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

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

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

Hugh Binning (1627-1653), a young Scottish theologian, spoke of the primacy of God’s life as the ground of salvation. Speaking of the primacy of God’s love as the foundation of salvation he wrote:

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

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

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

Here is Frost on Calvin:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Thomas Torrance’s Scottish Theology as evangelical Calvinism: Jonathan Fraser of Brea versus Westminster

Here is a post I originally wrote in 2008; this was just before I started the original Evangelical Calvinist blog at blogger, which has since migrated over here to the WordPress location. I think what you will see in this post, early as it was in my thinking, is the continuity in themes that remain to this day in evangelical Calvinism. The post itself is a result of my reading of T.F. Torrance’s book on Scottish theology, and his focus, in particular, on the theology of Jonathan Fraser of Brea. While I would, and do say some of this stuff differently nowadays, in gist, I would say that most of what is torrancethomascovered in this post still remains the stuff of evangelical Calvinism; at least my style of it. It is this book that the language of evangelical Calvinist comes from; Torrance uses it to describe the theology of the Scots he is covering in contrast to the Federal or Westminster Calvinism he is countering in this book. For me, evangelical Calvinism took shape because of this book by T.F. Torrance; while many of the themes and motifs were already present in my own development, prior to reading this book, T.F. Torrance brought all of those together as he articulates what he does here.

I have been reading a book by T. F. Torrance called Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell, and it has been quite elucidating. How many of you realized that Scotland, and many of her theologians offered a Reformation trajectory much different from that offered, later on, by what we today know as “Reformed doctrine” articulated at Dort and in the Westminster Catechisms? In other words one of the touchstones that we have inherited as “Reformed Dogma” is the TULIP and its emphasis upon God’s decrees and logico/causal relationships (like William Perkins’ Golden Chaine represents). I.e. the emphasis upon God as the unmoved mover who has decreed all of salvation history in time and space; one of these decrees being that God elected some in eternity past, and subsequently died for only these “special” people (e.g. limited atonement). Without going into too much detail, this abstract notion of God’s nature as the divine despot who decrees all of reality in a syllogistic style was challenged by some of Scotland’s “Evangelical” “Reformed” theologians. One of these theologians was named Jonathan Fraser of Brea (1638-1698), Torrance describes Fraser’s thought on the topic of “assurance of salvation” and the “extent of the atonement” as he summarizes one of Fraser’s books:

His great book, Justifying Faith, has two main parts. 1) The main part is devoted to the ground of faith in which it is shown that it is not faith itself that justifies us but Christ in whom we have faith. The ultimate grounds of believing are ‘the Attributes of God, his Power, and Faith, Fulness and Wisdom’, but ‘the immediate grounds of believing are the gracious promises in the Gospel: But my Belief of the Truth of the Promises is founded on Christ’s Faith, Fulness, the Bottom and Pillar of all Divine Faith [“Justifying Faith 2”, p. 3]. Of particular significance here is the correlation of our faith with the faith of God and the faith of Christ—human faith derives from, rests on, and is undergirded by divine faithfulness. Great stress was laid from the outset, by Fraser, on ‘Christ’s all Sufficiency’, in that ‘He is able to save them to the uttermost, that come unto God by him [“Justifying Faith,” p. 11]’. (2) The second and longer part of Fraser’s work is called an ‘Appendix’ devoted to the object of Christ’s death. In it he shows that Christ died for all people, and not for a limited number as it was claimed in the so-called ‘covenant of redemption’ made between the Son and the Father. He rejected the distinction between a covenant of grace and a covenant of redemption [“Justifying Faith”, p. 170]—the former, as he said again and again, is absolute in its nature and universal in its extent. Throughout his book Fraser differed at crucial points sharply with Samuel Rutherford and James Durham, as also with William Twisse the Prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly, not to mention the puritan divine John Owen. But reference is made to several others like William Fenner in connection with their support for the biblical teaching that Christ died for all men. This had to do sometimes with a subtle form of Pelagianism in their understanding of faith. “It is an Error oftentimes in our Faith, that it is not built purely and only on the Grace of Christ, but we seek secretly other Props, and so to set some other thing on Christ’s room, and this is as it is derogatory to Christ, and evidence of Distrust in him [“Justifying Faith”, p. 295]’.[1]

Here we have an example of what a Reformed theologian looked like, who thought outside the constraints imposed upon scripture by Westminster. Interestingly, many today would not consider this kind of thinking “Reformed,” but this would be circular wouldn’t it? Since one would have to assume that Westminster is the ‘historic’ standard of what being Reformed actually entails, in order to deny that people like Brea and many others also represented the variegated mainstream of the burgeoning “Reformed Tradition”—I digress.

Let me highlight a few points that Brea offers in opposition to Westminster Calvinism—that is if they aren’t apparent enough—1) notice the emphasis that Brea places on Christ as the “objective” basis of salvation. This gets into issues of ontology, union with Christ, and faith as an immediate reciprocating response” from Christ and to Christ as humanity is brought into union with Him through the incarnation. 2) This leads to the  far reaching extent of the atonement, in line with scripture (I think), Brea holds to a universal atonement (objectively), thus Christ can be called the Savior of all men; and the offer of salvation genuinely made to all people.

This is all contrary to the salvation framework provided by Westminster. For Westminster assurance came from reflecting upon ‘my good works’ (Perseverance of the saints), and then reflexively (after looking at my ‘behavior’) by faith I can find assurance that I am one of those elect for whom Christ died. This is the kind of theology that Brea was writhing against, this is what he calls “Pelagianism,” since in this construct, methodologically, man is driven to self before he gets to Christ; in other words, the decree gets in the way of Christ. Not only that, but we also end up with a rather “Nestorian” outlook, relative to election, since the incarnation was not representative of all humanity but only for the “elect”—which is problematic.

It might be surmised that Brea was a universalist (that all humanity will be saved), but he was not. Instead he believed that all humanity who believed would be saved on the basis of Christ’s universal salvation—being a direct corollary of the incarnation (and its universal extent and representation). A Westminster Calvinist would say, but wait, if Christ died for all, then all will be saved. But Fraser would respond that that is only true if you are straightjacketed by the rigid logico-causal system that has shaped the articulation and thought process of Westminster/Federal Calvinism. In other words, Fraser’s Calvinism (and he was a Calvinist) had “scriptural evangelical tension” in it—something that Westminster Calvinism just can’t live with.

