promised or already sent) in faith, but Olevianus here does not treat this response as part of the covenant. The emphasis is on what God would do because of what we could not do.

In a similar passage in the Expositio, however, Olevianus not only identifies the covenant with reconciliation itself but describes it as a mutual agreement (mutuus assensus) between the estranged parties. Here God binds Himself not to us “who were yet sinners” but to us “who repent and believe,” to us who in turn are bound to Him in faith and worship. This “covenant of grace or union between God and us” is not established at just one point in history; it is ratified personally with each believer. Christ the Bridegroom enters into “covenant or fellowship” with the Church His Bride by the ministry of the Word and sacraments and through the Holy Spirit seals the promises of reconciliation in the hearts of the faithful. But this is also a covenant into which we enter, a “covenant of faith.” As full partners in the arrangement we become not merely God’s children but His Bundgesnossen, His confoederati.

When he discusses the covenant of grace in this broader sense, i.e., as a bilateral commitment between God and us, Olevianus does not hesitate t use the term conditio [conditional]. We see already in the establishment of the covenant with Abraham that the covenant of grace has not one but two parts: not merely God’s promissio [promise] to be the God of Abraham and his seed, but that promise on the condition (qua conditione) of Abraham’s (and our) repromissio [repromising] to walk before Him and be perfect. Simply put, God’s covenantal blessings are contingent upon our faith and obedience. It is to those who repent, believe, and are baptized that He reconciles Himself and binds Himself in covenant.[1]

What we see in Olevianus’s theology, according to Bierma, is a schema of salvation that is contingent upon the elect’s doing their part, as it were. In other words, what binds salvation together in the Federal scheme is not only the act of God, but the act of the elect; an act that is ensured to be acted upon by the absolute decree (absolutum decretum). The ground of salvation involves, then, God’s act and humanity’s response; the objective (or de jure) side is God’s, the subjective (or de facto) side is the elect’s—a quid pro quo framework for understanding salvation. What this inevitability leads to, especially when getting into issues of assurance of salvation, is for the elect to turn inward to themselves as the subjective side of salvation is contingent upon their ‘faith and obedience.’

Thomas F. Torrance, patron saint of evangelical Calvinists like me, rightly objects to this type of juridical and transactional and/or bilateral understanding of salvation. Paul Molnar, TF Torrance scholar par excellence, describes Torrance’s rejection of Federal theology this way and for these reasons:

Torrance’s objections to aspects of the “Westminster theology” should be seen together with his objection to “Federal Theology”. His main objection to Federal theology is to the ideas that Christ died only for the elect and not for the whole human race and that salvation is conditional on our observance of the law. The ultimate difficulty here that one could “trace the ultimate ground of belief back to eternal divine decrees behind the back of the Incarnation of God’s beloved Son, as in a federal concept of pre-destination, [and this] tended to foster a hidden Nestorian Torrance between the divine and human natures in the on Person of Jesus Christ, and thus even to provide ground for a dangerous form of Arian and Socinian heresy in which the atoning work of Christ regarded as an organ of God’s activity was separated from the intrinsic nature and character of God as Love” (Scottish Theology, p. 133). This then allowed people to read back into “God’s saving purpose” the idea that “in the end some people will not actually be saved”, thus limiting the scope of God’s grace (p. 134). And Torrance believed they reached their conclusions precisely because they allowed the law rather than the Gospel to shape their thinking about our covenant relations with God fulfilled in Christ’s atonement. Torrance noted that the framework of Westminster theology “derived from seventeenth-century federal theology formulated in sharp contrast to the highly rationalised conception of a sacramental universe of Roman theology, but combined with a similar way of thinking in terms of primary and secondary causes (reached through various stages of grace leading to union with Christ), which reversed the teaching of Calvin that it is through union with Christ first that we participate in all his benefits” (Scottish Theology, p. 128). This gave the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “a very legalistic and constitutional character in which theological statements were formalised at times with ‘almost frigidly logical definiton’” (pp. 128-9). Torrance’s main objection to the federal view of the covenant was that it allowed its theology to be dictated on grounds other than the grace of God attested in Scripture and was then allowed to dictate in a legalistic way God’s actions in his Word and Spirit, thus undermining ultimately the freedom of grace and the assurance of salvation that could only be had by seeing that our regenerated lives were hidden with Christ in God. Torrance thought of the Federal theologians as embracing a kind of “biblical nominalism” because “biblical sentences tend to be adduced out of their context and to be interpreted arbitrarily and singly in detachment from the spiritual ground and theological intention and content” (p. 129). Most importantly, they tended to give biblical statements, understood in this way, priority over “fundamental doctrines of the Gospel” with the result that “Westminster theology treats biblical statements as definitive propositions from which deductions are to be made, so that in their expression doctrines thus logically derived are given a categorical or canonical character” (p. 129). For Torrance, these statements should have been treated, as in theScots Confession, in an “open-structured” way, “pointing away from themselves to divine truth which by its nature cannot be contained in finite forms of speech and thought, although it may be mediated through them” (pp. 129-30). Among other things, Torrance believed that the Westminster approach led them to weaken the importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity because their concept of God fored without reference to who God is in revelation led them ultimately to a different God than the God of classical Nicene theology (p. 131). For Barth’s assessment of Federal theology, which is quite similar to Torrance’s in a number of ways, see CD IV/1, pp. 54-66.[2]

