The Only Fountain of Salvation: Sola Scriptura and the Faith of the Early Church

One of the most common objections that I hear from Roman Catholics against the five solas of the Reformation, especially to sola Scriptura, is that these were complete novelties invented by the Protestant Reformers in blatant contradiction to the first centuries of church history. None of the church fathers, it is argued, had any conception of sola Scriptura (much less of any of the other solas), and thus the Reformation’s innovations should be denounced and abandoned.

I would beg to differ. Contrary to those who routinely resort to such platitudes (rather than actually engaging with whatever opposing argument is being offered), I am Protestant, as I have often stated, precisely in order to be more truly catholic in keeping with the apostolic faith of the early church. As an avid student of church history, I become ever more convinced that Sola Scriptura, far from being a Protestant invention, was a faithful re-articulation of the belief and practice of the early orthodox church in terms meant to oppose the swollen sense of the authority of church tradition that developed later on and came to dominate the medieval church. I realize that this will seem to some like an outlandish claim, and so it is one that I fully intend to defend here, but with the proviso that since this is a blog post (rather than a monograph), I will not be able to provide an exhaustive analysis of the issue. That said, I would like to begin by citing a lengthy section from Athanasius’ famous Festal Letter XXXIX, written in 367, in which the Alessandrian “father of orthodoxy” clearly delineates his view of Holy Scripture:

But since we have made mention of heretics as dead, but of ourselves as possessing the Divine Scriptures for salvation; and since I fear lest, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, some few of the simple should be beguiled from their simplicity and purity, by the subtilty of certain men, and should henceforth read 220px-athanasius_iother books—those called apocryphal—led astray by the similarity of their names with the true books; I beseech you to bear patiently, if I also write, by way of remembrance, of matters with which you are acquainted, influenced by the need and advantage of the Church.

In proceeding to make mention of these things, I shall adopt, to commend my undertaking, the pattern of Luke the Evangelist, saying on my own account: ‘Forasmuch as some have taken in hand,’ to reduce into order for themselves the books termed apocryphal, and to mix them up with the divinely inspired Scripture, concerning which we have been fully persuaded, as they who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word, delivered to the fathers; it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine; to the end that any one who has fallen into error may condemn those who have led him astray; and that he who has continued steadfast in purity may again rejoice, having these things brought to his remembrance.

There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews; their respective order and names being as follows. The first is Genesis, then Exodus, next Leviticus, after that Numbers, and then Deuteronomy. Following these there is Joshua, the son of Nun, then Judges, then Ruth. And again, after these four books of Kings, the first and second being reckoned as one book, and so likewise the third and fourth as one book. And again, the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book. Again Ezra, the first and second are similarly one book. After these there is the book of Psalms, then the Proverbs, next Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Job follows, then the Prophets, the twelve being reckoned as one book. Then Isaiah, one book, then Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the epistle, one book; afterwards, Ezekiel and Daniel, each one book. Thus far constitutes the Old Testament.

Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.

These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, ‘Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.’ And He reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me.’

But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics, who write them when they choose, bestowing upon them their approbation, and assigning to them a date, that so, using them as ancient writings, they may find occasion to lead astray the simple.[1]

Let me simply highlight two significant points. This letter represents one of the earliest lists of the writings that came to be recognized by the church as divinely inspired and therefore canonical. For Athanasius, the list that he provides is not simply his own personal opinion but indeed comprises the Canon as affirmed by the church catholic. It is therefore instructive to note that Athanasius clearly distinguishes between the canonical books of Scripture and other apocryphal books that he acknowledges as useful for instruction but – and he is adamant on this point – are not to be equated with the unique authority of the canonical books. Interestingly, the books that Athanasius identifies as apocryphal and non-canonical are precisely those that many Roman Catholics would accuse Protestants of excising from the Canon! Clearly, that is not the case. The Protestant Canon, rather than that of the Church of Rome, is faithful to the Athanasian list.

Second, (and this should not be overlooked) Athanasius explicitly asserts that in the canonical books of Scripture “alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness”. As though to emphasize this point, Athanasius stresses that no one should either add or subtract anything from these writings, implying that he attributed to his list of canonical books an unparalleled authority over the church’s faith and practice. Indeed, as he had much earlier in his career affirmed, Athanasius resolutely believed that “the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth”. What is this except sola Scriptura? It would seem, therefore, that the charge of sola Scriptura as a Protestant innovation is quite erroneous.

At this point, someone will, no doubt, accuse me of “cutting and pasting” these quotes and using them in a way that Athanasius would have found objectionable. This is indeed the criticism made in one particular article in which the author argues that an approach such as mine “transforms St. Athanasius into a ‘Bible-only’ Christian by selecting passages which speak highly of the inspiration and authority of Sacred Scripture while Nicaea_icondownplaying and even ignoring passages which speak equally forceful on the authorities of Tradition and Church”. The author speaks for many when he contends, conversely, that “St. Athanasius brings together Scripture and the teaching Church…There is no such thing as an isolated reading of Scripture in the faith of St. Athanasius…St. Athanasius finds a private reading of Scripture apart from the traditional faith of the Catholic Church as the fatal flaw of heretics”.

This objection, though common, trades on a grossly distorted caricature of what sola Scriptura actually means. Sola Scriptura does not mean “Scripture all by itself” (which is actually solo or nuda Scriptura), but rather Scripture as interpreted by but nevertheless free to correct the church and its tradition. Sola Scriptura does not pit Scripture against church and tradition, rather it reorders them into their proper places of authority. Sola Scriptura fully recognizes the authority of the church and its interpretive tradition, but since it also recognizes that the church consists of interpreters that are fallible and prone to error, it accords to Scripture, as the divinely appointed locus of God’s discourse, the authority to assert itself over the church and its tradition if and when necessary. This, I would argue, is faithful not only to Athanasius’ view but also to the conviction shared by the other orthodox fathers. Church historian J.N.D. Kelly explains:

With two main differences the attitude to Scripture and tradition…became classic in the Church of the third and fourth centuries. These differences were: (a) with the passing of the Gnostic menace, the hesitation sometimes evinced by Irenaeus, and to a rather greater degree by Tertullian, about appealing directly to Scripture disappeared; and (b) as a result of developments in the Church’s institutional life the basis of tradition became broader and more explicit. The supreme doctrinal authority remained, of course, the original revelation given by Christ and communicated to the Church by His apostles. This was the divine or apostolic ‘tradition’ (παράδοσις; traditio) in the strict sense of the word. It was with reference to this that Cyprian in the third century could speak of ‘the root and source of the dominical tradition’, or of ‘the fountain-head and source of the divine tradition’, and that Athanasius in the fourth could point to ‘the tradition … which the Lord gave and the apostles proclaimed’ as the Church’s foundation-stone. That this was embodied, however, in Holy Scripture, and found a parallel outlet in the Church’s general unwritten teaching and liturgical life, was taken for granted, and the use of the term ‘tradition’, with or without such qualifications as ‘ecclesiastical’ or ‘of the fathers’, to describe this latter medium now became increasingly common.

