On a Christ Concentrated Theology: Its Historical Development from Calvin, to the Federal Theologians, to the Marrow Men, to Barth and Torrance

Evangelical Calvinism is really a bubbling over of a variety of impetuses from within the history of Reformed theology. We look to the Scottish theology of Thomas Torrance, and the antecedent theology he looks to in the theology of John Calvin and also in the Scottish Kirk from yesteryear. We of course also look to the Swiss theology of Karl Barth towards offering a way forward in constructive ways in regard to where some of the historical antecedents trail off (primarily because they didn’t have the necessary formal and material theological resources available to them to finally make the turn that needed to be made in regard to a doctrine of election and other things).

In an attempt to identify this kind of movement, that has led to where we currently stand as Evangelical Calvinists, let me share from Charles Bell’s doctoral work on the Scottish theology that Torrance himself looked to in his own development as an evangelical Calvinist. Bell has been doing genealogical work with reference to various Scottish theologians, and also with reference to John Calvin, in his book. We meet up with Bell just as he is summarizing the development he has done on what is called the Marrow theology. This was theology that was developed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries by a group of twelve men; they sought to offer critique of the legalistic strain they discerned in the mainstream of Federal or Covenantal theology of their day, and hoped to place a priority of grace over law (which they believed their colleagues, the Federal theologians, had inverted thus providing for a legal faith) in regard to the covenantal system of theology. What Bell highlights though, is that while they discerned and even felt the pastoral problems provided by Federal theology, they themselves still did not have the wherewithal to remove themselves from that system; and so they suffered from a serious tension and irresolvable conflict in regard to the correction they saw needing to be made, and the way to actually accomplish that correction. Bell writes:

Boston and Erskine can only be fully appreciated against the background of 17th century Federal theology and the Marrow controversy. The Black Act of 1720 threatened the very heart of Reformed teaching concerning the nature of God’s grace. See in this context, it becomes highly significant that Boston and Erskine contend for the universal offer of Christ in the gospel, for such an offer is necessary to provide a basis for assurance. Not only do the Marrow men’s contemporary Federalists deny this universal offer, but they also deny that a basis for the assurance of faith is necessary since, according to them, assurance is not of the essence of faith. In light of the legalism which pervaded the Scottish scene, it is highly significant that men, who were themselves Federalists, detected this legalism and contended against it for the unconditional freeness of God’s grace. This they did by rejecting the covenant of redemption and insisting that there is but one covenant of grace, made for us by God in Christ. It is, therefore, a unilateral covenant which is not dependant or conditional upon our acts of faith, repentance, or obedience.

The Marrow men adhered to such doctrine precisely because they believed them to be both biblical and Reformed truths. Yet, because these men were Federal theologians, they were never able finally to break free of the problems engendered by the Federal theology. The Federal doctrines of two covenants, double predestination, and limited atonement undermined much of their teaching. So, for instance, the concept of a covenant of works obliged them to the priority of law over grace, and to a division between the spheres of nature and redemption. The doctrine of limited atonement removed the possibility of a universal offer of Christ in the gospel, and also removed the basis for assurance of salvation. Ultimately such teaching undermines one’s doctrine of God, causing us to doubt his love and veracity as revealed in the person and work of Christ. The Marrow controversy brought these problems to a head, but unfortunately failed to settle them in a satisfactory and lasting way. However, the stage is now set for the appearance of McLeod Campbell, who, like the Marrow men, saw the problems created by Federal Calvinism, but was able to break free from the Federal system, and therefore, to deal more effectively with the problems.[1]

What I like about Bell’s assessment is his identification of a distinction in and among the Federal theologians themselves; the Marrow men represent how this distinction looked during this period of time. And yet as Bell details even these men were not able to finally overcome the restraints offered by the Federal system of theology; it wasn’t until John McLeod Campbell comes along in the 18th century where what the Marrow men were hoping to accomplish was inchoate[ly] accomplished by his work—but he paid a high price, he was considered a heretic by the standards of the mainstream Federal theologians (we’ll have to detail his theology later).

What I have come to realize is that while we can find promising streams, and even certain moods in the history, we will never be able to overcome the failings that such theologies (like the Federal system) offered because they were, in and of themselves, in self-referential ways, flawed. As much as I appreciate John Calvin’s theology I have to critique him along the same lines as Bell critiques the Marrow men here, even while being very appreciative for the nobility of their work given their historical situation and context. This is why, personally, I am so appreciative of Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance); Barth recognized the real problem plaguing all of these past iterations of Reformed theology, it had to do with their doctrine of God qua election. It is something Barth notes with insight as he offers critique of Calvin, in regard to his double predestination and the problem of assurance that this poses (and this critique equally includes all subsequent developments of classical understanding of double predestination):

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

This was the problem the Marrow men needed to address; it is the problem that McLeod Campbell attempted to address with the resources he had available to him; and yet, I conclude that it was only Barth who was finally successful in making the turn towards a radically Christ concentrated doctrine of double predestination and election. With Barth’s revolutionary move here he washed away all the sins of the past in regard to the problems presented by being slavishly tied to classical double predestination and the metaphysics that supported that rubric.

Concluding Thought

This is why I am so against what is going on in conservative evangelical theology today (again, think of the ubiquitous impact and work The Gospel Coalition is having at the church level). The attempt is being made to retrieve and repristinate the Reformed past as that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries in particular; and the retrieval isn’t even of the Marrow men, it is of the theology that the Marrow men, as Federal theologians themselves, understood had fatal problems in regard to a doctrine of God and everything else subsequent. My question is: Why in the world would anybody want to resurrect such a system of theology? There is no theological vitality there; it can only set people up to repeat the history of the past, in regard to the type of Christian spirituality it offered. Indeed, a spirituality that caused people to be overly introspective, and focused on their relationship with God in voluntarist (i.e. intellectualist) and law-like ways (because of the emphasis of law over grace precisely because of the covenant of works as the preamble and definitive framework for the covenant of grace/redemption). People might mean well, but as far as I am concerned they are more concerned with retrieving a romantic idea about a period of history in Protestant theological development—an idea that for some reason they have imbued with sacrosanct sentimentality—rather than being concerned with actual and material theological conclusions. For my money it does not matter what period of church history we retain our theological categories from; my concern is that we find theological grammars and categories that best reflect and bear witness to the Gospel reality itself. Federal theology does not do that!

 

[1] M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985), 168.

[2] Karl Barth, CD II/2:111. For further development of this critique, with particular reference to John Calvin, see my personal chapter, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the “Faith of Christ,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene: OR, Pickwick Publications, 2017), 30-57.