And here is how Brouwer describes Barth’s feeling on Federal theology, with particular reference to another founder of Federal theology, Johannes Cocceius. Brouwer writes of Barth:

Barth writes ‘For the rest you shall enjoy Heppe’ s Locus xiii only with caution. He has left too much room for the leaven of federal theology. It was not good, when the foedus naturae was also called a foedus operum’. In Barth’ s eyes, the notion of a relationship between God and Adam as two contractual partners in which man promises to fulfil the law and God promises him life eternal in return, is a Pelagian one that should not even be applied to the homo paradisiacus. Therefore,

one has to speak of the foedus naturae in such a way that one has nothing to be ashamed of when one speaks of the foedus gratiae later on, and, conversely, that one does not have to go to the historians of religion, but rather in such a way that one can say the same things in a more detailed and powerful way in the new context of the foedus gratiae, which is determined by the contrast between sin and grace. For there is re vera only one covenant, as there is only one God. The fact that Cocceius and his followers could not and would not say this is where we should not follow them – not in the older form, and even less in the modern form.

 In this way paragraph ends as it began: the demarcation of sound theology from federal theology in its Cocceian shape is as sharp as it was before. Nevertheless, the attentive reader will notice that the category of the covenant itself is ‘rescued’ for Barth’ s own dogmatic thinking.[3]

For Barth, as for Torrance, as for me, the problem with Federal theology is that it assumes upon various wills of God at work at various levels determined by the absolute decree. The primary theological problem with this, as the stuff we read from Torrance highlights, is that it ruptures the person and work of God in Christ from Christ; i.e. it sees Jesus, the eternal Logos, as merely an instrument, not necessarily related to the Father, who carries out the will of God on behalf of the elect in fulfilling the conditions of the covenant of works ratifying the covenant of grace. Yet, even in this establishment of the Federal framework, salvation is still not accomplished for the elect; it is contingent upon the faith and obedience of those who will receive salvation, which finally brings to completion the loop of salvation in the Federal schema.

These are serious issues, that require sober reflection; more so than we will be able to do in a little blog post. At the very least I am hopeful that what we have sketched from various angles will be sufficient to underscore what’s at stake in these types of depth theological issues, and how indeed theology, like Federal theology offers, can impact someone’s Christian spirituality if in fact said theology is grasped and internalized; i.e. it is understood beyond academic reflection, and understood existentially as it impacts the psychology and well being of human beings coram Deo.

 

[1] Lyle D. Bierma, German Calvinism in the Confessional Age: The Covenant Theology of Caspar Olevianus, 64-68.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity,  181-2 fn. 165.

[3] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 112-13.

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To Be ‘In Christ’ and the Bigger Picture of Salvation

In Christ, this little phrase is ubiquitous throughout the writings of St. Paul. If you are a Bible reader this phrase, ‘in Christ,’ will be very familiar to you, and maybe also very encouraging to you, if not somewhat mysterious sounding. Indeed, there is mystery to it (think of John Calvin’s unio mystica), but not so much that we cannot press into it with very fruitful and edifying understanding imagodeitowards our own spiritual formational understanding of what it means to be children of God.

Karl Barth has a very insightful way of understanding what this phrase means, and it is related, of course!, to his unique doctrine of election; it is also related, more generally, to a doctrine of creation and theological-anthropology. Barth is concerned to highlight the reality that Jesus Christ himself is indeed the ‘first-fruits’ of God’s creation, in his vicarious humanity for us (see Col. 1.15ff); he is concerned to show that Jesus Christ is really what it looks like to be a human being, and not concerned in abstraction, but concerned in the concrete reality of His humanity serving as the ground of human life and the imago Dei who humans were originally created in as images of the image (and now recreated in, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ).

This makes Barth’s conception unique, not because his conception of Christ’s vicarious humanity is outside the bounds of historic Christian orthodox teaching, but unique instead because Barth worked within the Reformed tradition. For the Reformed tradition in general to be ‘in Christ’ relative to soteriological thinking has to do with declarative reality for the elect; it has to do with the elect’s positional relationship to God, as God declares them to be forensically justified in and through the penal substitutionary work of Christ. This is different from Barth’s emphasis. Barth (and TF Torrance et. al.), as I noted above, has more to do with ontological reality; that is, what reality, for Barth, stands as the ultimate ground of what it means to be human? Answering this question, for Barth, is to answer the question: what does it mean to be ‘in Christ?’ Barth’s response is this:

“In Christ” means that in him we are reconciled to God, in him we are elect from eternity, in him we are called, in him we are justified and sanctified, in him our sin is carried to the grave, in his resurrection our death is overcome, with him our life is hid with Christ in God, in him everything that has to be done for us has already been done, has previously been removed and put in its place, in him we are children in the Father’s house, just as he is by nature. All that has to be said about us can be said only by describing and explaining our existence in him; not by describing and explaining it as an existence we might have in and for itself…. For by Christ we will never be anything else than just what we are in Christ. And when the Holy Spirit draws and takes us right into the reality of revelation by doing what we cannot do, by opening our eyes and ears and hearts, he does not tell us anything except that we are in Christ by Christ.[1]

Barth’s concern is bigger than simply being concerned with a doctrine of salvation; he is more focused on the big picture of God’s good creation. Yes, sin entered the picture and humanity’s plight went wild in the wilderness of that sin, but sin was not a subversion of God’s plan nor its dictate. In other words, humanity always already had a ground and location apart from sin, and that ground and reality was, like we noted earlier, the humanity of Jesus Christ, whose image humanity was originally created in and recreated ‘in Christ.’

