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

________________________________________

[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.

Spitting Out the Caricature-Water: An Anatomy Lesson on Pelagianism

In my last two posts I have made reference to the theological heresy known, historically, as Pelagianism. In an effort to provide further theological development and engagement with this locus I want to refer us to a description of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the cor curvum in se (heart turned in on itself) provided for by Philip Ziegler. There is a facile understanding of so-called Pelagianism, by some (of my interlocutors), wherein they seem to think that the conceptuality that the language of Pelagianism signifies is theologically unproblematic. In other words, some of my interlocutors believe that if they can exonerate Pelagius himself from the ‘heretic-label’ that his teachings have gained via the councils of 2nd Orange, Ephesus, and Carthage, that they can espouse his teachings, in the main, and avoid the heretical label altogether (since in their view Pelagius wasn’t really a heretic anyway, particularly, because according to them Pelagius didn’t teach what the whole history of the Church believed he taught). But this naively misses the whole point: whether or not Pelagius taught the idea of a neutral morality and human-will, indeed in need of an aide of grace, is not the point of critique in regard to Pelagianism simpliciter. What is at stake is, oriented by biblical faithfulness vis-à-vis whether or not someone’s theological anthropology in fact coheres with the teaching of Scripture in toto. In other words, does Scripture teach that humanity simpliciter is born with a freewill that has the capaciousness to respond to the offer of the Gospel on its own strength or not? This is what some of my interlocutors have attempted to argue, all the while either by way of acquitting Pelagius himself, or by suggesting that they aren’t corollary with the historic tenets of Pelagianism proper; particularly as understood by almost ALL within Church history.

Bonhoeffer, according to Ziegler’s accounting, maintained the common notion that Luther et al. have maintained in regard to the biblical anthropology of homo incurvatus in se. That is, “and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (Jn 3.19); further, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom 3.11). The case can be made further, from Scripture, that the human problem is unsurpassable save someone extra nos (outside of us) entering into our incurved and sinful situation, and redeeming us from the inside out; guts and all. According to Ziegler this is what Bonhoeffer maintained; here is how Ziegler illumines that for us:

Whatever else will be meant by divine freedom and transcendence, in the first instance they mean that God is not at the disposal of fallen human reason, neither ‘to hand’ or ‘in hand’ to be deployed in schemes of metaphysical and existential explanation. Bonhoeffer conceives of human reason as such to be verkrümmten—warped and turned in upon itself—fully conformed to sin’s distortion of humanity…. As such it is ‘imprisoned in itself, it sees only itself, even when it sees another, even when it wants to see God (DBWE 2: 45). To the extent that such reason does think and speak of ‘God’ it can only do so as an epiphenomenon of its own religious ambitions, as an idea firmly resident in and subservient to its own self-reflection (DBWE 2: 44, 50, 51). Since, as Bonhoeffer explains, ‘thinking is as little able as good works to deliver the cor corvum in se from itself’ (DBWE 2: 80), the truth of God must come upon reason ‘from beyond and break in upon it in such a way that one is placed ‘into the truth by Christ in judgment and grace’ (DBWE 2: 96). Thus the axiom ‘deus non potest apprehendi nisis per verbum’ (it is impossible to apprehend God apart from the word), which Bonhoeffer approvingly cites from the Confessio Augustana (DBWE 2: 53, 67). The saving address of the Word has the form of God’s transcendent freedom: it is God giving himself ‘without precondition’ (DBWE 2: 89) to be known across the otherwise unbridgeable chasm of unlikeness, most concretely the unlikeness of human sin and divine righteousness (DBWE 2:54, 79).[1]

For Bonhoeffer, according to Ziegler, and I would maintain for the teaching of Scripture itself, the human condition is so enslaved to sin that it has no hope in itself to surpass its condition. In other words, the fallen human being, which is what all human beings apart from Jesus Christ’s vicarious humanity are, is so trodden down by the effects of sin that there isn’t one part of it, not its affections, intellect, or will, that hasn’t become constrained by its own weight of ineptitude; that isn’t only always for the self rather than for God. And this is precisely why ‘He who knew no sin, assumed sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.’ The fact that it took God to become Theanthropos (Godman) ought to illumine the minds and hearts of those who would be tempted to think that they have anything in them (even if claimed to be from a God -givenness), that could say Yes or No to God; that this is utterly and biblically fallacious. And yet this is what some of my interlocutors want to maintain; and to do so with a straight (and even smug, at points) face.

