Category Archives: Spirituality

Hypostatic Grace: A Response of Sorts to Tom McCall and Substance Metaphysics

Substance metaphysics has been a topic of engagement here at The Evangelical Calvinist as long as its existence as a blog; indeed, it is a metaphysic that I have characterized as oppositional and anti-thetical to the aims of what I believe a genuinely Christian theology should offer—particularly when we talk about God. But what in fact is substance metaphysics? Tom McCall[1] in his recently published book An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology pushes back against those of us who “maybe” haphazardly (as he might think) throw the language of substance metaphysics
holyspiritgracearound too casually. For the remainder of this post we will engage with McCall’s push back on the language of substance metaphysics, and then I will offer an example for how I have thought of substance metaphysics based upon its intellectual past in church history.

McCall writes of substance metaphysics,

analytic theology is sometimes criticized and rejected for its reliance on “substance metaphysics.” Unfortunately, exactly what critical theologians have in their crosshairs when they talk about substance metaphysics is often unclear and not closely defined. But very often the complaint is closely tied to a rejection of doctrines associated with “classical theism”; immutability, impassibility, timelessness and other doctrines are taken to be untenable, and, since they are tied to substance metaphysics, so much the worse for substance metaphysics. William P. Alston deftly analyzes this complaint, and he argues that substance metaphysics are really beside the point. What he says about substance metaphysics in discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity applies more broadly: “once we get straight as to what is and is not necessarily included in the metaphysics of substance, we will see that most twentieth-century objections to the use of substance metaphysics … are based on features of such formulations that are not required by substance metaphysics as such.” Perhaps there is something inherently wrong the use of substance metaphysics in theology, and maybe this counts against analytic theology. But before such a judgment can be made, we need more than the all-too-common generalizations and assertions. For before we can conclude that analytic theology is fatally flawed due to a dependence on substance metaphysics, we need to know exactly what is meant by substance metaphysics, we need to be shown just what is wrong (either philosophically or theologically) with substance metaphysics and we need to see that analytic theology really is (or must be) committed to this kind of metaphysics. Without the kind of careful analysis and rigorous argumentation, it is hard to see anything here that might count as a forceful objection to analytic theology.[2]

McCall is being careful, even suggestive at points, in pushing back at those who are critical of substance metaphysics in particular, and analytic theology in general; but, he believes the case, or at least the clarification is yet to be made in regard to what in fact substance metaphysics entails, and what in fact is the problem.

I am someone who has been critical of substance metaphysics, as I mentioned to start this post, and I remain critical. One thing that I am not sure about, particularly in light of McCall’s invitation for further clarification from critical theologians on what substance metaphysics entails, is what in fact McCall et al. analytic theologians believes substance metaphysics entails. So I think the burden of clarification actually goes back more towards the analytical theologian rather than the critical theologian, in regard to what they mean, respectively, when they refer to substance metaphysics. The reason I say this, is because there really is no shortage of what substance metaphysics means in the history of ideas in the mind of the church; e.g. someone like Thomas F. Torrance offers critique of substance metaphysics in his critique of the Latin heresy, among other things.

But my first exposure to substance metaphysics, and a critique of it, came not from Thomas Torrance, but instead by way of historical theology; in particular, through a critique made by my former professor and mentor in seminary, Ron Frost. His was a critique of a Thomist classical theism, but beyond that even, of the impact that Stoicism has had upon the development of Western theology in general. We will have to leave the point of Stoicism to the side for now; but what I would like to offer is some of the flavoring of the type of substance metaphysics that not only Frost finds objectionable, but so do I. The window into this will not be how substance metaphysics impacts an understanding of God, in particular, but instead how substance metaphysics impacts the way God relates to the world in salvation.

Ron Frost’s main way of developing his critique was to look at Thomas Aquinas’s appropriation of Aristotelian metaphysics and synthesis of that with Christian theology. We will jump into Frost’s development of this, mid-stream, as he is beginning his critique of Aquinas’s version of Aristotelian substance metaphysics, and how that impacts the way Thomas conceives of grace and a theological anthropology within a soteriological frame. Frost writes (en extenso):

Aquinas assimilated Aristotle’s ethical assumptions but struggled to formulate them in terms suited to Augustinianism. Luther believed that he failed in the effort. Oberman points to the main target of Luther’s criticism: Aquinas and most medieval theologians assumed that a gap exists between the presence of grace or love in a soul—the iustitia Christi—and a demand for full righteousness when that soul is examined on judgment day—the iustitia Dei. According to Aquinas Christians move from one status to the other over their lifetime by supplying a faith formed by love—fides caritate formata. Love in this arrangement is a responsibility or obligation to be met rather than the reciprocal of response to God’s love. The soul must continue to grow in love through ongoing choices.

Aquinas, then, presumed love to be a function of the will—a self-generated event—and as an act of the will it carries a moral benefit. By Aristotelian standards it is a good and therefore meritorious: the one who loves is good for having made a good choice. As reconfigured by Aquinas love is a mitigated good because all who choose to love supply that love as a capacity of the will that God himself first supplied as an infused grace. God nevertheless crowns such grace-enabled efforts with merit.

