Category Archives: Ron Frost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Athanasius, Contra Arianos, 1.34.

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace Compared and Correlated: classical Reformed theology versus evangelical Calvinist theology

There is a lot of talk nowadays about the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Typically when it is Reformed Protestants the reference to Aquinas’ theology has more to do tommyaquinaswith his Trinitarian theology, and doctrine of God, and less to do with his soteriology. But in a way they are of a piece; how we conceive of God will implicate how we think of salvation, and other theological places downstream from God. In light of that I thought it would be interesting to present something of a portrait of Aquinas’ doctrine of salvation, and then leave that with some suggestive notes.

Steven Ozment, I have found[1], is a trustworthy guide in elucidating the theology of the medieval and early Reformed periods; as such we will refer to his nutshell description of how salvation looks within a Thomist frame. He writes:

It was a traditional teaching of the medieval church, perhaps best formulated by Thomas Aquinas, that a man who freely performed good works in a state of grace cooperated in the attainment of his salvation. Religious life was organized around this premise. Secular living was in this way taken up into the religious life; good works became the sine qua non of saving faith. He who did his moral best within a state of grace received salvation as his just due. In the technical language of the medieval theologian, faith formed by acts of charity (fides caritate formata) received eternal life as full or condign merit (meritum de condign). Entrance into the state of grace was God’s exclusive and special gift, not man’s achievement, and it was the indispensable foundation for man’s moral cooperation. An infusio gratiae preceded every meritorious act. The steps to salvation were:

1 Gratuitous infusion of grace

2 Moral cooperation: doing the best one can with the aid of grace

3 Reward of eternal life as a just due[2]

Bear in mind the flow of how salvation was appropriated in the medieval Thomist mind started with 1) a gratuitous infusion of grace from God (this is also called created grace where grace is thought of as ‘stuff’ the elect receive in order to cooperate with God in the salvation process through), 2) then the elect are ‘enabled’ to cooperate (as just noted) with God, doing good charitable works, with 3) the hope of being rewarded with eternal life.

It might seem pretty clear why contemporary Reformed Protestants don’t get into Thomas Aquinas’ model of salvation as a fruitful place to develop salvation themes, but the irony is, is that they do. Remember as I noted above that how we think of God will flow downstream and implicate everything else; well, it does.

Closer in time to the medieval period (than us) were the Post-Reformed orthodox theologians. These theologians were men who inhabited the 16th and 17th centuries, and they developed the categories and grammar of Reformed theology that many today are resourcing and developing for contemporary consumption; among not only overtly confessionally Reformed fellowships and communions, but also for ‘conservative’ evangelical Christians at large (think of the work and impact of The Gospel Coalition). The Post-Reformed orthodox theologians, interestingly, developed an understanding of grace and salvation that sounds very similar to what we just read about Aquinas’ and the medieval understanding of salvation (within the Papal Roman Catholic context). Ecclesial historian, Richard Muller in his Latin theological dictionary defines how the Post-Reformed orthodox understood grace and salvation this way:

gratia: grace; in Greek, χάρις;  the gracious or benevolent disposition of God toward sinful mankind and, therefore, the divine operation by which the sinful heart and mind are regenerated and the continuing divine power or operation that cleanses, strengthens, and sanctifies the regenerate. The Protestant scholastics distinguish five actus gratiae, or actualizations of grace. (1) Gratia praeveniens, or prevenient grace, is the grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon sinners in and through the Word; it must precede repentance. (2)Gratia praeparens is the preparing grace, according to which the Spirit instills in the repentant sinner a full knowledge of his inability and also his desire to accept the promises of the gospel. This is the stage of the life of the sinners that can be termed the praeparatio ad conversionem (q.v.) and that the Lutheran orthodox characterize as a time of terrores conscientiae (q.v.). Both this preparation for conversion and the terrors of conscience draw directly upon the second use of the law, the usus paedagogicus (see usus legis). (3)Gratia operans, or operating grace, is the effective grace of conversion, according to which the Spirit regenerates the will, illuminates the mind, and imparts faith. Operating grace is, therefore, the grace of justification insofar as it creates in man the means, or medium, faith, through which we are justified by grace…. (4) Gratia cooperans, or cooperating grace, is the continuing grace of the Spirit, also termed gratia inhabitans, indwelling grace, which cooperates with and reinforces the regenerate will and intellect in sanctification. Gratia cooperans is the ground of all works and, insofar as it is a new capacity in the believer for the good, it can be called the habitus gratiae, or disposition of grace. Finally, some of the scholastics make a distinction between gratia cooperans and (5)gratia conservans, or conserving, preserving grace, according to which the Spirit enables the believer to persevere in faith. This latter distinction arises most probably out of the distinction betweensanctificatio (q.v.) and perseverantia (q.v.) in the scholastic ordo salutis (q.v.), or order of salvation….[3]

If we had the space it would be interesting to attempt to draw corollaries between the five ‘actualizations of grace’ and the infusion gratiae (infused grace) that we find in Aquinas. I have done further research on this, and the ‘actualizations of grace’ we find in Protestant orthodox theology come from Aquinas, and for Aquinas it comes from Aristotle. Gratia operans or operating grace, gratia cooperans or cooperating grace, and habitus gratiae or disposition of grace all can be found as foundational pieces within Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of salvation; which is ironic, because these are all fundamental components that shape Protestant Reformed orthodox soteriology.

