Christ as the first-fruits and first-born from the death of death: Reflecting Further Upon Sin and Its ‘Sensuous Origin’

As I continue to get into researching ‘sin’ I am doing so through reading, in part, stuff from Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck. I am reading a section he has from his Dogmatics, Vol.3, called The Origin of Sin; how fitting. I wanted to share a section from him which he entitles The Enigma of Sin’s Origin; in it he gets into how folks have attempted to understand what in fact sin is, and tellingly, where it is generated from, from within the human being (if it is). He focuses in, in this section, on the theory that sin is somehow generated by the sensuous; as such, if this is the case the remedy would be some form of self-deprecating, self-denying asceticism. Note:

The Enigma of Sin’s Origin

[312] The question of the origin of evil, second to that of existence itself, is the greatest enigma of life and the heaviest cross for the intellect to bear. The question, Whence is evil? has occupied the minds of humans in every century and still waits in vain for an answer that is more satisfactory than that of Scripture. Insofar as philosophy has taught us anything significant in this matter, it is, broadly speaking, a strong proof for the scriptural truth that this world is inexplicable without a fall. All the great thinkers, even if they were ignorant of Genesis 3 or rejected it as myth, have, despite themselves, given tacit or explicit support to this simple story. And insofar as philosophy looked for a solution to the problem in another direction, it has gotten off the track and sadly gone astray. This applies first of all to the Pelagian explanation of sin, the many objections to which have been touched on above and will come up at length in our discussion of the essence and propagation of sin. But it applies further to all the systems that trace evil not to a creaturely act of will but to the nature of humanity, the world, or God.

In the first place, sin cannot be inferred from the sensual nature of the human race. If that were the explanation, sin certainly would always have a sensual or carnal character. But this is far from being always the case. There are also spiritual sins, sins of a demonic nature, such as pride, envy, hatred, enmity against God, which, though less visible, are absolutely no less serious than the sins of carnality; and these cannot be explained by sensuality, any more than the existence of fallen angels can be explained on this basis. If sins originated from humanity’s sensual nature, one would certainly expect that they would be most vigorous and numerous in the early years of life, and that to the degree that the mind became more developed it would also exert firmer control over it and finally overcome it altogether. But experience tells a very different story. To the degree that people grow up, sin—also sensual sin—has a stronger grip on them. It is not the child but the young man and the adult male who are frequently enslaved by their lusts and passions; and mental development is often so little able to curb sin that it tends rather to make available the means of seeking the satisfaction of one’s desire on a larger scale and in more refined ways. And even when at a later stage in life the sensual sins have lost their dominance, they still secretly stay on in people’s hearts as desires or make way for others that, though more spiritual in nature, are no less appalling. Accordingly, if this explanation of sin in terms of sensuality is meant in earnest, it should result in seeking release by suppressing the flesh; but it is precisely the history of asceticism that is best calculated to cure us of the error that sin can be overcome in that fashion. People take their hearts with them when they enter a monastery, and from the heart arise all sorts of sins and iniquities.[1]

Clearly from a biblical and properly oriented theological perspective this explanation falls quite short; as Bavinck himself develops. But it is interesting to see how people attempt to philosophize about things, particularly sin.

What if sin has so incapacitated the human intellect, what if the so called noetic effects of sin have so savaged the human’s capacity to self-reflect properly that they are left aimless in their search for attempting to penetrate the mystery of the human situation and pollution? One thing that is clear, even for unregenerate minds and hearts, is that people can look around and know that things are eschew; radically so! But even this, according to Scripture is not a ‘natural’ perception; according to John 16 the Holy Spirit convicts the world of: sin, righteousness, and judgment. In other words, without the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and the attending work of the Holy Spirit, there is no access to the real human condition; there is no access to the actual problem which according to Jesus resides in the deceptive nature of our corrupted hearts (relative to their orientation to God).

What the Bavinck quote should illustrate for us is that sin, human depravity and pollution is an unknowable ‘quantity’; it is a surd of inaccessible magnitude. As Barth orients this discussion, we cannot even begin to know what sin is apart from Christ, and God’s holiness on display therein; and even at this entry point sin remains a surd, an enigma. God in Christ did not come to explain sin’s origin, or even its general whereabouts, he came to destroy it and put it to death (cf. Rom 8). In light of the holiness of God revealed in Christ, yes, sin is amplified, it is given a gravitas as we observe the depths and reach it took for it to be dispelled; i.e. God’s personal enfleshment. What the coming of God in Christ shows about sin is that human beings, autonomous as sin would have them to be, are in no place to deal with its corroding and parasitic power. It takes the very ‘being’ ousia of Godself in the person (hypostasis) of Jesus Christ, the eternal Logos, and ground of all reality to penetrate into the marrow of sin’s possessive non-being and nothingness to reverse its beguiling trajectory; to do nothing short of re-creating all things, with Christ as the first-fruits and first-born from the death of death (per John Owen also cf. Col. 1.15ff; I Cor. 15; II Cor. 5.17).[2]

 

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Origin of Sin, accessed 03-16-2017.

[2] This paragraph is largely and loosely inspired by a Barthian and Torrancean perspective on a Christologically concentrated hamartiology and doctrine of creation/re-creation.

The Origin of Sin, Pelagius, and Roman Catholicism with Reference to Herman Bavinck

I am just starting to work towards putting together a proposal for PhD research at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (The Free University of Amsterdam), where I hope to be accepted and work with a brilliant theologian there. At these early stages I have tentatively decided to research in the area of hamartiology, or in the area of the doctrine of sin. It will be from a decidedly Reformed perspective, including looking at this doctrine alongside of John Calvin, John Owen, Herman Bavinck, and Karl Barth; with a focus on Barth’s Christological angling of the whole doctrine. In light of that I thought I would put up a post on sin; this particular post will look at Bavinck’s description of Pelagius’s understanding of original sin, and how Bavinck sees that bleeding into Roman Catholic soteriology.

Bavinck writes of Pelagius and Roman Catholicism:

To this monk from Britain everything depended on the free will. He saw it as the characteristic feature of human nature, the image of God, the first principle and foundation of the dominion granted him. Human nature has been so created by God that, depending on its free choice, it is able to and able not to sin; and this equal possibility in either direction, as a natural good, as a constituent of human nature, cannot be lost. As a result Pelagius had to reject all notions of original sin. Adam only brought sin into the world as an example or form. There is indeed a power of evil custom, but this does not so completely control humans that, if they seriously wanted to avoid sin and lead a holy life, they would be prevented from doing so. In any case, sin is not innate; it is always—and cannot be anything but—a free act of the will. The fall, accordingly, did not just occur once, in Adam, and take the whole human race with it, but every human being is still born in the same state in which Adam was, granted that, as a result of the power of custom, conditions are less favorable now. And all humans therefore stand or fall by themselves. Sin originates anew in every person; in every human life there occurs a fall when the power of free will is neglected or applied in a wrong direction.36

