Do Humans Have Freewill?: What it Means to Be Free in Christ the King’s Economy Before God

31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. –John 8:31-36

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sinBut if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. –Romans 8:5-8

Discussions surrounding freewill in human agency abound; whether that be between Calvinism and Arminianism, or in the secular world and philosophy in regard to ethics and moral culpability. But is this really how so called “freewill” operates in a genuinely Christian Dogmatic frame? Augustine, even Luther believed that humans have freewill, but that because of the greater loves supervening in the fallen heart’s life, humans, apart from the Spirit of the LORD, will always choose those things that serve themselves; serves their greater appetites and loves that start and end in an incurved self (homo in se incurvatus).

But really, is this what human “freedom” entails? One would think that what and who a human is, purposively, would determine and shape what in fact so called freedom entails. In other words, if human beings’ ultimate teleology or purpose was always already to be in a conciliatory relationship with the Triune God wouldn’t what it means to be free mean to be free for God? I contend that this is indeed what it means to be humanly free; i.e. free for God. I believe that this is what Jesus and the Apostle Paul were referring to when they thought of “freedom”; to be free from our incurved and broken selves (which is the dehumanizing factor), and to be open and genuinely free for the living God—to be able to live in his type of freedom (the only actual ontology of freedom available) as we participate in and from his life through the mediated eternal life in Jesus Christ.

John Webster gets at these things as he discussing what human freedom entails within the rubric of Divine Providence. He writes:

God’s governance secures the creature’s freedom. If this fails to commend itself, it is because it contravenes a destructive convention according to which true freedom is indeterminacy and absolute spontaneity or it is nothing at all. To say that is to deny creatureliness. Freedom is existence in accordance with created nature and towards created ends, not self-authorship or aseity. This means that freedom is reception, but not passivity – that is permission and summons, but not spoken by me, but to me by God. ‘God is the abiding cause of man’s being a cause able to determine the character of his existence.’ The free person fulfils her self by perfecting a given nature. That perfecting is the work of providence which does not constrain but fulfils the creature’s self-determination, because, in Aquinas’s terms, God’s providence moves the creature’s will ‘as he influences it interiorly’ (interius eam inclinando). Can a moved will be free? Yes, because ‘to be moved voluntarily is to be moved of one’s own accord, i.e. from a resource within. That inner resource, however, may derive from some other, outward source. In this sense, there is no contradiction between being moved of one’s own accord and being moved by another’. If we are to see that Aquinas’s argument is evangelically well-judged, we need to grasp that divine providential acts are not simple compulsion (the archer sending the arrow) but rather intrinsic to the creature whom God moves, what Aquinas calls ‘natural necessity’, in which the creature is activated and not diminished. And to see this we also need to see that – as that astute reader of Aquinas, Turretin, puts it at the beginning of the modern period, ‘The fount of error is the measuring of the nature of liberty from equilibrium and making indifference essential to it. Liberty must be defined by willingness and spontaneity.’

This points us to how, in the light of the gospel, providence dignifies creatures. As with creaturely freedom, so with creaturely dignity: it does not consist only in being agens seipsum, one’s own director. To be moved by divine government is not to be beaten, but to be moved to act.[1]

Webster’s insights, particularly as he gleans those from Aquinas, can easily get us into discussions revolving around what has been called compatibilism, libertarian free agency, Molinism, synchronic contingency etc. But let’s not get lost in that patch.

The basic point I am wanting to reiterate is that in the Kingdom of God in Christ—in other words, in “really real reality”—what it means to be ‘free’ for human beings is to be free for the Triune God. Webster, via Aquinas, notes the role that teleology and purposiveness as regnant realities have for what being human coram Deo means vis-à-vis a conception of freedom. To be free, in an ultimate and even basic sense, for the creature in God’s economy (which is the only real economy around) is to be free for God. Living in and from his freedom, the type that grounded and grounds his choice to be for us and not against us, the type that grounded and grounds his choice to create and recreate in the resurrection is the only real freedom there is. Thus, for the human, what it means to actually be free and to have free-choice, is what it looks like for God as that is derived through our participation in his life in and through Christ.

And the last point I just iterated needs to be pressed; Webster doesn’t press it in the quote I provide from him, and he has certain antinomy towards it more broadly when it comes to speaking about moral human free agency. That is: we need to ground what it means to be human in the archetypal humanity of Jesus Christ for us. If we don’t we will be prone to think humanity from discoverable (versus revealed) traits and resonances that we think we can discern by reflection upon human experience and circumstance in the profane and mundane world. We need a robust doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ to regulate our theological anthropology if we are going to have a proper understanding of not only what it means to be human coram Deo, but what it subsequently means to be free before God in accord with our given natures as human beings.

 

[1]John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 139.

