T.F. Torrance Objects to Federal Theology, and So Do I!

Here Paul Molnar gives a good summary overview of some of the reasons that T.F. Torrance objected to ‘Federal’ or ‘Westminster’ Calvinism:

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

I originally wrote this post years ago, but I wanted to reshare it because I am currently working on a book chapter that is attempting to engage with TFT’s thinking on Calvin and Calvinism. One reason I think many do not appreciate Torrance (and Barth) is because they do not fully grasp the theological context TFT was working against. Hopefully this overview, provided by Molnar, will prove helpful in providing further background context on the theological milieu Torrance was working within and against. Some take issue with the characterization that TFT (and his brother, James) provides on Federal or Covenantal theology. But I have read that theology, and its historical development, extensively, and I don’t see any mischaracterization whatsoever. Torrance might not state things, lexically, in the same way that Federal theologians do, or would like. But that doesn’t mean he is materially misrepresenting what that theology teaches or implies about God, salvation, and its mechanics. Evangelical Calvinism’s whole intention, at least from my perspective, is intended to offer an alternative ethos to Westminster styled Federal theology; an ethos that has been present all the way through Reformed theology’s development, and even prior in antecedent thinkers (like Staupitz, Luther, et al.).


The Holy Trinity in Intrarelation as the Divine Monarchia: Attending to the Fatherhood of God as Deifier: The Torrancean Solution

Is the person of Father the source of the Godhead, or is the Godhead (the Divine Monarxia) in intratrinitarian relation the ground of who God is (think perichoresis)? These are technical questions, but ones that have significant theological and ecumenical implications; not to mention fiduciary relevance vis-à-vis the Evangel. Thomas Torrance felt the weight of these questions very acutely, and attempted to address them with heft; particularly as he undertook his dialogue with the Orthodox Church, precisely orbiting around this locus. Indeed, it was Torrance’s response to the above questions wherein he offers one of his most definitive contributions to the theological landscape of the 20th century.

As a way into this I wanted to refer us to John Zizioulas and his response to the questions as I have presented them. Zizioulas thinks from a decidedly Greek Orthodox perspective, and one that is not uncontroversial in his own quarters. Zizioulas is also a contemporary of, and interlocutor to Torrance. As such, referring to Zizioulas makes him that much more significant to what we will be visiting in Torrance’s offering. Here is a key quote from Zizioulas that jumps us directly into this important squabble:

Among the Greek Fathers the unity of God, the one God, and the ontological ‘principle’ or ‘cause’ of the being and life of God does not consist in the one substance of God but in the hypostasis, that is the person of the Father. The one God is not the one substance but the Father, who is the ‘cause’ both of the generation of the Son and of the procession of the Spirit. Consequently, the ontological ‘principle’ of God is traced back, once again, to the person. Thus when we say that God ‘is’ we do not bind the personal freedom of God . . . but we ascribe the being of God to His personal freedom. In a more analytical way this means that God, as Father and not as substance, perpetually confirms through “being” His free will to exist . . .Thus God as person – as the hypostasis of the Father – makes the one divine substance to be that which it is: the One God.[1]

Here Zizioulas seeks, among other things, to inject a notion of relationality into the Godhead, and the Triune Life that is often betrayed by the dominating Western tradition that works with concepts like ‘substance’ and unity rather than ‘person’ and multiplicity as the bases for thinking ‘who’ God is. One problem that might stand out quite immediately, for the perceptive reader of Zizioulas, is the concern that ‘subordination’ is given prominence in Zizioulas’ attempt to ground the ‘source’ of Divine Monarxia in the personal agency of the Father; as if God, at an ontological level, reduces to the person of the Father, making the ‘generation’ of the Son and the Holy Spirit subsidiary to the “Father’s Monarchy.” Indeed, this is a critique that is often levied at the Cappadocians in particular, at least when it comes to this issue; of which, Zizioulas can be seen as a modern iteration (with his own innovative constructions in play).

I only introduce us, very briefly, to Zizioulas in an attempt to problematize things, with the hope of allowing Torrance’s own innovative work to provide a sort of denouement to Zizioulas’ et al. presentation. Full disclosure: I do think Zizioulas’ presentation, while imaginative, ends up being problematic for precisely the sort of subordinationism that he has been criticized for presenting. While his aims are noble, his means to reaching those aims, in my view, fail. This is where Torrance’s own approach is so rich for consideration. I think bringing up Zizioulas is apropos, because I think he identifies a real problem—the de-‘personalization’ of God—but then, again, does not offer an alternative that ultimately reaches the sort of orthodox heights that I’d like to see. Torrance, on the other hand, while also recognizing the same ‘problem’ that Zizioulas did, offers a very fruitful way forward, in my view, by thinking the ‘Monarchy’ from the three persons (hypostases) in intratrinitarian interpenetrating relation; thus avoiding the significant tinge of subordinationism that plagues Zizioulas’ work.

Here is Torrance at length:

This centering of divine unity upon the Person of the Father rather than upon the Being of the Father, with its implication that the Person of the Father is the Fount of Deity, was to introduce the ambiguity into the doctrine of the Trinity that gave rise to difficulties regarding the procession of the Spirit as well as of the Son which we shall consider later. At the moment, however, it is the problem of a distinction drawn by the Cappadocians between the wholly uncaused or underived Deity of the Father and the caused or derived Deity of the Son and of the Spirit, that we must consider. As Gregory Nazianzen, himself one of the Cappadocian theologians, pointed out, this implied a relation of superiority and inferiority or ‘degrees of Deity’ in the Trinity, which is quite unacceptable, for ‘to subordinate any of the three Divine Persons is to overthrow the Trinity’. He was followed in this judgment by Cyril of Alexandria who, like Athanasius his theological guide, would have nothing to do with a generic concept of the divine οὐσία, or with causal and/or subordinationist relations within the Holy Trinity.

It is at this very point that the introduction of the concept of perichoresis proved of decisive importance. It ruled out any notion of a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ or of degrees of Deity and set the doctrine of the Trinity back again on the basis laid for it by Athanasius in terms of the coinherent relations and undivided wholeness in which each Person is a ‘whole of a whole’, while nevertheless gathering up and reinforcing the strong hypostatic and intensely personal distinctions within the Trinity which the Cappadocian theologians had developed so fruitfully especially for spiritual life and worship. This perichoretic understanding of the Trinity had the effect of restoring the full doctrine of the Fatherhood of God without importing any element of subordinationism into the hypostatic interrelations between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and at the same time of restoring the biblical, Nicene and Athanasian conception of the one Being or Oὐσία of Godas intrinsically and completely personal. Moreover, it ruled out of consideration any conception of the trinitarian relations arising out of a prior unity, and any conception of a unity deriving from the underived Person of the Father. In the perichoretic Communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who are the one Being of God, Unity and Trinity, Trinity and Unity mutually permeate and actively pass into one another.

When we consider the order of the three Persons in this perichoretic way we do indeed think of the Father as first precisely as Father, but not as the Deifier of the Son and the Spirit. Thus while we think of the Father within the Trinity as the Principle or Αρχή of Deity (in the sense of Monarchia not restricted to one Person, which we shall consider shortly), that is not to be taken to mean that he is the Source (Αρχή) or Cause (Αιτία) of the divine Being (το είναι) of the Son and the Spirit, but in respect simply of his being Unoriginate of Father, or expressed negatively, in respect of his not being a Son, although all that the Son has the Father has except Sonship. This does not derogate from the Deity of the Son or of the Spirit, any more than it violates the real distinctions within the Triune Being of God, so that no room is left for either a Sabellian modalism or an Arian subordinationism in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The statement of Jesus, ‘My Father is greater than I’, is to be interpreted not ontologically but soteriologically, or ‘economically (oἰκονομικός)’, as Gregory Nazianzen, Cyril of Alexandria and Augustine all understood it. In other words, the subjection of Christ to the Father in his incarnate economy as the suffering and obedient Servant cannot be read back into the eternal hypostatic relations and distinctions subsisting in the Holy Trinity. The mediatorial office of Christ, as Calvin once expressed it, does not detract from his divine Majesty. Since no distinction between underived Deity and derived Deity is tenable, there can be no thought of one Person being ontologically or divinely prior to another subsequent to another. Hence while the Father in virtue of his Fatherhood is first in order, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit eternally coexist as three fully co-equal Persons in a perichoretic togetherness and in-each-otherness in such a way that, in accordance with the particular aspect of divine revelation and salvation immediately in view, as in the New Testament Scriptures, there may be an appropriate variation in the trinitarian order from the given in Baptism, as we find in the benediction, ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ Nevertheless both Athanasius and Basil counselled the Church to keep to the order of the divine Persons given in Holy Baptism, if only to counter the damaging heresy of Sabellianism.[2]

Torrance’s move is to make the ‘being’ of the Father rather than the ‘person’ the reality of the Monarchia. In this sense, it can be meaningfully said, for Torrance, that the Divine Monarxia is indeed, the Holy Trinity lived in co-inhering eternal Life. We can see Torrance’s theo-logic on display, and the way he, ‘classically’, relates the so called ontological Trinity (ad intra) to the economic (ad extra); this becomes a key point for Torrance. It allows him to think God’s inner-life from the economy, and follow the Rhanerian axiom of the ‘Economic Trinity is the Ontological’, while not collapsing the processions into the missions of God. For Torrance there is an antecedent Life of God, but of course we only have access to that through the evangelical life of Jesus Christ; indeed, as He is Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit.

