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I thought I would share three texts that have served most foundational for me in my theological development. Each of these texts was assigned to me by my former Historical Theology and Ethics professor in seminary, Ron Frost. I was privileged to serve as his teaching fellow and, as a result, became mentored by him. I will say that without Ron Frost at the seminary, my time at seminary would not have been as great as it was (and that’s saying a lot because so many of my other seminary profs were excellent in their own right, and in their own ways). But the texts that remain formative for me are these:

J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrine: Revised Edition.

Steven Ozment’s The Age of Reform 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Relgious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe.

And as supplementary readings (although I read the whole thing):

Geoffrey Bromiley’s Historical Theology: An Introduction.

You will notice that these are all historical theology related. I continue to maintain, that without having a foundation in the classical sources (so a reified ad fontes or ‘back to the sources’), and without having a grasp of their general doctrinal frameworks and trajectories, that it will be nay impossible for genuinely Christian theological development to take place. I take this as a given just as we find this sort of sentiment implied by the Apostle Paul when he writes in Ephesians 4: “11 And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ ….” This is a basic or fundamentum reality for me as a Christian; I believe we stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us, and we are given a theological imaginary to think from thence.

So, I commend these texts to you. They will open you up to the ‘sources’, and allow you to engage in constructive theological theology in ways, that outwith, will not be possible. We see the dangers of people who attempt to do theology without this requisite background; they end up engaging in thought that is unmoored from the foundations that Jesus himself has offered his church, with the intention of causing edification and growth into the grace and knowledge that he himself is.

Ironically, I am often thought of us as a “Barth blogger,” or a “Torrance blogger,” and I’m fine with that. But it should be known that this only reflects the tip of the ice-berg for me. Years ago, when I first started blogging (in 2005), I might have been known as a “Luther blogger, Calvin blogger, or Sibbes blogger,” respectively. Typically my blogging is driven by whatever I’m reading at the time (as so many of you know by now). But in general Barth and Torrance have come to dominate the types of posts I generate; pretty much, because I have adopted that ‘tradition’ (and it is a tradition, just as much as the Thomist or Bavinckian or Calvinian are interpretive traditions in their own right) as my interpretive tradition. But, again, all of that is chastened by the sources. I have not lost sight of those, nor have I become a progressive-modern-liberalesque theologian who sees the past as a naïve and a pre-critical time (even if it was pre-critical … which actually is where its value is); least not in the pejorative sense that these former theologians see it as. Ultimately I will follow the theologians who point me most to Jesus Christ, no matter what period I find them in. I might be critical of some of the metaphysics as they are received by many these days; the metaphysics of say the mediaeval periods etc. But I can also critically recognize that these theologians were doing the best they could with what they had materially and formally available to them. I can recognize that they had the same impulses I have, in the sense that they wanted to magnify Jesus for the church in the sort of edifying ways that Paul refers us to.

Pax Christi.

 

 

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I often refer to Affective Theology (well I have sporadically over the years); affective theology is a way of theologizing I was first alerted to by my former seminary prof and mentor, Ron Frost. He primarily developed the themes, in his own constructive way, that make up his understanding of  affective theology in his PhD work on Richard Sibbes; but he didn’t necessarily arrive at these themes through Sibbes (at least not alone). Frost found the affective modes in Luther’s theology as that reached back to Augustine himself. Affective Theology is a theological construct that we might think of as a soteriologically driven paradigm; and this would make sense given its reliance on Luther, the solifidian theologian. In other words, the concerns that affective theology is enamored with have to do with what makes a human being human; at a theological anthropological level. And further, it wonders about these things as that relates to who God is in his own inner-life (in se). As you might imagine, affective theology sees the affections as central in regard to what makes a human, human at a componential level. Interestingly, most of the Western tradition, when it comes to these issues, sees the intellect as the defining component of what it means to be human; at least in the trad (things have changed in some ways these days; as far as developing a theological-anthropology; but what hasn’t changed are the conceptual impulses at play in this discussion). In other words, the Aristotelian impact on Western Christianity, particularly as modulated through Thomas Aquinas, and modulated further through many of the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries, continues to press upon the way many conservative evangelical and Reformed Christians think about what it means to be human. As an aside: Don’t lose sight of the fact that when we talk like this, about humans and their composition, that what we are ultimately going to do is get back to Who God is. As Calvin so insightfully helped us understand: We have no knowledge of ourselves without knowledge of God first. This is what I mean: who we think we are as human beings will first arise, at least for Christians, from who we think God is. Will we think of God as a Pure Being, a Pure Intellect in the heavens; or will we think of God primarily as filial love, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? This is what this whole discussion is about; this is what affective theology at its best is oriented by.

