Holy Communion: Remembering that Human Life is in Christ’s Blood

The late, John Webster, wasn’t just a Christian theologian par excellence; he was also a pastor. The following comes from part of a sermon he gave on Maundy Thursday. A major thrust of his sermon was to remind the parishioners that Holy Communion is not something that re-enacts or re-presents the death of Jesus Christ; indeed, as Webster presses, the Eucharist is a memorial event wherein we, as the Church, remember the already finished work (in the perfect tense: my insight) that Jesus alone accomplished once and for all in the givenness of His life for the world. As Webster presses this point, and rightfully so, he offers a beautiful description of what, in the history has been called: the mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’). Here Webster is underscoring the idea that what God in Christ has done, has been done; indeed, what has been done God alone could accomplish on our behalf. I found Webster’s rendition of the ‘wonderful exchange’ edifying, and so I want to share it with you now. 

What was done there and then? What is it about the Lord’s death that the Eucharist proclaims or testifies? Isaiah, whose Servant Song provides the bass line of our thoughts this Holy Week, tells us that the wounding and bruising and chastising of the Servant is “for our transgressions” (53:5). The cross of Jesus, celebrated in Holy Communion, is the climactic event in which God acts to win the world back from the darkness and misery of sin. In some way, the death of this one changes the entire course of human history; it intercepts and breaks the whole course of human wickedness; henceforth, because of what this man does and suffers, nothing can be the same. Why not? Because in this little scrap of an event one Friday afternoon, this unremarkable bit of human evil, God takes our place. He enters without reserve into the reality of our situation—into our situation, that is, as those who have damned ourselves, who have cut ourselves off from life and put ourselves into hell, all because we made up the lie that we can be human without God. 

But God does not leave us in the hell we have made for ourselves. In the person of Jesus his Son and Servant, he comes to us; he takes on his own back the full weight of our alienation and estrangement; he freely submits to the whole curse of our sin. He takes our sin upon him, and in so doing he takes it away, fully, finally, and conclusively. And of all that—of that miracle of grace on Good Friday—this evening is a memorial, the memorial of that his precious death. 

That was what was done. It was done not by us, but by God himself in the person of his Servant and Son. And it was done by God alone. Because reconciliation is thus God’s work, God’s exclusive work, then this sacrament in which we remember the cross of Christ is also God’s work. Here, in this assembly at this table, God is at work. And God’s work here is to present to us, to make present to us, what took place on Good Friday. We don’t make Good Friday real by re-enacting it, or by thinking and feeling about it. God in this sacrament declares to us what Good Friday made true: that he is our reconciler; that sin is finished business; that we can repent because God has forgiven; that the promise acted out in the death of Jesus stands for all time and for each human person. In this memorial, God turns us backward; but he also makes present to us the limitless power of what the Son of God suffered. The God who was at work there and then is at work here and now, proclaiming to us his promise of cleansing, acceptance and peace.1 

The Apostle Paul describes the ‘wonderful exchange’ this way: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (II Cor. 8.9). Webster brings out so many rich insights in his telling of what in fact unfolded in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The following clause, in particular stands out to me: “as those who have damned ourselves, who have cut ourselves off from life and put ourselves into hell, all because we made up the lie that we can be human without God.” This is the depth dimension of the Evangel. What it genuinely means to be human is to be human before (in and from) God. To declare that ‘we’ can be human devoid of God, devoid of a coram Deo life, is indeed: Hell!  

Holy Communion is to remind us, moment by moment, that we are not our own; and that if we persist, indeed, perdure in the lie that we can be our “own man or woman,” that we will only dissolve into an abyss of hell. But Christ has entered into that deep abyss, and by the life which is in His blood, we can truly experience what it means to be human before God; indeed, to be human is to be in union and fellowship with God. This is who Jesus is for us, and what the Eucharist is to continuously remind us of until it is finally consummated in the eschaton as that finally comes in the Eschatos of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. Maranatha  

1 John Webster, Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), 61-2, Kindle Edition.

The Augustinian-Dualism of Leighton Flowers’ Provisionism

Leighton Flowers of YouTube fame, with reference to his anti-Calvinist soteriological position known as Provisionism, asserts that his theological framework is genuinely ‘Christocentric,’ whereas his counterparts in classical Calvinism are not. The irony of this is too hard to ignore for me. Flowers’ premise is as follows: he believes that classical Calvinists’ theistic determinism keeps them from operating from a genuinely Christocentric approach because instead they think from a God who deterministically causes all things to obtain through decrees. What you will notice with this premise, for Flowers, in this sort of deterministic God-world relation, is that a foreign God (juxtaposed with the one ‘revealed’ in Holy Scripture) is operative for the Calvinist. That in the Calvinist depiction, according to Flowers, all of reality is steamrolled (and thus flattened) to such an extent that there can be no genuine, or responsive relationship possible between God and humanity. As such, for Flowers, the Calvinist is merely playing an automaton role in the Puppet-Master’s hand to the extent that it is ALL God (and thus the Calvinists’ definition of Divine Sovereignty, according to Flowers), and nothing of humanity.

His alternative theory of salvation is what, indeed, he calls Provisionism. His nomenclature, language he coined himself, is intended to signify the expansive nature of God’s love for all of humanity; to the point that, according to Flowers, God in Christ died for all of humanity (us Evangelical Calvinists don’t disagree with him on this point), thus ‘providing’ provision for all who will. But then he goes awry. He posits, in contradistinction to classical Calvinism, that human beings simpliciter are born with a God-given capacity to say Yes or No to God’s provision of salvation to whomever will. He rejects the notion of original sin, which he strictly relegates to an Augustinian invention, and instead theorizes that humanity, even after the Fall has retained an affective-intellectualist capaciousness that allows humans, from within themselves to deliberate whether or not they want to accept the Gospel offer once confronted with it. Flowers maintains that his theory of salvation is genuinely “Christocentric” purely because God in Christ has made provision through unlimited atonement for all of humanity. But this isn’t sufficiently Christocentric; not to the point that Flowers can sustain his assertion that his is a genuinely Christocentric soteriology in contraposition to his counter-locutors, the “Calvinists.”

You see, Flowers’, and this is the irony, is still operating from what us Evangelical Calvinists would identify as a dualistic-Augustinian frame of reference. This type of dualism operates, necessarily so, from a competitive frame of reference vis-à-vis a God-human relation. In other words, just as Flowers (rightly) critiques the classical Calvinist for thinking God from a brute-sovereignist understanding (what I would identify with the decretum absolutum), he simply thinks from the obverse of this. That is, his theory thinks of humanity, in relationship to God in Christ, in just as abstract terms as does the classical Calvinist. It is just that he locates this abstraction in a liberum arbitrium (i.e., an isolated or independent human freewill) rather than in the decretrum absolutum (absolute decree) of the Calvinists. But both approaches, respectively, have not thought a God-human relation through a principial doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. That is to say, neither the Provisionists nor the classical Calvinists think a God-human relation through the lens offered by the Chalcedonian patterning provided for by the patristic homoousion.

This is where the Evangelical Calvinists offer a genuinely Christ-conditioned alternative to the whole of the sort of Augustinian-laced dualisms that both the Provisionists and classical Calvinists, respectively, suffer from. As Evangelical Calvinists we think from a non-dualist non-competitive frame (so my Athanasian Reformed label) wherein we posit salvific theory from the hypostatic-union and consubstantial realities of the Divine and human coming into an inseparable union in the singular person of Jesus Christ. This means that, after Thomas F. Torrance et al., we think from the homoousial reality of a Godward to human / humanward to God movement as the actualization of God’s grace for all of humanity; particularly as ‘all of humanity’ (in actualistic terms, which is very important to press) is indeed Christ’s archetypal humanity. In other words, for the Evangelical Calvinist, salvation (or re-conciliation) obtains in the Incarnation&Atonement of God as that is realized/acutalized in the Theanthropos person of Jesus Christ. For the Evangelical Calvinist, Jesus is God’s salvation realized for the world. Not in a ‘corporate’ or hypothetical sense (as the Provisionists tacitly want to maintain), but in an actualized sense, such that all of humanity has indeed been redeemed and atoned for in Jesus Christ; just because He is God’s humanity for the world. This presents apparent dilemmas for some, like they think the reduction of this necessarily leads to Christian universalism, but they would be wrong (this can be addressed at a later time).

