Providing Some Theological Correction for John Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance: From Evangelical Calvinism, Volume 2

I think I am going to start doing some posts that refer to our just released book Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion; in other words, I will share particular quotes from particular chapters, and do what I do as a blogger: reflect and
engage with that material. In this post I will briefly engage with something I wrote in my personal chapter for the book entitled: “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance and the ‘Faith of Christ.’ In my chapter I offer a constructive critique of Calvin’s doctrine of assurance of salvation, while also constructively picking up on the themes within it that indeed fit well with the type of Christ concentrated/conditioned understanding of all things that Evangelical Calvinism is becoming known;  particularly, of course, as we rely on Barth and Torrance for much of our theological impulses. In our volume 1 Evangelical Calvinism book Myk Habets and I co-wrote a chapter wherein we offered 15 theological thesis that he and I see as the kind of touchstone contours of thought that we see as definitive for our style of EC thinking. One of those was that we believe, along with John Calvin, that assurance of salvation is of the essence of faith. My chapter in this new volume 2 actually takes a critical look at that through critique offered by the theological soundings present in Barth’s and Torrance’s theological offerings.

That said, part of the critique I made of Calvin on this front gets into Calvin’s doctrine of election/reprobation, and how he deploys the absolutum decretum. This doctrine, and the way Calvin’s kind of asymmetrical understanding of election and reprobation functions is the point at which I conclude that Calvin’s theological superstructure can’t really support his laudable thesis that assurance is the essence of saving faith. So I critique him on that front, and then contructively help him along through the theological categories of Barth and Torrance; with particular focus on the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. But in critique of Calvin I actually appeal to a critique that Steve Holmes made of Calvin on Calvin’s doctrine of assurance and reprobation and temporary faith. Here’s the quote I quoted from Holmes on this in my chapter:

The weakness in Calvin’s account of predestination, I suggest, is that the doctrine of reprobation is detached, Christless and hidden in the unsearchable purposes of God. As such it bears no comparison with the doctrine of election, but remains something less than a Christian doctrine. There is, in Calvin’s account, a fundamental difference between election and reprobation. Contra Barth, Calvin’s failure is not that he teaches a symmetrical double decree (Barth speaks of ‘the classical doctrine with its opposing categories of “elect” and “reprobate”’), but that he has almost no room for the doctrine of reprobation in his account.

This difference, this asymmetry, is ‘a very amiable fault’; it gives insight into Calvin the pastor, whose heart and mind were full of the glories of God’s gift of salvation in Christ—so different from the caricature so often painted. Calvin’s doctrine fails not because of a double decree, because the ‘No’ is equal to the ‘Yes’, but because the ‘No’ does not really enter his thinking. It is a logical result of the ‘Yes’, and necessary for the ‘Yes’ truly to be ‘Yes’, but, whereas election is bound up in his theology, it is the very fact that he is seemingly not interested in reprobation, that he has not brought it within the Trinitarian scope of his system, that makes it such a weak point. That is to say, Calvin’s doctrine fails to be gospel, is not ‘of all words . . . the best’, because he gives no doctrinal content to his account of reprobation and hence has no meaningful symmetry between the two decrees.[1]

And I write, just following this quote from Holmes in my chapter:

For Holmes, Calvin is so enamored with the positive aspect of election for the elect of God in Christ, that reprobation, as a doctrine, really has little or no place in the theology of Calvin.20 Holmes believes this is further exacerbated when attempting to provide assurance for weary souls, because, as Holmes writes, “the point at which Calvin appears to engage in special pleading in his attempt to give assurance to believers is when he speaks of ‘temporary faith’ (III.24.7–9)….”[2]

In brief, the problem for Calvin, and for anyone who holds to a classical doctrine of double predestination, is that assurance of salvation will indeed be elusive for the weary soul. If Christ only reveals the positive side of predestination, election, and not the negative side, reprobation, then we end up with some serious issues in regard to giving an account for assurance of salvation. In Calvin’s mind the elect could look to the decree, to Christ, and see him as the mirror of election for them; but of course, as we leave off with reference to Holmes’ critique of Calvin, Calvin also had the concept of ‘temporary faith’ operative in his theology, coupled with the idea that reprobation was hidden back in the secret decree of God (unlike his doctrine of election which was revealed, according to Calvin, in Christ). If someone could “look” elect, but only have a temporary ineffectual faith, and if reprobation was not accounted for positively in Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, then it becomes clear how anxiety for folks could remain; and it did.