This way of Torrance’s makes the most sense to me. There seems to be some sort of continued debate about this in certain sectors; particularly online in the theological online world. I commend to you Torrance’s solution on this ostensible problem, and hope it allows you to find shalom for your souls and minds.


[1] Zizioulas, Being as Communion, 40–41 cited by Nikolaos Asproulis, “T. F. Torrance and John Zizioulas On The Divine Monarchia: The Cappadocian Background And The Neo-Cappadocian Solution,” Participatio Journal (Vol. 4), 2013: 174.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 179-80.

Our Terrorist Hearts Outwith Jesus Christ: On the Ontological Depths and Reach of Sin

It seems as if we have domesticated everything in our culture, even sin. But this is precisely what Jesus will not let us do; this is precisely what the reality of the cross will not let us do. The prophet Jeremiah writes in 17.9:

“The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?

And the Apostle Paul following writes in Romans 3:

10 As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; 11 There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. 12 They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.” 13 “Their throat is an open tomb; With their tongues they have practiced deceit”; “The poison of asps is under their lips”; 14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 Destruction and misery are in their ways; 17 And the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Karl Barth famously, and in keeping with his normal way, believes we can only know the depths of evil and sin by its reference to Christ. He believes that only as we concentrate on whom Christ is in His righteousness, can the gravity of sin come to be known. Barth works out his doctrine of evil (or ‘nothingness’) through his doctrine of election. For Barth, nothingness, or ‘evil’ is what God passes over and negates through the incarnation and cross-work of Jesus Christ. Mark Lindsay, after much development, writes the following:

At this place, we must qualify our earlier comment that God is not threatened by Nothingness. In the incarnation, God Himself becomes a creature and thus takes upon Himself the creature’s sin, guilt and misery. In “what befalls this man God pronounces His No to the bitter end.” The entire fury of Nothingness – and of God’s wrath directed towards it – falls upon Christ “in all its dreadful fulness…” Precisely, however, because this man is also God, “Nothingness could not master this victim.” It had power over the creature. It could contradict and oppose it and break down its defences. It could make it its slave and instrument and therefore its victim. But it was impotent against the God who humbled Himself, and Himself became a creature, and thus exposed Himself to its power and resisted it.

By confronting and decisively triumphing over Nothingness in Jesus Christ, God has relegated it to the past. In the light of the cross and the empty tomb, “there is no sense in which it can be affirmed that nothingness has any objective existence…” Barth rejects outright the suggestion that radical evil exists in the form of an eternal antithesis. On the contrary, he insists that it has no perpetuity. It is neither created by God, nor maintained in a covenantal relationship with Him. Thus, “we should not get involved in the logical dialectic that if God loves, elects and affirms eternally he must also hate and therefore reject and negate eternally. There is nothing to make God’s activity on the left hand as necessary and perpetual as His activity on the right.” Nothingness has been brought to its end, no longer having even the transient and temporary existence it once had. On this note of “cosmic optimism”, Barth concludes his presentation of his doctrine.[1]

We are reminded of Athanasius’ thinking on evil and sin in his little book On the Incarnation as we read Barth’s own uniquely worked out conception of evil and sin. Inherent to Barth’s understanding there is genuine hope. Because he doesn’t give evil (and its expression in sinful acts) a symmetrical place to God’s work and righteousness in Christ, he offers a way to think of evil/sin as a vanquished foe that in the end will be fully wiped out in a realized way. What stands out, in Lindsay’s description, is how it took God in Christ alone to overcome the wiles of evil’s reach into the human heart; and thus into all of creation.

It doesn’t seem as if folks appreciate just how deep rooted and satanically conditioned their ‘old hearts’ are outwith Jesus Christ. When you hear the ‘world’ speak you would think that they have seemingly overcome evil all by themselves; as if they have an objectively established goodness inherent to who they are, through which they are able to look ‘out’ and make judgments about good and evil as if the latter doesn’t ultimately affect them. On the contrary, the incarnation and cross of Jesus Christ asserts and proves just the opposite. There is no one good, and all our hearts are just as evil as the terrorist’s who shot up the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. The cross of Christ will not allow any of us to escape the terror embedded in each and every one of our hearts.

To press this further, Thomas Torrance underscores just how deep our darkness is by, like Barth, focusing on the depths God had to go to de-root it from our very ‘beings’ as human beings. Torrance writes on the ontological character of the atoning work of Christ, this way:

It is above all in the Cross of Christ that evil is unmasked for what it actually is, in its inconceivable wickedness and malevolence, in its sheer contradiction of the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, in its undiluted enmity to God himself—not to mention the way in which it operates under the cover of the right and the good and the lawful. That the infinite God should take the way of the Cross to save mankind from the pit of evil which has engulfed it and deceived it, is the measure of the evil of evil: its depth is revealed to be ‘absymal’ (literally, ‘without bottom’). However, it is only from the vantage point of God’s victory over evil in the resurrection of Christ, from the bridge which in him God has overthrown across the chasm of evil that has opened up in our violence and death and guilt, that we may look into the full horror of it all and not be destroyed in the withering of our souls through misanthropy, pessimism, and despair. What hope could there ever be for a humanity that crucifies the incarnate love of God and sets itself implacably against the order of divine love even at the point of its atoning and healing operation? But the resurrection tells us that evil, even this abysmal evil, does not and cannot have the last word, for that belongs to the love of God which has negated evil once and for all and which through the Cross and resurrection is able to make all things work together for good, so that nothing in the end will ever separate us from the love of God. It is from the heart of that love in the resurrected Son of God that we may reflect on the radical nature of evil without suffering morbid mesmerization or resurrection and crucifixion events, which belong inseparably together, has behind it the incarnation, the staggering fact that God himself has come directly into our creaturely being to become one of us, for our sakes. Thus the incarnation, passion, and resurrection conjointly tell us that far from evil having to do only with human hearts and minds, it has become entrenched in the ontological depths of created existence and that it is only from within those ontological depths that God could get at the heart of evil in order to destroy it, and set about rebuilding what he had made to be good. (We have to think of that as the only way that God ‘could’ take, for the fact that he has as a matter of fact taken this way in the freedom of his grace excludes any other possibility from our consideration.) It is surely in the light of this ontological salvation that we are to understand the so-called ‘nature of miracles’, as well as the resurrection of Jesus from death, for they represent not a suspension of the natural or created order but the very reverse, the recreation of the natural order wherever it suffers from decay or damage or corruption or disorder through evil. God does not give up his claim that the creation is ‘good’, but insists on upholding that claim by incarnating within the creation the personal presence of his own Logos, the creative and ordering source of the creation, thereby pledging his own eternal constancy and rationality as the ground for the redemption and final establishment of all created reality.[2]

Like Barth, Torrance points up the hope we have because of what Christ has won for humanity. But at the same moment, he also points out just how deep and pervasive sin is in the hearts of men and women, boys and girls. If it took God to become human to deal with each of our ‘desperately wicked’ hearts, how wicked do you think that makes us left to ourselves?