Luther dismissed such reasoning. He insisted instead that new believer possesses both the iustitia Christi and the iustitia Dei by faith—so there is no need for a human effort to progress from one status to the other over time. Luther based this on the legal principle of shared marital ownership of goods, a principle made applicable to believers by marriage to Christ.

Luther’s basis for salvation differed from the Thomistic portrayal of grace as a quality infused in the soul and the difference was [sic] critical feature for the Protestant reformer. Oberman’s discussion also sheds more light on Aquinas’ perception of love. He treated love as a human effort able to achieve greater spiritual benefits. In the Summa Theologiae, addressing the new law (lex nova), Aquinas portrayed faith working through love—fide per dilectionem operante—as a property of grace. The grace is delivered through the effective power of the sacraments and by an instinct of inward grace. The benefit of the new law, as against the old, is its relative freedom (lex liberatatis) from specific demands.

When Aquinas placed this in the Aristotelian moral framework to either do well or badly in the act of choosing—with an associated merit—he adopted the philosopher’s premise that a soul requires freedom in order to be a true moral agent. Aquinas anchored this point by citing Aristotle directly: “the free man is one who is his own cause”. In sum Aquinas thought he needed and found the volitional space for free choices, as enabled by grace, to accomplish good. Yet all this was only a limited autonomy—limited because it exists only by divine permission within the realm of God’s greater will. And also because the soul relies on the Spirit for the enabling grace needed to produce a decision of love.

This was a crucial point in building his version of salvation. God creates grace but the grace is a separate entity from God. This was a hypostatic version of grace: something brought into being by God. The alternative portrayal of grace was to see it as God’s love being expressed to a soul by the presence of the Spirit himself. In his favor Aquinas knew that for ages grace had been treated as a distinct entity in the Eucharist—with the elements graciously transformed into Christ’s body and blood. This set up a free-standing grace: “Since therefore the grace of the Holy Spirit is a kind of interior disposition infused into us which inclines us to act rightly, it makes us do freely whatever is in accordance with grace, and avoid whatever is contrary to it.” The shorthand designation for this dispositional grace was a “habit”—or habitus.

The notion of habitus, a key to Aristotle’s anthropology and psychology, is examined more closely in later chapters. Here it is useful to be alerted to its significance: habitus is the principle meeting point of nature and grace and grace in Aquinas’ spirituality, the gift of grace that supernaturally enhances nature to bear the duties of faith (aliquid inditum homini quasi natura superadditum per gratiae donum). Thus Aquinas’ view of grace combined an anthropocentric responsibility with theocentric enablement: a cooperative model of faith.

Love, here, must be part of the will in order to be crowned with merit, rather than an affection. If, by contrast, love is an affective response—something God stirs in the soul—it would be non-meritorious to the person who loves. But this is not the case for Aquinas: his theology turned on a disaffected version of love. With love seen as a choice, even though enabled by a God-given habitus, his premise that salvation comes through a faith formed by love set up a progressive model of justification.

Cornelius Ernst rightly identified this cooperative model as semi-Pelagian. Aquinas held, with Pelagius, that human culpability requires that moral decisions be made freely. But, like Augustine, and against Pelagius, he held that original sin destroys any human ability to choose well. Restoration comes only by God’s grace. This led to the conundrum that morality requires free will, but original sin precludes it. Semi-Pelagians offered a solution: God provides an assisting grace that enables but does not compel the will to choose the good. Culpability is then based on the failure to apply God’s gracious enablement.[3]

Personally, I don’t think what I just shared directly answers McCall’s question; but indirectly, and for my purposes I think it does. Like I intimated earlier, I am not exactly sure what McCall has in mind in his own quote, and when he refers to Alston; knowing that would help promote further and more fruitful discussion. But from my perspective, what I just shared illustrates what I have always meant by substance metaphysics. Even though what I shared is an application of this metaphysic within the realm of salvation and anthropology, it can be extrapolated back to God’s being in his inner life (in se), at which point we start thinking of God as pure being (which McCall, in his book, does address at some length). Or we might think of God as a monad, and then, as Aquinas did, attempt to evangelize this concept of God with Christian categories such as Trinity, Persons, Relations; we may attempt to personalize the monad, but the monad in itself, definitionally, remains impersonal and a thing.

Ron Frost got me started on my thinking in regard to the problem of substance metaphysics, but guys like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and their actualism—being in becoming—have taken things deeper in regard to thinking of God, salvation, so on and so forth in terms that are fully personalized rather than in terms that are impersonalized and qualitized. This is what I think substance metaphysics does to Christian theology; I think it de-emphasizes and depersonalizes what is presented and revealed as fully personal in the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. I have written much more on this theme, and used both Barth and Torrance to help un-pack this further, elsewhere (here on the blog).

As far as providing the type of response that I believe McCall is asking for, this might be problematic; particularly because of the disparate nature between the analytical approach to theology versus the non-analytical. That’s not to say that a cogent and clear definition of substance metaphysics cannot be supplied, I’m just not sure, though, that whatever that might look like, that it will actually meet the standards that McCall, Alston, et al. are looking for. I think there are other pressures involved in trying to understand what in fact critical theologians mean by substance metaphysics, and I’m hopeful that my little post illustrates how that might be.