Why is this important? Because how we think of God affects how we think of salvation, and a host of other things downstream. If Protestant theology was an attempt to protest and break from Roman theology, but the Protestant orthodox period ends up sounding once again like the very theology that the magisterial Reformers (i.e. Martin Luther, John Calvin, et al.) were seeking to break away from; wouldn’t it behoove us to critically engage with what we are being fed by contemporary theologians who are giving us theology/soteriology directly informed by theologian’s theology that is shaped by a theological/soteriological framework that might be suspect? In other words, what if the Protestant orthodox period, instead of being an actual reforming project was instead a return to the theology that the early magisterial reformers protested against? What if the early Reformation was “stillbirthed?”[4]

Is it the best way forward for Protestant Christians to rely on Aristotle for funding our conceptions of God and Grace? It seems like many a theologian in the Reformed and evangelical traditions in the 21st century think so. But do we really want a conception of salvation that has us cooperating with God; with a conception then that has a focus towards our good works as indicatives and proofs of our salvation? Do we want a salvation like this that first points us to ourselves, even if in the name of Christ, which only after we observe our good works we are able to reflexively look to Christ our great hope? What will this do, at the least, to our daily walks and Christian spirituality? There is a better way forward.

Ron Frost, my former historical theology professor in seminary, and mentor offers what he calls Affective Theology as an alternative to the Federal Protestant orthodox theology we just sketched and briefly considered. We here at the evangelical Calvinist offer an alternative that comes from a form of Scottish Theology through Thomas Torrance, and then from Karl Barth. These alternatives, different as they are (Frost’s approach is not related to Thomas Torrance or Karl Barth whatsoever), have a focus towards God in Christ that moves beyond the Aristotelian framed theories of salvation offered by the Post Reformed orthodox as well as what we find in contemporary popular theology like what we are currently finding in the theology promulgated by The Gospel Coalition (and other similar groups: i.e. Together 4 the Gospel etc.).

While I don’t talk about this as much as I used to, it is still this reality that motivates me. Barth and Torrance have become welcome voices for me, but there are other alternative voices in the history of ideas (which Frost really taps into, esp. with reference to Puritan theology). Like it or not there is some competition between ideas here; Federal/Covenantal/Confessional Reformed theology (i.e. corollary with Post-Reformed orthodox theology) versus what we in an umbrella term are calling evangelical Calvinism.

More to be said …

 

[1] Text we used for my Reformation Theology class in seminary.

[2] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250–1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven&London: Yale University Press, 1980), 233.

[3] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastics Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 129-30.

[4] See Ronald N. Frost, “Aristotle’s ‘Ethics:’ The ‘Real’ Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal 18:2 (1997).

 

Calvin’s No! to the Thomists and Scholastics Among Us: Grace is Jesus

I was reminded recently, as a result of interaction with an ardent Thomist/Scholastic theologian, how entrenched that approach is still perkinspresent within the lives of many Christian thinkers even of today. Well, John Calvin would have none of that!

In the following I will be engaging with research my former professor from seminary, and mentor, Ron Frost did for his PhD dissertation on Richard Sibbes and William Perkins with reference to the ‘divided house’ present within English Puritanism, particularly as that revolved around disparate definitions of ‘grace.’

In a very oversimplified description of things, within English Puritanism (and this stain continues into the present within certain sectors of Reformed theology, i.e. the reference to that Thomist theologian I spoke of to open this post), there were at least two camps. There were those who indeed followed the Thomist synthesis of things and held to a created conception of grace (vis-à-vis the Aristotelian habitus) wherein (as the story goes) the elect could cooperate with God in a quid-pro-quo arrangement of salvation (e.g. Federal or Covenant theology) [William Perkins would be a prime example of this style of things]; and then there were those who actually held to the idea that nature did not need to be aided or perfected by grace, but instead they understood that nature was subordinate to God’s grace, and thus a relational focus on grace and salvation was emphasized [Richard Sibbes would be an excellent example of this among the English Puritans]. Well, it is this latter group that someone like John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Ulrich Zwingli et al. would fit into. We will focus on John Calvin.