Conclusion

I think Flowers has good intentions, but he doesn’t have the theological resources to offer a genuinely Christocentric approach towards a theory of salvation. He is still operating out of the Latin or Augustinian frame of reference that he says he is critiquing. He still thinks of salvation from dualist optics wherein humanity still stands abstract or aloof from God; that is until they may or may not actualize the offer of salvation that God in Christ has left hanging over humanity’s head to do with as they will. Flowers’ alternative is merely, as noted, the obverse of the classical Calvinist offering insofar as he thinks about humanity in abstraction from Christ’s humanity; he simply thinks this abstraction from what he calls libertarian freewill (rather than from the Calvinists thinking that equally thinks in abstraction, but from the absolute decree instead). This is the irony of Flowers’ alternative. He thinks he is offering a genuine solution to the theological dilemmas offered by the classical Calvinist decretum absolutum, but in point of fact he is only forwarding the same Augustinian dualist and God-human competitive relationship that he had hoped to conquer. There is a better way; a genuinely Christ-conditioned way that thinks a God-human relation from the hypostatic-union of God and humanity in and from the singular person of Jesus Christ.

Barth and Orthodox Theosis: His For and Against

Here is a post that was originally two parts. I combined them, so now it is one long post (essay). Be built up!

In light of Hank Hanegraaff’s Chrismation into Eastern Orthodoxy, I thought I would do a post on theosis; it just so happens that in my readings, apart from all of this, I just read through a study on Barth’s theology where Adam Neder dedicates a section to Karl Barth and theosis. So for the remainder of this post we will see what Neder thinks about Barth’s theology in this regard; Neder offers five points where Barth is at odds with theosis, and then four constructive points where Neder sees Barth in some convergence with this typically Eastern framed doctrine.[1] We will look at Neder’s framing of Barth’s ‘negative’ posture towards theosis in this post, and then in another post we will look at Neder’s four points on how Barth is positively predisposed towards theosis within his theology.

We will get right into it through Neder’s accounting of this doctrine in the theology of Barth. Here are the ‘cons’ relative to Barth’s relationship to the doctrine of theosis as understood by Neder in Barth:

This way of stating Barth’s relationship to the history of the church’s reflection on deification will puzzle many readers. If ever there was an enemy of deification, was it not Barth? How can Barth be a contributor to the church’s clarification of the meaning of human participation in the triune being of God when he rejects deification literally hundreds of times throughout the Church Dogmatics? Consider just a few of the ways that Barth and Orthodoxy differ significantly on the matter of participation in the being of God.

[1] If human beings participate in God’s being, God’s being must, in some way, be particible. Barth does not affirm the distinction, widely (although not universally) held within Orthodoxy, between divine essence and energies, and he defends the filioque. Therefore their respective doctrines of God yield differing understandings of the meaning of human participation in God’s being.

[2] Participation in God’s life is a reality for human beings because it is a reality in Jesus Christ. Barth and Orthodoxy agree on this point. Yet their Christologies differ significantly—especially regarding the communicatio idiomatum—and therefore so too do their descriptions of the meaning of participation in God’s life. Unlike the Orthodox, Barth does not think that Jesus’ human nature is deified (in the sense of receiving and possessing divine “qualities” or “attributes”), and therefore he denies that human participation in the being of God involves such a transfer.

[3] The Orthodox synergistic construal of the relationship between divine and human action  is at odds with Barth’s understanding of that relationship. Both agree that human participation in God occurs in human freedom, but their conceptions of the meaning of participation will differ along with their differing views of human freedom, the imago Dei, and sin.

[4] Whereas the doctrine of election is centrally significant for Barth’s understanding of human participation in God’s life and touches every aspect of it, that doctrine plays virtually no role in Orthodox descriptions of theosis. Neither does Orthodoxy emphasize the covenant in the way that Barth does.

[5] The sacraments (mysteries) often figure centrally in Orthodox discussions of theosis, but, as we have seen, that is not the case with Barth’s understanding of human participation in God. In addition to his repudiation of sacramental mediation in general, Barth’s actualistic ontology is incompatible with the common affirmation of that grace is infused into the soul of the believer through the sacraments.[2]

This is interesting, really, cause if you know anything about Barth’s theology he has a huge emphasis upon a participationist understanding of salvation and what it means to be human in Christ; which is why Neder is able to offer a list of positives in Barth’s theology towards theosis (which we will get to in another post). But this list should highlight for you how Barth and theosis might not get along so well, and this because of the way that Barth re-frames much of the tradition through adopting another “metaphysic” and ontology (i.e. actualism). We see how Barth follows the Reformed way when it comes to Christology, and thus theoanthropology, which is what Neder’s point is about the communicatio idiomatum. We see how Barth’s doctrine of God is a bit different from the Orthodox in regard to the ‘particible’, and the idea that God can be ‘pieced’ out as it were which for the Orthodox is accommodated for by (at least for some of them) the distinction between divine essence and energies. We see how ‘human freedom’ is different, particularly because Barth holds strongly to a Reformed conception of God’s sovereignty grounded in a thick doctrine of divine freedom. Meaning that salvation is already accomplished, for Barth, de jure (objectively) in Christ—from both the Godward side and humanward side in Christ. In other words there is no cooperation between God and humanity in salvation (as there is in the Orthodox conception of theosis and its concept of grace), but instead there is a de facto (subjective) correspondence between the faith of Christ accomplished in his vicarious humanity for us, and then our ‘transfer’ into that by the Holy Spirit’s capacity to provide a correspondence between Jesus’s ‘yes’ to the Father for us, and now our ‘yes’ in correspondence to his to be for the Father in Christ by the Holy Spirit—this is a strong distinction between Barth and the Orthodox, even though they both respectively hold to a view of salvation that is participationist (participatio Christi). And then we see how the Reformed emphasis upon ‘election’ differentiates Barth from the Orthodox; bearing in mind of course how Barth rightly recasts election/reprobation in and from Christ. And finally we see how Barth is distinct from the Orthodox in regard to the sacraments, and this gets into Barth’s actualism and how he thinks of Jesus as ‘grace’ in person versus the Orthodox conception which is oriented around and from the sacraments as a ‘means’ of receiving God’s grace and as the ‘means’ by which someone participates in God’s life through Christ in theosis.

What is Theosis? — In Conclusion

Let me close with another short quote from Neder where he quotes Anna Williams on four distinct contours of thought that she identifies as essential when attempting to identify if theosis is actually being considered or not. In other words, this is a compressed distillation of what one should expect to find if they are ever confronted with the doctrine of theosis. Indeed, it is these points of theological material that Barth in his own unique way is engaging with and contributing to within his own participatory understanding of salvation. Here is Neder quoting Williams:

In her summary of the patristic doctrine of theosis, Williams offers just such a list. After acknowledging “considerable diversity in the ways various theologians describe deification,” she observes that nonetheless, “there is a firm core that distinguishes this doctrine from other model of sanctification.” According to Williams, four criteria must be met: “Where we find the ideas of [a] participation in divine life, [b] union with God and [c] humanity portrayed as human destiny, and [d] a mode of articulating  divine transcendence in this context, we can say we are dealing with a doctrine of deification.”[3]

In this sense Barth fits quite well within the theosis discussion. What we just noted, via Neder, are the ways that Barth’s theology remains distinct from the Orthodox conception of theosis, but at the same time we can also see some over-lap; particularly in light of Williams’ definition of the component parts of what theosis entails as a doctrine. In another post we will highlight the four points of Barth’s theology, according to Neder, wherein he fits in well even with some of the Orthodox understanding of theosis and participation soteriology.

