What is Evangelical Calvinism?

I wrote the following just before Thanksgiving last year. I was going to write a new post in an attempt to redress these things for new readers, but I thought I would just repost this one since it covers all the bases I had intended to cover in the post I was about to write. One thing that hinders people from really grasping our whole ‘Evangelical Calvinist’ project is the amount of historical context someone must have in order to really apprehend what we are doing. People (especially at the popular level) just presume that when they hear ‘Calvinism’ that they have a general idea of what any iteration of its doctrinal development must entail. Attempting to ‘become’ an Evangelical Calvinist requires work and staying-power that I have found most don’t have; and so we haven’t made hardly a dint in the popular ecclesial world. Be that as it may the historical and theological facts don’t go away; i.e. they aren’t mind-dependent (e.g. they don’t require that people know about them in order for them to be part of the swath of Reformed theological development). Hopefully the following will help bring further enlightenment for some.

What is Evangelical Calvinism, and how is it different from Federal (Covenantal) theology, and more popularly (and reductionistically) 5 Point Calvinism? For starters my Evangelical Calvinist colleague, Myk Habets and I have co-written two introductions to our 2 volumed Evangelical Calvinism series; you can read those in Volume 1 and Volume 2. But I wanted this post to be more concise than those intros are; and paired down for the social media attention span. In a nutshell Evangelical Calvinism is what the blurb to our first volume (2012) says:

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.[1]

But you might be asking: okay, but what does Evangelical Calvinism entail in material detail? If you purchase our first volume (kindle is $9.99) Myk and I present 15 theological theses in the last chapter of the book. You will have a much fuller grasp of what in fact we are on about after reading these. Here they are, but without the development they receive in the book:

Thesis One. The Holy Trinity is the absolute ground and grammar of all epistemology, theology, and worship.

Thesis Two. The primacy of God’s triune life is grounded in love, for “God is love.”

Thesis Three. There is one covenant of grace.

Thesis Four. God is primarily covenantal and not contractual in his dealings with humanity.

Thesis Five. Election is christologically conditioned.

Thesis Six. Grace precedes law.

Thesis Seven. Assurance is of the essence of faith.

Thesis Eight. Evangelical Calvinism endorses a supralapsarian Christology which emphasizes the doctrine of the primacy of Christ.

Thesis Nine. Evangelical Calvinism is a form of dialectical theology.

Thesis Ten. Evangelical Calvinism places an emphasis upon the doctrine of union with/in Christ whereby all the benefits of Christ are ours.

Thesis Eleven. Christ lived, died, and rose again for all humanity, thus Evangelical Calvinism affirms a doctrine of universal atonement.

Thesis Twelve. Universalism is not a corollary of universal redemption and is not constitutive for Evangelical Calvinism.

Thesis Thirteen. There is no legitimate theological concept of double predestination as construed in the tradition of Reformed Scholasticism.

Thesis Fourteen. The atonement is multifaceted and must not be reduced to one culturally conditioned atonement theory but, rather, to a theologically unified but multi-faceted atonement model.

Thesis Fifteen. Evangelical Calvinism is in continuity with the Reformed confessional tradition.[2]

The contributors to our edited volumes work from various emphases, in regard to the broader Reformed tradition. But we all concur on a historic mood that we understand to be present and pervasive throughout the history and development of Reformed theology. My personal orientation, as an Evangelical Calvinist has taken shape after the theologies of Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, John Calvin (and Martin Luther even though he isn’t “Calvinist,” per se). Evangelical Calvinism is Athanasian rather than Augustinian in trajectory. This means that we operate from within an ontological understanding of salvation rather than juridical/forensic, as the latter has developed and taken shape in the West (to oversimplify a bit). This also means, at least for me, that I think in terms of an absolute mode of sola gratia: viz. I do not operate with the Thomist or Aristotelian concept of ‘grace perfecting nature,’ as if the former complements or completes the latter in a one-for-one correspondence. In other words, I operate out of a slavish adherence to what TF Torrance identifies as ‘grace-all-the-way-down.’ This means that there is no dualistic conception, that there is no two-story universe of Nature/Grace. For me, as an Evangelical Calvinist, all of reality is grounded in God’s inner life of triune Grace for us (pro nobis). Karl Barth articulates this idea well when he writes:

How can grace meet him as grace if it simply decks itself out as nature. When grace is revealed, nature does not cease to exist. How can it, when God does not cease to be its Creator? But there is in nature more than nature. Nature itself becomes the theatre of grace, and grace is manifested as lordship over nature, and therefore in its freedom over against it. And again God is not less but more gracious for us in miracle than elsewhere. Again miracle is simply the revelation of the divine glory otherwise hidden from us, on the strength of which we can believe and honour Him elsewhere as Creator and Lord. Miracle must not be reduced to the level of God’s other and general being and action in the world. Its miraculous nature must not be denied. It must be maintained—even for the sake of the general truth. For it is miracle alone which opens for us the door to the secret that the Creator’s saving opposition to us does not confront us only at individual points and moments, but throughout the whole range of our spatio-temporal existence.[3]

This ought to give you a sense of what I am referring to in regard to ‘grace all the way down.’ My form of Evangelical Calvinism also works from the mode of theological development that Philip Ziegler identifies as Apocalyptic Theology; which the quote from Barth above illustrates quite nicely.

Ultimately, Evangelical Calvinism is an alternative iteration of Calvinism within broader Reformed theology that operates from a more Patristic or Eastern orientation. An iteration that starts its thinking from an absolute solo Christo (Christ alone), meaning that we reject natural theology, and its mechanism found in the so-called analogia entis (analogy of being). An iteration that rejects all forms of dualism as we find in classical Calvinism, and its adoption of the Aristotelian two-story universe of nature/grace. Evangelical Calvinism, in other words, is not your grandpa’s Calvinism; or maybe it is, that is if he was attuned to the ulterior development of Calvinism that was present all along through the 16th and 17th centuries of such development. Hopefully this piques your interest.


[1] Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church: Volume 1.

[2] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene: OR, Pickwick Publications, 2012), 425-52.

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 §31: Study Edition Vol 9 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 72.