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The 16th and 17th Century Reformed Covenantal Roots of the 21st Century evangelical and Reformed Theological Understanding of a ‘Legally Strained’ Gospel

When I can, I like to highlight where the legalistic character of the contemporary evangelical and Reformed faith came from. I realize that for many, maybe even most at this point, doctrine doesn’t really mean much these days for evangelicals; but there are still obviously large segments of evangelical Christians who actually do care about what they believe and why—so I write posts for folks
like that in mind. It would be difficult to detail a kind of ideational genealogy in regard to tracing how something like Covenant theology has made its way into 21st century evangelical and Reformed systems of theology. So for lack of doing such genealogical work I will write towards people who are enamored with the theology that The Gospel Coalition distills for the evangelical masses.

If one were to go to TGC’s website you could read up on their confessional or doctrinal statement, and you’d pick up almost immediately—if you were so tuned—the type of legal framework for understanding salvation that they promote. Like I noted, we won’t be able to draw the hard and fast lines between the forensic Gospel promoted by TGC with its predecessor theology found in historical Covenant theology (in a lineament[al] type of way); instead we will just have to leave such linkage at a suggestive and inchoate level.

With the ground cleared a bit, for the remainder of this post I wanted to survey, with M. Charles Bell’s help, the whence from where legally oriented, performance based conceptions of the Gospel came from; to do that we will look at an early Scottish proponent of what is called Federal or ‘Covenant’ theology. Maybe you have never heard of Covenant theology before, but at its base it is made up of two covenants (as a hermeneutical construct): the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

Robert Rollock was a Scottish theologian who operated in the late 1500s in the Scottish Kirk; as Bell develops, Rollock was one of the first Scots to propose and advocate for a Covenant theology in the Scottish Reformed church. As we look at Rollock’s take on Federal theology, my hope is that the reader will organically ‘get’ what I’m suggesting in this post in regard to the antecedent theology that funds the mood we find being promoted in theology offered by associates of The Gospel Coalition. Without further ado, here is Bell’s sketch of Rollock’s understanding of Covenant theology (and as you read others Rollock’s view of Covenant theology is quite standard when it comes to the basic structure and emphases).

The Covenant of Works

Rollock states that the covenant of works is a ‘legal or natural covenant’ founded in nature, and God’s law. For when God created man, he engraved his law in man’s heart. After the fall of man it was necessary to republish this covenant, which was done at Mt. Sinai when Moses delivered the written tablets of stone containing God’s commandments for his people. The substance of this covenant of works is the promise of eternal life for those who fulfill the conditions of holiness and good works.

In grounding this covenant in nature and the law, and making the substance of the covenant a conditional promise of eternal life, Rollock denies any place to Christ in this legal covenant. Christ is not the ground of the covenant, its substance or its mediator, he states. In fact, this covenant has no need of a mediator. This is so because the covenant was first made between God and Adam before the fall. Therefore, asserts Rollock, this covenant does not involve Christ in any way. It is not faith in Christ that is needed, but knowledge of the law and obedience to it. The covenant of works relates to Christ only as a means of preparing the individual to receive Christ in the covenant of grace. Rollock stresses time and again that law precedes grace or the gospel. First the covenant of works or the law, is set before us, and only when this works in us a feeling of our miserable, sinful estate are we ready to proceed to the next step of embracing the covenant of grace. The doctrine of the gospel begins with the legal doctrine of works and of the law.’ Rollock insists that if this preparationist ordo is not followed then the preaching and the promises of the gospel are in vain.

The Covenant of Grace

Although the covenant of works is the major concern within the Old Testament, Rollock insists that the ‘mystery of Christ’ is to be found in the Scriptures from Adam to Christ, thought this covenant of grace is expounded ‘sparingly and darkly’ in shadows. This covenant of grace is not entirely a new agreement between God and man, but is actually a ‘reagreement, and a renewing of an old friendship betweene two that first were friends.’ However, because of the breach between God and man since the fall, this second covenant is grounded upon the blood of Christ, and God’s free mercy in Christ. Moreover, the promise of this second covenant is not only that of eternal life, but, because of the fall of man, must involve also a promise of imputed righteousness which comes to us by faith and the work of Christ’s Spirit. On the other hand, like the first covenant, Rollock insists that the covenant of grace is conditional. The condition, however, is not one of works, but faith, ‘which embraces God’s mercy in Christ and makes Christ effectual in us’. Furthermore, this condition is not fulfilled naturally by us, but the required faith is itself God’s gift to us.

Rollock does not, however, do away with the requirement of works in the covenant of grace. The natural works of man have no part in this covenant, since the works of unregenerate man are of no value, and the covenant of works is abolished as a means of salvation for all who are in Christ. However, works are required of the believer not as merits on our part, or as ‘meritorious causes’ of our eternal life, but rather, as tokens of our gratitude and thankfulness to God for his grace. They can also be considered as the means by which we progress from our initial regeneration to eternal life, and so, in a sense, may be deemed ‘causes’, but only when they are first understood as themselves caused ore effected by ‘the only merit of Jesus Christ, whereof they testify’. Rollock is clear that these works do not proceed naturally from us, in our own strength, Rather, these works proceed from us, in our own strength. Rather, these works proceed from, and are produced by ‘the grace of regeneration’. They are God’s doing and not man’s. They are, as well, not perfect works, but merely ‘good beginnings’. Their perfection ‘is supplied, and to be found in Christ Jesus’.

Rollock attempts to make a strong case for the objective ground and nature of salvation in Christ, and the covenant of grace. He states that God’s grace is the ‘sole efficient cause’ of faith, hope, and repentance. Although in the ministry of reconciliation there are two covenant partners involved, Rollock stresses that the initiative for healing lies with God and not us. God the Father seeks and saves us. It is his love manifested in our healing. His call in the gospel comes to us; we do not seek it. Echoing Calvin, Rollock writes that the cause of our salvation lies in God alone, and ‘na pairt in man quha is saved’. Nevertheless, it becomes clear in his writings that because of his conditional covenant schemed and his preparationist ordo salutis, in which law precedes grace, he is forced to return to a subjective basis within man for one’s final assurance of salvation.[1]

There is a lot in there. Rather than attempting to unpack it all, I want to essentially let it stand as is and simply be a kind of proof of where evangelical and Reformed theology’s ‘legally’ flavored conception comes from; as I read it, it is rather self-evident.