Picking up where we left off yesterday, in this post we will jump right into how Adam Neder places Barth in a positive relation to the doctrine of theosis; particularly within the Orthodox iteration of that. Just as a reminder let me repost what I ended the post with yesterday; it is another short quote from Neder where he offers a distillation of the component parts of what makes up the doctrine of theosis; he himself is quoting Anna Williams’ compression of this doctrine for easy identification.

In her summary of the patristic doctrine of theosis, Williams offers just such a list. After acknowledging “considerable diversity in the ways various theologians describe deification,” she observes that nonetheless, “there is a firm core that distinguishes this doctrine from other model of sanctification.” According to Williams, four criteria must be met: “Where we find the ideas of [a] participation in divine life, [b] union with God and [c] humanity portrayed as human destiny, and [d] a mode of articulating  divine transcendence in this context, we can say we are dealing with a doctrine of deification.”[4]

Neder is contesting that Barth himself, a Westerner, contributes to the development of this prestigious doctrine along with other notables spanning from East to West (even though theosis is typically thought of as an Eastern theological reality).

Again, in the last post we saw how Neder framed Barth in rather oppositional terms relative to theosis, here Neder will place Barth in a positive stance towards the constructive development of the doctrine of theosis. Neder writes (in extenso):

There are of course other and important differences between Barth’s conception of the meaning of human participation in God and that of the Orthodox. I do not deny that such differences exist nor do I want to argue for some kind of rapprochement by smoothing them out. I am arguing, rather, that Barth is a contributor to the church’s history of reflection on this important issue, and that the quality of his contribution merits consideration within the present discussion. The following are just a few of the areas where their concerns overlap considerably:

[1] Both Barth and Orthodoxy conceive of participation in God teleologically and eschatologically. Participation in God represents the “ultimate destiny” of humanity. For Barth, this means the fulfillment of a perfect reality (i.e., the objective participation of all humanity in Christ is fulfilled as believers subjectively participate in Christ), whereas for the Orthodox the teleological movement is conceived along more gradual lines, as the final realization of a partial beginning. Nevertheless, both agree that participation in God is a teleological and eschatological concept.

[2] Both Barth and Orthodoxy insist that participation in God is not the abolition of true humanity, but its realization. Each works this out in a different way, but both agree that participation in God “does not suppress humanity, but makes humanity truly human.” Moreover, they agree that while the union between God and human beings is real, it is real as a union in distinction.

[3] For much of Orthodoxy, God’s nature (ousia) is unapproachable, unknowable, and imparticible. Deification is participation in God’s energies. Nevertheless, “these energies are not something that exists apart from God, not a gift which God confers upon humans; they are God Himself in His action and revelation to the world. God exists complete and entire in each of His divine energies.” Barth does not share this distinction between essence and energies, but he affirms something analogous to it. According to Barth, that which most basically distinguishes God from all else is his gracious and sovereign action. This action is God’s alone. God does not share it. God’s being is in-act, and God’s act is sovereign and gracious. But God freely shares himself with us. And he does so by including us in this action of his and therefore in himself. In the event of the union of God’s free primary action and our correspondingly free secondary response, we are given a creaturely share in God’s being. Thus, for Barth and Orthodoxy, God’s “nature” is imparticible even as human beings really participate in God.

[4] Barth’s actualistic anthropology, his insistence that human “being” does not precede human action, but rather is in-act, overlaps with what Meyendorff describes as “the central theme, or intuition, of Byzantine theology,” which, he writes, “is that man’s nature is not a static, ‘closed,’ autonomous entity, but a dynamic reality, determined in its very existence by its relationship to God,” such that “his very nature is truly itself only as much as it exists ‘in God’ or ‘in grace.’” I have already noted the divergent ways in which Barth and Orthodoxy conceive of nature and grace, and it goes without saying that Barth’s Christocentric framework for understanding creature nature is very different from that of Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, there is an important shared emphasis among them that human nature is only properly described in dynamic, active, and one might even say kinetic terms. What Meyendorff writes of Orthodoxy could, in its own way, apply equally well to Barth: “The logos  of every creature consists, therefore, in being essentially active; there is no ‘nature’ without ‘energy’ or movement.” Furthermore, both agree that participation in God is the event in which human nature is actively realized.[5]

Conclusion

Personally, I like Neder’s observations in regard to Barth’s relationship to the doctrine of theosis. As I alluded to above, theosis itself is not just an Eastern Orthodox teaching, it has prevailed throughout Western theology as well (even, as Neder suggests elsewhere, in Augustine himself). Off the top Martin Luther with his marriage mysticism and belief in the mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’); John Calvin with his unio cum Christo (‘union with Christ’), unio mystica (‘mystical union’), and duplex gratia (‘double grace’) conception of salvation; T.F. Torrance with his actual doctrine of theosis in direct conversation with the Eastern church and Patristic theology all represent examples of how this doctrine was present in its own particular way within ‘Western’ theology—the examples could be enumerated exponentially.

As Neder has decisively shown, I think, Barth is one other significant figure who has helped forward our understanding of the doctrine of theosis; albeit from within his own unique framing of things. As we noted in the last post, as is the normal pace of Barth, he reformulates almost everything he gets his hands on through his actualistic theological ontology, driven by his intensively principial Christ concentrated way. He works, as Torrance, as a Reformed theologian with categories like: election/reprobation, covenant (foedus), and the Scripture principle in play; among other important identifying features as found within Reformed theology.

Even if you are Eastern Orthodox, maybe especially so, I commend Barth’s alternative approach to the doctrine of theosis to you. I think he offers a more robust version of this doctrine, and avoids the pitfalls that come along with the classical understanding of theosis as it affirms something like Luther’s commuticatio idiomatum, and a kind of attendant synergism in the “appropriation” of salvation.

I might do one more post based upon Neder’s work. If I do I will share four points where Adam Neder explicates what union with Christ theology actually is in Barth’s theology. These four points significantly differentiate, or at least nuance Barth’s understanding of ‘theosis’ and/or union with Christ theology from the Orthodox understanding. While, as Neder has pointed out there are some important points of contact between Barth and Orthodoxy on this doctrine, there are also significant points of departure (as my first post indicated, but these other four points might make that even clearer).

___________________________________________________________

[1] Although as Neder notes, the concept of theosis is ubiquitous throughout the history of Christianity; whether East or West. He is right, John Calvin himself with his union with Christ theology is right there in his own Reformed way. T.F. Torrance actually had a doctrine of theosis in his theology, as my colleague Myk Habets has written on in his book Theosis in the Theology of Thomas TorranceAnd lets not forget Martin Luther in all of this, the Finnish reading notwithstanding.

[2] Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (Louisville/Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 90-1.

[3] Ibid., 91.

[4] Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics(Louisville/Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 91.

[5] Ibid., 90-1.

Barth Against the Semi-Pelagian Arminians and Renaissance-Man: What Hath Election to do With Christ?