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Miscellanies on How the Order of a Doctrine of Election Affects the Pyromaniacs and The Gospel Coalition

The Gospel is Kingdom initiating, Kingdom grounding; indeed it could be said that the Gospel is the disruptive orientation of the original creation’s ultimate purpose as that is realized in the re-creation of God in Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead. As David Fergusson has written, “the world was made so that Christ might be born;” this adage captures well the inherent value or the inner reality that the creation itself has. It is one born only in and from God’s reality to graciously be for the world and to do so in himself, in the Son, by the Spirit and thus to pretend as if the Triune reality is not the ground and grammar of ALL of reality—inclusive of morality—is to reduce the Gospel to a pietist individualism that only has to do with me and my salvation/me and my eternal destiny. While personal salvation, its appropriation, is very important, it is grounded more objectively and universally in the reality of redemption that God in Christ has proffered for all of creation, with Jesus being its crowning reality and jewel. In other words, the cosmic reality of salvation, grounded in the humanity and divinity (an/enhypostasis) of the eternal Logos become flesh, Jesus Christ, encompasses all aspects of created reality. It is not simply a matter of sufficiency but of efficacy; in other words, in the Kingdom, in the recreation there is not a delimitation of that to particular parts (i.e. classic election/reprobation) of the creation; no, the Kingdom of God in Christ (which is given reality in the Gospel which is embodied and lived in the Christ) is a macrocosmic reality (Rom. 8.18ff) that indeed disruptively impacts individuals who are willing, by the Holy Spirit’s wooing, to participate in this new created reality in and through the priestly-vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. This is why when people like Phil Johnson want to attempt to reduce the Gospel reality to its more individualistic provenance they end up critiquing work like The Gospel Coalition is engaging in as it sees the whole of reality implicated by the Kingdom Gospel; he fails to recognize that the Gospel is about a broader work and doctrine of creation/recreation than it simply being about ‘fire-insurance’ for an elect group of people elevated over and against the rest of creation (what TF Torrance identifies as ‘The Latin Heresy’ or an inherent dualism that comes to pass when we start denominating parts of creation from the mass of the creation). In this vein note what Johnson recently wrote in critique of The Gospel Coalition and its engagement with popular culture:

The “gospel-centered” movement that many of us were so enthusiastic for just one decade ago has gone with the drift. The Gospel Coalition has for some time now shown a pattern of embracing whatever new moral issue or political cause is currently popular in Western culture by arguing that this, too, is a legitimate “gospel issue.” They are by no means alone in this. Everything from the latest Marvel movie to gun control legislation has been deemed a “gospel issue” by some savvy evangelical writer at one or more of the most heavily trafficked evangelical websites. But if everything is supposedly a gospel issue, the expression “gospel-centered” is rendered meaningless.

As I said in a Tweet earlier today, we must not abandon the focused simplicity of Luke 24:46-47 in favor of a social gospel that encompasses a large complex of racial, economic, and political issues. Every denomination, every educational institution, and every church that has ever made that error has seen a quick demise. I for one don’t intend to watch in silence while the current generation repeats that mistake.[1]

In response to this I have read others on Twitter raise the question of sufficiency; in other words, is Scripture itself sufficient in responding to race or human sexuality questions, or in Scripture’s overt silence on these things are we able and responsible to turn to other resources—latent within God’s good creation (i.e. common grace)—to seek responses to the ills that the fallen world presents us with in an attempt to ultimately point people to the ultimate sufficiency of the living God as that is provided for in Jesus Christ? So the response seems to be: not all things are intensively or directly related to the narrower message of the Gospel, instead they are related but only in an extensive or indirect matter which allows for and even calls for Christian thinkers to respond to questions not explicitly spoken to in Scripture in such a way that honors the general reality of the Gospel; and within that space has freedom to address issues that might not otherwise seem to have to do with the Gospel in any meaningful sense, but in fact are Gospel issues insofar as they are indirectly impacted by the ultimate reality of it (in other words: natural law, or a natural ethic is going to be appealed to—something that in this line of thinking does not undercut the sufficiency of Scripture to speak to what it intends to speak to, but in fact works in a complementary way to Scripture with the a priori recognition that all of creation belongs to God and is within the realm of his Providential care, governance, and sustenance).

There is a certain irony to these views (Johnson’s and Twitter’s). Both of these approaches share a similar doctrine of creation, theologically/soteriologically. They both share a particular view on the sufficiency of the Gospel and Scripture, but apply that differently (because of broader hermeneutical differences). They denominate parts of creation out from the greater mass of creation, believing that one part is the elect of God while the rest is damned. Johnson focuses on the elect part of creation, but dispensationally neglecting the whole of creation, while the other side also focuses on the elect part of creation, but they see that as the seed that ultimately cashes out in the new creation; they place election into a cosmic understanding of salvation and Providence while Johnson places election into an individualistic and pietist understanding of salvation wherein what ultimately matters is not this creation simpliciter, but the legal salvation of an elect people from an eternal hell. The irony is that they share some overlapping soteriological assumptions, in regard to election, but where that doctrine is placed in their respective theologies cashes out differently in the way that they see the Gospel itself implicating the whole of creation. The Twitter-view works from a cosmic doctrine of salvation, while the Johnson view works from a pietistic, individualist understanding of salvation that is discontinuous from creation as a cosmic reality. The difference in the end is that the Twitter view is Covenantal while the Johnson view is Dispensational. The Twitter view reflects a historic confessionally Reformed perspective, while the Johnson view reflects his Calvinist-lite perspective which is the reduction of Reformed theology to the so called five-points.