Barth’s conceiving, then, has more to do with ontology and humanity’s orientation relative to God in that ontology. Enclosed within that reality is where a doctrine of salvation and/or soteriology can be premised and built upon, not the other way around (as the Augustinian method has it, the method upon which Reformed-orthodox theology is built).

[1] Karl Barth, CD I/2, 240 cited by George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), Loc. 4577, 4583 Kindle.

A Brief Rejoinder (not really) To Roger Olson’s Reading of Karl Barth as a [hopeful] Universalist

I wish I had more time, this will have to suffice until then.

barthartRoger Olson, evangelical Arminian par excellence, has offered an argument in an essay he has written for his blog (the essay was just released today, Sunday March 10th, 2013) that argues that Karl Barth was—by the implicit logic of Barth’s theological program—an Christian universalist. Here is how Olson concludes his over 10,000 word essay:

The main contribution, if it can be called that, of this research project is that Barth was and was not a universalist. The solution is not sheer paradox, however. He was a universalist in the sense of everyone, all human persons, being reconciled to God, not just as something potential but as something actual from God’s side. He was not a universalist in the sense of believing that everyone, all human persons, will necessarily know and experience that reconciliation automatically, apart from any faith, having fellowship with God now or hereafter. Without doubt, however, he was a hopeful universalist in that second sense of the word. [read full essay here]

And here is how I initially responded via comment at his blog:

[First, thank you for engaging Barth this way—and again, thank you for noticing us “Evangelical Calvinists” :-) !]

My initial response is that your final conclusion is unremarkable (as I’m sure you already know) in regard to the kind of “double election” Barth was committed to; and that this all takes shape through Barth’s critically dialectical hermeneutic. So I say your conclusion is unremarkable because it is only consistent with what one should expect if they start and end where Barth does; i.e. dialectically.

I think I will save most of my response (since I don’t have it yet) for a blog post (at my blog https://growrag.wordpress.com). I have been reading Arminius lately, and I am not sure you have an alternative theological construct that provides the kind of hermeneutical and exegetical haven of rest that you seem to think is available. To be sure, either way, this wouldn’t undercut Barth’s alternative way (vis-a-vis your Arminian one), but I would venture to say that given the finite explanation of things–relatively speaking of course–Barth’s conclusion versus Arminius’ or Calvin’s might not look as foreboding (or heterodox, or worse, heretical) as you seem to be suggesting ‘implicitly’ (i.e. following your logic through) throughout your essay in regard to Barth’s offering.

Anyway, I look forward to responding to this essay in days to come. Thanks for taking the time to do this, Roger!

He does mention us Evangelical Calvinists, as you will see if you read the essay.

I really do not know what else to say, other than what my brief comment mentions. Olson’s conclusion is not surprising in the slightest; in fact there are numerous publications by Barth scholars, and others, that have concluded much the same many many years ago. In fact there is nothing controversial or that insightful about Professor Olson’s final conclusions; I guess I am underwhelmed. I appreciate the time he put into engaging in this personal voyage of self discovery, relative to understanding Barth for himself. But I am unsure how Olson’s conclusions give us anything more conclusive than what has been available and accepted knowledge about Barth for many years.

Olson believes that Barth’s view of salvation, objectified as it is in the elected humanity of Christ, necessarily requires that all of humanity is ontologically redeemed in the humanity of Christ; and I would say Olson is correct. But the interesting critique that Olson offers of Barth is this:

[…] So, what is the distinction between Christians and other “men?” The context (long paragraph) makes absolutely clear that the difference is not “being saved” versus “not being saved” but knowing and testifying of the “new being of man” in Jesus Christ versus not knowing it. It is epistemological, not ontological. [read the full essay here]

This is rather odd, really. Since Barth (as Olson has just illustrated, prior to his conclusion, which I just quoted) just has made the argument (of Barth’s view) that salvation is deeply ontological; so deep, in fact, that it took God in Christ to penetrate the ontological depths of humanity, and recreate that in the resurrection of Jesus. So “saving” faith is not “just” epistemological for Barth (or Torrance), it is ontologically grounded in the vicarious faith of Christ for us (He is our “High Priest” and mediator after all I Tim. 2.5-6). This is one of the continued problems that Professor Olson has with reading us Evangelical Calvinists, and now Barth; there is a latent dualism informing Olson’s interpretive strategy when it comes to interpreting Barth and his respective theo-anthropology. A counter question could be; if Christ’s humanity (as the image of God Col. 1.15) is not the ground of all humanity (as its ‘first-fruits’), then what serves as that ground? Is there a separate ontology for our humanity that is indeed distinct from the kind that Jesus assumed for us in His incarnation? And if there is a separate humanity (ontologically), as Olson, enthymemically must presume, then who is it that is arguing that salvation is “just” epistemological? It is clearly not Barth (nor Torrance, nor us Evangelical Calvinists), but it would be Olson’s style of Arminianism. Since the ground of faith comes from individual people (the elect who God predestined, according to Arminius and Arminian theology, as he looked down [foreknowledge] the halls of history and saw who of their own free will place their faith in Christ) and their assent (and trust) in the fact of what Jesus did for them. It is not Barth who affirms what Olson argues he does, in this regard; instead it is Olson who affirms that salvation is merely an epistmeological exercise. I think “one” of the problems attendant with Olson’s reading of Barth here, is that there is a lacunae in Olson’s theological anthropology (among other things). I should say, that Olson has abstracted humanity out from Christ’s in a way, that the only real affect salvation has for people is if “they choose” salvation or not. This is a soley subjective understanding of salvation, that for one thing is epistemological only (i.e. there is nothing of ontological significance in what Christ has done for humanity, for Olson’s view).