If the world is able to look out and recognize evil, it is only because they live under the grace and mercy of God given for it in Jesus Christ. And yet even as they rightly look at the despicable act that just took place in New Zealand, and condemn it as evil, they condemn themselves; that is, if they remain in an unrepentant state before God. Not only that, they confirm, unconsciously, the righteous judgment of God that not only hangs over terrorists’ heads, but their own. The spiritually dead heart can fabricate a state of self-righteousness only insofar as it borrows that righteousness from the economy of God’s Kingdom in Christ as that has invaded and continues to invade the world through the risen Christ’s life. Christ’s life for the world, the resurrected humanity, in itself, while standing as God’s Yes for the world, at the same moment issues a resounding No to the evil and sin that ALL humanity lives within (realized at various degrees or not). God’s Yes has already run its course and been actualized in the new humanity of Christ, as such anything outside of that lives in God’s No; which ultimately is hell.

Christians do not have ultimate solidarity with the world, even when the world, in parasitic fashion comes to some sort of sense of the heinous nature of evil. This does not mean Christians are superior to their pagan friends, it just means that Christians have an actual basis from which to rightly call darkness darkness and light light; this doesn’t mean Christians consistently live this way. Often Christians operate more like the pagan culture than the heavenly; which is why God’s Grace and Mercy will always remain so important.

[1] Mark R. Lindsay, Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel(UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 48-52.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 115-16.

‘Protestantism is not the Church. We are a prophetic movement of reform within it.’: TF Torrance’s Ecumenicity

As Protestant (even more pointedly, as Reformed) Christians it is easy to give into a sectarian attitude wherein we believe that we have recovered the Gospel like no other iteration of Christian tradition has ever known. It is easy in the evangelical-Reformed sub-culture to look out at the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox with animus, as if they have such a perverted Gospel, that we should not consider them brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. But this isn’t the attitude that TF Torrance operated with. Torrance was unceasingly ecumenical in his theological endeavor and hope. As some of you may know, he was involved in an Orthodox-Reformed dialogue, with the hope of closing the breach between the Reformed churches and the Orthodox; particularly as that breach opened up around the ‘Great Schism’ of 1054, which had to do with Trinitarian concerns vis-à-vis the so called Filioque. Torrance, as a result of that effort, was named a Protopresbyter of the Greek Orthodox church.

In 2013 I was involved with Participatio as an Assistant Editor on a volume (of that journal) that revolved around TFT and Orthodoxy; later it was published as a book under the editorship of Matthew Baker and Todd Speidell—I commend this volume and book to you. Jason Radcliff, following those publications, ended up publishing his PhD dissertation, which he completed at New College, University of Edinburgh (TFT’s school), under David Fergusson’s watchful eye; his book is entitled Thomas F. Torrance and the Church Fathers: A Reformed, Evangelical, and Ecumenical Reconstruction of the Patristic Tradition (he refers to the work Myk and I have done with our Evangelical Calvinism books, therein). Since then Jason has published another important monograph entitled: Thomas F. Torrance and the Orthodox-Reformed Theological Dialogue (which he graciously had sent to me as a review copy; thank you, Jason!). What I want to engage with, just as I’m starting my read of it, is what Jason has written in the preface to the book. He impresses just how important being ecumenical was, not only to TFT, but to the magisterial reformers in general.

Jason writes (in full):

Upon reaching the Reformation one is reminded of both the great importance and the great tragedy of the Protestant Reformation. Concerning the great importance, as Robert Farrar Capon put it, “The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace—bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly” (Between Noon and Three, 109-10). Yet, as Joseph McLelland says in the discussion following the Third Preliminary consultation of the Orthodox-Reformed Dialogue (in 1983) “we Reformed tend to overemphasize the uniqueness of the 16th century Reformation.” The Reformation was a movement of rediscovery of the radically unconditional grace of God as witnessed by the Scriptures and church fathers; but, it was one movement of many throughout history and, it was never meant to be decisively schismatic in the way that it eventually became.

As Thomas F. Torrance says at the beginning of “Memorandum A” on Orthodox/Reformed relations, “’The Reformed Church’ does not set out to be a new or another Church but to be a movement of reform within the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ . . .” (p. 10). Elsewhere Torrance states, “the Reformed Church is the Church reformed according to the Word of God so as to restore to it the face of the ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church.” (Conflict and Agreement in the Church: Volume 1, 76). In other words, we should never be happy with being “Protestant.” We must always, as Protestants, work toward rapprochement with Rome and Constantinople.

As we pass by the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation these words of Torrance are as relevant today as they ever were. As we commemorate the Reformation and celebrate the wonderful discovery of the radical grace of God in Jesus Christ, the inherently ecumenical and catholic approach of Torrance and the Orthodox Reformed Dialogue remind us that being Protestant was not the point of the Reformers. Torrance and the Dialogue remind us that we are not faithful to the spirit of the Reformation if we cease working for reform and renewal within the the [sic] one universal church. As Protestants, Torrance reminds us that we should bewail the necessity of the Reformation and, indeed, the continued existence of Protestantism. Torrance reminds us that Protestants faithful to the Reformation should regularly work towards rapprochement with the other two wings of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church: Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. He reminds us that Protestantism is not the Church. We are a prophetic movement of reform within it; if we cease working for reform and rapprochement, we cease to follow the Reformers

The type of ecumenical rapprochement offered by the Orthodox-Reformed Dialogue also provides an example of real ecumenical dialogue. The agreement reached by Orthodox and Reformed was authentic and substantial. It was not the “agree to disagree” compromise so often settled for in ecumenical conversations today. The Orthodox and Reformed confessed together a doctrine of the Trinity that bridged East and West on the basis of the Trinitarian and Christocentric theology of Athanasius and Cyril.[1]

Knowing the sensibilities of many Reformed Christians today, I think this approach, by Torrance, would rub many of them the wrong way (understatement). Yet, for us Evangelical Calvinists, while we’re not shy about stating our beliefs, and attempt to develop and articulate those for the church at large, it is this attitude of ecumenicity, modelled by TFT, that we hope to reflect. While Evangelical Calvinists, at least this one, are not shy about engaging in heated discussion surrounding various theological ideas; this should not be taken as a sign that at the end of the day, I, as a representative, want schism. But even so, some might surmise, “okay, but what about certain fundamentals of the faith; the very fundamentals that brought about the rupture between the Protestants and Catholics (and by default, the Orthodox) in the first place; you know like sola fide, sola gratia so on and so forth?” Someone might say: “it’s fine to attempt rapprochement around a doctrine of God, and the finer workings of Trinitarian dogma; but when it comes to salvation by faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, well that’s another story.”

These are not always easy questions to engage with, but one must start somewhere. Torrance decided to start with the doctrine of God. Maybe he was astute to something in that particular doctrine par excellence that he thought if relief could be brought there, if greater depth of understanding could be agreed upon at that point; that the following doctrines, developed from that primal one, would also be open for redress and discussion among the churches—in this case the Reformed and Orthodox churches.

I commend Jason’s book to you just as I am starting into it myself. His work is always stellar, and so I am confident in giving a pre-recommendation prior to my own reading of it. It is important to engage with these issues, I think, because, for one thing, it gives a, hopefully, a broader more fulsome and catholic attitude about the Church of Jesus Christ in its catholic reality. Maybe you aren’t aware of just how miniscule, among Christendom, the Reformed faith is. As I recall, George Husinger, for purposes of perspective and humility, once noted that the Protestant Reformed Church only accounts for 1% of the Church worldwide; in regard to tradition and theological location. This doesn’t, in itself mean that what the Reformed churches think is marginal, per se; but what it ought to tell us is that the church catholic is made-up of peoples and traditions that aren’t univocal with what the Reformed churches are currently recovering, theologically. We at least ought to have an attitude of charity as we engage with these other traditions, with hopes of fostering fruitful dialogue, and working towards the unity of the One Faith once for all delivered to the saints

[1] Jason Robert Radcliff, Thomas F. Torrance and the Orthodox-Reformed Theological Dialogue (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publications, 2018), ix-x.

