The Real Reason for Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation: And How that Confronts and Contradicts what is Known as Reformed Orthodoxy Today

I was first introduced to Martin Luther’s theology, for real, in my 2002 Reformation theology class, during seminary, under the tutelage of Dr. Ron Frost (who I would later serve as a TA for, and be mentored by). Ron had written an essay for the Trinity Journal back in 1997, which caused an exchange—by way of rejoinder—by Richard Muller; who wanted to dispute Frost’s arguments (which I think he failed, because he didn’t really address Ron’s basic thesis and thus subsequent argument). So I wanted to share, with you all, just the first few opening paragraph’s of Ron’s essay in order to give you a feel for what he argued.

Given the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that is upon us, I thought it would be more than apropos to get into this through Frost’s essay. It throws how we think of the reason for the Protestant Reformation into some relief; relief in the sense that for Luther the indulgences weren’t the real driving force for him; what really motivated him had to do with Aristotle’s categories infiltrating Christian theology—primarily through Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis. What Frost convincingly demonstrates in his essay is that Luther’s primary concern had to do with a theological-anthropological locus; i.e. that humanity’s relation to God was set up under conditions that were philosophical and intellectualist rather than biblical and affectionist.

Here is a lengthy quote from Ron’s essay; I will follow it up with a few closing thoughts.

Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?

What was it that stirred Martin Luther to take up a reformer’s mantle? Was it John Tetzel’s fund-raising through the sale of indulgences? The posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences in October, 1517, did, indeed, stir the public at large. But Luther’s main complaint was located elsewhere. He offered his real concern in a response to the Diatribe Concerning Free Will by Desiderius Erasmus:

I give you [Erasmus] hearty praise and commendation on this further account-that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous [alienis] issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like-trifles rather than issues-in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.1

The concern of this article, then, is to go behind the popular perceptions-the “trifles”-of Luther’s early activism in order to identify and examine this “hinge on which all turns.”

What was this vital spot? Luther was reacting to the assimilation of Aristotle’s ethics within the various permutations of scholastic theology that prevailed in his day. Indeed, Luther’s arguments against Aristotle’s presence in Christian theology are to be found in most of his early works, a matter that calls for careful attention in light of recent scholarship that either overlooks or dismisses Luther’s most explicit concerns.

In particular, historical theologian Richard A. Muller has been the most vigorous proponent in a movement among some Reformation-era scholars that affirms the works of seventeenth century Protestant scholasticism-or Protestant Orthodoxy-as the first satisfactory culmination, if not the epitome, of the Reformation as a whole. Muller assumes that the best modern Protestant theology has been shaped by Aristotelian methods and rigor that supported the emerging structure and coherence of Protestant systematic theology. He argues, for instance, that any proper understanding of the Reformation must be made within the framework of a synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotle’s methods:

It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers…. It is also an error to discuss [it] without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages…. the Reformation … is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed as it were by the five-hundred-year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism.2

The implications of Muller’s affirmations may be easily missed. In order to alert readers to the intended significance of the present article at least two points should be made. First, Muller seems to shift the touchstone status for measuring orthodox theology from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas. That is, he makes the Thomistic assimilation of Aristotle-which set up the theological environment of the late middle ages-the staging point for all that follows in orthodox doctrine. It thus promotes a continuity between Aquinas and Reformed theology within certain critical limits3-and this despite the fact that virtually all of the major figures of the early Reformation, and Luther most of all, looked back to Augustine as the most trustworthy interpreter of biblical theology after the apostolic era. Thus citations of Augustine were a constant refrain by Luther and John Calvin, among many others, as evidence of a purer theology than that which emerged from Aquinas and other medieval figures. Second, once a commitment to “Christian Aristotelianism” is affirmed, the use of “one or another of the Reformers” as resources “to characterize Protestant orthodoxy” sets up a paradigm by which key figures, such as Luther, can be marginalized because of their resistance to doctrinal themes that emerge only through the influence of Aristotle in Christian thought.

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.” His solution was straightforward:

In this regard my advice would be that Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, Concerning the Soil, and Ethics which hitherto have been thought to be his best books, should be completely discarded along with all the rest of his books that boast about nature, although nothing can be learned from them either about nature or the Spirit.

This study will note, especially, three of Luther’s works, along with Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes Theologici. The first is Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, presented in the Fall of 1517, at least a month before he wrote his more famous Ninety-Five Theses. Second is his Heidelberg Disputation, which took place April 26,1518. The third is his Bondage of the Will-which we cited above written in 1525 as a response to Erasmus. Melanchthon’s Loci was published in 1521 as Luther was facing the Diet of Worms.4 A comparative review of Augustine’s responses to Pelagianism will also be offered.[1]

It is interesting that we rarely if ever hear about Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology; Luther posted 97 theses a month prior to his famous 95 that kicked off, at a populace level, what we know of as the Protestant Reformation of today. But because the “indulgence theses” are elevated to a level wherein we associate the Protestant Reformation with that, we miss the real reason Luther was so invigorated to Protest in the first place; and insofar that we miss his motivation we, as Frost notes, may well be living in the wake of a ‘still-born’ Reformation; a Reformation that has very little to do with Luther’s real concern in regard to the impact that Aristotelianism has had upon Christian theology.

Furthermore, as we can see, as Frost is going to argue (and does), because of folks like Richard Muller who have championed the idea that what happened in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox period of the 16th and 17th centuries, wherein an Aristotelian Christianity developed, the theology that Reformed and evangelical theologians are largely retrieving today—for the 21st century—lives out of the hull of a theological development that if Luther were alive today would cause him to start Protesting once again. This is ironic indeed!

And so maybe you, the reader, might gain greater insight into what has been motivating me all these years. I am really a Luther[an] in spirit; along with Frost et al. I am desirous to live out Protestant Reformation theology that is in line with Luther’s original intent; i.e. to genuinely get back to the Bible, and to think and do theology from God’s Self-revelation in Christ in a kataphatic key (or the via positiva ‘positive way’). When I came across Thomas Torrance’s (and Karl Barth’s) theology the original attraction and hook for me was that he was operating under the same type of Luther[an] spirit; in regard to recovering the original intent of the Protestant Reformation. To be clear, Ron Frost’s work has no dependence whatsoever on Torrance (or Barth), his work is purely from a historical theological vantage point; indeed, Frost is Augustinian, whereas Torrance et al. is largely Athanasian. So while there is convergence in regard to the critique of Aristotelianism and its impact on the development of Reformed theology, the way that critique is made, materially, starts to diverge at some key theological vantage points. Frost finds reference to Luther, Calvin, Augustine, and to the Puritan Richard Sibbes as the best way to offer critique of the Reformed orthodox theology that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. Torrance et al. look back more closely attuned to Athanasius, Cyril, Calvin, Jonathan McLeod Campbell, and Karl Barth.

For me, as I engage with all of this, you might see how I have viewed both streams of critique (the Frostian and Torrancean, respectively) as representing a kind of full frontal assault on something like Muller’s positive thesis in regard to the value he sees in Aristotelian Christianity. It’s like opening all canons, both from an Augustinian and Athanasian, a Latin and Greek movement against an Aristotelian Christianity that has taken root; and contra what is now considered ‘orthodox’ theology when it comes to what counts as the Reformed faith.

Evangelical Calvinism, on my end, involves all of these threads; it is not just a Torrancean or “Barthian” critique. And the relevance of it all is that it alerts people to the reality that: 1) The Reformed faith is more complex than it is represented to be; 2) the Reformed faith is much more catholic in its orientation; 3) popular developments like The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God (i.e. John Piper), and the theology they present, is given proper context and orientation—i.e. there is historical and material resource provided for in regard to offering challenges and critique to what they are claiming to be Gospel truth; and 4) the theology that we find in something like the Westminster Confession of Faith, insofar as it reflects the Aristotelian Christianity that Richard Muller lauds, is confronted with the sobering truth that Martin Luther himself would be at stringent odds with what they have explicated for the Reformed faith in general.

I hope you have found this interesting.

 

[1] Ron Frost, “Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal 18:2 (Fall 1997): 223-24.