Just take this post for what it’s worth. I was going to totally go in another direction and refer us to Oliver O’Dononvan and Philip Ziegler (and apocalyptic theology), but the above is what came out instead. It’s just me thinking out loud. But I think there might be something to my theoretical meanderings. And I only think this is a worthwhile exercise because I think it illustrates a substantial theological polarity that is present within the so called Reformed world. I’ll want to return to how I opened this post up, and get into the relationship of the Gospel and the Kingdom within an Apocalyptic Theology and how I think that informs discussions like these.

[1] Phil Johnson, The Root of the Matter, accessed 05-28-2018.

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).

The AChristological Focus of Covenant Theology: A Note on What in Fact is Being Retrieved in the Reformed ‘Resurgence’

The ‘resurgence’ of Reformed theology in the conservative evangelical sub-culture and beyond continues, but what is being retrieved in this recovery of the so called ‘doctrines of grace?’ In this post I wanted to briefly highlight an emphasis, or lack thereof, that is present in the style of Reformed theology that is currently being recovered. It might be argued that the English and American Puritan forms of Reformed theology represent a type of flowering or blossoming of the Post Reformed orthodox theology that developed most formidably in the 16th and 17th centuries; indeed we see an organic overlap between these developments, something of the theoretical/doctrinal (i.e. ‘school theology’) moving to the applied practical outworking in the Puritan experiment. It is this period that is being looked to as the resource that is supposed to revitalize and reorient the wayward evangelical churches of the 21st century. But again, I ask, what in fact is being recovered; what is present, theologically, by way of emphasis that is informing the reconstructive work being done by the theologians presently involved in this effort?

Janice Knight in her book Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism offers some helpful insight on the role that reception of William Ames’s form of Puritanism, his ‘Intellectual’ style, had in regard to shaping what we even now are seeing in the recovery of Federal or Covenantal theology. What you will note, and this has been the source of my own critique, along with others of Federal theology, is the lack of focus on the personal Christ, with an alternative focus, instead, on a legal contract (Divine Pactum) and its conditions. You will notice, through Knight’s analysis, that Christ is seen more as an instrument of meeting the conditions of the covenant (of works/grace). Knight writes at length:

Students of the period have long regarded this preference for the functional rather than the personal Christ as characteristic of all Puritan preachers. John Eusden, for example, draws a sharp distinction between Lutheran and Reformed christology, arguing that Luther’s emphasis on the mystery of incarnation was never of crucial importance to English divines: “The Christocentrism of Martin Luther is not shared by most English Puritans . . . The incarnation . . . was not a mystery in which man should lose himself.” A chorus of scholars has echoed this conclusion, arguing that Puritans “minimized the role of the Savior in their glorification of the sovereignty of the Father.” Their means was to focus on the ascended Christ and their purpose was “as far as mortals could” to emphasize the distance between heaven and earth.” The only bridge was the contractual covenant, not the personal Christ.

This argument is confirmed by the structure as well as the content of the Marrow. The person and life of Christ are only briefly treated, and again in language that is figurally abstract. Christ as agent of the covenant assumes center stage in the Marrow. This emphasis on Christ’s legal function effectively forces Ames’s discussion away from godly essence and toward divine omnipotence.

Ames’s real interest is indeed the efficiency or the “working power of God by which he works all things in all things.” Other aspects of God’s nature are subordinated to this application of power. “the meaning both of the essence of God and of his subsistence shines forth in his efficiency.” In this somewhat surprising move, Ames collapses distinctions he had been careful to establish: “The power of God, considered as simple power, is plainly identical with his sufficiency.” In these statements Ames shifts the focus of divinity from a mediation on the being of God (esse) to his performance (operati) in the world—from God’s nature ad intra to his being ad extra.

This stress on the exercise of power is inscribed in the works of Ames’s disciples as well. Again, the caveat obtains: while they celebrated the beauty of Christ and the blessings of grace, on balance preachers like Hooker, Shepard, and Bulkeley focused on the functional application not the indwelling of Christ. It is not God as he is in himself, but as he deals with the sinner that engages them—God as exacting lord, implacable judge, or demanding covenanter. God is imagined as the creditor who will “have the utmost farthering” due him, or the landlord pressing his claim. Repeatedly, Hooker refers to Christ as “Lord Jesus,” or “Lord Christ”—terms which are found with far less frequency in the writings of Sibbes and Cotton. To be sure, this is a loving God, but he is also a “dreadful enemy,” an “all-seeing, terrible Judge,” a consuming infinite fire” of wrath.