Responding to Jedidiah Paschall’s Case for a Reformed Universalism: With Particular Clarification on Barth’s and Torrance’s Logic as ‘Erroneous’

Jedidiah Paschall, a friend of the blog, has written a post offering an introduction to an ostensible Reformed Christian Universalism over at Aidan’s blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy. In Jed’s post he offers some critique of both Barth and TF Torrance; it is really an old or overly-rehearsed critique of Barth and Torrance’s theo-logic, but clearly one that still has purchase for folks like Jed and others. Roger Olson, in critique of our Evangelical Calvinism (insofar as that is contingent on Barth’s and Torrance’s categories) has made the same critique; as has Kevin Vanhoozer (even here at the blog), and Robert Letham et al. What I mostly want to respond to is the assertion, by Jed, that Torrance’s logic, when it comes to universalism, is ‘erroneous.’ It really isn’t: that’s what this post will, once again, seek to re-clarify (since I will be reposting a lengthy treatment that responds to this, by appealing to a treatment by George Hunsinger). If Barth’s (and by implication, Torrance’s) broader theological commitments are not appreciated, then folks like Paschall et al. will concluded that they operate with an erroneous logic. But this is petitio principii, since the premise is that if Barth and Torrance don’t operate with the same sort of prolegomenal method and attending theo-logic (situated in a prior metaphysical construal), that by virtue of this, Barth and Torrance’s theo-logic just is erroneous. But this is to think in a circle, and not carefully attend to Barth’s and Torrance’s own approaches, respectively.

Here is some of Jed’s critique:

In the related matter of atonement, which Reformed theolo­gians have classically considered limited in scope, Torrance demands that the atonement, which is grounded in an Athanasian understanding of the incarnation, is unlimited:

We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity – that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact – nothing can undo it.

This makes it all the more curious why Torrance, in general agreement with Barth, forgoes logical consistency to both his doctrines of atonement and incarnation when a mere page later he denies universal salvation with equal vehemence:

Objectively, then, we must think of atonement as [a] sufficient and efficacious reality for every human being – it is such sufficient and efficacious reality that it is the rock of offense, the rock of judgement upon which the sinner who refuses the divine love shatters himself or herself and is damned eternally.

It is not entirely clear why Torrance takes with one hand what he gives with another. The whole question of efficacy, as he has already established, is bound up in God’s work in the Incarnate Christ. Efficacy is cannot reasonably called universal if it is not universally accomplished and applied. It would be odd for Torrance to appeal to an Arminian understanding of free will at this point. Torrance’s erroneous logic can easily be cleared up by eliminating this non sequitur and to simply acknowledge that the atoning work of Christ will be universally effective for all in eventual and ultimate reconciliation.[1]

As I noted, the following will be a lengthy treatment offered by George Hunsinger. The treatment directly responds to the charges of Barth’s incoherence (and by implication, Torrance’s). In the original posting of this treatment, I was responding to something Robert Letham had written; something that directly dovetails with Jed’s claim. Here it is:

Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance are both, and often accused of being incoherent in their material theological positions and conclusions. Robert Letham most recently has made this charge against Thomas Torrance in particular (and it might as well have been against Karl Barth as well). Letham writes against Torrance:

It is simply incoherent for Torrance to say what he says about the definitive justification and reconciliation for all people and yet to deny universal salvation. Moreover, if it is possible for people to reject Christ and what he has done, it cannot be definitive and effective for them and cannot have been complete in Christ’s person. It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by the assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis.[2]

What seriously bothers me about such claims is that people like Robert Letham, Roger Olson (who thinks us Evangelical Calvinists are incoherent for the same kinds of reasons), et al. totally fail to appreciate and take Barth and Torrance on their stated terms. It is not as if Barth or Torrance have not provided extended treatments of their terms and prolegomena and approach to things, theological; they have! And so for the rest of this post (and it will turn out to be a long post because of this, but I want to have this available online for whenever I hear that Barth and Torrance are incoherent) I will be quoting George Hunsinger at length on Karl Barth; and Hunsinger will be explaining why Barth (and think Torrance as well, for his own related reasons) is not in fact incoherent while those who are making the claim of incoherence in fact are the ones who are incoherent relative to the particular categories of Scripture and God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ. So here we go:

Testing for Incoherence Within the Framework of the Chalcedonian Pattern

The coherentist mode of testing, as it emerged in the survey of rationalism, also plays a decisive role in Barth’s justification of his position on double agency. Directly and indirectly, therefore, it serves to justify his reliance on the conceptions of miracle and mystery in that position. On the exegetical or hermeneutical premise that the terms of the Chalcedonian pattern are rooted in the biblical testimony regarding how divine and human agency are related, the mode of doctrinal testing proceeds as follows. The Chalcedonian pattern is used to specify counterpositions that would be doctrinally incoherent (and also incoherent with scripture). “Without separation or division” means that no independent human autonomy can be posited in relation to God. “Without confusion or change” means that not divine determinism or monism can be posited in relation to humanity. Finally, “complete in deity and complete in humanity” means that no symmetrical relationship can be posited between divine and human actions (or better, none that is not asymmetrical). It also means that the two cannot be posited as ultimately identical. Taken together, these considerations mean that, if the foregoing conditions are to be met, no nonmiraculous and nonmysterious conception is possible. The charge of incoherence (as previously defined) thereby reveals itself to be abstract, in the sense that it does not adequately take all the necessary factors into account. It does not work inductively from the subject matter (as attested by scripture)–as the motif of particularism would prescribe. Instead, it starts from general considerations such as formal logic and applies them to certain isolated aspects of the more “concrete” position. At the same time, the charge may well have implicated itself, wittingly or unwittingly, in one of the rejected couterpositions.

Without Separation or Division: Against Independent Human Autonomy

No independent human autonomy, Barth argues, may be posited in relation to God. The idea of an independent human autonomy posits the kind of illicit “determinism” that Barth finds to be characteristic of Pelagian and semi-Pelagian positions counter to his own. The actuality of human autonomy or freedom or self-determination (and so on) is, it is important to see, not in question. What is in question is the condition for the possibility of human autonomy, freedom, and self-determination. The Pelagian position finds this condition to be entirely inherent in human nature as created by divine grace, whereas the semi-Pelagian position finds it to be only partially inherent in human nature. The Pelagian sees no need, whereas the semi-Pelagian sees some need, for the special operation of divine grace, if the human creature is to act freely in fellowship with God (I/1, 199-200; II/1, 562-63). Neither position survives Barth’s coherentist form of testing, for neither is seen to do justice either to the radicality of sin or to the finitude of the creature. The same basic inadequacy can be restated with reference to other doctrinal beliefs, and these are actually thought to be the more fundamental. Christologically, the counterpositions fail to do justice to the cross of Christ (as it discloses the radicality of sin) and to the necessity of the mediation of Christ (as it overcomes not only sin, but the finitude of the creature, by exalting the creature to eternal life). Theologically, moreover, the counterpositions fail to do justice to the divine righteousness (as it discloses the radicality of sin) and to the divine majesty (as it discloses the essence of creaturely finitude).

In discussing the question of double agency, it is most often the radicality of sin and the majesty of God to which coherentist appeal adverts (although the other beliefs do not cease to be presupposed, of course, and are sometimes invoked). The radicality of sin, as already documented on more than one occasion, is regarded as meaning that we have “completely lost the capacity for God” (I/1, 238). The majesty of God, on the other hand, is characteristically conceived in terms of the “conditioned” and the “unconditioned.” “The creature which conditions God is no longer God’s creature, and the God who is conditioned by the creature is no longer God” (II/1, 580). Or again: “Grace would not be grace if it were not free, but were conditioned by a reciprocal achievement on the part of the one to whom it is addressed” (I/1, 45). Or again: “Grace cannot be called forth or constrained by any claim or merit, by any existing or future condition, on the part of the creature…. Both in its being and in its operation its necessity is in itself” (II/2, 19). That God’s grace is absolutely free in relation to the creature, ant that the creature can in no way condition God, is as axiomatic in Barth’s theology as he believes it to be axiomatic in scripture. Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism both fail, because they posit a creature who by nature conditions God, and a God who by nature can be and is conditioned by the creature. What is worse, these counterpositions do so even in the face of the radicality of sin. They are therefore judged to be incoherent from the standpoint of doctrinal testing. “What takes place in the covenant of grace takes place wholly for the human creature. A creatura mediatrix gratiarum or even corredemptrix is a self-contradiction” (I/1, 45).

