Augustine Contra Aristotle: The Stimulus for Martin Luther’s Vision for Reform

It is often believed, especially among Roman Catholics, that Martin Luther, and the Reformation that he inspired, set in opposition the individual’s conscience and interpretation of Scripture against the authority of the Catholic Church. Who did Luther think he was, standing against 1500 years of church history and tradition for the sake of his personal innovations? While this reconstruction of Luther’s stance certainly lends itself to anti-Protestant apologetics, it does not present an accurate account of what actually happened.

The late Heiko Oberman, who was a noted professor of medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation history at the University of Arizona, demonstrated from the primary source texts that Luther (misconstruals of his famous speech at the Diet of Worms aside) did not argue in this fashion. As reflected in many of Luther’s early statements, the primary stimulus behind his proposed theological reforms did not arise from “his own personal interpretation of Scripture” versus that of the Church, but rather from St. Augustine’s AN4344_AL948_AL266-AM039_500winterpretation of Scripture versus that of the medieval scholastics who had allowed Aristotelian philosophy to impinge upon their exegetical and doctrinal conclusions.

In other words, the Reformation did not begin as “Luther contra the Church” but “Luther with Augustine contra Aristotle and the scholastics”. Luther lodged his protest, not against 1500 years of church history, but against the Aristotelian encroachments that had recently (relative to Luther’s time) contaminated the Church’s theology and practice. Luther discovered in Augustine a more accurate and reliable interpreter of Scripture than the Aristotle of the scholastics, and it was this discovery that, combined with his university training in the via moderna nominalism of William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel, led him to propose a program of reform aimed at driving Aristotle out of the Church and repristinating the Great Tradition mediated through Augustine. As we will see below, Luther could even refer to his position as a “reformed via moderna” in contrast to the via antiqua represented by Thomas Aquinas. Oberman writes:

The name of Augustine of Hippo, one of the Church Fathers, is the first definite clue to Luther’s development…. [T]he comments that he wrote in the margins of [his copy of Augustine’s works] in 1509 prove that by studying Augustine he had discovered the contrast between the Church Father and Aristotle, and had begun to work out a theological position of his own. The marginal notes do not yet register all the implications of the contrast; they probably only dawned on him gradually. Not until the great disputation against scholastic theology in September 1517 was this early interest in Augustine to bear fruit. That was where the battle cry “contra Modernos,” “contra Aristotelem,”— against the moderns, against Aristotle—could be heard. But the early notes on Augustine already point out the confusion that arises when the boundaries between scholarship and wisdom, between human speculation and divine revelation, are no longer respected. Then theology and philosophy suffer: “Augustine can even use reason to prove that the whole of philosophy is meaningless. Imagine what that means!”

[I]in the 1509-10 winter semester in Erfurt, Luther annotated Augustine’s two most extensive late works, De Trinitate (The Trinity) and De Civitate Dei (The City of God), about the inner nature of God and the history of the Church. These comments, too, end in critical dismay: “I find it more than astonishing that our scholars can so brazenly claim that Aristotle does not contradict Catholic truth.” Luther immediately integrated what he read in Augustine into the survey lectures in theology he was preparing at the same time. He inveighed against the scholastic doctors, using the Holy Scriptures more pointedly and systematically than had hitherto been the case. Philosophy can never grasp man’s true nature, namely that he is God’s creature. It cannot comprehend the meaning of the biblical definition of the soul as “the image of God” (Gen. 1.27): “There I rely on Scripture against all rational arguments and say with Paul: If an angel—that means a Doctor of the Church—descended from heaven and taught differently, he should be damned.”

What an unknown monk in an inconspicuous monastic cell in Erfurt was committing to paper here would one day lead him to the historic pronouncement on the political stage of the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand, God help me, amen”—a statement that was not an affirmation of himself but an expression of his loyalty to the Scriptures, a loyalty conducive from the very start to generating clashes, even with the authorities. Even if an emperor came down from heaven!

The question of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin was soon being cited by the humanists to demonstrate the stupidity of the scholastics. Luther, too, took an interest in this seemingly abstruse problem, not in order to solve it but in order to point out that faith dwelt in a realm of its own. The question is not as ridiculous as the answer: as with the soul, all we know about angels is what is revealed in Scriptures: “Everything that is added to faith is certainly only imaginative speculation”—unfounded and thus uncertain, pure invention.

This is an adumbration of the principle of the new Wittenberg theology that Luther would formulate seven years later “against the whole of scholasticism”: “The whole of Aristotle is to theology as shadow is to light.” Contemporaries immediately recognized the import of the attack, as Aristotle, who had become academic theology’s great authority int he course of the thirteenth century, had provided the terminology and categories used to establish the central concepts of the Holy Scriptures and Church doctrine: God is the “prime mover”; the soul, as “form,” determines the human being; justification takes place through the “infusion” of “the power of grace”; the sacrament of the mass transforms the “substance” of bread and wine; man is “free” to decide between good and evil. Gaining a critical grasp of all these basic notions and finding new biblical terms for them was to cost Luther years.

The knowledge that there was an infinite, qualitative distance between Heaven and earth became an established principle for Luther as early as 1509: all human thought, as noble, effective, and indispensable as it might be to solve problems in the world, does not suffice to fathom salvation because it cannot reach Heaven. Quesitons of faith must be resolved through the Word of God or not at all. The temptation—or compulsion—to sanctify the words of man and believe in them is satanic. When God is silent, man should not speak; and what God has put asunder, namely Heaven and earth, man should not join together….

Augustine was the exemplary scriptural exegete, who, since 1509, had given Luther the means to demonstrate the extent to which theology had degenerated into a mouthpiece for Aristotle. The alternative is clear: whatever transcends the perception of empirical reality is either based on God’s Word or is pure fantasy. As a nominalist Luther began making a conscious distinction between knowledge of the world and faith in God, but through Augustine he realized that his school lagged far behind its own basic principle: Scripture was being violated by philosophy…. Thus the year 1509 prepared the way for an unusual medieval alliance between Augustinianism and nominalism. Before Luther recognized the Church Father as a fighter against the “enemies of God’s grace” and came to appreciate him as a reliable interpreter of the apostle Paul, the nominalistically trained magister could already welcome him as an ally in the battle against philosophy overstepping its bounds….

Luther laid his exegetical foundations in his first lectures on the Psalms and continued to perfect his interpretations throughout his life. As a good nominalist he first concentrated on the manner of expression characteristic of Scriptures; this enabled him to acquire a grasp of their particular subject matter on the basis of linguistic usage and obviated the alien mediation of Greek philosophy. His criticism of scholasticism did not culminate in the common reproach that its line of argument was too formal, logical, or dialectical. What made his own tradition suspect to him was its belief that Aristotle’s philosophy offered a timeless, comprehensive system of interpretation that even provided a key to the Scriptures. But the Holy Ghost has His own language; one must become His student, learn to spell, and then, going out from the individual word, gradually acquire the whole vocabulary….

One of the Saxon princes once asked Luther to explain what the well-known scholastic “ways” or schools and the “school conflict” were actually about. Luther provided him with a very lucid answer, not missing the opportunity to interpret the “way” of Wittenberg as a reformed “via moderna.” What linked the “terminists,” the old and new nominalists, was attentiveness to linguistic usage.