There is little need to dwell on the absolute authority accorded to Scripture as a doctrinal norm. It was the Bible, declared Clement of Alexandria about a.d. 200, which, as interpreted by the Church, was the source of Christian teaching. His greater disciple Origen was a thorough-going Biblicist who appealed again and again to Scripture as the decisive criterion of dogma. The Church drew her catechetical material, he stated, from the prophets, the gospels and the apostles’ writings; her faith, he suggested, was buttressed by Holy Scripture supported by common sense. ‘The holy and inspired Scriptures’, wrote Athanasius a century later, ‘are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth’; while his contemporary, Cyril of Jerusalem, laid it down that ‘with regard to the divine and saving mysteries of faith no doctrine, however trivial, may be taught without the backing of the divine Scriptures.… For our saving faith derives its force, not from capricious reasonings, but from what may be proved out of the Bible.’ Later in the same century John Chrysostom bade his congregation seek no other teacher than the oracles of God; everything was straightforward and clear in the Bible, and the sum of necessary knowledge could be extracted from it. In the West Augustine declared that ‘in the plain teaching of Scripture we find all that concerns our belief and moral conduct’; while a little later Vincent of Lérins (c. 450) took it as an axiom the Scriptural canon was ‘sufficient, and more than sufficient, for all purposes’…

Yet, if the concept of tradition was expanded and made more concrete in these ways, the estimate of its position vis-à-vis Scripture as a doctrinal norm remained basically unaltered. The clearest token of the prestige enjoyed by the latter is the fact that almost the entire theological effort of the fathers, whether their aims were polemical or constructive, was expended upon what amounted to the exposition of the Bible. Further, it was everywhere taken for granted that, for any doctrine to win acceptance, it had first to establish its Scriptural basis. A striking illustration is the difficulty which champions of novel theological terms like ὁμοούσιος (‘of the same substance’), or again ἀγέννητος (‘ingenerate’ or ‘self-existent’) and ἄναρχος (‘without beginning’), experienced in getting these descriptions of the Son’s relationship to the Father, or of God’s eternal being, generally admitted. They had to meet the damning objection, advanced in conservative as well as heretical quarters, that they were not to be found in the Bible.

In the end they could only quell opposition by pointing out (Athanasius in the one case, and Gregory of Nazianzus in the other) that, even if the terms themselves were non-Scriptural, the meaning they conveyed was exactly that of Holy Writ. The creed itself, according to Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine and Cassian, was a compendium of Scripture. An exception to this general attitude might seem to be Basil’s reliance, mentioned above, upon tradition as embedded in the liturgy, rather than upon Scripture, to demonstrate the full deity of the Holy Spirit. Even he, however, makes it crystal clear, in the very discussion in question, that there is no contradiction between unwritten tradition and the gospel, for in their traditionally transmitted teaching the fathers have only been following what Scripture itself implies. Indeed, all the instances of unwritten tradition lacking Scriptural support which the early theologians mention will be found, on examination, to refer to matters of observance and practice (e.g. triple immersion in baptism; turning East for prayer) rather than of doctrine as such, although sometimes they are matters (e.g. infant baptism; prayers for the dead) in which doctrine is involved.[3]

To put it succinctly, what Kelly summarizes here concerning the church’s view of Scripture in the first five centuries of its history is, quite simply, sola Scriptura. To those who may balk at this claim, I would merely repeat what I stated earlier: sola Scriptura does not mean Scripture against the church and its tradition but rather Scripture as correctly interpreted by the church and its tradition. As Kelly makes clear, however, the church and its tradition, as interpreters, were merely servants of and under the “absolute authority accorded to Scripture”. As Kelly notes further, the fourth century debates over the Nicene homoousion are a case in point: it was precisely because homoousion was an extra-biblical word that so many in the church were reluctant to accept it. This, indeed, is evidence that the early church, by and large, regarded its developing tradition not as an independent source of revelation (for otherwise Nicaea’s use of the homoousion should have been immediately and unquestionably accepted) but rather as subordinate to the authority of the revelation uniquely attested in the inspired writings of canonical Scripture. So committed to Scripture’s absolute authority was the fourth-century church that many within it were initially opposed to adopting a non-biblical word, even though that word provided a potent defense against the Arian heresy. This points to the fact that whatever support the church fathers sought in tradition, apostolic succession, church authority, etc. to expound and defend the orthodox faith, they appealed to these various sources of authority as ultimately faithful yet subservient witnesses to the divine authority uniquely mediated through the inspired writings of Scripture alone. Hence, sola Scriptura.


It seems fairly evident that not only was sola Scriptura not a heretical or aberrant invention of the Reformers but rather a retrieval of the basic pattern of authority under which the patristic church operated. Martin Luther and John Calvin were both deeply committed not to Scripture interpreted privately or in isolation but rather to Scripture interpreted in accordance with the church catholic, especially that of the first five centuries of church history. Why then did they use sola Scriptura to justify their protests and proposed reforms of the medieval church and its tradition? It was simply because they rightly discerned thatluther_und_calvin_kirchenfenster_evangelische_stadtkirche_wiesloch1 whereas in the days of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, Augustine, and the other orthodox fathers there was, as Kelly states, “no contradiction between unwritten tradition and the gospel”, there had subsequently developed a contradiction between Scripture interpreted by early church tradition and Scripture interpreted by later church tradition. Their protest against Rome was not that Scripture opposed all tradition but rather that later medieval tradition opposed the way that the early orthodox tradition had interpreted Scripture. As such, they did not call the church to abandon its tradition and thereby leave biblical interpretation to the whims and fancies of every individual reader. Rather, they called the church to purge the deviant accretions that it had allowed to accumulate over time and to return to the apostolic faith delivered once and for all in Scripture and faithfully passed down by the early orthodox church and its authoritative tradition. This is what sola Scriptura really means, and this is why it truly represents “the faith of our fathers”.


[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. Festal Letters. 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. 551–552.

[2] Ibid., p.4.

[3] Kelly, J.N.D., 1977. Early Christian Doctrines Fifth, Revised., London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury. pp.41-43, 46-47.

Was T.F. Torrance a Mere Barthian? Nein!

It is fairly safe to say that those who appreciate Karl Barth also appreciate T.F. Torrance, and vice versa. Although some may prefer either Barth or Torrance for various reasons, I think it would be a rare occurrence to find someone who likes one and yet at the same time dislikes the other. Having said that, however, those who have extensively studied the writings of both know, contrary to the opinions of some, that Torrance was not a blindt-f-torrance-sketch follower of so-called Barthianism. Torrance was no “Barthian” (he actually preferred, if anything, to be called “Athanasian”), nor did Barth later become “Torrancean”, evidenced by the fact that he did not retract, for example, his statements about baptism even after Torrance challenged him on his position.

Andrew Purves helps to dispel the misguided accusation (made by Richard Muller, among others) that Torrance was simply Barth repackaged in a British form. He writes:

Torrance is frequently labeled a “Barthian.” The implication is that he more or less uncritically follows Karl Barth in method and content. However, as Daniel W. Hardy points out, he is attracted to Barth (and to Calvin) because his theology exemplifies a scientific theology. This is an important insight because it establishes the ground of Torrance’s theology in the attempt to think of God in a manner appropriate to, and corresponding to, God, which he finds in Calvin and Barth, but which he develops in his own way. Torrance continues the tradition, which he traces back beyond Barth and Calvin to Athanasius, of seeking to ground theology on its own subject matter, and to think out the doctrine of Jesus Christ in particular in the light of the incarnation understood in terms of the being and act of God.[1]

