“To Be or Not To Be (In Christ)?”: That is Kevin Vanhoozer’s Question to Evangelical Calvinism

Unlike many detractors of Evangelical Calvinism, one of the most thoughtful and respectful critics is Kevin Vanhoozer. Responding to a recent blog post written by Bobby Grow, Vanhoozer stated that Evangelical Calvinism is “a serious attempt to reform the Reformed tradition, an attempt that merits serious attention.” Despite whatever disagreements I may have with him, I am highly appreciative of the spirit with which Vanhoozer seriously engages with us Evangelical Calvinists inasmuch as he recognizes that we ourselves are engaged in a serious task. It was this recognition that led Vanhoozer to lend serious attention to Evangelical Calvinism in an essay that is perhaps (at least in my mind) one of the most significant and careful critiques to date.

As mentioned above, Bobby Grow has already written a few responses (1, 2, 3, and 4)to Vanhoozer’s essay, and he has done a fantastic job in doing so. What I hope to do in my own response here is not say anything particularly new but rather support Bobby’s argument from a slightly different angle. In Bobby’s first response (written back in 2014), vanhoozer_kevinhe addressed the question raised by Vanhoozer regarding ontology vs. soteriology as it pertains to human election and union with Christ. Indeed, the first half of Vanhoozer’s essay highlights this issue as

…our primary question: Are the elect “in Christ” simply by virtue of being human (ontology) or because they have somehow become beneficiaries of his life and work (soteriology)?[1]

Vanhoozer reiterates this as the central focus of his critique when he further writes:

My intent in what follows is to examine the suggestion, put forward by Evangelical Calvinists, that all human beings are elect in Christ. Does this insistence collapse “being in general” (ontology) into “being in Christ” and, if so, does “being in Christ” connote salvation (soteriology)? T. F. Torrance draws a fascinating ontological implication from Jesus’ incarnation: “human beings have no being apart from Christ.” [Torrance, School of Faith, p.cxiii.] The key question, then, is this: if the incarnation is the “setting-forth” of the eternally purposed union of God and man in Jesus Christ – the historical projection of divine election into creaturely existence – this is every human being a “being in Christ”, and, if so, does it follow that all are saved?[2]

Vanhoozer follows these questions with a comparison of “Perspectives Old and New” on what it means to be “chosen in Christ” (Eph. 1:4), the old (i.e. Classical Calvinist) view represented by Calvin himself and the new (i.e. Evangelical Calvinist) view represented by Karl Barth, T.F. Torrance, and Myk Habets. He concludes this section by saying:

The differences between Classical and Evangelical Calvinism here come into sharp contrast. First, as concerns election: Classical Calvinists associate being chosen in Christ with the Spirit’s uniting people to Christ through faith, whereas Evangelical Calvinists associate being chosen in Christ with the Son’s assumption of humanity in the Incarnation. Second, as concerns union with Christ: Classical Calvinists tend to follow Pauline usage, for whom “in Christ” serves as referring to the Spirit’s incorporation of saints into Christ (and hence the life of the triune God) through faith (i.e. a covenantal union of persons), whereas Evangelical Calvinists tend to follow a distinctly non-Pauline usage, viewing being “in Christ” as a necessary implication of the incarnation (i.e., an ontological union of natures, our humanity with Christ’s).[3]

At this point, Vanhoozer moves to a more explicit critique of Evangelical Calvinism based on these two key distinctions. While his specific points merit consideration and response (which I hope to offer in a future post), I want to stop here in order to address the fundamental dichotomy that Vanhoozer sets up as the basis for the rest of his critique, namely ontology vs. soteriology. It is true that Vanhoozer also mentions other dichotomies, such as Pauline vs. non-Pauline language and a union of persons vs. a union of natures. The latter distinction is a significant point and requires a separate response. The former issue, however, can be somewhat simply addressed by saying two things. First, although Vanhoozer restricts the scope of his essay to Paul and specifically to Eph. 1:4 (being of course free to do so), Evangelical Calvinism derives from a much more dogmatic approach that would incorporate the writings of not only a single biblical author but the entire canonical witness. That is not to say that EC is not interested in the exegesis of Pauline writings in the manner according to which Vanhoozer’s essay proceeds. Yet it seems, at least to me, somewhat reductive and methodological deficient to engage with EC on these grounds when EC is driven largely by a dialectical/dialogical/theo-logical approach to Scripture that operates at what Torrance called the “depth dimension” of Scripture.