Anyway, this isn’t a very careful response to Olson (I will try to do that in print form someday); but it is an initial response, and so it is what it is.

The Freedom and Refreshment of Grace as Person Instead of as Thing

Is grace simply an attribute that can be abstracted from its source, and thus paulgracebecome a quality that we can manipulate or manage under our own resources? Or is grace only really conceivable as an activity rooted and personified in the life of God in Christ for us?

I have grown up, as maybe you have, in a Reformed/Arminian-shaped Thomism that thinks of grace as a quality, a thing, depersonalised stuff that has been dropped into my humanity just waiting to be activated and worked out in my life as an elect Christian person. And through habitually activating the power of this created grace in my life, I can reach beatific vision and acquire eternal life (or so the tale goes).

To be honest as I write this, I am actually wondering if people even think like this anymore? I am wondering if the Evangelical life has enough pause in it to even reflect on such things? Does it really matter to anyone anymore whether or not grace is a quality, a thing versus being a person whose name is Jesus? I’ll just assume this still does matter, and offer what a young Thomas Torrance thought of this as he wrote his PhD dissertation on The Apostolic Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers. He wrote:

[I]n the New Testament charis (χáρις) becomes a terminus technicus. While other meanings are still current, there is a special Christian sense of the word coined under the impact of Revelation to convey something quite unique. No doubt existing ideas are caught up within the word, such as kindness, gift, etc., but charis is such a new word (in fact a καινη κτíσις) that it cannot be interpreted in terms of antecedent roots or ideas. Rather it is to be understood in the light of a singular event which completely alters the life of man in basis and outlook: the Incarnation. God has personally intervened in human history in such a way that the ground of man’s approach to God, and of all his relations with God, is not to be found in man’s fulfilment of the divine command, but in a final act of self-commitment on the part of God in which He has given Himself to man through sheer love and in such a fashion that it cuts clean across all questions of human merit and demerit. All this has been objectively actualised in Jesus Christ, so that Christ Himself is the objective ground and content of charis in every instance of its special Christian use. Typical passages are [Torrance here offers these passages in the NT Greek, I will offer the NIV translation of these in its place]:

Romans 5.15: 15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!

Romans 5.21: 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I Corinthians 1.4: I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.

2 Timothy 2.1: You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.

Romans 16.20: 20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.

Thus in its special New Testament sense charis refers to the being and action of God as revealed and actualised in Jesus Christ, for He is in His person and work the self-giving of God to men. Later theology thought of charis as a divine attribute, but it would be truer to the New Testament to speak of it less abstractly as the divine love in redemptive action. Grace is in fact identical with Jesus Christ in person and word and deed. Here the Greek word charis seems to pass from the aspect of disposition or goodwill which bestows blessing to the action itself and to the actual gift, but in the New Testament neither the action nor the gift is separable from the person of the giver, God in Christ. Even apart from the other characteristics of the word in the New Testament, this basic fact means that the Christian charis completely outdistances its etymological roots. There is doubtless a linguistic but no theological point of contact with charis in classical and hellenistic Greek. [Thomas F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, 20-1.]

In typical Torrance form, he argues from his methodological commitment that genuinely Christian thought was/is so apocalyptic and ground breaking in mode that it breaks in on (Greek in this instance) concepts in such a way that the word, ‘grace’, is taken from its original contextual usage, pretexted and retexted in a newly given (i.e. Revealed) conceptual universe of Christian jive. In other words, there is no lexical analogy in the Classical or Koine period of Greek that can be appealed to in order to unpack the theological and conceptual force that charis takes on as it is commandeered by the in-breaking Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. So we look to Jesus as the key for understanding its Christian (versus Greek) meaning.

The impact of thinking of grace in this way is that it is not viewed from a starting point found in humanity by itself; instead God’s freely Self-determined life is allowed to shape how we ought to understand grace. Not as a thing that we can control, but as a person who stoops down in accommodating love and gives his very life (Godself) for ours (which is what original creation itself comes from). This presupposes a conception of grace that by way of theological order (and just chronology for that matter) places God prior to us, and grace/covenant prior to creation (instead of vice versa). If we place creation (and thus Law) prior to grace/covenant (God’s life), then God’s free life of love shaped sovereignty is placed at our self-determined whim, and he becomes a thing who we can manipulate by our self-conceived form as a ‘pure-humanity’ of sorts (i.e. a humanity that is not logically conditioned by its necessary relation to the image that it bears/mirrors in Jesus Christ Col. 1.15ff).

