Creeds, Confessions, and Evangelical Calvinism

Recently on Facebook someone asked me about how Evangelical Calvinism understands its relationship to the historic creeds and confessions of the church. I responded by writing (in a slightly modified form):

In terms of creeds and confessions, I would follow a typical Reformed taxis of: Scripture, then the ecumenical creeds, then confessions. I have a great concern to hold to the orthodox statements of Trinitarian and Christological belief, especially as articulated at Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon. To be perfectly honest, it was my increased interest in and study of pro-Nicene theologians such as Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzen that led me in the direction of Evangelical Calvinism. There is much that I appreciate and affirm in the Reformed confessions, but I think that they (and here I think in particular of the Westminster Standards as st-athanasius-the-greatopposed to the Scots Confession) deviate from aspects of orthodox Trinitarianism and Christology as represented by the creeds. This is not to say that there are blatant or explicit negations of the creeds. What I mean is that the creeds (Nicene-Constantinopolitan, Chalcedonian) were written to represent a constellation of theological commitments that hang together. I discovered that it’s not sufficient to simply affirm that Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father” without understanding what that statement was meant to protect and the underpinning theology (touching many aspects of the Christian faith) that it symbolized. As I began to engage deeply with this, I began to discover discrepancies between the soteriological views implicit in the creeds and those of the Reformed confessions. Given my Reformed commitment to the priority of the creeds over the confessions, the discovery of these divergences led me away from classical Calvinism and to EC. This is why whenever I discuss issues surrounding EC on my blog, I usually try and show how what I am saying regarding EC is Calvinism reified according to the central commitments of Nicene-Constantinopolitan-Chalcedonian orthodoxy.

As an example of what I am talking about here, I would like to quote a section from Athanasius’ famous work On the Incarnation of the Son of God in which he explains his understanding of Christ’s atoning work. As we can see in what follows, Athanasius articulates what Evangelical Calvinism, following T.F. Torrance, calls an ‘incarnational’ or ‘ontological’ view of the atonement in contrast to the nearly exclusive emphasis on the ‘forensic’ or ‘transactional’ aspects that dominate many of the Reformed confessions. Athanasius writes:

[Y]ou must know this also, that the corruption which had set in was not external to the body, but had become attached to it; and it was required that, instead of corruption, life should cleave to it; so that, just as death has been engendered in the body, so life may be engendered in it also. Now if death were external to the body, it would be proper for life also to have been engendered externally to it. But if death was wound closely to the body and was ruling over it as though united to it, it was required that life also should be wound closely to the body, that so the body, by putting on life in its stead, should cast off corruption. Besides, even supposing that the Word had come outside the body, and not in it, death would indeed have been defeated by Him, in perfect accordance with nature, inasmuch as death has no power against the Life; but the corruption attached to the body would have remained in it none the less.

For this cause the Saviour reasonably put on Him a body, in order that the body, becoming wound closely to the Life, should no longer, as mortal, abide in death, but, as having put on immortality, should thenceforth rise again and remain immortal. For, once it had put on corruption, it could not have risen again unless it had put on life. And death likewise could not, from its very nature, appear, save in the body. Therefore He put on a body, that He might find death in the body, and blot it out. For how could the Lord have been proved at all to be the Life, had He not quickened what was mortal?

And just as, whereas stubble is naturally destructible by fire, supposing (firstly) a man keeps fire away from the stubble, though it is not burned, yet the stubble remains, for all that, merely stubble, fearing the threat of the fire—for fire has the natural property of consuming it; while if a man (secondly) encloses it with a quantity of asbestos, the substance said to be an antidote to fire, the stubble no longer dreads the fire, being secured by its enclosure in incombustible matter; in this very way one may say, with regard to the body and death, that if death had been kept from the body by a mere command on His part, it would none the less have been mortal and corruptible, according to the nature of bodies; but, that this should not be, it put on the incorporeal Word of God, and thus no longer fears either death or corruption, for it has life as a garment, and corruption is done away in it.[1]

This is the kind of atonement theology that was so important to pro-Nicene theologians such as Athanasius but that is sadly missing in many Reformed accounts. Ultimately, I do not think that the typical Reformed accent on the forensic/transactional aspects of the atonement is at odds with the ontological emphases that we find in Athanasius. Yet inasmuch as the forensic/transactional aspects are sometimes employed in order to fund a doctrine of ‘limited atonement’ (i.e. Christ’s death paid the penalty only for the elect), I find that my commitment to the authority of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and its attendant theology as the norma normata of the Christian faith (always, of course, under Scripture as the norma normans) drives me to embrace the Reformed tradition in its Evangelical Calvinist form (as in the Scots Confession) rather than to drink from the streams flowing out of Dort and Westminster.


[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. On the Incarnation of the Word. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 60–61.