Barth, in the preceding section, to what we will be reading from him here, has laid down the gauntlet against the doctrine of election as found in Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Bullinger et al. He offers the right amount of praise, for all of them, insofar as they attempted to offer a proper christological reference in regard to their respective doctrines of election; but then notes that each of them, respectively, failed to carry through the necessary theo-logic on an actual christological doctrine of election. We pick up with Barth just as he has been making this same critique against both the Dutch Remonstrants (the Arminians and Arminius), and their opponents found in the Synod of Dort. As you will see, and this interests me greatly, Barth sees the Remonstrant solution to the Dortian understanding of election as falling into the category of Semi-Pelagianism and as a forerunner to the Neo-Protestantism that blossomed more fully in post-Renaissance Western Europe. We will read along with Barth for a bit, and then I will offer some closing comments (and some application to contemporary referents). Barth writes: 

We can say that it would have been good if the orthodox majority at Dort had let the (in any case) remarkable wording remind them of the problem to which the Calvinistic and in particular the Reformation conception of the doctrine had returned so unsatisfactory an answer. But the general tenor of the Remonstrant theology laid down in the Five Articles was so bad that in effect they failed to give the stimulus which they might have given in this respect. The only result was a hardening of the conception inherited from the Reformers. There can be no doubt that the Remonstrants were, in fact, the last exponents of an understanding of the Reformation which Erasmus had once represented against Luther and later Castellio against Calvin; an understanding which can and should be interpreted in the light of the persistence of mediaeval semi-Pelagianism no less than in that of the Renaissance. And as the last exponents of that understanding they were also the first exponents of a modern Christianity which is characterised by the very same ambiguity. They were the first Neo-Protestants of the Church, and it was their basic decision which gave unity to all subsequent developments along this line (from the end of the 17th century onwards). The basic decision which they made was this—that in the understanding of God and His relationship with man, in the question of the formulation of Christian doctrine, the criterion or measure of all things must always be man, ie., man’s conception of that which is right, and rational, and worthy, therefore, of God and man. It was in the light of this basic decision that the Remonstrants opposed to the Calvinistic doctrine of the decretum absolutum the assertion that we cannot and must not state that God elects (and rejects) whom He wills solely upon the basis of His own free beneplacitum [decree] and without reference to conduct, and particularly to belief or unbelief, obedience or disobedience. On the contrary, the divine election is made with due consideration of the conduct of men as foreseen by God from all eternity, ie., of the use which, according to God’s foreknowledge, they make of their freedom, whether in belief or unbelief, whether in obedience or disobedience. It is to this context, unfortunately, that there belongs the intrinsically so remarkable statement of the Remonstrants that Christ is the fundamentum electionis [basis of election], a statement which was obviously meant to outbid and correct the Calvinist statement that Christ is the speculum electionis [mirror of election]. We cannot take the statement to mean that as Christ is the Subject of the saving decree of God, so, too, He is the Subject of the free election which underlies it, an election independent of and preceding and predetermining absolutely all creaturely decisions. It is simply a polemical assertion in the battle against the servum [bondage] and for the liberum arbitrium [freedom of the will]. It does not mean, unfortunately, what in itself the wording might well mean: that in concreto the Calvinistic and Reformation magnifying of the freedom of the election of grace must consist in the magnifying of the sovereignty of Jesus Christ, who in His own person is Himself the God who freely elects and then acts towards the creature, the One behind and above whom there is no other God and no other election. As directed against the decretrum absolutum [absolute decree] the statement does not contend for the dignity of Jesus Christ, but for the dignity of man standing over against Jesus Christ in an autonomous freed of decision. Read in the context of the general teaching of the Five Remonstrant Articles it unfortunately means nothing more than that Christ is the essence of the divine order of salvation. It is in Him that the grace of God is offered to men. It is by their belief or unbelief in Him that the decision is made—according to God’s foreknowledge, but independently—whether the grace of God profits or does not profit them. The Remonstrants did not say that Christ is the electing God. They can never have wanted to say that. What they did want to say, and what they actually did say in this statement, was that in the distinctive sense of the word there is no divine decision at all. There is only the establishment of a just and reasonable order of salvation, of which Christ must be regarded as the content and the decisive instrument. Above and beyond that, there is no more than a divine foreknowledge of what individuals will become as measured by this order of salvation and on the basis of the use which they make of their creaturely freedom. It might almost be called fate that a statement which is so interesting in its wording should engage the attention of Calvinistic orthodoxy, and the Synod of Dort in particular, only in the form of an argument for so revolutionary an error, and that in the mouth of the Remonstrants it should not be a more accurate or Christian definition of the mystery of the election of grace, but an attempt to deny it altogether; an attempt to make of divine predestination something more akin to a religious world-order. [1] 

For Barth, it ought to be clear, that any doctrine of election that attempts to think of it as something ‘behind the back of Jesus’ is not a doctrine worthy of its name. With reference to a comparison between the Remonstrants or ‘Arminians’ and the Dortians or ‘Calvinists,’ clearly Barth believes the better of the two is the latter. Even so, he is just as critical of the Calvinistic and Lutheranistic teachings on election as he is of the Arminians. But within this frame he rightly sees the doctrine put forward by the Remonstrants as semi-Pelagian; that is, insofar that they make God’s election (or rejection) of them contingent on their abstract choice to be either for Christ or against Him; and this from their own liberum arbitrium (freedom of the will).  

In my view, Barth also rightly draws a connection between the Remonstrants and the Neo-Protestants of Renaissance ilk. In other words, there is an emphasis, among all of these groups, respectively, on an abstract human agency (and thus latent rationalism) that leads the ‘Renaissance-man’ to the conclusion that he/she is the terminus upon which all of reality is contingent; for the Arminian all of reality would find its reference in the eternal salvation that Christ is. But this is to the point: for the Arminian logic, whether or not they identify the necessity for a ‘regenerating-grace’ or not, they still operate from a synergist understanding with reference to the salvific event. In other words, ‘their salvation’ is purely contingent not on an absolute Christ-determination, as if election is solely funded by and from Him, as both the Electing God and Elected Man; for the Arminian (and the subsets under them such as the popular movement today known as Provisionism) their election or reprobation is purely attenuated by their choice to cooperate with God in the appropriation of their salvation or not. This gives us a doctrine of election/reprobation that is not Christ-conditioned, from thinking His vicarious humanity into this doctrine, but a doctrine that is solely abstract-human determined making the Christ merely the organon or instrument who meets the conditions required in order for the Arminian to have the “free-choice” to be for God or against Him on their terms rather than His (ie they decide the when and the where that salvation is actualized for them, thus their choice conditions His foreknowledge in regard to whether He elects or rejects them). 

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[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §32-33: Study Edition (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 70-1.   

 

Is Southern Baptist ‘Traditionalism’ or Leighton Flowers’ ‘Provisionism’, Semi-Pelagian?: An Engagement with Adam Harwood’s Essay

Is Provisionism or Southern Baptist Traditionalism semi-Pelagian? That is the question Dr. Adam Harwood attempts to answer in the negative. In other words, in a short essay he wrote for the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry he sets out to demonstrate the way that Traditionalism or Leighton Flowers’ Provisionism definitionally elides the oft made charge that their respective soteriological position fits the historic bill of semi-Pelagianism.

I intend on engaging with Harwood’s essay by interrogating each of the sections that make up his total essay, respectively. The first section is entitled: Historical and Theological Definitions of Semi-Pelagianism Which are Contradicted by the Traditional Statement. I will limit myself to engaging solely with what Harwood presents in his essay. In other words, I will not engage with the Traditional Statement (TS) directly; instead, I will engage with the way that Harwood represents the TS in his essay—and trust that he accurately represents his own soteriological tradition accurately.

Harwood writes the following with reference to his thesis:

Shedding a false charge can be difficult. Consider as an example McCarthyism in the 1950s. A person publicly accused of belonging to the Communist Party had difficulty shaking the accusation. “You’re a Communist. Prove you’re not!” How does one disprove such an accusation? Those who affirm “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” (TS) find themselves in a similar situation. Claims have been made that the TS is, or appears to be, semi-Pelagian. This chapter seeks to disprove the charge in four ways. First, historical and theological definitions of semi-Pelagianism will be provided and will be shown to be contradicted by claims in the TS. Second, it will be demonstrated that the theological claims made at the Second Council of Orange (529) fail to indict the TS as unbiblical. Third, the historical-theological context of fifth-century semi-Pelagianism suggests that the historical debate has no connection to the current conversation among Southern Baptists regarding the TS. Fourth, errors will be exposed in an early assessment of the TS. [1]

Here we see the way he will organize the entirety of his essay. To the point of this riposte, we will simply engage with his first section, first, and then proceed, through forthcoming blog posts, to engage with the rest in succession.

His first section is terse and right to the point. He offers examples, from various theological dictionaries, of what semi-Pelagianism is generally understood to be. He then, as a counter, offers quotes from the TS which he claims offers the ‘proof’ that TS (or Provisionism) does not fit the definitional frame of how historic semi-Pelagianism is typically (and universally) characterized. In order to review his argument, I will now share the definitions he appeals to in order to establish the entailments of semi-Pelagianism, and then the quotes from the Southern Baptist Traditional Statement that Harwood believes demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that the TS understanding of salvation does not fall prey to the charge of being semi-Pelagian.