The liberating thing about conceiving of grace as someOne who is outside of us (extra nos), and non-contingent upon us (and our appropriation of Him) is that the burden of salvation is lifted from our shoulders and placed on the shoulders of His Self governing life. We are free to look away from ourselves, and our works/peformance; and thus opened up to peer, as it were, into the holy of holies of God’s life. Thus through this gracious Spirit created unioning of divinity with humanity (ours) in Christ’s we are free to participate in God’s life, and thus be poured out as drink offerings on the sacrifice and faith of others. If we think of grace as a quality (the classical view), or attribute, we are again brought under the bondage of performing (through the enablement of “grace”) our salvation, and persevering in our good works.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. ~Galatians 5:1 (NIV)

No Knowledge of God Outside of Christ: A Christian Faith Understanding

I thought this quote from Paul Molnar on Thomas Torrance’s Trinitarian Theology of Creation would be timely:

Torrance’s view of God the Creator was strictly determined by his Trinitarian theology so that, in order to understand his explication of the doctrine of creation, it is important to realize that his thinking remains structured by Athanasius’ insight that it is better to “signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate”. What this means is not only that, following the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius stressed the centrality of the Father/Son relation for understanding God the Father Almighty who is the Creator, but that he wanted to stress that this same relation must have “primacy over the Creator/creature relation. The latter is to be understood in the light of the former and not vice versa”. Or, to put it another way, “while God is always Father he is not always Creator” and “it is as Father that God is Creator, not vice versa”. . . .[1]

And then how Thomas Torrance understood theological method as Christological method. This might help, for some, to illustrate how and why Torrance would not be an advocate for what is known as natural theology (knowing God from a naked creation), or an analogy of being (using humanities’ reflection upon itself and as the analogy for what God’s being must be like—this is also extrapolated out as man reflects on nature in general, conceiving of what kind of God it must have taken to create (or what kind of power)—it is through this kind of abstractive reasoning that  concept of godness is constructed (Philosophers like Aristotle and Plato would be prime examples of this kind of work). Instead, Torrance, in the footsteps of Barth (although with his own rationale and emphases) works through an analogy of faith (the idea that knowledge of God, as Athanasius articulates in Molnar’s quote above, only comes through relation to God in and through Christ’s vicarious faith for us). Here is what Torrance conceives:

Our task in christology is to yield the obedience of our mind to what is given, which is God’s self-revelation in its objective reality, Jesus Christ. A primary and basic fact which we discover here is this: that the object of our knowledge gives itself to us to be apprehended. It does that within our mundane existence, within our worldly history and all its contingency, but it does that also beyond the limits of previous experience and ordinary thought, beyond the range of what is regarded by human standards as empirically possible. Thus when we encounter God in Jesus Christ, the truth comes to us in its own authority and self-sufficiency. It comes into our experience and into the midst of our knowledge as a novum, a new reality which we cannot incorporate into the series of other objects, or simply assimilate to what we already know. Thomas F. Torrance says in his, “Incarnation: The Person And Life Of Christ,” 1

So for Torrance, and me, there is no “natural” knowledge of God available; it is strictly limited to God’s Self-revealed knowledge of Himself in Christ. Just as Jesus said, “Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” As Athanasius and Torrance press, knowledge of God, for the Christian, must be knowledge of God as Triune or it is not truly knowledge of God; nor, is it Christian.


[1] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian Of The Trinity, (Ashgate Publishing Limited, England, 2009), 73.

Thomas Torrance V. Charles Ryrie on Biblical Inerrancy

The following will be jolting to an Evangelical’s ear. This is Thomas Torrance’s rationale for understanding Holy Scripture to be errant; the analogy he uses, or really the ontology he uses is that of fallen humanity. He correlates humanities’ fallness, and human language as part and parcel with this; as the mode which Scripture takes as God’s redemptive and inerrant Word takes hold of human language, and in his in-spirated obedience ‘bends’ it back to find its purpose in its reality; the reality to which it points. So for Torrance, it is unthinkable to think that Scripture could be anything other than errant; only because it is this very human language that needed to be redeemed in the first place. With this as the reality, Torrance’s aversion to biblical inerrancy is not a function of holding to what Evangelicals might consider Liberalism (the kind of ‘Liberalism’ that gave rise to Christian fundamentalism and the doctrine of inerrancy in the first place); but instead Torrance’s account is situated within his Christological/soteriological frame in which Scripture—according to Torrance—ought to be situated. Here’s Thomas F. Torrance,

[T]he extraordinary fact about the Bible is that in the hands of God it is the instrument he uses to convey to us his revelation and reconciliation and yet it belongs to the very sphere where redemption is necessary. The Bible stands above us speaking to us the Word of God and yet the Bible belongs to history which comes under the judgment of God and requires the cleansing and atoning activity of the Cross. When we hear the Word of God in the Bible, therefore, we hear it in such a way that the human word of Holy Scripture bows under the divine judgment, for that is part of its function in the communication of divine revelation and reconciliation. Considered merely it in itself it is imperfect and inadequate and its text may be faulty and errant, but it is precisely in its imperfection and inadequacy and faultiness and errancy that God’s inerrant Holy Word has laid hold of it that it may serve his reconciling revelation and the inerrant communication of his Truth. Therefore the Bible has to be heard as Word of God within the ambiguity of its poverty and riches, its weakness and power, and heard in such a way that we acknowledge that in itself in its human expression, the Bible comprises the word of man with all the limitations and imperfection of human flesh, in order to allow the human expression to fulfill its divinely appointed and holy function for us, in pointing beyond itself, to what it is not in itself, but to what God has marvellously made it to be in the adoption of his Grace. The Bible itself will pass away with this world, but the Word of God which it has been inspired to convey to us does not pass away but endures for ever. [Thomas F. Torrance, Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics, 9-10]

This, then, does not represent an insensitive frontal attack on Biblical inerrancy; in fact Torrance’s project seeks to understand Scripture from within a Christically framed understanding of the relation of the divine and the human in the hypostatic union realized in Jesus Christ. Torrance’s view of Scripture is corollary with his view on the ‘kind of humanity’ that Christ assumed in the incarnation; viz. a fallen human in need of redemption (so Scripture as human language).