I am happy to say that I am Reformed in the “Evangelical way” represented by Fraser. In fact I think Fraser, and others, are the kind of fellows that Karl Barth picked up on in his thinking on soteriology. If not, the similarity is quite shocking.

[1] T. F. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 184-85.


The Covenant of Works, The Covenant of Grace; What Are They? The evangelical Calvinists Respond

As evangelical Calvinists we stand within an alternative stream from classical Calvinism, or Federal/Covenantal theology; the type of Calvinism that stands as orthodoxy for Calvinists today in most parts of North America and the Western world in general. The blurb on the back of our book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church makes this distinction clear when it states:

In this exciting volume new and emerging voices join senior Reformed scholars in presenting a coherent and impassioned articulation of Calvinism for today’s world. Evangelical Calvinism represents a mood within current Reformed theology. The various contributors are in different ways articulating that mood, of which their very diversity is a significant element. In attempting to outline features of an Evangelical Calvinism a number of the contributors compare and contrast this approach with that of the Federal Calvinism that is currently dominant in North American Reformed theology, challenging the assumption that Federal Calvinism is the only possible expression of orthodox Reformed theology. This book does not, however, represent the arrival of a “new-Calvinism” or even a “neo-Calvinism,” if by those terms are meant a novel reading of the Reformed faith. An Evangelical Calvinism highlights a Calvinistic tradition that has developed particularly within Scotland, but is not unique to the Scots. The editors have picked up the baton passed on by John Calvin, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and others, in order to offer the family of Reformed theologies a reinvigorated theological and spiritual ethos. This volume promises to set the agenda for Reformed-Calvinist discussion for some time to come.

A question rarely, if ever addressed online in the theological blogosphere, and other online social media outlets, is a description of what Covenant theology actually entails. Many, if acquainted at all with Reformed theology, have heard of the Covenant of Works, Covenant of Grace, and Covenant of Redemption (pactum salutis); but I’m not really sure how many of these same people actually understand what that framework entails—maybe they do, and just don’t talk about it much.

In an effort to highlight the lineaments of Federal theology I thought it might be instructive to hear how Lyle Bierma describes it in one of its seminal formulator’s theology, Caspar Olevianus. So we will hear from Bierma on Olevianus, and then we will offer a word of rejoinder to this theology from Thomas Torrance’s theology summarized for us by Paul Molnar; and then further, a word contra Federal theology from Karl Barth as described by Rinse Reeling Brouwer. Here is Bierma:

When did God make such a pledge? [Referring to the ‘Covenant of Grace’] We will be looking at this question in some detail in Chapter IV, but it should be mentioned here that for Olevianus this covenant of grace or gospel of forgiveness and life was proclaimed to the Old Testament fathers from the beginning; to Adam after the fall (“The seed of the woman shall crush [Satan’s] head”); to Abraham and his descendents (“In your seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed”); to the remnant of Israel in Jeremiah 31 (“I will put my laws in their minds . . . and will remember their sins no more”); and still to hearers of the Word today. To be sure, this oath or testament was not confirmed until the suffering and death of Christ. Christ was still the only way to Seligkeit, since it was only through His sacrifices that the blessing promised to Abraham could be applied to us and the forgiveness and renewal promised through Jeremiah made possible. Nevertheless, even before ratification it was still a covenant — a declaration of God’s will awaiting its final fulfillment.

In some contexts, however, Olevianus understands the covenant of grace in a broader sense than as God’s unilateral promise of reconciliation ratified in Jesus Christ. He employs some of the same terms as before — Bund, Gnadenbund, foedus, foedus gratiae, and foedus gratuitum — but this time to mean a bilateral commitment between God and believers. The covenant so understood is more than a promise of reconciliation; it is the  realization of that promise — reconciliation itself — through a mutual coming to terms. Not only does God bind Himself to us in a pledge that He will be our Father; we also bind ourselves to Him in a pledge of acceptance of His paternal beneficence. Not only does God promise that He will blot out all memory of our sins; we in turn promise that we will walk uprightly before Him. The covenant in this sense includes both God’s promissio and our repromissio.

This semantical shift from a unilateral to a bilateral promise is most clearly seen in two passages in Olevanius’s writings where he compares the covenant of grace to a human Bund. In Vester Grundt, as we have seen, he portrays the covenant strictly as a divine pledge. While we were yet sinners, God bound Himself to us with an oath and a promise that through His Son He would repair the broken relationship. It was expected, of course, that we accept the Son (whether promised or already sent) in faith, but Olevianus here does not treat this response as part of the covenant. The emphasis is on what God would do because of what we could not do.

In a similar passage in the Expositio, however, Olevianus not only identifies the covenant with reconciliation itself but describes it as a mutual agreement (mutuus assensus) between the estranged parties. Here God binds Himself not to us “who were yet sinners” but to us “who repent and believe,” to us who in turn are bound to Him in faith and worship. This “covenant of grace or union between God and us” is not established at just one point in history; it is ratified personally with each believer. Christ the Bridegroom enters into “covenant or fellowship” with the Church His Bride by the ministry of the Word and sacraments and through the Holy Spirit seals the promises of reconciliation in the hearts of the faithful. But this is also a covenant into which we enter, a “covenant of faith.” As full partners in the arrangement we become not merely God’s children but His Bundgesnossen, His confoederati.

When he discusses the covenant of grace in this broader sense, i.e., as a bilateral commitment between God and us, Olevianus does not hesitate t use the term conditio [conditional]. We see already in the establishment of the covenant with Abraham that the covenant of grace has not one but two parts: not merely God’s promissio [promise] to be the God of Abraham and his seed, but that promise on the condition (qua conditione) of Abraham’s (and our) repromissio [repromising] to walk before Him and be perfect. Simply put, God’s covenantal blessings are contingent upon our faith and obedience. It is to those who repent, believe, and are baptized that He reconciles Himself and binds Himself in covenant.[1]

What we see in Olevianus’s theology, according to Bierma, is a schema of salvation that is contingent upon the elect’s doing their part, as it were. In other words, what binds salvation together in the Federal scheme is not only the act of God, but the act of the elect; an act that is ensured to be acted upon by the absolute decree (absolutum decretum). The ground of salvation involves, then, God’s act and humanity’s response; the objective (or de jure) side is God’s, the subjective (or de facto) side is the elect’s—a quid pro quo framework for understanding salvation. What this inevitability leads to, especially when getting into issues of assurance of salvation, is for the elect to turn inward to themselves as the subjective side of salvation is contingent upon their ‘faith and obedience.’