Barth’s position over against these counterpositions may be briefly restated. The actuality of human freedom is affirmed (and by no means denied). But the condition for its possibility in relation to God is found not at all in human nature itself, but entirely in divine grace. In the event of human fellowship autonomy is not at all independent. It is entirely subsequent to and dependent on grace. The missing capacity for freedom in fellowship with God is given and received as a gift–“not as a supernatural quality, but as a capacity which is actual only as it is used, which is not in any sense magical, but absolutely free and natural in its exercise” (III/1, 128). In and through him it is called by grace “out of nothingness into being, out of death into life.” The event of grace on which the capacity for freedom completely depends is thereby a miracle and a mystery. But in and with this complete dependence, it is “real in the way in which creation generally can be in its relationship to the Creator.” Human freedom in all its reality is “encompassed,” “established,” “delimited,” and “determined” by divine grace (II/1, 128). The “mystery of human autonomy” is clearly not “an autonomous mystery” (II/2, 194). It is rather included within “the one divine mystery.” It is, that is to say, included within “the mystery of grace,” within “the mystery of God’s triumphant affirmation and love.” Only in this sense (but certainly in this sense) is it included within “the mystery of God’s omnipotence.” The reality of human freedom takes place, therefore, not as “the second point in an ellipse” (the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian counterpositions), but as “the circumference around one central point of which it is the repetition and confirmation” (II/2, 194). Divine grace and human freedom stand, in other words, in a conceptually asymmetrical relationship rather than in one of conceptual interdependence.

The features of this argument may also be stated in terms of the various motifs. The reality of fellowship is in question by way of the problem of double agency (personalism). The mode of testing for incoherence takes place in terms of the remaining web of doctrinal beliefs (rationalism). The bestowal, by grace, of freedom for fellowship with God is described as a miraculous event (actualism). This event also takes place in such a way that divine omnipotence and human freedom coexist in mutual love and freedom as the mystery of God with humanity and of humanity with God (particularism). Furthermore, the miracle and the mystery of the event are said to be dependent upon and mediated through the saving person and work of Jesus Christ (objectivism). The counterpositions (Pelgianism and semi-Pelagianism) are shown to be incoherent at essential points with the presupposed web of doctrinal beliefs (especially “the radicality of sin” and “the majesty of God”), whereas the position in question is shown in fact to be coherent with it in the mode of miracle and mystery (rationalism, actualism, particularism). Since the web of presupposed beliefs is taken to be in accord with scripture, it follows (granted the assumption) that the challenged position is also in accord with scripture, and that the proposed counterpositions are not (although this could and would need to be argued also on independent exegetical grounds) (realism). Thus all six motifs are in force in one way or another in the mode of testing for the possible coherence or incoherence of the challenged belief.[3]

I submit that after carefully considering these various theological motifs that fund Barth’s and Torrance’s theologies, respectively, that Jed Paschall’s claim about Torrance’s theo-logic being erroneous fall by the way. I realize Jed wants to appropriate the universalist theo-logic present in both Barth and Torrance, while at the same time distancing himself from what he thinks represents faulty logic in their ultimate rejection of an absolute Christian universalism (the position Jed wants to argue for as a Reformed Christian). But, again, in light of Hunsinger’s treatment, and simply reading both Barth and Torrance carefully, one will not arrive at the conclusion that they operate with an erroneous logic; particularly when that comes to the issue of Christian universalism as a theological conclusion.


[1] Jedidiah Paschall, Source.

[2] Robert Letham, The Triune God, Incarnation, and Definite Atonement in edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 454. When Letham writes of Torrance: ‘…It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by the assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis….’ What he is referring to is this in Torrance’s writings:

The rationalism of both universalism and limited atonement. Here we see that man’s proud reason insists in pushing through its own partial insight into the death of the cross to its logical conclusion, and so the great mystery of the atonement is subjected to the rationalism of human thought. That is just as true of the universalist as it is of those who hold limited atonement for in both cases they have not yet bowed their reason before the cross of Christ. (Atonement, 187-88)

And this:

 (i) Christ’s death for all is an inescapable reality. We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity — that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact — nothing can undo it. That means that God has taken the great positive decision for man, the decision of love translated into fact. But because the work and the person of Christ are one, that finished work is identical with the self-giving of God to all humanity which he extends to everyone in the living Christ. God does not withhold himself from any one, but he gives himself to all whether they will or not — even if they will not have him, he gives himself to them, for he has once and for all given himself, and therefore the giving of himself in the cross when opposed by the will of man inevitably opposes that will of man and is its judgement. As we saw, it is the positive will of God in loving humanity that becomes humanity’s judgement when they refuse it. (Thomas F. Torrance,Atonement, 188-89)

What Letham, as others, fails to appreciate is the very point that Hunsinger (above and below) highlights about Barth’s approach; primarily having to do with the ‘radicality of sin’, and thinking from the grammar and mystery of the Incarnationitself. Torrance, as Letham asserts, is not merely making an ‘assertion,’ but in fact has his assertion squarely grounded within Christian, historical, and constructive theological proposals that are both robust and cogent within a coherent framework of thought. Hunsinger, I believe, defeats Letham’s (and other’s) charge of incoherence against Torrance, and by relation Karl Barth; and for the very reasons that Hunsinger registers in his clarification and defense of Karl Barth. The irony is that Barth and Torrance, if understood through classical patterns of Christian theological engagement are seen to be the coherent ones while those who are critiquing them are the ones who end up being incoherent by engaging abstract patterns of thought that are foreign to the mysterious Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It is not that mystery is being appealed to in abstraction by either Barth or Torrance, instead the parameters of thought for both of them is chastened and cordoned off by the mystery of God en sarkos (‘in the flesh’); and any Christian intelligibility must be thought from within this center, and not a center of our own active intellectual making.

[3] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 195-98 nook version. 

Pastors Will Be Held to a Higher Standard than Group Think; The Elder Said ‘God just is Wrath’: Miscellanies on FaceBook Posts

This post will attempt to expand and clarify upon two FaceBook posts that seemed to cause some people confusion and even consternation. I mean this is usually the case on such platforms, isn’t it? People share context-less anecdotes, or enthymemic notions that are usually sub a greater and more fulsome context of meaning. This post will attempt to provide some of that for these two little ‘posts.’ Here’s the first one:

Much theology is adopted for purposes of pastoral polity and expediency, not necessarily because it represents the best alternatives critically available.

What I had in mind with this one isn’t all that profound, but here’s the context of thought: Growing up as an evangelical Baptist Christian, particularly as a ‘pastor’s kid’, it has made me sensitive to trends in the evangelical churches; as I’m sure it has for many of us. As someone who has been trained formally to be involved in some sort of Christian ministry, and been involved in pastoral and evangelical ministry over the years, what I’ve come to recognize in the Free churches, is that they are largely driven by trends. Usually because of time and personnel constraints, which is almost always driven by fiscal issues, pastors and leadership teams in churches are simply attempting to stay afloat among the rigors of daily ministry. As a result, there isn’t seemingly a lot of time for doctrinal reflection or development, so they fall back on whatever their ‘denomination’ or ‘tradition’ has adopted or gravitated towards. In the baptistic oriented churches, if they are wanting some sort of doctrinal bases, they seemingly have looked to outlets and ministries like The Gospel Coalition, John MacArthur’s ‘Grace to You’, Mark Dever’s 9Marks, or even Paul Washer (so on and so forth); but something in this range of theological trad. What, of course, is common to these various outlets is that they are largely shaped directly by what I call soteriological (versus Federal/Covenantal) Calvinism. But this is what is expedient and in the air for those who want to be doctrinally astute, at least at some level. So, the churches are being fed this sort of theological fare, whether that be in a more aggressive or passive way, respectively.

This is really all I was getting at with my FB post. Most local churches, for mostly administrative reasons, and then the way that pastors are trained to think to be pastors these days, are caught in this doctrinal web. If not, then they’ve caught other trends, like: moralistic therapeutic deism, self-help, seeker sensitive, market-based churching. But my basic premise is: That churches, largely because of their pastor[s], end up going along with theological group-think, rather than being critically reflective on what in fact the Bible might actually teach; and then the attending theological grammar and thought that comes along with that. Pastors will be held to a higher standard than ‘group think.’

My second post was this (this one was more doctrinally focused):

We attended a church for a while where one of the elders, as he was going to lead us in prayer stated: we just thank God for His wrath. Everything has a theological background. Do you want to guess the theological background that would lead someone to say something like this, in an abstraction?

