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

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

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

1 Gratuitous infusion of grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to be said …

 

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

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

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

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

 

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Kevin DeYoung, Young, Restless, and Reformed, has written two posts now, on his blog sponsored by The Gospel Coalition, engaging assuranceofsalvationJesuswith the topic of Assurance of Salvation. Throughout the rest of this post I intend to interact with what DeYoung has written, and to offer a kind of critique and then alternative to what DeYoung has offered.

(Be warned, this is only an introductory post, I fully intend on offering a fuller scale and more detailed response to DeYoung, based upon the conclusions you will see at the end of this post)

I                

There are many ways into a discussion on what many call ‘pastoral theology’ revolving around the psychology of whether or not someone is genuinely saved; indeed, that is what is at bottom here: i.e. a kind of theologically induced psychology relative to how someone perceives their relationship to God in Jesus Christ (either in the affirmative or the negative). DeYoung chooses to go the ostensible exegetical route; choosing as his primary text (locus classicus) the epistle of I John. This little Johannine letter is probably the most appealed to book in the Bible for discussing and developing a doctrine on a so called assurance of salvation. In DeYoung’s post he identifies three classic points that are claimed to be (not just by DeYoung, but by many in the Reformed camp in particular) the defining components that frame the epistle of I John; at least when we are attempting to develop answers to our psychological questions in regard to our status as ‘saved’ or ‘unsaved’ (or we could say with the classical Reformed position: ‘elect’ or ‘reprobate’). Here are the three points that DeYoung lists as a kind loci (using identifiable theological and psychological and ethical points to interrogate and purportedly interpret I John):

The first sign is theological. You should have confidence if you believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God (5:11-13).

The second sign is moral. You should have confidence if you live a righteous life (3:6-9).

The third sign is social. You should have confidence if you love other Christians (3:14). (source)

I would like to respond to these points in turn. Now because this is a blog post (and not a term paper), my responses can only be suggestive and general in trajectory, but hopefully made in such a way that these points provided by DeYoung will take on a more critical tone (and at least get problematized); such that a different hermeneutical background will be provided leading to the conclusion that what DeYoung (and much of the Reformed tradition has offered) is less straightforwardly “Biblical” as DeYoung would have us believe, and, well, more ‘hermeneutical’. In other words, I would at the very least like to illustrate that there is something deeper; something more metaphysical going on behind Kevin’s exegesis versus the straightforward and pastoral reading of the text that he contends is present in his reading of this epistle. This seems like too large of a task, really, to attempt to accomplish in about seven hundred and fifty words or so, but that is what we will attempt to do with the space remaining.

 

II

DeYoung, in his second post on this topic is responding to a critic of his posts (much as I am becoming now); a Lutheran interlocutor who challenges DeYoung’s understanding of assurance from his Lutheran convictions (which in part will be more closely aligned to my critique, at least in some respects). DeYoung writes in response to the Lutheran, this:

While it is never a good idea to “focus inside ourselves,” it is impossible to make sense of 1 John if looking for moral, social, and theological evidence is entirely inappropriate. For example, 1 John 2:5-6 says “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” Likewise, 1 John 3:10 says, “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” We see similar “by this we know” language in 1 John 2:3; 3:14, 19, 24; 4:2-3; 4:13; 5:2. Clearly, we are meant to know something about the person by looking at what he believes, how he lives, and how he loves. One doesn’t have to be in favor of morbid introspection to understand that 1 John urges Christians to look for evidences of grace in themselves and in those who might be seeking to lead them astray. (source)

I think DeYoung’s response to the Lutheran, at face, sounds compelling, but I think it is more complex, even at a simple exegetical level, than DeYoung let’s on. I mean what if I John isn’t really answering the questions that DeYoung (and the Westminster Confession of Faith that he appeals to) is putting to it; what if I John was written to first century Roman/Graeco Christians who were being tempted by a prevailing philosophical system of the day known as Gnosticism (at this early stage this would have only been an incipient or proto form of Gnosticism) which, in general is a dualistic system of thought that sees the material world (inclusive of human bodies) as evil, and the spirit as pure and undefiled, albeit trapped within a fleshy world of evil and malevolence (which was seeking escape from this world of material back to the pure Spirit from whence it originally came; escaping through a series of graded levels of ‘secret’ knowledge that was intended for the elect, so to speak)? And so if this were the case, if I John is challenging these early Christians to look to Christ instead of a secret knowledge that turns inward instead of upward for release (so to speak) from themselves; then wouldn’t it be somewhat presumptuous to take I John captive as a text that is intended to answer questions about assurance of salvation that were formed most prominently in the 16th and 17th centuries in scholastically Reformed Western Europe, and then in a final and intense form in English and other Puritanism[s]?

DeYoung might respond to my first riposte here by querying “so what?” He might say that what I have suggested above is unnecessarily abstract, and even if true (the context I have suggested) does not really undercut his pastorally motivated development towards a doctrine on assurance of salvation. He might say: “that’s interesting, Bobby, but my points are simply attempting to identify universal principles present within the first letter of John, in such a way that transcends its original context, while at the same time seeking to honor it.” I might simply respond: how, Kevin, does your engagement of I John honor it when you are imposing questions upon it in a schematized way that does not fit into the questions it was originally seeking to address? I might ask: “if the conception of salvation present within I John fits well with the dogmatic conception of salvation that he reads it from as formed from 16th and 17th century Calvinist categories?” If the conception of God, based upon appeal to Aristotelian categories (primarily), the metaphysic used to shape the God of the Reformed theology that DeYoung follows, coalesces with the God revealed in Jesus Christ that is being referred to in John’s letter?