Thomas F. Torrance, patron saint of evangelical Calvinists like me, rightly objects to this type of juridical and transactional and/or bilateral understanding of salvation. Paul Molnar, TF Torrance scholar par excellence, describes Torrance’s rejection of Federal theology this way and for these reasons:

Torrance’s objections to aspects of the “Westminster theology” should be seen together with his objection to “Federal Theology”. His main objection to Federal theology is to the ideas that Christ died only for the elect and not for the whole human race and that salvation is conditional on our observance of the law. The ultimate difficulty here that one could “trace the ultimate ground of belief back to eternal divine decrees behind the back of the Incarnation of God’s beloved Son, as in a federal concept of pre-destination, [and this] tended to foster a hidden Nestorian Torrance between the divine and human natures in the on Person of Jesus Christ, and thus even to provide ground for a dangerous form of Arian and Socinian heresy in which the atoning work of Christ regarded as an organ of God’s activity was separated from the intrinsic nature and character of God as Love” (Scottish Theology, p. 133). This then allowed people to read back into “God’s saving purpose” the idea that “in the end some people will not actually be saved”, thus limiting the scope of God’s grace (p. 134). And Torrance believed they reached their conclusions precisely because they allowed the law rather than the Gospel to shape their thinking about our covenant relations with God fulfilled in Christ’s atonement. Torrance noted that the framework of Westminster theology “derived from seventeenth-century federal theology formulated in sharp contrast to the highly rationalised conception of a sacramental universe of Roman theology, but combined with a similar way of thinking in terms of primary and secondary causes (reached through various stages of grace leading to union with Christ), which reversed the teaching of Calvin that it is through union with Christ first that we participate in all his benefits” (Scottish Theology, p. 128). This gave the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “a very legalistic and constitutional character in which theological statements were formalised at times with ‘almost frigidly logical definiton’” (pp. 128-9). Torrance’s main objection to the federal view of the covenant was that it allowed its theology to be dictated on grounds other than the grace of God attested in Scripture and was then allowed to dictate in a legalistic way God’s actions in his Word and Spirit, thus undermining ultimately the freedom of grace and the assurance of salvation that could only be had by seeing that our regenerated lives were hidden with Christ in God. Torrance thought of the Federal theologians as embracing a kind of “biblical nominalism” because “biblical sentences tend to be adduced out of their context and to be interpreted arbitrarily and singly in detachment from the spiritual ground and theological intention and content” (p. 129). Most importantly, they tended to give biblical statements, understood in this way, priority over “fundamental doctrines of the Gospel” with the result that “Westminster theology treats biblical statements as definitive propositions from which deductions are to be made, so that in their expression doctrines thus logically derived are given a categorical or canonical character” (p. 129). For Torrance, these statements should have been treated, as in theScots Confession, in an “open-structured” way, “pointing away from themselves to divine truth which by its nature cannot be contained in finite forms of speech and thought, although it may be mediated through them” (pp. 129-30). Among other things, Torrance believed that the Westminster approach led them to weaken the importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity because their concept of God fored without reference to who God is in revelation led them ultimately to a different God than the God of classical Nicene theology (p. 131). For Barth’s assessment of Federal theology, which is quite similar to Torrance’s in a number of ways, see CD IV/1, pp. 54-66.[2]

And here is how Brouwer describes Barth’s feeling on Federal theology, with particular reference to another founder of Federal theology, Johannes Cocceius. Brouwer writes of Barth:

Barth writes ‘For the rest you shall enjoy Heppe’ s Locus xiii only with caution. He has left too much room for the leaven of federal theology. It was not good, when the foedus naturae was also called a foedus operum’. In Barth’ s eyes, the notion of a relationship between God and Adam as two contractual partners in which man promises to fulfil the law and God promises him life eternal in return, is a Pelagian one that should not even be applied to the homo paradisiacus. Therefore,

one has to speak of the foedus naturae in such a way that one has nothing to be ashamed of when one speaks of the foedus gratiae later on, and, conversely, that one does not have to go to the historians of religion, but rather in such a way that one can say the same things in a more detailed and powerful way in the new context of the foedus gratiae, which is determined by the contrast between sin and grace. For there is re vera only one covenant, as there is only one God. The fact that Cocceius and his followers could not and would not say this is where we should not follow them – not in the older form, and even less in the modern form.

 In this way paragraph ends as it began: the demarcation of sound theology from federal theology in its Cocceian shape is as sharp as it was before. Nevertheless, the attentive reader will notice that the category of the covenant itself is ‘rescued’ for Barth’ s own dogmatic thinking.[3]

For Barth, as for Torrance, as for me, the problem with Federal theology is that it assumes upon various wills of God at work at various levels determined by the absolute decree. The primary theological problem with this, as the stuff we read from Torrance highlights, is that it ruptures the person and work of God in Christ from Christ; i.e. it sees Jesus, the eternal Logos, as merely an instrument, not necessarily related to the Father, who carries out the will of God on behalf of the elect in fulfilling the conditions of the covenant of works ratifying the covenant of grace. Yet, even in this establishment of the Federal framework, salvation is still not accomplished for the elect; it is contingent upon the faith and obedience of those who will receive salvation, which finally brings to completion the loop of salvation in the Federal schema.

These are serious issues, that require sober reflection; more so than we will be able to do in a little blog post. At the very least I am hopeful that what we have sketched from various angles will be sufficient to underscore what’s at stake in these types of depth theological issues, and how indeed theology, like Federal theology offers, can impact someone’s Christian spirituality if in fact said theology is grasped and internalized; i.e. it is understood beyond academic reflection, and understood existentially as it impacts the psychology and well being of human beings coram Deo.


[1] Lyle D. Bierma, German Calvinism in the Confessional Age: The Covenant Theology of Caspar Olevianus, 64-68.

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

[3] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 112-13.