And when these preachers use familial tropes to describe God’s dealings, they often warn that loving fathers are also harsh disciplinarians; there is “no greater sign of God’s wrath than for the Lord to give thee thy swing as a father never looks after a desperate son, but lets him run where he pleases.” Though God is merciful, if is a mercy with measure, “it is to a very few . . . it is a thousand to one if ever . . . [one] escape this wrath to come.” Such restriction of the saving remnant is of course an axiom of Reformed faith, but one that Sibbes rarely stressed. On the other hand, Hooker and Shepard’s God often acts by “an holy kind of violence,” holding sinners over the flames or plucking them from sin at his pleasure. This God wounds humankind, hammers and humbles the heart until it is broken.

Divine sovereignty also animates Hooker’s description of conversion as royal conquest and dominion: Christ is like “the King [who] taketh the Soveraigne command of the place where he is, and if there be any guests there they must be gone, and resigne up all the house to him: so the Lord Jesus comes to take soveraigne possession of the soule.” With sins banished and the heart pledged to a new master, the saint begins the long journey of sanctification. This repetition of the language of lordship insists not only on the centrality of domination in conversion but in the general tenor of human/divine relations—abjection replaces the melted heart so often imagined by Cotton and Sibbes.[1]

This helps summarize what I have been writing on for many years; writing against in fact! It is this harsh version of ‘Calvinism’ that became orthodoxy in New England and North America at large; it is this version of Reformed theology that is currently being retrieved for purposes of revitalization for the evangelical churches in North America and elsewhere. But we see the emphasis that is being imported into the evangelical church world; an emphasis wherein Jesus Christ is underemphasized as the centrum of salvation, instead instrumentalized as the organ that keeps the heart of Federal theology pumping.

The concern, at least mine, is that pew sitters sitting under such ‘recovery’ are getting this type of theology; one where Jesus Christ is not the center, instead the contract, the covenant of works/grace is. The emphasis of salvation, and the correlating spirituality present in this framework does not provide the type of existential contact with the living God that there ought to be; at least according to Scripture. We see Knight mention folks like Richard Sibbes and John Cotton; they offered an alternative focus juxtaposed with what we just surveyed. They offer an emphasis upon God’s triune love, and his winsome character; they focus on God in Christ as the Bridegroom and we the Bride. Evangelical Calvinists, like me, work within the Sibbesian emphasis, albeit informed further by folks like Karl Barth’s and Thomas Torrance’s theological loci. I invite you to the genuinely evangelical focus we are offering by seeing Christ as the center of all reality, in particular salvation, and within this emphasis we might experience what it is to have a participatory relationship with the living God mediated through the second person of the trinity, enfleshed, Jesus Christ.

 

[1] Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994), 77-8.

*Artwork: Gwen Meharg, He Will Not Snuff Out!accessed 05-09-2018.

UnBelief in God is Not an Intellectual but Instead a Moral-Heart Issue Before God

I wanted to reiterate something I wrote on Facebook, I think it was yesterday. Here’s what I wrote: I will never believe that unbelief in the living God is an intellectual problem, it’s a moral/heart problem. People might say they are wired in more rationalist or analytical modes, and thus imply that if their intellect could be satisfied they’d believe in Jesus, but that’s a self-deluded self-aggrandizing bluff; maybe one they believe is real, but a bluff nonetheless. The reality is that the human heart wants to live a life of self-induced peace untrammeled by the invading and captivating love of God. The human heart wants to live unto its own desires and passions, and thus will invent any means necessary to explain away God’s ferocious love; explain away God’s indicative of a life defined by the other-in-relation; a life that is not self-absorbed. The human heart, captivated by its own self-affection, incurved upon itself to the bitter end, cannot allow for a world where they have been displaced from its center.

I actually received some push back from someone which went this way: ‘I’d be very careful before making grand pronouncements about atheism. After all, there are many varieties of atheism and agnosticism, with a whole range of complex motivations. So there are many for whom belief in God simply doesn’t make sense. Moreover, any moral argument made by Christians in the current climate looks distinctly hollow.’

It is an interesting response, as it doesn’t seemingly engage with what I wrote. What I wrote doesn’t undercut the reality of their being many expression of atheism, agnosticism, relativism, or whatever the form the unbelief takes. I wasn’t making an evangelistic statement, nor attempting to engage in public relations with the world, nor was I making an argument based on morality to attempt to persuade an atheist, agnostic, or neo-gnostic to ‘come to Jesus.’ Instead, my statement, as I took it, is inspired by Scripture. I was indeed thinking of someone I’ve had recent contact with in real life who is agnostic, maybe atheist. And so with that motivation I was reflecting on the mood that Scripture takes when thinking about unbelievers; people who reject God. In the tradition someone like Augustine might intone that it is because of concupiscence or ‘self-love’—what we see funding something like Luther’s ‘bondage of the will’—that people, at an anthropological level continue to reject God (at an “essential” level). And Scripturally in John 3 we see Jesus teaching that people reject God ‘because they love the darkness rather than the light’; again, the implication is that people for inexplicable reasons (apart from recognition of the ‘fall’) love themselves, love the darkness they have been born into rather than the light.