“Terminists” was the name of one sect of the university to which I, too, belonged. They take a stand against the Thomists, Scotists, Martin_Luther_and_friends_study_the_Bible_1and Albertists, and were also called Occamists after Occam, their founder…. But your Princely Highness must [know]: in these matters those men are called terminists who speak of a thing in terminis propriis [appropriate terms] and do not interpret words in an alien and wild way; and in this way it is called reality speaking of the thing. When I speak to a carpenter, I must use his terms, namely angle bar and not crooked bar, axe and not hatchet. So one should also leave the words of Christ alone speak of the sacrament in suis terminis [his terms], ut “hoc facite” [as “that does”] should not mean “sacrificate” [sacrifice], item “corpus” [likewise, “body”] cannot mean “of both kinds,” as they now torment the words and want to stray from the clear text.

But becoming a “modern” terminist is only one side of translating. First one must become a student of the Holy Spirit and listen with care to His language. Despite all the differences between the Old and New Testaments, between the Evangelists Luke and John, between Paul and Peter, the Holy Scriptures are homogeneous in that they testify to the God who is unknown to philosophers. What kind of a God can it be who has to do battle against the Devil, who suffers and is crucified?

The reproach is plainly directed at far more than just “Aristotle” or “scholasticism.” Since the fall every man has been a philosopher, for he has taken his experience of the world and his knowledge of reality—which he has succeeded in describing scientifically—as a standard by which to measure God. But the intellect does not suffice to grasp the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; He must be apprehended through the Scriptures. The “God” created by man is a false god of his own making.

Even before Luther mastered Greek he took pains to determine the sense of certain key words like “spirit,” “strength,” or “repentance” in Greek. As laborious as the work was, the only way he could get to the core of the New Testament was by cutting through the historico-philosophical and -legal tradition that had for centuries been linked with the Latin “spiritus,” “virtus,” or “poenitentia.” He discovered the verbal structure typical of the Hebrew language: when the Old Testament speaks of “the Word of the Lord,” an action, namely the action accomplished by the Word, is implied at the same time.

The great linguistic event of his time, the rediscovery of the original biblical languages, provided the means to probe the Vulgate and take the first steps toward modern Bible scholarship. Luther seized the opportunity as soon as it arose: the moment Erasmus’ edition of the Greek New Testament became available in Wittenberg in the middle of the summer semester of 1516, he immediately set about familiarizing himself with this new tool, so shocking for Latin-oriented Christians…. Scholars may, and must, argue about whether humanistic or nominalistic impulses were at work here. But Luther’s conviction that the Scriptures contained something radicaly new and contradictory to man’s expectations indisputably went far beyond either of the two movements….

“Today you have the Bible,” source of life, God’s original testimony, and thus both foundation and standard of all ecclesiastical authorities, be they Church Fathers, councils, popes, or learned doctors. Scirpture and Church belong together, but not as though the Scriptures were the letter and the teaching Church the spirit that breathes life into it. The Church is the creation of the Word, but the Word can never be the creation of the Church. The Scriptures reveal the Word. But that is precisely why they are not the book of truths that might constitute a complete, irrefutable textbook of theology, and why they do not need any further truths added, for example, in the form of new dogmas. The Bible contains only one truth, but it is the decisive one: “that Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for the sake of our sins, and was resurrected for the sake of our righteousness.”

Whether from a medieval or a modern perspective, this is a revolutionary reduction and concentration of faith. Comprehensive medieval systems and remarkable speculative models of the modern age seem to know far more and have far more to say about God than the Scriptures. Luther’s reply to Erasmus applies to both: “Through the Crucified One, the Christian knows everything he has to know, but he now also knows what he cannot know.” Concentrating on Christ crucified was directed against the tangle of medieval theology and was at the same time an attempt to reunite what the foundation of the theological faculties at the universities had divided. [Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2006), 158-161, 169-172]

Undivided in Being and Act: Karl Barth on the Inseparable Operations of the Trinity

As a prelude to what I plan to post for Good Friday, I would like to offer Karl Barth’s summary of what St. Augustine called the orthodox faith of the catholic [universal] church, namely, that as the being of the Triune God is indivisible, so are his works indivisible. Just as we cannot conceive of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as separate beings or Gods unto themselves, but only as one God with one being, so also we cannot conceive of the works that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit accomplish as being separate acts unto each person. Thus, for example, we cannot say that only the Father was the Creator, or that only the Son is the Savior, or that only the Spirit is the Sanctifier, for in all the works of creation, salvation, and sanctification, each person of the Trinity is fully united with the others in act just as they are in being.

Barth explains this somewhat technical but highly important concept as follows:

Just as Scripture is to be read in context as the witness to God’s revelation, just as, e.g., Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost can only say together what they have to say, so we must say that all God’s work, as we are to grasp it on the basis of His revelation, is one act which occurs simultaneously and in concert in all His three modes of being. From creation by way of revelation and reconciliation to the coming redemption it is always true that He who acts here is the Father and the Son and the Spirit. And it is true of all the perfections that are to be declared in relation to this work of God that they are as much the perfections of the Father as of the Son and the Spirit. [By appropriation] thisTrinity-shield-cross-diagram-from-oxford act or this attribute must now be given prominence in relation to this or that mode of being in order that this can be described as such. But only [by appropriation] may this happen, and in no case, therefore, to the forgetting or denying of God’s presence in all His modes of being, in His total being and act even over against us….

From the eternity of the relation of the Father and the Son, in which that of the relation of both to the Holy Spirit is also contained, it necessarily follows first that not only God the Father is to be claimed as the Creator and as our Father, and that God the Father is not only to be claimed as the Creator and as our Father. We have said above that the use of the name Father for this relation and act of God ad extra is a derived and improper use. Revelation in so far as it is the revelation of God the Creator and our Father, and in so far as this its content is not to be separated from its form as revelation in Jesus, leads us to the knowledge of God as the eternal Father. But in this very knowledge we cannot separate the Father from the Son and from the Holy Ghost. In this knowledge, then, there necessarily becomes plain to us the purely relative significance of the way of isolation on which we have reached this knowledge. It implies an “appropriation” (cf. § 9, 3) when by isolation we regard specifically God the Father as the Creator and as our Father and when we regard God the Father specifically as the Creator and as our Father. The triunity does not mean that three parts of God operate alongside one another in three different functions. [The external works of the Trinity are undivided], as also the essence of God is a single and undivided essence…

Thus not only the subject of the first article of the Creed is the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, but with Him, in the order and sense pertaining to each, the subjects of the second and third articles too. And again the subject of the first article is not only the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, but also, again in the appropriate order and sense, the subject of reconciliation like the subject of the second article and the subject of redemption like that of the third article. Not the Father alone, then, is God the Creator, but also the Son and the Spirit with Him. And the Father is not only God the Creator, but with the Son and the Spirit He is also God the Reconciler and God the Redeemer. The very knowledge of the intratrinitarian particularity of the name of Father is thus a guarantee of the unity of God which would be endangered by regard for the particularity of God’s revelation as the Creator and our Father if this were not guided by this apparently—but only apparently—very speculative intratrinitarian insight. Because God is the eternal Father as the Father of the Son, and with Him the origin of the Spirit, therefore the God who acts in reconciliation and redemption, and who reveals Himself as the Reconciler and Redeemer, cannot be a second and third God or a second and third part of God; He is and remains God [one and indivisible] in His work as in His essence.[1]

Barth notes here that while it is possible and legitimate, on the basis of Scripture, to attribute (i.e. appropriate) certain acts to one specific person of the Trinity, it must be kept in mind that this way of speaking should not be thought to imply that the other two persons are uninvolved in that work. Any appropriation of the divine works to one person of the Trinity is a means by which Scripture stoops to human understanding in order to helps us comprehend the incomprehensible, so in no way should it be hardened into a clear-cut division. “For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19). Thus, the Father, Son, and Spirit are indivisibly united in their works just as they are in their essence.