I noted earlier that Frost found these themes, that make up affective theology, by studying Martin Luther and Augustine’s theologies, respectively. I think it would be fitting then to think about this further with the help of a Lutheran theologian. Paul Hinlicky in his book Paths Not Taken, surprisingly to me, gets into the very loci that we’ve been noting in regard to Affective Theology. I want to share a quote from him that helps not only to illustrate what we’ve been covering (in this post), but helps to develop how ‘affective theology’ impacted Luther’s confidant and fellow-professor-theologian, Melanchthon. What I am going to share from Hinlicky in this regard has a greater context, as far as what he is developing as his argument in the book, but I wanted to lift some of his treatment out in order to help us see that Frost’s idea on affective theology is not something idiosyncratic to Frost; as some would have us believe (like Richard Muller). While Hinlicky’s own orientation is distinct from Frost, the themes they identify in Luther, Augustine et al. are convergent. Let us partake of some of Hinlicky’s writing now, and allow that to in-form (and maybe trans-form) the way we think about the dynamics at play in what it means to be human in a soterio-centric mode (so to speak). Hinlicky writes:

In any case, what actually gave Melanchthon pause in the course of the controversies of the 1520s was the criticism by papist opponents of the hedonism of Luther’s teaching on the will: “by equating the will (which directed reason) with the affections and by insisting that the highest affections were in bondage, [Melanchthon following Luther following Augustine had] made human beings no better than beasts.”

Wengert comes to Melanchthon’s defense: he “was not asking whether it is in a human being’s power to eat, drink, come, go, hear, and other natural matters. . . . The question was ‘whether without the Holy Spirit we can fear God and believe in God and love the cross, etc.’” This defense then is that Luther’s hedonism was that of a higher order. Yet the commonplace distinction here between things above us and things below rings hollow, in that apart from the Word and Spirit of God the self incurvatus in se fails to make this very distinction; it exchanges the glory of the immortal Creator for degrading images of creatures; it cannot find its way back unless someone comes and finds it. According to the “hedonist” psychology, the self is bound to do so in our race’s state of exile, where the creaturely will is spontaneously bound to love whatever object appears good to it, yet has little, if any, disposal over what appears to it as good. All such appearances are outside us, if not above us, and in any case not within our control. This is what is meant by servitude of the will. Thinking this way, the early Melanchthon had grasped Luther’s essential theological point: “why [is] the Holy Spirit necessary, if the human will by its powers could fear God, trust God, overcome concupiscence, and love the cross (in one’s own life),” i.e., if the human will could apprehend as good the God who spared not His own Son and displayed love for us in the repulsive form of the Crucified? It is the apprehension of God on a cross as our true good that is barred to fallen humanity, which naturally averts its eyes from the shame. It is the coming of the Spirit that makes the cross of Jesus appear as the supreme good it actually is by presenting the same Jesus alive and victorious. In this “objective” way the Holy Spirit alters perception of a sight that otherwise revolts the natural will by giving the same thing a new signification. This is “the work of the Holy Spirit, who moved the hearts of true hearers of the Word and helped them effect true virtues.” Note well: in the earlier Melanchthon the heart is moved from without, by the Word giving the Spirit and the Spirit illuminating the Word, not, as later in the scheme “imputative justification-effective sanctification,” from within, independently of the Word, as human feelings.[1]

We can see as Hinlicky tails off that he will be dealing with a shift in Melanchthon’s own views here. But for our purposes I wanted to introduce you, my readers, to this concept of the affections as a theological mode; and one that goes back to a primal Protestant emphasis as we find that located in the very heart of Luther’s theology itself.