New Creation in Christ: The Resurrection of Christ and Its Implications for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of God

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is as primal, and more so, than original creation itself. It is such because original creation (i.e. Genesis 1–2) was always intended for greater things, in Christ. We can see creation’s original telos or purpose foreshadowed in something as narratively specious as God walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day; well we might see that as a foreshadowing. The point is that creation, in the Bible always pointed beyond itself; it always had something grander about it that gave it its orientation. What we see eventuating in the resurrection of Jesus is jesuscreatorwhere creation finds its proper ground, and orientation. If this is so, everything in creation starts there; including how we as creatures in the creation think of God. If original creation was a product of God’s grace the first time around, then how much more is re-creation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ formed and shaped by God’s grace in Christ?

It is this reality that I find so compelling about the truth and reality of the resurrection. The resurrection is not something that Christian apologists are charged with proving; the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the act of God’s re-creation of the world. It is God breaking into His own creation and radically setting the world on a fresh rotation that truly orbits around the Son, Jesus Christ. I am hopeful that many of you can appreciate how radical all of this is towards everything; towards how we think of God; where we go to think of God; how this then impacts a theological ontology and epistemology; how it impacts Christian spirituality so on and so forth.

To this end—i.e. attempting to elucidate how significant the resurrection of Jesus Christ is for us today, and for our daily lives as participants in His triune life—I want to share something from Dawson on Karl Barth’s thinking relative to history and faith. As we read what Dawson articulates on Barth’s theology here, I want to lead in with something offered up by John Webster; Webster speaks to how a proper theological order ought to impact the way we think God and thus do theology—Webster’s point resonates with what we will hear about Barth’s theology insofar as Barth’s theology starts precisely where Webster says theology ought to start, with God revealed in Jesus Christ. What I hope is impressed upon the Christian reader is the idea that we do not prop up God by way of apologetical or philosophical activity; instead, we are given our reality by God’s act upon us, by His voice to us which rings most profoundly in His re-creative act in the re-creation of all things in Jesus Christ (Romans 8).

John Webster writes this of how proper Christian thought ought to run, particularly in regard to doing theology (which I want to say all Christians to one degree or another are engaged in whether they are conscious of that or not):

 . . . prolegomena to systematic theology are an extension and application of the content of Christian dogmatics (Trinity, creation, fall, reconciliation, regeneration, and the rest), not a “predogmatic” inquiry into its possibility. “[D]ogmatics does not wait for an introduction.” The fact that in its prolegomena systematic theology invokes doctrine means that this preliminary stage of the argument does not bear responsibility for establishing the possibility of true human speech about God, or for demonstrating how infinite divine truth can take finite form in human knowing. Prolegomena are, rather, the contemplative exercise of tracing what is the case, and explicating how and why it is so.[1]

In other words, God confronts us with His voice, with His life; He is prior to us in every way, just as the Creator logically precedes His creation—or as the case may be, His re-creation.

With this framework in place let’s now hear from Robert Dale Dawson on how Barth thinks this out from the fundamental and primal basis of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is this that I find so compelling towards everything.

. . . The question of faith and history is one which assumes that the death of Jesus Christ is a contingent truth of history and by definition not a universal truth of reason. Barth objects to this conceptuality and rejects it on the grounds that it is inappropriate to the reality of the death of Jesus Christ as an act of God. The death of Jesus Christ cannot be understood for the reality it is except that it is understood as the reality of the whole of humanity in him, immediately and directly embracing all of history. To pose the question of faith and history is to deny that what has come to us definitively and finally in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is our judgment, end and death which we have no capacity to transcend. Barth is indefatigable in his opposition to the separation of the question of the absolute comprehensiveness of the being and act of Jesus Christ from the question of the relation of faith to its historical referent.

Many of Barth’s critics come up short at this point, because of an inadequate understanding of the grounds of Barth’s refusal to grant interpretive priority to presuppositions and contingent issues which arise from various critical standpoints external to the gospel. Barth comes to terms with the problem as one that is inherent in the gospel and arises out of the gospel, and hence, for Barth, is as such a real and substantive issue.

For Barth, Lessing’s question is understandable in as much as it represents a supreme interest to disguise our relationship to Jesus Christ as one which is ‘purely historical and therefore mediated and indirect’ to be apprehended as a mere recollection. In Barth’s view the question of faith and history is a question which arises from a pervasive human need, that is,

the need to hide ourselves (like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden) from Jesus Christ as He makes Himself present and mediates Himself to us; the need to keep our eyes closed to that about which we ask with such solemn concern, taking ourselves and our ‘honesty’ with such frightful seriousness; the need to safeguard ourselves as far as this movement of flight allows against the directness in which He does in fact confront us, against His presence, and the consequences which it threatens.

It is only in this attempt to elude the real problem that the question of historical distance takes on such importance. The question merely reflects our desperate attempt to flee from the reality which confronts us in the risen Jesus. The only way to explain our fear of this reality, the reality of our death in him, is that this reality is really present in his resurrection, and as such is the occasion of our fear of and flight from it. Hence, for Barth, even our rejection of him has its ground and occasion in Christ’s resurrection presence with us.[2]

Profound and deep thinking. So for Barth the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the new ground for all things; and it thus must be by christological reality, where all Christian thinking must start in every way. For Barth there is an upheaval-ness about the resurrection of Christ; it confronts us where we are, it is not simply a datum of history past. For Barth the resurrection is a present reality just as sure as the world itself is upheld by the Word of God’s power in Jesus Christ; in other words there’s an immediacy about God’s presence to us because His resurrection presence is indeed the reality of the world: past, present, and future.

For Barth all philosophical reflection about God, by Christians or not, is put to death at the cross of Jesus Christ; and all resource for thinking God is only provided for in and from the re-created and mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ. Given our fallen predispositions as humans, Christian or not, we don’t like being told how to think of God; we would rather press back into the dignity of our own collective humanity and dictate to God who He is—but for Barth (and for me) to do this is mythology.

All things are new in Christ.

If any man be in Christ he is a new creation, the old has passed the new has come. II Corinthians 5.17

[1] Webster, “Principles of Systematic Theology,” 57.

[2] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 97-98.

Luther: Humans After the Fall are Philosophers

Martin Luther on the natural state of being human after the Fall; Luther thinks that when it comes to God people in their fallen status can only elevate to the level of philosopher. It is an insight that Feuerbach, in his own way, would develop, but in a more antagonistic way towards religion in general; i.e. the idea that god is simply a human projection.