This kicks against the goads, as I already noted, for the American Evangelical. I would suggest though, that one of the reasons this is hard teaching for the Evangelical is because it takes Scripture and its mastery away from our control; and instead it places the control of Scripture in the hands of its reality, Jesus Christ. No longer is Scripture open for public consumption, but for Torrance the Bible is a decidedly Christian venture that requires eyes and ears of faith to see and hear God’s Word confront us through it. Here is how Charles Ryrie would respond to Torrance:

[T]he logic of some still insists that anything involving humanity has to allow for the possibility of sin. So as long as the Bible is both a divine and human Book the possibility and actuality of errors exist.

Let’s examine that premise. Is it always inevitable that sin is involved where humanity is?

If you were tempted to respond affirmatively, an exception probably came to mind almost immediately. The title of this chapter put the clue in your mind. The exception is our Lord Jesus Christ. He was the God-Man, and yet, His humanity did not involve sin. So He serves as a clear example of an exception to the logic pressed by people who believe in errancy.

The true doctrine of the God-Man states that He possessed the full and perfect divine nature and a perfect human nature and that these were united in one Person forever. His deity was not in any detail diminished; His humanity was not in any way sinful or unreal, though sinless; and in His one person His natures were without mixture, change, division, or separation.

Similarly, the Bible is a divine-human Book. Though it originated from God, it was actually written by man. It is God’s Word, conveyed through the Holy Spirit. Sinful men wrote that Word but did so without error. Just as in the Incarnation, Christ took humanity but was not tainted in any way with sin, so the production of the Bible was not tainted with any errors. [Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology, 83]

And Ryrie further:

[…] Even if the errors are supposedly in “minor” matters, any error opens the Bible to suspicion on other points which may not be so “minor.” If inerrancy falls, other doctrines will fall too. . . . When inerrancy is denied one may expect some serious fallout in both doctrinal and practical areas. [p. 77]

For Torrance, Scripture is in God’s hands first; for Ryrie, for Scripture to be Scripture it is in our hands first—once we’ve “proven” through scientific rigor, that Scripture is reliable, then we can approach the Bible as reliable, and in fact God’s Word to humanity. So for Ryrie it all depends upon our defense of Scripture; if we can’t prove it to be Scripture (without error), then it is no longer a reliable Word from God, and thus Christianity ought to go the way of other myths—this is the implication of Ryrie’s approach.

I could say much more, but this post just went over that magic word count number for posts on blogs (a 1000 words), and so I better stop or you won’t read.

The Special Nature of Scripture, is only Special, First, Because of Jesus: The Order

Let me quote a friend of mine, Darren Sumner (a PhD student at Aberdeen, almost done) on Karl Barth’s understanding of Scripture—I will be getting into what Darren is sketching further, as I provide some quotes and reflection from T.F. Torrance on Scripture and its humanity later today — all of this is in continued response to a friend whom I work with, who still seems quite skeptical about the Special witness of Scripture amongst the range that a pluralistic world and society and cultures provide relative to other books that claim to be Holy … so his concern continues to be, ‘okay, but what makes the Christian Bible most holy, or exclusively holy?’; and of course my answer has to do with what Sumner highlights below—relative to Barth’s view and usage of Scripture—that is, the centrality that Jesus Christ is to the whole of Scripture. As Carl Henry underscored for us the other day, Jesus himself and his personal view of Scripture ought to be determinative for how others (Christians and non-Christians alike) seek to understand and engage the authority and formative role of Scripture. So the problem for the higher critic or plain old non-believing person is not ultimately with the Special nature of Scripture, but instead; it is with the Special reality of the personal-work of Jesus Christ—who is the reality of Scripture’s witness. So this ultimately becomes an issue of first order V. second order consideration; Jesus and who he is is of first order importance, if you reject who he is, then it will only make sense that you will reject the second order and derivative specialty of Scripture—sense Scripture, for the Christian, is not an self-enclosed book of aphorisms and ‘historicisms’, but instead it is a book that like John Calvin’s spectacles is opened up towards it reality, Jesus Christ. So my friend from work (who is reading this 😉 ), we need to talk about something even that much more basic and fundamental; that is your rejection of Jesus as the Self-revealing, Self-interpreting personal loving gracious God who became fully man (and remained fully God) in the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. Our discussions are always, at least from me, going to be conditioned by this central reality. Without further ado then, let us hear from Darren on Barth’s view of Scripture; and then later today or tomorrow I will follow with some dovetailing (and even a bit more pointed for my friend) comments from Scottish born (and student of Karl Barth) theologian Thomas Forsyth Torrance. Sumner writes:

[B]arth is often criticized for having a low view of the nature of Scripture — that it is “mere” witness to God’s revelation, and not revelatory itself. (See this post for a bit more on this topic.) What we see here is that Barth’s view of the function of Scripture (read: its authority for believers) is, in fact, quite high. From its sermons and teachings to its theology, from its worship to its sacramental practice and its mission in the world, the church stands under the authority of Holy Scripture. It cannot do an end-run around the Bible and appeal to Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit in any form other than the one in which they present themselves to us.