Sure, we can come up with real life reasons, existential reasons, why people reject God. The holocaust comes to mind, dealing with a terminal illness, dealing with the ongoing famines and wars that plague the world, so on and so forth. We can also attempt to sophisticate this issue to the point that it is reduced not to a heart issue before and with God, but to an intellectual problem; which is what the interlocutor is suggesting (i.e. “So there are many for whom belief in God simply doesn’t make sense.”). My point, behind the interlocutor’s suggestion, is that the reason belief in God ‘doesn’t make sense’ is because they have a prior and overriding commitment to themselves (homo incurvatus in se); they have a greater affection for themselves than they do for others or God, and as such they can’t imagine a world where they aren’t ultimately the center, even if they are the greatest philanthropist this world has ever seen. This is why I see unbelief as a moral issue. I could cite other points from Scripture; think of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John, he tells the Pharisees and religious teachers that they can’t believe because they seek the praise of men rather than God. The question is why do they have this proclivity and how does that lend itself to their continued state of unbelief? I think part of what I have been asserting helps to answer that question; i.e. the issue according to Holy Scripture (and not my opinion) is that we have ‘wicked and deceived hearts’ (Jer. 17.9). Can we refer to surface experiences, even deep and real experiences of existential import that represent real and significant issues for people towards belief in God in Christ? Yes! But at base, no matter what the experiences of people, I am suggesting that the reason people finally cannot repent and bow the knee to the crucified God is because they love themselves too much; because they live in a bondage they themselves cannot remove themselves from. While this may be controversial in certain circles, I don’t think it is controversial in regard to what the Bible teaches. The Revelator puts the depth of the unbelief in these stark terms:

20 The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. 21 Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts. – Revelation 9.20-21

While there are theodic type reasons people use to continue on within their states of unbelief. Or while there is hypocrisy among believers themselves relative to their profession vis-à-vis their actual practice (morally); I will continue to contend that all of this can be attributed to a heart that loves itself more than it loves God. Whether someone has been awakened to that reality or not, the point remains that the heart, the ‘heart of stone’ is still something to contend with; whether that be among unbelievers or believers. I think Scripture is clear on this, even if sectors of theological culture bristles at it.

 

Responding to Mark Dever’s Modern Day Practical Syllogism: Using Church Membership as Proof of Eternal Life and Justification Coram Deo

I think some of my Barth posts, of late, might make it appear that I am anti-church; this would be far from the case though. I am afraid this post might make it seem as if I am anti-church; but this wouldn’t reflect the reality. What I am for is a proper understanding of the church vis-à-vis the church’s being: Jesus Christ. With this noted, in this post we will proceed to engage with Mark Dever’s little book: What Is A Healthy Church?

We just returned to a church in Portland, OR that has deep roots for my family (my grandparents were members here for years), and has some rootage for me personally (I attended this church for the first couple years of my time in Bible College). It is a Conservative Baptist Church, I grew up as the son of a Conservative Baptist pastor; and so it is fitting for me, and my family to attend a Conservative Baptist church. We really enjoyed our time there this last week, and plan on attending again this week (and most likely the many weeks that follow). As part of the visitor’s packet that we received there was included with that Dever’s book, just mentioned. So nerd that I am, I started reading his book[let]. Mind you, I have a history with Dever, in a very indirect way. My former professor in seminary, Ron Frost, and mentor of mine (I still hold him in this view) wrote his PhD dissertation on the same Puritan that Mark Dever did (and at the same time, and in the same country: England). They both wrote on Richard Sibbes, and ended up reading Sibbes’ theology from completely different universes one from the other. Dever essentially read Sibbes from the broader more mainline classically Reformed perspective, and simply locates Sibbes’ theology in line within the broader spectrum of Puritan and Westminster theology. Frost rejects this reading, and sees Sibbes as offering an alternative affective and free grace theology that emphasizes God’s winsome love for humanity, rather than thinking of God as the Divine Lawgiver who relates to humanity that way (to oversimplify things a bit). So I approach the following book, and its contents, with this kind of in-formed and critical eye; it hasn’t let me down.

Mark Dever, to open his first chapter Your Christianity and Your Church writes this:

Sometimes college campus ministries will ask me to speak to their students. I’ve been known, on several occasions, to begin my remarks this way: “If you call yourself a Christian but you are not a member of the church you regularly attend, I worry that you might be going to hell.”

You could say that it gets their attention.

Now, am I just going for shock value? I don’t think so. Am I trying to scare them into church membership? Not really. Am I saying that joining a church makes someone a Christian? Certainly not! Throw any book (or speaker) out the window that says as much.

So why would I begin with this kind of warning? It’s because I want them to see something of the urgency of the need for a healthy local church in the Christian’s life and to being sharing the passion for the church that characterizes both Christ and his followers.[1]

So he elaborates a bit further about the importance of the local church, but then doubles down on the aforementioned sentiment further. He writes:

When a person becomes a Christian, he doesn’t just join a local church because it’s a good habit for growing in spiritual maturity. He joins a local church because it’s the expression of what Christ has made him—a member of the body of Christ. Being united to Christ means being united to every Christian. But that universal union must be given a living, breathing existence in a local church.

