Reformed Theology

What is God? No. Who is God? The Impasse that Gave Us a Stillborn Evangelical and Reformed Faith

Who is God? Or maybe the question is: What is God? The latter question is what the Post Reformed orthodox theologians were concerned with, and it is this question that we receive an answer for in the Westminster Confession of the Faith. But I am actually more interested in who God is. I’d rather allow who God is to define what God is, rather than allowing what God is to define who He is. The former presupposes that God is personal and revelatory, while the latter could simply operate off of a conception of God or Godness that could potentially be impersonal and discoverable. And yet because the Post Reformed orthodox or classical Calvinist theologians were attempting to answer what God is, this allowed them to slip back into an approach to the God of the Bible that did not necessarily have to start with the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus Christ in order to arrive at the categories it required to grammarize or speak of God for the church. As such, I would contend, the God articulated, say by the WCF, and the ‘what God’ therein, actually offers a rather distorted picture of the God of the Bible in a God-world relation since methodologically it reverts back to a speculative philosophical and a priori conceiving of God and brings that to the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus Christ; and attempts to synthesize the God conception say conceived of by someone like Aristotle with the God of the Bible. Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink summarize this issue nicely when they write:

Through the ages many have tried to synthesize the Greek-philosophical approach to the content of the biblical faith, but these attempts were rarely successful, as the philosophy usually received priority (Augustine being a positive exception). The most impressive example is found in the theology of Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century). However, twentieth-century research has shown that the biblical-theological dimension of Aquinas’s doctrine of God was much more extensive and decisive than had long been assumed. Nonetheless, Aquinas saw the ideas of Aristotle in particular as a significant tool. Arabic scholars were instrumental in rediscovering Aristotle’s work, and Aquinas and others gratefully employed it for the Christian doctrine of God. Aquinas starts with the general question about the being, properties, and acts of God, so that who God is (or is not) is in the first instance discussed with reference to the classic answers of Aristotle’s metaphysics, while the section about God’s interaction with the world uses more biblical language. However, when he deals with the specifically Christian concept of God in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity, Aquinas offers a speculative, philosophical interpretation of the immanent Trinity rather than foregrounding the biblical stories about the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This is also true for many other representatives of medieval Scholasticism.

Among the Reformers, Calvin and especially Luther were very critical of the concepts and speculative character of the scholastic doctrine of the Trinity. But apparently this critique was soon forgotten. Numerous theologians of later Protestant orthodoxy (between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries) adopted the pattern of medieval scholastic thought without much further ado, including its basis in a general , highly transcendent view of God in the locus de Deo. Their preferred description of God is that of an eternal and infinite spiritual being, adding only toward the end any reference to a number of properties regarding God’s turn toward us. This pattern is also visible in the confessional documents of the era. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647), for instance, defines God as “a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (question 4), a statement that, as late as the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Hodge could praise as “probably the best definition of God ever penned by man” (ST: 1:367). It should be noted, however, that this definition is given in reply to the question “What is God? (not “Who is God?”), as is typical of post-Reformation orthodoxy.[1]

This issue continues to dog the development of contemporary “Reformed” theology, and even evangelical theology that operates from that mood as is typified in the work being done for the churches by The Gospel Coalition.

It seems to me that many in the evangelical and contemporary Reformed church, particularly in the West, want to stick with what they see as the tried and true path; what some have referred to as the old paths. But my question is this: as those regulated, in principle, by the Scripture principle—referring to us Protestants—why is there a type of slavish need to be in lock-step with theological reflection that operated in and from a 16th and 17th century milieu wherein Aristotle primarily gets to define what the grammar should be for articulating God for the church of Jesus Christ? It is as if the Confessions and Cathechisms of the Protestant Reformed church have become the new magisterium of the church; that Protestants haven’t just replaced a personal Pope for a paper one (i.e. the Scriptures), but that they have succumbed to the idea that the tradition of the latter day Protestant Reformed church (16th and 17th centuries) was given by God providentially. Yet if this is so what has happened to the ‘scripture principle’ for us Protestants? If we want to absolutize the theology of say the Westminster Confession of Faith as the most proper distillation of the Bible’s teaching, then in what material way can a distinction be drawn between the theology of that Confession and the teaching of Scripture itself? In what meaningful way, if indeed we want to absolutize certain Reformed Confessions, can we maintain that all of the Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformed church are indeed subordinate to Holy Scripture? I don’t think we can.

What Kooi and Brink highlight for us is that there is a problem, in regard to the development of a doctrine of God, for the Protestant Reformed church; both in the past and presently. A mentor and former professor of mine, Ron Frost, argued similarly to Kooi and Brink’s point about a kind of still birth relative to the Protestant Reformation; i.e. a betrayal of the type of critique that Luther made in regard to the substance metaphysics funding late medieval theology relative to a doctrine of God (the metaphysics of Aristotle as deployed and appropriated by Thomas Aquinas et al.). Here is what Frost has to say:

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed—measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles—a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther—who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week—chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[2]

We see his concern is the same as Kooi and Brink’s. What we also see is that beyond simply focusing on the problem that Aristotle’s categories bring in regard to a doctrine of God (i.e. Kooi and Brink), Frost rightly highlights the linkage that Luther saw between Aristotle’s God and subsequent teachings in regard to developing a theological anthropology and ethics. And this is the point I want to drive home in closing: what we think about God, in regard to who we think God is, determines every other subsequent theological development after that commitment. In other words, a doctrine of God, in a proper dogmatic and theological ordering (taxis) of things is of basic and first order value; who we understand him to be will dictate the way we come to theological conclusions later, whether that be in regard to theological anthropology, salvation, or what have you. This is why I press on this issue so much, it is that central. And I believe that the starting point for so much of what counts as Reformed and evangelical theology today is eschew; and I think it is eschew precisely at the point that this post is highlighting. God help us!

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 134-35.

[2] R.N. Frost, “Aristotle’s “Ethics:” The “Real” Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal (18:2) 1997, p. 224-25.

My 2002 Synopsis of Melanchthon’s Loci Communes, 1521

The following is a synopsis I wrote for my Reformation Theology class in seminary on Melanchthon’s, Loci Communes, 1521. Forgive me for some of my grammatical sloppiness. At this point I had never read any Karl Barth nor Thomas Torrance, but you might see how what I was seeing in Luther and Melanchthon would make me open to receiving Barth and Torrance with open arms.

MELANCHTHON, LOCI COMMUNES, 1521

The Publication of the Work and its Impact

The Loci Communes was embarked upon, by Melanchthon, in April (1521). There were many printings of this work (i.e. 1522, 1525, 1535, 1541, 1543-1544, 1555, 1559, 1595), some of the prinitings were actual revisions, and others were re-printings. The important thing to note about this work, is that Martin Luther had high praise for the contents of it. And he believed that the Loci Communesshould be canonized and included within the teachings of the Roman Catholic church. The actual contents of this work, were the teachings of the man, Martin Luther.

Loci Communes Theologici, The Text Dedicatory Letter

The Loci Communes were evidently obtained and printed before Melanchthon was desirous for this to happen. Nevertheless it did happen, and he wanted people to understand the two things he had intended the Loci Communes to accomplish. First, “. . . What one must chiefly look for in Scripture . . . ,” and second, “. . . How corrupt are all the theological hallucinations of those who have offered us the subtleties of Aristotle instead of the teachings of Christ.”

Melanchthon points out that he wrote the Loci Communes to encourage people to bypass extra-biblical sources, and go straight to scripture. He does not believe it makes sense to try to integrate philosophy with the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures (e.g. Origen). It is at this point that Melanchthon bereates the scholastic methodology of dialectic. He discusses the skewing of scripture that those who employ such methodology foisted upon the interpretation of scripture.

Basic Topics of Theology, or Christian Theology in Outline

Here he discusses further his disdain for scholastic methodology, and the waste that has been produced by trying to study God this way.  He provides a listing of the normal topics looked at by the scholastics (i.e. Lombard and John of Damascus). Melanchthon points out that these men have twisted scripture because they have approached God via their own wisdom, rather than approaching God through His wisdom, the Theology of the Cross.

He says that Christian theology is comprised of, “. . . to know what the law demands, where you may seek power for doing the law and grace to cover sin, how you may strengthen a quaking spirit against the devil, the flesh, and the world, and how you may console an afflicted conscience.” (p. 22)

The Power of Man, Especially Free Will (Liberum Arbitrium)

He discusses  the fact that the scholastics, because of their high view of man, ascribed too much to the capacity of human reason and the will to choose to free themselves from the bondage of sin. Therefore they twisted the scriptures, as Melanchthon argues.

He proves this by pointing out that as in the beginning of the church Platonic realism was foisted upon the scriptures; thus obscuring the plain message that the scriptures truly communicate. Likewise he compares their time to that of the early church, but instead of Plato, it is now Aristotle who has taken the place of Plato in the twisting of the plain message of the scriptures. It is here that he describes his anthropology, and shows that man is divided into two basic elements: intellect and will (or affection). He points out that it is the affections that give preference to the particulars of the intellect. In other words, the intellect is instrumental to the affection’s placing of value upon that which the intellect has received.

Melanchthon, with the anthropological understanding noted, asks the question, ” . . . whether the will(voluntas) is free and to what extent it is free” (p. 24). He answers that indeed man’s freewill is non-existent, and that this is so because of the doctrine of predestination. He provides many scriptures to support this doctrine (cf. Eph. 1:11, Rom. 11, I Sam. 2:26, Prov. 16:4, etc.). He believes that the doctrine of “freewill” flows from the teaching of the scholastics and the philosophers/theologians of his day. Thus he argues that if men receive the simple teachings of scripture alone, he will be constrained to accept the teaching of “predestination,” as laid out in the scriptures.

Melanchthon argues that the philosophers have inferred from the external appearances of the freedom, that this is true for man and his choosing of God. In other words, if man is free to wear a blue coat rather than a red one — he has freely chosen to wear the blue coat. Therefore, if man chooses to obey God rather than self or Satan — then like the choosing of the coat, man can freely choose this as well.

He then transfers to the reality of the internal aspect of choice; and he argues in opposition to the sophists. He points out that the “will” should be termed as the “heart,” since scripture calls it that. And that there is a struggle between the “affections,” and man cannot freely overcome certain affections without God moving upon the heart and changing the affections. He qualifies this by pointing out that certain affections can be overcome by an individual. But that affection overcome by an individual is only overcome by another vain affection that serves the man, and not God.