Jesus’s Eternal Life as the End and Beginning of All Things: Applied to the death of Ron Grow

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. –II Corinthians 4

I am continuing to process my grief at the loss of my dad. My dad suffered like Job in many ways. Although much, if not most of my dad’s suffering was brought on by the [bad] choices he made. Nonetheless, he suffered immensely, and he did so as a child of the living God. He struggled with prescription drug addiction; deep doubts about his salvation (which actually led to the drug addiction); he endured unending sense of loss; he went through a divorce from my mom after 36 years of marriage that he never recovered from; he lost many close to him, the last was his cousin, Tommy, who was like a brother to him (Tommy wasn’t a Christian when he killed himself approx 3 years ago). My dad suffered immensely, and in ways that my short list does not adequately capture (I didn’t even mention all the physical stuff he dealt with). But in this all there was redemption. You see, my dad is the type of person that Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, came for. Jesus came for the bruised reed, the smoldering wick, the downcast and broken; my dad qualified. The wisdom of God, a staurological wisdom, is of the sort that assumes sinful humanity all the way down. In this assumption the Son ensarkos takes all the blights, even our unbelief and disobediences, and puts these many deaths to death in His singular death for us. The Son of God, the Christ penetrates so deeply into the warp and woof of our sinful beings that he captures our bone marrow itself and redeems it. He did this for my dad. Even in, especially in my dad’s broken and tattered status, the Son of God, who is the Christ, vanquished all the dark nights of the soul at their very fountainhead, and brought eternal life as a well-spring that flows throughout all the ages. My dad’s sinful and battered status was assumed by the Son of God in the incarnation, and redeemed from the inside/out. And yet, and this is the Wisdom, God was able to use all of the suffering, even of the self-inflicted sort that my dad suffered from, and bring new creation through the resurrected and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man. There is no loss where Jesus Christ sets His foot, there is only always gain. My dad experienced this gain in seedling form in 1970, and now in penultimate blossomed form in his currently intermediate status now.

Samuel Rutherford (1600 – 1661), Scottish theologian and pastor, wrote the following with reference to trial and tribulation vis-à-vis eternity:

For your afflictions are not eternal; time will end them, and so shall you at length see the Lord’s salvation. His love sleepeth not, but is still working for you. His salvation will not tarry or linger; and suffering for Him is the noblest cross that is out of Heaven. . . and this is the fruit, the flower and bloom growing out of your cross, that ye be a dead man to time, to clay, to gold, to country, to friends, wife, children, and all pieces of created nothings; for in them there is not a seat nor bottom for soul’s love. Oh, what room is for your love (if it were as broad as the sea) up in heaven, and in God!

We may indeed think, Cannot God bring us to heaven with ease and prosperity? Who doubteth but He can? But His infinite wisdom thinketh and decreeth the contrary; and we cannot see a reason of it, yet He hath a most just reason. We never with our eyes saw our own soul; yet we have a soul. We see many rivers, but we know not their first spring and original fountain; yet they have a beginning. Madam, when ye are come to the other side of the water, and have set down your foot on the shore of glorious eternity, and look back again to the waters and to your wearisome journey, and shall see, in that clear glass of endless glory, nearer to the bottom of God’s wisdom, ye shall then be forced to say, “If God had done otherwise with me than He hath done, I had never come to the enjoying of this crown of glory.”[1]

Don’t lose hope. God in Christ is hope. No matter what our plights in this vanquished life Christ is its end; and if He is its end He is its beginning too. Jesus is, indeed, the Alpha and Omega of God for the world; Jesus is this world’s telos, and only reason for existence. It is as we are participatio Christi that we begin to experience what this existence is all about. Unfortunately, since we still inhabit these bodies of death, our experience is shaped by bouts of death. But as Christians, even as we are constantly being given over to the death of Christ, it is only so that His life might be made manifest through the mortal members of our bodies; our bodies of death. This is what Rutherford is on about; he understood that this life isn’t our life at all, but Christ’s! Our lives, according to the Apostle Paul, aren’t ours, they are Christ’s. This means, once we are born again of the imperishable seed of baby Jesus’s life that no matter what sort of peril or trauma enters our lives, it isn’t ours, and it belongs to Christ. The Christian understands that we never live in abstraction from Christ; the Christian knows that the ground of their human being is Christ’s human being for them. The Christian recognizes that there is a correspondence between our lives and Christ’s, and this precisely because the Son freely chose to make His all circumscribing life correspond to ours; that by His poverty for us we might be made rich through the election of His resurrected humanity pro nobis.

My dad knows this hope. He travailed and kicked in suffering such that I could hardly bear it. There is a paradox in his loss. I miss him in ways that are hard to articulate. But when I think of his suffering, and the state he would be in right now, if he had survived, I find great joy in knowing that he has finally been released from the surely bonds that his body of death shrouded him in. Thankfully, those bonds were Christ’s, and Christ shrugged them off once and for all in the resurrection. My dad lives in the resurrection fully now. Maranatha!


[1] Samuel Rutherford, Selections from His Letters, cited by Nick Needham, 2000 Years Of Christ’s Power: Volume 4: The Age Of Religious Conflict (London: Christian Focus Publications, LTD, 2017), 440.

Barth with Gerhard and Wollebius on Sola Scriptura Contra the Authority of Rome

The riposte from Roman Catholic and Orthodox apologists, maybe even some Anglican, is that the Bible’s canonicity is given to it in a causal way by the Church’s recognition. But the historic Protestant response is that as Calvin emphasizes, it is autopistis; or in other words, it is self-authenticating. Karl Barth, often chastised for being an enemy of Scripture, is actually one of Scripture’s most ardent warriors; particularly in regard to its Protestant iteration. Barth appeals to historic Protestant thinkers in his own articulation of a doctrine of Scripture. More pointedly, Barth appeals to John Gerhard and Johannes Wollebius as they counter Roman Catholics like, Sylvester Prierias and John Eck when they grant infallibility to the Pope and Roman Catholic Church over against Holy Scripture. Clearly this is an issue of authority; who has it? Does Scripture have it at a formal level, or does the Holy Roman See (this not to mention Orthodox conceptions of episcopacy vis-à-vis Scripture)?

Barth quotes Gerhard:

There is not a double authority of Scripture, but a single authority, and that is divine: it does not depend on the authority of the church, but on God alone. The authority of Scripture as far as we are concerned is nothing other than the manifestation and the knowledge of that single divine and supreme authority, which is internal and intrinsic to Scripture. Therefore, the church does not confer a new authority, as far as we are concerned, upon Scripture, but rather by its own testimony it leads us to the acknowledgement of that truth. We admit that of sacred Scripture the church is (1) the witness; (2) the guardian; (3) protector (4) the herald; (5) the interpreter. But let us not conclude from this that the authority of Scripture, whether in itself or in relation to us, depends on the church.[1]

And Wollebius:

The testimony of the church is prior in time, but the testimony of the Holy Spirit is prior in nature and causality. We believe that the testimony is of the church, not on account of the church. It is to be ascribed to the Holy Spirit on his own account. The testimony of the church demonstrates the fact ‘that’, but the testimony of the Holy Spirit demonstrates the ‘because’. The church advises, the Holy Spirit convinces. The testimony of the church provides opinion, but the testimony of the Holy Spirit provides knowledge and firm trustworthiness.[2]

Some Protestants, typically biblical studies folks it seems, want to signal the end of the Protestant Reformation. That in light of the New Paul Perspective[s] the soteriological reasons for the Protestant Reformation are no longer relevant; that Luther et al. were misguided. But these folks are moving too quickly. The Protestant Reformation, indeed had much to do with soteriology, but behind that there was a deeper issue of authority. This issue is ultimately an ecclesiological issue, and one that remains. What Gehard and Wollebius wrote in the 17th century is just as pertinent now as it was then; none of these issues have been resolved. Protestants still affirm the ‘Scripture Principle’ or sola Scriptura, whereas Roman Catholics (and Orthodox) do not. Indeed, at this level, the traditions are as far apart as ever. And this does have serious soteriological implications. If Rome or Constantinople have ‘the keys,’ then they decide who is genuinely ‘saved’ and who isn’t. There might be room for ecumenicism, such as we find with Thomas Torrance and the Orthodox focused on the doctrine of Trinity. But if we were to look to a doctrine of Scripture as the basis for ecumenical convergence between the traditions, it is not there.