Sometimes theologians refer to a distinction between the universal church (all Christians everywhere throughout history) and the local church (those people who meet down the street from you to hear the Word preached and to practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Other than a few references to the universal church (such as Matt. 16:18 and the bulk of Ephesians), most references to the church in the New Testament are to local churches, as when Paul writes, “To the church of God in Corinth” or “To the churches in Galatia.”

Now what follows is a little intense, but it’s important. The relationship between our membership in the universal church and our membership in the local church is a lot like the relationship between the righteousness God gives us through faith and the actual practice of righteousness in our daily lives. When we become Christians by faith, God declares us righteous. Yet we are still called to actively be righteous. A person who happily goes on living in unrighteousness calls into question whether he ever possessed Christ’s righteousness in the first place (see Rom. 6:1-18; 8:5-14; James 2:14-15). So, too, it is with those who refuse to commit themselves to a local church. Committing to a local body is the natural outcome—it confirms what Christ has done. If you have no interest in actually committing yourself to an actual group of gospel-believing, Bible-teaching Christians, you might question whether you belong to the body of Christ at all! Listen to the author of Hebrews carefully:

23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.26 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Heb. 10:23-27)

Our state before God, if authentic, will translate into our daily decisions, even if the process is slow and full of missteps. God really does change his people. Isn’t that good news? So please, friend, don’t grow complacent through some vague idea that you possess the righteousness of Christ if you’re not pursuing a life of righteousness. Likewise, please do not be deceived by a vague conception of the universal church to which you belong if you’re not pursuing that life together with an actual church.[2]

Dever notes some important things about the pertinence of the local church for the growing Christian, but there is something I would suggest more concerning underwriting what he is really getting at. There is a theology, more pointed, soteriology (or theory of salvation) funding the kind of points and emphases Dever is laying out in what he writes about being part of the local church.

We could flesh out many details here, but for purposes of space let me focus on the most glaring stand-out among the various points Dever is making. He cannot really be blamed, per se, for the emphasis that frames what he is writing; it is a function of his prior commitment to a particular conception of classical Calvinism, and more pointedly how that is given expression in the style of Puritan theology that he is a proponent of. What stands out, as I read this, is this constant obsession with PROOF. You can see it in various sections I quote from him; in particular the very last I have emboldened.

In the classical Calvinist, Federal (Covenantal) theology framing of things, and with more specificity, because of the idea of particular redemption, or more popularly, Unconditional Election and Limited Atonement, there is this constant need to experiment and see if indeed  a person is one of the genuinely elect for whom Christ died. In Puritan England this way of thinking was known as experimental predestinarianism; most recently I summarized what that entails in my personal chapter in our second volume Evangelical Calvinism book (2017):

The basic idea, is as we just described: i.e. 1) if Christ died for the elect; 2) but the elect did not know who they were, objectively; 3) then the “elect” throughout their lives engaged in “experiments” to determine, subjectively, if they were truly one of the elect; 4) these experiments involved observing one’s good works and inferring from those that Christ must indeed be present in the elect’s life because Christ’s works are apparently present in the elect’s life; 5) although the “experimental” or subjective aspect of this always remained because it was possible to look like one of the elect, but after all only have a “temporary faith” or an “ineffectual faith.”[3]

So even though we haven’t elaborated this too much here, as the quote alerts us to is that within the Purtian/Westminster and classically Reformed teaching on predestination, it was possible to have a ‘temporal faith’ such that someone could look like a Christian but not actually be one in the final analysis. We can see all of these entailments in Dever’s admonition for people to be involved in the local church; more, to be full-fledge members. If people are not actively involved in the church in such ways, instead of questioning someone’s maybe disobedience, or maybe looking for alternative reasons for lack of involvement, Dever would have us immediately question whether or not such a person is actually saved to begin with.

What Dever is offering in his little booklet is nothing more than the old tried and true Puritan notion of experimental predestinarianism. Many contemporary classically Reformed people don’t frame things this tersely, nevertheless, at a theological and ideational level all of this and more is indeed informing their theologies all the way down (and I mean in regard to soteriology, ecclesiology, theory of authority, so on and so forth). Mark Dever serves as an excellent example of how someone’s theology informs what most people would simply consider to be the practical stuff of church body life and pastoral consideration. Some people have no problem with this way of thinking theologically, and so they will welcome this type of teaching from Dever; but many of us see holes in it running all the way back up to the way we see God (i.e. doctrine of God/Theology Proper).

Do I think involvement in the local church is important? Absolutely! Do I use church membership as PROOF that someone is genuinely one of the elect, one of the justified before God? Absolutely not! There are a variety of reasons why someone might not be able to be a member or active in the local body of Christ (take me for example: I work for the railroad, currently, and have no real schedule [until just recently]. I haven’t been able to regularly attend church for the last three plus years … which has been a dread to me). But even if someone isn’t a member in the local body, and even if we should encourage a brother or sister of the importance of this, we should not hang their souls over hell in order to give them motivation to attend church. I agree that it is most organic for someone who is a Christian to want to be a participant in the local church; but that’s not the concern here. The concern is how Dever is using church membership as a kind of practical syllogism to prove whether or not someone might or might not be genuinely justified before God.