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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.

The Personal and Positive Reality of Sin, and How that Impacts Our Walks with Jesus

Sin, the word, has almost become cliché these days; we almost, even in the church, in many ways, think of it in cavalier terms; maybe only because we have been exposed to it so much (for those who have been in the church for any length of time). But sin continues to emmauspersist as a real life destructive element in the world, systemically, and in our lives personally; one might even say sin is a rather apocalyptic reality, albeit with personal and concrete implications in each and every person’s life. With hopes of getting beyond the shallow conceptions of sin we have come to adopt in our evangelical contexts, I am hoping that sharing the following will at least point up the fact that there is much more going on with the concept of sin, both theologically and biblically, than we often are wont to realize.

A former seminary professor and mentor of mine, Ron Frost, wrote is PhD dissertation on a theology of grace; particularly as that was given expression in the English Puritan context, and even more focusedly, in the theologies of two Puritans: William Perkins and Richard Sibbes. In the following lengthy quote from Frost we will see how sin, as a doctrine, was developed by Perkins and Sibbes, respectively; the former holds to the privative view, and the latter to the positive (or affective) view of sin. After this quote I will close with some of my own thoughts on how this understanding, diverse as it is, might impact our lives in personal ways, as Christians, as we walk and live in this present evil age. Frost writes:

Some final observations may be made about the positive and privative views of sin. The two approaches differ fundamentally on the reason for sin; while man is identified as responsible for sin in both views, he tends to be portrayed more as a pliable innocent overcome by the serpent’s deceit in the privative model. It is Adam presented as inadequate, not because he was unable to fulfill the law, but, because, in his mutability as a creature, he was vulnerable to moral change. This the serpent exploited while God was willfully away. In scholastic terms, the formal cause of sin was twofold, given the double causality associated with God’s sovereignty. God, as the primary agent for all things, determined the outcome by his withdrawal. In this he was arbitrary but just. The second agent, Adam, failed to apply the grace he had available and thus was culpable for his own fall, albeit as something of a victim. In both considerations the issue of grace is pivotal in its absence. For the privative model, as seen in both Thomistic and Reformed theology, this leads to a greater emphasis on the acquisition and application of grace in hypostatized or commodity-like terms, and a tendency toward Aristotelian moralism — the establishing of one’s righteousness through righteous actions based on grace. To the degree that grace becomes an impersonal quality, the greater the impression one has that something worthy of appreciation, if not merit, is being accomplished.

The doctrine of positive sin, on the other hand, rejects any tendency to see man as a victim; Adam is always the culprit in that he willfully replaced the Creator with the creature as the object of absolute devotion. It also recognizes human mutability as a fact which allows the fall, but rejects it as a meaningful explanation. The fall, in positive sin, remains an impenetrable mystery; Adam is not portrayed as deceived and God is not portrayed as withholding grace. In the positive model sin is always a competition: Adam seeks to usurp God’s role while God confounds Adam’s autonomy.

Thus, the most important difference between the two models is found in the way God is portrayed. In the privative view, as Aquinas and Perkins have it, he remains a supplier of grace — withholding what is needed for salvation except to the elect. He even remains parsimonious to the elect but, as their efforts prevail, is increasingly generous. In the positive view, on the other hand, he is an enemy until conversion which comes by the Spirit’s direct intervention. He invites the elect to see God as he really is: righteous, strong, and loving. Conversion, in fact, is a litmus for the two views: the privative model generally adopts a catechetical process which culminates in an affirmation of faith. The positive model, while recognizing that the Spirit uses prevenient stirrings, expects a more distinct Paul-light conversion which displays the moment in which selfish autonomy melts before God’s self disclosure. For the one, nature remains very much in view; for the other, God, once unveiled by grace, dominates the scene.

The importance of the affections for Sibbes and the nomists differed in profound ways. For Sibbes the affections were both the avenue by which sin entered the world and the avenue by which God, through the Spirit, restores the fallen soul. Slavery of the will was seen to be an enslavement by one’s own desires, something broken only by transforming vision of God as more desirable than anything human autonomy offers. Perkins and the nomists, on the other hand, saw the affections as a subordinate element of the will; they also provided a suitable theology for the prominent will by adopting the Thomist privation-enablement model of sin and grace.

Perkins and the nomists thus established human responsibility as the center-theme of salvation; the moral law became the locus of the soul in the process of sanctification. The belief that the covenant of grace is essentially a legal contract shaped all spirituality into a restorative stance: life is seen as an effort to regain and sustain Adam’s original obedience through the Spirit-enabled will. This generated a Christology which emphasized the juridical work of Christ to the point that, for pastoral ministry, the purpose of restored communion was easily reduced into the preaching of moralist endeavor.

Against this view, Sibbes, in line with Augustine, emphasized the place of Christ as much more than the source of justification, but primarily as one to be loved. The promise of the indwelling Spirit, whose ministry in Christ’s life is now allocated to the Christian, gives promise of a greater hope than the nomists offered: full and eternal intimacy of the Godhead through a true, although mystical, union with Christ. The feet of the soul are the affections and the affections are meant for communion with God.[1]

Consequent to this summarization, Frost argues and maintains that the doctrine of sin that is present in the theologies of Thomas Aquinas, Post Reformed Orthodoxy, and in some of the English and American Puritans like William Perkins and William Ames is actually Pelagian in orientation; that sin in the privative model sees grace as an abstract created substance that God progressively gives to the elect as they cooperate with it, and God, in overcoming the ‘nothingness’ of sin in their lives. Contrariwise, in the positive model, as Frost summarizes, grace is seen as personified in the person of the Holy Spirit, and sin is not a ‘nothingness,’ per se, but instead an absence and lack of God’s life in the elect individual’s life; the remedy to this, so to speak, is for a person to come into union with Christ and participate in God’s life—thus filling in, not only the lack of God’s life, but also reversing the bondage of self-love and homo in se incurvatus that plagues the human body and soul.

Concluding Remarks

So how does any of this impact our daily walks as Christians? The first thing that a so called positive understanding of sin ought to do, is that it ought to personalize sin in such a way that sin is no longer understood as something that must be overcome by my performance or cooperation in grace with God. The focus then becomes one where the Christian looks to the person and work of Jesus Christ as their only hope and remedy for justification and salvation before God. Secondly, a positive view of sin invites the sinner to abandon anything that they might think they could muster up and offer to God (even if it is construed as grace-inspired in privative terms), and to count all their righteousness as but filthy rags. The hope and actual power available to the Christian at this point, in mortification and repentance, comes as the Christian can, like the Apostle Paul, count everything as rubbish, and rely solely upon the grace of God in Jesus Christ; they can rest in the union they have with Christ, and turn from their idolatry and no-gods, and look to the true and living God in Jesus Christ as their mediator and high priest. In other words, understanding sin in personal terms keeps things personal, and does not then collapse into the privative notion of sin that reduces to moralism and self-loathing with no real power to actually live a victorious Christian life.

In closing, there are some modifications, as an evangelical Calvinist, that I would make to Frost’s ‘affective’ model; but I think what Ron offers is very enriching and enlightening towards better understanding what informs our current conceptions of sin, and how those conceptions might impact our lives negatively or positively.

 

[1] Ron Frost, Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology, [unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, 1996 University of London Kings College], 94-96. Now published as: Ron Frost, Richard Sibbes: A Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, WA: CorDeo Press, 2012).

 

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.