John Calvin, ever before the English Puritans, laid groundwork through a neo-Patristic retrieval of seeing salvation as a personal and ontological reality by his emphases upon unio cum Christo (‘union with Christ’) and duplex gratia (‘double grace’) prongs within the salvation complex. It was his focus on Christ as the ground of salvation, indeed the ground of humanity as the imago Dei and ‘mirror of election’ that he trumpeted the need to see salvation from within a christocentric and Trinitarian frame; in other words, from within a personal and relational frame. Rather than seeing it through a Thomist frame of things where grace is understood as a created quality through which the elect habitually cooperate with God by ‘proving’ their election through perseverance in good works etc. John Calvin rejected such conceptions of things. Here is Ron Frost’s insight:

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

In defining faith Calvin derided the medieval-scholastic notion of formed and unformed faith as an attempt “to invent” a “cold quality of faith.” He was similarly critical of the moralistic tendencies inherent in the Thomistic model: “Hence we may judge how dangerous is the scholastic dogma that we can discern the grace of God toward us only by moral conjecture …” Against such ideas, faith actually “consists in assurance rather than in comprehension”. Even Phil. 2:12-13, with its explicit synergism (“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure”), was seen to portray a believer’s appropriate humility as a counterpart to his or her assurance of God’s goodness. He attacked “certain half-papists” who represent Christ as “standing afar off” as an object of faith “and not rather dwelling in us”. The work of justification is, he insisted, a gaze in which the believers are led “to turn aside from the contemplation of our own works and look solely upon God’s mercy and Christ’s perfection”.[1]

If we are going to engage with Calvin, let’s not collapse him into a mode that he rejected. Calvin would never fit in with the post-Reformed scholastic theology of ‘Calvinism’ or Reformed theology post him.

But beyond that, at an application level, what is most important here is to recognize, with Calvin (among others), that salvation is something fully realized in Christ for us and with us. Richard Sibbes (against Perkins) picked up on this kind of Calvinian conception of things; and similarly critiqued folks like Perkins on the same grounds that Calvin critiqued the ‘half-papists’ and scholastics. Jesus Christ has bridged the gap for us, by the Holy Spirit, in His vicarious humanity. He is the bridge, not a created quality of grace or habitus. Sorry Thomists!

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

An English Puritan Critique of Contemporary ‘Reformed Theology’

There continues to be resurgence among many of my evangelical dortbrethren of appropriating classical theistic, classically Reformed theology for today’s evangelical church. The Gospel Coalition comes rushing to my mind most prominently when I think about who is having the broadest impact among evangelical North American pastors, but TGC is not alone! There is also an academic undercurrent among up and coming pastor-theologians and young scholars as well who are helping to contribute to this retrieval and push back to what we ought to call a retrieval of Puritan Federal or Covenant theology.

In light of this I want to offer a counterpoint. There is a better way to go, and ironically it reaches back into the Puritan past as well. There were critiques present among the Puritans themselves in regard to what has become the most prominent form and accepted form of that tradition today. And this, I think is the troubling part; what is being pushed today, retrieved today, is one strand of classically Reformed theology, without noticing that there were more strands available to draw from, strands materially distinct one from the other. The strand that is being retrieved most strenuously today, I would suggest, is the one that pushes a nomist or Law-based spirituality. Part of the reason this is so, I would further suggest, is because among those doing the retrieval there isn’t a critical apparatus available to them to critically engage that period of ideas for today. And so it is just presumed among these folks that the whole period and development of English Puritanism, Federal theology, and classically Reformed theology is pretty much a monolith. But this is too facile, and this presumption does not withstand critical and historical scrutiny.

Since I think this retrieval is potentially deleterious to the souls doing the retrieving and then the souls that these souls teach I want to alert people to the reality that there is indeed more depth and a better way forward in regard to reaching back into this period, if we feel the need to at all to begin with. Ron Frost offers a helpful index toward better being able to engage this period critically and in a way that might allow thinkers to think critically about this period. Here are four distinct strands that were present within English Puritanism; as we understand what these strands are better we will be set up to think about Reformed theology more critically and in a way that we will not attempt (hopefully) to import theological themes that ultimately (I would contend) are destructive to our Christian souls.

Here Ron Frost identifies these four strands as he writes about the theology of William Perkins and Richard Sibbes in his now published PhD dissertation:

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

Perkins’ emphasis on the law was part of a broader movement among the Puritans. Jerald C. Brauer proposed four categories of Purtians: nomists, evangelicals, rationalists, and mystics. His attention was drawn to the smallest of the categories, the mystics, given his interest in Francis Rous. Nevertheless his recognition of the two major groups, nomists and evangelicals, displays the same division among Puritans noted by Schuldiner, Knight and the present study. Brauer, in fact, identifies Sibbes as the Puritan who epitomized the evangelicals. Nomists, according to Brauer, “held the fundamental belief that the divine intention is to recreate obedient creatures who can now, through grace, fulfill the intent of God, namely, obedience.” Brauer’s nomists include Thomas Cartwright, John Field, Walter Travers, John Penry, John Udall, John Greenwood, William Pryn, and Samuel Rutherford. Perkins, overlooked in the list, must be included on the basis of the criteria that Brauer identifies. It was, in fact, Perkins’ written expositions of Federal theology that did the most to promote the importance of obedience to the law for sanctification among Puritans in his era.[1]

I would contend, using this taxonomy laid out by Brauer via Frost, that what dominates Reformed theology in our current context is the nomist law based understanding. This understanding emphasizes obedience to the law (the third usage of the law) as what it means to live a fruitful life unto God. There is no emphasis in this framework on a loving, winsome relationship with God, but instead a life of rigorous performance based salvation.