. . . Since the Fall every man has been a philosopher, for he has taken his experience of the world and his knowledge of reality — which he has succeeded in describing scientifically — as a standard by which to measure God. But the intellect does not suffice to grasp the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; He must be apprehended through the Scriptures. The “God” created by man is a false god of his own making.[1]

In a nutshell it is this reality that evangelical Calvinists press into; i.e. the idea that without God Self-exegeting Himself for us in Jesus Christ (which is exactly what John 1.18 says He does); without being given Christ’s heart in the resurrection (Rom. 6–8; II Cor. 3; Ezek. 36; etc.) all we can do is philosophize and conjure categories about God that we claim to have discovered by reflecting upon nature refracted by our personal and collective experiences as human beings. As evangelical Calvinists we are saying a loud Nein to this, and affirming what Luther holds true about humans after the fall.

[1] Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, 170.


The Theologian For Us. Jesus Christ: The Word “Theology” and its Pagan Origin But Reception by the Protestants

The word theology is a transliteration of the Latin theologia which itself is a transliteration of the Greek. Richard Muller helpfully develops the etymology of how ‘theology,’ the word, came into usage among Christians, and in particular how that took form among the Protestant Reformed Christians during the 16th and 17th centuries. Let me quote Muller at some length on this in two jesusbibleseparate chunks, and then I will close with some final reflection.

The word theologia is of Greek origin, taken over into Latin, and then borrowed or adopted by the fathers of the church from gentile writers. According to Aristotle and Cicero, the poets were to be called “theologians” because they spoke of the gods and of “divine things.” Thus, by adaptation and extension of the classical usage, Lactantius refers in his De ira Dei to those who know and worship God rightly as theologi and to their knowledge as theologia. Early on, moreover, Christians referred to the apostle John as Theologus, “the Theologian,” in titles added to the Apocalypse. Alsted adds to this the fact church fathers, like Nazianzus, were called Theologus because they wrote about and defended the doctrine of the Trinity.[1]

Like so much in the Christian heritage, in the ‘fullness of time’ as it were, us Christians have retexted grammar provided for by the classical Greek thinkers. You could imagine though, that as the Protestant Reformation took place, Christian Humanist movement that it was (i.e. ad fontes ‘back to the sources’ e.g. the Biblical text in its original languages and to the Patristics/Church fathers), the Protestant scholastics almost stumbled over the appropriation of the language theologia or theology; because in their minds it was too closely associated with Hellenistic philosophy, paganism, and what had caused so many of the problems that they were protesting against within the Roman Tridentine Catholic system.

The fact that the term theologia itself is not a biblical but an ancient pagan term cause the Protestant scholastics some brief anxiety. After all, the Reformation was, if nothing else, a profoundly biblical movement, zealous to avoid anything in religion that could not be justified from Scripture and careful, particularly in its first several decades, to formulate its theology upon the text of Scripture and to avoid the use of classical as well as medieval sources. The classic use of the term theologia by Aristotle and Cicero was not easily assimilated by Protestant system either on the basis of the ancient inscription to John as Theologus or on the basis of the usage of the fathers of the church, since pagan “theology” neither had access to supernatural or special revelation nor was capable of a proper use of reason in discerning the truths of natural revelation. What Christians call theology, by way of contrast with the ancient pagan usage,

is a science of divine things … which treateth of God, nor according to human reason, but divine revelation, which showeth not only what God is in himself, but also what he is toward us; nor doth it only discusse of his nature, but also of his will, teaching what God expecteth of us, and what we should expect from God, what we should hope for, and what we should feare. [Du Moulin, Oration in Praise of Divinity, 10-11.]

Some further, preferably biblical, justification of the term was desirable. Turretin resolves the problem by making a distinction between the term theologia and its significance:

The simple terms from which it is composed do occur there, as for example, logos tou theou and logia tou theou, Rom. 3:2; I Pet. 4:10; Hebrews 5:12. Thus it is one thing to be in Scripture according to sound (quoad sonum) and syllables, or formally and in the abstract; and another to be in Scripture according to meaning (quoad sensusm) and according to the thing signified (rem significatam), or materially and in the concrete,; “theology” does not appear in Scripture in the former way, but in the latter. [Turretin, Inst. theol., I.i.2.]

Theologia, then, indicates heavenly doctrine (doctrina coelestis) and has, in addition to the scriptural references to logia tou theou, words of God, a series of scriptural synonyms: “wisdom in a mystery (1 Cor. 2:7), “the form of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13), “knowledge of truth according to piety” (Titus 1:1), and “doctrine” (Titus 1:9). Again, the thing signified by the term is discussed throughout Scripture.[2]

Just as with everything else in the Protestant Reformation words themselves were put to the test by way of the canon of Holy Scripture. The word ‘theology’ passed the test because it signifies something that truly is grounded in the reality found in the text of Scripture as it finds its reality and order of being from Godself. In a denotative or generic sense, just as with its origin, the word theologia and theologi (i.e. theology’s practitioners) can be used very generally with reference to anyone who studies a particular conception of god; however, when Christians use the term we understand that the reference of this word is to the Triune God, and that Jesus Christ himself is truly Theologus pro nobis (The Theologian for us).

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 152.

[2] Ibid., 153.

*repost, a favorite of mine

The Imminent Return of Jesus Christ in Barth’s Theology. Where’s Jesus?

Even as a little kid, Baptist Fundamentalist that I was, I believed in the imminent return of Jesus Christ. I remember one summer day, in the Pacific Northwest, as a seven year old I was laying out in a field of grass hay that had yet to be cut. I was looking up into the sky with its white cumulous clouds made ever so much more vibrant by the bright blue background of the sky with the sun
resurrectionjesusrays ever so ubiquitously breaking through and hitting me on the face. As I lay there I thought to myself “this would be a perfect day for Jesus to come back.” I pondered that reality for awhile that day, and I haven’t quit pondering since.

As I stated, as a kid, I grew up Conservative Baptist, as such the attendant theology with that was of the typical North American variety: I was a Pre-Tribulational, Pre-millennial, Dispensational Christian (some folks only know of this “type” of “theology” through LaHaye’s  and Jenkins’ best selling series Left Behind). A central pillar of that hermeneutic is the belief that Jesus could come again ‘at any moment,’ as such adherents to this perspective read current events and socio-cultural and geopolitical movements through the lens of Jesus’s “any-moment” return; believing that the worse things get, particularly in the Middle-East and Israel, the more likely Christ’s return is upon us.