To be clear, I am not wanting to suggest that in every detail the Gospel preached by something like TGC is corollary, one-for-one. Instead what I’m hoping the reader can see, especially if you have never been exposed to this, is where the roots are for contemporary 21st century understandings of evangelical and Reformed soteriology; one could also think of the resurgence of Reformed theology we find in the so called Young, Restless and Reformed. I’m not wanting to suggest that all of this type of retrieval and resurgence among the conservative evangelical and Reformed wings of today is one wherein a full blown recovery of Covenant theology is taking place (although for some that’s exactly what is happening). Instead, I’m hoping that the reader will be able to see the framework, in a general type of way, wherein a ‘legal’ performance based understanding of salvation comes from. Many of those retrieving the historical Reformed faith are Baptists; they typically are not Covenantal like what we find in someone like Rollock, or later in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Nevertheless, the forensic way for conceiving of salvation, whether someone is a flaming Federal theologian or not, for the evangelical, comes from something like what we see evidenced in the theology of Robert Rollock. This is, I would submit, the mood of theology that gives us the idea that the Penal Substitutionary Atonement is the theory of the atonement that is the bedrock Gospel understanding of what the Gospel actually is; I contend that without Covenant theology PSA would never have come to have the prominence it does for evangelical and Reformed theories of the atonement and the Gospel itself.

One other point, before we go; I think of the work that someone like Brian Zahnd is doing. His most recent book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, is intended to offer an alternative conception of the Gospel wherein a Gospel of grace and love is presented; i.e. in contrast to the type of theology he is riffing on like what we might find in Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Zahnd is all about critiquing the ‘legal strain’ sense of the Gospel we find say in the theology presented by TGC et al. But I really think that if he wants to offer a full blown critique he needs to engage with the antecedent theology informing the theology he is attempting to critique. He often attributes all of this to Calvin, as if Calvin was the founder of Calvinism. But that’s just not the case, and so his critiques often miss the target when he is attempting to critique a legal forensically styled Gospel. I think he would do better to engage with the type of Post Reformed orthodox theology (of the 16th and 17th centuries) that we are covering here in this post. It helps to provide more context for people in attempting to understand where this type of ‘legal’ quid pro quo Covenantal theology comes from. It also is more honest and truthful as it gets into the actual meat and development of theology that indeed does offer us the ‘legal’ categories for conceiving of salvation that we still work under today in the evangelical and Reformed world.

 

[1] M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985), 53-4.

The Patristic Calvinists versus the Medieval Calvinists: Engaging with Athanasius’s Theology of Theosis in Conversation with Barth’s and Torrance’s Themes

I write about the same themes over and over again; someone even griped about that about me on FaceBook (I don’t think he thought I could see his gripe). But there’s a reason; I’ve been taken aback by the theology I have been confronted with in the writings of Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Augustine, et al. I’ve been surprised by the depth and richness available in the history of ecclesial ideas; surprised in the sense that what so often is presented to evangelicals at the popular and mainstream levels barely scratches the surfaces. I’ve been surprised by finding out that the Christian theological world is not comprised of nor defined by the usual binaries (i.e. Calvinism versus Arminianism etc.) that are so often presented to the evangelical Christian world in North America and the West as if these are the absolute parameters wherein Christians can think and still be considered orthodox. So yes, I do write a lot about the same themes because I don’t think the themes I write about have been emphasized enough; at least not for the evangelicals.

With the above noted, this post will be in reference to Athanasius’s theology of deification or theosis; a doctrine us Evangelical Calvinists are very interested in and informed by. I am just finishing up Thomas Weinandy’s fine work on Athanasius’s theology, and so we will hear from his treatment of Athanasius’s theology in regard to this particular locus. What is striking about Weinandy’s account here is, if you didn’t know he was describing Athanasius’s theology you would think he was referring to either Barth or Torrance’s understanding of election and salvation in general. So when Torrance says he’s not a Barthian, but instead an Athanasian, when you read the following from Weinandy you might understand why. It’s not that Torrance was not a joyful student of Barth, it’s just that Torrance understood that much of what he found in Barth was first presented by Athanasius. Here is how Weinandy details Athanasius’ understanding of deification (at some considerable length):

Thus, the Son became man precisely that humankind might be ‘perfected in him and restored, as it was made at the beginning – with yet greater grace. For, on rising from the dead we shall no longer fear death, but in Christ shall reign forever in the heavens.’ As Jesus took on incorruptibility in his resurrection, so ‘it is clear that the resurrection of all of us will take place; and since his body remained without corruption, there can be no doubt regarding our incorruption’.

Athanasius equally understands Jesus’ resurrection, again following Philippians, as his perfecting ‘exaltation’. The Son is exalted not as God, ‘but the exaltation is of the manhood’, for he humbled himself in assuming humankind’s humanity even unto death on the cross. The Son’s humanity was raised up and exalted because it was not external to him, but his own. For Athanasius, the exaltation of the Son’s humanity was none other than that it was fully deified and so made perfect. Moreover, since all Christians die in him, so now the share in his exaltation. ‘He himself should be exalted, for he is the highest, but that he may become righteousness for us, and we may be exalted in him.’ As the second Adam then, the exalted and so deified incarnate Son becomes the paradigm in whom all human beings can come to share in his perfected risen humanity. Where the ‘first man’ brought death to humankind’s humanity, the Son ‘quickened it with the blood of his own body’.

In a similar fashion, Athanasius perceives that, in being exalted and so perfectly hallowed, the incarnate Son becomes ‘Lord’, ‘in order to hallow all by the Spirit’. In being made fully holy in the Spirit, Athanasius argues that we can rightly be called ‘gods’, not in the sense that we are equal to the Son by nature, but because we have become beneficiaries of his grace. Human beings are, therefore, ‘sons and gods’ because they ‘were adopted and deified through the Word’. Since the Son is himself God who became man, humankind can be deified by being united to his glorious humanity, ‘for because of our relationship to his body, we too have become God’s temple, and in consequence are made God’s sons’.

For Athanasius, the perfecting and so hallowing of Jesus through his glorious exaltation as a risen man is summed up in his notion of deification. Moreover, as Jesus is deified so those who are united to him are perfected and so hallowed by being united to him and so deified as well. Deification is not then the changing of our human nature into something other than it is, that is, into another kind of being. Rather, deification for Athanasius is the making of humankind into what it was meant to be from the very beginning, that is, the perfect image of the Word who is the perfect image of the Father. Moreover, this deification is only effected by being taken into the very divine life of the Trinity. Thus, as the Son is the Son of the Father because he is begotten of the Father and so is ontologically one with the Father, so Christians imitate this divine oneness by being taken up into it. Commenting on Jesus’ prayer, that Christians would be one with him as he is with the Father (see Jn. 17:21), Athanasius perceives that it is through being united to Jesus’ ‘body’ that we become one body with him and so are united to the Father himself. This ‘uniting’ is the work of the Holy Spirit. ‘The Son is in the Father, as his proper Word and Radiance; but we, apart from the Spirit, are strange and distant from God, yet by the participation of the Spirit we are knit into the Godhead.’ Thus the goal of creation is now achieved, that is, human beings have communion with the Father through his eternal Word.