He also discusses the fact that man might externally appear to overcome certain affections. But truly, that man has only masked the reality of his affection externally, by appearing to have overcome such evil affections (i.e. the Pharisees). Therefore, even if man appears externally to be living a godly life, he might be deceived by his wicked heart; unless that wicked heart and thus the affections have been shifted anew by the work and movement of the Holy Spirit.

Sin

He describes sin using biblical categories, and points out that there is no difference between “original sin,” and “actual sin.” For both of these in a reciprocating manner are one in the same thing.

Whence Came Original Sin?

Here he eloquently shows that sin has come from Adam, and that man was originally created in a state that was in unhindered fellowship with God. But when man chose to seek self, his desires were shifted and man now was dominated by a love of self. Thus his freedom to serve God was now constrained by his bondage to only serve self (he points out that the Sophists have defined “sin” as privation alone — he says this is not far enough, for privation flows from a heart that loves itself more than God).

Furthermore, Melanchthon proves the necessity of original sin, by pointing out Augustine’s refutation of Pelagius. He shows the significance of recapitulation of Romans 5, and points out if man was not originally corrupted and represented by Adam in sin; then likewise, man cannot be “represented” by the second Adam, Christ (cf. Rom. 5, I Cor. 15).

The Power and Fruit of Sin

He discusses that the “modern Pelagians” are a little different than those of Augustine’s day. He says that the “modern Pelagians” do adhere to the doctrine of “original sin,” but they do not believe that this reality so permeates man that every action of men is sinful. Contrarily, Melanchthon points out that man truly is permeated by sin, in every aspect of his life. And that those who affirm otherwise are only deceived by the very avarice that derives their denial of such a doctrine. He illustrates his point by describing the Greek philosophers of old. He points out that what they considered virtues, were in reality vices, because they were driven by love of self.

Furthermore, he lifts up Isaiah and David as providing discussion that man’s wisdom and vices are truly that. And that God will show such vices, in the end, to be a result of their own delusions devoid of the Spirit of God. Melanchthon points out here, that philosophy panders to the external vices of men. But that the scriptures truly uncover the external masks of philosophy, as they penetrate to the depths of of the motivations that drive the affections. Hence, it is the scriptures that show truly that man’s motivations are only wicked and evil, and the Sophists philosophy that skim over the motivations and go to the vices produced by a dead deceived heart. Essentially the point is, is that to use philosophy is only to engage in petitio principii (circular reasoning) never getting to the driver of this vicious circle.

He continues to point out the ineptness of the Sophists philosophy to accept the teaching of God. He shows that true repentance can only be a result of God’s movement upon man’s heart. Indeed, God commands things that are not in the abilities of man to accomplish (in contradistinction to the Sophist’s self-moved will). Therefore, making man look in dependence on God, to work His love into man through the Holy Spirit’s work upon man’s heart.

Conclusion

This work, by Melanchthon, is clear and to the point. In fact it is obvious, after reading the Heidelberg Disputation, that Melanchthon truly is compiling the work’s of Luther in a systematic way. Melanchthon via repetition pionts out that man’s will is not free, because it is in bondage to its own affections. Clearly, he points out that there are certain external freedoms. But he would not want to equate such freedoms with the notion of “free-will,” and man’s ability to lunge himself out of the bondage of his will.

Melanchthon uses the scriptures freely and conversantly to make his point. He clearly points out that human reason can never unearth the driving motives behind the heart. Therefore he shows that the Sophist’s philosophy, in all reality, is driving the very anthropology and philosophy that they are using to discern that which is “good” (virtuous) and “bad” (vice). But the scriptures are the only thing from whence an adequate true anthropology might come. And likewise, the only true instrument through which man’s genuine motives of self love (i.e. sin) can be detected and thwarted. Therefore, Melanchthon convincingly argues that the scriptures should take primacy over man’s reasonings. And, in fact, the philosophy of the scholastics ought to be discarded ipso facto.

Melanchthon’s teaching is so relevant for today it is amazing! For sure, the American Evangelical church is informed by an epistemology that comes from the scholastics of Melanchthon’s day. If the church could be exposed to this reality and embrace the true teaching of the scriptures through the lens of the cross, then the American church might be salvaged. But if the church does not take heed to scripture, and in fact Melanchthon and Luther (e.g. theology of the cross), then the trajectory the church is on now will only lead to continued impotence and irrelevance in today’s culture.

 

The Relationship Between Philosophy and Christian Theology: A Theology of the Word

What is it that I have against Philosophy; I mean what did it ever do to me? Nothing really. Except when it is used in place of or even as Christian Theology, proper, it’s at that point that it starts to intrude into my life, and more importantly the church’s life in such a way that I believe the Gospel and theology done from and through the Gospel gets distorted. I know many think this is naïve, but it’s all a matter of method; that is, how ought a genuinely Christian theology be done, and where from? One of the primary principles of the Protestant Reformation is that Scripture, the Word is where all theology for the church of Jesus Christ ought to be done from; I couldn’t agree more. But what that meant, as far as explicating the inner-logic of Scripture (so theology), was based too much in Aristotelian metaphysics, to the point that that type of (substance) metaphysic distorted the intention of Reformed theologian’s task. Yes, the intention was always good, but the tools available to the Protestant Reformed, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, were not, I contend, compatible with the Gospel; in other words, the metaphysic was not amenable to being evangelized by the Gospel.

Philosophy is good at observing things empirically and horizontally, from the human condition, and attempting to abstract “metaphysical” reality from that vantage point; but Christian theology, a genuine approach, doesn’t start there. Christian theology starts from above and only works a posteriori (or from ‘what’s in front of us’) as Deus absconditus (the hidden God) becomes Deus revelatus (the revealed God) in Jesus Christ. In other words, Christian theology is distinct from Philosophy (of Religion), as such the “metaphysic” appealed to for the Christian theologian must be determined by the Logos (Word) o f God. God is his own metaphysic; indeed God is meta-metaphysical. In other words, if the human agent in general wants to have access to this ‘hidden God’ then they must come through the veil of his flesh in Christ. Yes, this might sound foolish or weak, but it is the way of the Christian theologian.

This all does beg the question: Is there a metaphysic for the Christian theologian then? One of my theologian friends (in person) asked me this, in the context of my affection for Barth. I suppose the closest we could get to that, in my view, is Barth’s type of actualism[1]; i.e. being in becoming. It is this kind of “metaphysic” that I see as much more corollary with the reality of Gospel; it gets away from the ‘Pure Being’ static type of conception of God that Aristotle and other philosophers provide for, and of which classical theism and Post Reformed orthodoxy have drunk from so freely. In light of this I thought it would be apropos to hear from Barth himself on how he sees the relationship between Philosophy and genuine Christian Theology which is radically Logocentric and/or Word based. Barth writes:

Theology’s essential hypothesis, or axiom, is revelation, which is God’s own act done in His Word and through His Spirit. How shall this axiom be exhibited or determined? It cannot be done directly, but indirectly. Not positively by negatively. Not by setting it a bound among other sciences. Theology would be falsified or misinterpreted, betrayed or given up, if it sought to make its fundamental assumption or axiom a direct and tangible exhibit. Theology would have ceased to be theology, if it sought to, or could, justify itself. It has always been forsaken by its guardian angels above, every time it has sought to take this way.

For example, is there anything more hopeless than the attempt that has been made in the last two hundred years with ever-increasing enthusiasm to create a systematic link-up, or synthesis, or even a discriminate relationship, between the realms of theology and philosophy? Has there been one reputable philosopher who has paid the least attention to the work which the theologians have attempted in this direction? Has it not become apparent that the anxiety and uncertainty with which we pursued this course only reminded us that we can pursue this course only with an uneasy conscience? Theology can become noticed by philosophy only after that moment when it no longer seeks to be interesting. Its relation to philosophy can become positive and fruitful only after it resolutely refuses to be itself a philosophy and refuses to demonstrate and base its existence upon a principle with, or alongside of, philosophy.[2]

Clearly, from this quote we can see the period that Barth has in his sights in particular; i.e. his ‘modern’ antecedents (e.g. Hermann, Schleiermacher, Kant, Hegel, et al.). And I would be remiss if I didn’t note how appreciative Barth actually was of many of the themes provided for by the Post Reformed orthodox, or we might call them the scholasticism reformed theologians. Nevertheless, what’s at stake here is a critique of how philosophy is ‘synthesized’ and appropriated by Christian theologians.

If we are going to do a genuine Christian theology, the Christian theologian, I believe, will avail themselves of the best grammar available to them. In other words, they won’t, at a formal level, commit themselves to a period of theologizing as if that period is inherently sacrosanct and limit themselves to the theological grammar of that period. Instead they will be driven more by the expectations of the Gospel itself, as if the Gospel is lively and is anew and afresh today; we might call this the ‘Gospel for Today’ approach. The theologian will resource whatever they can with the goal of allowing the Gospel itself to determine its own categories and emphases; and if the theologian comes across “metaphysics” that comport with the reality that God is indeed lively and dynamic in his inner-being as revealed in Christ, then the theologian will adjust themselves accordingly. In my view, what’s more important is that the categories of the Gospel itself be determinative of what is orthodox versus what is heterodox; I think if we follow this then we won’t be afraid of some of the important gains that modern theology has afforded the church of Jesus Christ.

On a material point: Something that Barth&co. did was identify the import that a theology of the Word has for the Protestant theologian, but then he/they developed that further. He (Barth) saw Christ as the ‘Word’ that ‘God has spoken’ (Deus dixit) for the world; for the church. As such this changes the manner and indeed the way “metaphysics” are commingled with the Gospel itself. In other words, things change when the Word with whom we have to do is the second person of the Triune Godhead (Monarxia). The theologian recognizes that God in Christ is alive, and ever present; the theologian while bounded by the text of Scripture, realizing that as being within the ‘Domain of the Word,’ recognizes that He is Risen! as such the theologian continues to engage theologically as if we can actually grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. The theologian starts with the Word, and sees the living Word as determinative of who God is and how we ought to engage with Scripture itself. But the point is, is that the Word is genuinely alive; as such the theologian should want to seek out a way to articulate that for the church in such a way that comports with the lively reality of God’s inner life. The theologian should move away from theologies that have attempted to synthesize God with a philosophy that sees God as ‘Pure Being’ and all the attendant baggage associated with that.

[1] See this definition of actualism in Barth’s theology:

“Actualism” is the motif which governs Barth’s complex conception of being and time. Being is always an event and often an act (always an act whenever an agent capable of decision is concerned). The relationship between divine being and human being is one of the most vexed topics in Barth interpretation, and one on which the essay at hand hopes to shed some light. For now let it simply be said, however cryptically, that the possibility for the human creature to act faithfully in relation to the divine creator is thought to rest entirely in the divine act, and therefore continually befalls the human creature as a miracle to be sought ever anew. (Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth, 16.) Also see this post

[2] Karl Barth, God In Action (Manhasset, NY: Round Table Press, 1963), 41-2.