What Purves articulates here is very helpful, because he uncovers the primary reason for which Torrance gravitated to and admired the work of Barth. It wasn’t so much because Torrance was slavishly committed to Barth as such, but rather because in Barth Torrance found an exemplary model of a ‘repentant’ theology carried out under the intense scrutiny and questioning of the Word of God itself. As in Calvin and Athanasius, Torrance held up Barth as a truly ‘biblical and evangelical theologian’ insofar as Barth endeavoured to strictly conform all dogmatic thinking to the actual way in which God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, despite the many (and there are many!) points of agreement between them, it still remains that Torrance departed from his Swiss teacher in some significant ways. Since those who have not undertaken a comparative study of Barth and Torrance may not penciledbarth2be fully aware of their divergences (or if they are aware, they may not know what those disagreements are), I thought it might be helpful to highlight five areas of disagreement that Paul Molnar identifies in his masterful book Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity:

[Early in] his career Torrance basically agreed with Barth’s critique of natural theology. Later he formulated his own “new” natural theology which he viewed as a bridge between theology and natural science in the sense that both sciences operated in ways that undermined dualistic ways of thinking about reality and tended to reinforce the idea that accurate thinking could only occur when ideas were thought in accordance with the nature of the reality being investigated…Other areas where Torrance eventually disagree with Barth concerned 1) Barth’s view of the sacraments, which Torrance considered to be a reversion to a dualism that Barth had rejected earlier in the Church Dogmatics; 2) Barth’s failure to emphasize sufficiently Christ’s high priestly mediation later in the Church Dogmatics, which for Torrance accounted for difficulties in Barth’s treatment of the ascension…; 3) what he deemed to be an “element of ‘subordinationism’ in [Barth’s] doctrine of the Holy Trinity”…; 4) Torrance also wondered whether Barth’s treatment of creation was as thoroughly trinitarian as it might have been; he was also critical of the fact that Barth limited his treatment of creation to “man in the cosmos” and did not treat the cosmos itself except in his discussions of time and providence. According to Alister McGrath, Torrance regarded Barth’s most serious weakness as his “failure to engage with the natural sciences”, and, for McGrath, this fact “offers a significant criterion of dissimilarity between Torrance and Barth”.[2]

My purpose in this post is not to weigh in either way on these points of disagreement (although, for the record, I would tend to side with Torrance over Barth). I simply wanted to show that Torrance was by no means a mere Barthian clone. If I could simply add a few of my own observations to what Molnar has pointed out, I would say (at the risk of being a bit oversimplistic) that whereas Barth developed his theology largely over against the post-Reformation Protestant orthodox, liberal, and Roman Catholic dogmatics of the 17th-20th centuries, Torrance developed his theology primarily (though of course not exclusively) under the tutelage of the patristic fathers, particularly Irenaeus, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Cyril of Alexandria, as well as in conversation with modern science. In my opinion, Barth’s theology bears a much stronger impress of Western thought, whereas Torrance demonstrated more affinity (besides his obvious connection to Scottish Reformed theology) with the Greek fathers and Eastern Orthodoxy in general. I think that this is why we find in Torrance, for instance, a greater emphasis on the vicarious humanity of Christ, especially in relation to his high priestly ministry in heaven, and on the role of the cosmos in the Creator-creation relationship.

If I could succinctly summarize all of this, I would simply say that it is my suspicion that even had Barth never been Barth, Torrance would still have been, in large measure, Torrance.


[1] Purves, A., 2001. ‘The Christology of Thomas F. Torrance’ in The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T. F. Torrance, ed. E.M. Colyer. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, p.71.

[2] Molnar, P.D., 2009. Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity. Surrey/Burlington: Ashgate, pp.7-8. See Molnar for bibliographic information on citations

Irenaeus, T.F. Torrance, and the Vicarious Receptivity of Christ

This week I was both honored and humbled to be mentioned by Fr Kimel in a post on his blog entitled ‘Vicarious Faith, Tom Torrance, and a Few Memories‘, written in response to my own post ‘Athanasius, T.F. Torrance, and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ‘. Fr Kimel stated that the reference I provided to Athanasius via Khaled Anatolios was “a welcome confirmation” of Athanasius’ doctrine of Christ’s vicarious humanity (at least in some form), although he finds that it “still lack[s] the Torrancean twist”. I don’t want to strenuously object to this statement, for I fully acknowledge that Torrance was working constructively with the patristic tradition, allowing his Reformed t-f-torrance-sketchcommitments to shape (but also to be shaped by!) his engagement with the church fathers, and in particular Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria whom he especially loved (for an excellent examination of Torrance’s relation to patristic theology, I would highly recommend Jason Radcliff’s T.F. Torrance and the Church Fathers). As I commented on Fr Kimel’s blog, I don’t think that we have any substantial disagreement in this regard.

However, I do want to provide one more example that demonstrates, if not an exact identity, at least a significant continuity that exists between Torrance’s understanding of Christ’s vicarious humanity (which encompasses far more than simply Christ’s faith on our behalf) and the church fathers, this time with reference to Irenaeus. First, here is what Torrance has to say regarding one particular aspect of Christ’s vicarious humanity, i.e. his work of receiving and mediating the Spirit on behalf of and to humanity:

Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, is thus the Mediator of the Holy Spirit. Since he is himself both the God who gives and the Man who receives in one Person he is in a position to transfer in a profound and intimate way what belongs to us in our human nature to himself and to transfer what is his to our human nature in him. That applies above all to the gift of the Holy Spirit whom he received fully and completely in his human nature for us. Hence in the union of divine and human natures in the Son the eternal Spirit of the living God has composed himself, as it were, to dwell with human nature, and human nature has been adapted and become accustomed to receive and bear that same Holy Spirit.[1]

As this paragraph makes clear, Torrance does not simply conceive the vicarious humanity of Christ as consisting in his faith and obedience that he carried out in our flesh and on our behalf. It extends also to his receiving of the Holy Spirit which, as Athanasius contended, was not so much in view of his own need but of ours:

And if, as the Lord Himself has said, the Spirit is His, and takes of His, and He sends It, it is not the Word, considered as the Word and Wisdom, who is anointed with the Spirit which He Himself gives, but the flesh assumed by Him which is anointed in Him and by Him; that the sanctification coming to the Lord as man, may come to all men from Him…Therefore ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever,’ remaining unalterable, and at once gives and receives, giving as God’s Word, receiving as man. It is not the Word then, viewed as the Word, that is promoted; for He had all things and has them always; but men, who have in Him and through Him their origin of receiving them. For, when He is now said to be anointed in a human respect, we it is who in Him are anointed; since also when He is baptized, we it is who in Him are baptized.[2]

For both Athanasius and Torrance, humanity was created to live in communion with the Father through the mediation of the Word and by means of the Holy Spirit. The fall into sin, however, destroyed human capacity to receive (or, once received, to hold on to) the Spirit, thus excluding humanity from the communion for which it existed. Thus, Christ assumed human flesh not only to do away with our sin and death, but also to vicariously receive our baptism in the Holy Spirit and thereby ‘adapt’ and ‘accustom’ our human nature to receive the same.