These ideas of Pelagius were so obviously at odds with the teaching of Scripture and the faith of the church that they could not possibly be accepted by the church. They were, accordingly, modified and toned down in various ways. Specifically, to Adam’s transgression was ascribed a stronger influence on the state of human nature, and, correspondingly, grace was credited with more vigorous cooperation at the beginning and in the development of the new Christian life. But, fundamentally, the final decision at all these points was again reserved for the free will. In Roman Catholicism, Adam’s transgression did result for him and his descendants in the loss of the superadded gift; and insofar as God had granted this gift to Adam and he therefore should have enjoyed it, the loss of it can be called culpable. But original sin is no more than this privation; it does not consist in the concupiscence that by itself is not sin, nor in an innate evil of the will, for though the will may have been weakened, it is neither lost nor corrupted. Thus fallen nature is actually totally identical with uncorrupted nature; true, the supernatural gifts have been lost, but the natural gifts continue intact. In the abstract, therefore, a person could possibly abstain from all actual sins and, like unbaptized children dying in infancy, acquire a natural state of bliss.37 In this connection Rome could still maintain the absolute necessity of Christianity, however, inasmuch as humans, although in the most favorable scenario they could also acquire a natural state of bliss, could never by their free will receive supernatural righteousness and salvation. To that end the church with its sacraments is the only proper road. But when this Roman Catholic dualism was cast aside by the Reformation, the modalities that, within the circle of Protestantism, took over the Roman Catholic assumptions about original sin and free will 38 virtually automatically had to relapse into the ancient errors of Pelagius and Coelestis or in any case into those of Hilary of Arles and John Cassian.39 For if Adam’s fall did not, or did only in part, deprive the will of the freedom and power to do good, and original sin did not consist either in a culpable loss of an original supernatural gift, then in that same measure grace became dispensable and Christianity was robbed of its absolute character.40[1]

If you’re unaware, Pelagius was a 5th century British monk, and a counterpart of Augustine; they famously dueled-off, theologically, resulting in some interesting reflection by Augustine on his own doctrine of sin (but we won’t get into that presently). As Bavinck reveals, Pelagius placed a heavy emphasis upon the neutrality of the human will towards sin or towards not sinning. Pelagius had influence upon the church, but as Bavinck notes, the church attempted to soften the hard teaching of Pelagius’s concept of an absolutely free-will (i.e. with no need of God’s grace). This softening by the church happened early on, and somewhat compromised allowing for an idea of free-will, but the need for a prevenient  grace to provide enablement for a person to essentially cooperate with God in their salvation, and progressively find favor with God finally resulting in the reward of eternal life. The II Council of Orange (529 ad.) wrestled with this issue, rejecting what could be called ‘semi-pelagianism’ (similar to what I just described) in favor of what they called a ‘semi-Augustinianism’ which focused more on the need for Divine intervention and God’s grace than on ‘free-will’ in the framework of salvation.

As Bavinck highlights, later in Mediaeval Roman Catholicism this idea remained present; i.e. the need for an gratia infusia, an ‘infusion of grace’ remained in order for the potential Christian to have the capacity to move beyond the ‘natural’ (i.e. Pelagianism) state, and move into a super-natural mode wherein the person could cooperate with God in the appropriation of eternal life. It is, for Roman Catholics even today, the church’s role to dispense this grace through the sacraments and re-presentation of Christ’s body in the Holy Mass. All of this to cure the ailment that sin is for the human person.

What is interesting to me about Bavinck’s description of things is how he highlights the kind of Thomistic conception of sin that funds not just the theology of Roman Catholicism, but also large parts of what later developed in what is called Post Reformed orthodox theology; insofar as the latter imbibed the same type of Thomist intellectualist anthropology that funded the Tridentine theology of the Romish trajectory.

Interesting even as I dabble into this how interrelated many themes are going to become simply by focusing on a doctrine of sin. Issues of anthropology, predestination, salvation, ecclesiology, ontology/epistemology, Christology and a host of other things are all implicated and interrelated to how we understand sin and its function within the broader theological framework. I will obviously have to work at how I want to delimit particular aspects, and elevate others for the purposes of research. Writing blog posts like this, along the way, I think, will help me to do that.

 

[1] Herman Bavinck, Origin of Sin, accessed 03-14-2017.

An Evangelical Calvinist Critique of the Theology that Funds 5 Point Calvinism: A Critique of the Westminster Confession of Faith

Discussion about Calvinism (and Arminianism) really hasn’t waned, even if my blog posts in that regard have. The original motivation for this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist, was to be a place where I offered critique of what I have called “classical Calvinism,” in line with the classical Theism it is derived from. I originally started this blog as a 2nd blog, where, indeed, my aim was to only discuss things revolving around all things Calvinism; and then to offer an alternative account of Calvinism, so: Evangelical Calvinism. After awhile though this blog turned into my primary and only blog, and as a result it morphed into a catch-all where I discuss a variety and sundry things theological. I say all that to simply note that this post will be an old-school Evangelical Calvinist post where we look at T.F. Torrance’s critique of an aspect of classical Calvinism as codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Just recently I offered a spate of posts (three of them: 1, 2, 3) where I offered criticism of the idiosyncratic form of John MacArthur’s 5 point Calvinism. Even though his appropriation of a “soteriological” Calvinism is indeed idiosyncratic, where he appropriates it from is not.[1] MacArthur et al. take their marching orders from the theology articulated and codified, indeed, in the Westminster Confession of the Faith. It is this Confession that can be said to kind of represent the flowering of Post Reformed Orthodoxy as that developed post-magisterial Reformation (i.e. Luther, Calvin, Bullinger, et al.). It is a Confession oriented around a concept of God that is decretal—that God relates to his creation as the impassible/immutable one through impersonal decrees [decretum absolutum] in order to keep him untouched and “unmoved” by his creation—wherein God predestines out of the massa[2] of humanity that some particular and individual people are elected to eternal life while others are reprobated and condemned to an eternal conscious torment in hell (some of the classically Reformed hold a passive idea in regard to the reprobate). J.N.D. Kelly comments on the ancient theo-logic provided for by St. Augustine, it is this type of logic that gets further developed in the medieval and Post Reformed orthodox periods, which finally blossoms in the Westminster Confession of the Faith. Kelly writes critically of Augustine and his view of predestination:

The problem of predestination has so far only been hinted at. Since grace takes the initiative and apart from it all men form a massa damnata, it is for God to determine which shall receive grace and which shall not. This He has done, Augustine believes on the basis of Scripture, from all eternity. The number of the elect is strictly limited, being neither more nor less than is required to replace the fallen angels. Hence he has to twist the text ‘God wills all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2, 4), making it mean that He wills the salvation of all the elect, among whom men of every race and type are represented. God’s choice of those to whom grace is to be given in no way depends on His foreknowledge of their future merits, for whatever good deeds they will do will themselves be the fruit of grace. In so far as His foreknowledge is involved, what He foreknows is what He Himself is going to do. Then how does God decide to justify this man rather than that? There can in the end be no answer to this agonizing question. God has mercy on those whom He wishes to save, and justifies them; He hardens those upon whom He does not wish to have mercy, not offering them grace in conditions in which they are likely to accept it. If this looks like favouritism, we should remember that all are in any case justly condemned, and that if God makes His decision in the light of ‘a secret and, to human calculation, inscrutable justice’. Augustine is therefore prepared to speak of certain people as being predestined to eternal death and damnation; they may include, apparently, decent Christians who have been called and baptized, but to whom the grace of perseverance has not been given. More often, however, he speaks of the predestination of the saints which consists in ‘God’s foreknowledge and preparation of the benefits by which those who are to be delivered are most assuredly delivered’. These alone have the grace of perseverance, and even before they are born they are sons of God and cannot perish.[3]

Here’s how the Westminster Confession of Faith articulates this type of thinking as it was resident in 17th century Puritan England and in parts of the surrounding continent:

Chapter III

Of God’s Eternal Decree

  1. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
  2. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.