Christian Aristotelianism: Understanding the Reformed and evangelical Intellectual and Theological History

I originally wrote this post on September 5th, 2010, I thought I’d share it again. It’s relevance hasn’t gone away in these last seven years, and remains unchanged for many folks either just cutting their teeth on Reformed theology, and/or for those who are flamingly Reformed and have been for years. Aristotle’s place in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox (or simply classical Calvinist) heritage will always be unchallenged and unshaken; anyone who has spent any time at all studying the history of Reformed theology will know this. But in my experience many people don’t know aristotle1this, many ostensibly Reformed people; they just think that what they are getting in Reformed theology is the meaty stuff, the purely “biblical” stuff. Yet, many have not done the self-critical, or just plain old critical work required in order to really know what they have gotten themselves into. These folk think they are working in a tradition known for its sola Scriptura – and indeed they are – but they remain unaware that historically sola Scriptura does not mean just pure Bible alone; no the Reformers were much more sophisticated and honest than that. They understood the role that philosophy, substance metaphysics, so on and so forth will need to play in order to unpack the inner-logic, the theo-logic resident and underneath the text of the occasional writings that make up Holy Writ. Of course, my contention is that Aristotle need not play any role in un-packing the theo-logic and reality of Holy Scripture; but that’s not to say that there is no place for the retextualization of philosophical language under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is to say, though, that Aristotle, particularly as we have received him in and from the medieval tradition, in my view, has done irreparable damage to how millions of Christians across the globe conceive of God today. But developing that is fodder for another post (that I’ve already written many times over here at the blog). Let’s stay focused though.

The following is to alert Reformed people, and other interested Christians to the role that Aristotle’s philosophy has played, is playing, and always will play in the center of the most dominant strand of Reformed theology today; the theology of the so called Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians. In case you didn’t know, these theologians are those who followed on the heels of the magisterial Reformers (i.e. Luther, Calvin, et al.) in the later 16th and then into the 17th century. Aristotle was present prior to the 16th and 17th centuries by way, primarily of Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis of Christian theology with Aristotelian philosophy. Unfortunately the Reformation really never shook itself loose of this impact; it did for awhile say in Luther and Calvin, but then in the Post Reformation period this mantle and way was picked up once again. This long quote from historian, Richard Muller is intended to alert you all to this, if you’re unaware.

Trajectories in Aristotelianism and Rationalism. Although the early orthodox era (from roughly 1565 to 1640) is also the era during which the new science was being set forth by Kepler, Galileo, and Bacon, and the new rationalism was being initially expounded by Descartes and Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the rise of modern science and modern rationalism did not profoundly affect Protestant orthodox theology until the latter half of the seventeenth century. For the most part, early orthodox Protestant theologians doubted the new cosmology and rejected rationalist philosophy, resting content with the late Renaissance revisions of Christian Aristotelianism at the hands of Roman Catholic philosophers like Zabarella and Sua´rez and of Protestant thinkers like Ramus and Burgersdijk. The new cosmology had to wait until the latter part of the seventeenth century for Isaac Newton’s physical and mathematical discoveries to make any sense at all and seventeenth-century rationalism, particularly in the deductive model presented by Descartes, has never proved entirely congenial to traditional theology and was never incorporated either universally or without intense debate into Reformed orthodox thought.

Just as the Ptolemaic universe remained the basis of the Western worldview until the end of the seventeenth century and continued to affect literary and philosophical forms of expression well into the eighteenth, so did Christianized Aristotelianism remain the dominant philosophical perspective throughout the era of orthodoxy. Here too, as in the area of theological system, important developments took place in the context of the Protestant universities in the late sixteenth century. Where Melanchthon, Vermigli, and others of their generation had tended to content themselves with the teaching of rhetoric, logic, ethics, and physics without giving particular attention to the potential impact of these disciplines on theology, in the second half of the century, the philosophical disciplines began to have a marked effect on Protestant theology. Aristotelian physics served the doctrine of creation in the works of Hyperius, Daneau and Zanchi; aquinas2Agricolan and Ramist logic began to clarify the structure of theological systems, and metaphysics re-entered the Protestant classroom in the writings of Schegk, Martinius, Keckermann, Alsted, and Timpler.

This development of Christian Aristotelianism in the Protestant universities not only parallels the development of Protestant scholasticism but bears witness to a similar phenomenon. The gradual production of philosophical tradition was set aside followed by a sudden return to philosophy. Instead, it indicates a transition from medieval textbooks, like the Summulae logicales of Peter of Spain and the De dialectia inventione of Rudolf Agricola, to textbooks written by Protestants for Protestants, like Melanchthon’s De rhetorica libri tres (1519), Institutiones rhetoricae (1521), his commentaries on Aristotles’Politics and Ethics (1536) and the De Anima (1540), Seton’s Dialectica (1545), Ramus’ Dialectica (1543) and the spate of works based upon it, or somewhat eclectic but also more traditional manuals like Sanderson’s Logicae artis compendium (1615) and Burgersdijk’s Institutiones logicae (1626) or is Idea philosophiae naturalis (1622). The absence of Protestant works from the era of the early Reformation points toward a use of established textbooks prior to the development of new ones under the pressure not only of Protestant theology but also of humanism and of changes and developments in the philosophical disciplines themselves. The publication of Protestant works in these areas parallels the rise and flowering of Protestant academies, gymnasia, and universities. Schmitt summarizes the situation neatly:

. . . Latin Aristotelianism stretching from the twelfth to the seventeenth century had a degree of unity and organic development that cannot be easily dismissed. . . . the differences distinguishing the Catholic, Lutheran,  or Calvinist varieties, are far outweighed by a unifying concern for the same philosophical and scientific problems and an invocation of the same sources of inspiration by which to solve them.

Furthermore, the continuity must be understood in terms of the subsequent trajectories and modifications of late medieval schools of thought — Thomism, Scotism, nominalism, the varieties of via antiqua and via moderna — and the ways in which these schools of thought were received and mediated by the various trajectories of theology and philosophy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. For if the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist theologians shared a common Christian Aristotelian foundation, they differed, even  among themselves, over the nuances of the model and over which of the late medieval trajectories was most suitable a vehicle for their theological formulation.

The continuity of Christian Aristotelianism and scholastic method from the medieval into the early modern period together with the relationship of these two phenomena to Protestant orthodoxy pinpoint one further issue to be considered in the study of orthodox or scholastic Protestantism. It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers (as in the case of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” thesis). It is also an error to discuss Protestant orthodoxy without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages, through the Reformation, into post-Reformation Protestantism. Whereas the Reformation is surely the formative event for Protestantism, it is also true that the Reformation, which took place during the first half of the sixteenth century, is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed, as it were by the five-hundred year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism. In accord, moreover, with the older scholastic models as well as with the assumptions of the Reformers concerning the biblical norm of theology, The Reformed scholastics uniformly maintained the priority of revelation over reason and insisted on the ancillary status of philosophy. In approaching the continuities and discontinuities of Protestant scholasticism with the Middle Ages and the Reformation, the chief task is to assess the Protestant adjustment of traditional scholastic categories in the light of the Reformation and the patterns according to which it mediated that tradition, both positively and negatively, to future generations of Protestants. This approach is not only more adequate to the understanding of Protestant orthodoxy, but is also the framework for a clearer understanding of the meaning of the Reformation itself.[1]

Points of Implication

  1. Muller’s thesis is somewhat acceptable — given the expansive nature he sets for the accounting of the various streams represented by the “Reformed tradition.”
  2. petervermigliChristian Aristotelianism is the framework wherein Protestant theology took shape in the main.
  3. Muller admits to both a conceptual and methodological Aristotelianism within the period known as the “post-Reformation.”
  4. Muller holds that the continuity which he argues for between all periods of the “Reformation” is grounded in late Medievalism — thus construing the magesterial (early and “high”) Protestant Reformation as a hick-up in comparison to the tsunami that swept through from the 12th into the 17th century.
  5. For Muller, it seems, the only real difference between Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist Aristotelians is a matter of emphasis and theological order. In other words, for Muller Christian Aristotelianism is the best philosophical framework commensurate with articulating Christian dogma.

Popular Implications

  1. There is a “popular” ground-swell towards returning the church back to our Protestant heritage — this move works under the assumption that our “past” is a “strictly biblical one.” What is never presented is what we are looking at here, and that is the history and conceptual frame from whence “most of the Protestant” heritage has taken shape (at least in the “Reformed” heritage). People naively assume that the categories that the “Reformed” provide them with are actually Gospel truth (i.e. not associate with a school of interpretation).
  2. These are in fact, typically, the categories that ALL “Evangelical” Christians think through when they approach Scripture (this is the vacuum from whence they/we typically think).
  3. If people fail to realize the affect Aristotle has had upon the way they understand God, they will fail to understand the true nature of God, and thus their daily walk with Jesus is going to be severely skewed.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. One,  71-73.

 

A Better More ‘evangelical’ and Reformed Way When it Comes to God: Repudiating Aristotelian Metaphysics and its Theology

I wanted to highlight something very important from Torrance’s book Divine and Contingent Order; something so important that I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that what I am going to share from him is as fundamental to understanding Torrance’s theology as is anything from him. The fact that Torrance dedicates this book to his long time Greek Orthodox compatriot Georges Florovsky should say something; that is, that this book, per classic Torrance, is going to take us back to the patristic past, and constructively, through retrieval, bring us into some modern and aristotle1contemporary discussion–in the case of this book it will have mostly to do with issues surrounding science, with obvious overlap with theology.

The following quote from this book brings me back to what I have probably become known for best (at least in my past iteration as a blogger) in the theo-blogosphere, that is my rather contentious relationship with what I have called classical Calvinist (and Arminian) theology (but I wouldn’t want to limit my contentiousness to just the Calvinists and Arminians, I believe in offering equal opportunity of contention for other expressions and certain kinds of classical, mostly Aristotelian inspired, medieval theologies). And so this quote is intended to once again–for I fear that people have become lax in regard to the current takeover of North American evangelical theology by tributaries of resource that are flowing directly from the Aristotelian stream of deterministic logico-causality present and funding evangelical movements like The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, et. al. etc.–re-register that Bobby Grow is still watching 😉 , and I haven’t grown lax in my disdain for the mechanical God of classical Calvinism, in particular, even if I understand that many Calvinists have a deep piety and love for God. So consider my vigor, in this regard, to be motivated, in part, by a desire to align said Calvinist piety and love of God, with a ground and grammar for articulating God and dogma in a way that is correlative and consistent with who the Calvinists and Arminians want to love as God.