 

[1] John Gerhard, Loci theolo., 1610 f., LI c. 3, 39, cited by Karl Barth, CD I/2 §19, 19.

[2] Johannes Wollebius, Comp. Christ. Theol., 1620, Praecogn. 9, cited by Karl Barth, CD I/2 §19, 19.

Karl Barth, The Reformed Theologian Par Excellence: Christ Rather than the Confessions as the Canon

This might seem rather pedantic, like at the level of: who cares? But, apparently I do. Others do too, but only those ensconced in the confessional of so called Protestant Reformed orthodoxy; theological identity is important in these sectors. For me it’s mostly important as a matter of fact, rather than proving an identity [for Barth] that in itself does nothing, one way or the other, with reference to his constructive theological offering for the Christian churches. Maybe you are tracking already with what I am referring to. Barth is denied entrée into the genuinely Reformed branches of the Protestant churches, pretty much because those in those churches believe he is still too liberal and modern; that he doesn’t submit, in slavish ways, to the confessional traditions in the purist ways they ostensibly do.

But Barth was a Reformed theologian. He might not fit in with the ad hoc standards the “standardizers” have set, but that’s no matter; that’s ad hoc. As is typical though with Barth his approach to all things, at a formal level even, is always Christ concentrated. Of course when we read Barth, as with any theologian, we must be attentive to their point of maturation. The early Barth, or we might say the Göttingen Barth, was clearly a Reformed theologian; just at the point that demarcated Lutherans from the Reformed, even in the magisterial days—the days saturated with the Eucharistic debates about Christ’s presence. This debate, surely, stemmed from a broader discussion and implication grounded in the Christological quarrels that we can trace into the patristic period.

At the very minimal we can say that the early Barth was a Reformed theologian. But I would contend that he remains largely Reformed throughout his career as a theologian; even after he reforms the classical understanding of election in Church Dogmatics II. Here Darren Sumner notes Barth’s self-conscious Reformed location, contra the Lutherans, as he works out his dogmatics in Göttingen:

Finally, it should be noted that here Barth is self-consciously Reformed. The lectures are given as a contrast to Lutheran Christology—which Barth regards as an innovation (particularly with respect to the communicatio idiomatum) doomed to fail just as Eutychian monophysitism failed. There seems to be no possibility of harmony between these two Reformation schools on the matter of Christology. Both lay claim to parts of the Chalcedonian Definition. One must decide between the two, and Barth acknowledges that the place from which he speaks is Reformed and not Lutheran: “One cannot be both, as far as I can see and understand.” But at least, Barth adds, the decision on the Reformed side has never been understood as exclusive: “Not No, but Yes!” The sense of this is that Barth believes that the Reformed may not have it all right in their Christology, but they did well in maintaining an attitude of theological openness while opposing the errors of their opponents. Theirs is a corrective, but not a replacement of one theological system with another, in a definite and exclusionary sense.[1]

I think this represents a better way towards identifying theological identity. In other words, why refer to the Reformed confessions as the standard for membership in the Reformed faith. Even among those who ostensibly adhere to them as their canons, even they have severe lassitude and disagreement on points of emphasis and articulation. Historically, I think referring to actual theological material as the theological identifier of someone is the better way. The Christological impasse represents an excellent standard for this, in and amongst the ancient and even contemporary Protestants.

Barth self-consciously falls on the Reformed side, particularly given his christological commitments. Even as he became more constructive, moving beyond Göttingen, he still retains his Reformed emphases. Just read his CD, in particular his footnotes and you’ll see his heavy engagement with the scholastics Reformed throughout.

At the end of the day, what Barth offered was a theological oeuvre that is fruitful and edifying because he attempted a theological endeavor that intentionally and obsessively worked from Jesus Christ. Whether or not this meets the standards of what counts as Reformed theology in the 21st century doesn’t ultimately matter. The eschaton will reveal what matters; the eschaton will be the time that shows that Barth’s attempt was the better way, just because he slaved himself to the Christ as the reality and centrum of all theological output for the churches. Even so, Barth was Reformed!

[1] Darren O. Sumner, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), Loc. 1965, 1973.

God’s Triune Life as Grace: In Contrast to Latin Theologies of the Catholic and Protestant Varieties

Where was I? Oh yeah, about a third of the way through my friend Geordie Ziegler’s book Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F. Torrance. I’ve had Geordie’s book for probably a couple of years now, and I’m supposed to write a review for it. Well I’m continuing on, and the review is forthcoming. I’ve already done a few posts engaging with Geordie’s book, and this will be another one. I will just say that Geordie has done a wonderful job in exposing what comprises TFT’s theology; particularly as Geordie’s thesis focuses on the Trinitarian nature of Torrance’s prolegomena, and the way that grace is embodied and acted out in the very Triune relations.

In this post I am going to offer a long quote from Geordie where he is discussing how Torrance refers to grace in homoousial terms. This might seem striking to the uninitiated, but Torrance offers a personalist understanding of orthodox Reformed theology—in contrast to the school theology of late mediaevalism and post Reformed orthodoxy that he is reifying in Christ concentrated mode—as such TFT does not think of grace in the scholastic frame as created grace. We won’t venture further into the details of so called ‘created grace’ (which we find in Thomas Aquinas, and carried over in some of the post Reformed orthodox), but it is contrary to this, and from a more ‘Eastern’ approach that Torrance develops his understanding of grace in a personalist Triune frame. As you read Ziegler’s development remember this prior context.