III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.

  1. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.
  2. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto;  and all to the praise of His glorious grace.
  3. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

VII. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extends or withholds mercy, as He pleases, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.

VIII. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel.[4]

This is hard teaching! That’s what the Federal/Westminster Calvinist would want you to think; i.e. that the reason this might cause people to stumble is because the Gospel itself causes people to stumble. They might want you to think of John 6 when Jesus just finished teaching about the requirement of his disciples to feed on his flesh and drink of his blood, when the text there says:

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Manascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

If you have a hard time at the teaching offered by Augustine, and the theology in the Westminster Confession of Faith, just like those fickle disciples of Jesus in John 6 you must not be a true disciple who has been granted to come to Christ by the Father.

But what if the teaching on election and reprobation as articulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith is causing you to stumble at its harshness because instead of fickleness you have theological and spiritual discernment? That’s what us Evangelical Calvinists contend, and believe; you stumble at this Westminster teaching because you should, it is theologically unsound and anemic. This is what Evangelical Calvinist par excellence, T.F. Torrance thinks; here he offers critique of the WCF in this regard, his critique on this comes on the heels of prior critique he had just offered on the doctrine of God offered up by the WCF. His critique on its doctrine of God has to do with its lack of Trinitarian character as it separates the Oneness of God from the Threeness, which in turn, as he argues, creates an abstract impersonal concept of God which leads to this harsh and impersonal and abstract understanding of election and reprobation as articulated in the WCF. This section, in particular from Torrance, is focusing not only on election, but how the concept of covenant within the Federal system ended up lending itself to a contractual and rigid understanding of God and his relation to creation as exemplified in an impersonal and individualistic understanding of election. Torrance writes:

The ideas that the relations between God and mankind were governed by covenant had both a disadvantage and an advantage. On the one hand, through the notion of a covenant of works it not only altered the biblical notion of law (torah) and covenant (berith), but built into the background of Westminster theology a contractual framework of law (understood in the Latin sense as lex) that pervaded and gave a forensic and condition slant even to the presentation of the truths of the Gospel. On the other hand, the primary place given to the covenant of grace directed the focus of attention upon the fact that God calls people into fellowship with himself, addresses them personally asks for their response in worship and love, within a covenanted correspondence of the whole universe to its creator. At the same time the way in which God’s eternal decrees and the effectual calling of grace were conceived, in terms of election narrowed down to the selection of only some people for redemption, meant that the relation between God and man was conceived in a particularist or individualist way without adequate attention to the corporate nature of salvation in Christ. While the doctrine of election rightly entailed a view of grace as objective and unconditional, the hard conception of double predestination was biblically and evangelically unfortunate. On the one hand, it rested on a mistaken Calvinist interpretation of the teaching of St Paul, ‘Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated’ taken out of its context of the doctrine of the remnant in Old Testament salvation history. On the other hand, it introduced a deep-seated uncertainty into faith which was not adequately met by the later chapter ‘Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation’. As the history of theology in Scotland was to show again and again the lack of assurance in saving grace was due to the idea, as expressed by David Dickson, that ‘Christ died only for his own sheep, viz. intentionally and efficaciously’. The rigidly contractual concept of God as lawgiver together with a necessitarian concept of immutable  divine activity allied to double predestination, with its inescapable implication of a doctrine of limited atonement, set the Church with a serious problem as to its interpretation of biblical statements about the offer of the Gospel freely to all people. Moreover, through a strictly forensic notion of justification in which a judicial relation substituted for an intimate union with Christ, faith failed to be grounder properly in the Person of Christ and inwardly linked in him with the assurance of salvation which he embodied.[5]

According to Torrance et al., and what we as Evangelical Calvinists affirm, Westminster Calvinism because of its lackluster conception of God (i.e. not starting with the Triunity of God in its Confession[s]) ends up offering a rigid conception of God wherein he relates to his creation through, as we noted, impersonal decrees within a juridical or forensic relationship of law-like execution (which is concordant with, and flows directly from the Aristotelian concept of God that informs the theology of Westminster—an impersonal non-relational non-love understanding).

The reason the WCF’s and 5 point Calvinism’s understanding of election and reprobation comes off so harshly (and indeed is harsh), is because its understanding of God, the brute Sovereign conception that typifies their theology, is equally harsh. Contrariwise, Evangelical Calvinists emphasize and start with God’s Triune life of love and grace as the basis for his reason to create, and this basis then colors everything else.

Conclusion

I still think this matters immensely. In many ways, particularly through movements like The Gospel Coalition, and through the winsome personality of someone no less than Tim Keller et al. Westminster theology is making a serious comeback among evangelicals in the main. This has impact, and not positively so, upon many real life people (not just academics and scholars) who are sitting out in the pews. It has impact on how people think about sanctification, spirituality, and just how they go about their daily lives before God. If they think of him in a Westminsterian way, even if only from subtle hues, this conception will have deleterious effect upon their lives. How one thinks of God determines everything else following; that’s why this remains a vital issue of contention.

 

[1] This post is not intended to engage with MacArthur any further.

[2] See Augustine.

[3] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition (New York: Harper Collins, 1978), 368-69.

[4] WCF/III, accessed 03-07-2017 from CRTA.

[5] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 136-37.

Reading Scripture for Information or Instead for Encounter with the Living Voice of God: A Trinitarian Account of Scripture Reading

When we read the Bible as Christians we are doing so from a certain disposition, or we should be. When we read the Bible as Christians we aren’t primarily doing so in order to map out all of its ancient near eastern context, or figure out where all the chiasmus and inclusios are, or to understand how this syntax matches up with that syntax, or reconstruct a ‘historical Jesus’ and/or ‘Apostle Paul’ who fits within all of the historicist apparatus we can avail ourselves of; no, when we read Scripture alongside the rest of the saints, presently and in the history (and in the heavenlies) we are scriptureribbonseeking to hear from God, to hear His living voice viva vox Dei. Christians, if they do in fact read Scripture at all, need to get back to this confessional Christian approach and reading ethic; one where God’s voice in Christ has the primacy and not our biblical studies guilds, or our personalist and individualist postures.