In step with the above then, let me get to this quote from Thomas Torrance. In this quote Torrance is sketching the impact that Aristotelian and then Newtonian categories have had upon God and the subsequent development of theology that followed, in particular, and for our purposes, in the post Reformed orthodox era of Calvinist and Arminian theology. And given the fact that much of this theology is being repristinated and resurrected by the neo-Calvinists/Puritans et. al., again, it will only be apropos to visit its informing background through the lens that Torrance provides for that. Torrance writes (at length),

It was in terms of these basic ideas that classical Christian theology of the fourth and fifth centuries set out to reconstruct the foundations of ancient philosophy and science upon which the pagan picture of God and the cosmos rested.  Today we can see that they were masterful ideas which lay deep in the development of Western science, and with which we are more than ever concerned in the new science of our own day and its underlying concept of a unifying order. But what became of these ideas in thought subsequent to the Nicene and immediately post-Nicene era? For a short period they bore remarkable fruit in the physics of space and time, and of light and motion, that arose in Alexandria in the fifth and sixth centuries and which, like the theology out of which it grew, was thoroughly anti-dualist in its basic orientation. Before long, however, these ideas became swamped in the massive upsurge of dualist cosmologies and epistemologies which took somewhat different forms in the Augustinian West and Byzantine East. The idea that the created universe is rational because its Creator and Preserver is rational remained, and was to see considerable development, especially in Western medieval theology and philosophy, which thus has contributed immensely to our scientific understanding of the universe. Unfortunately, however, the doctrine of God behind it all suffered not a little modification in terms of his inertial motion which was to have considerable effect upon classical Newtonian physics. Here the conception of the impassibility and immutability of God (i.e. that God is not subject to suffering or change), which has patristic sources, became allied to the Aristotelian notion of the Unmoved Mover. Although the idea of the creation of the universe out of nothing remained, that became difficult to maintain when the universe itself came to be construed more and more in terms of Aristotle’s four causes in which the effect was understood as following inexorably from its antecedent and defining cause, for to regard the Creator as the First Cause from which the universe took its rise appears to imply ‘the eternity of the world’ if only the mind of God who knows himself as its First Cause. Mediaeval theology on evangelical grounds had to reject the notion of ‘the eternity of the world’ but it remained trapped, for the most part at least, in notions of impassibility and immutability of God which had as their counterpart a notion of the world which, given its original momentum by the First Cause, constituted a system of necessary and causal relations in which it was very difficult to find room for any genuine contingence. Contingence could only be thought of in so far as there was an element of necessity in it, so that contingence could be thought of only by being thought away. The inertial relation of an immutable God to the world he has made thus gave rise to a rather static conception of the world and its immanent structures. Looked at in this way it seems that the groundwork for the Newtonian system of the world was already to found in mediaeval thought.[1]

Does this, at all, sound familiar to you? Have you been exposed to this kind of over-determined world in what you have been taught at church or elsewhere? What do we lose if we affirm the kind of mechanical world that Torrance just described? We lose intimate relationship with God in Christ for one thing. We also have potential for losing compassion for others; we might conclude that the plight of some people, or a whole group or nation of people are ‘just’ determined to be where they are in their own lived lives, no matter how miserable. We might not overtly or consciously think all of this, but it surely would be informing the way we view ourselves and other selves in relation to God in the world.

Let me just leave off by suggesting that what Torrance describes above, about a mechanical-world is the world you get when you embrace classical Calvinism, Arminianism, etc. (philosophically, theologically, ethically, etc.). And let me suggest that there is a better way forward that is more consistent with the idea that God is love, and that he serves (or should) as the ground and grammar of everything.

Conclusion

I know that for many evangelical theologians the tide keeps pushing on, and for them what counts as the most resourceful fount for constructive Reformed and evangelical theology is the theology produced in the 16th and 17th centuries, or what we might call Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy (as Richard Muller does). I am not so naïve to think that this trend won’t continue, but I want to offer you all an off-ramp through alerting you to what Torrance is getting at in regard to the metaphysics present in the current evangelical and Reformed trend as it comes to doing theology for the church. If you’re okay (I’m not!) with offering the church a conception of God where things (like people’s lives) are determined by a God who relates to the world through abstract decrees (in order to keep God as a philosophical Unmoved Mover), then yes, continue on in your resourcing of classical Reformed theology (at least what is considered that by the mainline of evangelical and Reformed theologians); but if you want to offer a conception of God as lively, dynamic, and triune who relates personally and mediately through his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ, then repudiate this trendy move, and start engaging with God on the terms that Torrance is interested in introducing us to.

You see, what Torrance is onto isn’t really something new, he is simply looking further back than the evangelicals and Reformed; he is looking back to some of the Patristic theologians (i.e. what he calls the Athanasian-Cyrilian axis) who do indeed come up against these Hellenic patterns of thinking, but who resist the temptation of sublimating God to those patterns, and instead allow the patterns of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ to re-text the ‘Greek-grammar’ in such a way that the correlation is no longer to the god of the philosophers, but instead to the Christian God revealed in Jesus Christ.

I have given up on trying to convince the Young, Restless, and Reformed, but I haven’t given up on you. For me, personally, what’s really at stake isn’t trying to preserve a certain tradition, per se, the picture is much bigger than that. We are talking about reality itself here, and the implications that come along with that. Like I recently noted elsewhere: “Just remember who we have been “saved” to: Not to a denomination, or a tradition, or a sub-culture, but to the triune God in Christ.” As such we shouldn’t be as worried about who we identify with sub-culturally (like what tradition or denomination we think gives us place and identity in the broader body of Christ), but who we are identified by as we participate in and from the triune life of God in Jesus Christ. I think a lot of theology, unfortunately, has a lot to do with identity-church-politics; once we feel like we’ve been given purpose by that (even if it takes us time to find that) it becomes exceedingly hard to move away from that even if confronted with compelling information about how things are and how they’ve come to be in the history of ideas.

I just want to invite you to re-think where you’re at theologically, and think about what Torrance (and I) have been talking about in this post. Maybe you’ll come to the conclusion, like I have, that there is a better more evangelical way than what we’ve been offered thus far.

P.S. It isn’t just Torrance who makes this critique about the metaphysics funding Aristotelian formed classical theologies; there are others, and they aren’t even “Barthians.”

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 5-6.

[2] Picture credit: Wendell B. Johnson .

 

Understanding and Critiquing Paleo-Covenant Theology: Do Contemporary Covenant Theologians Genuinely Represent Old School Federal Theology?

Heinrich Bullinger

Heinrich Bullinger

There has certainly been a resurgence of Reformed theology in the last ten to fifteen years or so; one notable, at a popular level is the so called: Young, Restless, and Reformed. The evangelical Calvinism that Myk Habets and I have promoted through our edited book (we have a volume two at the publishers), and what I have done here at the blog, is an aspect of this type of resurgence (of course ours is from a very distinct Barthian/Torrancean approach). And now we see Oliver Crisp with his two new books: Deviant Calvinism and Saving Calvinism also contributing to this type of resurgence of Reformed theology by attempting to alert folks to the expansive nature of Reformed theology itself (something we evangelical Calvinists are also interested in doing).

For anyone who has read our Evangelical Calvinism book, or for anyone who has read my blog with any kind of regularity you will know that evangelical Calvinists offer some material theological (as well as formal) critique  of what is generally understood to be representative of “classical Reformed” theology; i.e. the type we find articulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith, or at places like Westminster Theological Seminary, Westminster Seminary California, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Reformed Theological Seminary, etc. More than offering critique of the popular 5-Point Calvinism, it is more of a critique of “classical” Federal or Covenant theology; i.e. the Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Grace (with the Covenant of Redemption included). To that end for the rest of this post we will engage with a historical sketch and critique of Federal theology, and how that seminally developed in the Zurich reformer, Heinrich Bullinger’s Covenant theology; and then how that impacted, in general ways, Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology. What will concern us in this exercise will be the critique that someone like Thomas Torrance himself (along with his brother James) makes of the bilateral nature of the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace[1], and how those two implicated each other in such a way that, at least for Bullinger and the orthodox, according to Stephen Strehle[2], there is a contingency built into the Covenant of Grace (i.e. its reception among the elect) such that the conditions of the Covenant of Works remain conditions to be met by the ostensibly elect person if and fact the elect person is truly one of the elect of God. Contemporary Reformed Federal theologians often push back at this, but I will contend, through reliance on Strehle’s research that they are not pushing back at me or the Torrance brothers, or Barth et al. but instead they are pushing back against the theology and the theologians they claim to represent themselves.

Strehle writes of Bullinger’s and the Post Reformed orthodox’s understanding of the Covenant of Works and Grace; here he is offering a fifth point of analysis in regard to Henrich Bullinger’s theology (at length):

Fifth, he so stresses a human component in the fulfillment of God’s work that he verges upon the synergism of humanistic teaching. In creation he speaks of God as working through certain creaturely means to achieve his end so that even if he is to be praised as the author of all good things in man, he does not accomplish his work without human cooperation. Following Augustine Bullinger is now inclined to employ the term “free will” (liberum arbitrium) as he recounts the stages of man’s relationship to God: 1) Adam is said to have been created with free will, 2) fallen man is said to do his evil through it, and 3) the regenerate is said to be renewed in it, “not by the power of nature but through the power of divine grace.” In salvation he speaks of man’s complicity in the entire process from his initial acceptance to his final perseverance. He can speak of repentance as a “preparation” for faith, faith as a “requirement” for receiving grace, and grace as less coercive and more resistible than that which Paul had experienced on the Damascus road. Once saved the faculty to serve God is said to be restored and the faithful are said to “actively,” not “passively” work with grace unto the salvation of the entire man. God as  our “helper” gives to us his cooperation (gratia cooperans), not to circumvent our participation or insure our perseverance but to provide what is necessary in a process that remains contingent upon us. We must therefore endeavor to work with God, for all is lost if we do not continue in the grace once received.

This synergism comes to a most definitive expression in his doctrine of a bilateral covenant between God and man. Zwingli had previously set forth a doctrine of covenant in order to unify the promises and precepts of God to man, but he never spoke as if this was a bilateral or contingent compact. It is Bullinger who decides to recast the doctrine in this way through the synergistic tendencies and thus coordinate what is promised by God and exacted of man. God and man are now to be understood as confederated into a relationship of mutual responsibility, contingent not only upon the faithfulness of God but also upon that of man. While God might have initiated the relationship, man has his “conditions” to fulfill in order to receive the blessings offered.