For since the Word is in the Father, and the Spirit is given from the Word, he wills that we should receive the Spirit, that when we receive it, thus having the Spirit of the Word which is in the Father, we too may be found, on account of the Spirit, to become one in the Word, and through him in the Father. [Contra Arianos, 3.25]

Divinization then, for Athanasius, is the sharing fully in the life of the Trinity and it is this sharing in the divine life that thoroughly transforms the believer into the adopted likeness of the Son.[1]  

If you have read here regularly for any amount of time the themes of deification/theosis note in Athanasius’ theology will be or should be recognizable to you. As we have looked into the idea of Jesus being the image of God, and humanity being first created and recreated in the resurrection as the images of the image in Christ, again, what we just covered should be familiar to you. Or maybe as we think back to Barth’s or Torrance’s understanding of election, Athanasius’s theology, as told by Weinandy, should be familiar to you.

What this reinforces for me, other than that rich theological material that we can find in Athanasius’s thought, is that Evangelical Calvinism represents a distinct mode of Reformed theology. Surely it is not foreign to the aims nor many of the trajectories set forth in the Protestant Reformation (particularly as we think about Calvin, Luther, Knox and some other magisterial reformers, and some Scottish ones), indeed, what Evangelical Calvinism is seeking to do is to operate in the ‘spirit’ of Calvinist/Reformed theology by working in a type of ad fontes (back to the sources) mood. What this means though, is that just like the original Protestant Reformers, ensconced in their own time and circumstance, we will be looking back through the centuries from a modern, even postmodern vista. With that noted, I think Evangelical Calvinism in many ways could be said to be a Patristic Calvinism, as far as the Athanasian and Irenean type of categories we want to use; whereas classical Calvinists, I would like to suggest should probably be called Medieval Calvinists, given their proclivity to appeal to Aristotelian theories of causation and metaphysics. In this sense Evangelical Calvinists are more prone to thinking of salvation in terms of ontology and personalist Trinitarian understandings in regard to a God-world relation; whereas classical Calvinists are more prone to thinking in terms of declarational/forensic and decretral categories in a God-world relation.

We have covered a lot; we have looked at Athanasius’s theology of deification, and then used that as an occasion to draw further points of departure between Evangelical Calvinists and so called classical Calvinists. Hopefully you can see that; and hopefully you have benefited from the sharing of Weinandy’ treatment of Athanasius’s theology as I have.

[1] Thomas G. Weindandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 98-100.

The Covenant of Works, The Covenant of Grace; What Are They? The evangelical Calvinists Respond

As evangelical Calvinists we stand within an alternative stream from classical Calvinism, or Federal/Covenantal theology; the type of Calvinism that stands as orthodoxy for Calvinists today in most parts of North America and the Western world in general. The blurb on the back of our book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church makes this distinction clear when it states:

In this exciting volume new and emerging voices join senior Reformed scholars in presenting a coherent and impassioned articulation of Calvinism for today’s world. Evangelical Calvinism represents a mood within current Reformed theology. The various contributors are in different ways articulating that mood, of which their very diversity is a significant element. In attempting to outline features of an Evangelical Calvinism a number of the contributors compare and contrast this approach with that of the Federal Calvinism that is currently dominant in North American Reformed theology, challenging the assumption that Federal Calvinism is the only possible expression of orthodox Reformed theology. This book does not, however, represent the arrival of a “new-Calvinism” or even a “neo-Calvinism,” if by those terms are meant a novel reading of the Reformed faith. An Evangelical Calvinism highlights a Calvinistic tradition that has developed particularly within Scotland, but is not unique to the Scots. The editors have picked up the baton passed on by John Calvin, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and others, in order to offer the family of Reformed theologies a reinvigorated theological and spiritual ethos. This volume promises to set the agenda for Reformed-Calvinist discussion for some time to come.

A question rarely, if ever addressed online in the theological blogosphere, and other online social media outlets, is a description of what Covenant theology actually entails. Many, if acquainted at all with Reformed theology, have heard of the Covenant of Works, Covenant of Grace, and Covenant of Redemption (pactum salutis); but I’m not really sure how many of these same people actually understand what that framework entails—maybe they do, and just don’t talk about it much.

In an effort to highlight the lineaments of Federal theology I thought it might be instructive to hear how Lyle Bierma describes it in one of its seminal formulator’s theology, Caspar Olevianus. So we will hear from Bierma on Olevianus, and then we will offer a word of rejoinder to this theology from Thomas Torrance’s theology summarized for us by Paul Molnar; and then further, a word contra Federal theology from Karl Barth as described by Rinse Reeling Brouwer. Here is Bierma:

When did God make such a pledge? [Referring to the ‘Covenant of Grace’] We will be looking at this question in some detail in Chapter IV, but it should be mentioned here that for Olevianus this covenant of grace or gospel of forgiveness and life was proclaimed to the Old Testament fathers from the beginning; to Adam after the fall (“The seed of the woman shall crush [Satan’s] head”); to Abraham and his descendents (“In your seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed”); to the remnant of Israel in Jeremiah 31 (“I will put my laws in their minds . . . and will remember their sins no more”); and still to hearers of the Word today. To be sure, this oath or testament was not confirmed until the suffering and death of Christ. Christ was still the only way to Seligkeit, since it was only through His sacrifices that the blessing promised to Abraham could be applied to us and the forgiveness and renewal promised through Jeremiah made possible. Nevertheless, even before ratification it was still a covenant — a declaration of God’s will awaiting its final fulfillment.

In some contexts, however, Olevianus understands the covenant of grace in a broader sense than as God’s unilateral promise of reconciliation ratified in Jesus Christ. He employs some of the same terms as before — Bund, Gnadenbund, foedus, foedus gratiae, and foedus gratuitum — but this time to mean a bilateral commitment between God and believers. The covenant so understood is more than a promise of reconciliation; it is the  realization of that promise — reconciliation itself — through a mutual coming to terms. Not only does God bind Himself to us in a pledge that He will be our Father; we also bind ourselves to Him in a pledge of acceptance of His paternal beneficence. Not only does God promise that He will blot out all memory of our sins; we in turn promise that we will walk uprightly before Him. The covenant in this sense includes both God’s promissio and our repromissio.

This semantical shift from a unilateral to a bilateral promise is most clearly seen in two passages in Olevanius’s writings where he compares the covenant of grace to a human Bund. In Vester Grundt, as we have seen, he portrays the covenant strictly as a divine pledge. While we were yet sinners, God bound Himself to us with an oath and a promise that through His Son He would repair the broken relationship. It was expected, of course, that we accept the Son (whether promised or already sent) in faith, but Olevianus here does not treat this response as part of the covenant. The emphasis is on what God would do because of what we could not do.