These are the areas I critique Calvin of; I use Holmes and Barth. But I don’t leave off there, and of course I offer more development and substantiation for my critique of Calvin on this front in the chapter. After a description of Calvin’s understanding of reprobation/election and its implications towards assurance of salvation, I get into Barth’s and Torrance’s theology as a helper and constructive course correction for Calvin. I point up Barth’s reification of the classical doctrine of election/reprobation, and then how Torrance also develops that; I show, in contrast to Calvin’s doctrine here, how they have the resources to actually offer a real doctrine of assurance precisely at the point where Calvin’s doctrine is less than laudable: i.e. when we start talking about election and reprobation.

I don’t leave off with a negative note in regard to Calvin though; I show how he offered a properly Christ concentrated mode of theology in other areas of his theology, particularly when that came to his double grace and union with Christ conceptions of salvation and Christology.

Anyway, maybe this will whet your appetite enough to go and buy our book. If not I’ll share stuff from other chapters in order to give you all a feel for what to expect. Our authors really did bring a set of stellar contributions to make this volume 2 the outstanding work that I think it is.

[1] Holmes, Listening To The Past, 129–30 in 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 an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017), 39.

[2] Bobby Grow, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith,” 39-40.

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Miscellenies on a Doctrine of Assurance of Salvation in the Theologies of Karl Barth and John Calvin with Reference to Stephen Holmes

I am supposed to be writing a chapter in our forthcoming Evangelical Calvinism book (Volume 2) on the doctrine of assurance of salvation; and I am, it is just a very slow process. The rest of this post will engage with this ‘doctrine’ embedded as it is in a discussion about Calvin’s understanding of election and reprobation vis-à-vis Barth’s.

Stephen R. Holmes (or Steve Holmes as I know him on Facebook) has written a little book entitled Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology. One of the chapters in his book is young-calvinentitled: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Reprobation. As he himself notes this particular chapter is less about Barth’s doctrine (although it is), and more about developing a history for a Reformed understanding of election/reprobation and how that relates latterly to a doctrine of assurance of salvation (or not). As Holmes develops his material he focuses in on, as I noted above, on John Calvin and his doctrine of election. Holmes concludes, in summary, that Calvin’s doctrine of election (as, in general, that of all of the prominent voices in Post-Reformed orthodoxy) ultimately fails in providing assurance of salvation because Calvin does not really have a robust place for reprobation in his theology; with the result that reprobation remains ‘Christless,’ that it does indeed remain in the dark recesses of God’s remote will as it were. Beyond this, what Holmes sees as problematic, especially in providing the kind of assurance of salvation that Calvin wanted to provide for his parishioners, was that Calvin had an idea of ‘temporary faith’ (the idea that people could look like they have a genuine effectual saving faith, but in the final analysis it only ‘appeared’ that way, in the end they really weren’t one of the elect of Christ) in his broader doctrine of salvation. When coupled with a doctrine of reprobation that remains in the darkness of God’s remote or secret will, it becomes apparent why Holmes believes Calvin’s doctrine[s] here fail.

An Aside: I think that most of what we are discussing in this post is pretty much lost on most people in the church of Jesus Christ today. The irony, though, is that the grammar of salvation that people appeal to on a daily basis (particularly evangelicals in North America and in the rest of the Western world) finds its context and meaning in the type of “abstract” discussion we are engaging with in this post. I really have hardly any hope that the people that I would like to read this most will ever read or consider such things. So I guess this means I am just writing this for you, dear reader. And if not you, and even if for you, I write this as an act of worship unto God (if I don’t do that, then I feel as if writing and contemplating such things in such a small corner of the vast ocean of the internet would almost seem meaningless … hopefully the elect angels might read this).

So Steve Holmes has written this (and he has written more, and what he has written does actually end up being much more on the classical side of Calvin rather than the neo-classical side of Barth) in regard to Calvin’s flawed doctrine of election and reprobation as opposed to Barth’s more robust offering.

Barth’s great concern in treating the doctrine of election is that it should be gospel – good news. He begins with the programmatic assertion ‘The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or hear it is the best …’ Given this, a rapid way to an idea, at least, of what separated Barth from the Reformed tradition might be attained by asking what prevented previous Reformed accounts from fulfilling this laudable aim. Why, for instance, did Calvin’s presentation of election, certainly intended to offer assurance of salvation to worried believers, not succeed?