Without getting further into that stream of thought I will simply say that I have since repudiated the dispensational hermeneutic that gives rise to the pre-mil/pre-trib-rapture theology embedded in it. What I haven’t given up is the biblical and orthodox belief that Jesus is indeed coming again; the belief that his return is imminent and upon us. Karl Barth had this belief, in his own way, informed by his own theory of history and revelation; it is rather apocalyptical and actualist. But even without getting into that too deeply, I simply want to share the way Robert Dale Dawson describes Barth’s ‘imminent return of Christ theology.’ Dawson writes:

The Imminent Return of Christ

With the perspective gained by this insight we are able to see more clearly why the unshakable and persistent hope of the New Testament community was for the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God. If Jesus Christ was the resurrection and the life, if he was the King who is the fullness of the kingdom, how could the kingdom be anything but close at hand? As Eberhard Busch has it: ‘In joyful hope, we may expect in the future the One who has come already. Thus, or waiting upon him – impatient and at the same time patient – is “expectation of what is near”.’ Claims Barth, ‘If this is the One whom we expect, we cannot expect Him the day after tomorrow, but to-morrow.’ We must not grow weary in hope as did some according to 2 Peter. Having forgotten the promise of the yesterday and today of the Lord, they grew suspect of an imminent expectation of tomorrow. We must rather eagerly await the summing up of all things in his return:

Like the apostles and prophets, like Christians themselves, the angels wait for the consummation of the process inaugurated by the resurrection – a consummation which according to I Pet. 4:7 will also be ‘the end of all things.’ The word used to denote the ‘looking into’ of the angels (parakufai) is the same as that which in Jn. 20:5 is used of Peter when he looks into the empty tomb.

Hence Barth’s eschatology takes shape as a further development of his threefold depiction of the perfect time of Jesus Christ. He is really past, present and future, but now in a way more specific to the perspective of the church – He is past in his Easter time, present in the time of his Spirit and future in the time of his consummate parousia.

According to Barth, once we recognize that the event of Easter and that of the parousia are different moments of one and the same act, we will see that the supposition that ‘there was unforeseen delay in the parousia, or that hope in the parousia was repeatedly deferred, or that the primitive Church … [was] disillusioned or mistaken on the subject in consequence of an exaggerated enthusiasm’ is baseless and ‘condemned from the very outset.’ The New Testament has no need for recourse to such a ‘thoroughgoing eschatology.’

But what then shall we say of our present experience of the kingdom of God? According to Barth:

The kingdom of God is real but not operative. It has come, but not come. It has still to be prayed for. It is present in reality, but not in revelation. To the extent that the New Testament contains good news, but not yet Easter news, the prophetic history of the Old Testament is continued in the New.

The Gospels, says Barth, look not only to the past revelation of Jesus but also to his future revelation. According to Barth, the goal of Jesus was not the saving event of his death alone, but also ‘the subsequent revelation of the meaning of His death, and therefore, the putting into effect of the salvation won in Him for men, for the community, for the whole world.’ We must not see the death of Jesus as an end in itself, but rather as the securing of his kingdom which is yet to be made visible in glory. Busch aptly explains that for Barth the ‘Kingdom of God’ might be called the ‘revolution of God’ for it introduces something entirely new vis-à-vis the given world, ‘something that inaugurates its total renewal.’ For Barth, the New Testament community of believers exists in the movement from commencement to conclusion. That is, ‘it has the completion of inaugurated with the resurrection of Jesus as a driving force behind it and the consummation in His parousia as a drawing force before it.’[1]

What we see in Barth, according to Dawson, is a theology of the Return of Christ shot through with the ‘now/not-yet’ conception of the Kingdom of God in Christ. What we get though in particular with Barth is an emphasis upon the continuity of the coming and resurrection of Christ; such that Easter resurrection is corollary and one-for-one in actuality with what will happen when Jesus comes again. In other words, it is the same primal event—Incarnation, Easter, and Parousia—but with different aspects and thus realized consequences for those living within the event of God’s life in Jesus Christ.

A Personal Turn

Because I like to read theology for spiritual and discipleship reasons, primarily, let me opine a minute on the way this theology of the imminent return of Christ impacts me; particularly in the way that Barth understands it. The same point, although much more raw when I first started contemplating it, that Barth holds to in regard to the continuity between Christ’s “comings” and “resurrections” is a conclusion that was impressed upon me back twenty-one years ago or so. I went through a horrific season (over a span of years) of anxiety, depression, doubt, and spiritual warfare; of the type that I can only now describe as “apocalyptic.” I would have such deep doubt about God’s existence that reality itself seemed to be slipping from me; this would, of course, throw me into deep anxiety and depression—unbearably so. But over and over again, as I walked through this season of dark nights, Jesus always showed up, he always broke through the dower-ness of my heavy and besmirched soul and brought times of refreshment; he would give me a peace that was indescribable. What I came to realize was that this same resurrected Jesus who was breaking into my life personally was the same Jesus who resurrected from the grave, and the same Jesus who would someday break into this world and bring times of refreshment unending.

I see this type of correlation between Easter hope and Second Advent reality in Barth’s theology. I think Dawson has done a good job describing something that sounds technical, but in all reality is very personally oriented in regard to the implications of what Barth is rightly developing in his theology. Maranatha.

[1] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 80-1.

Saving Faith in Protestant Understanding, and Reflection Upon Its Informing Theology both Definitionally and Historically

The actus fidei in Protestant Reformed theology was an attempt to detail the component parts of what makes up ‘saving faith’ as it were for the recipients of salvation in Christ. What we will cover in this post follows along the lines we touched upon in the last post when we took a look at an ontology of grace. What should stand out to you as you read this is the elevation that intellect and will attain in this schema and explication of ‘faith’. It comes back to an issue of anthropology, of a Thomist intellectualist type (but we will have to cover that more later).

whitemonkRichard Muller provides definition for actus fidei this way:

actus fidei: the act, actualization, perfecting operation, or actualizing operation of faith; in addition to their objective, doctrinal definitions of fides (q.v.), the Protestant orthodox also consider faith as it occurs or is actualized in the human, believing subject. In the subject, faith can be considered either as the disposition or capacity of the subject to have faith (habitus fidei, q.v.), which in case of saving faith (fides salvifica) is a gracious gift of God, or as the actus fidei, the act or actualizing operation of faith, in which the intellect and will appropriate the object of faith (obiectum fidei, q.v.). The actus fidei, then, can be described by the Lutheran and Reformed scholastics as an actus intellectus and an actus voluntatis, an operation of intellect and of will. Both notitia (knowledge) and assensus (assent to knowledge) belong to intellect, while the apprehensio fiducialis, or faithful apprehension, of that knowledge is an act of will. Saving faith in Christ comprises, therefore, the actus credenda in intellectu, the actualization of believing in the operation of the intellect, and the actus fiduciae (q.v.), or actus fiducialis voluntatis, the actualization of faithfulness in the operation of the will. The soul may be considered as the subiectum quo (q.v.), or “subject by which,” of faith, since soul may be distinguished into the faculties of intellect and will.