The text states the conditions under which they bound themselves together, specifically that God wished to be the God of the descendants of Abraham and that the descendants of Abraham ought to walk uprightly before God.

The second condition of the covenant prescribes to man what he should do and how he should conduct himself toward the initiator and his fellow member of the covenant (confoedo), namely God. “Walk,” he says, “before me and be whole.” They walk before God who purposes throughout their whole life to always say and do the will of God. This is what makes us “whole.” That wholeness is being produced by faith, hope, and love. In these things every duty of the blessed confederation is comprehended. [Bullinger]

While these conditions are found throughout scripture, the charge to Abraham is considered its most succinct and important form. And yet, regardless of the form, the same essential conditions are necessary to secure divine favor. According to Bullinger, upon fulfilling these conditions we are now in a position to expect God to fulfill his part and thus receive his blessings. If we spurn them, we become disinherited (i.e. we lose our salvation).

This doctrine of covenant, we cannot say, is central to the overall theology of Bullinger, but we can say that through his monumental work on the covenant, The One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God (1534), it did become an important and permanent fixture of Reformed theology. The influence of Bullinger has already been noted among the Puritan elders of Massachusetts Bay and can be noted also among the Scholastics of Continental Europe. These Scholastics speak of the covenant in much the same way, even if more subtle in expression.

However, strictly and properly it denotes the covenant of God with man, through which God by his goodness promises above all eternal life and he demands from man in turn his service and worship, with certain outward signs which provided for confirmation. It is said to be two-sided or reciprocal because it consists from the reciprocal obligation of the two members of the covenant: from the side of God, a promise, and from the side of man, the demand of a condition.

In that covenant there is mutual obligation, both in regard to God to be gracious and in regard to man to present his penance.

The covenant generally speaking is a mutual pact between two parties by which one member binds himself to do, give, or receive something under certain conditions. In order to confirm this promise and make it inviolable, external signs and symbols are attached as a most solemn testimony. [Ursinus]

They can even speak of God as man’s debtor.

In the covenant of God with man, there is something which God does and another which man does. God by his most eminent right commands or demands from man a service, love of himself and compliance, and promises life to the one who loves and complies. By agreeing (astipulando) man promises to love and be obedient to God who demands and prescribes his duty, and by demanding in return (restipulando) from God he claims and expects with confidence life by right of the promise. [J. Heidegger]

The tensions between the doctrine of a bilateral covenant and other staples of Reformed orthodoxy, such as unconditional election and justification by faith—doctrines that exalt in divine grace—did summon their theologians to employ their skills in concocting some sort of a solution. Sometimes the sovereignty of God was invoked in order to emphasize that faith or whatever condition might be exacted of us does not arise out of our own strength but is a product of God’s work within us, making it, in their words, an a posteriori condition. Such a solution, however, did not eliminate the problem since divine favor was still made to depend upon a condition wrought within us—no matter how irresistible this grace was conceived. Luther and Protestantism had originally sought to eliminate any basis within man for his justification, and such a solution did raise this specter again. Other times a Franciscan concept of covenant was invoked in order to mitigate the value of any human contribution before God. In other words, faith and whatever condition might be exacted of man was seen to receive its reward, not so much in accordance with strict justice as if worthy of eternal life (meritum ex condign), but through a God who voluntarily condescends by his covenant to accept the mere pittance that we render to God beyond its just due. However, such a solution did not utterly eliminate the conditional force of the covenant, for something—no matter how disproportionate to its reward—must still be offered to God in exchange for salvation. Salvation was still made contingent on something we do.[3]

In referring to Bullinger, Ursinus, and others Strehle is depending upon the fathers, as it were, when it comes to Federal or Covenant theology. His point is basic, and demonstrable (which he does extensively by appeal to primary sources in the Latin in the footnotes): Bullinger’s and the Post Reformed orthodox Covenant theology, as a subsequent development (historically), offers a covenantal scheme of salvation that makes justification not simply contingent upon faith, but contingent upon keeping the conditions of the covenantal frame. In other words, there is a move away from a radically Christ-centered focus on salvation, and one that collapses into an eye toward the self.

Concluding Remarks

I have read people like Scott Swain et al try to reify this classical type of federal theology for today’s ears, but to me that is not really coming to terms or at least honestly presenting the rawness of what classical federal theology actually entails. It is understandable why contemporary Reformed thinkers, who are “federal” would want to soften the old Federal theology indeed; but again, let’s have an honest conversation about the component parts of what makes a federal theology. I think Stephen Strehle’s analysis helps us to do that, and allows us to see some serious pitfalls associated with old and I would contend new Federal theology.

Karl Barth saw these pitfalls, as did the Torrance brothers, and Barth in particular Christ concentrated and did indeed reify covenant theology in ways that Bullinger et al could never have imagined (see Barth’s little book The Humanity of God to see an example of how Barth uses covenant in a principled Christ focused way).

It would be great to get some push back to Strehle’s analysis, I’ve never seen any in print. To be clear, Strehle is not a Barthian, nor a Torrancean, nor a Brian Armstrongian, et al. he is making a case from direct engagement with primary sources and distilling that in his most excellent book. I would tell you to take up and read, except last I looked at Amazon Strehle’s book is going for around $1,100.

I think the reason this all matters is because it’s not just academic. I know some think that that’s what this is, but it is not. All of this type of stuff trickles down and impacts real life Christians and spirituality. We started this post out with notation of the fact that Reformed theology has and is making a resurgence. I’m hopeful that posts like this will help people to ask critical types of questions about just what genre of Reformed theology they are getting themselves into. Evangelical Calvinism and Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism, and the more resourcing mood those alternatives offer, have open arms. At the end of the day I cannot accept classical or contemporary Federal or Covenantal theology, but that’s not to say that I cannot accept Reformed theology. Indeed, Reformed theology is not monolithic, it is expansive with many tributaries and inlets. One common theme of Reformed theology is the primacy of God’s grace; this is a reality that we can all rally around. How that gets fleshed out later can remain one of intramural engagement, but that’s not to say we won’t have sharp and basic differences among ourselves.

 

[1] See Thomas Torrance Objects to Federal Calvinism, and So Do I!

[2] I would like to thank Ron Frost, a former seminary professor, and a mentor of mine, for turning me onto Stephen Strehle’s research.

[3] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 55-61.

Martin Luther, Thomas Torrance, and Karl Barth on the Theology of the Cross and its Marginalization of Human Reason

I just finished, for the second time in thirteen years, Alister McGrath’s wonderful book Luther’s Theology Of The Cross. As the title indicates, the book is about developing the historical and theological context in which Luther had his theological and reformational breakthrough; a breakthrough that theologically led to his theologia crucis, or ‘theology of the cross.’ I have found this “breakthrough” intriguing, ever since I was first exposed to it by my historical theology professor in seminary, Ron Frost. Indeed, this topic spurred me on in my Master’s thesis research as
luthercranachI ended up writing an exegetical analysis of I Corinthians 1:17–25; precisely because of Martin Luther’s theology of the cross. For those of you who haven’t been fortunate enough to be exposed to its tenets, I thought I would put this post together to fill in that lacuna for you. Of interest, particularly to me, and maybe to you, is that the various loci or theological contours that make up Luther’s theology of the cross correlate very well with what we will find funding both Thomas Torrance’s and Karl Barth’s theological impulses, respectively. To that end we will look at a quote from Torrance that coheres very well with the emphases of Luther’s theology of the cross, and then we will hear from McGrath as he provides five points that help detail and unpack what Luther’s theologia crucis is all about (we will actually look at McGrath’s fifth point in a separate post from this one since it is long and quite detailed). We will close with a look at Barth’s resonances with Luther’s theologia crucis.

Thomas Torrance’s Theology of the Cross

Here Thomas Torrance is commenting on the type of  rationalist thinking that he thinks is necessary for arriving at the conclusion that the atonement is limited or particular to specially elect individuals (commonly understood as ‘limited atonement’). And then we also have Torrance commenting, in this same little quote, on the inescapable reality of the universal range of the atonement, but not the universal salvation that a rationalist approach must reduce to; which Torrance is, of course, as am I, against! Torrance writes:

The rationalism of both universalism and limited atonement

Here we see that man’s proud reason insists in pushing through its own partial insight into the death of the cross to its logical conclusion, and so the great mystery of the atonement is subjected to the rationalism of human thought. That is just as true of the universalist as it is of those who hold limited atonement for in both cases they have not yet bowed their reason before the cross of Christ.[1]

Not wanting to get mired down in discussion about the merits or demerits of universalism and/or limited atonement, what I want this quote to do is illustrate how Torrance sees human ‘reason’ being put to death, and given occasion to be resurrected by the cross and death of Jesus Christ; again, something endemic to the theology of the cross in the theology of Martin Luther. To that end, here is McGrath offering four loci or ‘places’ that help us understand what Luther’s theologia crucis is all about:

(1) The theologia crucis is a theology of revelation, which stands in sharp contrast to speculation. Those who speculate on the created order (ea quae facta sunt) have, in effect, forfeited their right to be called ‘theologians’. God has revealed himself, and it is the task of the theologian to concern himself with God as he has chosen to reveal himself, instead of constructing preconceived notions of God which ultimately must be destroyed.

(2)This revelation must be regarded as indirect and concealed. This is one of the most difficult aspects of the theologia crucis to grasp: how can one speak of a concealed revelation? Luther’s allusion to Exodus 33.23 in Thesis 20 is the key to understanding this fundamental point: although it is indeed God who is revealed in the passion and the cross of Christ, he is not immediately recongisable as God. Those who expect a direct revelation of the face of God are unable to discern him in his revelation, precisely because it is the posteriora Dei which are made visible in this revelation. In that it is God who is made known in the passion and cross of Christ, it is revelation; in that this revelation can only be discerned by the eye of faith, it is concealed. The ‘friends of the cross’ know that beneath the humility and shame of the cross lie concealed the power and the glory of God — but to others, this insight is denied.

(3) This revelation is to be recognised in the sufferings and the cross of Christ, rather than in human moral activity or the created order. Both the moralist and the rationalist expect to find God through intelligent reflection upon the nature of man’s moral sense or the pattern of the created order: for Luther, ‘true theology and knowledge of God are found in Christ crucified’. The cross shatters human illusions concerning the capacity of human reason to discern God in this manner.