Affective Theology, A Seedbed for My Style of evangelical Calvinism

The following is a post I first wrote about a year into my blogging, back in 2006 (started blogging in 2005). I like to introduce folks to this every now and then because it serves, theologically, as the impetus that led me to the mood of evangelical Calvinism I am in now. As you read this you will see some things that might not jive exactly with the theology I currently promote here at the blog, and in our Evangelical Calvinism book; but there is lots of constructive material available here that I think can be fitted together with some of the contours of thought and theological theses that we have in evangelical Calvinism (as articulated by Myk Habets and myself in our “theses” chapter in our book). Also, beware that as you read this there are some spelling and grammar errors, as well as bibliographic formation problems. I plan on following up this post with another one that gets further into the issue of “created grace” (that you will see mentioned in this post—I have that section emboldened below). Here we go:

Here is a brief sketch to a historical system of theology that I was first introduced to while in seminary, under the tutelage of Dr. Ron Frost. This theology is known as Affective Theology (or even Free Grace Theology—not of the Zane Hodges’ style. I am a proponent of this form of theological engagement (qualified at a few points, I actually like to assimilate this with the “Scottish Theology” of Thomas F. Torrance), and believe that it beautifully captures the intention of scripture relative to things salvific and God’s nature. This framework was communicated in Puritan England by people such as Richard Sibbes and William Erbery amongst others. This was a movement that was responding to the stringent “precianism” of Federal Theology (Calvinism) articulated by fellows such as William Perkins and William Aames. Notice a testimonial offered by a man named Humphrey Mills, someone who knew what it meant to live under the unbearable burden of the moralistic proving ground spawned by the inevitable consequence of “Perseverance of the Saints” and “Limited Atonement/Election”, here he speaks in his own words about the freedom of conscience he finally felt under the teaching/preaching of Sibbes:

I was for three years together wounded for sins, and under a sense of my corruptions, which were many; and I followed sermons, pursuing the means, and was constant in duties and doing: looking for Heaven that way. And then I was so precise for outward formalities, that I censured all to be reprobates, that wore their hair anything long, and not short above the ears; or that wore great ruffs, and gorgets, or fashions, and follies. But yet I was distracted in my mind, wounded in conscience, and wept often and bitterly, and prayed earnestly, but yet had no comfort, till I heard that sweet saint . . . Doctor Sibbs, by whose means and ministry I was brought to peace and joy in my spirit. His sweet soul-melting Gospel-sermons won my heart and refreshed me much, for by him I saw and had muchof God and was confident in Christ, and could overlook the world . . . My heart held firm and resolved and my desires all heaven-ward.[1]

Here’s a heart freed from the constant burden of looking to self for assurance of salvation; and prompted to look up to Christ for freedom and salvation.

Sibbes was one of the key-note articulates against the popery he observed with the moralistic tradition provided framework through the Calvinist doctrines. Sibbes believed, along with others, that external works should never be the basis for assurance of salvation–in fact Sibbes believed that assurance of salvation should not even be a functional premise within a soteriological construct; such as Calvinism provided. Sibbes was part of a movement known as Free-Grace, this was ” . . . the party of Puritans who opposed any idea that grace is conditioned by human cooperation.” (Frost, The Devoted Life, 81). Notice this quote offered by William Erbery, a contemporary of Sibbes, as he discusses progression of Purtian thought ending with that kind of Free-Grace preaching exemplified most clearly by Sibbes, note:

I observed four great steps of God’s glorious appearance in men’s preaching. First, how low and legal were their teachings as they learned the way of preaching from Mr. Perkins, Bolton, Byfield and Dod and Dike. . . . Next the doctrine of free grace came forth, but with less success or fruit of conversion by Doctor Preston, Sibs [Sibbes], [and] Crisp. . . . Thirdly the letter of scripture, and flesh of Christ hath been highly set up by both the famous Goodwins: . . . [Thomas] excels in spiritual discourses of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and intercession, yet much according to the flesh, for he meddles not with the mystery of Christ in us. . . . [The fourth step] is the knowledge of Christ in the Spirit.[2]

As Erbery highlights, Sibbes’, amongst the other Free-Grace teachers, was not taken as seriously as the predominate moralistic (Calvinist) teachers, i.e. Perkins, Bolton, et al. But notice where Erbery’s quote leaves off, “the knowledge of Christ in the Spirit”, to this we now turn. This is an important point of departure for the teaching of Affective Theology, as defined by Sibbes, i.e. the immediacy of the Holy Spirit in the person’s life.

While Sibbes believed works were an aspect of salvation, he did not believe that these should be a barometer for determining a person’s salvation. Furthermore he believed constant obsession with such thinking was a product of an unscriptural understanding foisted on the laity of Puritan England by the Calvinist Divines. Note Ron Frost’s assessment of Sibbes’ approach here:

While Sibbes acknowledged some biblical support in calling Christians to obedience as a duty (Erbery’s category of ‘low and legal’ preaching) Sibbes clearly understood that duty can only be sustained if it is supported by the motivation of desire. Thus Sibbes featured God’s winsome love more than his power: the Spirit accomplishes both conversion and sanctification by a single means: through the revelation of God’s attractiveness by an immediate, personal disclosure. This unmediated initiative was seen to be the means by which God draws a response of heartfelt devotion from the elect.”[3]

Notice the relational nature of the salvific event, the Holy Spirit comes to the heart of the “elect” and showers the heart of the sinner with the beautiful person of Jesus Christ. It is as the heart of the sinner is enflamed a love by the work of the Holy Spirit that the sinner responds back in love–given the overwhelming attractiveness of the sweet Savior. Another thing of note, is that the primary instrument used for disclosing sweet Jesus to the heart of the sinner is through the Holy Scriptures. Furthermore, notice the centrality that heart, motive, and desire play in the thought of Sibbes’ as articulated by Frost. This to me is very important, because it takes seriously what God takes seriously, and alone searches, the hearts and motives of men (see Jer. 17:9 and many other passages). This is God’s concern, the motives, and desires of men and women; this is contrary to the system that emphasized external moralistic duties as the basis of determining one’s election (which by the way had horrific ramifications for Christian ethics as well)– Calvinism. Sibbes’ approach, and his affective anthropology, i.e. the defining feature of man (i.e. where values and motives take shape), was directly contrary to the Calvinist anthropology that saw the intellect and will as the defining features of man, and actually saw the “affections” as that which was the weakest part of man. In Calvinist thought it is within the will via interaction with the intellect that becomes enlivened by a “created quality” or Grace. It is through this created quality of Grace that man is able to cooperate with God and thus keep the duty driven moralistic standards consequently proving one’s election and salvation (like Humphrey Mills lived under).

Conversely, Sibbes saw grace as a relational characteristic of God imbued upon the heart of man. It is through this transformative intervention that man’s heart is changed (II Cor 3), and drawn to God. Note Frost’s description here, as he contrasts the Calvinist understanding of grace and the historic Free-Grace (Affective Theology) understanding of grace (as articulated by Sibbes):

In this framework some additional theological assumptions were revised. For instance, Sibbes understood grace to be God’s love offered immediately (rather than mediately) by the Spirit to the elect. By identifying grace primarily as a relational characteristic of God—the expression of his goodness—instead of a created quality or an empowerment of the will, Sibbes insisted that God transforms human desires by the Spirit’s immediate love and communion. Faith, for Sibbes, was not a human act-of-the-will but a response to God’s divine wooing. God’s laws, Sibbes argued, must be ’sweetened by the gospel’ and offered within a framework of ‘free grace.’ He also held a moderately developed form of affective anthropology (which is as further explained by Frost: Augustine’s affective position emerged in the Pelagian debate. Augustine held sin to be concupiscence of the heart—an enslavement to a love of self rather than God. In Augustine’s anthropology the heart is held to generate values; the mind uses the heart’s values to consider its options and to offer its best judgments; the will uses those judgments to engage in action. . . .”)[4]

This represents the touchstone, and most basic understanding of historic Free-Grace theology, or Affective Theology. Some highlights to take away: Affective Theology (AT) believes man heart is in total bondage to self-love; AT believes that man cannot cooperate whatsoever with God in salvation; AT believes that until the heart is transformed by God’s love through the Holy Spirit’s enflaming work, man will never find rest or salvation; AT believes contra historic Calvinist teaching that the emphasis of salvation is relationally based given the identification of God’s gift of grace with the work and person of the Holy Spirit; AT believes, given the relational basis, is not obsessed with proving one’s election since works are not the foundational component of AT’s framework of salvation.