In a similar passage in the Expositio, however, Olevianus not only identifies the covenant with reconciliation itself but describes it as a mutual agreement (mutuus assensus) between the estranged parties. Here God binds Himself not to us “who were yet sinners” but to us “who repent and believe,” to us who in turn are bound to Him in faith and worship. This “covenant of grace or union between God and us” is not established at just one point in history; it is ratified personally with each believer. Christ the Bridegroom enters into “covenant or fellowship” with the Church His Bride by the ministry of the Word and sacraments and through the Holy Spirit seals the promises of reconciliation in the hearts of the faithful. But this is also a covenant into which we enter, a “covenant of faith.” As full partners in the arrangement we become not merely God’s children but His Bundgesnossen, His confoederati.

When he discusses the covenant of grace in this broader sense, i.e., as a bilateral commitment between God and us, Olevianus does not hesitate t use the term conditio [conditional]. We see already in the establishment of the covenant with Abraham that the covenant of grace has not one but two parts: not merely God’s promissio [promise] to be the God of Abraham and his seed, but that promise on the condition (qua conditione) of Abraham’s (and our) repromissio [repromising] to walk before Him and be perfect. Simply put, God’s covenantal blessings are contingent upon our faith and obedience. It is to those who repent, believe, and are baptized that He reconciles Himself and binds Himself in covenant.[1]

What we see in Olevianus’s theology, according to Bierma, is a schema of salvation that is contingent upon the elect’s doing their part, as it were. In other words, what binds salvation together in the Federal scheme is not only the act of God, but the act of the elect; an act that is ensured to be acted upon by the absolute decree (absolutum decretum). The ground of salvation involves, then, God’s act and humanity’s response; the objective (or de jure) side is God’s, the subjective (or de facto) side is the elect’s—a quid pro quo framework for understanding salvation. What this inevitability leads to, especially when getting into issues of assurance of salvation, is for the elect to turn inward to themselves as the subjective side of salvation is contingent upon their ‘faith and obedience.’

Thomas F. Torrance, patron saint of evangelical Calvinists like me, rightly objects to this type of juridical and transactional and/or bilateral understanding of salvation. Paul Molnar, TF Torrance scholar par excellence, describes Torrance’s rejection of Federal theology this way and for these reasons:

Torrance’s objections to aspects of the “Westminster theology” should be seen together with his objection to “Federal Theology”. His main objection to Federal theology is to the ideas that Christ died only for the elect and not for the whole human race and that salvation is conditional on our observance of the law. The ultimate difficulty here that one could “trace the ultimate ground of belief back to eternal divine decrees behind the back of the Incarnation of God’s beloved Son, as in a federal concept of pre-destination, [and this] tended to foster a hidden Nestorian Torrance between the divine and human natures in the on Person of Jesus Christ, and thus even to provide ground for a dangerous form of Arian and Socinian heresy in which the atoning work of Christ regarded as an organ of God’s activity was separated from the intrinsic nature and character of God as Love” (Scottish Theology, p. 133). This then allowed people to read back into “God’s saving purpose” the idea that “in the end some people will not actually be saved”, thus limiting the scope of God’s grace (p. 134). And Torrance believed they reached their conclusions precisely because they allowed the law rather than the Gospel to shape their thinking about our covenant relations with God fulfilled in Christ’s atonement. Torrance noted that the framework of Westminster theology “derived from seventeenth-century federal theology formulated in sharp contrast to the highly rationalised conception of a sacramental universe of Roman theology, but combined with a similar way of thinking in terms of primary and secondary causes (reached through various stages of grace leading to union with Christ), which reversed the teaching of Calvin that it is through union with Christ first that we participate in all his benefits” (Scottish Theology, p. 128). This gave the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “a very legalistic and constitutional character in which theological statements were formalised at times with ‘almost frigidly logical definiton’” (pp. 128-9). Torrance’s main objection to the federal view of the covenant was that it allowed its theology to be dictated on grounds other than the grace of God attested in Scripture and was then allowed to dictate in a legalistic way God’s actions in his Word and Spirit, thus undermining ultimately the freedom of grace and the assurance of salvation that could only be had by seeing that our regenerated lives were hidden with Christ in God. Torrance thought of the Federal theologians as embracing a kind of “biblical nominalism” because “biblical sentences tend to be adduced out of their context and to be interpreted arbitrarily and singly in detachment from the spiritual ground and theological intention and content” (p. 129). Most importantly, they tended to give biblical statements, understood in this way, priority over “fundamental doctrines of the Gospel” with the result that “Westminster theology treats biblical statements as definitive propositions from which deductions are to be made, so that in their expression doctrines thus logically derived are given a categorical or canonical character” (p. 129). For Torrance, these statements should have been treated, as in theScots Confession, in an “open-structured” way, “pointing away from themselves to divine truth which by its nature cannot be contained in finite forms of speech and thought, although it may be mediated through them” (pp. 129-30). Among other things, Torrance believed that the Westminster approach led them to weaken the importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity because their concept of God fored without reference to who God is in revelation led them ultimately to a different God than the God of classical Nicene theology (p. 131). For Barth’s assessment of Federal theology, which is quite similar to Torrance’s in a number of ways, see CD IV/1, pp. 54-66.[2]

And here is how Brouwer describes Barth’s feeling on Federal theology, with particular reference to another founder of Federal theology, Johannes Cocceius. Brouwer writes of Barth:

Barth writes ‘For the rest you shall enjoy Heppe’ s Locus xiii only with caution. He has left too much room for the leaven of federal theology. It was not good, when the foedus naturae was also called a foedus operum’. In Barth’ s eyes, the notion of a relationship between God and Adam as two contractual partners in which man promises to fulfil the law and God promises him life eternal in return, is a Pelagian one that should not even be applied to the homo paradisiacus. Therefore,

one has to speak of the foedus naturae in such a way that one has nothing to be ashamed of when one speaks of the foedus gratiae later on, and, conversely, that one does not have to go to the historians of religion, but rather in such a way that one can say the same things in a more detailed and powerful way in the new context of the foedus gratiae, which is determined by the contrast between sin and grace. For there is re vera only one covenant, as there is only one God. The fact that Cocceius and his followers could not and would not say this is where we should not follow them – not in the older form, and even less in the modern form.

 In this way paragraph ends as it began: the demarcation of sound theology from federal theology in its Cocceian shape is as sharp as it was before. Nevertheless, the attentive reader will notice that the category of the covenant itself is ‘rescued’ for Barth’ s own dogmatic thinking.[3]

For Barth, as for Torrance, as for me, the problem with Federal theology is that it assumes upon various wills of God at work at various levels determined by the absolute decree. The primary theological problem with this, as the stuff we read from Torrance highlights, is that it ruptures the person and work of God in Christ from Christ; i.e. it sees Jesus, the eternal Logos, as merely an instrument, not necessarily related to the Father, who carries out the will of God on behalf of the elect in fulfilling the conditions of the covenant of works ratifying the covenant of grace. Yet, even in this establishment of the Federal framework, salvation is still not accomplished for the elect; it is contingent upon the faith and obedience of those who will receive salvation, which finally brings to completion the loop of salvation in the Federal schema.