Here is Ziegler at length (I don’t like to offer quotes without length, have you noticed?):

First, in asserting the homoousion of Grace, Torrance is highlighting and clarifying two key aspects of Grace: (1) Grace is intensely personal and implacably objective. In an unpublished response to his critics, Torrance explains the movement of his thought in more detail:

What [the Reformers] did, then, was to apply the homoousion also to the acts of God, to revelation and grace, and to insist that what we have in the Word is God speaking personally, and what we have in grace is not something detachable from God, some sort of created grace or Arian entity, but very God of very God. They emphasized that the Word of God is God speaking Himself to us, that the Grace of God is total, God giving Himself unreservedly to us. This created in the most intense way personal relationships on the one hand—destroying the impersonalism and the objectivism of mediaeval theology—and yet emphasized the implacable objectivity of God on the other hand, for it is the sheer majesty of His Being, His ultimate Self-giving that we encounter in His Word and Grace.

For Torrance, Grace is the personal self−giving of the Triune God through Christ and the Spirit, by which creatures are given to share in the Father−Son relation. Grace is not a nebulous divine ‘good will,’ but has real content: “for what God communicates to us in his grace is none other than himself. The Gift and the Giver are one.” The application of the homoousion to Grace is to recognize Grace as “the one indivisible self-giving of God in Christ.” Grace is not therefore something abstract, an impersonal force, or a generalized divine favor; nor is it a generic term for the gratuitous character of all God’s gifts. Grace is irreducibly personal; in fact, Grace has a name. Torrance writes,

Grace is not something that can be detached from God and made to inhere in creaturely being as ‘created grace’; nor is it something that can be proliferated in many forms; nor is it something that we can have more or less of, as if grace could be construed in quantitive terms. This is the Reformation doctrine of tota gratia. Grace is whole and indivisible because it is identical with the personal self−giving of God to us in his Son. It is identical with Jesus Christ. Thus it would be just as wrong to speak of many graces as many Christs, or of sacramental grace as of a sacramental Christ, or of created grace as of a created Christ.

While Grace is not to be generalized, it cannot be delegated to just one member of the Trinity’s activity either, for that would reduce it to a purely economic and instrumental function. Thus as we have observed and argued throughout Torrance roots Grace in “the living relations of the Persons of the Holy Trinity”; which in freedom and love issue forth through the missions as a movement from the Father, through the Son in the Spirit, and which return in the Spirit through the Son to the Father. Thus,

Between its going forth from God and its coming out upon the creature grace at no point ceases to be what it is within the Trinity, in order to become what it was not, some impersonal entity or causality. Grace can never be regarded in an instrumental sense, for from beginning to end in grace God is immediately present and active as living Agent.

Torrance will not abide any break between the being of God and his activity, for that would involve the trading of impersonal instrumentalities for real relations of communion.

Practically speaking, the recognition that Grace is irreducibly personal and objective and raises strong objections to the “impersonal determinism” of some Protestant doctrines of election. By construing the operation of Grace according to some notion of causality, “the sui generis movement of grace” is converted into “causal terms,” which “can then appear to be only quite arbitrary.” Equally problematic in Torrance’s estimation is the Augustinian notion of irresistible Grace. He suggests that the doctrine deleteriously introduced an internal connection between Grace and cause, which made way for the more general view of Grace “as a divine mode of causation at work in the universe.” Torrance argues that at least partially the development of the notion of irresistible Grace is an anthropomorphic projection of pragmatism upon the Divine: God uses Grace to administrate his salvific agenda for humankind and in that way God’s use of Grace mirrors human means of Grace.[1]

For an elaboration on the discussion orbiting around grace as created, uncreated, and the like refer to my friend and fellow blogger, Fr Aidan Kimel’s post which engages with how grace has functioned for the big three traditions in Christendom: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. As you read Kimel’s post what you’ll recognize, after reading what I just shared from Geordie, is that Torrance’s approach clearly is in-formed by the Eastern trad (if we want to speak cleanly like that). But Torrance’s theology and logic of grace, as Ziegler develops it (and Geordie follows TFT to a T), even counters some of the things that Aidan shares in his post with reference to Augustine (as we see particularly in the last paragraph of the Ziegler quote).

What I want to press is really one thing: As Evangelical Calvinists we are less concerned with where the conceptual matter comes from—in regard to the various trads of the church—and more concerned with the fiduciary nature of the theological material and development itself. As such, when we think of God’s Triune life as a movement of dynamic grace, as he moves in and among Godself, and from there moves out for us, we think this is the right way to think precisely because it coheres and inheres so well with the reality of the Evangel itself. In other words, the God we encounter in Christ, as Athanasius is so prone to emphasize, is a God who is unity of being, which antecedes his will be done; the God we meet mediated through the God-man, Jesus Christ, is always and eternally already the Son of the Father. We don’t meet God as the Creator, first; not as Christians. We come to call God, LORD!, by the Spirit. It is in this onto-relation, as the reality of God’s inner-life, that the sheep come to know their God’s voice. It is in the dynamic of being-in-relation; the subject-in-being relationship (Torrance’s ‘onto-relation’) that has always already been the eternal reality of the Father-Son-Holy Spirit, and then this shared reality in his movement outward (humanward) towards us that we might move towards him in the Godward movement of his life for us in Christ.

You won’t find these emphases and foci in classical Reformed theology, of the Latin sort, precisely because of the type of voluntarist, on the one hand, and Thomist commitments, on the other hand that help fund the way they think of a God-world relation and what that does to concepts like grace in soteriological frame. This assertion will have to suffice for now, but you can peruse my various blog posts or two edited books for further development and substantiation of this thesis. What I do want to leave with is that Evangelical Calvinism works from the sort of conceptual matter that we see Geordie developing in his work on Torrance’s theology of grace.

 

[1] Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 132-34. I copy and pasted Ziegler’s quote from a PDF copy I have, as such his emphases and italicizes were negated in that process.

Theology of the Cross Retrieved and Reformed by a Radical and Dialectical Understanding of Correlation and Faith

Sola fide. Faith alone is the material principle of the Lutheran Protestant Reformation, and it is principial for the Reformed basis of knowledge of God and self. But because of classical metaphysics this principle didn’t blossom into the full flowered reality it had inherent to it in inchoate ways. In other words, because of an undeveloped grammar, because of the constraints presented by classical substance metaphysics, the idea of faith grounded in the kerygmatic reality (Evangelical reality) was moribund (I’ll have to leave at the level of assertion) in the sense that its full potential was not realizable until later developments.

Whether or not you agree with my assessment, and the sort of ‘retrieval’ I’m thinking of methodologically, David Congdon describes how faith alone as a material reality vis-à-vis the Gospel has resource to function in ‘critically’ ‘realistic’ ways in how we understood God and his relation to us through the Gospel (kerygma); how we understand the undertaking of theological discourse as that is objectively determined by the reality of God, and subjectively inhabited in human agents as they are in vicarious union with God’s subject for us in the humanity of Jesus Christ (that is some of my own interpolation, in regard to constructive thought based upon my reading of Congdon). Here Congdon has just finished some technical philosophical discussion in regard to developing what ‘correlation’ entails, particularly among French continental philosophy, and how grasping that helps us better locate the sort of dialectical theologies that both Barth and Bultmann operate from. For our purposes we will not engage with the technical philosophical discussion and instead engage with some of the conclusions of that as Congdon details its implications for us in the theologies of Barth/Bultmann (and dialectical theology in general).