I’ll leave it here for now, there is much more to be said about this perspective . . . especially about the framework that served as the touchstone for Affective Theology. That touchstone is found in Ephesians 5, and the Pauline marriage discussion. The marital framework provided in this beautiful epistle is picked up by AT and pressed into as the picture, but more than a picture (actually an ontological reality), of what union, and thus communion with Christ, is all about. I.e. this is contrary to the covenental framework provided by Calvinism, and the “contractual” implications provided by such a system (e.g. you keep your end of the contract, and God will keep His). The marital framework, rooted in the New Covenant, is no longer obsessed with personal performance–but instead is overwhelmed with the beauty of her bride-groom [Jesus]–marriage presupposes relationship, i.e. nothing to prove, just something to grow in–ultimately finding consummation in glorification and celebrated at the marriage supper feast of the Lamb.

 

[1] Ron Frost, The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics, Frost is quoting from: John Rogers, Ohel or Bethshemesh, A Tabernacle for the Sun (London, n.p., 1653).

[2] Frost, The Devoted Life, quoting from: William Erbery, The Testimony of William Erbery (London: n.p. 1658).

[3] Frost, The Devoted Life, 82.

[4]Frost, The Devoted Life, 82.

 

Hypostatic Grace: A Response of Sorts to Tom McCall and Substance Metaphysics

Substance metaphysics has been a topic of engagement here at The Evangelical Calvinist as long as its existence as a blog; indeed, it is a metaphysic that I have characterized as oppositional and anti-thetical to the aims of what I believe a genuinely Christian theology should offer—particularly when we talk about God. But what in fact is substance metaphysics? Tom McCall[1] in his recently published book An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology pushes back against those of us who “maybe” haphazardly (as he might think) throw the language of substance metaphysics
holyspiritgracearound too casually. For the remainder of this post we will engage with McCall’s push back on the language of substance metaphysics, and then I will offer an example for how I have thought of substance metaphysics based upon its intellectual past in church history.

McCall writes of substance metaphysics,

analytic theology is sometimes criticized and rejected for its reliance on “substance metaphysics.” Unfortunately, exactly what critical theologians have in their crosshairs when they talk about substance metaphysics is often unclear and not closely defined. But very often the complaint is closely tied to a rejection of doctrines associated with “classical theism”; immutability, impassibility, timelessness and other doctrines are taken to be untenable, and, since they are tied to substance metaphysics, so much the worse for substance metaphysics. William P. Alston deftly analyzes this complaint, and he argues that substance metaphysics are really beside the point. What he says about substance metaphysics in discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity applies more broadly: “once we get straight as to what is and is not necessarily included in the metaphysics of substance, we will see that most twentieth-century objections to the use of substance metaphysics … are based on features of such formulations that are not required by substance metaphysics as such.” Perhaps there is something inherently wrong the use of substance metaphysics in theology, and maybe this counts against analytic theology. But before such a judgment can be made, we need more than the all-too-common generalizations and assertions. For before we can conclude that analytic theology is fatally flawed due to a dependence on substance metaphysics, we need to know exactly what is meant by substance metaphysics, we need to be shown just what is wrong (either philosophically or theologically) with substance metaphysics and we need to see that analytic theology really is (or must be) committed to this kind of metaphysics. Without the kind of careful analysis and rigorous argumentation, it is hard to see anything here that might count as a forceful objection to analytic theology.[2]

McCall is being careful, even suggestive at points, in pushing back at those who are critical of substance metaphysics in particular, and analytic theology in general; but, he believes the case, or at least the clarification is yet to be made in regard to what in fact substance metaphysics entails, and what in fact is the problem.

I am someone who has been critical of substance metaphysics, as I mentioned to start this post, and I remain critical. One thing that I am not sure about, particularly in light of McCall’s invitation for further clarification from critical theologians on what substance metaphysics entails, is what in fact McCall et al. analytic theologians believes substance metaphysics entails. So I think the burden of clarification actually goes back more towards the analytical theologian rather than the critical theologian, in regard to what they mean, respectively, when they refer to substance metaphysics. The reason I say this, is because there really is no shortage of what substance metaphysics means in the history of ideas in the mind of the church; e.g. someone like Thomas F. Torrance offers critique of substance metaphysics in his critique of the Latin heresy, among other things.

But my first exposure to substance metaphysics, and a critique of it, came not from Thomas Torrance, but instead by way of historical theology; in particular, through a critique made by my former professor and mentor in seminary, Ron Frost. His was a critique of a Thomist classical theism, but beyond that even, of the impact that Stoicism has had upon the development of Western theology in general. We will have to leave the point of Stoicism to the side for now; but what I would like to offer is some of the flavoring of the type of substance metaphysics that not only Frost finds objectionable, but so do I. The window into this will not be how substance metaphysics impacts an understanding of God, in particular, but instead how substance metaphysics impacts the way God relates to the world in salvation.

Ron Frost’s main way of developing his critique was to look at Thomas Aquinas’s appropriation of Aristotelian metaphysics and synthesis of that with Christian theology. We will jump into Frost’s development of this, mid-stream, as he is beginning his critique of Aquinas’s version of Aristotelian substance metaphysics, and how that impacts the way Thomas conceives of grace and a theological anthropology within a soteriological frame. Frost writes (en extenso):

Aquinas assimilated Aristotle’s ethical assumptions but struggled to formulate them in terms suited to Augustinianism. Luther believed that he failed in the effort. Oberman points to the main target of Luther’s criticism: Aquinas and most medieval theologians assumed that a gap exists between the presence of grace or love in a soul—the iustitia Christi—and a demand for full righteousness when that soul is examined on judgment day—the iustitia Dei. According to Aquinas Christians move from one status to the other over their lifetime by supplying a faith formed by love—fides caritate formata. Love in this arrangement is a responsibility or obligation to be met rather than the reciprocal of response to God’s love. The soul must continue to grow in love through ongoing choices.

Aquinas, then, presumed love to be a function of the will—a self-generated event—and as an act of the will it carries a moral benefit. By Aristotelian standards it is a good and therefore meritorious: the one who loves is good for having made a good choice. As reconfigured by Aquinas love is a mitigated good because all who choose to love supply that love as a capacity of the will that God himself first supplied as an infused grace. God nevertheless crowns such grace-enabled efforts with merit.

Luther dismissed such reasoning. He insisted instead that new believer possesses both the iustitia Christi and the iustitia Dei by faith—so there is no need for a human effort to progress from one status to the other over time. Luther based this on the legal principle of shared marital ownership of goods, a principle made applicable to believers by marriage to Christ.

Luther’s basis for salvation differed from the Thomistic portrayal of grace as a quality infused in the soul and the difference was [sic] critical feature for the Protestant reformer. Oberman’s discussion also sheds more light on Aquinas’ perception of love. He treated love as a human effort able to achieve greater spiritual benefits. In the Summa Theologiae, addressing the new law (lex nova), Aquinas portrayed faith working through love—fide per dilectionem operante—as a property of grace. The grace is delivered through the effective power of the sacraments and by an instinct of inward grace. The benefit of the new law, as against the old, is its relative freedom (lex liberatatis) from specific demands.

When Aquinas placed this in the Aristotelian moral framework to either do well or badly in the act of choosing—with an associated merit—he adopted the philosopher’s premise that a soul requires freedom in order to be a true moral agent. Aquinas anchored this point by citing Aristotle directly: “the free man is one who is his own cause”. In sum Aquinas thought he needed and found the volitional space for free choices, as enabled by grace, to accomplish good. Yet all this was only a limited autonomy—limited because it exists only by divine permission within the realm of God’s greater will. And also because the soul relies on the Spirit for the enabling grace needed to produce a decision of love.

This was a crucial point in building his version of salvation. God creates grace but the grace is a separate entity from God. This was a hypostatic version of grace: something brought into being by God. The alternative portrayal of grace was to see it as God’s love being expressed to a soul by the presence of the Spirit himself. In his favor Aquinas knew that for ages grace had been treated as a distinct entity in the Eucharist—with the elements graciously transformed into Christ’s body and blood. This set up a free-standing grace: “Since therefore the grace of the Holy Spirit is a kind of interior disposition infused into us which inclines us to act rightly, it makes us do freely whatever is in accordance with grace, and avoid whatever is contrary to it.” The shorthand designation for this dispositional grace was a “habit”—or habitus.