Although it may not be immediately apparent, this doctrine of “inseparable operations” has massive implications for the rest of theology, not least for the atonement and election. Without going into great detail, suffice it to say that we must theologize according to following rule: the person and work of Jesus Christ in history corresponds completely and without remainder to the being and will of God in eternity. We cannot, therefore, attribute to God’s eternal design some intention that is not fully manifested in Christ, particularly in his death and resurrection. Thus, the doctrine of inseparable operations establishes an indivisible link between atonement and election, as it also interweaves together all other aspects of Christian theology. Interpreting Scripture and doing theology in terms of this key doctrine is what thinking theo-logically is all about.

So tomorrow: what does inseparable operations mean for our understanding of the atonement?


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), pp.374-375, 394-395.

The Gospel According to Pope Francis: God Forgives Those Who Follow Their Conscience (Even Atheists Who Reject Christ)

Atheist Eugenio Scalfari in front of the Italian news headline which reads: “The Pope: my letter to the one who doesn’t believe”. Subtitle: “Francis responds to Scalfari: God forgives the one who follows his own conscience.”
Pope Francis has the reputation of being someone who would rather embrace than argue, who would rather feel than think, who would rather love people than theologize, who would rather dialogue than debate. Although I view these as false dichotomies, they certainly do resonate in contemporary culture, not least among many Protestants and evangelicals who have reciprocated the pope’s outstretched hand to them by reaching out their own to him. Indeed, what could be better than having a pope who is willing to dialogue? Maybe we can, as both Catholics and Protestants, finally come to embrace each other as brothers and sisters in Christ and confess together that we all belong Christ’s one church.

While I am not against dialogue between Catholics and Protestants per se (in fact I think it is absolutely essential), it is vitally important that we know who it is with whom we have to do, especially in the person of Pope Francis. In a book published in Italy with the simple title Dialogue between dialogo-tra-credenti-e-non-credentibelievers and unbelievers (Dialogo tra credenti e non-credenti, Torino: Einaudi, 2013), Pope Francis gives an illuminating look into his understanding of what such dialogue involves. The book reproduces a series of conversations, initially featured in a prominent Italian newspaper, that took place between the pope and journalist Eugenio Scalfari. The conversations were published in both newspaper and book form with the purpose of affording a glimpse at how Francis conducts his ‘dialogues’ with those outside the Catholic Church. In order to grasp the full significance of the excerpts that follow (which I have translated from the original Italian and to which I have added emphasis), it is necessary to realize that Scalfari is both an Italian and an avowed atheist. That is to say, Scalfari, having lived his life in a predominantly Roman Catholic society, is not unfamiliar with the claims of Christ, and yet he has consciously decided to reject them. Keeping this in mind, let’s consider what Pope Francis had to say in his dialogue with Scalfari:

Now I [Scalfari] am here. The pope enters and shakes my hand, we sit down. The pope smiles and says to me: “Someone among my collaborators who knows you told me that you would try to convert me”.

Scalfari: It’s a joke (I tell him). My friends also think that you want to convert me.

Francis: (Still smiling he responds) Proselytism is solemn stupidity, it doesn’t make sense. We need to know each other, listen to each other and increase our knowledge of the world that surrounds us. For me, after a meeting [with people] I want to have another one because new ideas are born and new needs are discovered. This is important: know each other, listen to each other, enlarge the circle of thoughts. The world is crisscrossed by roads that go this way and that, but the important thing is that they lead toward the Good.

Scalfari: Holiness, does there exist a vision of only one Good? And who determines it?

Francis: Every one of us has his or her own vision of Good and Evil. We need to encourage everyone to proceed toward that which each thinks is the Good.

Scalfari: You, Holiness, had already written this in a letter that you sent to me. The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone needs to obey his or her own conscience. I think that this is one of the most courageous things ever said by a pope.

Francis: And here I’ll repeat it. Each one has his or her own idea of Good and Evil and needs to choose to follow the Good and fight the Evil however he or she understands it. This alone would suffice to improve the world

[Francis speaks to Scalfari of his admiration for St. Augustine]

Francis: Whoever has not been touched by grace can be a person without blemish and without fear, as it is said, but that person will never be like a person that grace has touched. This is Augustine’s intuition.

Scalfari: Do you feel touched by grace?

Francis: No one can know this. Grace isn’t part of our consciousness, it’s the amount of light that we have in our soul, not of knowledge or reason. Even you, though you’re completely unaware of it, could have been touched by grace.

Scalfari: Without faith? As an unbeliever?scalfari

Francis: Grace has to do with the soul.

Scalfari: I don’t believe in the soul.

Francis: You don’t believe it but you have one.

Scalfari: Holiness, it was said that you had no intention to convert me and I don’t think you would even be able to…

Francis: Maybe, maybe not, but in any case I don’t have any intention of converting you

[Francis asks Scalfari about his worldview]

Francis: You no doubt wonder, like everyone, who we are, where we came from, where we’re going. Even a child wonders about these things. And you?

Scalfari: I’m thankful that you asked me this question. The answer is this: I believe in Being, that is in the material from which arise all forms, the Entities.

Francis: And I believe in God. Not in a catholic God, there is no catholic God, just God. And I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation. Jesus is my teacher and my shepherd, but God, the Father, Abbà, is the light and the Creator. This is my Being. Does it seem to you that we’re very far apart?

Scalfari: We far apart in our thoughts, but very similar as human persons, animated unconsciously by our instincts that transform into impulses, feelings, will, thought and reason. In this we are similar.

Francis: But that which you call Being, do you want to define how you understand that?

Scalfari: Being is a material of energy. Chaotic energy but indestructible and in eternal chaos. From that energy emerges the forms when that energy arrives at the point of exploding. The forms have laws, magnetic fields, chemical elements that combine randomly, evolve and finally dissipate, but their energy is never destroyed…

Francis: That’s fine. I didn’t want you to give me a summary of your philosophy and you told me enough. I observe from my side of things that God is the light that illuminates the darkness even though it doesn’t dissolve the darkness, and a spark of that divine light is in each one of us. In the letter that I wrote to you I remember to have said that even our species will come to an end but God’s light won’t come to an end and at that point it will penetrate into every soul and everything will be in all. (Dialogo, pp.55-56, 63, 68-69)

Based on the pope’s words, it is not at all surprising that Scalfari concludes that “the mission [of Pope Francis] includes…scandalous novelties:…a God who does not judge but forgives. There is no damnation, there is no hell” (Dialogo, p.30). Francis, in fact, says as much in another book published in Italian (Il cielo e la terra, Milan: Mondadori, 2013), in which he invites people, regardless of the religious beliefs, to simply seek after the God that they can discover within themselves:

At times people believe that they have the truth in hand, but that’s not the case. To the people of today I would say that in order to know and experience the face of God, they need to enter into contact with themselves…I tell them not to know God on thesrilankaarrive4
basis of what others say. The living God is that which everyone will see with their own eyes within their own hearts. [p.14]

Later in this same book, Francis explains the thinking that undergirds his interactions with atheists such as Scalfari and why he has no desire to convert them to the Christian faith:

When I find myself amon atheists, I share about human problems, but I don’t immediately bring up the problem of God, unless they are the ones to do so. If that happens, I explain why I believe. But there are so many interesting human issues to discuss and share by which we can enrich each other. Because I’m a believer, I know that these riches are a gift of God. I also know that the other, the atheist, doesn’t know this. I don’t approach relationships with atheists to proselytize, I respect them and I show myself for who I am. If there is mutual understanding, then appreciation, affection, and friendship blossom. I am not at all reticent, but I would never tell them that their lives are condemned, because I’m convinced that I do not have the right to judge their honesty. Especially if they show that they have human virtues, those that make a person great and do good to myself as well. [p.22]

From the perspective of historic Protestantism, there are massive problems with what the pope has to say in his conversations with non-Christians. Let me summarize the highlights:

  1. Pope Francis has no desire to convert anyone to the Christian faith nor will he warn anyone of divine judgment, even atheists who have explicitly rejected Jesus Christ, because…
  2. Pope Francis asserts that there is no absolute truth, that good and evil are relative to one’s subjective perceptions, and that divine grace and light reside in the soul of all human beings even though they may not be aware.
  3. Pope Francis thinks that God is just God and not necessarily the God revealed exclusively in Jesus Christ. In fact, God is whoever we discover him to be as we look within our own hearts.
  4. Thus, Pope Francis believes that his belief in God is reconcilable with atheistic notions of eternally-existent energy, primordial chaos, and random evolution.

To me, these statements seem not simply erroneous but heretical. As far as I can tell, they radically distort the gospel of Jesus Christ preached by the apostles and transmitted in Holy Scripture. Pope Francis thus espouses a false gospel, a false Christ, and indeed a falsereformation500-vertical-organge God. Because of this, I can come to no other conclusion than that of the apostle Paul in Galatians 1:8-9:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

So my question, as a Protestant committed to the great solas of the Reformation – sola Scripturasolus Christussola gratiasola fide, and soli Deo gloria – is this: how could I possibly think that I could find any common ground of faith with someone who presents the Christian message as the pope does? How could I even remotely embrace him as a brother in Christ? Not only that, but insofar as this false gospel is being articulated not just by any Roman Catholic but by the authoritative head of Catholicism, the supposed successor of St. Peter and vicar of Christ himself on the earth, how could any committed Protestant concede that the Reformation is over and confess that there now exists, despite some remaining differences, a fundamental unity in Christ between Protestant and Catholic churches?

The answer, in my mind, is obvious.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 15.1: Irresistible Grace (Critique)

With this entry in my series on Reforming Calvinism, I begin with my Evangelical Calvinist treatment of the “I” in TULIP which stands for “Irresistible Grace”. Consistent with my approach thus far, I will first refer to and then offer a critique (split into two parts) of R.C. Sproul’s brief explanation of the traditional Reformed view that he provides on the Ligonier blog (the entirety of which can be accessed here). Here is Sproul on ‘irresistible grace’:

In historic Reformation thought, the notion is this: regeneration precedes faith. We also believe that regeneration is monergistic…It means that the work of regeneration in the human heart is something that God does by His power alone—not by 50 percent His power and 50 percent man’s power, or even 99 percent His power and 1 percent Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARman’s power. It is 100 percent the work of God. He, and He alone, has the power to change the disposition of the soul and the human heart to bring us to faith.

In addition, when He exercises this grace in the soul, He brings about the effect that He intends to bring about…Hence, we call this irresistible grace. It’s grace that works. It’s grace that brings about what God wants it to bring about. If, indeed, we are dead in sins and trespasses, if, indeed, our wills are held captive by the lusts of our flesh and we need to be liberated from our flesh in order to be saved, then in the final analysis, salvation must be something that God does in us and for us, not something that we in any way do for ourselves…

Irresistible grace does not mean that God’s grace is incapable of being resisted. Indeed, we are capable of resisting God’s grace, and we do resist it. The idea is that God’s grace is so powerful that it has the capacity to overcome our natural resistance to it. It is not that the Holy Spirit drags people kicking and screaming to Christ against their wills. The Holy Spirit changes the inclination and disposition of our wills, so that whereas we were previously unwilling to embrace Christ, now we are willing, and more than willing. Indeed, we aren’t dragged to Christ, we run to Christ, and we embrace Him joyfully because the Spirit has changed our hearts…Without that work, we would never have any desire to come to Christ. That’s why we say that regeneration precedes faith.

As with previous entries in this series, I would like to examine Sproul’s position (which, I think can be safely agreed upon, is a good summary of the traditional Reformed view) through the lens of its intellectual history. The reason for this is simple: Reformed theology since the Reformation has proceeded with the goal of preserving the primacy of God’s grace in salvation. This is evident in Sproul’s statement that the regeneration leading to faith is “monergistic”, that is, completely and entirely the work of God. Historically speaking, the Reformed were concerned to guard against other accounts of salvation, such as the medieval Roman Catholic view, that tended toward a synergism between God and humanity. It is largely for this purpose that the Canons of Dort – from which the ‘five points of Calvinism’ originate – opposed the Remonstrants in asserting the unconditionality and sovereignty of God’s grace in saving sinners. ‘Irresistible grace’ plays an important role in safeguarding this notion.

For this reason, the question that I would like to pose is quite simple: does the traditional understanding of ‘irresistible grace’ that seeks to account for the way in which sinners come to faith and are saved accomplish this task? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to dig a little deeper underneath the surface of Sproul’s claims to “monergism” and “grace that works” in order to expose what I think are fatal cracks in the traditional view’s foundation.

To begin, I would like to consider how Thomas Aquinas approached the same question, because it was by and large Thomas who provided the greatest and clearest exposition of the theology that would serve as the framework for the medieval Roman soteriology against which the Reformers would ardently protest. Denys Turner, a reputed Thomas scholar, helpfully explicates the view of the ‘Angelic Doctor’ on the subject of converting grace:

Thomas interlaces the elements of irresistibility on the side of grace and freedom of choice on the side of the human. At one point, Thomas says that grace does its work “infallibly” but not “coercively,” and he seems to mean that the work of grace cannot fail, because grace does all the work and its efficacy depends on only such conditions obtaining as it effects for itself: for “no pre-condition of God’s infusing the soul with grace is required other than such as God himself brings about.”…Therefore, because there are no conditions not of grace’s making to impede its work, the action of grace is “infallible.” And yet because the free consent of the human will is precisely what grace brings about, its action is not “coercive.”[1]

Does this sound at all familiar? It should, because it is in many respects similar, if not identical, to what Sproul describes as the traditional Reformed view. This may be surpising to those who are accustomed to thinking of Protestant tradition as standing in diametric opposition to all things medieval and Roman Catholic. This is simply not true, for as I have mentioned in previous posts (here and here), the rise and development of Protestant orthodoxy, especially that of the Reformed, did indeed subvert many aspects present within the Roman tradition, but it did not jettison everything. For all its discontinuity, Reformed orthodoxy evinced much continuity with pre-Reformation thought inasmuch as it embraced, appropriated, or only slightly modified many theological and philosophical ideas already present among medieval thinkers. It would seem that to some degree, the traditional Reformed concept of converting grace falls into this latter category.