The reality is though, is that none of this will affect folks too much. On one hand most evangelicals are so aloof to theology that most of this will just be academic to them, or then on the other hand there are indeed academics who study Reformed theology, but for the most part it remains an intellectual exercise. Nevertheless, I hope that some of this will make some sort of headway into the minds and hearts of people who might be interested in the history of ideas and development of Reformed theology. I hope that this stuff isn’t just academic to you, and I hope that theology matters to you; it should, since it is the study of God, and in our case the Triune Christian God.

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

A Conversation with Ron Frost about the Love of God and a Theology of the Word

I just had a good meeting and fellowship time with a former (and still emeritus 😉 ) mentor of mine, Dr. Ron Frost (he is a former seminary prof of mine, and a brother who I TA’d for during and after seminary). Ron is the one who jesussavesturned me onto Trinitarian theology, and cultivated in me a love for historical theology (Ron, by training is a Puritan theology expert). Ron’s informing voices towards his Trinitarian theology are, among some, Colin Gunton, John Zizioulas, Gregory of Nazianzen, among other Trinitarian stalwarts (so from a more social trinitarian vantage point). But more importantly for Ron, is a theology of the Word (meaning primarily Scripture as spectacles to see Christ with), and a theology of the Love of God (which naturally flows from being a genuinely Christian Trinitarian thinker); and so you would see why he and I get along so well, one with the other. Indeed, we might have some different angles into this, and maybe some disagreements, here and there; but, truly, our desire for a genuinely Christian theology of the Word & love of God makes any of our disagreements less consequential if we didn’t have these central themes connecting us in and around our desire to be truly Christ centered in approach (which is to be Bible centered).

Ron, I don’t think, is not really an Evangelical Calvinist, per se, but he is also not a Westminster Calvinist (oh my goodness, NO!). He follows the impulses provided by Martin Luther, Augustine, and Richard Sibbes, which for him terminates in following a biblical theological approach wherein the overarching salvation-history covenant that is definitive for understanding God’s relation to us in Christ is the marital covenantal framework — which starts in Genesis 2, we find it in Isaiah, Hosea, then in the Paulinism of Ephesians 5, and as the inclusiastic finish in Revelation at the marriage supper feast of the Lamb. So instead of a Federal Calvinism, with a Law based relationship with God, for Frost, what becomes definitive is the biblical imagery and Christic reality of marital language. So it is a filial understanding of our relationship with God in Christ by the Spirit instead of a juridical, forensic, or law based or framed one. Ron has recently written a post for his blog wherein he is covering the material presented by Romans 4; in the post, Ron conceives of a ‘parable’ to illustrate how God’s grace and love ground our relationship with God, prior to the giving of the law. This dovetails nicely with my last post, and helps to illustrate how important it is to have the biblical frame for understanding God’s covenantal relationship with us in Christ, and how that gets biblically presented and cashed out. Here is the parable that Ron has come up with to drive this point home relative to his exegesis of Romans 4 (I will provide the link to the whole of the post at the end of this parable from, Ron). Here is Frost’s parable (and some explanation about what he means by it):

A Parable

A son came home from university for the weekend. After breakfast he put $5 on the table as he got up.

“What’s that?” asked his dad.

“It’s what I owe you for breakfast,” replied the son. “And in my bedroom I’ve left you $20 as last night’s room rental.”

The father frowned. “But you’re our son—you don’t owe us anything.”

“I knew you’d say,” the son answered, “because you’ve always tried to make me dependent on you and now it’s time for me to be independent—to be a true person.”

“What led to this?” the father asked.

“In my course on personal development Professor Diablo taught us about the law of true personhood: to be an ‘authentic person’ I need to be independent so that’s my new law of life.”

His father looked puzzled. “But what about the ‘law’—if that’s the language you want to use, ‘of the family’? In a family we’re always depending on each other—that’s what love does.”

“Sorry, Dad—or, maybe I’ll just call you Jim from now on,” said the son, “I see myself as an independent person and that’s the law we’ll all need to recognize from now on.”

The son left the room and Jim, his saddened father, went to his study. He was a very successful accountant so for the rest of the morning he did what he knew best.