Conclusion

While we have covered something that is quite academic and technical in nature, it isn’t that for me. What we have looked at, very briefly in this post, has consequences for very important and fundamental things; particularly towards how we think of God, and His relation to us, His creation, and salvation. All of this has impact towards Christian spirituality, whether we realize that or not. If we approach  God as a substance, at a first order level, then that will impact the way we conceive of God, and thus how we engage His world.

[1] Someone I consider a friend, and someone I like. He, in fact, personally sent his book on Analytic Theology, the one we are engaging with in this particular post.

[2] Thomas H. McCall, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (DownersGrove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 31-2.

[3] RN Frost, Richard Sibbes: God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, Washington: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 74-7.

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A Different Way: A Calvinism where God is Love rather than Law

God is love. For evangelical Calvinists such as myself and Myk Habets this is determinative for how theology ought to be done, and the shape which Christian spirituality should have—the shape of love, Triune love. One of the theses Myk and I wrote for our Evangelical Calvinism book (vol. 1) states in part:

jesusloveThe primacy of God’s triune life is grounded in love, for “God is love.”

Hugh Binning (1627-1653), a young Scottish theologian, spoke 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 he wrote:

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

This is the character of evangelical Calvinism, and we believe it is in contrast to what I have termed classical Calvinism (other terms might be: TULIP Calvinism, Federal/Covenantal theology, Westminster Calvinism, Bezan Calvinism, neo-Puritanism, Lordship salvation, so on and so forth). In a general way classical Calvinism’s character is an outflow of its conception of God, just as ours is (or any theology’s is). The classical Calvinist conception of God starts with a God, I would contend, that is Law based, instead of Love based. This conception subsequently leads to a different understanding of salvation, and a God-world relation than what we will find in an evangelical Calvinist conception.

I was set on the evangelical Calvinist trajectory, contrary to popular belief, not through Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance; but instead, through some Puritans (like Richard Sibbes), John Calvin, Martin Luther, and other historical theological characters. My historical theology and ethics professor in seminary, Dr. Ron Frost, set me, by and large, on the trajectory I find myself today. In his own PhD dissertation he develops the kind of distinction I have just noted relative to the God of love that we find in evangelical Calvinism versus the God of law we find funding classical Calvinism. I will share two quotes from Frost; one highlighting how Calvin fit into a love based conception of God, and the other highlighting the flowering of classical Calvinist thought in the theology of English Puritan William Perkins. You will notice that in Calvin’s approach love of God, and affections are front center; and you will conversely notice how duty, cooperation, and law of God are most prominent in Perkins’ theology. Both of these vignettes can serve as windows for us and illustrative of what distinguishes an evangelical Calvinist ethos  from a classical Calvinist ethos, respectively.

Here is Frost on Calvin:

 Calvin’s rejection of habitusCalvin also rejected the notion of grace-as-a-created-quality, insisting instead that grace is always relational. He was sharply critical of the scholastic discussions of grace, charging in the Institutes (1559) that by it the “schools” have “plunged into a sort of Pelagianism”. In book three of the Institutes,Calvin developed his own doctrine of grace. His view that faith is relational and a matter of the heart—a personal certainty of God’s gracious benevolence—is implicit if not explicit throughout the exposition. The Spirit is the “bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself”. He cited Rom. 5:5, the verse so important to Augustine’s affective theology, that the Spirit pours God’s love into the believer’s heart. He readily associated this with the affective language of moderate mystics: as the Spirit is “persistently boiling away and burning up  our vicious and inordinate desires, he enflames our hearts with the love of God and with zealous devotion.”

In defining faith Calvin derided the medieval-scholastic notion of formed and unformed faith as an attempt “to invent” a “cold quality of faith.” He was similarly critical of the moralistic tendencies inherent in the Thomistic model: “Hence we may judge how dangerous is the scholastic dogma that we can discern the grace of God toward us only by moral conjecture …” Against such ideas, faith actually “consists in assurance rather than in comprehension”. Even Phil. 2:12-13, with its explicit synergism (“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure”), was seen to portray a believer’s appropriate humility as a counterpart to his or her assurance of God’s goodness. He attacked “certain half-papists” who represent Christ as “standing afar off” as an object of faith “and not rather dwelling in us”. The work of justification is, he insisted, a gaze in which the believers are led “to turn aside from the contemplation of our own works and look solely upon God’s mercy and Christ’s perfection.”[2]

We quickly run into some pretty technical stuff in this quote, but what ought to stand out for our purposes is the relational and love ground we see in Calvin’s theology; a ground that is critical of the law based and impersonal ground we are confronted with in classical Calvinism, and it’s Thomistic/Aristotelian understanding.

In Contrast to evangelical Calvinists and John Calvin himself (according to Frost), William Perkins typifies the classical Calvinist feeling and theology. Again, here is Frost, this time on William Perkins:

Perkins’ moralistic assumptions. The Old Testament moral law was fully engaged with Perkins’ supralapsarian theology. Obedience to the law served to display God’s glory among the elect and God’s glory is the goal to which every aspect of the supralapsarian model moves. In Perkins’ view, a person’s ability to achieve God’s glory through obedience requires that the moral quality of every action should be well defined. To this end Perkins offered a taxonomy of sins in his Treatise of the Vocations or Calling of Men that looked to the Mosaic Decalogue. A closer examination of the law as part of Perkins’ theology of God awaits chapter two but some initial comments will introduce Perkins’ place among English theologians who elevated the law.