Definitions of Semi-Pelagianism

It “maintained that the first steps towards the Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and that grace supervened only later.” – The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

 It “affirmed that the unaided will performed the initial act of faith” and “the priority of the human will over the grace of God in the initial work of salvation.” – Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 

“The semi-Pelagians claimed that sinners make the first move toward salvation by choosing to repent and believe.” Also, “The semi-Pelagian scheme of salvation thus may be described by the statement ‘I started to come, and God helped me.’” – Integrative Theology

A term which has been used to describe several theories which were thought to imply that the first movement towards God is made by human efforts unaided by grace.” – The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology [2]

And:

Semi-Pelagianism Contradicted by the Traditional Statement

“While no one is even remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, no sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.” – Article 2

 “We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement.” – Article 4

 “God’s gracious call to salvation” is made “by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.” – Article 8 [3]

Harwood engages in a basic category mistake. It is hard to square how he could make this sort of mistake given its forthright nature. In other words, he is equivocating. The ‘definitions of semi-Pelagianism’ he supplies are referring to anthropological dispositioning. That is, semi-Pelagians, as we can infer from the definitions Harwood provides, has to do with the movement of humanity; or it presupposes on a capacity innate within the human agent that would allow them to make a ‘natural’ move towards God.

The responses Harwood offers from the Traditional Statement, that ostensibly counter the charge that Traditionalism is semi-Pelagian, aren’t all that clear; that is in regard to answering the question of whether or not the human agent in salvation has an innate capacity to make a movement towards God. Indeed, this is the abiding question under consideration. What we get in the TS, as offered by Harwood, are statements that ‘appear’ to potentially contradict the definition of semi-Pelagianism; but on closer inspection what they really seem to be communicating is that God has objectively offered a way for salvation. But the question under consideration has to do with an anthropological question, in regard to the internal makeup of the human being vis-à-vis God. Semi-Pelagianism has to do with the human agent’s posture towards God; it doesn’t have to do, per se, with God’s posture (so to speak) towards humanity.

What Harwood remains unclear on, with reference to his deployment of the TS, is whether or not human agents have an innate capacity to be for or against God; that is apart from God’s unilateral activity upon the human agent. In other words, for Harwood, in particular, and the TS, in general, does the grace that comes with the Gospel offer itself internally ‘enable’ the human agent to make a choice for or against God that heretofore it didn’t have prior? In other words, do the ‘Provisionists’ maintain that the human agent in salvation is inborn with all of the ‘equipment’ necessary in order to say yes or no to the Gospel; or does the Gospel itself, in its objective reality, confront the human agent in such a way that the “internals” of the person are given an alien capacity (to its own native or natural capacities; ie freewill etc) that allows them to say yes or no, subjectively, or ontically to the Gospel reality?

Harwood’s brief presentation, in his first section, does not offer clarity on these things. It leaves us wondering if he isn’t equivocating with the terms in order to elide the charge he is attempting to evade; ie semi-Pelagianism. It seems to me that we could posit that the Gospel reality is an objective or alien reality indeed. That person X could be presented with the Gospel, and that person X, even while standing in the presence of the graciousness of the Gospel, is not affected one way or the other, internally, in regard to their capacity to say yes or no to the Gospel. This is what Harwood’s analysis, thus far, is unclear on.

All Christians agree that there is a general call made by the Holy Spirit in regard to the Gospel. But that isn’t the question under consideration. The question remains open and is not answered by Harwood’s comparative analysis. His deployment of the TS does not answer the anthropological question. Instead, it claims to offer an answer by using a theological proper category, which does not directly address the anthropological question about human agency in salvation. It says that, “We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement,” but this, again, only speaks to God’s objective decision to provide salvation through the atoning work of Christ. This doesn’t address the question of ‘how’ this works towards ‘moving’ the human heart towards or away from God.

In this brief engagement, thus far, we are left, at least by my lights, to conclude that Harwood (and Flowers following) has not addressed the all-important question of how the Gospel ‘initiates’ God’s unilateral movement of salvation in the human heart. Harwood’s appeal to the TS only shows what all Christians affirm: viz. That God has provided Himself, in Christ, objectively for the salvation of the world. The TS does not address the subjective impact that that offering has on the human agent in salvation; it only asserts that the Holy Spirit draws, but then does not indicate what in fact that drawing entails. Maybe the remaining sections in Harwood’s essay will address the question his essay set out to answer. We will see.

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[1] Adam Harwood, “Is the Traditional Statement Semi-Pelagian?,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry (Spring 2013), 47-56. 

[2] Ibid., 49

[3] Ibid.

 

An Ontological-Relational Framing of the Bondage of the Will: The Vicarious Humanity of Christ as Antidote

I am not a classical Calvinist; by now most of you know what I mean when I say that. I am not a classical Arminian; indeed, I’m not Arminian at all. I am Athanasian Reformed (aka Evangelical Calvinist). I affirm something like total depravity; I prefer to call that homo incurvatus in se, like Martin Luther did. Either way, I believe all of humanity, at the fall, was plunged into a rupture with the triune God, such that humanity lost all capacity to be for or with God in any way. In other words, as some refer to this more popularly, in regard to salvific matters, I am a proponent of ‘total inability.’ This means that I reject the (‘Pelagian’) notion that humanity retains an abstract (from God) freewill that would allow humans, apart from a radical in-breaking of God’s Grace in Christ, to be for God and not fundamentally against Him. I maintain that all of humanity, along with Adam and Eve in the garden, fell into a ruptured relationship with the triune God, such that postlapsarian humanity inhabits a status that keeps them incurved upon themselves, motivated by a saucer of competing affections that never allows them to see God as anyone but themselves. One manifestation of this, among others, is that such humans will construct rationalist citadels of anthropological heft wherein their reason, incurved upon itself as it were, becomes the standard for all that is real (think cogito ergo sum, or tabula rasa). 

In light of that you might think that I must, then, rely on some notion, in an ordo salutis (order of salvation), of God’s ‘regenerating grace’ (ie grace as a quality) entering into the ‘elects’’ heart in order for that particular person to come to have capacity to finally see[k] God for who He really is in Christ. But I don’t endorse the model of substance metaphysics that funds that sort of theory of anthrosalvation. Instead, as you also know of me by now, I think from the largely After Barth tradition. Within this tradition we have figures such as Thomas Torrance, Dietrich Bonhoeffer et al. For Barth and Torrance, in particular, they are both in-formed by Athanasian categories, in particular, and Patristic, in general; among other (modern) influences. Even so, they operate from a complex when it comes to the particular issue of thinking about the so-called Bondage of the Will; they both affirm it, but from within an ontological/filial frame. For them the issue of rupture between God and humanity isn’t primarily juridical, instead it’s a relational matter. For them, in the fall, humanity’s being has lost its human being in the sense that it has been spliced out of God’s image (imago Dei) in Christ (cf. Col. 1.15). Because of this plunge into ‘sub-humanity,’ humans no longer have the capacity to be free for God; since God alone is genuinely free. You see, for the tradition I think from (which is the biblical one), human being only has being and orientation, insofar as it is in right relationship with the triune God. Outwith this relationship the ‘abstract human’ has no capacity to operate with any notion of primal freedom; of the sort that God alone possesses. In order for that seemingly impossible possibility to become a possibility, for my tradition (which is the biblical one), it requires that God does something for us; viz. that He ‘disrupts’ the state of affairs an abstract humanity finds itself in, and from this act, humanity comes to have an objective ground to be towards God once again. Albeit, in the resurrection of Christ, this ground is now greater than the soil the first Adam provided for; in the resurrection of Christ humanity now has the fertile soil it requires to grow towards God from in and through the second and greater Adam’s vicarious humanity for the world.  