Thomas Torrance, along with John Webster (elsewhere) articulates the importance of approaching Scripture as if it is the holy ground upon which, indeed, we move beyond reducing it all down to manageable propositions, and instead allow the wild nature of Scripture to reign supreme in our lives as it mediates God’s Word to us by the Spirit’s activity in our lives in the event of justification and process of sanctification. Here’s what TF Torrance writes:

In a faithful interpretation of the New Testament we many not treat the words employed in it as if they were no more than transient linguistic symbols detached from any objective content in divine revelation, and as if they were not lively oracles through which God speaks to us in Person. Rather must we treat them as words which the incarnate Word of God has deliberately assimilated to himself in communicating and interpreting himself to us in the course of his reconciling activity. That is to say, in the words of the Bible through which the Word of God’s trinitarian self-revelation reaches us, we have to do not with some divine Word detached from his Being and Activity, but with the very Being of God speaking to us and acting upon us in an intensely personal way. In and through them we encounter the living Word who is identical with God himself, the Word in whom we have to do with the Person and Act of God, the Son made man in Jesus Christ, and are thereby summoned to personal commitment of faith in Christ and through cognitive union with him to have knowledge of God the Father. Thus we interpret his human words as the direct personal address of God in whom he communicates to us not just some information about himself but his own divine Self, and therefore interpret them not from a centre in the man Jesus detached from his Deity, but from the organising and controlling centre of his divine-human reality. To indwell the words of Christ, therefore, is to participate in the mutual indwelling of God and man in him, or the mutual indwelling of the Father and his incarnate Son. And so through union with Jesus Christ we are drawn by the Spirit of the Father and of the Son into the Communion of the Father and the Son.[1]

I think this challenges the typical evangelical and Reformed way of approaching Scripture; it is less about epistemology and gaining information about God, and instead more about ontology/soteriology and having a personal encounter with the risen Jesus as he’s given spiration by the Spirit’s resurrection. It is about participating in the triune life through Christ, and understanding that there is no rupture between the person and work of Jesus; and no rupture between the consubstantial being of the Son with the Father, and the Son with humanity as he mediates that in his consubstantial life of being both God and man in his singular person as the eternal Son (Logos).

Reading Scripture in this frame, then, is a dialogical exercise. In other words, it pivots on prayerful relation to God through Christ, and understanding that He has freely chosen to meet us as we meet him in the intersection of His life as human, in Christ, and realize that the communicative context for that, for us, takes place primarily in the triune speech act known as Holy Scripture. Practically, the way this works itself out is by simply prayerfully and consistently reading Scripture; or as Torrance said it ‘indwelling’ Scripture, allowing it to wash over us over and again, and understanding that its context cannot be detached from its giveness in the incarnation of God in Christ.

None of this is to intimate that understanding the linguistic realities of Scripture, its cultural situadedness, so on and so forth have no place; it’s just to recognize that none of that should have primacy of place. Scripture has a context, and it is God’s triune life in Christ for us. When we read Scripture it shouldn’t primarily be an intellectualist activity (as I fear way too many Christians think), but instead a devotional and doxological activity where we are set apart  (Jn. 17.17) ever amore ever afresh as we encounter the living voice of God in the christological context of His life found in and throughout the pages of Holy Writ. Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ should act upon us ever before we attempt to act upon it.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Pesons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 42.

The Elevation-Line in Theology: The Primacy of God in Incarnation and His Reality in ‘EC’ Theology

I have written on the primacy of Christ and ‘elevation-line’ theology before (a theology articulated in the medieval period by John Duns Scotus), here at the blog; but I thought I would revisit it (it has come up in my TF Torrance readings). The issue under consideration has a basic premise, but comes, of course, with complex and profound elucidation. That said, I don’t think it’s a speculative or abstract type of theological consideration. The basic premise of so called ‘elevation-line’ theology is: That Jesus Christ would have incarnated for humanity with or without the fall. One reason for orthodoxjesusthis view is that it emphasizes the idea that the telos or purpose for creation, from the beginning, was always to “elevate” humanity into the kind of relationship, by grace, that the Son has always had with the Father (what we see Jesus speaking to the Father about in his so called ‘high priestly prayer’ in John 17). But beyond this it avoids making the incarnation of God contingent upon sin, and meeting the conditions set out by sin (this for me, theologically, is quite significant). Contrary to this, and what would be the majority report in the Western church (by the way elevation-line theology is also a Western development), there is also what has been called ‘restitution-line’ theology (articulated foremost, during the medieval period by Thomas Aquinas). Myk Habets explains what these positions entail quite clearly when he writes:

Two views on the primacy of Christ dominate the discussion within medieval theology, those of the Franciscans, led by John Duns Scotus, and those of the Dominicans, led by Thomas Aquinas. According to the first view humanity was created for glory, and sin is merely an episode along the way. The incarnation would have occurred irrespective of the fall since humanity’s ultimate destiny is participation in the being of God and the incarnation guarantees that this will be realized. This Franciscan position is known as the Scotistic thesis. It is what one scholar terms ‘elevation-line’ theology which sees the incarnation as the way to the elevation or consummation of creation. The second major view considers the deliverance of creation as secondary to the question of sin. This is the Dominican position known as the Thomistic thesis. It may be characterised as a ‘restitution-line’ theology, in which the incarnation occurred solely as a remedy for humanity’s sin, with the restitution of creation as a corollary. Both ‘school’s’ of thought deserve some articulation before examining some recent contributions to the issue.[1]

David Fergusson writes of the development of elevation-theology this way:

The notion of ‘wisdom’ provides further evidence of the integration of creation and salvation in the Old Testament. As the creative agency of God, wisdom is celebrated in the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and some of the deutero-canonical works. In some places, such as Proverbs 8, wisdom is personified as a divine agent. The divine wisdom by which the world is created is also apparent in the regularity of nature, the divine law, and human affairs. This notion of ‘wisdom’ is later fused with the Greek concept of ‘Logos’ and becomes vital for expressing the linking of creation and Christology in the New Testament. In the prologue to John’s Gospel the Word (Logos) of God is the one by whom and through whom the world is created. This Word which is made present to Israel becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ. In this cosmic Christology, the significance of Jesus is understood with respect to the origin and purpose of the created order. Already in Paul’s writing and elsewhere in the New Testament epistles, we find similar cosmic themes (e.g. 1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:15-20, Heb. 1:1-4). By describing creation as Christ-centred, these passages offer two related trajectories of thought. First, the origin and final purpose of the cosmos is disclosed with the coming of Christ into the world and his resurrection from the dead. Second, the significance of Christ is maximally understood reference to his creative and redeeming power throughout the created universe. Writers at different periods in the history of the church would later use this cosmic Christology to describe the appearance of the incarnate Christ as the crowning moment of history. No longer understood merely as an emergency measure to counteract the effects of sin and evil, the incarnation was the fulfillment of an eternal purpose. The world was made so that Christ might be born. This is captured in Karl Barth’s dictum that creation is ‘the external basis of the covenant’ (Barth 1958: 94).[2]