Perkins’ emphasis on the law was part of a broader movement among the Puritans. Jerald C. Brauer proposed four categories of Purtians: nomists, evangelicals, rationalists, and mystics. His attention was drawn to the smallest of the categories, the mystics, given his interest in Francis Rous. Nevertheless his recognition of the two major groups, nomists and evangelicals, displays the same division among Puritans noted by Schuldiner, Knight and the present study. Brauer, in fact, identifies Sibbes as the Puritan who epitomized the evangelicals. Nomists, according to Brauer, “held the fundamental belief that the divine intention is to recreate obedient creatures who can now, through grace, fulfill the intent of God, namely, obedience.” Brauer’s nomists include Thomas Cartwright, John Field, Walter Travers, John Penry, John Udall, John Greenwood, William Pryn, and Samuel Rutherford. Perkins, overlooked in the list, must be included on the basis of the criteria that Brauer identifies. It was, in fact, Perkins’ written expositions of Federal theology that did the most to promote the importance of obedience to the law for sanctification among Puritans in his era.[3]

Again, there are many threads left dangling in the quote, but what’s important for our purposes is to notice the ethos of law based, and duty driven spirituality present in Perkins’ theology (according to Frost).

What should stand out, hopefully, are some distinct trajectories available within the Reformed tradition. Evangelical Calvinism, as Myk Habets and I have presented it, is a resource project; as such we seek to resource theology, primarily from within the Reformed tradition (with roots in Patristic and catholic theology), that flows from the hermeneutic provided for by the reality that God is indeed love. This is contrariwise to what we find currently in the resource work of classical Calvinists of today. They are starting with a conception of God wherein God’s law is primary, not love; as such the way they read and retrieve the history will follow accordingly. Furthermore, then, the type of Christian spirituality that this latter type of retrieving will lead to, if taken beyond the academy, will lead to a Christianity that is shaped by an ethic of duty, and decision(intellect)-based spirituality. Evangelical Calvinists offer a different way.

 

[1] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theses on a Theme,” in editors Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 428-30.

[2] RN Frost, Richard Sibbes: God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, Washington: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 165-66.

[3] RN Frost, Richard Sibbes. God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, WA: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 47-8.

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.

“He is Personality, for only a person can forgive.” Getting to Know God’s Radical Personalizing Love through Forgiveness

Hugh Ross Mackintosh was a Scottish theologian during the early to mid 20th century; he was also one of my favorite theologian’s – Thomas Forsyth Torrance – favorite teachers. As such, I have started reading some of HR Mackintosh’s books, and I am beginning to see why he was Torrance’s favored teacher. For the rest of this post we will hear from Mackintosh as he writes on the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ in the act of forgiveness for us.

As we quickly become children of the information technology age (no matter how old we are biologically) we have access to insurmountable amounts of all types of information; Christian teaching is penitentno exception. Something though that I have found a dearth of, even in this age, is much theological discussion in regard to forgiveness. Yes, we certainly can find pretty academic discussions about the atoning work of Christ, and all its attendant theories, but rarely have I seen a sustained blog post, theological essay, etc. developing the theme of Christian forgiveness – and I am referring to ‘forgiveness’ as a theo-psychical reality, something that impacts us (the recipients of God’s forgiveness in Christ) at a psychological level; and as something that promotes a healthy well-being and trajectory for us to live from in our relationship with God and in fellowship with others.

Mackintosh actually wrote a whole book dedicated to this reality entitled: The Christian Experience of Forgiveness. He presses into the idea that in the process of forgiveness, and what it took for that to happen, on God’s side, the character of God in Jesus Christ is seen most clearly – this fits well with Karl Barth’s concept of revelation is reconciliation, something that TF Torrance ascribed to as well. But far from being an abstract theological concept, what Mackintosh demonstrates is that God’s forgiveness serves as a concrete reality that has the capacity to penetrate the structures of our sinful minds and hearts to the point that we can experience the freshness of God’s total liberating presence, which not only involves, of course, psychological rest, but in a more important sense it restores us into a participative relationship with the triune God wherein, by grace, we experience the freedom that God experiences within His own life – this is quite radical! Here is what Mackintosh has written:

It is simply psychological fact, I am persuaded, that the only people in the world to-day who live in the glad consciousness that their sins have been forgiven are those who have encountered Jesus. They have met Him in the lives of the good; above all, they have stood face to face with Him as He shows Himself in the Gospels, and in His presence they have been able to trust the Father’s mercy and begin life again. To them He has become the “Word” of God, not in a philosophical sense, but as the living and loving announcement to their troubled hearts that the Father will be at peace with them. They now know that the essence of God’s nature is just such compassion as Christ’s. To look at Jesus is to know how God would have us think of Himself; the three short years recorded in the Gospels were His self-interpretation; and a sinful man soon discovers that they contain all he needs to know. This is personal relationship at last; it is God dealing with men as the foolish and wandering members of His family, and giving them in pure love a place beside Him.