In my opinion, one of the most helpful accounts of this is offered by W. Travis McMaken who compares the views of Reformed orthodoxy, represented by Zacharias Ursinus, with the Catholic view articulated by Thomas Aquinas pertaining to the application of grace to and the conversion of sinners. Here is McMaken:

We can…chart the logic of Thomas’s sacramental soteriology in the following way. First, God loves particular individuals and by loving them determines them as good, that is, predestines them for the supernatural end of eternally enjoying the vision of God. With this supernatural end in view, God sets about providing for the supernatural means of achieving this end. Thus, second, Jesus Christ is sent to make satisfaction for sin and thereby achieve the grace necessary to propel the predestined to their supernatural end. This grace is applied to the predestined individual through participation in the sacraments…

The Reformation did not reject the sort of sacramental soteriology that one finds in Thomas; rather, it offered an alternative judgment as to the means by which salvation achieved by Christ is applied to particular individuals. In short, whereas Thomas and the traditional view maintained that this occurred by means of the sacraments, the Reformation traditions affirmed faith as the true means. This shift was…ardently maintained in the latter half of the sixteenth century by the Reformed tradition, as represented here by Zachiarius Ursinus….

[A] twofold distinction obtains between Thomas and Ursinus…: first, Ursinus consistently subordinates the sacraments to faith as that means by which the salvation wrought by Christ is applied to the individual; and, second, his doctrine of election has God actively predestining for both salvation and reprobation. Despite this twofold distinction from Thomas, however, Ursinus does not modify the basic structure of traditional sacramental soteriology. God has determined that some individual human beings will enjoy eternal life; Jesus achieves salvation; some subsequently determined means apply that salvation to those elected by God. For Ursinus, God’s electing decree “concerning the forgiveness of sins is everlasting, but the execution of it takes place at the time when we apply to ourselves by faith the forgiveness which the gospel offers unto us” (CHC, 309). This supports Markus Barth’s contention that the difference between Roman Catholic and Reformation sacramental theologies is relative as opposed to irreconcilable.[2]

McMaken exposes something here that is absolutely crucial for us to understand. While on the one hand, Catholic and Reformed accounts of salvation seem at odds due to the differences between the former’s insistence on participation in the sacraments and the latter’s emphasis on ‘faith alone’, the two systems actually share a deep continuity given the underlying ‘sacramental’ foundation on which both are grounded. As McMaken further explains, the sacramental structure derives from “the assumption that Christ’s achievement of grace is one thing, and the effectiveness of that grace for our salvation is another”.[3] In other words, “the salvation achieved by Christ is made effective for the individual Christ at a later date and as a consequence of a later act of application”.[4] Thus, while there is a divergence between the Catholic and Reformed understandings of how salvific grace converts the sinner (sacraments vs. faith alone), the difference is relatively small compared to the overall soteriological framework shared by both.

Someone could of course protest, pointing out that the Catholic and Reformed views are far more different than McMaken allows, given that, as Sproul states above, Reformed theology maintains that the grace of regeneration precedes human faith and thus eliminates any notion of synergism. This, however, misses the point entirely, and it fails to fully account for the Catholic position which, like that of the Reformed, wants to say that salvation is ‘grace all the way down’. Although the conditions may be different, both traditions, following Augustine, fundamentally affirm that humans cannot fulfill those conditions apart from the enabling power of grace. This is precisely the role that regeneration plays in traditional Reformed soteriology, and thus it does not ultimately constitute a decisive difference.

The main point that I want to make from this is relatively simple: if the traditional Reformed account of ‘irresistible grace’ bears a striking, albeit often hidden, similarity to the view that it ostensibly opposes, is it possible that it actually does not accomplish the goal that it was designed to do, namely preserve the primacy of grace in salvation and conversion? I think that this is indeed the case. By making the full achievement of salvation contingent upon a later act of human appropriation (whether by participation in the sacraments or a personal decision to believe), the traditional view of ‘irresistible grace’ with its ordo salutis of ‘redemption accomplished and applied’ appears to reintroduce into the soteriological equation the very synergism that it claims to reject. In my next post, I will delve a little deeper into why this is so.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Turner, D., 2013. Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait. New Haven; London: 2013. pp.151-152.

[2] McMaken, W.T., 2013. The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. pp.65-66, 72.

[3] Ibid., p.63

[4] Ibid., p.63

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 10.2: Limited Atonement (Critique)

In the second half of this tenth entry in my series on Reforming Calvinism, I continue my critique of the traditional understanding of the third element of TULIP, the
doctrine of ‘limited atonement’. In the first half of my critique, I observed that the classic view Limited-Atonement-AVATARoften presupposes a logico-deductive framework within which it interprets the biblical material. Given the assumption that not all will ultimately be saved, it reasons backward from this ‘effect’ and logically deduces that the atonement, as the ‘efficient cause’, must be in some way ‘limited’ in terms of its extent in order to ensure its full power to not only make possible but also to actually actualize the salvation of those for whom it was intended. This, in my opinion, is what accounts for fact that classic Calvinists frequently redefine terms such as ‘all’ or ‘world’ in biblical texts that speak of the atonement, for they must find a way to limit the scope of these passages to the elect alone in keeping with their methodological approach and philosophical presuppositions.

There is more to be critiqued, however, than merely the logico-deductive schema that can distort the ‘plain meaning’ of Scripture. Let’s return to R.C. Sproul’s articulation of the Reformed position (which can be accessed in its entirety here):

This doctrine is chiefly concerned about the original purpose, plan, or design of God in sending Christ into the world to die on the cross…God the Father designed the work of redemption specifically with a view to providing salvation for the elect, and that Christ died for His sheep and laid down His life for those the Father had given to Him…

This does not mean that a limit is placed on the value or the merit of the atonement of Jesus Christ. It’s traditional to say that the atoning work of Christ is sufficient for all. That is, its meritorious value is sufficient to cover the sins of all people, and certainly anyone who puts his or her trust in Jesus Christ will receive the full measure of the benefits of that atonement. It is also important to understand that the gospel is to be preached universally. This is another controversial point, because on the one hand the gospel is offered universally to all who are within earshot of the preaching of it, but it’s not universally offered in the sense that it’s offered to anyone without any conditions. It’s offered to anyone who believes. It’s offered to anyone who repents. Obviously the merit of the atonement of Christ is given to all who believe and to all who repent of their sins.

The problem here has to do with what Sproul says regarding the Father’s intention in designing the atonement vis-à-vis its universal sufficiency and proclamation. This problem is actually quite serious in that it threatens to compromise the deepest Christian convictions concerning an orthodox understanding of the Trinity. Stephen Strehle provides a glimpse into the intellectual history behind this view and then diagnoses the problem in the following way:

[T]he work of Christ is…said to be subject to the secret intent of the divine will and derives its worth and merit from the purpose for which God designs it. In the Franciscan [or nominalist] doctrine of the middle ages, merit in general is said to be rewarded by God, not in accordance with strict justice or absolute standards, as if truly worthy of its reward, but in accordance with his “acceptation” (acceptatio) or “most free will” (liberissima voluntas)….In the later Franciscan theory of atonement it is the will of God and its most free acceptation that assign to the work of Christ its meaning, above and beyond whatever value it might possess in its own right. As all submits to divine acceptation, this work could even have been eliminated, or, in accordance with Duns Scotus, an angel, a pure man, or even Adam himself could have been used as a substitute. All, even Christ’s work, is assigned its place and value from above. It brings salvation to the elect, not in what was merited in its own right as if laying a claim on God, but in the ultimate, supralapsarian intent for which the Father has designed it.