What, then, is distinctively theological about the kind of strong correlationism that characterizes dialectical theology? Simply this: that the correlation is established and grounded in God. The action of God in the saving event of revelation is what creates the correlation between God and the human person. This correlation is faith, understood as a gift of divine grace. Unlike other objects, the object of faith is the divine subject, who is the active agent in the relation to humanity. The divine fides quae establishes the human fides qua. The human person does not have this correlation at her disposal but can only receive it ever anew. It is thus a kerygmatic correlation in that God constitutes the relation in and through the event of the divine word. A strong correlationism thus accomplishes what critical realism seeks to maintain—a real divine subject only accessible in and through this subject’s self-giving in faith—without the unnecessary and misleading baggage associated with the words “critical” and “realism.”[1]

This is important because God is understood as the personal object and subject of theology, and the gift of himself that he gives us in Christ comes with a corollary reality for us in that faith becomes the most fitting locus by which knowledge of this God can be ascertained by. In other words, there is no prior intuition that a person can come by in regard to knowledge of the Christian God; there is no naked knowledge of God in this understanding of correlation, as if human beings possess some sort of latent capacity (created grace) for an abstract knowledge of God. No, in this frame there is a ‘correlative’ component between our theology (nostra theologia) and God, but it isn’t idealistically determined by a free-floating or presumed upon human agency in the world of nature. Instead, knowledge of God, regulated by the Gospel (kerygmatic) is only accessible through the mediating faith of Christ. As we are in union with Christ’s knowledge of God for us, as he is in the center of God’s life as Godself, the faith we think from in regard to God is itself a reality generated by the ground that this faith breaks into. In short: dialectical theology and the Reformed faith it offers, a kerygmatic correlationist type, is one that is particularly shaped not by the human agent, but by the God who has spoken (Deus dixit).

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 422.

Why Evangelicals, the Classically Reformed, and the Post-Reformed orthodox Are Suspicious of After Barth Thinkers

If you don’t find yourself in agreement with mainstream evangelical reformed theology you might find yourself placed into a role that plays like the antitriniarian biblicists of 17th and 18th century Western Europeans. In other words, and this helps explain a lot for me personally, any reluctance to be a flaming post reformed orthodox thinker finding your theological marching orders from 16th and 17th century developments ostensibly places you into a mold that, at best, is on the fringes of Protestant orthodoxy, and at worst makes you a far-gone heretic (such as the antitrinitarians just noted). Richard Muller explains the matrix:

Not to be underestimated here is the impact of patristic scholarship in the seventeenth century. If the Reformation altered the balance of Scripture and tradition by declaring that, although tradition stood as a subordinate norm identifying probabilities, it still could err (as demonstrated by the experience of the later Middle Ages), the antitrinitarian debate of the late seventeenth century altered the balance once more. The antitrinitarians claimed a biblical foundation that was radically antitraditionary—to the point that writers like Nye and Smalbroke argued the biblical rectitude of views expressed by early heretics like the Ebionites and Nazarenes.

The last decades of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century saw such a vast alteration of the exegetical and philosophical framework of explanation that the attempts at trinitarian discussion of a whole generation of writers failed to produce a statement of doctrine that was at the same time philosophically contemporary and theologically orthodox. In addition, these English Socinians claimed to be truly Protestant and fundamentally biblicistic, true heirs of the Reformation—noting that the Reformation proclaimed the correct biblical standard but did not go far enough in rooting out the problematic elements of the tradition (among which the doctrine of the Trinity held a place of prominence).[1]

Muller, and many following him, believes that the 18th century is the period where Reformed orthodoxy took a turn for the worse and began a turn to heterodoxy. His development above helps us to see the premises that funded this deleterious turn, in Muller’s eyes. It is a radical-biblicism uncoupled from any norms found in the ecumenical church councils (particularly Nicaea-Constantinople and Chalcedon) that Muller sees as the culprit. We have these contours already present, as Muller notes, in the late 17th century which we see climaxing in the English Enlightenment and the rationalism produced therein (Muller sees Christian Wolff as a key player in this polluting time).

What does this mean for Modern theology vis-à-vis Protestant orthodox theology in the period prior? By and large it means anyone thinking from the former period needs to be approached with some serious suspicion; that such thinkers might well be closer to the antitrinitarians than they are the orthodox. This is why anyone associated with Karl Barth, not just incidentally, but in more overt terms, is typically written off as a “Barthian.” Such people are immediately, by the purported “orthodox” folks (the folks involved in the project of repristinating [oh, constructively of course] the 16th and 17th century orthodox developments), placed into the antitriniarian if not full-fledged Socinian type-set.

Sure, there are multitudinous examples of modern theologians, theological biblicists, who indeed fit Muller’s description of antitraditionary to the core. But it is, for one thing, a sweeping generalization to place people into that same location merely because they happen to believe that particular modern theologians (such as Barth and T Torrance) have some very valuable things to say; often in critique of many of the 16th and 17th century moves. This is unfortunate, to say the least.

I think there is a slippery-slope fear that many of these “conservatives” have. And to be frank, yes, I can think of examples of people I know who went whole-hog into modern theology and indeed fit into this sort of ‘biblicist’ mode; who have bit-the-bullet so hard that they are now denying basic and traditional Christian teaching around the bodily resurrection of Christ, or belief in an “after-life.” But this is  not the necessary conclusion that comes by finding value in modern theologies. I affirm all of the trad teachings of historic Christianity, and yet think very closely alongside of folks like Barth et al.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Four. The Triunity of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 121.

The Prius of God’s Life IS God’s Life of Triune Personal Love: An Alternative Account of Predestination Referred to God’s Life

Predestination that shibboleth of Reformed theology; it has been shibboleth to me as well. Predestination is the idea that God arbitrarily elects particular people to eternal life, and chooses that others either remain (passive) reprobate or are (active) reprobate with no actual hope for eternal life. This approach to a God-world relation relies upon a philosophical theory of causation of the sort that we find in Aristotle’s theology; a theory of causation that relegates God’s relation to the world to a set of necessary commitments—primary of which is that God is the Unmoved Mover (e.g. impassibility; immuatability). Without getting into the details of what this theory of causation entails specifically I will refer us instead to the Westminster Confession of Faith’s (WCF) chapter three where it confesses what it thinks about a God-world relation in the doctrine of Predestination:

Chapter III

Of God’s Eternal Decree

I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. II. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions. III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death. IV. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished. V. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto; and all to the praise of His glorious grace. VI. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only. VII. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extends or withholds mercy, as He pleases, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice. VIII. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel.[1]