These are serious issues, that require sober reflection; more so than we will be able to do in a little blog post. At the very least I am hopeful that what we have sketched from various angles will be sufficient to underscore what’s at stake in these types of depth theological issues, and how indeed theology, like Federal theology offers, can impact someone’s Christian spirituality if in fact said theology is grasped and internalized; i.e. it is understood beyond academic reflection, and understood existentially as it impacts the psychology and well being of human beings coram Deo.

 

[1] Lyle D. Bierma, German Calvinism in the Confessional Age: The Covenant Theology of Caspar Olevianus, 64-68.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity,  181-2 fn. 165.

[3] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 112-13.

George Hunsinger Clarifies the Doctrine of Vicarious Humanity in TF Torrance’s Theology

Here is something I originally posted at another blog way back in December 2008. At this point I was still in the process of just cutting my teeth on Torrance’s theology, and grasping better how central the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ (and the homoousion) was in his theology. I had already been reading TFT at this point for around two years, but I found this blog comment christcenteredfrom George Hunsinger very clarifying; I am sharing it because maybe it will be the same for you. You will note at the end of this post that I offer a bit of critique of classical Calvinism; I wasn’t even the evangelical Calvinist at this point yet, but it was in the making 🙂 .

The following are some thoughts presented by Professor George Hunsinger (Princeton Theological Seminary) over at Ben’s site Faith and Theology. He is discussing T. F. Torrance’s understanding of the mediation of Christ, and how this relates to the incarnation, at an ontological level. He is highlighting how the incarnation (assumptio), for Torrance, is ‘mediation’ where fallen humanity, united with Him, finds ‘healing’ through Christ’s acts of obedience to the Father; in this sense, Christ vicariously achieves regeneration ‘for us’, and prior to us, through which we, by His faith, find life super-abundant. Here is Prof. Hunsinger’s initial statement, and then his further elaboration, per a commenter’s request:

Torrance’s idea about “ontological healing” was an attempt to re-think the doctrine of sanctification. It attempted to place it within the frame of Christ’s incarnational mediation, in which our Lord “took this conflict into his own being” and “took part in it from both sides,” including therefore from the human side. Like Barth, only more so, Torrance explained both our justification and our sanctification by means of Christ’s obedient humanity. For sanctification this meant that regeneration took place in Christ before it took place in us. For Torrance there was one sanctification common to Christ and the church, and it was ours only by virtue of our participation in him (unio mystica).

Torrance maintained that the Incarnate Son’s assumptio carnis involved the assumption of our human nature, not in a neutral sense but in the sense of our fallenness, our “flesh.” In other words, Christ made “the status, constitution and situation” of the fallen human race his own.

Torrance interpreted Rom. 8:3 to mean that Christ “condemned sin in the flesh” by bearing God’s judgment on sin, for our sakes and in our place, in his own humanity.

However, Christ’s human obedience meant not only that he submitted to God’s judgment in our place, but that he also brought about the regeneration (“ontological healing”) of the very humanity he had assumed, again for our sakes and in our place. Christ was, in this sense, the “firstborn” of the new creation.

The regeneration of the faithful was then understood to take place through their participatio Christi, that is, through their union and communion with Christ. Those who entered into union with Christ by grace through faith were given a share in his regenerate or sanctified humanity. What had been perfected in him was imparted by the Spirit to them, and this spiritual impartation was understood to occur through mystical union with Christ.

He joins himself to us, and us to himself, by means of his body and blood.

Regeneration was therefore vicarious first, and then a matter of union with Christ. It was a matter of internal rather than external relations. Christ and the church were one mystical body. Christ’s giving of himself to the church meant, among other things, his imparting to the faithful of the regeneration he had accomplished for them in the flesh. For them it was a matter of participation, not merely of repetition or imitation. [Quote taken from: here — see both the body of the post, and subsequently, the comment section for full context]

I find this very helpful, and clarifying, I hope you do as well! The emphasis in this framework is on Christ’s ‘assumption of us’, prior to our reception of Him, by faith. This framing identifies the stress Torrance placed on the need for ‘ontological healing’ to occur on our behalf, through Christ’s vicarious mediation, in order for us to ‘participate’ in His life, through ‘Spirit-enlivened-union’ with Him. This goes beyond the typical and classical (Calvinist) framing of mediation as an ‘act’ of juridical (‘law-based’) duty on the part of Christ for us—this goes to the crux of humanity’s problem, and deals with the heart of the matter—our ‘inner-sin’ problem expressed in ‘outer-behavioral-patterns’ (it is an inner to outer movement, instead of, say a ‘Thomistic’, outter to inner movement). Be edified! And thank you Prof. Hunsinger for sharing these thoughts!

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

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

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

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

1 Gratuitous infusion of grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to be said …

 

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

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

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

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

 

Scottish evangelical calvinist Theology versus International classical calvinist Federal Theology

Typically, in the ‘Classic Calvinist’ framing of the atonement, the ‘ground’ of God’s love for humanity is predicated upon Christ’s legal payment of restitution at the cross. In other words, God is able to love ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God’ because Christ meets the obedience requirements set out in the ‘Covenant of Works’. God’s love for us is contingent upon the legal payment made at scottish-theologythe cross in this scenario.

TF Torrance comments on a different approach, in fact an ‘Evangelical Calvinist’ approach, offered by a Scottish theologian named John Davidson. Torrance is commenting on Davidson’s catechism, and upon the ground of God’s love for us:

. . . All through his Catechism Davidson laid the strongest emphasis upon what has taken place in the Person of Christ apart from believers, and never upon the persons of those who believe. This was coupled with his emphasis upon the prevenient love of God, from which salvation flowed, without any suggestion that God had to be placated or appeased in order to love and be gracious toward sinners. [Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” 54]

The broader discussion here is on Davidson’s understanding of union with Christ, and of course that vicarious relationship that obtains in Christ’s life for us. But beyond that, this illustrates an important point of departure (and I realize some want to see more uniformity between Federal and Scottish or Evangelical Calvinism — but these are the material points), between a Federal Calvinist and an Evangelical Calvinist, so called. In the latter’s case, we see the cross and Christ’s death, therein, as driven or predicated by God’s love for us in Christ; in the former, they see God’s love for us predicated by certain forensic stipulations being met prior to God’s ability to love us [albeit framed decretally or through the decrees].