Thus, how is it possible to evaluate Vanhoozer’s charge that EC surrenders territory to ontology that properly belongs to soteriology? I think that a helpful way to do so is to adhere closely to the dogmatic order prescribed by the EC methodology and begin, not with abstract categories of “ontology” and “soteriology”, but rather with the Trinitarian and Christological revelation that defines what these terms means and how they interrelate. As is usually acknowledged, the standard concepts and grammar for articulating an orthodox (i.e. biblically faithful) view of the Trinity and Jesus Christ was provided by the pro-Nicene and Chalcedonian fathers who were forced to do so in the face of serious heresies such as Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism. Thus, for example, we see Gregory of Nyssa opposing the Arian views of Eunomius of Cyzicus by maintaining a strict correlation between God’s being and act. Patristic scholar Michel Barnes explains:

Eunomius’ alternative to Nicene and semi-Nicene doctrines of the Son’s generation was to teach that the Son was created; his description of the Son’s nature stressed both his created status (he is not the true God) and His role as Creator (he is God for us). By contrast, Gregory’s argument for the unity of the Trinity turns precisely upon his understanding that a productive capacity is natural to God. Thus Gregory argues that the common power of creation shown in the two Persons is evidence of their common nature…For Gregory the transcendence of God includes the capacity to produce; indeed Gregory’s conception of this capacity as a power means not only that this capacity exists as a natural capacity in God, but because this capacity is the power of the divine nature, God’s kind of existence is the kind that (re)produces. Gregory’s fundamental insight, and his argument against Eunomius, is that the divine nature, inso­far as it is the divine nature, is productive.[4]

The counter-assault that Gregory of Nyssa launched against Eunomius in defense of the full divinity of the Son (homoousion with the Father) was that the power of divine acts is inextricably related, and indicative of, the divine nature. In order to deny the full divinity of the Son while attributing to him divine power, it was necessary to separate God’s being cf83ceaccf81cf89cf83ceb700671.jpgfrom his act (or, specifically, the being of the Father from the act of the Son). Gregory’s response was to insist that not only can God’s being not be separated from his act, but also that God’s being is of such a nature that it is intrinsically active and thus manifests itself in the acts generative of the history of the universe.

It was critical, however, for the pro-Nicene fathers not merely to insist on the strict correlation between God’s being as Father and God’s act in the Son simpliciter, for at issue in the Arian error was the denial of the Son’s full divinity on account of his undeniably human existence in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus it was necessary, as exemplified by Athanasius, to make this same connection between God in himself and God revealed in history, or better stated, between the transcendent being of God dwelling from all eternity in unapproachable light and the being and act of the incarnate Son revealed in history. As another patristic scholar John Behr states:

Equally important is the manner in which God is the Father of his Son, Jesus Christ: is the existence of the Son the result of a volitional act of God, such that God could have chosen to be otherwise, or doe the revelation of God in Jesus Christ express what God in fact is? The affirmation, made by the Council of Nicaea and developed by Athanasius, that God is eternally the Father of his Son, means that in God there is a completely identity between nature and will; God does not first exist by himself, only subsequently to beget the Son. This identity of divine nature and activity, and the claim that the Son is fully divine as the Father, means, moreover, that the divinity of God is fully revealed in Christ, so that “he who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14.9). That “in him the whole fullness of divinity dwells bodily” (Col 2.9) means that there is no surplus of divinity beyond this revelation, awaiting discovery through other means. The divine nature is not a passive object for human thought attempting to comprehend what God “really is” in himself, for God has revealed himself as he is.[5]

One of the reasons why the pro-Nicene theologians like Athanasius insisted on the absolute identity between who God is in himself and who he reveals himself to be in Jesus Christ was because the Arians, by positing an ontological disjunction between God and Jesus Christ, effectively reduced the latter to a mere instrument of human salvation. As Khaled Anatolios observes:

…the [Arian] model that locates the “for us” at the origin of the divinity of Christ is that it tended to subvert the notion of Christ’s lordship, since, even in his divinity, Christ was conceived as merely a means to the end of human flourishing.[6]

In other words, Athanasius discerned that if ontology (i.e. who God is in himself) was severed from soteriology (i.e. what God does in Christ in revelation and reconciliation), then Christ will be inevitably instrumentalized, thus reducing the fullness of who he is to only what he accomplishes. Thus, far from falsely conflating or confusing God’s being with his act and thus ontology with soteriology, it is precisely by holding the two together in an indivisible, differentiated union (i.e. the Chalcedonian pattern) that secures the former from being lost to the latter. If that were to happen, the soteriology would be ultimately deprived of any meaning, because it would be divorced from the only One in and with whom participation and communion constitute salvation. Thus, rather than separating ontology from soteriology in a dichotomizing way, the Trinitarian and Christological grammar of the pro-Nicene and Chalcedonian tradition would require that we hold them together in an indissoluble union.