For its time and place this might have been the best the Westminster Divines could do; viz. with the theological categories they had available to them—although that is contestable, given the reality that there were counter voices within the Reformed world at that time who emphasized a God of immediate personal love (think, Richard Sibbes). But we live in the 21st century, and time has passed; reflection has been undertaken; theological categories have developed; and I would suggest that the Gospel can be better for it. Thomas Torrance under the influence of Athanasius and Karl Barth (and Michael Polyani, Clerk Maxwell, Einstein et al.) offers an alternative account of Predestination wherein the reference is not individual people scattered throughout the annals of created history, but instead the reference is God’s life in Christ. In other words, Pre-destination, in Torrance’s theology, and Evangelical Calvinist theology after, refers to God’s life in Christ, his choice to be for the world and not against it, his prothesis grounded in who he is as eternal Triune love. For Torrance God’s life of love just is the inner-factor that grounds his choice to be Immanuel, God with us. This is counter the ad hoc choice of God we see orienting the doctrine of predestination in the theology of the Westminsterians; a choice that he makes based upon his secret will hidden in the recesses of his remote life that remains inaccessible (Deus absconditus) even with the revelation (Deus revelatus) of Godself in Christ. In other words, again as both Barth and Torrance would say, there is a ‘god behind the back of Jesus’ in the Westminsterian schema such that we aren’t ultimately sure of why God does what he does; only that he indeed does it. But this isn’t concordant with Holy Scripture or the reality it attests to in Jesus Christ. What we know is that God does what he does because he is love, of the sort that shapes his response to the human predicament by electing to be human, and giving his life in Christ for the sheep. What we know is that God acts in personal and intimately driven ways, filial ways, of the sort that inhere eternally between the Father and the Son by the fellowshipping love of the Holy Spirit. Place this up against the Westminsterian conception of God in the doctrine of predestination and see if it coheres.

Paul Molnar, as he develops Thomas Torrance’s theology (and Barth’s) of predestination offers a wonderful account of all that we have just been sketching. Let me offer, at length, his considerations, and commend them to you. As Evangelical Calvinists, what follows, by way of description of Torrance’s theology, is what shapes our own approach to a doctrine of Pre-destination.

The second important thing to notice is that Torrance insists that in Jesus Christ we are confronted with “the eternal decision of God’s eternal love. In Jesus Christ, therefore, eternal election has become temporal event.” But that means that election is not “some static act in a still point of eternity.” Rather it is “eternal pre-destination, moving out of its eternal prius into time as living act that from moment to moment confronts people in Jesus Christ.” Hence, “the ‘pre’ in predestination refers neither to a temporal nor to a logical prius, but simply to God Himself, the Eternal.” This is a vital insight. For Torrance, while we tend to think of eternity “as strung out in an infinite line with past, present, and future though without beginning and without end, in the form of an elongated circular time,” this must not lead us to suppose that there is a “worldly prius” in God, because that would introduce immediately a “logical one” as well. If and when predestination is brought within the compass of created time, then it would be thought of within the “compass of the temporal-causal series” and “interpreted in terms of cause and effect,” and this would necessarily lead to determinism, which is the very opposite of what is actually affirmed in the “pre” of predestination. Torrance says the “pre” in predestination, when rightly understood, is “the most vigorous protest against determinism” known to Christian theology. Since the “pre” in predestination does not refer to a “prius to anything here in space and time,” it cannot be construed as “the result of an inference from effect to first cause, or from relative to absolute, or to any world-principle.” Rather, because election is “in Jesus Christ,” the “pre” does not take election “out of time” but “grounds it in an act of the Eternal which we can only describe as ‘per se’ or ‘a se.’” That means it is grounded “in the personal relations of the Trinity” so that “because we know God to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we know the Will of God to be supremely Personal—and it is to that Will that predestination tells us our salvation is to be referred.”

But we can make that reference only “if that Will has first come among us and been made personally known. That has happened (ἐγένετο) in Christ, and in Him the act of predestination is seen to be the act of creative Grace in the communion of the Holy Spirit.” Election thus refers to God’s “choice or decision” and “guarantees to us the freedom of God. His sovereignty, His omnipotence is not one that acts arbitrarily, nor by necessity, but by personal decision. God is therefore no blind fate, no immanent force acting under the compulsion of some prius or unknown law within His being.” The importance of emphasizing choice here concerns the fact that election cannot involve any necessity without becoming immediately a form of determinism. Instead, election refers to God’s freedom “to break the bondage of a sinful world, and to bring Himself into personal relations with man”; election refers to a personal action from God’s side and from the human side. Hence it is an act that creates personal relations. While God freely creates our human personal relations, human freedom is “essentially dependent freedom,” while “the divine freedom is independent, ‘a se’ freedom; the freedom of the Creator as distinguished from the freedom of the creature.” In this connection Torrance describes election as “an act of love.” It means that “God has chosen us because He loves us, and the He loves us because He loves us.”

That may sound a bit strange. But it is loaded comment, because what Torrance means is that if we try to get behind this act of God’s love toward us to find a reason beyond the simple fact that God loves us because he does, we will end up turning God’s free love of us into a necessity in one way or another and thus once again compromise both divine and human freedom in the process. So Torrance insists,

The reason why God loves us is love. To give any other reason for love than love itself, whether it be a reason in God Himself, such as an election according to some divine prius that precedes Grace, or whether it be in man, is to deny love, to disrupt the Christian apprehension of God and to condemn the world to chaos! [Torrance, “Predestination in Christ,” 117]

Election is Christ the beloved Son of the Father, and the act of election in him is once and for all, a perfectum praesens, an eternal decision that is ever present. God’s eternal decision does not halt or come to rest at any particular point or result, but is dynamic, and ever takes the field in its identity with the living person of Chirst. [Torrance, “Predestination in Christ,” 117]

Hence it is “contemporary with us” and summons us to decision as to who we say he is. Here we must confront more directly the relationship between time and eternity. How exactly can one maintain that election is an eternal decision without reducing the eternal love between the Father and Son to the love of God enacted in the history of Jesus Christ for us? How can one maintain the strength of Torrance’s insight that creation and incarnation are new acts even for God without obviating the power contained in the assertion that Jesus Christ is the ever-present act of God’s electing love?[2]

Molnar leaves off with some questions that alert us to the discussion and critique he has been making in regard to a McCormackian reading of Barth’s theology, in particular. But that does not currently concern us. I wanted to share this very lengthy quote (and thus risk losing blog readers who typically won’t go beyond 1500 words) in order to provide insight into theology that I rarely see shared online; at least not in the context of Reformed theology. People need to know that Reformed theology is expansive, but they also need to appreciate that Christian theology in general isn’t ultimately about being able to align with that interpretive tradition, or this; but instead what we should really care about is whether or not what is being communicated is most proximate with the Gospel itself.