At noon the family enjoyed soup and sandwiches and the son, once again, put down a $5 bill. But this time the father had something to say.

“Hold on, Harry, we’ve got something more to talk about here. Since you’ve chosen to live by Professor Diablo’s law of life instead of our own law of a bonded family, I did some homework. Ever since you were born your mother and I have been investing in you and by your new law the bill has come due. So you actually owe us $282,532 including interest and I’d like that as a lump sum by tonight. Or if you prefer monthly payments I can set up a financing plan with interest of less than 10%.”

“But if you were willing to live by the law of a caring family your mother and I will be happy to view it as a gift. Just let me know by dinner time if you don’t mind.”

I ended the parable with the son’s response open. My hope is that listeners will recognize the relational basis of faith: God is a loving “promiser” whose grace elicits the response of faith. In other words faith isn’t a duty—a token payment of our will—but a moment that comes when our hearts become aligned with God’s heart as took place for Abraham in Genesis 15. God took him outside to count stars and promised, “If you’re able to number the stars, you’ll see how many offspring you’ll have.” He believed God and God counted that faith as righteousness.

So Abraham’s faith was based on the promise of a coming seed—a single offspring among the many—who would be the blessing to the nations. In wider reading we can presume it referred to the woman’s “seed” in Genesis 3:15, meaning the one who would come to defeat the Serpent’s seed. That blessing-seed ultimately came to be born as Jesus.

For Abraham to be “counted righteous” in Genesis 15 because of his simple faith was crucial for what Paul taught about justification in Romans 4. This faith came before any moral regulations—epitomized by circumcision—appeared. In fact was many years later that circumcision was given to Abraham as a sign of devotion, in Genesis 17. So in Romans 4 Paul’s point is that circumcision is not to be conflated with the duties of Genesis 17. (see the full post here, at Ron’s blog)

I hope this helps illustrate further how understanding the basis of God’s relation to us in Christ as based in His love is so important toward appreciating who God actually is, and how we actually live before Him in Christ. Not on the basis of law, but on the basis of His prior life of Triune love and grace.

classical Calvinism juxtaposed with Affective Theology: Comparing and Contrasting William Perkins and Richard Sibbes

*This is a repost that I am sure almost none of you have read. I am feeling pretty undermotivated to write blog posts at the moment, so this will have to suffice. I have added a caveat to this post in an addendum at the end of the post. Don’t worry I have fresh posts coming (I always do), but I would imagine that for most of you this will be quite fresh (meaning that this will be the first time you have ever read this post, so it might as well be a new post.

puritans12

The following is a lengthy quote highlighting the differences between Federal [Classic] Calvinism and Free-Grace Calvinism [Affective Theology]. William Perkins represents the Federal “Vision” side, while Richard Sibbes the “Free-Grace” perspective. The quote is taken from Ron Frost’s unpublished PhD dissertation on Richard Sibbes and English Puritanism. He is providing conclusion to a discussion he had previously undertaken where he had articulated, in detail (with bibliographic support), the disparate “covenantal approaches” reflected by Perkins and Sibbes. The primary disjunction between the two is how they framed the Adam-motif (i.e. first and second Adam theology, see Rom. 5, etc.); and the different trajectories this placed their soteriological outlooks upon. Perkins forwarded the “Federal” model, which assumes continuity between the “law-keeping” of the first Adam and second Adam (i.e. think “Covenant of Works”); while Sibbes forwarded the “Marital Mystical” construct, which assumes some discontinuity between the “two Adams;” viz. while Christ truly represents us before the Father (juridical–i.e. forensic or legal), He also takes us as His spouse, which is presupposed by a real union with Him. The main difference, then, between Perkins and Sibbes, according to Frost, is that Perkins framed salvation purely as legal and “juridical”, which did not assume a “real union” with Christ; while Sibbes framed his view, not just as legal, but beyond that, as a Marriage framework, which is presupposed by a “real union” with Christ.

A Brief Glossary of Terms: **Privative Sin = the privation or absence of God’s righteousness [negative definition of sin] — **Positive Sin = Self love vs. God’s love.

Enough said on my part, lets hear from Frost:

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. (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)

I realize this was quite long, but if you made it to this point, great! I really appreciate Sibbes’ approach, and find it to be much more scriptural. Hopefully you noticed some of the discontinuity I alluded to earlier. For Sibbes in the second Adam (Christ), we go beyond what the first Adam had with God. For Sibbes, we are brought into the very life of God, through Christ; for Perkins we enter a quid pro quo contractual relationship with God . . . likened to the first Adam’s relationship with God (this is Covenant theologies’ Covenant of Works).

If you have any questions then please let me know, I will do my best to answer them. There are quite a few quotes I would like to share from Sibbes, provided by Frost which he used to support what his conclusion, above, summarizes so neatly–maybe another time. I wish I could just tell you to go buy Frost’s dissertation at Amazon, but unfortunately it was never published. Anyway I hope some of you find this helpful.