The scholastic language of faith as actus must not be construed as a description of faith as an activity that accomplishes, for the mind and the will, a saving knowledge of and trust in Christ. Such a view would constitute a denial of the doctrine of justification by grace alone (see iustificatio). Instead, the language of habitus fidei and actus fidei, of the disposition or capacity for faith and the actuality or perfecting operation of faith, needs to be understood in the context of the scholastic language of potency (potentia) and act, or actuality (actus). The disposition, or habitus, is a potency for faith that can be actualized as faith. The act or actus of faith, although it may be defined as an operation, is not an activity in the sense of a deed or a work, but an operation in the sense of an actualization in which faith comes to be faith or, in other words, moves from potency to actuality.

The Reformed orthodox further distinguish the actus fidei into several parts. The first distinction is twofold: an actus directus and an actus reflexus. The actus directus fidei, or direct operation of faith, is faith receiving or, more precisely, having its object. By the actus directus fidei an individual believes the promises of the gospel. The actus reflexus fidei, the reflex or reflective operation of faith, is the inward appropriation of the object according to which the individual knows that he believes. These two acts can be further distinguished since, in particular, both notitia and assensus can be considered as actus directus. The actus directus can be distinguished into (1) an actus notitiae, or actualization of knowledge, and (2) a twofold actus assensus, or actualization of assent (assensus theoreticus and assensus practicus), consisting in an actus refugii, or actualization of refuge, and an actus receptionis et unionis, an actualization of reception and union. By way of explanation, each of these components of the actus fidei is direct insofar as it refers to the object of faith as appropriated. This is clear in the case of the actus notitiae according to which the obiectum fidei, the supernaturally revealed Word of God, belongs to the intellect, and also in the case of theoretical assent according to which the intellect agrees  to the certainty of the truth of its knowledge. The assensus practicus et fiducialis, or practical and faithful assent, still belongs to the intellect, which here recognizes as certain and as the obiectum fidei, not only scriptural revelation, but that revelation of grace and sufficient salvation in Christ which God has promised to believers. The actualization of refuge follows immediately as the realization that Christ himself and union with him provide faith with the means of salvation. This actus is primarily of the will but still direct. Finally, on the ground of all that has preceded, but also now as a result of the actus voluntatis, or actualization of will toward Christ, there is an actus receptionis sive adhaesionis et unionis Christi, an operation of the reception of, adhesion to, and union with Christ. The next operation of faith is the actus reflexus in which the soul reflects upon itself and knows that it believes what it believes and that Christ died for it. Whereas the actus reflexus is primarily an actus intellectus, the final actus fidei belongs to the will. The actus consolationis et confidentiae, or actuality of consolation and confidence, is an acquiescence of the will to Christ and the knowledge of salvation in Christ. The scholastic analysis of the actus fidei is, in short, an attempt to isolate and define the elements of faith which must all be actualized in the believer if the graciously given disposition toward faith, the habitus fidei, is to bear fruit in a full realization of fides.[1]

Stephen Strehle in his 1996 book was right to entitle it The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter Between the Middle Ages and the Reformation, because as Muller’s definition of saving faith within Protestant Reformed orthodox theology illustrates how that is so. What we have is a Protestant reification of medieval and Catholic (Thomist, largely) Aristotelian language when it comes to describing faith and salvation. Even within Muller’s definition we see how he qualifies a shift that took place among the Protestant deployment of the ‘Catholic’ language and indeed the Protestant usage of it; particularly when we see the language of habitus and actus pop up regularly.

Habitus and actus are both fundamental parts of Aristotle’s philosophy and anthropology of virtue and Thomas Aquinas’ theological appropriation of that grammar within his medieval context. What is also present, and highly Aristotelian, about this definition of actus fidei is its constant appeal to a faculty psychology i.e. tripartite faculty psychology wherein mind, will, and affections are understood to be the constitutive parts of what it means to be human. Of course in the scholastic schema what we are going to get an emphasis upon, just as we do in Thomas Aquinas’ Roman Catholic theology is an emphasis upon the intellect/will; since both the Protestant Reformed orthodox and Roman Catholics, by and large, hold to what is called a Thomist intellectualist anthropology wherein the intellect/will are understood to be the defining components of what it means to be human. This is significant, particularly when we start thinking about a ‘biblical’ and genuinely Christian spirituality juxtaposed, indeed, with the Bible’s emphases—which focuses much more on the heart rather than the intellect (if we even want to appeal to a tripartite faculty psychology in the first place).

On a more negative note: it is hard for me to understand, after engaging with Protestant Reformed orthodox theology how those who adhere to it in repristinating form can maintain that what they offer just is “biblical,” and then hear them critique someone like Karl Barth or Thomas Torrance as if their theologizing is outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. It is absolutely ad hoc and petitio principii to make such accusations; all Christians, of whatever stripe, do theological exegesis and maneuvering in their attempt to lay bare what is there in the text of Holy Scripture and its attestation to its reality in the life of God in Jesus Christ.

I would simply ask adherents to what is ostensibly the orthodox faith of Reformed Christians, to at least be humble enough to admit that their positions are just as “theological” and less stridently or prima facie “biblical” as those they believe are outside the bounds. The standard is Holy Scripture and its regulative reality in Jesus Christ; intramural critiques done either way ought to stay at the level of material theological engagement, and labels bandied around such as “heretic” or even “heterodox” ought to be done away with (unless of course we actually do encounter heresy or heterodoxy).

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theology Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 21-23.