Thus to receive pardon in the presence of Jesus is an experience which revolutionises our natural thoughts of God. The full truth cannot be expressed by saying that Christ simply corroborates an idea of God long familiar to the average man; rather it is in Christ that for the first time we perceive the true character of God and know, without reasoning, that nothing other or less than this could satisfy. And when we have seen Christ what we know is God, we are then able to call Christ Divine with some complete reality of meaning. Athanasius,  a great man if ever there was one, appears to have supposed that ab initio he could give an account of God in agreed and tolerably simple conceptions, since it was quite possible to formulate a statement of His chief attributes which Greek philosophy would have had no difficulty in countersigning. People who take their religion from the New Testament discover that we have first to let Jesus show us what the Father is like, and that forgiveness, about which philosophy as such does not concern itself, is His characteristic gift. As we contemplate Jesus presented in the Gospels, we discern not merely that God is love, but what kind of love this is. On that crucial point our truth thoughts have all been overheard from Christ. The aid our minds, better perhaps than unverified speculation, to understand what is meant by calling God the Absolute Personality. In no other sort of language can we register precisely the impression He makes on us, as He pardons our sins in Jesus. He is Personality, for only a person can forgive; He is Absolute, for in Him we envisage Love and Holiness invested with boundless and mighty dimensions. The Being whose hand meets ours as we bow before Christ is of a nature infinite and unfathomable.[1]

Let the implications of all that Mackintosh has written bear down on you today, and every day, and keep pressing into the reality, that he describes, of what it means to be forgiven by ‘God the Absolute Personality.’

[1] H.R. Mackintosh, The Christian Experience Of Forgiveness (London: Nisbet&Co. LTD., 1947), 82-3.

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.

An Invitation: Battle to Be a Theologian of the Cross

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Staying alert theologically can be an outright spiritual battle. There is an array of things thrown at us in our daily lives that would seek to thwart the work of the Holy Spirit in a way that would cause us to revert back to the ‘flesh’ (see Galatians 3:1ff). We are born theologians, as we first enter this world through our mother’s womb we are conceived in sin, and so it takes the unilateral and gracious work of God in Christ to take our hearts of stone from us and give us hearts of flesh (see II Cor. 3:1ff) that are soft and malleable to His ways and not ours. If we quench this work of salvation, this work of reconciliation between God and humanity that has taken place in and through the vicarious humanity of Christ for us then we will be theologians of glory. We will seek out ways and systems of thought that take shape in the ‘idol factory’ of our minds and hearts (pace Calvin); we will construct civilization in a way that caters to our god, to ourselves and our desires; we will worship the creation rather than the Creator (see Romans 1), this world is always attempting to subvert and quench the work of the Spirit in our lives – the work that would make us to be theologian’s of the cross who take up our crosses daily and follow Christ (see Matt. 16:22ff). So being a theologian, a Christian theologian, a deep thinker who contemplates upon the depth realities of all that we are and have in Christ is a battle; one where we are required and implored to take every thought captive unto the obedience of Christ and to cast down every thought and imagination that would seek to elevate itself over God (see II Cor. 10); one where we are to cultivate a posture of gratitude and nourishment from the simplicity of the Gospel, in simple devotion to Jesus Christ (see II Cor. 11) submitting to God and resisting the devil (see James 4:7-8) who would attempt to make us into theologian’s of glory worshiping the angel of light rather than the Son of His glory (see Col. 1:13).

I am in this battle, so are you. We live in a world system that is busy. It is busy with “good things,” like making money at all costs, sacrificing our families for Mammon, and subsuming our time under the banner of lust and lampoon, but not under the banner of His love (see Song of Songs). I am in this battle. I have been working really hard at my new job with the railroad. I have been in Railroad school which requires all of my time (literally everyday), and yet I am a theologian, I am a Christian who worships the Triune God of life and hope. It is a battle to not give in and simply become a theologian of glory; not because I have rejected the cross of Christ, but because I simply have no time to devote to my Lord. Not that I can’t do my railroad school work and job as unto the Lord, I can and I will by God’s grace, but I want to do so with understanding. It is important to have the capacity to feed the soul with the depth reality of who God is in Jesus Christ. Otherwise the things of the world, even if they might appear necessary and “good” can lure us into patterns of life that subtly lead us away from the cross, and ultimately lead us to ourselves. Remaining a theologian of the cross is a battle. I can attest to this, as I am sure you can.

I am dedicated, to my dying breath to being a theologian of the cross! There are Christians suffering and being killed all over the world simply because they love Jesus Christ. The least that I can do is press on in the resource and circumstance the Lord has given me, and on their behalf, and as a member of the body of Christ I can and will (Lord willing) grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ; I will pray with understanding (by God’s grace) on behalf of my brothers and sisters who cannot (see Hebrews 4; 7:25). I will bear their burdens (see Galatians 6), and hurt when they hurt (see I Cor. 12), and cry out as if in prison with them (see Hebrews 10), and I will do so (by God’s grace) through studying and research and writing as unto the Lord, and from the Lord. I will be a theologian of the cross, not so I can be smarter than you, or more knowledgeable than you, but in service to God’s body in Christ, in service to his sacred Church.