All of this type of thinking, first generated by Duns Scotus, and then its counterpoint provided by Aquinas came together for Myk in his essay, and then finally resulted in a thesis that Myk and I co-wrote in our first evangelical Calvinist book: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church. Here is thesis 8 of 15 from our book, let me share this with you all, it will help to illustrate how a doctrine of the primacy of Christ (over and for creation), a supralapsarian doctrine of election, and so called elevation-line theology all mutually implicate and inform each other as aspects of the whole reality located in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and how that frames salvation and situates that within a doctrine of God, Christ, protology, covenant, creation, recreation, and eschatology. Here is our thesis 8:

Thesis Eight

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

As a direct result of thesis 5 and its concomitant doctrine of God, Evangelical Calvinists subscribe to a broadly conceived supralapsarian Christology along the lines of that famously propounded by John Duns Scotus. That is to say that, Evangelical Calvinists embrace the idea that who God is for us in Christ is grounded in the pre-temporal reality of his choice to be for us apart from and prior to the “Fall” or even the creation itself. This, theologically coheres with the Evangelical Calvinist conception of God’s life being shaped by who he is as love, and thus both chronologically and logically places his love and his self-determining freedom as the primary mode of God’s life; and thus the basis from which he acts, even in wrath. As such an Evangelical Calvinist may confidently assert that: “There is no wrath of God that is not first experienced as the love of God for you.”[3]

As one of us has argued elsewhere: “The sine qua non of the Scotistic thesis is that the predestination of Christ took place in an instant which was logically prior to the prevision of sin as absolutum futurum. That is, the existence of Christ was not contingent on the fall as foreseen through the scientia visionis.”[4] It is through this matrix that Evangelical Calvinists can be said to hold to a “supralapsarian Christology,” that is that we believe in God’s primacy over all of creation; and thus his choice to be for us is in Christ is not contingent upon sin, but instead it is the result of the overflow of who he is as the God for the other—God is Love!

The election of the eternal Son for us that occurs pre-temporally becomes temporally externalized in the Incarnation of Christ, and ultimately finds its resounding crescendo in being actualized through the cross-work of Christ, exemplifying that God’s life of over-flowing love is in fact cruciform in shape as it is revealed within the conditions of a post-lapsarian world.

In salvation God accomplishes multiple things but perhaps four may be pointed out here: 1) God’s glory is revealed; 2) God’s salvation is accomplished, 3) God’s judgment is made manifest, and 4) God’s damnation of the sinner outside of Christ is realized. All four of these components find their extrinsic locus in the person of Christ as the primary exemplar and mediator of God’s life for humanity. Each of these—God’s glory, salvation, judgment, and damnation—take on significance as Jesus’ God-shaped humanity brings God and humans together in himself. The Father is glorified through the Son’s loving submission as the scapegoat, sacrifice, and representative for fallen humanity; and through this ultimate act of the obedient love of the Son, the Father brings reconciliation (salvation) to humanity as Christ enters into the wilderness of humanity’s sin, bears the weight of that sin in his “being” for us; and thus suffers the tragic damnation that rightfully belonged to sinful humanity. Through this mediation of life for life (substitution), Christ not only pays the penalty for sin; but as a corollary with who he is as love, he reconciles humanity’s non-being with his resurrected being of life and thus brought God and humanity together in a spiritual union such that reconciled and adopted sinners may now experience the love of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ as our Abba, our Father, and our worship, by the Holy Spirit, may be acceptable to God.

Supralapsarian Christology, correctly understood, does not reflect an Amyraldian, or a hypothetical universalism; but rather an actualized universal atonement which recreates humanity through Christ’s humanity, and provides salvation for all who will believe through Spirit generated, Christic formed faith. A purview that genuinely can claim to be “Christ-conditioned.”[5] [6]

As if this wasn’t enough, I wanted to illustrate further how this functions in TF Torrance’s own thinking and theology (this so called ‘elevation-line’ theology). Torrance writes: “… But this very condescension of God, in which he humbled himself to enter into our lowly creaturely and fallen existence, means also the elevation  of our creaturely existence, by the very fact of God’s will to unite himself to it and to bring the creature into coexistence with himself. Thus his very act of becoming man is itself an act of reconciliation.”[7] He writes further in this vein:

But further, the assumptio carnis means also that God has joined himself to us in our estranged human life in order to sanctify it, to gather it into union with his own holy life and so lift it up above and beyond all the downward drag of sin and decay, and that he already does simply by being one with man in all things. Thus the act of becoming incarnate is itself the sanctification of our human life in Jesus Christ, an elevating and fulfilling of it that far surpasses creation; it is a raising up of men and women to stand and have their being in the very life of God, but that raising up of man is achieved through his unutterable atoning self-humiliation and condescension.[8]

I share this from Torrance in order for the reader to see where some of the inspiration has come from for me and Myk as evangelical Calvinists, and how elevation theology and the Scotist thesis, at this level anyway, is present in Torrance’s writings and thought.

Conclusion

This turned into a long post, but there is a lot of rich stuff to share in this regard. I hope this all gives you, the reader, further insight into where evangelical Calvinism is coming from. What should stand out for you is how indeed this differentiates our approach from “classical” renditions of Calvinism. Classical, so called, iterations of Calvinism work from the Thomist or as Myk identifies it for us, ‘restitution-line’ theology; i.e. the primary reason for the incarnation and God become man was to take care of sin and pay its penalty (so we end up with a more forensic and juridical emphasis). Us evangelical Calvinists follow the Scotist thesis (at least at this level of things), which makes for an altogether different emphasis in the way we understand everything, including salvation. We see salvation in ontic terms, in the terms we see presupposed upon by TF Torrance in the quotes I shared from him; and also as those get addressed in the sharing of our thesis 8. This ontological focus moves us away from juridical or forensic frames when we think about anthropology, soteriologly, and the point of creation in total. Along with David Fergusson, as evangelical Calvinists who affirm the elevation-line, we can say: “The world was made so that Christ might be born.”[9]

For evangelical Calvinists Jesus is primary over all of creation, through and through. One of our favorite passages of Scripture (as it was for Scotus himself) comes from the Apostle Paul’s Colossian correspondence:

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.[10]

 

[1] Myk Habets, “On Getting First Things First,” 344-45.

[2] David Fergusson, Chapter 4: Creation, 76-7 in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance.

[3] This idea is forcefully presented by Torrance in a sermon “The Trinity of Love,” when he defines the love of God according to 2 Corinthians 13:14 as a holy, pure, true, and only love, and as such: “If God in His love gives Himself to me, His love would burn up my self-love; His purity would attack my impurity; His truth would slay my falsehood and hypocrisy. The love of God would be my judgment. God’s love is wrath against all self-love. God’s love is a consuming fire against all that is unloving and selfish and sinful,” Torrance, When Christ Comes, 187. (this footnote is the original one made in our EC book coordinate with thesis 8)

[4] Habets, “On Getting First Things First,” 349. (this footnote is the original one made in our EC book coordinate with thesis 8)

[5] See Purves, chapter 5, and Goroncy, chapter 10. (this footnote is the original one made in our EC book coordinate with thesis 8)

[6] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theses on a Theme,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 437-39.

[7] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 65.

[8] Ibid., 66.

[9] Fergusson, “Creation,” 77.