The heresy of Pelagianism, in the history, apart from debates surrounding the man Pelagius, is what Bonhoeffer, according to Ziegler maintained in the aforementioned. Some of my interlocutors will assert that Bonhoeffer is just a good Augustinian; but that reply is simply an attempt to poison the well with caricature-water. What Pelagianism, the doctrine, has come to signify is: that people have a God-given and grace aided capacity in themselves to respond positively or negatively to the Gospel offer; that is Pelagianism. Some of my interlocutors believe that this teaching is in fact the biblical teaching, eo ipso they are Pelagians, by any historic standard for understanding that terminology and the conceptuality it signifies. But the biblical teaching, as we have just been noticing, with help from Bonhoeffer, is that humanity requires resurrection and the new creation of Christ’s human body in order to have capacity to say Yes to God. Some of my interlocutors, though, have an anemic understanding of what the atonement entails (and this ironically is where they are in lockstep with the Calvinists they claim to be in critique of). The atonement involves ontological depth, as TF Torrance rightfully emphasizes; along with the Apostle Paul. This implies that the Gospel isn’t simply about whether or not someone gets to go to heaven or not; the Gospel, under this pressure, involves what it in fact means to be fully human coram Deo (before God) in the prosopon Christi (face of Christ). Some of my interlocutors don’t understand the depth dimension of the Gospel implications in regard to what it actually did; i.e. it fully recreated humanity by the resurrection humanity of Jesus Christ. This ought to enlighten some of my interlocutors; they ought to be able to infer that if the Gospel goes this deep, then it went this deep for a reason. The reach of sin has a primal orientation such that its effects denude the human capacity in itself, even if so-called God-given and aided by grace, in such a way that it takes God Himself to stoop down and recreate the capacity for us to be for God and not against Him in and through the Yes and Amen of His life for us (pro nobis) in Jesus Christ!

My next post, or some post in the near future will be in reference to the Apostle Paul against Pelagianism and its contemporary proponents. I’m afraid some of my interlocutors believe they have the scriptural teaching on their side, but they really don’t!


[1] Philip G. Ziegler, “God,” in Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler eds., The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 140.

Leighton Flowers’ Nestorian Understanding of Salvation

Leighton Flowers just yesterday Tweeted the following:

The fact that God is 100% responsible for our salvation doesn’t change the fact that we are 100% responsible for repenting in faith in response to His gospel appeal. We are responsible for our choice to repent and He is responsible for His choice to forgive. #Provisionism

My Tweet response was:

Sounds like Nestorianism if you frame this is in Christological rather than abstract soteriological terms.

One of the proponents of Flowers’ soteriology, who I am “currently” friends with on Facebook responded to my comment this way:

Dumb comment. Nestorianism asserted Jesus was two persons. This has no correlation to Sot101’s post.

When people, like Warren McGrew comments the way he did above, they don’t last long with me on my FB roll. Be that as it may, let me offer a quick clarification on why I said that Flowers’ soteriology is Nestorian.

As Christians we think theology from Jesus Christ; from the emphases and categories He brings with His gift bearing life for us. If that premise holds, then in order for the Christian to think soteriological themes, they are charged with doing so from a principially Christ concentrated lens. This is why I recast Flowers’ soteriological thinking in and through an christological analogy. Once we make that move we come to see how Flowers’ soteriological pronouncement fits Nestorian rather than Chalcedonian orthodox categories. Flowers presents a competitive relationship between Divine and human agency, as if there are “two” distinct ‘persons’ represented in the singular event of salvation. But the hypostatic union wherein God and humanity become one, in the brining together of the two-natures of the Divine and human into the singular person of the Christ, militates against thinking salvation in competitive or dualistic terms. This is why I noted that Flowers’ presentation is Nestorian; it thinks salvation through a lens of two competitive persons, in an abstract manner, rather than through the singular person of Jesus Christ who serves as the mediary of the Godward to human and humanward to God movement in the once and for all ‘faith’ delivered for the saints.