The notion of habitus, a key to Aristotle’s anthropology and psychology, is examined more closely in later chapters. Here it is useful to be alerted to its significance: habitus is the principle meeting point of nature and grace and grace in Aquinas’ spirituality, the gift of grace that supernaturally enhances nature to bear the duties of faith (aliquid inditum homini quasi natura superadditum per gratiae donum). Thus Aquinas’ view of grace combined an anthropocentric responsibility with theocentric enablement: a cooperative model of faith.

Love, here, must be part of the will in order to be crowned with merit, rather than an affection. If, by contrast, love is an affective response—something God stirs in the soul—it would be non-meritorious to the person who loves. But this is not the case for Aquinas: his theology turned on a disaffected version of love. With love seen as a choice, even though enabled by a God-given habitus, his premise that salvation comes through a faith formed by love set up a progressive model of justification.

Cornelius Ernst rightly identified this cooperative model as semi-Pelagian. Aquinas held, with Pelagius, that human culpability requires that moral decisions be made freely. But, like Augustine, and against Pelagius, he held that original sin destroys any human ability to choose well. Restoration comes only by God’s grace. This led to the conundrum that morality requires free will, but original sin precludes it. Semi-Pelagians offered a solution: God provides an assisting grace that enables but does not compel the will to choose the good. Culpability is then based on the failure to apply God’s gracious enablement.[3]

Personally, I don’t think what I just shared directly answers McCall’s question; but indirectly, and for my purposes I think it does. Like I intimated earlier, I am not exactly sure what McCall has in mind in his own quote, and when he refers to Alston; knowing that would help promote further and more fruitful discussion. But from my perspective, what I just shared illustrates what I have always meant by substance metaphysics. Even though what I shared is an application of this metaphysic within the realm of salvation and anthropology, it can be extrapolated back to God’s being in his inner life (in se), at which point we start thinking of God as pure being (which McCall, in his book, does address at some length). Or we might think of God as a monad, and then, as Aquinas did, attempt to evangelize this concept of God with Christian categories such as Trinity, Persons, Relations; we may attempt to personalize the monad, but the monad in itself, definitionally, remains impersonal and a thing.

Ron Frost got me started on my thinking in regard to the problem of substance metaphysics, but guys like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and their actualism—being in becoming—have taken things deeper in regard to thinking of God, salvation, so on and so forth in terms that are fully personalized rather than in terms that are impersonalized and qualitized. This is what I think substance metaphysics does to Christian theology; I think it de-emphasizes and depersonalizes what is presented and revealed as fully personal in the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. I have written much more on this theme, and used both Barth and Torrance to help un-pack this further, elsewhere (here on the blog).

As far as providing the type of response that I believe McCall is asking for, this might be problematic; particularly because of the disparate nature between the analytical approach to theology versus the non-analytical. That’s not to say that a cogent and clear definition of substance metaphysics cannot be supplied, I’m just not sure, though, that whatever that might look like, that it will actually meet the standards that McCall, Alston, et al. are looking for. I think there are other pressures involved in trying to understand what in fact critical theologians mean by substance metaphysics, and I’m hopeful that my little post illustrates how that might be.

Conclusion

While we have covered something that is quite academic and technical in nature, it isn’t that for me. What we have looked at, very briefly in this post, has consequences for very important and fundamental things; particularly towards how we think of God, and His relation to us, His creation, and salvation. All of this has impact towards Christian spirituality, whether we realize that or not. If we approach  God as a substance, at a first order level, then that will impact the way we conceive of God, and thus how we engage His world.

[1] Someone I consider a friend, and someone I like. He, in fact, personally sent his book on Analytic Theology, the one we are engaging with in this particular post.

[2] Thomas H. McCall, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (DownersGrove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 31-2.

[3] RN Frost, Richard Sibbes: God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, Washington: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 74-7.

A Different Way: A Calvinism where God is Love rather than Law

God is love. For evangelical Calvinists such as myself and Myk Habets this is determinative for how theology ought to be done, and the shape which Christian spirituality should have—the shape of love, Triune love. One of the theses Myk and I wrote for our Evangelical Calvinism book (vol. 1) states in part:

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

Hugh Binning (1627-1653), a young Scottish theologian, spoke of the primacy of God’s life as the ground of salvation. Speaking of the primacy of God’s love as the foundation of salvation he wrote:

Our salvation is not the business of Christ alone but the whole Godhead is interested in it deeply, so deeply, that you cannot say, who loves it most, or likes it most. The Father is the very fountain of it, his love is the spring of all—“God so loved the world that he hath sent his Son.” Christ hath not purchased that eternal love to us, but it is rather the gift of eternal love . . . Whoever thou be that wouldst flee to God for mercy, do it in confidence. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are ready to welcome thee, all of one mind to shut out none, to cast out none. But to speak properly, it is but one love, one will, one council, and purpose in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, for these Three are One, and not only agree in One, they are One, and what one loves and purposes, all love and purpose.[1]

This is the character of evangelical Calvinism, and we believe it is in contrast to what I have termed classical Calvinism (other terms might be: TULIP Calvinism, Federal/Covenantal theology, Westminster Calvinism, Bezan Calvinism, neo-Puritanism, Lordship salvation, so on and so forth). In a general way classical Calvinism’s character is an outflow of its conception of God, just as ours is (or any theology’s is). The classical Calvinist conception of God starts with a God, I would contend, that is Law based, instead of Love based. This conception subsequently leads to a different understanding of salvation, and a God-world relation than what we will find in an evangelical Calvinist conception.

I was set on the evangelical Calvinist trajectory, contrary to popular belief, not through Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance; but instead, through some Puritans (like Richard Sibbes), John Calvin, Martin Luther, and other historical theological characters. My historical theology and ethics professor in seminary, Dr. Ron Frost, set me, by and large, on the trajectory I find myself today. In his own PhD dissertation he develops the kind of distinction I have just noted relative to the God of love that we find in evangelical Calvinism versus the God of law we find funding classical Calvinism. I will share two quotes from Frost; one highlighting how Calvin fit into a love based conception of God, and the other highlighting the flowering of classical Calvinist thought in the theology of English Puritan William Perkins. You will notice that in Calvin’s approach love of God, and affections are front center; and you will conversely notice how duty, cooperation, and law of God are most prominent in Perkins’ theology. Both of these vignettes can serve as windows for us and illustrative of what distinguishes an evangelical Calvinist ethos  from a classical Calvinist ethos, respectively.

Here is Frost on Calvin:

 Calvin’s rejection of habitusCalvin also rejected the notion of grace-as-a-created-quality, insisting instead that grace is always relational. He was sharply critical of the scholastic discussions of grace, charging in the Institutes (1559) that by it the “schools” have “plunged into a sort of Pelagianism”. In book three of the Institutes,Calvin developed his own doctrine of grace. His view that faith is relational and a matter of the heart—a personal certainty of God’s gracious benevolence—is implicit if not explicit throughout the exposition. The Spirit is the “bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself”. He cited Rom. 5:5, the verse so important to Augustine’s affective theology, that the Spirit pours God’s love into the believer’s heart. He readily associated this with the affective language of moderate mystics: as the Spirit is “persistently boiling away and burning up  our vicious and inordinate desires, he enflames our hearts with the love of God and with zealous devotion.”

In defining faith Calvin derided the medieval-scholastic notion of formed and unformed faith as an attempt “to invent” a “cold quality of faith.” He was similarly critical of the moralistic tendencies inherent in the Thomistic model: “Hence we may judge how dangerous is the scholastic dogma that we can discern the grace of God toward us only by moral conjecture …” Against such ideas, faith actually “consists in assurance rather than in comprehension”. Even Phil. 2:12-13, with its explicit synergism (“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure”), was seen to portray a believer’s appropriate humility as a counterpart to his or her assurance of God’s goodness. He attacked “certain half-papists” who represent Christ as “standing afar off” as an object of faith “and not rather dwelling in us”. The work of justification is, he insisted, a gaze in which the believers are led “to turn aside from the contemplation of our own works and look solely upon God’s mercy and Christ’s perfection.”[2]

We quickly run into some pretty technical stuff in this quote, but what ought to stand out for our purposes is the relational and love ground we see in Calvin’s theology; a ground that is critical of the law based and impersonal ground we are confronted with in classical Calvinism, and it’s Thomistic/Aristotelian understanding.