Perhaps even more than Athanasius, it was Irenaeus who stressed this particular aspect of Christ’s saving work. Julie Canlis explains:

The whole Irenaean history of salvation can be seen through this slow process by which humanity is “little by little accustomed [assuescentes] to receive and bear God” (AH V.8.1)…Even in the Garden, Adam needed “accustoming” to be able to receive the full gifts of the Spirit, for he was “neither accustomed nor disciplined to perfection” (AH IV.38.1). Here Irenaeus is not speaking of an aesthetic or moral perfection; rather, he insists upon “terming those persons ‘perfect’ who have received the Spirit of God” (AH V.6.1). As we noted of Christ’s progressive reception of the Spirit, the Spirit is not 200px-saint_irenaeusa quantifiable object for Irenaeus, but a quality of life as deeper koinonia with God. Full koinonia is a glory that Adam cannot stomach from the outset, for “even if he had received the Spirit, he could not have contained [capere] it” (AH IV.38.2). Though the full module of “accustoming” was to happen within the pleasant bounds of the Garden, Adam instead refused the Holy Spirit…

Although the first Adam “could not [capere] him,” those in the Second Adam are brought to their created telos through the slow but steady accustoming of the two hands. This exchange is accomplished by a double accustoming: God’s accustoming himself to humanity, and humanity’s becoming coming accustomed to God. Jesus’ mission is expressed precisely in these terms:

Giving humanity the power to contain [seize – capere] the Father, the Word of God who dwelt in man became the Son of man that He might accustom [adsuesceret] man to receive God, and God to dwell in man, according to the good pleasure of the Father. (AIH III.2o.2)

This is the descent of Jesus: in his humanity, creation is once again accustomed and enlarged to receive the things of God. The Spirit’s mission resonates with this theme, as he then takes this christological accomplishment and kneads it into the rest of humanity.

Wherefore [the Spirit] did also descend upon the Son of God, made the Son of man, becoming accustomed [adsuescens] in fellowship with Him to dwell in the human race, to rest with human beings, and to dwell in the workmanship of God, working the will of the Father in them, and renewing them from their old habits into the newness of Christ. (AIH III.17.1)

Participation (bearing/seizing/containing God) is a two-sided miracle, and we find both sides clearly outlined above. First, humanity is destined for a deep and enduring relationship of participation in God and in his divine gifts. Although this is wholly “unnatural” to humanity, God desires to bring humanity (assuesco) to the place such that it can bear the weight of his glory. Exchange, therefore, stands at the center of Irenaean participation. It is only the “descent of God” and his self-accommodation to humanity that allows for humanity to become accustomed, in Christ, to the things of God, thereby “ascending” to the Father.[1]

As we read Canlis’ account, replete as it is with statements of Irenaeus himself, it should be clear the substantial continuity between his understanding of Christ’s work of ‘accustoming’ our human nature to ‘bear’ or ‘seize’ or ‘contain’ the Spirit and Torrance’s affirmation that “in the Son the eternal Spirit of the living God has composed himself, as it were, to dwell with human nature, and human nature has been adapted and become accustomed to receive and bear that same Holy Spirit”. At least with respect to this particular facet of (to borrow Anatolios’ phrase) ‘the soteriological significance of Christ’s humanity’, not only do we see significant agreement between Irenaeus and Torrance but, even more, a virtual identity in language.

As with Athanasius, I am not trying to say that Irenaeus was a proto-Torrancean or that Torrance was a contemporary Irenaean. My point is much more modest: while it is beyond doubt that Torrance engaged the church fathers constructively, he did so not without first listening to them carefully and learning from them humbly, even appropriating some of their own language into his own theological reconstruction. I think that for this reason, Torrance was, in one sense, even more faithful to the legacy of the fathers than he would have been had he simply sought to repristinate verbatim their exact teaching. Had Irenaeus or Athanasius adopted the latter methodology, we would never have known their respective doctrines of recapitulation or the homoousion! It is the greatest honor to their legacy not so much to merely repeat what they said, but to learn from them and, where necessary under the guidance of the Word and Spirit of God, develop their insights even further. This is where, in my view, Torrance excelled.


[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.246-247, emphasis mine.

[2] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. Four Discourses against the Arians. 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. 334–335.

[3] Canlis, J., 201o. Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.214-217.

Athanasius, T.F. Torrance, and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ

After a recent post on the vicarious humanity of Christ, Fr Aidan Kimel, who blogs at Eclectic Orthodoxy, expressed doubt in a Facebook comment as to whether, apart from T.F. Torrance and Karl Barth, the doctrine has actually had any major proponents throughout church history. It is, of course, well known that Torrance attributed his view of Christ’s vicarious humanity to the patristic era, especially to the work of the pro-Nicene fathers. Fr Kimel, on the other hand, questions Torrance’s reading of the fathers – such as Athanasius – and wonders if Torrance was perhaps reading more of his own views into Athanasius than he was actually reading Athanasius. He writes:

I wonder if anyone during the patristic period articulated and employed the vicarious human nature of Christ the way that TFT does. TFT invokes Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria for support, e.g., but I’m skeptical how strongly the texts he cites supports his position. Certainly the Eastern Orthodox (including the Copts) do not read them in the way that he does. Yes, God has assumed and deified human nature in Jesus Christ, but who among the Fathers (Eastern or Western) explicitly state that God the Son took “our place even in our acts of repentance and personal decision” (*Mediation*, p. 96). Are there any patristic scholars who support TFT’s reading? I’m not saying that TFT is wrong (I love his example of daughter clasping his hands as they walked across the street), but if he’s right it’s because he is developing doctrine within a specific Reformed context. Who outside the ranks of Barth and TFT talk this way?

While I think that it is beyond doubt that Torrance was working constructively with saint-athanasius-of-alexandria-icon-sozopol-bulgaria-17centuryAthanasius and the patristic tradition, I demur from Fr Kimel’s suspicions that (at least) Athanasius did not really espouse the doctrine of Christ’s vicarious humanity as Torrance would have it.

In light of Fr Kimel’s questions (which are also shared by others), I would like to cite noted patristic and Athanasian scholar Khaled Anatolios who writes the following concerning ‘The Soteriological Significance of Christ’s Humanity in St Athanasius’:

The notion of the “securing” of grace effected by Christ’s reception of the Spirit in the Incarnation is thus integral to Athanasius’ understanding of the Incarnation as the supreme instance of grace and it demonstrates the importance of Christ’s human receptivity in Athanasius’ conception of the Incarna­tion. It also leads us back to the Christological question proper, to the inter-relation of human and divine in Christ. With refer­ence to the humanity of Christ, Athanasius’s point is that we are able to be saved and deified because Christ has securely received grace humanly on our behalf and thus rendered us receptive of the Spirit by his own human reception of it…Our deifying reception of the Spirit is thus a derivation of Christ’s human recep­tivity. As long as the Word’s activity was confined to the realm of divine “giving,” we were not able to receive in Him. But if it is Christ’s humanity that thus enables us to receive in Him, this reception is rendered perfectly secure…precisely because it is indivisibly united to the inalterable divine Word, who is one in being with the Father. Athanasius’ key move is thus to envisage the unity of subject in Jesus Christ in such a way that he extends the inalterability of the Word qua Word, so that it also applies to the receptivity of the Word’s humanity…

Says Athanasius:

For though He had no need, He is still said to have received humanly what He received, so that inasmuch as it is the Lord who has received…and the gift abides in Him, the grace may remain secure…For when humanity alone receives, it is liable to lose again what it has received (and this is shown by Adam, for he received and he lost.) But in order that the grace may not be liable to loss, and may be guarded securely for humanity, He himself appropri­ates the gift.[CA 3:38]

That Christ humanly appropriates or receives the gift which He himself divinely gives is what makes the Incarnation for Athanasius the supreme instance of grace. I suggested at the beginning of this paper that the conjunction of “giving” and “receiving” in Christ represents a redeemed and divinized dialec­tic corresponding to the radical ontological dissimilarity be­ tween God and creation. That is because, given the nature of this dissimilarity as conceived by Athanasius, the only bridge possible is what he calls “the gift of the Giver.” But since the giving of one party is always contingent on the other party’s capacity to receive, and since humanity had already demonstrated its woeful incapacity to receive, the unsurpassable gift of the Incarnation is that we were given the very reception of the gift. In the Incarnation, God not only gives, but His giving reaches the point of receiving on our behalf and thus perfect­ing our capacity to receive, which is our only access to the divine. Thus, divine giving and human receiving continue to be irreducibly distinct, but they are now united by the unity of Christ Himself, who becomes the source of our receptivity by virtue of his humanity, and the perfector and securer of his receptivity by virtue of his divinity. This is the picture wherein we can appreciate the significance of Christ’s humanity for Athanasius.[1]