If we attempt to squeeze Flowers’ soterio-logic into the Chalcedonian frame I just noted what we end up with is a Nestorian conception of salvation wherein we have the person of God, represented by Jesus, and the person of humanity, represented by Jesus as the Archimedean point wherein salvation can or cannot obtain; depending on what the person, represented exemplarily by the person of Jesus, decides to do with the offer of salvation. Jesus is instrumentalized through adoptionistic premises wherein the Divine person associated with the man Jesus is only in ‘accidental’ relation rather than one grounded in the very personhood of the Monarxia (Godhead)—wherein the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ, finds his personalising personhood, in His relationship with the Father by the Holy Spirit, which He graciously gives to us in His vicarious humanity.

Flowers, McGrew et al. don’t think things this way. But they should if they want to offer the people a robustly Christ-centered, and thus biblical conception of salvation.    

One Way to the Father: Many Entrees:: ‘Saved as by fire’

I’ve been meaning to write this post for the last couple of days. In a way it is somewhat anecdotal, but it is also richly theologically biblical. It has to do with the continual process I am in as I continue to grieve the loss of my dad (circa Jan 11th, 2021 @4am). You see, my dad did not enter the presence of the Lord in “victory,” he entered in “defeat.” My dad loved Jesus; probably led more people to Jesus Christ in his tenure as a pastor, chaplain, and evangelist than most Christians have in history (serious). But throughout my dad’s life he also had deep trials and tribulations; I have mentioned some of that in the past. Over the last 15 to 20 years, and then in the last 2 years in particular, these trials and tribulations seemed to climax in his life. He really died a “death of despair,” which I would characterize as a slow and drawn out in front of our faces suicide (many people die and are dying from this sort of death right now, even Christians). What I am going to get into, throughout the rest of this post, gets into this issue from a soteriological angle. It will kick against the goads of popular and even technical juridical or forensic based theories of salvation, and offer the biblical alternative which is a Christologically conditioned and grace-full understanding of salvation. Rather than refer to theologians like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance explicitly, I am simply going to refer to a few passages of Scripture (which in a way makes this seem a bit anecdotal, but in a substantive way) which indicate exactly what my thesis is. My thesis is this: ‘There is only One way to the Father: But there are many types of entrees into the eternal Kingdom.’  

Here are four passages from Scripture, which I will take in turn, in regard to some explication vis-à-vis my thesis.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14.6

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us tohis own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. II Peter 1.3-11

10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. II Corinthians 3.10-15

28 And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. 29 If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. I John 2.28-29

In light of my thesis the aforementioned passages ought to be self-evident; nonetheless, let me provide a little explication.

As orthodox Christianity has understood for millennia, there is only One way to the Father; and that is to participate in the eternal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and that is to be united by Holy Spirit with the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ. It is as a person ‘becomes one spirit’ with Jesus (see I Cor 6.17) that they are now born again of an imperishable seed that will endure as long as the eternal life of the Son in Christ endures for them; which is for eternity. So, we all affirm this basic premise if we are orthodox Christians. But there is disparity following when this gets fleshed out with reference to who will actually “make” it into the corridor of perichoretic life of the de Trino / de Uno God.

When I note above that there are many entrees into the eternal kingdom, what I mean, and I’d think this would be self-evident, is that Christians, those who are born again and adopted into the family of God by the blood of Jesus Christ, can and do enter heaven upon their death (and even upon the coming of Christ, when that happens) in at least one of two ways. They either are walking in the victory of sanctification, or the defeat of their own poor choices that leaves them broken and in despair.