Knowing me, this one should be pretty clear already. The theological background I’m referring to is classical Calvinism, of the sort we’ve already mentioned in the last explanation. The stunning thing to me about this pronouncement, from this elder, was that there was no qualification. He just got up, and as a matter of fact, he simply stated what I’ve noted; I’d never heard, not even a Calvinist be so blatant in language like this before (that was actually our last Sunday at this church). Does God have wrath? Yes, but in the sense noted by Thomas Torrance:

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

Or in the Barthian sense that God in Christ is the Judge, judged. The point being that God’s first Word of wrath is one of love. He first loved us that we might love Him, and in this God’s wrath begins to make theological sense. To simply state that we thank God for his wrath without explicitly grounding that first in His life of triune love gives the impression that God just is wrathful, full stop. But we know that this isn’t the case. We know who God is first, as Athanasius says (paraphrase): as Father of the Son; we know Him filially, and familially, as a child knows their parent—but in a primal, ultimate way. To unhinge God’s wrath from His love, from His being that is shaped by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to give the people a No-God; at least not a God who the Christian first has come to know as their Lord and Savior.

Clearly, there is an interpretive tradition this particular elder has been formed by; one that I’ve spilled much cyber-ink over. What this elder illustrated for me once again, is that theologies have consequences; of the sort that could potentially destroy people’s recognition of the true and living God; the God Christians only know, by definition, through the biblical reality who is the Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria.



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

Evangelical Calvinism’s Christmas Doctrine of Pre-Destination and Election

In my Bible reading tonight (by the way, I am almost done with my 39th read through of Holy Writ), as I was reading through I Peter, I once again came across the following passage:

“He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.” I Peter 1:20

This is a sort of sine qua non for an Evangelical Calvinist conception of election. The focus for us is grounded from the homoousion, the idea that God became human in the singular person of Jesus Christ; viz. that He became human pro nobis (for us). Along with TF Torrance, Karl Barth, Pierre Maury et al. we see election focused on the vicarious humanity of Christ; a humanity that God the Son, with God the Father, by the Holy Spirit, elected for Himself so that as Irenaeus says ‘we might become what He is’ (by grace, not nature). As the Apostle Peter writes, this ‘election’ or pre-destination was something that was focused on the Son prior to the creation of the world (so a supralapsarianism), rather than (contra ‘classical’ understandings of double predestination) focusing on individual humans who are thought of in abstraction from the humanity of Christ’s.

But the point I want to mostly focus on is that for Evangelical Calvinists election has to do with God’s inner-life, in pre-temporal reality, as a life that chooses to not be God without us, but with us. So, election in this frame, when referring to pre-destination has to do with God’s life in Christ for us, rather than God’s choice of individual people inhabiting the earth; inhabiting in such a way that they can be thought of apart from Christ’s humanity when it comes to the very ground or esse of election. Election for the Evangelical Calvinist, thusly, has to do with God’s pre-temporal choice, and then its historical (via historia) actualization in the Incarnation—so a Christmas conception of predestination and election. Thomas Torrance captures all of this in the following way:

Eternal election becomes temporal event confronting people in Jesus

Once again, we cannot now pursue this further into the doctrine of the church, which is the doctrine of the corporate election moving into history as the body of Christ. But at this point we must look back again at the incarnate life of Jesus Christ in light of the threefold mysterion, prosthesis and koinonia. The eternal prothesis of God has become incarnate in Jesus Christ, has become history. In Jesus Christ, the prothesis became encounter, became decision in the living temporal relations with which we men and women have to do in our interactions with one another. Election is the person of Christ, true God and true man in one person, the union of the Father and the Son in eternal love incarnated in our flesh, and bodied forth among sinners. And so men and women in history, in their temporal actions and relations, in the midst of their temporal choices and decisions, are confronted by the Word made flesh, with the eternal decision of God’s eternal love. In Jesus Christ, therefore, eternal election has become temporal event.

Election is thus not some static act in a still point of eternity. Election is eternal pre-destination, moving out of its eternal prius into time as living act that from moment to moment confronts people in Jesus Christ. This is living act that cannot be abstracted from the person of Christ. On the contrary, here the person and act of Jesus Christ are one. Election is Christ the beloved son of the Father, and the act of election in him is once and for all, a perfectum praesens, an eternal decision that is ever present. God’s eternal decision does not halt or come to rest at any particular point or result, but is dynamic, and ever takes the field in its identity with the living person of Christ. As such election is contemporary with us, acting upon us and acting upon us through our reactions in the personal relations of men and women which it invades and which it sets into crisis. It does that by facing them with the ultimate decision which God has already taken in his love on our behalf and now sets forth in Jesus Christ, but it confronts us with that ultimate decision in such a way that we are summoned in decision before it. What do you think of Christ? Who do people say that I, the Son of Man, am? Who do you say that I am? That is precisely what we see taking place in the whole ministry of Jesus as he penetrated into people’s lives by his compassion, and revelation, and confronted them as the truth in the form of personal being, as election in the form of personal being.

That is the dimension of depth in which we are to see everything that Jesus did and said and was during the three years of his ministry as he pressed toward the cross, and the cross itself we see supremely in its setting in that context of the divine mysterion, prothesis, and koinonia.[1]


You aren’t going to find a more organic or ‘natural’ way of understanding election and predestination than what we are offering in Evangelical Calvinism vis-à-vis our teachers and interlocutors. As you read the New Testament, in particular, you will see this sort of theme emerging over and over again; i.e. the idea that we ‘live through Christ’ (see I Jn), or we have life through union with Christ (see the Apostle Paul’s ‘in Christ’ motif scattered throughout his oeuvre). We can amplify the various examples of this sort of ‘textual’ (versus metaphysical) understanding of election, grounded a posteriori in Christ’s vicarious humanity as it is, as we continue to engage with Holy Scripture in a maximal way. I commend this way of theology and life to you.  


[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 179-80.

Jesus is God’s ‘Space’ for Us: In Contest with ‘Container’ Notions of Space

An important undervalued or critically engaged with locus in current Reformed retrievals of theology has to do with ‘space’ vis-à-vis God. The way we think space, and its other corollary, time, has important features attendant to it that implicate the way we think God’s relationship to us. In other words, theories of causation, participation, and koinonia are given shape by the way we approach this particular locus and/or loci. Thomas Torrance argues that the Patristics, particularly, Athanasius, imbibed a critical conception of space that was oriented by a relational conception that was given impetus by reflecting deeply into the paradeigmata (pointer) of the Incarnation itself. In other words, as Torrance maintains, with reference to Athanasius et al., the normal (of the time) Platonic, Aristotelian, or even Stoic conceptions thought space in ways that ultimately were antithetical to the Gospel’s Revelation of God’s relation to us; albeit, Torrance does acknowledge that the Stoic notion of an embodied space had closer resonances to the implications of the Gospel features versus other alternatives. Torrance’s greatest concern was to move away from what he calls a ‘container’ notion of space-time wherein the limit of space was dictated by a stable center that ultimately was unmoved; thus, injecting a mechanical notion into time-space wherein there is no room for a dynamic relational understanding of space that is demanded by the Incarnation itself. Torrance writes, after giving a sketch of Aristotle’s conception of space,

Two problems may be noted here. Aristotle’s thought is clearly governed by his demand for a point of absolute rest as the centre of reference for the understanding of change and transition. If everything were in flux we would have no standard by which to gauge anything. That centre of immobility was supplied by Aristotle’s cosmology by the centre of the material universe, for although it rotated it did not move forwards or change place. Thus although from his approach to the notion of space through the examination of movement in and out of place, Aristotle appeared to offer a dynamic view of space, he offered instead a rather static concept grounded finally upon relation to a point of absolute rest, which was of course in line with his doctrine of the ‘unmoved Mover’. The definition of place as the first unmoved limit of the container involved a further problem, for in equating being in place with a particular volume, it also equated volume with a spatial magnitude. The effect of this predominately volumetric notion of space was not only to isolate the notion of space from that of time, with all the paradoxes that involves, but to import such a rigidity into the concept of space that it could only be made flexible through a highly artificial disjunction of substance from accidents—the endless difficulties of Western Medieval theology at these points may be taken as sufficient commentary upon these problems.[1]