Since Vanhoozer appeals to Calvin to make his case regarding the ontology/soteriology distinction, it may be helpful, prior to drawing this post to a conclusion, to note how scholar Julie Canlis characterizes a resistance in Calvin, similar to that of the pro-Nicene theologians, to a division between Christ’s person (ontology) and his work (soteriology) and thus a reduction of Christ to the level of a mere means-to-end. She writes:

From such restrictive interpretations, it is a short step to “union with Christ” as latent natural theology, where communal life with God is enclosed in a utilitarian process by which we receive the benefits of christ. Ceasing to reflect God’s koinōnia-reality, union becomes the response to a prior human need for the commodities of salvation. It is Dietrich Bonhoeffer who reminds us that Calvin’s emphasis on the benefits of Christ can go one of two ways. He cites Melanchthon’s famous maxim…”to know Christ is to know his benefits”…and notes that “theology has often apostolized here.” [Bonhoeffer, Christology, p.48] For whether or not Melanchthon’s maxim already indicates the modern predisposition toward a functional christology, it certainly opens up the possibility for a split between the being and meaning of Christ. The danger here is that the beneficia Christi can be used to bolster a functional soteriology in which an anthropocentric obsession with the meaning and work of Christ is all that matters. march-8-ter-071.jpgThe Spirit is then incorporated into this transaction between God and humanity, as simply the one who is the bridge that links us to the things of Christ rather than as the one to bring us into Christ and the koinōnia that he has inaugurated in his person…

When it is discussed within this context, adoption – not surprisingly – becomes flattened into a legal transaction between two individuals…This notion of adoption is representative of that functional trend in christology that would use Christ for its own ends – to gain salvation, legal adoption, or the benefits of Christ. Here the primary “benefit” of Christ – that is, adoption – has been radically severed from Christ’s own person as Son and has been used by humanity to achieve a goal beyond him. Christ is thus made an instrument of a process rather than the person in whom adoption is found. Correspondingly, the benefits of Christ often become detachable from the person of Christ, to be transferred to us by the Spirit without fundamentally bringing us into the Spirit’s new domain…Calvin himself exposes this contemporary tendency toward a functional Christology when he observes that “they sought in Christ something else than Christ himself.” [Comm. John 6:26].[7]

Although Vanhoozer’s question regarding what it means to be “in Christ” no doubt would still remain, at minimum we can see that Calvin eschewed any sense in which the soteriological work of Christ swallowed up the ontology of his person. This, I would argue, is in fundamental agreement with the theo-logic championed by the pro-Nicene fathers against the Arians.

Conclusion

What I have tried to do in this post is blunt much of the force of the critique that Vanhoozer mounts against Evangelical Calvinism in the second half of his essay by undercutting the primary dichotomy – ontology vs. soteriology – that he posits in the first half. By looking back to the theological grammar provided by the pro-Nicene and Chalcedonian fathers, it is clear that an orthodox understanding of the Trinity and Jesus Christ militates against any attempt to sunder ontology from soteriology inasmuch as such an attempt would implicitly sunder Christ’s person from his saving work, God’s being in himself from his acts in revelation and reconciliation in history, and, ultimately, God’s being and act in his own inner Triune relations. Far from confusing ontology and soteriology, it is only by holding them together in an indivisible, differentiated union (à la Chalcedon) that ontology is not emptied of meaning and, consequently, soteriology is deprived of its power.

Thus, to respond to the aforementioned distinctions that Vanhoozer draws between Classical and Evangelical Calvinism, it can be said:

1) While “Classical Calvinists associate being chosen in Christ with the Spirit’s uniting people to Christ through faith,” Evangelical Calvinists do not, by contrast, “associate being chosen in Christ” only “with the Son’s assumption of humanity in the Incarnation” in the sense that a ‘carnal’ union with Christ (that which obtains on the basis of the incarnation) fully displaces a ‘spiritual’ union with Christ effected by the Spirit. Indeed, both senses are implicated in EC’s understanding of the twofold nature of union with Christ, as even attested by Calvin in his famous letter to Vermigli. (The question regarding the possibility of the realization of the former without the latter requires a different post).