III

In conclusion, I obviously think things are more complicated in regard to reading the first epistle of John. I think it is too facile, and not apparent enough to attempt to read first John as if it readily answers questions put to it that were generated not by its original audience, but by a certain conception of God (and thus interpretive methodology or hermeneutic) that I contend is not similar (categorically) to the God revealed in Jesus Christ (if thought from Jesus Christ, first).

And so based upon my conclusion what is left is to explore what the alternative to DeYoung’s hermeneutic is. We have seen that there is a Lutheran alternative, but that’s not the only one; there of course are other ways to read first John based upon other metaphysics, or maybe no metaphysics. In other words, in a later post from this one, I will contend, in another response to DeYoung’s post, that what he is doing is, as we all do, is engaging in theological exegesis. Thus, under the guise of being “pastoral” or maybe “straightforward” DeYoung smuggles in certain interpretive suppositions that he is committed to, “theologically,” in an a priori way, as we all do, that has led him to his conclusions about assurance of salvation; and in particular in his reading of that doctrine in the epistle of I John.

More to come (as I have time). In the more to come I will attempt to sketch the role that our theological positions have upon our exegeses of the texts of Scripture, and in that sketch I will attempt to, as I noted, provide an alternative theological exegetical way that ultimately stands in contradistinction to DeYoung’s conclusions in regard to assurance in I John.

 

 

thegospelcoalition

This post will be a hearkening back post, hearkening back to the times when I used to write much more frequently and vociferously, and even polemically against what I have called classical Calvinism, Westminster Calvinism, etc. What is of interest to me is that the so called ‘new Calvinism’ of folks like John Piper and the The Gospel Coalition continue to thrive among a certain sub-culture within North American evangelicalism; truth be told I would lean more towards the biblical conservatism of this mode Versus the other dominant trend within North American evangelicalism which can (and has) been called Progressive Christianity. So with this kind of ground clearing paragraph out of the way let me get into what I want to quickly write about in this post: gratia, or Grace.

I think it is important to sketch the basics and understand what we are getting when we adopt the theology of The Gospel Coalition (I will pick on them, in general, since they are having the most impact across North America upon the local church and her pastors). The Gospel Coalition is not monolithic, there are a variety of and types of Calvinists who are associated with TGC; but in the main they all affirm the categories offered up by scholastic Reformed theology which took shape, primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries of the Protestant Reformed church in Europe and the UK in particular (as well as Puritan America a little later, and at points, concurrently). If this is true–that in the main they all affirm the theological categories offered up by post-Reformed orthodox theology–then what is funding how they conceive of ‘grace?’

If we turn to post-Reformed orthodox Calvinist scholar par excellence, Richard Muller, he helps elucidate what concept of grace was operative for the post-Reformed orthodox theologians (like from the 16th and 17th centuries), and then by corollary, what is operative now for The Gospel Coalition theologians and pastors when it comes to conceiving of grace in the dogmatic category of salvation. Here is how Muller describes a definition for ‘grace’ for both groups of theologians and pastors:

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

When you sign up for The Gospel Coalition’s news letter, or subscribe to their feed, and when they are discussing salvation in that letter or feed, this is what will be standing behind their commentary and exegesis at a theological/philosophical level. I just wanted you to be informed about that, I wouldn’t want you to think that you are getting the ‘pure Gospel’ when reading such commentary; I’d want you to know that there is a history of ideas behind the Gospel you are getting when you read the writers and theologians from The Gospel Coalition (I am not even sure that many of TGC’s thinkers are all that critically aware themselves of what informs their exegetical and theological decisions). So you have been served.

There are many material things highlighted in the definition of ‘gratia’ or grace by Muller above, and I cannot get into them in this post (but I will, I have a future post already queued up in my mind, expanding on the concept of ‘created grace’, the ‘habitus’, ‘cooperative grace’, and the idea of an enablement view of salvation as highlighted by Muller). Suffice it to say here, if you would like an alternative to the above, an alternative that sees grace as personal, and embodied by God himself in Jesus Christ, then Evangelical Calvinism will be a better fit for you. Stay tuned.

PS. When folks of whatever stature want to critique evangelical Calvinism, and her premises, as laid out by Myk and myself in our book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church it would be helpful for the uninformed if you would let your readers know that your critiques come from a certain metaphysical direction, namely, the Aristotelian direction, and so when you do biblical exegesis in critique of EC, please at least have the courtesy of footnoting where your informing voices come from–this will be more honest, up front, and critical, especially for your readers.

PPS. I wrote this post in a flashback mode to my old polemically tuned days.

 

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

*I usually get all kinds of push back with posts like this (people typically don’t like the politics of posts like this, but I am aiming at simply opening the windows toward a critical horizon that people can better think from when approaching such discussions and life altering realities).

Welcome

Hello my name is Bobby Grow, and I author this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist. Feel free to peruse the posts, and comment at your leisure. I look forward to the exchange we might have here, and hope you are provoked to love Jesus even more as a result. Pax Christi!

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A Little 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.” -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

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