Jens Zimmerman offers insight on how the aforementioned lineaments operate in the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: 

These differences notwithstanding, Bonhoeffer still shares with Heidegger the basic hermeneutic axiom that human knowledge consists in the interpretation of a reality in which one already moves, lives, and has one’s being. For Bonhoeffer as a Christian theologian, this reality is of course determined by Christ alone. Knowledge of one’s participation in this Christ-reality comes only by God’s grace as one is drawn into communion with the Trinity. Bonhoeffer’s solution to the mind-world dichotomy is thus very similar to Heidegger’s, albeit based on a specifically Christian ontology. Already in Act and Being, he develops the fundamentally hermeneutic concept that faith is not cognitive assent to doctrine, but ‘a mode of being’ (DBWE 2: 118). Believing in God is not merely a mental act but involves being drawn into a reality that is ‘prior to the act of faith’ (DBWE 2: 117). This ‘being-in-Christ’ is characterized by an intentionality directed purely to Christ (a fides directa or actus directus), so that the self is transformed by this reality. For Bonhoeffer ‘everything hinges on faith’s knowing itself not as somehow conditioning or even creating this being, but precisely as conditioned and created by it’ (DBWE 2: 118). Human reflection on this reality is a necessary, secondary interpretation of this existential reality. This kind of secondary reflection is called theology, ‘which is not existential knowledge’, but rather an interpretation of the church’s experience of God as crystallized and sedimented in tradition over time through preaching, creeds, and dogma. In this way, theology acts as the ‘preserving and ordering memory [Gedächtnis]’ of the living, ‘spoken word of Christ in the church’ (DBW 2: 131, …). Preaching draws on this memory of Christ’s presence and also shapes it at the same time. 

Participating in this Christ-reality does not constitute some Hinterland or parallel universe allowing the Christian to escape from the world. Bonhoeffer states: 

Like all of creation, the world has been created through Christ and has its existence only in Christ (John 1:10; Col. 1:16). To speak of the world without speaking of Christ is pure abstraction. The world stands in relationship to Christ whether the world knows it or not. (DBWE 6: 68) 

Bonhoeffer is well known for his insistence that the Christian’s participation in the Christ-reality does not negate the world but rather founds proper human responsibility for the world. On account of God’s becoming human, God and humanity, and therefore God and world, must be thought together. Bonhoeffer avers that ‘where the worldly establishes itself as an autonomous sector, this denies the fact of the world’s being accepted in Christ, the grounding of the reality of the world in revelational reality, and thereby the validity of the gospel for the whole world’ (DBWE 6: 60). For Bonhoeffer, the incarnation itself—God’s transcendent truth entering into human history and temporality—sets the hermeneutical pattern for Christian knowledge, wherein the sacred is known only in the profane, the revelational in the rational, and the supernatural only in the natural (DBWE 6: 59). [1] 

Maybe this is your first encounter with this sort of salvific conniving, but hopefully not your last. This is why as Athanasian Reformed types we say there is an historia salutis rather than an ordo salutisThe focus on salvation in this frame is on the pre-history (ad intra) and history (ad extra) of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. We see His life as the Via by which all of humanity comes to have an objective ground as the pre-condition from whence they come to have the Spirit generated capacity to say Yes to God; that is from Christ’s Yes and Amened life for them in the resurrection humanity that ascended and is now seated at the Right Hand of the Father. This might raise some ‘causal’ questions for the Aristotelian-minded among us, that is in regard to how this avoids ‘universalism’ implications, and we have response for that. I have already addressed that more than once elsewhere here on the blog, and in our books. But to be sure, as an Evangelical Calvinist, I affirm humanity’s need for newly-created ground that we might come to genuinely think God from prior to our acknowledgement of God. As has been pressed throughout this post: I maintain, along with the biblical tradition I think from, that it is only in and from the elect and primordial humanity of Jesus Christ that humanity is raised up with His archetypal humanity, and it is from here, from this sacred space of liminal humanity for all, that sub-humanity can rise from the ashes of its desolate life and breathe from the lungs of Christ’s Yes for them coram Deo. 

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[1] Jens Zimmerman, “Bonhoeffer and Contemporary Philosophy,” in Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler eds., The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 439-40. 

 

God’s Free Electing Grace in Christ Concentration

I will simply refer the reader to a post I once wrote with reference to ‘freewill and human agency’ in the salvific reality. That post dovetails, quite nicely, with the post I am setting out to write thusly. In this post, rather than referring to Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth’s, greatest and best Anglophone student, we will, indeed, be referring to Barth’s explication of the unconditional nature of God’s grace; with particular reference to that bewitching doctrine known as predestination. The simple point I want to drive home through this writing is that: God’s grace is contingent on nothing else other than God’s freedom to be gracious pro nobis. In other words, I will contend, with Barth’s help, that God’s grace is gratia aliena (alien grace) that is extra nos (outside of us); but that comes to us and transforms us from the inside out with the result that we come to have the capacity to be for God rather than against Him (with a properly Christological conditioning). I want the reader to understand, though, that this grace is just as primal as when ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (cf. Gen 1.1). In other words, I want people to think of creation itself as funded by God’s grace, and to understand that even so called ‘nature’ is in fact an aspect of God’s grace to be for and with us rather than outwith us. My hope is that the reader might understand that both the original creation and the re-creation, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is ‘all grace, all the way down’; and that there is no abstract or independent notion of ‘nature’ operative in the created order. One implication the reader should take away from this is that sin (and the broader genus of evil) becomes a surd in this sort of schema. That is that the irrationality, but more significantly, the disaffectivity of sin in a world that is funded purely by the inner-life of God’s triune life of covenant-grace makes absolutely no sense. My hope is that as the reader reads the passage from Barth (that I am about to share) that all of these notions will fill their mind’s eye in such a way that they are left in bewilderment by both the un-reality of sin, and the wonderment of God’s superabundant and overflowing graciousness; even as that serves as the fund of His life for all of creation in His election in the Son to be with us as the man from Nazareth. With this prologue in mind, let’s read along with Barth about God’s grace:

The specific proof of this thesis can be introduced connectedly only in and with the doctrine of predestination grounded upon it. Our preliminary concern is to show how right and necessary it is to set up this thesis at the very outset as a kind of working hypothesis.

We may establish first a point which all serious conceptions of the doctrine have in common. They all find the nerve of the doctrine, the peculiar concern which forces them to present and assert it, in the fact that it characterises the grace of God as absolutely free and thereby divine. In electing, God decides according to His good-pleasure, which as such is holy and righteous. And because He who elects is constant and omnipotent and eternal, the good-pleasure by which He decides, and the decision itself, are independent of all other decisions, of all creaturely decisions. His decision precedes every creaturely decision. Over against all creaturely self-determination it is predetermination—prae-destinatioGrace is the divine movement and condescension on the basis of which men belong to God and God to men. Whether offered or received, whether self-revealing and reconciling or apprehended and active in faith, it is God’s dealing, God’s will and God’s work, God’s lordship, God Himself in all His sovereignty. Grace cannot be called forth or constrained by any claim or merit, by any existing or future condition, on the part of the creature. Nor can it be held up or rendered nugatory and ineffective by any contradiction or opposition on the part of the creature.