What I find invigorating in Hinlicky’s treatment, brief as that is in my sharing of it, is the role that the Holy Spirit plays from without the would-be believer, and how that impacts what it means to be human; a human who sees God—is there any other sort of [real] humanity in the Kingdom of the Son of His love? What this gets at, more than defining component parts of what it means to be human, is how it is that us humans come to know who God is; because of who God is for us. He comes to us where we are, seemingly dead on the cross, and He takes our place on that wood, in gruesome display, and by the igniting of our affections, as those are first His for us in Jesus Christ, He gives us new spectacles through which we see the shed blood of the Lamb of God for what it is. It is through this ignition of our affections, as those are first His affections for us in Christ, it is as we participate in the vicarious-mediatorial-priestly humanity of the Son of Man that the broken flesh and spilt blood of the Christ comes to take on the actual significance and power it has in the economy of God’s life for us. You see, who we understand God to be will determine who we understand ourselves to be; and this will impact not only our relationship with God, but with our neighbors and enemies. This is an important issue that cannot be overstated. Theologia crucis.

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 172-73.

Sin, desire, and freewill; each of these can be trigger words that often lead to intense theological debate among various parties. In this post I want to address these loci from a particular angle; the angle will have to do with salvation and theological anthropology in particular. When I was in seminary my mentor/professor, Ron Frost, introduced me to his work on what he calls Affective Theology; I’ve written of it, more than once here at the blog, and years ago wrote a very introductory post detailing what it entails in its entailments. I want to redress this ‘theology’ again, not only referring to Frost, but some insights that I’ve picked up from Paul Hinlicky and his work with Luther, Melanchthon, Leibniz, and Barth’s theology; and how his work dovetails nicely with Frost’s work in the area of Affective Theology.

In brief Frost’s Affective Theology is largely a theological anthropological endeavor that, of course, as with all theological projects, reaches back into a doctrine of God. In the main Frost’s thesis, as he focuses most pointedly on Puritan, Richard Sibbes, is to argue, from within a tripartite faculty psychology (per theological-anthropological concerns), that unlike the Thomist Intellectualist tradition, the most basic and defining component of what makes someone human is not their intellect/rationales (which is the major Western Tradition following Thomas Aquinas et al.), but instead it is their ‘affections’ or more biblically attuned, the ‘heart.’ Frost argues that this anthropology can be identified all the way back to Augustine, and then into Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventura, Gerson, Von Staupitz, Luther, Calvin, Sibbes, Cotton et al. Here is some of Frost’s work that should help the reader get a better feel for what his thesis was about. Here you see him comparing and contrasting Richard Sibbes and William Perkins; the latter representative of the more dominant Western tradition—the tradition being uncritically retrieved today by young (and many older forebears) evangelical Reformed theologians.

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]

Hopefully you can get a better grasp on what Frost’s theory on Affective Theology entails. I think he identifies a pivotal reality that is lost, in serious ways, when it comes to the Reformed theology being retrieved today. Frost’s is actually a retrieval of a genuinely formed Reformational (versus post-Reformational) theology, one that hearkens from Luther himself; one that has been lost to the Christian Aristotelian tradition that Richard Muller et al. is wont to emphasize as THE dye that ostensibly serves pervasive in the whole of Reformed theology in thematic ways. What Frost demonstrates is that this ‘affective theology’ was as pervasive in and among the development of post-reformation theology as was the Christian Aristotelian form that people focus on today.

Okay, Hinlicky, someone who works even more so as a constructive theologian (versus Frost who is more of a historical theologian) whose period is from the modern angle, interestingly (to me), identifies these same themes in Luther’s et al. theology as Frost gleaned from Puritan theology; the point of convergence for both of them is indeed, Martin Luther and Augustine. Hinlicky brings the discussion that I want to have, on the role of desires, loves, sin, and freewill into relief as he writes (at serious length):