In Calvinism this is translated to mean that Christ’s work, regardless of its true and sufficient value, is subject to the intendment and acceptance of the divine will; in particular, its more abundant worth – being sufficient to cleanse the sins of the whole world – is said to be devalued by the intent of the divine will and becomes limited in its scope to the salvation of an elected few…[T]he work that Christ offered to the Father, while allegedly sufficient in value to cleanse the sins of the whole world, does not really suffice to propitiate the Father in this regard but is immediately limited in value to the purposes for which the Father accepts and intends it, i.e., the salvation of the elect. In the end it is the Father who actually imposes his will upon the cross and is in no wise affected by it.

This discrepancy between the work of the Father and the work of the Son leads quite naturally to…the antithesis between the revealed (voluntas signi) and the hidden will (voluntas beneplaciti) of God. While Christ in the excellent words of Calvin is purported to be the “mirror of predestination,” too often…he becomes a subordinate means, subjected to the Father’s higher elective purposes. Perhaps the most fundamental presupposition from which such a subordinate, if not secondary, position of the Son could be developed…is the belief that some unknown God of absolute power actually lurks behind the work that he has ordered in creation and redemption. This god, it is believed, could do almost anything according to the Scotistic and Nominalistic doctrine, even the opposite of that which he eventually enacted, as long as he did not, of course, contradict Aristotle and his inviolable law of contradiction. The real god is thus the great unmoved mover, enraptured above the world that he created, hidden in potency behind the paucity of his activity in revelation. Wilhelm Ockham, the most important exponent of this god, produced an exhaustive “what if” theology, speculating over what is indeed possible for this unknown god. After all the real god is not so much the God of revelation but the god of all these possibilities, and theology must explore the why and the wherefore behind his decision to act in Christ.

The Calvinists continue this tradition of searching out the God of absolute power and his many possibilities, although to be sure in a less scholastic manner. They certainly do not participate in the ultraists of Nominalism as they limit speculation over divine possibilities, interject more righteousness into his options, and make the work of Christ absolutely necessary for the expiation of sin. And yet, the real god is still for them the hidden god (deus absconditus), the one who decided to act in Christ and not the revealed God (deus revelatus) himself.

This is seen from the very outset of their of their theology in the doctrine of an eternal covenant between the Father and the Son, where the role that the Son will assume in time is already depicted as subsumed under the Father’s wishes. In this covenant the Father asks the Son to provide redemption for those lost in sin and promises to reward him if he chooses to do so. The Son is conceived here not so much as the one and only answer to man’s plight, antecedently in himself, but as elected by the Father to assume a role in time from simple ordination or covenant. This role does not so much unveil his true self. It could in fact be otherwise. It becomes such only through the decision of the most free and arbitrary will of God to act thusly.[1]

Strehle exposes the heterodoxy implicit in the traditional view of limited atonement inasmuch as it derives from distinctions drawn by medieval nominalists between different kinds of power and willing in God. This logically entails a theology in which God is divided between who he reveals himself to be in Christ and through the preaching of the gospel (i.e. his ordained power and revealed will) and who he is antecedently and eternally in himself (i.e. his absolute power and hidden will). This can be seen in the fact that according to limited atonement, the Father sends Christ to die sufficiently for all and ordains that the gospel be preached to all, but he nevertheless wills that only a limited number actually benefit from Christ’s atoning work by believing in the message they hear. In this view, the atonement, although inherently universal in value, is subject and subordinate to the higher authority of the will of the Father, and consequently Christ and his atoning work are ‘instrumentalized’, becoming a mere means to the end of fulfilling the Father’s secret will. As such, Christ in his gospel does not constitute a full revelation of the Father’s being and will to humanity inasmuch as what appears to be the universal value of his atoning work is actually limited in its scope to an unknown group of humanity by the ‘secret’ and ‘hidden’ decree of the Father. What Christ reveals is not coextensive with who God is eternally in himself.

This rupture between the inherent universal sufficiency of Christ’s work and the limited efficacy predetermined by the Father runs completely counter to the central affirmation of Christian orthodoxy, namely the Nicene declaration that Christ is homoousion (of one being/substance) with the Father, a key term adopted in the fourth century precisely to safeguard, against the ‘Arian’ heresies, the absolute and total continuity between the being and act of Christ in history and the being and act of the Father in eternity. As T.F. Torrance explains:

As the epitomised expression of this truth, the homoousion is the ontological and epistemological linchpin of Christian theology. It gives expression to the truth with which everything hangs together, and without which everything ultimately falls apart…[I]n formulating the homoousion of Christ in connection with both his creative and redemptive activity, Nicene theology laid the axe to the epistemological dualism latent in Greek philosophy and religion that threatened the very heart of the Gospel; and as such it gave powerful expression to the indissoluble connection in Act and Being between the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity…which secured the Church in its belief that in the Lord Jesus Christ and his Gospel they had to do directly with the ultimate Presence and downright Reality of God himself. Jesus Christ the incarnate Son is one in Being and Act with God the Father. What Jesus Christ does for us and to us, and what the Holy Spirit does in us, is what God himself does for us, to us and in us.[3]

If what Torrance says here is true, then limited atonement, insofar as it introduces a rupture between Christ’s work and the secret will of the Father in eternity, actually implies either a Christ who is not fully divine or a Trinity that is not fully conjoined in activity and will. As Augustine would say, this contradicts the very essence of the ‘catholic faith’ that asserts: “as [the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit] are indivisible, so [they] work indivisibly”.[2] Thus, while not overtly heretical, the traditional understanding of ‘limited atonement’ implies a doctrine of God that falls outside the boundaries drawn by the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. For this reason, it must be reformed.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post and directing me to Strehle.

[1] Strehle, S., 1995. The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation. Leiden: Brill. pp.118-119, 121-123.

[2] Augustine of Hippo, 1887. On the Trinity. In P. Schaff, ed. St. Augustin: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, p. 20.

[3] Torrance, T.F., 1996. The Christian doctrine of God, one being three persons, Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark. p.95.

Reforming Calvinism: Total Depravity (Addendum)

Before moving forward in my series Reforming Calvinism to the atonement, I would like to briefly revisit my Evangelical Calvinist revision of ‘total depravity’ to add a few important Totaly-Depravity-AVATARthoughts. I am doing this because I always aim to learn new things and refine my thinking, and so I never expect to say all that needs to be said about something the first time that I say it! As I continue learning, I hope to be always reforming, and my own recent studies have led me to a greater awareness of some of the issues involved in reconstructing the doctrine of ‘total depravity’. For this reason, I want to add a few thoughts here to flesh out a bit more what I wrote previously on this topic (which can be accessed here and here).

Inspiring this addendum is the historical authority Richard Muller who discusses the Reformedorthodox view of the natural knowledge of God that fallen human beings can acquire through their contemplation of creation vis-à-vis the saving knowledge of God available only through special revelation in Scripture. Muller explains:

[I]n his discussion of the role of reason in matters of faith, [Francis] Turretin can also acknowledge a few “rays of natural light and certain first principles, the truth of which is unquestionable” that remain in the sin-darkened human understanding. These truths, Turretin continues, are not only true in the context of nature, but also in the context of grace and the “mysteries of the faith.” In very much the same vein, [John] Owen can indicate that “the inbred principles of natural light, or first necessary dictates of our intellectual, rational nature” provide a “rule unto our apprehension” of all things, even of divine revelation. Witsius can even declare that the faint glimmerings of the natural light provide a “foundation” on which the gospel can build: “for as grace supposes nature, which it perfects; so the truths revealed in the gospel, have for their foundation those made known by the light of nature.” Although Witsius here addresses calling and, specifically, the character of the natural knowledge that seems to call human beings to God, only to leave them without excuse in their sins, he also, like Turretin and Owen, raises the issue of the positive relationship of natural reason and the truths it knows to revelation and supernatural theology.