Well, the point at which Calvin appears to engage in special pleading in his attempt to give assurance to believers is when he speaks of ‘temporary faith’ (III.24.7-9). Those with this ‘temporary faith’, according to Calvin, ‘never cleaved to Christ with the heartfelt trust in which the certainty of election has, I say, been established for us’. They may indeed ‘have signs of a call that are similar to those of the elect’, but lack ‘the sure establishment of election’ (III.24.7). Such phrases achieve the very opposite of their intention, however, suggesting that there is something that masquerades as true faith, but is not. How can any believer know whether he or she feels a ‘sure establishment’ or whether it is merely ‘signs of a call similar to those of the elect’? The invitation for years of morbid introspection by later believers is surely here–at this point, with these phrases in my ears, that I cannot be sure of my own salvation. There is no assurance, and so the doctrine fails to be gospel, instead informing me that there is a way of being, indistinguishable (to those living it at least) from Christian being, which is nonetheless supremely dangerous. The weakness in Calvin’s account of predestination, I suggest, is that the doctrine of reprobation is detached. Christless and hidden in the unsearchable purposes of God. As such it bears no comparison with the doctrine of election, but remains something less than a Christian doctrine. There is, in Calvin’s account, a fundamental difference between election and reprobation. Contra Barth, Calvin’s failure is not that he teaches a symmetrical double decree (Barth speaks of ‘the classical doctrine with its opposing categories of “elect” and “reprobate”’), but that he has almost no room for the doctrine of reprobation in his account.

This difference, this asymmetry, is ‘a very amiable fault’; it gives insight into Calvin the pastor, whose heart and mind were full of the glories of God’s gift of salvation in Christ–so different from the caricature often painted. Calvin’s doctrine fails not because of a double decree, because the ‘No’ is equal to the ‘Yes’, but because the ‘No’ does not really enter his thinking. It is a logical result of the ‘Yes’, and necessary for the ‘Yes’ truly to be ‘Yes’, but, whereas election is bound up in his theology, it is the very fact that he is seemingly not interested in reprobation, that he has not brought it within the Trinitarian scope of his system, that makes it such a weak point. That is to say, Calvin’s doctrine fails to be gospel, is not ‘of all words … the best’, because he gives no doctrinal content to his account of reprobation and hence has no meaningful symmetry between the two decrees.[1]

For Holmes Calvin’s doctrine of reprobation fails because he really doesn’t have a ‘positive’ one at all in his theology. As a result (as noted) when coupled with a conception of ‘temporary faith’ it becomes clear why folks submitted to this theology (especially as it blossomed in Puritan theologies), within ecclesiopolitical contexts where ‘normal public life’ and ‘special private religious life’ were one and the same, why folks struggled desperately with assurance of salvation. They might have wondered (and did): “Am I one of the elect or reprobate?” “Do I have a temporary faith, or real ‘effectual’ saving faith; do I just appear to be one of the elect of Christ, or do I fall into the abyss of reprobation?” These seem to be honest indicators of how Calvin’s theology of reprobation and assurance failed. Barth didn’t have this problem (we will have to leave this for another day).

All of this begs the question though: If a properly conceived doctrine of election/reprobation can be presented (and I think it can be as evinced in the theology of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance), do we even end up with a theological category known as “assurance of salvation” (as a corollary of ‘reprobation’)? I would say the answer to this question is No! Assurance of salvation only becomes a psychological category and fall-out for folks if the premises that funded Calvin’s thought (for example) on the subject of predestination are taken seriously and to its logical conclusion (as evinced in later Federal theology and experimental predestinarianism, so called). In other words, and ironically, I believe that ‘assurance of salvation’ as a doctrine should be a non-doctrine, and that any angst associated with it (insofar as it points weary souls back to themselves rather than to Christ alone) ought to be thrown into the abyss where it (as a teaching) ought to experience eternal conscious torment.

[1] Stephen R. Holmes, Listening To The Past: The Place Of Tradition In Theology (UK/Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster Press/Baker Academic, 2002), 129-30.

Classical and Neo-Classical Understandings of Assurance and Reprobation in Discussion

I am supposed to be writing a chapter in our forthcoming Evangelical Calvinism book (Volume 2) on the doctrine of assurance of salvation; confessionaland I am, it is just a very slow process. The rest of this post will engage with this ‘doctrine’ embedded as it is in a discussion about Calvin’s understanding of election and reprobation vis-à-vis Barth’s.