In Contrast to evangelical Calvinists and John Calvin himself (according to Frost), William Perkins typifies the classical Calvinist feeling and theology. Again, here is Frost, this time on William Perkins:

Perkins’ moralistic assumptions. The Old Testament moral law was fully engaged with Perkins’ supralapsarian theology. Obedience to the law served to display God’s glory among the elect and God’s glory is the goal to which every aspect of the supralapsarian model moves. In Perkins’ view, a person’s ability to achieve God’s glory through obedience requires that the moral quality of every action should be well defined. To this end Perkins offered a taxonomy of sins in his Treatise of the Vocations or Calling of Men that looked to the Mosaic Decalogue. A closer examination of the law as part of Perkins’ theology of God awaits chapter two but some initial comments will introduce Perkins’ place among English theologians who elevated the law.

Perkins’ emphasis on the law was part of a broader movement among the Puritans. Jerald C. Brauer proposed four categories of Purtians: nomists, evangelicals, rationalists, and mystics. His attention was drawn to the smallest of the categories, the mystics, given his interest in Francis Rous. Nevertheless his recognition of the two major groups, nomists and evangelicals, displays the same division among Puritans noted by Schuldiner, Knight and the present study. Brauer, in fact, identifies Sibbes as the Puritan who epitomized the evangelicals. Nomists, according to Brauer, “held the fundamental belief that the divine intention is to recreate obedient creatures who can now, through grace, fulfill the intent of God, namely, obedience.” Brauer’s nomists include Thomas Cartwright, John Field, Walter Travers, John Penry, John Udall, John Greenwood, William Pryn, and Samuel Rutherford. Perkins, overlooked in the list, must be included on the basis of the criteria that Brauer identifies. It was, in fact, Perkins’ written expositions of Federal theology that did the most to promote the importance of obedience to the law for sanctification among Puritans in his era.[3]

Again, there are many threads left dangling in the quote, but what’s important for our purposes is to notice the ethos of law based, and duty driven spirituality present in Perkins’ theology (according to Frost).

What should stand out, hopefully, are some distinct trajectories available within the Reformed tradition. Evangelical Calvinism, as Myk Habets and I have presented it, is a resource project; as such we seek to resource theology, primarily from within the Reformed tradition (with roots in Patristic and catholic theology), that flows from the hermeneutic provided for by the reality that God is indeed love. This is contrariwise to what we find currently in the resource work of classical Calvinists of today. They are starting with a conception of God wherein God’s law is primary, not love; as such the way they read and retrieve the history will follow accordingly. Furthermore, then, the type of Christian spirituality that this latter type of retrieving will lead to, if taken beyond the academy, will lead to a Christianity that is shaped by an ethic of duty, and decision(intellect)-based spirituality. Evangelical Calvinists offer a different way.

 

[1] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theses on a Theme,” in editors Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 428-30.

[2] RN Frost, Richard Sibbes: God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, Washington: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 165-66.

[3] RN Frost, Richard Sibbes. God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, WA: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 47-8.

Miscellanies on the Thomist Intellectualist Tradition and its Impact on Reformed Theology

westminster

Something that I don’t think most Reformed theologians, whether yet budding, or senior are all that concerned with or cognizant of is the role that their respective anthropology plays in their theological prolegomena. I would say that most if not almost all of North American (and Western) Protestant Reformed theologies are funded by thinkers who are committed, in one form or another, to what is called an intellectualist anthropology. The originator of this type of anthropology, for Christian theological consumption, is most prominently, Thomas Aquinas; indeed Norman Fiering, in his index of medievally derived anthropologies, calls Thomas’s anthropology Thomist intellectualist—which would be a general label for anyone who receives Thomas’s intellectualist anthropology after him, in one way or the other. Here is how Aquinas describes the centrality of the ‘intellect’ or reason as definitive for what it means to be human:

In the original integrated state of man reason controlled our lower powers perfectly and God perfected the reason subordinated to him. This state was lost to us by Adam’s sin, and the resulting lack of order among the powers of our soul that incline us to virtue we call a wounding of nature. Ignorance is a wound in reason’s response to truth, wickedness in will’s response to good; weakness wounds the response of our aggressive emotions to challenge and difficulty, and disordered desire our affections’ reasonable and balanced response to pleasure. All sins inflict these four wounds blunting reason’s practical sense, hardening the will against good, increasing the difficulty of acting well and inflaming desire.[1]

For Thomas, the intellect, in a faculty psychology, is the defining component of what it means to be human. As we can see from his Summa Thomas does not believe that, during the fall, the ‘intellect’ was touched[2], instead it is only the ‘disordered desire [of] our affections’ that corrupts the rest of our humanity; as such the mind/intellect becomes central to what it means to be human relative to God as ultimate mind/intellect and Creator.

Ron Frost develops this further, and the impact this type of intellectualist anthropology had on the theology/soteriology of Post Reformed orthodox theologian William Perkins:

… William Perkins was answering the question of how God reaches humanity—the relation of grace to nature—by reengaging Thomas Aquinas’s thirteenth-century cooperative approach to salvation. Aquinas, with Aristotle, believed that morality is determined by the will, so that virtue is gained by making the virtuous choice. In its Christian expression the human will must be engaged in a saving choice to believe. But Aquinas also held, with Augustine, that the will is crippled by sin. Aquinas’s solution was to synthesize the moral axiom of Aristotle and Augustine’s axiom of disability: God places a newly created gift of grace in the souls of the elect that enables the will to operate once again. By this means of gracious enabling the will receives the necessary power to embrace salvation by an act of faith. This enabling “habit of grace” allows a person to make the saving decision, a decision God crowns with merit.

This cooperative scheme featured the human and divine wills working together, with the mind using the information offered by God. When the will has a set of operations set before it, its challenge is to overcome distracting affections. The greater power of the properly informed will, the greater its ability to defeat faulty passions. The act of believing is thus the premier work of the will, and is only accomplished by the prevenient enabling grace God provides.[3]

It is the mind/intellect that is given primacy in Perkins’s theological anthropology, and we can see (as reported by Frost) how this gets cashed out in Perkins’s soteriology.

Perkins was not alone, he was simply expressing what was common fare among the Post Reformation Protestant scholastic theology he was a part of during his period of history. Richard Muller speaks to the reality of this Thomist intellectualist tradition as he describes Arminius’s context as a theologian of his time:

The enlightenment of the intellect that draws man spiritually into final union with God leads to the “enlargement” of the will “from the inborn agreement of the will the intellect, and the analogy implanted in both, according to which the understanding extends itself to acts of volition, in the very proportion that it understands and knows.” Arminius, in summary, places himself fully into the intellectualist tradition.

What is more, Arminius’ argument for the priority of intellect in the final vision of God perfectly reproduces the classic intellectualist thesis of Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, intellect is higher or nobler than will inasmuch as the intellect does not merely address an object that is external to itself (as does the will) but, in addressing the object, also in some sense receives the object into itself and possesses in itself the form of the object. In the final vision of God, according to Aquinas, the soul has direct vision of the divine essence that is higher and nobler than the will’s love of God.

The juxtaposition of an intellectualist philosophical perspective with a practical orientation in Arminius’ theology represents, as noted earlier, a significant departure from the major medieval paradigms and a use of the scholastic past that is best characterized as eclectic. Praxis is, typically, associated with love and will, speculatio or contemplatio with intellect: the intellectualist model will, therefore, advocate a theology that is either primarily or utterly contemplative while the voluntarist model will define theology as primarily or utterly practical. Thus Aquinas assumes that theology is primarily contemplative whereas Scotus defines theology as practical. The Reformed tended toward a compromise that respect the balance of intellect and will but recognized the underlying soteriological issue as voluntaristic and, therefore, defined theology as both speculative and practical with emphasis on the practical….[4]

An Evangelical Calvinist Response

As we have just surveyed—I fear too fragementedly—what was predominate in Post Reformed orthodox theology was a mind/will centered anthropology that reflects (through an analogy of being) upon who God is conceived to be in this frame. The intellectualist tradition presumes that God as eternal ‘being’ implicates (as reflection as it were) what it means to be human being; and thus reasoning from the effect back to the cause, the intellectualist tradition believes that what it means to be God is someone who exists a se as a big intellect. This shapes the way classically Reformed (inclusive of Arminians) thinkers think of God, and it follows then that ‘feeling’ or ‘movement’ in God, which love presupposes upon, is simply an anthropopathism; in other words, love is not real, in an ontological sense. What defines God is something like an ultimate-Spock like being of existence, as such this God relates to humanity in a God-world relation in very impersonal ways (like through decrees).