But Torrance understands another way, along with Athanasius and others. The way Torrance proposes, with many of the Fathers, is the way that is certainly working with the grammar provided for by such systems of thought like Plato, the Stoics, and others provided; but this way takes the grammatical of such systems and reifies it under the pressure of God’s Self Revelation in Jesus Christ (Torrance calls this kata physin ‘according to the nature of’ way). The result of this is to think of God’s relations with us through a personalist and relationally charged ‘metaphysic,’ one that is given illumination by the bond that has eternally cohered between the Father of the Son and the Son of the Father in koinonia by the Holy Spirit. This presents us, according to Torrance, with an alternative, and even spermatic way to think of the space that God has provided for, in Himself, as His relation to, with, and for us. The space is charged with the pleroma, or fullness of God; God who is by nature a multiplicity of relation in the persons as the Singular God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Torrance writes with eloquence:

In the nature of the case, the paradeigmata . . . that we employ in theology are not those we choose, but those that are thrust upon us through divine revelation, and which have their ultimate ground, correction and validity in the relation between the Father and the Incarnate Son, and the Incarnate Son and the Father. That is the relation that bridges the separation . . . between God and man and supplies the epistemological basis for all theological concepts, and therefore for our understanding of the relation between their creaturely content and the reality of God Himself. It is in Christ that the objective reality of God is intelligibly linked with creaturely and physical forms of thought, so that the latter may be adapted and given an orientation enabling them to direct our minds to what God really makes known of Himself, although in view of His infinite nature they will not be able to seize hold of Him as He is in Himself.

It was by using paradeigma in this way that Athanasius sought to relate the being and activity of the Son of God to bodily place . . . when He entered into our human space . . . and became man, without leaving God’s ‘place’ and without leaving the universe devoid of His presence and rule. Since space is regarded here from a central point in the creative and redemptive activity of God in Christ, the concepts of space as infinite receptacle or infinite substance, or as extension conceived as essence of matter, or as a mere necessity of our human apprehension, and certainly the concept of space in terms of the ultimate immobile limit of the container independent of time, all fall away, and instead there emerges a concept of space in terms of the ontological and dynamic relations between God and the physical universe established in creation and incarnation. Space is here a differential concept that is essentially open-ended, for it is defined in accordance with the interaction between God and man, eternal and contingent happening. It is treated as a sort of coordinate system (to use a later expression) between two horizontal dimensions, space and time, and one vertical dimension, relation to God. In this kind of coordination, space and time are given a sort of trans-worldly aspect in which they are open to the transcendent ground of the order they bear within nature. This means that the concept of space which we use in the Nicene Creed is one that is relatively closed, so to speak, on our side where it has to do with physical existence, but is one which is infinitely open on God’s side. This is why frequently when Byzantine art sought express this ikonically it deliberately reversed the natural perspective of the dais upon which Christ was represented. The Son of God become man could not be presented as one who had become so confined in the limits of the body that the universe was left empty of His government. He could not be represented, therefore, as captured by lines which when produced upwards met at some point in finite space, but only between lines which even when produced to infinity could never meet, for they reached out on either side into the absolute openness and eternity of the transcendent God.[2]

Earlier I noted that current retrievals of Reformed theology have not really attended to the subject matter we are considering alongside Torrance. They have failed to recognize what Torrance has emphasized; that is, that the mechanical and ‘static’ world of Aristotle, which shapes so much of the Latin theology us Protestants are inheritors of, eschews what the Fathers were presenting the church catholic with. As such we end up with an emphasis on a Decretal God who engages with His world through an Absolute Decree that keeps the created order away from Him, but artificially brought near through artificial droplets of His will and power for humanity and the created order at large. In other words, Latin theology presents us with a conception of space wherein space becomes a series of self-enclosed concentric circles that only stop moving once they meet their stable center of the circle who turns out to be the cause and unmoved Mover; but not necessarily the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The original emphasis, that Torrance is pressing, places a primacy on God’s life as Triune relationality as the basis for how space and thus movement within that space between God and humanity inheres; it inheres in the mirifica commutatio (wonderful exchange) of God’s assumption of our flesh. In this inherence, and the eternally antecedent basis for it in the Father’s life with the Son and the Son’s life with the Father, in and through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, is the space wherein we as God’s re-creatures have a place and a time to think out what it means to be a child of God; a Christian.

Further, we see Torrance noting the notion of the ‘open-endedness’ that this conception of Incarnated space inscribes for us. Of importance, we need to bear in mind that this openness is not understood in and from a container notion of space (which might lead us to ‘Open theology’), but instead it is an openness that recognizes the reality of the mysterium Trinitatis; that we are pressed up against an Ultimacy in God that will be and always already is forever giving (the logic of grace). This should supply us with great hope, and present us into a posture of utter adoration of a God like this; our Father who art in Heaven.



[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Space Time & Incarnation (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 8-9.

[2] Ibid., 17-18. You can hear traces of ‘Calvin’s Extra’ in what is being communicated here as well; indeed Torrance previously refers to the ‘extra’ in the broader context of this discussion about space and the Incarnation.

The Calvinian Turn to Jesus Christ Versus the Catholic Turn to the Vicar: A Rationale for the Evangelical Calvinist Via

John Calvin provided for a Protestantly Reformed turn towards a genuinely Christocentric theology of the Word, that prior (except in lineaments found in some Patristics and then in Martin Luther) was hard to find; particularly in the mediaeval context within which Calvin found himself, even if that was of the late variety. In the modern period when we read someone like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and then compare that with a reading of John Calvin, what stands out is the way that Barth/Torrance followed Calvin’s ‘turn,’ but only in even more radical or theo-logically conclusive ways. This is something I don’t think current Protestants who are attempting to retrieve the ‘classical’ past appreciate very much; viz. this turn that Calvin helped initiate (along with Luther), a radical turn to a genuine theology of the Word in Jesus Christ—a turn to a christocentric approach to theological endeavor versus the theocentric that reigned supreme in the Tridentine.

Julie Canlis—as we once again refer to her magisterial work, Calvin’s Ladder—helps us appreciate this Calvinian turn as she contrasts that with the Aquinasian approach (you’ll see her reference the structure of Thomas’s Summa Theologiae and how that materially illustrates her point). She writes:

A comparison of Aquinas and Calvin reveals that, while Calvin picks up on this scholastic scheme, he also fundamentally alters it. Pushing beyond Wyatt’s insight, we discover that it no longer is the story of humanity’s ascent to God by grace (Aquinas), or of the soul’s ascent (Augustine), but of Christ’s ascent. Calvin refuses to tack Christ as a tertia pars onto the Plotinian circle of creation’s procession from and return to God. Instead, Christ breaks open the circle and grafts it onto himself. For Calvin, the figure of Christ has shattered any scheme that begins with creation and allows creation to be considered apart from Christ, through whom it was made and to whom it is directed. In subtly shifting Aquinas’s exitus- reditus scheme from anthropology to Christ, Calvin challenges Aquinas’s attempt at theocentrism as not going far enough. It is not Christ who fits into the procrustean bed of anthropology but we who are fitted to Christ and his ascent. In him and by his Spirit, we ascend to the Father.[1]

She is certainly right to recognize that Calvin operated in the milieu of his own period; how could he not? But, as Canlis also helps us see, Calvin was a constructive and ingenious Christian thinker propelled by his newfound Protest-ant faith; a faith given direction and shape by a principled commitment to the Word rather than to the Church as his ultimate authority. Within this complex Calvin was ingressed into a new world that had the imaginary to think the church from Christ rather than Christ from the church; as such, he was able to make the turn that others prior couldn’t.

I would suggest that Barth and Torrance picked up on this turn in Calvin, and as I noted previously, radicalized it further; to its rightful conclusion even. Both Barth and Torrance, and us Evangelical Calvinists, are genuinely Calvinian in the sense that we operate not just in the spirit, but the letter of Calvin’s turn to Jesus Christ as the centraldogma of all that is viable in theological endeavor. I think our counterparts in other tributaries of the Reformed faith, in their zeal to recover the ‘catholic faith’ have unfortunately overlooked the sort of Christ conditioned notion of God that Calvin (and Luther) did not. As Evangelical Calvinists we attempt to move and breath in this Christ concentrated spirit, with the result that all our theologizing is principially and intensively Christ pressured. We think this is the right trajectory to be on since Jesus himself seemed to take this approach when engaging with Holy Scripture (cf. Jn 5.39; etc.).