As Peter notes for us: as we walk in step with the Spirit (to borrow a Paulinism) and cultivate the virtues of the eternal kingdom in our daily lives (Paul’s fruit of the Spirit), as we leave this in-between life and enter the beatific life to come, it will be a time of almost seamless rejoicing; of a race well run. But as Paul identifies, along with the theologian, John, it is also possible, even for the Christian to step into ‘eternity’ in a status that leaves this particular Christian in a momentary state of shame and fiery ordeal. This person, to be sure, is now and will forever be in the presence of the Lord, finally away from the dregs of their various and incapacitating sins, but it will, at the first twinkling entail a moment of sadness that they did not walk in the victory that they, at that point, will fully understand that Christ had won for them. They will be saved ‘but as through fire.’

Theological Iterations

A large part of my project over the years, with Evangelical Calvinism, has been driven by some of the concerns we have been visiting in this brief posting. My critique of classical Calvinism and Arminianism (which I have identified less explicitly, even though it flows from the same theological and philosophical premises that fund classical Calvinism) has been against its necessarily forensic and/or performance based notion of salvation. In order to attempt any critique of this sort, in the theological game, the critiquer must start where all things start: with a doctrine of God. As such, my critique of classical Calvinism has targeted its conception of God as One who is shaped by an Aristotelian substance metaphysic wherein he relates to the world, in a God-world relation, through the mechanism of the decretum absolutum (absolute decree of deterministic election/reprobation). My contention has been that to think God under this type of pressure is to mis-think just at the point that it departs from God’s own Self-presentation in the hyper or radically relational reality of the SON become human; insofar that this becoming, in its antecedence, presupposes that the Son has a Father (see Athanasius’ dictum here). If God is first and foremost a person and relational God, if He is first Father of the Son before He is Creator (see Torrance), then the apparatus that the decretral God of ‘classical’ pedigree operates from is necessarily null and void. If God’s act of original creation, and re-creation in the resurrection has its asymmetrical correspondence and elevation, in who God necessarily is: then God necessarily is Grace. This entails that God, thus, works immediately with us and for us, in relational and gracious ways, to the point that even if we are faithless He remains faithful for He cannot deny Himself. As such, an absolute decretive god becomes a fabrication vis-à-vis God’s own Self-presentation in Jesus Christ. As such, the God-world relation then becomes contingent not upon some sort of mercantile set of salvific conditions, such as we get in Federal or Covenantal theology, but instead upon the very life/person and work of God in Jesus Christ without rupture from the triune life of God. And so someone like Thomas Torrance can write the following with reference to the reality of the Gospel:

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.[1]

Conclusion

There is one way to the Father, and that is through Christ alone! But as the Christian walks in this simul-time[2], our experiences can be very different. We can be ‘born-again,’ and become ‘blood’ children of the living God in Christ; which can lead someone like TF Torrance to write what he does above for us. And yet even as children, we can disobey and live lives that are less than pleasing to our eternal Father. There are consequences, both temporal and eternal, that follow these choices, but ultimately, like the Prodigal experienced, the Father’s graciousness far outshines our own failures while we live in these bodies of death. Our aim, clearly, as children of God, as co-heirs with Jesus Christ, is to be holy as God is holy. But depending on a variety of variables, often times unforeseen, the Christian might experience a life of continued failures rather than perfections. The classical Calvinist and Arminian systems of salvation don’t have space for failure before God—their only outs, respectively, are to posit that the “failure Christian” was never elect to begin with (Calvinist), or that the “failure Christian” simply lost their salvation (Arminian). But again, these systems, respectively, are based on a doctrine of God that is at odds with God’s own Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. They import categories and emphases about God that don’t come after Deus dixit (God has spoken), but before God has spoken (i.e. from the speculations offered by the philosophers about “Godness” and Pure Being). Maybe you can see why my whole project has been so deeply personal for me. My dad did not die in victory, but failure; but He died in the gracious and forever faithful arms of the Father and the Son, as bonded together by the unrelenting power of the Holy Spirit.   


[1] T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

[2] Think Luther’s simul justus et peccator.