What Augustine and his tradition chiefly deny, however, is that any conceivable creature, pre- or postlapsarian, has freedom of desire. This is the “popular” sense of human free-will (which Luther identified and rejected as presuming “a power of freely turning in any direction, yielding to none and subject to none”). Creaturely desire instead spontaneously and as such involuntarily seeks the good and averts from evil. Desire that sought its evil would be pathological. The creature cannot help but seek its good and assent to it, or conversely, avert from its evil. The creature is motivated by its loves. It is analytic to the creaturely state that, as Aristotle famously declared at the outset of the Nichomachean Ethics, all by nature seek the good. Being creatures, they do not, as Martin Luther put it commenting on the first article of the creed, have life in themselves such that they can ever be free from desire: “Thus we learn from this article that none of us has life — or anything else that has been mentioned or could be mentioned — from ourselves, nor can we by ourselves preserve any of them, however small and unimportant.” As long as they live, in order to live, creatures must desire what appears good to them and avert the evil; the will spontaneously desires its perceived good. If it did not, it would be sick to death. The will is bound to desire and is bound to desire. This is what is in mind, then, when this tradition speaks of the bound or enslaved will, voluntas, not arbitrium (though Luther muddles the two terms). As Jan Lindhardt has shown: “St Augustine (d. 431) determined in extension of the Platonic tradition, that a man was identical with his love. He defined love itself as concupiscentia (desire).” This yielded a view of “man more as a unity than as a creature subdivided into various departments. . . . It was not the distinction between body/soul/reason, which occupied his attention, but the direction adopted by the soul or will, or drive,” and this “was interpreted during the Renaissance as representing a completely different view of man,” “not conceived of as an active subject, but as a receptive object” taking on the form of what is loved. Luther agreed with this understanding of Augustine’s anthropology, that “a man is his love.” This is the basis for his eccentric anthropology. Any will other than God’s is a will bound to desire the good that appears to it from without; this desire becomes one’s own will (not another’s) by virtue of free choices from among the available goods that one actually, historically, biographically pursues, since a human being is free to act, or to critically refrain from action, in the face of such choices. In just this way she forms the story of her life, as patient of her own passions and agent of her own actions.[2]

To make what Hinlicky just wrote crescendo he writes further:

In running roughshod over the important differentiation between freedom of choice and freedom of desire, Luther wanted to indicate how making choices contrary to God’s will in disobedience reflects the deeper fault of a root usurpation of God’s place as Creator. The root of all evil choices is disbelief in God’s love, seeking instead by one’s own choices and actions creatively to bestow value on something by one’s own sovereign good-pleasure. Human works are never what they appear to be on the surface; they are always acts of faith or disbelief. Choices are never merely temporal decisions, but decide whether or not in faith to rest in God’s good pleasure that bestows value on oneself, precisely as patient of one’s own sufferings, maker of one’s own choices, and agent of one’s own actions. Disbelief in God’s love is the root of all evil. Thus the ontologically impossible possibility of human freedom of desire, that desire sovereignly creates the object of its desire by the triumphant assertion of its will. This usurpation no theology that upholds the ontological difference between Creator and creature can admit. Even as arrogant pride presumes this freedom, there comes a Day of the Lord to topple it from its throne. One can want to be Hitler or Stalin, one can really make this choice, one can provisionally and disastrously for self, for others, and for the cosmos act on it. But finally one cannot succeed in it. “God’s purpose in this [causing failure of the human choice to be one’s own god] is that the heavenly City, during its exile on earth, by contrasting itself with the vessels of wrath, should learn not to expect too much from the freedom of the power of choice, but should trust in the ‘hope to call upon the name of the Lord God.’” We may recall here as well Barth’s well-intended but problematic teaching that a real alternative between God and the abyss of nihilism is ontologically impossible. Unlike Barth, however, for Luther or Augustine the nihilism of human superbia is impossible because hell puts the end to evil that will not otherwise die. The wrath of the God of love forces away from His company the usurper who wants to be God and not let God be God. That finally (not until then! Rev. 20:10) is how the real evil in the world is refuted. Actual evil is the presumption of divine “power of freely turning in any direction, yielding to none and subject to none,” that is met and matched, fire met by fire, not by persuasion but with force. If there are possibilities of mercy beyond this ultimate threat, they cannot in any event be conceived apart from it, only somehow through it and beyond it. In the interim, for Augustine, the relation of human freedom to divine sovereignty is not symmetrical: “when the will turns from the good and does evil, it does so by the freedom of its own choice [i.e., a logical alternative is available], but when it turns from evil and does good, it does so only with the help of God.”[3]

There is too much to attempt to address, but let me try and emphasize the themes we started out with. We see in Hinlicky’s treatment the same sorts of themes present in Frost’s analyses of different figures. But as I highlighted earlier the common thread between Frost and Hinlicky is to focus on Luther and Augustine. What I am hoping you, the reader, are picking up is how profound the affections/desires are and were for Luther[an] theology, and how that theme never went away; even if it unfortunately became overshadowed by much of the Aristotelian formed post-reformation theology that developed latterly.