(4) This knowledge of God who is hidden in his revelation is a matter of faith. Revelation of the posteriora Dei is addressed to faith, which alone recognises it as a revelation of God. Luther illustrates this point with reference to John 14.8. Philip here asks Jesus to show him the Father — which, according to Luther, makes him a ‘theologian of glory’, in that he considers that God may be found and known apart from Christ. Jesus then explains to him that there is no knowledge of God other than that which may be found in his own person: ‘Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father’ (John 14.9). For Luther, the ‘theologian of the cross’ is he who, through faith, discerns the presence of the hidden God in his revelation in Christ and his passion and cross — and who is thus able to acknowledge the truth of Isaiah’s dictum: ‘Truly you are a hidden God!’ The concept of a hidden God (absconditus Deus) lies at the centre of the theology of the cross: vivimus in abscondito Dei, id est, in nuda fiducia misericordiae eius. For Luther, Philip represents the tendency of the theologia gloriae to seek for God apart from Christ, unaware that God is revealed in him, although concealed in that revelation.[2]

For Luther, according to McGrath’s explication, as for Torrance, the cross of Jesus Christ and what is accomplished therein, ontologically, in the hypostasized life of God in Christ, accomplishes the putting to death of the fleshy mind, and provides for the occasion of the mind of Christ to be the ground of all thought of God as revealed ‘hiddenly’ in the crucified God. So not only does the cross-work have impact upon all of humanity through the vicarious humanity of Christ ontologically, as applied by the Holy Spirit, but Christ on the cross himself reveals who God is as the humiliated God who so loves his creatures that he is willing to become man, and suffer the consequences of what that means even to the point of being put to death on the cross.

Barth’s Theology of the Cross

In closing I think it would be interesting to look at Karl Barth’s theology in this regard, and observe how well, just as with Torrance, Luther’s theology of the cross coalesces with the emphases of Barth’s own type of incarnational theology and theologia crucis. One thing that is ironic about Barth’s critics is that because of his focus on the ‘hiddeness of God’ and the requirement of ‘faith’ in order to see God in the man from Nazareth, they often reduce his theology to working through the categories of Immanuel Kant and his noumenal/phenomenal paradigm for engaging with reality. It is true that Barth was a modern theologian working in a theological playground committed to a Kantian world of pure reason; but Barth was intent on exploding that playground of the theologians by correcting it with a theology of the Word. More ironically is that Barth’s most quoted theologian in his Church Dogmatics is none other than Martin Luther; I can’t help but think that Barth had Luther’s theology of the cross in mind when he was flipping Kantian “metaphysics” and “analytics” on its head. Bruce McCormack offers insight on Barth’s Kantian context and what in fact Barth was doing contrariwise to it (you will notice the themes of ‘hiddeness of God’ absconditus Deus and ‘revealed God’ revelatus Deus underwriting Barth’s thinking as McCormack describes it in Barth’s modern and Kantian context):

Alas, I thought I had the quote I wanted to use here from McCormack, but I don’t. It is given in Bruce McCormack’s Afterword in his edited book with Clifford B. Anderson Karl Barth And American Evangelicalism. The title of the Afterword is: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Barth. You will just have to take my word for it, at the moment, that what you will find described therein correlates well with the contours of thought we have been looking at in Luther’s theology of the cross.

So What!

For Luther, for Torrance, for Barth in their own respective ways they all were theologians of the cross; they all believed that human reason and rationality needed to be put to death in order to truly see God. The spectacle (to use Calvin’s imagery) necessary to see God in Christ; to see the hidden God hanging on a tree; was the faith of Christ. How that gets detailed and developed in our theologians is distinct one from the other, but the principle is there. The bottom line is that for all of them, and I would contend for the Apostle Paul himself, human thought on its own cannot conceive of God; particularly of a God who would become human, die on a cross, and rise again from the dead. It is this specter that was so inimical for Luther’s theology as he criticized, in his day, the Aristotelianized theology that placed such a high priority on the human intellect as the place where theological reasoning could peek-out, as it were. Torrance, in his own time, took aim at Newtonian metaphysics, among other intellectualizing modes for knowing God (including Aristotle’s closed system of thought). And Barth, for his part, offered critique of the intellectualized theology offered by Kant, Schleiermacher, and other moderns. For each of them, to one degree or another, the cross of Jesus Christ provided the central way forward, and the necessary move of God, in order for humanity to have the capacity to actually know and see God (encapsulated in this, particularly for Barth and Torrance, was the importance of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ).

So what? I think if we follow the lead of Luther, Torrance, and Barth much of what counts as Christian theology today, given its informing theology found in the Aristotelianized Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy, will be marginalized, as it should be, by the cross of Jesus Christ and the theologia crucis.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement, 187-88.

[2] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology Of The Cross (Oxford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 149-50.

Martin Luther’s ‘Real Reason for the Protestant Reformation’, and What Critics of evangelical Calvinism Don’t Get about evangelical Calvinism’s Impetus or Their Own Mode of Theologizing

Martin Luther famously critiqued and rejected Aristotle, and the impact that Aristotelian philosophy had had upon Christian theology in the late medieval period; particularly as mediated through the synthesis of Thomas Aquinas’s theology with Aristotelian philosophy. This was such a fundamental piece for Luther, that it can be said, as Alister McGrath, and my former seminary professor luthermartinand personal mentor, Ron Frost have said, that this rejection and repudiation of Aristotle’s impact on Christian theology led, theologically, to Luther’s “breakthrough” in regard to his understanding of sola fide, and the material principle of the Protestant Reformation theology. The implication of this, if followed, is that theological reasoning is strictly reduced to reliance upon the revelation of God in Christ apprehended by faith.

As McGrath sharpens this further, he underscores why this move for Luther was so important; he underscores why working away from Aristotelian and forensic conceptions of God’s righteousness, and working from the righteousness of God revealed by Christ is so important and so delimiting for a genuinely Christian approach to the theological task. McGrath writes:

For Luther, ratio and its associated concept of iustitia (as used by Aristotle and the jurists) had its proper place in the ordering of civil affairs. Luther’s rejection of ratio relates to his soteriology, particularly to the definition of iustitia Dei, which is of central importance to his theology as a whole. The concept of iustitia which Luther rejected in this context is none other than that of Aristotle’s Ethics, which had been taken up by the medieval canonists and jurists, which had found its way into the soteriology of the via moderna, and which corresponded to a secular, commen-sense understanding of justice in terms of a quid pro quo morality, whose validity was immediately apparent to reason. Julian of Eclanum had insisted that God judged man rationabiliter, which he took to be equivalent to iuste, and had therefore applied to a common-sense concept of iustitia by a process of analogical predication to God. God rewards each man according to his merit, which may be defined in terms of whether he has lived well by the standards set him in the law: non ego, sed ratio concludit. A similar interpretation of iustitia Dei can be derived by direct analogical predication of the Aristotelian understanding of iustitia, linked with the associated interpretation of the relationship between iustitia and lex, to God. The young Luther appears to have adopted precisely such a concept of iustitia in his early attempt to expound the Psalter: indeed it is of particular significance that Luther should choose Psalm 9 (10). 9 to expound the relationship between iustitia and equitas in the divine judgement, as Julian of Eclanum had earlier used exactly the same passage to demonstrate the divine equity in dealing with man according to his merit! It was against this understanding of iustitia, as applied to God (but not applied to civil affairs), that Luther rebelled when he discovered the mira et nova diffinitio iustitiae, with such momentous results for his theology. Luther’s revolt against reason is indeed occasioned by his soteriology — but in a far more specific manner than appears to have been generally realised. Whilst it cannot be proved that Luther appreciated the theological ramifications of everything he read in Book V of the Nichomachean Ethics, it is beyond dispute that he recognised that the concept of iustitia developed therein, applied to God, had appalling theological consequences for sinners: Tota fere Aristotelis Ethica pessima est gratiae inimica. Luther’s joy at his discovery of the new definition of iustitia reflects his realisation that God loves and forgives sinners, and that the iustitia of iustitia Dei is not to be understood qua philosophi et iuriste accipiunt, but qua in scriptura accipitur. Luther’s vitriolic attacks against Aristotle, reason, the jurists, the law, and the Sautheologen of the via moderna reflects his basic conviction that all these employed a concept of iustitia which, when applied to God, destroyed the gospel message of the free forgiveness of sinners. Luther’s ‘evangelical irrationalism’ is closely correlated with his discovery of the righteousness of God: if reason and its allies were unable to comprehend the mystery of the justification of the ungodly, then so much the worse for them. Reason has its role to play in the civil affairs of men, as in so many other spheres — but when faced with the justification of sinners, the central feature of the gospel proclamation, it collapses, unable to comprehend the mystery with which it is confronted. For Luther, the word of the gospel, upon which all theological speculation was ultimately based, was that of a righteous God who justified those worthy of death: if reason was unable to comprehend this fundamental aspect of the gospel, it had forfeited its right to have any say in theology as a whole. In Luther’s opinion, reason was not neutral in this matter: according to reason, God should only justify those whose deeds made them worthy of such a reward: itaque caro est ipsa iustitia, sapientia carnis ac cogitatio rationis, quae per legem vult iustificari. Human wisdom and human concepts of righteousness are inextricably linked — and, as Luther emphasised, both were called into question by the fact that a righteous God could justify sinners. It is clear that this critique of human wisdom, which is ultimately based upon Luther’s deliberations upon the concept of the ‘righteousness of God’, foreshadows the theologia crucis of 1518 in a number of respects. Before moving on to consider the nature of the theology of the cross, however, it may be helpful to summarise our conclusions concerning the nature and the date of Luther’s theological breakthrough.[1]

It is precisely for what McGrath just detailed that Ron Frost in 1997 wrote an essay for the Trinity Journal entitled: ‘Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?’ Frost believes, and I agree with him, that insofar as the following Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology imbibes a ‘Christian Aristotelianism’ it has skipped off the central critique of Luther’s protest movement; which is very ironic indeed. Note Frost’s analysis here:

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed—measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles—a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther—who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week—chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[2]

This is quite profound, to say the least! It is this very premise and insight as developed by Ron Frost, and illustrated by the work of McGrath, that has led me to my form of evangelical Calvinism. It is this fundamental critique and insight that not a single contemporary Reformed thinker or theologian I have come across has grasped whatsoever. I know many who read me seem to think that evangelical Calvinism, my form, is wholly contingent upon Barth and Torrance, but that is way too quick and limited of a conclusion to draw!