Lazarus as the Antidote to Legal Theories of Salvation

I get this sense that there are many Christians operating with a juridical or forensic theory of salvation. There is this sort of pervasive idea that when a person dies, or even lives, a person who has believed on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that this person MUST be living a victorious Christian life or their respective salvation is suspect. If the reader is aware of the history and development of salvation systems, though, they would be more theological-critical than this. Some are aware and continue to articulate theories of salvation that offer a juridical understanding of God’s grace; this understanding, as noted, leads people to operate with a performative understanding of salvation. In order to creatively think this through further let me offer an imaginative riff on the famed Rich Man and Lazarus passage found in Luke 16.

19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”

I am going to disregard the broader context and direct point of this parable in order to illustrate another; a point that is in line with what I was referring to previously. The juridically oriented Christian, the one who functions with a self-performance understanding of salvation—think of Federal/Covenantal theology, 5 Point Calvinism, Arminianism, so on and so forth—would look at the outwardly righteous, outwardly “victorious” (think morally) and have total confidence that these people were now in the presence of the LORD (and they may well be, and probably are); but then, on the other hand, they would look at the poor beleaguered soul, and conclude that such a person was in the torment of hell. They might look at Lazarus and wonder: ‘what poor choices did this unbecoming person make in their lives in order to lead them to the deplorable status they lived in prior to death.’ And then they would walk away self-justified, like Job’s friends, only to find out that Jesus was actually with the bruised-reed Lazarus, and not the rich man (upwardly mobile and successful) after all. Such self-justified people arrive at these wrong conclusions precisely because they have artificially imposed a foreign theory of salvation onto the text and reality of Holy Scripture.

God’s Grace is much more latitudinarian, much more sufficient and universal than the self-righteous expect or even want it to be. I would argue, and have for many years, that classical Calvinism (and Arminianism) in all of its iterations, artificially foists an alien framework of salvation onto the text and reality of Scripture. It does this precisely because it has adopted a wrong doctrine of God, wherein God is thought of from a substance metaphysic that reduces His relation to the world to a mercantile contractual relationship grounded in deterministic decrees (decretum absolutum). And yet Jesus came to save the sick, down-trodden, and broken; the Lazarus’s and Rons among us. He came for you and me. The second we lose sight of the expansiveness of God’s Grace we have only submitted to some sort of Pelagian frame wherein we want to attribute our salvation to our performance one way or the other—even if we logic-chop in an attempt to work around this implication.

Using Apocalyptic Theology to ‘Re-fund’ the Doctrine of Total Depravity with the Hope of ‘De-funding’ the Pelagian-Impulse in the Christian Church

I don’t have any quotes from someone else in this post; I simply wanted to state something very briefly. Many of my posts are in critique of what I have called classical Calvinism, which is a designation I use to classify the dominant form (in its reception) of ‘Reformed theology’ or Calvinism in its common expressions in the 21st century west (whether that be an elaborate form of federal theology, or a reduced form of five-pointism). That notwithstanding, Evangelical Calvinism, as myself and Myk Habets articulate it (and in this post I am really just speaking for myself) have a strong doctrine of total depravity. That is, we believe that at a moral/spiritual level, theological-anthropologically, there is nothing in humanity but a homo incurvatus in se (human incurved upon themselves); a very Augustinian concept, or more pointedly, I’d argue, Pauline. It is at this point that Evangelical Calvinists can lock-arms with their classical Calvinist cousins; yet, I’d argue, that in many cases this is only in principle (de jure). The intention of articulating a doctrine of total depravity is to take away any sort of Pelagian notion that within humanity there is a neutral spot, a point of contact that remains lively between God and humanity; a point of contact that is not contingent upon God’s choice to be for humanity, but instead upon humanity’s choice to be or not to be for God. We see this principle, the ‘Pelagian-principle’ rearing its head over and over again through the history of interpretation in the church. Whether that be in Pelagius himself, John Cassian following, the Roman Catholic church with its teaching on created and cooperative grace, certain iterations of Reformed federal theology that have a doctrine of preparationism (quid pro quo contractual conception of salvation), or what have you. I contend that this impulse, this Pelagianizing impulse remains a pernicious devil that wants to remain present at all costs; and as such through many forms of sophistication and subtleties we do indeed see it remaining, even in various iterations (significant ones) of so called Christian theology.