Stephen R. Holmes (or Steve Holmes as I know him on Facebook) has written a little book entitled Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology. One of the chapters in his book is entitled: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Reprobation. As he himself notes this particular chapter is less about Barth’s doctrine (although it is), and more about developing a history for a Reformed understanding of election/reprobation and how that relates latterly to a doctrine of assurance of salvation (or not). As Holmes develops his material he focuses in on, as I noted above, on John Calvin and his doctrine of election. Holmes concludes, in summary, that Calvin’s doctrine of election (as, in general, that of all of the prominent voices in Post-Reformed orthodoxy) ultimately fails in providing assurance of salvation because Calvin does not really have a robust place for reprobation in his theology; with the result that reprobation remains ‘Christless,’ that it does indeed remain in the dark recesses of God’s remote will as it were. Beyond this, what Holmes sees as problematic, especially in providing the kind of assurance of salvation that Calvin wanted to provide for his parishioners, was that Calvin had an idea of ‘temporary faith’ (the idea that people could look like they have a genuine effectual saving faith, but in the final analysis it only ‘appeared’ that way, in the end they really weren’t one of the elect of Christ) in his broader doctrine of salvation. When coupled with a doctrine of reprobation that remains in the darkness of God’s remote or secret will, it becomes apparent why Holmes believes Calvin’s doctrine[s] here fail.

An Aside: I think that most of what we are discussing in this post is pretty much lost on most people in the church of Jesus Christ today. The irony, though, is that the grammar of salvation that people appeal to on a daily basis (particularly evangelicals in North America and in the rest of the Western world) finds its context and meaning in the type of “abstract” discussion we are engaging with in this post. I really have hardly any hope that the people that I would like to read this most will ever read or consider such things. So I guess this means I am just writing this for you, dear reader. And if not you, and even if for you, I write this as an act of worship unto God (if I don’t do that, then I feel as if writing and contemplating such things in such a small corner of the vast ocean of the internet would almost seem meaningless … hopefully the elect angels might read this).

So Steve Holmes has written this (and he has written more, and what he has written does actually end up being much more on the classical side of Calvin rather than the neo-classical side of Barth) in regard to Calvin’s flawed doctrine of election and reprobation as opposed to Barth’s more robust offering.

Barth’s great concern in treating the doctrine of election is that it should be gospel – good news. He begins with the programmatic assertion ‘The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or hear it is the best …’ Given this, a rapid way to an idea, at least, of what separated Barth from the Reformed tradition might be attained by asking what prevented previous Reformed accounts from fulfilling this laudable aim. Why, for instance, did Calvin’s presentation of election, certainly intended to offer assurance of salvation to worried believers, not succeed?

Well, the point at which Calvin appears to engage in special pleading in his attempt to give assurance to believers is when speaks of ‘temporary faith’ (III.24.7-9). Those with this ‘temporary faith’, according to Calvin, ‘never cleaved to Christ with the heartfelt trust in which the certainty of election has, I say, been established for us’. They may indeed ‘have signs of a call that are similar to those of the elect’, but lack ‘the sure establishment of election’ (III.24.7). Such phrases achieve the very opposite of their intention, however, suggesting that there is something that masquerades as true faith, but is not. How can any believer know whether he or she feels a ‘sure establishment’ or whether it is merely ‘signs of a call similar to those of the elect’? The invitation for years of morbid introspection by later believers is surely here–at this point, with these phrases in my ears, that I cannot be sure of my own salvation. There is no assurance, and so the doctrine fails to be gospel, instead informing me that there is a way of being, indistinguishable (to those living it at least) from Christian being, which is nonetheless supremely dangerous. The weakness in Calvin’s account of predestination, I suggest, is that the doctrine of reprobation is detached. Christless and hidden in the unsearchable purposes of God. As such it bears no comparison with the doctrine of election, but remains something less than a Christian doctrine. There is, in Calvin’s account, a fundamental difference between election and reprobation. Contra Barth, Calvin’s failure is not that he teaches a symmetrical double decree (Barth speaks of ‘the classical doctrine with its opposing categories of “elect” and “reprobate”’), but that he has almost no room for the doctrine of reprobation in his account.