Something else I hope the reader is picking up, without me attempting to draw all the pieces together (between Frost’s and Hinlicky’s analyses) is how the way we view humanity flows from the way we view God. If God is Triune love, a God’s who being is defined by his intra-relation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, if that reality defines our “metaphysics,” if that reality is allowed to evangelize our metaphysics, then the way we develop anthropology, and our doctrines of sin/evil, so on and so forth will be radically re-oriented by this understanding of God. We see this re-orientation in what Frost and Hinlicky are offering us as they engage with Augustine, Luther, and the tradition itself. It is an emphasis that many today would make us think is fringe or non-existent; or that it reflects a revisionist understanding of the history of ecclesial ideas that isn’t totally accurate. To the contrary! There are threads in the tradition that fit much better with the idea that what stands at the center of who humans are has to do with God’s love,[4] and the human love attenuated by that love, rather than seeing people defined by their intellect; the latter coming from an understanding that sees God as the Big Brain in the sky, the Brain that relates through decrees rather than filial love by the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ.

There is more to say, more technical things to get into and unpack. But let’s what I’ve offered from Frost and Hinlicky suffice for now, and maybe we can attempt to distill these things further, and more technically at a later date. We never really did get too far into the issues broached in regard to freewill etc. But hopefully, at the very least, from the long quotes, you can see how we might develop these themes vis-à-vis the greater frame provided for by a theology of desire/love.

P.S. This new theme I just plugged in doesn’t seem to overtly provide a way for commenting (if you want to). If you’d like to comment on this post then simply click on the title of the post, and it will open up the combox for you to write a comment[s].

 

[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. Frost’s work has since been published as, Richard Sibbes God’s Spreading Goodness.

[2] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 151-52.

[3] Ibid., 153-54.

[4] Which is what we are also identifying with Evangelical Calvinism, with a particular focus on Thomas F. Torrance’s theology.

The ‘resurgence’ of Reformed theology in the conservative evangelical sub-culture and beyond continues, but what is being retrieved in this recovery of the so called ‘doctrines of grace?’ In this post I wanted to briefly highlight an emphasis, or lack thereof, that is present in the style of Reformed theology that is currently being recovered. It might be argued that the English and American Puritan forms of Reformed theology represent a type of flowering or blossoming of the Post Reformed orthodox theology that developed most formidably in the 16th and 17th centuries; indeed we see an organic overlap between these developments, something of the theoretical/doctrinal (i.e. ‘school theology’) moving to the applied practical outworking in the Puritan experiment. It is this period that is being looked to as the resource that is supposed to revitalize and reorient the wayward evangelical churches of the 21st century. But again, I ask, what in fact is being recovered; what is present, theologically, by way of emphasis that is informing the reconstructive work being done by the theologians presently involved in this effort?

Janice Knight in her book Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism offers some helpful insight on the role that reception of William Ames’s form of Puritanism, his ‘Intellectual’ style, had in regard to shaping what we even now are seeing in the recovery of Federal or Covenantal theology. What you will note, and this has been the source of my own critique, along with others of Federal theology, is the lack of focus on the personal Christ, with an alternative focus, instead, on a legal contract (Divine Pactum) and its conditions. You will notice, through Knight’s analysis, that Christ is seen more as an instrument of meeting the conditions of the covenant (of works/grace). Knight writes at length:

Students of the period have long regarded this preference for the functional rather than the personal Christ as characteristic of all Puritan preachers. John Eusden, for example, draws a sharp distinction between Lutheran and Reformed christology, arguing that Luther’s emphasis on the mystery of incarnation was never of crucial importance to English divines: “The Christocentrism of Martin Luther is not shared by most English Puritans . . . The incarnation . . . was not a mystery in which man should lose himself.” A chorus of scholars has echoed this conclusion, arguing that Puritans “minimized the role of the Savior in their glorification of the sovereignty of the Father.” Their means was to focus on the ascended Christ and their purpose was “as far as mortals could” to emphasize the distance between heaven and earth.” The only bridge was the contractual covenant, not the personal Christ.

This argument is confirmed by the structure as well as the content of the Marrow. The person and life of Christ are only briefly treated, and again in language that is figurally abstract. Christ as agent of the covenant assumes center stage in the Marrow. This emphasis on Christ’s legal function effectively forces Ames’s discussion away from godly essence and toward divine omnipotence.