 

 

[1] Mark Dever, What Is A Healthy Church? (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2007), 21.

[2] Ibid., 26-8. [emboldening mine]

[3] Bobby Grow, “’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), 40-1.

The Athanasian, Thomas Torrance: How Soteriology is Christological in the Vicarious Humanity of Christ

Thomas Torrance is one of the, if not the most Athanasian english speaking theologians one might come across. His focus on the mediation of God’s life to humanity and humanity’s life to God in the hypostatic union of God and humanity in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ attests to these Athanasian impulses. Indeed, personally, this is what I have found so compelling and attractive about Torrance’s theology over the years; and it is why I keep coming back to it over and over again. It is the Christological focus and how that conditions all that Torrance writes—again this is the Athanasian influence—how he sees the hypostatic union and God’s Self-revelation therein as the inner-reality of how Christians ought to think salvation (soteriology).

But there is a controversial aspect to this, for some. You will notice in the following quote from Torrance how he understands salvation to be fully participationist; i.e. fully charged with God and humanity’s reality in the singular person of Jesus Christ. In other words, and this is the controversial part, for Torrance salvation is ontological rather than just declarational; for Torrance what it means to be human coram Deo is tied into salvation, such that Incarnation, recreation/resurrection is determinative of what takes place in the justificatory and sanctificatory aspects of salvation in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. So, for Torrance, the conditions for salvation to take place are all inherent to God’s predetermined or pre-destined choice to be for us given full expression in the ensarkos of the eternal Logos; or, salvation is fully actualized and realized in the incarnation of the Son of Man resulting in the elevation and exaltation of humanity, in the resurrected humanity of Christ; in other words, Jesus’s humanity is justified humanity, sanctified humanity, and glorified humanity for us, our only hope is to be united to his—that impossible possibility itself made possible by Jesus’s entering into our humanity opening us up for God in and through his freedom to be for us and for God all at once in, again, his vicarious humanity. As we are spiritually joined to his humanity (a reality that takes place out of his vicarious humanity in the Spirit) we participate in the eternal life that is his priestly life for us (pro nobis), in us (in nobis). Torrance writes:

We have to do here with a two-fold movement of mediation, from above to below and from below to above, in God’s gracious condescension to be one with us, and his saving assumption of us to be one with himself, for as God and Man, the one Mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ ministers to us both the things of God to man, and the things of man to God. This has to be understood as the self-giving movement of God in Christ to us in our sinful and alienated existence where we live at enmity to God, and therefore as a movement in which the revealing of God to us takes place only through a reconciling of us to God. The incarnation of the eternal Word and Son of God is to be understood , therefore, in an essentially soteriological way. Divine revelation  and atoning reconciliation take place inseparably together in the life and work of the incarnate Son of God in whose one Person the hypostatic union between his divine and human natures is actualised through an atoning union between God and man that reaches from his birth of the Virgin Mary throughout his vicarious human life and ministry to his death and resurrection. It was of this intervening activity of Christ in our place that St Paul wrote to the Corinthians: ‘You know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ who though he was rich yet for our sakes became poor that you through his poverty might be rich.

We may express this two-fold movement of revelation and reconciliation in another way by saying two things.

a) Since the Father-Son relation subsists eternally within the Communion of the Holy Trinity we must think of the incarnation of the Son as falling within the eternal Life and Being of God, although, of course, the incarnation was not a timeless event like the generation of the Son from the Being of the Father, but must be regarded as new even for God, for the Son of God was not eternally Man any more than the Father was eternally Creator.

b) Correspondingly, since in Jesus Christ the eternal Son of God became man without ceasing to be God, the atoning reconciliation of man to God must be regarded as falling within the incarnate life of the Mediator in whose one Person the hypostatic union and the atoning union interpenetrate one another….[1]

We see then, for Torrance, how knowledge of God is also part and parcel with the salvific reality precisely because the ontological is tied into the epistemological and the epistemological into the ontological just as the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father and we in their life as the Holy Spirit, by the faith of Christ, brings us into this eternal fellowship of resplendent love.

Truly, this is a different way to think about salvation; it is neither juridical nor Augustinian in any meaningful sense; as such it departs most basically from classical Reformed soteriology just at this point. Nevertheless it presents in the spirit of the Reformed teaching insofar as salvation is understood as fully contingent on the gracious unilateral movement of God for humanity in Christ; it’s just that the absolutum decretum or way of the decrees, and attendant theory of causation associated with that, is elided insofar, for Torrance, salvation is a fully personal event mediated directly and immediately by Godself in the Son. Further, sin, total depravity is taken very seriously by Torrance; which again is why it is so necessary for the Son Incarnate to be the all in all of salvation for us—left to ourselves homo in se incurvatus we could never, nor would ever choose God; we’d simply continue to choose ourselves as our highest love.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2016), 144.