This difference, this asymmetry, is ‘a very amiable fault’; it gives insight into Calvin the pastor, whose heart and mind were full of the glories of God’s gift of salvation in Christ–so different from the caricature often painted. Calvin’s doctrine fails not because of a double decree, because the ‘No’ is equal to the ‘Yes’, but because the ‘No’ does not really enter his thinking. It is a logical result of the ‘Yes’, and necessary for the ‘Yes’ truly to be ‘Yes’, but, whereas election is bound up in his theology, it is the very fact that he is seemingly not interested in reprobation, that he has not brought it within the Trinitarian scope of his system, that makes it such a weak point. That is to say, Calvin’s doctrine fails to be gospel, is not ‘of all words … the best’, because he gives no doctrinal content to his account of reprobation and hence has no meaningful symmetry between the two decrees.[1]

For Holmes Calvin’s doctrine of reprobation fails because he really doesn’t have a ‘positive’ one at all in his theology. As a result (as noted) when coupled with a conception of ‘temporary faith’ it becomes clear why folks submitted to this theology (especially as it blossomed in Puritan theologies), within ecclesiopolitical contexts where ‘normal public life’ and ‘special private religious life’ were one and the same, why folks struggled desperately with assurance of salvation. They might have wondered (and did): “Am I one of the elect or reprobate?” “Do I have a temporary faith, or real ‘effectual’ saving faith; do I just appear to be one of the elect of Christ, or do I fall into the abyss of reprobation?” These seem to be honest indicators of how Calvin’s theology of reprobation and assurance failed. Barth didn’t have this problem (we will have to leave this for another day).

All of this begs the question though: If a properly conceived doctrine of election/reprobation can be presented (and I think it can be as evinced in the theology of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance), do we even end up with a theological category known as “assurance of salvation” (as a corollary of ‘reprobation’)? I would say the answer to this question is No! Assurance of salvation only becomes a psychological category and fall-out for folks if the premises that funded Calvin’s thought (for example) on the subject of predestination are taken seriously and to its logical conclusion (as evinced in later Federal theology and experimental predestinarianism, so called). In other words, and ironically, I believe that ‘assurance of salvation’ as a doctrine should be a non-doctrine, and that any angst associated with it (insofar as it points weary souls back to themselves rather than to Christ alone) ought to be thrown into the abyss where it (as a teaching) ought to experience eternal conscious torment.

[1] Stephen R. Holmes, Listening To The Past: The Place Of Tradition In Theology (UK/Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster Press/Baker Academic, 2002), 129-30.

Vanishing the Golden Age of non-Traditioned Bible Reading: A significant difference between two traditions, the Reformed and Radically Reformed (the Anabaptists)

Tradition and Theological reflection (from various Traditions) is inevitable, it is an aspect of being creatures, and being located somewhere, historically. Throughout the rest of this short article I will reflect, along with Stephen Holmes, (Baptist theologian, par excellence) upon the inevitability of tradition in regard to interpreting Scripture and doing theology as Christian persons; and then further, I will apply this reflection on the 220px-Cardinal_Giovanni_de'_Mediciinevitability of tradition making and thinking as Christians (in particular, it is actually the reality for all human beings, Christian or not) to an ecclesiological divide between Reformed thinkers and Anabaptist thinkers (again, tracking along with Stephen Holmes).

Maybe you, like me, grow weary of people claiming to be Biblicists. What these people mean, like Daniel Montgomery recently claimed to be in the Chicago-Calvinist-non-Calvinist debate, is that they are simply following the Bible without appeal to any type of tradition, or school of thought within the history of Christian ideas (like maybe appealing to Calvin or Barth, et. al.). But as we all should know, if we are going to be humble enough and self-critical enough, tradition is inescapable reality. In fact to even claim to have the capacity to get back to the purest form of Scripture, unmediated and unencumbered by the layers of tradition is itself a tradition that has developed in the history of Christian ideas. To drive this point home further let’s here from Stephen Holmes on this very reality:

To attempt to do theology without noticing the tradition, then, is to deny, or at least to attempt to escape from, our historical locatedness. It is worth stressing initially that this locatedness is unavoidable: it cannot be escaped from. If we imagine trying to ignore all who have gone before, and coming to the testimony of the apostles in an unmediated form, we simply cannot do it, as will be clear if we begin to imagine what would be involved in the attempt. We might first claim to listen only to the Bible – but the Bible we have, if it is a translation, is shaped by a tradition of Bible translation, and by its translator(s). Should we attempt to avoid this problem by recourse to the original languages, then we would have to learn those languages from somebody, and so would be inducted into a tradition of translating certain words and grammatical constructions in one way and not another, and we would almost certainly have recourse to the lexicons an other aids, which are themselves deposits of the accumulated knowledge of earlier scholars. Further, the standard editions of the Greek New Testament bear witness on nearly every page to the textual criticism that has come up with this text, and not another, and so we cannot even find a text of Scripture that has not been ‘handed on’ to us by those who came before. If we push this imagined quest to the last extreme, we might picture a person who has somehow learnt koine Greek only by studying original texts, and who has even examined every extant manuscript of the New Testament and developed her own canons for textual criticism: on these bases she might claim to have unmediated access to the Scriptures. Still, however, the claim must be false: apart from the archaeological and bibliographic work that has produced the manuscripts she has used, if she speaks English, German or French, or several other languages, her native tongue even has been decisively affected by earlier theological controversies and biblical translations. There is no escape from the mediation of our faith by the tradition.[1]

Far from registering as a negative, tradition can be understood as a gift from God for his church; and this is exactly what Holmes goes on and argues throughout the rest of his short little book.

The point I want to underscore for all of us is that no one can claim an unmediated access to God or to God’s Word in Holy Scripture. As all Protestants should know, we come from a Tradition in the history of the Christian church, indeed, called Protestantism. Part and parcel with our Protestantism, in its history, is reliance upon a Christian Humanist move called ad fontes, or back to the sources. Within the early Protestant movement there were two dominant streams initiated, that continue to stay with us and inform us to this day; i.e. the ‘Reformed way’ (and I include Lutheranism within this way, for this particular point), and/or the ‘Radical Reformed way’ (which would be the Anabaptist mode of thinking amongst us). The Reformed way, and what it understood to be a return to the ‘sources’ was to learn the biblical languages and read the Bible in its original tongue, but is also meant a return to the Church Fathers (Patristic theology) as an ‘authoritative’ way to read and engage with Scripture. For the Anabaptist or Radically Reformed, their ‘back to the sources’ was to jump the ditch all the way back to Scripture alone, an attempt to disentangle itself from any tradition wherein Church and State were intertwined and thus perverted, in their eyes. Holmes, again, has this to say in regard to this kind of split between the Reformed and Radically Reformed:

Calvin, although committed to the principle of sola scriptura, none the less thought it important to stand within the tradition of the Church. It is not just that Calvin owes much (indeed, more than is often recognized) to the immediately preceding theological tradition, although he does; the relevant point is that both in the Institutes and in other places he devotes considerable energy to demonstrating that the positions the Reformers are urging against the Roman Catholic Church are in fact more faithful to the Christian tradition than the Roman alternatives, and, even where disagrees with the recent tradition, he is mindful of the need to specify those disagreements with some exactness, and to defend precisely those points with particular energy. This is no doubt in part due to the polemical nature of his work, but a comparison of that work with his Anabaptist opponents reveals a radically different temper: whereas they were prepared to merely insist on what they believed to be right from Scripture. Calvin felt the need to be in dialogue with earlier theologians. Whilst some, at least, of the Anabaptists explicitly denied having any respect for the teaching of any human authority, it mattered to Calvin that his thought was in continuity with the Christian tradition; he respected the tradition of the Church as something to be taken seriously, even when violently disagreeing with it.[2]

Furthermore:

For the Anabaptists, the history of the Church was a narrative solely of decline; the New Testament was God’s gift to his people, but all that had come afterwards was a losing and falling away from this point. The process of tradition, the handing on of the faith, was a wholly negative process from which true Christians would only seek to escape. Calvin, by contrast, not only saw the patristic period as a largely successful attempt to hold on to and to explore ‘the faith once for all delivered’ (the ecumenical creeds, for example, were useful summaries of the heart of biblical faith, and so to be welcomed and affirmed), but also saw even the recent failures of tradition as important, as part of the context in which the work of recovery had to be done. To make the point with a slogan, the Anabaptists sought to refound the Church, whereas Calvin [and the Reformed] sought to reform it.[3]

We are in a position now to better see how tradition has had a riddled history and application within our own history as Protestant Christians (or as Christians in general). And we can see, I believe, how these disparate threads of tradition-engagement continue to impinge upon us today; particularly as Anabaptism has become entrenched among the younger generations among us.