Ontology of Grace and Substance Metaphysics

Some have said that talk of ‘substance’ metaphysics is erroneous, I’ll do a post on who in the days to come. Until then I think the following is instructive towards understanding, theologically, what substance metaphysics is referring to when the locus is grace. It is unfortunate when grace is depersonalized, because insofar as God in his being in becoming is grace, if this ontology of grace is aquinas2applied to God we end up with a monad and not a personal God who is Triune.

As of late I’ve been talking with a few folks about Grace, and what Thomas Aquinas thought of it, and how he defined it using Aristotle’s categories of substance and qualities. Below I’m going to give a definition from a Latin theological dictionary on created grace or habitual grace.

habitus gratiae: habit or disposition of grace; a divine gift infused into the soul in such a way as to become a part of human nature. The habitus gratiae can therefore also be called gratia creata, created grace, as distinct from the uncreated power of God that brings it into existence, gratia increata. In addition, according to its function, the habitus gratiae can be called justifying grace (gratia iustificans) or sanctifying grace (gratia sanctificans). This concept, together with a related concept of an infused righteousness (iustitia infusa, q.v.), was rejected by the Reformers in so far as it cannot be correlated with the doctrine of a forensic justification (iustificatio,q.v.) on the ground of the alien righteousness (iustitia aliena) of Christ imputed to believers by grace alone through faith. The habitus gratiae implies an intrinsic righteousness to the believer, whereas the Reformer’s concept of imputed righteousness is extrinsic. Righteousness is viewed by the reformers and the Orthodox as inherent, or intrinsic …, in relation to the work of the Spirit in sanctification (sanctificatio,q.v.), but the concept, here, is expressed in terms of cleansing (renavatio, q.v.) rather than in terms of an infused disposition or habit. [Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, 134]

In other words, created grace, for the Protestant, is incommensurate with the concept of grace as foreign and external mediated by the righteousness of Christ;and applied by the Holy Spirit. For Roman Catholics, historically as noted above, grace becomes part of the person, in the accidents, which is intrinsic to the person. The implication is that grace is something that can be manipulated by the person, depending on their particular disposition — this typically has been known as semi Pelagianism.

Picking at Calvin’s Wax Nose: Union with Christ or Forensic Salvation? An Impasse

Often here at The Evangelical Calvinist I refer to the language of union with Christ, and Calvin’s “mystical union” (unio mystica). This is the stuff that makes ‘EC’ go round; that is pressing this Pauline idea of ‘in Christ’ theology as the key of our soteriological framework. In line with Thomas Torrance, and through his development of Scottish Theology, in his book “Scottish Theology;” I often pick up on the way this was developed, contra the Westminster development of Calvin that takes hold of Calvin’s theology of the Law, and its relation to understanding salvation. J. Todd Billings says that either one of these streams misses Calvin’s theology as a whole, and thus distorts Calvin if we try to emphasize either his relational over and against his juridical (legal), or vice versa. Billings writes:

[T]here is an ‘Anti-Legal School’ in Calvin scholarship that tends to emphasize Calvin’s distance from scholasticism, his fluidity in the use of image and metaphor, and his rich Trinitarian theology. Language about forensic transaction is generally treated with suspicion, in preference for the more organic images of transformation. In reaction to this school, the ‘legal’ aspects of Calvin’s thought tend to be emphasized by others, particularly his distinctively Reformed concerns for the doctrines of justification and imputation. Accounts of one school of thought tend to either ignore or deny the other side. . . . I will argue that the place of the human is illuminated in Calvin’s theology of participation by seeing a Trinitarian account of the duplex gratia as the framework for participation. For Calvin, participation in Christ must emphasize the legal and the transformative language in the ‘double grace’ of justification and sanctification. In prayer, believers act in ascetic struggle to pray rightly, yet the foundation for their active struggle is a recognition of God’s free pardon. Likewise, in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, believers act in response to God’s justifying act in a way that incorporates them into a Trinitarian soteriology: the Father is revealed as gracious and generous through his free pardon of believers in their union with Christ; this union also involves the activation of believers by the Spirit—toward a life of piety and love, requiring ascetic effort and activity. Believers are made active in the ecclesial and social community. A participatory, Trinitarian account of the duplex gratia plays an important role in Calvin’s theological account of the sacraments. ‘Participation’ in baptism is so real that it is almost biological. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper involves participating in Christ’s ascension to heaven to feed on his life giving flsh and blood. Calvin’s theology of prayer and the sacraments is a theology that is theocentric, but also participatory, activating believers in love of God and neighbour as the body of Christ. [J. Todd Billings, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 105-06]

This serves instructive for noting a certain reality; one that Billings is not intending to address here, but one that I believe is constructively available through the present thesis that Billings will proceed to develop throughout the rest of his chapter. What I want to highlight is the fact that both lines of thought—union with Christ/relational and forensic—are present in Calvin. Consequently, all things being equal, both strands can be found developed and emphasized within the tradition that bears Calvin’s name. This is precisely what we seek to elucidate and alert folks to with our forthcoming book on Evangelical Calvinism, and what I, personally, have been doing here with my blog (at points). Calvin’s nose is very “waxy,” and thus it should be expected that given the various predispositions of people in general; that aspects of Calvin’s corpus will be developed over and against other aspects—and this shaped by various socio-cultural constraints present throughout Calvinism’s history and development.

Billings’ point is that to negate one aspect of Calvin from his other side is to misread and misunderstand Calvin’s full bodied theological thrust. Nevertheless, the reality is, is that Calvin has been read through various foci and lenses; the history bears this out. This takes us back to Richard Muller’s thesis that Calvin should not be seen as the touchstone of what it means to be a Calvinist. In some ways this is true, there is a difference between being Calvinian (which is what Billings is developing in his book—Calvin’s theology) and Calvinist; I would suggest though that a theologian could only ever be a Calvinist (Evangelical, Westminster, Spiritual Brethren, et al) if in fact she has a shred of Calvinian in her first. My point, Calvin’s nose is wax; and I would say that this is a good thing, precisely because we are as Reformed Christians, people who interpret and re-interpret Calvin and any teacher through Scripture. Those who appreciate Calvin, and try to appropriate him constructively through Scripture; will almost necessarily end up being a Calvinist (vs. Calvinian), and, of course, I would propose that the best of us will end up an Evangelical Calvinist! 😉

*repost (an old one)