God’s Governmental Providence as Cruciform in Shape: Human Suffering and Death, with Reference to Nabeel Qureshi

“The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; 2. for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.” Psalm 27:1-2

The Psalmist captures a reality that many in the world do not like; he identifies a truth that kicks against a self-possessed humanity who thinks it belongs to itself. But the Christian finds great comfort in realizing that this is the reality; that the world and all its bounty belongs to the living God of heaven and earth. The Apostle Paul sharpens this idea from a Christocentric angle; the idea that not only is the earth the LORD’s, but that we, as his people do not belong to ourselves; that God in Christ, owner of the heavens and the earth, penetrated our humanity with his in Christ and replaced our self-possessed selves with the recreated reality of a new humanity that realizes that it is only possessed by the living God. Paul writes pointedly: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”[1] This is almost an unfathomable reality, but one that has been made known as what is real through the goodness and graciousness of God revealed in his cruciform life in Jesus Christ.

These passages could be applied in a variety of ways, but what I want to highlight, at a theological level, is how this works towards thinking about God’s care, about his providential sustenance of the earth. And I want to use that context to discuss life and death; with particular focus, in this instance, on the life and death of Nabeel Qureshi, and all those in the world who are suffering in untold ways. I want to see if I can work toward making sense of it all from the big vantage point of God’s providence.

There are at least three ways to think about God’s providence: 1) Conservation, 2) Concursus, and 3) Governance. I want to focus on God’s governance; i.e. how in a God/world relation we might conceive of his inter-action with his creation in an active way; but in such a way that he remains in control, and thus not conditioned by the creation even as he enters it in the Incarnation (Logos ensarkos). In an effort to bring clarity to what is meant by the third prong of God’s providence—his governance—let us read how Dutch theologians Brink and Kooi develop this idea:

3 Finally now, the third aspect of divine providence: God’s gubernatio (governance), or directio (leadership). Traditionally, this part of God’s providence was conceptualized in rather static terms, as if God rules the world as a manager does a company, doing what needs to be done, minding the store. The Bible, however, speaks in much more dynamic—more precisely, in eschatological—terms about God’s rule. The fact that God rules the world means, first and foremost, that he guides it in a particular direction, toward the final realization of his plans and promises. Therefore, history is geared toward the kingdom, for also in his rule the Father works via—and thus in the mode of—the Son and the Spirit. For the time being, God rules “from the wood of the cross” (Venantius Fortunatus, sixth century), that is, in spite of all kinds of misery, setbacks, and experiences of loss. History becomes ever more similar to Jesus’s road to the cross, just as the apocalyptic portions of the New Testament teach. In addition, it should be noted that God works through his Spirit and not by (human) might or power (Zech. 4:6). We should often pay more attention to small things than to powerful revolutions or major changes in society. Where people are touched by the s/Spirit of the gospel and on that basis experience a decisive renewal in their lives, there God is at work, guiding the world to its future destination. So, God’s direction often proceeds via small things and detours, another reason that God’s providential rule is first and foremost a matter of faith and not something that can be gleaned from a newspaper. But it is precisely this faith that is certain that the outcome will not be a failure.[2]

My guess is that when you first heard the words God, providence, and governance, that your mind, like mine did, turned immediately to the description Brink and Kooi started their paragraph with: “…Traditionally, this part of God’s providence was conceptualized in rather static terms, as if God rules the world as a manager does a company, doing what needs to be done, minding the store.” But, as was encouraging to see they made the turn, as they should, to the reality that God’s governance of the world, of his good earth, is cruciform in shape; that he rules this earth by penetrating it in and through the humanity he assumed in Jesus Christ. That his governance is in his humiliation and vulnerability in his being in becoming man, and his reign climaxes in his exaltation of humanity in his risen and ascended humanity as the God-man who can sympathize with the yet broken humanity; but as the one who has conquered the brokenness of this world precisely at the point where it looked like he was going to lose it.

When I think about the death of Nabeel Qureshi, and think about it from the backdrop of God’s governance as described by Brink and Kooi, I have hope. I don’t have all the answers to the questions that I have, but I have hope because the God who is in control is not an aloof deity governing the world like some sort of removed corporatist; he instead became the One for the many, by becoming one of us, entering our fallen humanity and redeeming it from the inside out. He reigns supreme and providentially over the creation as one who has tasted his own creation; all along remaining distinct from his creation in the miracle of the hypostatic union, of God become human in the singular person of Jesus Christ. This is the hope that Nabeel Qureshi lived and died his life from; from the death and life of Jesus Christ.

Not only is Jesus the Lamb Slain, but he is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah risen; the One who is prime and supreme over all of creation. He governs the world from the reality of his resurrection, with hands still bearing the scars of their piercing for us. Nabeel, and all those who die in Christ, currently behold those nailed scarred hands; the hands that hold this world together, and for the purpose that all creation, that the sons and daughters of God in that creation, will finally behold the hands of such a King and ruler as this.

 

[1] I Corinthians 6:19-20, NIV.

[2] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 243-44.

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.

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.