It is ironic, indeed, that the most adamant of Reformed voices today simply and uncritically accept the research of someone like Richard Muller who advocate for the Post Reformed orthodox re-appropriation of a ‘Christian Aristotelian’ mode; this is ironic because the very thing that kicked off the Protestant Reformation was in protest to Aristotle’s influence on Christian theology; particularly the impact that played on defining God’s righteousness and how that implicates a variety of things; including how ‘faith’ is conceived. If someone wants to critique evangelical Calvinism, at least my form, then start with engaging with Luther’s critique of ‘Christian Aristotelianism,’ the informing “theology” of what now constitutes most of Reformed theology, proper.

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 139-41.

[2] R.N. Frost, “Aristotle’s “Ethics:” The “Real” Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal (18:2) 1997, p. 224-25.

The Quingentesimus of the Protestant Reformation and the Analogia Lutherano in Christ Concentrated Biblical Exegesis

As I announced on FaceBook a week or so ago, given that we are in the year that leads to the Quingentesimus, or 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (i.e. October 31st, 1517), I have decided, in celebration, to devote much of my reading to the primary or as they are called, magisterial reformers. As such, since my blogging follows my reading, much more of my posting will beardedlutherlikewise be characterized by this period of theological development in the earlier years of the Protestant Reformation. My last post actually reflects this trajectory, as will this one. I will still of course be posting on Barth’s, Torrance’s, and other people’s theologies (and other topics of interest); but the character of my posting will have more of the historical theological thrust than maybe you’ve gotten used to from me (although if you’ve been reading me for awhile you will have seen me posting quite a bit on historical theological issues—in fact that’s all I originally posted on when I first started blogging in 2005).

Enough of this housekeeping, in this post I want to highlight the type of Christ concentrated or Christ-centered hermeneutic that Martin Luther followed in his exegesis. We will appeal to Alister McGrath in order to highlight how Luther wanted to see Jesus Christ in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament and the Psalter. As we lead into the quote from McGrath,  he has just finished sketching the medieval Quadriga (i.e. literal, allegorical, tropological/moral, and anagogical) method for interpretation. He is noting how folks like Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, et al. still worked within that medievally styled framework, but with a focus on the literal as the foundation for the other three senses. Within the literal, as we will see, there was further distinction between ‘literal-historical’ and ‘literal-prophetic;’ we will let McGrath explain the rest:

Luther makes an important distinction between the literal-historical meaning of his Old Testament text (that is, the literal meaning of text, as determined by its historical context), and its literal-prophetic sense (that is, the meaning of the text, as interpreted as referring to the coming of Christ and the establishment of his church). The Christological concentration, which is so characteristic a feature of the Dictata, is achieved by placing emphasis upon the literal-prophetic, rather than the literal-historic, sense of scripture. In this manner, Luther is able to maintain that Christ is the sensus principalis of scripture….[1]

For further development of how this works itself out in both theory and practice in the medieval context, but with particular focus on how this works out in Thomas Aquinas’s exegesis, check Matthew Levering’s outstanding book Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation.

This distinction is interesting to me, particularly because we as evangelical Calvinist follow a Christ-concentrated hermeneutic as birthed in the theologies of both Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, respectively. What we see in both of their theologies is an exegetical norm that I would suggest follows the Luther[an] or even Thomist focus upon the literal-prophetic component rather than with as much concern on the literal-historic; albeit abstracted somewhat from the Luther-esque medieval and Quadriga framework. If you read Levering’s work, he identifies this type of distinction in the literal aspect of the Quadriga as linear-historical (which would correlate with Luther’s literal-historical) and participatory-historical (which would correlate better with Luther’s literal-prophetic sense). As Levering highlights, these two aspects do not need to be in competition one with the other, but in some ways can be complementing.

As someone deeply influenced by both Barth and Torrance, and also someone who reads more broadly than just Barth or Torrance, I am committed to both senses of the literal. But, if we are going to use the Luther[an] distinction, the emphasis will be upon the literal-prophetic as regulative towards understanding the significance or telos of the literal-historical as situated providentially within the created order which is for Christ (which according to McGrath fits well with Luther’s emphasis of seeing Christ as the sensus principalis of Holy Writ).

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxdford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 80.

The Covenant of Works in Reformed Theology and an Alternative Covenantal Frame Provided by evangelical Calvinism

I have had a little interaction, recently, on Twitter, with Derek Rishmawy in regard to his affirmation of the Protestant Reformed Federal theology covenant of works. As such I am returning to this post I originally wrote up at least a couple of years ago, a post that offers a full explanation of the history and development of the covenant of works; and then offers an evangelical Calvinist alternative informed by none other than Karl Barth. This is also in response (but only in acknowledgement) to a forty page paper I read from David Gibson where he critiques the type of critique I offer up in my first paragraph following this one (which is informed by T.F. Torrance’s type of critique of Federal theology). Gibson argues that the three points I make in my following paragraph are weak and misunderstand Federal theology; his response isn’t directly to me, but to Torrance and Rolson in particular.

The Covenant of Works/Grace in classic Covenant Theology ultimately provides us with a God who 1) becomes shaped by Law as Grace, in relation to His creation (primarily the gem of His creation: humanity); 2) cannot efficaciously love His ‘elect’ people until the legal conditions of the Law are met; 3) and who ends up with a rupture in His subject (or person in the Son), as the Son’s jesuscreatorlife is shaped by the decrees in creation when He agrees (in the pactum salutis or Covenant of Redemption) to meet the conditions of the broken-Law by redeeming and purchasing the ‘elect’ humanity by incarnating (enfleshing), actively obeying (meriting), and dying on the cross.

I think these above stipulations and observations all represent theological problems that most Christians, by way of piety, would want to repudiate, because these observations about God in classic Covenant Theology do not actually end up cohering with the conception of God as love and grace that becomes so apparent in God’s first Word of original creation in Genesis 1, and His continuous exemplification of this in the manger of Christmas, and so forth.

Beyond trying to further engage with the inherent theological problems that I find plaguing classical Covenant Theology, for the rest of this expose, as it were, what I would like to do is attempt to substantiate my claims by simply quoting post Reformed orthodox scholar, par excellence, professor Richard Muller on what gives classical Covenant Theology its purported shape;  both in its etymology and synchronic historic development, and in its contemporary expression in our current situation. So, be prepared to read for about the next five to seven minutes or so, and then reflect upon what Muller articulates as the focal points of what constituted, and thus of what constitutes the particular and global realities of what makes classic Covenant Theology, classic Covenant Theology. [ps. The following is not for the faint of heart, take off your blog hat, and put on your paper reading hat, the following is made up of approx. 3600 words]

[G]iven these relationships between law and grace, the two covenants, and the problems of sin and salvation, it should not be surprising that a central issue addressed in the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works was the issue of federal headship and, therefore, the parallels between the first and the second Adam, the federal heads of the covenants of works and of grace. It is at this point that the soteriological ground of the doctrine of the covenant of works is most clearly presented, particularly in terms of its relationship to the doctrine of Christ’s mediatorial headship and work of satisfaction.

mullerAdam, in the covenant of works, “stood as the head of mankind [caput totius generis humani],” in his person “representing” the entire human race. By the same token, as indicated by the Apostle in Romans 5:11-15, Christ as the antitype of Adam stands as the representative of humanity in the covenant of grace and the “surety” of fulfillment or substitute for mankind before the law of God, in effect, in fulfillment of the demands of the violated covenant of works. After all, the violation of the covenant of works abrogated the law as a covenant, not as the ultimate “rule of life.” It is both the permanence of the divine promise of fellowship and the stability of the divine law as the standard of holiness and righteousness and, therefore, as the basis for fellowship with the holy and righteous God, that relates the covenants to one another: “the law declares, that there is no admission for any to eternal life, but on the account of a perfect and absolutely complete righteousness; [and] also, that every sinner shall undergo the penalty of death, the dominion of which is eternal” unless the penalty of sin is paid and “the dominion of death … abolished.”

Drawing on the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, Witsius argues the equivalency of the promises of the two covenants. Paul, he notes, “distinguishes the rightness of the law from the evangelical” while at the same time indicating that “life” is promised under both covenants. Concerning legal righteousness, Paul writes “that the man which doth these things shall live by them” (Rom. 10:5) and concerning evangelical righteousness, “the just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17). Even so,

On both sides, the promise of life is the same, proposed in the very same words. For the apostle does not hint by the least expression, that one kind of life is promised by gospel, another by the law…. But the apostle places the whole difference, not in the thing promised by the law to the man that worketh, which he now receives by faith in Christ. But to what man thus working was it promised? to the sinner only? Was it not to man in his innocency? Was it not then when it might truly be said, If you continue to do well, you shall be the heir of that life upon that condition. Which could be said to none but to upright Adam. Was it not then, when the promise was actually made? For after the entrance of sin, there is not so much a promise, as a denunciation of wrath, and an intimation of a curse, proposing that as the condition for obtaining life, which is now impossible. I therefore conclude, that to Adam, in the covenant of works, was promised the same eternal life, to be obtained by the righteousness which is the law, of which believers are made partakers through Christ.

The identical point is made by Brakel with reference to the same texts.

Arguably, both theologians here manifest the central reason for the doctrine of a covenant of works and its fundamental relationship to the doctrines of justification by grace through faith and Christ’s satisfaction for sin: the issue is not to hammer home a legalistic view of life and salvation but precisely the opposite, while at the same time upholding the stability of divine law. There can be no salvation by works, but only by a means that excludes works—in short, through faith in Christ. Nonetheless, the law is not void. Indeed, the law remains the representation of divine goodness, holiness, and righteousness placed in the heart and mind of Adam even as he was created in the image of God. Given the fact of sin, such a law can no longer hold forth its original promise of fellowship with God, but it remains the condition of fellowship just as it remains the temporal indication of the goodness, holiness, and righteousness of God. The covenant of works takes on for the fallen Adam the function of the second or pedagogical use of the law—precisely the function of the Mosaic law understood as the legal covenant or covenant of works: “The Lord willed,” Brakel writes, that Adam “would now turn away from the broken covenant of works, and, being lost in himself, would put all hope in the seed of the woman, which was promised to him immediately thereafter.”

The covenant of works, then, was not violated and made void from the human side by the sin of Adam and Eve, rendering the promises of the covenant inaccessible to their posterity—but it was also, Witsius argues, abrogated from the divine side in the sense that God has clearly willed not to renew or recast the covenant of works for the sake of offering to fallen humanity a promise of life grounded in its own personal righteousness. In other words, God will not now, in the context of human sinfulness “prescribe a condition of obedience less perfect than that which he stipulated” in the original covenant of works. Nontheless, so far as the promise of eternal life is concerned, all of mankind remains subject to its “penal sanction”: thus, sin does not render void nor the divine abrogation of the covenant of works remove “the unchangeable truth” of God’s “immutable and indispensable justice.” Even so, Calvin had argued the “perpetual validity” of the law and had insisted that “the law has been divinely handed down to us to teach us perfect righteousness; there no other righteousness is taught than that which conforms to the requirements of God’s will.”