But the church’s speech, including its historic creeds, is derivative of this.  In short, the church only speaks truth in the formulation of dogma insofar as it is faithfully explicating the Word of God in Scripture. The standard by which the rightness of doctrine — or “orthodoxy” — is to be measured is ultimately not the creeds but the Scripture to which they point. This was the view of the Reformers. The creeds and confessions of the tradition do play a regulative role, of course, but this role is largely sociological. [Darren O. Sumner, see full post here]

So this is rather self authenticating, which is the point, about the nature of Scripture. This doesn’t get into what has been called ‘Text, Canon, & Transmission’ issues of Holy Scripture, but it does get us to the premise from which those issues (of Scriptural formation) ought to be understood; again, that is relative to the central role that Jesus Christ himself has as the ground upon which these other issues of canonization take their tenor and form. Without Jesus taking up the Old Testament promises as their New Testament fulfillment, and without his self-conscious understanding of all of this; the Scriptures we have today would never have taken shape or form, there would have been no Church and no Apostolic witness to give something form in the first place. In other words, the Church and Scriptures must of necessity presuppose upon the fact that Jesus is & was both their author and finisher. So my friend from work 🙂 … we are going to have to talk more about Jesus before we can talk about canon. If you’re concern is that we wouldn’t have Jesus without the canon of Scripture, as I just noted, that would be to fail to recognize the proper order that must be present in order for the conditions of the canonization of the Scriptures to be present in the first place. So there is a self-authenticating sense to the formation of the Scriptures, but only insofar as that self-authenticity is given its reality through its special witness bearing capacity towards its subject matter; that is the person of Jesus Christ. More to come …

The order of salvation, Christ's Life for us

Here is a quote from Robert T. Walker (T. F. Torrance’s nephew, and editor of Torrance’s posthmously published work Incarnation), he is unfolding, in an “editor’s introduction,” how his uncle understood the vicarious nature of faith through the humanity of Christ’s life. I think this is brilliant, and also think it dovetails nicely with Martin Luther’s understanding of the ‘vicarious’ nature of Christ’s life for us; which I have noted elsewhere. Here we go:

iv.) faith involves living by the faith of Christ — Torrance points out the significance of the Greek wording of Galatians 2.20, ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ We have been brought to know God. Our old way of living in which we did not know God has been put to death with Christ. We now live, we have faith, we interpret the scriptures and do theology, and yet it is not us but Christ who lives in us. The real believer is Christ and we live by and out of the human faith of Christ.

v.) faith is living by the ‘vicarious humanity’ of Christ — a key part of Torrance’s theology is the fact that everything that Jesus did in his humanity he did for us and everything that Jesus is he is for us. It is all ours through union with him in faith. What we could not do for ourselves God has come to do for us as man. The person of Christ is not just God acting for salvation, it is God acting as man for us. Christ’s life of ‘passive obedience’, in which he suffered the judgment of God and atoned for our sins on the cross, means that we are freed from them. Christ’s life of ‘active obedience’, in which he positively fulfilled the Father’s will, means that his human righteousness is ours and is a fundamental part of our justification. Jesus has completed all the parts of our salvation in the whole course of his life. His human life he lived for us and in our place. The relation between our faith and Christ’s, our life now and his vicarious humanity for us, is exactly that described in Galatians 2.20 and described elsewhere in Paul as life in union with Christ.

vi.) faith is union with Christ through the Spirit — for Torrance, the Christian life is one of union with Christ in which in faith we live out of his faith and his righteousness. Having no righteousness in ourselves, we are united to him so that we may live out of his. Our faith is the knowledge, given to us in the Spirit, that he has accomplished our salvation in his person and work and that we are saved purely by his unconditional grace.

This does not mean that we do nothing although it does mean that we do nothing for our salvation. For Torrance, there is an analogy here with the person Christ. The fact that the humanity of Christ owes its being entirely to the action of God in the incarnation, does not mean it is not real. The fact that Christ is all God, or that all of God is in Christ, does not mean that there is nothing of man in him, but the opposite, that all of man is in him. Torrance used to explain that in the logic of grace, ‘All of grace does not mean nothing of man. All of grace means all of man.’ The knowledge that forgiveness and salvation is all of grace liberates us out of ourselves into union with Christ, freeing us to live fully and freely out of him. All of grace means all of man, just as the action of God in Christ means all of man in Christ. (Robert T. Walker, ed., “Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ,” xlv-xlvii)

Do you catch the significance of union with Christ through his incarnation ‘for us’? Do you see the need for Christ to assume all of humanities’ brokenness, within His very life? Torrance assumes what scripture assumes, that we cannot add anything to salvation. He underscores the necessity for God, outside of us, to become God ‘inside of us’, through incarnating; and thus taking our sinfulness to its logical end (the cross), trusting (‘faithing’) the Father (on our behalf, as our mediator) to ‘redeem’ that which needs to be ‘healed’ — which Christ has become for us. Do you see how faith is ‘vicarious’ in this paradigm? We could never do the heavy lifting, thus Christ! We would never trust anybody, but ourselves (left to ourselves), to do what’s best for ‘me and mine’. Thus God, in Christ, had to take us to where only He could, as a ‘bahhing’ lamb. It is this ‘vicarious’, even substitutionary (biblically understood), notion that Torrance is pressing, and laying bare in the Apostle Paul’s letter to Galatia. Since we couldn’t die for ourselves (we would not), we cannot “trust for ourselves;” it is only then by the Spirit’s creative work, that we are able to ‘trust out of Christ’s trust’. And thus our union with Christ, or rather His union with us, becomes the basis from whence humanity can be said to be ‘saved by faith’ at all — not our own faith, but the faith of Christ poured abroad upon our heart’s through the Holy Spirit. Not an ‘alien’ (but indeed external, albeit ‘for us’) faith, but the ‘personal’ faith of Christ, as ‘man’ for us; finding its guiding shape through the divine life of the Son [anhypostasis] (begotten of the Father), through the creative ‘otherness’ of the Spirit, for us, in Christ, for us [enhypostasis].