But in its being and in its operation its necessity is within itself. In face of it there is no place for the self-glorifying or the self-praise of the creature. It comes upon the creature as absolute miracle, and with absolute power and certainty. It can be received by the creature only where there is a recognition of utter weakness and unworthiness, an utter confidence in its might and dignity, and an utter renunciation of wilful self-despair. What the creature cannot claim or appropriate for itself, it cannot of itself renounce when it does partake of it, nor can it even will to deprive itself of it. The decision by which it receives and affirms grace takes place in fulfillment of the prior divine decision. It cannot, then, be asserted over against God as a purely creaturely achievement, nor can it be revoked. As the fulfilment of that prior divine decision, it redounds per se to the praise of the freedom of grace: of its independence both of the majesty and of the misery of our human volition and achievement; of the sovereignty in which it precedes and thus fully over-rules our human volition and achievement. All serious conceptions of the doctrine (more or less exactly and successfully, and with more or less consistency in detail) do at least aim at this recognition; at the freedom of the grace of God. We can put it more simply: They aim at an understanding of grace as grace. For what kind of grace is it that is conditioned and constrained, and not free grace and freely electing grace? What kind of a God is it who in any sense of the term has to be gracious, whose grace is not His own personal and free good-pleasure.[1]

On the negative side, any inkling of any type of Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, or synergism is defeated before the creation ever gets started. If creation’s very fund, and humanity as the pinnacle of that creation (as Christ is first humanity as the imago Dei), is begotten by the grace of God, it only follows that all of creation (protology), and subsequent re-creation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (eschatology) is an event of God’s free choice to be for the creation in the most primal of ways. If we conceive of God’s grace vis-à-vis creation under these terms, a competition between an unconditional grace and autonomous nature never obtains. In other words, as Barth develops elsewhere, if God’s covenant life of grace is the inner-reality of the created order, then notions of an abstract nature or creation always remain in the realm of das Nichtigein the realm of the reprobate of nothingness that evil and darkness in fact are in God’s Kingdom. selah

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[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §32-33: Study Edition (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 17-18.  

Christ Conditioned Assurance of Salvation: Against ‘Conditional Security’ and Synergisms

The following is the concluding summary from my personal chapter for our last book. The title of my chapter is: “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith” Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the “Faith of Christ.” As you can see the body of work prior to this conclusion engaged with John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Thomas Torrance on the issue of assurance of salvation. I offered some constructive critique of Calvin’s insufficiency, stemming directly from his doctrine of predestination; and attempted to correct that with the work of Barth/Torrance. The result, insofar as the correction was successful, were my following summative thoughts on assurance of salvation vis-à-vis a doctrine of predestination qua election/reprobation. I was prompted to share this because I just listened to a podcast where the speakers were attempting to argue for what they call ‘conditional security.’ They both affirm some form of what is more commonly known, in church history, as “semi-Pelagianism” (for better or worse). They both claim to be proponents of synergism vis-a-vis salvation. In other words, they both believe that we must cooperate or work ‘concurrently’ with God in order for final salvation (glorification) to ultimately obtain. They both think of salvation from an abstract frame, meaning their respective views of salvation are not principially grounded in the vicarious (homoousios) humanity of Jesus Christ. As such they place space between humanity and God in Christ in the reconciliatory event that a concrete understanding of a Christ conditioned notion of salvation does not suffer from. As a result of their ‘synergism’ and abstract notion of soteriology vis-à-vis Christology, they arrive at the conclusion that personal salvation is ultimately contingent on the human agent’s drive to maintain relationship with the triune God. As such, for my money, they operate from the very homo incurvatus in se that a Christ conditioned notion of salvation has come to save us from; not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit of the Lord. But it is because of this ‘space’ between the human agent in salvation, and God’s salvation for humanity accomplished in Christ, that these two must think a way to continuously make salvation somehow conditional upon the part ‘they’ play in the salvific event (which for them isn’t an event at all, but a process).

In light of the aforementioned, as already noted, I offer the following as a correction to any sort of synergistic or even so-called ‘semi-Pelagian’ understandings of salvation wherein Christ himself isn’t salvation for all humanity, in his vicarious humanity, which indeed is archetype humanity for all. Indeed, he isn’t called the ‘second Adam’ for nothing.

Having surveyed Calvin’s, Barth’s, and Torrance’s respective doctrines of union with Christ and vicarious humanity, it remains to offer a constructive retrieval of their theology and apply this directly to a doctrine of assurance. We will see how Calvin’s belief that “assurance is of the essence of faith” might be affirmed, particularly as we tease out Barth’s and Torrance’s thinking on the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

    1. Calvin was onto something profound, and this is why Evangelical Calvinists gravitate towards his belief that “assurance is of the essence of faith.” That notwithstanding, as we developed previously, Calvin’s lack of place for reprobation in his soteriology coupled with the idea of “temporary faith” can be problematic. It has the potential to cause serious anxiety for anyone struggling with whether or not they are truly one of God’s elect. In this frame someone can look and sound like a Christian, but in the end might just be someone who has a “temporary” or “ineffectual faith.” The problem for Calvin, as with the tradition he is representing, is that the focus of election is not first on Jesus Christ, but instead it is upon individuals. Even though, as we have seen, Calvin does have some valuable things to say in regard to a theology of union with Christ, if we simply stayed with his doctrine of election and eternal decrees, we would always find assurance of salvation elusive.
    2. Despite what is lacking in Calvin’s superstructure he nevertheless was able to offer some brilliant trajectories for the development of a doctrine of assurance. Union with Christ and the duplex gratia in Calvin’s theology provide a focus on salvation that sees salvation extra nos (outside of us), and consequently as an objective reality that Grow—“Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith” 53 is not contingent upon us, but solely contingent on the person and achievements of Jesus Christ for us. This is where assurance can be developed from Calvin’s theology in a constructive manner. If salvation is not predicated upon my faith or by my works, but instead is a predicate of Jesus’ faith and faithfulness, then there is no longer space for anyone to look but to Christ. As we have already noted, Calvin did not necessarily press into the idea of Jesus’ faith for us, but that could be an implication in an inchoate way within Calvin’s thought. Calvin provides hope for weary and seeking souls because of his doctrines of union with Christ and the duplex gratia; primarily because what these doctrines say is that all aspects of salvation have been accomplished by Jesus Christ (namely here, justification and sanctification). Calvin’s theology, when we simply look at his theology of union with Christ and grace, leaves no space for seekers to look anywhere else but to Christ for assurance of salvation. And at this level Calvin can truly say that “assurance is the essence of faith.”
    3. As we moved from Calvin to Barth and Torrance what we have are the theological resources required for a robust doctrine of assurance. With Barth and Torrance we certainly have Calvin’s emphases on union with Christ and grace, as Christ is understood as the objective (and subjective) ground of salvation. But moving beyond this we have Calvin’s weaknesses corrected when it comes to a doctrine of election. Because Barth and Torrance see Jesus as both elect and reprobate simultaneously in his vicarious humanity for all of humanity, there is absolutely no space for anxiety in the life of the seeker of assurance. Since, for Barth and Torrance, there is no such thing as “temporary faith,” since faith, from their perspective, is the “faith of Christ” (pistis Christou) for all of humanity, there is no room for the elect to attempt to prove that they have a genuine saving faith, since the only saving faith is Christ’s “for us and our salvation.” Further, since there is no hidden or secret decree where the reprobate can be relegated, since God’s choice is on full display in Jesus Christ— with “no decree behind the back of Jesus”—the seeker of assurance does not have to wonder whether or not God is for them or not; the fact and act of the incarnation itself already says explicitly that God is for the elect and not against them.
    4. If there is no such thing as elect and reprobate individuals, if God in Christ gave his life for all of humanity in his own elect humanity, if there is no such thing as temporary faith, if Christ’s faith for us is representative of the only type of saving faith there is; then Christ is all consuming, as such he is God’s assurance of salvation for all of humanity. The moment someone starts to wonder if they are elect, properly understood, the only place that person can look is to Jesus. There is no abstract concept of salvation; Jesus Christ is salvation, and assurance of salvation and any lingering questions associated with that have no space other than to look at Jesus. The moment someone gets caught up in anxious thoughts and behavior associated with assurance, is the moment that person has ceased thinking about salvation in, by, and for Christ. Anxiety about salvation, about whether or not I am elect only comes from a faulty doctrine of election which, as we have seen, is in reality the result of a faulty Christology. We only have salvation with God in Christ because of what Jesus Christ did for us by the grace of God; as such our only hope is to be in union with Christ, and participate in what Calvin called the “double grace” of God’s life for us. It is this reality that quenches any fears about whether or not I am genuinely elect; because it places the total burden of that question on what God has done for us, including having faith for us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

The Hyper-Augustinians and Pelagians: Juxtaposed with the Pauline Christ Relation