Ames’s real interest is indeed the efficiency or the “working power of God by which he works all things in all things.” Other aspects of God’s nature are subordinated to this application of power. “the meaning both of the essence of God and of his subsistence shines forth in his efficiency.” In this somewhat surprising move, Ames collapses distinctions he had been careful to establish: “The power of God, considered as simple power, is plainly identical with his sufficiency.” In these statements Ames shifts the focus of divinity from a mediation on the being of God (esse) to his performance (operati) in the world—from God’s nature ad intra to his being ad extra.

This stress on the exercise of power is inscribed in the works of Ames’s disciples as well. Again, the caveat obtains: while they celebrated the beauty of Christ and the blessings of grace, on balance preachers like Hooker, Shepard, and Bulkeley focused on the functional application not the indwelling of Christ. It is not God as he is in himself, but as he deals with the sinner that engages them—God as exacting lord, implacable judge, or demanding covenanter. God is imagined as the creditor who will “have the utmost farthering” due him, or the landlord pressing his claim. Repeatedly, Hooker refers to Christ as “Lord Jesus,” or “Lord Christ”—terms which are found with far less frequency in the writings of Sibbes and Cotton. To be sure, this is a loving God, but he is also a “dreadful enemy,” an “all-seeing, terrible Judge,” a consuming infinite fire” of wrath.

And when these preachers use familial tropes to describe God’s dealings, they often warn that loving fathers are also harsh disciplinarians; there is “no greater sign of God’s wrath than for the Lord to give thee thy swing as a father never looks after a desperate son, but lets him run where he pleases.” Though God is merciful, if is a mercy with measure, “it is to a very few . . . it is a thousand to one if ever . . . [one] escape this wrath to come.” Such restriction of the saving remnant is of course an axiom of Reformed faith, but one that Sibbes rarely stressed. On the other hand, Hooker and Shepard’s God often acts by “an holy kind of violence,” holding sinners over the flames or plucking them from sin at his pleasure. This God wounds humankind, hammers and humbles the heart until it is broken.

Divine sovereignty also animates Hooker’s description of conversion as royal conquest and dominion: Christ is like “the King [who] taketh the Soveraigne command of the place where he is, and if there be any guests there they must be gone, and resigne up all the house to him: so the Lord Jesus comes to take soveraigne possession of the soule.” With sins banished and the heart pledged to a new master, the saint begins the long journey of sanctification. This repetition of the language of lordship insists not only on the centrality of domination in conversion but in the general tenor of human/divine relations—abjection replaces the melted heart so often imagined by Cotton and Sibbes.[1]

This helps summarize what I have been writing on for many years; writing against in fact! It is this harsh version of ‘Calvinism’ that became orthodoxy in New England and North America at large; it is this version of Reformed theology that is currently being retrieved for purposes of revitalization for the evangelical churches in North America and elsewhere. But we see the emphasis that is being imported into the evangelical church world; an emphasis wherein Jesus Christ is underemphasized as the centrum of salvation, instead instrumentalized as the organ that keeps the heart of Federal theology pumping.

The concern, at least mine, is that pew sitters sitting under such ‘recovery’ are getting this type of theology; one where Jesus Christ is not the center, instead the contract, the covenant of works/grace is. The emphasis of salvation, and the correlating spirituality present in this framework does not provide the type of existential contact with the living God that there ought to be; at least according to Scripture. We see Knight mention folks like Richard Sibbes and John Cotton; they offered an alternative focus juxtaposed with what we just surveyed. They offer an emphasis upon God’s triune love, and his winsome character; they focus on God in Christ as the Bridegroom and we the Bride. Evangelical Calvinists, like me, work within the Sibbesian emphasis, albeit informed further by folks like Karl Barth’s and Thomas Torrance’s theological loci. I invite you to the genuinely evangelical focus we are offering by seeing Christ as the center of all reality, in particular salvation, and within this emphasis we might experience what it is to have a participatory relationship with the living God mediated through the second person of the trinity, enfleshed, Jesus Christ.

 

[1] Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994), 77-8.

*Artwork: Gwen Meharg, He Will Not Snuff Out!accessed 05-09-2018.