What I hope you have come to see is that God loves us because he just is, LOVE! I hope you can see that there is a way to think of soteriological issues from within the concrete revelation of God’s life in Jesus Christ; and that from that vantage point how we conceive of the God-world relation ought to be thought of in personal rather than abstract terms. Theological systems are often averse to thinking in personal and relational terms because they are afraid that this reduces God-thought to an existentialist frame of reference (oh no, not that!), or that it so subjectivizes God that theology becomes a form of anthropology (the boogeyman, Schleiermacher). But within the theologies of Barth, Torrance et al. what becomes apparent is that none of those fears are true. If we want to think about Predestination properly then we ought to think it from God’s Self-revelation itself; where the Son of the Father is the primary means by which we understand God to be—in other words in personal terms.

[1]Westminster Confession of Faith.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 202-05.

‘He Descended to Hell’: How Historic Protestants Interpreted this Phrase in the Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
      he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

This Maundy Thursday I thought it would be fitting to press into the reality of what in fact took place not only on Good Friday, but Holy Saturday. In the Apostles’ Creed we have the (not uncontroversial) phrase ‘he descended into hell.’ For the remainder of this post we will look at how this phrase has been taken in and among the Protestant Reformed and Lutheran traditions; particularly as that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Richard Muller in his book Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (which I am currently working through) offers this definition on the Latin phrase descensus ad inferos (‘the descent into hell’),

viz., that portion of Christ’s work, in the text of the Apostles’ Creed, is mentioned immediately after the death and burial of Christ and immediately before the proclamation of the resurrection. The concept was a cause of debate between Lutherans and Reformed and subject to various interpretations on both sides. In general, the Reformed view the descensus as the final stage of Christ’s state of humiliation (status humiliationis, q.v.), while the Lutherans view it as the first stage of the status exaltationis (q.v.), or state of exaltation. Among the Reformed, Martin Bucer and Theodore Beza viewed the descensus as identical with the burial of Christ, while Calvin referred the descensus to the suffering of Christ’s soul coincident with the death and burial of the body. The Reformed scholastics tend to draw these themes together and argue that, loosely, the descensus refers to all the spiritual suffering of Christ’s passion and death and, strictly, to the bondage to death indicated by Christ’s three days in the tomb. The Reformed deny both the idea of a local descent of Christ’s soul into a place called hell or Hades and the teaching (based on 1 Peter 3:19) that he entered Hades to preach salvation to the patriarchs or to men from the age before Noah. Two sixteenth-century Lutheran theologians, Aepinus and Parsimonius, expressed doctrines similar to the Reformed. Aepinus clearly placed the descensus as the final stage of the status humiliationis and viewed it as the suffering of Christ’s soul in his conquest of death. Like the Reformed, Aepinus denied the relevance of 1 Peter 3:19. Parsimonious denied any physical or spatial descensus and similarly referred the descensus to Christ’s suffering. The Formula of Concord condemned speculative controversy on the descensus and argued that the descensus indicated Christ’s deliverance of believers from the “jaws of hell” in and through his victory over death, Satan, and hell. This positive, redemptive reading of the descensus carried over into Lutheran orthodoxy where the descensus ad inferos is interpreted as spiritual (i.e., neither physical nor local) descent to the domain of Satan to announce victory and triumph over the demonic powers. In this interpretation, 1 Peter 3:19 is not an evangelical preaching of salvation to the inhabitants of Hades but a legal preaching of the just damnation of the wicked. This is an act, not of the humiliated and suffering Christ, but of the exalted Christ. According to Lutheran dogmaticians, the descensus follows the quickening of Christ’s body and is the first stage of the status exaltationis.[1]

This provides insight into the ways that the primary traditions that developed out of the Protestant Reformation read the Apostles’ Creed and its phrase descensus ad inferos. No matter what emphasis we want to place on whichever theological syllable, what stands out is the wonder of the reality that God in Christ graciously humbled himself to the point of becoming man and was obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross; and this for us.

Beyond the mystery of it all there is a concrete physicality to it and existential grist that is felt in our lives as we participated with Christ, as he first participated with us, in the death, burial, and resurrection (cf. Rom. 6). The fact that he humbled himself also, as apiece, means that he exalted himself and this for us that we might be what he is, by adoption, and become flesh and blood children of the living God. The only thing I really know to say is: thank you, Lord.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 89-90.

The Character of God in Election. Miscellanies

At a personal existential level thought about election and reprobation is no small matter, or it shouldn’t be. It says much about whom God is; viz. the way God works in this area, or at least the way we conceive of God working in this area, indicates how it is that we conceive of God in the first place. This is why, at least for Karl Barth, to think a doctrine of God is not abstract from election/reprobation, but central to it. When we think of election it ought to conjure up the way we think of a God-world relation; i.e. election speaks to, again, the character of God, to the ways of God, and with whom he has to do. It is interesting, then, that this teaching often gets relegated to the bin of abstraction and speculation. True, the technical dogmatic words of ‘election’ and ‘reprobation’ are not found in Holy Scripture; but then again, neither is the word: ‘Trinity.’ So this is a matter of theological import, but not one that is not present in Scripture, rather it is “hidden” within the inner-logic of Scripture and allows Scripture to assert the things it does, one way or the other, about justification before God, so on and so forth.

As noted, for Barth, election became central to his doctrine of God and its development. It has a rather radical edge to it, particularly if we follow Bruce McCormack’s distillation and development of it. Indeed, McCormack’s development of Barth’s doctrine of election vis-à-vis doctrine of God has caused no small controversy. At first this ‘controversy’ was called the Companion Controversy, because McCormack’s chapter offering to The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth was the sort of watershed definitive point wherein McCormack drew out what he sees as the implications of Barth’s reformulation of a doctrine of election (juxtaposed with the classical position found in someone like John Calvin); it more recently has come to be called the ‘Barth Wars.’ George Hunsinger, Paul Molnar et al. have countered McCormack’s proposal, and attempted to keep Barth more ‘classical’ in his orientation when it comes to a doctrine of election. Hunsinger goes so far as to label the McCormack school as ‘the revisionists,’ whereas he calls his position ‘textual’ (i.e. implying that he is faithfully following the contours of Barth’s thought found concretely in the Church Dogmatics). This issue, for those involved in Barth studies, is well worn, and I would say almost passé; but only in a festering type of way. In other words, while this controversy has sort of warmed over, simply because of the passing of time and attention spans, doesn’t mean that anything has been resolved between the two sides. If you aren’t aware of all this, and even if you are, I thought I would share some insight into the history of this debate, as well as some of its material locutions; along with providing some perspective towards the background of McCormack’s own development and reception of Barth’s theology in this area. For help here I will enlist one of McCormack’s former PhD students, David Congdon. In David’s big book on Bultmann he offers the kind of detail I am hoping to provide, and so to his summary of these things we turn:

The debate surrounds McCormack’s now famous argument that Barth’s later theology, if it is to be consistent with his doctrine of election in KD 2.2, ought to make election logically prior to triunity: “The decision for the covenant of grace is the ground of God’s triunity and, therefore, of the eternal generation of the Son and of the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son. In other words, the works of God ad intra (the trinitarian processions) find their ground in the first of the works of God ad extra (viz., election).” See Bruce L. McCormack, “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 92–110, at 103. See also Bruce McCormack, “Karl Barth’s Historicized Christology: Just How ‘Chalcedonian’ Is It?” in Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 201–33, originally published in German in 2002, where he says that “it is precisely the primal decision of God in election which constitutes the event in which God differentiates himself into three modes of being. Election thus has a certain logical priority even over the triunity of God” (ibid., 218).