The evangelical Calvinist after Barth and Torrance, on the other hand, does not think of God from within an intellectualist speculative tradition. Instead evangelical Calvinists along with Athanasius think it is better to think God, and as consequent, theological anthropology, from the eternal relation of Father-Son revealed by the Holy Spirit in Christ in the incarnation of the Son. As Athanasius famously asserts, “Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.” Evangelical Calvinists don’t attempt to think God from an analogy of being (analogia entis) in and from an abstract humanity; we think God from a center in God, in His Self-exegesis in the Son, Jesus Christ.

As we have illustrated in this post, if someone is committed to an intellectualist anthropology and tradition it gets cashed out in interesting ways; particularly with reference to how a thinker conceives of God, and how salvation is understood and given shape after that conception of God. As is the case in all instances, how God is conceived in the first order, will have subsequent and second order consequences for every other theological loci following.

I am afraid I have only started to pull on a whole bunch of threads all at once in this post, but I wanted to start pulling those threads so that maybe someone’s curiosity might be piqued to the point of doing further research themselves. I realize this post has a kind of palpable incoherence to it, but I am simply wanting to provide soundings for you as you come to realize that there are alternative traditions available to you, even in the Reformed world of thought.

What evangelical Calvinism does is to eschew thinking from a center within an abstract humanity; in other words we repudiate the idea that there is an analogy of being between God and humanity. There is no point of contact, then, between God and humanity from whence God can be conceived of apart from God’s own Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. If this is true, evangelical Calvinists have the advantage of the ground of all theological grammar, anthropology, and worship being the Triune life of God itself as ‘mediated’ to humanity in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. We do not have to think God from a faculty psychology as the ground of being from whence we think God. We can eschew thinking God from the accidents and effects that we discover and observe in the created order[5], and instead think directly of God, mediated in the hidden-ness of God in the humanity of God enfleshed in Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Concise Translation, 270-71.

[2] This is an important point because it keeps it keeps the imago Dei intact, and an analogy of being can be interconnected between God’s being (who is ultimate intellect) and human being (who is penultimate intellect).

[3] Ronald N. Frost, “The Bruised Reed: By Richard Sibbes (1577–1635),” in The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics, eds. Kelly M. Kapic and Randall C. Gleason (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 88-9.

[4] Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991), 78-9.

[5] See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 7.: “. . . the proposition that “God exists” is self evident in itself, for, as we shall see later, its subject and predicate are identical, since God is his own existence. But, because what it is to be God is not evident to us, the proposition is not self-evident to us, and needs to be made evident. This is done by means of things which, though less evident in themselves, are nevertheless more evident to us, by means, namely of God’s effects.”

A Response to James Dolezal’s Critique of ‘Theistic Personalism’ juxtaposed with Classical Theism

I just watched a video featuring a talk given by Dr. James Dolezal, Assistant Professor of Theology at Cairn University, entitled Theistic Personalism and the Erosion of Classical Christian Theism (click title to watch video). Dolezal is a graduate of The Master’s College, The Master’s Seminary (B.A., M.A., MDiv. – John MacArthur schools), and then Westminster Theological Seminary (ThM, PhD). I had listened to him before over at Reformed Forum’s podcast Christ the Center, but was just referred to him in light of the current eternal functional subordination debate aquinas1(EFS). In his presentation, in the video I just watched, he offers a classic view on the classical theistic understanding of God. In other words, he argues for God’s aseity, impassibility, immutability, and simplicity; he uses this foundation to critique what he is calling ‘theistic personalism,’ or the idea, as he frames it, that God is mutable, to one degree or another. What is pertinent for the current EFS debate, currently underway, is that Dolezal critiques Bruce Ware, a key proponent of so called EFS. I am one with Dolezal in the need for critique of the social trinitarianism, and even tri-theism we find present, even if in inchoate ways, in Ware’s theology proper. But unfortunately, Dolezal, and this makes sense and is consistent with his theological training and background, offers a doctrine of God (a certain form of the “classical theist” conception) that is, unacceptable, if we are going to be committed to a conception of God where God’s Self-revelation and explication is regulated by Jesus Christ himself.

In order to introduce the conception of God that Dolezal sketches for his audience, I thought I would refer to a description of English Puritan, William Perkin’s classical theistic conception of God as illustrative of a conception of God that Dolezal, in his talk, argues for. The following is taken from my former historical theology professor and mentor, Ron Frost’s PhD dissertation; watch as he describes Perkin’s understanding of God as impassible and immutable, it is corollary with Dolezal’s view of God:

Love and the will. In speaking of God, apart from any one of the triad of persons, Perkins identified a primary essence which is “void and free from all passion” [Perkins, “Golden Chaine,” 1. 25]. Love, if seen as essentially affective, would include an element of contingency, namely, God’s desire that his creation respond to his love as the complement to his own love. If, however, love is a component of the will, God merely requires such a response . In the Golden Chaine, then, love is striking in its absence as a motivation in God; this despite the primacy of love in biblical descriptions of God. As illustrated in the chart of the Chaine [which Frost provides on the previous page], love appears only after the mediatorial work of Christ.

Perkins also believed that if God’s love is perceived as an inherent motivation (that is, as an affection), it would imply the prospect of universal salvation. He raised an “objection” in the Golden Chaine to make the point, a point which illustrates Perkins’ position that love is defined by God’s arbitrary determinations:

Object. Election is nothing else but dilection or love; but this we know, that God loves all his creatures. Therefore he elects all his creatures.Answer. I. I deny that to elect is to love, but to ordain and appoint to love.II. God does love all his creatures, yet not all equally, but every one in their place [Perkins, “Golden Chaine,” 1. 109, Cited by Frost, 62].

This reflected Perkins’ synthetic definition of God’s love. In his Treatise of God’s Free Grace and Man’s Free Will, Perkins posed the question “whether there be such an affection of love in God, as is in man and beast.”

I answer that affections of the creature are not properly incident unto God, because they make many changes, and God is without change. And therefore all affections, and the love that is in man and beast is ascribed to God by figure [Perkins, “God’s Free Grace, 1.723, cited by Frost].

Thus, God must be understood to express his immutable will in a manner that accomplishes “the same things that love makes the creature do”. God, then, lacks any inherent affections but he still chooses to do the actions of love or hatred, and uses anthropomorphic language, while working out his eternal purposes: “Because his will is his essence or Godhead indeed.” [Perkins, “God’s Free Grace,” 1.703, cited by Frost][1]

Dolezal contends that a God like Perkins’, as described by Frost, is the only plausible conception available of God that does not impugn God’s character as God. Dolezal essentially argues the same way as we see sketched for us in the Perkinsonian conception of God; that love in God is only a ‘figure’ or an anthropomorphism. That God cannot receive in reciprocal fashion any form of love back from creatures, because that would challenge God’s impassibility/immutability; it would cause God to “move” towards creation and receive something that he ostensibly didn’t have from his creatures, and we can’t have an Unmoved mover God move because that would violate what it means for God to be God according to the classical theistic model that Dolezal, Perkins, and the Westminster Confession of Faith (among other confessions like the London Baptist, and Savoy Declaration) propound.