But it is more complex than this isn’t it? There is always a desire to make power moves among all of us, whether Reformed or Radically Reformed. We either hold to a tradition that sees churchly tradition as bad or good, or somewhere in between.[4]

However, the point remains, no matter how we see tradition, or where we want to insert ourselves within a particular stream of tradition, whether that be back into a perceived golden age of Gospel purity (i.e. prior to Constantine and the so called ecumenical creeds, etc.), or back into an age where we believe Gospel purity received a proper theological grammar (starting back in the Patristic age, in particular with the so called ecumenical creeds and pronouncements), we all think traditionally; and thus we are relativized, and we have no real authority but to appeal to the Lord of history himself, he alone is where all tradition breaks off, finally, in a person (but he himself developed tradition, like in the Old Testament, in order to insert himself into it, redeem it and us and all of created reality in the process).

I would only admonish all of us to recognize the reality: We have no unmediated access to Scripture, we only have a traditioned path, own it!

 

[1] Stephen R. Holmes, Listening To The Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology (USA: Baker Academic, 2002), 6.

[2] Ibid., 14-5.

[3] Ibid., 16-7.

[4] N.T. Wright comes to mind. He is interesting to me, he represents himself somewhat in Anabaptist mode, moving us back beyond and past the ecumenical creeds of Patristic theology, back to the Bible (as it were). And yet he does so as an Anglican and thus Reformed thinker, who thinks from quite pronounced Reformed, even Covenantal themes, themes which developed in the post-Reformed orthodox era of the Protestant church (in the 16th and 17th centuries to be precise). Which illustrates the complexity of all of this.

What is an ‘Onto-Relation’?: Thomas Torrance, Stephen Holmes, and Trinitarian Theology in Relief

Let me just pull this quote out of the broader context from which it is russiantrinitytaken in order to preserve this definition in online form for future reference; if for no one else but me (and keep reading, because at the end of the quote I go off on a tangent in regard to Steve Holmes’ recent book on the Trinity and Thomas Torrance’s following definition of ‘onto-relational’). This definition is so important to understand in regard to grasping Thomas Torrance’s theological project that it is hard to overemphasize it. If Torrance has a metaphysic (which I think he does), then this is it in brief. The following quote from Torrance comes from within a broader context where he is discussing Clerk Maxwell’s approach to science. Torrance argues that Maxwell’s approach comes from a Patristic based conception of relationality and persons-in-relation against the mechanical paradigm of things that dominated the universities and sciences during Maxwell’s era (and we could say still does in many sectors of the sciences: Just think of someone like Richard Dawkins). While Torrance is describing Clerk Maxwell’s approach he provides a definition for what became quite definitive for himself; what became definitive at a metaphysical and even physical level for Torrance was what he called onto-relations. Here is how TF Torrance defines what onto-relations entail:

… It will be sufficient to recall that it was due to the development of relational thinking about the activity of God in creation and incarnation that enabled Christian theology to overcome the static container notion of space, and it was out of this relational thinking that there came the concept of person, unknown in the world before Christianity, in accordance with which it was held that the relations between persons are of constitutive importance for they enter into what persons really are as persons. Thus an onto-relational way of understanding persons in community rejected an atomistic way of thinking of them as self-sufficient, independent, separated individuals who may be organised into a society only through their external relations with one another–the very notion into which John Locke disastrously carried European socio-political thought under the impact of Newtonian atomism and action at a distance….[1]

Recently I read Steve Holmes’ book on the Trinity, in that book he critiques Barth and Dorner, in particular, of introducing an existentialist understanding of person into Trinitarian theology. He argued that the result of this had nothing to do with the way ‘person’ was conceived of for the Patristic framers of ecumenical Trinitarian theology. Whether or not I fully agree with Holmes on this point (which I don’t fully), what would have been of great benefit, would have been if Holmes attempted to engage with Thomas Torrance as an interlocutor on the conception of ‘person’; to engage with TF Torrance’s onto-relational understanding of relationship not only between the Divine Monarxia, but subsequently at an theological anthropological level. I think Torrance offers something from a modern theological landscape, retrieved somewhat from the Patristic period, that would challenge the idea that modern theology should be totally junked in regard to a Trinitarian theology. Torrance stands out as someone, with his category of ‘onto-relational’, that indicates that the modern project has not been a complete waste when it comes to articulating afresh categories for thinking Trinitarian theology.