Despite Turretin’s intimation that one can “build” on natural revelation and Witsius’ use of the term “foundation” it is clear that they do not intend to undermine their prior assumption that “supernatural theology” is “strictly called revealed, because its first principle is divine revelation strictly understood, and [because] it is grounded on the word, not on creatures.” Rather Turretin’s intention is to elaborate his other claim that theology drawn on other forms of knowing “as a superior from inferiors” in the very specific sense that it “presupposes certain previously known things upon which it builds revelation.” Thus, despite the fact that reason and faith “are of different classes, the former natural, the latter supernatural,” they are not “opposed”: rather “reason is perfected by faith and faith supposes reason.” Not corrupted reason, but reason “as sound and in the abstract” concurs with and supports theology.[1]

What Muller articulates here is extremely important for understanding one of the ways in which the traditional view of ‘total depravity’, in my opinion, is actually not ‘total’ enough. Although clearly giving primacy to the salvific knowledge available only through the gospel, the Reformed theologians that Muller cites nevertheless espoused the notion that God can truly be known through natural human reason even after the fall on the basis of that which exists in creation. They spoke of the ‘inbred principles’ or ‘glimmerings’ of natural light that still reside in fallen human beings and that constitute a ‘foundation’ upon which the gospel can build. This means that for the Reformed orthodox, the noetic effects of sin certainly did have a dramatic impact on human ability to know God, but not to the extent to which human beings are totally unable to arrive at a true, albeit limited and imperfect, knowledge of God through the remaining light of their own reason.

As becomes clear in these paragraphs, the Reformed theologians grounded this conviction in the famous maxim of Thomas Aquinas that ‘grace does not destroy but rather perfects nature’. In my view, however, this represents a significant problem. As many have noted, Thomas’ dictum bespeaks an optimistic view of fallen humanity that stands in contrast with the Augustinian concept to which the Reformed orthodoxy purportedly ascribed. As A.M. Fairweather states:

The teaching of Aquinas contrasts with that of Augustine on every point which we have mentioned, representing a kindlier view both of man and of nature. The will is free, and the natural desire for the good persists despite sin. Aquinas is more definite than Augustine that reason itself is impaired by sin. But he holds that it can be used, and that we must follow our reason as far as it will take us. Grace and revelation are aids which do not negate reason. Here as everywhere nature itself demands supernature for its completion, and the provision of divine grace meets the striving of human nature in its search for the ultimate good, this quest being itself due to the gracious moving of God.[2]

Although this summation of Thomas’ view is probably not identical to that of the Reformed orthodox, the resemblance is certainly striking. Both evidence a certain optimism in terms of the natural light of human reason that still exists despite the fall. Both define ‘nature’ in terms of that which only needs to be elevated and perfected by grace. Lest we think that this only reflects the thinking of the Reformed orthodox from long ago, R.C. Sproul likewise expresses his great respect and gratitude to Aquinas precisely for the fact that he defended the legitimacy of natural theology, the continuity between fallen human reason and revelation, and the optimistic view of nature’s capacity for grace inasmuch as the former needs only to be perfected by the latter (original article here).

This, to me, is remarkable. The Thomistic view of the grace-nature relationship that the Reformed orthodox, Muller, and Sproul endorse has been convincingly shown by Gregg Allison (following Leonardo De Chirico) to be one of the fundamental principles undergirding all of Roman Catholic theology and practice, giving rise to its formal structure and material content.[3] However, Allison argues that “[b]ecause of the devastatingly deep impact of sin on creation, the notion of nature as possessing some capacity for grace is nonsensical in the evangelical system”.[4] In other words, the very view of nature and grace that is so foundational to Roman Catholicism and so antithetical to Protestantism is that which Sproul and the Reformed orthodox endorse!

It is arguably the Thomistic view of nature and grace that gives rise, for example, to Catholicism’s concept of justification as a grace-empowered cooperative effort between God and human beings. While Sproul would assuredly oppose this understanding of justification, it ironically stems from a deep conviction that he himself shares. It would therefore seem self-contradictory for Sproul and other Reformed theologians to both oppose Roman Catholicism for its optimistic belief in human capacity vis-à-vis justification and yet hold the very same view with respect to knowledge of God. Indeed, as Muller notes, it is this concept of the grace-nature relationship on which “the entire anthropological and soteriological structure of Reformed theology must be brought to bear”. [5]

For this reason, I would suggest that the view of ‘total depravity’ articulated by Reformed theologians such as Sproul is not actually ‘total’ enough. Due to their underlying Thomism, they want to attribute to human nature, even in its fallen state, a measure of ‘natural light’ that needs only to be further illuminated by the gospel. Is this, however, the biblical view? The Gospel of John, for instance, indicates that the entire world is enshrouded in darkness, and it is only the Light that is Christ himself that can overcome it (John 1:5). Paul, similarly, states that “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Paul, in other words, compares the human heart to the primordial darkness prior to creation, a darkness so deep and pervasive that only the creative power of the Word of God is able to call the light the gospel into being ex nihilo. This is not a gospel that merely illumines whatever faint glimmerings may already exist. It is a gospel that breaks through total darkness not only by shining forth the light but also by creating the very capacity to see it. Stated differently in the language of Ephesians 2:1-6, we are not merely wounded by sin and in need of healing; we are dead in sin and in need of resurrection.

This is why Karl Barth described the human encounter with God’s Word in the following way:

God and His Word are not given to us in the same way as natural and historical entities. What God and His Word are, we can never establish by looking back and therewith by anticipating. This is something God Himself must constantly tell us afresh. But there is no human knowing that corresponds to this divine telling. In this divine telling there is an encounter and fellowship between His nature and man but not an assuming of God’s nature into man’s knowing, only a fresh divine telling. […] God’s Word is no longer grace, and grace itself is no longer grace, if we ascribe to man a predisposition towards this Word, a possibility of knowledge regarding it that is intrinsically and independently native to him.[6]

Reacting negatively to Barth’s view, Michael Horton responds:

The utterly surprising content of the gospel that sinful humanity could not have predicted, prepared for or mastered leads Barth to the further, more radical, claim that the form in which it comes is incommensurable with our ordinary natural capacities. Thus, the event of revelation, beyond opening eyes blinded by sin and ears deaf to God’s voice, creates its own eyes and ears in the event of its occurrence. Grace does not so much restore nature as replace it.[7]

In comparing Barth and Horton, I think it is clear which is the more ‘total’ of the two views regarding human depravity. Horton thinks that Barth goes too far in that he dispenses with the Thomistic view of grace and nature and its stubborn hold on humanity’s intrinsic capacities for God. According to Horton, the gospel must surely open blind eyes and deaf ears, but to say anything more would denigrate humanity’s ability to cooperate with grace. Barth, on the other hand, believes that the fall has so affected us as human beings that we do not even have the eyes and ears anymore with which to see and hear. The work of salvation, therefore, must be all of grace from top to bottom, not by activating latent or wounded human capacities, but rather by recreating human beings ex nihilo and raising them to new life from their deadness in sin. This latter view, I would contend, is actually more in line with the teaching of John and Paul, not to mention the rest of the New Testament writers. It is a view of human depravity that is truly ‘total’ and that results in a view of grace that is correspondingly ‘radical’. Insofar as the Reformed orthodox want to maintain their hold on the Thomistic/Catholic notion of nature’s inherent capacity for grace, their view of human depravity can never be truly ‘total’, and consequently neither can their understanding of what God accomplishes in us by his grace and through his gospel be as amazing as it truly is.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. pp.301-302.