Addendum: I wrote this post before I was exposed to Thomas Torrance and the idea of the vicarious humanity of Christ, and a ‘Christ conditioned’ way. But this is an example of the kind of stuff that I will bring into conversation with the themes we have been articulating through evangelical Calvinism.

Addendum1: I really like what Sibbes has to offer (as mediated through my mentor Ron Frost). But here is the area that I plan on bringing into constructive conversation, in regard to the way Frost construes Sibbes’ Augusintianism; read:

[A]gainst 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.

It will be to simply bring together the person and work of Christ; instead of dualistically locating the ‘indwelling Spirit’ in elect individuals (as Sibbes does), I believe it ought to be located in Christ’s vicarious humanity for us (pro nobis). I think the Christological is the Soteriological, that Revelation is Reconciliation, and so I think Sibbes offers an excellent way forward, but that he needs a little help in being a little more radical and Christologically personalist by thinking from the humanity of Christ, and all of the beautiful bridal language and framing that is attendant (and rightly and biblically so) prior to thinking of the rest of us. I actually don’t think my proposal here will be that difficult to develop. Whereas Torrance was about personalising classical (Federal) theology, or as Leithart might say, ‘evangelising metaphysics’, I think it is even better if we follow the “classical” trajectory available from someone like Sibbes (and marriage mysticism), and do the same as Torrance was doing with Federal theology; that is, to ‘Christify’ it, or place the marital framework of Sibbes (Luther, Bernard, the Apostle Paul et al) into a dogmatically rich Christ conditioned frame.

So now you know further what I will be attempting to do.

 

A Stubborn Love for Christ, Not Giving In

I just had a good time of fellowship with a former prof and mentor (still that), Dr. Ron Frost. He was professor of historical theology, ethics, and Bible during his days at Multnomah Biblical Seminary; but now is embarked on a different venture, Cor Deo, with a former fellow seminary student of mine, Dr. Peter Mead. Ron articulates what is called Affective Theology, which presses into the triune love and life of God as the touchstone for relating to God, and thus providing the basis for a truly, triunely shaped Christian spirituality. Here is a really good post that he has recently posted over at his blog. He really articulates well the problems associated with a willingness, especially amongst certain types, to cow-tow to the guild and not to the throne of Christ. Here’s the post, reproduced here; it is entitled by Ron: Christian Compliance Or Stubborn Love?

I fear that too often Christianity is the product of social compliance rather than the fruit of Christ’s love in us. Wherever this is true the church loses her impact on the world. The solution? We need more stubborn lovers who are ready to dismiss a life of safe compliance in favor of a risky passion for Christ.

Compliance comes when we focus on training in the doctrines of the faith and treat an affective love for Christ as optional. The assumption is that sound training will ensure a proper orthodoxy. And if we have enough trained people we can then fix the world. More training, more well informed people, more fixing: and then Christ will at last have a world he can be proud to call his own.

There are of course proof texts to support this venture in fixing, especially if we extend childhood training into the sphere of training adults. Moses, for instance, called on the Israelites to “teach [God’s commandments] diligently to your children . . .” (Deuteronomy 6:7); and in Proverbs 22:6 we read “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

These are, of course, key truths for parents to heed in getting children to the front porch of adulthood with a solid orientation to God and his ways . . . but they do not by themselves ensure a love relationship with God. And love is what God desires from us.

Jesus, we recall, offered his own love by disclosing his bond with the Father. His mission was to call us to the Father with whom he lives in the unity of eternal selfless love. His coming also revealed the Father’s heart to share that love, even at the expense of the Son’s crucifixion. It was the overflow of God’s communing heart.

So in John 5 Jesus spoke of his equal standing with the Father and told his audience that “the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing” (verse 20). But the theologians of the day—Bible scholars who could match wits with the best teachers of our own day—rejected Jesus.

Was it because they lacked evidence? Or that Jesus was less than credible in his claims to be able to forgive sin—even when he supported that claim by lifting a lame man out of his paralysis? Or unconvincing when he gave sight to a man born blind? Or impossible to take seriously when he raised Lazarus from the dead?

No. It was that Jesus refused to conform to a faith that had no appetite for God’s love. They were all about compliance; and the underlying love that moves a compliant person is approval: to be told, “good, you’re one of us”. The horizon of such training is much too low—one that fails to keep God himself in view. Truths about God are enough.

Jesus exposed the problem in John 5. He reviewed a variety of testimonies in support of his deity with the hostile audience, but without expecting the compliant theologians to respond. Instead he highlighted the real issue: “I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. . . . How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one and only God?” (John 5:41-42, 44).