If we grant credibility to Anatolios’ summary of how Athanasius construed the soteriological importance of Christ’s incarnate humanity, it seems difficult to me, contra Fr Kimel and any others who would raise similar objections, to accuse Torrance of misreading Athanasius on this point. The precise ways in which Torrance, pace Athanasius, parses the grammar of Christ’s vicarious humanity may differ in some measure from his patristic source – Torrance often focuses on Christ’s vicarious ‘faith’ whereas Athanasius emphasizes Christ’s securing of ‘grace’ rather than his believing for us. Nevertheless, I think that it should be fairly clear that Torrance’s exposition of Christ’s vicarious humanity is indeed in substantial continuity with Athanasius. Both argued that human beings, in and of themselves, are incapable of appropriating God’s gift of salvation in Christ and that, therefore, God in Christ took it upon himself to not merely offer salvation to humanity but also to secure humanity’s reception of salvation by laying hold of it in human flesh and in the place of all human beings. As Anatolios beautifully put it: “the unsurpassable gift of the Incarnation”, for Athanasius, “is that we were given the very reception of the gift”. This, succinctly stated, is Athanasius’ doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ, and it is this same doctrine for which Torrance, and Karl Barth before him, so ardently contended.


[1] Anatolios, K., 1996. ‘The Soteriological Significance of Christ’s Humanity in St Athanasius’ in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly (40)4, pp.284-6.

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.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 17: Irresistible Grace (The Vicarious Humanity of Christ)

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I. But Christ lives in me, and the life which I now life in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

I begin this entry in my series Reforming Calvinism with Galatians 2:20 because it succinctly states everything that I hope to say in this post regarding an Evangelical Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARCalvinist revision of the fourth point of TULIP: ‘irresistible grace’. In my previous post, I stressed the vital importance of the axiom ‘the gift of grace is identical with the divine Giver’. As I said there, this is the key insight upon which a reformed version of ‘irresistible grace’ must be constructed. What I want to do in this entry is flesh this axiom out specifically in relation to Christ before moving on to the Spirit.

To begin, I would like to quote T.F. Torrance for whom the doctrine so critical to correctly reframing ‘irresistible grace’ was especially precious. The doctrine of which I speak is the ‘vicarious humanity of Christ’, and nothing that I could say would improve upon how Torrance explains it here:

I believe that it is concentration upon the vicarious humanity of Christ in the incarnation and atonement, in death and resurrection, that is particularly important for us today. It is curious that evangelicals often link the substitutionary act of Christ only with his death, and not with his incarnate person and life – that is dynamite for them! They thereby undermine the radical nature of substitution, what the New Testament calls katallage, Christ in our place and Christ for us in every respect. Substitution understood in this radical way means that Christ takes our place in all our human life and activity before God, even in our believing, praying, and worshipping of God, for he has yoked himself to us in such a profound way that he stands in for us and upholds us at every point in our human relations before God.

Galatians 2:20 has long been for me a passage of primary importance…”The faith of the Son of God” is to be understood here not just as my faith in him, but as the faith of Christ himself, for it refers primarily to Christ’s unswerving faithfulness, his vicarious and substitutionary faith which embraces and undergirds us, such that when we believe we must say with St. Paul “not I but Christ,” even in our act of faith. This is not in any way to denigrate the human act of faith on our part, for it is only in and through the vicarious faith of Christ that we can truly and properly believe. Faith in Christ involves a polar relation between the faith of Christ and our faith, in which our faith is laid hold of, enveloped, and upheld by his unswerving faithfulness. No human being can do that for another, far less give himself as a ransom from sin, but this is precisely what the Lord Jesus does when in giving himself for us he completely takes our place, makes our cause his very own in every respect, and yields to the heavenly Father the response of faith and love which we are altogether incapable of yielding.[1]

Lest we think that Torrance exaggerates the claim that evangelicals have neglected the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ, we need only consider the reaction that many might have to that which he says regarding not only Christ’s death for us, but also his believing for us. From my perspective, Torrance is dead on in his observation that evangelicals have a well-developed understanding of the vicarious nature of Christ’s death but not of his life. Although some might demur, protesting that Torrance’s critique is misplaced given that many evangelicals affirm the doctrine of imputed righteousness (which obviously necessitates some sense of the vicarious nature of Christ’s life), I think it can be safely affirmed that very few have a firm grasp on the totality of what this means. How so? While many are quick to agree that Christ obeyed for us, they will say that his obedience does not avail for our salvation unless we fulfill the condition of faith. In other words, they do not go so far as to affirm that not only did Christ offer perfect obedience to the Father on our behalf, but that he also perfectly fulfilled the ‘condition’ of faith for us as well. In other words, Jesus did not only accomplish the objective side of our salvation as the Son of God, he also accomplished the subjective side of our salvation as the Son of Man. That is to say, he not only offers us, as God, the gift of salvation, but he also vicariously lays hold of that gift in our flesh and on our behalf through his own perfect faith and faithfulness. This, as Torrance notes, is truly radical. It is also, I believe, truly biblical.

First, it is, in my view, the clear teaching not only of Galatians 2:20 but also of other passages, such as Romans 3:22 and Philippians 3:9, where Paul explicitly identifies as justification as occurring on account of the “faith/faithfulness of Christ”. Although this is not the place to delve into the exegetical arguments, I do believe that the Greek of these texts is best translated in this way. Moreover, it is the vicarious nature of Christ’s entire life of obedience and faith that the author of Hebrews has in view when he writes in 2:10-18 and 5:7-9:

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted…

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.

As these passages clearly indicate, the Son of God in his incarnation became like us in every respect, assuming into union with himself our very flesh and blood, that he might save us to the uttermost, including presenting himself before the Father as our great high priest who sings God’s praise and puts his trust in God for us and on our behalf! In his sufferings, tears, obedience, and prayers, he became the source of our eternal salvation. This means that we are thus not saved because we have properly appropriated Christ’s objective work, we are saved inasmuch as Christ also subjectively prayed, believed, and obeyed perfectly for us and thereby offered the perfect response to God in our place. As fallen human beings, we are incapable in and of ourselves of rightly appropriating divine gifts, and thus Christ not only brought salvation within our reach but also vicariously laid hold of it in our flesh and on our behalf. As Khaled Anatolios states, “the unsurpassable gift of the Incarnation is that we were given the very reception of the gift”.[2]

Although the strangeness of this idea may make it seem unorthodox to some, it actually boasts a long and distinguished pedigree, going back to orthodox church fathers such as Irenaeus and Athanasius. The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ is arguably what lies behind Irenaeus’ concept of recapitulation according to which “Christ ‘recapitulated in Himself the long sequence of mankind’, and passed through all the stages of human life, sanctifying each in turn”.[3] Moreover, it played an indispensable role in Athanasius’ argument against the Arian heresy inasmuch as the Arians adduced Christ’s human state as evidence of his creaturely nature. The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ is that which enabled Athanasius to counter the Arian claim by saying, for example, that when Christ received the Holy Spirit at his baptism, it was not primarily for his sake that he did so; rather he received the Holy Spirit vicariously for us knowing that we were unable to do so:

And if, as the Lord Himself has said, the Spirit is His, and takes of His, and He sends It, it is not the Word, considered as the Word and Wisdom, who is anointed with the Spirit which He Himself gives, but the flesh assumed by Him which is anointed in Him and by Him; that the sanctification coming to the Lord as man, may come to all men from Him…Therefore ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever,’ remaining unalterable, and at once gives and receives, giving as God’s Word, receiving as man. It is not the Word then, viewed as the Word, that is promoted; for He had all things and has them always; but men, who have in Him and through Him their origin of receiving them. For, when He is now said to be anointed in a human respect, we it is who in Him are anointed; since also when He is baptized, we it is who in Him are baptized. [4]

The practical importance of this doctrine is further emphasized by Torrance who writes:

There is a kind of subtle Pelagianism in preaching and teaching which has the effect of throwing people back in the last resort on their own act of faith, so that in the last analysis responsibility for their salvation rests upon themselves, rather than on Christ. In far too much preaching of Christ the ultimate responsibility is taken off the shoulders of the Lamb of God and put on the shoulders of the poor sinner, and he knows well in his heart that he cannot cope with it…

Hidden deep down beneath all that there is a failure to take the New Testament teaching about the power of the cross of Christ and his substitutionary role seriously, a reluctance to allow it to apply to the whole of their being and to all their human activity before God, even to their believing and praying and worshipping. We need to learn and learn again and again that salvation by grace alone is so radical that we have to rely upon Christ Jesus entirely in everything, and that it is only when we rely on him alone that we are really free to believe: “Not I but Christ” yet “Christ in me.” Because he came as man to take our place, in and through his humanity is radically transformed, and we become truly human and really free to believe, love, and serve him That is the wonderful message of the cross and resurrection. [5]

The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ is thus not only true but indescribably precious. It assures that our salvation is not in the end dependent upon us – neither upon our righteousness and good works nor even upon the quality of our faith and repentance – but totally, completely, and eternally dependent on Christ alone – solus Christus.

This, then, is the Christological aspect of our fundamental axiom ‘saving grace is identical with the divine Giver’. Rather than understanding faith as a quality or action of our regenerate will that is given to us by but ultimately distinct from God (for it is our faith), the faith by which we are saved is, in the final analysis, that of Christ. This is the meaning of Galatians 2:20: when I believe unto salvation, it is not I but Christ who lives in me. It is Christ who believed for me and in my place, and it by his faith – the faith of Jesus Christ – by which I am reconciled and redeemed. This is why the New Testament writers emphasize the completeness of our salvation. Not only has God’s objective work been accomplished, but so has our subjective reception of that work by Christ!

This is also why we can say, in a revised Evangelical Calvinist way, that grace is irresistible. It is not irresistible in the classic sense, namely, that it infuses in us a new disposition by which we cannot do other than believe. Rather, it is irresistible in the sense that it is grounded and actualized in the person of Christ. In the incarnation, the eternal Son of God united himself once and for all with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ (the hypostatic union), and this incarnational union occurred wholly prior to and independent of our response. Inasmuch as Christ represents all humanity in his incarnation, the existence of every human being is thus irrevocably grounded in and determined by him. As such, grace is wholly irresistible.[6] Grace is also irresistible in the sense that Christ never once resisted the will of the Father but always lived in perfect faith and obedience. Grace cannot be resisted anymore than Christ could have resisted his Father. It is therefore his ‘irresistible’ union with humanity in the incarnation (God’s downward movement to us) and his ‘irresistible’ obedience to and trust in the Father in our flesh and on our behalf (our upward movement to God) that fully achieves our salvation, both objectively and subjectively. Calvin thus spoke truly when he said that “Christ left nothing unfinished of the sum total of our salvation”.[7]

At this point, a question most certainly arises: if it is Christ who fulfilled the ‘condition’ of faith on our behalf to secure not just the accomplishment but also the ‘application’ of our salvation, then what need is there for us to believe ourselves? Doesn’t this idea downplay or eliminate the importance of our own faith? Wouldn’t this ultimately lead to universalism? These are all important questions, and I will tackle them in subsequent posts.


[1] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.30-31.

[2] Anatolios, K., 1996. ‘The Soteriological Significance of Christ’s Humanity in St. Athanasius’ in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 40(4), p.286.

[3] Kelly, J.N.D., 1977. Early Christian Doctrines Fifth, Revised., London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury. p.173.

[4] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. Four Discourses against the Arians. 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. 334–335.

[5] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.35, 37.

[6] I am grateful to Bobby Grow for stimulating my thinking on this point.

[7] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. II.ix.3.

“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.


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.

The Trinity of Assurance: the Father, the Spirit, and Pete?

Last week on Desiring God’s podcast Ask Pastor John, John Piper responded to a question regarding assurance of salvation (the audio transcript is available here). Someone named Pete had asked the following question:

I understand the Bible to teach that a true Christian is one who perseveres to the end, and in the sad circumstances where someone professes faith but then falls away, they were never a true Christian. For myself, I fully believe that I have been saved by Christ, and I see the fruit of this in my life. However, as a long-time pastor, I am sure you know of people who would also have been convinced that they were truly born again, would have appeared to bear fruit in their lives, but later showed that they were not truly saved by abandoning the faith. So if my salvation is only truly and finally evidenced by my perseverance, how much weight can I attach to God’s promises?

Piper began his reply by acknowledging the significance of Pete’s question. How do we know that the biblical promises (of which Piper lists a few) apply directly and personally to us if they apply only to the elect?  To answer this, Piper directed Pete to two biblical texts in particular – 2 Peter 1:10 and Romans 8:13-16 – and then made the following comments:

So, the bottom-line answer to Pete’s question about being assured or being confirmed that we are among the elect, we are among the called, is that the Holy Spirit testifies, bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God…What witnesses do in a courtroom is give evidences. And two of them are mentioned here. What the Holy
Spirit is doing in us, creating the evidence and the testimony is number one…If the Holy Spirit is john-piperleading Pete into warfare with his sin so that he hates sin and looks to the Spirit to fight sin, this is the testimony of the Spirit that he belongs to God.

And the second evidence of the Spirit’s testimony is that he is crying from the heart, “Abba! Father!” …The point is when this cry — Daddy, Father — arises from a heart with the authentic, humble need of a helpless child, craving and desperately in need of a Father’s wisdom and a Father’s care and a Father’s provision and a Father’s rescue, a ready heart, ready to submit like a trusting child, that is the work of the Holy Spirit. No human being feels those affections for, “Abba! Father!” except the Spirit-wrought…

So, in the end, assurance that we belong to God, we are his child, we are in the promises, we are among the elect is a gift of God. It is a miracle. But as with other miracles in the Christian life, we don’t lie around on our sofa waiting for a bolt of lightning called assurance. We do what Peter says. We confirm our calling and election. This is war. There are reasons. There are seasons of doubt, reasons for doubt, seasons for doubt in the Christian life. That is why Peter said what he said when he said: Fight for it. Don’t coast. Confirm your calling and election.