Let me rephrase, for sake of clarity; The ‘Federal Calvinist’ makes God’s love for ‘elect’ humanity a byproduct of something else being met first, viz. the the penalty for ‘Law-breaking’ — the ‘ground’ of His love is that the requirements of the ‘Law’ are met (thus the ‘Law’ becomes determinative of who God is, instead of God determining who He is). The Evangelical Calvinist says that God in Christ first loved us (in His intratrinitarian life), and that God’s life of love becomes the ‘ground’ for His actions in salvation history. The cross is a demonstration of God’s love, not the predicate (def. of ‘predicate’ is: ” involve as a necessary condition of consequence” def. taken from here) of God’s love. Federal theology says the latter is true, Evangelical Calvinism says the former is. The Apostle Paul agrees with the Evangelical Calvinist on this point:

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. ~Romans 5:8 (NASBU)

This topic actually is illustrative of what differentiates an Evangelical Calvinist approach from the Federal approach — it is the ‘Doctrine of God’. I believe that Federal theology makes God a predicate of creation; and then I also believe that Evangelical Calvinism sees God as He is, the antecedent of creation (He is in Himself, without us . . . cf. Ex. 3:15). Torrance continues to comment on the presupposition of Davidson’s thought vis-a’-vis Federal theology, he says:

It was Davidson’s statement that ‘Faith is ane heartie assurance that our sinnes are freely forgiven us in Christ’, that appeal was to be made again and again in Scottish theology in face of the lack of assurance that came with the change in the doctrine of God brought about by federal theology and the idea that God had to be appeased in order to be gracious to us. With Davidson, however, the assurance of salvation which is identical with faith is ultimately grounded in ‘the tender mercy and grace of God, who loving us when we were his enemies, provyded our salvation to bee wrought onely by his wellbeloved Sonne Jesus Christ, made Man of the Virgine Marie without sinne.’ That is to say, it was from the ultimate love of God the Father in freely giving his Son to be our Mediator, Redeemer and Saviour, that all parts of our salvation are fully accomplished in such a way in Christ that nothing on our part can ‘deface the assurance of our salvation’. . . . [TFT is quoting Davidson’s old Scottish] [Torrance, 54-55].

Here Torrance illustrates the significance that a ‘doctrine of God’ can have upon all kinds of doctrine — especially, of course, salvation — least of which is the atonement. This continues to illustrate a certain distinctiveness between Evangelical Calvinism and Federal Calvinism . . . it orbits around different doctrines of God, and then different understandings of salvation, etc.

 

God’s Number, His Threeness-in-Oneness: Hugh Binning, Gregory Nazianzen, Thomas Torrance and Bruce McCormack respond to Katherine Sonderegger

Here is Hugh Binning (1627-1653), young Scottish theologian, speaking of the primacy of God’s life as the ground of salvation; speaking of the primacy of God’s love as the foundation of salvation:

. . . 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
trinityvery 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]

As Thomas Torrance notes further, after Binning wrote what we just read from him, he cited Gregory Nazianzen thusly: “I cannot think upon one, but by and by I am compassed about with the brightness of three, and I cannot distinguish three, but I am suddenly driven back unto one.”[2] What a beautiful way to think of the One in Three/Three in One, the Triunity of Godself when considering the depth reality of what has taken place in salvation.

And I would like to suggest to Katherine Sonderegger, who is concerned about the De Deo Trino (Threeness of God) crowding out the De Deo Uno (Oneness of God), and who attributes a Trinitarian emphasis to doing theology in the 20th and 21st centuries to the impact of the modern theological move primarily made by Karl Barth, that there is evidence to the contrary. I.e. This example from Binning helps to illustrate how Oneness and Threeness were not only thought together for the pre-moderns in the post-Reformation period, but it also underscores how Threeness was a prominent reality for the patristics, as Binning himself appeals to Nazianzen. Note Sonderegger’s concern:

… Perhaps nothing so marks out the modern in systematic theology as the aversion to the scholastic treatise, De Deo Uno. It belongs not the preface but rather the body of the dogmatic work to lay out the broad movement in present day dogmatics that has pressed the treatise De Deo Trino to the fore; indeed, it crowds out and supplants the exposition of the One God. But even here we must say that the doctrine of the Trinity, however central to the Christian mystery, must not be allowed to replace or silence the Oneness of God. God is supremely, gloriously One; surpassingly, uniquely One. Nothing is more fundamental to the Reality of God that this utter Unicity. Such is God’s Nature; such His Person: One. Oneness governs the Divine Perfections: all in the doctrine of God must serve, set forth, and conform to the transcendent Unity of God….[3]

I would submit that Sonderegger creates a false disjunction by speaking of Oneness over against Threeness, and vice versa. We see Binning creatively think Oneness into Threeness and vice versa in a way that I should think would be instructive for Sonderegger. She also uses numbers for God in a way that actually flattens out the mystery she is claiming to enhance and magnify by emphasizing God’s Oneness; Bruce McCormack drives this home when he writes:

… The doctrine of the Trinity is not one doctrine among others but the presupposition of all other Christian doctrines.  It is this because triunity is not something added to “oneness” but is a description of what God is essentially.  Put another way: the trinitarian relations are not laid on top of a divine essence which has been “established” metaphysically (i.e. in abstraction from those relations as a “fourth” beneath or behind the “persons”).  The relations simply are what God is essentially.  For that reason, as Karl Barth argued, it will not do to treat the “one God” before treating the “triunity” of God because everything that needs to be said about the “one God” needs to be conditioned by what is said about the Trinity….[4]

And further,

… Suffice it here to say that the logic of numbers, as applied to God, is employed responsibly only where it is recognized that numbers too never rise above the level of analogical predication. Used univocally of divine “persons’ and “human” persons, they are bound to mislead.  Seen in this light, to speak of the “one” God is not merely to refer to the metaphysical concepts of singularity or uniqueness.  The “unity” of Jesus Christ with His Father is a relation that includes (even if it is not exhaustively described by) the love each has for the other.[5]

For a Christian conception of God it is not possible or recommended to try and think of God as One or Three outwith the other; there is no Oneness of God without His Threeness, and no Threeness without His Oneness. Binning understood this, pre-modern that he was, and indeed helps to uplift the mysterious wonder of who God is, and who this God is with us and for us.

 

 

[1] Hugh Binning, Works, 89 cited by Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1996), 79.

[2] Ibid., 79.

[3] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Volume One: The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), XIV.

[4] Bruce L. McCormack, Reflections on the Same God Thesis (Wheaton, IL: Noah Toly’s Blog, accessed 01-27-2016).

[5] Ibid.