I think some of my Barth posts, of late, might make it appear that I am anti-church; this would be far from the case though. I am afraid this post might make it seem as if I am anti-church; but this wouldn’t reflect the reality. What I am for is a proper understanding of the church vis-à-vis the church’s being: Jesus Christ. With this noted, in this post we will proceed to engage with Mark Dever’s little book: What Is A Healthy Church?

We just returned to a church in Portland, OR that has deep roots for my family (my grandparents were members here for years), and has some rootage for me personally (I attended this church for the first couple years of my time in Bible College). It is a Conservative Baptist Church, I grew up as the son of a Conservative Baptist pastor; and so it is fitting for me, and my family to attend a Conservative Baptist church. We really enjoyed our time there this last week, and plan on attending again this week (and most likely the many weeks that follow). As part of the visitor’s packet that we received there was included with that Dever’s book, just mentioned. So nerd that I am, I started reading his book[let]. Mind you, I have a history with Dever, in a very indirect way. My former professor in seminary, Ron Frost, and mentor of mine (I still hold him in this view) wrote his PhD dissertation on the same Puritan that Mark Dever did (and at the same time, and in the same country: England). They both wrote on Richard Sibbes, and ended up reading Sibbes’ theology from completely different universes one from the other. Dever essentially read Sibbes from the broader more mainline classically Reformed perspective, and simply locates Sibbes’ theology in line within the broader spectrum of Puritan and Westminster theology. Frost rejects this reading, and sees Sibbes as offering an alternative affective and free grace theology that emphasizes God’s winsome love for humanity, rather than thinking of God as the Divine Lawgiver who relates to humanity that way (to oversimplify things a bit). So I approach the following book, and its contents, with this kind of in-formed and critical eye; it hasn’t let me down.

Mark Dever, to open his first chapter Your Christianity and Your Church writes this:

Sometimes college campus ministries will ask me to speak to their students. I’ve been known, on several occasions, to begin my remarks this way: “If you call yourself a Christian but you are not a member of the church you regularly attend, I worry that you might be going to hell.”

You could say that it gets their attention.

Now, am I just going for shock value? I don’t think so. Am I trying to scare them into church membership? Not really. Am I saying that joining a church makes someone a Christian? Certainly not! Throw any book (or speaker) out the window that says as much.

So why would I begin with this kind of warning? It’s because I want them to see something of the urgency of the need for a healthy local church in the Christian’s life and to being sharing the passion for the church that characterizes both Christ and his followers.[1]

So he elaborates a bit further about the importance of the local church, but then doubles down on the aforementioned sentiment further. He writes:

When a person becomes a Christian, he doesn’t just join a local church because it’s a good habit for growing in spiritual maturity. He joins a local church because it’s the expression of what Christ has made him—a member of the body of Christ. Being united to Christ means being united to every Christian. But that universal union must be given a living, breathing existence in a local church.

Sometimes theologians refer to a distinction between the universal church (all Christians everywhere throughout history) and the local church (those people who meet down the street from you to hear the Word preached and to practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Other than a few references to the universal church (such as Matt. 16:18 and the bulk of Ephesians), most references to the church in the New Testament are to local churches, as when Paul writes, “To the church of God in Corinth” or “To the churches in Galatia.”

Now what follows is a little intense, but it’s important. The relationship between our membership in the universal church and our membership in the local church is a lot like the relationship between the righteousness God gives us through faith and the actual practice of righteousness in our daily lives. When we become Christians by faith, God declares us righteous. Yet we are still called to actively be righteous. A person who happily goes on living in unrighteousness calls into question whether he ever possessed Christ’s righteousness in the first place (see Rom. 6:1-18; 8:5-14; James 2:14-15). So, too, it is with those who refuse to commit themselves to a local church. Committing to a local body is the natural outcome—it confirms what Christ has done. If you have no interest in actually committing yourself to an actual group of gospel-believing, Bible-teaching Christians, you might question whether you belong to the body of Christ at all! Listen to the author of Hebrews carefully:

23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.26 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Heb. 10:23-27)

Our state before God, if authentic, will translate into our daily decisions, even if the process is slow and full of missteps. God really does change his people. Isn’t that good news? So please, friend, don’t grow complacent through some vague idea that you possess the righteousness of Christ if you’re not pursuing a life of righteousness. Likewise, please do not be deceived by a vague conception of the universal church to which you belong if you’re not pursuing that life together with an actual church.[2]

Dever notes some important things about the pertinence of the local church for the growing Christian, but there is something I would suggest more concerning underwriting what he is really getting at. There is a theology, more pointed, soteriology (or theory of salvation) funding the kind of points and emphases Dever is laying out in what he writes about being part of the local church.