Apart from the legitimacy of Piper’s interpretation of these two passages (from which I demur, but that’s a different post), there are two massive problems that immediately jump out to me here. First, it is startling to note that Piper nowhere (even in the unedited transcript) makes reference to Christ in his comments on the biblical texts or in his answer. Even on a cursory reading, the absence of Christ leaves, from my perspective, a gaping hole. Piper speaks of the Father as the object of our assurance and of the Holy Spirit as the agent in producing the evidence of assurance. But who is the third member of this Trinitarian work of assurance? Evidently, according to Piper, it is Pete himself (and all of us to whom Piper would presumably give the same reply). In other words, Piper has constructed a soteriological equation in which the divine, objective work of election and calling is carried out by the Father and the Spirit but, on the human, subjective side, the necessary work of appropriating and confirming that election and calling through faith and righteous living (and, since this is Piper, good affections) rests squarely on the shoulders of Pete.

The problem, in my view, is that this wholly neglects the One who not only accomplishes salvation from the divine side (in concert with the Father and the Spirit) but who also accomplishes the perfect reception and confirmation of that salvation through his own vicarious believing, working, and persevering for us: Jesus Christ. This is the second major problem with Piper’s answer. In neglecting Christ, Piper fails to see that assurance of salvation is not grounded in the quality of our faith, good works, and holy affections but rather in the quality of Christ’s faith, good works, and holy affections. This is indeed what is meant by the book of Hebrews’ (2:10-18) insistence that Jesus is our faithful (or faith-full) high priest who represents us before the Father as the perfect worshipper and believer. It is also what is meant by Paul when he exclaims: “It is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me! For the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith/faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me!” (Gal. 2:20)

This is why we Evangelical Calvinists, in line with Calvin himself, emphasize that assurance of salvation is of the very essence of faith. Indeed, in one sense we could say that for Evangelical Calvinists, the question of assurance does not even exist, because we look to Christ and Christ alone, not only as the Giver of salvation (with the Father and the Spirit) but also as the vicarious Receiver of salvation. As Athanasius so beautifully put it, Christ came not only to minister the things of God to us but also to minister the things of us to God. Christ is the Word of God to man, and he is also the Man who vicariously hears and fulfills that Word in our flesh and thus in our place and on our behalf.

This is the message that T.F. Torrance so earnestly sought to communicate, especially to self-designated ‘evangelicals’ whose teaching of the gospel – in relation to conversion all the way through final glorification – was (and is) extremely unevangelical. As Piper would have it in this podcast, it is apparently Pete’s human effort that replaces the efforts of Christ in living by the Spirit through the Father. This, however, is not good news. Torrance explains:

There is a kind of subtle Pelagianism in preaching and teaching which has the effect of throwing people back in the last resort on their own act of faith, so that in the last analysis responsibility for their salvation rests upon themselves, rather than on Christ. In far too much preaching of Christ the ultimate responsibility is taken off the shoulders of the Lamb of God and put on the shoulders of the poor sinner, and he knows well in his heart that he cannot cope with it…

Hidden deep down beneath all that there is a failure to take the New Testament teaching about the power of the cross of Christ and his substitutionary role seriously, a reluctance to allow it to apply to the whole of their being and to all their human activity before God, even to their believing and praying and worshipping. We need to learn and learn again and again that salvation by grace alone is so radical that we have to rely upon Christ Jesus entirely in everything, and that it is only when we rely on him alone that we are really free to believe: “Not I but Christ” yet “Christ in me.” Because he came as man to take our place, in and through his humanity is radically transformed, and we become truly human and really free to believe, love, and serve him That is the wonderful message of the cross and resurrection.[1]

If ever there was a reason for becoming an Evangelical Calvinist, this is it. I would love to sit down with Pete and help him to realize that he is not, nor could ever be, the final member in the Triune God’s work of assurance. I would love to tell him that it is Christ’s vicarious humanity that surrounds him, enfolds him, uplifts him, and preserves him. This is not to downplay the importance of Pete’s faith; rather it is to direct him solely to the One who is the author and perfector of his faith (Heb. 12:2)! I would love to appropriate Paul’s words and assure him: “Pete, it is no longer you who live and persevere but Christ who lives and perseveres in you. And the life that you now live in the flesh, you live by the faith and the faithfulness of the Son of God who love you and gave himself for you!”

This, I suspect, would be truly reassuring for Pete, and I hope it is for you as well.


[1] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.35, 37.

Athanasius, the Cross, and How I Am Finding Hope in the Shadow of Death


This week, my family and I are preparing to return to our church-planting ministry in Italy after a three month furlough in the US. This is both an answer to prayer and a request for more prayer. What I means is this: what was originally supposed to be a three month period dedicated to visiting and reporting to our supporting churches turned out to be essentially a three month medical leave as I faced some serious and debilitating health issues. I am thankful that God has graciously allowed me to see some improvement, enough at least that I feel able to return to Italy. At the same time, concerns remain, and I would be lying if I said that I have no anxiety about leaving the medical resources and support network that I enjoy here in the US.

Of particular concern is the fact that this summer I was diagnosed with three abdominal aneurysms. Back in June I had gone to the emergency room on account of abdominal pain that was nearly making me delirious. While not the cause of the pain, the CT scan that I underwent in the ER revealed three aneurysms in my abdominal aorta and iliac arteries. Needless to say, my wife and I were a bit in shock. When we met with a vascular surgeon in July, we were told that the best course of action at this point is simply to monitor the aneurysms on a regular basis to chart their growth. From what I understand, given the size of the aneurysms, the risks of performing a repair operation outweight the benefits. The vascular surgeon assured me that I am in no imminent danger.

Although I was, and am, reassured to some extent by his expert opinion, I am unable to eliminate all sense of fear and doubt. Sure, the odds of a rupture occurring are low. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that I have what amounts to a time bomb in my body that at any moment could potentially explode, small as the risks may be. Moreover, this is only complicated by the fact that this week I am leaving a place where I have immediate access to superior health care and going to another place where…well let’s just say, I’d be better served by staying where I am.

The upshot of all this is that I have thought quite a bit about death in these last three months, and especially this week as I prepare to enter a situation in which I may not have access in sufficient time to life-saving medical intervention should any of my aneurysms rupture. The vascular surgeon was quite clear: the majority of people who manifest symptoms of an aneurysm rupture do not make it to a hospital in time. How much more then do I risk in going to a country where the last time I went to the emergency room with severe abdominal pain (which can be one of the signs of a ruptured aneurysm!), I was not even able to be seen by a doctor and simply had to go home after waiting many fruitless hours. I do not want to depict the situation in overly dramatic terms, but I also do not want to paper over reality with an illusion. Although I can’t say that I’m walking in the valley of death’s darkness, I can say at least that I am walking in the valley of death’s shadow.

While it is not consuming me, this concern is certainly on my mind as we pack our bags to leave. Something that has helped me to deal with it, as I have been re-reading Athanasius’ famous work On the Incarnation, is his description of, to borrow the title of another famous work, ‘the death of death in the death of Christ”. Fear of death is perhaps the most primal and instinctual of all human fears. It is that which to some degree underlies all of our other fears and anxieties. And it is precisely this fear that Christ has defeated and destroyed in his death and resurrection. Athanasius writes:

For that death is destroyed, and that the Cross is become the victory over it, and that it has no more power but is verily dead, this is no small proof, or rather an evident warrant, that it is despised by all Christ’s disciples, and that they all take the aggressive against it and no longer fear it; but by the sign of the Cross and by faith in Christ tread it down as dead. For of old, before the divine sojourn of the Saviour took place, even to the saints death was terrible, and all wept for the dead as though they perished. But now that the Saviour has raised His body, death is no longer terrible; for all who believe in Christ tread him under as nought, and choose rather to die than to deny their faith in Christ. For they verily know that when they die they are not destroyed, but actually [begin to] live, and become crucifixion-abstractincorruptible through the Resurrection. And that devil that once maliciously exulted in death, now that its pains were loosed, remained the only one truly dead.