Brilliance, upon brilliance . . . the life of God, known through Christ is staggering!

**P. S. the crazy thing is, is that this is only talking about Torrance’s thought, we haven’t even made it to Torrance himself yet! Do you like? If so, stay tuned for more meat from Torrance in the days to come — you can be sure I will be quoting and reflecting on him, profusely!**

Exposing an Aspect of Classic Calvinism: Distinguishing John Calvin from Theodore Beza

Calvinism is not a monolithic reality (thus this blog), historically, often times I find, when interacting with Classic Calvinists, that there is the pervasive belief that “their” tradition is pure gospel without development. I think the following, at least, illustrates that this is too reductionistic, and in fact there is significant disagreement between someone like John Calvin (Evangelical Calvinist par excellence) and Theodore Beza (Classic Calvinist the fountain-head), on the ordo salutis and the decrees .

In Richard Muller’s book: Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology From Calvin to Perkins, he is discussing Theodore Beza’s articulation of Christ and the decrees relative to predestination and the consequent doctrine of sanctification and assurance. Let’s hear from Muller on Beza’s view on “finding assurance” of salvation:

The syllogismus practicus [practical syllogism] appears in Beza’s thought as, at most, a partial solution to the problem of assurance. Beza frequently spoke of the inner witness of the Spirit as a ground of assurance, particularly in the context of justification and sanctification. This accords, on the one hand, with Beza’s forensic definition of justification and, on the other, with his recognition that sanctification could not be equated with progress toward a sinless life; in neither case could the emperical syllogismus enter the picture as the sole ground of assurance. But when Beza asks the question of the Christian life that results from faith, justification, and sanctification, proceeding, that is, from the divine cause to its human effects, he more pointedly even than Calvin, demands that good work follow. Throughout Beza’s works there is a tension between the spiritual and the emperical grounds of assurance: there is, in the relatively late study on Ecclesiastes, a denial of any use of material riches as a sign of justification or election–but in the isolated statement of the Catechismus compendarius, the syllogism rears its head in unabated form.

As Bray remarks, we encounter in Beza hardly a trace of Calvin’s teaching concerning Christ as the ground of assurance. There is a strong christological center in all of Beza’s attempts at systematic formulation and we sense everywhere the connection between Christ and the decree, but on the problem of assurance, which must always relate to causally to the decree, there is little christological discussion. In a sense, then, Beza allows more of a separation to occur between the munus Christi and the ordo salutis than does Calvin, to the end that the causal-emperical and pneumatological interests of the ordo predominate. . . . (Richard Muller, Christ and the Decree, 85)

The first point I want to highlight on Beza is that according to Muller the “Practical Syllogism” played a heavy heavy role as the basis for the elect to find assurance of salvation—in other words, emperically “proving” salvation was predominate within the soteriology of Beza. Secondly, there is a juxtaposition between the trajectory set by Beza versus the trajectory set by Calvin in regards to the basis of finding assurance (Calvin, according to Muller, believed that Christ alone was the sole base for finding assurance of salvation vs. Beza who “demanded” that good works are necessary if a person is to have assurance of salvation).

While Beza desires to present an christocentric soteriology, it appears, at least according to Muller’s analysis, that he becomes bogged down by concerns relative to ordo salutis rather than to emphasize the PERSON AND WORK of Jesus Christ.

Let me leave with a suggestion: it is this kind of Calvinism that is considered “Orthodox” today, the kind that was ratified at the Synod of Dordt. Again this kind of regimented Calvinism finds its genesis and shape through its Doctrine of God. The “Doctrine of God” that leads to a Bezan understanding (even a Westminster understanding), is the one informed by what has been called Thomism; that is, Thomas Aquinas’ (Roman Catholic scholar) integration of Aristotelian categories of the infinite with the Christian God. If we err at this point, which I believe Classic Calvinism has, then every other doctrine (including soteriology, issues dealing with salvaiton) will be skewed from an actual “Evangelical” understanding of Christian theology.

In fact it is this issue that will determine whether someone ends up an Evangelical Calvinist versus a Classic Calvinist; that is how we “start” out talking about God. I will need to unpack more of this later . . . I can do some of that in the comment meta if you want.

P. S. If anything, I want you to walk away from this post realizing that there really is a discernable distinction, very early on, to be made amongst Calvinism[s]. Thus, at the least, my blog title is warranted; and in fact, within the history of ideas, these distinctions are demanded if we are going to be “people of the truth” (Janice Knight has made a distinction between English Calvinism, one she labels The Spiritual Brethren [which would correlate closely to our “Evangelical Calvinism”, in some ways], and The Intellectual Fathers [which would correlate to “Classic Calvinism”, exactly] — I’m bursting at the seems here ;-), I have a surplus of things I want to speak to . . . in time ;-). I have left some terms undefined in this post (i.e. practical syllogism), this is on purpose . . . I’m hoping to create some space for discussion and questions :-).