[10] Colossians 1.15-20, ESV.

Athanasius and T.F. Torrance Contra Mundum, Against the World of classical Calvinist Forensic Conception of the Atonement

Here’s a post I originally wrote in 2011. It illustrates how evangelical Calvinists, following T.F. Torrance and Athanasius are at odds with classical Calvinist or Federal theology. In this post I use Michael Horton as the representative of the Covenantal/Forensic approach. The focus is on what has happened in the atonement, and, indeed, in salvation generally.

I often speak of T. F. Torrance’s view of the atonement as the ontological view, which is inextricably related, for Torrance to the Incarnation (which is why his most recent posthumously athanasiuspublished books Incarnation & Atonement came in the order that they did— there is a theo-logical and even, dare I say it, necessary relation between the two). Well I just wanted to quote Athanasius directly, so that folks won’t think that Torrance fabricated such things out of whole cloth. Here’s Athanasius discussing the apparent dilemma God has set before Him given the reality of the “Fall” (and the non-existence or non-being that it brought humanity separated from Him), and the fact that not just a “legal” kind of relation had been violated between God and man through the “Fall;” but in fact an actual corruption of man Himself and the loss of grace as an intricate aspect of man’s relation to God had occurred —man’s very “nature” and even “heart” had been broken to the point of death (non-being and separation from God). Athanasius is sketching the only way the only dénouement possible for God to remain consistent with Himself as the Creator of man in His image; he says:

Yet, true though this is, it is not the whole matter. As we have already noted, it was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back upon His word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence. He could not falsify Himself; what, then, was God to do? Was He to demand repentance from men for their transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case. What—or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.[1]

Rich stuff. Now if you’re into the “kind” of Covenantal/Reformed/Federal Theology that Michael Horton & co. articulates, then you might as well throw Athanasius’ insights, just quoted, in the burn pile. Here’s why. Horton style Covenant theology offers a “Juridically-Forensically” based view of the atonement—the kind that would actually fit into the “repentance-only” model that Athanasius says or NO to—that frames what takes place on the cross as a Divine transaction between the Son and the Father. The “Law” (eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil cf. Hos. 6.7) has been broken (Covenant of Works), and the Father-Son agree to a pact (Pactum Salutis or Covenant of Redemption) wherein the Son will become a man, die on the cross for particular people (elect), “pay” their penalty (or fee), and give them back to God (Covenant of Grace). On the face that might sound good, but let’s think with Athanasius. All that has occurred in the Hortonian view of salvation is essentially to deal with an “external” issue and payment (which is akin to Athanansius’ point on repentance). The fundamental problem with this approach, as Athanasius so keenly points out, is that the issue isn’t primarily an external issue wherein a legal repentance will do; the issue is an issue of nature. Man’s nature was thoroughly corrupted and even lost. The only remedy is for the image of the Father (the Son) to literally become humanity; penetrate into the depths of our sinful souls through His redemptive grace; take that corrupted nature/heart from the manger to the cross to the grave; and resurrect/recreate it into the image of the Father which can only be realized as we are vicarious participants in Christ. The issue is not primarily an issue of a broken “Law;” the issue is that we have broken “Hearts,” and only God’s grace in Christ in the Incarnation can reach down into those depths and recreate us in Him. Horton’s approach to salvation does not allow for such thinking. It doesn’t deal with the heart, and thus we are left in our sins non-being.

 

 

[1] Athanasius, On The Incarnation, §7, 32.

 

Are ‘Good Works’ Required in order to ‘Possess’ or ‘Attain’ Eternal Life? That’s What John Piper, the Post Reformed Orthodox, and the Classical Reformed in General Believe

I am going to have to do my best to contain myself in this post; I haven’t been irked like this in a long while—maybe it’s because I haven’t been paying attention to it as much as I used to. What I am referring to is how ‘good works’ are considered necessary if someone is going to ‘attain’ or ‘posses’heaven and/or eternal life within classical Reformed or Calvinist theology. My post here is prompted by Mark Jones’s blog post which he posted over at Reformation21 just over a year ago. In his post he is lauding this very type of thinking (about good works) in the theologies of John Piper, Tom Schreiner, and a host of other Post Reformed orthodox theologians who can be found in the 16th and 17th centuries. In fact, apparently, Piper has gotten some push back from some within the Reformed camp because they seem to think that Piper is not fairly or strictly representing the Reformed orthodox well enough in his endorsement of Schriener’s book on Justification; and so Jones offers his defense of Piper by comparing Piper’s language with the language and thought found in some venerable orthodox theologians relative to the role that good works play in ‘possessing’ eternal life. Let me share some of what Jones has written, then we will attempt to provide some more background to this by looking at a long quote from Stephen Strehle and his analysis of where this type of thinking about ‘good works’ came from in the first place within the 16th and 17th centuries’ development of Covenantal or Federal theology.

Mark Jones writes this:

I’ve been told that some folk are taking issue with John Piper’s Foreword to Thomas Schreiner’s book on justification. According to Piper, who agrees with Schreiner, we are “right with God by faith alone” but we do not “attain heaven by faith alone.” He adds that “there are other conditions for attaining heaven.”

Based on what I believe is a charitable and straight-forward reading of Piper, there is not a single word in his Foreword that seems out of place in terms of the basic Reformed approach to justification, salvation, and conditionality.

Piper affirms strongly and clearly that works do not contribute to the acquisition of salvation. But Piper also wants to affirm that good works should be considered necessary for the obtaining of salvation. I fail to understand how this idea isn’t present in literally dozens of Reformed luminaries from the Early Modern period. As Francis Turretin says:

“This very thing is no less expressly delivered concerning future glory. For since good works have the relation of the means to the end (Jn. 3:5, 16; Mt. 5:8); of the ‘way’ to the goal (Eph. 2:10; Phil 3:14); of the ‘sowing’ to the harvest (Gal. 6:7,8)…of labor to the reward (Mt. 20:1); of the ‘contest’ to the crown (2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8), everyone sees that there is the highest and an indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory. It is so great that it cannot be reached without them (Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:27).”

Again, Piper says we do “not attain heaven by faith alone” and Turretin speaks of the “indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory”. I don’t see why we can’t

agree that they are saying essentially the same thing; and, indeed, if they are, what is the problem?

For those who have trouble grasping how Piper can affirm that justification is by faith alone, but that entering glory is not by faith alone, we must keep in mind the well-known distinction between the right to life versus the possession of life.

Herman Witsius makes a distinction between the right to life (i.e., acquisition) and the possession of life. The former is “assigned to the obedience of Christ, that all the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded.” However, regarding the latter, “our works…which the Spirit of Christ works in us, and by us, contribute something to the latter.”

Similarly, Petrus van Mastricht once wrote: “in so far as God, whose law we attain just now through the merit alone of Christ, does not want to grant possession of eternal life, unless [it is] beyond faith with good works previously performed. We received once before the right unto eternal life through the merit of Christ alone. But God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, 10.”