I invite you to fight this battle with me, and I further invite you to rebuke any thought that would allow you the role of apathy; you are not allowed to do that, and neither am I! We are soldiers for Christ, and part of that, in our part of the world and circumstance in particular means that we avail ourselves to study of God’s Word which includes availing ourselves to the riches that God has given to us in his body in the past and into the present. I could say more, but I will stop. I invite you to the battle, take up your cross daily and follow Christ before it is to late to do good, there is opportunity yet (see Galatians 6).

The Problem of God and Evil answered in Dramatic-Narrative Form and in the Wisdom of the Cross

One question that never seems to go away, even if we would prefer that it did; is the so called problem of evil and God. The Scottish philosopher par excellence, David Hume is famous for rhetorically musing:

“Is He willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

crucifiedMy usual response to this kind of Humian skepticism, when I encounter it usually in evangelistic situations, is that they are starting in the wrong place; more pointedly, that they are starting in the wrong story, and thus ultimately with the wrong conception and categories for thinking about who God is, and how this God acts, and how he has concretely acted for us in and through Jesus Christ. And not only as a past reality, but in a perfect tense, in an ongoing reality that flows from the particular event and act of God in Jesus Christ for us at the cross; which inaugurated and presupposed a whole bunch of things about God’s eschatological life breaking in on us then and now, and into the future. Basically all I want to highlight with this post is a quote from Michael Horton, he captures this kind of shifting-the-story approach when engaging with this purported problem of God and evil:

[O]ur question, therefore, could be transposed in the following manner: If God is a player at all in this drama, much less the playwright, why doesn’t he reduce the problems the characters encounter? In the “divine drama” model, the problem of evil needs to be reconfigured. Without determining the possible positions in advance, the root metaphor nevertheless resists metaphysical speculation. Here, the question is, given the facts of this play. It is a drama with its own plot: creation in the divine image, forfeiting the consummation by rebellion, a promised Messiah and a typological kingdom of God, the advent of the second Adam to rescue fallen image-bearers, and his return “at the end of the age” in order to consummate the forfeited kingdom forever. Its central actor is an unsubstitutable character, as Hans Frei would say. And its answer to evil is practical (acted out) rather than theoretical. No other story could be substantiated to make basically the same point. [Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama, 92.]

Obviously, this kind of narrative-shifting approach to dealing with this philosophical and ethical dilemma of God and evil, is situated in a kind of presuppositionalist mode; which in some ways needs to be corrected a bit. But that notwithstanding, the general principle of this approach is laudable, precisely because it discerns the underlying problem at the center of conceiving of God and the problem of evil. Contrary to Hume’s approach—one that starts in a story wherein humanity’s autonomous reason and rationality reigns supreme—the theo-dramatic approach highlighted by Horton presupposes one crucial thing; that the story is not one of our making, but God who is Lord over creation (not able then to be collapsed into His creation as hyperimmenant approaches do), and this story (creation, in general/salvation-history, in particular) is His story; and His story has cruciform shape come hidden and at the same time revealed in the sullen vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ for us.

So far,  from evil being in competition with a Holy God; what the right story does for the interested reader, is that it reorients the starting questions to those that God Himself has provided in His-tory; and the antecedent reality to this-story is really His kind of life that He has always already shared with His dearly beloved Son bonded in the communing love of the Holy Spirit. An inner life that is shaped by the kind of cross-shapedness that is fitting and fitted for what is finally revealed as the ultimate fulcrum for which creation was originally made; that is to participate in this kind of cruciform life in union with Christ for all eternity. This is the wisdom of God, logos tou staurou, the cross of Christ, the wisdom of the cross.

One consequence of holding to this ‘right story’ is that we come to understand that through God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ, and the story that is funded by that (our lives in relation to His), is that creation/nature has not ever impinged upon God’s character. Our sin did not determine how God has decided to determine Himself for us. What this story underscores is that God has always already, in His wise life, been in the shape that could answer and engage with whatever proclivities His creation might conjure up under its own contingent independence—say starting in the Garden of Eden. Because God is love (i.e. in free Self-given mode), and because He is grace (which is what creation is under-girded by), anything that occurs in this sphere (including evil and its adjunct, sin) has no independent ontology of its own; in other words, sin and evil are always realities that are within the scope of the answer provided by God’s life. Not as if sin and evil determine God’s life, nor in the sense that God determines what evil and sin are; but in the sense that God’s life in its singular core, in its Triune relation, has the overwhelming capacity to answer such things in a way that is fitting to His life of humility and exaltation all in one moment of gracious time.

Good Works, The Work of the Great Deceiver

I am starting to become less and less convinced that Christians, at least in America, actually struggle with things like I am about to highlight in this post. It seems as if a folkism has overtaken American Evangelicalism in a way that pragmatism and utilitarianism rues the day, and principle and doctrinal concerns no longer, for some reason are important—I am somewhat rabbit trailing from where I want to take this post. I hit on this because I think that what this post is going to talk about might be down on the pole of significance for many of us; in fact I think that American Evangelicalism, in general, has so imbibed our feel good pop culture that the concept of ‘good works’ and right standing before God really have no functional meaning for people’s daily lives and spirituality. We are so busy with everyday concerns, trying to make ends meet, watching TV, and entertaining ourselves to death; that serious reflection about doctrinal concerns—like the relation between good works and saved by faith alone—really have no place of import in our lives.