We could flesh out many details here, but for purposes of space let me focus on the most glaring stand-out among the various points Dever is making. He cannot really be blamed, per se, for the emphasis that frames what he is writing; it is a function of his prior commitment to a particular conception of classical Calvinism, and more pointedly how that is given expression in the style of Puritan theology that he is a proponent of. What stands out, as I read this, is this constant obsession with PROOF. You can see it in various sections I quote from him; in particular the very last I have emboldened.

In the classical Calvinist, Federal (Covenantal) theology framing of things, and with more specificity, because of the idea of particular redemption, or more popularly, Unconditional Election and Limited Atonement, there is this constant need to experiment and see if indeed  a person is one of the genuinely elect for whom Christ died. In Puritan England this way of thinking was known as experimental predestinarianism; most recently I summarized what that entails in my personal chapter in our second volume Evangelical Calvinism book (2017):

The basic idea, is as we just described: i.e. 1) if Christ died for the elect; 2) but the elect did not know who they were, objectively; 3) then the “elect” throughout their lives engaged in “experiments” to determine, subjectively, if they were truly one of the elect; 4) these experiments involved observing one’s good works and inferring from those that Christ must indeed be present in the elect’s life because Christ’s works are apparently present in the elect’s life; 5) although the “experimental” or subjective aspect of this always remained because it was possible to look like one of the elect, but after all only have a “temporary faith” or an “ineffectual faith.”[3]

So even though we haven’t elaborated this too much here, as the quote alerts us to is that within the Purtian/Westminster and classically Reformed teaching on predestination, it was possible to have a ‘temporal faith’ such that someone could look like a Christian but not actually be one in the final analysis. We can see all of these entailments in Dever’s admonition for people to be involved in the local church; more, to be full-fledge members. If people are not actively involved in the church in such ways, instead of questioning someone’s maybe disobedience, or maybe looking for alternative reasons for lack of involvement, Dever would have us immediately question whether or not such a person is actually saved to begin with.

What Dever is offering in his little booklet is nothing more than the old tried and true Puritan notion of experimental predestinarianism. Many contemporary classically Reformed people don’t frame things this tersely, nevertheless, at a theological and ideational level all of this and more is indeed informing their theologies all the way down (and I mean in regard to soteriology, ecclesiology, theory of authority, so on and so forth). Mark Dever serves as an excellent example of how someone’s theology informs what most people would simply consider to be the practical stuff of church body life and pastoral consideration. Some people have no problem with this way of thinking theologically, and so they will welcome this type of teaching from Dever; but many of us see holes in it running all the way back up to the way we see God (i.e. doctrine of God/Theology Proper).

Do I think involvement in the local church is important? Absolutely! Do I use church membership as PROOF that someone is genuinely one of the elect, one of the justified before God? Absolutely not! There are a variety of reasons why someone might not be able to be a member or active in the local body of Christ (take me for example: I work for the railroad, currently, and have no real schedule [until just recently]. I haven’t been able to regularly attend church for the last three plus years … which has been a dread to me). But even if someone isn’t a member in the local body, and even if we should encourage a brother or sister of the importance of this, we should not hang their souls over hell in order to give them motivation to attend church. I agree that it is most organic for someone who is a Christian to want to be a participant in the local church; but that’s not the concern here. The concern is how Dever is using church membership as a kind of practical syllogism to prove whether or not someone might or might not be genuinely justified before God.

 

 

[1] Mark Dever, What Is A Healthy Church? (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2007), 21.

[2] Ibid., 26-8. [emboldening mine]

[3] Bobby Grow, “’Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith’ Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the ‘Faith of Christ,’” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017), 40-1.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.

 

Welcome

Hello my name is Bobby Grow, and I author this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist. Feel free to peruse the posts, and comment at your leisure. I look forward to the exchange we might have here, and hope you are provoked to love Jesus even more as a result. Pax Christi!

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A Little Thomas Torrance

“God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

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