And a proof of this is, that before men believe Christ, they see in death an object of terror, and play the coward before him. But when they are gone over to Christ’s faith and teaching, their contempt for death is so great that they even eagerly rush upon it, and become witnesses for the Resurrection the Saviour has accomplished against it. For while still tender in years they make haste to die, and not men only, but women also, exercise themselves by bodily discipline against it. So weak has he become, that even women who were formerly deceived by him, now mock at him as dead and paralyzed. For as when a tyrant has been defeated by a real king, and bound hand and foot, then all that pass by laugh him to scorn, buffeting and reviling him, no longer fearing his fury and barbarity, because of the king who has conquered him; so also, death having been conquered and exposed by the Saviour on the Cross, and bound hand and foot, all they who are in Christ, as they pass by, trample on him, and witnessing to Christ scoff at death, jesting at him, and saying what has been written against him of old: “O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting.”[1]

I find great comfort in these words inasmuch as they faithfully reflect the biblical witness to the death-destroying work of Christ. As I prepare to leave this week, I am attempting to follow the wise advise of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones who observed that one of the biggest sources of our fear and anxiety is the fact that we listen to ourselves rather than preaching to ourselves. These words from Athanasius preach to me, and I am pondering them, and through them the Scriptures themselves, with the hope that the truth that they communicate will sink deep into the marrow of my bones. Even though I don’t feel like it, I am endeavouring to rejoice with Paul that death has lost its victory and the grave no longer has any sting. I am trying to remind myself, over and over again, that I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live. In Christ I have already passed through death and into resurrection; so why should I fear death?

It is this hope that is enabling me, despite my fear and trepidation, to take up my cross and follow wherever my Savior leads, even if he takes me into the valley of the shadow. I do not say this to exalt myself. Far from it. I often feel like the weakest person I know. But I share this so that it might encourage you and also so that I will come to believe it a little more myself.

*By way of a postscript, my travels and subsequent readjustment to life in Italy may result in a slowdown, if not a bit of silence, here on the blog. Never fear, however, for I fully intend to continue to post when I return to Italy, and I plan on doing so by returning to my series on Reforming Calvinism. Stay tuned!

Prayers are also greatly appreciated for my family and I during this transition – for our travels, our readjustment, and for my continued health concerns.


[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. 50–51.

True Theology: Open, Repentant, Humble, Doxological

As I have continued to mull over Muller’s critique of Karl Barth that R. Scott Clark posted on the Heidelblog, I keep returning to the charge that Barth’s works, unlike those of the Protestant scholastics, present “ideas that refuse to achieve closure.” I am not sure why this particular criticism vexes me so. Perhaps because it strikes me as symptomatic of a deep theological hubris that, despite superficial declarations to the contrary (i.e. archetypal vs. ectypal theology), pervades the system and methodology of Muller, Clark, and other scholastic sympathizers. Perhaps it is because I have been learning, in my own study, about the importance of a humble, repentant theology that never becomes triumphalistic in tone (as though it has everything figured out while others do not). Perhaps it is also because a theology that proceeds with the assumption that presenting ideas capable of achieving closure is possible and/or desirable opposes the doxological goal of all human theologizing. That is to say, our theology should not lead us to glory in ourselves, as though the system we have created is either fully realized or superior to all others, but it should lead us rather to fall on our faces in worship, awe, and reverence before the God whom all of our best theological statements can not even begin to adequately describe.

This is why, throughout the history of the church, theologians who, in my opinion, have most profoundly grasped the loftiest heights and the deepest depths of God’s self-revelation in Christ have stressed that absolute necessity of relentlessly maintaining the intrinsic openness, repentance, humility, and doxology of all human thought and speech about God. By way of example, I would like to offer quotations from two such theologians – Athanasius and T.F. Torrance, who press this point with unmistakable clarity. First, Athanasius states in his famous treatise On the Incarnation:

And, in a word, the achievements of the Saviour, resulting from His becoming man, are of such kind and number, that if one should wish to enumerate them, he may be compared to men who gaze at the Athanasiusexpanse of the sea and wish to count its waves. For as one cannot take in the whole of the waves with his eyes, for those which are coming on baffle the sense of him that attempts it; so for him that would take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, it is impossible to take in the whole, even by reckoning them up, as those which go beyond his thought are more than those he thinks he has taken in. Better is it, then, not to aim at speaking of the whole, where one cannot do justice even to a part, but, after mentioning one more, to leave the whole for you to marvel at. For all alike are marvellous, and wherever a man turns his glance, he may behold on that side the divinity of the Word, and be struck with exceeding great awe.[1]

Developing this further is T.F. Torrance who writes:

[T]heological statements about God are essentially Christ-oriented doxological statements of intrinsically open structure just because they derive from and intend the Triune Mystery of God, and therefore resist the kind of logico-rational thinking which appears to offend against the understanding of God as infinitely greater than we can t-f-torrance-sketchconceive and to detract from his sublime ineffability. In other words, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity must be so stated that it is not controlled from behind by a prior conceptual system, such as one finds in scholastic metaphysics, or in an independent and antecedent De Deus Uno, but only in such a way that it reconstructs and transforms the framework of though we bring with us…

When we approach the Trinity of the ineffable God we are on holy ground where the Cherubim and Seraphim hide their faces and theologians must take the shoes off their feet and fall down in wonder, worship and praise before the incomprehensible Majesty of God. That does not simply mean that this is the right way to end up an account of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity but that all our statements about the Trinity from beginning to end must arise out of and remain rooted in a continuity of godly life and worship…That must be the case with our understanding of the whole economy of salvation, while all our devotion and liturgical life must be allowed to have a trinitarian structure. This is what theolgia really is.[2]

Let us be quite frank. To speak like this of God’s inner Being, we cannot but feel to be a sacrilegious intrusion into the inner holy of holies of God’s incomprehensible Mystery, before which we ought rather to cover our faces and clap our hands upon our mouths, for God is utterly ineffable in the transcendence and majesty of his eternal Being. The God whom we have come to know through his infinite condescension in Jesus Christ, we know to be infinitely greater than we can ever conceive, so that it would be sheer presumption and theological sin on our part to identify the trinitarian structures in our thinking and speaking of God with the real constitutive relations in the triune Being-in-Communion of the Godhead. All true theological concepts and statements inevitably fall short of the God to whom they refer, so that, as we have already noted, their fragility and their inadequacy, as concepts and as human statements about God must be regarded as part of the correctness and truthfulness of their reference to God.[3]

What Torrance articulates here in this final paragraph is of utmost importance. Not only is it inadvisable to think that our ideas about God can ever achieve closure, but it is actually “theological sin” for it means that we have, in effect, come to fully equate our theological statements with the ineffable divine reality to which they merely point. Rather, as Torrance avers, it is precisely in “their fragility and their inadequacy” that our theological statements can be said to be truthful, for what could be further from the truth than the notion that our theology has attained such a perfect, or at least sufficient, state that we can consider it to have achieved closure?

True theology, therefore, is open because God is ineffable and transcendent. It is repentant because we are sinful. It is humble because he is God and we are not. And it is doxological, because in the end all we can do is fall on our knees and confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.


[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. 65–66.

[2] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Trinitarian Perspectives: Toward Doctrinal Agreement. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. pp.101-102.

[3] Torrance, T.F., 1996. The Christian doctrine of God, one being three persons, Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark. p.110.