This God, the one that Dolezal et al. articulate, works well if we are committed to an Aristotelian Monadic understanding of God; it works well if we are committed to a Platonic Pure or Actual Being conception of God. But what if we want to be reliant on a conception of God that depends upon and is shaped by God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ? What if, like Athanasius, we want to first think of God as Father of the Son before we think of him as a philosophical monad or pure being? As Athanasius famously communicates, “It would be more godly and true to signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.”[2] Interestingly, Dolezal ties his style of classical theism (which is medieval and Thomist in orientation) into the classical theism of Athanasius and other Patristics; as if there is a consensual classical theism without any nuance along a continuum of belief (i.e. argument of the beard — a formal logical fallacy).

Dolezal goes on to critique a group of modern theistic personalists, including Ware, Barth, et al. who Dolezal maintains have compromised God’s being (ontology) because they have attempted, in one way or the other, to conceive of God outwith the parameters provided for by the style of classical theism that Dolezal maintains; a style, as we’ve noted, that he believes is actually the absolute and catholic conception of classical theism. Obviously, to throw Ware and Barth together does not work (as Bruce McCormack’s Kantzer lecture number one demonstrates in spades), but in a general way, I think folks like Dolezal&co. believe that anyone who does not fit into their or his conception of classical theism is either heterodox, a heretic, or both; and thus fit into the same category of outside the orthodox faith.

Dolezal, in this particular video does not provide an elaborate critique of Barth (in fact he only mentions his name in passing), but he does list Barth as a theistic personalist. He does see Barth, then as someone who compromises the ontology of God. For Dolezal Barth would do this by holding that God has movement in God’s being when God elects to not be God without us (human beings), but God with us in Jesus Christ. Dolezal, if I am reading him right, would maintain that because Barth holds that Christ is the decree makes God’s being contingent upon creation because God has “moved” and thus added something to His being that He once did not have.

In the final analysis, though, this would be a misunderstanding of Barth (and Torrance, and those of like conviction), and the misunderstanding would primarily be informed by inattention to disparate prolegomenon and hermeneutic between the direction Dolezal is coming from and the direction Barth is. It is a misreading of Barth because Dolezal’s critique would not pay proper attention to Barth’s theory of revelation in contradistinction to Dolezal’s inherited theory of revelation (and thus mode for knowing God).

I will follow this post up later, at some point, with further elaboration on Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and how they do not fit into Dolezal’s theistic personalist critique.

[1] Ron Frost, “Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology” (Unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of London, King’s College, 1996), 61-2. [brackets mine]

[2] Athanasius, Contra Arianos, 1.34.

The “Marriage Framework” versus the “Legal Framework” of Salvation in Post-Reformation Reformed Theology

This is a very old post that I am sure none of you have read. It was written in a time before I became “The Evangelical Calvinist,” and represents the influence I had on me coming out of seminary back in 2003. I still hold to this distinction, and believe it can be synthesized well with what we are doing with evangelical Calvinism. The period the theology in this post is resourced from is the Post-Reformation Reformed orthodox period. I am almost positive that most Reformed folks of today are unaware of the distinctions discussed in this post, and much of that lack of exposure has to do with the way the scholarship has run in Reformed theology. 

Is there a proper framework for salvation, or is it “just” salvation?

Federal Calvinism believes the answer to this question is an “affirmative!” They believe[d] that God (the divine *Law-giver*) provided framework to salvation through a bilateral contract, viz.
that God initiated a “Covenant” with man (“Covenant of Works”), and now man (if He is “elect”) must keep his end of the *deal* by “obeying” the “Law” (e.g. Mosaic) through a “Spirit-enablement” marriagereformedprovided by the incidental obedience of Christ (you know quid pro quo). If “elect man” keeps his end of the deal (and he will, since he’s elect — so goes the “story” [“Covenant of Grace”]), then based on the conditions originally set out by the “Law-giver,” he will (according to the divine “pact”) reap the “rewards” of said obedience consummating in “eternal felicity.” This is a “rough” overview of the “legal” (juridical) framing of salvation [in fact much of this is still in force, at a very popular level, through the preaching and teaching of folks like R. Scott Clark and the White Horse Inn]. So this is scenario, and framework #1.

There is another group though. This other group “grew up” concurrent with the group above (the Federal Calvinist), and they had a different answer — albeit an affirmative to my original question. Instead of saying “Your honor” (as the Federalist), they say “My lover,” let me explain. This group, lets call them the Marital Mystics, believed that the best framework for salvation is not primarily “legal,” but “marital.” They believed that the Apostle Paul’s framework, in Ephesians 5:18ff, of Marriage; was much more than a metaphor, but that this language spoke to a “real union” (an ontological reality) between Christ and His bride — so human marriage is only a “prefigurement” of the real thing between Christ and His Church. Instead of a “potential union,” as implied by the “legal guys” (i.e. if we meet our end of the deal [viz. obedience to the Law, good works], then God will ratify the deal and bring us into eventual union at the eschaton), the *Marital Mystics* believed that we have been sought after by the “lover of our souls;” and once He catches us, we are overcome with His winsome beauty and love (we become smitten with “love at first sight”). At this instance, we reciprocate His love for us (cf. Rom. 5:5) and respond with an “I do!” It is this framework that shapes our relationship to Jesus Christ (Song of Songs is a favorite book of the Bible for this group, and lets not forget the “bridal” language of John in Revelation, and other smadderings throughout the OT [Hos., etc.]), and it is this kind of relationship that crowds out the “responsibility” (cooperative) duty driven construction provided by the “Legal guys.” The “Marital guys” see a freedom for reciprocating love, a unilateral movement initiated by the bridegroom for His bride; which eventuates in whispers of sweet nothings towards the bridegroom, from His bride — there is not a sense of responsibility and duty shaping this relationship, but a continual and deepening love for the bride as He woos her with His beauty and charm. There is no fear of “not living up to the “Judge’s” expectations, in this arrangement, but a disposition of hopeful anticipation; as the bridegroom takes His bride into His Father’s house, and “covers” her with His “robes of righteousness” through penetrating and “mystical union” (unio mystica) [but real union] with Him. The focus in this arrangement is on Him — the Bridegroom — and His love and righteousness given as a “dowery” to His Bride, through the communion (communio) of the Spirit. And this is framework #2 (notice the trinitarian involvement in this model, this is meaningful vs. the “legal approach”).

I was first introduced to “framework #2” by my prof in seminary, Ron Frost. He did his PhD dissertation on a Puritan named Richard Sibbes, and Sibbes was a proponent of framework #2 (and so was John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Bernard of Clairvaux, amongst others); and his opining (Sibbes’) on this subject was intentionally contrairian to the “Legal guy’s” (typified by William Perkins, amongst others) approach — and rightly so. Here is how Frost summarizes Sibbes’ framing:

. . . It seems likely, then, that Sibbes’ doctrine of mystical marriage based on a Bernardian reading of the Song of Songs drew him away from the cooperative theology of his Perkinsonian training, back to a unilateral view of the covenant. He came to hold that the affections are crucial in the function of mystical marriage, and that mystical marriage is the ground of saving union. In his emphasis he was well aligned with the view of the early reformers who held that the marriage of Christ and the church represents a primary foundation for the theology of real union. [Ronald N. Frost, “Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology” [Unpublished PhD Dissertation, King’s College University of London, 1996, 121.]

You may ask why is this important? And you may ask for a variety of reasons. I would just say, because understanding how we relate to Christ has everything to do with everything! If our conception is formed by the “legal accounting” then we are stressed with an relationship that comes off rather cold and calculated . . . not to mention an arrangement that causes us to be consumed with ourselves and our performance (“man-centered” — anthropocentric) — and approaching life in Christ this way could have dastardly consequences on our daily walk and spirituality (could lead to: angst, fear, depression, dark nights and seasons of the soul, anger, frustration, fatalism, hopelessness, etc., etc.). But beyond the “consequences,” scripture is replete with passages and concepts that present the “Marital Framework” as the most adequate framing, providing the greatest explanatory power for understanding a biblical approach to thinking about “salvation.” I’m an advocate for #2, how about you?

P. S. There are other implications (having to do with: salvation from the “inside-out” vs. “outside-in,” “assurance” [becomes an non-issue], sanctification, ethics, etc.), but we will have to wait and flesh those out later . . . or if you want in the comment meta on this post.