[1] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension(Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), Loc. 493, 498.

Knowing God through the Wood of the Cross Rather than from the Metaphysics of the ‘catholics’

I would have to say that I am obsessed with ‘knowledge of God,’ and how from a Christian perspective that is obtained. I have blogged, and written elsewhere, much on this locus; particularly as that gets into what is called the analogia entis and analogia fidei/relationis. I really don’t know why I’m so obsessed with this locus, but I think it has something to do with the pluralism within which I have been weaned, in the Western culture[s]; particularly as my experience of that is in North America. Nevertheless, the so called scandal of particularity of God’s grace in Christ enamors me; this is why I wrote my Master’s thesis on I Corinthians 1.17-25. I was first turned onto this locus in seminary as we studied Martin Luther’s theologia crucis (theology of the cross), and John Calvin’s duplex cognitio domini (twofold knowledge of God as Creator/Redeemer). I was already wrestling with ‘knowledge of God’ theory prior to these introductions, but these teachings of Luther and Calvin gave me some intelligible grammar that helped articulate what only lay latent and inarticulate in the flutter of my mind’s-eye.

The pursuit and infatuation with this locus has only grown since that introduction (back in 2002). I have found my greatest solace in the theology of Karl Barth (so analogia entis/relationis:being/relation), and also in Barth’s greatest English speaking student: Thomas F. Torrance. They have brought greater clarity to a theory of revelation and knowledge of God for me; something that Luther and Calvin alone couldn’t do fully. I have forayed in other directions in the pursuit of assuaging my curiosity in regard to knowledge of God or theory of revelation; I have read many others in fact, but Herman Bavinck and Henri de Lubac have provided me with the greatest alternative vis-à-vis the Barth/Torrance combine. But in the end I keep coming back to Barth’s anti-natural theological approach as that is grounded in his type of apocalyptical-dialectical theology. I am currently reading through his Church Dogmatics I/1 (I’m in the process of reading through the whole CD, in spotty fashion). I came across a passage from Barth that helps illustrate the sort of material focus, in regard to theory of revelation that I have been alluding to above. Let me share that at some length with you here.

The real issue in this whole matter is plain in Luther, to whom also appeal is usually made. It is Luther’s insights that lay behind the statements of Melanchthon and indirectly behind those of Calvin too. From his perception that man’s justification is in Christ alone and therefore by faith alone, Luther rightly concluded that all human theology can only be theology of revelation. As it is arbitrary and dangerous in the matter of justification to orientate oneself to a preconceived idea of the Law or one capriciously abstracted from the statements of Scripture; so it is arbitrary and dangerous in theology generally to start with a preconceived idea of God or one capriciously abstracted from the statements of Scripture. The total theological question, like the question of justification in detail, can be answered only with reference to the God who reveals Himself in Christ. Already in 1519 Luther mentions a thought he was often to repeat: This is the the one and only way of knowing God (shamefully neglected by the teachers of the Sentences with their speculations on pure divinity), that whoever wishes to think or reflect profitably on God should utterly disregard everything except the humanity of Christ (Letter to Spalatin, February 12, 1519, W.A. Br. I, 328 f). About the same time we find him writing polemically: Accordingly, let anyone who wants to know God have regard for the ladder fixed in the ground: here all human reason fails. For nature teaches that we are more eager to turn our attention to great than lowly things. Learn from this, how wickedly and – dare I say? – impiously they behave when they speculate, confident in their diligence, on the lofty mysteries of the Trinity: on where the angels are enthroned and what the saints say, when after all Christ was born in the flesh and will remain in the flesh. But look what happens to them. First: “If they should poke their heads into heaven and look around in heaven they would find no one but Christ laid in the crib and in the woman’s lap, and so they would fall down again and break their necks.” And these are those who write on the first book of the Sentences. And then they attain absolutely nothing from these speculations of theirs, so that they are able to profit or counsel neither themselves or others. “Start here below, Thomas and Philip, and not up above” (Schol. in libr. Gen. on Gen. 28, W.A. 9, 406, 11). Even better known is the following passage: “For I have often said and say it again that when I am dead men should remember and guard against all teachers as ridden and led by the devil who in lofty positions begin to teach and preach about God nakedly and apart from Christ, as heretofore in high schools they have  speculated and played with His works up above in heaven, what He is and thinks and does in Himself, etc. But if thou wilt fare securely and rightly teach to grasp God so that thou find grace and help with Him, then let not thyself be persuaded to seek Him elsewhere than in the Lord Christ, nor go round  about and trouble thyself with other thoughts nor ask about any other work than how He hath sent Christ. Fix thine art and study on Christ, there let them also bide and hold. And where thine own thought and reason or anyone else  leadeth or guideth thee otherwise, do but close thine eyes and say: I should and will know no other God save in my Lord Christ” (Sermon on Jn. 17.3, 1528, W.A. 28, 100, 33; cf also Comm. on Gal. 13, 1535, W.A. 40.1, 75f.; W.A. Ti. 6, 28). One should not fail to note that in so far as these statements of Luther are polemical in content they are not concerned with the doctrine of Christ’s deity, and in so far as they are concerned with the doctrine of Christ’s deity they are not polemical in content. What Luther wants—this is his point in this train thought—is that deity in general and Christ’s deity in particular should not be known along the path of autonomous speculation but along the path of knowledge of God’s revelation, which means in practice along the path of knowledge of the benificia Christi and therefore the humanity of Christ.[1]

And to press this thought line further Torrance commentates this on Barth’s style of evangelical theology:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[2]

Barth goes to proving that the aim of THE original Reformer, Martin Luther, was to move away from the discursive and speculative way of the mediaeval theology he was nurtured in. We see his disdain for not only Lombard’s Sentences, but how those became the mainstay of mediaeval theology, to the point that they had their own commentaries; they became the authority for the theological developments of Luther’s day, and days prior. The original Reformer repudiated these speculative meanderings, according to Barth, by recognition of the fact that as sinners we need salvation; this never changes. As such, for Luther, according to Barth, ‘metaphysics’ are not the ply of the Christian; instead, focusing on the wood of the manger and cross of Jesus Christ are—indeed always will be and should be. It is the Christ who is the always already mainstay of theological reflection; the way into knowledge of God. This never changes; we are always in a mode of ‘reckoning’ ourselves ‘dead to sin and alive to Christ.’ If this is the case, as I distill Barth on Luther et al. then moving into the philosopher’s head, in regard to Ultimacy, is not the way of the Christian; the way of the Christian is to live in and from the heart of God as that pulses in the risen Christ given breath by the Holy Spirit. This is a repudiation of ‘metaphysical’ speculation about Pure Beings and Unmoved Movers, just as salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone.

Ironically, those who claim to be recovering the Reformed heritage in the 21st century evangelical and Reformed churches are not recovering this “Barthian” emphasis, this “Luther[an]” emphasis of focus on Christ alone. Instead these “recoverers,” as they retrieve not only the 16th and 17th centuries of Protestant orthodoxy, but also as they retrieve Thomas Aquinas and much of the rest of the so called ‘classical’ or ‘catholic’ tradition, move quickly past what initiated the Protestant Reformation to begin with. Luther offered a repudiation of speculative apophatic theologies, and in its place offered a theology that is constantly refreshed by the eternal well-springs of the heavenly God made human for us all. Christ alone, in all his flesh and blood, in the concreteness of his humanity, for Luther, for Barth is God’s way for us to himself. All theological knowledge, thusly, is delimited by this concrete and earthen vessel who is the Christ. But the retrievers of today have opted for the very muddle that Luther rightly saw through on his way to a knowledge of God that not only liberated him from the maelstroms of his Augustinian monkery, but after Luther liberated the world from its bondages to the self and its speculative projections about just who God might be.

I hope the evangelical churches can finally recover the reality that God alone in Jesus Christ as attested to in Holy Scripture is the only way to have a genuine knowledge of just who God is [for us].



[1] Barth, CD I/1 §11, 125-27. The italics in the quote are mine; I italicized what is originally in the Latin, but what in the study edition of the CD has been translated by way of footnotes. I have offered the translation.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.