As a proponent of what has come to be called ‘Apocalyptic theology’ I think that theology, which I take ultimately to be heavenly and Pauline, has the realistic resources to counter this Pelagian-impulse; in the sense that apocalyptic theology takes seriously the radicality required in order to deal with the human-inspired desire to continuously inject itself into the realm that alone belongs to God. Apocalyptic theology ultimately recognizes that creation is in such a dire place of irreconciliation with God that its only hope is if God breaks into his creation in Jesus Christ, puts it to death, resurrects and recreates such that creation itself only has hope if it lives from this new creation whose name is Jesus Christ. Apocalyptic theology sees nothing of value left in the old creation (in the sense of a moral component left in humanity before God), and by consequent, Pelagianism, and all its Genesis 3.15ish iterations go the way of the ‘stony ground.’ Humanity, soteriologically, only has hope as it lives from the reality of the new creation, from the new humanity in Jesus Christ; the humanity whose reality is only realized by the person of the eternal Logos, the Son of God, who we now know as Jesus Christ (an/enhypostasis).

We need to constantly repent and live from Christ. Total depravity recognizes the dangers of presuming a place in humanity that has spark for God apart from God’s intervention in Christ. Sometimes people who are proponents of total depravity in word, in deed end up undercutting the intention of total depravity by offering theological models and constructs that end up re-inserting the very premises that total depravity was intended to guard against (think of ‘created grace’ for example).

Inhabitatio Dei: Living in God’s Triune Life Now and Forever as Co-heirs

Scottish theologian, Hugh Binning, writes the following in regard to God as love:

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

God is three-in-one (de Deo trino / de Deo uno), as such God is love. There is no competition in the Monarxia of God for God’s threeness is His oneness and His oneness is His threeness. What One does Three do, and what Three do One does. This is not to say that they, as hypostaseis do not have distinct modes of being in their operations; but it is to say that their operations are indivisible, even as they carry them out in the mode of being distinct to them as a person in the Divine Monarxia.

What astounds me about this deep and mysterious reality (mysterium Trinitatis) at the moment is that my Dad, Ron Grow, inhabits this reality in a beatific and actualized way. He went from living in utter brokenness and sickness to inhabitatio Dei in the twinkling of an eye. He knows no more sickness, loneliness, or despair; He only knows the majesty of this triadic reality of Divine bliss and interpenetrative love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He went from his hospice bed in Menifee, California to the everlasting Kingdom where the intensity of God’s shekinah glory expresses in all its plenitudinous Oneness in Threeness. My Dad left this world in poverty, and entered the riches of the heavenly Kingdom in an instant. He entered into the joy of His Lord; a joy that is Love indeed, in all purity and serenity. God the Father welcomed my Dad into His life; just as He did on the day my Dad repented and gave His life to Christ in Lake Elsinore, CA back in the late 60s, in the fullness of His Grace as given revelation in the Son, Jesus Christ. My Dad now dwells in the heavenlies at the Right Hand of the Father in Christ by the bond of the Holy Spirit. He no longer wonders what love is, He knows it in its fullness unabated as He feels the nail pierced hands of the Lamb slain before the foundations of the world, as he touches the sword plunged side of the Lion of the tribe of Judah. This is the reality my Dad inhabits now; the glory that the Son has shared with the Father in the koinonia of the Holy Spirit from time-in-eternity.

What a genuine and steady hope we have in Christ. My Dad experiences this hope in the pleroma of God now; we can experience this same fullness in Christ now, even by the faith of Christ. We are participatio Christi, participants with Christ, in and through the adoption of Grace; we share in the same indestructible Life that He has always already freely had for us as the resurrection power of God that He is. Even when we are weak He is strong. Even when our faith fails us, His faith is for us. Even when we are too feeble to repent, He repents for us. This is the triune God we serve; this is the triune God my Dad inhabits in unimaginable ways. Maranatha       


[1] Binning, The Works of Hugh Binning (1735 edn.), as cited in Torrance, Scottish Theology, 78–79.