Just Say No to Dry-Freezing Scripture: Being Biblical without being Propositional

I was taught to do Bible study by reducing the various sections of Scripture to propositions; even the Hebrew poetic sections. So the brownbibleprimary goal of biblical interpretation according to the way I was taught in Bible College and even Seminary (to a point) was to conclude with a principle to every passage of Scripture, or every paragraph (pericope) of Scripture that I read. It would go something like this (inductive Bible study): 1) Observation, 2) Interpretation, 3) Principlization, 4) Application; maybe you have been taught to study the Bible this way too, it is quite popular. And as far as it goes, it can be helpful, but at the end of the day it isn’t all that satisfying; at least not to me.

Beyond all of that, a by-product of reducing all of Scripture to a galleria of propositions is that we end up having a host of competing interpretations of these propositions as we place them into our prefabricated systematic systems of theology; which would help explain how we end up with so many tribes of interpretation out there, and so much dissonance among various Christians (and confusion among young Bible students … i.e. people get confused about the legitimacy of any passage of Scripture given the array of interpretations on the same passages of Scripture among the so called professional exegetes and commentators).

I think there is a better way to proceed; a way where we don’t reduce Scripture to propositions, but allow it, instead, to bring us into encounter with the purifying fire of God’s lively life in Christ. Isn’t this what Jesus said Scripture was ultimately about, Him (Jn. 5.39)? Scottish theologian P.T. Forsyth has some refreshing thoughts on this, as reported by Angus Paddison:

As can be seen from our explorations thus far, Forsyth first and foremost locates Scripture in relation to God’s activity, an action best regarded as ‘not merely a gospel of definite truth but of decisive reality, not of clear belief but of crucial action’. This plea that we attend to a lively activity of God – rather than a series of propositional truths about God – explains Forsyth’s resistance to dry freezing Scripture and regarding it as little more than ‘an arsenal of Christian evidences’. Scriptural reading is to resist having commerce with stupefied orthodoxies. Christian faith is not ultimately faith in doctrines but rather a faith in those realities and powers which Scripture and doctrine attempt to articulate. The power of Jn 3.16 is not that it is a message about God’s love for us; it points to God’s love enacted for us. Finely-wrought doctrinal systems are prone to misunderstand faith as an intellectual assent to truths articulated, rather than the soul’s ‘direct contact with Christ crucified’. Biblical readers who domesticate the Bible into systems of orthodoxy are liable to forget that it is the theologian’s ‘hard and high fate to cast himself into the flame he tends, and be drawn into its consuming fire’. To be ‘biblical’ is therefore to apprehend that Scripture’s core

is not a crystallization of man’s divine idea, it is not even a divine declaration of what God is in himself; it is his revelation of what he is for us in actual history, what he for us has done, and forever does. (PTF)

Being biblical is a matter of apprehending correctly God’s redemptive activity into which Scripture has been drawn and is now located.

No belief is scriptural simply because it be met with the Bible. We do not believe in the contents of the Bible, but in its content, in what put it there, and what it is there for. For it is a means, and not an end. We believe in the Gospel, the Gospel of God’s Grace justifying the ungodly in Christ’s cross and creating the Bible for that use. (PTF)

Scripture is located by the gospel, before it is located by us.[1]

I can hear you now: ‘Are you saying that we shouldn’t use propositions when we are attempting to explicate or understand the teachings of Scripture?’ No, that’s not really what I am saying, nor is it what Angus Paddison or PT Forsyth is saying; instead what is being communicated is that Scripture is much more, not less than propositions. And in fact, that Bible reading’s ultimate goal should be to know God in worshipful encounter, with the realization that he is the living God, the living Word in Christ for us. In other words, he actually ‘is risen,’ he actually lives, and he speaks! As the evangelist says ‘he speaks, and his sheep know his voice;’ this is the primary role Scripture plays, as a place where the redeemed come to know their Redeemer in lively encounter.

I think this will sound too abstract for many of you, but for me it is like cold crisp water rolling down into my parched soul. It has made Scripture something exciting, and given it its rightful place before God as his instrument to administer his life to ours in and through the domain of his life in Christ.

[1] Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 18.

A Special Word on the Atonement

Here T. F. Torrance (uber-Evangelical Calvinist) is commenting on John Knox’s understanding of the atonement. You’ll notice that the Federal grunewald_crucifixion_phixr-2.jpg(*forensic*) understanding is being implicitly critiqued throughout the unfolding of the comment:

. . . Several comments on this understanding of Christ’s sacrifice may be in place. While traditional forensic language is used, the atoning sacrifice is not to be understood as fulfilled by Christ merely as man (which would imply a Nestorian Christology), but of Christ as the one Mediator between God and man who is himself God and man in one Person. This means that ‘the joyful atonement made between God and man by Christ Jesus, by his death, resurrection and ascension’, is not to be understood in any sense as the act of the man Jesus placating God the Father, but as a propitiatory sacrifice in which God himself through the death of his dear Son draws near to man and draws man near to himself. It is along these lines also that we must interpret the statement of the Scots Confession that Christ ‘suffered in body and soul to make the full satisfication for the sins of the people’, for in the Cross God accepts the sacrifice made by Christ, whom he did not spare but delievered him up for us all, as satisfication, thereby acknowledging his own bearing of the world’s sin guilt and judgment as the atonement. As Calvin pointed out in a very important passage, God does not love us because of what Christ has done, but it is because he first loved us that he came in Christ in order through atoning sacrifice in which God himself does not hold himself aloof but suffers in and with Christ to reconcile us to himself. Nor is there any suggestion that this atoning sacrifice was offered only for some people and not for all, for that would imply that he who became incarnate was not God the Creator in whom all men and women live and move and have their being, and that Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour was not God and man in the one Person, but only an instrument in the hands of the Father for the salvation of a chosen few. In other words, a notion of limited atonement implies a Nestorian heresy in which Jesus Christ is not really God and man united in one Person. It must be added that the perfect response offered by Jesus Christ in life and death to God in our place and on our behalf, contains and is the pledge of our response. Just as the union of God and man in Christ holds good in spite of all the contradiction of our sin under divine judgment, so his vicarious response holds good for us in spite of our unworthiness: ‘not I but Christ’. . . . [T. F. Torrance: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell,” 18-19]

Lots going on here, primary of which is a robust, trinitarian Doctrine of God. Indeed, I would suggest that this is the key from whence Federal and Scottish Theology (or “Evangelical Calvinism”) depart, one from the other.

One of the subsequent points of departure between Federal and Evangelical Calvinism is how the “atonement” is framed. The former frames it forensically, per the covenant of works/grace (as shaped by the ‘decree’); while the latter frames the shape of the atonement ontologically (per the one ‘covenant of grace’ as shaped within the free predeterminations in the life of God).

There is more to be said. I will try and come back later and provide more reflection, especially for those of you for whom this is new (even “strange teaching”).