And we could and should argue that Torrance’s proposal is modern insofar as it draws directly off of the work of Einstein and Clerk Maxwell (among other moderns). The unique thing with Torrance is that he hagiographically ties these modern concepts back into the Patristic paradigm more stridently than someone like Barth does. Nevertheless, Torrance is still largely a modern theologian who seeks to be one in ressourcement.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Christian Theology & Scientific Culture (Belfast: Christian Journals Limited, 1980), 50.

Karl Barth's Election, "The" Alternative to the Classic View

The following is Stephen Holmes describing an account of Karl Barth’s view of election. I am going to simply quote Holmes on Barth, and later, when I have time, I will interact with some of the strengths and weaknesses provided by Barth’s viewpoint (for the most part I see strengths). As you read this account you will note that Barth basically re-works some of the classical theistic/Reformed categories on double-predestination, and ends up with a more faithful Christocentric focus, in my view. Anyway here is Holmes on Barth:

Famously, Barth will discuss the election of particular human beings only after considering the election of the community in its twofold form, Israel and the Church. In willing to be gracious in the particular way God in fact wills to be gracious, the Incarnation of the Divine Son, there is both a ‘Yes’ and a ‘No’, election and reprobation. God elects for humanity life, salvation, forgiveness, hope; for himself he elects death, perdition, even as the Creed has said, hell. This self-reprobation of God is indeed the primary referent of the doctrine of election, in that God’s determination of himself is formally if not materially more basic than his determination of the creature, and so is considered first by Barth. In the eternal election of grace, which is to say in Jesus Christ, God surrenders his own impassibility, embraces the darkness that he was without—and indeed impervious to—until he willed that it should be otherwise. ‘He declared Himself guilty of the contradiction against Himself in which man was involved . . . He made Himself the object of the wrath and judgment to which man had brought himself . . . He took upon Himself the rejection which man had deserved. So says Barth. The apostle put it more succinctly: ‘He became sin for us.’ This is the full content of the divine judgment, of the ‘No’ that is spoken over the evil of the world and of human beings. God elects for himself the consequences of that ‘No’, in saying ‘Yes’ to, that is, in electing, us. That is the whole content of the double decree, the whole content of the ‘Yes’ and the ‘No’ that God pronounces as one word, the whole content the election of grace.

What of our election? We are elected ‘in him’, but not immediately. Our election in Chirst is mediated by the elect community. There is here a high ecclesiology: the Church is not the post factum conglomeration—or even communion—of those who have been elected in Christ; rather, there is a historical community which forms the context for the particular environment of Jesus Christ, and as such is called to witness to him. Just as the single election of Jesus Christ has a twofold form, a ‘Yes’ and a ‘No’, so the single elect community presents a double aspect. Jesus Christ is both the Messiah of Israel and the Lord of the Church, thus the elect community, the body of Christ, is both Israel, which handed over its Messiah to the Gentiles to be crucified, and the Church, which received its risen Lord from the dead. In the one aspect the single elect community thus witnesses to human rejection of God’s election, and in its other aspect it witnesses to God’s rejection of this human rejection, to God’s election of humanity. The one aspect is the community in its passing form, the other the community in its coming form. Israel and the Church are until the eschaton bound together in the one community which exists between these two poles, witnessing to the world both the state of human disobedience and the divine mercy which refuses to accept that state. (Stephen Holmes, “Listening to the Past,” 132-33)

He is advocating a universalism of sorts; in the sense that Christ takes the sins of all humanity upon Himself, thus the objective nature of the atonement applies to all humanity, while the subjective realization of the atonement can be “rejected” by an individual or community. I am not sure if Barth believed that an individual had to “subjectively” recognize their election in Christ in order to be “eternally saved”; to be clear I do believe that an person must “subjectivize” the atonement for themselves, and cease their “rejection” of election in Christ—if not then I do not believe that “elect person” will end up in Heaven.

I think this view of election is a better and more biblical way forward than the typical frame offered by Classically Reformed views of ‘double-predestination’. I think Barth’s perspective, by way of method, is much more astute by placing Christ and the life of God at the center of the discussion on ‘election’. This is contrary to the position the typical double predestinarian understanding which speaks of humanity, apart from Christ, as the ‘center’ of election — which gives us an ‘man-centered’ understanding. T. F. Torrance tweaks Barth’s view a little further, and I am more in line with his appropriation of Barth here — i.e. Torrance avoids the “universalist” implications of Barth’s view of election (I’ll have to try and flesh that out later).

Anyway, I just wanted to provide this alternative understanding of ‘election’, I think it might be enlightening for some; even if you disagree with it 🙂 .