The divine abrogation of the covenant of works, then, does not abolish the promise of God or the condition of holiness and righteousness required for the fulfillment of the promise. And it is precisely because of this coordinate stability of promise and law that the covenant of grace becomes effective in Christ alone. When the Apostle Paul writes, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law,” he indicates both that “the covenant of grace does not abrogate, but supposes the abrogation of the covenant of works” and that

the covenant of grace is not [itself] the abolition, but rather the confirmation of the covenant of works, inasmuch as the Mediator has fulfilled all the conditions of that covenant, so that all believers may be justified and saved according to the covenant of works, to which satisfaction was made by the Mediator…. The very law of the covenant, which formerly gave up the human sinner to sin, when his condition is once changed by union with Christ the surety, does now, without any abolition, abrogation, or any other change whatever, absolve the man from the guilt and dominion of sin, and bestow on him that sanctification and glorification, which are gradually brought to perfection, which he shall obtain at the resurrection of the dead.

The stability of the law, guaranteed in the divine maintenance of the terms of the covenant of works, points not to a legalistic view of salvation but to the fullness of Christ’s work of sanctification and to the totally unmerited character of the salvation provided by grace through faith to believers. “Recognize,” writes Brakel, that “the Lord Jesus placed Himself under” the “same law Adam had … and thereby He merited redemption and adoption as children for the elect.”

The ultimate relationship of the covenant of works to the covenant of grace and, equally so, of Adam to Christ as the old and new federal heads of the humanity, is established and outlined by Witsius, Brakel, and virtually all of the major Reformed covenant theologians of the seventeenth century in their discussion of the “covenant of redemption” or pactum salutis between God the Father and God the Son. Here, also, as in the case of the covenant of works, we encounter a doctrinal construct, elicited according to the terms of the older Reformed hermeneutic, from the collation and exegetical analysis of a series of biblical passages. The doctrine itself probably originated with Cocceius, but its roots are most probably to be found in the earlier Reformed mediation on the trinitarian nature of the divine decrees. While not attempting to offer a discussion of the entire doctrine of the covenant of redemption, we can note here its function with respect to the two other covenants. In the first place, it is the eternal foundation of the covenant of grace, according to which Christ is established, in the depths of the Trinity, as the Redeemer, the new federal head of humanity, and the surety and sponsor of humanity in covenant: in short, the covenant of redemption is an “agreement between God and his elect. The covenant of grace thus also “presupposes” the covenant of redemption and “is founded upon it.”

In the second place, the covenant of redemption established the eternal remedy for the problem of sin and ensured the full manifestation and exercise of the divine righteousness and justice both in the covenant of works and beyond its abrogation. As Brakel comments, “The fact that God from eternity foreknew the fall, decreeing that He would permit it to occur, is not only confirmed by the doctrines of His omniscience and decrees, but also from the fact that God from eternity ordained a Redeemer for man, to deliver him from sin: the Lord Jesus Christ whom Peter calls the Lamb, “who was foreknown [voorgekend] before the foundation of the world. By the covenant of redemption, the Son binds himself to the work of salvation and, therefore, to the fulfillment of the condition of fellowship with God for the sake of God’s covenant people. Thus the promises, the conditions, and the penalties for failure to fulfill the conditions remain—but the conditions are met and the penalties satisfied in Christ. As eternally guaranteed by the covenant of redemption, “conditions are offered, to which eternal salvation is annexed; conditions not to be performed again by us, which might throw the mind into despondence; but by him, who would not part with his life, before he had truly said, “It is finished.”

After excoriating Thomas F. Torrance, Rolson, and Poole for naïvely deconstructing this kind (the above aforementioned by Muller) of classical Covenant theology through a ‘Barthian’ misunderstanding and caricature (of classical Covenant Theology, as described by Muller above); Muller concludes thusly:

[…] The purported legalism of the continuing covenant of works as presented in the demands of the law is nothing less than permanence of the original divine intention to ground the fellowship in the nature of God and in the imago Dei. Witsius and Brakel recognized in their debate with seventeenth-century Arminian and Socinian adversaries that as long as covenant refers to a relationship between God and human beings, law must belong to covenant as much as promise. They also understood—as we should perhaps recognize in the theological presuppositions of the contemporary critics of the doctrine—that the denial of the covenant of works, the attempt to deny the legal element of covenant in general (and, today, the attempt to pit the Reformers against their successors), represent not only an alternative view of the original relationship between God and human beings but also an alternative theory of Christ’s atonement and a theology that, at best, is less than traditionally Reformed.

The elements of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works that I have described here indicate the result of a process of doctrinal development in the Reformed tradition. As such, the language of the doctrine is certainly different from the language of the Reformers and even from that of earlier successors to the original Reformers such as Ursinus and Olevian or, indeed, in a slightly later time, William Perkins. Yet, the fundamental points of the doctrine, that the work of redemption must be understood both in terms of law and of grace, that human beings were created in and for fellowship with God under terms both of promise and of law, that Adam’s fall was a transgression of God’s law, that human inability after the Fall in no way removes the standard or the demands of the law, and that the gift of salvation through Christ’s satisfaction for sin both sets believers free from the law’s condemnation and upholds the laws demands, remain virtually identical. The free gift of grace in the one covenant respects the stability of law in the other, while the presence of law under different uses in both covenants echoes both the immutability of the divine nature and the constancy of the divine promises.[1]

Muller’s explication of the history, development, and contemporaneous reality of classical Covenant Theology is quite clear. As he develops this it becomes clear that for classical Covenant Theology, the touchstone for the subsequent redemptive-historical narrative development in the Old Testament, in particular, is Genesis 3; wherein ‘Law’ is elevated as locus classicus for interpreting God’s relation to tim-kellerhumanity in the imago Dei, and further, for exegeting how ‘Grace’ functions as an adjunct of ‘Law’ in the divine determination and decree.

Bringing this into application: In reference to my post on Timothy Keller’s book, Gospel Theology: Center Church, what bubbles up for me, and becomes pretty apparent (especially understanding the background of Keller’s theological education at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he also has taught as Adjunct Faculty), is that even if Keller is not a theological technician, such as Witsius & Brakel are in the history, or as Richard Muller, Carl Truemen, Scott Clark, et. al. are presently, he (Keller) is a practitioner, and I would suggest not a naïve one, as some would like to understandably suggest. Keller’s theology in general, and soteriology in particular, have an ‘informing theology’, as Walter Kaiser imbibes in another (and in his own biblical studies) context. And while Keller might not dot all of his “i’s” and cross all of his “t’s,” like Muller & co. do, he still has these “i’s” and “t’s” present and underwriting his practical theology (I think my post on him illustrates that to a “t”).

An alternative to all of the above, the alternative that we offer in our so called, Evangelical Calvinism, can be indicated by Karl Barth’s reification or recasting of Covenant Theology by starting the order of things not in Genesis 3, but in Genesis 1 as reinterpreted by John 1:1. The relation of God to His creation is ‘protologically’ grounded personally (not decretively) in His first and final Word of grace to be for us  barthglassesand with us (as the archetypal imago Dei & imago Christi in the original creation and apocalyptic re-creation) in and through His Self-determined (gracious) free choice to not be God without us, but only with us. Barth’s reordering of things, in this regard is captured well as he opines in (and more commonly as he applies this contour of thought throughout his theological oeuvre):

He [God] wills and posits the creature neither out of caprice nor necessity, but because He has loved it from eternity, because He wills to demonstrate His love for it, and because He wills, not to limit His glory by its existence and being, but to reveal and manifest it in His own co-existence with it. As the Creator He wills really to exist for His creature. That is why He gives it its own existence and being. That is also why there cannot follow from the creature’s own existence and being and immanent determination of its goal or purpose, or a claim to any right, meaning or dignity of existence and nature accruing to it except as a gift. That is why even the very existence and nature of the creature are the work of the grace of God.[2]

Barth sees the Covenant [of Grace], as do I, as the ‘internal basis for creation’ and ‘creation as the external basis of the covenant’[3]; Michael Allen writes:

[…] Faithful to his doctrine of election, he [Barth] considers creation within the bounds of his ‘Christological concentration’. The next paragraph (§41) considers the link between creation and covenant, noting that they are intertwined with ‘creation as the external basis of the covenant’ and ‘covenant as the internal basis for creation’….[4]

I will have to leave this kind of suggestive alternative for later (and simply refer you to other posts on my blog where I have engaged with the ‘alternative’ further, and to our edited book: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church).

Conclusion

This paper (of sorts) has covered a lot of ground (about 3,500 words of ground). I started this “paper” out with a few points of theological critique in regard to classical Covenant Theology and its implications. I then turned to Richard Muller, and quoted him at length for the purposes of illustrating how I might have come to my conclusions which are based upon the kind of historic classical Covenant Theology that Muller & co. articulates, embraces and defends. I then turned this depiction of classical Covenant Theology towards the pastoral theology of Timothy Keller as he has articulated it in his book Gospel Theology; and I included, therein, that Keller, while not a technician of classical Covenant Theology, is in fact a practitioner of classical Covenant Theology in its most basic and thematic expression. After all of this, I offered an alternative to classical Covenant Theology by alerting the reader to Evangelical Calvinism’s ‘informing theology’ provided by Karl Barth (and I would add here, Thomas F. Torrance). And I have had to leave it here, because of space and time restraints.

My hope is that, at the least, even if you disagree with my conclusions and the way forward in regard to engaging with Covenant Theology, that you will at least arrive at the one conclusion; and that is that classical Covenant Theology (made up as it is of the covenant of works, grace, and redemption, respectively) elevates ‘Law’ as the touchstone—even if one wants to argue is couched in ‘Grace’—for how Covenant Theology believes that God relates to humanity, even in His ‘dearly beloved Son’. If Grace is contingent upon Law and Law is contingent upon Grace, then it becomes very hard to conceive of a way to disentangle them as distinct things or realities; indeed, Muller and the classical Reformed position does not want to do so. And so grace is really law, and law is really grace. And I must leave it here.


[1] [emboldening mine] Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 185-89.

[2] Karl Barth, CD III/1.95

[3] See R. Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader (New York: T&T Clark International, 2012), 115 (nook edition, chapt. 8, first page).

[4] Ibid.