Is there anything in Piper’s Foreword that could not have come from the pen of Witsius or Turretin or Boston or Ball (see Patrick Ramsey’s post here) or Owen or Rutherford or Mastricht? I’m having trouble understanding what the problem is both biblically and historically. In fact, I can point to works by authors in the Reformed tradition who have stated the matter perhaps a little more strongly than Piper does (e.g., Mastricht, Davenant).[1]

Where does this type of thinking come from? For the average ‘Bible believing’ Christian out there this would sound either like the Roman Catholicism they came from (if they did), or it might sound like semi-Pelagianism (for the above average ‘Bible believing’ Christian), or it might just sound like a works-righteousness schema that does not fit with some simple and prima facie biblical assertions and explications of what is entailed in salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, through Christ alone. And what might sound really crazy to the average Bible believing Christian, who knows about the classical Protestant ‘solas’ (which I just alluded to), is that this conception of works and eternal salvation actually is developed from within this type of classical ‘grace alone’ framework. This of course begs many questions. One of the more important questions is: how is grace conceived within this development of Protestant theology? How could someone claim that salvation is by ‘grace alone’, but then like Piper, Schreiner, Jones, and the Post Reformed orthodox maintain that good works are still required in order to finally posses eternal life? And after trying to parse that out, then we would want to know: what constitutes ‘good works’ to the level that I can be assured that I am actually engaging in those enough in order to ensure that I am indeed “doing enough” to attain eternal life?

These are all, I think, natural questions that ought to arise for those who take Piper’s et al.’s view seriously. The Puritans and the Westminster Divines took all of this very seriously, and somehow they were able to affirm all of this and yet maintain that salvation is by ‘grace alone.’ As many of you know I have written much on this already, and in our next evangelical Calvinism book I  critique all of this in a chapter on assurance of salvation in the theologies of John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Thomas Torrance. But until you have a chance to read that I thought I would provide more historical background to how all o f this came to be in the development of what is called Covenant theology. The following quote does just that as Stephen Strehle engages with Heinrich Bullinger’s (1504 – 1575) development of the framework wherein salvation could be said to be ‘attained’ through good works. After we finish this quote I will leave off with some concluding and provocative remarks in regard to charting a way out of this quagmire of salvation which emphasizes the law and good works, but in such a way by conflating that in equivocal manner with God’s grace and love. Here is Strehle:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tensions between the doctrine of a bilateral covenant and other staples of Reformed orthodoxy, such as unconditional election and justification by faith—doctrines that exalt in divine grace—did summon their theologians to employ their skills in concocting some sort of a solution. Sometimes the sovereignty of God was invoked in order to emphasize that faith or whatever condition might be exacted of us does not arise out of our own strength but is a product of God’s work within us, making it, in their words, an a posteriori condition. Such a solution, however, did not eliminate the problem since divine favor was still made to depend upon a condition wrought within us—no matter how irresistible this grace was conceived. Luther and Protestantism had originally sought to eliminate any basis within man for his justification, and such a solution did raise this specter again. Other times a Franciscan concept of covenant was invoked in order to mitigate the value of any human contribution before God. In other words, faith and whatever condition might be exacted of man was seen to receive its reward, not so much in accordance with strict justice as if worthy of eternal life (meritum ex condign), but through a God who voluntarily condescends by his covenant to accept the mere pittance that we render to God beyond its just due. However, such a solution did not utterly eliminate the conditional force of the covenant, for something—no matter how disproportionate to its reward—must still be offered to God in exchange for salvation. Salvation was still made contingent on something we do.[2]

We leave off with Strehle’s critique of this Covenantal or Federal theology, and he rightly critiques it.

Conclusion

What I want to conclude with is the idea that when the work of salvation is abstracted from the person of salvation, Jesus Christ, we end up with a framework of salvation where the conditions of salvation, in order to be attained by the “elect,” are collapsed into individually elect people. This is what Thomas Torrance has labeled the ‘Latin Heresy’ because it follows a theological anthropology that starts the salvation discussion in Soteriology rather than in Christology. In other words, we get this type of focus on good works in salvation when we start our discussion about salvation from below, and make the locus of salvation us instead of Jesus Christ. There are other contributing factors to how Piper, Schreiner, Jones, et al. get to where they get (factors which I’ve exhaustively engaged with here at the blog over the years); we will have to leave those for another time (maybe my next post).

I will simply end this by saying I repudiate what John Piper et al. have to say about good works and salvation, and go so far as to say that I think this type of stuff  has sprung from the pit rather than from the right hand of the Father. Anytime we have theology that necessarily points us to ourselves and our good works as the objective ground for ‘attaining’ eternal life, then we have a problem Houston!

 

[1] Mark Jones, In Defense of Piper, accessed 01-07-2017.

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

In The Hands of a Loving God: A Riff on The Babylon Bee’s Angry Calvinist God

The Christian satire site, The Babylon Bee, recently shared this about Calvinists:

BOISE, ID—Local Calvinist Evan Rollins loudly announced Sunday afternoon his increased level of discomfort and wariness with Pastor Frank after the minister preached a passionate sermon angrygodon the love of God, witnesses confirmed Wednesday.

According to Rollins, he first began to feel uncomfortable with the message when the pastor quoted John 3:16 and pleaded with his hearers to believe the gospel, with his doubts and fears seemingly being confirmed as Pastor Frank reminded his audience that “God is love.”

 “I’m just not sure about Pastor Frank anymore, with all the love and grace talk,” Rollins told a friend at a local microbrewery after service. “I’m not saying he’s a heretic—or worse, an Arminian—but just that we should have our guard up from here on out. I’m seeing a lot of red flags.”

“Did you catch that bit about God’s love reaching to the heavens? Wow,” he added.

At publishing time, Rollins had begun searching for another church “where we’re really exhorted to rest in God’s wrath and judgment from the pulpit.”[1]

The irony of this, and why it’s satirical, is because there’s some relative truth to this. In a general sense classical Calvinists have emphasized God’s relationship to His creatures through a legal/juridic framework of mediating decrees (think of the theology that undergirds the Covenant of Works/Grace).

I once tried to distinguish evangelical Calvinism from classical Calvinism at another blog I once had (i.e. The Evangelical Calvinist in Plain Language). I don’t think Evan Rollins would like us too much either. Here’s what I wrote (I was trying to make it is as simplistic as I possibly could):

The way, when in person with someone, that I have tried to describe what evangelical Calvinism is, is to contrast it with what most people think of Calvinism today (as represented by The Gospel Coalition, or more explicitly by the acronym TULIP or 5 point Calvinism). So that is the way I will engage to flesh that out with you as well.

In general evangelical Calvinism emphasizes and starts from the idea that God is love! We know this to be the case because He has revealed that to us in and through His Son, Jesus. One of my (still) favorite Bible verses is:

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16

Or,

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” I John 4:7-12

So we know that God is a personal God who does what He does because of who He is, He is love. And we, as evangelical Calvinists, use this belief to shape everything else that we articulate in regard to how we think of the way that God relates to us.