The problem is still alive. I can think, for instance, of a bright but pre-packaged student I once worked with. He came with a heritage of creedal correctness, spiritual duties, and with God’s love reconfigured as an “enabling grace”—that is, as a newly created human capacity given by God so that we can become more and more godly with God’s help.

It sounded good but it didn’t take too long for me to realize that his focus was on his system of faith rather than on Christ himself; and that to him my call for a response to Christ’s love as the starting point of any proper theology was just so much chatter. In his final paper he ignored the course survey of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and others who all spoke of God’s love in Christ as central. It was as if he had never attended the class: God’s love was never mentioned in his term paper. He came with the approval offered in his prior training and that was enough.

I can also think of a church I once visited that offers pristine doctrine and has a great training program, yet when I spoke to a pair of long-time members about God’s compelling and captivating love in Christ it was as if I was speaking a foreign language. Their silent response was clear: “from what you’re saying we know you aren’t one of us”. My thought in turn: their nicely packaged but disaffected faith will only reach a local pool of compliant personalities in search of social acceptance.

Love is what God really wants of us. God’s heart is that we respond to his love and then overflow with it to others who are starved for something greater than the sawdust of a human-focused-faith. So if we find our churches don’t grasp the point, please feel free to import some of God’s stubborn love. You may get crucified for it, but never mind. It’s happened before. (read the original post, and comments HERE)

I think this is a great reminder, especially for those of us who live and move within the theological discipline (or simply the scholarly guild of Christianty). It is good to have stubborn love for Christ!

A Key Shaper of Modern Classical Calvinism, William Perkins

**The following quote is a little lengthy, not too bad, but if you want to skip to the bottom, to my “List of Assertions,” and closing paragraph you might just want to interact at that level (the quote substantiates or at least provides fodder for my assertions). Some might find this beyond where you’re at in your understanding (i.e. might be a little “heady”); if so, you can always ask for clarification. I plan on writing some more posts on “defining” Evangelical Calvinism soon (this piece actually helps provide an example of what it’s not ;-). Also the tone here is a little polemical**

William Perkins (1558-1602), a Cambridge theologian, and English clergyman can be considered to be one of the founders of what today is known as Calvinism. When people say they are ‘Reformed’ (esp. in America), this is one of your forbears who you are beholden to for the theological categories you think through — to one degree of intensity or another. If you, more popularly, follow the teachings of John Piper, Michael Horton, Carl Trueman, and even John MacArthur, amongst others; then you follow in the trajectory that William Perkins set so long ago.

William Perkins followed the scholastic tradition (conceptually); that is to say, he adopted the Aristotelian framework assimilated by Thomas Aquinas to explain and articulate who God is (ontologically), and thus what salvation entails as corollary. Part of adopting this framework, for Perkins, means that he must cast God in terms of immutability (there have been reifications of this term to fit a more trinitarian understanding — I say this just so that some of you know that I am aware of this); God cannot have any kind of contingency or composition, here is how Perkins says it: “God’s immutability of nature is that by which he is void of all composition, division, and change” [Perkins, Golden Chaine, 1. 11, first cited by: Ron Frost, “Sibbes’ Theology of Grace UnPublished PhD Dissertation,” 61]. This has a drastic impact upon how God’s life is understood, and emphasied to be, viz. as singular (simplicity); furthermore it implies that the Johannine notion of “God is love” to be a figment of God’s disclosure in time, but not a reality of who God is in eternity (since love would imply ‘composition’, ‘division’, and ‘change’). The following is a quote (from Ron Frost’s dissertation) that further elucidates and substantiates my claims thus far:

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

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

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

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

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

Thus, God must be understood to express his immutable will in a manner that accomplishes “the same things that love makes the creature do”. God, then, lacks any inherent affections but he still chooses to do the actions of love or hatred, and uses anthropomorphic language, while working out his eternal purposes: “Because his will is his essence or Godhead indeed.” [Perkins, “God’s Free Grace,” 1.703, cited by Frost] [brackets all mine] (Ron Frost, “Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology [Unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of London, King’s College, 1996],” 61-2).

List of Assertions

  • This is the origin and framing of contemporary thinking about “double-predestination” (supralapsarianism) and the import of God’s decrees.
  • According to Perkins, to sustain the above framing, and as a result of using Aristotle’s “immutability,” God cannot love within Himself — within His own life freely. Thus God is different in eternity (ad intra) than He is in time as the “mediator” (ad extra).
  • In other words, the decrees of God (absolutum decretum) create space for God, “to love,” without impinging upon His real life, which according to Perkins, cannot love (or there would be change).
  • Furthermore, Perkins’ view implies that there is another God behind the back of Jesus.
  • At bottom, Perkins’ God cannot love, He cannot (in His real life in eternity) have compassion, or greive; He is only able to do this in time because His decrees allow Him to do so (in other words, God becomes subserviant to His decrees — so in the end He really is contingent on Human history, He is determined by His decrees — He is thus, not truly free!).