2) While “Classical Calvinists tend to follow Pauline usage, for whom ‘in Christ’ serves as referring to the Spirit’s incorporation of saints into Christ (and hence the life of the triune God) through faith (i.e. a covenantal union of persons),” Evangelical Calvinists do not only “follow a distinctly non-Pauline usage, viewing being ‘in Christ’ as a necessary implication of the incarnation (i.e., an ontological union of natures, our humanity with Christ’s)” in the sense that they run roughshod over the Pauline writings. Rather, as I noted earlier, EC follows the path laid by the biblical text down into the “dimension of depth” that constitutes Scripture’s inner rationality and constitutive theo-logic. As Karl Barth remarked, the task of dogmatics consists in the church’s responsibility not to repeat the words of Scripture but to say what it needs to say on the basis of the words of Scripture.

This is why, on the one hand, much of what Vanhoozer argues in his essay by way of reference to specific texts can be easily affirmed by Evangelical Calvinists. The question, for EC, is not simply what do these texts say, but what is the fundamental theo-logic that gave rise to these texts in their unique historical circumstances. Thus, I think there is a way (as Barth himself exemplified in his careful delineation of the election of Christ as primary, the election of the community as secondary, and the election of the individual as tertiary) to approach passages such as Eph. 1:4 as textured witnesses to who God is and what he has done in Christ. That is to say, there may be deeper levels (the “depth dimension”) at which phrases like “in Christ” may operate, unfolding themselves through what Torrance has called a “stratified” approach to knowledge, that do not open themselves to refutation on the basis of simply proof-texting.

All this to say, I do not think that Vanhoozer offers a successful critique on the basis of a disjunction between ontology and soteriology. This certainly gains traction if the presuppositions of Classical Calvinism are maintained. However, Evangelical Calvinism not only proceeds differently, it also starts differently, looking to God’s self-revelation in Christ and by the Spirit as determinative of how we even begin to understand what ontology and soteriology involve and how they interrelate.

______________________________________________________________

[1] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2014.’The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism)’ in Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p.182.

[2] Ibid., p.184.

[3] Ibid., p.191.

[4] Barnes, M.R., 1998. ‘Eunomius of Cyzicus and Gregory of Nyssa: Two Traditions of Transcendent Causality’ in Vigiliae Christianae 52(1), pp.86-87.

[5] Behr, J., The Formation of Christian Theology Vol. 2: The Nicene Faith. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, p.17.

[6] Anatolios, K., 2011. Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p.94.

[7] Canlis, J., 201o. Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.155-157.

Advertisements

6 thoughts on ““To Be or Not To Be (In Christ)?”: That is Kevin Vanhoozer’s Question to Evangelical Calvinism

  1. Kenneth Macari 27 September 2016 / 19:36

    Real quick response—I see myself halfway between Vanhoozer and you and Bobby. Vanhoozer tries to mediate with a lot of controversies. He co-edited a book on NT Wright’s perspectives called “Jesus, Paul and the People of God” based on a conference at Wheaton several years ago. He is very big on the Union with Christ motif as the way to deal with the roadblocks that Wright’s perspective on justification and imputation of Christ’s righteousness create with classic Protestant theologies of all varieties. His questions to Bobby are mine as well. In several weeks I will dialogue with you more in detail. I am in process of retiring as pastor of Community Presbyterian Church of Edison, NJ and have MUCHO details to work out.
    Blessings
    Ken

    Like

    • Jonathan Kleis 27 September 2016 / 20:07

      Hi Kenneth, thanks for your comment. I am very familiar with Vanhoozer’s work and have even read the book on NT Wright that you mentioned. Looking forward to hearing from after you get your retirement sorted. Blessings to you as you do so!

      Like

  2. Bobby Grow 27 September 2016 / 20:26

    Kenneth,

    I responded to his question at my blog; the question he put to me and Myk in regard to our book. You don’t think that’s adequate? Particularly the focus on the Spirit’s work as situated in Barth’s theology? When you say you’re half way between what does that mean?

    Like

Comments are closed.