Nevertheless, for those who might be the exception to my sketch above, this post might mean something to you. As you might have already picked up, I want to bring up the issue of ‘good works’ in the Christian’s life. And in particular, I want to get more insight into what Martin Luther, the Reformer thought, who is primarily known for emphasizing sola fide, ‘faith alone’. Maybe though, maybe I am wrong about what I was getting at in my first paragraph above; maybe in fact good works for Christians are alive and well, maybe good works (whatever those are) are what provides salvation, psychologically, for so many of us. Maybe when we do good things we feel good before God (coram Deo), and maybe when we do bad things we feel guilty before God; so maybe that’s why we try to comfort ourselves by the good that we do, and brushing the bad under the good in a way that makes us feel ‘justified’ before God (and of course we attribute the good to the power of God in our lives, and thus we even feel more justified when we see our good works; in fact we start to look at our good works as the basis for our assurance of salvation). According to John Webster, Martin Luther would totally disagree with you—if you think your good works are a sign of your salvation or something—here is how Webster describes Luther’s view here:

[…] Luther’s doctrine of justification b grace through faith severs the bond between acceptance and self-realization which he found in scholastic anthropology; in effect, his moral ontology calls into question the notion that self-conscious, self-actualizing selfhood is anthropologically primary. Indeed, in a crucial phrase he notes how, in good works as traditionally understood (i.e. as ‘religious’ works), ‘the self has been set up as an idol’. He acutely sees that religious works, and the understanding of the human person through which their significance is expounded, have become an exercise in self-preservation; good works are in league with human egotism, and their consequence is accordingly the deepening of human depravity and not release from it. For such works have become ‘merely acts of appeasement and self-righteous attempts at self-salvation. Luther recognised the depth of the corruption of the self which attempts to turn all goods to itself’. The target of Luther’s critique is thus the prudential calculation of benefits which might accrue to the agent on the basis of certain kinds of moral performance; acts undertaken in anticipation of rewards are ipso facto disqualified as good works, because within them lurks the sinful, self-realizing ego. If the Christian is related to his or her good works ‘self-centeredly’, the result is that chronic inflammation of the self which is the curse of sin. [John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology, 163.]

This seems like a dilemma! If good works aren’t the sign of my salvation; if good works can’t provide me with assurance of salvation, then what or who can? If good works which are done by natural Pelagian impulse only serve to really further my own self-deception about how sinful I am—as T. F. Torrance would say ‘all the way down’—then I am of all men most to be pitied.

Of course the answer is ‘faith’, the faith of Christ at work in us by the Spirit. This is the ground of assurance, it is the faith of and the faith in Christ that resolves the dilemma. Good works, the ones we have been recreated in, in Christ (Eph. 2:10); are a result of the overflow of relationship that we already have with Christ. We don’t look to our good works as if those are our ‘Yes’ before God, He already said ‘No’ to them at the cross; instead, with the Apostle Paul we look to Christ where ‘all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory’ (II Cor. 1:20).

What Luther’s emphasis can provide is a way out of a moralistic Christian spirituality that can only produce introspective navel gazing Christians who ultimately are driven by angst, instead of the power of God, which is the true Gospel of Jesus Christ; the one that we are not ashamed of (Romans 1:16).

The Sermon on the Mount [and Barth]: Living the Obedient Life, Now or Later?

The Sermon on the Mount, so called, is one of the most recognizable pieces of scripture ever to be written; even pagans (well some) have heard of it. There are many ways into this sermon, many interpretations and frames of it; but since I am reading on how Karl Barth interpreted this section of scripture, we will focus on his ‘way in’. Indeed, Barth’s resonance with this area of holy writ is resonate with my own understanding of this passage; Barth, of course, offers a Christ-centric reading of the sermon, and he does so biblically theologically. In other words, Barth sees Jesus as the fulfillment, the New Moses, who went up Mount Sinai and received the Decalouge; and yet in the case of Christ, for Barth, Jesus is the subject and fulfillment of the Law, he is the embodiment and particular point of the Law. Christ is the only ‘human’ who had a chance to fulfill the dictates of the Law, for us; and now we are invited to echo Christ’s life as we have been united to his mediating gracious humanity by the Holy Spirit’s recreative and ‘unioning’ work in our lives (this is my gloss). Here is the account of Barth’s reading that A. Katherine Grieb provides:

Barth insists that the Sermon on the Mount, like any other biblical text, must be read in light of its context, that is, in a special connection with the theme of God’s reign as it has come in the person of Jesus Christ in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. This is as true of the Sermon on the Mount as it is of the other great discourses in Matthew. Now it is Jesus himself who defines the sphere in which he is present with those whom he calls. The order that constitutes the life of the people of God, for that is what the Sermon on the Mount is, as it repeats and confirms the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law, is now fulfilled by God in Christ for human salvation (II/2, 687). So even if the Sermon seems to be concerned with problems of human life (marriage, swearing, enemies, almsgiving, praying, and fasting), this is incidental and by way of illustration — which is why it has always proved impossible to construct a picture of the Christian life from these directions. The picture they offer is the picture of the One who gives these directions and of the one who receives them. The picture shows God’s reign, Jesus Christ, and the new human creature. They point, as the Ten Commandments point, to what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ (II/2, 688).