This means that we do not think that God primarily relates to us through Law, or us keeping the Law (which is the basic underlying premises upon which 5 point Calvinism is based on); we believe that God has always related to us, first, because He simply loves us (because that is who He is). And within that relationship He has provided expectations that He knew we couldn’t even uphold; so because He is love, He did that for us too, through Christ (Christ thus has become the end of the Law for all who believe Romans 9:5).

I would submit that the imagery and reality of marriage is the better way to think of our relationship to God in Christ (that’s what the Apostle Paul thought in Ephesians 5, and this is a common theme throughout all of Scripture, especially in Revelation). We don’t relate, humanly speaking, to our spouses through a set of codes and laws (even though there are expectations within the relationship); no, ideally, our relationship is based upon love (or self-giveness for the other). I think this is the better metaphor (and reality/our union with Christ) to think of our relationship with God through. Richard Sibbes, a Puritan thought so, as did Martin Luther.

So in general, then, evangelical Calvinism holds that God is Love and thus dynamic and personal. This is in contrast to Classical Calvinism’s and Arminianism’s belief that God relates to us through impersonal decrees and laws.

[1] The Babylon Bee

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

Heinrich Bullinger

Heinrich Bullinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Remarks

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Assurance of Salvation in Martin Luther, with Reference to Barth and Torrance. ‘I absolve you!’

Myk Habets and I have edited our volume two Evangelical Calvinism book due out in the early half of 2017. My personal chapter in that volume is on John Calvin’s, Karl Barth’s, and Thomas Torrance’s doctrine of assurance of salvation. This topic has always been of luther_martin-3interest to me, at one point it was something I struggled with; and I’ve known others (who are very close to me) who have struggled with this as well. Currently, I’m not really sure many evangelicals struggle with this anymore; mostly, I would suggest, because of the kind of superficiality present in most evangelical churches today when it comes to actual doctrine and doctrinal understanding or interest (and I’m including the leadership levels as well). That said, the rest of this post will be dealing with this ancient doctrine; we will have particular focus on how this doctrine functioned in the thought and theology of Martin Luther.

Luther, as so many know, was an Augustinian monk; to say he was devout and driven would be an understatement. He, not unlike many in his day, struggled deeply with assurance of salvation. Because of the teaching of the medieval Roman Catholic church people could never really know with certainty if they had done enough penance and engaged in enough heartfelt contrition to know if they were right with God; the result was that people languished with a sense of doubt and fear before a perceived wrathful God. It was this framework Luther was succored in as a monk, indeed it was the air he breathed his whole life; and he was tormented.

Without getting into Luther’s whole biography, and theological antecedents, suffice it to say Luther needed a way out; he needed an assuaged conscience before God. He became a monk with the goal of finding such consolation; but would he find it? As most of us know, yes, indeed, Luther did think he found it; but as many of us might not know he didn’t find it by abandoning his Catholic medieval framework of thought, instead he found it afresh as he read the New Testament for himself. Luther came to realize that he could only stand before God by trusting God’s Word, by standing by faith with the understanding that the righteousness of God wasn’t something he could muster up, instead it was an ‘alien righteousness’ external to Luther and all humanity found in Christ. With this new found insight Luther reified the Catholic penitential system by grounding it in a theology of God’s Word, and understanding that as the priest spoke absolution over people it was in actuality the Word of God itself. Luther was finally able to find certainty of standing before God, not by cooperating with God in penance, or by mustering up heartfelt contrition, but by looking to the cross of Jesus Christ itself; by knowing that the righteousness he needed before God was not latent in him, but explicit in Jesus Christ. Stephen Strehle explains all of this for us this way:

Luther, the founder of the Protestant doctrine, often spoke of his fifteen (sometimes twenty) years as a monk in the Catholic Church as a time of bondage to the works of self-righteousness and the fear of God. As a monk he did not trust in the righteousness of Christ but in the incessant performance of vigils, prayers, and fasts—a righteousness that was a veritable “cesspool and delightful kingdom of the devil.” Such righteousness, of course, brought nothing but despair to Luther. His confessions did not bring help or solace, for his sins, he felt, were too great to mention and his contrition never sufficient to satisfy the demands of true righteousness. His experience was thus filled with fear, doubt, and torment, and his concept of Catholicism became slanted accordingly, as he imputed those anxieties to the church’s own teachings and practice.

Luther, however, did not abandon the practice of penance in order to rediscover his Gospel elsewhere, as is so often supposed among scholars, but found assurance and faith by reinterpreting the purpose of the sacrament along a direction other than the one that we have just witnessed. Instead of pointing to the worthiness of one’s own righteousness or contrition, which is indeed the kingdom of the devil and leads to despair, Luther pointed the penitent in another direction. He exhorted the penitent to listen and trust in the words of comfort, uttered by the priest in the sacrament, as the very word of God. He exhorted them to no longer trust in their “contrition of the heart, the confession of the mouth, or satisfaction of works,” but to listen to the mercy that God freely offers them through the priest. The priest’s role after all is said to bring comfort to those who are shackled with anguish over their sins. His words must be seen as God’s words; his actions God’s actions; his forgiveness God’s forgiveness. When he pronounces the simple words “I absolve you,” this must be seen as a special pronouncement from God to the individual that his sins have been forgiven.

This is how Luther first became so absolutely assured of his standing before God. God had told him personally. This word was not a promise spoken generally to all men or made contingent upon the fulfillment of conditions, always subject to human frailty and their misconceptions. It was a word spoken from God’s mouth to Luther’s ear. When the priest said, “I absolve you,” the “I” was God and the “you” was Luther.[1]

Strehle gives a sense of how Luther reified assurance of salvation; placing the referent for “certitude” no longer in self, but in Jesus Christ. In my view what Luther did serves only as a first step; he needs to be taken further.

Just as with Calvin, Luther offers pregnant contours of thought that are weighted with a Christ concentration just waiting for further development. I contend that that type of development is exactly what we’ve been given in the theologies of Barth and Torrance. Here’s what I mean with reference to a Barthian development. Here Barth offers critique of Calvin’s doctrine of election and assurance; while Luther was different than Calvin in some important ways (especially in the early Luther we just had elucidated for us by Strehle), the Christ-direction that Barth takes this would equally serve Luther just as well as it serves Calvin. Barth writes:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[2]

The moral is the Word of God. What is missing, in an explicit way, in both Calvin and Luther is a focus on the vicarious humanity of Christ. We see the lineaments of that in both of them at important points, but not in explicit ways. For Barth, as for Torrance, the word of absolution that Luther found in the priest’s words, were actually first spoken by God over the humanity of Jesus Christ, for us. As we are in union with Christ and his vicarious humanity, the ground of our assurance isn’t found from the lips of a priest, or pastor, they are found in the very Word of God Himself; we look directly and thus not indirectly to Christ. The mediation isn’t through sacraments, it is directly given through Christ; the mediation isn’t through decrees, it is directly through Jesus Christ. We look to Christ.

Martin Luther and John Calvin, as noted, provided a very fruitful and rich trajectory; Barth and Torrance stood on their shoulders (and other’s), and took it straight to the heavenlies in Christ. Assurance isn’t a concept, it isn’t something we generate; it’s Jesus Christ.

[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 8-10.

[2] Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.