[2] A.M. Fairweather, ‘General Introduction’ to Aquinas on Nature and Grace: Selections from the Summa Theologica, p.22.

[3] Allison, G., 2014. Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment. Wheaton: Crossway.

[4] Ibid., p.48

[5] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.299.

[6] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics I/1: The doctrine of the Word of God. London; New York: T&T Clark. p.132, 194.

[7] Horton, M., 2008. ‘A stony jar: the legacy of Karl Barth for evangelical theology’, in Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques. New York; London: Continuum. p.354.

Augustine on the Election of Christ


In my series Reforming Calvinism, I have been proposing ways in which the five points of Calvinism (TULIP) can be brought into greater harmony with Scripture. In recent entries, I have been specifically addressing the doctrine of ‘unconditional election’, proposing corrections to the traditional Reformed understanding that, in my view, bring it into greater conformity with the biblical and Reformation principle of solus Christus. In doing so, I have also been hoping to offer a ‘third way’ capable of moving beyond the typical impasses between classic Calvinism and Arminianism. In response to my last post on Ephesians 1, someone commented that such a ‘third way’ probably does not exist. My extremely brief reply was that such a way does indeed exist and can be historically found, at least in seminal form, in the writings of some of the church fathers and the Protestant Reformers.

To provide just one example, I would like to quote a section from Augustine’s Treatise on the Gift of Perseverance which proved particularly influential to John Calvin in his own formulation of the doctrine of election. Here is Augustine describing the primacy of the predestination of Jesus Christ as the Mediator between God and humanity:

But there is no more illustrious instance of predestination than Jesus Himself, concerning which also I have already argued in the former treatise; and in the end of this I have chosen to insist upon it. There is no more eminent instance, I say, of predestination than the Mediator Himself. If any believer wishes thoroughly to understand this doctrine, let him consider Him, and in Him he will find himself also. The believer, I say; who in Him believes and confesses the true human nature that is our own, however singularly elevated by assumption by God the Word into the only Son of God, so that He who assumed, and what He assumed, should be one person in Trinity. For it was not a Quaternity that resulted from the assumption of man, but it remained a Trinity, inasmuch as that assumption ineffably made the truth of one person in God and man.

Because we say that Christ was not only God, as the Manichean heretics contend; nor only man, as the Photinian heretics assert; nor in such wise man as to have less of anything which of a certainty pertains to human nature,—whether a soul, or in the soul itself a rational mind, or flesh not taken of the woman, but made from the Word converted and changed into flesh,—all which three false and empty notions have made the three various and diverse parties of the Apollinarian heretics; but we say that Christ was true God, born of God the Father without any beginning of time; and that He was also true or very man, born of human mother in the certain fulness of time; and that His humanity, whereby He is less than the Father, does not diminish aught from His divinity, whereby He is equal to the Father. For both of them are One Christ—who, moreover, most truly said in respect of the God, “I and the Father are one;” and most truly said in respect of the man, “My Father is greater than I.”

He, therefore, who made of the seed of David this righteous man, who never should be unrighteous, without any merit of His preceding will, is the same who also makes righteous men of unrighteous, without any merit of their will preceding; that He might be the head, and they His members. He, therefore, who made that man with no precedent merits of His, neither to deduce from His origin nor to commit by His will any sin which should be remitted to Him, the same makes believers on Him with no preceding merits of theirs, to whom He forgives all sin. He who made Him such that He never had or should have an evil will, the same makes in His members a good will out of an evil one. Therefore He predestinated both Him and us, because both in Him that He might be our head, and in us that we should be His body, He foreknew that our merits would not precede, but that His doings should.[1]

Centuries later, John Calvin would testify to the insight and influence of this passage from Augustine by writing in the Institutes:

Augustine wisely notes this: namely, that we have in the very Head of the church the clearest mirror of free election that we who are among the members may not be troubled about it; and that he was not made Son of God by righteous living but was freely given such honor so that he might afterward share his gifts with others…

Now it behooves us to pay attention to what Scripture proclaims of every person. When Paul teaches that we were chosen in Christ “before the creation of the world” [Eph. 1:4a], he takes away all consideration of real worth on our part, for it is just as if he said: since among all the offspring of Adam, the Heavenly Father found nothing worthy of his election, he turned his eyes upon his Anointed, to choose from that body as members those whom he was to take into the fellowship of life. Let this reasoning, then, prevail among believers: we were adopted in Christ into the eternal inheritance because in ourselves we were not capable of such great excellence.[2]

Although Augustine and Calvin do not explicate the election of Christ in exactly the same terms that I have been doing in my own posts in Reforming Calvinism, they do evidence a number of key insights that capture the essence of what I propose as an ‘Evangelical Calvinist’ revision:

  1. The ontological primacy of the election of Christ as the ‘head’ vis-à-vis the election of those who constitute his ‘body’. Both Augustine and Calvin insist that human beings are elect only insofar as they are in Christ, the chosen Mediator and the Anointed (i.e. the Elect One).
  2. The epistemological primacy of the election of Christ in terms of our capacity to understand our own election. Christ is the only ‘mirror’ of election in which we can contemplate our own election and thereby find freedom from anxiety and security about our own status before God.
  3. The theological primacy of the election of Christ that grounds an orthodox understanding of the person of Christ as fully God and fully man. As Augustine clearly believed, a correct understanding of the election of Christ (the Son of God determined to become the Son of Man) defends against any number of Christological errors and heresies.
  4. The evangelical primacy of the election of Christ for the sake of safeguarding the graciousness of salvation and thus the gospel. Only an election that rests on Christ alone (solus Christus) can ensure that salvation does not depend in the slightest degree on human ability or merit but only on grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide).

This, in a nutshell, is ‘unconditional election’ à la Evangelical Calvinism!


[1] Augustine of Hippo, 1887. A Treatise on the Gift of Perseverance. In P. Schaff, ed. Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, p. 552.

[2] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. III.xxii.1.

Augustine, Aaron’s Beard, and Psalm 133


For a bit of biblical reflection on this Sunday, I thought that I would quote a great passage from St. Augustine’s exposition of Psalm 133:6, specifically with reference to Aaron’s beard:

Let the Psalm tell us what [the brethren who dwell together in vs. 5] are like. “As the ointment on the head, which descended to the beard, to Aaron’s beard, which descended to the fringe of his garment” (ver. 2). What was Aaron? A priest. Who is a priest, except that one Priest, who entered into the Holy of Holies? Who is that priest, save Him, who was at once Victim and Priest? save Him who when he found nothing clean in the world to offer, offered Himself?…Our Head is Christ crucified and buried; He rose again, and ascended into heaven; and the Holy Spirit came from the head. Whither? To the beard. The beard signifies the courageous; the beard distinguishes the grown men, the earnest, the active, the vigorous. So that when we describe such, we say, he is a bearded man. Thus that ointment descended first upon the Apostles, descended upon those who bore the first assaults of the world, and therefore the Holy Spirit descended on them. For they who first began to dwell together in unity, suffered persecution, but because the ointment descended to the beard, they suffered, but were not conquered.…[1]

In conclusion to this, all I can say to this is: amen and amen!

Augustine of Hippo, 1888. Expositions on the Book of Psalms. In P. Schaff, ed. Saint Augustin: Expositions on the Book of Psalms. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, p. 623.