McCormack’s views on this matter find their origin in Jüngel’s  Gottes Sein ist im Werden. In this monograph Jüngel argues that God’s being is a historical event constituted by God’s free decision. “Decision,” Jüngel says, “does not belong to the being of God as something additional [Hinzutretendes] to this being, but rather, as event, God’s being is God’s own decision. ‘The fact that God’s being is event, the event of God’s act, must . . . mean that it is God’s own conscious, willed, and accomplished decision’ [KD 2.1:304/271]. What the doctrine of the Trinity already worked out is now confirmed by working out a concept of being appropriate to God: God’s being is constituted through historicity [Geschichtlichkeit].” Eberhard Jüngel,  Gottes Sein ist im Werden: Verantwortliche Rede vom Sein Gottes bei Karl Barth: Eine Paraphrase, 4th ed. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1986), 80. Later, in a reflection on the significance of Barth’s statement that “Jesus Christ is the electing God,” Jüngel states even more provocatively that “God has thus determined Godself in the second mode of being of the Trinity to be the electing God. ‘Jesus Christ is the electing God’ [KD 2.2:111/103]. In that here one of the three modes of being is determined to be the electing God, we have to understand God’s primal decision as an event in the being of God that differentiates the modes of God’s being” (ibid., 85).

McCormack’s argument in “Grace and Being” has initiated an intense debate within Barth studies regarding the relation between triunity and election, and specifically the nature of divine freedom. Many of these contributions are collected in Michael T. Dempsey, ed., Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). The most significant critique and response are George Hunsinger, “Election and the Trinity: Twenty-Five Theses on the Theology of Karl Barth,” Modern Theology 24, no. 2 (2008): 179–98, and Bruce L. McCormack, “Election and the Trinity: Theses in Response to George Hunsinger,” Scottish Journal of Theology 63, no. 2 (2010): 203–24. See also Bruce L. McCormack, “Trinity and Election: A Progress Report,” in Ontmoetingen: Tijdgenoten en getuigen: Studies aangeboden aan Gerrit Neven, ed. Akke van der Kooi, Volker Küster, and Rinse Reeling Brouwer (Kampen: Kok, 2009), 14–35; Bruce L. McCormack, “Let’s Speak Plainly: A Response to Paul Molnar,” Theology Today 67, no. 1 (2010): 57–65.[1]

There is much to consider here, but at this point I only want to underscore Hunsinger’s (and Molnar’s) primary critique of McCormack’s thesis. They both hone in on the apparent problem present in McCormack’s thesis: i.e. that he appears to make God’s being (his very inner life) contingent upon creation; upon God’s choice to not be God without his election of humanity for himself in Christ. The critique, ultimately, is that McCormack’s ‘Barthian’ presentation here suffers from a type of panentheism. Not only that, Hunsinger, in particular, goes after McCormack’s placement of election prior to God’s being as Triune; this, suggests Hunsinger, seems even logically (not just chronologically) implausible.

The above noted let me reign this in a bit. I started this post out with noting the idea that the doctrine of election is or should be a rather personal and existentialist reality. I suggested that this doctrine is inimical to one’s understanding of God and his relation to the world (particularly to creatures); that it is ultimately inimical to the way we think of God’s character. I then introduced us to an innovative way that election and theology proper were related in Barth’s theology; further detailing this move by way of introducing us to an internecine debate among Barth scholars involved in Barth studies. I want to now conclude this exercise by highlighting why I think wrestling through these issues remains seriously important; e.g. so engaging with why I think the personal-existential aspect of this doctrine is important for all those who by the Spirit say that Jesus is Lord.

Election is Christological, as such it is soteriological, as such it touches upon what it means to be alive (human) before God; it touches upon every waking aspect of who we are as creatures living before a Holy a God. It is important, therefore, to have a doctrine of election that has the ability to be concrete; that has the capaciousness to recognize how central God is to this reality; and what this doctrine, in particular, says about the character of God. Does God only love a select group of people based upon an absolute decree? Does God have to construct such a mechanism, as decrees, in order to ensure that his Pure Being status remains untouched by his creation; to ensure that he has no passions, that he has no moving parts in his inner life that might be unregulated by his simple being? Or does our doctrine of election start it’s thinking about a God-world relation in and from God’s personal self-givennness for us in the gift of the Son for the World; does our doctrine of election start from a person (and this is personal), or does it start from a set of propositions intended to ensure God’s status as the actual infinite?

I think God is personal; that his inner life is onto-relationally related in such a way that his inner being as God is given shape by his self-givenness (love) for the other in his own life. I think that this is the primal basis from whence we ought to think of a God-world relation; i.e. of election. We ought to think God from the way God decided we should think of him: from his Self Revelation and exegesis in the Son. If tradition gets in the way of that, or thwarts that, then that is bad tradition. Any tradition that nullifies the Word of God is bad tradition (cf. Mt. 15). In these instances the tradition needs to take a back-seat (subordinate) place relative to God’s Word.

What is primarily important to me about Barth’s reformulated doctrine of election—apart from the more technical issues in the ‘Barth Wars’—is how he focuses election (as everything else) in and around Jesus Christ in a very intense and concentrated manner. I.e. For Barth, election means: that Jesus Christ is both the electing God and elected human; that in his election to be human he elects all of humanity in a vicarious way, such that he takes on humanity’s “reprobate” status (cf. II Cor. 5.21). The wonderful exchange takes place (cf. II Cor. 8.9), and we, by God’s grace in Christ, receive his elect status for us as he takes our reprobate status with him into the grave and resurrects us with him in his elect status as the first fruits the first-born from the dead as the human for all of humanity. This says something about God’s character; it says that ‘God so loved the WORLD that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting/eternal life. It says that God loves humanity, and that he loves all of humanity with the same love that he loves his dearly beloved Son. This is meaningful to me.

And this now ends these rather fragmented, but hopefully at some level coherent, thoughts.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 173 n. 335.