Douglas Campbell in his book The Triumph of God’s Love: Pauline Dogmatics offers a nice sketch of a theological continuum; what he identifies as ‘Hyper-Augustinianism’ and ‘Pelagianism.’ He concisely shows how both fail to do justice to Paul’s theology proper, and subsequently, his soteriology. But both of these loci have continued to plague the church from Augustine/Pelagius; Luther/Erasmus; Calvin/Pighius; Dort/Arminius; classical Calvinists/- Arminians; MacArthur’s Lordship Salvation/Hodges’ Free Grace; James White/Provisionists; so on and so forth. This frame of reference, or this binary is rather false when we examine, with a critical eye, what we find in the teaching of the New Testament in general, and the Pauline corpus in particular. It is from within this frame of reference that Campbell offers up the aforementioned sketches with reference to Augustinianism/Pelagianism. In this post we will work through Campbell’s sketch on Hyper-Augustianism, and in a post following we will visit what he has to say on Pelagianism juxtaposed with the Pauline theology. After we read Campbell’s sketch on Hyper-Augustinianism, I will attempt to tease out some further applications, and show how they might impinge on some current soteriological wanderings among the crowds ‘out there.’

Campbell writes at some length:

Hyper-Augustinianism

If election is understood mechanistically, someone might attach this notion to grace and argue that God has given us everything we need in the act of electing us. God simply acts decisively upon us, albeit generously. This gift would then operate in spite of anything we do, and anything we might do should be excluded. Indeed, if we had to act, we would to that degree undermine what God has given us. Grace and human activity operate here in a zero-sum relationship, so, if we take the side of God, we would go on to attack any endorsements of a need for human activity in the name of grace.

A particular reading of Augustine can cause readers of Paul trouble in this respect, so that the assertion of any need for agency or even learning in response to grace is dubbed “Pelagianism”! I don’t think this is a complete reading of Augustine, who was a complex thinker and shifted significantly in his thinking over time. But an extreme account of some of his positions can be advocated in this way and in his name, and at this moment his influence—however misrepresented—must be resisted. We can speak of a hyper-Augustinian view, then, that eliminates any role for human agency in discipleship, the long-term results of which are serious. The whole process of formation is neglected if not opposed by hyper-Augustinians, and the end result is a church without discipleship. How good is this church likely to be? And how Pauline will it look?

Fortunately, we have already exposed the error at work in this view and corrected it. God’s election is certainly unconditional, but in the sense that a covenantal relationship is. It will never be withdrawn and will ultimately prevail. In the meantime, however, it respects human agency carefully, as seen most clearly in God’s incarnation to meet us. Moreover, as we will see in much more detail shortly, among those who respond to it, it enhances human freedom. Those who learn actively and wholeheartedly to live out of their new location in Christ can grow dramatically in their capacity to act in good ways. Relational election nurtures human agency and freedom; it does not stifle it. It summons us to ongoing and deeper responsiveness, which is to say, to learning, and many of Augustine’s writings contain a great deal of wisdom about this process. Nevertheless, any exclusion of human activity in response to God’s initiative in his name, in a type of hyper-Augustinianism, must be vigilantly opposed and rejected. This type of unconditionality undermines the heart of the life of discipleship.

However, a further mistake is, as is often the case, a swing to the opposite and complementary error. Whereas hyper-Augustinians emphasize election and grace to the exclusion of human agency, misconceiving both divine and human agency in the process. Pelagians share the same basic misunderstanding but emphasize human agency on the other side of the supposed divide, and so go on to override divine election, with equally destructive results.[1]

If you are familiar with the history, you’ll agree that Campbell’s sketch captures the ground quite well; viz. in regard to understanding the binary, or divide between what we know today, and more popularly, as the ‘Calvinists versus the Arminians.’ What shouldn’t be lost, and often is when considering something like Campbell’s points, is the alternative he is working into this mix. That is the ‘relational election’ he mentions, and the covenantal relationship, as Campbell contends, that is central to Paul’s understanding of a God-world relation. What he doesn’t tease out so explicitly in his sketch, but that is because it implicitly underwrites what he is developing, is the objective/subjective status that the Pauline soteriology operates from, insofar that God acts, within a covenantal relationship, unilaterally for the world in Jesus Christ. This is his, or the Apostle Paul’s alternative to both Hyper-Augustinianism and Pelagianism.

Hyper-Augustinianism and Pelagianism both operate, respectively, from an abstract non-relational-covenantal frame when they attempt to think salvation. That is to say, anyone who operates on this continuum, and they are legion, thinks salvation from an abstract humanity (rather than from Christ’s vicarious humanity), and think in terms of individualism insofar as the cosmic Christ does not ground the way they think God’s election for the world in Jesus Christ. In other words, both Hyper-Augustinians and Pelagians, on a continuum, think salvation is contingent upon the elect’s response/decision to be for God. Paul’s alternative thinks salvation is contingent upon God’s election to be for humanity in Jesus Christ; that salvation is Christ-focused, and that within this as the inner-covenantal ground of the God-world relation, humanity comes to have the capaciousness to say Yes to God from God’s Yes and Amen for them in Jesus Christ. But you will notice that for the Apostle Paul, particularly as Campbell tells it, humanity comes to have this capacity from the elect and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. It is by this signification of God for humanity in Christ that humans come to have genuine liberty or freedom for God, ‘for where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.’ This undercuts the emphases that both the Hyper-Augustinians and Pelagians give us in regard to their foreclosure of God’s grace by placing God into a competitive relationship with humanity; whether that be from the Augustinian side, which emphasizes God’s brute determination and sovereignty to be for the world through a series of decrees, particularly the decretum absolutum; or from the Pelagian side which emphasizes the freedom of an abstract human agency to respond to God, insofar as they posit that said freedom has been an inherent given from since the beginning of creation. Both fail to think from Paul’s relational conception of election, and the corresponding relational-covenantalism that funds the Pauline Christ concentrated conception of a God-world relation.

Contemporary examples of Hyper-Augustinians and Pelagians: Classical Calvinists, classical Arminians / John Piper, Leighton Flowers (and his Provisionism).


[1] Douglas A. Campbell, The Triumph Of God’s Love: Pauline Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 180-81.

An Introduction to an Intention: Forthcoming Posts Contra Provisionism

As I just noted on Twitter ‘I plan on unfurling a slew of blog posts that take @ProvisionistP and @soteriology101 to task for the sort of soteriology they are slinging. Some have warned me not to sink to this level because it might “cheapen” my work and elevate theirs. But gotta do it.’ If you are unaware of who I am referring to when I reference the Provisionists just refer to my category on their contemporary founder, Leighton Flowers. Some of my posts will be directed directly at them, unfortunately they are primarily podcasters/vloggers, and they don’t offer transcripts for their respective podcasts. This will make it more difficult to get at them here in written form. But I am primarily a theoblogger. I actually think the written form is better suited for engaging in this sort of elenctic discourse. And I have been having some correspondence with one of the proponents of this sort of soteriology on Twitter (as I’m writing this post). He has just made it clear to me that I will focus on Leighton Flowers, the guy these guys all look to for their cues. I’ve had correspondence with Flowers in the past, but he’s slippery. I don’t really intend on having any personal engagement with these folks, beyond what I have been doing on Twitter just this evening. But be on the lookout for some posts here and there on this issue, in an ongoing way. I won’t always let you know that the post itself is intended to rebut Provisionism, per se. But many of them will be motivated just that way. In fact, I am going to write a post immediately after this one that gets into a Pauline Dogmatics; one that delves into Paul’s theology vis-à-vis what Douglas Campbell calls ‘Hyper-Augustinianism’ V Pelagianism. As Campbell rightly notes, for the Apostle Paul, both of these loci miss the actual New Testament theology as disclosed by the Apostle Paul and the whole New Testament witness. These Provisionist characters uncritically operate on this continuum between Hyper-Augustinianism and Pelagianism; and they slide to the latter not the former in their error.

Stay tuned.