I wonder if any of this causes any contemporary Calvinists of today any kind of pause. If your view of double-predestination is framed by Perkins’ view (which it is, if you follow Westminster Calvinism), then I wonder what that further says about your view of God. Are you willing to take on the same assumptions on God’s immutability that Perkins does? Or, because you know scripture won’t let you, are you going to say: “I don’t believe that nonsense,” and move on, assuming that what Perkins and Westminster articulated has no bearing on your own “biblical viewpoint?” Enquiring minds want to know!

Richard Sibbes and William Perkins, Law and Grace

Richard Sibbes, English Puritan and pastor, according to Ron Frost, believed that the “law” was not the mechanism for determining if a person was one of the elect of God. This is contrary to the federal, or covenantal view forwarded by William Perkins and others. In fact, it was by keeping the law, by the Spirits’ enablement, according to Perkins, that a person ultimately would ‘realize’ their justification. Notice:

. . . In England John Bradford, Thomas Wilcox, and Richard Greenham all pointed to the law for the same purpose. Tipson links these men to Perkins’ theology in arguing that they all represented a model in which conversion is a process rather than a dramatic event. . . . (Ron Frost, “Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology,” 28)

Of course none of these men, as good Protestants, would be asserting that any of these good works, or “law-keeping”, would be anything other than Christ’s good works flowing through them — albeit as they cooperate with the Holy Spirit or Grace.

This position has been labeled, “Nomist”, or in English, “Law-ist”, someone who places a high premium on the Mosaic law, and its function in the appropriation of salvation (of course this all needs to caveated with the fact that this “keeping of the Law,” is what defines Christ’s “active obedience,” but the real problem here is how the Federalist understands “union with Christ”). This emphasis, known as Federal theology, is being revivified today by some. Contrary to Perkins, Richard Sibbes forwarded an anti-nomist position which emphasized the immediacy and direct work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the elect — which both served as the means of salvation, which immediately resulted in “real” spiritual union with Christ.

Sibbes offered his more characteristic view of the law in The Hidden Life in which he argued that a persons’ affections are drawn to Christ in the regenerated life so that a Christian becomes functionally dead to the law. A person is not to look for salvation or even “comfort” from the use of the “moral law”. In his making the point that salvation is not found in keeping the moral, Sibbes was simply repeating an orthodoxy shared by the nomists. The context in which he placed the point is the distinctive element. He held that Christ’s communion with a believer is in some sense perceptible. Such experiences of communion, generally regarded as spontaneous increases of affection for Christ, transcend the law as a guide for behavior. As in marriage, the mutual commitment of love, rather than rule-driven behaviors, was seen to be the point of spiritual union. The Christian’s behavior is increasingly shaped by a devotion to Christ as accomplished by the Spirit. . . .

. . . While the nomist model emphasized the continuity of the law in the old and new Testaments, seeing it as God’s chief tool in producing sanctification, Sibbes came to view the law as obsolete in the presence of Christ’s self-revelation. Sibbes spelled out the fundamental discontinuity of the two Testaments in his aptly-titled sermon series, The Excellency of the Gospel Above the Law. It is this principle, that the Old Testament law is inferior to the Spirit’s work in the New, that most characterize the antinomists. Sibbes, it seems, was not so much influenced by the law-grace polarity of Luther (Sibbes, as all the early Reformers did, continued to honor the law as revealing something of God’s character), as much as he was shaped by a very literal exegesis of 2 Corinthians 3: 17-18. This was the crux interpretum for antinomists and the text on which the exposition of the Excellency of the Gospel rested. It released Sibbes from a primary orientation to Old Testament law in describing the life of faith. (Ron Frost, “Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology,” 37-38)

Obviously Sibbes emphasized the immediate work of the Spirit, which resulted in a real union with Christ. This is contrary to Perkins, who believed in an ad hoc union with Christ; which one could only “really” realize as he or she persevered in good works (i.e. practical syllogism, to be discussed later). In other words, for Perkins, certainty of election was a mediated reality, determined by one’s behavior relative to their cooperation with grace. This framework, for people who followed Perkins (which was the majority of Puritan England), resulted in an inward/introspective spirituality; since this perspective was very individuated and obsessed with personal holiness — for all the wrong reasons. Perkins in many ways serves as a forerunner for the later developed, Pietism, which climaxed with Schleiermacher (fodder for another post).

Sibbes’ emphasis on the immediacy of the Spirit, instead of promoting an incipient Pietism, allows the person to be obsessed and consumed by the beauty and majesty of Christ. This approach emphasizes a Trinitarian approach to salvation, which has a high pneumatology, leading to an even higher Christology — as the person of Christ and his works are magnified in the bride/bridegroom relationship, between Christ and his Church. I think this is much more fruitful than the approach offered by Perkins, and anyone who might fit his soteriological paradigm.