So Barth can say: “If the Ten Commandments state where [humanity] may and should stand before and with God, the Sermon on the Mount declares that [it] really has been placed there by God’s own deed. If the Ten Commandments are a preface, the Sermon on the Mount is in a sense a postscript (II/2, 688). The only question now is whether the church will live or not live in the fullness of life already granted to it. The Sermon on the Mount declares: “God has irrevocably and indissolubly set up the kingdom of [God’s] grace … which as such is superior to all other powers, to which, in spite of their resistance, they belong, and which they cannot help but serve” (688). [Katherine A Grieb, Chapter 6: “Living in Righteousness: Karl Barth and the Sermon on the Mount,102 in Thy Word Is Truth: Barth On Scripture, edited by George Hunsinger.]

So in contrast to something like my lullabies, those that I was weaned on as a dispensationalist exegete, Barth does not see the Sermon on the Mount as an annex only to be realized by the Jewish people in the coming millennial kingdom (a theme which Grieb also highlights in this, her chapter I have just quoted from); no, Barth sees the ethos and Logos (two loci that Grieb also highlights as she appropriates Aristotle’s ‘pathos, ethos, and Logos’ from Jarisov Pelikan’s application of these to Augustine’s, Chrysostom’s, and Luther’s interpretation of this ‘Sermon’) of the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus himself. So we can see the difference between something like the dispensational approach (or even the ‘Liberal’ approach), and Barth’s. Barth offers a highly realized notion and application of this sermon; because he sees the ideals of the Sermon already fulfilled, already completed in the person of Jesus Christ. The Sermon, then, isn’t something we are waiting for; the Sermon has already come, and it is preached everyday, afresh and anew as we live from and through the Spirit anointed humanity of Jesus Christ. We have been called to an Spirit inspired obedience that is truly counter cultural (and I mean counter church cultural in many ways). We (if we follow Barth on this) understand that this world has already been crucified to us, and us to the world (to borrow a Paulinism from Gal. 6); and so we don’t do what might be considered expedient, instead we stand on and in the obedience of Jesus Christ. This obedience is an eschatological obedience that breaks in on us every morning when we wake up; it is an obedience that is waiting for us with Spirit formed breath and life; it is obedience, like poetry, that has already been written, just waiting for us to read, act, and respond from. It is an obedience, the obedience of Christ, that has contradicted this world system and everything this world system believes is real (which is an illusion in light of the reality of Christ!).

We ought, then to live from the obedience of Jesus Christ, from his humanity for us — which is still for us, just read Hebrews 7:25 — we aren’t waiting for the Sermon to be fulfilled; the Sermon’s reality is in the New Humanity of which Jesus Christ is its first fruits.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. ~Colossians 2:6-8 (NIV)

John Calvin, John Cotton on Assurance

*Repost on John Calvin number three.

English Puritanism was a “divided house”, there were those who followed William Perkins, and those who followed Richard Sibbes and John Cotton. The issue of division was oriented primarily around the concept of “assurance” of salvation. Sibbes and Cotton held that this issue was resolved with an “assurance of faith” (or simply knowledge of God and the objective criteria of God’s Word—illuminated in the heart of the believer); versus Perkins (and camp) who believed that sanctification and the practical syllogism, or external works, served as the final basis for determining if indeed a person was elect or not. John Cotton believed that John Calvin was in the former camp, and that “good works” or the “practical syllogism” were not the basis for determining one’s election, note:

And seeing we all profess . . . to hold forth protestant doctrine, let us hold it forth in the language of Calvin and others [of] our best protestants, who speak of purity of life and growth in grace and all the works of sanctification as the effects and consequents of our assurance of faith . . . . And therefore if we will speak as protestants, we must not speak of good works as cause or ways of our first assurance. . . . [Y]et indeed you carry it otherwise. . . . Which, seeing it disallowed by the chief protestant writers, if you contrary to them do hold it forth for protestant doctrine, that we may gather our first assurance of justification from our sanctification, it is not the change of words that will change that matter. (Ron Frost, unpublished PhD Dissertation, Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology, King’s College, University of London 1996, 13, quoting Hall, Antinomian, 133-34, quoting John Cotton’s, Rejoinder)

Here Cotton is responding to the charge that he is an antinomian.

What I want to highlight is that historically “Calvinism” has more nuance to it than popularly understood today. There were “Free Grace Calvinists” (e.g. Richard Sibbes, John Cotton, et al), and there were “Federalist Calvinists” [”Law-Keeping”] (e.g. William Perkins, William Aames, et al). I appreciate the former, and believe with both Cotton and Calvin, that assurance of salvation is solely and objectively based upon the witness of GOD’S WORD, emphasizing God’s faithfulness in salvation, rather than my own. Like Cotton, I see justification as distinct, yet inseparably related to sanctification, and consequently hold that sanctification does not serve as the BASIS for anyone’s assurance of salvation . . . but that sanctification, in scripture, is the instrumental means through which the light of Christ is brought to bear on exposing the darkness of this world system. The consequence of sanctification, primarily, is to cause unbelieving man to see the Christian’s good works and glorify and praise God.